United Nations, NYC, USA

{Today marks the last day of the 40 day Lenten season. Each day I have posted panoramic photos and written some reflections on those images. Joan will be glad to have me back in the mornings. It usually takes a couple of hours to write these things. I know that may surprise you, but choosing the photo and waiting for inspiration and looking for words…well, I write (and type) slowly. So, I too will be glad to have my mornings back. I am grateful for you who have read the daily meditation/essays and shared comments. Frankly, I have written mostly for myself, and have sometimes been a bit too “self-revealing,” but as a friend says, “It is what it is.” So, we have reached the day after which is also the day before.}

Nobody knows how long Saturday will last or if it will never end. Saturday is that in-between day of stillness and doubt and despair when time stands still in lethal flatness. The old Saturday was about abandonment and disappointment at the far edge of the crucifixion. And then came all the Saturdays of fear and abusiveness, of the Crusades and the ovens and genocides in too many places.

Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent.

Yesterday, I wrote of loss. Today, on this day between the days, I write of hope. Persistent hope. The kind of hope that is not mere wishful thinking, or keeping fingers crossed or the “where one door closes God will open another” kind of hope. It is not even the light at the end of the tunnel, that hope I call persistent.

I’m thinking of the hope that remains in that 5% of people in the most rural areas of Puerto Rico who still do not have power restored after Hurricane Maria. I’m thinking of the kind of hope that remains after a devastating personal defeat. Or, that flickers in the heart after a deep, deep loss. It is the hope that will not be extinguished, or, expressed more positively, that will persist no matter what.

I have never quoted a Bengali polymath before (have you?), but this quotation speaks to me.

Within us we have a hope which always walks in front of our present narrow experience; it is the undying faith in the infinite in us.

Rabindranath Tagore, (1861-1941), Sadhana

For many who read these words of mine, the infinite in us is the God both within and beyond us. It is God who will not let hope fade or die. But, God knows, hope is hard work. And we must persist in it.

Have you figured out why I chose that photo? To me that monolithic slab of New York City skyline is a symbol of hope. Since the League of Nations was founded in 1920, at the end of the First World War, a global  yearning for peace has at least had a forum. With the founding of the United Nations in 1945 (optimistically in Lake Success, NY), that forum has continued to struggle with political and social upheaval, military skirmishes and all-out wars, emerging nations, tyrants and dictators, border violations, shoe-pounding tantrums and verbose threats, and untold barriers to the peace for which the world yearns.

Yet, there it stands, that building along the river. And if it weren’t for some persistent, deep-seated hope that we can keep from blowing the world to hell, the whole grand idea, the 72 year-old scheme, might whiffle away. As our leaders falter, as words fail, as visions are vetoed, and negotiations are negated, no wonder it all seems futile. And yet…

A few years ago, I met Robert Smylie at a Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference. At that time, Smylie headed our denomination’s Presbyterian Mission at the United Nations. I learned that since the UN’s founding, our church had a stake there in working for peace and justice, and interpreting UN programs to our congregations. On line, I found this statement:

Amid the restless spirits and often-tough diplomacy of the United Nations, the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations helps inspire, equip and connect Presbyterians for ministry as faithful disciples of Jesus in the global community. We educate with the hope of helping individuals live out God’s call in Christ to live with compassion, seek peace, and pursue justice wherever they go.

We do that because our hope will not die. Nineteenth Century minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker offered this prayer: “We look to Thee; Thy truth is still the Light which guides the nations, groping on their way. Stumbling and falling in disastrous night, yet hoping ever for the perfect day.”

Today, this Saturday, this last day of Lent, leads us to consider the shadow of emptiness and fear that gripped stunned disciples hours after the crucifixion of Jesus. Was all hope lost? I wouldn’t be surprised. He had told them to believe otherwise. He had whispered, preached, promised them concerning that third day, that perfect day. But they weren’t the brightest candles against the darkness. So who knows?

But there is something in us that hopes against hope, that prays earnestly for peace in the  world and in the heart. It is a hope that persists. That lives. It is the very breath of life. Somehow, amid the diplomats and  bureaucrats and ambassadors and interpreters and worker bees of that monolithic hive, that which has been elusive through almost a century of striving continues to plod toward peace. We hope. For the world depends on it.

And the world depends on this too: that hope will ultimately win. And the sun will rise, and the wideness in God’s mercy will shine through the whole of creation, bringing at the last our peace to the world God so loves.

Expect Easter.












A Trio Sitting Out the Season


{Lent…40 days…40 panoramic photos, and some reflections on the images}

I quote myself here:

Seasons Smile
Winter’s smile was icily sinister.
Spring’s will be warmly sympathetic.
Summer’s smile brightly inviting.
Autumn’s gently reflective.
Mine is always seasonally appropriate…
except when the climate is laughable.

Above is another “drive-by” photo. All winter we’ve passed those three hay wagons (or whatever the official name for them is), and I’ve thought about taking a picture of them. On the way to church one Sunday, we stopped, I pulled out the camera, and took the shot. I’m thinking that today’s theme could be “seasons.”

Here are pieces of farm equipment standing idle for the winter months. Do I see a small plow there, too? And maybe a rake? Not much use for them on a frigid Upstate New York farm from fall harvest to spring planting. So there they are parked.

I’ve previously written in these “pages” that I like living in a part of the world with four distinct seasons. Every season has its blessings. Every season has something less than a blessing to endure. But the rich variety of weather events, of colors and temps, of light shows and seasonal activities — I’d be bored if I lived anywhere else. This is not to judge my Florida friends or south Texas relatives. I’ll admit that our northern winter lasts a little too long here, but I can take it. We lived through 27 hot, humid Virginia summers, so some slush or black ice is tolerable.

As the ancient philosopher of Ecclesiastes sang, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” And so sang the pop version by the Byrds:

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

We lived in Vermont for ten years. Though winters were long and harsh, spring would come gloriously. And seemingly suddenly. Once the snows had melted and the ground had thawed, the khaki colored lawn “greened up” almost within a day or three. And citizens of the Northeast Kingdom made up for winter’s drear with flowers lining walks, colorful gardens, window boxes…as if to say to the world, “Look! We’re alive! And we can match your southern blossoms and blooms with our rosy floral resurrections.”

Spring here in New York State is just as appreciated and celebrated as in Vermont. We might join New Englanders in shivering through an Easter Sunrise Service, but when April arrives, we are ready for our migrant birds to resume their posts at the feeders, for jonquils and daffodils to push through thawed soils, for opening day at the ball park, and for pumping up bike tires.

Summer will come, and there will be those Florida days when the AC saves our sanity. But for the most part, we’ll enjoy every meal on the back porch, when I take over some of the cooking on the grill. (I rarely order salmon in a restaurant because no one does a better job than I at delivering a truly succulent salmon steak.) We’ll take longer bike rides, hike in the cool glens and forests, take in the longer hours of daylight while listening to the peepers and chirping insects in the not-quite wetland beyond the backyard.

And then autumn in New York. Not quite as garish as the Vermont maples, our leaves will turn brilliant reds, yellows, and golds on the hillsides, and cooler breezes will mean a light jacket as we ride the bikes in a nearby park. Here’s the bonus pic of the day: that nearby park in autumn.


Hickories Park

I can identify with that Sinatra signature song “The September of My Years,” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.


One day you turn around, and it’s summer
Next day you turn around, and it’s fall
And the springs and the winters of a lifetime
Whatever happened to them all

I have been blessed with all the seasons of life, with a few more calendar pages to turn, season-wise. (Please…not actual months; we’re talking figuratively here…I hope.) The “September Song” sings of days dwindling down to a precious few. Again, figurative! But, yes, seasons. Our childhood, then adolescence, the young adult years, and before you know it, you have children who speed into adolescence while you haven’t finished growing up yourself! Then grandchildren. The seasons of life. “Whatever happened to them all?”

Again to the image at the top — a time to plant, a time to reap, and there in that photo, a  time to be idle for awhile. To await. Rest. Prepare. And then, engage again. Hook ’em up to the tractors and put them to work in summer’s heat and fall’s harvest.

I write in Lent. Where, while not exactly stationary, the Church and its people of faith slow down to await, to rest, to prepare. We breathe more deeply in Lent, I think. Meditate more mindfully and reflect more intentionally. The season of lengthening days will culminate in an Easter sunrise hard to believe, a surprising burst of daylight difficult to take in with eyes so used to winter’s subdued rays.

For everything there is a season. A time to die, and a time to be born again.

Turn, turn, turn.













{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!



{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

SONY DSC{This meditation is based on the mug seen here, and intended for the Saturday in Lent that proceeds Palm Sunday. Then begins Holy Week…and six final mugs.}

This mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard is really Joan’s. It hasn’t seen a drip of coffee; Joan drinks tea. But I’ve chosen this mug for today because it reminds me of a Palm Sunday procession that fit the day, the neighborhood, and the churches there perfectly.

Joan was the Church Musician at the First English Lutheran Church on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. She was the choir director there, and played both pipe organs (one in the chapel, a larger one in the sanctuary) for worship services. I suppose that after all these years, it’s OK to write this publicly, that she broke the Lutheran stiffness of the choir within a few weeks and they brightened up considerably under her leadership. Joy found a welcome in their midst.

I had once worked at the Presbyterian church next door to the one Joan served. It too had an imposing structure and a substantial congregation, among whom were the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and even more daunting, some of my former seminary professors. Those two churches were part of an ecumenical alliance of congregations that shared a neighborhood near Stuart Circle. Around or near the Jeb Stuart monument were the Lutherans and Presbyterians already noted, but also Episcopalians and UCC-ers (United Church of Christ), with the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart a few blocks away.  Those churches still make up what is called the Stuart Circle Parish.

And, as far as I know, they continue to parade together on Palm Sunday. The model is an impressive show of commonality as members of the five churches gather at mid-morning on Palm Sunday near the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church. Opening words of welcome and prayer begin the festivities, with everyone joining voices in singing the hymn of the day, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” The crowd then moves down Monument Avenue to where it becomes West Franklin Street, and then on a few blocks to the Cathedral.

The year I videotaped the parade for a cable TV program (1982?), there was a high school marching band providing the cadence, biodegradable helium balloons for kids of all ages (!), palms for everyone to wave, with various clergy in their traditional colorful vestments, and hundreds of participants crowding the broad boulevard. The street narrowed once we got to Franklin, and the townhouses lining the path had some onlookers peering out second story windows, some of those folk probably having no idea what was going on. I caught one on tape, adding it to the final edit, hinting at the suspicion that greeted Jesus on that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem.

Another scene I got at the end of the route was a priest conferring with a police officer, an innocent conversation that, in the context of the video and its narrative, hinted at religious authorities conspiring with Roman soldiers on that day almost 2000 years before in Jerusalem. (Admittedly, it was a pretty subtle hint.)  In the photo above, note the band uniform: it wasn’t meant to be a Roman soldier, but it worked for the video. And speaking of Jerusalem, I needed some background music to fill out the story, so I chose a Don McLean tune entitled “Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem, Jerusalem all roads lead to you.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem your light is shining through.
And you will show, show the way, to all who see it shine,
That we can live, in peace, in Jerusalem this time.

I also used “Hosanna” from a then-current rock opera called “Truth of Truths,” as participants marched. It seemed a better choice than the similar tune from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with its cynical take on the parade. “Ho-sanna, hey-sanna, sanna-sanna-ho.”

I still have a grainy third or fourth generation VHS version of that “film,” and even after thirty years it effectively chronicles the story, low tech as it seems today. What I love about that procession, and no doubt others like it throughout the world, is the unity of diverse denominations joining in commemoration and celebration of the joyful entry into Jerusalem amid shouts of “Hosanna!” In Richmond it was not only the ecumenical nature of the event in 1982 (when I shot the video), but the interracial diversity, with the Jefferson-Huguenot-Wythe Marching Band from what we called a “predominately African-American” high school leading the way.

Among the churches involved in that parade all those years ago, my guess is that the most integrated parish was the Cathedral, with the other Stuart Circle churches more than “predominately white.” (I’m glad to be corrected in the comment section at the end of the blog.) Important to note here, too, is that the Palm Sunday parade is not the only activity these congregations engage in together. There are social and outreach ministries that serve the larger neighborhood, among them a Meal Ministry that in 1996 was threatened with court action because of neighbors’ complaints about certain conduct that they claimed injurious to their community. The Parish claimed that to prevent them from feeding the hungry was a violation of the free exercise of religion. The Jesus who had entered Jerusalem on that fateful day would no doubt have stood in solidarity with the lines of hungry folk awaiting food, and then he would have moved behind the counter to serve them. Hosanna, indeed.

As this is being posted, another Palm Sunday will be celebrated tomorrow, April 9. Some churches will join with others in a public procession and witness to the shared strength of ecumenicity. Others will have their own smaller parades, perhaps just a half block around the building as my church will do. Still others will process less publicly, moving around their sanctuary waving palms and singing the hymn. These mostly modest pageants are all the theater that remains in many churches. Yet, there are others: living nativity scenes at Christmas, Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, and Easter Sunrise services. The more, the better, to put some drama, some life, into the people of the pews. The choreography of merely sitting and standing for an hour in church is flat and, I think the operative word is, boring. The “processional” may be a weak dance, but at least it has movement.

Processions in churches have many expressions: groom and bride process to the front of the sanctuary to say their vows; in some traditions, Bible, cross, banners, flame, and water for the baptismal font are carried forward as worship begins; choirs process during the opening hymn to take their place in the loft. To see bodies move during the service may remind us that the church itself must be on the move, processing from the sanctuary into the world, where eyes will watch for signs of courage and hope, where ears will listen for words of encouragement and songs of joy, where hands may join in feeding the hungry (no matter what ticked-off neighbors think), and where feet carry Jesus’ followers into alleys, highways, rural roads, and all the places love is in need of love today (as Stevie Wonder has sung).

Instead of palms, we may wave protest signs. Rather than releasing colorful balloons, we may let go of prejudice and fear of “the other.” And in place of the marching band’s cadence, we may well march to the beat of that different drummer, whose heart beats in time to Easter’s newest rhythm, Jesus. We have pledged to follow him in his processional footsteps.

On Palm Sunday, he comes amid celebrating cheers and songs.

But later in the week…

{The Kellam kitchen cupboard is filled with mugs, and I’m writing each day in Lent 2017 about one of them…or at least on themes suggested by a glance at the designs.}

Disclaimer: this mug was banned from the cupboard when the Christmas season came to an end, sometime around January 6. It, and others of its ilk, were packed away and carried to the attic, along with the 30 year old artificial tree. We rescued this coffee mug especially for this blog.

It made my list because it doesn’t have Santa on it, nor doedsc07430.jpgs it have a holiday-decorated cow saying Moo-ey Christmas. I do have some standards here. But, still, this cartoony angel is a bit too cute for my purposes today. Angels are supposed to be scary, aren’t they? At least the ones who show up in the Bible. When they suddenly appear, I’m guessing there were double takes, maybe some cowering, certainly fright. Because often when an angel shows up in the scriptures, the first message is, “Don’t be afraid.”

Who’d be afraid of this golden-haired, rosy-cheeked, red-winged cherub? Or, who’d flinch at the sight of any angel that looked like the popular images seen in “Angels Magazine?” Wispy, vaporous, lucent Tinkerbells! “Look up in the sky! Doesn’t it look like an angel? Get the camera, Roscoe! We can submit it to the magazine.” Once published, some readers will think it’s lovely and angel-like. But others will swear a real heavenly visitor hovered above, protecting, guiding, or just watching over somebody, or all of us.

But then there’s that “Do not fear!” thing. In Luke 1and 2, Zechariah was terrified, Mary was perplexed, shepherds were scared witless, and the angels tried to calm them, telling them to not be afraid. Interestingly, there were no physical descriptions of said angels. I’ve often speculated that they may have been frighteningly ugly to have made people so fearful. A male visage with three days’ growth of dark beard, beady but piercing eyes, Saturday morning work-in-the-shed rumpled clothes? Nothing wispy about them!

About these beings, the main thing is that they exist and they have purpose. To the first point, I quote Frederick Buechner:

Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t. An angel spreads his glittering wings over us, and we say things like, “It was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive” or “I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right” or “I don’t know where I ever found the courage.” [from Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC]

Except for the “glittering wings” part, I like that. And I am convinced.

As for purpose, there is the message piece. In fact, the word angel has a derivation that means “messenger.” So, angels bear God’s messages to us. (The wings are necessary if you still believe in the three-storied universe of earth here, heaven way up there, and hell on fire in the core of the planet. Coming from so far UP, the wings were a requirement. As for the red wings on the angel pictured on the mug above? Hockey fans will see a connection with the Detroit Red Wings…for some reason.) Since this is obviously not a treatise on angelology (odd — spellcheck didn’t even flinch there), for my purposes here I note that the message is as Buechner put it: to wish us well, and to start by telling us to not be afraid!

Here we are, though, with lots to fear. We have loved ones and we worry. We read headlines, and we fret. The whole news cycle is little more than a warning sign of desperate times ahead, like tomorrow or “next time.” It may be true that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but fear is fed every day by world events, powerful bullies, greed, vengeance, and weaponry. To say nothing of one’s personal anxieties.

In Walter Brueggemann’s Lenten devotional book A Way Other than Our Own, the scholar quotes the prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear [says God], for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Is. 43:1) And then we have the commentary on what it means to trust God’s word, whether it comes from angels or prophets:

  • The unafraid are open to the neighbor, while the frightened are defending themselves from the neighbor.

  • The unafraid are generous in the community, while the frightened, in their anxiety, must keep and store and accumulate, to make themselves safe.

  • The unafraid commit acts of compassion and mercy, while the frightened do not notice those in need.

  • The unafraid are committed to justice for the weak and the poor, while the frightened see them only as threats.

  • The unafraid pray in the morning, care through the day, and rejoice at night in thanks and praise, while the frightened are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.

So wrote Walter Brueggemann in his book (published by our Presbyterian publishing arm Westminster John Knox Press, ©2017). By the way, an angel just reminded me that such messengers show up at the empty tomb on Easter morning. You can guess that they say first: “Don’t be … alarmed.”

That noted, I will close with the same words with which Brueggemann closes his meditation: So, dear people, each of you: Do not fear!

{And thanks to my friend Bill Carter for the gift of Brueggemann’s book, and for the gift of his friendship.}





{This morning’s mug, another in a series of forty, one for each day in Lent 2017. Must be a huge cupboard, right?}DSC07383

One of the seminaries related to the Presbyterian Church USA is Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I have only two connections to that school. I visited LPTS when I was a senior in college, over five decades ago. I was checking out what my denomination’s seminaries had to offer, and Louisville had that all-new campus, very friendly professors, and, well, Louisville! But I was growing interested in media ministry and the school didn’t have much more than a couple of Wollensak tape recorders in a closet back then.

My other connection is this mug. I guess that’s the school’s logo, a combination of Christian symbols arranged around a variation of the Chi-Rho cross. Word and Sacraments, the foundation of Reformed theology. Open Bible, chalice and loaf, pitcher and font. This is one of the most (pardon the expression) blatantly “Christian” mugs in our cupboard. It almost makes drinking the morning coffee a sacramental experience. Somewhat.

But the mug is a joke. It is masquerading as a pious vessel, marked with a seminary’s theological identity, serving, as many institutionally-endorsed mugs do, as a community building device. That is, look…we’re all drinking from the same cup. We are one in the spirit, one in the schoolhouse. But wait, there’s more to this than meets the eye on this side of the mug. Turn it around, and there’s this:DSC07384

If you are of a certain age, you’ll recognize an image copied from a library “card catalogue,” from one of the seminary’s many, many drawers of cards listing every book in the joint. Look closely at the title of the book, if you haven’t already caught it. John Calvin: a stud. Now Calvin was known for many things, but Alister E. McGrath must have found another side of Calvin never before explored in Reformed studies. A stud?

It turns out, of course, that there is only so much room on those small descriptor cards in the drawer. So the lengthier titles get chopped and what is missing is the full subtitle, “A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture.” Sounds intriguing, but not nearly as much fun as what’s printed on the card (and mug).

Good for Louisville Seminary to see the humor in it all. Some student must have run across this card doing some serious research, chuckled enough to be shushed by a librarian, who then also saw the humor there, and the word went out to others on campus, until someone said, “Hey, let’s put this on the mug!”

Much of what is genuinely funny is due to its being unexpected. The last panel of a comic strip carries its humor, and whether we chuckle or laugh out loud, we are struck by the punch line, the twist, or the pun. My wife and I got giggling last week when I tried to fill the birdfeeder on snowshoes. (Well, I was on snowshoes; not the birdfeeder.) The snow was a very fluffy three feet deep, and the snowshoes were worthless. I fell face first into the deep snow and couldn’t get up. It didn’t help that we were both laughing at the unexpected silliness of the situation! The video would have gone viral.

I’m not going to try to explain humor here. I trust E. B. White’s words: Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

It’s enough to reiterate that it is the unexpected that prompts good-natured smiles. (That said, I agree that sometimes the “unexpected” can be eerie, scary, or troubling, too. The old gag about slipping on a banana peel is funny if a comic does it, but if Aunt Fannie falls on hers, and breaks her hip…nothing funny there.)

While we may be in Lent right now, and while there’s little humor in it by its very nature, be assured that some preacher-types are already planning past Easter to the Sunday following Resurrection Day. Some will join in the ancient (really?) tradition of Holy Humor, a Sunday service celebrating the totally unexpected. Some run the service backward, opening with the benediction and closing with the Call to Worship. Others will lace their sermons full of jokes and/or funny stories. One pastor I know wears a jester’s hat (I hasten to add that I don’t know the guy very well) to add to the fun.

Why Holy Humor Sunday? I quote something I stole freely from the “The Joyful Noiseletter:”http://www.joyfulnoiseletter.com/hhsunday.asp

The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians (like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom) that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. “Risus paschalis – the Easter laugh,” the early theologians called it.

In 1988 the Fellowship of Merry Christians began encouraging churches and prayer groups to resurrect Bright Sunday celebrations and call it “Holy Humor Sunday,” with the theme: “Jesus is the LIFE of the party.”

I offer this little caution though. This Sunday had better be well-promoted a few weeks ahead of time. If I were to offer this special post-Easter day of joy and laughter, I wouldn’t want someone to show up for worship that week who had just experienced a heavy loss and came seeking spiritual comfort and quiet support. Losing a friend or a job or suffering a recent diagnosis of a serious illness — perhaps another church might be a better choice. Then again, even funerals find some folks smiling, even laughing, a kind of relief from sadness or tension, a salve for grief.  Everybody’s different. I’m just saying, be careful. One person’s humor may well be inappropriate or hurtful to another.

Another caveat: not every pastor can pull this off. Some are just not funny. Odd, but not funny.

Bottom line…(well, ten lines up from the bottom!): While the gospel accounts have Jesus hinting, suggesting, or proclaiming that “after three days” he would be raised from death, for his disciples it was still unexpected. In fact, put a capital U on it: Unexpected! A cosmic surprise! An event worthy of lots of exclamation points! That morning was not filled with joy at first. There was confusion, still some fear, puzzlement. But eventually, yes, joy and laughter at the Unexpected act of God that prompted the stud John Calvin to write:

“…We are not only invited through the example of the risen Christ to strive after newness of life; but  we are taught that we are reborn into righteousness through his power.”

Insert your own smiley face here.

Next Page »