grace


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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grand Teton National Park

{Lent 2018 has provided me with time to let my photographs prompt some writing. The days dwindle down to a precious few, as the old song says.}

As I age I grow aware of my limitations. This is the time of our lives when we just have to admit that some things we had hoped to do, or dreamed of doing one day, or even things we had once enjoyed — well, those things are no longer possible.

This is not to say that advancing age means we are now invalids, or in-valid as persons. It simply means that we know we must learn to deal with some limitations. While retirement has brought awesome (I rarely use that word unless I mean it) opportunities for travel, our sight-seeing reminds us that our trails are shorter, our hikes less intense, our energy levels not what they were when we were 35. No kidding, huh? You too?

There we were in Grand Teton National Park. We had hiked, and thoroughly enjoyed the journey over some fairly easy trails. But looking into the distance at that grand panorama, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be climbing any of those peaks. Just gazing at them from afar would have to do.

 

There was a time, however, that I climbed, and with a heavy backpack weighing

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The Writer Back When…

me down. I’m not a veteran climber of the most challenging high peaks, handling ropes, harnesses, rappel devices, grip savers, etc. I liked the smaller challenges of Virginia sections of the Appalachian Trail, or hiking up Montreat’s Lookout Mountain in western North Carolina. I had the legs back then, and the energy, and the will. Today, I still have the will, but less energy, and a bad knee. So my climbs are more modest. I know my limits.

 

That expanse of water in the photo above prompts another limitation of mine. After three local attempts at swimming lessons when I was a kid, and even after a couple of years of weekly classes in college, I am not a swimmer. I never got over my fear of high water. I guess I could do the back stroke, but why would I want to? So, swimming in that lake, or canoeing or kayaking? No, thanks. It’s been a lifetime limitation; not one related to aging. What is related to my growing more elderly is the realization that at my age, I do not hold out much hope that I will ever learn to swim. Please…I know it’s possible. But, I’ve gotten along just fine, so far. I like boat rides, from my friend Matt Matthews’ speed boat ride through Hampton Roads, to transatlantic cruises on huge ships.

A recent episode in deep water brought back my water-related phobia. We were in the Caribbean and a boat ride was to take us to an island for lunch. When the boat’s pilot learned I wasn’t a swimmer, he rather casually noted, “Hmmm, that might be a problem. There’s no dock I can get to there. We usually anchor a ways out and swim in for lunch. But I’ll try to get as close as I can. If the tide is right, you can probably wade in.” Probably. I left the boat and the water was chest high. All I could think of was stepping into some hole and… Or, what if the tide rose a bit and water that was chest high would be over my head? Turns out, the wading thing worked, and I am here to write this.

Living with limitations is something we all have to adjust to. And aging does mean the limitations grow. But, for every sign of slowing down, there is an opportunity to compensate. I won’t be learning to swim and enjoy water sports. So what? I won’t miss it. But, look, I’ve learned to over-write about it! (Freshman composition professor Dr. Bleasby would not be pleased.) I have other skills I can continue to develop. I may not be able to climb Mt. Ranier’s peak, but I can take a lesser trail there and pull out my camera. I may not follow my cousin Danny around the track at Watkins Glen at 100 mph, but I’m content to put miles and miles on my RAV4 between here and there.

One more limitation I’ve learned to live with. I can’t play an instrument. I go to jazz jams and wonder what it would be like to just get up there and play…play anything! Piano. Guitar. Trombone. But as I near the end of my third quarter of a century, I’m realistic. If I didn’t have the self-discipline to practice back then, what makes me think I would be able to “take lessons” now, and how much time would it take to actually play well? (The estimate, I’ve heard, is 10,000 hours. OK then.) So, while I can’t blow into a mouthpiece, strum strings, or beat a drum, I am a big fan of those who can. I am a music appreciation junkie. And, thanks to an invitation a few months ago, I am writing a monthly column about jazz artists in our community.

I live with one limitation after another, but adjust, adapt, compensate, and continue to bloom where I’m planted. Like a weed.

One more limitation: my understanding of God. The older I get, the more the Mystery deepens. One would think that after some sixty-plus years of Christian education and nurture, my aging would bring my theology into clearer focus. Maybe I have a theological cataract that’s come with age. I certainly hold to my faith, but my system of belief is blurrier. Maybe that’s not really a limitation after all. Maybe it’s a liberation. I am free to be me, and God is free to be God.

And perhaps — just maybe — that is indeed the wideness in God’s mercy!DSC06037

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lake Susan, Montreat, NC

{During the forty days of Lent 2018, I am writing some reflections on panoramic photographs I’ve taken over the years.  Full disclosure, finally: most of these images were taken in a standard format and merely cropped to the wide view. But, so what?}

The image above may not be the iconic photo Montreaters expect to see of their beloved North Carolina “mountain retreat” setting. The massive stone façade of the Assembly Inn hotel as seen above the placid Lake Susan is the more familiar view (just below). Still, this panoramic image communicates the serene beauty of the place that Presbyterians, especially the “southern” ones, call their Mecca.

Montreat is more widely known maybe as the long-time home of the late Billy Graham. He lived in the hills, quite a hike from the conference center.  Montreat’s main gate is just a few miles up the road from Black Mountain, and that village is not far from Asheville. And surrounding it all is the Smoky Mountain range. A friend once admitted he wasn100_0405‘t a fan of Montreat because the high mountains encompassing the retreat and conference center made him feel terribly claustrophobic. But everyone else I know so loves Montreat that they dream of living there year-round, a four-season Eden, but with clothes on.

I was a seminary student from “up north” when I first heard of the place from my Southern Presbyterian classmates. They spoke of it so highly that I was immediately suspicious. Then I attended a conference there one summer. And then another. And then led several, maybe a dozen, and went back summer after summer. Youth conferences, music and worship conferences, peace gatherings, meetings…staying in that hotel, or in the dorms of Montreat College, or in rented cottages and homes, and for many years enjoying the grace of hospitality offered by dear friends, the Williamsons. 2333-1Joan and I looked forward to those music conferences like Trekees look forward to the next Star Trek big screen epic. We also looked forward to the day when we might look at real estate there. Then we did. And put that dream away very quickly. ($)

Climbing Lookout Mountain, walking the hilly roads through the area, attending the events in Anderson Auditorium — those opportunities would never be taken for granted by those fulltime citizens of the Montreat municipality, anymore than a Vermont farmer in the Northeast Kingdom would take the daily view of Mt. Mansfield for granted. But making the place a retreat destination is very special, an occasion of spiritual growth, continuing education, and shaping community with friends old and new.

Yet back home, finding that particular geographical sacred space, that place set apart for special times and holy possibilities is something that surely feeds the human spirit. It may be enough to spend a Saturday fishing, or to sit in the local library apart from the busyness that normally occupies our energies. Perhaps a hike in a nearby glen or a bike ride along a rail trail will help us accomplish a kind of retreat. Whatever turns you on, or around.

There was a time when church doors were open 24/7 for anyone who needed a rest from spiritual weariness or personal strife. Doors are locked against fear today. No quiet prayer in the pews is possible, with few exceptions. We have to create our own retreat spaces elsewhere. A garden bench, a labyrinth, even a table in a café in its off hours– these are ripe for private retreats, however short.

The thing about a big summer conference at Montreat like the ones we participated in is that schedules are usually full, people are everywhere…paddle boating on the little lake, heading toward the bookstore or toward some ice cream, racing to a seminar. Even the Lookout peak can be crowded on a sunny afternoon. So, you see that stone bridge in the panoramic photo? That’s often a good place to stand, somewhat apart from the rest of the retreating world, and watch the swan or the ducks. Retreat from the retreat, as it were. And ponder. Anything.

I only went to church camp twice as a kid. I couldn’t swim, so a week on a lake had absolutely no appeal to me. But when the camp took place at a conference center with a pool, I gave it a try. At the end of my second summer’s week-long “retreat,” we high school youth were to go off by ourselves with a small candle, find a place apart and light the wick, and then stay there in silence until the candle was close to going out. I chose a small wooden bridge over a stream that ran through the conference center property. I stood there by myself, candle flickering against the night breeze, and I did what was expected: meditated, prayed, and wondered. Even as the silence was broken by those who had blown out their candles and ignored the directions for being silent until cabin time, I stood there. And fifty-seven years later I remember that night, that bridge, that brief but oh-so-holy retreat.

We miss Montreat. We’re a number of miles away, way up north of it, and even going for a week there seems expen$ive. But while it may not be Eden or Mecca, it is a very profound reminder that spiritual getaways and personal escapes are good for the soul. A week? Yes! A day away? Sure! Take an hour’s break and breathe deeply? Of course.

Mountains, beaches, deserts. Or, a candle on the kitchen table. Locale is one thing, but the main thing is… make your getaway!

 

 

 

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St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Johnson City, NY

{Each day in Lent (2018) I am posting a panoramic photo and writing a brief reflection inspired by the image. Many of these pictures have appeared in the Binghamton Pres & Sun-Bulletin under the banner “Southern Tier Views.”}

Yesterday I wrote of fences and boundaries, in a specific context. I could have used the same panoramic photo of that rail fence to write of breaking down barriers and tearing down walls, and opening ourselves to wherever the Spirit leads. I’ll do that today, but with the image above.

Our area is full of golden domes atop churches. Greek Orthodox churches. Russian Orthodox Churches. And above, a Ukrainian Orthodox church. This isn’t the place to write authoritatively about church architecture, but there are those domes! Golden domes. They represent, I’ve read, the “light of God” or “celestial glory.” And the gifts of immigrants to our geographical, geopolitical area.

These domes represent the faith of generations of local citizens, the legacy of immigrants who came to Ellis Island and who (it is said in local lore) asked U. S. customs agents, “Which way EJ?”

EJ : Endicott Johnson Shoe Corporation. Immigrants from Slavic countries and Italy knew jobs awaited at the shoe factories of Upstate New York. Those factories would produce almost all the boots for the U.S. Army during two world wars, as well as shoes to supply stores in 30 states. The company’s 20,000 workers made 52 million pairs of footwear annually. It wouldn’t have been possible without workers from abroad.

My school friends had Italian, Polish, Russian, Greek, and Czech names. Many of the older folks on my childhood paper route didn’t speak English, or at least spoke it so hesitantly that when I rang doorbells to “collect” each week, they would seek out a younger member of the family to pay me. Our neighborhoods were, and still are, full of the gifts of various ethnic cultural traditions. Especially the foods. (More about that tomorrow.)

But also the festivals, the music, and their faith. (Music? Our area still has not one, but two Sunday morning polka radio shows, hours and hours of polka music.) And those churches with their golden domes. It was common as I grew up for many classmates to be absent from school a week after the rest of us had celebrated Christmas and Easter. Their liturgical calendar is different from ours. As is their architecture, the shape of their liturgy, the beauty of their art. Presbyterians like me are intrigued even by the aroma of their incense.

Whenever I glance at those domed churches while I drive local roads, I am reminded of the gifts of immigrants. I may not be able to pronounce their names, but thank God, someone pronounced them welcome a few generations ago. Our economy was built on

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anti-immigration song seen at an Ellis Island display

their labor, and the signs of their many gifts still speak of the wideness of God’s mercy.

 

One more thing I note in that picture of the domes. Storm clouds, or at least gray skies that day when we visited the church. Maybe the skies speak of the welcome not extended to all. You know: “Irish need not apply.”

More on this tomorrow, with a photo not quite as impressive as that above, but still a reminder of what contributed to the richness of our neighborhoods here in Upstate New York.

{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!

 

 

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.

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{Lent 2017…a mug a day…meditations and reflections…}

This mug was given me by a friend. I suspect it was Billie Starr Brightwell, my faithful colleague at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (a Graduate Center for Educational Ministry). Billie was first a student there, then a graduate who became a DCE (Director of Christian Education) in Kentucky, and a short time later, she returned to PSCE to be my assistant in the Video Education Center. (It turns out that she had listened to me on the radio as a youth.)

Billie was big on friendship. There were friendship cards, notes, gifts, and scrapbooks. And this mug.  Obviously, it’s from the TV show, and the words at the top say “Good coffee, good friends.” I didn’t even drink coffee until well into adulthood when Billie had a pot brewing as I came into the office. She made it for herself each morning and I found the aroma inviting and sampled some. I’ve been sampling some every morning since.

Friends share a lot more than coffee. Life’s celebrations and disappointments, its many climbs and descents, make or break friendships. My guess is that if that friendship is genuine, whatever life deals us cements the heartfelt relationship. It may test it first, but ultimately the strength of friendship is reinforced. Love is that strength.

Love? Maybe that goes too far. Many friendships are casual, maybe even convenient, or neighborly. The James Taylor song “That’s Why I’m Here” is a good example of that. Friends meet one another’s needs. They have what we could call an amicable or amiable relationship. While the root of those words is love, maybe that intimacy isn’t the best descriptor of a casual friendship. But, if we are lucky — or blessed — to be friends with some people beyond immediate usefulness or fun times shared together… meaning over a lifetime and/or over long distances… then we know deep and true, even loving, friendship.

In my prayers are friends I haven’t seen or spoken with for quite a while. (My fault; damned introversion.) But they are dear to me. I treasure so much the past we shared that it seems like the present. As I age, I’m finding such friendships are more difficult to build. My life is full of acquaintances, and many of them close ones; but few friends beloved.

They say that men have a much more difficult time than women do building such trusted and affectionate relationships . Sharing interests in sports, civic affairs, hobbies, or religious groups can create fertile ground for planting the seeds of friendship. Loyalty, faithfulness, and trust both feed and result from such connections. One test of whether a relationship has gone beyond mere acquaintance to friendship is if two people can share a deeply intimate conversation. And eventually, shared silence. And always, a confidence.

Guess what they taught us in seminary about friendship. Ministers shouldn’t build friendships with members of their congregations. “You can’t be their pastor and a friend at the same time.” We were encouraged to remember the boundaries set by propriety and practicality. Show no partiality, they told us, but find friendships beyond our church folk. Maybe in neighborhoods or civic groups. But if a pastor moved around every few years, that was hard. I’m not sure how well that worked for me, or for my colleagues in ministry. (Many of my “colleagues” were my closest friends, too. But imagine if ministers’ only friends were other ministers. Yikes.)

In an old sermon I wrote on friendship I noted that friends do enjoy life together. Sharing fun times may initiate a friendly relationship, but then it grows into that “I’d do anything for you” kind of thing. As it matures, there comes the realization that having such friendships makes us mutually into better persons. And the whole world could benefit from that.

Finally, I never take for granted my best friend of over 50 years, my wife Joan. This is friendship taken to its very highest level. Faithful, fulfilling, and eternal. Oh, and blessed, to be sure. Mutual understanding, lots of laughter, intimate love, even honoring our differences (she is so ambitious and disciplined — and I? not so much), and still growing together after all this time… it is pure grace, and the gift of a lifetime.

Though I have to make my own coffee.

 

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