The Loss of Memory and the Human Person

The following is a sermon I preached at the conference Eucharist of the 38th annual Atlantic Theological Conference held in Sackville, New Brunswick. The propers of the mass were those for the Feast of St. John the Baptist.


The Loss of Memory and the Human Person: Caring for our Loved Ones with Dementia

June 29th, 2018

 “But Zion said, The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me. Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.” (Isa. 49.14-16)

 In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I had the opportunity, during my time at seminary, to work as a student hospital chaplain at the Camp Hill Veteran Memorial Hospital in Halifax for a Summer.

Four months spent on the east wing of the fourth floor, the 2nd highest-needs floor in the hospital, second only to the 5th which had coded gates every 40 or 50 feet.

My job was simple – spend a summer visiting on a rotating basis the 25-odd men who lived in my wing. Spend my days with them, listen to them, help them and, occasionally, since many were not interested in it, pray with them.

All of the men who lived in that wing were there because of some level of dementia, or (and often also) because of very high physical-care needs. All had served in the armed forces, and almost all had seen action in either WWII or Korea.

Many of them suffered constant physical pain of some kind, nearly all of them suffered from the indignity of helplessness, and all routinely suffered from the lingering effects of their combat experience. Often, mid-day naps would be cut short by nightmares, and screams would echo down the hallway.

Some of them could not remember where they were or why they were there, but in a moment could describe with shocking clarity the heat of the inside of their tank in Sicily, what it sounds like when flak peppers your bomber as you are flying over Dresden, or what the smell of war was like.

Most of their memories had faded, but the details of these stories never changed no matter how many times I heard them.

But this isn’t surprising to you, because we all know someone who has dementia. We all know how old and distant memories can be present to a person who can’t remember what they did that morning. We’ve seen people pick up a fiddle or sit before a piano and play beautifully with the very same hands that cannot be used to feed themselves.

Many times I met with families on their way out of a visit and asked how they felt their family member was doing. “He’s out of it today,” I often heard or, “he’s not there anymore.” I would watch their fumbling encounters, keeping the visit short because, well, the demented person isn’t getting anything out it. Speaking their few words in infantilizing tones they would be embarrassed to use with a baby or a family pet.

In some ways the families can’t be blamed, it is a terrible thing to see a loved one begin to lose the ability to speak or to read or to care for themselves. How many of us have heard (or perhaps said) that we hope we die long before we have to suffer that particular indignity?

It’s something that we don’t know how to handle, we don’t know what to do with it because – in our culture and in our time – without memory, without complete rational faculty, we have been led to believe that we have no identity.

In 2011 televangelist Pat Robertson, on his show The 700 Club, took a call from a man seeking advice on how he should counsel his friend whose wife’s dementia had developed to the point that she no longer recognized him.

“His wife as he knows her is gone,” the man said, “and my friend is bitter at God for allowing her to be in that condition, and now he’s started seeing another woman.”

“This is a terribly hard thing, I hate alzheimer’s,” replied Robertson, “this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years, and suddenly that person is gone. I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again.”

Robertson’s co-anchor questioned whether this was in keeping with the marriage vows of, “till death do us part,” to which Robertson replied, “This is a kind of death.”

Our understanding of personhood itself has been frighteningly distorted by our culture’s obsession with rationality being the thing that makes us an individual.

We are a whole person only insofar as we have absolutely autonomy and agency over our own lives; what defines us as individuals is not the image in which we have been created, but our capacity to choose and realize our desire without intervention or infringement.

Dementia itself is in essence an umbrella term for the deterioration of brain function and memory caused by diseases such as Alzheimers. With dementia, consciousness is not impaired but memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capability, language, judgement, emotional control, and behaviour are all impaired and continue to deteriorate.

The effects of dementia are experienced externally, but for anyone who has ministered to or spent time amongst dementia sufferers, we know that what is happening on the inside of those persons is far more complex than what seems to be happening from the outside. People who are usually non-communicative may suddenly speak the Lord’s Prayer alongside you, or utter hearty amens at the end of prayers.

The subtleties of what those with dementia experience are unknown to us, and when we assume that they are “out of it” or “not there” we gloss over the experiences they may be able to have.

But this is what scares us the most when we encounter those with dementia – the feeling that we face an empty shell, the awkward silence with someone who is unable to speak, the long gazes of confusion. It ties our own tongue or causes us to blurt out in a dehumanizing way just to fill the silence.

We are created in the image of a triune God who Himself is constituted by relationships of love betwixt Father, Son, and Spirit.

It is by our creation in this image, that we are created in the image of one who is a relationship of love, that we know that we are called to live in community. That we are called to live in reciprocal relationships of love with one another – even those, or perhaps especially those – who are stricken with illness or incapacity.

The warehousing of the elderly and the demented into high-rise institutions, the lack of proper care and support they often receive is all indicative of how the world ceases to understand those people are part of society, part of community, the moment their rational faculties seem to diminish.

The right and proper care for those in these situations, especially for people in our families, in our friend circles, and in our church communities must begin from our understanding that they are no less part of our family, one of our friends, or a member of the parish just because they have dementia, are kept from church, or have been institutionalized.

We must see that the human person, the person living with dementia, is not defined by their memories but by the fact that they live in the memory of God; as the Lord says in the quote with which I opened this sermon, “Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.”

And if they find themselves unable to remember this, then it is for us – their church community and fellow members of Christ’s body – to remember it for them.

The world views memory as something which belongs only to the individual, and so when memory fades so does the person, but we recognize, especially through our participation in the Holy Eucharist, that memory is not individual but communal.

In our life together as Christ’s body and through our prayer and our worship we constantly recollect God’s faithfulness to us in Incarnation, the Resurrection, through Pentecost, through the miracles and teaching of Christ and the apostles.

Our life together is about a collective recollection of these truths.

But this recollection does not just memorialize these truths, it makes them truly present before us. The Eucharist does not memorialize Christ’s sacrifice for us; our recollection of it makes it present to us, it allows us to eat his body and his blood, truly.

For those who cannot seem to recollect – to pray, or to join their community in church, or to read Scripture – we can recollect for them at the altar on Sunday, in our prayers with them, and in our prayers for them. Memory is not theirs but ours; in doing this we not only help them to recollect, we bear their burden in a very real way.

We ought to read for them, pray with them, spend time with them, enter into and be comfortable in the silence that many of them inhabit – remember that moment, one of the most beautiful images of pastoral care in all of Scripture, I think, when Job’s friends simply sit with him, “So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:13).

And though it may seem a simple thing, we as people who care for (or can care for) those with dementia or indeed any sickness must never forget what we hear tonight through our commemoration of the Forerunner John Baptist.

Zacharias, John’s Father, filled with the Spirit prophesies about the new born child and the purpose for which he has been born: preparing the way of Christ, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: for he hath visited and redeemed his people and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,” he says, “that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us.”

The enemies that we face in our life are not always people. We face the enemy of fear, the fear that we may one day find ourselves in the midst of dementia, or the fear that we will forget those we love; we face the enemy of illness and indignity, of dehumanizing care, of loneliness, of abandonment.

But we remember, today especially, that all of these enemies, all of the calamities we face in our lives, all of our hurt and our sickness and our pain, our brokenness and loneliness – from all of these enemies did Christ come to deliver us, and John the Baptist is the testament to this.

We were never given a promise that we would be free from suffering, from hurt, or pain, and it is not for us to know why some become stricken with dementia and others not.

But it is for us to know and to share the vital truth that though some may lose their capacity to remember or to communicate, God can never forget us.



Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany

Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
Jan 6th, 2018
St. George’s Church, Moncton

“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.”


I have very vivid memories, and perhaps you do as well, of what Christmas was like when I was a child.

I remember the almost unbearable anticipation that began sometimes as early as November 1st or a bit later. I remember the excitement of getting to open the first little door of a chocolate Advent Calendar that neither began on Advent 1 nor contained anything that one could ever reasonably consider actual chocolate. Nonetheless, it was an integral part of the building anticipation for Christmas day.

I remember the early Christmas mornings when my long-suffering parents would be dragged out of bed probably only a few hours after hitting the pillow to come downstairs and share in our wonderment.

And I remember the crushing feeling of disappointment that I experienced year after year after the last present was opened, the wrapping paper put away, and dinner finished. “Well that’s Christmas for another year,” I would think, as if the light that had only just entered the world that morning had been promptly snuffed out.

Even now we feel that pressure from the secular world around us to pack up Christmas soon after the 25th and simply get on with our lives, we feel the post-Christmas blues and the feeling that we must get back to the doldrums and darkness of winter.

The good news is that this is not how the church sees it, nor has ever seen it.

Today is, of course, The Feast of the Epiphany, the Theophany as our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox church call it, the celebration of the coming of the Magi, the wise men, to Bethlehem to worship the infant Christ after following the light of a star to the manger.

The Feast of the Epiphany, far from being a stand-alone and separate celebration from the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas day, is expansion of the same celebrations. Christmas is not a day but a season that extends at least as far as Epiphany, but for medieval Christians and for many Christians throughout the world today Christmas and Epiphany continue through to Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd.

In some sense Epiphany – a word which simply means a manifestation or a showing forth –  is a completion of what we celebrate at Christmas; not that the Nativity lacked anything that we receive in full today, but that at Christmas God took on flesh in the form of Jesus Christ and was made manifest to God’s chosen people, the Jews. It is at the Epiphany, though, that the will of God is fully revealed – the Magi, Gentiles, representing the rest of us are led to worship the King of Kings, a symbol that the birth of the messiah, salvation, is not for a few, but for all, for the whole world.

There is a theme of sight and vision, of light and darkness, that runs through the collects and readings of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. In Advent we wait in darkness for the coming of a great light given to us in a manger in Bethlehem; we hear in the post-Christmas festal days of various spiritual visions as we pray through the collects that God would do such things as cast his bright beams of light upon his church, that we might steadfastly look up to heaven and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed, and from today’s collect that we, “who know thee now by faith, may be led onward through this earthly life, until we see the vision of thy heavenly glory.”

But in the weeks to come, from now to Candlemas, you will notice a shift in our collects. They become simpler. Shorter. The sound more like the prayers of new Christians than did the collects at the end of Trinitytide or the beginning of Advent. They sound like the prayers of people who have just had an encounter with the Word made flesh; people whose eyes are still adjusting from the darkness to the blinding glory of uncreated light.

St. Augustine once said that the Magi prefigure – are symbols – of those who, “walk by faith, yet still desire to see,” because they arrive by faith, following the star, and announce why they have come, but yet they ask where to find the child as well.

We are those whom the Magi prefigure; those who walk by faith through this life, desiring the vision of the heavenly glory for which we ask in the collect today, and who are able as the Magi were to leave this encounter, this manifestation of God in flesh, rejoicing and sharing our joy with others. The Magi leave Bethlehem and return home by another way just as we, having encountered God, cannot remain the same people.

The Epiphany is the Feast on which we recognize the temptations given to us by the secular world to let our joy fade on December 26th, and overcome them. Epiphany occurring 12 days after Christmas reminds us that God’s work of being manifest in the world, in your life and in my life, is never over.

If we feel the burden of the world around us we need to examine our hearts and see the ways that we may be shutting our eyes to his appearing and choosing to live in darkness before his unrelenting light.

The church has given us 40 whole days to witness to his being made manifest in the world for us and to receive him.

Let us in the days that remain continue to welcome him into our hearts.


Sermon for the Feast of St. Andrew

Feast of St. Andrew
King’s College Chapel, Halifax
November 30th, 2017

“And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.”

The Feast of St. Andrew points us at once both to ends and to beginnings.

Compared to the calendar new year, which so often feels firmly rooted in winter, the change in the liturgical calendar that we are about to experience from Trinitytide into a new church year, often feels as though we are stuck between two worlds, seasonally and spiritually.

We have, it feels, one foot firmly planted in what remains of this last year, and one is creeping over the threshold into Advent and the new year.

We are not quite at the end of this year, but already we feel it. The birth pangs that accompany the end of one year, mingled with the anticipation and perhaps even excitement of what follows Advent. Something new; a beginning in which is also an end.

This month has been a time, too, when the end seems very present to us. We begin by celebrating in quick succession All Saints’ and All Souls’; a vision of what our true end looks like, followed by a reminder that we aren’t yet there.

And so how fitting it is that November ends with Andrew, the protokletos, the first called; whose Festal day can fall either before the end of the year, as it does today, or often just after the end, at the beginning of the next.

Even the Gospel for the Sunday Next Before Advent, which you have no doubt heard this week, recalls Andrew and the story of his being called to follow Christ from being a follower of John the Baptist.

Of Andrew, fairly little is known.

We know that he was a native of Bethsaida, a fisherman and son of a fisherman, brother to Simon Peter, and a fellow disciple of John the Baptist alongside John the Evangelist.

He was the first called to become a disciple of Jesus, a story which we heard in the Gospel for the Sunday Next Before Advent, “John the Baptist stood, with two of his disciples, and looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, ‘behold the Lamb of God!’ And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.”

But that he later returned to his life as a fisherman, to be called once again by Jesus to give it all up and give himself wholly to discipleship, “And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.”

It is believed Andrew was martyred under the reign of the Emperor Nero around the year 60, having been crucified on an X-shaped cross.

In this season of ends, a season of diminishing light, of the diminishing Trinitytide, Andrew and the readings that remember him now, in these end times, all point to the beginnings which follow.

In the Gospel for this week we see the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prophecy of the coming of the Lamb of God, and the fulfillment of what he told his own disciples, “…this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Here at the end of John the Baptist’s ministry is a new beginning in Andrew, the first called and the first missionary, as the first to be told of coming of Christ was Andrew’s own brother, “One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first findeth his own brother, Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messiah (which is being interpreted, the Christ).”

John Baptist goes out with no last words, no blaze of glory, no final statement. His life snuffed out by Herod. His decrease we experience beautifully and symbolically by the darkening of our days until shortly before the birth of Christ when daylight begins to increase once more.

But in the midst of the darkness of these end times, amid diminishing and decrease we see Andrew, poised on the threshold of the new year pointing us, as all the Saints do, towards the one brighter and greater than he.

We see in Andrew’s first missionary act to his own brother a diminishing and an increase; we hear little of Andrew after that, but Peter becomes the rock upon which Christ will establish his church.

Andrew shows us that all things have their end in Christ. No end, whether of a ministry like John’s or a livelihood like Andrew and Peter remains simply an end, but finds its fulfillment in and through Christ.

The Feast of Andrew heralds in the season of Advent, a season in which we will turn ourselves to fasting, repentance, and anticipation.

It is only through this repentance that we can be truly emptied of our wills and all other barriers that keep us from receiving Christ when he comes.

It is only through being emptied of our will the way that Andrew was emptied of his at his calling, that we can let go of our all our treasures, for the sake of the beauty that is God.


“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”



Sermon for Ascension Day

Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension
St. Peter’s Cathedral, Charlottetown – Latin High Mass
May 24th, AD 2017

 “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”

 In nomine Patri, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

            This great feast of the Ascension is the day in which all other celebrations in our church find their consummation, completion, and fullness.

All other feasts days look to this celebration and depend on it, just as our salvation hinges upon Jesus’ ascension; without it everything we do here, everything we say, the scriptures, the church, every word of Jesus drifts away in the breeze and we are left with nothing.

And so this is a feast of great joy—it is the fulfillment of Jesus’ descending to earth at the Nativity, and it is the completion of his death upon the cross and resurrection from the dead. It is what he promised us would happen; it is part of our salvation.

And so be joyful, but know that this celebration is bound to disappoint us as well.

For through this Feast our worldly hopes, our desires, our ambition, and our loves will be crushed.

This is a disappointment and heart break that even the apostles felt, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye staring up into heaven?” asks the two angels of them.

And indeed, why stand staring, agape at Jesus’ departure if not for sadness?


Their grief was great because they saw him for whom they had left everything being taken away from their senses and sight. Their fear too was great because they were left as orphans…not yet strengthened by the power from on high.”


Writes Bernard of Clairvaux.

Jesus told the Apostles that he would, after a time go away, and in his place he would send the comforter, but the disciples were confused and afraid and did not understand what he meant.

Would any of them who truly remembered his words, “Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy,” stand staring up after him? So great is the apostles’ distress that the angels have to remind them of Jesus’ promise of return, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go.”

The apostles’ pain is one that we all know.

We all know what it’s like to lose or leave someone who moves us, someone who through their presence, their conversation, their friendship, and their love, allows us to know beauty and goodness in a deeper way. The sort of person we cherish, the one in whom we see qualities and characteristics we admire and wish that we had ourselves.

The pain that accompanies the loss of this kind of friend is the kind of pain the apostles felt at the ascension.

Alongside their pain is also fear, and a lack of trust, and I suspect it is the very same that we often find in ourselves, and is the reason that the collect tonight reads as it does.

In the triptych that is the collect, epistle and gospel for each week and feast of our calendar, the collect is often used to distill the lections and offer us a pointed note on what this week is about, it teaches us what the thrust of the readings are by what it gets us to pray.

And through tonight’s collect we pray to be helped with the very thing that caused the apostles’ disappointment, “like as we do believe thy only-begotten son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so may we also in heart and mind hither ascend…”

But therein lies the challenge. It is the same challenge offered by Paul in Colossians, “If then you are risen with Christ, seek those things which are above.” For us, easier said than done.

The apostles stood standing and staring up in to heaven because with Jesus’ ascension came the death of all of their worldly loves, hopes, and desires. “They could not be filled with spiritual understanding”, writes St. Augustine, “unless the object of their earthly love should go from before their eyes.”

This is the disappointment to which the Ascension leads us.

Our hearts break at the ascension because through it we see how desperately our hearts need transformation; we see how little and seldom we seek those things from above.

But we rejoice because we are shown what is our spiritual destiny as the children of God. We rejoice because we are shown that our bodies will be, “fashioned like unto his glorious body.”

This is why we gather together on the Ascension: to pray that our hearts might be reborn, transformed; that God might take all of our desires and passions, our loves, our ambitions, and transfigure them. That our minds and our hearts might “hither ascend.”


Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Lent
King’s College Chapel
May 16th, 2017

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously
vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word.”

The silence must have been deafening.

His disciples, at first, at a distance. Jesus, alone with her.

Not a sound. Nothing from the one in whom she had put her hope.

No doubt she had heard rumours of this man whispered throughout the land, rumours of one who could cast out demons and offer miraculous healing, even to some who simply touched his clothing.

It was a mother’s love and desperation that brought her to him, seeking help for her daughter who was possessed by an unclean spirit.

But she was a Canaanite. And what’s more, she was a native of the area into which Jesus and his disciples had entered. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile territory within the holy land itself; to disciples and indeed to most Jews it was a land of darkness, idolatry and false Gods.

Whatever interactions she had with the Jewish community in her life could most likely be summed up in the disciples’ response to seeing her beseeching Jesus for help, “send her away.”

To them she was no more than an annoyance.

And devastating as Jesus’ silence must have been for her, his next words—equally hard for us to digest, and seemingly un-Jesus-like—would be crushing, yet expected, “I have not come but to save the lost sheep of Israel,” which is to say, “I have not come for you.”

We ought, I think, to be somewhat puzzled by Jesus’ response here. His actions should, for you, as it did for me, stand out.

He treats her with silence, he refuses her, and then calls her a dog. This woman who in faith reached out to seek help for another.

Our Lenten pilgrimage so far has been shaped by readings that give us a sense of what torments and hazards we will face on our journey to Easter morning, and they have shown us Jesus at work, casting out devils and offering healing—they have shown us the pitfalls and dangers of our pilgrimage, but also show us the answer to them, the salve and medicine—that is, Jesus.

Today is no different, but with the curious—and perhaps difficult—reaction of Jesus to the Canaanite woman. This is not the Jesus we have seen, or that we feel that we know from other parts of the Gospels.

The easiest thing for me to do at this point, to make both a long sermon short, and to give you a take-away for tonight, is to point out that it is the Canaanite woman’s persistence in faith that had the unclean spirit banished, and returned her daughter to health.

Christ as God surely had the foreknowledge of how this event would go for he, “needed not that any should testify of man, for he knew what was in man,” as John tells us in his Gospel, and so his silence is simply about bolstering the Canaanite woman to be persistent, to not give up in prayer and faith until she got what she wanted.

I wouldn’t be lying to you if I ended it all here. But I won’t.

Because what is remarkable about this encounter is not just that the daughter was healed, but what she is brought to through Christ’s silence, and indeed his outright refusal of her.

Christ says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs,” which is to say, “what I have, what I offer, is for the Jews; to offer it to Gentiles would be to offer it to dogs.”

And her response to Christ, “Truth, Lord; yet the little dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

This image might conjure up a cute vision of puppies eating up the toast crumbs from the breakfast table, but the image is in fact quite terrible. It is an image of slavery, of the downtrodden kneeling on the floor waiting for even the possibility of a scrap to drop from their master’s table.

Her response illustrates a profound humility with which she approaches Jesus, but only after facing severe rebuke.

We all know the moments, or perhaps the long periods in our lives, when we, like the Canaanite Woman, have experienced Christ’s silence in the face of our pleas.

We know that in times of great uncertainty and anxiety, when everything we know and everything in which we have put our trust and to which we have given our lives seems to hang in the balance as we wait on Christ to speak, that the temptation to distrust grows in us.

Jesus’ silence before the Canaanite Woman shows us that those periods of anxious silence, of painful and fearful waiting, and of facing the temptation to distrust are given to us to help us distil our wills; to help us to weed out what is our selfish demand, borne of fear, and what is our true longing. This is humility.

The Canaanite woman came to Jesus with a plea, with begging, and maybe even frantic begging. And what parent wouldn’t?

But Jesus’ silence and his harsh words—which were his rebuke—brought her to a point of humility, of knowing, “not my will, Lord, but thine, be done.”

Jesus’ silence was not incidental to this encounter, it was essential to it.

And to learn to live in that silence is to know humility.

Without his silence, without that period of uncertainty and anxiety, the Canaanite woman would not have given up her pleas and her desires and surrendered them to God’s will. She would not have come to know her truest longing.

So it is with us.

We believe that our desires and our longings, our pleas that are borne out of fear are good and just, and that if only we throw them at Christ’s feet and demand mercy, we will get what we want. The woman’s plea was for another, it wasn’t wrong or bad, but humility is knowing that the only way to know our truest longing is to know, “not my will, Lord, but thine.”

As much as we attend to the moments when our hearts are the most filled and our souls the most quickened, so must we attend to Christ’s silence, which is the rebuke of our demands. We must listen to it, live in it, and by it, allow our hearts to know and to utter, “not my will, Lord, but thine.”


Sermon for the 5th Sunday After Trinity

St. George’s Round Church
June 26th,2016

Sunday by Sunday, year by year, our reading of scripture brings us through what Father Crouse called a programme of practical spirituality that contains within it the design of our salvation. That is to say, each year—each cycle of the prayer-book lectionary—we hear the story, even the guide, to our salvation.

And each season within our church year has its own place and part to play in this practical spiritual system.

If the first half of our year from Advent to Trinity is the telling of the glorious life and works and love of Jesus Christ through which our redemption and reconciliation to God is accomplished—then Trinitytide, the second half of the year, is what gives us the practical and moral example of how to live into the first half. Trinitytide is about our sanctification.
We need only look back over the last four weeks, beginning with the collect of the First Sunday after Trinity, to see that we begin this season with a recognition of our frailty and our reliance on God’s mercy for all things, “because through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee” says the Collect. And in the following weeks we pray to be protected by God’s mercy and providence—another recognition of our wills being insufficient without God. We ask for such things as protection from dangers and last week we prayed for God’s help to see us through this temporal world such that we do not lose those eternal things to which we are called.

The rationale of the Trinity season readings, Father Crouse tells us, is that we begin with purgation, and are moved to illumination and finally to union with the divine. We hear this desire for purgation in our collect today in which we pray for this disordered world to be set straight, that war may be turned to peace, that noise may become quietness, and that the Church in all its parts may serve God truly. Put in another more fitting way given the octave we are in: we are praying that every valley may be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, that the crooked will be made straight and that rough places will be made plain. The collects we have been hearing and will continue to hear for a few weeks remind us that above all we are yearning for that highway in the desert to be made straight, as the prophet Isaiah foretold regarding the forerunner John the Baptist.

These recent Sundays call us to no easy task: to purge ourselves of those things which cause disorder within our soul. It is exactly these things that Paul is wants us to consider in today’s Epistle, “be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous; not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing.” Paul so calls us to love as brethren and be courteous and pitiful, because even the smallest acts of discourtesy or moments of uncharitableness are as much a violence against neighbour as any physical violence we could commit.

So often these acts go unnoticed by us and are more a result of the disorder of our fallen natures and our susceptibility to the powers and principalities that occupy this disordered world than they are intentional ill will. St. John Cassian, a 5th century monastic, speaks to the seemingly irrational ways we can behave to one another out of the disorder of our interior selves. He writes:

But sometimes without any apparent reason for our being driven to fall into this misfortune, we are by the instigation of our crafty enemy suddenly depressed with so great a gloom that we cannot receive with ordinary civility the visits of those who are near and dear to us; and whatever subject of conversation is started by them, we regard it as ill-timed and out of place; and we can give them no civil answer, as the gall of bitterness is in possession of every corner of our heart.

Cassian and Paul, speaking of the same despair and disorder, offer us the same path to and ordered soul. Paul tells us that we must do good, rather than bad, refrain from speaking guile or lies and, perhaps most importantly, we must suffer this disorder, “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye…” indeed our answer to the oppressors’ terror is not to be afraid nor to meet it with our own violence, but simply to praise and sanctify God in our hearts and suffer with patience whatever is done to us, “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers.” And Cassian likewise says:

And so God …commands that we should not give up intercourse with our brethren, nor avoid those who we think have been hurt by us, or by whom we have been offended, but bids us pacify them, knowing that perfection of heart is not secured by separating from men so much as by the virtue of patience. Which when it is securely held, as it can keep us at peace even with those who hate peace.

The fruit of such patience, the fruit of desiring and seeking after order within ourselves even in the midst of a disordered world is what our Gospel shows us today. Jesus, at the lake of Gennesaret, gets into Simon’s boat and gets him to cast off into the lake first teaching the people on the shore for a while and then going farther out into the water where he instructed Simon to cast his net. The dejection and violence that arises from our disordered souls, the same that Cassian spoke of, is heard in the cry of Simon when he at first complains to Jesus about having fished all night but caught nothing and reluctantly tries again. The ensuing miracle of the draught of fishes turns Simon Peter not to rejoicing at the size of the catch, but to repentance at Jesus’ knees. Jesus then tells Simon Peter and the other fishermen that they are called to be something greater than simply fishermen; the fruit of this ordered interior life that we so much need and desire, and for which this part of Trinitytide calls us to prepare, is the capacity for deeper love and deeper union with both Christ and others, such that we, like Simon Peter and the Disciples, may rather become “fishers of men.”
And so we pray may God grant that our hearts may be peaceably ordered so that our Church may serve Him with one mind, that every valley will be exalted and rough place made plain. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Meditation for the Feast of St. Luke

A brief meditation I delivered at St. George’s Round Church at Choral Evensong on the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, October 18th, 2015.

Over the last number of weeks my wife has been updating me from time to time about some friends of hers from out West, from her University days, friends whom I have never met.

My wife made friends with the Jamie in her second year of University, during the course of their friendship Jamie met her future husband at their church, eventually getting married, and having three children.

Sean, a pastor, has a website where he has, for the last year, been posting things like sermon templates and other resources for their church in British Columbia, as well as updating friends and family on what’s happening in their lives.

On July 26th of this year he posted the first in an ongoing series of posts on his blog. This is how that first post starts:

Title: I have cancer.

Never did I think I would utter those three words. Even as I write this I cannot help but think this is all a dream. I can’t have cancer. I am a healthy, 39 year old male. This page is to capture the journey my family and I are about to embark upon.

Initially his diagnosis was colon cancer, but as time wore on and he was subjected to more and more medical tests he found out that it was not just colon cancer, but liver cancer as well. What he writes on his website are brief snippets of the everyday: worries, thoughts, fears—not of someone who pretends to have the answers, but of someone facing this to the first time, someone afraid, someone suffering.

Just this week he wrote this:

The past few weeks have been quite difficult around our household. I have been the sickest I have ever been and have absolutely NO energy to do anything. Depression has wrapped itself around me and is tightening its grip. Last night I went to put my son to bed. We went through our evening ritual: the brushing of teeth, the emptying of the bladder, story, prayer, song and snuggles. It wasn’t a normal evening though as I hadn’t been feeling all that great. I was nauseous and just wanted to curl up on the couch and feel sorry for myself. We got through the first few evening routines but it was story time now. I started to read him his story but only got 3 pages into the story before I had to make a mad dash to the bathroom. Let’s just say throwing up is not something I enjoy doing. After my bathroom experience, I returned to his room to finish off our evening routine. I sat next to him, he placed his book into my lap and I began to read. After I finished reading, ‘Awesome Trucks’ we snuggled under the covers and I began to pray over him and sing him his favourite song, Be Lifted Up. It was great laying there with my son, watching him fall fast asleep, but before his eyes closed, he uttered the 7 most powerful words I have heard in a long time. He grabbed my hand and said, “Daddy, I want Jesus to heal you.” That was it! Those 7 powerful words pierced my heart.

I am not sure that there could be a more perfect or succinct way of phrasing what is the deepest longing of each and every one of our hearts and souls: to be healed.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, St. Luke the Physician.

We do not know a great deal about St. Luke. We know that he was from Antioch and that he authored both the Gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts.

We know too from St. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians that Luke was physician—a doctor—who practiced in his home city of Antioch, now in modern Syria. He was a disciple of St. Paul’s, following him until his (That is, St. Paul’s) martyrdom, and tradition holds that Luke himself was also an artist, a writer of icons.

He may be called the Apostle or the Evangelist, but it is Luke the Physician that our propers for the feast from the Book of Common Prayer direct our prayers towards; as our Collect says for today, “Almighty God, who calledst Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the Soul…” In the Sunday Lections for a few of the Sundays around the Feast of St. Luke we have been hearing and will hear of Jesus healing various infirmities: the man sick with palsy, the sick son of the nobleman at Capernaum, and in a few weeks’ time the story of the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and the bringing-back-to-life of the Ruler’s daughter. It seems that even the lectionary at this time of year is drawing us into a consideration of what it means to suffer, what it means to be healed, and what the source of our healing is.

But what about those times when we are not healed?
What about all those people for whom we have prayed for healing, but who have succumbed to their illnesses? What about our friend with cancer in BC?

Our first reading for tonight, drawn from the book of Ecclesiasticus, gives praise to physicians and like our collect keeps us mindful that the health of body and soul are together linked, but that it is the health of our soul that should be desired most, Ecclesiasticus reminding us that before calling on the physician to heal our bodies we must first turn to God to heal our souls.

The healing offered by Jesus the Great Physician of our Soul is, as we know from our own lives, not always a healing that will take away someone’s cancer, nor is it a healing that will patch up the struggles and pains we have in our daily life, emotional, mental, or physical.

Rather, the healing that today’s collect looks forward to and that this feast calls us to recollect is that healing which has already been given, that healing which is our end, and is our salvation.

We suffer here and now as a consequence of our being mortal, but the here-and-now is not our end. It is not the place to which we are bound ultimately, it is not the place where the fullness of our salvation and healing is realized. Our end is in God and there is our health and there is the fullness of healing that Sean’s son desires for him, the same healing that  we all desire.

Above my desk at home I have a post-it-note with a quote of Jesus’ from John’s Gospel. It has been there since last Winter and has been more of a help to me than I could have imagined when I wrote it. “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”