"Spiritual scales and arpeggios": A word from Bishop Gates for the beginning of Lent


A sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2022 at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston

A primary focus during my sabbatical last year was cooking.  I tried out lots of new recipes and techniques.  Perhaps the greatest challenge for me in cooking has always been the timing.  The multiple dishes of a meal never seem to be ready in the right sequence.  Even cooking a single entrée can go wildly off track when I suddenly need an ingredient which required prep work that I haven’t done.  If the recipe calls for grated cheese but I have not done that grating ahead, beginning only at the moment I need to add it into the roux – well then the roux is going to be overcooked by the time the cheese is grated.  Chopping the vegetables, zesting the orange, measuring out the dry ingredients, separating the egg yolks – all of these things, when accomplished in advance, make the whole cooking process enormously less hectic and more successful.  I have always been inclined to dash on ahead to what seem like the “important parts” of a cooking project.  This year I learned how much of my struggle and frustration in cooking has to do with failing to lay the groundwork.

Some years ago I set out to learn to play the hammered dulcimer.  It is an instrument the sound of which I have always loved – especially in Celtic and American folk music.  Not to be confused with the small, hand-held dulcimer, whose three or four strings are plucked, the hammered dulcimer is a large, trapezoidal box, with some 30 strings stretched across two bridges, and played with small wooden mallets.  I discovered that to play the hammered dulcimer well requires a deep, internalized knowledge of music theory.  You’ve got to know your major and minor scales, intervals, keys, triads, chord structures, and the like.  It did not take me too long to learn to play a simple tune.  But the true beauty of the hammered dulcimer is in the constant and fulsome embellishment of the melody with surrounding chords, arpeggios, and creative transpositions.  For that, I needed grounding in music theory which I simply do not have. 

I had played the viola throughout my youth and young adult years, and got along passably without knowing much music theory.  I just played the notes on the page.  But for the hammered dulcimer I needed principles and building blocks which I had never taken the time to learn.  As in my cooking, so in my music, I had just wanted to dash ahead to the “important parts” of melody making, without taking the time to lay the groundwork.

The Baptismal Covenant [Book of Common Prayer, pages 304-305] is a crucial piece of our Christian faith and practice.  Familiar to many of us from the baptismal liturgy, the Covenant highlights central areas of discipleship – now six of them, with the trial addition of a creation care pledge.  In the latter four vows of that Covenant:

We promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”

We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving (our) neighbor as (ourselves).”

We promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

We promise to “cherish the wondrous works of God, and protect and restore the beauty and integrity of all creation.”

This covenant mandates that I live my faith in the world. Go, says the Covenant: be a steward of creation; be an agent of justice; be a servant of your neighbor; be a proclaimer and exemplar of the Gospel.  We find there are plenty of opportunities to practice this discipleship.

Monday morning’s headline in the Boston Globe said, “The effects of climate change are worse than we thought, an unflinching new UN report finds.”  The new landmark report says the cascading consequences of climate change threaten food and water insecurity and increased disease even sooner than we’d already feared.  I know this is a moral imperative; the baptismal covenant calls me to be a steward of creation.

The work of racial justice is demanding attention in our diocese, in our church, in our nation.  It’s way past time that we truly commit to dismantling structures that have perpetuated our national sin in ways blatant and subtle.  I know this is a moral imperative; the baptismal covenant calls me to be an agent of justice.

For a week we’ve watched the escalating violence of Russia’s murderous invasion of Ukraine. We see in Vladimir Putin one who believes that ordinary rules to do not apply to him; one whose nationalist pride overrides the legitimacy of other nations; one who does not believe that truthfulness matters; one who taps into the religious ideology of his people to claim a messianic role for himself.  We see the consequence.  Tragically, we also see leaders with similar convictions in our own nation: Exceptionalism.  Nationalism.  Disregard for truth.  Religious distortion.  Just as these are on full display in Russia’s leadership, these also are historic perversions, recent corruptions, and contemporary threats in our own national life.  And thus do we have neighbors in Ukraine, yes, but also we have neighbors in Texas families, we have neighbors in immigrant communities, we have neighbors in underserved school systems, we have neighbors in countless places near and far where power is wielded as cynical opportunism.  All of these have a claim to be loved by me and you. This, too, is a moral imperative; the baptismal covenant calls me to serve Christ in these neighbors.

On any given day, at any given moment, I do not know how to be faithful to that covenant.  It is daunting.  It is overwhelming.  And no Lenten resolution, no Lenten discipline this year or any year will equip me to accomplish all these things.  But here is what I think:  there is a lesson for Lent from my culinary and musical learnings.  Like my impatience in cooking to skip over the preliminary preparations and get straight to the stirring and serving – so also in my life of discipleship. Like my naïve approach to the hammered dulcimer, in which I imagined I could leap to delightful improvisation without first being grounded in the fundamental building blocks – so also in my life of discipleship.  As a Christian I cannot dash on ahead to the (yes, essential) parts of communal compassion and global justice without also attending to the preparation and the building blocks of life in Christ.

Which takes me back to the Baptismal Covenant, and to work my way back up towards the two initial vows:

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Our Christian life is not complete without its external expressions of compassionate service and social justice.  “Faith without works is dead,” says Scripture [James 2:26]. The Baptismal Covenant takes us precisely to such active faith. But the Covenant, with its first two vows, directs us to the teachings and prayers and self-examination and repentance which ground us in our life in Christ.  These disciplines are the ingredient preparation of our discipleship; they are the scales and arpeggios upon the foundation of which we are able to play the complex tune of our spiritual life.  And this is the Lenten invitation.

The observance of a holy Lent, says the Prayer Book, is in self-examination and repentance; in prayer and fasting; and in engaging the Scriptures.  It’s the basic washing and chopping; the basic scales and arpeggios.  And it’s the stuff we sometimes skip over, in order to dash on ahead to the more visible parts of living our faith.

Do not misunderstand me.  The tasks of prophecy, advocacy, and social change have a potent claim upon us as disciples of Christ.  But the prophets knew their Scriptures; and Dr. King and Dorothy Day grounded their social and political work deeply in their religious traditions; and the Mahatma Gandhi’s humility came from his spiritual core, not his tactical advisor.  We need to know the theological “why” and not just the strategic “what” when we set out to do justice.  We need to be rooted, as well as restless.

So this year for Lent I will be focused especially on renewing my commitment to those building blocks: to prayer, Scripture, and serious reflection.  I invite you to consider how you might do the same.  Perhaps you might find or renew your own most sustainable structure for individual prayer: a daily devotional reading; or daily morning or evening prayer – in the Prayer Book, or maybe downloading the app called Venite.  Some regular time to sit with Scripture. Lenten sermons here [at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul], on Sundays or Thursdays.  A good book to read, perhaps – but make sure it’s one that can ground you in the "why" and not just the "what" of Gospel actions. 

A guest essayist named Margaret Renkl wrote in Monday’s NYTimes a beautiful reflection considering Lent, within and without the church, in the age of Covid.  She concludes with this beautiful challenge for herself, and for you and me:

What am I supposed to do with Lent?  Surely there must be some spiritual practice that falls between a church-ordained ritual and a secular perfectability project.  Something that would help me use this time of prayer and reflection to move away from the fears I cannot shake – for my country, for my planet – and toward a stronger faith in the possibility of redemption, a more certain conviction that all is not yet lost in this deeply troubled world. … Ash Wednesday tells me only to keep trying: to believe, to be better, not to give up hope.  [NYTimes guest essay, Monday, Feb. 28 by Margaret Renkl]

Let’s find new grounding in the building blocks of our faith.  Let’s use this “time of prayer and reflection to move away from the fears [we] cannot shake … and toward a stronger faith in the possibility of redemption” – that we might be renewed for every dimension of our life as disciples of Christ.

– The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates