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Assassination 1963

{Throughout Lent 2018 I have used panoramic photos from my files to prompt some writing. This is Good Friday.}

Today is Good Friday. The image I’ve chosen for today was taken on a Bad Friday in 1963. I was a student photographer for college publications, the yearbook and weekly newspaper. That day there was some sort of campus-wide fraternity activity, the details of which escape me, since I wasn’t a member. But I was photographing the shenanigans, including one fraternity’s carrying a coffin around the quadrangle, meant to be an outrageous bit of fun, brothers dressed in black, looking like undertakers, but with broad smiles.

Later that day, I was in class when someone suddenly entered the room and announced with a panicked voice, “The President is dead!” I assumed it was the college president. But, no. President John F. Kennedy was dead. Dr. Bleasby immediately dismissed class, and as the news spread, some of us went straight to the chapel to pray. And to cry. (My wife Joan tells me that she was in the school’s Conservatory of Music when the news came, and her professor openly wept at the news. He, like all of us, was shaken by the loss of our charismatic, young President.)

I left the chapel and went to the yearbook office to grab our ancient 4X5 Graflex camera. I looked out the office window and saw students gathered around car radios to listen to the news coming from Dallas. I took the image you see above. The original negative is long gone. Even the prints I made in the darkroom that afternoon have disappeared. All I have left is the image printed in the yearbook, and that was spread across two pages. Thus the poor scan. Nonetheless, the photo still tells the story of that afternoon. We were stunned. And confused. And fearful. What was happening? What would happen next? Who did this? And why?

1963. No smart phones. No internet. And maybe only one television set per dorm. Really. Thus, the radios…volume turned up in cars so all could listen to news they did not want to hear but had to listen to.

The coffin prank was no longer funny.

Something many in today’s younger generations do not grasp is how much many of us loved that President. In my family, his 1960 victory over Richard Nixon brought utter joy. Dad had twice run for local offices as a Democrat, so while not everyone in my school thought Kennedy’s win was good for the country, the Kellam clan was ecstatic. Kennedy, besides being in “our” party, was only 43 when he was elected, handsome, full of personality and good humor, married to a, pardon the expression, classy woman, and he brought two small playful children to the White House, adding to that Camelot image of idealism and hopefulness. I guess we knew he wasn’t perfect, as a man or politician, but he had gotten us through the Cuban Missile crisis. (That was enough to help us forget the CIA’s ill-fated, and ill-conceived, Bay of Pigs invasion.) In years since, even our fallen heroes have reputations blemished by their fallibility. What kind of drugs did Kennedy use to cover severe back pain? What about Marilyn Monroe? Or, the corruption that power and affluence breed?

Still, those students in the old, distorted photo were aware of only one distortion that day: an assassin had taken the life of their national leader. I read this morning in the newspaper filler called “Today in History” that on this day in 1981 President Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt. Politically, I was no fan of the former actor, but had he died, yes, certainly I would have been among the mourners, just as many non-fans of Kennedy mourned his loss that day in 1963. The violence of our culture does rob us all of our hopes, dreams, ideals, national stability. And peace. No matter the party or politics of the lost leader. Look again at the photo, and picture yourself there as the disturbing news sinks in.

It is Good Friday. Good? The word has in its history meanings related to pious or holy. Some traditions call this day Holy Friday. Others, Black Friday. It is the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. And his disciples’ loss.  All that “love your enemies” idealism. Hung on a cross. All the assurance of “My peace I give you…” Stabbed with nails. Hope? As breath and blood ebb and flow, hope dies. For the disciples. And all the family and followers. From the trials, the riled crowds shouting “AYE” to crucify, and the mocking derision of Rome and religious powers — there on the cross, he dies. And something in his followers and friends and beloved family dies too. There on the cross, he dies. For them all.

Am I comparing Jack Kennedy to Jesus Christ? Give me a break. No. I am only thinking of loss. Heartbreak. Fear. I am trying to identify with those faithful at the foot of the cross as well as those who had gone into hiding. On that frightening Friday, when the Hosannas had been silenced and the yearnings and promises had been smothered, what loss, what emptiness… how did it feel? Look again at the image, and multiply the pain and confusion by cosmic exponents.

Today we deal with loss. Tomorrow, more darkness if you can imagine it. The Saturday sunrise may not help. But there is always, always, always the next day! But for now. Loss Friday.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we’ve lost.

 

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Alone in Glacier National Park

{Homestretch…just a few more days in Lent 2018. A photo/meditation per day for 40 days}

I have no hard evidence for this, but my conjecture is that introversion is rampant in the following alliterative vocations: clergy, comedy, and carpentry. The photo above depicts a person alone, gazing up toward a mountain peak out of our view. The soundtrack is not quite silent. There are some birds there in the woods, and a couple of hikers not in the frame, though their voices are hushed, as if in awe of the serenity of the place.

Full disclosure (as if this series has been anything else), that is my wife on the primitive log bench. I left her to take some photos, and glanced back, and there she was in contemplation of nature’s gifts.

This image suggests a tranquil ease with aloneness. As an introvert myself, I understand and treasure times of solitude. I see the value of the monastery hermitage to which a Trappist retreats on occasion, intentionally moving away from the all-important community of spiritual brothers who ordinarily pray, sing, eat, and study as one. At a monastery I visited in Virginia, the hermitage was a little cabin a short distance from the main house. It was far from solitary confinement; it was more a solitary liberation. Maybe a kind of “working vacation” that contributed to a monk’s working vocation of silence, prayer, and labor. But, again, only for a time, for every monk was to find spiritual vitality living in community, not isolation.

My Myers-Briggs profile confirmed what I had known for some time. I’m introverted. And that comes as a big surprise to people at church or in the neighborhood. I’m sure my obituary will note that I was known for my sense of humor. I have a way of speaking with strangers and making them smile. Or, trying to bring a smile. Usually it works.  Sometimes my comments only bring puzzlement or suspicion. And I feel sorry for such folk. But my wife knows that I will stop at the sales desk in a mall store and ask if today is the day they give out free gum. I enjoy interrupting someone’s routine with an unexpected comment that lightens one brief moment.

So, I do speak to strangers, and as a minister I had no trouble speaking from a pulpit, or to a community group, maybe talking about Habitat for Humanity at a Kiwanis Club. I can be “on” when needed, but then, like most introverts, I need to move away from the crowd and find renewed strength in aloneness. For some reason, many (if not most?) clergy are introverted, or border on it. And, I’ve read that the same is true for comedians. Johnny Carson and David Letterman, for example. They would be “on” for the studio audience, but they weren’t into parties and crowds afterward. (So I’m told; we didn’t mix in the same circles. What am I saying? We introverts don’t have circles!)

When I did my radio ministry (with rock music yet) it was the perfect vocation for me. There I was in the solitude of the sound-proofed studio, but speaking with thousands across the country via broadcasting.

I’m OK with my “condition.” I’m no hermit. I can take groups of people for a time. But I’m far more interested in a quiet dinner with my wife than at a raucous restaurant, with music blaring and people shouting to be heard in conversation over the din. We go out socially now and then, but often find ourselves by ourselves, not mixing among the other guests. Please. I’m not judging others, anymore than I wish to be judged. Some of my best friends are extroverts, affably working the crowd wherever they go, hellos, hugs, and handshakes. I smile and chuckle. They throw their heads back in laughter. We’re all OK the way we are. We are just different from one another.

Now, when it comes to church, here’s the thing for me. I am more the Quaker type. Many churches are big into praise bands, hands lifted high in praise and prayer, some applause and shouted amens. I’m more of a sit-quietly-with-head-bowed kind of guy. I’m more into Taize and Iona chants of simple songs than toe-tapping, lyrics-projected, handclapping unison voices raised high, sing ‘n’ sway praises. Again, I’m happy for all who worship in that vein. From the African-American worship traditions to mega-church multi-media spectacles, it works for a lot of folks, and a growing number of people in our churches.

It’s said that there are “worship wars” going on in some churches, with worshippers on one side wanting more “modern” or contemporary music, and others desiring more traditional or classical approaches. Many churches are trying to blend worship styles, and others are dividing their congregations into two sub-cultures with separate services. I’m not suggesting that we introverts would be happier with one or the other. I’m just saying…the Quakers (the Friends) are probably not wrestling with these things in their meeting houses. (I could be wrong. I was once….or twice.) Quiet is golden in the meeting house, until the Spirit moves, and even then, quiet returns while listeners consider what has been said.

I couldn’t be a Quaker exclusively, not when it comes to worship. I thrive on great music, classical or jazz, and I love “high liturgy” now and then, and banner-waving, organ-thundering, massed choir-singing festivals!

And then I can go home and take a nap.

I don’t have time to do the research on this, but I’ll bet someone has. I’m wondering if extroverts are more lonely as a group than introverts. (Not lonely in a group, that is, but as a sub-set.) Are we introverts more comfortable with aloneness, and less likely to suffer loneliness? I know we are more likely to be lonely in a crowd; does it work the other way? Are extroverts suffocated by aloneness? Like I said…just wondering.

Oh, I almost forgot. Carpenters. Introverts? Don’t the woodworking artists labor alone, just them and their wood? For fun, just consider Jethro Gibbs! He works by day with his NCIS team, but at night, by himself, he’s in his basement, coveting the quiet solitude, as he shapes wood into a labor of love: a boat, too large to even leave his cellar. Gibbs is fictional, of course. But the image is an honest portrayal of an introvert carpenter at work.

Speaking of carpenters…pardon my psychologizing Jesus here, but do you think he might have been an introvert? I know he liked socializing, even being accused by his critics of eating and drinking too much and with the wrong crowds, “glutton and drunkard” that he seemed to be. He preached to thousands at a time, the scriptures say, and moved through crowds teaching and healing as he went. Wedding feasts, dinners — always surrounded by the Twelve, as well as the unnamed women and men who may as well have been called disciples. And yet… how often Jesus had to leave them behind, to go up a mountain by himself, to often seek solitude for prayer, to re-charge by boat or by foot. While he may have found comfort and strength in being alone, betrayal in those last days would not have fit his plan for solitude.

Eventually, the cross. Alone, yet between two others. Alone, but gazed upon by the crowd. Alone, even feeling forsaken by God, but…

 

{This is the last in a series of forty Lenten reflections loosely based on ideas suggested by mugs found in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. As I wrote on the first day, this exercise was designed only for my pleasure. The discipline of writing each day has taken a couple of hours out of the 24, and has further frayed the already worn edges of the pages of J. I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder. I know I’ll miss this daily practice, but I will be glad to have the time for something else…like springtime.}SONY DSCThe first mug I wrote about was a commercially-produced coffee cup with the name “Jeff” on it, along with a kind of greeting card verse about what “Jeff” means. Now, on the last day of these forty days in Lent 2017, I turn to another mug with my name on it. It’s the companion to one with my wife’s name similarly inscribed. We were given these mugs by the Bick family when we left Richmond, Virginia after some 27 years. The Bicks were our neighbors and members of our church. I trust that they did speak for all our Richmond friends by expressing their love. We still treasure the mugs and the message.

Does that mug “fit” this day? Does it have context? Today, the Saturday between Good Friday and the Day of Resurrection, is certainly “the day between the days.” This last day of Lent is non-descript for most Presbyterian-types. We know it has deep meaning, but we don’t pay much attention to it, as we await tomorrow’s sunrise service, with its shivering little congregation gathered amid tombstones in the church cemetery hoping the sun will actually be visible on what is predicted to be a rainy day. And then later, in the church itself, we will sing lustily (pardon the expression) and find ourselves accompanied by brass players and pipe organ. We will hear the Good News of the Gospel (pardon the redundancy) proclaimed, add flowers to the bare wooden cross, and break out the Lenten-hid alleluias (pardon still another parenthesis, but that word shouldn’t have been typed/seen/spoken/sung until tomorrow. Sorry. OK, enough with the pardons!)

But today is just Saturday. Some call it “black Saturday,” because of the solemn mood of sadness or defeat that followed the day of crucifixion. Others refer to it as Holy Saturday, or Easter Eve. Many years ago, Joan and I participated in our first Easter Vigil, a three or four-hour service that chronicled the Biblical story of “salvation history.” There was music, drama, graphic and fabric art, the reading of Scriptures, with prayers and accompanying liturgy rich with spiritual depth. It was a powerful service, difficult to transport back home from the conference we were attending. But many Christian communities around the world do something similar on “Easter Eve,” some even longer services, most shorter; but all designed to keep the rich meaning of God’s grace and love and Presence in focus, so worshippers could move from Good Friday to Easter knowing the all-important context of what some refer to as cross and crown.

So, I’ve been writing about mugs, have I? But this series hasn’t been about ceramics, fair trade coffee, favorite teas, or how to use drinking vessels as marketing tools. The context has been Lent, a time of preparation, of anticipated spiritual growth. As days lead from the ashes of that first Wednesday to the dust of the Emmaus Road, some of us added mid-week gatherings of worship and/or study; many used Lenten devotional guides such as the one on the Kellam dining table, Walter Brueggemann’s A Way Other than Our Own*; Lenten disciplines included service projects, lectio divina, labyrinth walks, special music, and giving up Mountain Dew. All in the context of the Lenten journey of Jesus, a wilderness time of testing and surviving, a prelude to his life’s symphony of compassion, outreach, healing, and teaching. His was a life and death by which we measure our time on this God’s earth.

[* Brueggemann’s take on this day: Saturday is that in-between day of stillness and doubt and despair when time stands still in lethal flatness.]

In relying on mugs to get me started writing each day, I’ve kept context in mind. The context of the season, the context of following Jesus, the context of my own day-to-day existence. Some days are, sadly, a big waste of time. Or, seem like it to me. I make that confession as I fall asleep those nights. “Forgive me, Lord. Didn’t do much for you or your people today. Wasted time and gifts. As the Psalmist prayed, ‘Put a new and right spirit within me,’ and offer me another day.” On those other days, my personal context is that of being and serving in a community of faith, and some opportunity pops up unexpectedly. Or, maybe it’s a family thing, where I find unconditional love so vital and energizing, that my prayers at night are full of thanksgiving. We all have some context in which we find ourselves– or are found.

Context is the weaving together of things that yearn to be connected. My life and someone’s need; my gifts and someone’s lack; my lack and their gifts. Faith and life. Daily living and revelation! Our purpose and the Shepherd’s guidance. Mugs and Lent. The context of a neighborhood, politics, (don’t get me started), local church or national denomination, the cloud of war or threat of terrorism, a child’s trusting eyes. Temptations, sin, dark thunderhead clouds hanging over. Context.

So, I wrote about mugs in the context of Lent. But more, in the context of my life. And if you have read some of these reflections (to call them meditations may be too generous), you know a lot about the man whose name is on the mug at the top of this day’s blog. You know something of my family, my church life and ministries, where I’ve lived and places I’ve been, what I believe, and — heck, even the name of our everyday china!

But, again, I haven’t been writing for you. I’ve been writing for me. I may know who you are. WordPress tells me who’s “following” my writing here, and others have happened by and sent private responses with names attached. But I’m guessing that if this writing stays “up” in some Internet cloud somewhere, I have no idea who you are. That said, the question is, do you know who you are? Now early in my 70s, I’m getting there. Knowing who I am, that is.

Today, the context is somewhere between the shadow of yesterday’s cross and the rising sun of tomorrow’s Light of the World. I have to admit, that I have had more than my share of that Light already. Grace has encompassed me. Love has surrounded me. Read that mug again! And God has gifted me with a strong family from which I have come and a beloved family I have helped to nurture. My wife, my children, and now my grandchildren. Wow! Plus, there was that Call…my vocation… full of exclamation points! (<There’s one now.)

The Apostle Paul once quoted a Greek poet as he preached a sermon in Athens. He referred to God as the one “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” There. That’s context. I am content in that context.

Yet, there is still tomorrow!

There is a new context that awaits, something downright cosmic, earth-shattering, mind-blowing, a whole new song to sing…there is tomorrow!

There will be Easter!

 

 

 

DSC07427{Lent 2017…Good Friday…nearly finished in this series, and this is the penultimate mug of the forty…}

This mug was handmade by a North Carolina potter whose initials are written on the unglazed bottom surface with a Sharpie. We got this at the Montreat Conference Center. Though posed by the coffee pot, it’s never held my coffee, nor Joan’s tea. Its purpose is more decorative than practical. Like the crosses that hang in churches and around our necks. The design on the mug is the logo of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Central in the symbol is the cross, though the initiated can also find symbols of flames, dove, font, open Bible…Word and Sacraments and Spirit.

I suppose it’s obvious that I chose this mug for today, Good Friday, because of the cross. This particular art work masks the violence of the executioner’s work and the tools it took to kill. We see the cross shape, but not the rough-hewn wood, the heavy spikes driven into flesh, the blood stains.

I write these reflections in a bookcase-surrounded nook off the front hall of our home, and as I look around, I can count nine crosses here. And one Celtic cross around my neck. None is daunting. Each has a story: where it came from, who made it or gave it, what its particular design means.  Two wooden ones were made by children from my last church, another handmade by a woodworker from the church we now call home, and others of metal, plastic, or wood came from various places that hold special memories. Most are rather plain, but the one from Central America is predictably full of color, with cartoonish flowers, birds, a little home beneath a verdant tree, even a bunny! It’s a celebration of life.

But none of those crosses holds a broken, bleeding, and bowed body. None is a crucifix. All are empty.

I do have one crucifix in a small box near my alb and stoles, however. On a sturdy chain, that cross was given to me by a church member who had traveled in Rome and thought I would like it, coming as it did from the seat of the Church’s early power. Ordinarily we Protestants prefer to see the empty cross as a Resurrection symbol, rather than focusing on the passion and pain of the crucifixion. Even on this day, this day of days, this day curiously called “good,” many Protestants will let the day go by with no special worship services, little (if any) attention paid to the death of Jesus at the hands of the empire. We leave the Stations of the Cross to the Catholics and Episcopalians. While there are some communities that have ecumenical gatherings on Good Friday, it’s been my experience that attendance by Protestant folk is sadly lacking.

Palm Sunday? Yes, we get to parade and sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” and get a free palm to take home. A far fewer number will be at church for the Maundy Thursday communion service. But Easter Sunday! Lots of attention there…all good…big crowds…upbeat, joyful, and downright brassy! Good Friday, though. Kind of depressing. Really dark. We’d rather go from joy to joy and skip the hard truths of the Passion.

When I was in high school back in the early 1960s and living in a heavily Catholic community, public schools took a day off on Good Friday. May as well, they thought. The Church pretty much demanded its adherents be in church on Good Friday, so why battle the resulting truancy? Our Presbyterian Church joined with other Protestant churches in the neighborhood offering a three-hour “Seven Last Words from the Cross” service. Seven sermons and the scripture lessons that fed them, a few hymns, some prayers, and the concluding reviews. (As in, “Which minister did you like best?” )

When I served a church in suburban Richmond, we too offered that service for a time. I’d be assigned one of the words, almost always wishing it had been one (any) of the others. (The grass is always greener…) If I were to choose one for this Good Friday blog, I’d go with the passage from John 19:30, where the crucified Jesus, having been offered sour wine after saying he was thirsty, cries out– or moans– “It is finished.”

I might speak about how his public ministry had begun at a wedding feast where, when the wine had run out, he mysteriously turned water into the best wine of the celebration. And now, as he is dying, wretchedly sour wine is offered to him in response to his thirst. Some scholars discount the physical thirst of a man so close to death. They suggest that Jesus’ expression is more a metaphorical longing for God. But, as usual, he is misunderstood, and he is given bad wine. Shortly after, he says, “It is finished.” “Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Finished? What was finished?

In a previous verse, the scriptures have that “it” referring to “everything,” or “all things.” A. E. Harvey notes that Jesus’ life and work “was a perfect unity, a work to be finished and a destiny to be accomplished.” I like that. In that moment, about to gasp one last breath, Jesus announces that all is ended. Complete.

Still…the word “it” needs commentary. And our good friend from Montreat days, retired professor Lamar Williamson, is so helpful here. In his book Preaching the Gospel of John, he writes:

First, in laying down his own life, Jesus has completed what he was sent to do. He has revealed the true nature of God and on the cross has demonstrated God’s love…Second, the Scriptures are fulfilled…The death of Jesus has filled with meaning and brought to their intended end the passages of Scripture that speak of him. Third, Jesus’ earthly life is now over, as the end of the verse states explicitly.

Perhaps his executioners thought Jesus’ words meant something else. Like, this one’s over; let’s move on to the next victim. Or, well…that’s that. His pathetic reign is over. That should quiet the anti-Rome movement for awhile, until the next threat to Caesar pops up somewhere among the Zealots. And maybe even the followers of Jesus who dared stand vigil at the foot of the cross misunderstood. Maybe they thought the movement of love, grace, forgiveness, welcome, hope, inclusivity, and justice was “finished.” Period. All Jesus had taught the inner circles, preached to the crowds, lived to its fullest– all that talk of blessedness, the parables of God and humanity yearning for one another, ministering to the hungry of heart and stomach, the lessons validated through healings– it’s over. Done with.

But no. While indeed he had then “bowed his head and gave up his spirit,” while the broken body was unpinned from the crossbars and carried away to a borrowed (and temporary) tomb, not all was ended. Not by a long shot.

Flowers still grow in the garden near the grave.