Pentecost 19

So last week I told you all how excited I was about this new year, and I still am, but we also had some unplanned excitement. We were joined at the 8am Mass by a young man, a man troubled by many things, and his behavior caused us to take measures to protect those present, especially our Church School children. It was unnerving, to say the least, but I couldn’t be more proud of how our parish responded. We both contained a threat and cared for a man who needed and needs a lot of help. In the end, that young man came to the right place, the house of God. He was lost, literally: our city’s police officers determined that he was on the Registry of Missing Persons. He was lost, but now is found.

Jesus told us a parable this week, a story about another man who was lost, or really a story about one man who appears to be lost and another who is actually lost. “In the parable, while the rich man is still alive, he is beautifully dressed and eats very well. But at his door there is always a poor man, Lazarus, who is clothed in sores and very hungry. Eventually, both the rich man and the poor man die. But the rich man goes to hell, and the poor man Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham.

“The thought of going to hell is alarming, and so we ought to ask ourselves this question: what exactly is the sin of the rich man? Once we ask this question, puzzling features of the parable leap to mind.

If the point of the parable is to give us a warning about a sin that can send a person to hell, the parable ought to tell us what that sin is. But it doesn’t.

“We might think that the sin just is the rich man’s failure to feed the poor man. But the parable doesn’t actually say whether the poor man gets any food from the rich man. Notice too that if not feeding the hungry is the sin of the rich man, then the parable could stop near its beginning, when it tells us that the poor man hung around the house of the rich man and the rich man went to hell when he died. But the parable doesn’t stop there. It continues for a good while. In hell, the rich man sees that the poor man is comforted in the bosom of Abraham, and he says to Abraham: send the poor man to bring me a little water.

“Notice that the rich man is talking to Abraham, not to the poor man; and he is asking Abraham to command the poor man. He wants Abraham to make the poor man leave the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, find his way into the flames of hell, and bring a bit of water to himself, even though he will be thirsty again almost immediately. Clearly, the rich man thinks no trouble for the poor man is too much if it brings a little something for the rich man. And now we can see the sin of the rich man, can’t we? The poor man is a human person just like the rich man, but the rich man can’t see it. The rich man doesn’t talk directly to the poor man because he doesn’t see the poor man as a person in his own right. Insofar as he thinks of the poor man at all, it is only to calculate how the poor man could be used to benefit himself.”1

Though it sounds awful, like something none of us could ever consider, the sin of dehumanization is an easy trap to fall into. Our treatment of America’s tribal peoples and American Slavery, our nation’s original sins, began with dehumanizing entire peoples. Hitler, Sanger, the Hutus, they all began with dehumanization. That sin doesn’t always end as badly as those examples, but it always begins the same way: one of us or someone like us refers to someone else, someone of a different ethnicity or gender, perhaps a poor person or an addict, (God help us these days even) a police officer, as “those people.”

What I saw here last week was, I’m proud to say, the antitheses of that. I heard no one refer to that poor young man as one of “those people.” We saw that young man for who he is, Lazarus at the gate, Lazarus begging for God and the people of God to see him, find him, to bring him home.

Did he pose a threat? Maybe, maybe even probably, and our teachers, parents, family members, and parishioners did a phenomenal job of protecting the most vulnerable on campus. Plans have been made and further planning will be needed to insure the safety of all who come through those doors. But the first test was passed: the Baptismal Rite calls it “respecting the dignity of every human being;” Jesus called it “loving thy neighbor as thyself.” The gates of hell will never prevail upon a church like ours.

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Pentecost 18

The name Louis G. Cowan is not exactly a household name, but his creation changed television and added a phrase to the American lexicon. Cowan’s big idea was the game show The $64,000 Question. Almost immediately, The $64,000 Question beat every other program on Tuesday nights in ratings. Broadcast historian Robert Metz claimed U.S. President Eisenhower himself did not want to be disturbed while the show was on and that the nation’s crime rate, movie theater, and restaurant patronage dropped dramatically when the show aired.[1]

 

We’ve got a couple $64,000 questions this weekend, starting with this Parable of the Unjust Steward. Since it appears to present an immoral person as a model, the story has been used by Christianity’s enemies to denigrate Jesus as teacher. But there is a way of reading it that makes powerful sense.

“It is undeniable that the steward is called unrighteous and that he is also held up as some kind of an example. But just how is he unrighteous and exactly what aspect of his character or action is presented for imitation? Let us read it closely.

“The steward of a wealthy landowner is told to turn in his books when he has been discovered as having squandered his master’s property. Until he hands over the books, he still has authority over the land renters. He moves quickly to “sweeten” their annual rent contracts (paid in kind according to their crop—i.e., in jars of olive oil or bushels of wheat). The renters do not know the steward is being dismissed; they would presume that he has talked the master into these more favorable rates and would be only too happy to accede to the new contract, no questions asked. They would also think highly of the master for being so generous. When the landowner discovers what his steward has done, he has to hand it to him. The clever action of the steward has not only put the rascal in good favor with the renters it has also brought to the land-owner an honor which he would be foolish to try to undo.

“(Jesus then) suggests that the steward is some kind of example: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Obviously, to imitate the steward literally, by acting deceptively, would simply be to act as a child of this world. Something else is required of the children of light. Jesus urges the latter, those trying to live the way of the kingdom, to “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that, when it fails, you may be welcomed into eternal dwellings”. Clearly this draws a parallel with the parable: Jesus urges us to use wealth in such a way as to gain favor with (God), who is both the ultimate client and the ultimate landowner. Jesus spotlights the opportunistic shrewdness of the steward. The application for the “children of light” is that they too are to be clever opportunists, by using wealth in the ways that Jesus elsewhere advocates the use of resources—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, lending but asking nothing in return.”[2]

 

Now that we’ve figured that out, I’ve got a couple other $64,000 questions.Here we are at the beginning of another “Program Year” – I hate that term, but this is about the time we leave summer behind, the Church School begins anew, the Choir is back with us, the weekday services come back, and we hit the gas on the activities of the parish.

 

And so the question becomes, Where is God moving in our lives? In your life? In the life of our church? I can tell you where I see movement: in the lives of the almost two dozen young men and women who will be Confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church by our bishop in a few weeks. What can we do to serve our youth, to help them become better disciples of Jesus? I see movement in the help we are receiving in cooking meals for HomeFront, help from within our church and people coming in from our community. Is God telling us to expand that ministry, to partner with others? I see movement in how many young couples are here and serious about their faith and about making sure their children are raised to know Jesus. What are the needs of our young families, how can we help them continue to model the Faith to their children?

 

I’m excited about all this movement, about what God is doing in Bordentown, I’m excited about what God is doing through us and for us. And so this fall’s $64,000 question is, Where is God moving in your life?

[1] Wikipedia, The $64,000 Question

[2] http://liturgy.slu.edu/25OrdC091816/theword_hamm.html

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Blessing of the Firetrucks

His name is Robert Franz and his job is to remember. He is 61 years old, and his title is “interpretive park ranger,” which means that his job is to tell the story of what happened in the color-dappled field in which he now works, again and again and again. Robert Franz works at the Flight 93 National Memorial, by far the most removed of the three 9/11 crash sites.

Franz’ job is to remember, and to tell the story of United Airlines Flight 93, bound for San Francisco from Newark. How four hijackers redirect the jet southeast, most likely to crash into the nation’s capital. How many of the 40 crew members and passengers fought back. How this hurtling jetliner nearly flipped before crashing at 563 miles an hour into the soft, strip-mined earth, killing all.1

It’s been fifteen years since that warm, clear, day; fifteen years since the unthinkable happened, and like Robert Franz, it’s our job to remember, to remember the act of terror itself, yes, but to remember especially the lives lost, the sacrifices made; to remember the acts of courage and love made in the face of unspeakable horror.

Remembering gets harder as time goes by, or maybe it just turns into something else. A friend of mine remarked that he saw a few dozen West Point cadets on their morning run this past week and it struck him that most of them were about 3 years old on 9/11. This year we have the first freshman high school class to learn about 9/11 as a historical event that they weren’t alive for.2

Like Robert Franz, the Church is in the business of re-membering, of piecing back together that which was lost and broken. Our chief act of remembrance is at the altar, an act in response to a command of Christ, to take bread and wine, to make sacrifice to the Lord, to re-member His sacrifice, to make that day present to us in the here and now.

My bishop, his Excellency William Stokes is here today as he was just a couple years ago, but I didn’t know he was coming until after I had thought through this next part, so Bishop, I’m not trying to butter you up. That said, our bishop, in his wisdom, tells us often that one of the chief dangers we face as a people is in not remembering our story. In the Church, that means not knowing your Bible, not understanding the Mass, not knowing who we are and what it means to be a Christian. In our country, not remembering our story means not learning (or perhaps being willfully ignorant of) our history, not inquiring about the lives of our neighbors, it means assuming that our rights don’t end where another person’s rights begin.

The reason not knowing your story is so dangerous is because if you don’t know your story, you can’t possibly know how to respond to the world around you. Being a good Christian or a good American is wrapped up in how we respond, how we respond to our God and how we respond to our community.

We’re here this afternoon to celebrate the response of our city’s first, well responders. Firefighters and EMTs put themselves into situations few others have the guts to confront, running in so that others might get out. Some of you here undoubtedly were inspired to sign up or to keep going by what we saw on 9/11, by those images of firefighters, EMTs, and police officers giving everything so that others might live. All of you have stories of your own, stories that mingle and strengthen our collective memory. Share your story, keep living it, because that keeps us all going.

It’s our job to re-member, to piece back together what has been lost and broken. That’s our job because it might be the only way to make sense of the senseless, to bring good out of evil, to have life spring up in places where there was only death. That’s our job because that’s what it looks like to participate in the work of Jesus, who never stops pursuing the lost, who never stops piecing back together our broken hearts, who calls us to remember and respond.

1Dan Barry, A Ranger, a Field of Wildflowers and the Retelling of Flight 93, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/us/a-ranger-a-field-of-wildflowers-and-the-retelling-of-flight-93.html

2From the Facebook page of Lawrence V. Lewitinn

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Pentecost 13

It was Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, played on October 12th at Yankee Stadium.  ABC “cameras covering the game cut to a helicopter shot of the surrounding neighborhood where a large fire was shown raging out of control in Public School 3, a building occupying the block bordered by Melrose and Courtlandt Avenues and 157th and 158th Streets.”  Reacting to that shot, Howard Cosell turned to Keith Jackson and never actually said, “Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx is burning”. 

 

If you’ve been watching the news, you’ll know that Portugal has, in fact, been burning.  The Madeira islands are ablaze and mainland Portugal has its own wildfires.  It’s to the point where Portuguese authorities have actually broadcast an S.O.S of sorts, they’ve just ask anyone who can come and help to come and help. 

 

Fire is like that.  It’s a destroyer of worlds.  It’s the devil’s only friend.  And so it’s okay to be a bit confused by today’s Gospel lesson, to be more than a bit put off.  “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!  Those aren’t the words of Jesus usually written above altars or graphically depicted in stained glass, right?  But Jesus said it, then backed it up with how His presence would separate us, cause division and strife.  It doesn’t sound right, but fire is like that.

 

Fire, in the hands of an expert, also purifies.  There are probably more references to God being like a metal refiner than we’d like to hear in one sitting, so I chose the one from the prophet Malachi: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.”  Or as the Lord told us today on the lips of Jeremiah, “Is not My word like a fire?”

 

You see, the purifying fire of the Word of the Lord is a thing that the faithful long for but that the world cannot tolerate.  As my father-in-law put it, “That fire (that purifying fire), obliterates the status quo.  It brings conflict and division.  Good cannot be at peace with evil.  Light always drives away darkness.  Anyone who acts and speaks like Jesus will find himself or herself at odds with the world.”

 

I’ve seen it, and it’s usually not pretty.  I knew a young man who was raised in a wealthy household, the son of a dentist.  A good home, a good family, good schools and a prosperous future all but locked-in, what with dental school on the horizon.  The only thing missing in that household was faith; the man’s father was actually hostile to Christianity, and so things did not go so well when the young man let his father know that not only did he believe in Jesus, but that Jesus had changed his life, made him new, and that he was going to be, of all things, a priest.  That young man was thrown out on his you-know-what; he was separated from his family, erased from his father’s will. 

 

And so it does happen; maybe it’s happened to you.  Because Jesus touches the roots of the problem, deep in the human heart.  He interrupts our false peace; His holiness can’t help but point out all that is unholy in and around us, and in our blindness we think that He is the source of conflict, when it is really ourselves.  The world wants us to believe that Jesus is the one who separates, when it is the really the world that can’t tolerate His presence in us.

 

If all of that seems like bad news, it’s really not.  The good news is that the Word of God is like a fire, a fire reveals that which is perishable and that which is everlasting.  That fire enables us to hear the Holy Spirit, to interpret the present time, to burn out what destroys us and set free all that makes us truly live.

 

Jesus knew that His presence would bring conflict, but He also knew that the only way we would ever know true peace, true solidarity, true love, was to be in His presence, to follow Him wherever He leads, to have our hearts kindled by His fire. 

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Pentecost 12

Not long ago I admitted that I hate the almost universally beloved Wizard of Oz, and today I will admit that I don’t have much interest at all in the also almost universally loved Downton Abbey.  I haven’t seen much of it, to be honest, but I will agree with my friend Fr. Bret Hays when he said that “if you want to understand what it means to be a faithful servant, look no further than the impeccable team of Downton Abbey.  An English country estate in the early twentieth century, Downton can only function with the work of a small army of housemaids, footmen, cooks, valets, ladies’ maids, all under the butler’s watchful eye.  They epitomize the concept of the faithful servant, standing ready to accomplish any necessary task with alacrity, courtesy, competence, and discretion, from preparing and serving elaborate banquets to removing the body of a Turkish diplomat from the eldest daughter’s bedchamber in the middle of the night.

“Downton Abbey shows us that while servanthood encompasses many things, boredom is seldom among them.  The fact of servanthood infuses even quiet and ordinary work with dignity, for these smaller tasks are also essential to a very profound enterprise.  By the same token, Holy Scripture and the lives of the Saints show us that being a servant of God is an adventure that demands all we have, gives us direction and purpose, binds us together, and brings out the best in us.

Servanthood seems to be very near the heart of God.  God sent Jesus to be among us as one who serves, and his divinity was revealed in moments of servanthood.  Sometimes Jesus was serving others, feeding crowds and washing feet.  At other times, Jesus was being served as a dinner guest or being anointed with precious ointment.  Through it all, God uses personal interactions to reveal and accomplish cosmic plans.  It seems that God wants us never to forget how profound a power we have in our choices, how every moment of life is full of wonderful possibilities, how much we can glorify God even in small gestures.”[1]

That’s a very comforting thought, and in the Gospel lesson we just heard, Jesus is in full comforting mode.  “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” should be written in the doors of every church in the world.  Too often we worry about our place in the Kingdom of God, as if we have to climb the company ladder to a plusher mansion in heaven.  Back when I was a kid and was surrounded by more Pentecostal Christians than I am now, one of their hot-button issues was if you could lose your salvation; could you be so bad that you could essentially reverse God’s decision to keep your soul.  The inevitable follow-up question is How would you know if you lost your salvation?  How could you tell?  The simple answer to all this is sure, you could probably lose your salvation, but you have to really, really try, over and over and over again, both in this life and the next, to get your baptism renounced and thrown out of the Kingdom.  I’ve found it difficult, even close to impossible, to come up with an example of how to do this.  Why?  Because it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.

Having this comfort, this assurance of our place in the Kingdom, allows us to then respond, gives us the freedom to respond, to that wonderful gift of God.  How do we respond?  By being faithful servants, in things big and small.  Being in a parish this beautiful and yet this – let’s call it historic -gives us ample opportunities for servanthood.  I take great delight in seeing how many of you regard things big and small as ways to respond to the love of God.  All of the cleaning and mowing and arranging and singing an ironing, the showing of hospitality, the giving of love in outreach, in all those things and more you show each other and the world the joy of being a servant in God’s kingdom.

Even as God prepares a place for us in heaven, we can prepare a place for God within ourselves on Earth.  The only question is, what sort of place will we make for God?  Will we give God the place of honor, the center of our identity and the top priority in all our choices?  That choice is one we must make every day, and we won’t always get it right.  But when we do, we find that being a faithful servant, that always being ready for God is not a burden, but a way of life, the only life worth living.

 

[1] Fr. Bret Hays, Sermon for Pentecost 12, 2013

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Pentecost 11

Reuben Smith liked his comfort. Reuben lived in Buffalo, N.Y., and like most of the citizens of the snowy north, he probably spent a lot of time indoors, stretched out by the fire. When Reuben sensed that he was headed to the great beyond, he made some plans. He selected a new recliner chair of upholstered russet leather and, when the time came, was interred in a sitting position, with a checkerboard on his lap. A practical man, Reuben also ordered that he be dressed in a hat and warm coat, and that a second key to the tomb be placed in his coat pocket. The other key was to lock the entrance and to be destroyed.

Reuben made the classic mistake of thinking that, whatever it is you have, you can take it with you. He was hardly the first, of course; the Egyptian Pharoahs were and probably still are the world champs when it comes to hoarding by the deceased. It takes either a masterfully constructed (if mistaken) view of the afterlife or a wild type of greed to act this way. This isn’t the meaningful and sometimes even charming practice of being buried with a beloved Bible or trinket or picture of loved ones – I’m reminded of Humphrey Bogart being buried with a whistle in case Lauren Bacall wasn’t easily found in Purgatory – this is mere foolishness.

Being a fool was not taken lightly in the ancient world. Being a fool could get you dead real fast, and so could calling someone a fool who was, say, carrying a big stick. “In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament a fool was anyone who fails to notice how the world works, thus adapting himself accordingly. Fools are the ones who spit into the wind, who saw off the branch they’re sitting on, who are constantly trying to row their boat against the current because they simply do not pay attention to how life works. Fools, the old adage has it, are often in error but never in doubt…the more foolish a person is, the more likely it is that he or she will become more and more isolated as time goes by. People give up on fools…the fool becomes an island unto himself.1

And so we turn to the parable we just heard. What does the rich man say? “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’” The rich man is talking to himself; there’s either no one he can talk to or he doesn’t bother with anyone else. But what does God say to him? “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Contrary to some teaching I’ve heard in the past, what God just said there is not the equivalent of “Live for today,” no matter what the Grass Roots sang. This is not Jesus saying you shouldn’t plan for tomorrow or that you should live in the moment or whatever the last thing Oprah said. This parable is about our relationship with God, each other, and our stuff.

A fool might not notice, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that stuff, our wealth or lack of it, separates us. Rarely does money bring us all together. The young man who prompted the parable we heard, he wanted Jesus to mediate the dividing of an estate between himself and his brother, but that means that their father’s will was not yet legally relevant; that means that their father was still alive, but the stuff meant more to the brothers than either their father or each other. Wealth is not a bad thing, of course, until it preoccupies us, until it makes us feel more important than others; until it makes us feel like there is no god that can touch us, no god good enough for us.

The opposite of all of this is not poverty, of course, but rather wisdom. God has offered us wisdom – it even pleases God when we ask for His wisdom. I’m thinking of the story of when God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered God, “Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you.” Solomon got wealth and all the rest as well.

God’s wisdom is sometimes confounding; the Cross of Christ looks pretty foolish in the eyes of men, right? But that greater wisdom is there and we find it by being in relationship with God and those made in the image of God, never foolishly separating ourselves from either. We too can ask for wisdom, in the confidence that God has already given it too us in Christ, who is the power and wisdom of God.

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Pentecost 10

That Abraham was one gutsy dude.  Bargaining with God doesn’t seem like the wisest course of action, but Abraham made it work.  “Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God, having heard the outcry against these two towns whose sins were great and grave, was ready to destroy them both.  Appealing to God’s better instincts, Abraham plea-bargains: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place?”  Then the clincher: “Far be it from you to do such a thing.”  It worked!  Not only once, but five times.  In answer to Abraham’s petition, God was willing to preserve the towns for a mere ten innocent people.”[1]

 

The rest of the story of those two cities is bit grave, but Abraham did manage to bargain for the lives of few righteous to be found there.  Abraham obviously knew how to pray, how to talk to God and how to listen for His answers.  God was rather close to Abraham, obviously; they had a special relationship, the kind of relationship most of us couldn’t even aspire to, if we even had the guts to want it.  To know God like Abraham did is to obey God as Abraham did, and that takes real guts.

 

Abraham talked to God a lot, but that began with Abraham hearing God when God called Abraham.  Abraham believed God; he didn’t just believe in God, he believed God and believed that God knew what He was doing.  This faith was famously counted as Abraham’s righteousness, and of course he was lavishly rewarded for having the guts to remain in close relationship with God.

 

Prayer was and is the foundation of our relationship with God, but praying is not always easy; prayer doesn’t come naturally for everybody.  I’ll admit that I’m not the Roy Hobbs of prayer (think The Natural), and that probably makes me a natural Episcopalian.  In her wisdom, the Church, following the example of our Jewish spiritual ancestors, has provided us with common prayer – we even have a Book of Common Prayer – and with specific times and seasons to make certain prayers.  Whenever I’m asked to pray out of the blue, which is often, I usually fall back on the Prayer Book’s greatest hits; the old joke is don’t ask an Episcopal priest to pray without handing him a book to pray out of.  But just like an iPhone has an app for whatever you need, the Episcopal Church has a prayer for just about anything, because most of us don’t always know how or what to pray.

 

To make us feel even better, the disciples were less than confident about how to pray.  Apparently, John the Baptist had taught his disciples how to pray (I wish we were party to that), and I find it interesting that the disciples made their petition to Jesus as He was praying – parents, take note of how your example might follow Jesus’ in this case.

 

Anyway, the disciples approach Jesus and say, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  Jesus responds with a basic prayer, which is now a classic haha, and then teaches them about the nature of prayer, a nature that’s reflected in the form of the Lord’s Prayer itself.

 

First, who are we praying to?  God, of course, but we get to address Him as Father, because that is not only how He has identified Himself to us, but how He relates to us, as a gracious and loving Father.  Next, hallowed be thy Name: let the name of God be praised, adored, set apart and not profaned.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: fairly obvious, right?  Let your rule extend upon us so that righteousness and peace will replace suffering and strife.  Then it shifts a bit, to what we need right now, in our daily lives: bread for sustenance, that we might be physically whole; forgiveness and the willingness to forgive, so that we might be spiritually whole; protection from evil, from the forces bent on dominating us, so that we might live our lives in peace.

 

Jesus goes on to encourage his disciples, and us, to be persistent in prayer, to ask for what we need, in the confidence that God our Father will give us what we actually need.  Again, we don’t have to always know what’s best for us – prayer is about the relationship.  James echoed this in his epistle when he wrote “You do not have, because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

 

So how do we pray?  Remember the lessons from Abraham, James, and Jesus today, as well as our Anglican heritage.  Grab your prayer book, go to the greatest hits, use it to lend voice to your praise of God and to your physical, spiritual, and emotional needs.  Next, be in prayer all day, keep the line of communication open, listen for and to God, talk to Him like the loving Father that He is.  Great things are bound to happen if you have the guts to pray like that!

 

 

 

[1] John Kavanaugh, SJ  http://liturgy.slu.edu/17OrdC072416/theword_embodied.html

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