Monthly Archives: May 2013

Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness


A reasonable caution about the potential for infection in church is not to be mocked, but now that the use of hand sanitizers has become a quasi-sacramental rite in many congregations, the ancient sign of peace is omitted for fear of passing more than peace, and some people refuse to take communion from the hand of another (not to mention from a common cup or even by intinction), my inner mocker can no longer be constrained. People, people, really! Germs are not the enemy, antiseptic obsession is! (See The New York Times Magazine, May 19, 2013, “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs.”) Sigh. Knowing that I will convince no one who is otherwise persuaded on this matter, I share with you a Blessing and a Communion Prayer that you may freely make use of to ensure a sanitary worship experience for your congregations (originally written for a community service at Andover Newton during flu season).


Blessing of the Holy Hand Sanitizers

 Holy One,

Thou art godliness indeed,

and cleanliness is next to Thee.

To Thee the ancient psalmist prayed

Wash me, Lord!

Sprinkle me with hyssop,

and I shall be cleansed of every stain.

We too come to Thee,

confident in Thy promise

to create in us pure hearts,

to keep us squeaky clean,

and to free us

from all who seek to do us harm,

bad microbes great and small.

Bless then, O Antiseptic One,

this your servant, Purell,

fruit of the Dow Chemical Company

and gift of germophobe deacons

whose concern for us

is second only to your own

and even more irrational.

As we share its sanitizing power,

grant that we may be

not only a clean people,

but also a more cautious people,

more vigilant,

more on guard against germs,

and the contamination of bodies,

more afraid of the Other

and of one another,

now and forever. Amen.



Communion Prayer, with Words of Institution

O God, dear Lord,

Jesus is Thy gift to us,

and we thank Thee for him

with all our hearts.

He said a lot of nice things about Thee,

and he told some terrific stories

about soft lambs and small children.

We like soft lambs and small children.

We are, however, a little disappointed in him.

Well, very disappointed,

if Thou must know the truth.

 We know it was not his fault

that when he was born

his parents showed poor judgment

by allowing dirty cows to breathe on him

and dirty shepherds to kiss him.

But when he grew up and became an adult,

he made some poor choices of his own.

 He was not careful about whom he ate with.

He did not wash his hands

or make anyone else wash theirs.

And he even put bread

in the smelly hand of his own betrayer.

What was that about?

That night before he died?

When he took bread and thanked Thee

and called the bread his body?

We do not like to talk about bodies

or acknowledge in church that we have one—

for bodies are kind of icky

when you get right down to it.

(By the way, did you notice?

He handled that bread,

without tongs or gloves.)

 And what was that about,

when he took the cup and called it his blood—

which is a yucky thing to say under any circumstances—

and had them drink it,

from the same cup,

without a napkin?

(He even said,

Do this in memory of me!

And so we were stuck with it.)

Anyway, dear Lord,

we want Thee to know,

as we gather around this table,

leaving ample personal space,

that we don’t hold it against him;

but, no offense and with all due respect,

we really couldn’t let it go.

Thou wouldst not expect us to,

wouldst Thou?

No, of course not;

so we have taken care of it.

We have corrected his deficiencies.

We have tightened up.

We wash our hands.

And just to be doubly sure

that no one worries about germs,

distracting them from the pure worship of Thee,

we have decided that it isn’t really food we’re sharing

but a holy token

that vaguely reminds us of food

come down out of a gleaming stainless steel kitchen

in heaven from you.

And we barely touch it,

let alone slurp or chew.

It will do Thy heart good, we are sure,

that as meals go,

this one is teensy,

and it does not often make us glad.

And we offer it only to our own,

to those we have vetted,

who are wearing ties,

who never clear their throats,

who have showered,

and who manage to look good in the artificial light

of most of our sanctuaries.

For this satisfying solution,

and for all your blessings,

we who stand before you

with clean hands and antiseptic hearts,

offer thanks and praise to Thee,

to whose godliness our cleanliness is next,

now and forever. Amen.


The Garden on Garden Street

I once had a second floor study that was a true window on the world. Only an extrovert could love such a study. Through its tall arched window, I looked down on Garden Street, a fire station at one end, Harvard Square at the other, and in between, four undergraduate houses of Harvard College. Foot traffic, car traffic, fire engine sirens, conversations angry, earnest and glad all reached me from the well-traveled street below.

From my bright perch I could also see a miniature vegetable garden. It was growing on a patch of dirt on the street side of a fence that hid the opposite house. A low loose circle of chicken-wire enclosed the patch, but as a constraint it was laughable; every day the garden inched out farther onto the busy brick sidewalk.

On days when I was up early, I conducted covert surveillance of this small Eden. I saw people in a hurry turn their heads towards the exuberant green tangle. I saw some give it a wide berth, careful not to crush the tendrils that were laying claim to the sidewalk. I saw an old man bend down to finger the leaves of the squash plant, as if testing for plastic. A day care teacher with toddlers in tow stopped to give lessons in vegetables. And one day, a few minutes after sunrise, a short fellow in baggy overalls picked and pocketed a tomato.

In a long summer of watching, only once did I see the gardener. It was just after dawn when she threw a hose over the fence from the inner yard and watered for a while. Seeing her materialize like that, I knew who she was.

And I thought, What happy carelessness, to have planted a garden in a patch outside a fence. What detachment, to be doing nothing to constrain it from encroaching on the city’s bricks, to be watering only. What elemental generosity, to post no sign, no warning, but to make an offering-at-large to which noticing, admiring, touching, instructing, and plucking are all correct responses.

In this season of gardening, then, I pray:

God, make us like you, planting gardens outside fences, tending in secret, letting things grow the way they must, offering us your Eden, hoping it will turn our heads, accepting our various approaches, content with them all, whether we glance or touch, or pluck to taste and see. Make us like you. Amen.


A Festival of Rain

A rainy Memorial Day weekend. Very rainy. Torrential at times. It’s Springtime in Boston, always an iffy proposition. Of course, we need the rain. That was my mantra yesterday when I got caught in a downpour, stuck in snarled traffic, with zero visibility. We need the rain. It’s a way to make virtue out of vexation.

Of course we do need rain. All of us need rain: there’s always drought someplace in the world. It’s easy to forget that. We only occasionally get a bad one here in the Northeast. Our faucets routinely deliver great gushing quantities of water. It’s not the same elsewhere.

Sometimes, when I stand at my sink with the tap open, I try to imagine a life without easy access to water. I think about the exhausting grind of lugging water from a shared village well or a muddy stream. I think of places where control of water determines the balance of power; where water is used to subjugate, punish, and pacify, as it often is in Palestinian refugee camps. I think too of all the cities and towns of Israel where people have water, but where Israelis yearn also, as Maureen Kemeza says, to “drink the cup of security instead of the bitter dregs of terror.”

I watch the rain wash out my week-end plans and say, “Oh well, we need the rain.” I say it in the resigned, noble, yet slightly resentful way only someone divorced from the daily struggle for subsistence could say such an obvious thing. Meanwhile, somewhere else, a human being who had no week-end plans, no prospects at all in fact, looks down at dry cracked earth and prays for the rain I have resigned myself to; prays also perhaps for that other refreshment – for justice, as necessary for life as water itself.

In the gospel of John, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Tabernacles, a week-long autumnal harvest celebration. By his day, it had taken on the character of a festival of rain. Each day of the observance, priests and people processed to the great fountain on the northeast side of the Temple. There a priest filled a golden pitcher with its water, as the choir sang a verse from the prophet Isaiah, “With joy you  draw water from salvation’s wells!” Then back up they processed, through the portal called the Water Gate. When they arrived at the altar of sacrifice, they marched around it, singing psalms. Finally, the priest ascended the ramp to the altar and poured the precious water from the pitcher through a silver funnel onto the ground.

Unlike us, who are disappointed when it rains on our parade, the celebrating Jews prayed fervently that it might rain during the Feast of Tabernacles, for rainfall during Tabernacles was taken as a sign that God would send the abundant Spring rains necessary for a good crop the following year. I have read that even in recent, more bitter years, Jordanian Arabs, who are not enamored of the Israelis, continue to keep their eye on the weather during the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, hoping for the rainfall that portends a good harvest for their own people too – common needs betraying a common humanity, in spite of everything.

In the midst of this festival of rain, surrounded by his people’s prayers for life-giving water, Jesus stands up, as if in answer to them all. He cries out that he is water, rain, the life we need. He stands up and promises that if we drink from his well, if we return repeatedly to the springs of wisdom, mercy, reconciling grace and generosity that flow within him, that he embodies, then living water will also flow from us who accept his invitation – we will ourselves become like fountains.

John tells us parenthetically that by “living water” Jesus was referring to “the Spirit” that would be bestowed upon his disciples after his death and glorification. The gift of this Spirit is the momentous religious experience we commemorated on Pentecost Sunday.

We associate Pentecost more with wind and fire than with water, because those heartier images are the star performers in the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles that we customarily read on that day. Thus we trend to think of the Holy Spirit as power and enthusiasm, impetus and ardor  –  a force to be reckoned with, transforming fear to boldness, inhibition to freedom, doubt to conviction. And so it is.

But Pentecost is also a festival of rain. And the Spirit is like holy precipitation. The rain we need. In Acts, we hear a Spirit-filled Peter try to explain to the stunned crowd what is happening. This, he says, is the drenching that was promised by the prophet Joel: “In those days, says the Lord, I will pour out my Spirit on everyone…” Pour it out, like water from a golden pitcher, like torrents from the sky.

Pentecost is a downpour, a soaking, a flood – a flood of life and possibility; and, miraculously, a flood of mutual understanding that washes away, if only for one blessed day, the desiccating divisions of clan, nation and tongue. It is like water turned mysteriously to wine, making the world giddy with hope and joy. It is a baptismal immersion from which the church rises, dripping wet, waterlogged with grace. The call given to us in those fathoms is to go and drip on everything; to rain on the drought-stricken world the rain of kingdom life.

Many congregations prayed for wind and fire last week. I wonder how many prayed for rain. As I was watching it fall very hard yesterday and late into the night, I hoped some did, because we really need the rain. We really need The Rain.