Friday, January 6, 2012

SpiritMatters Monthly January 2012

Westward leading, still proceeding,

Guide us to thy perfect light...

Look at almost any depiction of the Nativity and you are sure to see, shining brightly in the sky over the stable, that famous star of Bethlehem. The star of Bethlehem is usually drawn as a brilliant star with a long tail pointing downwards like a beacon illuminating the place where Christ was born. I think that in the popular imagination we like to think of the star of Bethlehem as an unmistakable and miraculous sign that led the three Magi (or wise men) to the manger, but the reality was likely quite different. The story from the Gospel of Matthew says very little about the sign that led the Magi to Jesus; it doesn’t call it the “brightest and best of stars of the morning,” nor does it call it a “star with royal beauty bright.” All we really know about this star from the story is that it was observed by the Magi and that it led them to Jesus. King Herod missed it. The chief priests and scribes missed it. Most people missed it. The Magi (a name which means astrologer or sorcerer in Greek) noticed the star and followed it, but they were after all, astrologers. We don’t know how many years the Magi had spent looking to the heavens and trying to unlock its mysteries before they were finally led to this one spot. What we do know, or can at least reasonably assume, is that they were looking. These wise men had been looking for the one who would not only be king of the Jews, but their king as well. They came bearing gifts fully expecting that they would find the one which they had been looking for and when it did finally happen we are told that they were overwhelmed with joy. To have an Epiphany is to suddenly find something you had been looking for; it is that moment when you finally see the solution or the answer that had been eluding you. Sometimes the answer we find surprises us with its simplicity or we realize that what we had been looking for was right in front of us all along; either way, it is usually a very joyous moment.

The Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, and in the West we usually celebrate this epiphany of the three wise men as they finally found the newborn king that they had been seeking, but there are other epiphanies that the Church celebrates this day as well: we celebrate the epiphany of John the Baptist as he saw the spirit of God descending upon Jesus in the river Jordan, and we celebrate the epiphany of Jesus’ disciples as they witnessed him perform his first miracle of turning the water into wine. In a few weeks we will celebrate the Feast of the Presentation (or Candlemas), in which we remember the epiphanies of two more individuals: the priest Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Both Simeon and Anna had spent countless years in the temple worshipping God while searching and waiting for the one who would be their messiah and savior, and finally in their old age they were both able to see and recognize the child which they had been seeking. The three wise men, John the Baptist, Simeon and Anna all have one thing in common: they were all actively searching for God when they eventually found him. While we often talk about having an epiphany as if it came more or less out of the blue, but the reality is that it is more often the result of much searching. This isn’t just true of religious epiphanies, but is true for more secular revelations as well. Isaac Newton is famously remembered for developing his theory of gravity after watching an apple fall to the ground, but that answer came to him after many years of pondering the various laws of the universe. It wasn’t momentary brilliance that made Newton so successful (although he was clearly brilliant), it was resilience at continuing to search for answers even when they were hard to find.

The Feast of the Epiphany is a celebration of our quest to find God, to find truth, to find knowledge and to find hope in a world that can at times be incredibly dark. Christmas is about celebrating God being born in this world, but Epiphany is about celebrating when we first found him. Epiphany is about those moments in life when God is real to us, and not just an idea or a hope. The problem with epiphanies though is that we humans sometimes confuse finding one truth with finding all truth, and when we figure one thing out we sometimes begin to think that we have figured all things out. Sometimes we think the epiphany is the end of the journey, when really it is only the beginning. John the Baptist knew that his life was meant to be about searching for God and preparing for his kingdom (and encouraging others to do so as well), but he also recognized that God’s work was more important. It was God’s vision and God’s plan (not his own) that was of primary importance. As the Gospel of John says: “He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness to that light…”

We might think of an epiphany as the end of a quest for some truth: that moment when we find the answer we were looking for, but usually the key that we find just opens the door to more mystery. I am sure that the three Magi left Bethlehem with as many questions about what was to become of this child as they had answers and we know that Isaac Newton’s discoveries about gravity only drove him to ask more questions about the nature of the universe. The epiphanies that we celebrate today are those moments when God managed to grab our attention. For the Church, we point to those moments early in Christ’s life or ministry where we first began to realize that he was something truly special; for ourselves as individuals, I am sure that most of us can point to a time or place in our own lives when God managed to get our attention and wake us up. In either case we can recognize that the epiphany is just the beginning of the real story. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if the star of Bethlehem was bright and beautiful or tiny and insignificant, because what leads us to God is never as important as what we do once we have found him.

Friday, December 9, 2011

SpiritMatters Monthly December 2011

The hopes and fears of all the years...

If you think that Christmas is just about hope and love and light and happiness then you are setting yourself up for a huge disappointment come December the 25th. Despite all the carols played constantly over the radio, this time of year isn’t always the “Hap, Happiest season of all.” Let’s face it, December is probably the most stressful month of the year for most of us: the crowds, the shopping, the traffic, the parties, the Christmas lists, and that’s just if you are lucky. For some, the holiday stressors take on an entirely different dimension: fear, depression, loneliness, anxiety. The darkness of December isn’t always outside our doors; sometimes it’s within us as well.

We all have this cookie-cutter image of what a happy holiday is supposed to look like, but most of us know deep down that our celebrations are rarely, if ever, perfect. Despite so much commentary and complaint about the commercialization of Christmas in recent decades, the reality is that holiday stress is hardly a new thing. If you spend much time watching old Christmas movies over the next few weeks you may notice a theme throughout many of them: anxiety, fear and desperation. Consider the following list of holiday classics:

A Christmas Carol

It’s a Wonderful Life

Miracle on 34th Street

The Bishop’s Wife

Christmas in Connecticut

White Christmas

A Christmas Story

And yes even, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Each of these classic stories about Christmas includes at least one or more characters that are driven to their absolute limit by the demands that life places upon them this time of year. Even Charlie Brown was overwhelmed by Christmas stress and that was over 50 years ago! Anxiety and fear are not a product of this generation, they are a product of every generation. Things like the media and the economy might make our problems worse, but they certainly don’t create them. We are human; and humans, for whatever reason, get stressed out and depressed this time of year. Maybe it is the weather, maybe it is the darkness, maybe it is something more profound and mysterious, but whatever it is, it is real and we need to be willing to address it and deal with it. Trying to act as if Christmas is merely a happy time, and nothing more, is destructive and dishonest. If we take the time to look closely at our holiday traditions, we just might find that they actually do try to address the great range of emotions we feel this time of year. The next time you are sitting in a church and suffering through a boring sermon (it happens), grab the hymnal in front of you and actually read the text of some of your favorite Christmas carols. You might be surprised to find out that these hymns, which many of us think we know by heart, actually have a lot to say about the darkness and brokenness in our lives. See if you can identify which popular carols these verses come from:

“Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

and waring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;

O hush the noise and cease the strife and hear the angels sing!

“For he is our life-long pattern; daily when on earth he grew,

He was tempted, scorned, rejected,

Tears and smiles like us he knew.

Thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.”

“Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?

Good Christian, fear: for sinners here the silent Word is pleading”

“O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,

Dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere:

True man, yet very God, from sin and death now save us, and share our every load.”

“Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,

Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild;

Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,

The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.”

These songs were not written to be sung by children; they were written to be sung by adults who know very well just how painful and dark the world can be. I get very frustrated when I hear people say that Christmas is a holiday about children or for children. It is not. Granted, there is great joy and fun in having little ones around that still have faith in the magic of Santa Claus, but that is just the point: they still have faith, they still believe. It is the adults in the world that need to be reminded of the power of God. We are the ones who need to hear the message of hope; we are the ones who need to be reminded that God’s love can heal our brokenness. Christmas is stressful, and we only need to review the story of the Nativity (cue Linus with his blanket) to be reminded that it always has been. Our holiday celebrations may not compare to those we remember as children, but then again, we aren’t children anymore; we know full well how tough the world can be. We need Christmas in a much different way than our children do: we no longer have visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads.

Of course the holidays can add stress to our lives, but they can also give us the added hope and inspiration that we need to get through that stress and keep going. If we listen to every verse of our Christmas carols, we just might realize that they are about hope AND fear. If we revisit some classic Christmas stories, we just might realize that much of the stress that we feel this time of year isn’t unique to us or to our generation, but is a part of the bigger picture which is Christmas. Of course, we could just do away with the holiday: we could take down the trees and the lights. We could blow out the candles, turn off the carols and cancel the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. We could get rid of everything that is Christmas, but it wouldn’t get rid of the stress in our lives. Christmas can help us to find what light there is in a world that can at times seem very dark. Know that every emotion you feel this time of year (joy or sadness, fear or relief, hope or despair) is a part of the Christmas story. Perhaps Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal Priest in Philadelphia, said it best when he wrote this carol in 1868:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

SpiritMatters Monthly November 2011

For what we may be about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful...

Have you ever been really scared? I am not talking about the type of fear you have when you are walking through a haunted house or watching a horror movie. I am talking about the kind of fear that comes when you realize that your own death or downfall could be very imminent. If you have ever been really sick or almost in a fatal accident then you might understand the type of fear I am talking about. It is a horrible feeling to suddenly realize your own mortality or frailty. Most of us go through life without much thought of just how fragile human life really is. We may be aware of death, but for most of us it is at best a distant reality, and not something we worry about on a daily basis. With so many advances in agriculture and medicine and public health we have transformed our society from one whose primary concern is survival into one whose primary concern is comfort. Not that I am complaining.

Personally, I love good food, I like nice clothes, my house is warm and cozy and I just finished a round of antibiotics for an upper respiratory infection. I have no desire to live without the blessings of modern society, but I do think that it is important that we recognize those blessings as such. One of the side effects of the fear, which our ancestors used to live with on a daily basis, was thankfulness. Whenever the threat of imminent death passed by, the natural and immediate response was one of thanksgiving for being spared. If you have ever had a near-miss then you probably know the feeling: that sudden realization that your life is not your own and that it was only by a moment of pure grace that you are still alive. Having your life flash before your eyes is a real and horrifying feeling (and incidentally, it’s one of the reasons that I hate driving), but there is something to be said for that momentary recognition of the power of God’s grace that comes as we realize that we are still OK. True thankfulness only occurs when we recognize that we have been saved by a force completely outside ourselves.

The first Thanksgivings in America were not just harvest celebrations, they were solemn occasions wherein the early settlers truly gave thanks to God for the fact that they were still alive, which was something that they knew they couldn’t take for granted. When you consider that almost half of the English pilgrims that settled in Plymouth Colony died the first winter of malnutrition, disease or exposure, then it makes perfect sense that the survivors would take the time to give thanks for being spared. But the pilgrims at Plymouth were not the first settlers to proclaim a day of thanksgiving: the English settlers in Jamestown and Newfoundland had thanksgivings, as did the French in New France (now Quebec) and the Spanish in Florida. Solemn days of thanksgiving were nothing new to the European settlers that landed in the New World. It was common for communities to set aside days for intentional prayer and thanksgiving whenever they had been delivered from some calamity (like disease or famine). Not all of these thanksgivings were centered around food either, and in fact during some of them participants were actually asked to fast, NOT feast. What they all had in common was that they recognized the fragility of life and how much we as humans (despite all of our skill and cleverness) actually depend upon God’s grace.

During the hurricane a few months ago, I remember hearing a few people comment that it was the first time in their lives that they had actually seen empty shelves in the grocery store. That is really astounding if you stand back and think about it: for most of us we never have to think about not having enough food. Most of us spend our lives obsessed with the reality that we have too much food. We might stop to offer a prayer of thanks for our food, but usually not because we were actually worried that it wouldn’t be there. We take food for granted, along with so many other things. Sometimes it takes a crisis (even a minor one) to remind us that many of the things we enjoy in life are blessings and not promises.

Our world has not always had stores of food that never goes bad. Most of human existence has been about communities struggling to survive, and not just fighting over who gets to be the most comfortable. In some parts of the world, famine is still a very real issue and daily survival is something not to be taken for granted. It would be a shame if in our lives the only time we were truly thankful was when we were scared to death. How much better might our lives be if we realized how much we depend upon God’s grace and the help of our neighbors? Wouldn’t it be better if our lives were filled with that sense of relief and joy that comes from true thankfulness and gratitude?

Thanksgiving is not about turkey. It is about realizing that our lives are filled with blessings that we routinely take for granted: family, friends, food, and good health. Decide what you want your life to be filled with: blessings or burdens. The one that you spend the most time focusing on will most likely be the one you get. The great benefit of having a day of thanksgiving scheduled every year is that it reminds us that we don’t need to be scared to death to remember what a blessing life really is.

Friday, October 14, 2011

SpiritMatters Monthly October 2011

No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits.”

Growing up in the South, I have eaten my fair share of grits. They have always been a staple of my diet and even today I find myself reaching for the bag of grits on the shelf when I am looking for a hot comfort food that goes with just about anything. Many Northerners know about the South’s love affair with grits because it was a crucial part of the plot in the popular film “My Cousin Vinny.” Grits are a tradition in the South that European settlers learned from the Native Americans and in ages past many poorer Southerners survived on grits and not much else.

In the early 1900s, a horrible disease known as Pellagra (which is a niacin deficiency) became epidemic in the South, particularly in the poorer regions. Originally it was thought that Pellagra was caused by some germ or toxin in corn, but that explanation didn’t make much sense given that corn had always been a staple in the Southern diet. Why was this strange disease becoming a problem all of a sudden? Because the traditional method of making grits involved soaking corn kernels in lime water (the mineral lime, not the citrus fruit) before grinding them. This simple step makes niacin nutritionally available in corn, and therefore Native Americans and early settlers could survive on a diet of corn without many ill side effects. In the early 20th century, with the advent of so many new farming and milling methods in the South, the traditional method of preparing corn, including the preparation of grits, was replaced by what was thought to be a more sensible and faster method of just grinding the corn without soaking it. The results were disastrous: by 1916 approximately 100,000 Southerners had developed Pellagra and many died for the simple reason that they dispensed with an old tradition that they didn’t understand. The Native Americans didn’t know anything about niacin or specifically why soaking the corn in lime was important, they had just learned (undoubtedly through trial and error) that this was a step that needed to be taken.

I am always suspicious whenever any individual or group dismisses tradition lightly. It is a particularly nasty side-effect of so much wonderful innovation: we fall into the habit of thinking that the new way of doing things is always the better way, and it simply isn’t. Believe it or not, people have been having good ideas for a very long time. In our desire for creativity and innovation, we often forget the importance of wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge that comes largely from time and experience. If creativity is a spark, then wisdom is a slow-burning ember. We need wisdom because it keeps us from having to learn every one of life’s lessons the hard way. Tradition is one way in which the wisdom of our ancestors is handed down, but we have fallen into the belief that we must understand a tradition in order for it to be of value to us. We did not understand the purpose of washing corn kernels in lime water before milling them, but that doesn’t mean that tradition had no value. By dispensing with the tradition we were forced to learn the hard way just how important it was.

If the Pellagra outbreak in the South can teach us anything, it should be the danger of modern arrogance. Modern arrogance is the idea that we have only really figured the world out in the last 60 years or so and that every idea, every tradition and every practice of previous generations should be regarded with suspicion or condescension. Modern arrogance teaches us that people in the past were superstitious, ignorant and backward and that we, in contrast, are more enlightened and more clever. It just isn’t so. Next time you look at a medieval cathedral remind yourself that this building was built without power tools and calculators. How many of our modern buildings do you think will still be around in 500 or 1000 years? I am all for progress and innovation, but it should be done with humility and respect paid to tradition. We forget that traditions have had to stand the test of time, which is usually a far more severe judge than we could ever be. Give traditional ideas and methods a chance and don’t easily dismiss them. We may not understand everything our ancestors did, but that is probably more a sign of our ignorance than theirs.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

SpiritMatters Monthly September 2011

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;

A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

In about the year 325AD, the Roman emperor Constantine sent his mother, Helena, to the Middle East on a very special mission: she was to find any artifacts that she could that pertained to the life of Jesus of Nazareth and preserve them, as well as any holy sites associated with Jesus and his followers. Helena was to spare no expense to find and preserve whatever remained from the earthly life of Christ. Two of the oldest and most sacred churches in the world owe their existence to Helena: The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Helena’s most famous discovery by far, was what was reported to be the true cross on which Jesus was crucified. While excavating around the site that local tradition claimed to be the location of Christ’s tomb, Helena found, unceremoniously dumped in the bottom of a ditch, three large wooden crosses. Surely, she thought, one of these must be the cross on which Jesus was crucified. When one woman was miraculously healed by touching one of the crosses, Helena believed that she had discovered the true cross of Jesus and fragments of that piece of wood were distributed throughout the world. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is built over the site where Helena discovered the crosses as well as the two places where tradition states that Jesus was crucified and buried.

It would be easy for us in the modern world to forget how powerful a symbol the cross once was. It is now so casually used and worn (in varying degrees of tastefulness I might add), that it is entirely possible to overlook the fact that this was an instrument of torture that represented not only the death of Jesus, but the deaths of countless others whom the Romans crucified. Jesus’ followers couldn’t bear to look at a cross after his death and the cross didn’t become the universal symbol of Christianity until much later. It was probably no accident that the actual cross was thrown into a ditch and forgotten for 300 years. It was a symbol of defeat and weakness and pain and it reminded Christ’s followers of a horrific event that they just couldn’t bear to face. But Christ’s followers eventually overcame their aversion to the cross by transforming it into a symbol of life, and not just death. The cross became a reminder of Christ’s life and the eternal life that he promised to his followers and for that reason it became a treasured symbol of Christianity and one of the most recognized symbols in the world.

In the days immediately following September, 11th 2001, it became unbearable for many people to view media coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The pain was still too real. For many of us the pain still is too real. In the Pastoral Care Office is a binder that is left over from the weeks and months following September 11th. It is filled with photographs and missing person signs left by family members desperately looking for their loved ones. I have to admit that I find this book almost unbearable to look through, knowing now that these people are no longer missing, just missed. I don’t know any of these people, but I do know that each one of them was loved by someone; each one of them had a family; each one of them had dreams. While many people are mourning for specific loved ones, some of us mourn for people we never knew. There is something pretty amazing about our capacity to connect with complete strangers and maybe one of the things that we learn during a major crisis is how much we really do need one another.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001 the terrible, hateful actions of a few individuals got a lot of media coverage. What is less obvious is how many people responded to such hatred with courage and love. How many people ran into burning buildings to try to save complete strangers? How many people offered food or assistance or shelter? How many people worked long hours trying to rescue victims or recover bodies? How many people from around the world sent their condolences? How many stories are there of love, courage and compassion that we will never know? The most amazing thing about September the 11th, was that on that day and in the days immediately following, nobody was a stranger. We were all in this together. Maybe that is why so many people feel so profoundly wounded by that morning even though they never actually met any of the victims: by some sort of revelation we realized that we were all family.

It took a while for the cross to transform from a symbol of death and pain into a symbol of love and hope, but eventually it did happen and now the Church observes Holy Cross Day on September 14th. Any church lucky enough to have a fragment of the True Cross typically displays it on that day. Now it is fragments of World Trade Center steel that have been distributed around the world in the form of various memorials, in the hope that they too can bring about healing. It will take a lot more than 10 years for us to be able to fully appreciate and understand the events of September 11th, if we ever do, but it will only be possible if we can look beyond the hatred of the few that began that day, and remember the love that was expressed in how we responded. If you spend too much time hating something you usually condemn yourself into becoming what you despise. It’s just not worth it. Despite the media attention that was given to the hateful acts of the few, it was the loving and courageous acts of the many that actually won the day. Love may not be as showy or spectacular as hatred, but it is far more enduring and far more powerful. Whether it is on September the 11th or September the 14th the lesson is essentially the same: love always wins.

Monday, August 1, 2011

SpiritMatters Monthly August 2011

To love another person is to see the face of God...

In the book of Genesis, God states that: “It is not good for man to be alone.” God neglected, however, to elaborate on just how hard it would be for people to live together. In the biblical story, it didn’t take very long at all for Adam and Eve’s relationship to encounter serious trouble, and THEY were living in the Garden of Eden. It should come as no surprise to us then that relationships continue to be the central struggle of most of our lives. Whether it is with a significant other, a family member, a friend, a co-worker or a stranger on the street, the relationships we have with the other people in our life can be a blessing or a challenge and frequently they can be both at the same time. They are the source of our greatest joy, and of our greatest pain.

We all want to be loved. There is something deeply affirming and gratifying about having people in your life that want to be close to you either emotionally or physically. It gives us hope that the universe may not be as cold and lonely as we otherwise might imagine. None of us is perfect. We all have moments when we don’t feel loveable: a bad hair day, a bad mood day, or just a bad day period. We all have things about ourselves that we would like to change. It is important to have people in your life that can see past your flaws even when you can’t. The people in your life that truly love you know about all the skeletons in your closet and don’t care. They are the people who have seen you without your make-up or your game-face. They are the people who know who you truly are and not just the image that you project to the rest of the world. True love can really only happen when you truly know someone. It is amazing how many supposedly serious relationships are based upon false pretenses. The world can be a very difficult place in which to live, and we cannot be vulnerable to everyone all the time, but we all need at least one or two people in our lives to whom we can reveal our truest self.

On August 6th, many Christian churches observe the Feast of the Transfiguration, which memorializes an event mentioned in the gospels where Jesus takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to reveal to them who he truly is. We know from the gospel accounts that Jesus was closer to some of his disciples than he was to others. It was only to Peter, James and John that Jesus felt comfortable revealing his innermost self. Perhaps in that moment of transfiguration, when Jesus revealed his true nature to the three disciples on the mountain, his desire was to be known and loved for who he truly was, and not just for what others wanted him to be. It is a desire that I believe most of us share. There is an iconic image of Christ holding open his chest to reveal his heart. It is meant to convey just how vulnerable God is willing to be in order to be loved by us. To open your heart to someone and reveal your innermost thoughts and feelings is an extreme act of vulnerability, but it is really the only way to be truly loved. If life were simply about survival of the fittest we would probably never allow anyone else to truly know who we are; it would simply be too risky. Luckily life appears to be about more than just survival and we each have the opportunity to be known and loved by others in a way that helps us overcome our own humanity. Perhaps the desire to be loved for who we are and not just for what others want us to be is a trait that humans have in common with God. Maybe that desire to be known and loved is a part of the divine image in which the book of Genesis claims we were created.

Who knows you? Who are the people in your life that know all your baggage and don’t care? Who can you be completely and totally honest with? Pay attention to the people in your life that pay attention to you. Hold on to the people that want to know what makes you tick; the people that know your foibles; the people that can anticipate your thoughts and actions. Those are the people that want to know and love you for who you truly are, and aren’t just looking to cast you into a role that they have already written.

As the story goes, immediately after Adam and Eve took the bite of that forbidden fruit, their first inclination was to try to cover themselves up and conceal themselves from God. Our reality as humans living in a broken world is that we aren’t able to reveal ourselves completely to every person we come across. Not every relationship in our life is meant to be deep and meaningful, and they aren’t all meant to be life-long. But pay attention when someone opens their heart to you. It is in those knowing and loving relationships that we experience how it feels to see another person with open eyes and a vulnerable heart. It might just be the way that God looks at us.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

SpiritMatters Monthly May 2011

Get up, stand up...

Standing is a sign of respect. When I was in primary school my class was taught to stand whenever an adult entered the room. Soldiers are taught to stand at attention in the presence of a superior officer. When a priest enters the church at the beginning of the service the congregation stands; they do the same for the bride at a wedding. Gentlemen used to stand whenever a lady entered the room. In royal protocol, it is customary to stand whenever a king or queen enters the room, or to stand whenever a king or queen stands.

If you have ever been to a performance of Handel’s Messiah, then you are likely to have noticed that audiences frequently stand during the Halleluiah Chorus. Why? When Handel’s Messiah was first premiered in London, the performance was attended by King George II. When the choir began to sing the Halleluiah Chorus the king stood up, and because the king was standing everyone else in the audience had to stand as well and thus began a tradition that lasts to this day. But why did King George stand at that precise moment? The answer lies in the text of the chorus itself:

Halleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth…

King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Because Christ was being hailed as “King of Kings” by the choir, King George stood as a sign of respect to a greater king than himself. George’s very simple gesture sent a very powerful message: even he was subject to a higher power.

We often overlook or undervalue just how powerful physical language can be, but it can convey messages much more efficiently than our mouths can. It is trite, but true: actions speak louder than words. Regardless of what we say with our lips, or body language or our gestures will almost always give away our true thoughts or feelings. Countless books have been written to coach people on how to use body language effectively in the workplace and how to be aware of the non-verbal cues that we send others and that they in turn send us.

Physical language has just as much power in our faith lives as well. How we behave around holy objects or in our houses of worship says much more about what we actually think about God than what we profess with our lips. It is for this reason that the Church has at times paid close attention to the ritual actions and postures that people have during worship. One of the proclamations made by the First Council of Nicaea in 325AD was that Christians should stand during the service on Sundays and throughout Easter. It was felt that kneeling was too penitential and focused too much upon the sinfulness of the individual worshiper and not enough upon the dignity and respect owed to God. To this day many Christian traditions still stand during the Holy Eucharist.

Opinions and customs and postures have changed over the years, but the need to ensure that what we say is consistent with what we do has not. Much of what our mother’s taught us in the way of manners were not arbitrary rules of behavior, but guidelines to keep us from unintentionally offending others by not paying attention to our actions or our physical language. Having good manners is not about making yourself feel superior, it is about monitoring your actions in order to make the people around you feel comfortable.

The idea of standing as a sign of respect when a king, queen or someone of superior rank enters the room may seem antiquated to us today. Our society has shown a preference for familiarity over formality in recent decades and many of the symbols of honor and dignity that we once employed have fallen into disuse. The problem is that when our signs and symbols of respect fade away, very frequently the respect does as well. Paying attention to manners and body language and gestures may take a little extra effort, but the respect that it brings to us and gives to others make it worthwhile. Of course it takes more effort to stand during the Halleluiah Chorus rather than just sit there, but then showing respect to others is usually worth the extra effort. King George certainly thought so.