Poetry of Power

150 Days into the Pandemic

July 26, 2020

Psalm: 119: 129 ff

Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.

When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.

Steady my footsteps in your Word; let no iniquity have dominion over me.

My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.

Poetry of Power

In my last blog entry, I introduced you to poet, Lynn Ungar and the new, powerful, and relevant words in her poem, Pandemic.  Today I introduce you to another poet whose collection of poetry, while ancient, is equally powerful and relevant.

We know that collection of poems as The Psalms.  The acknowledged author is David, musician, poet, and king along with other musicians and poets, and generations of scribes who preserved an incredible collection of verse for us today.

To experience fully the power of poetry, the rule of thumb is to read the poem out loud. To read this one, we may first need to familiarize ourselves with the some of the words David used. So, let’s take it one line at a time, study those words, and apply them to the context of today.

“Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.”

So, what are decrees?  A decree is a law, a proclamation, a commandment.  It is an order, that creates order when obeyed.  For example, “Treat everyone as you would have them treat you.”  That is a decree from God that inspires virtually all laws governing human behavior.  All people are to be treated as equally deserving of a good life.  It is the core of our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we live in a world darkened by racism.  It is a world where the decree to treat all people as you would wish to be treated counts only for certain people, not all.  There is no sense of order in its application; rather, groups are randomly picked by race, age, place of birth, gender, or mother tongue to be treated as unequal and not deserving of the pursuit of happiness.

David knew that God’s decrees overlook no one; they are equally applied.  Because of this, David is not only willing to obey God’s rules, he obeys them with all his heart!  With enthusiasm and wonder!  There is no dictator or despot in charge in David’s world.   God is!  God is the one who created the world and loved his creation and everything and everyone in it equally.  His rules are a clear reflection of love and responsibility.  David relied on the Ten Commandments as the written decrees.  A thousand years later, Jesus summarized those commandments into a single statement, “Love God above all else, and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Imagine with David for a moment what the world would look like if everyone embraced and obeyed the decrees of God; the decrees to lift and honor all people to live in harmony, mutual respect, and community.  What a glorious world it would be!  It is no wonder that when David led the procession into Jerusalem carrying the Ark and the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved, that he “danced before the Lord with all his heart.”  This would not be some grudging obedience; it would be a heartfelt opportunity to participate in a grand social experiment.  Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.”

“When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

God’s decrees provide light in a darkened world.   We need that light from the Word if we are to find peace and understanding.  Without it and clear rules, we can lose our way.  We can do all the wrong things, or worse yet, do nothing, feel nothing, pray nothing, worship nothing.  We can live in a void with no conscience, empathy, or sense of justice.  Light is vital to our understanding of God’s plan for us.  It strips us of any excuses for ignorance, it is so simple.

“I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.”

In these Texas summer days, by the time my dog and I finish our walk, he is dehydrated, hot and tired, panting for his water bowl. I understand fully.  By the end of my everyday, I too feel psychologically hot and tired.  I am emotionally dehydrated, panting for a cool soothing cup of water for myself, for my friends and family, and for the demands we endure in this pandemic time.  We struggle with depression, isolation, and anxiety brought on by newscasts filled with the latest COVID-19 body count and stories of random violence against innocents.  These stories cry out for the orderliness of God’s decrees, where life makes sense and sudden death does not.

”Steady my footsteps in your Word:”

Today’s decrees are made and changed, remade and changed again.  Information is updated daily with new acts of violence that perpetuate division, new assaults by an invisible enemy that ruthlessly and randomly kills; and new proclamations based on ignorance and political deception.  This simple statement tells us that nothing is trustworthy except God’s decrees, “Steady my footsteps in your Word.”  God’s Word gives us a firm place to stand.  You can trust that your feet will be on solid ground when you live in synchrony with God’s Word.

 “Let not iniquity have dominion over me.”

 So what keeps us from stepping out in confidence?   And what can keep us from that firm place? David suggests it might be the presence of Iniquity.   He prays that God keeps iniquity from having dominion over us.  What does that mean?   

Iniquity is sin, yes; but much more.  It implies evil, gross immorality, and wickedness.  Iniquity occurs not only when we sin, but when we willfully sin and even find delight in it. When iniquity becomes a way of life, it sears our conscience.  Our conscience loses it voice and we are left without the quiet troubling reminder when we have done wrong.  It dulls our yearning to return to God’s way of justice.  Iniquity blocks our access to his light, and we are abandoned, drifting in the dark, searching for someone to follow.  If we follow in the unsteady steps of leaders who do not lead with compassion, intelligence, and ethical principles, we may find ourselves drifting into the dominion of Iniquity.  Beware.   Plead with God for protection.

“My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.”

Finally, our poet takes us to a place with which we are all too familiar.  While we can call upon God to keep us focused on the Word, we cannot command him to give us the power to eliminate COVID-19, systemic racism, educational dilemmas facing working parents of school age children, or the financial carnage afflicting so many families who have lost their jobs. 

Instead, we are left helpless.   Unfortunately, the typical human response to helplessness is anger, a weak and convenient emotion that for a moment makes us feel big and strong, until it erupts into aggression and violence.

Our psalmist shows the courage it takes to feel a pure and powerful grief. “My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.” This is not a matter of sadness for one person or another.  It is grief for a society’s failure to see the goodness in God’s decrees and follow them.   It is a grievous rejection of the gifts God gave us in his love and generosity. As a culture, we have failed to trust the Word as our path to a life well lived; a life lived in love, equity, and peace.  Instead we have chosen hatred, betrayal, and chaos.

And for that, David’s eyes shed streams of tears, not some tears, not buckets of tears, but streams of tears; streams that flow into rivers and fill the lakes that nourish the land.  We cannot let our tears fall on hard ground.  They are needed to fill the dried souls of families whose sons and daughters lie dead in pools of blood on the streets of our cities, and whose families suffer as their loved ones die alone in hospitals of a virus that shows no mercy. 

Poem 119, with its power and relevance, does not leave us with easy platitudes.  Instead we are called to grieve the dead and the dying, that their lives and sacrifices will remain alive in the soul of our society.  And forever, we will shed streams of tears to soothe the suffering world as it yearns to live once again, governed by wonderful decrees and strong leaders who will obey them with all their hearts,  and with enthusiasm and wonder!

We pray.  Oh sweet Jesus, turn to us in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.  Amen

Now, read the poem out loud, and let the relevance and power of Poem 119 move your soul.

Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.

When your Word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.

Steady my footsteps in your Word; let no iniquity have dominion over me.

My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.

Pandemic Time

During this time of sheltering in place, we look for reason, consistency, and guidance. And when we don’t find it, we create it in prayer, song, art, and poetry, like the poem I offer you today.

The poem, “Pandemic” was written by Pastor and poet, Lynn Ungar. I was introduced to it by Bishop Michael Curry in one of his Monday meditations and since then, I have introduced it to others. You may wish to do the same. You may also wish to read more of this talented woman’s work in her recently published book, “Bread and Other Miracles” available online at lynnungar.com

Now, it is your turn to experience Ms. Ungar’s poem.

May I suggest that you find a quiet, private space where you can read it out loud and hear the power of her words.

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.
 
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
 
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
 
–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

See what I mean?

Amen

This poem was published with permission from Lynn Ungar.

Easter 2020

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

We pray.

Oh God, just as Jesus made his resurrection known to the disciples by gathering together with them, touching and being touched, sharing a meal, and extending the peace, so let us share our love for each other by protecting them from harm until it is once again safe to touch, embrace, and sit together at the dinner table. Open our eyes to know your love in our actions and thoughts as we wait for this time to pass. Amen.

Welcome to Easter Season 2020-Style

This has been an Easter unlike any we have ever experienced. We are in the midst of a pandemic and there is no escaping its impact.   It has affected our community, state, country, and planet, altering the way we live, shop, share, and work, if we are lucky enough still to have a job.  It has affected how we educate our children, socialize with friends and family, conduct business meetings, plan weddings, funerals, graduations, honeymoons and vacations.  It has affected us medically, financially, professionally, socially, and psychologically.  No one is unscathed by Covid-19. In its invisible stealth, it spreads through our community until most of us know at least one person who has been afflicted.  While one friend tagged the mandate to shelter in place as the introvert’s dream come true, the rest of us are getting a little tired of hovering in solitude under the threat of infection. 

One group in particular that comes to mind includes folks like me, who anchor their week in corporate worship. We gather in church sanctuaries every Sunday, singing together, praying together, listening together to scripture read aloud and preached.  For us, much has changed.  For the past five Sundays, we are not attending church surrounded by people, music, and liturgy. Instead, my husband and I sit at the dining room table in front of a laptop transported to a quiet sanctuary holding empty pews, two priests, an organist, and a camera guy.

I remember the Sunday before shelter in place was mandated.  It was March 8, 2020.  Our priest announced before the service began, that in light of the novel coronavirus, we should not touch anyone during the Exchange of Peace.  For those unfamiliar with the Exchange of Peace, let me explain.  It is a short break in the middle of the service when we stand and turn to each other to shake hands, hug friends and family, and say something like, Peace be with you, or God bless you, or Good morning, God’s peace.  It is when the quiet style of worship we Episcopalians love breaks into a cacophony of noise, voices, laughter, and affection until we are called to quiet down and return to our seats, or as one priest put it, “All right!  Enough!  With all this hugging and shaking, we’ll never get outa here!” 

On March 8, 2020 at 10:30 a.m., we were told to extend God’s peace to our neighbor with our eyes, with our smile, and with our words but, “Do not touch!”  I could feel myself stiffen.  I had not realized how much I valued that brief ritual until then.

I know we Episcopalians have a reputation.  All churches do and we are no different.  I’ve been told that people think of us as an elite group with roots to the royal family in England.  It was after all our Bishop Curry who preached at the wedding of Kate and Harry.   I don’t know about the elite business, but it is true that we love our ceremony filled with rituals, music, and liturgy. Our priests and acolytes wear robes; we are traditional and formal –   and we are physical.  In our services, we stand up.  We sit down.  We kneel.  We pray out loud together.  We read prayers and psalms responsively.  We stand and turn to our neighbors to Exchange the Peace with handshakes and hugs. Every Sunday we share a common meal of bread and wine kneeling side by side at the altar. We are not a passive audience.  We are active worshipers.

We get our hands dirty building homes for Habitat for Humanity; then we clean them up to deliver food to the homeless. We take care of babies and toddlers and educate pre-schoolers.  We grow gardens and invite our neighbors to harvest and enjoy the fresh food.   Episcopalian priests, chaplains, lay eucharistic ministers and lay preachers are in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted and independent living facilities and Hospice.  Holding the hands of the sick and dying, the lonely and discouraged, we pray with them.  And suddenly we are not allowed to touch?  

As alarming as it sounded at the time, it has become our new reality.  In response, I see churches everywhere reaching out to touch without touching.  On-line streaming of church services.  Small groups meeting online throughout the week, study groups, support groups, meditation and prayer groups; all finding ways to do God’s work and maintain connection with each other and with Jesus.

It is from Jesus we learn that worship is an active and physical business.  Jesus didn’t sit around passively in his ministry.  He stood up in the Temple.  He knelt to pray in the Garden. He squatted on the floor to wash the feet of his disciples.  He walked from village to village touching, comforting, feeding and healing the hungry, diseased, tormented, and blind. He ate with pharisees and sinners.  His was a physical, hands on, dusty feet ministry, culminating in bloody wounded torture and death on the cross.  And then he came back in a physical resurrection with the scars to show for it 

Today, Jesus is no longer in our midst.  We cannot reach out to touch the scars that Thomas was invited to touch.  We can’t touch his robe in a crowd and be healed.  We can’t invite him for dinner and sit at table side by side, inches apart.  We can’t sit at his feet, and wash them with our tears, dry them with our hair, and anoint them with essential oils.  Instead, we are left with a virtual relationship that we call Faith.  It is a connection more powerful even than the internet. It is spiritual and profound, and it will be good enough until we too share in our own resurrection to join him in heaven.

And it will be good enough for us now in our communication with each other.  Until we see the resurrection of life as we once knew it, we will attend church at our dining room tables, seated in front of a laptop.  We will use our phones to call loved ones.  We will write letters and emails; and employ every online technology available.  We will use our eyes and words and smiles.  Our salutations will be waves or a hand on our chest. We will maintain a six-foot safety distance; and wear a mask whenever we enter a space with others.  We will hold all those impacted by this virus in our prayers and outreach.  And we will wait, until it is once again safe to gather with friends and families in our homes and restaurants and coffee shops and happy hours, . . .and in our churches.

Till then, take care and be safe.

Amen

Lost and Found

Luke 2:41 – 52

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.

Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Lost and Found

We know this story and we know exactly how Mary and Joseph felt.  Say, you lose your kiddo in Wal-Mart.  When you finally find him in the toy aisle, do you say, “Oh!  I love you!  I am so happy to find you?”

No.  In fear and anger, we fuss just like Mary and Joseph did when after three terrifying days of searching, they finally found Jesus in the Temple, “How could you do this to us?!”  And like our own kiddo might explain, so did Jesus when he told them he was just hanging out where he wanted to be.

When distressing events strike, whether an illness, an accident or losing a kid in Wal-Mart, we strike out in anger, often accusing God, “How could you have let this happen!?  How could you do this to me!?””

God knows we live in an irrational world where bad things happen to good people.  Tragedies are everyday occurrences, not the work of God.  His work employs our faith to give us hope, stamina, and perseverance to endure whatever happens, good or bad. That is the power of faith so that we, like Jesus once found, can go home to grow in wisdom and in divine and human favor.  That is what prepared Jesus for the adversity he would face as an adult, and that is what prepares us to live in this world.

We pray.    Oh Lord, you are in the midst of us and we are called by your name.  Do not forsake us, Oh Lord our God.   Amen

Why Lent?

Lent gives us forty days and forty nights ~

To read

To pray

To listen

To consider

To grow in the darkness of Crucifixion

So that we might

Burst into the Easter light of Resurrection.

May God bless you in this season.

*****************

Lent 2020 begins Wednesday, February 26, Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is marked by services throughout the day, services of deep reverence when worshipers share the Eucharist then leave in silence, bearing the cross marked in ash on their forehead.

Thus begins Lent.

A Moment in Time

This blog entry comes from my sermon preached at Good Shepherd on the Hill, Austin Texas, on the First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Let us pray. Almighty God, in this time of darkness, give us the light we need to see our path in a world of confusion and fear. Lead us to those places where your voice can reach us above the noise of distraction; and may we create a moment of quiet in which to hear you. Amen

The Gospel reading:  Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

A Moment in Time

 Today I want to talk to you about the Church Calendar.  Now, everybody, relax.  I know this is a terrifyingly titillating topic for a Sunday morning.  Let me assure you:  if you had a good night’s sleep, eaten a nutritionally dense breakfast and took your blood pressure meds, you will be all right.  I will walk you through this and all will be well.

Now, to our topic for this morning:  The Church Calendar

 We love calendars!  We are obsessed with them.  Google “calendars,” and you will find hundreds of 2020 calendars available for purchase:  simple ones, decorative ones, business ones, all styles, sizes and shapes.

All of them have one thing in common.  They are Gregorian calendars, the international standard first introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory.  While there are at least 40 other calendars in the world, the one internationally used calendar is the Gregorian Calendar.

So back to my first observation:  We appear to be obsessed with them!  My take on obsession is this.  Obsession goes deeper than just liking something; it has unconscious implications as well.  For example, we all love how our calendar is organized and convenient; and how it allows us to keep track of important dates, appointments, work commitments, errands, on and on.

On a deeper level, however, it appears to protect us from insecurities, unconscious fears and needs.  For example, most of us have some fear of the unknown, for which we employ an arsenal of control behaviors to protect us.   Our calendar is one of them! It offers us a reprieve from this fear.  We develop a conviction that once an event is on the calendar, it will happen as we planned.  It provides a sense of knowing what will happen next, shielding us from the fear of the unknown.   And most significantly, it deceives us into thinking that we are capable of managing a phenomenon that in reality, no one can predict or control, the phenomenon that haunts our nights and frazzles our days.  That phenomenon is Time.

Now I know how long a second is; and that 60 seconds make a minute; and 60 minutes make an hour; and 24 hours make a day; and seven days make a week. It sounds so orderly and contained and predictable.  It’s always the same, day to day, person to person.  And yet, is it?  How do you explain that one person will tell you time flies; while the next says it crawls.  Why does it take forever for a traffic light to turn green yet on the same day, for the same person, time races past him as he attempts to finish a task before deadline?

  That’s not all.  Despite the constants:  60 seconds in a minute; 60 minutes in an hour, these are only constants as we look at them in the present tense.  Time is also cumulative; it has a past and a present.  Which means we don’t all have the same time, do we?  When you hear, oh, you have all the time in the world, what does that mean, when at the time of birth, one person has decades to live and another has only hours. And if you consider the same question asked at this split second, how would you answer?   Do you have decades yet to live? Or years? Or frighteningly only hours?  We don’t know! And there is no way of controlling for or predicting how much time anyone has in the world.

With that unsettling thought, let us turn our attention to the Church Calendar also known as the Liturgical Calendar.

The Church Calendar is similar to the Gregorian with its 365 days split somewhat evenly into twelve months, fifty-two weeks, holidays and seasons. That is where the similarities end and the differences begin.  Recall the enormous New Year’s celebrations just twelve days ago? On the Church Calendar, New Year’s Day was just a blip on the screen in the middle of Christmas.  For us the new year started the first Sunday of Advent that four-week season devoted to preparations for the celebration of Christmas.  And unlike the Gregorian Calendar where Christmas is a one-day event, the Church Calendar devotes twelve days to Christmas.   After Christmas, the calendar follows the life of Christ as we mark Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, back to Advent.

While the Gregorian Calendar tracks and organizes our life through days, weeks, and months, the Church Calendar tracks our soul journey through the life of Christ.  And while the Gregorian Calendar does its best to manage time, only the Church Calendar dares to take into account that one expression of time that defies containment, definition or categorization.  It is nowhere on the Gregorian Calendar.  It remains invisible, mystical, and profound.  It is the Moment.  

Epiphany is the season of the Moment; that moment when something happens that catches us unaware, that illuminates our understanding, that transforms our perspective on life and self, on God and our faith; that moves us.

Unlike Advent and Christmas that come with extensive to-do lists for us, Epiphany is the season when God has the extensive to-do list; when God does all the work.  He picks the time and the setting to provide content for an Epiphany.  He sets up the scene and supplies the props.  He auditions and picks the players.  And he does the talking.  You see, we can’t make an epiphany.   Only God can orchestrate an epiphany.

That’s why Jesus showed up at the Jordan River where his cousin was baptizing folks and asked John to baptize him.  Now John knew that Jesus was not seeking the baptism he had to offer.  His baptism was a baptism of repentance, and as far as anyone knew, Jesus didn’t need that.  Jesus needed an Epiphany baptism so he made himself available where there was a good chance that God would be likely to speak.  Jesus needed clarification and confirmation as to his identity and his destiny.  John’s water was not powerful enough to do that.  Nonetheless, Jesus prevailed upon him and John consented. 

God picked the River Jordan.  God supplied an audience and the water and the words of John, and he picked John the Baptist even before the man was born.  John baptized Jesus, and as Jesus rose out of the water, John stepped away and God took over.  He opened the heavens and sent his mystical messenger that Holy Ghost Dove to alight on Jesus, and then God spoke.  Jesus listened.  He paid attention.  He wasn’t distracted; he knew something was happening and he paid attention to his Heavenly father’s words. “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

That Epiphany confirmed for Jesus his identity and his destiny.  At that moment, Jesus knew exactly who He was and what he was destined to be and do.  And when he experienced his epiphany, so do we.  Not only was Jesus’s identity confirmed for him; it was confirmed for us as well.

I think that Jesus was expecting something when he approached John the Baptist that day.  He may not have known precisely what or when, but he made himself available, and paid attention.  I would wager that you made yourself available here today, in hopes of an epiphany.  In hopes of hearing something that might illuminate your life path; that might re-define your perspective on life; re-define your identity and destiny.  Maybe something in the sermon?  In the powerful Scripture Frank just read? or the lyrics of a song that Sam picked?  Or in the words of a prayer Kathy offered up for us?

It can happen!  I’d suggest you came to the right place.  You have to be here next week too when Kathy is baptizing baby Lucia.  You will witness it.   Take notice.  Pay attention.  When Kathy calls that Holy Ghost Dove into this place to touch the water in the baptismal font, it will happen.  The Holy Spirit will be here, swirling around the room, hovering over the water, transforming it into something so powerful, that when touched to Lucia’s forehead will transform her into God’s precious daughter for life, cleansed from sin and born again to continue forever in the life of Jesus – Don’t miss it!

And what about communion?  When Kathy offers up the communion prayer, do you hear what she asks God to do?  She asks Him to send his Dove down to us, to touch the bread and wine, to transform them into food so powerful that it nourishes us to live forever in Christ!  When you hear that word, SANCTIFY, prepare yourself!  Pay attention.  There’s an epiphany about to swirl around you.

You can miss it if you’re not paying attention. Maybe you’re mentally making your list for after-church grocery shopping during the communion prayer.  Maybe you are distracted by the cute babies during the baptismal prayer.  If that’s the case, do not despair.  You have all the time in the world, right? . . . . Well, you always have next Sunday, right? hmmm . . . Or tomorrow?  Maybe?  Hey, no worries. God always gives us another chance.  He does not despair.   Just don’t let time get away from you, because while God may have all the time in the world, we obviously do not.

For that reason, I’d suggest we make ourselves available to the times and places where God is most likely to speak.  Like Jesus did.  Make yourself available in worship, prayer, song and quiet.   Immerse yourself in God’s creations:  nature, music, art, and space.  God has been known to speak through them.  And when you are in those places, don’t pick up your phone.  Don’t check the calendar.  Don’t click on the remote.  Don’t go grab a bag of chips.

 Instead, be still.  Be brave.  Quiet your mind.  Listen for the fluttering of a dove’s wings.  Lift your face to feel the breath of the Spirit.  Wait for the silent words of God. 

Somewhere in time there will be your moment.  Pay attention.  Listen.  It’s coming.   And when it does, everything will change.  And you will have all the time in the world.  You will have eternity, and nothing will be the same.  Amen.

The Season of Advent

We call Advent the quiet Season of Waiting.  Yet so many distractions      rudely interrupt our silent nights.

I’m not talking about distractions like jazzy  renditions of Christmas songs  piping through loud speakers everywhere.

I’m not talking about nasal noisy  complaints about the disgraceful  commercialization of Christmas.

I am talking about turbulence, . . . everywhere from weather to politics. 

Now I don’t know much about weather patterns in ancient times, although I imagine  earthquakes and the great flood could count as environmental  turbulence. 

I do know for sure the political environment leading up to the birth of Christ was turbulent. 

It pervaded the lives of  everyone, filtering all the way down to Mary and Joseph’s quiet home.  Mary was close to delivery with her first child.  And, she had to do what?  Walk miles to Bethlehem for a what? A census??  And once there, where do we stay?  Did you make reservations?   No?  Seriously?            

Now, that my friends, is turbulence! And like ours, it was bad!

As we face the turbulence in our lives today may we, like Mary take the hard walk and the bumpy ride as we wait for deliverance. And again like Mary, may  we then revel in the light of her son’s birth and graciously greet visitors who come calling with gifts and good wishes.

 And my we find our voice to sing with her,  

My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.                                  

Merry Christmas!

From the Dead

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  . . .

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

 

From the Dead

 Memories drifting,
Swirling softly in the morning mist,
Dreams, recollections of
Holding the hands of the dying,
Praying.
Crying in the dark,
I see them.

My brother
Sparkling soulful eyes,
Golden freckles, sweetness.

The father of my son
Tormented in the chaos of
The life he created,
The life that ended him.

A friend, tall, lean, weathered,
Finding happiness in the Lord
Before her life was snuffed out.

A friend
Betrayed by her body
Unable this time to fight
The cancer that stole her away
From the family she loved.

My own father saddened
By his lonely ending
Yet always knowing there were
those who loved him.

Memories coaxing me
from sleep to waking,
I rose from the bed,
Pulled my robe close,
Walked to the kitchen
Poured a cup of coffee,
Turned on the radio.

“Happy All Saints Day to you."
The host announced.
"It’s a favorite holiday of mine,
A time we set aside for
Remembering family and friends,
Considering and honoring
those we love who went before us.”


I'd forgotten.
Between sleep and waking,
Between spiritual and earthly,
Between rational and irrational
There lies that space we call Spirit.
It knows the movement
That defines our life,
That defines the days and nights
of souls and saints,
Who having endured the great ordeal,
Now sing and dance in the presence of the Lamb.
Except on this night, when
The Spirit brings them to us in memories,
Swirling in the mist
Of dreams and recollections.

When it calls us to consider those
We loved, sleep will not protect us.
We cannot escape its call
As we reach through the mist
To touch them, once loved, now dead
To be assured that they are in a better place,
To be assured they will prepare a place
For the time when we join them,
To be assured they will give us
the courage always to love,
And love again.

In life and in death
In joy and in grief
We will love.


2019

 

The Wall Within

Amos 7:7-10

He showed me:  Behold the Lord was standing by a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.  And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.  I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

We pray.

Thank you Lord for bringing us in safety to this new day.                                    Strengthen us that we are not overcome by adversity, temptation or prosperity.  And in all that we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose.                                     We pray in the name of your Son.  Amen

The Wall Within

 Nestled deep within the bowels of the old testament is a short,                       eight chapter book written by the renegade prophet, Amos.  He was             one of the early ones even though he never declared himself a                        prophet. He didn’t come from a priestly tribe or family.  He was                         a man of the earth, a shepherd and a trimmer of trees. And he was                      a man of fearless faith which is probably why God picked him                                to leave his village south of Jerusalem and travel north to the kingdom         of Israel.

In Judah where Amos lived, people took their religion seriously.  They lived frugal lives and worked hard.  In the northern kingdom of Israel, people took their religion less seriously.  Under the rule of Jeroboam, they had grown financially prosperous; they felt privileged and  entitled.  Instead of using their gifts to help others, they exploited and discarded the poor and needy.  God abhorred their meaningless  and shallow piety. He was fed up with their blatant immorality and disregard of justice; and He held them responsible for the mistreatment of others.

So, who do you call when it’s time to preach harsh words in a smooth season?  God called Amos.

Amos took his job seriously.  He was unsophisticated, not easily impressed, and tough.  He pulled no punches.   So terrifying were his words, that the King’s own priest Amaziah pleaded, you’ve got to leave here. The people cannot tolerate what you are saying.

His plea did not deter Amos.  Chapters one through six of his book were filled with indictments against Israel and their neighbors.  He cited family violence, torture, murder, sexual exploitation, rejection of God’s law, lies, hypocrisy, mistreatment of the poor, immorality, sexual exploitation of women, and repression of the prophets.  For these atrocities, all citizens would suffer military defeats, destruction of the land, slaughter, torture, famine and exile. 

Chapter seven continued with five visions in each one of which God employs a symbol of the destruction to come, “Thus the Lord God showed me.”

Our scripture for today is the third of the five predictions. God asks Amos, what do you see?  Amos answered, a plumb line.  For those of you familiar with construction you know about this ancient tool still found in the toolboxes of professional builders and amateur DIY folks. If you want a strong wall, you want a wall that is straight up and down; perfectly perpendicular to its foundation. To achieve that, you employ a plumb line.  It’s a simple yet ingenious tool, consisting of a long cord.  At one end, there is a ring to hold or attach to a nail; at the other end a pointed weight, or bob.   The point at which the bob rests is where the stud is secured.  Only when the wall is straight or plumbed correctly will it be strong enough to withstand environmental strain and demands.

 In this prediction, God tells Amos that he is going to use the plumb line to build a strong wall between his people and himself.  The wall would serve to block his presence from them forever. Now, I am quite sure God knew he did not have to build a wall to accomplish that end.  His people had already done that!  Add to that, God historically had shown himself much more adept at tearing down walls, than building walls.  Think about the infamous walls of Jericho! 

 God knew that when his people had hardened their heart against others, they had hardened their heart against Him.  You see, it is our behaviors that are the building blocks of a wall within us that distances us from God. How many times do we hear folks say they don’t feel the presence of God in their life anymore, as though it’s God’s fault, as though God had wandered away. Amos would counter that idea with blunt questions, “What have you been doing?  How are you treating your loved ones, your neighbors, or strangers in need?  How’s your worship and prayer life going?

 There are those who wonder why we still bother to read and study these ancient texts.  If you are one of them, consider the relevance of Amos’s words to our society today.  To do so, we must read between the lines if we are courageous enough to do so.  If not, skip down to the last couple paragraphs.  Otherwise, here it is.

As long as we persecute minorities, immigrants, the homeless, poor and powerless, we are indicted.

As long as our newspapers are filled with stories of neglect, family abuse, violence and murder, we are indicted.  

As long as an angry man with a military assault rifle is allowed to walk down the street into a school, church, store, or gathering of any kind to murder indiscriminately, we are indicted.

As long as people get away with treating each other in disrespectful, hurtful, critical ways, we are indicted. 

As long as we discriminate against groups of people, oppressing them because of gender, age, nationality, color, or lifestyle, we are indicted.  

As long as we take our religion casually, placing it low on our list of priorities, and crassly behaving in ways that contradict our professed belief and that rain down shame and disrespect upon our church, we are indicted.

As long as hate, prejudice, and disregard for others are so woven into our culture that it is part of our identity, – and we remain silent, we are indicted.

 We are indicted just as clearly as were the early Hebrew citizens of Israel and surrounding communities. And like them, we too will suffer for the sins of our society.  We too will be left standing on the dark side of the wall, separating us from God.

For us though, it is not the end of the story.  Amos doesn’t leave us there, nor does God. God won’t allow us to wander lost in darkness despite the indictments leveled against us.  He didn’t do it to the kingdom of Israel, and he won’t do it to us.  Instead he calls us to examine our soul, to pray for strength and direction, to change the course of our life and ultimately the course of our society.  To do that, we must begin by tearing down the walls within us, the walls we built.

Speaking through Amos in the last few verses of his book, God promises that when we do so, He will raise up the fallen broken house of his people and rebuild it. We are the broken house; we will be raised up and rebuilt to live fully in the presence of God. Even creation will be restored “Behold the days are coming when the mountains will drip with sweet wine and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”

When that happens, no wall can separate us from God.  The only wall in our life now is constructed of building blocks of love to protect and guide us to the light.  We won’t know the route God has in mind for us.  What we do know is that He has provided us the way to get there.  We just place our hand on His wall, turn our face forward and move.  Some of us will move quickly, others more slowly; whatever the pace, our progress will be sure.  The path may be uneven with pits and stones, but we won’t fall as long as we are supported by the wall.  When we get tired, we lean against it.  It’ll hold us; it’s strong, perfectly plumbed.  Just keep moving, secure in the knowledge that as long as we depend on the wall God made, we will not go off course.  We will not be overcome by adversity, temptation or prosperity.  We will not lose our way.

Once there, we will enter into the kingdom of light secure in the presence of God, free of fear.  We will live in a land where mountains drip with sweet wine and the valleys yield plenteous gardens.  We will share in the bountiful harvest of God’s love, never again left to stand alone, indicted and lost on the dark side of the wall.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We pray, Thank you Lord for bringing us safely to this new day.                               Strengthen us so that we are not overcome by adversity, temptation or prosperity.  And always, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose.                         We pray in the name of your Son.  Amen

The Wall Within

 Nestled deep within the bowels of the old testament is a short,                       eight chapter book written by the renegade prophet, Amos.  He was             one of the early ones even though he never declared himself a                        prophet. He didn’t come from a priestly tribe or family.  He was                        a man of the earth, a shepherd and a trimmer of trees. And he was                 a man of fearless faith which is probably why God picked him                       to leave his village south of Jerusalem and travel north to the            kingdom of Israel.

In Judah where Amos lived, people took their religion seriously.  They lived frugal lives and worked hard.  In the northern kingdom of Israel, people took their religion less seriously.  Under the rule of Jeroboam,    they had grown financially prosperous; they felt privileged and              entitled.  Instead of using their gifts to help others, they exploited          and discarded the poor and needy.  God abhorred their meaningless        and shallow piety. He was fed up with their blatant immorality and disregard of justice; and He held them responsible for the                    mistreatment of others.

So, who do you call when it’s time to preach harsh words in a smooth season?  God called Amos.

Amos took his job seriously.  He was unsophisticated, not easily impressed, and tough.  He pulled no punches.   So terrifying were his words, that the King’s own priest Amaziah pleaded, you’ve got to leave here. The people cannot tolerate what you are saying.  

His plea did not deter Amos.  Chapters one through six of his book were filled with indictments against Israel and their neighbors. To name a few, he cited family violence, torture, murder, sexual exploitation, rejection of God’s law, lies, hypocrisy, mistreatment of the poor, immorality, sexual exploitation of women, and repression of the prophets.  For these atrocities, all citizens would suffer as a result military defeats, destruction of the land, slaughter, torture, famine and exile. 

Chapter seven continued with five visions in each one of which God employs a symbol of the destruction to come, “Thurs the Lord God showed me.”

Our scripture for today is the third of five predictions. God asks Amos, what do you see?  Amos answered, a plumb line.  For those of you familiar with construction you know about this ancient tool still found in the toolboxes of professional builders and amateur DIY folks. If you want a strong wall, you want a wall that is straight up and down; perfectly perpendicular to its foundation. To achieve that, you employ a plumb line.  It’s a simple yet ingenious tool, consisting of a long cord.  At one end, there is a ring to hold or attach to a nail; at the other end a pointed weight, or bob.   The point at which the bob rests is where the stud is secured.  Only when the wall is straight or plumbed correctly will it be strong enough to withstand environmental strain and demands.

In this prediction, God tells Amos that he is going to use the plumb line to build a strong wall between his people and himself.  The wall would serve to block his presence from them forever. Now, I am quite sure God knew he did not have to build a wall to accomplish that end.  His people had already done that!  Add to that, God historically had shown himself much more adept at tearing down walls, than building walls.  Think about the infamous walls of Jericho! 

 God knew that when his people had hardened their heart against others, they had hardened their heart against Him.  You see, it is our behaviors that are the building blocks of a wall within us that distances us from God. How many times do we hear folks say they don’t feel the presence of God in their life anymore, as though it’s God’s fault, as though God had wandered away. Amos would counter that idea with blunt questions, “What have you been doing?  How are you treating your loved ones, your neighbors, or strangers in need?  How’s your worship and prayer life going?    

There are those who wonder why we still bother to read and study these ancient texts.  If you are one of them, consider the relevance of Amos’s words to our society today.  To do so, we must read between the lines if we are courageous enough to do so.  If not, skip down to the last couple paragraphs.  Otherwise, here it is. 

As long as we persecute minorities, immigrants, the homeless, poor and powerless, we are indicted. 

As long as our newspapers are filled with stories of neglect, family abuse, violence and murder, we are indicted.  

As long as an angry man with a military assault rifle is allowed to walk down the street into a school, church, store, or gathering of any kind to murder indiscriminately, we are indicted.

As long as people treat each other in disrespectful, hurtful, critical ways, we are indicted. 

As long as we discriminate against groups of people, oppressing them because of gender, age, nationality, color, or lifestyle, we are indicted.  

As long as we take our religion casually, placing it low on our list of priorities, and crassly behaving in ways that contradict our professed belief and that rain down shame and disrespect upon our church, we are indicted.

As long as hate, prejudice, and disregard for others are so woven into our culture that it is part of our identity, – and we remain silent, we are indicted.

 We are indicted just as clearly as were the early Hebrew citizens of Israel and surrounding communities. And like them, we too will suffer for the sins of our society.  We too will be left standing on the dark side of the wall, separating us from God.

For us though, it is not the end of the story. Amos doesn’t leave us there, nor does God. God won’t allow us to wander lost in darkness despite the indictments leveled against us.  He didn’t do it to the kingdom of Israel, and he won’t do it to us.  Instead he calls us to examine our soul, to pray for strength and direction, to change the course of our life and ultimately the course of our society.  To do that, we must begin by tearing down the walls within us, the walls we built.

Speaking through Amos in the last few verses of his book, God promises that when we do so, He will raise up the fallen broken house of his people and rebuild it. We are the broken house; we will be raised up and rebuilt to live fully in the presence of God. Even creation will be restored “Behold the days are coming when the mountains will drip with sweet wine and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”

When that happens, no wall can separate us from God.  The only wall in our life now is constructed of building blocks of love to protect and guide us to the light.  We won’t know the route God has in mind for us.  What we do know is that He has provided us the way to get there.  We just place our hand on the wall, turn our face forward and move.  Some of us will move quickly, others more slowly; whatever the pace, our progress will be sure.  The path may be uneven with pits and holes, but we won’t fall as long as we are supported by the wall.  When we get tired, we lean against it.  It’ll hold us; it’s strong, perfectly plumbed.  Just keep moving, secure in the knowledge that as long as we depend on the wall God made, we will not go off course.  We will not be overcome by adversity, temptation or prosperity.  We will not lose our way.

Once there, we will enter into the kingdom of light secure in the presence of God, free of fear, indictments and punishments.  We will live in a land where mountains drip with sweet wine and the valleys yield plenteous gardens.  We will share in the bountiful harvest of God’s love, never again left to stand alone, indicted and lost on the dark side of the wall.

Amen

 

 

 

 

A Sound of Silence

Chapter 19 of 1 Kings

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

We pray:

          As the deer longs for the water brooks so longs my soul for you, oh God.  When shall I come into your presence?  Amen.

A Sound of Silence

  You might want to read that scripture again.  Maybe, even read it out loud if you are somewhere alone, without an audience.  It is so powerful a visual, I want you to “see it,” feel it, fully experience it. Go ahead.  Take a moment.

          Incredible, isn’t it.

 The scripture reading comes in the middle of a time of struggle and fear in the life of Elijah.  He has managed to get himself crosswise with Queen Jezebel, who has ordered his imminent death. In desperation, he flees into the wilderness.  He is in despair.

He comes upon a broom tree, leans against it, and moans, “I’m done. I have done everything as you instructed, God and they won’t listen. I give up. I’m ready to die.  Just let me die right here.”  He lies down under the tree and falls into a deep and troubled sleep.  He doesn’t die.  Instead an angel comes to him with a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water.  He eats and falls back to sleep.  Another angel appears, again with food and water; and this time with the admonition that he eat all of it as he will need sustenance for a 40-day hike to Mount Horeb.  There, the angel promises, God will make his presence known to him.

When an angel tells you what to do, you do it.  And Elijah did as he was told.  Once at the mountain, he hears the voice of God asking, “Why are you here?”  Elijah repeated his frustration and disappointment in God’s people; and his overpowering sense of failure.  In response, God assures Elijah that he is coming.

Elijah stands on the mountain and waits.  First comes a ferocious wind that splits mountains and breaks rocks.  Then an earthquake and then a fire, but the Lord was in none of them.

Reading these verses, I found myself humming a song by Paul Simon who wrote many memorable songs.  Probably the most was “The Sound of Silence.”  I wonder if he was thinking about Elijah when he wrote, “In restless dreams I walked alone/ Narrow streets of cobblestone/ ’Neath the halo of a streetlamp/ I turned my collar to the cold and damp/ When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light/ That split the night/ And touched the sound of silence.”

It was in the sound of sheer silence that God made his presence known to Elijah.  Not to say, that God has never used extraordinary ways to manifest his presence.  Just last week, we celebrated Pentecost when the Holy Spirit introduced himself to the disciples in a ferocious wind and tongues of fire.  We all know the world-wide destructive flood that God used to stop the toxic spread of evil in his creation.  And perhaps the most gut-wrenching example was the expression of God’s anguish at his Son’s violent death, with an earthquake that opened graves and split in two the curtain of the temple.

Even today, severe storms, floods, earthquakes, and fires cause many to wonder if such events are signs from God.   For Elijah however, God’s presence was not in any of those.  It was within silence that God spoke and in so doing, restored Elijah’s purpose in life, his hope and direction with the words, “Go back to where you are needed.”  Elijah got it. 

Today, I wonder what we miss.  What is God whispering in our ear that could restore our purpose in life, our hope, our direction?  And we don’t get it?  We simply can’t hear because it’s just too noisy?   And the paradox is that most of that noise is what we ourselves manufacture because we are uncomfortable with silence.  We don’t know where it will take us, so we turn to a neon god of loud, chaotic noise.  “And the people bowed and prayed/ To the neon god they made/ and the sign flashed out its warning/ In the words that it was forming/ And the sign said, ‘The words of the prophets/ Are written on the subway walls/ and tenement halls/ and whispered in the sounds of silence.”

I don’t know where you will seek the words of the prophets.  Maybe it will be in subways or tenement halls, or church. Or maybe you will find them in the shade of a broom tree.  All you need is courage and a burning thirsty desire, “As the deer longs for the water brook, so longs my soul for you, Oh God.” 

When the silence finds you, – and it will, – don’t run away. Stay there!  It is just a matter of time before you, like all the prophets before you, will hear God whispering, telling you where He wants you to be and the reassurance that he will give you whatever you need to get there. 

Like Elijah, we might need courage in the face of fear, strength for a body weakened by sleepless nights, encouragement in the aftermath of failure, energy to replace lethargy and frustration, and a powerful hope that because we rest in the presence of God, all will be well. This hope will have the power of a ferocious mountain-splitting wind, a shattering screaming earthquake, and a burning fire to purge away all shreds of despair that would block God’s vision for us.

And all of that . . . in the sheer silence where even the whispers of God are heard.

Shh, listen.

Got it?

Amen