grace


{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!

 

 

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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.

 

{Day by day, mug by mug…reflections for Lent 2017.}DSC07381.JPG

This is a huge mug, and one from Joan’s part of the Kellam kitchen cupboard. It came from a doctor’s office where Joan worked part time, a promotion of some sort.

Today I choose the message rather than some story behind this sizable vessel. I like the logo especially, representing four people with arms outstretched. As if we needed more prompting, there are the words: Total Care. I’m assuming it refers to health care, but if so, a mug this size better contain just water, or decaf. Too many servings of java in this thing and one’s blood pressure would skyrocket.

I teach an adult Sunday School class at our church, and the curriculum has led us in an interesting direction. The topic is focused on Jesus…who he was and what he taught. For awhile we looked at the Jesus of the historic creeds, from the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Scots Confession, etc. (For what’s included in the “etc.” do an on-line search for “The Book of Confessions,” and you’ll find confessions of faith as recent as those written within our lifetimes.) From the era of Paul the Apostle onward, the creeds dealt with the theology of Jesus’ identity, Christology, the debris of sometimes angry debates among members of Church Councils, or the measured, prayerful, Spirit-directed conclusions of experts in scripture and tradition.

Born of a virgin? Eternally begotten? The Westminster Confession proclaims the “work of redemption,” the “work of mediation.” Words such as justification, adoption, sanctification make for fun theological analysis (he typed facetiously), and our long engagements with such concepts have been valuable, but isn’t there something more about Jesus than what the creeds and affirmations of faith center on?

Page after page, paragraph after paragraph about who Jesus was/is. But very short on what he taught. Of course, what he taught and how he lived do contribute to our understanding — our belief — about his identity. But while our historic focus and various descriptions of who he was/is have preoccupied both believers and skeptics, we have conveniently escaped the hard truths of what he taught.

The curriculum we currently use, called “Saving Jesus Redux,” says:

Jesus was a purveyor of wisdom. His stories, sayings, and teachings say it over and over again: It’s not about victory. It’s not about punishment. It’s not about rewards. It’s not about what you deserve or what you get. Looking on reality with compassion, love, inclusivity, forgiveness—recognizing everything as created by God, infinite in dignity, [is] to be honored.

And further, Jesus taught,

“Be merciful, as God in heaven is merciful.” Since the root of the word “merciful” is to “have compassion,” it’s not surprising that Jesus demonstrated a degree of compassion in his relationships that transformed the people around him. He intentionally embraced those that were rejected by the authorities: the outcasts,
the unrighteous, even the Gentiles.

There is a figure of speech that sums up nicely this spirit of compassion that influenced so profoundly Jesus’ life and teachings. “…He saw a great crowd, and his heart went out to them.” (Matt. 14:14) In one of Jesus’ parables, a father sees his wayward son coming home at last, and “…his heart went out to him.” (Luke 15:20) Over and over, the older English translations use the word “heart” to mean compassion. Jesus lived and taught from his heart of compassion.

Total care, one might say.

“Heart health” is essential for communities of faith today, for we live in a time when compassion has ebbed. We are more interested in financial security, filling our own bellies, and guarding our gates against the stranger. (They might be angels, but one can never be too careful.) In my previous life as a church media producer, a colleague shared with me a slide show he had done to highlight our acquisitive society. He titled it, “What’s Mine Is Mine, and What’s Yours Is Mine, If I Can Get My Hands on It.” We cringe at the cynicism, but have to admit that we do live in a greedy world. And greed is an obstacle to compassion, a stumbling blockage of the heart.

A healthy spiritual heart is full of compassion. Some might argue (might? heck, they do argue it) that, teachings of Jesus aside, compassion isn’t a realistic response to the deep need we see debated in Congress or reported in the news or witnessed on our streets. Love your enemies? Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth? Blessed are the peacemakers? Forgive? Those teachings have never been easy. Never. But no one said it was easy. Still, doesn’t it all seem so obviously impractical today? Read on.

In a television studio yesterday, I interviewed two missionaries, married 47 years, long-time workers in Ethiopia. Many years ago they were abducted and held for ransom by some rebels. And a little over two years ago they were shot by a would-be robber hiding in the bush along the road. When the armor-piercing bullet of the AK-47 blew away part of  Gwen’s face, the projectile continued into John’s collarbone, and her teeth sprayed into his arm and head, blinding him in one eye. They survived. After several reconstructive surgeries, Gwen can speak, sing, and laugh again. John still has one of her teeth embedded in his chin, but worse, has lost the sight in his left eye permanently. Though Gwen’s call these days is to stay stateside to care for her elderly mother, John continues to return to Ethiopia, where they had built roads, clinics, churches, and wells.

Here’s the thing: even as they drove away from the scene of the attack, escaping, bloodied and in pain, they spoke to one another of prayer and forgiveness. They immediately forgave the gunman, recalling the words of Stephen as he was being stoned to death: Lord, do not hold this sin against them. (Acts 7:60) Missionaries know their Bible, and the heart, the compassionate heart, of their Lord. And his forgiveness. Impractical as that may seem. That forgiveness has led to the building of a church in the gunman’s village.

The difficult truth is that Jesus’ life and teachings do more to define who Jesus is than all the ramblings and rumblings of church councils and creeds. And living out those hard truths still defines his followers, one way or the other. If he cared totally for all, with inclusive acceptance, heartfelt compassion, and boundless love…and he did…then present day disciples will find ways to tear down walls, offer grace in place of judgment, and embrace the unlovable, as he did.

Total care, indeed. In deed!

 

 

DSC07322.jpg{Another day in Lent and another mug that prompts some reflection. Mug/day #4.}

I’ve noted that each mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard tells a story. Well, this one sure does, doesn’t it? Place, date, occasion. Done. Except for the rest of the story, and the tie-in to Lent.

My childhood pastor, the Rev. Wilbur J. Kerr, helped me choose Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA. Rev. Kerr knew I was headed toward ministry and thought a good Presbyterian school would help prepare me for seminary. He cautioned me though, “Don’t major in Bible or religion. You’ll get enough of that in seminary. Consider history or literature.”

It was good advice. And I didn’t take it. The school convinced me that their “tri-major” of religion/philosophy/psychology was perfect for pre-ministerial students. Oh…OK. No sense all these fifty (!) years later revisiting whether that was a good trail to follow. As I look back on my college years, what strikes me as far more important, faith-wise, was the Christian nurture I received on that campus.

Classes, daily chapel (required, daily chapel in the first couple of years there), college Vespers on Sunday nights, participating in Campus Christian Forum (like “youth group” for us young adults), retreats, the pre-min “fraternity” (which, of course, included women), conversations (remember “bull sessions”?) — all this in the context of:

  • the civil rights movement and Dr. King
  • the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • the Kennedy assassination
  • the so-called “charismatic movement”
  • the Viet Nam war
  • immersion in  Biblical studies and exposure to world religions
  • looking for dates.

And flunking out. Yep. I owe my academic failure to at least three things, one each for every time I was put on probation. First semester, I got a part in a theater production and spent more time in the green room than studying. In my sophomore year, I spent more time in the campus radio station than studying. Junior year, I spent more time in the campus darkroom than studying. Three strikes, and you’re out, for at least a semester.

When I got word from the dean that I was to be a goner, I went right to the chapel, and I prayed. I thought I was called to the ministry. What have I done? Lord, what am I going to do? And how, in heaven’s name, do I tell my Dad, the one whose hard earned money was paying for this failure? There’s a song by Burton Cummings of The Guess Who that sings:

I’m scared, you know I’m shakin’
I’m layin’ awake thinkin’ about it now
I’m terrified
Never been much on religion
But I sure enough just fell down on my knees…

The thing was…I was “much on religion” but I was still scared. About the next days, the next semester, the direction of my life if I didn’t complete college, go on to graduate school, and become the life-long student that good and faithful ministers are.

And then, out of school for a few weeks, I got drafted. Did I mention Viet Nam?

But I was good at flunking, and my physical was no exception.

I went back to Westminster after a few months at IBM, where my Dad had opened a door or two. He had been so full of compassion and grace when he got the word from the dean (not from me; I was in hiding), and my church, too, was persistent in its support of its wayward, not to say prodigal, son. And there was Joan, my date, and then my steady, and soon my fiancée in whom I majored in my senior year. My seminary acceptance letter almost sounded enthused about my coming.

I’ve titled this episode of the mug-of-the-day “Nurture.” Because this whole four year trial-and-error-and-redemption period nurtured me in the faith in ways so unexpected and undeserved that it was the “gift that keeps on giving.” I was guided by teachers, cared for by family and church, and nourished by God’s unwavering presence and pesky insistence that I keep moving, even when scared or uncertain or utterly confused.

So, where have you found nurture? Empowerment? Embrace? Companions along the way? This is Lent, a very good and proper time to consider what nourished your faith, and, importantly, whom you might nurture with your unwavering compassion.

Oh, a footnote about that mug. It’s not exactly the truth. Joan graduated that June 6th. I didn’t have enough credits until after summer school. But they let me have the mug anyway.

I love the quirky. The slightly off-kilter. Curious about the derivation of the word, I looked it up and it’s unknown, but defined as a sudden twist or turn. Its meanings run from whimsy to subterfuge. Like my own meaning, I guess.

During previous Lents, I’d written a meditation or reflection each day as a persDSC07316.jpgonal spiritual practice. The first time I tried this, I thought about the forty people who had provided me with a spiritual foundation: teachers, mentors, friends, family. Then, another year, I wrote about my experiences serving the various congregations that had called me to pastoral work in their midst. Last year, I chose forty images from my collection of photos I’d taken since I was a kid…sixty years worth of prints, slides, and digital images, and I wrote meditations on each one.

This year, I’m doing something kinda screwy. In the Kellam kitchen cupboards are enough coffee/tea mugs to make for a quirky Lent. Each one tells a story, you see. Or, you will see if you stay with me through Lent. One cup a day.

[I like the cable series Jerry Seinfeld hosts: “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” It’s an odd format. Quirky. Crotchet. Vagary. Not that I’m giving up coffee for Lent, but I’m going to feature empty mugs: Clergy in Blogs Considering Cups.]

The hope (and challenge) is that I can reflect on part of my story as I journey from the ashes of Lent to the sunny new life of Easter. Whether you find this of interest is, to be frank, of only secondary importance. This is my quirky approach to Lent. Maybe yours is more serious.

So, there’s the first mug. It has my name on it. And supposedly some attributes assigned to the name Jeffrey. As if our names came to us after we had lived long enough to establish a reputation. Or, as if our parents had named us according to some aspirations they held for us. So according to the mug, Jeffrey means peaceful. Geoffrey: God’s peace. I don’t think Harry and Beverly actually knew that when their first born arrived. I think they just liked the name. I do too.

I also, for the most part, like myself. When I run across this mug in the morning, though, and fill it with fair trade coffee, I read through the little poem and think, “Is this who I am? Or, is this my assignment for the day?” Bringing inner peace when others are stressful? Restoring serenity when there’s a fight? I’m respected as “valuable, precious, and rare?” [Rare? I knew of two or three other Jeff Kellams back in Virginia. Precious? A vagary. But valuable, that I can own. My family, my teachers, my friends have given me value I cannot deny. Somehow I learned very early on that God valued me. Values me.

I don’t need a mug to remind me of that, that I am loved. Day after day, I am filled with gratitude that my wife, my children and grandchildren, my church, and all three friends have wonderful ways of contributing to my identity as a person beloved. My prayer this Lent is that I will so love in return that all of us can be peace-filled, full of respect and love for one another, and valuable to each other. That would be precious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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