Don’t Say That Word!

Don’t Say That Word!

By the Rev. Tim Hannon, rector of St. James, Coquille

You can’t read this meditation out loud. I mean, you can, but please don’t. And you shouldn’t, because I’m going to write a word that, usually, we don’t say during Lent: alleluia. Normally, in most liturgical and traditional parts of the Christian Church, we don’t say alleluia during Lent. It’s the “A” word.

It’s an odd tradition, but it’s one that I’ve always found kinda interesting. I mean, it’s just a word, right? Right? Well, this past Sunday, following the dismissal, when I said, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!”, and you all said, “Thanks be to God!” there was this empty space of silence left open. As someone said to me following the service, “Did you hear all of us biting our tongues not to say it?” Yeah, I did. We want to say it. We want to yell it out. For some people, it’s the best part of the service. But that is, in a way, exactly why we don’t say it.

The word “alleluia” means “praise Yahweh” (there’s another word that we actually shouldn’t be saying – more on that another time). And we may rightly ask: why should we stop praising God? Why hold ourselves back? We’re living in the time of Jesus Christ, the eighth day of Creation, when all things are being made new. And we are Christians for crying out loud! Shouldn’t we be praising God up, down, left, and right? Why hold it in? Why hold in the joy at being granted eternal and everlasting life from the Lord of all Creation? Isn’t that what being a Christian is about? Isn’t that what being in a right relationship with God is all about?

Well yes, and also no. Yes, we are living in a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ; and yes, we should be praising God, seeking after God, and loving God to the fullness of our being. The life of the Christian is to practice this sort of life and to live this sort of life. But discipleship as a Christian isn’t a gas pedal pushed to the floor. Discipleship requires reflection, contemplation, looking at ourselves (at times critically) and asking why we are doing all this to begin with. And, to do that, we can’t always be “praising” God.

What happens when we reflect on something? What happens when we turn to look at what we’re doing and examine it with a critical eye? Sometimes we find ways to do things better or to get better results. I remember reflecting often on lessons I taught in class: did the students learn the material? Was I too confusing or long-winded? Did the tests accurately examine the students’ knowledge? And following this reflection, I would tweak things here or there, or sometimes I’d throw out whole lessons and start from scratch. And, hopefully, what I came up with afterwards worked better than what I had before.

But something else happens – or can happen – when we reflect on our praise of God. Praising God isn’t about our prayers “working” better or more effectively. Living a deeper life in Jesus Christ isn’t about crafting the perfect life. Praising God is saying “I love you” to the source of all Life. Sure, we could do that better, but that’s not the point. For when we reflect on our praise, we reflect not on our words or our actions but on the Person we are giving our Love. We are looking again, turning once more, and focusing all our attention on that Life and that Love that founds all things. And sometimes we need to stop praising in order to return our gaze to God.

In forty days we will say that blessed “A” word again. It will be at the Easter Vigil, if you remember. Halfway through the service, after the candles and the darkness, the songs and the readings from the whole history of Scripture. We’ll throw on the lights and cry out with those words, filling that space that we left open this morning after the dismissal, and filling that space within our own hearts that is ever being reconciled to God. And that word will fill the darkness, for it is a word that bears with it the love and hope of God Almighty, against whom death and despair are powerless.

Congregation Close-up: Trinity, Ashland

By Phyllis Reynolds and Carol Harvey
Co-facilitators, Trinity Celtic Team

New Life from Ancient Roots: Celtic Evensong and Communion at Trinity, Ashland.

Trinity Ashland has offered an alternate service inspired by the ancient Celtic Christian tradition since the fall of 2015. It occurs the third Sunday of each month from September through June. 

Initiated when rector Tony Hutchinson asked retired rector Anne Bartlett to create a Celtic Evensong service, it has grown to become a vibrant part of spiritual offerings for the church and community. Attendance quickly grew from 50-60 in early months, up to 135-145 for special occasions, to an average of 95 to 100, causing people to come earlier and earlier to find seats in our cozy 19th century church. Attendance is drawn not only from Trinity, but at least half from other churches, faith traditions, or no affiliation at all, with regulars from Medford and Grants Pass, and always including visiting clergy.

The evensong is created each month by the Celtic Team of 12-14 who plan and carry out the nitty-gritty work of each service: altar, set-up, greeter/usher, reading, chalice, clean-up, announcements, publicity, before or after social events, classes, forums, half or whole day training, festival days, labyrinth walks, and putting together the extensive bulletin for each service. The team is comprised of lay members with only three clergy, two retired, for this is meant to be lay-led with clergy crucial as celebrants and consultants, but serving at the edges. Vital also to the Evensong experience is music directed by Jodi French, gifted composer and pianist, and cantor Shelly Cox-Thornhill, mezzo soprano. The entire team is lively and diverse and has learned to operate beautifully to produce a smooth performance each month.       

In an effort to fulfill Trinity’s Vision/Mission to “express God’s ever-present love, recognize grace in all creation….seek and serve Christ in all persons…. care for one another and stranger alike,” this service aims to draw in seekers of all kinds, those unchurched or spiritually wounded, as well as those of us who seek new and fresh ways to worship. It is meant to be experiential, rather than teacherly. In words from our brochure, “The Celtic Worship is intentionally heart-opening.” To help achieve our goals, “trigger” words are kept to a minimum, there are no sermons or creeds or confessions. A person from the congregation or a guest from another faith community briefly reflects on his or her own experience of Holy Presence.  Poetry and prayers are earthy, holy, and inclusive. A liturgical subgroup of the team have become searchers across cultures and times, gleaners of resonant words, encouragers and editors for those who have had thin place experiences to share as reflectors. Readings, gospel choices, and prayers are all intentionally selected to enhance a focused theme established for each month. We draw selections from across time, faith traditions and cultures, from 14th C. Persian poet Hafiz, to Buddhism, to the Qu’ran, to Julian of Norwich, the Carmina Gaedelica, Seamus Heaney, John Philip Newell, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, and Winnie the Pooh, among many others—anything that resonates with the meditative stream, the God-in-all-of-us-and-in-all-creation.

The core liturgical structure for the service comes solidly from the Anglican tradition (U.S., Canada, New Zealand Prayer Books) and from the ancient and modern Celtic communities of Iona and Northumbria. We are indebted to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church Richmond, Virginia for the generous sharing of their well-honed Celtic service, in both materials and in person as three team members visited there in 2016. We are indebted to Trinity’s vestry for initial funding, mainly for musicians, and for a grant from the Episcopal Bishop of Oregon Foundation, which has allowed us to expand music, provide simple refreshments for special occasions, and funding for educational and special events. Generous voluntary contributions have created a savings fund which will allow the service to be self-sustaining after our grant expires in 2020.

In addition to the rewards of seeing sustained attendance and the kudos and encouragement received from people who attend, we are seeing growth of a different kind—the internalizing of meditative practice, perhaps even a deepening understanding of “Spirit.” We have seen a shift from the normal tendency for chatty pews before a service, to a unity of meditative silence in a group of 100 diverse folks, many of whom we don’t know. We have seen people who claim indifference or even hostility to the whole idea of “God,” share through a brief five minute reflection, stirring spiritual experiences in words not confessional or embarrassing, but profound and surprising. We have seen people sit silently longer and longer before the service to decompress into a liminal opening space.

Those of us who work to put the service on each month, attending to the myriad behind the scenes practical details, lose ourselves and all thoughts of stress along with the others, as pews fill silently, soft Celtic harp music begins, lights go down, candles flicker, the opening reading resonates in slow cadence, and cantor Shelly’s voice gently fills the silence with “To Christ the Seed.”’ Our thin place of Celtic Evensong begins.

“Our mission is to offer a worship experience rooted
in the Christian Celtic tradition that is welcoming…
ecumenical and interfaith.”

Visit the Trinity website.

Congregation Close-up: St. Matthias, Cave Junction

By the Rev. Bryant C. Bechtold, long-term supply priest

St. Matthias Episcopal Church has represented a viable Episcopal presence in both Cave Junction and the Illinois Valley since the early 1950s. Like many parishes, the congregational fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the years. Currently, we are a very small but dedicated congregation that is determined to add to the valued history of St. Matthias’ presence in this area of southwest Oregon.

I would characterize St. Matthias by two areas of ministry: worship and social outreach. Each Sunday we do our best to offer sound worship that reflects the best of the Episcopal Church’s rich liturgical tradition. We believe that our major task as a parish is to gather together in fellowship to worship God by glorifying and praising his most holy name. We find that sharing together in worship strengthens us as a family and defines all else that we do as a people of God.

Our parish is perhaps best known for our Harvest Kitchen, which provides a substantial lunch two days a week to our community. While some in Cave Junction do not approve or appreciate this ministry (in fact someone once referred to our parish as nothing but a glorified soup kitchen), we believe profoundly in our Lord’s call to serve those in need without passing judgement on who they are or what their particular lifestyle might be. It is our belief that both our parish and the patrons of the Harvest Kitchen are able to grow in love and knowledge of our Lord through this vital ministry to our community. We are satisfied if the patrons of the Harvest Kitchen—when they look at us as we greet them with a smile, hello and meal—can see in us the face of Christ.