Saturday, May 24, 2008

Drawing from the Well

The past two weeks have been consumed with travel and family. After a short visit to South Carolina, with an hour of fellowship with Dwight Longenecker (his excellent blog is Standing on my Head — a link is in my sidebar) squeezed in, we brought my almost 89-year-old dad back to Pennsylvania for a week. My normal routines were not normal at all, especially reflection and prayer.

When my own spirit is rushed, I find challenge and encouragement from the great souls who have gone ahead of us. This is one way that praying The Liturgy of the Hours helps to take us beyond ourselves. It is “drawing from the well.”

Tomorrow is Corpus Christi Sunday, and with that I noticed the several readings for May 25 in the “Proper of Saints” in the Liturgy. To give tomorrow its focus, I spent some time with the other readings today and was gripped by the last one, written by Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi. What depth of spirit! Perhaps some of you will join me in making this part of your ongoing petition to our Lord....

From the writings On Revelation and On Trials by Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, virgin:

Come, Holy Spirit

You, the Word, are most wonderful, working through the Holy Spirit to fill the soul with yourself, so that it is joined to God, grasps God, tastes God and absorbs nothing but God.

The Holy Spirit comes into the soul signed with the precious seal of the blood of the Word and of the slain Lamb, or rather that very blood urges it to come, although the Spirit moves itself and desires to come.

This Spirit which moves in itself is the substance of the Father and of the Word, and it proceeds from the essence of the Father and the good will of the Word; it comes into the soul like a fountain, and the soul is immersed in it. Just as two rushing rivers intermingle in such a way that the smaller loses its name and is absorbed into the larger, so the divine Spirit acts upon the soul and absorbs it. It is proper that the soul, which is lesser, should lose its name and surrender to the Spirit; as it will if it turns entirely toward the Spirit and is united.

This Spirit, dispense of the treasures which lay in the lap of the Father, and guardian of the deliberations which pass between the Father and the Son, flows into the soul so sweetly and imperceptibly that few esteem its greatness.

It moves itself by its own weight and lightness into all places that are fitting and disposed to receive it. Its word is heard by all in the most attentive silence; through the impetus of love, the unmoved yet most perfect mover infuses itself into all.

You do not, O Holy Spirit, stand still in the unmoved Father or in the Word, and yet you are always in the Father and in the Word and in yourself and in all blessed spirits and creatures. You are the friend of the created because of the blood shed by the only-begotten Word, who in the greatness of his love made himself the friend of the created. You find rest in creatures who are prepared to receive you, so that in the transmission of your gifts they take on, through purity, their own particular likeness to you. You find rest in those creatures who absorb the effects of the blood of the Word and make themselves a worthy dwelling place for you.

Come, Holy Spirit. Let the precious pearl of the Father and the Word's delight come. Spirit of truth, you are the reward of the saints, the comforter of souls, light in the darkness, riches to the poor, treasure to lovers, food for the hungry, comfort to those who are wandering; to sum up, you are the one in whom all treasures are contained.

Come! As you descended upon Mary that the Word might become flesh, work in us through grace as you worked in her through nature and grace.

Come! Food of every chaste thought, fountain of all mercy, sum of all purity.

Come! Consume in us whatever prevents us from being consumed in you.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


People who know me well know that I am an intense person. I was nurtured in my early Christian life by people who embraced with utmost seriousness St. Paul’s admonition to the Colossians: And whatever you do.... do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus (3:17), and they added to it the fervency of the Wisdom writer: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might (Ecc. 9:10). This was especially true of preaching. Preaching was understood as holy. Preaching was a moment when eternal truth intersected with time. I once heard preaching defined as “a dying man speaking to dying people.” I’ve never forgotten that.

I was sixteen years old when I began to recognize the inner pull of calling in my life toward vocational ministry. For all its shortcomings, the little country church in which I was raised did all it could to encourage and support me. I was given an occasional opportunity to preach the evening message on Sundays. One night after I had preached one of my earliest sermons, a young woman in our congregation who had struggled with health issues all her life died. I had preached the last sermon she ever heard.

I went to a small Bible college that sought to train young preachers in the tradition of John Wesley and his emphasis not only on evangelical conversion but also holy living. Nothing was to be more important than a whole-hearted commitment to Jesus Christ and the calling to live in the cleansing and fullness of the Holy Spirit. Everything else was secondary.

The Lord blessed me with a wife who was raised in the same environment, and she embraced a passion for Jesus with a whole heart. For almost thirty-six years, as I write this, we have sought together to live unto our Lord and serve him with total commitment. I look back and see “blindspots” that clouded my life and I remember dark struggles with inner sin that often discouraged and occasionally defeated me, but I never turned away from the deeper conviction that I wanted my life to belong — totally — to Jesus Christ.

For over thirty years, as I preached almost every week, I would remind myself that I was a dying man speaking to dying people. I came to the biblical text with that understanding and I sought to declare it with that kind of intensity. Few weeks have gone by in my life over the past several decades that I have not looked in a mirror and said to myself, “You are going to die someday.” Sometimes I will sit and look at my hands — hands that caress my wife and embrace my children and grandchildren and play the strings of my guitars — and think about them one day lying still in death and returning to dust. A few people that know this about me have thought it morbid, but it is part of my reality. And it is reality: I am a dying man speaking to dying people.

A day is coming when the most important thing — the ultimate thing that really matters — is the life we have lived (or not lived) unto Jesus Christ. All that we have acquired and done has true significance only in this juxtaposition with the eternal. I seek to live out of that reality every day. It’s one way to understand my intensity.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


This afternoon I was painting. It’s rather mindless work and one’s mind tends to be occupied with something. I began thinking about a trip we are taking this coming weekend and how this same weekend is both Pentecost and Mother’s Day. Then my mind fired a couple of boosters.

I remembered the local congregation of my childhood. It was a “free church,” which as I’ve said before, means essentially that the pastor is “free” to do whatever he chooses on a given Sunday. I was in college before I was aware of the Church Year. We “observed” Christmas the Sunday (or maybe two) before Christmas Day. We never had services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (unless those days fell on Sunday). Easter was Easter Sunday only. Holy Week was mostly unheard of. But Mother’s Day was a big deal. It took over the service. Everyone wore either a red or white rose (depending on whether one’s mother was alive or deceased). There were recognitions (during the service) for certain mothers in attendance: the oldest, the youngest, the one with the most children, the one with the most children present in the service.... Some “clever” person had edited Faith of Our Fathers into “Faith of our Mothers.” Sometimes an old song about “Mother’s Bible” would get pulled out. Mother’s Day was observed with fervency.

I thought about the ways Pentecost will (and will not) be celebrated this coming Sunday in various congregations. I’m not sure the church of my childhood will even know it is Pentecost. I am quite sure that many congregations in the denomination I served for the past 25+ years will have no mention of it in the course of their Sunday services. I also know that Catholic and Lutheran and Anglican and many Methodist congregations will be in full red vestments. I know that Luther and Calvin and Wesley (and Clement and Cyril and Gregory and Augustine all the more) would be aghast at the thought of Christian worship not focusing on the occasion on Pentecost Sunday.

My present congregation is having a special focus of prayer for nine days (some will recognize this as a novena) prior to Pentecost in preparation for observing the coming of the Holy Spirit. We are reminded that the disciples gathered in the upper room following the Ascension to pray and wait for the promised Coming of the Spirit.

I now cannot imagine belonging to a congregation that does not celebrate Pentecost (and the rest of the Church Year). I grieve for any such “church” that is so far removed from what the Church has practiced and proclaimed for almost 2000 years. And as wonderful as mothers are and as legitimate as it is to remember them on a special day, that is not what First Day worship is about in the Church.

And yet, outwardly observing Pentecost does not mean that the people of a given congregation are truly honoring the Holy Spirit in their worship. Celebrating with red vestments and adding “high church” elements is not the primary issue of observing Pentecost. The New Testament warns of quenching and grieving the Holy Spirit. Entering into an hour of elaborate liturgy does not absolve disobedience to God or spiritual distraction rooted in cold hearts. The Holy Spirit is the Heavenly Dove and he is easily wounded and driven away. The manifestation of the Spirit’s Presence comes only where he is desired and sought by repentant and obedient hearts.

One result of this is that some congregations which focus more on mothers than Pentecost this coming Sunday may actually know more of the Spirit’s felt Presence than some congregations that celebrate Pentecost mostly with outward form. The Lord’s Presence is manifest where he is desired and honored with the heart.

Of course, it is best when a congregation observes the outward form with the fervency of hearts set on fire with love for Jesus. The Church is meant to model truth both outwardly and inwardly.

Jesus once said of the Spirit, “He will glorify me.” As we go into Pentecost Sunday, let’s turn to Jesus with whole hearts. He wants to give his people the gift of his Spirit, filling us again and again. Come, Holy Spirit.

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