March 2016


 

Easter

New Birth

Life springs forth

Joyous celebration of Light

Sunrise

butterfly

[The photograph was taken in an alley in downtown Richmond, Virginia. Date unknown. This is the last in this series of Lenten images and reflections. Tomorrow, however…]

When the Light of the World had been extinguished, Peter and the others sought shadows. No one has an authoritative figure for the population of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death. Estimates range from 20,000 to 80,000, with tens of thousands more visiting the city during times like Passover. If one were trying to hide out, and Peter was, how hard would it be?

You were with him, weren’t you? With the Nazarene, I mean. Aren’t you one of his disciples?

No! I am not! img487.jpg

Move away from the warmth of the fire; into the shadows of night you go, Peter, before they arrest you, too.

And that was the night before. Before the rabbi faced his capital punishment, his crucifixion. Now that he was dead, Peter and his friends were even more afraid. The sun rises on Saturday, and somewhere in the shadows of Jerusalem, they hide. Together? More probably, they split up. Wouldn’t you? Fellowship is one thing, finding solace in mutual support. But after the trauma of yesterday…God, I just want to be alone. Somewhere safe. (Where is the angel now? The one who says, “Don’t be afraid.”)

There are soldiers over there. Hide behind that column. Religious leaders pass by, and they are the enemy today too. Duck under that tree branch. Anyone who looks you in the eye forces you into a doorway, out of sight. You hope.

As you hide, your memory is alive with what might have been, if cloaks and palm branches and hosannas and children singing and prancing had meant the success of the movement. He tried to warn us. Hosannas quieted. Dancers and demonstrators and disciples dispersed. Away from the crowds again, Jesus’ teaching came through a voice tense with passion, breaking now and then with sadness, but with love audible in every syllable.

Peter realized that they had all listened, but did not heed. Or, could not. Hopes were so high for all who paraded, shouted, cried, and pled, “Save us!”

And then within days, a last supper together, intimate, memorable. A prelude to betrayal, it turned out. Peter remembered following… at a distance, a safe distance, until he was recognized.

The next morning, hosannas had turned to “Crucify! Crucify!” Peter’s blood ran cold. And then the Light was extinguished and shadows became his friend. Peter hides. Crouches here, darts there, stays out of sight and weeps, for his Lord and for himself. He keeps an eye out for John. He wonders about Thomas. And Matthew. Anger and disgust well up when he thinks of Judas. “But am I any better?” He shivers in the shadows though the air is warm.

They will have to regroup at some point. They owe that much to the memory of Jesus. Their community was so important to him. But for now, Peter, lay low. You really have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

For now, a lonely man in the midst of a busy city, looking over his shoulder, in the shadow of the cross.

 

 

 

After today, one image more. It was chosen at the start of this journey. But today’s image was found just moments ago. I had considered an Iona cross, one of the ancient stone crosses that tower over visitors to Iona Abbey. But then I found this crucifix, more appropriate to Good Friday than the empty crosses of Iona.

This stunning figure hangs over the chancel of St. Nicholas’ Church in BeDSC00924.JPGrlin, Germany, the church where Johann Crüger became the cantor in 1622. Crüger composed the tunes we sing for the hymns “Ah, Holy Jesus” and “Now Thank We All Our God,” among others. At the Maundy Thursday service I led last night at a small, hardly-surviving church, we tried our best to sing “Ah, Holy Jesus,” but the little electronic organ and the aging voices couldn’t convey the lament of the tune, making it sound more pitiful than the composer could have imagined.

We had heard how Jesus kneeled at the feet of his friends, and washed their feet at that last supper, even the feet of Judas one assumes, since surely John’s gospel would have told us otherwise. We then broke bread, shared the cup, and prayed together. “Ah, holy Jesus,” we sang at the end, “how have you offended, That mortal judgment has on you descended? By foes derided, by your own rejected, O most afflicted!”

Our struggling voices betrayed the sad beauty of Crüger’s song of lament, and we could hardly attend to Johann Heermann’s text: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you? It is my treason, Lord, that has undone You. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied you; I crucified you.”

By hymn’s end, we were just glad the ordeal of singing had ended. Now, the morning after, I realize that maybe our mournful musical whimper may have been more appropriate to the text than that of a performance of some grand cathedral organ and professional choir. That there is sorrow and passion in the composer’s music cannot be denied. The power of his composition might move us emotionally, even to tears, even without any knowledge of that text. But I will say this about our singing last night: if we twelve in the chapel truly identified with the twelve in the upper room, if we owned the text about treason and denial, the sound of our weak singing could not have been more appropriate.

The well-known verses of Matthew 25 about the day of judgment when sheep and goats are separated according to those who see and minister to Jesus in the “least of those” and the ones who don’t — those verses might well be amplified beyond Jesus’ first century vision. “When did we see you hungry…thirsty…a stranger…naked…sick…in prison?”
That was the query in Matthew’s text. But let’s imagine a further inquisition: When did we see you fleeing violence? When did we see your child a refugee? When did we turn our hearts from girls kidnapped in some African village we’d never heard of? When did we see you aged and abused? When did we gather nails, wood, and…

“Inasmuch as you did it…” Oh. We know the rest. And we are complicit. ‘Twas us, Lord. Or, to make it more precise, linked most closely to the hymn text, “I it was denied you; I crucified you.” My DNA is on the hammer.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Well, we know on the surface what it is we do, because just look at him hanging there. But deep down, we don’t have a clue about Love Incarnate dying. Not yet.

It is only Friday.

 

 

“In the same way, he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.'”

Tonight, as I lead the Maundy Thursday service of Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, or as my childhood home church called it, “The Meal with the Master,” I shall repeat those words about cup and covenant and blood, as I pour the wine. Truth be told, it won’t be wine, but grape juice, though if I had my way, it would be wine in all its fermented fruitiness!

Usually I refer to the drink that accompanies the sacramental bread as “the cup,” instead of pretending it is wine or naming it more honestly “juice.” There’s something that sounds odd if we were to say that this holy communion consists of “bread and juice.” That sounds more like a church preschool snack.

Wait. We could in all honesty call the drink “the fruit of the vine!” That would be true to the grape, right? But I go with “the cup.”36160007.jpg Simple. And scriptural.

If you have been following this blog for the past 37 days of Lent (2016), you are aware that each day I have chosen a photographic image from among the many thousands I’ve taken since I got my first camera as a child. The image today comes from the Iona Abbey Cloisters sandstone carvings, this one a depiction of a man receiving the cup. (I was surprised to learn that the carvings are relatively recent, having been commissioned in 1967 and completed in 1997.)

On this particular evening, when we remember Jesus and his disciples in the upper room, having their last supper together, we will break bread and share the cup. A seminary professor of mine John Leith (he was never a fan of my so-called theology) wrote that it was a “thrilling fact” that not a Sunday (or probably a day) had gone by in over 2000 years that Christians somewhere on the planet had not “gathered at the table of their Lord,” to break the bread and pour the wine.

Tonight, Maundy Thursday services may be more creative than usual. Some churches will host a Seder; the church Joan and I belong to will have a Tenebrae service around tables in the fellowship hall; and the church where I will “sub” tonight will have a simple service of quiet communion in a small chapel. We will not be drinking from a chalice as the stone carver has depicted at Iona. Probably grape juice in little cups.

I’ll not stress that. Instead I will emphasize that we share (symbolically) one cup. My understanding is that the meaning of sharing a cup is sharing in the life of all who drink from that cup.  When Christians drink from that cup, there is a unity, a bond, a communion in one another’s lives. I know the traditional understanding of the cup filled with red wine is that it is a reminder of Jesus’ shed blood, just as the bread reminds us of his broken body, but, Lord, let us be careful of our vocabulary here. From almost the very beginning of this sacramental meal, Christians have been accused of cannibalism, pretending to eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood.

“This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.” God’s new deal for us. I don’t know what kind of grade the late Dr. Leith would have given me for this bit of personal theology, but I much prefer to think of this “cup” as sharing in the “lifeblood”of Christ, as in a blood connection to him and his family. We are of the same blood, sharing in his vitality, his mission, his sacrifice. As in our willingness to share his cup. Not drink his blood. Ick.

In Luke’s gospel, on the eve of his crucifixion Jesus is praying on the Mount of Olives. And he pleads, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me…” Even Eugene Peterson’s relaxed (and very popular) paraphrase keeps the word “cup” there: “Father remove this cup from me.” Here the cup stands for the cross. When we share the cup in that communion meal, do we not also announce that we are willing to share his cross? His sacrifice? Sometimes, as we break bread and pour the wine, we speak of the “cup of salvation.” The profundity of that full chalice of rich wine is almost quashed when we, for the sake of mere convenience, fill plastic shot glasses with bland juice to sip, or worse, dip a tiny corner of a piece of bread into a chalice of juice and floating crumb debris. Cup of salvation-lite.

Please…I don’t argue for a particular form of authentically-holy Communion here. I do advocate, however, that we remember the solemn, heartfelt, and mysterious meaning of our sharing that cup together in communion with one another and with Christ himself. To quote Frederick Buechner one more time:

…when feeding at this implausible table, Christians believe that they are communing with the Holy One himself, his spirit enlivening their spirits, heating the blood and gladdening the heart, just the way wine, as spirits, can do.

Sharing that cup carries both blessing and risk. It means that we benefit from the grace of God, and that we pledge ourselves to take up our cross and follow Jesus as he, through us, his present body, feeds the hungry, comforts the afflicted, and welcomes the stranger. And that will take all the nourishment we can stand. Pass the wine, please.

 

 

 

 

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen
Friendly old girl of a town
‘Neath her tavern light
On this merry night
Let us clink and drink one down
To wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen

—lyric by Danny Kaye

The last days of Lent. Holy Week. This Lenten practice of mine is coming to an end. I’ll miss it. I have to admit, though, that I will enjoy having two more hours each day to use for other pursuits. (Yes, this choosing a pic / writing an essay thing takes a good two hours; I write slowly and type haltingly!)

The last three photos, Maundy Thursday through Holy Saturday (or Easter Eve), will have some connection to those specific days, but I haven’t chosen the images yet. For today, I found this picture of a favorite city: Copenhagen. Its history is rich, it architecture endearing, and its culture vibrant. And that includes jazz. We took a canal boat ride with a Dixieland band and went to the Jazzhouse to see the Heath Brothers.DSC02823.JPG

The canal area seen here bustled with tourists. Some took in the many outdoor eateries, others waited in lines for boat tours, and lots walked, shopped, or lingered. While the sky is blue in this scene, I remember rains coming in rather suddenly, and Joan and I did the “lingering” bit in the shelter of a restaurant entryway waiting for the storm to pass.

The can of Coca Cola I bought there was 30 Krone, or $4.50. Good thing I didn’t want the double café latte; that was 45 DKK. In any large city, one would expect prices to be a little higher than what we have here in my Upstate New York village. I guess that’s the price of vacationing, right?

Look again at the photo. Blue sky, colorful old buildings, and that nice boat in the middle. But wait. What’s that on the far right? Looks like a protest. Can’t quite read the red banner, but it says, “STOP SULTEN.” The deck is lined with mannequins. In fact, they line every surface of the vessel. They are draped in the simplest of garments, and appear to stare at all of us who pass by.

Even without knowing what the protest or silent demonstration was about, I felt guilty. Boy, that can put a damper on a fun afternoon in Copenhagen. Stop sulten? Being the bleeding heart that I am, I suspected that I would agree with the purpose of the campaign, complicit as I might well be in “sulten.”

Turns out, I am. Complicit. And my guess is that you are too.

STOP HUNGER is what the sign says. Obviously the mannequins represent the world’s hungry millions, victims of what we have come to call at the least “food insecurity,” and at the most profound level, starvation. I have two other pictures of this scene. One excludes the conscience-pricking boat, and it’s a beautiful image of this canal area. We’ve framed an enlargement and it hangs in the dining room. Maybe you catch the irony.

The other image is a full frame photo of that STOP HUNGER boat (see below). I could have used that one here, but I wanted to illustrate the way advocacy intrudes on our comfort, our pleasures, travels, acquisitiveness, our daily routine. This boat is less intrusive, of course, than the panhandler who waits not far from the ATM, or the homeless guy asleep on the park bench. The mannequins are silent, see, and while they may remind, they don’t threaten. Indeed, if I continue to ignore the hungry hordes and starving refugee children, I can keep them silent, until the NBC Nightly News shows me their pictures…at dinner time.

Lent is coming to an end. Many people “gave up” some edibles for Lent. Chocolate. Junk foods. Maybe a favorite drink got put on the list of things sacrificed so that one could somehow identify with the hunger of Jesus who fasted for those forty days.  Far be it from me to judge anyone else’s Lenten practices. Any spiritually enriching sacrifice is commendable, Lent or not. But when Lent is over, so is the “fast.”

Hey, Jesus, my man…you hungry after all this time? You know, that you, being who you are, could turn that stone over there into a scone, or a fat, warm loaf of bread, or into a donut that would soak up that 45 DKK latte! What’s that? I couldn’t quite understand you with your dry mouth and parched lips. We don’t live by bread alone?

But we do live by bread. Some of us. Our bellies show it. Others? The more they hunger, the more they become like the mannequins: silent, lifeless. Do we not all want to overlook that boat there on that Copenhagen canal, amid the tourists, the cafes, the shops?

My problem is that Jesus, having survived the wilderness, the fasting, and the temptations, with understanding, compassion, and deep love spent much of his ministry feeding people. And he taught us that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters (for example “stopping hunger”) we do it for him.

The Stop Hunger Fund was created by the Danish United Nations Association and the United Nations Food Programme. (www.stopsult.dk/om-stop-sult.aspx) Among the ways I offer help are the Food Bank of the Southern Tier (New York) and the Presbyterian Hunger Program.(www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/hunger/what-we-do).

Carry on.DSC02822.JPG

 

 

 

 

Many years ago I told someone, maybe my wife Joan, that God would never kill me before springtime. I figured that if I had endured winter’s blast, I deserved to at least see the dogwoods and azaleas bloom before I died.

Among the last images I’ve chosen for this Lenten daily discipline of writings based on my decades-long hobby of taking pictures is this slide from the early 1970s. The scene is Richmond, Virginia’s Bryan Park. On a weekend in early springtime, the park was filled with visitors, almost all of us focusing cimg022.jpgameras on the floral wonders of the park.

I officiated at a couple of weddings there, and one memory is, as they say, “etched.” At the Friday evening rehearsal for the Saturday ceremony, the bride, standing amidst rampant red and white azaleas, discovered she was allergic to those flowering blooms. An injection of some kind helped her make it through the wedding the next afternoon. So, yes, there is that downside to springtime: allergies.

However, the new life that springs forth from the seeming death of winter offers us the promise that beauty, fragrance, and nature’s bounty can renew us as well as the earth. I have to admit that it wasn’t until my transplantation to Virginia that I paid much attention to spring’s gifts. Was I too young to care about such things as changing seasons? Childhood in Upstate New York, college years in western Pennsylvania, and then that season of maturation, marriage combined with graduate school in Richmond…aha! Dogwoods! Azaleas! Tulips and jonquils. My eyes were opened to places like Bryant Park, Willway Avenue in the city’s “near West End,” and even our own more modest front yard. We made sure the landscaping of our first home in the Bon Air area included flowering bushes and trees.

When we moved to Vermont after 27 years in Virginia, we worried that Vermont might not even have a springtime. It sure took its time coming. Folks there referred to “mud season.” Not very promising at all. Maybe the only aroma we’d enjoy would come from the sugar houses, sap boiling into maple syrup. Maybe the only flowers would be jonquils hardy enough to push their way from frigid earth to warming sun. But here’s what we found so astounding there. They called it “greening up.” And pow! One day (it seemed to us anyway) suddenly the yellow-brown grass turned green. Really green.  And then our neighbors’ front yards were full of flowers, all summer long, as if there were a need to overcompensate for winter’s harshness.

Another thing we noticed about our rural area of Northern Vermont: within a short time of greening up came the yellowing up. Dandelions! Everywhere. And no one really cared. It was as if we deserved and appreciated more color after our white-blanketed winter. Weeds? No, wildflowers, almost as welcome as the blue forget-me-nots that would cover the yard through the summer.

I write this in Lent, and note that the derivation of that term comes from the Old English for the lengthening of days, as in growing minutes of sunlight day by day. The word spring also has Old English roots (no pun intended here, though I am not above that), referring to a “springing up” of nature’s new life, a place of rising and young growth.

This season is not to be confused with Easter, by the way. We in the northern hemisphere do insist on linking Easter’s promise of new life with the wonder of springtime. But my Australian friend Christine Gapes would remind us that “down under” Easter comes in the fall. So there.

Let Easter have its theology and springtime its climatology. One way or another, we can let the lengthening of days here in our hemisphere prepare us for the Day of Resurrection. Maybe in the southern hemisphere, Easter is even more mysteriously surprising, with colorful autumn leaves falling in stark contrast to the rising up of new life that is Easter.

Right now, with our only flowers, the crocuses, covered in last night’s inch of snow, we move through Holy Week, knowing its darkness will be overcome by Sunday’s sunrise, one so bright and promising and stunning that it will be hard to believe. But believe we must!

I hope this image doesn’t say “Monday” to you. It wasn’t meant to. When I chose it for today’s reflection, I just liked the layers of trees, hills, and clouds seen on a Vermont walk. As I enter the final week of this Lenten discipline of mine — taking a picture from decades of film and digital images I’ve taken and writing whatever those images suggest– I realize I have spent far more words on celebration than on lament. But today…a look at the “dark side.”

SONY DSC

The hills of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont

This cloud formation is a far cry from the wispy cirrus clouds that add a harmless white spray on an otherwise clear blue sky day. This looks dangerous, or at least ominous. It casts everything into shadow, even one’s disposition if we let it. Since I am aware of the area geography in that part of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, I know we are facing west, and the sunset is hiding behind that thick, stormy formation. We had hoped for beauty, but instead found wonder as we walked.

I went looking through the Bible for some references to darkness (because that’s what we preachers tend to do). The Prophets saw darkness as consequence for the waywardness and sin of God’s people. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah…all used darkness as metaphor for that which covered over the light of God. Isaiah 59:9 sums it up:

Therefore justice is far from us,

and righteousness does not reach us;

we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;

for brightness, but we walk in gloom.

Darkness also stood for silence in the Hebrew scriptures, the silence of prophesy and the silence of God, pretty much the same thing. (Micah: “The sun shall go down over the prophets, and the day shall be dark over them.” 3:6)

In the New Testament Jesus comes as the Light of the World, as John’s prologue says, and the darkness would not overcome it. Except that one day, when nails pierced flesh, breath gave out, and Luke says, “There was darkness over all the earth.” Other New Testament writings affirm the triumph of the light in the age that followed the resurrection of Jesus, from the gospels to Revelation, and his followers “walk as children of light.”

But there’s another caveat here, and I believe this is the lesson for our day. “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”(1 John 2:9) Hate is a strong emotion; the Greek word here can also mean “detest.” I confess that I may be guilty of that from time to time, keeping in mind that we aren’t talking about biological siblings here, so much as our Christian family. And that covers a wide variety of sometimes, um, detestable characters: that TV evangelist; that candidate; that guy with the offensive (to me) bumper sticker on his pickup truck.  As I said, I am guilty of those dark feelings. I confess. Help me, O Lord, to repent. I want to walk as a child of the light, as the song says.

Another look at that hidden sunset from Vermont reveals more than a little hope, it turns out. There is light that still shines, and will overcome, as the clouds disperse. And the clouds always, always, disperse. Even in Portland. Even in Binghamton. So, if we look beyond the trees and the hills, and behind the clouds, there is light! And it will win. Even if it takes until sunrise.

Praise God because the dark is never the end, the end is light, and the light has already broken through into the world out of the very heart of the world’s darkness, which is the cross of the world’s suffering. And it will break through again, as sure as, far off down the road, the rider comes again his weary, lonesome way.           –Frederick Buechner

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