Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A musical interlude

I just finished work this weekend on a musical composition I'd been working on — off and on — for a while. It is a meditation on some of the images from the account of the Emmaus walk. Not "program music" in the usual sense; that is, it doesn't follow the story. Rather it plays with the images of joy and sadness, desolation and companionship, concealment and revelation. "Two of them were walking in the country" is the title, and it ends with a sense of the wonder "as he vanished from their sight."

This is an mp3 file, so you'll need the ability to play that, and a broadband connection is highly recommended.

The Invisible God

SJF • Easter 6b • Tobias S Haller BSG

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
Has anybody here ever seen any of the many films or TV shows based on the old H.G. Wells story, “The Invisible Man”? If so, then you may remember that the way he is eventually captured is not because the police who are chasing him can see him — he is invisible, after all. Rather what they can see are the effects he has on the world around him, or the effects it has on him. When he walks through a puddle, it splashes, and his bare footprints appear traipsing down the sidewalk. When it rains, or someone gets the bright idea to dust him with some baking flour, his presence is revealed by the shimmer of water running off him, or the residue of flour clinging to his skin. He is still invisible, but his presence is made known by other means.

So let me then ask another question, Has anybody here seen God lately? I can be fairly sure that all of us will acknowledge that, as the hymn puts it, the “immortal, invisible God only wise” is indeed “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” None of us sees God in the perfection of God’s invisible and inaccessible glory. Yet we have not been left comfortless or without a clue. God has left us footprints, as it were, or the signs of divine presence as it affects the world; most importantly, as John the Evangelist reminds us, through the love of God made known to us in and through Christ.

So, if we abide in love, we abide in, and know, God — even if we do not see God. Knowledge, after all, is superior to vision, since we can know of things even when we cannot or do not see them. What would life be like if we could only know about the things we see, and only when we see them? Without knowledge — the capacity to hold in our minds that which we no longer see, or never can see — what would life be like?

Some years ago there was a documentary about a man who suffered severe brain damage after a bout of encephalitis. It completely destroyed his capacity to remember the immediate past. Every time his wife walked out of the room, it was as if she had never existed; but every time she walked back in, he would remember her and react as if he hadn’t seen her for years. It was comforting to know that love could persist evenwhen knowledge failed.

Fortunately, even though none of us has seen God, the knowledge — and the love — of God dwell within us through the Spirit — and here John echoes Paul’s teaching that “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” The love of God is like that telltale glistening that reveals the presence of the rain-soaked invisible man — we may not see God, but we know God is present with us and within us, as we experience the love of God who has done so much for each of us.

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But John goes beyond mere satisfaction with the knowledge and the love of God. I spoke last week of John’s report of Christ’s commandment and assurance — that all who believe in him and love God and neighbor have fulfilled the law, and abide in him. John repeats the lesson this week: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.” He then follows up with the same practical implications that follow on recognizing God’s presence, implications which follow as naturally from their source as the urge to dance flows from toe-tapping music: “because God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

The assurance that God abides within us, isn’t just to give us warm spiritual comfort — no, it is fulfilled in the active implementation of God’s love through God’s Spirit, shared out among the countless sisters and brothers God has given us.

John is blunt, and offers a no-nonsense warning: “Those who say ‘I love God’ but hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” It is no good, in short, claiming to love the invisible God unless we love the living, breathing visible images of God whom we encounter as we go about this world and whom we honor or reject day by day.

This powerful teaching from the New Covenant has its roots right at the beginning of the Old, right in the first chapter of Genesis, when God, the supreme artist, as the crown and finishing touch of the masterpiece of creation, signed the painting by placing into it a visible reminder of whose work this was. When you want to find out who painted a painting, you usually look down into the lower corner to find the artist’s name. But God, when signing the creation, put the signature right in the middle, in the person of humanity. Human beings are the signature, the sign, the image of God.

And this provides the answer to the question I asked earlier, Has anyone seen God lately? When you look at a brother or sister you see the closest thing to God that you can see.

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And doesn’t that make sense? Don’t we often say of children, “She’s got her father’s eyes,” or “He’s got his mother’s chin.” I can assure you I’ve got my father’s nose! And it was my grandfather’s before him! But what is more, as I did last week at a family gathering, I can look at my brother and four sisters and see clear traces of our father and mother, both of them now gone to glory, but having left behind these traces in their children.

And if this is true of blood, how much more true of the Spirit, the Spirit of God’s love that flows through the veins of us God’s children, and which makes us all kin, and places upon us all the responsibility and the joy of love?

People have always wanted to see God, missing the point that God has left photographs and autographs everywhere around us. As the greatest American poet, Walt Whitman, wrote

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four,
and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropped in the street,
and every one is signed by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are,
for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.
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But as John reminds us, there is more to our faith than simply seeing, even more than seeing and believing! The vision and the faith are meant to lead us to action, to be put into practice, as we love God who created and redeemed us, and through the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit are empowered to love our neighbors as ourselves.

It may be hard to believe that when you look at me, or Father Ifeanyi, or the bounding, bouncing children of the Sunday School, or each other, or yourself in the mirror as Whitman did, or the poor man off the street who comes by asking for a handout, or the pope, or the bishop of New York, or a prostitute barely glimpsed lingering in the shadows at 2 am, or the senator before the microphones, or the policeman on the corner, or the window-washer appearing unexpectedly outside the office window like a visitation, or any of the millions and millions of others who walk this earth — that when you look at another human being you are seeing God’s image in flesh and blood.

It is hard sometimes to remind ourselves of this truth. God looks so little like God sometimes. The image of God in humanity can suffer and be disfigured, damaged or defaced, so much so that it reaches the point at which we might be tempted to say, How can this, so degraded, so debased, so barely recognizable as even human any more, be the image of God? Yet even as we say those words, we are reminded of the One of whom this once was said:

There were many who were astonished at him— so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate... He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
The one of whom the Apostles came to believe that Isaiah wrote these words; the one whom Philip explained to the Ethiopian, as he read these ancient prophecies, had not long since walked among them: — the image and likeness of God’s very being, the Son of God in flesh appearing, had laid down his life for his friends — the full and perfect and sufficient offering of himself for the sake of the world God loved so much that he sent his Son to do this very thing — he, this Jesus, has chosen us, and called us friends, and commanded us to carry on this work of recognition and redemption: to recognize God’s presence in every man, woman or child we meet, and to treat that invisible presence with all the respect and love that we can muster. God may be invisible, but God is not unknowable, and certainly not unlovable.

For, as one of the old orthodox fathers said, “Before every human being there go ten thousand thousand angels, crying, Make way for the image of God!” It is of this truth that John reminds us. May we always so honor and venerate the invisible God’s presence among us, no longer inaccessible, but as close to you as your neighbor’s outstretched hand. +

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Bible and the Church

Easter 5b • SJF • Tobias S Haller BSG

Philip said to the Ethiopian, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He said to him, “How can I, unless someone guides me.”
It is no secret that there has been some significant tension in the Anglican Communion over the last several years. One of the sources of tension has revolved around the place of the Holy Scriptures in the life of the church. In the late 90s, the Bishop of New York appointed me to serve on a committee charged with drafting a statement concerning the Anglican view of the Scripture. Now, it might be surprising to some to hear that there is such a thing as an Anglican view. But one of the characteristics that distinguish each of the various traditions in Christendom lies in how each of these differing members of the one Body of Christ understand and regard the Scripture.

So today I want to take advantage of the reading from Acts as a springboard to talk about a very important and central belief in the Christian faith as Anglicans have received and understand it: the role and place of the Bible.

Just about every Christian church holds the Bible in a special place in its life and worship. Perhaps it comes as a surprise to you to hear that not all churches treat the Bible in the same way. But the way Anglicans regard the Bible is not the same as the Roman Catholics or the Baptists or the Methodists, or the Eastern Orthodox, to say nothing of those who wander further afield and produce their own Scriptures — such as the Mormons. They have added an entire additional volume of Scripture to the Holy Bible, which they call Another Testament of Jesus Christ.

But even among the other traditions I mentioned, there is not complete agreement even on what makes up the Bible. The Roman Catholic Old Testament has books that Protestants do not accept as Scripture, in spite of the fact that the early church accepted them as such. These are books from the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures used in the days of Jesus and Paul, including some books not originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic — books of the wisdom and prophetic tradition, along with the history of the Jewish people in the days of the Maccabees: the time when Greek culture, language and governance dominated the Mediterranean world. Protestants generally rejected these Greek additions, and instead accepted only the older Hebrew and Aramaic material for their version of the Old Testament — again, in spite of the fact that Saint Paul and the early church make reference to these Greek scriptures in their teaching.

Anglicans — with our usual desire to find a compromise and cover all the bases — accept these books that the Protestants reject, but put them in a separate category: suitable for instruction but not for doctrine — a neat solution similar to having ones cake and eating it too!

So one of the things where Anglicans differ with many of the other Christian traditions lies in the books of which we consider the Bible to consist. But before I go into any more of the differences, let me mention the things we have in common with most of Christendom when it comes to the Holy Scripture.

First of all, we hold the Bible to be a unique record of God’s saving work from creation through redemption. We hold it to contain revelations of God that we could not find by any other means. That is, you don’t need the Bible to tell you that murder or theft is wrong, even though the Bible will tell you that — for this is part of universal human knowledge and isn’t peculiar to Jews and Christians. But nature or reason alone cannot tell you that God created the world, or that Jesus Christ redeemed it. These sublime truths are available to us only because God has told us this through trustworthy witnesses — the prophets whom God inspired, and the apostles who witnessed and testified to the work of God in Christ — and we accept their testimony.

Second, in common with almost all Christians we make use of the Scripture in our worship, public and private. We not only read Scripture as part of our liturgy — the Daily Offices and the Holy Eucharist — but we encourage people to read and study the Bible on their own.

So much for what we have in common. But we quickly come to differences between the churches once we move beyond these basics. The first is the one I alluded to earlier, the very contents of what you will find between the leather covers of a Bible varies from one tradition to another.

That is important when it comes to some matters — most of them hot button issues at the time of the Protestant Reformation when the Protestant Bible was pared down to eliminate parts of it that the Roman Catholics were using to support their view over some of the bones of contention, such as prayers for the dead and the invocation of saints. (It’s strange, but so often the do-and-die issues of earlier ages come to seem of so little importance in following years. I wonder if we’ll ever learn?)

However, the most important difference between us Anglicans and those of the other Christian traditions lies in how we understand the Bible. At the Reformation, when the Church of England took the form in which we know it today, battles were raging not just about which books were Scripture and which were not, but about how the Scripture — whatever it consisted of — was to be understood.

There were three basic traditions in play at the time: the Roman, the Reformed, and the Anabaptist. The relics of these traditions remain in how the present day Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Baptists regard the Scripture.

The Roman view elevated Tradition to an equal level with Scripture, and placed full authority for biblical interpretation in the hands of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. This allowed the Roman Church to teach doctrines that were not mentioned in the Scripture, or which couldn’t be proved by it — such as that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin, or that she was bodily assumed into heaven at her death — and to enforce acceptance of these dogmas.

The Reformers took a similarly restrictive view when it came to biblical interpretation: it was to be in the hands of the church leadership. But while they rejected the Roman tendency to require things beyond theScripture,they went further in the other direction: so that if something wasn’t in Scripture you not only couldn’t require it, but you couldn’t do it. So they objected to things such as the use of a wedding ring in marriage — no wedding rings in the Bible! — vestments for clergy, the baptism of infants, or the distinction between the offices of presbyter and bishop — which they understood as two different words for the same office.

The Anabaptists, on the third hand, were the liberal freethinkers of their day: for them the understanding of the Scripture was up to the individual, whom God would inspire with a true understanding, and without benefit of clergy to guide or instruct. This led to a multiplication of many smaller and smaller sects as private interpretation splintered the various groups as they followed different teachers. Later, in this country, a number of theories of biblical inerrancy or biblical literalism developed out of this school of thought.

So, Anglicans found themselves poised in the middle of this triangle of extreme views. In particular, we found a middle point between the Roman tendency to require belief in things you couldn’t find in Scripture, and the Puritan tendency to forbid anything that couldn’t be proved by Scripture.

We came up with the wonderful word sufficient: the belief that God has a purpose for Scripture — and that purpose is salvation. That is what Scripture is for: to lead us into God’s way, God’s truth, and ultimately, God’s life. The most important teachings in Scripture aren’t the things that you could find out by common sense, and without the church’s help, such as that theft and murder are wrong. The truly important supernatural teaching of Scripture is that God created us, and in Christ has redeemed us, and that we are capable of becoming children of God through the grace of God.

So the Anglicans denied the church power to require anything to be believed as essential to salvation if it could not be proved from the Scripture. And at the same time held that the church did have the authority to allow things about which Scripture was silent, as long as they worked for the good of the church and the people — so we could keep our wedding rings, vestments, infant baptism and bishops!

But what about that Anabaptist view — that sense that every Christian had the right to be his own Pope and decide what Scripture meant for him or herself? Well, this is where the Ethiopian eunuch comes in. What did he say to Philip? “How am I to understand unless someone guides me?” Guidance is crucial — guidance on the Way to the Truth and the Life; guidance which all we pilgrims need: but guidance, not coercion.

So we Anglicans ask a similar question, and what’s more important, have an answer, in our Catechism. Page 853 of the Book of Common Prayer lists this question, “How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?” and answers, “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.” And as the Catechism goes on to explain, the Church referred to here is not just the bishops, not just the clergy, but the whole community of the faithful. So while we Anglicans encourage folks to read the Bible on their own, we neither leave them on their own, nor place a commanding prelate or a forbidding puritan a at their shoulders. Rather, we encourage the dialogue and discussion among all of the faithful — clergy and laity alike — that leads to better understanding of those portions of the Scripture we may find it hard to understand — our about which we might disagree.

Ultimately, as Philip showed the Ethiopian, the heart of the Scripture lies in how it points to Christ. He is the living Word of God to whom the written Word of God — the Scripture — leads us in the Way into the Truth, and the Scripture is useful to us only to the extent that it performs that task, a task for which we are assured it is, as the Anglican tradition puts it, sufficient. For its ultimate purpose is to bring us to the new Life of faith — as it did the Ethiopian, who, when once on his Way the Truth was opened to him by the Spirit’s guidance and Philip’s teaching, immediately asked to be baptized into the new Life, to become himself the newest member of Christ’s body, the church.

Most of the tension in the present life of the Anglican Communion would vanish in a flash as sudden as Philip’s disappearance if we would simply take Jesus the Word of God at his word! The Scripture is not hard to understand in this respect, though we find it hard to put it into practice. He has told us mortals what is asked of us — it is amply stated in John’s teaching to us today in both epistle and gospel: the commandment of God is to believe in Christ and to love one another. Got that?

When Jesus summarized the law in his commandment to love God and neighbor, when he taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do unto others as we would be done by, he meant what he said, and he gave us both a task and a promise. Those in Christ who love their sisters and brothers in this way — doing for them as they would be done by — have observed God’s commandment. All the rest is commentary.

My sisters and brothers, as I prepare for the General Convention this summer, where I will serve as a deputy from this diocese, along with three other priests, four lay persons, and the three bishops who serve New York, this is what I will keep in mind and heart. The Scripture is sufficient to salvation, for it has told me the truth that is so simple a little child can sing it: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. This simple truth is my armor against doubt, against judgment, against those who seek division and domination, against bigotry and ignorance, against pride and power, against all who would diminish human dignity or deny human worth.

So, as Christ taught us in his Word, “Let us love one another, not in word or speech but in truth,” neither condemned by our hearts nor dismayed by those who would demean us or deny us. God is love, beloved sisters and brothers, and we follow his commandments when we love him and each other.Against this the Scripture records neither law nor prophet, but rather the voice of the Lord himself to affirm us in our faith in the power of the Spirit, now and to the end of the ages.+

Monday, May 08, 2006

Church of the Good Shepherd

SJF • Easter 4b • Tobias S Haller BSG

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The fourth Sunday of Easter, as is the case with a number of other Sundays, has a nickname. It is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” — for on this Sunday the collect and the readings remind us that we have a good shepherd: one who knows us as we know him, a good shepherd whose voice we recognize, a caring shepherd who calls us each by name, a shepherd who places us ahead of himself, and who has laid down his life for us. We are the sheep of his pasture, and he has called us together into a flock, a community, a church.

Just what kind of a community is this Church of the Good Shepherd? What kind of sheep make up the fold we call the Church? If you’ve ever driven through the country you can tell just by looking which herds of cattle or flocks of sheep are well-cared for and which are neglected. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly judge a shepherd by his sheep! If you see a group of scraggly sheep huddled near a broken-down fence shivering in muddy squalor, you know what their shepherd is like. And when you see fat and fluffy sheep munching on lush green grass, you also know something about the one who looks after them.

So it is that when you look at a church you can discern marks or signs that let you know what kind of relationship that church has with its lord and master — or who their master really is. For not all churches follow the Good Shepherd. Some have had the misfortune to follow wolves dressed as sheep! Who can look at pictures from the Jonestown massacre, the bodies piled on each other after the perverse communion of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, and think these people were well cared for. Who can look at the pictures of the dead bodies of the leader and members of the Heaven’s Gate cult neatly tucked up in their bunk-beds, dead in their hope to be raptured to the tail of a comet, but rather simply dead in their tennis shoes, and think this was the kind of shepherding anyone with half a brain would want for herself or others. Who can listen to the reports from the riots and massacres in Rwanda, where Christians took to hacking each other to pieces with machetes and hatchets — who can hear such things and say, This is the work of a Good Shepherd? This is not the work of a good shepherd, but of a thief who came in to rob and steal, a wolf who snatches and scatters.

It is easy to see such marks of a bad shepherd. So what does the flock of the Good Shepherd look like? Well, the first thing to note about the Church of the Good Shepherd is that, as the reading from Acts tells us, “there was not a needy person among them.” In the flock of the good shepherd you don’t have three or four fat and happy sheep and twenty or thirty skinny forlorn sheep. The flock of the good shepherd is marked with the brand of Generosity. Everyone helps out together, pitching in and working together for the benefit of the whole community, not just the profit of one or two at the expense of all. No, in the Church of the Good Shepherd “there is not a needy person among them.” The sheep of the good shepherd look out for each other, acting almost as much as assistant shepherds as sheep. They bear each other’s burdens. They keep an eye on each other’s needs, and give of their own goods to benefit each other.

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There is an old saying, one which Jesus himself repeated, “If the blind lead the blind both fall in the ditch.” Now, there are many kinds of blindness, and as I learned when I worked at the Lighthouse for the Blind some years ago, not all blindness is total. Many people suffer from limited capacity to see, as a result of some specific form of injury or illness. While the Lighthouse served many people who suffered from total blindness, it also offered support to those suffering from what is called Low Vision — some impairment that limits vision but doesn’t render one totally unable to see.

One of the wonderful stories the folks at the Lighthouse tell is about two elderly gentlemen who acted as shepherds to each other. One of them suffered from macular degeneration, which meant he only had residual peripheral vision: he could see nothing directly in front of him. If you want to have an idea what this is like, make two fists and hold them in front of your eyes — all you can see is what is at the edges of your field of vision. Close to home, this is the kind of visual disability our dear sister in Christ Marilyn Cotton suffered in the last years of her life. It means you cannot read, or see where you are going, but it preserves the peripheral vision that is good at spotting movement at the edges, and enables you still to walk down stairs. The other gentleman had severe glaucoma, and the effect of this disease had left him with what is called “tunnel vision” — he could only see a narrow area directly ahead of him. Again, if you want to get an idea what this is like, form your hands into imaginary binoculars and hold them up to your eyes. This kind of low vision is adequate for reading or looking straight ahead, but makes moving around a real challenge. Well, these two old gentlemen met each other through the Lighthouse, and formed a quick partnership. They discovered that, arm in arm, they could travel the streets of the city, shop and carry out the business of everyday life: one of them able to read the street signs and the labels on packages, the other able to help them navigate the busy sidewalks of Manhattan. They were quite a sight — but they didn’t mind. Their partnership was a wonderful example of cooperation and mutual generosity.

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In the same way, the church of the Good Shepherd is generous, generous with the kind of generosity that comes from making use of what is to bring about the best that can be, no one person saying either, I need this more than you do, or What can I possibly offer. Remember, God doesn’t ask for what we don’t have. God takes what we have to give when we give it, when we offer it in this spirit of generosity, the sign and hallmark of the Church of the Good Shepherd. And as we learned with the loaves and the fishes — God makes more of it.

Out of this generosity there grows another mark or sign that a church belongs to the Good Shepherd. John the beloved disciple writes, “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness? No one who abides in him sins.” Now, the root of sin is self-interest. That’s why selfish self-interest is the opposite of generosity, and it leads to the disorder of lawlessness that is the opposite of simple purity. I’ve always said that ifyou need any evidence of the existence of sin, you need only drive over to the exit from the Cross Bronx Expressway on to the Major Deegan, to see the incredible traffic jams that result when drivers disregard the lane markings, pull ahead of a line of waiting cars by driving on the shoulder, and then try to nose their way back into the line up at the exit. Lawlessness, disorder and the sin born of selfishness stand in opposition to the purity of self-giving generosity. The purity of the Good Shepherd is that he gives himself up for his sheep, he sacrifices his own life for the sake of the flock. And the community of the Good Shepherd similarly shows forth that purity and the good order that comes from placing others first, stepping aside in the graceful dance of charity and love. In the community of the Good Shepherd people place the needs of others ahead of their own.

This is what the community of the Good Shepherd looks like: generous, self-giving, pure and orderly. Now, it might not look perfect at first sight. You might wonder about that odd pair of old men walking arm in arm, both of them dealing with limited vision, yet somehow making their way through the busy streets. But you will sense at once as you see how together they can accomplish what neither could do on his own, in the willingness to share in the work, to be generous and cooperate and bear each others burdens, that they understand what it means to be part of a good shepherd’s flock.

That’s what the Church of the Good Shepherd looks like. Is that what we at Saint James look like? Look around you. Do you see people you are glad to see? Do you see people you would help when you could, people you can count on to help you? I know what I see, and I know what I’ve seen. I’ve seen great generosity, and the courage to pitch in. I’ve seen some spats and disagreements over the years, yes, but I’ve also seen commitment and fortitude. And over the last six years since I returned to this fold, I’ve seen the telltale marks of the Good Shepherd’s hand on this place. I’ve heard him calling each of us by name, and I’ve heard the responding voices of a whole flock of people willing to follow where he leads. May it ever be thus, may it ever be thus, to the glory of God alone.+