From Fr. David Peck
October 19, 2023
When prayer does not work.
Last week, I first wrote about Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City as a flickering light of abiding hope and healing amidst the devastations in Israel and Gaza. The Arab Hospital was founded by Anglican missionaries in 1882 in the ancient city of Gaza in the region then simply known as Palestine. In the 1960s it was briefly administered by Baptists before becoming an Anglican mission again of the Diocese in Jerusalem in 1980 with considerable support from the Episcopal Church ever since.
I write about it now after hundreds of innocents were killed in its precincts who were desperate for shelter from destruction as missiles from combatants flew in and out of Gaza. The origin of the explosion was likely a Palestinian militant group’s errant missile intended for Israel.
The explosions happened at the end of a day of fasting and prayer declared by the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem and the other patriarchs (heads of the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches and other denominational leaders). Children with nowhere else to go had, just hours earlier, been singing for peace. Cordelia and I had been participating in this day of prayer too when we received the news of the explosion.
At first, I hoped that this was just a report of the previous missile strike on Saturday that destroyed the maternity ward. Surely, not again? But the news reports of so much loss and political reactions confirmed the horror and escalating scale and dangers of the conflict. A place of compassion, care and healing against all the odds of occupation, oppression, corruption and control is now a place of carnage and destruction.
Many will have despondently asked, what is the point of a day of prayer when clearly it did not work?
When our prayers do not seem to be answered in the way that we would like, we are reminded of what prayer really is: an awaking (literally a realization) of unity with God and all creation. Sometimes the reality of that unity is terrible brokenness and sin. While we may pray for something, we are first joining ourselves to the all merciful love and compassion of God through the continual prayer of Jesus Christ. This is possible through the connecting power of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us and in Christ which enables our union.
This means the divisions we are longing and praying to see transformed, are reduced by our awakened compassion. Even as missiles strike, we are making new and real spiritual connections. These connections are real despite our powerlessness as we face a situation we do not fully understand. This is humbling and humbled prayer. It is the point of prayer.
By praying we open a different realm of space, of contemplation and action where things are being unified and drawn together inwardly even when the opposite is happening outwardly. Our responsibility is to see prayer at work in us, not at work because we will it. Indeed, the separation of our will from God’s will forms the very need to pray as Jesus taught us.
Prayer is not about control; it is about removing the illusion of control. In the sharpened agonies that ended my day of prayer that focused on a hospital that became another horror of war, I am more committed, not less, to pray tomorrow for the peace of Jerusalem and Gaza.
As part of the three days of prayer called for by the Archbishop of Jerusalem, the chapel of Saint James will continue to be open for prayer and candle lighting from 8:30 AM - 5:00 PM Thursday and Friday. Click here to view the latest update on the hospital and links to the new conference with the Archbishop and primates as well as a giving page can be from the American Friends of the diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East here.
Let us pray for those whose homes and hospitals have been destroyed and desecrated in Israel and Gaza; for all the dead, wounded and traumatized in these weeks of terror and reprisals; for diplomacy and humanitarian efforts to end the violence quickly; and for release for all who are held hostage and captive in Gaza.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
In Christ always,
October 12, 2023
Fr David writes in a week of terrorism and devastation for Israel and Gaza
What can we do that is beyond despair or denial as we look at the horrors and suffering in Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week? Simply put, we begin with what makes for peace. Pray, listen, reflect and pray again. Any good and Christ-like action arises first from the discipline of prayer and contemplation, for that is the example he gave. Only then can we find some inner peace with which to build more outer peace. I have selected the links below in the hope that you will spend some prayerful time to bear steadfast witness to the light of Christ that can enlighten the world even in the midst of the worst human conflicts.
Prayer is our first calling and deepest connecting mechanism as a Christian community of faith. Below is a common prayer for peace I suggested for this week. Of course, we start with the power of prayer, and we began doing so immediately at the outset of the conflict. Mother Shayna reached out quickly to Rabbi Paskoff of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim and the Islamic Center as near neighbors of Saint James literally and metaphorically. We have met, studied and prayed with their faith leaders and members for peace, unity and security in the world for decades. Our ongoing Mercy Seminars and pilgrimages are the latest examples of this work. All these efforts are a major improvement upon where we were as communities of faith 25 years ago. This is a sign of hope for the world.
But what else can we do? The first peace-making and prayerful action is to listen and awaken our full array of human sensing—our anger, grief and fear as well as our compassion and yearnings. Whose are the voices we do not hear on the news, but must hear to understand how and where paths to peace can be found over time? One answer to that question was given to me on the BBC in a daily broadcast slot called “Women’s Hour”. On Tuesday the radio program interviewed members of The Parents Circle, a group of Jewish and Palestinian parents who share their experience as those who have buried children killed in earlier cycles of the conflict. Click here to listen to the depth of their voices and compassion for about 12 minutes, at 12:17 into the broadcast.
In the light of this, I add to my prayers the protection of families, diplomats, armed forces, medics and aid workers. I value the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law as a reflection of God’s shalom. May our national efforts and alliances bring an increase of freedom, security and peace for all in and around Israel. Furthering my prayers, because I am not a diplomat, soldier or aid worker, I can help by giving to an organization like the Red Cross that works in Israel and Gaza, or to a trusted religious partner like the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, for its general ministry or specific works throughout the region.
Who are our nearest neighbors or our most direct humanitarian connections in the conflict? For me that answer is the American Friends of the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East. They suggest making a gift to the Episcopal/Anglican founded hospital, Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. It is run by Gazan medics and serves the whole of Gaza as one of the few medical facilities in that most beleaguered place. Their urgent appeal for donations and the voice of its medical director can be heard by clicking here.
For those who wish to see how deep the affections and connections are with other Episcopalians and Anglicans in Israel and across the Middle East, I encourage you to click here to view members of Saint James with Archbishop Hosam Naoum at the Cathedral of Saint George where we stayed and prayed with him and the diocesan family as part of our Qumri pilgrimage in 2022. The video is part of a series that shows how we as members of our parish can literally bear witness to Christ with the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem.
These are some of the ways I look forward to joining with you as we pray, listen, connect, and build peace together.
Yours in Christ,
O God of All Nations,
of all mercy, justice and peace:
hear our prayers for the nation of Israel and the Palestinian people of Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.
We pray for the dead, the wounded and traumatized;
for an end to terror, wars and oppression;
for the peace and security of Israel and all its people and neighbors;
and the safe release of all held hostage.
We pray that we might strengthen the ministries of peacemaking and pilgrimage,
medicine and healing, by churches across the holy lands,
for the sake of all Jewish, Muslim and Christian people.
We pray especially for Archbishop Hosam and the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East with whom we pray as friends through the Prince of Peace, who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
September 21, 2023
On Hospitals, Graveyards and Healing
I’m so grateful for the medical team and care at LGH. I am also grateful to be home and in Cordelia’s care. The surgery went well and a full, if slow, recovery is expected.
I made the long excruciating walk to the Rectory from behind the Parish House where Cordelia parked to let me out as there was no parking on Duke Street. As I walked, leaning heavily on Theo who was supporting me, two thoughts occurred to me. The first was how long and rough a short distance on a brick path can seem after abdominal surgery! The second was how walking through a graveyard to get home after a long hospital stay is both a stark and consoling exercise.
“Well, it felt like death but it didn’t kill me...” I noted as I passed the graves with some sense of passive accomplishment at having endured two major abdominal surgeries in 4 months.
I have loved each of the sweet “Get Well Soon” cards I have been sent. One day several weeks into my frustratingly slow first recovery, a new card came. It simply said, “Heal at your own pace.” I showed it to a visiting yoga instructor during an Urban Well retreat planning meeting. She said, “That sure is a trauma-informed message!” Yes indeed it was.
In the healthcare world something is described as “trauma-informed” when practitioners have the capacity to comprehend the unique depth of individuals. Not just as bodies with presenting symptoms but as souls in need of healing also. Being a trauma informed practice, medically or pastorally, means knowing different experiences, especially very negative life experiences such as violence, relationship breakdowns or poverty, can lead to inner wounds that can seem unrelated to a presenting problem. This awareness can inform friendships as well as medical or psychological care.
Buildings and their grounds, as well as interior spaces, can be designed in such a way to help those who have experienced trauma to feel more secure, welcomed and included. I believe this can extend to communities and landscapes as well. Places of meeting ready to welcome real people as they really are, not just as their best self or as they feel they must pretend to be.
When I returned home to this holy and historic campus of Saint James, what I saw was a trauma-informed landscape. We are so often living in the midst of diseases (great and small); losses of relationships or “the way things were”; and of course those overwhelming forces of sin and death. Shuffling in great pain around the gazebo was like entering into a healing space that met me as I truly was: a man with what felt like a tenuous grip on life facing another unwanted round of recovery. It was like arriving to a retreat place, an abbey or cathedral close, where clergy lives and homes are rooted in the city. One with wide gates of welcome and easy places of rest, encounter and shelter. There is the cloister with a flowing fountain and a children’s garden of flowers and vegetables.
At the heart of it all, of course, is the symbolic dialogue of a resurrection body (the church) arising from the churchyard (a tranquil sea of passing lives and history). Its central message is that all of it and all of us are held in the hollow of God’s Almighty and All-merciful hands.
September 28, 2023
The congregation as a community of suffering and healing
Too often when we think of the communion of saints, we think of the most exceptional lives of virtue rather than the most ordinary ones. Even when we think of martyrs, we tend to think of those whose sufferings led to the most spectacular and laudatory deaths! By contrast TS Eliot in his poem, The Hollow Men, writes depressingly of a modern world after World War I where life tends to end with “a whimper rather than a bang.” He was struggling to make sense of the mechanized slaughter and mass sufferings of a war changed and traumatized Europe. He had yet to grasp the mystery of redemptive and regenerative potential of suffering he would write about later. He had yet to encounter the power of love in contemplative prayer and community. Love not just as an individual romantic feeling (exciting though it is) but the deeper power of love in available and felt in community, in prayer, in family and in friendships.
This power of solidarity, of shared suffering, came to me again and again in the lowest points of the acute pain in the weeks of both of my abdominal surgeries. I would call to mind individual lives of fellow parishioners. I had imaginary conversations with them and thought about other individuals and care givers in our parish family who have endured similar surgeries and prolonged illnesses. Some I have visited with over the years, and some I really know best through the visits and stories of others. This is all part of the weekly and monthly and annual web of prayer, concern and pastoral contact from other parishioners, pastoral visitors and clergy that creates our web of congregational care. All these form countless “pings” of prayer. Like a radar of compassion and care, prayer does its invisible and sacred work.
The Sunday morning intercessions within the Eucharist, the daily offices and our graces before meals, all weave together a community of those who suffer and rejoice together. The good and the bad do not cancel each other out. Each experience stands (and passes) on in its own way as every life does. Suffering has no hierarchy, and all comparisons are invidious. At a practical level we can only model our own versions of suffering and resilience for each other. Not so much in the heroic mode but in the ordinary time of our living, our healing, our aging and our dying.
What Christian community (parish life) in worship, small groups and fellowship should offer is a way of bringing our vulnerabilities to the surface safely. In this way the hidden depths of our lives can be revealed, shared and testified to in ways that are immensely helpful. This help is not only for us as we integrate paths of suffering in our own lives, but also for strengthening others when they see us walk and limp, give and connect, with church from the pews or online.
I am delighted, and practically supported, by all the cards, prayers, text messages, emails and books sent to me. In them is great wisdom. All are lovely “pings of compassion”. Pádraig Ó Tuama, a prayerful poet of reconciliation, is associated with the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. He came to Saint James through an online offering of the Urban Well during the pandemic. In his book, Daily Prayer, which some parishioners sent me, he writes:
It is in the shelter of each other that we live.
It is in the shadow of each other that we live…
Whether in shadow or shelter,
may we live well
with each other. Amen.
July 20, 2023
On exchanging guilt and delusions with fidelity and gratitude
One of the stressful things about illness is the struggle with the guilt of not being able to do more. These feelings can haunt us whether we are ill or not. But they are especially acute when one has received a great deal of care and prayer from others (as I have so lavishly from all of you in recent months) when one is least able to return it.
Then there is the smiting knowledge that others are doing my job for me (and can do the work that I want to do but cannot). The guilt cascades to think that people who already have more on their plates than they can handle have even more now. And some of this is uncomfortably true. But mostly this misery of mine is the spoiling fruit of a “clinging response”. A better, more spiritual and grace-centered framing of the experience, would come with a deeper sense of grace that inspires humility and gratitude. On a good day for me this is where it lands. But so easily my feelings veer towards either the self-pitying or self-justifying.
What could be an experience of divine reality instead gets clogged up in my ego-response:
“They are having to do my work!”
“I am not able to do the ministry I should be doing!”
“I am missing out!”
While these are certainly human responses, they are not holy or helpful. They are steeped in the myth of indispensability and the illusion that life is about me or requires my input (re control or credit!) to be the fullness of life. By contrast, in accepting powerlessness, indeed sometimes embracing it when I am meditating, I experience a very different felt sense of reality.
When taking myself out of the center of the picture I see the fidelity of others. Last week I had hoped to be at a lovely John Denver Mass and at least make an appearance at a dinner under the stars that was literally in my own back yard. Yet by the end of the day I was too wiped out by the heat and not up to the emotional energy of a larger gathering. I had to focus on something even closer to home. Feeling torn and terrible at first, I was able to move to a place of gratitude and marvel at the hospitality of the parish and the ministry of so many others and the joy of the fellowship be felt among parishioners I saw the gifting of others. I saw the generosity of others. I saw the fidelity of others. I even sneaked a peak of it from my porch twice: once feeling the anguish of my own absence and once paradoxically feeling a sense of grateful communion with it even as I “missed” the event.
While it took me a while to grasp what was happening, I experienced a joyous detachment in seeing the fidelity of others. The fidelity of individuals (people preparing foods in the morning, a father and young son setting the tables while others were worshipping); the fidelity of a group at worship and the fidelity of friendships shared and thus new social and spiritual connections being made.
It took days for this to come into view. I stumbled across the notion of fidelity in the daily readings from John Main that we use in the daily chapel and zoom meditations. He reminded us that just giving our time and attention to be present to God or anyone, regardless of what we “get” from it, is an act of fidelity. When we struggle to give time and attention to God or others with a new kind of prayer practice or life situation, we are being doubly faithful.
Seen in this way, within the economy of God, my illness is a means of grace for myself and others. The mystery of the Eucharist is that it calls us to praise God “in all times and in all places.” This central message is kind of undermined if we only celebrate the eucharist in beautiful churches on Sunday mornings when we feel like being holy. A deeper fidelity is at work when we go without getting as much as we hoped or can only bring our broken life or suffering bodies to the altar. (Side note--this is part of what happens in the Parish House at 12 step meetings on Tuesday and Thursday night. This is why in communities of recovery there is such a profound spiritual fidelity on display.)
There are many paths we would choose, but they are often redeeming ones or at least redeemable. In any occasion that calls forth from us, or others, a fidelity we or they would not choose, we can say and pray even in powerlessness or despair, “Thanks be to God”.
July 6, 2023
The more you notice, the more you notice
I write from New Hampshire, near Squam Lake, where rectors of Saint James have ‘found refreshment and inspiration for well over 100 years. I am here to do more intensive walking that will help get ready for my second surgery later in the summer. In this time of disability and recovery I am slowed down and have to spend a lot more time on the porch. I am reminded of Walt Whitman saying in his ecstatic summer poem, Leaves of Grass, “I loaf, and invite my soul.” In his case this meant a communion with nature and neighbor wherein he found himself in a mystical unity with the world around him, whether he was in the city or countryside.
Something that has helped me do this is a new app on Cordelia’s phone called Merlin. It records and identifies bird songs and species using the smartphone’s microphone to offer a near instantaneous photo and description of the bird behind the song. I have always vaguely enjoyed “listening to the birds”, but it was just a background thing. I assumed there were only a few species as they would flit, busily but mostly unseen, between their hidden perches. But now that I can easily put a name with a face, or more accurately a call with a creature, I am experiencing a thrill which birdwatchers know well but which I have missed for most of my life. I am amazed I never noticed what I did not notice, even in a place that was do familiar to me as well as relatively quiet.
What started with learning to identify a robin, a crow and a blue jay is now often 7 or 10 or even 12 different species in a few minutes. Wrens, warblers, finches, sparrows, a woodpecker or cardinal and more. There are 30 different species recorded identified and I can hear with help from Merlin. I might have guessed 10 as a total number before. Through this tool I can notice what my eyes could not see and which I did not have the ears to hear.
It is of course still so easy to be distracted. I notice how when my mind wanders from where I am to where I am not, the first thing I lose all sense of is birdsong. Once I would not have known (and I confess perhaps not cared very much) about all that I was missing. But now that I have this new awareness of my environment, I am blessed and enriched by knowing better how I am placed in this intricate landscape teeming with life. This gives rise to the wonder, gratitude and joy that leads so naturally to prayer. The simple exercise of prayer as “noticing” or “attending”, in this case just listening to birdsong in a new way, becomes both the means and fruit of prayer.
Noticing what I can notice I am of course led into the experience of the presence and nearness of God as the Creator and Sustainer of so much abundant life. Through it I “find myself” in a richer place. I am relocated, humbled, more awake and connected. I am more truly who I am.
This has the further benefit of noticing less my own cares and anxieties, especially not being bound by my infirmity and discomfort, my poor old abdomen and bowels, that I have not only started noticing more, but without this new birdsong would now be tempted to notice and think about too much! What we pay attention to helps bring us back into more control of what we do not need to pay so much attention to, like our discomforts, fears and fantasies. In this week of the 4th of July, I am struck by how the ability to choose to give attention to something or someone (and to build our capacity for doing so) is essential for freedom. Indeed, the ability to pray and to be freed are closely related. The state motto of New Hampshire is the dramatic imperative, “Live free or die.” When we pray, we are awakened to our best life and purpose. In order to truly live free, we must first learn to pray.
Ever in Christ,
June 8, 2023
The strange normality of suffering
About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters...how it takes its place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. —WH Auden
The experience of unexpected surgery and a prolonged recovery has richly connected me to all the small and great ways so many people suffer. How ordinary and boring suffering can be! Yet also how cosmic and mysterious as it profoundly shapes us all. Few poems observe this so well or as succinctly as W.H. Auden’s much loved Musee des Beaux Arts. (Poetry Foundation.org)
As a pastor I experience other people who are suffering as normal. Indeed it is a constant feature of my life, part of my vocation of daily work and prayers. Yet I also know that, unless one is a pastor or a care-giver or care-worker, being immersed in suffering is something most people understandably try to avoid. Of course suffering enters all our lives from our extended family and friends. Someone we know is always suffering sickness, or caring for a sick child or parent or living through a painful family breakdown. Sometimes all of these things at once! We encounter begging on our street corners and that awkward paralysis of what we should do. Suffering is ubiquitous in the news: war, violence, poverty, addictions, disasters and accidents. We know there is no escaping it; we just try to put it off or shrink it down to something we can actually manage or perhaps even do something about. This is all very natural. Being able to differentiate—to hold at a distance the suffering of the world—is a key skill that when we do not cultivate, becomes unhealthy for us. It creates a haunting anxiety that undermines our energy and can rob us of the joy that Jesus came to make complete in us. (John 15:11)
Part of the magic of going to church though, whether we know it or not, is that by doing so, we connect with and normalize suffering without the illusion of having to fix it. When done well, church is a school of prayer. By going to church we are, in the words of the poem Ash Wednesday, by T.S. Eliot, “taught to care and not to care.” We literally learn to sit still.
So at church we do something radical; we make space and time for suffering whether or not any redemption is yet visible. We build our capacity to suffer by dipping our toe into the suffering of others and even that of our own. Every Sunday we commit to holding the world, ourselves and those we love in prayer. We exercise our ordinary and seemingly flimsy power of prayer simply by “bringing our attention to something”, as Fr Laurence Freeman so simply defines prayer. At church we create a connection that would not exist in the same way without the providential intersection of our prayers (our presence!) and God’s grace.
We do this in our Sunday prayers when remembering Ukraine (where most of us have not been) and as we pray for individuals (who most of us do not know). This is part of how we do our work as Christians of being and building a more merciful and compassionate world. Prayer is the mysterious way church releases more oxygen into the circulating blood system of the world. “What rainforests are for the planet, ours prayers are for the human family” as a monk once told me.
Many of you happen to know me quite well as a pastor and priest for you. That makes these prayers especially sweet. We know that we pray for each other in our parochial school of prayer! But I am equally touched by prayers from those which you have activated through networks of prayer animated by those I do not know. The prayers offered for me by a prayer circle of the Jewish synagogue of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim, for example. Or the Roman Catholic Order of Saint Jude or by an American confraternity of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. This ecumenical, indeed inter-faith prayer, is not only pastoral and consoling, but truly prophetic—it points to a unity of mercy, love and shalom that we don’t control or even know about. That is truly a ‘wonderful and sacred mystery’ of faith. Thank you for being that great power of faith and compassionate prayer in suffering to me, as I seek to be the same for you.
Ever in Christ,
May 25, 2023
Of course serious illness—with its dependency, pain and suffering—is humbling and miserable. I am glad to be emerging from that first phase and starting on a path of recovery. I am walking a few blocks and have some independence again. While never a path I would choose, the promises of our faith have held true even in the misery. The experience of major illness can be sanctifying, meaning it can be instructive for holiness of life and spiritual growth. Clearly this is my summer project!
Mine will be a long and two stage recovery with a short term focus on gaining much needed energy and weight. A further repair surgery in August will be needed followed by another 4 week recovery period.
I am so grateful for Shayna’s leadership of the parish. She has taken me off the rota so that I can be a volunteer at the altar or pulpit this summer when feeling well enough to do so. Our Vestry, clergy, staff and pastoral care team are truly a gift from God. Call upon them to increase your faith, hope and love in times of life challenges, whatever they may be.
…I love that Episcopalians, who often struggle to find Bible verses, are discovering they can find scriptures that work for them and for me as a powerful means of encouragement! The children’s chapel cards are beautifully compassionate and inspiring. We are a priesthood and pastors of all believers and of all ages!
Sadly cards are about all I can handle at the moment. Please no flowers, meals or visits for the time being. I have all that I need or want thanks to Cordelia, the nurses and a few others...
I was reminded by one in our congregation to use the profound prayer with which I begin each day. It is found with several others as part of the "ministration to the sick” at the bottom of page 461 of the Book of Common Prayer. I am so moved by our common prayer:
This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.
In hope filled prayer,
Archived Letters and videos from Father David
We are in a remarkable time of both suffering and spiritual growth. We are learning new ways to worship, give, pray, learn, and we are offering pastoral care to more people than ever before. My first priority will be funerals and baptisms and weddings. Once we have gotten through that backlog and learned how to worship in groups of 10-25 we can think about creative possibilities of how to come to church on a reservation ticket-only basis with masks and social distancing. But this experience of church will not be like “old church” for many months.
I am so grateful for your patience, faithful prayers and sacrificial generosity. I am so proud of your commitment to meeting the adaptive challenge of technology. Let us continue to be safe and sensible as we seek to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yours in Christ, David