Oscar Romero

[Except for four new paragraphs at the beginning, this is a slightly revised excerpt from a sermon preached by Bill Lewellis in 2010.]

Almost a year before I left the Roman Catholic Church, Oscar Romero became one of my heroes. Onetime Archbishop of El Salvador, he was assassinated at the altar on March 24, 1980.

Pope Francis recently announced that he would declare Romero saint of the universal church in a ceremony in the Vatican on Oct. 14, 2018.

The Episcopal Church had added him to our book of saints, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, now Holy Women, Holy Men. He was attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, in Love … and, when necessary, he changed.

Ironically, it was his change that got him into trouble with the institutional church. Many holy women and holy men experienced that. Does make one wonder. Pope Francis recognized that.

A conservative bishop who sided with the local power brokers who kept the poor oppressed, Oscar Romero was made archbishop in 1977 as a “compromise” candidate who was not impressed with Vatican II renewal.

When he was named archbishop, the local liberation theology Jesuits threw up their hands and wrote him off. They had been asserting heroically by their ministry that “the contemporary church must wield not only the teaspoons of charity, but also the bulldozers of justice, and become the voice of the voiceless.”

Over the next few years, however, especially after personally witnessing early morning clean up of bloodstained corpses on San Salvador's streets, victims of paramilitary death squads, and the slaying of his good friend, Father Rutilio Grande, Romero became a powerful critic of those in power who sanctioned atrocities.

When his Jesuit friend was gunned down in his jeep, Romero cancelled all services in San Salvador the following Sunday except for a single Mass outside the San Salvador Cathedral, celebrated with 100,000 people. His repentance and transformation accelerated after these and other events turned him around the bend. Reprisals intensified, while right-wing groups were leafleting the nation: Be a patriot: kill a priest.

“Romero's journey was not easy,” Canon Andrew Gerns at Trinity Easton on the 30th anniversary of Romero's martyrdom. “He was not raised to be a radical. He was raised in privilege and was appointed to care for the church in his archdiocese in a rather conventional way. Appoint priests, oversee schools, manage the books...don’t rock the boat. But he had a heart for faith and was willing to go where Jesus led him. At first tentatively, and later boldly, he began to connect the dots. He believed that the job of the church was to care for the weakest of God’s people. For Romero, this was a death sentence.”

We may not be able to point to any one event during which Romero was born again. As it is said of most Episcopalians, he was born again and again and again ... transformed, transformed, transformed and transformed. Not long after his incremental transformations – and actions taken in line with his transformation – Romero was shot on March 24, 1980, in the shadow of the cross.

For those of us who have read Mountains Beyond Mountains, it might be enough to note that Dr. Paul Farmer, living at Duke University when Romero was murdered, marks his own conversion and transformation from that event, from the witness and transformation of one man. Farmer, a Harvard doctor, reinvented international healthcare to bring medicine and healing to the poor in Haiti, Rwanda, Russia, Peru, Mexico and other nations.


Trinity – A Glimpse into the Mystery of God

[A slightly revised excerpt from a 2001 sermon preached by Bill Lewellis on Trinity Sunday]
 
 
Religion is about relationship because that is what God is about. God is three-in-one, being-in-relationship, being-in-community. That is what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday.
 
The ancient Greeks had a word that sounded like "mystery." Its Latin translation is a word that sounds like "sacrament." Christian thinkers used both words, mystery and sacrament or sign, to refer to the hidden presence of the real -- the partially veiled and partially unveiled presence of God -- to mean something visible (e.g., persons, community, bread and wine) something visible that communicates something of God's hidden presence.
 
Whenever we talk about God, we're in that realm of mystery. Unfortunately, our English word speaks of puzzles, riddles or problems to be solved. God is not a problem to be solved, an issue to be dealt with, or a belief to be held. God is first of all a presence to be encountered in our relationships, a presence that lures us into life.
 
Most of the great days of the church year celebrate events: the events of Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost. Today, however, we celebrate and give thanks not for an event but for a glimpse into the heart of the mystery of God, a glimpse into God as a community of persons. We celebrate our faith that the mystery of God has to do with relationship, and that the relationships within the being of God form a pattern for all of our relationships, relationships meant to reflect God’s dream for all of us, the dream we refer to at times as the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God.
 
A glimpse into the mystery of God. In a university in Rome, where I studied theology, this was how a professor in a large lecture hall introduced.his course. He made a white chalk dot on a very large blackboard. “The dot,” he said, “is what we know about God. The blackboard is what we don’t know about God. What we know about God is precious little. But the little that God has given us to know is precious.”
 
I’ve found that to be a helpful image. What we know about God is precious little. But the little that God has given us to know is precious.
 
Experiencing God as Trinity. Most of us, as children, were baptized in the name of the Trinity. As children, many of us learned how to sign ourselves in the name of the Trinity. The most popular name for churches in our diocese is Trinity. The three-in-one God is a core teaching of the Church.
 
The idea of Trinity was not thought up by ivory-tower theologians to make things more complicated than they needed to be and to obscure the simple faith of ordinary people. It was, in fact, pretty much the other way around. It arose from how the early Christians, ordinary people, experienced God in their lives after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit. They experienced God as three different persons. Yet, there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. They attempted to put their experiences of God into words. Among the words they used to capture this experience were Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
 
The faith that arose from the experiences of ordinary people was then handed over to the theologians to try to make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since. A simple definition of theology is “putting your experiences of God into words.” The doctrine of the Trinity is our human attempt to use words to express our understanding of God – yet none of our words or images will ever be adequate to capture all of God.
 
I used to wear a tight, white T-shirt much too often in public, even after it framed my growing middle too well. Black lettering on the T-shirt proclaimed, “My life is based on a true story.”
 
Truth is not a thing apart. Truth is a relationship. If I remain in the relationship, continuing to explore the pattern of Trinity, I remain in the story.
 
God as Trinity means that relationship is at the heart of the universe, that relationship is the ultimate pattern, the ultimate design on which we explore the infinite possibilities of creation. God as Trinity means that you and I do not exist as genuinely human persons unless in relationship with others and with God. We are anchored by relationships. Our soul (spirituality, meaning, reality) is neither within nor without, but between… exploring the infinite possibilities of relationship.
 
Our lives are not limited by failure, nor by our illusions of success. There is always a call forward. None of us is there yet. Don’t ever think your life has come to a full stop. We are seeds swelling toward a ripeness never fully achieved, but ever in the process of becoming. In this moment, in every moment, we are being lured into life. We are becoming fit to live.
 
In the same way that nature constantly explores the infinite possibilities in a simple pattern like a tree, a leaf, a head of cauliflower, a snowflake, a human face, we too are exploring the infinite possibilities of the basic pattern of Trinity, being in community, being in relationship.
 
Life is a dance… with steps you don't know… Learn as you go.
 

Less Clouded By Irrelevance

Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, May 20, 2018
http://www.mcall.com/features/religion/mc-fea-faith-and-values-lewellis-20180520-story.html

 

A spiritual journey is a relationship. It’s a metaphor. No two journeys are the same. No authentic journey begins before God somehow speaks. "In the beginning was the Word..." (John 1:1).

God speaks first. Theologians call this revelation. God may speak through the created world, the prophets of old and new, our experiences, and the Jewish and Christian scriptures. 

God may speak through our families and friends, the wisdom of the ages, our critical faculties and our desires, the Word made flesh, our religious communities, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Through so many ways and people -- most of all, for Christians, in Jesus -- we continually discover who God is, who we are, and how we are related to God and with one another. 

Yet, we see "in a mirror, dimly” or, from an earlier translation, “through a glass, darkly.” (1Cor. 13:12) 

“I squint at God’s glory,” someone said, "through a smokescreen called the real world.” 

I hear Jesus say: Don’t let others tell you what is real. Don’t let anyone de-fine and re-duce reality for you. Don’t allow anyone to imprison you in that most secure prison without walls, the prison we don’t know we’re in. Imagine what is really real. See things differently. 

Jesus challenges us to dream. As we pray, he draws the dream from deep within us. To pray is to dream, to hope, to expect, to imagine. Whether worshiping with a community, reading alone, reflecting on the bible, considering a personal experience, a story or a movie, we can be at prayer, that research and development aspect of the church.

“Only the contemplative,” Thomas Merton used to say, only the pray-er “knows what the scoop is.” Only the pray-er knows that the really real is God breaking into human history -- God breaking through our prejudices and preferred notions with discomforting questions about poor and powerless persons, about justice and peace, about personal and systemic transformation – God breaking into human history so we might break out with new God given hearts to pursue God’s heart’s desires.

Through questions we ask and evidence we interpret, we experience insights. We sometimes see the light. We make judgments. We discover meaning.

God gave us a mind to wonder, put a yearning in our hearts, and sent his Word to lead us on and light our way.

Does our lifestyle celebrate the incredible revelation of God? Do we give thanks by our lifestyle for who we are as a result of God's reaching out to us?

St. Paul tells us in effect to conduct ourselves in certain ways not because law hangs over us but because life dwells within us.

You are a new creation in Christ. Celebrate the gift. Celebrate life. You won't find precisely those words in any one verse of Paul's letters. In many chapters, however, you will find what some biblical scholars have called the Pauline "Indicative-Imperative.” 

The indicative is the statement of fact, i.e., "You are a new creation in Christ." The statement of fact is followed by a moral command, the imperative, i.e., "Therefore, be... (Live accordingly)." The imperative's authority is not law above but life within.

The day after this is published, I will be 81. Though we do see always through a glass darkly, I wish I had seen decades ago, even dimly, however unlikely, what I think I see today. My spiritual journey might have been more focused, less clouded by irrelevance.

Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@mac.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010 served on the bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop’s staff of the RC Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that. His newSpin newsletter may be found at http://diobeth.typepad.com/diobeth_newspin/


Life within the swirl — pointlessly purposeful

[A column by Bill Lewellis, published in 1997]

Preachers over the years have moved from the classic “three-point” sermon to one memorable point. Television has, indeed, affected our attention span. Recently, however, I heard sermon-resource guru Leonard Sweet suggest that sermons be “pointless.” His “point” was that sermons ought to invite us into further contemplation. Open-ended images and stories do that better than points. My contribution to that discussion is a “pointless” column. My image: swirls.

Persons of faith, it has seemed to me, thrive within energizing swirls of apparent oxymorons — swirls of law and love, tradition and risk, sacrifice and celebration, already and not yet, death and resurrection. Persons of faith thrive where the world often sees only contradiction and foolishness.

“Be not anxious,” Jesus said. “Be not afraid,” he said again. Commands? No. These are promises. Invitations. When we move within the swirls of life’s storms — finding safe harbor in God’s eye — we need not be anxious about the force or flow of the current. On the other hand when we give ourselves over to current obsession — be the current one of despair, unfounded optimism, certainty, bible belting or anything less than God on which we bet our lives — we allow ourselves to be manipulated somewhere beyond God’s eye.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," a swirl of its own, recently caught my ear again. “I believe the most precious thing in the sight of God is the good deed freely chosen,” he said on the public television series, Searching for God in America. “When I choose to be generous, to be truthful, to be forgiving — when I choose to do good, the Talmud tells me that God looks down and says, 'For that moment alone, it was worth creating the world.'" The good deed freely chosen … within the swirl of God’s will and human freedom.

The TV series also featured former White House hatchet man Charles Colson who found religion in prison. The interviewer asked him if he is surprised by people still doubting the authenticity of his conversion, even 23 years later.

“Of course,” he said, because if Jesus Christ will come and live in my life, if he will take the toughest of the Nixon tough guys and turn Chuck Colson’s life around, he could turn anyone’s life around. The problem is a lot of people are running away and don't want their lives turned around.”

Kushner and Colson. Jew and evangelical Christian. Another swirl?

Caught up in a current of arrogance, I used to doubt the authenticity of Colson’s conversion. No more. What right do I have to doubt the authenticity of anyone’s conversion to God?

Be not anxious. Be not afraid. Life within the swirl is not a default compromise but an intentionally staked out position. When you live in God’s eye of the storm, you can also dance on the edge to the music of the center. Is there a “point” in that image? Sorry about that.


What are your defining moments?

[A slightly edited version of a column by Bill Lewellis, published in 1998]

A three-story perspective casts a little light for me on God’s continuing visitations in our lives.

The first story is the conversion of St. Paul. During the first century, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul's "business as usual" included search and destroy missions, seeking out those who were counter-cultural, those who followed The Way, Christianity's original name. While on one of those missions, Paul was blinded by a light, fell to the ground, and heard a voice: "Why are you persecuting me?"

"Who are you?" Paul asked. "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting."

That experience may have informed Paul’s theology and a morality. My soundbite version of Paul’s theology is: "Because Christ lives within, you are a new creation." Then, Paul’s morality: "Therefore, be who you are. Live as a new creature. Put away the old man."

The second story is more fanciful, about the Christ within us recognizing himself unformed, yet unborn, in the disguises of the world.

A little boy wandered into a sculptor's studio and watched the sculptor begin to work with a large piece of marble. He soon got bored and went on his way. Months later he returned and, to his surprise, where once stood only a large block of marble, there now stood a handsome, powerful, Aslan-like lion. "How did you know," he asked the sculptor there was a lion in the marble?" "Before I saw the lion in the marble,” the sculptor said, “I saw the lion in my heart. But the real secret is that it was the lion in my heart who saw the himself in the marble."

In line with that, a Maryknoll missionary once said: "Many years ago when I came to this faraway land, I came to bring God to the people. I soon discovered that God was here before me."

The third story of God’s continuing visitation changes often. For me, it is different today than it was 40 years ago or even 40 months ago. It is a wonderfully different story for each one of us, our own story of how we’ve been blinded by the light, our own defining moments.

Episcopalians don’t generally think of themselves as having been born again. We're more likely to describe ourselves as having been born again and again and again.

I've grown accustomed to thinking in terms of defining moments rather than born again experiences. Cut me some slack with the word "moment." I use it as "day" is used in the story of creation. A defining moment might be a sudden insight or a two-year journey that in hindsight occasions a renewed or rediscovered understanding of who we are and who God wants us to be.

May we all continue to have insights, dreams by day and night, "aha" experiences and "uh-oh" experiences that somehow shape our lives, defining moments from which then our transformed lives themselves tell what we have seen and heard.


FAITH, FEAR AND CERTAINTY

[A slightly edited version of a 2003 column by Bill Lewellis, published in The Morning Call]

When the religious "certains" have been many, they have harassed, persecuted, even killed the few. When the "certains" are few, they simply bore others to death with an ironic accomplishment: replacing the joy and richness of relationship with God with a drab and tedious version of "being right."

There is a presumption in the land of religion: that the opposite of faith is doubt,and that faith is about "being right." Jesus did not pray that his followers be ever right; he prayed that we be one. Lead us not into presumption.

The opposite of faith, some say, is fear. I agree. Fear that God does not love me. Fear that I might not "be right" about religion. So, somehow or other, I need to be certain.

Faith is a risky business, sometimes described as a leap. It has to do with questions. Certainty has to do with answers.

You may remember the old Peanuts comic strip that has Lucy shouting, "God is the answer, God is the answer." As she runs by Snoopy, he is left thinking, "What is the question?"

That's a profound statement. Greater religious faithfulness arises from asking insightful questions than from repeating one's own certainties.

The double-sided, classic religious question is first of all about exodus: emancipation, freedom, liberty, deliverance, passing through the river of death and life. It's about getting out of the box, a prison of our own making. It's the most secure prison one can imagine, a box we don't know we're in. In that context, "What's the question?" isn't so funny.

The other side of the question is about relationship, covenant, transformation, enlightenment, resurrection, new life. "You are a new creation in Christ," St. Paul often reminds us. Therefore - here I paraphrase St. Paul, -- be who you are, know whose you are, and live a life worthy of that calling.

The "certains" deal more in answers than in questions – quick to condemn the contemporary cultural target, e.g., persons who are gay as well as anyone who questions the answers about which they are certain.

Jesus “was not brought down by atheism and anarchy,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes. “He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared… to make others conform.”

“Our last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God,” writes Richard Rohr. “We make an absolute out of it… All great spirituality is about letting go.”

Give me that old time biblical irony: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned."

As I've grown older, I've believed less more. My faith is focused on God's good news..

As I understand it, the good news is: (1) We're all sinners. (2) We're all forgiven/loved by God. (3) We're all forgiven/loved by God not because we've been repentant. Rather, we're repentant/transformed because we've been forgiven and loved.


'ISN'T THIS A GOOD THING WE ARE DOING?'

[A 1987 column by Bill Lewellis published in a local daily newspaper]

Some ten to fifteen years ago I heard a wonderful story about that awful distinction described by someone who said "ministers minister and congregations congregate." I'd like to supply appropriate attribution, but I can't remember where I heard the following parable about ministry.

Once, near a dangerous seacoast, stood a small life-saving station. Shipwrecks prompted six people to build it. It was a two-story, A-frame shelter with a bell that could be heard for miles.

On the ground floor were cots, blankets, dry clothing, first-aid equipment, a fireplace and a soup kettle. The second floor consisted of one small room with a window and telescope facing the sea. One member of the life-saving station was always on watch. They took turns. On especially stormy nights, all six stayed in the shelter.

Upon sighting a shipwreck, the watchman would sound the bell. All six would put out on their three small fishing boats. They always managed to save a few persons who would have drowned. They brought them back to the life-saving station, treated their injuries, gave them food and clothing and shelter until the rescued were ready to return to their own homes and families.

"Indeed, this is a good thing," many others began to say. Soon 12, then 20, then 50, then 100 people joined original six at the life-saving station. They built a larger shelter...with many rooms and a fine carpet. Many began to gather at the station even in good weather.

One night a sudden storm caused several shipwrecks. More than 80 people were rescued. They filled every room of the life-saving station. Some were nauseous; some were bleeding. All were cared for during the next few weeks. Some died. Most were nursed back to health.

At the next meeting of the membership of the life-saving station, everyone was delighted about what had been accomplished. But some members said, "This is a messy and risky business, and we are inexperienced. Perhaps we ought to hire a few professional life-savers." And so they did.

And the carpet committee said, "Out carpets have been stained, almost ruined. Perhaps we ought to construct an uncarpetted annex for the shipwrecked people." And so they did.

They built an annex. They hired a few full-time, experienced life-savers. And the membership no longer had to watch for shipwrecks, nor go to the rescue themselves, nor care for the rescued, nor even see the mess.

By this time, the life-saving station had 200 members. People went there often. Once in a while, someone might even catch sight of a rescue taking place and mention it to the others. And many would say, "Isn't this a good thing we are doing?"

At one of the meetings, a few members said, "We have slipped far from our purpose."

They were talked down, ridiculed and called life-saving fanatics. Finally, six of them felt they could no longer belong to the club that once was a life-saving station.

Five-hundred yards down the seacoast, these six put up a two-story, A-frame shelter to serve as a real life-saving station. They saved many lives. Their fame spread. Many others joined them.

A larger station had to be built. It became a convenient meeting place, except on those days when rescues took place. So, to avoid the inconvenience and the mess, a few full-time lifesavers were hired...and a lifesaving annex was built.

Thanks to better communications and navigational equipment, there are fewer shipwrecks along that seacoast today. And where once there was one small, lifesaving station where people went to help others, today there are five exclusive clubs along that seacoast where people go to help themselves.


Ability, Adaptability, Ambiguity

Living with integrity in the tension
Bill Lewellis

A one-sided conversation took place during the late 1960s when what was to become for me a 40-year ministry on the staffs of three bishops in two denominations. Too soon was it over.

My first day at the bishop’s office of the RC Diocese of Allentown was a deep-water introduction to ecclesial systems. I was 30 years old with the slight experience of three years in parish ministry, and one year of teaching in local Catholic high schools. I had earned a reputation as one who resisted the system. Well, it was the '60s.

During that first day, the bishop’s main man gave me some advice. "You obviously have ability,” he said, “but even more important for your work here will be adaptability … and being able to deal with ambiguity."

The veiled message spooked me. I was warned. It was a pre-emptive strike. I believed then, however, and still believe that the one giving the advice was looking out for me.

One question stayed with me after I processed the advice: "How to live with integrity in the tension?"

Many have tread through the swirling waters of one system or another, learning something along the way. What I learned early on, in the belly of the institution, was this: “God has been known to work within the institution. From generation to generation. But don’t naively trust the institution. It may be where God is speaking. Or not.”

To hear the word of God is to be called to the impossible.

To hear the word of the Lord is to be called to live with integrity in the tension, to live with gospel imperatives, impossible job descriptions that are written on our hearts.

Feed … Clothe … Heal … Welcome … Visit … Raise … Proclaim … Love … Pray … Be reconciled … Strive for justice and peace among all people … Respect the dignity of every human being … Follow me … In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.

It could take your breath away.

We are created with a thirst we cannot quench, to follow a strange God we cannot imagine

Nikos Kazantzakis tells this wonderful story about an Orthodox priest. "I hear you wrestle with the devil," someone says to Father Makarios. "No," he replies. "We've grown old together; we know each other too well; I know all his tricks. Wrestling with the devil has gotten too easy. I wrestle with God."

"You wrestle with God, Father Makarios? And you hope to win?"

"No, I hope to lose."

Hope to lose. The thrill is in being overcome by God. "Batter my heart, three-person’d God … O’erthrow me and bend your force to break, blow, burn and make me new." (John Donne)


Today We Remember Tomorrow

[A slightly edited sermon preached at Diocesan House by Bill Lewellis, Oct. 31, 2013, Vigil of All Saints]

From several of my classmates and friends and professors in Rome during the early 60s, I gained a love of good theology. But it wasn’t until some 15 years ago that I heard four words, right here, that captured the purpose of theology and the meaning of Eucharist.

Today, we remember tomorrow. My mantra.

I owe Jane Teter for this insight. It was September 13, perhaps 15 years ago. The next day was the Feast of the Holy Cross. Jane was our celebrant. She began to explain that on this day, September 13, not a special day on the church calendar, we would use the readings and prayers of the next day, which was a special day. Somewhere within those words, Jane got caught up in a circular explanation. She escaped with, “So, today we remember tomorrow.”

The words sang in my head. I wanted to applaud.

Today … We … Remember … That’s the heart of it. We remember. We make Eucharist, our Great Thanksgiving, by remembering. In our celebration together of this and every Eucharist, we give thanks by remembering the acts of God through the multi-millennial history of salvation … and the fourscore years of our lives.

Listen to some of the words we pray as we make ucharist. “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love you have made known to us … in creation … in the calling of Israel to be your people … in your Word spoken though the prophets, and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus your Son … On the night before he died for us, he took bread … Do this for the remembrance of me. After supper, he took the cup of wine … he gave it to them … Drink this … for the remembrance of me …

Today … We … Remember … Tomorrow.
Imagine that. Remembering tomorrow! Remembering God’s acts on our behalf and God’s promises, we give thanks, we hope, we trust … we … remember … tomorrow.

We express our faith with wonder, hope and trust.

“There is but one fundamental truth for Christians,” Bishop Paul preached a few years ago on All Souls Day. It is that “in Christ we are tied to God and each other in a way that the circumstances of time and space cannot defeat.”

Or, we might say: Relationships trump doctrine.

Doing what we do in the words and actions and hymns of our liturgy, we “gently heal our past … and calmly embrace our future.” Today, we remember tomorrow.

Listen to the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer for All Saints Day. We pray this: It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. For in the multitude of your saints you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses, that we might rejoice in their fellowship, and run with endurance the race that is set before us; and, together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.

We saints look deeply within. We somehow find God. We see God as we squint through the smokescreen of our conditioned reality … and we allow the God within to transform us and the world around us.

We saints. “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea. In Church, or on trains, or in shops, or at tea. For the saints of God are just folk like me. And I mean to be one too” … while today I remember tomorrow.


Keep Thinking – It's So Religious

KEEP THINKING – IT'S SO RELIGIOUS … [A slightly edited version of a 2005 column by Bill Lewellis, published in The Morning Call]

A conclusion, according to Mark Twain, is the place where someone got tired of thinking.

God wants us to keep thinking. That’s why we have so many parables, images and themes in the bible without one-size-fits-all conclusions. I think.

On the other hand, the bible does contain a lot of plain teaching.

Look not beyond the strong verbs of God’s word. Repent, be, do, give, forgive, feed, clothe, go, sow, pray, judge not, fear not.

Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Welcome the stranger. Visit the imprisoned. Proclaim good news. Sell what you have and give the money to the poor.

Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies. Be reconciled. Take up your cross. Find your life by losing it.

That’s just some of the bible's plain teaching … plain, hard teaching. Not even the plain teaching, however, comes with one-size-fits-all marching orders.

The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer pulls much of the plain teaching of the bible into the promises made during baptism and in the occasional renewal of baptismal promises: “Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers… Persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord… Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ… Seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself… Strive for justice and peace among all people… Respect the dignity of every human being.”

Mark those pages well, 304-5, if you have a Book of Common Prayer. Make those plain promises part of your daily prayer.

What about the not so plain? I’ve wondered. Why is the bible filled with stories, images and themes that mess with our heads? The Good Samaritan, the Forgiving Father, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an innocent man on a cross, resurrection.

Might it be because these invite us into the mystery of God’s mercy and compassion, challenging us to imagine what is beyond ordinary imagination?

I’ve been thinking during this last quarter of my life that the hardest thing to accept about God’s relationship with us is not the strong verbs. The hardest thing to accept about God’s relationship with us is that God loves us unconditionally. It is so hard to imagine. We hesitate to trust anyone, even God, in that regard. We hesitate to say that’s what we believe when we say we believe in God.

Do we want unconditional love, even God’s?

The lingering grip of evil – from which we need salvation – has not to do with doubts about dogma nor with sins we have committed through refusal to make God’s strong verbs part of our lives. Evil’s last hope is our shred of pride that suggests we have done or can do something to earn God’s love – and so should others.

We’d rather that God not love us unconditionally. If God does, that is how we will need to relate to others, loving one another as God has loved us.

Our lives are based on a true story that cannot be captured in orthodoxies, human certainties, laws, sermons or newspaper columns. When we discover the story of God who loves us beyond worth and measure, beyond understanding, beyond whatever we can imagine, however, we will have the ability to recreate our world.


Saved by Faith –– Created for Good Works

[A slightly edited excerpt from a 2006 homily, Lent 4B, by Bill Lewellis, Eph. 2:4-10]

There was a time I thought faith and belief were simply two words for the same reality. I no longer think that. I have come to experience faith as quite different from belief.

Faith (belief in, trust) has to do with our relationship with a person. "Belief that" has to do only with intellectual assent. "Belief that" requires little more than a nod of the head and, perhaps, an occasional argument. Belief that God is Trinity, three persons in one divine nature, that God became incarnate as Jesus. that Jesus died on the cross, that God raised Jesus.

During the early 90s, our diocesan community invited Bishop William Frey, once bishop of the Diocese of Colorado, to spend a few days at various locations around our 14 counties in order to conduct an evangelism mission, a kind of diocesan renewal. One of the simple stories he told impressed me. He told it as a way to recognize the difference between believing in from believing that.

Imagine yourself in a crowd looking up at someone about to push a wheelbarrow along a tightrope stretched across two four-story buildings. “Believing that,” Bishop Frey said, is to wager $10 with someone near you that the man pushing the wheelbarrow will make it across the tightrope. "Believing in," on the other hand, is to put yourself in the wheelbarrow.

Faith includes believing in.

I believe in one God … And in one Lord Jesus Christ … And believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life.

Soon, in our service, we will pray the Creed. Creed, from the first word in the Latin version, Credo … “I believe.” If we go deeper into the Latin root on which the word is built, we discover the Latin word for heart, cor, readily seen in English words such as cardiac, cordial, courage and encourage.

With that in mind, think of what we are soon to say, I believe in God, as not so much a work of the mind as a matter of the heart. It helps me when I pray the Nicene Creed, when I say “I believe in God,” to think “I set my heart on God … I set my heart on Jesus Christ … I set my heart on the Holy Spirit.”

We may have long forgotten, I think, that the creed speaks to us of matters of the heart, not simply of matters of the mind and will. In today’s second reading, St. Paul reminds us of why.

The reading we heard today from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians includes words on which to set our hearts. Hear those words again: "By grace, you have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast."

During this last quarter of my life, I’ve thought often that the hardest thing to accept about God’s relationship with you and me is not one or another of God’s marching orders to us, those strong verbs of God’s word such as “be, do, give, forgive, feed, clothe, go, sow, pray, judge not, fear not, love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies, be reconciled, take up your cross, find your life by losing it for my sake…”

Those are not the hardest things. The hardest thing to accept about Gods relationship with us is that God loves us unconditionally, that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing, by gift of God, not by our good works. That God loves us unconditionally is so hard to imagine. Can we trust God that much?

I wonder at times if I may not want unconditional love. The most secure grip the devil has on me has not to do with any doubts I may have about the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit … nor with any sins I have committed through my refusal to allow gospel imperatives to direct my life. The devil’s last and best hope is my shred of pride that suggests I have done or can do something to earn God’s love … and so should others. Perhaps I don’t want God to love me unconditionally. For, if God does, then I know that is how I will need to relate to others … loving others as God has loved me.

I studied theology at a Jesuit university in Rome for four years during the early 1960s. The classrooms were large … more like lecture halls. One of the professors used to begin his course in this way. He paced back and forth on a raised platform. Behind the platform, a blackboard covered the entire wall. After a few trips back and forth, while studying the blank blackboard, he took a piece of chalk and, with one loud pound, made one white dot on the enormous blackboard. Turning, then, to the students, he said, “The white dot is what we know about God. The blackboard is what we don’t know about God. What we know about God is little. But the little we know about God is precious.”

With the passing of my years, I find that I focus more and more on the white dot. I tend to think of that as setting my heart on less, but more so. The less, however, is indeed precious. I set my heart on God who, in Jesus, became one of us. I set my heart on Jesus who is for me a window into the heart of God. I set my heart on the Holy Spirit who keeps me from turning that window into a mirror. I set my heart on God who has saved me as pure gift, not because of anything I have done. I set my heart on God who in Jesus has said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

It is not by good works that we are saved. God saved us before we did any good work. At the same time, however, St. Paul, in this same reading we heard today, reminds us that, though God’s gift of salvation is not the result of any of our good works, God has created us for good works … that good works might be our way of life … not in order to earn God’s love but in response to God’s love.


Are we there yet? Imagine that!

Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call
Jan. 21, 2018

http://www.mcall.com/features/religion/mc-fea-faith-and-value-lewellis-20180121-story.html

Are we there yet? You may remember saying that. You may remember how slowly time moved. Your fullness of life was ahead of you. You perceived your days as plodding on. Toward fullness. That perception was your reality.

Fullness came. Too busy to notice? You became used to time’s movement, perceived usually as neither slow nor fast.

Now in my 81st year, time flies. In two-week increments. 

I create as a volunteer a newsletter for the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem. I named it newSpin. Alternate Thursdays are my deadlines. They come by quickly. I work slowly. It may take me four times as long to do something I could have done quickly and efficiently years ago. How about you?

For the past 12 years, I have been invited to serve as priest-in-charge at a bayside Episcopal church and a residence a few steps from the beach in Longport, New Jersey, the Church of the Redeemer. Those two weeks pass like two days.

And, of course, I am “nearer my God to thee.” Every day is a gift.

“The contemplation of one's own death is an ancient part of spiritual practice,” writes Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. “It helps us become braver, because the things of which we refuse to think don't go away meekly -- they just go underground, where they grow more potent and more frightening than they really are. 

“Death will be part of your life, just as birth was. Get used to it. Don't be afraid to think about it. You won't have much say in where and how death will come to you, but you do have a lot to say about who it is who will do the dying.”

I know that today is the only today I will ever have. I struggle to make it matter. I write a lot, hoping what I say – perhaps this column – may be useful to someone.

I’ve been helped by encouragement received from readers.

On a Saturday morning in 1994, I posted a story online in response to a request from a writer in New Hampshire, prompted by a quote posted a few days earlier by a writer from New Mexico.

Later that day, a writer from New York thanked me for posting the story. He said a friend from Bellingham Washington sent it to him. "It's exactly what I needed to wrap up my sermon tomorrow," he wrote.

The miracle of the Internet is that something good may have happened for someone in a church in Aurora NY because someone in Bellingham WA felt that a story someone in Bethlehem PA told in response to a request from someone in Keene NH prompted by a quote posted by someone in Albuquerque NM was worth copying for a wider cyberspace public. That hooked me into writing online.

Former Vice-President Joe Biden lost his wife and one-year-old daughter in an automobile accident soon after his first Senate win in 1972. Nearly three years ago, he lost his 46-year-old son Beau to brain cancer.

He now tells people dealing with grief, “The day will come when the memory of the person you lost brings a smile to your lip before a tear to your eye.”

I often hear someone say at the death of a loved one, something like, “Dad is now happy with Mom, and I will soon be with them and my beloved husband.”

Though I cannot imagine life with God to be a recreation of the love I have experienced here, I am not critiquing that way of looking at death. My theology moderates such imagination. At times, I wish it did not. It might be more comforting than simply letting go and letting God

This I know, however, that if I can’t say what the afterlife is I can’t say what it isn’t.

Soon after I die and reach another “time fulfilled” when time is absorbed into eternity, I want what people remember of me  – soon enough – to bring a smile to the lips of my loved ones before it brings tears to their eyes. When that happens, it may mean as well that the lives we lived even made God smile. Are we there yet? Imagine that.

Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@mac.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010 served on the bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop’s staff of the RC Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that. His newSpin newsletter may be found at http://diobeth.typepad.com/diobeth_newspin/


Being Somebody

Bill Lewellis
An old sermon

Glengarry Glen Ross is a 1992 screen adaptation of David Mamet’s play about four salesmen who work in a cutthroat marketplace. Their company values them only for the leads they close. They give in to their worst instincts. To survive. GGR has been described as one of the most powerful and convincing films ever made about how the human spirit is often violated in the workplace.

The film opens with a hot shot motivator from the home office berating three salesmen while kicking off a new, week-long contest to boost sales. The winner gets a Cadillac, he tells them. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize: you get fired.

The motivator spews more verbal abuse than, I suspect, most of us have ever experienced during one brief interval. Finally, one of the salesmen says, “Who do you think you are, talking to us like that?” Then follows the motivator’s self-definition, who he thinks he is: “You drove here in a Hyundai,” he says. “I drove here in a BMW. This watch is worth more than your car. That’s who I am!”

It’s a version of the lie once told to Jesus. “You won’t be somebody until you do something, so turn stones into bread,” Jesus heard within himself in the desert. “You won’t be somebody until people speak well of you. Show them something. Jump from the top of the temple and let angels catch you unharmed. You won’t be somebody until you have something. Worship me and I will give you many things. Then, you’ll be somebody.”

“That’s a lie,” Jesus said. “I know who I am. I am somebody. I’ve heard the Father say I am loved.” Jesus identified himself in relationship to the Father who loved him. Because Jesus remembered that, he recognized the lie he heard in the desert. Then he proclaimed publicly in the synagogue at Nazareth what it means to live the life of the beloved. “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” You can read that “screened scripture” in the third and fourth chapters of the Gospel according to Luke (3:21 - 4:21).

Throughout our lives, two myths compete to define us. One, from our scriptures, tells us we are somebody even before we do or have anything, even before anyone speaks well of us. Our dignity, it says, is God-given. It is within us. "Jesus loves me, this I know."

Don't confuse that myth with the religiously skewed version that goes, "God will love me, this I say, if I’m good and if I pray." Many who have experienced the temptation to put their trust in morality or piety rather than in God have been haunted by this version.

The secular competing myth, not so unlike the religiously skewed version, tells us our worth lies in what we do, what we have, what we buy and what others think and say about us. It's a cultural tape that plays over and over again. Throughout life, people expend extraordinary time and energy, even doing violence to themselves and others, in pursuit of those lies.

Glengarry Glen Ross is about people who let systems and corporations that do not love them define them. It’s about the classic temptations we experience around self-definition whenever we need to decide or remember who we are and which myth to claim and to live. Most of us struggle with those temptations more than once: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4: 13)

 

The following is an excerpt from the film referenced above. Warning: A lot of colorful language.

A

 


Acting-as-if in trust and hope – Bill Lewellis

The Morning Call, April 29, 2017
http://www.mcall.com/features/religion/mc-faith-lewellis-0430-20170429-story.html

In The Marriage Plot, a prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, two Brown University graduates decide to backpack through Europe. They part when one wants to go to India to serve at Mother Teresa’s guesthouse for the dying.

After a week in Calcutta, working within his comfort zone, he is challenged by an older man to do some of the dirty work. Begin with bathing a dying man. The older man removes the dying man’s bandages that hid ugly and awful smelling infections. He pours water on the man while saying “This is the body of Christ.”

The young man soon leaves. On his way out of Calcutta, he begins mouthing a different prayer he knows because he has been a student of religion: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Centuries earlier, John Wesley brought the gift of spiritual Methodism to many Anglicans. Some say he reformed England, though in the early 1700s, he was close to despair and did not have the faith to preach. He was about to give up the ministry when a Moravian friend counseled him to “preach faith till you have it. Then because you have it, you will preach faith.”

For years, Wesley felt dry within, not motivated even to pray. He found himself crying out, “Lord, help my unbelief.” One evening in 1738 he reluctantly attended a meeting where someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. While the leader was describing the change God works in the heart, Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” and he trusted in Christ.

I served with the late bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, Mark Dyer, who used to advise people in the depths of their spiritual dryness to “act as if you believed.”

Everyone experiences doubts about the faith at times, said Pope Francis. He did, many times – but such doubts can be “a sign that we want to know God better and more deeply. One who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith.”

A quote attributed to one of my favorite "saints," Dorothy Day, says: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily."

Mother Teresa, however, who received the Nobel Prize and has been declared a saint by the RC Church for her compassion with the poor and the sick and the dying, is the 20th century winner of the spiritual dryness derby

Letters made public years after her death in 1997 revealed that this “living saint” spent nearly 50 years without feeling God’s presence, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist."

Because I have experienced doubts, dryness and spiritual crises, and continue to do so, even at 80, I find comfort in such admissions from people I admire.

Have you ever been beset by doubt about your religion or spirituality, about the presence of God in your life, about the existence of God? Know above all that faith is not belief so much as it is acting-as-if in trust and hope.

Sharing your doubts, dryness and spiritual crises with those among us who need comfort and courage in our own lives would be, I think, acts of integrity and works of mercy.

Finally, listen to Jesus. How many times did he say something like: Fear not. Be not afraid. Be not anxious? Listen to Jesus. Stay connected to the vine.

[Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@me.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the staffs of two bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for nearly 25 years and on the staff of the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 15 years before that.]


He is Risen! We are Risen!

(An excerpt from a sermon Bill Lewellis preached on Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001, Grace Church Allentown]

Christ is risen, Alleluia! I’m tempted to tell you how that happened.   But that would simply be my imagination working overtime.

We don’t know how the resurrection happened. Whatever we can imagine is surely not what happened. For we are in a dimension of mystery, of hidden presence, a dimension far beyond our wildest imaginations.

We aren’t supposed to explain the resurrection. God’s resurrection of Jesus as the Christ, our Lord, explains us. The message of Easter is always in the present tense: He is risen! We are risen!

The gospels ground our faith not on the argument of the empty tomb, but on the presence of the risen Lord in human experience. It is not the persuasive power of the empty tomb that leads to faith. Personal encounters with the risen Lord lead us to faith and hope and love and action.

A reminder of those personal encounters with the risen Lord is front and center before us today in this sanctuary – and, hopefully, in our hearts. It is the paschal candle, the light of Christ. We will see this lighted candle before us at every service over the next Great Fifty Days of Easter. It will lead our way at baptisms, at eucharists and at funerals. It is a symbol of the risen and living Christ leading/modeling us, in death and resurrection, to our transformation as a new creation in Christ.

NEW BEGINNINGS
(I heard this story first from Father Charles ????. I believe he served in San Francisco before retiring at Nativity Cathedral. I suspect someone here will remember his last name.)

A long-time legend from the artist's colony of Rome says that more than 500 years ago monks from Milan discovered a young artist painting the ceiling of a chapel in Florence. Deeply moved by his work, they asked him to paint a fresco on their dining room wall.

When he completed his work in Florence he went to Milan. He talked with the monks. He felt the wall. He asked about everything in the bible even remotely connected with meals. He listened. He thought. He imagined. Then he sketched out a rough drawing.

Because he always worked with live models, he began looking for 13 models from whose faces he would paint Jesus and his apostles at table. Easily enough he found 11 faces that matched his conception of Peter and Andrew, Matthew and Bartholomew… Thomas, James, John…

Imagine Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, however, with two blank faces. He had not found models for Jesus and for Judas.

He searched for more than a year. One day he watched a procession entering the Milan cathedral. Leading the procession was a young man with a determined yet peaceful face. Da Vinci saw the young man's face through the light of the candle he carried in front of him. Da Vinci found the face of Jesus.

Then there was only Judas who had no face. Leonardo DaVinci searched for Judas. Twelve years later, Da Vinci was still looking for Judas.

In the meantime he had begun to do some work in Rome. One day, while walking through Rome's Trastevere section, Da Vinci heard loud shouting and cursing. A muscular man with a mean look that takes years to develop pounded his fists into the face of another. He beat him, robbed him, and probably killed him.

Weeks later, Da Vinci saw the hoodlum again. He asked him to go with him to Milan — to model. This was the face he had been looking for for years. Da Vinci told him he would provide a place for him to sleep, provide all he could eat, and some gold besides — and all he would have to do would be to sit still for a few hours a day. The man agreed.

They went to Milan, to the monastery where a drape hung over the unfinished masterpiece. The mean, muscular mugger sat still for Da Vinci for weeks — but did not see the fresco.

When his work was finally completed, Da Vinci unveiled it and pointed to each face. Peter, Matthew, Thomas, James John… Jesus. Finally he pointed to the model's face in the fresco — Judas.

The hoodlum stared at the fresco. He looked at Judas. He looked at Jesus. Again at Judas. Again at Jesus. He backed away. He began to cry. Finally, gaining some composure he said to Da Vinci: “You don’t remember me, do you?” “No," Leonardo said, “I don’t."

“Years ago," the hoodlum said, “years ago, as a young man, I was your model for Jesus.” He whispered, “I want to be Jesus again.”


Want to pray?

Want to pray?
Reflection by Bill Lewellis
August 2016

Do not be afraid, Jesus said to his disciples, for your Father will give you the kingdom.

One phrase and one word – both common throughout the bible.

Do not be afraid. Write it on a small piece of paper. Put it in your wallet, in your pocket or purse. Retrieve it when needed. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said.

That phrase, in itself, could be a prayer. If you want to expand on it, here's my paraphrase from the Book Isaiah: “Be not afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. Should you pass through the sea, I will be there with you; or through rivers, you will not drown… For you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you… Be not afraid, for I am with you.”

Then, Kingdom. So much might be said about that word, as used in the bible, sometimes heard as kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven or the coming of the kingdom.

The late Bishop Mark Dyer, with whom I once worked, provided the best explanation I’ve ever heard of kingdom, the kingdom we try to build here and the kingdom to come: where everybody is somebody.

When we pray in the Our Father, Your Kingdom come, we pray that we might do our part, with God's help, to make our environment one where everybody is somebody.

My most controversial opinion on prayer is that prayers are hardly ever answered. But, of course, ‘never say never.’ And, as Pope Francis has uttered, “Who am I to say?”

My theological understanding is that God speaks first. Take that to the bank. At times, we hear. At times, we do not. Prayer, then, is our response, our answer to God. Be our prayer one of praise, petition, contrition or thanksgiving. Strange as this may seem, I think that even our genuinely prayerful petitions are somehow a response to God, not our initiative.

As in one of my favorite stories about a young child watching a master sculptor work with hammer and chisel on a large piece of marble. Marble chips flew in all directions. Months later she returned. To her surprise, where once stood only a large block of marble, there now stood a majestic and powerful Aslan-like lion. "How did you know," she asked the sculptor, “there was a lion in the marble?" "I knew," the sculptor replied, "because before I saw the lion in the marble, I saw him in my heart. The real secret, though, is that it was the lion in my heart who recognized the lion in the marble."

Two summers ago, during my annual two-week stay as presider and preacher at an oceanside church in New Jersey, a young woman, mid 40s, came to church wearing the recognizable bandanna of people who are fighting cancer with chemo.

Her surname was Himmelreich – yes, German for kingdom of heaven, where everybody is somebody. We spoke. I was drawn to open up a conversation by text message. She died this past January, about six weeks after her last note to me.

I mention this because she came out of the blue. It was as though God was saying to me, “Keep her in your mind and on your heart. It’ll be good for you.” God took the initiative, and prayers of petition were my response to God.

Simone Weil has described prayer as "absolutely unmixed attention." I like that.

On the other hand, Bishop Mark used to advise folks to pray through their distractions. “Perhaps the distraction is the focus the prayer needs,” he would say. I like that, too.

Then, there is contemplation, not inviting because we think it’s just for mystics. Simply stated, contemplation is focusing and listening … to God. People who contemplate usually choose a word to repeat, to bring them back from their distractions. My word is “breathe.” It’s not copyrighted.

Right after the words of institution during our Eucharist – “Take and eat … Take and drink” – is a wonderful prayer of remembrance. It’s called the Anamnesis, literally in Greek, “beyond forgetting.” – “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” Listen for it. Pray it.

Anne Lamott wrote a book titled, Help Thanks Wow: the three essential prayers. Sometimes it is that simple.

[I borrow the next few paragraphs from a recent sermon by Archdeacon Rick Cluett]

If truth be told, when it comes to prayer, each one of us is probably just like the rest of us. And “the rest of us” includes the disciples of Jesus, too, who once asked Jesus to teach them to pray. These disciples were Galilean Jews who had been raised knowing how to pray, how to bow their head, how to raise their hands, how to recite the Shema Israel: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

The disciples of Jesus had seen him at prayer. They could see the deep, intimate relationship that Jesus had with God. I expect the disciples wanted a relationship with God like his, and that is why they asked him to teach them to pray. They were not seeking a better form or a better technique; they were seeking a way deeper into relationship with God.

Don’t we want that too? It has to do with the longings of our hearts and the pains and tribulations and joys of our lives…

Jesus offered them what we now know as the “Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father.”

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come, your will be done,
On earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.

Finally, might I suggest a prayer journal? Not necessarily a diary, but a notebook you can hold or a file on your computer where you keep items thoughts, etc., that bring you to prayer. Let's call them prayer starters.

Here, from my notebook, are a few of my prayer starters:

1. I'm already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

2. God me, gracious God. May I be attentive to my experience, to the voices and hearts of those around me. Intelligent in my interpretation of that to which I have been attentive. Reasonable in my judgments about what I have understood. Responsible in my decisions about how I will act on my judgments. And always open to inner conversion, to transformation in your truth and your love.

3. A Prayer attributed to St. Francis. (Page 833 in the Book of Common Prayer)

4. Thanksgivings. (Pages 836 to 841 in the Book of Common Prayer)

We might think of prayer as a going in … into our center … as we do when walking the first half of a labyrinth – then a moving out in the second half. In other words, what am I going to do about what I have prayed?

 


On Fire – Bill Lewellis

I don’t want to set the world on fire
Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, August 21, 2016

On a recent Sunday morning, a strange gospel passage proclaimed that Jesus “came to bring fire to the earth … division [within families].”

This scripture may once have given some sufficient religious direction to shun gay family members … or anyone who has moved beyond denominational doctrine on other matters.

It confuses me, but this I know: Following Jesus does not mean you have to pick a fight with your family.

A childhood memory changed this scripture for me.

I grew up in the lower Anthracite region of Schuylkill County in Pennsylvania where my parents operated a neighborhood bar.

Three rooms on the first floor: the bar, the side room with six tables, a TV and a jukebox … and a kitchen from which halupkies, club sandwiches, fresh pork and ham sandwiches, hot sandwiches and very fresh hard shell crabs were sold to customers.

Our living quarters were on the second floor. Only in theory. The second floor was our sleeping quarters. We lived in all three rooms of the first floor, especially the kitchen. Some 90% of our customers were also our friends. My first-communion party with parochial school classmates was held in the side room.

As I was falling asleep on the second floor, I could hear the familiar songs of the forties: Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Nat King Cole, the Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James orchestras, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots.

The Golden Age of Song, the music of World War II. Nickels in the jukebox played a significant role in driving these songs up the charts.

The beginning of today’s gospel passage took me back to all of that. Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth.” The Ink Spots’ record played on the Wurlitzer, “I … don’t want … to set the world … on … fire; I … just want to start … a flame … in your … heart.”

I can imagine Jesus saying that – or singing it in a group called “Jesus and the 12 disciples.”

I … just want to start … a flame in your … heart.

Have you ever received a call from a stranger at 2:00 in the morning? Have you stayed on the line?

I listen to a variety of podcasts. The following is my abbreviated version of a story told recently on one. It lacks the impact of the woman's 15-20 minute powerful telling of her story, but it retains the powerful ending.

She spoke in detail about her addiction to drugs. At a low point in her life, she found a piece of paper on which her mother had written the telephone number of a Christian counselor. She hadn't spoken with her mother for some five years.

She dialed the number, at 2:00 a.m. She heard the rustling of bedclothes and the turning down of a radio as a man said hello.

She told him about the note with his number and said she hoped he could help her.

He replied gently … and listened, listened and listened. Until the sun came up.

"You've been so kind and have helped me a lot," she said after some four hours.

"I've been expecting that you would say some prayers or give me a few bible verses," she said, "and I want you to know that I am quite willing to hear them. After all, that is part of your profession, and you have already helped me so much."

The man said he wanted to tell her something and asked that she not hang up after he did. She agreed.

"You dialed the wrong number," he said.

Catch your breath. Four hours? The wrong number? Was this someone in whose heart Jesus had started a flame to enable him to take and stay with the call? Or did his good act ignite the flame?

“I … don’t want … to set the world … on … fire; I … just want to start … a flame … in your … heart.”

[Canon Bill Lewellis, blewellis@me.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the staffs of two bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for nearly 25 years and on the staff of the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for nearly 15 years before that.]


You're good – sermon help in a diner

By Bill Lewellis

My next to last step when preparing a sermon once played out on Saturday morning at a local diner where I browsed through my notes while having breakfast and a few cups of coffee. I'd glance randomly at the faces of strangers. Might anything I’ve written be useful to anyone in this place?

Something good almost always happened. I discarded cute phrases to which I was wedded a few days earlier. A writer's advice calls this “killing your darlings?”

Something else once happened. Seeing that my coffee cup was full, the waitress on refill duty said, “You’re good.”

Lose the notes, I chuckled. Anne gave you the sermon. This is your waitress. Listen to her.

At all times, according to another Anne, author Anne Lamott, 37 voices let us know how we are doing. Thirty-five have the job of telling us how awful we are. To hell with them, she says. Listen to the other two.

In all of life, she said, we need to hold onto great friends and eccentric relatives, the people who love us even when they see who we are.

And listen to God calling you beloved. Forget the 35 voices – listen to the other two. Listen to your waitress. Be in love transformed.


The spiritual struggle of Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Bill Lewellis
December 22, 2015

When the news broke in 1979 that Teresa of Calcutta would be that year's Nobel Peace Prize recipient, I was working on the staff of the late Allentown Diocese Bishop Joseph McShea. I remembered that she had written three letters to him in her own hand. The first was dated April 28, 1976, the day after her first visit to Allentown. I recall that the bishop said, "File it carefully. Someday it will be a relic." And so it is. Pope Francis announced a few days ago that he will proclaim her a saint, perhaps in a few months.

Each letter contained sentiments that reflected her own loveliness. "I am sure," one ends, "your people will be very happy to know they share their love for God in a living action of love for Jesus in the distressing disguise of the Poor.

I read her letters several times, until something jumped off the pages. In two of the letters, she used the phrases "the Poor," "our Poor and "God's Poor" – five times. Each time, she capitalized Poor. She didn't simply pity the Poor. She had a sacred reverence and respect for the individual person. In her eyes, the Poor never lost their God-given dignity.

But who knows? It may have just been pious punctuation, the way some always capitalize priest, church or archdeacon.

In any event, the Nobel Peace Prize citation included: "The loneliest, the most wretched and the dying have at her hands received compassion without condescension."

Who would have expected, however, that for the most part of her last 50 years Saint Teresa of Calcutta, despite her work for Jesus and her capitalized Poor, despite her public writings, she would have felt an almost complete absence of God?

Privately, she experienced doubts and struggles over her religious beliefs. During those years "she felt no presence of God whatsoever … neither in her heart or in the eucharist" as put by her postulator Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk.

She expressed serious doubts about God's existence and pain over her lack of faith: "Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness ... If there be God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul ... How painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, ... What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true."

I have found it strange that some have written paragraphs to water this down, just as some have written and preached to say that when Jesus said from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," he didn't really mean the words he cried out.

As I write, I have no ending for this "sermon." Perhaps later. Perhaps never. Perhaps, let people have their pain; don't discount it. Perhaps what Saint Teresa of Calcutta experienced is simply part of the mysterious relationship God has invited us into. Tread lightly.


How did you know there was a lion in the marble?

Bill Lewellis
Jan. 5, 2016

HOW DID YOU KNOW THERE WAS A LION IN THE MARBLE? … Some 25 years ago in Bethlehem, I was involved in the installation of a large, movable satellite dish on the four-story bell tower of our cathedral. I invited the local newspaper to send a photographer. He took one exceptional photo when the dish, lifted by a crane, seemed suspended from the sky and a cross on the roof of the adjoining cathedral church was visible through the mesh of the dish.

For many years, as I crossed a bridge into South Bethlehem, just before getting to Diocesan House, a version of that image continued to intrigue me. I used it to get focused, to get centered. It was a juxtaposition in search of a theology of communication. From the bridge, both the cross on the roof of the cathedral and the satellite dish on the bell tower came into view. Glancing at one, then at the other… I remembered the moment when one was seen through the other.

I no longer make that daily drive. I think the dish, surpassed now by better technology, has been removed. Still, the memory remains.

The cross of the Mediator, Jesus Christ, is a window into the heart of God. The satellite dish was symbolic of the many and various other media of God’s self-disclosure. “Long ago,” the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways...” God still uses many media of self disclosure.

Where will God show up today? For whom might you be a clue?

One story/image I discovered long ago in a book by Henri Nouwen frequently replays in my head. The open-ended image is ever fresh.

A little boy wandered into a sculptor’s studio and watched a master sculptor work with hammer and chisel on a large piece of marble. It did not long hold the child's interest. Months later he returned. Where once stood a large block of marble, there stood a majestic and powerful Aslan-like lion. “How did you know,” he asked the sculptor, “there was a lion in the marble?” “I knew,” the sculptor replied, “because I saw the lion first in my heart. The real secret, though, is that it was the lion in my heart who recognized himself in the marble.”

The Christ within recognizes himself unformed in the disguises of the world. Spirituality becomes ministry. Contemplation becomes action. Prayer becomes mission.

The image suggests also the relationship between the ministries of communication and evangelism, God’s word becoming flesh. Incarnation continues.