Saturday, December 31, 2011

Chain of blessing

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them (Numbers 6:22-27).

Every day for the past 3,000+ years, these words of blessing have been spoken to the people of Israel. This "priestly blessing," named as such because it was given to Aaron and his sons, the hereditary priesthood of Tabernacle and Temple, has echoed through the ages, in that lineage, and adopted by the presiding ministers of the Christian Church.*

The photo above is contemporary, taken yesterday. "A descendant of the priestly caste pronounces the High Priest Aharon's blessing at the Western Wall," 70,000 attend Priestly Blessing at Western Wall, Jerusalem World News, 12/31/11.

They are said so often, it may take some effort to hear them.

In their Biblical context, they come at the end of several chapters of instruction for organizing the priestly class, the Levites and the sons of Kohath. Even after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we see these kohanim still (in the surname Cohen).


* The blessing has even made its way into popular culture. In the TV series Star Trek, Mr. Spock's Vulcan greeting of "Live long and prosper" might be seen as a simplified and secular version of the priestly blessing. Especially as the original actor in the role, Leonard Nimoy mirrored the gesture of the kohanim from his childhood synagogue.

Friday, December 23, 2011

With us is God

Gracious God, born of Mary and ever-coming into the world, this Christmas may we receive the grace to adore you. May we worship your glory in humble places. May we honor you with fine gifts for those in low estate. And may we, with shepherds and angels, sing praise to God Most High, God Most Near, God Most Holy, God Most Merciful, Jesus Christ our savior, our brother, our king. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joy to the World

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together...” (Isaiah 40:3b-5a).

Three weeks ago the season of Advent began with the reading of these words of prophecy. Isaiah knew that there are so many obstacles between us and God, between the world we have and the world God is bringing into being.

As Advent proceeds, we are asked to be attentive to the ways that God is working in the world, perhaps even look to and minister in the “rough places” as precisely the places where God's glory is being revealed.

The Hudson County Correctional Center (pictured above) is tucked into one of those corners of the County that pass for “wilderness,” surrounded by tangles of concertina wire. If your loved one is inside, it's difficult to visit - and many of those incarcerated do not get visitors.

For each of the past 13 Christmas seasons, I have had the good fortune to be in jail - too briefly - to sing Christmas music, to read some of the great words from Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke, and to hear (and sometimes give) a sermon for the occasion.

Make no mistake about it - jails and prisons are oppressive. Yet each year I am moved by what happens inside. From a choral standpoint, the audiences are some of the most appreciative I have ever sung before. But even more, it is the joy and hope – sometimes mixed with sorrow and desperation – that the inmates show forth, and that I hear when God breaks into this place. The lessons seem to mean more when read in the wilderness, when shared among disreputable shepherds in the lonely fields.

Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they burst out in exuberant welcome. And all because some church folk managed to find their way into a place where “respectable” folk don’t go, not because we’re so special, but because the people we’re visiting are, and the good news we carried in – or discovered once we’re there! - is contagious. Sometimes it even happens to the guards!

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

This year, because the jail changed its policy and no longer holds large services, we were escorted into three of the pods (dormitories) which house women inmates. We gave a shortened version of the usual program, and, like usual, we had brief conversation time. Please remember in your prayers Alicia, and Kimberly, and Mary, and the quiet smiling young woman whose name I didn‘t get who will be deported this week, and the woman who couldn’t stop crying because she was afraid and away from home with no prospect of returning soon. Remember them and all their brothers and sisters awaiting the day of release.

When I first started going, I found the sound of doors locking behind us unsettling. Now I’m more bothered by the fact that we have to leave so soon, leaving behind those with sentences still to serve. But this year, unaccountably, the gospel broke among us singers.

As we were leaving the second pod, waiting for transport to another floor, someone started singing the Christmas spiritual “Amen,” and the calls of “See the little baby,” and “lying in a manger” and the “A-A-Amen” responses rang off the hard tile walls and in the stairwell, and I like to think we caused a little consternation, or maybe it was just the walls themselves echoing the song “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king, peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled” as we, a little more reconciled than when we started, made our way home.

And may it be so for Alicia, and Kimberly, and Mary, and all who wait for the glory of the Lord to be revealed. Amen.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Prayer for healing

Healer of our every ill,
Light of each tomorrow,
give us peace beyond our fear,
and hope beyond our sorrow.

Great God, your very life is healing for illness, for sorrow, for that which is broken. Lay your hand upon us, that we might be made whole, renewed in life, upheld by your Spirit, and possessed by your love.

Bless all those engaged in the ministry of healing, and help our hospitals, clinics, doctors, nurses, aides, therapists, chaplains, and health care administrators be enablers of healing for people and communities. We ask in the name of the great physician, the One whose ministry heals the sick and the world itself, Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

"Healer of our every ill" verse by Marty Haugen, (c) 1987, GIA Publications, Inc. "Flower Mandala" by Carole Devereux.