Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Candlemas is coming

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This Friday, February 2nd is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (also known as “the Purification of Mary” and as “Candlemas”).

In place of the Holy Hour, which normally takes place on first Fridays at St. Alban's, we will have a special Mass to keep the feast at 6pm in the church. In keeping with ancient customs, it will be a candle-light service which begins with a special blessing of candles (hence the name “Candlemas”). Click here to read the prayers of blessing for candles. A short blessing of throats (prayer for good health) in honor of St Blaise will follow the Mass.

All are invited and welcome.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The opening acclamation

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The words of the liturgy are saturated with biblical themes, images, turns of phrase, and even outright quotes. The opening acclamation added to the Eucharistic rite in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is "V. Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. R. And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen."

I was aware that this was adapted from the opening acclamation of the Byzantine liturgy of St John Chrysostom ("V. Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and for ever. R. Amen."). But I was not aware until now of the source of that acclamation in the Byzantine rite. It is a trinitarian version of the opening line of Tobit's prayer of thanksgiving at the end of the book Tobit in the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Tobit 13:1
Then Tobit wrote a prayer of rejoicing, and said, "Blessed is God who lives for ever, and blessed is his kingdom. . . . "

A Protestant appreciation of Mary

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Instead of asking what the real Mary was like, we tend to debate what she was not: whether she and Joseph refrained from sexual relations and whether she had a sin nature. A cursory reading of Jaroslav Pelikan's brilliant Mary Through the Centuries will acquaint any reader with the fulsomeness of such debates. Because Protestants have spent their time debating about Mary, they have rarely attempted to claim her as their own. Consequently, she has become little more than a delicate piece in a Christmas crèche, whom we bring out without comment at Christmas and then wrap up gently until we see her again next Advent.

But there are signs that those days are coming to an end. On the horizon today is nothing less than a Protestant reclamation of Mary, seen most completely in Tim Perry's new book, Mary for Evangelicals (InterVarsity, 2006). For the purposes of this article, we first need to ask, "Which Mary?" A good place to begin our search for answers is Mary's Magnificat. There we will discover not so much the Blessed Virgin Mary draped in piety, but the Blessed Valorous Mary dressed for action.

Read the whole article, "The Mary we never knew", from Christianity Today.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The value of listening

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Among preachers there’s a saying—that you really haven’t preached a great sermon until you’ve gotten some death threats. And when you stand in the pulpit, don’t be afraid to be run out of town, for you'll be in good company. (Still, part of me hopes this sermon doesn’t rise to that level of greatness.)

Believe it or not, that is the kind of reaction that Jesus ended up with after giving his message on Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. We heard the first part of the story last week. Jesus takes a scroll from Isaiah and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

When he sits down, it is not because he is finished, but because this is the traditional posture of rabbinic teaching. All eyes are fixed on Jesus, waiting for his comments on the text, when at last he says, “Today this scripture that you have just heard has been fulfilled.”

Jesus' public ministry began with this proclamation of the kingdom of God. The text he read was an Old Testament prophecy of the coming messiah. Jesus then tells them explicitly, the Messiah has now come; the messianic age you just heard about is dawning right here in your very midst. What good news! Or is it?

I’m sure there was a period of stunned silence. Then whispers begin: “What did he say?” “Did you hear him?” “Isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” The mood is amazement, but not without some growing hostility. He appears to be saying some extra-ordinary things, but they are skeptical of their truthfulness. Perhaps there is a turning point in their reaction. They start to wonder, Who does this guy think he is? Where has he gotten such supposed wisdom? Isn’t he just one of us . . . some guy who grew up down the street? What makes this preacher so distinguished? “Anointed by God”!? “This scripture has just been fulfilled”!? You've got to be kidding me.

Jesus could not help but overhear their whispered reactions. He says, “I’m sure you’re about to quote to me the old proverb ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ Or, 'Why don’t you show us some of these Messianic powers others may have seen?' Very truly, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”

Jesus is articulating their own rejection of him. A variant reading of this verse makes the meaning a little more direct: “No prophet is acceptable in his own country, and no physician works his cures on those who know him.” Something about familiarity may block God’s work. Now we see the cause of their rage. Jesus just announced the coming of God’s kingdom and his Messiah, but they are becoming keenly aware that they don’t fit his description. It is a curious thing that so often we interpret good news for others as bad news for us.His sermon might well have been: “God’s real people look nothing like you.”

“The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed . . . okay, but what about me?” We know that this is the message their getting because of what Jesus says next. He tells them it should not be so surprising for God to bypass us and go to those we least expect.

Jesus gives two examples. Once there was a drought in Israel, and during that time of scarcity of food, God only sent his Prophet Elijah during that time to a Shulamite woman (that is, to work a miracle for a non-Jew outside Israel). Again, his successor Elisha ignored all the Israelites with leprosy, but was sent to heal Naaman the Syrian instead (another miracle reserved for a non-Jew outside Israel).

But the kicker is that Jesus seems to indicate that God would be more than happy to work wonders among them, except that their own pride has made that impossible. This was just too much to bear. When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill where their town was built, so that they might throw him off the cliff. But he slipped through the crowd and got away.

It would not be the only time he would slip out of the hands of an angry mob. Ultimately, when the time was right in God’s plan, Jesus surrendered himself to a mob's demands for his life, and in doing so worked wonders among them at the cross . . . showing his Messianic identity to those once spiritually blind, healing the broken-hearted, releasing those held captive by the chains of sin, liberating the oppressed, and ushering in the kingdom of God.

What ought to get us a little upset this evening is that perhaps the saints of God don’t look a whole lot like you and me. Or to say it the other way around, perhaps you and I don't look a whole lot like the saints of God. And that needs to change. Perhaps some of our pride—our preoccupation with ourselves, our needs, our wants—has blinded us to God’s wonders among us. That's something about us that can change with the help of God's grace.

It has enabled us not to recognize and appreciate the good work that God is doing right now among those who are not . . . (fill in the blank--Americans, middle-class, Episcopalians or even Christians). But the greater danger is that our spiritual blinders may not only keep us from recognizing God’s goodness elsewhere, it may keep us from being a part of it right where we are.

This was the case for all but one of the twelve when it came to Jesus’ final hour. All but one were unwilling to heed the message of suffering which they simply did not agree with nor want to be a part of. All but one scattered, ran away, and even betrayed Jesus. Each of us today is lucky that in this case; their involvement was not a necessary for God to work the mighty wonder of salvation at the cross, where Jesus atoned for the sins of the world, and released us from the captivity of sin and death. It was something he did for us on his own. But now is the time to make our own.

Let us pray for the grace of humility, that the next time the Lord has a word for you in your life (especially a message that you may not like hearing), you may not be like his townspeople who refused to hear Jesus and tried to throw him off a cliff. Let us be more like those he went to next in capernaum who listening to his message and recognized his authority. Let us answer God's message like the little boy Samuel who responded to God’s voice saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

Interpretation of tongues

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This Sunday's epistle touched on the practice of speaking in tongues. Which reminds me, I don't think I've ever come across the practice of tongues being exercised according to the Scriptural pattern (that is, always with an interpreter). But then, I don't spend a lot of time around people who are speaking in tongues.

Anyone out there witnessed or engaged in interpretation of tongues?

1 Corinthians 14:5, 12-13, 22
"The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. . . . So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. . . . Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers."

Native pronunciations in the news

We are all familiar with the practice of news reporters employing (or at least attempting to) a native pronunciation of place names when covering stories in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Venezuela. Saturday Night Live had a good spoof of this on its "Weekend Update" a few years ago.

Then it occurred to me that I think I've heard this native pronunciation used only for Spanish-language place names. I don't think I've ever heard native pronunciation used for places like Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Cape Town, New Delhi, and so forth. The only exception is when I once heard a reporter use the native pronunciation for Baghdad. Is this a double-standard? And if it is, why has no one objected before?

Friday, January 26, 2007

By what name?

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Here's a question that's always a good conversation starter. Sometimes I ask people, What name would you choose if elected pope? It's purely hypothetical, of course (I've never had the opportunity to ask a cardinal, but I'm sure they would politely decline to answer anyway). But it is always interesting why someone would choose a particular name.

The gospels tell us that Jesus gave the name Peter (meaning "rock" or "stone") to Simon bar Jonah. "Peter" does not so much describe who Simon was as it describes who Jesus wanted him to become. Immediately after one of his successors is elected and consents, a he is asked by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, "By what name shall you be called?" The Pope-elect chooses the regnal name by which he will be known from that point on.

During the first centuries of the church, men elected Bishop of Rome used their baptismal names even after their elections. Sometimes the baptismal name was new (named for a saint) and sometimes it was original. New names are also common at ordinations and consecrations and are particularly associated with life professions in some religious orders.

The custom of choosing a new papal name began in AD 533 with the election of Mercurius who was named after the Roman god Mercury. Obviously, Mercurius thought that it would not be appropriate for a pope to be called by the name of a pagan god, and instead took the name of a previous pope John, and so became known as John II. Since that time the pope has customarily chosen a new name for himself during his Pontificate; however, until the 16th century some popes continued the use of their baptismal names.

The last pope to use his baptismal name was Pope Marcellus II in 1555. The choice of a name is generally honorific or symbolic to the goal of a new papal reign. Honorific names have been based on immediate predecessors, mentors, political similarity, or even after family members (as was the case with Pope John XXIII). In 1978, Albino Luciani became the first pope to use two names for his regnal name when he took the name John Paul. He did this to honor both his Vatican Council predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI. With the unexpected death of John Paul I a little over a month later, Karol Wojtyla took the name John Paul II to honor his immediate predecessor and continue the post-conciliar mission.

Symbolic names signal to the world who the new pope will emulate, what policies he will seek to enact, or even the length of his reign. Pope Benedict XVI stated he chose that name because of his desire to be a peacemaker. The practice of a continuing with a baptismal name as pope has not been ruled out and future popes (who make the rule anyway) could elect to continue using their baptismal names.

There has never been a Pope Peter II. Even though there is no specific prohibition against doing so, men elected to the Papacy have by custom refrained from doing so. This is because of a tradition that only Saint Peter should have that honor. In the 10th century Pope John XIV used the regnal name John because his given name was Peter.

My answer?
I guess I should answer the question before I ask for answers in the comments. My silly answer would be Bob or Magillicutty because I think "Pope Magillicutty" sounds funny. My serious has always been Linus (possibly the same Linus mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21 according to Irenaeus). He is recorded as the first successor to Peter at Rome who was entrusted with the leadership of the early church there, died a martyrs' death, and was buried next to Peter on Vatican hill. Little is known about him, but I feel some identity with the name and I like the idea of its uniqueness and antiquity.

In researching Linus for this post, I was very surprised to learn that the Liber Pontificalis gives 23 September (in AD 79) as the day of his death and thus his feast day. It was interesting to me because I was ordained to the priesthood in 2002 on the 23rd of September. And I never new the connection until now.

Comments please . . . What name would you choose if you were elected pope?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Conversion of St Paul

I am fascinated by the similar way in which St Paul and St Peter are commemorated. Neither has his own single feast day on his "heavenly birthday" as is custom. They share a day (June 30th) commemorating their martyrdom in Rome, although they did not die together. However, some early sources contend that they were put to death on the same day. Even more contend that it was in the same year, AD 67.

The other interesting thing is that while they share a feast day, they also both have feasts that specifically commemorate their faith. Both moments of coming to faith would be significant for the unfolding of the church's history and mission. On January 25th, we celebrate the Conversion of St Paul, and on the new church kalendar we now similarly commemorate the Confession of St Peter ("thou art the Christ") on January 19th.

Monday, January 22, 2007

On retreat

"It is a great thing to know the season for speech and the season for silence" (Seneca the Elder).
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This week, I'll be on silent retreat with the clergy of the diocese at Montserrat (the Jesuit retreat house north of Dallas, unfortunately, not the Carribean island nor the Benedictine abbey near Barcelona).

"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on"

(John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn).

March for Life

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On this anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, the 34th Annual March for Life will be held in Washington. Please remember the occasion in your prayers. Information on NOEL, the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life, may be found here.

An analysis on Archbishop Rowan Williams' pro-life views can be found here.
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Receive, we beseech thee, into the arms of thy mercy all innocent victims; and by thy great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish thy rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, pg 187)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Just enough for a screeching halt

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Molly and Lil' Joe enjoyed going out in the snow.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Extemporary Preaching

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A man who is well instructed and who has a great facility of expressing himself; a man who has meditated deeply in all their bearings upon the principles of the subject which he is to treat; who has conceived that subject in his intelect, and arranged his arguments in the clearest manner, who has prepared a certain number of striking figures and of touching sentiments which may render it sensible and bring it home to his hearers; who knows perfectly all that he ought to say, and the precise way in which to say it, so that notihing remains at the moment of delivery but to find words to express himself--such is the extempore speaker.
(From Fenelon's Dialogues on Eloquence, quoted in the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching.)

Or as my homiletics professor at Baylor would put it, "Do your studies and then preach from the overflow."

Monday, January 15, 2007

How things have changed

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On this Martin Luther King, Jun. holiday, I am reminded of how greatly things have changed in regards to race relations. I can hardly even imagine seeing the kind of things pictured above--water coolers and restrooms labeled "Whites Only" or "Colored Only." It seems so bizarre, like something from another world if not another time. And yet it was right in our midst and it was not that long ago.

I remember the moving testimony of a fellow priest about how he decided to become an Episcopalian when he saw first hand how whites and blacks knelt side-by-side in church to receive Holy Communion, drinking out of the same cup. This was back in the 1960s in rural Georgia. Actions and visual testimonies speak loudest of all.

I've never seen such a thing in person as is shown above, and this is really the only clear example I could find online. Have things improved? Are race relations better? I would say so. Things certainly look different, and no one is going to return to things pictured above. I'm sure other things have not changed as much as they have become unofficial or hidden. Some things have simply moved underground and into the shadows. There will probably always be more work to be done.

King understood this best--that change really occurs first in the heart, in the hidden life, and that the force of positive change is moral courage. That's how it works. Fears as confronted, old hatreds overcome, new trusts earned, loving communities built one heart at a time. Today, I give thanks for those who changed the world I live in before I got here, and for those who will change the world for the better tomorrow.

Thanksgiving for the Diversity of Races and Cultures
(Book of Common Prayer, p 840)
O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

From water into wine

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Once there was a bride who was very nervous about her wedding. She was not used to being in front of a crowd of people. She wasn’t sure she could even muster up the courage to walk down the aisle. As she was getting ready for the service, her mother gave her some words of calming wisdom.

She said to her, “Honey, there’s only three things you need to think about today. Just focus on these three things, and you’ll be fine. The first is walking down the aisle. Focus on walking down the aisle of that church. Don’t get caught up with anything or anyone on either side. Just visualize getting down that aisle.

"Next, focus on the altar. It is your destination today. Make your way to the altar to meet God. There you will stand with the man you love take vows together. Remember the altar that represents the love God has for both of you.

"Last, focus on the hymn that the soloist will sing. In poetry and song, the hymn embodies God’s love for you in Christ, your love for your husband and his love for you. Listening to that hymn will give you calm and comfort.

"So, to help you not be so nervous, focus on those three things: walking down the aisle, standing before the altar, and listening to the hymn." The bride was very thankful to her mom for her words of advice. She felt better now, and much more confident.

At the wedding, family and friends watched as she walked down the aisle and noticed a look of calm determination on her face. But as she passed them, they began to chuckle softly, for as she passed, they could hear her mumbling three words over and over again, “Aisle, Altar, Hymn… Aisle, Altar, Hymn…”

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In today’s gospel (John 2:1-11), we find a message of transforming grace in the epiphany that came through the slight alteration of water into wine. St John tells us this was the first of his “signs”—those selected miracles which manifested Jesus’ divine nature—and it happened at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. I’m inclined to believe it happened the way it did for a reason. The question is, Why? At first, it didn’t look like it was going to work out that way.

Jesus and his disciples were invited to a wedding feast. (Despite what you may have heard, Jesus was not the one getting married.) It seems like it might have been a neighbor or family friend. It was perhaps someone Jesus’ mother knew well, for the servants seem to know her. It is also worth mentioning that out of a deep respect for her, St John never refers to the blessed Virgin by name in his gospel. She is always “woman” or “mother.”

Jewish weddings were an extravagant affair—a joyous celebration for seven days. It was expected that guests would arrive day by day throughout the week. An unexpectedly large turnout may be behind the reason for the crisis. “Wine makes the heart glad,” the Psalmist wrote, and it flowed freely at these festivities.

Jesus’ mother may be involved with the wedding celebration, because when the wine runs out, she notices there’s a problem right away. We can also see that the blessed Mother knows her Son very well. She knows that he is capable of working miracles. And she is willing to intercede with her Son on behalf of this young couple who don’t even yet know that there’s a problem with their marriage feast. “They have no wine,” she said softly, leaning toward Jesus’ ear.

She is already assuming the role of the Queen Mother in the Kingdom of God. The Queen Mother in ancient Israel had a unique ministry. She was to bring the needs of the people to the attention of her son the king, and to call the people to obedience and loyalty to the king. Mary does the same. . . “They have no wine.”

At first, Jesus seems almost annoyed. “Maaaaa!” Perhaps this is something they had argued about before. Is Jesus referring back to some previous discussion when he replies, “Now, what concern is that to you and me? My hour is not yet come”? In John’s gospel, Jesus’ “hour” is the manifestation of his glory through the cross. The signs or miracles that Jesus does leading up to that moment give a hint or glimpse of the ultimate glory that comes through his obedience at the cross. Jesus inquires, Why are you asking me for a miracle now? Surely it is not yet the right time.

Mary has made her case, ever so discreetly. She leaves the matter to his authority and judgment. As a good Queen Mother, she tells the King’s subjects. “Just do whatever he tells you,” she told the servants. It is a lesson she herself had come to know years before when visited by an angel.

I wonder how long Jesus thought about the matter. Is it time for a miracle? Is this the right moment? Is this the right context? However long the question was considered, it is certain that his reluctance faded and his resolve became clear: a wedding is the perfect occasion for the first miracle revealing the glory of the only Son of God. There is no hesitation in his voice when he tells the servants to fill the jars with water.
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It would be customary to have plenty of water on hand for a Jewish festival as their traditions proscribed ritual washings with meals. The miracle is performed entirely behind the scenes. Its purpose is to strengthen the faith of the disciples and servants. The working of his first sign has always been considered a special endorsement of the dignity of marriage in the Christian tradition, showing the sacramental character of marriage by utilizing the creative and transforming power of God at that moment.

When the steward of the feast tasted the water which had become wine (the "drink of gladness") he marveled at how wonderfully it tasted. It was a reminder that God doesn’t just miraculously make wine, he makes good wine—the best wine ever tasted. He makes the supreme vintage, the cup of angels.

What was it ultimately that led Jesus to change his mind, to decide that a wedding is the perfect occasion to reveal his glory? I have wondered that. And then it dawned on me. We are told that the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation (that's how the wedding liturgy expresses it), but God didn’t just invent marriage, God is married.

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God is betrothed to his people. In our reading from Isaiah today (Is 62:1-5), God tells the people of Jerusalem, “As a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God marry you.”

That’s why the Old Testament prophets call idolaters "adulterers." That’s why God is so jealous of the relationship he has with his people. That’s why the Song of Songs overflows with vivid erotic poetry (don’t tell the kids). That’s why God cares about chastity. That’s why the epistle to the Hebrews (13:4) says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept undefiled, for God will judge the fornicator and adulterer.”

That’s why Jesus tells us in the New Testament that divorce is not an option. That’s why St Paul describes Jesus as our bridegroom and his Church as his bride, and tells us that marriage is a great sacrament--the mystery that unfolds the meaning of the union between Christ and his Church. That’s why in the book of Revelation, the joy of heaven is compared with the joy of a great wedding banquet.

That’s why the intimacy of marriage is the best comparison we have to intimacy with God. That’s why we cannot reinvent or redefine marriage. That is a message many may not want to hear today, but it is what we all need to hear. Marriage belongs to God; it is not ours to recreate.

The truth is that man and woman were made for each other in creation. In Genesis we read that “the two shall become one flesh.” That’s why Jesus gives us his flesh to eat and blood to drink at this altar. Genesis explains, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” How do we know Adam and Eve were married? Very simply, they had children.

Most people are confused about marriage. They stumble over the simple truth that God reveals to us through the Scriptures. The truth is that marriage is not created by vows or promises or covenants or rings or even love. Marriage is created by the union of the body. “The two shall become one flesh.” To be our husband, to make us his bride, Jesus gave us his body.

Jesus loves us with the love of a husband. Why did he consider the cross to be a noble sacrifice? Why does God care so much about human marriage? It is because he is entirely, deliberately, eternally, passionately, and hopelessly in love with you. His is a love that overcomes fear, a love that embraces the good of another, a love that involves suffering, a love that doesn’t count the cost, a love totally naked before another, a love that is the total gift of self. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16).

All of baptized believers are married to Christ. Some of you are married to one another. Did you know that Christ was at your wedding party? Whether you caught a glimpse of it or whether it was entirely behind the scenes, there was an epiphany and will be again.

Some of you know the power and love of God in your own marriage. Some of you know that power in your marriage to Christ. Some of you may not have realized that experience that yet. The young couple getting married in today’s gospel had no idea what wonders were going on behind the scenes just to bring them a few more moments of joy.

For some of you, a crisis has arisen as it had for them, but you have not yet become aware of it. The wine has not yet run dry in your marriage. For some of you, it may have been a long time since you tasted that wine--good wine. The glory of the Son manifested on that day may be a distant memory for your marriage. It may be a distant memory in your marriage to Christ.
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In each case, the Queen Mother has taken notice. She has gently whispered in the ear of her Son, “They have no wine.” She is aware that it may take a miracle to keep the party going, and Jesus may decide that it is just about time that we had one. Don’t be afraid to ask him for one.

Who dat?

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Does it still feel like Christmas to you?

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Perhaps it's just a reluctance to take down the tree and the lights this year. I've been doing some searching to find out exactly when Christmas ends, but the answer is not so simple as I expected it to be. The answer used to be pretty straightforward (if a bit confusing) as exemplified by Fortescue's notes on the liturgical year:

Christmastide runs from the first Vespers of Christmas to 13 January inclusive. This period comprises: (a) the Christmas season proper, which is from the first Vespers of Christmas to None inclusive of 5 January; (b) the Epiphany season, which runs from the first Vespers of the Lord's Epiphany to January 13 inclusive.

The earliest celebration was Epiphany (January 6), which was inclusive of the entire scope of the mysteries of the incarnation--the manifestation of the Word made flesh. Later, especially in the West, those mysteries began to be commemorated according to the historical realization (i.e., the annunciation, nativity, circumcision, purification). While the Eastern rites now mark a preliminary celebration of the nativity on December 25th, the Epiphany is still the focus of the Eastern rites. In many countries, the festivities associated with Christmas continue until Candlemas on February 2nd, which is the customary time to take down nativity displays. This is still the practice in Rome.

Epiphany is a part of the Christmas celebration in the same way that Ascension is a part of Easter. They have been historically and scripturally stuck together from the beginning. Both Christmas and Epiphany were octaves in the 1928 Prayer Book. The octave of Christmas Day (January 1) commemorated the circumcision of Christ since Jewish boys were circumcised eight days after they were born. The octave of the Epiphany (January 13th) commemorated the Baptism of Christ. The 1928 Prayer Book did not give a proper for that day, bet held the commemoration of Jesus' baptism on the following Sunday (the Second after the Epiphany).

According to the 1928 Prayer Book, we might say that Christmastide could theoretically last until January 20th. Of course, that Prayer Book does not give us an explicit statement about when Christmastide ends, although it is worth noting that the Office lectionary has propers assigned for each day through January 13th, but only until the next Sunday is reached. The Friday abstinence is dispensed only between Christmas Day and the feast of the Epiphany (see page li), but astonishingly not during the Easter season.

In the new Roman Missal and its revised calendar, the commemoration of Christ's baptism is moved from a fixed date on the octave of Epiphany (January 13th) to the First Sunday after the Epiphany. This is also the arrangement in the 1979 Prayer Book. However, the new Prayer Book is not quite clear about when Christmastide ends.

On page 31, it outlines a Christmas season (the traditional twelve days) and a new Epiphany season. Yet in the collects, Epiphany is not treated as a season at all. The collects are for Sundays "after the Epiphany." Of course, the collects before those are similarly described as "after Christmas Day."

Does the 1979 Prayer Book envision the Christmas season ending with the Epiphany or with the commemoration of the Lord's baptism? In the weekdays between the two, one may use either the collect and propers for the Epiphany or the Second Sunday after Christmas (see page 162 and 214). Is one allowed to choose whether Christmastide is over? and if so, how does that affect the observance of the Friday abstinence which is dispensed during the Christmas and Easter seasons (see page 17). Then again, what if you're in a 1928 BCP parish?

I realize I may be the only one in the world who is concerned about this.

Common sense trumps bad theology

The Archbishop's Panel of Reference report is in, and it has a strong endorsement of the Dallas Plan compromise as well as good recommendations for our future life in ECUSA. I would characterize it as a crackdown on intolerance in the General Convention. Unfortunately, it will likely be treated as but one more ignored plea in the Anglican circle of intervention. You can read it all here.

The local newspaper also covered the story in this article. Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori's comment on the pastoral compromise called the Dallas Plan was of special interest:

"My sense is that the Dallas Plan provides for women and seems to be adequate, and our understanding is that it does seem to be responsive to the canons," she said.

The FACTs on church growth

Among the findings in the new FACTs on Growth report:

* Congregations that change worship format and style are more likely to grow. More than half the congregations that use contemporary styles of worship have experienced substantial growth since 2000. Frequency is important as well: The more worship services a congregation holds, the more likely it is to have grown.

* Congregations located in new suburbs are more likely to experience growth. But surprisingly the second best area for growth is the downtown of metropolitan areas.

* Congregations that have experienced major conflict are quite likely to have declined in attendance. The strongest correlate of growth is the absence of serious conflict.

* Congregations that have started or maintained a website in the past year are most likely to grow. The effort to have a website indicates that the congregation is outward looking and willing to change by non-traditional means.

* While most congregations in America are composed of a single racial/ethnic group, those that are multi-racial are most likely to have experienced strong growth in worship attendance.

* More important than theological orientation is the religious character of the congregation and clarity of mission and purpose. Growing churches are clear about why they exist and about what they are to be doing – “purpose-driven growth.”

* Congregations that involve children in worship are more likely to experience significant growth. Also, important to growth is the ability of congregations to attract young adults and children with families.

* Almost all congregations say they want to grow, but it takes intentionality and action for growth to occur. Congregations that developed a plan to recruit members in the last year were more likely to grow than congregations that had not. Particularly helpful in achieving growth are sponsorship of a program or event to attract non-members or the existence of support groups.

You can read the whole thing here. The report was written by C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

In the Jordan River

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This Sunday we commemorate the baptism of Jesus. It is not by coincidence that he was baptized in the Jordan River; it is of significant meaning.

The Jordan River symbolizes entry into the Promised Land, and may be the "river of God" referenced in the Psalms. It is the physical barrier (Numbers 34:12) that Israel crossed to leave the wilderness and enter into possession of the Promised Land. Moses was not permitted to lead Israel across. That role fell to his successor. Moses foretold that a prophet like him would arise in Israel (Deuteronomy 18:15). The one who led them into freedom was named "Yahweh is salvation."

In the Old Testament, it was Joshua who led the people through the Jordan River, out of bondage and purification into freedom in the Promised Land. In the New Testament, it was Jesus (same name, but we know him by the Greek form of the name) who led his people out of bondage to sin into the freedom of communion with God in the Promised Land of eternal life. The crossing point is Holy Baptism, and Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. As he was circumcised to fulfil the Torah and participate in his humanity, now he establishes a rite in which we may share his divine life.

The gospels tell us that John was baptizing in the wilderness of Judea in the Jordan river--the area east of Jerusalem. We are told that people from the city were going out to be baptized by him. There were standard fords in which the river was crossed, and it is likely that the place in the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized was near (or even at) the crossing point near Jericho that the Israelites used in the book of Joshua.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Epiphany traditions

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There is an old tradition that the priest blesses chalk for the people of his parish on the feast of the Epiphany. The people take the chalk home and write over their front doors:

20 + C + M + B + 07

This is the year split by the initials of the traditional names of the kings of the East: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Another tradition says "CMB" stands for Christus Mansionem Benedicat, which means, "Christ, bless this home." House blessings are also customary in the Epiphany season. The inscription remains up until Witsunday (the feast of Pentecost). Pictured above is the inscription written with blessed chalk at the Matkin home.

Wisdom is everything

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Matthew 2:1-2
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.”

If it is true, as Francis Bacon asserted, that knowledge is power, then I must likewise insist that wisdom is everything. Today’s gospel chronicles twists and turns we might anticipate viewing on one of those old fashioned lavish television miniseries. The plot line revolves around three struggles with God’s will—by the Magi (or “wise men”), by King Herod, and by St Joseph.

As St Matthew unfolds his gospel account, he hits many times upon the theme of providence—that all of this is an unfolding of God’s plan, much of it foretold in the prophets long ago. Indeed, reading through his gospel is somewhat like reading through an annotated index of Old Testament Messianic prophecy. Matthew stops many times in his gospel narrative to give us notes like, “this happened to fulfill what was spoken of in the prophet so-and-so who wrote such-and-such.” It is an instructive lesson in the providence of God.

I remember one man told me, “I don’t believe in Providence, and I’m from Rhode Island.” It seems to me more often than not when you really get down to it, that those who most strongly disbelieve in the idea that God has a plan for their lives are also the most afraid of what God’s plan might be.

There are many legends that grew up about the Wise Men, or Magi. The few verses of Matthews gospel don’t give us much detailed information. Even the idea that there are three of them is really an assumption based on the three gifts presented to the child Jesus.

Some of the early Christian legends say that there were a band of twelve wise men in the East, who had in their possession a scroll written by Seth, the son of Adam. This scroll was said to have contained prophecies about the Jewish messiah and the astrological signs that would appear at his birth.
These devout men dedicated themselves to looking for the child’s star. Generation after generation, they and their successors would go off to a Persian mountain each month for prayer. There they would purify themselves for three days by washing their bodies in the cold mountain streams. Then they would gaze up into the heavens, praying that someday they might see the sign that would lead them to worship God’s anointed king.

Have you ever known someone who searches for God like that? Perhaps you have yourself at moments in your life. Perhaps you have had that mountain-top experience where you have spent a long time purifying your soul and gazing up into the heavens, praying for a ray of light. Are you still looking? Have you been back to the mountain?

They were “wise men” because when they went looking for answers, they went straight to the source—they looked to God and asked for directions. But that’s not all. The real demonstration of their wisdom is that when the star appeared and showed the way, they knew what to do next. They were wise enough to follow where God led them, and to work to fulfill God’s plan.

In about the year 6 BC or so, the Magi saw the star they were looking for. There are many possibilities about what astronomical sign they saw—aligned planets, a comet, a supernova, or even a shining angel of heaven—we may never know which. But it was perhaps an inner light, welcomed in prayer, that helped them recognize that this was what they had been looking for.

Some legends have it that God miraculously enabled them to travel to Israel to visit the newborn king in only twelve days. Hence, in the Church kalendar, after the twelve days of Christmas, the wise men arrive to worship Christ on the feast of Epiphany, when the light of Christ is manifested to the gentiles as typified by these visiting Magi.

We watch these visitors to Bethlehem, as they kneel with humility and grace before what appears to be nothing but simplicity, vulnerability, and poverty. They have come prepared to kneel in worship and to offer gifts because they discern the glory that is hidden in this lowly child. That is their epiphany.

Then the plot line turns around a new character in the story—King Herod, and unlike the trusting, faithful, and wise gentile seekers from the East, this wicked puppet king is terrified of the idea of God’s providence. The characterization we get in the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, and all of the other writers of antiquity who mention him, is that Herod is a base character who was insecure in his role as king and paranoid that someone (anyone) might usurp his throne.

Herod was appointed king of the Jews by the Roman Empire and was charged with enforcing Roman rule on the local level. Although he cared nothing for religion, he rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, and built it with more magnificence and glory than King Solomon himself . . . just to buy the love of his people. But the people weren’t fooled.

Scarcely a day passed where there was not an execution under Herod’s regime. Herod killed two of his brothers-in-law, his wife Mariamne, and two of his sons to ward off possible threats to his throne. It is no wonder that he would slaughter the innocents of Bethlehem to try to thwart the rise of a future king.

Like any decent royal delegation, the Magi first went to Herod, the local king, to pay their respects and ask for permission to visit the child in his territory. The deceitful Herod said, “By all means; and if you find him, bring me word that I too may come and do him homage.”

The perceptive Magi were warned by God in a dream not to go back to Herod. Herod was a threat to the child, and so the Magi were careful to avoid the authorities and try to lead them off track. When Herod figured out that the Magi were not going to lead him to the future usurper to the throne, he had his men go to the small town of Bethlehem and kill all of the boys under two years of age just to be sure.

The sad thing is that Herod could have been a wonderful part of God’s plan, Herod rebuilt the Temple in all of its former glory. He could have been the royal forerunner to the messianic king. But instead the very idea of being a part of God’s plan filled Herod with terror. The very idea of it not being “all about me” was too great a challenge for Herod to face.

Perhaps some of us today have found ourselves in Herod’s position. Perhaps we all have at different times in our lives, in one way or another. There is a throne in every human heart. I have it; you have it. That throne is only large enough for one person to sit upon. Each of us must decide for ourselves. Is it going to be me sitting on the throne, or is it going to be God?

The amazing thing to me is that God will not push us out of the chair and take a seat on the throne himself. It is up to us to make room for him. Herod gave one thought to the child Jesus sitting on his throne, and said, “Over my dead body!”

The story also turns around a third character—St Joseph, foster father of Jesus. Joseph seems acutely aware of his role in the unfolding of God’s plan. He seems specially attuned to the Lord’s guidance through dreams. Matthew’s gospel especially capture’s St Joseph’s willingness to listen, to believe, and to act in accordance with God’s will.

All of these are particularly important characteristics in the foster father of the only-begotten Son of God. Joseph is responsible for the care of the holy family, and he is not ashamed to look for help and guidance from above.

It was in a dream that Joseph’s worries had been calmed about Mary’s pregnancy. After the departure of the wise men, Joseph again hears the voice of angels in the slumber of his dreams. God warns him about Herod and tells Joseph to take his family and flee to Egypt, which is outside Herod’s jurisdiction. It was Joseph’s willingness to follow God’s lead that saved the life of Mary’s newborn child.

Matthew reminds us that this is a part of God’s prophetic plan. Because of Joseph’s action, Jesus was spared from slaughter at the hands of Herod’s men in Bethlehem. The holy family were now refugees seeking sanctuary in a foreign land—vivid parallels of the exodus story.

When Herod died in 4 BC, the angel of the Lord again appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that it was safe to take his family back to Israel. When Herod died, his kingdom was divided among his four sons, and the cruel Archelaus was left in control of Judea.

Joseph was again told in a dream not to go back to Bethlehem of Judea, but to return to his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee, where Joseph and Mary had lived before the birth of Jesus. This was a part of God’s plan to protect his Son and to have him brought up in a safe home. Matthew notes that this explains why the Scriptures note that the Messiah shall be called a Nazarean.

Discerning God’s will through dreams is always a challenging prospect. What if it is merely a bad dream? What if it is a divine warning to flee from danger? What if it is a simple warning to eat less cabbage with dinner? Understanding God’s plan always takes discernment.

Like the wise men, Joseph was a man of discernment because he was a man of prayer. He recognized the message because he was familiar with the messenger. He studied God’s ways in the holy Scriptures; he listened to God’s voice in the synagogue; he opened his heart to God in the temple.

The foolish fear God’s plan, while the righteous rejoice to be a part of it. The foolish seek to thwart God’s will, while the righteous seek to understand and follow it. The foolish look to earthly powers to protect their position, while the righteous look to heaven to show them the way.

What will be our approach? In the fullness of time, that is, at just the right moment, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” O come, let us adore him. In the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Beginning again

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day
31 December 2006

If you are like many people, about 365 days ago, you made a New Year’s resolution. Remember, you were going to going to get a better job, you were going to finish the project you started last January, you were going to clean out the attic, you were going to loose weight, etc. In all likelihood, that resolution failed, particularly if it was something long-term.

Sometimes we look at New Year's resolutions as something of a joke. I know one fellow who says that every year you should make resolutions like: This year, I’ll put on a few more pounds; I’ll work on going into debt; I’ll steal from my company and cheat on my wife; I’ll alienate my children and go into a deep depression. The idea, of course, is that you really don’t want to do any of these things, so making it a New Year’s resolution will help you avoid it for sure.

And yet, I think each of us longs for the opportunity for a fresh start. We have a constant need for the childhood simplicity of a “do—over.” Who among us has not made a mistake or felt disappointment and wanted the chance to begin again.

We are told that a long time ago, God looked down upon earth and saw his people, and looked upon them with mercy and wanted to give them a second chance. We see it foreshadowed right there in Genesis (the seed of the woman will crush the seed of the serpent). He resolved to send us a Savior, and in Jesus Christ, he did just that. One thing that makes him God is that he keeps his resolutions. It is so fitting that we celebrate the First Sunday after Christmas Day this New Year's eve, for in this little baby we see the opportunity for all our new beginnings.

The gift of God’s Son was the gift that kept on giving. Jesus interpreted the Law and showed us God’s will for our lives. He called out disciples to walk with him, and follow him to God. He laid down his life in our place, and took it up again. He washed us of our sins, gave us new lives, and filled us with the Holy Spirit.

God, for whom all things are possible, made good on his resolution to redeem us. And this resolution can never fail, for in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God became a human being to get it right for us. Because God is the one who can keep all his resolutions.

The Son of God—God from God, Light from Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father—became a simple human being, yet never ceasing to be fully divine. “We beheld his glory,” John says, “the kind of glory an only Son shares with his Father.” Then John tells us that he gives believers the right to become children of God.

St. Paul the Apostle said it this way in letter to the Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons [that is, sharing our humanity so that we might share his divinity]. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'”

Our redemption became possible because God became human—to get it right for us. That concept is hard for us to grasp—one person, completely human and divine. I think it’s hard for us to grasp because at a deep level, we are all aware of the great dissimilarity between God and mere humans. But we must clarify our thinking and recognize that the only dissimilarity is sin.

I spoke to my fourth graders about the incarnation one day—telling them about how that means that Jesus is the "God-man." That is, he’s 100% God and 100% human at the same time. One of them said, “But wait a minute, that’s 200%. It’s doesn’t make sense." (Perhaps you’re thinking the same thing.)

So I took out a blank piece of paper. I said, “What I’m holding in my hand is 100% paper. Right?” They all nodded yes. “But, what I’m holding in my hand is 100% white. Right?” Again, they all nodded yes. And they got it—there nothing contradictory about it. You can have white paper just like you can have a God-man.

It seems confusing at first because our vision has been distorted by the reality of sin. But remember that when God created us in his own image and likeness, he was the only prototype—the only model. Which means that there is absolutely no contradiction and nothing incompatible between God and man EXCEPT human sin. And that is why God became man, to renew the compatibility and to restore the communion between the two. Jesus is the new man, our only Mediator and Advocate. St Paul says "in him all the fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him."

Jesus is that divine Logos—the “Word of God” that John spoke about in his gospel—the complete revelation of God, who is love and who meets us where we are so that God can bring us back into a right relationship with himself. In Jesus Christ, each of us can find a new beginning. In the Christ child, we can find newborn opportunity.

I don’t discourage anyone from making New Year’s resolutions—even if they fail. On the contrary, I think it is a good idea to try to make a fresh start in spite of our failings. It seems so basic to the practice of the Christian faith. After all, our faith teaches us about the need for grace—God’s goodness, God’s power, God’s presence to lift us up and give us the strength to do things we could not do on our own. Our faith tells us that when we sin, we can come back to God and receive fresh grace for a new life and a new beginning.

We do that the first time when we are baptized. Baptism gives us everything we need for a new beginning. Indeed, we call it being "born again" by water and the Holy Spirit. St Paul calls it the "washing of regeneration and renewal." In baptism, our sins are washed away, we are given God’s grace to sanctify our soul, and we part of God’s family, made one with Jesus Christ (sharing mystically in his death and resurrection).

Where we might become confused by our New Year’s resolution is that sometimes, after we’ve broken our resolutions, we think that such an opportunity is all over. But our faith teaches us otherwise. In the Church, we learn to begin again. We may not be baptized again, but we have the same opportunity for a new beginning in sacramental confession and in Holy Communion.

If you have never before made a confession—a private sacramental confession of your sins to God, before a priest who absolves you as his minister (according to John 20:23), a New Year is the perfect time to do so—a time to take account and begin again.

We should note that the general confession we do Sunday after Sunday is meant to be an aid to private sacramental confession, not a substitute for it. It’s purpose it to nenew in us the call to repentance, to the examination of our conscience, and to the amendment of our lives. There are free booklets in the Narthex that are helpful aids to use in examining your conscience in order to prepare yourself to make a confession. Confessions are regularly heard at 9:15am on Saturday mornings here at St Alban's.

Our faith teaches us (and the general confession shows us) that when we confess our sins, we make a resolution. We should resolve never to sin again and to pray for help in leading a new life. Notice how often that phrase "I will, with God's help" comes up in the baptismal liturgy. Our faith teaches us to turn to God and say, “I need help, Lord, I can’t do it alone.” To do so is not a mark of weakness, but a source of strength.

Plan for this to be a great New Year, a year of opportunity and growth. God, in his infinite mercy, is willing to forget about your past because he cares so deeply about your future. Think about what you would like to accomplish in your life this year. Think about what we as a parish would like to accomplish together.

Know that God will be with you every step of the way, and he will supply the strength you need to meet the challenges you face when your resolve is sincere and pleasing to his will. And if and when you falter, get up again and begin again.

In the year of our Lord 2007, I invite you to truly make it "the year of our Lord" and to be part of a new beginning; in the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Gerald R. Ford, RIP

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While as a Christian, I cannot condone his masonic membership or the more anti-life stance associated with his later years, as a citizen, I appreciate Gerald Ford's service as President of the United States and think he will be remembered as a good one. He was President when I was born.

Even my aforementioned reservations have reservations. His statements about the freemasons always center around service to God and our fellow man. Also, while Ford was often perceived as favoring abortion rights in his latter years, he did expressed his opposition to “abortion on demand” during the 1976 campaign. He told a Roman Catholic archbishop that fall he had “consistently opposed” the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and believed the states should regulate the practice.

In a speech at the 41st International Eucharistic Congress, held in Philadelphia in 1976, Ford expressed concern about the "growing irreverence for life" in the United States. A month later, in a letter to a delegation of US bishops that was released following an hourlong meeting with them in the White House, he spelled out his convictions on a number of issues of concern to the bishops, including abortion. "Abortion on demand is wrong," he said, adding that every state should have a constitutional right to control abortion and expressing his belief that such laws need to "recognize and provide for exceptional cases."

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I think Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission put in best in his description of Ford as “a fundamentally decent man who loved his country and served it well in a time of great moral crisis. While he was president for less than a thousand days and his record in office will never place him in the upper echelons of presidential greatness, President Ford’s honesty and integrity were vital to the nation as it recuperated from the Nixon scandals and the Vietnam War. His presidency reminds us that basic decency is important in a president and cannot be taken for granted.” I'm sure those qualities were high on Nixon's mind when he providentially appointed Ford as Vice President in 1973.

Gerald Ford's legacy highlights one historical curiosity--we were spared a Spiro Agnew presidency. Ford was also a dedicated layman and regular communicant of the Episcopal Church who was both involved in church on the parish level and engaged in corporal works of mercy with his involvement in the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief.

In pardoning Nixon Sept. 8, Ford said his greatest concern was the future of the country. “My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed,” he said. “My conscience tells me that only I, as president, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it.”
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A Christmas message from your ABC

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We are used at Christmas to singing about the poor helpless child of Bethlehem whom we will rock and keep warm and cradle. But the great mystery of the day, the joy and shock of it, is that it is Jesus Christ who picks us up, helpless children, abandoned, ruined, and promises us everything that he can give. And as he gives, he makes us grow, and sends us to make the same promise in his name to all, whatever the conflicts, whatever the guilt. To all he offers the authority to be children of God; from his fullness we may all receive, grace upon grace.
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Help active military get better airfare

We recently sent a letter to the CEO’s of eleven airlines (Alaska, America West, American, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, Northwest, Southwest, United, US Airways and Jet Blue) asking them to do two things:

1)Reinstate the airfare that was offered to active duty military personnel during the Vietnam War. It was called Military Standby. It was less expensive than “Military Reserve”, which was the other airfare offered during that time. Anyone showing an active military ID paid a greatly reduced price for his or her ticket. We want the airlines to fill--their otherwise empty seats--with the men and women who are putting their lives on the line to serve our country.

2)Provide active duty military personnel a guaranteed seat at the 21-day advance fare for all tickets booked anytime prior to the flight. If a flight needs to be changed because of a change in orders (which can be substantiated), the airlines should waive any fees or penalties and refund the total amount of the fare.

Blue Star Moms and the undersigned, are asking for a resolution from the United States Congress that airlines voluntarily provide military travelers on leave with their lowest fares, even on short notice.

You can sign the petition and read about airline progress in compliance with HR-2115, Sec 427 here.