agape love


wine country on Seneca

A Winery on Seneca Lake

{Maundy Thursday of Holy Week…my series of forty panoramic pictures is coming to an end soon.}

We once lived along the Finger Lakes Wine Trail. Our house was in Ithaca, just a couple of parcels up from Cayuga Lake. A little further up the road, vineyards lined the lake, and wine tours were serious business. This image is from Seneca Lake, just to the west of Cayuga. If you are counting, there are nine other lakes in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, and the area is so scenic it’ll hurt your eyes. If you are into wines, you’ll be twice blessed.

I am not into wines. Part of that comes from the family in which I was raised. I can’t recall most of the relatives I knew in my early years ever serving or discussing wine. Or hard liquor. Beer? Oh, yeah. But the heavier stuff or the more “refined” stuff? There was no bar in the Kellam household. Nor in those of grandparents or aunts and uncles. (One exception: the family with Irish Catholic roots enjoyed raising a glass or two, and it gave them joy. I won’t argue with that. Just stating the facts.)

Mom and Dad had a beer now and then, Dad especially after some summer chores or while watching a game on TV. I remember a rare party they threw one holiday season, and Dad went to the liquor store to buy some wine. He fell on the ice coming up the porch steps, breaking a bottle and spraying himself with fermented fragrances. He was so worried what the dry cleaning guy would think about Dad’s overcoat smelling of wine that he was reluctant to offer it up for cleaning. I also remember trying to go to sleep that night as people seemed to get sillier as the night and the drinking went on. I recall the audio track of that party so well, because in my house it was so rare to hear people so high on whatever it was that spiked the festive gathering.

As I moved through my high school years, I eschewed (love that word!) both smoking and drinking. I was happy to avoid the cigarette habit and pleased to drink a cheap Coke while classmates spent more on their exotic alcohol. Yes. I was square as they come. And then came college. Small Christian college, no alcohol allowed. And it was even in a dry county. Friends with cars would drive a few miles to get their beer, but, again, I just wasn’t interested. Square.

Finally, in seminary of all places, I had my first wine. Having been nurtured in one of those denominations that feared real wine might turn everyone into alcoholics or seriously hinder those recovering from the illness, the chalice at our church was filled with grape juice. I understand that good old Welches was invented for just such a purpose. But in the seminary chapel at the first Communion service of my graduate school career, when the Communion trays were uncovered, the aroma wafted through the room alerting me to the real presence of genuine wine. I drank from the cup, and didn’t die.

Fifty years later, I am an advocate for serving the real thing (and I don’t mean Coco-cola). I confess to a little smirk inside when I think of editing the Words of Institution to reflect the way many churches “do” Holy Communion. “On the night of his betrayal, Jesus took the bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples… and in the same manner…he took the Welches, and offered it to his disciples…”

At one church I served early on in my pastoral ministry, the tradition was to offer a tray of little glasses, with grape juice in the outer ring, and red wine filling the rest of the tray.  That way, everybody could decide which sacramental “cup” fit their desires. It was a very good compromise.

I’m fond of what Frederick Buechner wrote about wine in his book Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC:

“Unfermented grape juice is a bland and pleasant drink, especially on a warm afternoon mixed half-and-half with ginger ale. It is a ghastly symbol of the life blood of Jesus Christ, especially when served in individual antiseptic, thimble-sized glasses.

Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one.” (p. 95)

Within that quotation, there is a phrase I like to add when I officiate at the Sacrament of Holy Communion. “Life blood.” I have grown to dislike the blood sacrifice symbolism of this ritual. Fountains filled with blood, being washed in the blood, all those bloody hymns. In spite of Christian traditions that speak of Jesus’ “sacrificial death,” sins washed away by his blood, my theology has no room for such primitive belief. While the ancients did make sacrifices on blood-spattered altars of old, (lambs, doves, and other innocents), my evolving image of a loving God has no room for “killing Jesus” to effect my salvation.

I get Jesus sacrificing himself, just as many heroes have done for their comrades on life’s battlefields, but now more cosmic for all of humanity. Giving himself up to show us the wideness in God’s mercy, unconditional love made flesh, and forgiveness made radical (“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”) — that I understand. And bread broken and wine poured, a cup shared (a multi-layered symbol for sure), in remembrance… that I understand. And this: that we, hisDSC07464 followers, share in his life blood, in his blood line even, I get that. And tonight, as I lead a small congregation in the Sacrament, I will combine their understanding of the tradition with my “always being reformed”* interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, and we will all, as one, share in what my home church used to call “The Meal with the Master.” It will be a holy communion with Jesus.

Or, as many traditions know it, Eucharist, the Sacrament of Grace and Gratitude and Remembrance. Thanks be to God!




[*That’s a Presbyterian catch phrase.]













Trucks, Ready to Rock

We’d been driving by this line of trucks along New York’s Rt. 17 for years, sometimes more than once a day. Finally, seeing the potential for a panoramic photo on a weekend when the trucks were all present and accounted for, I took this photo. The two trucks in the foreground made the shot all the better. Happenstance makes for good pictures.

As these trucks rumble past on the highway on work days, you can glimpse the company slogan: “We Rock the Southern Tier.” So, a theme for today’s image? Power comes to mind. Upwards of 500 horsepower, I’d guess. Front axle weight 20,000 pounds. Best guess. And they haul rock. Big boulders down to smaller stone. And anything else you want.

These trucks communicate power, yes. Another word comes to mind. Macho. Short for machismo, meaning, according to my old dictionary, an “exaggerated sense of masculinity stressing courage, virility, aggressiveness, and domination of women.” I mean, look at those trucks, man! I can’t help but wonder if the company has any women behind those wheels! Since they can’t discriminate in hiring, they must have. But, still…

You remember that saying, “The only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys?” Our stereotypes often spring from deep-rooted prejudices and archaic models. (Or, vice versa?) And macho stereotypes abound. I kid my wife sometimes about my compact SUV: I’m taking the “truuuck,” I say with the southern accent I learned after 27 years in Virginia. I suspect that many of the pick up trucks I see around the semi-suburban neighborhood here are unneeded male accessories. Driving a truck is, well, kinda manly.

The best-selling motor vehicle in the USA? The Ford F-Series pick-up. [I can’t help but hear our Virginia church secretary Opal Keller refer to the genre as a “pick-’em-up-truck.”] I know trucks can be handy, utilitarian, a helpful vehicle if you are into construction, heavy household projects, hunting, that kind of thing. But don’t you wonder if just maybe some of those trucks were purchased for the image, or for how the vehicle makes the driver feel about himself? Strong. Powerful. Just a tad macho.

I fully acknowledge that women also buy trucks, and drive them. Just as women are  likely, maybe even more likely to get a tattoo. Wasn’t the case when my uncles got theirs during WW2. It was a “guy thing.” And guns. Can’t get much more macho than guns! And the bigger the toy… the more dangerous to us all. Really need a truck that size to park in your driveway? Really need a gun that size to hunt deer? But it sure be manly, huh? Except that women are also arming themselves heavily, certainly more so than, say, four decades ago.

We spring from the image of power (as suggested by the photo of many, many powerful heavy hauling trucks) to empowerment. Men may still like to practice their swagger, get their carry permits (or not bother), and smoke their stogies, but whatever stereotypical images of macho power they once enjoyed are being shared now by em12525283_927926670657742_668031892565673463_opowered women.

Here’s another photo, a bonus pic today. It shows the dedication of the village municipal building in my hometown. The year was 1961. Look at the dignitaries. Men. All but one, and she is in the back row, far right, difficult to see in this small image. All the local civic power was in the hands of men. And in that era, the same was true of the church. Women had their “circles,” but men made up the clergy and the governing boards. By the end of that decade, however, the culture was changing. Remember? “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Women had their own cigarette. Baby.

But cultural changes come slowly, and while women gain power on every front, there remain brutish discrimination in industry and business, gender bias in politics, and sexual harassment wherever men objectify women. As I was thinking about this, the Sunday newspaper arrived with an article from the AP by Matt Sedensky. The headline: “Efforts to decode men gaining steam in #MeToo era.” The story was about Professor Michael Kimmel’s leadership in “masculinities studies.” To summarize his focus one might say Kimmel is interested in issues of gender equality, from men’s misdeeds to more general men’s studies. One of his books is entitled Manhood in America: A Cultural History, and another is Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.”  

To quote the Sedensky article,

At a recent [SUNY] Stony Brook workshop Kimmel held for a group of invited students, Alicia Jones was among those taking part in an animated discussion of the difference in perception of what makes a good man versus what makes a real man.

Manhood. Guyland. Machismo vs. the Gentle-man. What about the power? The power of love? Can we men become aggressive enough in love, agape love, to forswear domination, and celebrate the equality our Creator intended (no matter what the patriarchal biblical writers and historical church leaders believed…at the time)? Shared power doesn’t diminish our strength, but shows our commitment to courageously build a world where Adam and Eve, Sarah and Abraham, Barbie and Ken, Gloria Steinem and Michael Kimmel will live in harmony and grace.

And rock the Southern Tier and the global community together with mutual respect, equal pay, and shared leadership.






DSC07426.JPG{The last few days of Lent, and the last few mugs to write about. It’s more than a discipline of writing; I have to actually think, too.}

Our daughter Wendy gave this mug to my wife Joan. What a nice way to begin the morning! Pull the mug out, heat up the water, make some tea, and be reminded, “You are loved.”

We are reminded of that fact every time someone expresses love in words, especially when those words come from the heart and not a mere ritual. An embrace, a caring or empathetic look, a phone call or a note — reminders come regularly, or maybe at just the right time. You are loved. Even maybe when you are not particularly lovable. That may be the real test of authentic love, don’t you think?

You’ve said something a little hurtful, or neglected to say the right thing, or perhaps somehow offended. But your transgression didn’t break the bond of love. You are loved, still. And anyway. Because, as the Apostle Paul wrote to that often unlovely church in Corinth a couple of millennia ago, “Love is patient and kind…it bears all things.” Paul’s song of love has more to it, as you know if you’ve ever been to a wedding. He wasn’t writing about marriage, but we preachers seem to lock on to that 1 Corinthians 13 passage for most of the weddings we do. Just before the vows, we read, “So faith, hope, and love remain. But the greatest of these is love.”

True. Even though back in the ’70s brides and their grooms wanted to have “Evergreen” sung during the ceremony. “Love,” the song opened, “soft as an easy chair.” Uh-uh. No match for the Apostle’s poetry. Because sometimes, love, authentic love, isn’t soft at all It’s tough.

I’ve known at least two families where love meant locking a loved one out of the house. Driving to a church meeting many years ago, a mother in our congregation broke through the mundane conversation we were having about some church tidbit, and told me that she had had to change the locks on her house to keep her daughter from coming home. Her young adult daughter was an addict, had dropped out of treatment more than once, and needed to lean on her Mama for money, housing, and food. Her mother’s own support group had advised the “tough love” policy, and she told me in the car that night that she had to do what she had to do. No emotion. No regret. Sadness, yes. But for her own mental well-being, and for her daughter’s best chance at eventual recovery, without second thoughts, she would no longer open the door or answer the phone if it was her beloved (yes, still) daughter.

That’s tough, all right. More recently, I heard a father describe the same situation with his son. “If I can’t come in, can you at least give me something to eat?” No. “Well, then…toilet paper? I’m living on the streets, Pop!” No. Because, “You are loved. Some day, if you survive this, you will understand.”

Haven’t enough words been written about love? More than enough. Some powerful and poetic; but many more pretty mushy and trite. Just listen to the loves songs on the charts today. Or, yesterday. Why write more? Why read mine?

Maybe because of the Stevie Wonder song I referenced here recently. From the “Songs in the Key of Life” album, he sang, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Not more silly love songs, but true expressions of love, in all its power and toughness and determination and heartfelt compassion for the other.

I think about those two parents who needed to summon the toughest love to try to bring about the salvation of their young adult kids. How did love begin in their life together, the life of infant and parent? We learn love as children who receive and share in love unconditionally, no strings attached, so full of grace, so pure, untainted, honest: infants so warmly and affectionately embraced, as we wonder at the miracle of that tiny life with its clear, bright eyes, a body so vulnerable. That love comes so naturally. No games to play here, no bargaining, no conditions laid down, as later when an angry parent begins making threats that imply love will be withheld until terms are met. (Please…that is not the tough love referred to above; it’s more the “Santa won’t come if you don’t start behaving!!” thing.)

Part of the miracle of that early love that children learn is this: before the child knows his or her name or recognizes a face or understands a relationship, the child can sense the security of the parents’ love. And receiving it and sensing it, the child will learn to return it, a lifelong mutually empowering, unconditional bond parent to child, child to parent. That is, when things turn out as they should… which they sometimes don’t.

That mug in the photo, given by a beloved daughter to a beloved mother, might have said, “I love you” on it. And that would have been nice. But I like the words that are there: You are loved. Though in the passive voice, it’s a more broad, even cosmic affirmation, that says, “I love you, and so do many others, and so does the universe, and so does God.” Think about it. You. Are. Loved.

You have done many things, perhaps, to earn or deserve that love. But that is not why you are constantly, consistently, and forever loved. Love goes beyond the reasons. It is not a reward. Yes, unreasonable love. Maybe the only kind there is.

As we enter Holy Week, think of the love between God and humanity. Tough love that saves. The earliest verse many young Christians memorize is the same one held up on signs at athletic events: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world…” Us. And one of the first things we teach children in Sunday School is a three word creed: God is love.

That unconditional love is known by the Greek word agape [ἀγάπη]. One way to describe it comes from C. S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain. He writes:

But God’s love, far from being caused by goodness in the object, causes all the goodness the object has, loving it first into existence, and then into real, though derivative, lovability…In that sense, all [God’s] love is, as it were, bottomlessly selfless by very definition; it has everything to give and nothing to receive.

Perhaps another word for that love this Holy Week is passion.

As we move from yesterday’s joyous, but surely ominous, Palm Sunday parade, toward the events of upper room, garden, courts, cross, and tomb, the message resounds in ways clear and cosmic, you are loved.