Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Angels among us

I'm preaching on Sunday the propers for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels - a/k/a Michaelmas. It's one of those big feast days in the Church - right up there with All Saints, Christmas, Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) and Easter.

I'm working on my sermon and I find it is hard for many people to believe in angels. I mean, believing in the Triune God is hard enough, adding angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, powers, virtues, and principalities ... well ... it scatters the imagination. It seems easy to just rationalize all this as some metaphoric way of explaining something that we can now likely explain with science.

Let's be clear ... I cannot see angels or archangels but I'm convinced some people can. Most of us move into concrete rational thinking around the age of 7 and we stay there for much of our lives. Before the age of 7, children see all kinds of things and when people get close to death they start to see things again. I have patients who report that their long dead relatives are in the room. Some report seeing people they do not know. Often the dying will describe these people as coming "through the door" - but when the dying person points to the door, they are pointing to the ceiling, or the corner of the room, or a solid wall. At least the wall looks solid to me.

I have a patient from England. She was pretty lucid when she came into hospice but occasionally talked to people who were in the room but invisible to me. Others called this hallucinations but I'm not so sure. About 4 weeks ago, I went into her room. She had her brow knit and was looking at the wall next to her bed. I asked her what was going on and she said she was "worried about that staircase."

"Which staircase?" I asked.

"The one right there behind you."

I turned around, looked and said, "Oh! That staircase. What's wrong with it?" (For the reader's information, I did not see a staircase. I saw a wall. But she saw a staircase and who was I to tell her there wasn't one there?).

"There's a man at the top of the staircase and he says I have to go up the stairs. I've had a stroke and I can't go up the stairs. He says Charlie has to go too and he's in a wheelchair - he can't go up the stairs either." (Charlie is her husband).

My patient was lucid enough to know she could not walk nor could her husband Charlie. But the man at the top of the stairs (the man I could not see) was telling her she and Charlie would have to go up the stairs.

"Well, did the man say you have to go right now?" I asked.

My patient looked up, past my shoulder, to where I guessed the top of the stairs might be and said, "Well ... no ... we don't have to go right now."

I took my patient's hand and said, "Then you don't need to worry about it. When it is time to go up the stairs, I promise that God will strengthen your legs and Charlie's too. You both will run up those stairs like the wind and you'll be light as a feather."

"You really think so?" she asked.

"I know so. God will never ask you to do anything that He won't give you the strength and ability to do."

She looked over my shoulder again and smiled. "Well ... that's a relief," she said.

St. Michael is the patron saint of dying persons and holy death. Was he at the top of the stairs? I can't say for sure but a messenger from God definitely was and one day, she'll climb those stairs.

Friday, September 10, 2010


I've lived in Maryland for 22 years after leaving my home state of California. This coming May, I will officially have lived in Maryland as long as I lived in California. I don't often get homesick - especially when gas lines explode and take out a whole neighborhood (not the first time this has happened either) or when earthquakes hit at 2:47AM waking you out of a sound sleep.

But there is one thing I miss terribly ... good artichokes. For some mysterious reason, I cannot purchase good artichokes in Maryland. They are all pathetically small, with dehydrated leaves (you can tell when they start curling inward from the edges) and brown spots all over them. They are just nasty looking!

My parents took a road trip to Columbus Ohio to visit friends who are also "California ex-pats." They went to Trader Joes (one of the best California exports ... ever!) and found beautiful, full, green artichokes ... for 99 cents each! The nasty ones we get here in Maryland cost $1.99 each ... highway robbery!!

So who can tell me where to buy a decent artichoke in Maryland? Do they exist at all or are they a figment of the imagination like the Snallygaster and the Blair Witch?

Monday, September 6, 2010

What makes worship good or bad?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately especially in light of funerals, of which I attend many. For the three or four of you who follow my blog, you know I'm an Episcopal priest. Our tradition has pretty structured liturgy and my liturgical style is pretty broad. I can run the gamut of liturgy from contemporary/informal to smoke slinging/chanting Anglo-Catholic. But even with a structured liturgy, I've seen some pretty sloppy stuff go on.

Personally, I find it gets much worse in more free church, non-denominational traditions. Don't get me wrong, I've seen some very good and moving worship in these traditions. But the likelihood of running the worship into a ditch goes way up when the pastor gets to make up the liturgical road map as he/she goes.

Case in point, I've been to a lot of very Protestant funerals in the free church style (Baptist, non-denominational, Pentecostal). Some have been well crafted ... dare I say ... well structured. Others have gone into the ditch and never returned. I went to one which was officiated by a local Baptist pastor who obviously took the time to prepare the service. He had an order of worship, it was punctuated with appropriate music, his message was clear and on target. Admittedly, there were elements which are alien to my tradition - eulogies of the deceased and an "altar call" of sorts asking those present to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as their Savior - but these were expected within the tradition of the family and were appropriate. What was clear is that this pastor had prepared and organized the service well.

I've been to other funerals where the officiant did not prepare or if they did prepare they hid it well! These are usually services where the pastor seems to be enchanted by the sound of his own voice. These services are disjointed, the message sloppy, no music, and prayers that consist of three topic points and a poem. I've heard clergy say they don't want to "stifle the Holy Spirit" so they don't write much down. Personally, I'm beginning to think that not "stifling the Spirit" is a cop out for shoddy preparation.

It reminds me of a line from one of Barbara Brown Taylor's books wherein she said she has experienced preaching where she really wished there was a "pulpit police" to slap the cuffs on the preacher and take him away. Sometimes I wish there was a "liturgical police" to do the same during sloppy worship.

It could be this is because I'm seeing mostly funerals and, let's be honest, most clergy only do funerals periodically. I do funerals a lot ... really. To me, the funeral or memorial service is the last chance the deceased person has to share their faith with others. As the officiant, you are giving voice to a person who can no longer do so in the land of the living. It seems to me this calls for even more careful planning - but sadly that doesn't always happen. I guess my love of liturgy, regardless of tradition variants, makes me cringe when I can see the officiant just threw something together. I guess knowing too much makes this a professional hazard.

So the forum is open ... here on the blog and on my Facebook notes tab. What makes worship work (or not) for you?