Saturday, December 19, 2015

"An Angel's Meditation" - December 24, 2015

“An Angel’s Meditation”

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?” 
-- from “Among School Children” by W.B. Yeats

We danced before the universe began,
Although “before” is relative when time
Had not begun; to dance was then to stand
And gaze with praise at Glory so sublime
That expectation lay on every hand
For infinity to breathe and sing and shine.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

We danced when first the Spirit moved across
The deep, which was eternity, the void
That was a nothingness, but not a loss
Because nothing was made, and we were buoyed
Up on the waves of what could be and tossed
About by our anticipation’s joy.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

We spun around each photon, every quark
And neutron was a chance to sing the praise
Of the eternal Voice that leaves its mark
In light itself.  We twirled for ages and for days
Or maybe less than seconds; when the spark
of time was young we did not know its ways.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Then time was organized by moving stars
(For they came into being – galaxies
And nebulae and all the avatars
Of splendor, color-filled capacities
For volts and metric tons and millibars).
How strange it felt to dance with gravity!
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

With time came rhythm and with rhythm sound
To shape its footsteps.  Dip and swoop and bend
Gained greater meaning when the up and down
Of notes were added to the cadence when
On one small, turquoise world that spun around
A yellow star, we heard the birds’ “Amen.”
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Our hearts were drawn – or did the Glory send
Our hearts to watch the earth?  Surely we learned
From all we saw in time: women and men
Beloved by the Composer whose light burned
In sun and stars and who gave sight to them
That they might see the steps, and yet they turned.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

They turned from what had been the pattern set
And chose – as we had never thought to do –
A different way.  The music, too, turned minor.
We beheld what we had never guessed
Could happen – saw it fall apart.  A few
Steps shuffled on.  Most halted in despair.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

How can we know the dancer from the dance
When only from the dance is He inferred?
How, when the melody has stopped, can we
Produce a sound?  Forget the harmony!
With no sight of the Choreographer
Feet move in nothing but an aimless trance.

Then we beheld and heard within the core
Of this creation, groaning deeply, bent
With pain and sorrow, twisted up and sore,
An unexpected, unknown element
Of grace.  The Holy One whom we adore
Had spoken in a baby’s cry the cure.
His body swayed to a lullaby, he slept.
The dance was cradled in a barn.  We leapt

With joy again and sang across the sky:
“Glory be to God on high!
And peace on earth, new-reconciled
To him by this small, God-filled child.”
And we shall praise him in the moves
Of ever-swirling,
Drumming, humming,
Harp-string strumming,


Saturday, December 12, 2015

“Salvation” - December 13, 2015

Isaiah 12:2-6

        I spent a little time last week thinking about the word “salvation” and if I ever hear it outside of a religious context.  The answer to that is “almost never”.  Then I thought about the word “save” and asked the same question.  The answer to that is “all the time”.  Think about how often you will see advertisements telling you how much you can save if you buy now.  Every bank invites you to save with them.  You might take a shortcut to save time.  Blocking a field goal might save the game.  A lot of saving goes on, but only a person experiences salvation.

            On the other hand, maybe we just don’t use the word enough.  Maybe we’ve shoved it over into the corner to drag out on a Sunday morning and then push it back out of the way after the benediction.  That’s too bad, because God is in the salvation business and if we overlook how busy that keeps him, we end up overlooking the good that happens from Monday to Saturday.

            Kathleen Norris has written a good book called Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith in which she describes how a lot of religious terms like “salvation” have come to mean something to her.  Often it has been through the Monday to Saturday experiences.  As far as “salvation” goes, though, she writes that she learned about it on a Sunday morning, but not in church.  Here’s part of the story.

“It was Sunday morning, and with people driving to church, traffic on our normally quiet street had picked up.  I sat in our kitchen – my husband was still asleep – and listened to our friend’s story. …
He had been raised in western North Dakota, not far from our town, and when we first met him he was, like many young men, working various jobs in the oil fields.  The boom was on, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he was fearless, one of those death-defying people who actually like the roughest, meanest, most dangerous jobs on a rig.  He’d made a bunch of money, and had drunk through much of it.  Most days, to get through the shift on the oil rig, he would take a little speed.  The cheap stuff, known as crank.  Much of it home-made.

He was between jobs now, visiting his parents and kid brothers.  He had thought of working the pipeline in Alaska; he knew some people who were making big money there.  But he had met some drug dealers in Wyoming and dreamed up a scheme with them to make even more money.  He came back home, he told me, because it had gotten too rough for him. …

He said that he had thought things were working out fine.  He and the guy he was in business with were making good contacts, setting up a network, and he felt lucky to have fallen in with someone with so much experience.  Then, one day, as they were driving on the outskirts of the small city that was to be the base of their operations, his friend veered, suddenly, onto the shoulder of the road.  He had seen an acquaintance driving past in the other direction and was debating whether to turn his car around and follow him. ‘I need to kill him,’ he said matter-of-factly, reaching for a gun that our friend had not known was stashed under the front seat.  ‘I need to kill him but he’s with someone, and I don’t know who.  So it’ll have to wait.’

‘It was right then I decided to get out,’ he said.  ‘This was over my head.’  And that is salvation, or at least the beginning of it.”[1]

            After I read that, it occurred to me that yes, the man had been saved, but given the stuff he’d been mixed up in, if his former associate lived long enough and happened to pass him on the road one day and recognize him, then he might need to be saved again.  Salvation is not just a once-and-done experience.  It’s a way of life.  It’s having someone with us in the car when unknown danger drives by.  It’s having somebody beside us who is not part of our mess.  It’s having somebody to turn to when you need to take refuge.  It’s having someone to listen when we need to confess what we’ve gotten mixed up in.  Salvation is someone who can keep us safe.

            The witness of the scriptures is that there is someone like that, who is on hand all the time.  It is someone who spoke clearly to that man’s heart and mind when he suddenly saw the danger he had chosen to live with.  It is someone who reaches out to us in those crisis moments, but who stays with us as things get better, too.  Isaiah identified that someone.

“Surely God is my salvation;
   I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
   he has become my salvation.”
[Isaiah 12:2]

            It isn’t just criminal syndicates and addictions that get people tangled up.  Wrongdoing and sin take a million different forms.  Hear the words of Isaiah again, and the witness of not only the man Kathleen Norris talked about but also of millions of people who have found the strength and wisdom to take God up on the safety that he offers, with freedom from fear and with freedom to live in healthy and creative and life-giving ways.

“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
   call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
   proclaim that his name is exalted. 
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
   let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
   for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” 
[Isaiah 12:3-6]

Salvation is wherever the Lord is, and that is everywhere.  It is even here and now.

[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 18-20.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

“The Get-Ready Man”- December 6, 2015

Luke 3:1-6

            In his semi-serious and semi-humorous autobiography, My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber tells about growing up in Columbus, Ohio in the early 1900s, and some of the characters who, for better or for worse, were part of his life.  One of those was a man he didn’t really know, but whom he could never forget.  He called him the “Get-Ready Man”.  Thurber says,

“The Get-Ready Man was a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world, "GET READY! GET READ-Y!" he would bellow, "THE WORLLLD IS COMING TO AN END!" His startling exhortations would come up, like summer thunder, at the most unexpected times and in the most surprising places. I remember once during Mantell's production of King Lear at the Colonial Theatre, that the Get-Ready Man added his bawlings to the squealing of Edgar and the ranting of the King and the mouthing of the Fool, rising from somewhere in the balcony to join in. The theatre was in absolute darkness and there were rumblings of thunder and flashes of lightning offstage. Neither father nor I, who were there, ever completely got over the scene…”[1]

There is something both scary and funny about someone like the Get-Ready Man, always warning about the end of the world.  It’s funny because they always seem to have no sense of the right time or place for that kind of discussion (which the ushers at the playhouse clearly did understand when they dragged him out).  It’s scary because there’s always that one little, tiny corner of your mind that wonders if the Get-Ready Man of the moment might know something that you don’t.

            The Get-Ready Man has a long line of predecessors and a good number of successors.  Thurber, who loved to write about things that worried him, would have had a field day in 1999, when there was panic over the Y2K bug.  For those who didn’t experience that fun, as we approached the year 2000, computer programmers realized that a lot of code was written using only two digits to represent a year.  1989 was “89”, 1993 was “93”, and so forth.  Someone realized that as of January 1, 2000 a lot of programs might click back to January 1, 1900.  That could potentially have messed up a lot of financial programs that calculate by start and finish dates.  There was worry that it would confuse automatic data backups in nuclear plants.  I remember people being scared that computerized systems generally would have hidden flaws and that cars would stop working and elevators would crash at midnight on New Year’s Eve.  At this point it sounds silly, but there were people who had stocked up on canned food and propane and bottled water because they were prepared for civilization to come crashing down.  The Get-Ready Man and his progeny would have felt smug about that.

            People believed it might happen, though.  There is often a sense abroad in the world that a familiar way of life is threatened.  It may not always be taken as the end of the world, but it is often seen as the end of the world as we know it.  What happens if we let those immigrants in?  What happens if we tighten up our gun laws?  What happens if the gays can get married?  What if … what if … what if …?  A whole new crop of Get-Ready Men and Get-Ready Women are prepared to answer those questions.

            John the Baptist probably looked a lot like one of them in his day. 

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight. 
Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth; 
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’”
[Luke 3:1-6]

There was an important difference, though, between John’s message and the one that so often comes to us from the television in the eighth year of President Obama, when Tom Wolf is governor of Pennsylvania, and Paul Ryan is Speaker of the House.  The message we hear so often is that of the Get-Ready Man, that the world is coming to an end.  The message that John brought was that a new world was about to begin.

            Yes, that means that a good bit of the old world will have to give way, and a lot that is familiar will have to become history.  The valleys are going to be leveled up and the mountains bulldozed.  The crooked roads will be straightened out and the potholes filled in.  That was John quoting Isaiah.  What it meant in less poetic ways is recorded a little farther along by Luke.

“The crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’  Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’” [Luke 3:10-14]

We are still working on all of that, if you haven’t noticed.

            What he saw happening was people getting ready, not out of fear, but with a sense of preparation for the righteousness of God that would come with the Messiah’s appearance.  What he saw was people doing their best to be able to welcome him without shame or embarrassment.  He expressed some of that himself when Jesus showed up on the banks of the Jordan and asked to be baptized along with everybody else and John said that it should have been the other way around, that Jesus should have baptized him. 

            We’re not, obviously, in the same exact position.  The Messiah has already come, and by his life and death and rising from death wiped out our sins.  We continue, though, in the position of people who are waiting for his kingdom to come in its fullness.  Part of that means that we live in the sort of faith that can accept that endings do lead to new beginnings.  The loss of one way of life, when the process is guided by the Spirit of Christ, leads into the beginning of another and better way.  Yes, we get ready.  But we get ready for the good to come, not for catastrophe that needs to be feared.

            A woman named Betsy Ritchie left an account of John Wesley’s last days, where she described how strange it seemed to her that on his deathbed a great preacher had become a dying voice, and how he mumbled.  She wrote about how people in the room tried to understand him:

“though he strove to speak we were still unsuccessful: finding we could not understand what he said, he paused a little, and then with all the remaining strength he had, cried out, ‘The best of all is, God is with us’.”[2]

[1] James Thurber, “The Car We Had to Push” in My Life and Hard Times (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1933),

Saturday, November 28, 2015

“A Righteous Branch” - November 29, 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The kings who ruled in Jerusalem were held in high esteem, at least some of them. They didn't always deserve it, of course, and the Bible doesn't hide the fact that even the best of them failed miserably at times. David allowed the heat of the moment to overwhelm his sense of right and wrong and he got the wife of one of his generals pregnant, then his attempt to cover it up led to the man's death. The baby, whom they named Solomon, grew up to be the nation's wisest ruler. Even so, some of the policies he put into place led directly to the country splitting into two after his death. The fact that people looked back on them favorably tells you something about the quality of their successors.

Things became bad over time. If you want to know how bad, read I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles. One of the deepest prayers of the ordinary people became the prayer that God would send them leadership that would live up to something approaching integrity.

That's a cry that echoes across time. At the height of the British Empire, in 1906 the British writer G. K. Chesterton wrote,

"O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry;
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die.
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide.
Take not thy thunder from us
But take away our pride."

Time after time people looked for someone who would reverse the trend. Time after time they were disappointed. Yet there were prophets who spoke to them to let them know not to give up. Among them was Jeremiah, who said,

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” [Jeremiah 33:14-16]
A funny thing about families, even royal families, is that they get larger and their branches spread. One branch of David's family, in time, gave up its royal pretensions and went back to ordinariness of the sort that David had known growing up as a shepherd and his father and grandfather had known as farmers. This branch even included carpenters like a man named Joseph who didn't live at the center of power in Jerusalem but in a provincial town called Nazareth.

You do see where this is headed, right?

If you want a truly righteous leader, that never has and never will come from among human political leaders. Even the best -- and there are some who really do try -- will inevitably disappoint even their most loyal followers. There's something about the will to power and the desire for authority that does bad things to those who get their wish.

True leadership that results in the good of the people comes from someone who knows that true power and belong to God alone. So when God sent a true King it would be someone born as far from a palace as you can get, in, say, a stable. The example he would give would be one of servanthood and not rule. 

And because he is that type of king, he expects that type of behavior from the people he leads.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name, 
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.
[Philippians 2:3-11]

            That is what it is for the Lord to be our righteousness.  It doesn’t mean we ourselves are righteous by any stretch of the imagination.  We’re more like the kings of Israel and Judah than we would want to admit, with their idolatry and their intrigues and their sins and their cowardice.  We’re far more like them than we are like Jesus.  But we no longer are tied to that life as the only option, and the Spirit of Christ, who brings us God’s love from the ground up and not just orders from the top down, continues to work on us from the inside out until, by his grace, one day we will just “get it”.

            May that day come soon.  May it even be today.  Amen.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

“The Year of the Locust” - November 22. 2015

Joel 2:21-27

            The practice of setting aside the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving went national in 1863, when a proclamation was issued by President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War in which he noted,

“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.”[1]

Thanksgiving isn’t just about looking at life and saying, “Thank you,” for how good it is.  If you can do that, sure, it’s a wonderful thing to do, and there are times in life when that is just what is called for.  Thanksgiving, though, is also about gratitude for how good things are in the face of how difficult they could be.  In our own national mythology the pilgrims embody that.  The traditional story of the first Thanksgiving includes the fact that a considerable number of people who had stepped onto the Mayflower died of disease and hunger their first winter on this side of the Atlantic.  They were joined at the feast by natives whose own villages had been decimated by smallpox that had also come from Europe.

            It is easy to hear the words of the prophet Joel [2:21-26] as simple joy at a good harvest and a call to feast in celebration.

“Do not fear, O soil;
   be glad and rejoice,
   for the Lord has done great things! 
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
   for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
   the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 

O children of Zion, be glad
   and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
   he has poured down for you abundant rain,
   the early and the later rain, as before. 
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
   the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 

I will repay you for the years
   that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
   my great army, which I sent against you. 

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
   and praise the name of the Lord your God …”

It’s easy to overlook that one verse [2:25] in there about “the swarming locust”.

            The earlier part of Joel is all about the land being overrun by a swarm of locusts that destroyed everything in their path.

“For a nation has invaded my land,
   powerful and innumerable;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
   and it has the fangs of a lioness. 
It has laid waste my vines,
   and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
   their branches have turned white.
[Joel 1:6-7]

As rain held off, and no new growth springing up, the livestock and cattle died, too.  Then among the dry grass and deadwood, wildfire broke out.

“To you, O Lord, I cry.
For fire has devoured
   the pastures of the wilderness,
and flames have burned
   all the trees of the field. 
Even the wild animals cry to you
   because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured
   the pastures of the wilderness.”
[Joel 1:19-20]

We live in a time and place where it's easy to forget how dependent we are on each link in the food chain and how easily it can fall apart.  A few people here might recall distant family stories about the Irish potato famine.  Others might have met people who grew up in the Dust Bowl.  Yet even with extreme drought in the agricultural areas of California, we still have bread on the table.

Is that in itself not amazing?  Is that alone not enough – if we think of it – to make us express, if not thanks, at least relief?  Can we not share at least a little bit of the awareness Joel expresses that God tends the world in wonderful ways, and that God’s provision for us is far greater than we usually realize? 

Remember the bad old days, whenever you can.  The memory makes you appreciate the present, even if it doesn’t always come up to Norman Rockwell standards.  Remember things like how much fun it was to get chicken pox.  (Two of my friends in college had escaped that as children, then came down with them on their honeymoon.)  Remember how good things were when segregation was legal and how many lives were wasted and how many potential friendships destroyed.  Remember how safe it felt to have atomic fallout drills in school.  Remember how happy parents were when sons were eligible for the draft in wartime.  Remember how managers were so eager to hire new workers to expand their businesses seven years ago.  Remember how, in September of 2001, we all felt so certain about everything in life when we looked at the sky and saw there were no airplanes flying?

Remember the years that the locusts have eaten, in nibbles or in gulps.  But remember also the word of the Lord:

“I will repay you for the years
   that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
   my great army, which I sent against you. 

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
   and praise the name of the Lord your God.”

And after you have eaten and offered praise, go ahead and watch a good football game.