What is the Exsultet?

This might be my fifteen minutes of fame. A professor at VTS, the Rev. Dr. Bill Roberts, encouraged me to submit my term paper for his Liturgical Music class as an article for the Journal of the Association for Anglican Musicians. It’s been published in time for Holy Week/Easter. It’s a description of the Exsultet, the song the deacon sings at the Easter Vigil to proclaim the Resurrection. It also includes my reflections on the role of deacon, a role I will always inhabit, yet only one of the calls I am answering.

Here's the article. It is posted here with permission, and was originally published in The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, vol. 27, no. 3 (March 2018).


Okay then. I've lived in Virginia for a little over three months now, and I feel ready to post some reflections. There's a lot to say, and yet not a whole lot that would attract the interest of very many people. We are all more ordinary and unremarkable than we wish we were. In many ways I'm just another grad student, another seminarian, another not-so-young classmate ten years older than the median age. But the particular kind of homesickness I feel caught me by surprise, and might be interesting to people who know me, especially people who knew me 25+ years ago.

I'm not homesick for Seattle (yet). I'm homesick for Minnesota, and more specifically, the Lutheran Church. I never imagined that I would feel this way.

When I arrived at Virginia Seminary, I was adjusting quickly to tremendous change: closing my business, moving across the country, becoming the unpaid member of a one-income household, and starting graduate school for the third time. I didn't expect how old I would feel, but that's for another post. I definitely had no idea that I would long so nostalgically for my Lutheran upbringing.

I love being an Episcopalian (since 2005), and I'm happy to be on the Episcopal clergy roster (since 2010), but there I was in chapel on the day we celebrated a Lutheran liturgy of Eucharist, choking up and making eye contact with people in the crowd who I knew were Lutherans. I could hardly sing the service music from the Lutheran hymnal. I loved every minute of it.

Then this past weekend I went to a concert of the National Lutheran Choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and I wasn't captivated by the spectacular building. I was lost in a sad-yet-joyful dream of Lutheran choral music. And then VTS hosted a Lutheran Hymn Festival led by Gail Ramshaw, a Lutheran liturgical-language scholar, and one of my favorite authors. I felt like I was being called home. 

And I signed up for a course next January at the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia. I can't wait.

All of this has caught me by surprise, but I suppose it's not so unusual. When people find themselves in new situations, it's normal for their minds and hearts to reach back to something familiar, something from an important time of personal formation. But I think it's about more than that. For me -- and this sounds a little heady, but bear with me -- I think it's Lutheran theology that I find most comforting and helpful right now.

I remember taking a class in systematic theology at the ecumenical School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University (a Jesuit school), in 2008. The class professor was a Catholic priest and theologian. I noticed to my surprise that this very Catholic scholar spoke about Martin Luther perhaps more than any other theologian in his curriculum. It became clear to me that Luther has taken his place among the best theologians in Christian tradition. 

I think Luther holds a prominent place in Christian history for one important reason: he took very seriously the human need for God's grace. He was personally, viscerally aware of this need. Luther grew up with a stern father prone to great anger (this is not a biographical detail I share with him), and his Theology of the Cross emerges from that difficult personal context. For me, my appreciation of the need for God's grace is grounded in my identity as a person in recovery, but also in the grief and shame I have felt (and still feel) over certain painful personal experiences, and my own unfortunate choices that helped bring them about. (I was a slow learner in many ways.)

And so here I am pursuing yet another career, and I begin my studies here with many skills and positive experiences, but also some ghosts, fears, and deep regrets. I feel more than a little vulnerable, and even fragile. And so I turn to the Lutheran worldview, the Lutheran music I love, and the Lutheran imagination, for comfort and encouragement. I am working once again on the terrible reality of the profound weakness of human beings, and the good news of the immeasurable grace of God.

One of the tear-jerking Lutheran hymns I sing these days is this one, a classic, a text I would never be without as I do my spiritual work at this time in my life:

If you but trust in God to guide you
with gentle hand through all your ways,
you'll find that God is there beside you
when crosses come, in trying days.
Trust then in God's unchanging love;
build on the rock that will not move.

What gain is there in anxious weeping,
in helpless anger and distress?
If you are in your Savior's keeping
in sorrow will he love you less?
For Christ who took for you a cross
will bring you safe through every loss.

The Lord our restless hearts is holding,
in peace and quietness content.
We rest in God's good will unfolding
what wisdom from on high has sent.
God, who has chosen us by grace,
knows very well the fears we face.

Sing, pray, and keep God's ways unswerving;
offer your service faithfully.
Trust heaven's word; though undeserving,
you'll find God's promise true to be.
This is our confidence indeed:
God never fails in time of need.

--Georg Neumark; tr. composite, as found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

Congregational development workshop

I'm here in Williamsport, PA with friends and colleagues Dan Morrow and Caroline McCall. We're leading a short workshop on congregational development for the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. Lots of lay and clergy church leaders are looking for ways to grow their churches, or to improve their organizational health and sustainability. These tools help them work together to achieve their goals. And - the weather today is perfect!

Reflections on the O Antiphons

Each day in in the seven last days of Advent, an antiphon is appointed to be sung alongside the Song of Mary (Magnificat) at Evening Prayer. Each antiphon borrows an image or metaphor from the Hebrew Bible that reveals something about God. These antiphons have come to be known as the "O Antiphons," and inspire the text of the popular Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." I reflected on these images and wrote a few thoughts about what the images mean to me.

Wine at communion? A reflection

Today I did something I haven't done for nearly a year and a half: I took a chalice at Holy Communion, brought it to my lips, and drank from it. Don't worry: it wasn't wine. It was grape juice. What follows is a reflection from my own perspective: deacon, psychotherapist, lifelong participant in Protestant churches (Lutheran and Episcopal), and alcoholic. (I also studied sacramental theology about four years ago, and I read things, but don't expect the latest in the field here: this is just me sharing some of my experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Note also that I take to heart a line from page 103 of the Big Book of AA: "...we have stopped fighting anybody or anything. We have to!" This is not a manifesto, an argument, or the last word on anything. Take it or leave it.)