Saturday, 31 March 2012

I went( very) unwillingly - my heart was strangely moved.

In his journal John Wesley wrote about the day when he received assurance of salvation.  He said:”In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans”.

This morning (31st March 2012) I went unwillingly to our Cathedral Church in St. Petersburg, FL.

I was unwilling because the occasion was a funeral. 

 I was unwilling because I usually dislike “big Church events”.

The funeral was for Mary Ellen Smith, aged 56. 

 I did not know Mary Ellen (perhaps I had met her in passing) but I know her husband.  He is the Bishop of South West Florida, the Rt. Revd. Dabney T. Smith.

 So I was at a “big Church event” with some six to seven hundred others who were there to honour, respect and in some ways share the grief of our Bishop and his family. We were there to witness yet again to the hope we share in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have been known to say that “welcome” and “hospitality” begin long before a person enters the front door of a Church building.  The staff of the Cathedral understand this.  As I drove alongside the Cathedral, unsure of my bearings, I was greeted by one of five or six parking marshals. With a warm smile one of them greeted me and asked “do you consider yourself to be physically able?” “Yes” I grinned, and he said “follow me”.  Then he ran about 200 yards down the street and pointed out a parking space.

(The Cathedral's  hospitality did not end when the service was over.  I left by a side door and a pleasant usher asked if I planned to attend the reception.  I told him that I wanted to get back home to my dog, and he asked “where is home?”.  I told him “Sarasota” and he, without prompting on my part, gave me clear directions back to Interstate 375.)

I was early at the service, and so were many others. The Church was already almost filled, but I was found a seat in the Chapel area. As it happened it was a “good seat”, giving me a clear view of the High Altar and pulpit. There was a quiet and holy hush in the building.

Then the liturgy began. Bishop Smith and those who had planned the service with him got it just right.

It was plain and simple Episcopal Church Liturgy, (Rite Two Prayer A for those who know about such matters), nothing more and nothing less.

 This was the Episcopal Church at its best – allowing the liturgy to do its own work without interference -  leading us  in prayerful grief and hope.

We sang hymns we all knew -  and the singing was hearty -  “Love Divine all loves excelling”, “Breathe on me breath of God”, “Fairest Lord Jesus”, “I want to walk as a child of the light”, “The King of love my shepherd is”, and “For all the Saints”.

There was but one anthem – the “Pie Jesu” from John Rutter’s Requiem, sung so beautifully.

The scriptures were read so clearly and well:;

 Isaiah 61:1-3;


2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:9; (this one is so often neglected these days – but it is powerful. I read it to my Dad as he lay a-dying), 

and John 10:11-16

Every part of the service flowed beautifully with no fuss, no bother. The Acolytes and Virgers know what they had to do and did it with a quiet assurance and dignity – never once drawing attention to their selves, (kudos again to the Cathedral). 

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, was the celebrant of the Eucharist.  She was her usual gracious and low key self.

What a blessing that her demanding and busy schedule could make way for her to be with Bishop Dabney Smith in his grief.  (I note this because when the good Bishop of Western Massachusetts, Robert Denig died after just 27 months in office, the then Presiding Bishop was not present at the funeral. It says a great deal about our present P.B.  that she took time to be with us in St. Peters burg this morning).

The officiant at the ministry of the Word was the Bishop of Chicago, the Rt. Revd. Jeffrey D. Lee. 

(He and his wife were good friends of Mary Ellen Smith, and are beloved friends of Bishop Dabney Smith).

Bishop Lee’s sermon was powerful. He told us a bit about Mary Ellen -  her life and faith, and her courage in the face of cancer.  He told us a lot about the Lord Jesus Christ and his cross and resurrection.  He made it clear that Mary Ellen Smith is even now in God’s presence because of what Jesus Christ had done for her.  It was classically Anglican preaching – rooted in the scriptures and the faith of the Church.

And it made me weep.

Yes, I wept at this “big Church event”.

Part of my weeping was for Bishop Dabney Smith who (appropriately) sat with his family in quiet dignity.

Most of my weeping was because the Liturgy of the Episcopal Church, the presence of the Presiding Bishop, and the gospel preaching by Bishop Lee renewed my sometimes jaded faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

John Wesley continued his journal entry (24th May 1738) with these words:  “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

Those words rang true for me today.

Maybe that’s why I wept.
I am sad that Mary Ellen Smith’s untimely death led to this “heart warming” for me.

But I am grateful to Bishop Dabney T Smith, to Bishop Jeffrey T. Lee, to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and to the Dean and staff of the Cathedral in St. Petersburg that this funeral renewed my faith.

“She being dead, yet speaketh”.


P.S.   I met a couple of former colleagues at this funeral.

One was Canon Ernie Bennett of the Diocese of Central Florida.  He was one of the presenters at a conference I attended for retired clerics back in 2008.  I admired him then, and was glad to see him today.

Another was Bishop Rob O’Neill of the Diocese of Colorado.  Our paths crossed when he was Rector at the Church of the Epiphany in Winchester, MA and I was Rector at St. James’s in Cambridge MA. We have not seen each other in more than ten years.

 I got to chat with Bishop Phillip Duncan of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast (western Florida/eastern Alabama). We agreed that the Episcopal parish in Lillian AL is a cool place.  I know that Church, cos my friends Don and Barbara Hauler worship there.

Also with Bishop Leo Frade. He is now the Bishop in S.E. Florida (Miami), but I met him first in Honduras way back in (say) 1998 when a bunch of us from St. Stephen’s, Pittsfield did a bit of building work near San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

The Episcopal Church is a small Church in a small world!

Friday, 30 March 2012

Sex, Crows, Herons, Raccoons. Life is never dull in SW Florida

1. There was high drama just outside my lanai this afternoon (30th March 2012).

I am not sure if I was witnessing copulation or grievous bodily harm. What I saw was one crow who was pinning another crow to the ground.

Was the dominant crow a male and the submissive a female?   Were they ensuring the evolution of their species?

Or were they two males in a fight for dominance:  their part of the survival of the fittest?

I’ll never know, for neither of the crows spoke English, and I do not speak Crow.

What I do know is that within seconds a whole gang of crows came to witness this.  They cawed with great energy and enthusiasm.

I came to the conclusion that these spectator crows were either like:
(a) The audience in a gladiatorial fights in ancient Rome or
(b) Dirty old men at a strip club

I am embarrassed to tell you that my junior cat Adelaide was enthralled by this performance.   She watched every moment, she chattered with glee, and I know that she longed to be “let out” to mix it up with the crows. Adelaide is a voyeur cat!

2. Later in the day as I walked around the pond with Penne I heard the screeches of a Great Blue Heron.  Believe it or not this massive heron was being harassed by two crows. Large as it was, the heron took refuge under a shrub.  The crows flew away (probably to have sex in an undisclosed location!)

3. In that same mid-afternoon walk, as Penne and I rounded a bend I was momentarily startled.  There before us was a Racoon.  This was not good.  Racoons are nocturnal animals.  The ones who venture out in daylight are often rabid.

I “jumped”, Penne strained at her leash, the Racoon ran away and climbed a nearby tree.


I found all this to be much more exciting than “Reality T.V.”

Maybe I am too easily amused!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The simple gospel and songs in the morning

I’ve mentioned before that I most often wake up with a song or tune running through my mind. .It’ll often stay with me through mid-morning.

On three days this week the song was “Old King Cole was a merry old soul” (go figure). It drove me “nuts”.  I suspect that you too would get a bit cranky if that song stayed in your mind for five or six hours!

I had a merciful release today.  The song which arose from my memory and which has been my companion all day is an old “chorus” which I learned in the Plymouth Brethren Sunday School all those years ago.

“There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin.
There’s a door which is open, and you may go in.
At Calvary’s cross is where you begin,
When you come as a sinner to Jesus”

That’s a pretty good exposition of the “simple gospel”.  I’ve enjoyed the song, especially since we are on the cusp of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

The mind has its own ways, and for reasons which I do not understand and cannot explain, that simple chorus led me to think of a hymn of simple faith. It’s never sung in the USA, but it was a favourite of my mother’s generation in England.  Indeed, we sang it at her funeral. It’s called “In heavenly love abiding”

(There was a lovely moment around this. My ex sister-in-law Barbara was at the funeral.  This made me so happy, cos though her marriage to one of my brothers had ended, she was still a part of our family –and she loved our Mum.  After the funeral Barbara told me that she was so happy that we had chosen this hymn.  She added that she had been thinking about the hymn, and knew that it would be “just right” for Mum.  Good for you Barbara!)

Here are the words of that hymn of simple and un-complicated faith (the faith that Mum had).

In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear.
And safe in such confiding, for nothing changes here.
The storm may roar without me, my heart may low be laid,
But God is round about me, and can I be dismayed?

Wherever He may guide me, no want shall turn me back.
My Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack.
His wisdom ever waking, His sight is never dim.
He knows the way He’s taking, and I will walk with Him.

Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen.
Bright skies will soon be over me, where darkest clouds have been.
My hope I cannot measure, my path to life is free.
My Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.

This hymn was written by Anna L Waring who was born in Plas-y-Velin, Glamorganshire, Wales in 1823, and die in Bristol, England  in 1910.

In the UK this hymn is most often sung to a Welsh tune called “Penlan”.  Here it is, played on an organ at a Church near Swansea, Wales.

Please enjoy the “Welsh-ness” of the young organist  as he talks before playing the tune.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Near to tears at Resurrection House today.

He was sitting in the Chapel at Sarasota’s “Resurrection House” when I arrived there today for the prayer service which I lead each Wednesday.

I know him well as a regular “Res House” guest.  I greeted him warmly.

He barely responded.

I said “you look very sad today”.

“I am” he replied.

“Why is that?” I asked.

His response was curt.  “It’s because everyone hates me”.

“That’s not true”, I countered, “I do not hate you”.

It was clear that he did not believe me.

So I asked “why do you think that everyone hates you?”

“Have you heard of the Illuminati?” he asked.

I responded that I was familiar with them.

“Well”, he said, “the Illuminati are out to get me. There are rich and powerful people who want to see me locked up in jail.  They are writing songs against me”.

(Please use Google to find out more about the historical Bavarian Illuminati, and for information regarding 20th/21st C ‘”conspiracy theories”)

It was at this point that I realised that the man with whom I was chatting was utterly convinced that he was a victim of a supposed Illuminati plot.

There was no point in arguing with him.

I simply had to respond by knowing that his fears were real.

So I said “Yes, but remember that God’s love and power is stronger than the Illuminati”.

He was unconvinced.


 I was so f-cking sad and mad  that this nice young man is gripped with a needless fear.

I was sadder than sad that his “world view” is based on a myth which brings such misery to his life.

Of course I recognised  a level of mental illness.  But as a priest (not a psychiatrist or psychologist - whose disciplines I respect and admire) I could do no better nor worse than to offer him a glimpse of the love of God.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers

The planets Jupiter and Venus, together with the Moon have been in a wonderful alignment in the western sky these past few nights.

I oohed and aahed  at them on Sunday (25th March 2012) as they came into view as I enjoyed a gathering at the Bradenton FL home of my friends Jack and Donna Chrisman.

Ooohing and aahing were also my sentiments last night (26th March 2012) as I looked at these two planets and earth’s satellite from just outside my front door.

Meanwhile there was Mars, clearly visible in the eastern sky.

Look west – see Venus and Jupiter”. “Look east – see Mars”.  Cool indeed.

I am glad that I have not lost a sense of awe!

It all reminded me of some words which were written some 2,500 – 3,000 years ago.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

(Psalm 8 verses 3 and 4, from the Authorised [KJV] translation of the Bible).

The following photo’s are not that great, but they are the best that I could find on "Google images", and far better than I could take with my own camera.

They are of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon in the western sky.

Monday, 26 March 2012

My privileged childhood

A scene which is typical of my childhood and up-bringing.

(Tongue in cheek.  Thanks to Bob G for this cartoon)

Sunday, 25 March 2012

My short story - written to be today's sermon

Gospel   John 12:20-33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Today’s gospel reading is from St. John’s Gospel.  (see above).

I was slated to preach at St. Boniface today. I decided to write, and then read a story as a way of explicating the passage.

The setting is Philippi, Macedonia at the beginning of the second century (i.e. ten or twenty years after the Fourth Gospel was complied).

Chloe, Anastasia, and Rabbi Eliezer are fictional characters.

Ya-ya' is the modern Greek word for Grandma.

I trust that my story is faithful to the meaning/s of the biblical passage. It “works best” if read aloud.


Thirteen year old Chloe raced back in to the house.   She was proud of her home city, proud of its history, proud that it was a Roman colony, and proud that St. Paul had been there.

She raced back into the house calling out “ya-ya', ya-ya', ya-ya' did you see it?”

 Ya-ya' Anastasia looked up and smiled.  She was visiting from her home in Ephesus where she had seen everything: she had seen too much, and heard too much.

Chloe was her favourite grand-daughter. She admired her spirit, her mind, her strength. Anastasia always had time for Chloe.

“What was it” she asked “what did you see that made you so excited?’

“Oh ya-ya' – it was a parade: the legions, the banners, the soldiers, the horses, the centurions, the tribunes, the prefects.  It was a perfect parade”.  “Ya-ya' – it was so glorious”.

“Glorious?” ya-ya' whispered that word. “Was it glorious?” “Chloe my darling let me tell you a story”.  Chloe grinned.  She loved her grandma’s stories.

Ya-ya’ began:  “It all started a long time ago.  In Ephesus we went to the synagogue every Shabbat.  We had been speaking Greek for so long that we hardly remembered any Hebrew.   But Rabbi Eliezer would read from the scroll, and then he would begin to speak.  We girls and women had to sit behind a curtain. We were always very quiet when the Rabbi spoke.  He was so wise.  He used to tell us about the glory of the Holy One.  He said that it was sometimes like a bright shining light, and sometimes like a thick black cloud.  Rabbi Eliezer told us that the glory of the Holy One was his mercy, and his justice.  And the Rabbi would say that if we were to be holy people we must practice mercy and justice. He was a good teacher.

But on one Shabbat he was very confused.

He had been to Jerusalem for the feast. Everyone there had been talking about a teacher from Galilee called Joshua.  This Joshua (or Jesus as we Greeks call him) had actually raised a man from death.  Then Jesus had gotten on a donkey and ridden into Jerusalem.

That made the Romans mad, and it upset some of the religious leaders. They thought that he was acting like a new leader, like a Messiah.

Even though Rabbi Eliezer thought that this Jesus from Nazareth was a bit crazy, he wanted to meet  him, to ask him some hard questions So he talked to a man who was very close to Jesus.  The man’s name was Phillip. Our Rabbi talked to him, cos he thought that Phillip was a very Greek sounding name.  “Sir”, he said “we want to see Jesus”.

He thought that Jesus would take some time for him, an important Rabbi from Ephesus.

Instead, Jesus started to talk about grains of wheat, about losing life, and about serving his Father.  Then Jesus got very, very upset  -  he was groaning out loud “Father save me from this hour”.  Then he said “Father glorify your name”. Rabbi Eliezer knew all about glory, and for a moment he thought he’d heard a voice from heaven – the very voice of the Holy One saying “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it”.  That was all very odd.

What was odder was that within a week this teacher Jesus had been arrested and tortured, and then crucified by the Romans -  hung up high on a cross just outside of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Eliezer had no idea of what this meant, but he could never forget it.   It would be many years before he and we would understand.

Then, all out of the blue a man named John moved to Ephesus.

Chloe interrupted. “Ya-ya'”, she said, was that John the Apostle or that other one, John the Elder?”

“I’ll get to that soon” said Anastasia. “This man called John knew Jesus, and he knew a lot about Jesus. He would sit and talk and teach for hours.  The men around him would write everything down as fast as they could. It was hard for them to know when John was remembering the actual words of Jesus, and when he was teaching what they meant.  But they wrote it all down.

I know all about this, because Rabbi Eliezer was my grand-father, and he told it to my mother, and she told it to me.  She couldn’t remember if it was John the Apostle or John the Elder.  But she always told me that it did not matter. Nor did it matter if the words were Jesus’ own words, or John’s teaching.  What mattered was that they were true”.

So Rabbi Eliezer began to meet with some other followers of Jesus.  Some of them were Jewish and some were not.  They talked a lot about God’s glory, and Jesus crucifixion.  They came to believe that Jesus was the human face of the glorious God.  And they also knew that God’s glory was not a bit like the glory of the Roman Army, or the gladiators, or the athletes.  They knew that God’s glory was about giving not getting, about service not power.

They knew all this for John had taught them that when Jesus was lifted high on the cross, it was to show the glory to all people”.

Chloe thought for a long time.  The she asked her grandmother a question.  “What does it mean when Jesus said “now the ruler of this world will be driven out?”

“My darling Chloe” said Ya-ya'. “You were all excited about that great parade of the Roman soldiers. The ruler of this world is Caesar in Rome. But this Empire won’t last forever.  None of them ever do – no exceptions. This way of Jesus, the way of the cross, is the way in which God works to drive out all powerful, proud and cruel rulers.  It’s the way of justice and mercy for all people everywhere”.

“I think that I get it” said Chloe, excited all over again.  “Jesus said that he would be lifted up to draw all people to him right?    Yes, I get it.  The part of the cross which is planted in the earth is the glory of God’s judgement and justice, just like that thick black cloud.  And the bit of the cross which stretches out on either side is the glory of God’s mercy, just like that bright shining light”.

Grandmother smiled and hugged her precious Chloe.  She murmured “when I get back to Ephesus I will tell them all that there is a wonderful young woman in Philippi who gets it, a young woman named Chloe who will be the next teacher of the Glory of God in the cross of Jesus”.