Yesterday, a friend shared a couple of stanzas of a Good Friday hymn written by Seventeenth Century Hungarian poet Király Imre von Pécselyi and translated into English by Twentieth Century Congregationalist minister, composer, and musicologist Erik Routley. The common title of the hymn is “There in God’s Garden” and it is also known as “The Tree of Wisdom.” Alabama composer K. Lee Scott wrote the tune “Shades Mountain” specifically for this text.
I was introduced to the hymn during my two-year residence in Mississippi as Interim Dean of Jackson’s St. Andrew’s Cathedral. It became one of my favorite hymns, with its message of hope for the healing of the nations. Organist/Choirmaster Jessica Nelson led the Cathedral Choir and Congregation in singing it in my last Sunday service there, which was also the occasion for my retirement from active ministry. This seems like a good time to share it.
I invite you to contemplate the words, read the article by Emily R. Brink, and immerse yourself in the music, here sung by the Choir and Congregation of First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.
There in God’s garden stands the Tree of Wisdom, whose leaves hold forth the healing of the nations: Tree of all knowledge, Tree of all compassion, Tree of all beauty.
Its name is Jesus, name that says, “Our Savior!” There on its branches see the scars of suffering; see where the tendrils of our human selfhood feed on its lifeblood.
Thorns not its own are tangled in its foliage; our greed has starved it, our despite has choked it. Yet, look! It lives! Its grief has not destroyed it nor fire consumed it.
See how its branches reach to us in welcome; hear what the Voice says, “Come to me, ye weary! Give me your sickness, give me all your sorrow; I will give blessing.”
This is my ending, this my resurrection: into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit. This have I searched for; now I can possess it. This ground is holy.
All heaven is singing, “Thanks to Christ whose Passion offers in mercy healing, strength, and pardon. Peoples and nations, take it, take it freely!” Amen! Our Savior!
Around the middle of Advent every year for a decade, our friend Robert (Bob) McKee would invite us to join him and a group of friends for the Madrigal Dinner at Rice University. The event took place in the Faculty Club/Cohen House on the Rice Campus. Singers from the Shepherd School of Music, under the direction of Tom Jaber, dressed in elaborate Elizabethan costumes and sat at an elevated head table. From that platform, they sang carols and other music of Advent and Christmas. During the meal, magicians, jugglers, and acrobats entertained us. We always had a wonderful time and Bob’s guests became our good friends. Next to the celebration of the Savior’s birth, it was always the highlight of the season.
I was reminded of those Madrigal Dinners, Bob McKee, our friends, and the glorious music today when I heard a recording of the Wexford Carol, the first verse of which was always sung a cappella at the very end of the evening. It became my favorite carol. It gladdens my heart at this time each year.
Listen to this lovely rendition of the Wexford Carol, ponder the lyrics, and steep your soul in the beauty as you prepare for the Natal Feast.
Those occasions brought people together and fostered lasting friendships. Our nation and our world need more such occasions and all the things the Messiah came to bring into the world. Bob has joined the Choir Immortal, as have several of the regular guests. Others remain in touch, though now scattered about the country. Through the years, we've moved around quite a bit and more friends have entered our lives. Gay and I give thanks to God for them and all of you. We pray that you have a blessed Christmas and a New Year filled with love, peace, and goodwill!
The Rev. G. Runge Nease was my Pastor during my spiritually formative teen years. He often recited verses from Psalm 8 as the Opening Sentence for worship, reminding us that God is always mindful of us and that we are created a little lower than the Holy Angels. I can hear his voice even now six decades later proclaiming, "O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy Name in all the earth..."
We may - and often do - forget God, but God never forgets us, is always mindful of us, reaches out to us in Love Divine. I often pray this collect on Thursdays and imagine I'm walking with those disciples along the Road to Emmaus on that first Easter Day. The Risen Christ was their companion on that journey but they didn't recognize him.
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pastor Nease planted the seed of understanding in me that continues to reassure me every step along the way and every hour of every day, God is mindful of me, even when I am not mindful of God. My ultimate worth to my Creator is like that of the Angels.
Here's the Psalm 8 sung in magnificent Anglican chant.
Domine, Dominus noster
1. O LORD our Governor, how excellent is thy Name in all the world: thou that hast set thy glory above the heavens!
2. Out of the mouth of very babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength, because of thine enemies: that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
3. For I will consider thy heavens, even the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained.
4. What is man, that thou art mindful of him: and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
5. Thou madest him lower than the angels: to crown him with glory and worship.
6. Thou makest him to have dominion of the works of thy hands: and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet;
7. All sheep and oxen: yea, and the beasts of the field;
8. The fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea: and whatsoever walketh through the paths of the seas.
9. O Lord our Governor: how excellent is thy Name in all the world.
One of the wisest saints I've ever known was Marjorie Lester. Marjorie was a member of Houston's Bering Memorial Church. She lived to be 101 years old. Before coming to Houston, she was the second woman admitted to the bar in the Commonwealth of Kentucky after her husband was murdered, leaving her a widow with two young sons. In Houston, she was in charge of legal records for one of the natural gas companies.
In my first year at Bering Memorial Church, during the worship service where I was asking worshipers to complete their pledge cards and bring them to the Altar, she asked to speak to the congregation. Leaning on her cane, she said these words, "The Apostle Paul would be envious of the mission field at our doorstep."
Those who recorded the pledges told me that about half of the cards had the first figure erased or crossed out and a higher amount written in, no doubt in response to what Marjorie said.
In one of my last home visits to her in 1986, she said this to me. "Ron, I hope what I'm about to say does not render me a heretic, but when we get to heaven if all we are going to do is stand around God's throne and sing, I'm not sure I want to go."
I replied, "The endless singing is the work of the Angels. We get to join them, but there are other things for us to do there. I'm not sure what our other tasks will be, but I look forward to your being there beside me when the time comes."
I wish I'd had this hymn handy to share with her.
Angel Voices Ever Singing
1 Angel voices ever singing
round Thy throne of light,
angel harps, forever ringing,
rest not day nor night;
thousands only live to bless Thee
and confess thee Lord of might.
2 Thou who art beyond the farthest
mortal eye can scan,
can it be that Thou regardest
songs of sinful man?
Can we feel that Thou art near us
and wilt hear us? Yea, we can.
3 Yea, we know Thy love rejoices
o'er each work of Thine;
Thou didst ears and hands and voices
for Thy praise combine;
craftsman's art and music's measure
for Thy pleasure didst design.
4 Here, great God, today we offer
of Thine own to Thee;
and for Thine acceptance proffer,
hearts and minds and hands and voices
in our choicest melody.
5 Honor, glory, might, and merit
Thine shall ever be,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
of the best that Thou hast given
earth and heaven render Thee.
Author: Francis Pott (1861)
ANGEL VOICES (Monk) Composer: Edwin George Monk (1861)
While searching for some commentary regarding Holy Saturday, I came across reflections posted by The Rev. Canon Patrick Comerford on his blog. Comerford is a priest in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. While Canon Comerford’s message concerns All Souls Day, a significant portion of it has to do with Christ’s descent to the dead, also known as “The Harrowing of Hell” and that is the excerpt I have chosen to share with you on this Holy Saturday.
Before you read the excerpt, I suggest reading the following passages of scripture:
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition there are several All Souls’ Days throughout the year, especially on Saturdays. Saturday is the day Christ lay in the Tomb, and so all Saturdays are days for general prayer for the departed.
The Western tradition of the Church has traditionally contemplated the cross, and then the empty tomb … and has been totally agnostic about what happened in between, between dusk that Friday afternoon and dawn that Sunday morning. The deep joys of the Resurrection have often been overshadowed in the Western Church by the Way of the Cross, as though the Cross leads only to death. We have neglected Christ’s resting place, his tomb, and given little thought to what was happening in the Holy Sepulchre that holy weekend.
The Eastern Churches, which lack a clearly defined doctrine of Purgatory, have been more comfortable with exploring in depth the theme of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell. For, while Christ’s body lays in the tomb, he is visiting those who were dead.
The icon of the Harrowing of Hell reminds us that God reaches into the deepest depths to pull forth souls into the kingdom of light. It reminds us how much we are unable to comprehend – let alone take to heart as our own – our creedal statement that Christ “descended into Hell.”
The Apostle Peter tells us that when Christ died he went and preached to the spirits in prison “who in former times did not obey … For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that … they might live in the spirit as God does” (I Peter 3: 15b- 4: 8).
The Early Church taught that after his death Christ descended into hell and rescued all the souls, starting with Adam and Eve, who had died under the Fall. The Harrowing of Hell is intimately bound up with the Resurrection, the Raising from the Dead, for as Christ is raised from the dead he also plummets the depths to bring up, to raise up, those who are dead, no matter where that may be in time and in space. The Harrowing of Hell carries us into the gap in time between Christ’s death and his resurrection.
In icons of the Harrowing of Hell, Christ stands on the shattered doors of Hell. Sometimes, two angels are seen in the pit binding Satan. And we see Christ pulling out of Hell Adam and Eve, imprisoned there since their deaths, imprisoned along with all humanity because of sin. Christ breaks down the doors of Hell and leads the souls of the lost into Heaven. It is the most radical reversal we can imagine. Death does not have the last word, we need not live our lives buried in fear. If Adam and Eve are forgiven, and the Sin of Adam is annulled and destroyed, who is beyond forgiveness?
In discussing the “Descent into Hell,” Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that if Christ’s mission did not result in the successful application of God’s love to every intended soul, how then can we think of it as a success? He emphasises Christ’s descent into the fullness of death, so as to be “Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 5).
However, in her book Light in Darkness, Alyssa Lyra Pitstick says Christ did not descend into the lowest depths of Hell, that he only stayed in the top levels. She cannot agree that Christ’s descent into Hell entails experiencing the fullness of alienation, sin and death, which he then absorbs, transfigures, and defeats through the Resurrection. Instead, she says, Christ descends only to the “limbo of the Fathers” in which the righteous, justified dead of the Old Testament waited for his coming.
And so her argument robs the Harrowing of Hell of its soteriological significance. For her, Christ does not descend into Hell and experience there the depths of alienation between God and humanity opened up by sin. She leaves us with a Christ visiting an already-redeemed and justified collection of Old Testament saints to let them know that he has defeated death – as though he is merely ringing on the doorbell for those ready to come out.
However, Archbishop Rowan Williams has written beautifully, in The Indwelling of Light, on the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is the new Adam who rescues humanity from its past, and who starts history anew. “The resurrection … is an introduction – to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbours, to our physical world.”
He says: “Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal began … [This] icon declares that wherever that lost moment was or is – Christ [is] there to implant the possibility … of another future.” [Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, p. 38.]
I ask myself: what’s the difference between the top levels of Hell and the bottom levels of Hell? Is my Hell in my heart of my own creation? In my mind, in my home, where I live and I work, in my society, in this world? Is hell the nightmares from the past I cannot shake off, or the fears for the future when it looks gloomy and desolate for the planet? But is anything too hard for Lord?
The icon of the Harrowing of Hell tells us that there are no limits to God’s ability to search us out and to know us. Where are the depths of my heart and my soul, where darkness prevails, where I feel even Christ can find no welcome? Those crevices even I am afraid to think about, let alone contemplate, may be beyond my reach. I cannot produce or manufacture my own salvation from that deep, interior hell, hidden from others, and often hidden from myself.
But Christ breaks down the gates of Hell. He rips all of sinful humanity from the clutches of death. He descends into the depths of our sin and alienation from God. Plummeting the depths of Hell, he suffuses all that is lost and sinful with the radiance of divine goodness, joy and light.
Hell is where God is not; Christ is God, and his decent into Hell pushes back Hell’s boundaries. In his descent into Hell, Christ reclaims this zone for life, pushing back the gates of death, where God is not, to the farthest limits possible. Christ plummets even those deepest depths, and his love and mercy can raise us again to new life.
[Today], we think again of Christ in the grave, and ask him to take away all that denies life in us, whether it is a hell of our own making, a hell that has been forced on us, or a hell that surrounds us. Christ reaches down, and lifts us up with him in his Risen Glory.
May these thoughts from Canon Patrick Comerford be an epiphany for you on this Holy Saturday. Here's a Charles Wesley hymn that also seems fitting for today.
The Hymns of Charles Wesley are among the finest treasures of Christian verse, sung by Anglicans, Methodists, and others around the world. Today, I selected one of his hymns for the Unapologetically Episcopalian Facebook page, "O Thou Who Camest From Above." As I listened to the music and read the words, I had an epiphany. It dawned on me that, even though this hymn is included in both The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal) and The United Methodist Hymnal, I don't recall ever choosing it for corporate worship. In fact, I don't remember ever singing it at any time during my 49 years of ordained ministry.
The text is a reflection upon a verse from the Book of Leviticus: “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar; it shall not go out” (Leviticus 6:13 NRSV). It has sacramental overtones in Christian liturgy as in the traditional Great Thanksgiving handed down to Anglicans and Methodists alike, we pray, "And here we offer unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee..." Those familiar with the Christian experience of both Charles Wesley and his brother John Wesley, may recognize an allusion to their experience, which John described as one that gave him faith in Christ who kindled a flame in the "altar of my heart."
Interestingly, Hereford, the tune to which the hymn is set in the aforementioned hymnals and in the recording below is by composer Samuel Sebastian Wesley, grandson of Charles Wesley, who was Organist of Hereford Cathedral early in his career. His father, Samuel Wesley, was also a noted English organist and composer.
This hymn is a supplication to our Savior to supply the spiritual guidance and gifts to allow his followers to fulfill the vocation to work, think, and speak for him every day. It is a perfect prayer for any Christian's daily life and I commend it to you. Perhaps it will become a spiritual practice for you in your journey of faith in the Way of Love.
1 O thou who camest from above the fire celestial to impart, kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart!
2 There let it for thy glory burn with inextinguishable blaze, and trembling to its source return in humble prayer and fervent praise.
3 Jesus, confirm my heart's desire to work, and speak, and think for thee; still let me guard the holy fire, and still stir up the gift in me.
4 Ready for all thy perfect will, my acts of faith and love repeat; till death thy endless mercies seal, and make the sacrifice complete.
Dear Members and Friends of St. Martin-in-the-Fields,
I began my ministry with you as Interim Rector at St. Martin’s almost two years ago. Three days from now, July 25, will be my last Sunday with you. Your new Rector, The Reverend Alan Bentrup, will lead you in worship on August 1.
I write with mixed emotions to say farewell and express gratitude for the opportunity to share Christ’s work with you during this season of transition. We have worked together to remember and celebrate the history of the parish, to clarify your present-day identity, to manage changes in leadership, to strengthen ties with the wider Church, and to prepare for commitment to a new era of mission with your new Rector. We have wrestled with a pandemic and learned many things in the process. We have explored the joys of faithful stewardship, envisioned a robust new program of Christian formation for all ages, developed and populated a new model for mission and governance, reached out in love to our neighbors in need, and expressed lavish hospitality to newcomers seeking a spiritual home. It will make my heart glad to know that these experiences have made you ready for the days ahead. For, as St. Paul wrote to the Church in Philippi, "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6).
We are confident that you will welcome your new Rector, Alan, his family, Elizabeth, Ford, and, Walker, with the same strong, generous, open arms that welcomed us. We are also confident that your ministry together will result in transformed lives and much thanksgiving to God.
Many have asked about our plans for the future. We’ll be taking a vacation in August. Upon our return, Gay will continue her artistic pursuits, including some online teaching, and I plan to undertake a few projects at our home in Arlington. I expect that my future service to The Episcopal Church will be primarily consulting and mentoring.
You are most welcome to stay in touch with us. We want to know what is happening in your lives and in the life of this parish so we can cheer you on from the “great cloud of witnesses.” However, my role as your Priest will be concluded. Your new Rector and his family will need every opportunity to establish a relationship with you. So, I will not be coming back or performing sacramental or liturgical rites for St. Martin’s. We’ve moved before and have seen the wisdom in this practice. We continue to have wonderful friends from every place we’ve ever served and everyone understands that we now play a different role in their lives. Please make a note of the following contact information:
Ron and Gay Pogue 5805 Dry Creek Lane Arlington, Texas 76017
May God bless St. Martin’s and may God bless each of you in your spiritual journey. I remain convinced that the greatest days of this parish lie in the future. You and those God leads to you in the future will have the joy of remaining open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discover what new things God wants to accomplish through this vibrant and welcoming community of faith. We love you and will keep you in our prayers. We ask that you also keep us in your prayers as God’s new day unfolds!
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue Interim Rector St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church Keller, Texas
Modern personnel practices in secular business settings emphasize the importance of performance appraisals. Some of that spills over into our perspective on our life as followers of Jesus Christ. That is not necessarily a good thing.
Business and the economy are concerned with performance and productivity. People are useful as long as they are able to contribute to the bottom line. People easily become cogs in the wheels of commerce.
Jesus was concerned about fruitfulness. He said, "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5).
I helped a family say goodbye to a loved one who was a renowned surgeon, husband, father, and Christian gentleman. During those last minutes of his life, they were not concerned in the least with his performance. They spoke of the wonderful life he lived and the stewardship of his gifts as a physician that allowed him to heal, save lives, give people another chance. "That was why he was put here," they said. He understood that God had made him a physician and guided his hands in God's healing work. He lived a fruitful life.
Every life he touched made a difference to others. We'll never know how many. I recalled a bit of wisdom:"Anyone can count the number of seeds in an apple, but only God can count the number of apples in a seed." Fruitful people go around planting seeds. Those seeds germinate, take root, sprout, grow, and produce fruit. And so the process continues from generation to generation.
Here's a question: When you die, do you want someone to say about you, "He always had good performance appraisals," or do you want it said, "He lived a fruitful life"?
Do what you have to do to earn a living, keep your job, and provide for your family. Be a top performer. But don't confuse being a cog in the wheel with living a fruitful, abundant, Christian life.
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue Interim Rector St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church Keller, Texas
Here is a question I am often asked: What has been the most valuable learning experience in your work as an interim minister and why? Here's my response.
Mission and transition are dynamically related.
When a faith community is intentional about discerning the mission entrusted to it and committed to engagement in that mission, it is also willing to be intentional about the transitions that are necessary. The dots have to be connected.
While considering leaving the parish I had served as rector for almost a decade, I was intrigued by the work being accomplished by colleagues who were intentional interim rectors. In conversations with them, I was encouraged to explore service to the wider Church through transitional ministry instead of as a settled rector in one parish. That discernment led to training in intentional interim ministry, during which I suddenly realized that all churches are in some sort of transition most of the time, although often unconscious of it. That was a big epiphany for me. I had a firm grasp of the obvious!
Transition training should be core seminary curriculum. Transitions between settled rectors provide a unique opportunity to explore transition – remembering where we’ve been, clarifying where we are, discerning where God is calling us, making changes that are needed, connecting with the wider church, and embracing a new era of mission with a new spiritual leader. But that is not the end of transition!
During this epiphany, I recalled some words of Titus Presler: “Mission is not fundamentally something we do as Christians but a quality of God’s own being. It is not a program of ours but the path of God’s action in the world. The mission of the Church, therefore, derives from the mission of God, and it has meaning only in relation to what God is up to in the universe. Already engaged in mission, God simply invites us to participate in what God is doing.”
The Church doesn’t have a mission. The mission has a Church. Everything we do as followers of Christ in community is related to and in the service of that mission. And God’s mission is constantly in transition. It became clear to me that when a church continues to function as if nothing has changed, the mission suffers. It also became clear to me that the mission suffers when changes are needed but are avoided or resisted.
So, intentional transition work in the Church, whether between rectors or at any time, must involve discernment about mission, participation in what God is doing for the sake of the world at our doorstep. Transition work matters only in relation to mission.
This insight guides my leadership so that after our interim time together, consciousness of the dynamic relationship between ongoing mission and ongoing transition will continue. Churches that are engaged in mission are healthier, happier, and more attractive to those who are seeking what Christ offers through them. In such places, transition evokes transformation.
In my service to the wider Church, I would like to leave a legacy of healthy, mission-focused, transformative congregations.
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 10)
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue Interim Rector St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church Keller, Texas
As we approach this Independence Day, my thoughts are on the internal threats to our nation and the need to restore unity. Whatever problems we face, "we the people" are much stronger than a mob of individuals pointing fingers, insisting on our own way, and fighting over ideologies. We also know better than that and we've always been more effective in solving our problems by pulling together than by pulling apart!
So, for those of us who believe we are called to pray for our nation - for one another - now would be a very good time! There are many fine prayers for such an occasion, but the one that has been on my mind this week is best known as the hymn, America the Beautiful. Every word is packed with the kind of spirit we need to restore our unity of purpose. But the words that are ringing in my ears are these:
America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
In order to face one another and to work effectively with those with whom we differ, we need the humility to admit that none of us has yet achieved the perfection we seek. Whether or not we ever actually achieve it, we'll come closer if we pursue it in the company of our fellow Americans. That requires that we face the truth that flaws exist - racism, wealth inequality, poverty, suppression of rights, limited access to affordable healthcare, just to name a few. Let us humbly ask God to mend our flaws.
We also need divine help in gaining self-control so that our impulses and anxieties will not drive us apart. Many of our problems are truly frightening. No wonder we are so anxious and so prone to knee jerk reactions. We can't listen to one another or really seek understanding in that condition. Let us ask God to calm us down.
And, we need to respect the boundaries that make it possible to live and work together. Some of those boundaries must be imposed from without, but the most important ones must be established within us. Jesus taught us that all the Law is summed up in one commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself." When that law is at work, we are most inclined to do the right thing in relation to our brothers and sisters at home and abroad. So, let us ask God to write that law in our hearts so that we all might be truly free.
It will come as no surprise to some of you that I am a longtime Judy Collins fan. In 1993, she and the Harlem Boys Choir led a host of people on the National Mall in singing America the Beautiful. It is one of the most moving performances of this prayer/hymn I know. Maybe you'll enjoy watching the video and singing along.
Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue Interim Rector St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church Keller, Texas
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