O still, small voice of calm

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

John Whittier, 1872

It's Holy Week, again, the first since I officially retired. There's a delicious freedom in not being responsible for multiple services and marathon sermon preparation this year. But the old tug that this time has always exerted on me is still present, though in different ways. I feel as if I've stepped back from the experience, kind of like one steps back from an impressionistic painting in order to see the full picture, rather than just the individual brush strokes and dots that go into its creation. There's certainly a deep sense of participation when one is the Celebrant of this unique seven days' events--saying the words of consecration over bread and wine, washing the feet of parishioners with whom one has not shared anything more intimate than a handshake at the door, stripping the altar, throwing the black veil over the altar cross and turning the lights out.

But there's something just as powerful in being a step or two removed from being in the center this time around. And I find that distance helpful as I listen to the cri de coeur--the heart cry-- of the Anglican community, all parts of it, known and unknown, rising to an even louder pitch, at least it seems so to me, as we approach this holiest of all span of days. Perhaps as we retrace the anguished steps of Jesus through his final attempts to bring humankind back to its senses, we struggle for some way to express our angst that somewhere along the way we've all taken leave of our senses. We're all trying to find where to place our feet where the ground won't crumble underneath them and in our stumbling we cry out against our pain and against our own clumsiness. If only there were clearer road signs that we could confidently follow, knowing they'd bring us where we want and need to be.

If ever the Church did something right, it was in establishing Holy Week and its observances as the way to Easter. It's inevitable that we will stumble and curse our awkwardness, but the promise is that if, with God's help, we keep getting up again we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. The problem is that along with the roughness of what's underfoot is the distracting howling of strange beasts and the cackling of other hysterical creatures dinning in our ears as we plow onward. Somewhere in the cacophony we suspect there are some voices that are giving us the right directions, but it's hard to discern them through the uproar. Our spiritual GPS is finding it hard to connect with the right signal.

As I reflected on some of this, I was reminded of the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind." I confess that the masculine language of the first phrase has been daunting for me, but the rest of the poetry has always brought peace when there was none. Above are a couple of the verses that have been especially helpful. And as I further reflected on this, I thought of something that Phyllis Tickle has written in her book The Great Emergence which I'm reading right now.

She addresses this "mighty upheaval" that all of Christianity, as well as other faith traditions, is experiencing. What I like about her approach is that she offers a "still, small voice of calm" amid the clamor. Each time that these hinge times, as she terms them, occur--usually about every 500 years, three things have always resulted:

  • A new more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge.

  • The organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self.

  • Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread--and been spread--dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity's reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.

What could be more appropriate for our reflection in this Holy Week, in the midst of our distress? The traces of death to resurrection are clearly seen in this voice of calm. As we walk again the path to the cross, with all its pain and noisy shouting, we can take hope that this earthquake, wind, and fire that we now experience contains within it the voice of calm that will point us in the right direction.

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