gratitude


{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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DSC07464{Lent is coming to a close, and my forty day writing discipline of mug-oriented reflections is almost over as well. Today, Maundy Thursday, I skip the mug for a chalice.}

Vermont potter Margot Eastman had not made a chalice before. I more or less commissioned one though, and this lovely vessel is the result. It has been used for the Sacrament of Holy Communion only a handful of times. Churches, of course, have their own communion ware, usually silver, often ornate. But I have substituted my clay plate and chalice a couple of times. I like the simplicity of it.

Communion. It is a loaded word. With a lowercase ‘c’ it refers to a commonality, a sharing among peers. But with the capital letter ‘C’ it becomes the trademarked (not official) meal shared by followers of Jesus, a memorial meal initiated on the eve of Jesus’ execution. Celebrating the Passover together, eating and drinking the symbolic ritual elements and saying the right words in recounting the story of the Jews’ escape from Egypt, Jesus added a new meaning to the meal. His words, as reported by the gospel writers are repeated today as Christians gather at tables and altars in churches: This bread is my body…this cup is my blood of the covenant…

Though the gospel writers do not include it, Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth adds this from Jesus, “Whenever you do this, remember me.” Was it a request? A hope? A command? However it was meant, we who keep communion with him, do indeed remember him, that table, those elements of bread and wine, and that covenant of unconditional love.

Tonight, members of our church family will celebrate that meal not in the sanctuary, but around tables in the fellowship hall. How appropriate! Since communion and fellowship have common meaning. We will hear the story again, refreshing our memory of that night, Jesus’ arrest, and his trial the next day. Then we will remember the wood, the nails, the cries. As if we could forget…

In the churches I served as pastor, as Lent ended, we participated in that meal three times in one week. When I was a kid in our Presbyterian church, we celebrated Communion only quarterly, that is, four times a year. Our more liturgical cousins would have Mass or Holy Communion every week, but I guess we Presbyterians thought that might take away from how special the occasion was. Or, maybe we just didn’t want to do the dishes that often. But we in the Reformed Tradition continued to reform and now many Presbyterians are moving toward John Calvin’s preference for weekly observance of the sacrament. At the very least, it is a monthly meal, and so that no one feels ambushed by the unexpected, somehow we have fallen into the liturgically bereft “first Sunday of the month” routine. I suppose that’s some progress, from four times a year to twelve.

But by the time I was a “solo pastor,” I encouraged the churches I served to share the Bread and Cup on every “high holy day” (i.e., the festival days of note, from Christmas to Palm Sunday, Easter to Pentecost, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, etc.), plus the now customary first Sunday of each month. Some parishioners thought it overkill (or over-eating?) when Holy Week arrived, and we would sit at table together three times in one week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Resurrection Day. So I used that week to remind my churches of the different personalities the sacrament could assume.

Palm Sunday: Holy Communion; Maundy Thursday: The Lord’s Supper; Easter: The Eucharist. On Palm Sunday, it was, pardon the expression, the standard, everyday service…bread and wine offered as nexus between joyful procession and moving toward Calvary. The Holy Thursday meal we called “The Lord’s Supper,” a commemoration of Jesus’ “last supper” with his friends. It was a more subdued meal, the somber tone suggested by loss, and sadness at the line, “On the night on which he was betrayed…” We would eat the bread, drink the cup (–“cup” — a less-than-clever way to avoid admitting that we drink grape juice instead of actual wine!) and then depart in silence as if we had just lost our best friend.

But on Easter Sunday, the sacrament was the “joyful feast of the people of God.” It was Eucharist: deep, stirring gratitude, with alleluias all around, sung, smiled, practically danced in thanksgiving for the sign of new life signaled by an empty tomb. [Forgive me here if I have violated the “putting away of alleluias for Lent.” Pretend you didn’t read it here, or just don’t read it aloud!] This Resurrection Day sacrament would be a foretaste of the “sitting at table in the Kingdom of God.” The new hymn “I Come with Joy” is a perfect song for people who smile at the fellowship of that theologically happy meal and practically dance their way there to the hymn’s delightful beat.

The variety of ways in which diverse followers gather round the global, even cosmic, table is remarkable, a sign that no matter the form the sacrament takes, the memory of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection keeps Good News alive and saints and sinners one in the Spirit.  Unleavened bread or rich, dark rye; Welches or rich, dark red? Move to the table or stand at the altar? Be served in pews with little chewy cubes and tiny cups of barely recognizable liquid? Or, break off a chunk of bread commensurate with how much grace one needs and gulp down a healthy portion of wine from a common chalice? Store front church with grimy windows covered by plastic sheets of pretend stained glass? Or, rural clapboard church with clear windows looking out on grazing cows?

And who sits at table with you? Oh, to be sure, some are the same comfortable clique you eat after-worship doughnuts with (while avoiding the eyes of those visitors over there by the coffee urn). But look who else! Liberal and conservative, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox, United Methodists and those not-so-united; Presbyterians and Baptists of all different stripes; your ultra-pious neighbor who thinks Jesus helps her park, and the Sunday School cynic who claims to enjoy playing devil’s advocate, but who is really hurting inside because his childhood faith never grew up.

“Remember me,” Jesus said. Here is something to eat, something to drink, and something to think about. It’s a meal like all the others he shared with the committed and the curious, along with untouchables, unlikables, and unlovables. Except this one, this one last supper, has some bread and wine set for us.

Take. Eat. Drink. Remember.

And love each other.

{Mug shots… one a day for these 40 days of Lent 2017. About two hours time (I write slowly) and approximately 1200 words ( I write wordily).} DSC05642.jpg

The mug I’ve chosen for today is one of a set of eight. I won’t be writing something about each one, by the way;  just this representative mug. We bought this whole set of china dishes, cups (mugs!), and drinking glasses for our 25th wedding anniversary. Apparently a lot of people bought this pattern, because we’ve seen it everywhere. It’s by Pfaltzgraff, and the pattern is called  Yorktowne.

It is our “everyday” china, as opposed to our “good” china. See, that sentence indicates how old we are, even more than the above reference to our 25th anniversary. We were married way back when brides and grooms (mostly brides) thought it necessary, or at least nice, to have two sets of china. Our “good” china is delicate and beautiful. I helped pick it out, so even I like it. But with its silver ring around the edges and its just plain expensive cost per piece, one would not use that stuff everyday, having it attacked by sharp knives, pointy-pronged forks, and harsh dish washers day after day. Thus, the need for sturdy everyday dishes.

When we got to the 25th year of marriage, we hadn’t exactly beaten up the everyday china to the point of having to replace it. We just decided it was time for a change, so we got this pattern. It was something we liked, and it was on sale on the Williamsburg Pottery. It was defective in some way, though the plates seem to hold food just fine, and the mugs don’t leak. Even after 25 years. This everyday stuff is sturdy.

And when I say every day, I mean it literally. Every day, I eat breakfast cereal from the Yorktowne bowls, and drink my orange juice from the little glasses. Every day, our lunch and dinner go on the plates. Every day, my skim milk at meals is in a Pfaltzgraff tumbler-sized glass. We rarely pull out the “good” china. That reminds me: at a pre-retirement seminar a few years ago, the leader asked the attendees how many had “good” china back home. Most did. “Use it!” he advised. “What are you waiting for?” Those of us of that “certain age” had been saving it for special occasions. At our age, maybe we should treat more days and times as “special.”

When I consider what “everyday” means as an adjective, I realize there are two sides to that term. Let’s begin with the less pleasing side. The everyday might be humdrum. When I wrote of the “vanilla” of life a few days ago, I touted the plain and simple. But everyday isn’t the same as vanilla; it’s just dull, routine, even thoughtless. We might complain to someone (or to ourselves), “Everyday is the same; I do this and that and this today, just as I did it yesterday, and tomorrow doesn’t hold anything else. Damn, I’m bored outta my gourd.” It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day,” but Bill Murray isn’t in it to redeem it, and it’s not funny.

We want to break out, break away, break free… break the everyday and escape to something new and exciting and enlivening. Everyday, there’s the same old job, some addiction to be satisfied, deep ruts to be negotiated without thinking. Life becomes stale.

But wait…there’s another side to everydayness that redeems the word. The sun rises everyday, whether it’s visible or not. If you woke up this morning, here’s a new beginning. Every day brings a chance to begin again, anew! Chances are, if you are reading this blog, you are among the gifted affluent of the world who can count on food and clean water and a roof over your head every day. If there is a loved one (or a beloved many) in your life, you can count on that love always…always, that is, every day. See? Sometimes the everyday is that which is sturdy, as rugged and reliable as the commonplace plates used daily, and sometimes delicate and beautiful as the “good” china we consider special. In other words, dependable.

Yes, every day brings the possibility of an event or occurrence that causes anxiety or sadness. But that same day may be rescued by the accrued grace and blessing of previous days’ encounters with daily, even routine, joys and spirit-fed moments. Especially if we have paid attention at each day’s end, and prayed our gratitude for the gift of life itself, for every breath, every step, every sign of light and love.

I close with two songs. The first is really very old. Psalm 136 begins, “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” That means every day.

Then there’s the one hit song from the off-Broadway musical “Godspell.” It is entitled “Day by Day.” The words came from Richard of Chichester (1197-1253):

Day by day, Dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.

Every day.

Not just during the forty of Lent,

but daily as the bread we pray for and count on and live on.

This is the gift of the everyday.

Let us rejoice in it, one day at a time,

but every day.

SONY DSC{Day by day in Lent 2017, reflections on mugs I see in the alliterative Kellam kitchen cupboard. I’ve counted, and I think I do have enough to lead all the way to Easter.}

The mug pictured here is one of those “home made” plastic mugs that provide a nesting place for a computer-printed paper image. Our son Jim, the biology professor whose other title is “ornithologist” gave us this mug while he was working successfully on his Ph. D at Purdue University.

Age and leakage have diminished the graphics, and some of the computer ink has faded over the years. The overarching theme is “Woodpecker Research,” and the subtitle there is “Department of Biological Sciences.” Our names have faded away, but still clear on the other side of the mug we are named as “adjunct members.” That was Jim’s way of thanking us for our support as he made his way through labs and woods, around lakes and up streams, into classrooms and lecture halls.

As I look at those downy woodpeckers and remember Jim’s Purdue years, there was one adventure we look back on with mixed feelings. Peril was endured, and injuries overcome, so there was great anxiety followed by profound thanksgiving. In doing some research with radio transmitters attached to birds and an antenna held high to capture the birds’ movements, Jim had discovered that one transmitter had become detached and lodged in a tree in a wooded university property. The transmitters were rather expensive, so Jim wanted to retrieve that one in the tree. It was pretty high up.

He engaged the assistance of a forestry student to get into that tall tree, climbing ropes flung over branches. (I’ll bet that’s not the official forestry lingo.) But CRACK! The branch they were using broke. Jim told us that as they fell those forty feet onto the forest floor he had time to think two thoughts. One: this might be the last pain he’d ever feel. Two: he felt the air blowing through his hair as he dropped. The two guys bounced off the loamy forest floor. His companion was seriously hurt and said he couldn’t get up. Jim lay there for a few moments to determine if he could move limbs, and if he could get up.

He did manage to get to his feet, and decided to find help at a nearby golf course. He made his way through the woods, over a fence, and onto a green at the course where some guys were playing. They saw Jim approach, obviously disheveled and bleeding, but instead of coming to his aid, or even driving him to the clubhouse to summon help, they said he could use their golf cart if he wanted. So generous. When he said he’d never ridden or driven in one, they kindly gave him a lesson and as he drove away, they putted. (I’m still pretty ticked about that. Bastards.)

Jim got to the club office and asked the attendant to call 911. The guy said he didn’t know exactly how that worked. Jim did it himself. And then waited for the emergency vehicles to get to the golf course, where (and I love this part) they drove a vehicle right over the lovely course to get to the place where Jim had emerged from the woods. Back over the fence he went, leading the rescuers, until they found Jim’s colleague still lying there, waiting. The EMTs attended to him, and then said to Jim, “You fell too? You should be on a stretcher!” The two researchers were carried to the ambulance and taken to the hospital.

While in his hospital bed, he got at least one phone call from a concerned friend. “How did you know about this?” he asked. “We saw it on the news!” Jim waited a day or so after he got home to call us with the news of the close call. He wanted to be sure he was OK. He hadn’t wanted us to worry. A cracked vertebra would remind him of this accident for years to come, but we are all so grateful he recovered fully enough to recently finish an Ironman competition.

It’s safe to say that Jim completed his woodpecker research, wrote his dissertation, and moved into college teaching without going back high into tall trees. He’s left the heights to the birds.

If you have read other entries in this series, you know how I like to, well, research the derivation of the words we use so casually in writing and speech. I looked up “search” and found that it comes from a root that means to “go around.” I can see that. You go around looking for something. To “search” for that something, that cure, or solution, or lost coin or sheep, or the lost chord for that matter, is to, according to my source, “investigate leading toward [a] discovery.” Clever. Notice that the investigation may not actually lead to discovery; but only toward discovery. If you don’t actually discover something, the search wasn’t necessarily a failure. You were still headed toward, indicating progress made and yet to be made. Keep searching.

Research, re-search, is understood to be more intensive. Maybe going around again and again. I so admire the researchers who are on the way to finding a new medication, if not a miracle cure. I admire those looking around the vast reaches of space, or at underwater reefs, or forensic evidence. Microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, bifocals…all helping us to see what’s out there or in here. Search again. And keep it up.

Those of us not professionally engaged in the sciences probably don’t consider ourselves researchers until it’s time to shop. Look into the reliability of a new car, or search out the best deal on some item for the home. Ever searched for a church? Or, investigated a politician’s stand? Or, used the internet to learn about a disease? We all do research, don’t we? If we are at all inquisitive.

It turns out that I do a bit of research for lots of these Lenten reflections. I look up words, definitions, people, songs, scripture passages, quotations. I’m not writing for the ages here. It’s not the stuff of a dissertation or even a sermon delivered before a hundred people in church. But I do research so that I can tell the truth. So I can be precise. (I almost wrote “fairly precise,” but you know…it’s either precise or it’s not.) I may write in a light-hearted way, but I’m attempting to be honest. And that means, in this writing and in my day-to-day living, I go around again, keeping my eyes open for new things, discoveries, delights, light, or, better, Light.

One of the gifts of “retirement” is having the time to search and re-search. A lead character on a TV show we watch says to his investigative team, “Learn things!” as he sends them out. I’m a pretty old guy, and I still like to learn things. Even if I can’t always remember them.

One of the gifts of Lent is to embrace the time to research the soul, the spirit, the self, our relationship to God, and to our neighbors, to learn new things as we approach the newest thing Easter offers. Go around again in prayer. Search out the fruits of silence. Head toward deeper understanding. Toward it.

Best keep our feet on the ground though, at least until Resurrection Day!

 

 

SONY DSC

{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.

 

SONY DSC{By my count, we have just passed the halfway mark of Lent 2017. If I’ve kept up with my own posts, we should be at day 21 now. Here is the 21st mug from the Kellam kitchen cupboard.}

This is one of three mugs that carry the artwork of my grandson Ryan. I wrote about his 2007 mug earlier in this series. Two years later, then, came this interpretation of Atlantis. I assume that he had read a book about the lost continent and was inspired to draw this picture. I love the details I see in it.

And I love that, like our dreams, our art is influenced and shaped by the stuff we live and experience day by day. Ryan read a book, and was inspired to illustrate what his imagination conceived. Pardon the pun, but he drew on his imagination, didn’t he? A song I subconsciously heard during the day, or an ad on a passing truck, or an aroma…a color…a voice — all might be a seed that springs forth in a dream one night. Or, if someone assigned or suggested it, I might use colored pencils to sketch my own Atlantis.

Of course, dreams come to us uninvited or involuntarily. Art is more intentional, unless we are the genius whose muse is so insistent that our hands cannot help but shape the clay or splash colors over canvas. (This reflection of mine is running awfully close to my first Ryan’s mug musing. So, on the cusp of redundancy, I segue to the next paragraph.)

Muse. There is the verb. And there is the goddess. First, the action word, and then the actor. To muse is to be absorbed in thought. The word has a French derivation (“muser”) and the now obsolete meaning is (was?) “to meditate.” The more contemporary meaning is “to waste time.” That is, to trifle. How sad. As a daydreamer from way back, I can identify with that kid in the middle school classroom whose seat was right by the window, the window looking out on springtime, on a warm, sunny day that beckons, invites, or to use another obsolete meaning, beguiles, said child to play hooky at least in his/her mind.

Naturally, the word is akin to “amuse,” to entertain, which is in itself another form of escape (deviation), from that classroom or from life’s routine. The response to being amused is to smile or chuckle (guys chuckle and girls giggle, right?), or laugh aloud at absurdity or irony or silliness that has tickled us. Why do people go to amusement parks? To enjoy a great escape from the ho-hum-drum rhythms of the everyday.

Still, I like the very idea of musing. It is no waste of my time to reflect, or to pause for a few quiet moments, and let some pleasantry restore my soul. I should muse more deeply over these writings. I should spend (or waste — see above) more time thinking before sitting at the computer and pecking at this keyboard. But, there is only so much time, even in Lent, to accomplish this quirky ambition: writing inspired by mugs. So, I guess I could say I am content to depend on The Muse.

We move to the noun. Turns out that in Greek mythology, there were nine muses, goddesses who inspired literature, science, and the arts. When writers say that they are awaiting the muse, they may not be able to name the one of the nine they await (Godot isn’t one of them), but they would be content, I’m sure, for any muse to show up with a plot, the right words, one damned good sentence! The muse who appears transforms blank pages into the great American novel or the deeply satisfying short story or some piece of trashy tripe that the author mistakes for fine literature. If it’s a waste of pulp, blame it on the muse, or on the muse not showing up. If the Nobel or Pulitzer is in view, credit the muse, but only if you are humble. Otherwise, grab the credit and run.

It’s no secret that I am a retired pastor, a preacher who dislikes the very implication of “preaching.” It’s gotten a bad reputation, akin to harangue, droning, moralizing, and pulpit-thumping. Yet, almost every week in my last two churches, I had to preach. I had to redeem that form of speech, so that the Word, the Gospel, would as the old saw goes, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” in a loving, faithful, and creative way. Oh, and effective. And while I did “muse” over the ancient texts, I did not wait for or count on any “muse.” That would be a misnomer for the Holy Spirit, which I take far more seriously than a mythic goddess of old.

Some who read this may well consider any religious or theological God-figure “mythic.” But it wasn’t a myth that called me into a life-long commitment to ministry (I could have been a deejay, you know). It wasn’t a myth that showed me authentic life-signs of healing, hope, family, love, peace, and redemption. As a ninth grade kid, I had what I have come to call a “God-consciousness.” I know how weird that sounds. But from that point on, to this moment, I can’t shake this Holy Presence, this Light, this cosmic Christ whose embrace has drawn me into communities of faith that muse and amuse, that serve and salve, that anoint head and heart for something more than daily trifles.

So, I have to assume that anything I’ve written that contained some fragment of truth, some helpful word, or trustworthy comment was inspired, given breath, by the Spirit. And that sentence is written in both humility and gratitude.

Thank God children read books, draw pictures, sing songs, and daydream. Thank God the child in us adults is led to do those same things. I hope that this Lenten day, we can take the time to find a window, look out, and muse. And may the Spirit turn our best daydreams into better days ahead.

 

DSC07410{Day by day, I am writing in Lent 2017, and I gain inspiration from the mugs I find in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. Inspiration so far…but by the end of these 40 days, desperation may be the right word.}

European villages don’t get much more quaint that the one pictured on this photo mug. I have previously written of a mug showing a village in the Netherlands that my ancestors called home. But this is a photo Joan took when we visited her ancestral roots in Germany. This is Mittelbuchen, a few miles from Hanau and a few more from Frankfurt.

The familiar phrase “It takes a village…” was played out there when we visited. We were staying in nearby Hanau where Joan had explored some family history. Her great grandfather had lived there. But his father was from Mittelbuchen, so we wanted to take the bus there to explore the village and look in the cemetery for any evidence of Joan’s heritage. First problem: knowing where to get off the bus. There was more than one stop.

A woman sitting in the seat just ahead of us overheard our conversation, and knowing some English, she had understood our minor dilemma. She asked what we were looking for, and then said that her stop would be the best one for us. She even offered to walk us part way to the road we’d want. She offered helpful directions, and wished us well as she went off to work.

We didn’t quite understand everything, but did find our way into the village you see on the mug. The next step was to find the cemetery. As we took a couple of photos, a man was parking his car nearby, and we approached him, asking if he understood English. “A little…” he said. Now Joan had taken German in both high school and college, but hadn’t used those language skills in many, many years. So, with her little bit of German and his little bit of English, the idea got across that Joan’s family tree had roots in Mittelbuchen, that her second great grandfather had lived there, and that we were looking for the local cemetery. The man got everything, except the word cemetery. Ah, graveyard! That did it.

He even thought that Joan’s German family name, Maisch, sounded somewhat familiar. Let’s ask around, he said. And with that he led us down the street a house or two, and knocked at a door. He explained to the woman who answered what was going on, and she too knew the name Maisch, though no one by that name lived in the village now. She joined the hunt. She took off her apron, made a quick phone call to a neighbor, left her house, and now four of us walked down the street and around the corner.

She found a neighbor who was tending to her small children in the yard, and in German she explained who we were, where we were from, and what we were looking for. While they conversed, one of the children bit Joan on the upper leg. Playfully, I guess. But… (no pun intended).  We saw that everyone was eager to help, but couldn’t come up with answers. They did give us directions, though, to the graveyard. After expressing our gratitude with the familiar “danke schon,” (that much I knew), we headed down the street. More pictures along the way.

I saw a picturesque home and attached barn there in the village and was shooting some video when a  car pulled into the driveway. I felt the need to explain to the woman why I had been taking video of her home, and she smiled and introduced herself. We told her our story, and she suggested that the pastor of the village church might help us find some baptism or burial records of the Maisch family. Then she too walked us a couple of blocks to the minister’s home adjoining the church property. She buzzed an intercom, and explained our search to the pastor. Now at least seven villagers (more if you count kids with teeth) are involved.

The pastor told us (via our friendly neighbor interpreter) that the church records from that time period were destroyed in WW2 bombings. She was sorry she couldn’t help us more, but we were free of course to explore the church grounds, though the burial ground was still some distance away. Having explored other German and Dutch cemeteries, we suspected that grave markers from so long ago would have disappeared by now, so we were content to enjoy the quiet village and its church, the one that towers over Mittelbuchen in the photo.DSCF3236The lesson for today obviously involves hospitality and welcome. Every villager we met in Mittelbuchen offered us a warm smile and a friendly greeting (except that one little kid). Everyone had time for us, expressing a sincere desire to help find some evidence of Joan’s family link to the community. The scriptures are clear: God’s people are to welcome strangers, treating them with kindness and generosity, even giving them legal rights as well. In the New Testament we find this admonition: Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! (Hebrews 13:2)

Joan and I weren’t exactly angels here. We kept interrupting peoples’ day. And maybe the reason we were treated so kindly wasn’t just because the village is kind to foreigners generally. It may have been the possibility of that Maisch family connection from generations ago. Still, we continue to hold those folks in our hearts with gratitude for their warmth, and we smile at the thought that it did take a village to help us in our quest.

If we are to avoid temptations in Lent, maybe we could learn to avoid suspicion. Dispel fear. Abstain from judging those we do not know. And don’t let the devil block the way of angels.

And when you are bitten…don’t bite back.

 

 

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