Holy Week


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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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A Winery on Seneca Lake

{Maundy Thursday of Holy Week…my series of forty panoramic pictures is coming to an end soon.}

We once lived along the Finger Lakes Wine Trail. Our house was in Ithaca, just a couple of parcels up from Cayuga Lake. A little further up the road, vineyards lined the lake, and wine tours were serious business. This image is from Seneca Lake, just to the west of Cayuga. If you are counting, there are nine other lakes in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, and the area is so scenic it’ll hurt your eyes. If you are into wines, you’ll be twice blessed.

I am not into wines. Part of that comes from the family in which I was raised. I can’t recall most of the relatives I knew in my early years ever serving or discussing wine. Or hard liquor. Beer? Oh, yeah. But the heavier stuff or the more “refined” stuff? There was no bar in the Kellam household. Nor in those of grandparents or aunts and uncles. (One exception: the family with Irish Catholic roots enjoyed raising a glass or two, and it gave them joy. I won’t argue with that. Just stating the facts.)

Mom and Dad had a beer now and then, Dad especially after some summer chores or while watching a game on TV. I remember a rare party they threw one holiday season, and Dad went to the liquor store to buy some wine. He fell on the ice coming up the porch steps, breaking a bottle and spraying himself with fermented fragrances. He was so worried what the dry cleaning guy would think about Dad’s overcoat smelling of wine that he was reluctant to offer it up for cleaning. I also remember trying to go to sleep that night as people seemed to get sillier as the night and the drinking went on. I recall the audio track of that party so well, because in my house it was so rare to hear people so high on whatever it was that spiked the festive gathering.

As I moved through my high school years, I eschewed (love that word!) both smoking and drinking. I was happy to avoid the cigarette habit and pleased to drink a cheap Coke while classmates spent more on their exotic alcohol. Yes. I was square as they come. And then came college. Small Christian college, no alcohol allowed. And it was even in a dry county. Friends with cars would drive a few miles to get their beer, but, again, I just wasn’t interested. Square.

Finally, in seminary of all places, I had my first wine. Having been nurtured in one of those denominations that feared real wine might turn everyone into alcoholics or seriously hinder those recovering from the illness, the chalice at our church was filled with grape juice. I understand that good old Welches was invented for just such a purpose. But in the seminary chapel at the first Communion service of my graduate school career, when the Communion trays were uncovered, the aroma wafted through the room alerting me to the real presence of genuine wine. I drank from the cup, and didn’t die.

Fifty years later, I am an advocate for serving the real thing (and I don’t mean Coco-cola). I confess to a little smirk inside when I think of editing the Words of Institution to reflect the way many churches “do” Holy Communion. “On the night of his betrayal, Jesus took the bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples… and in the same manner…he took the Welches, and offered it to his disciples…”

At one church I served early on in my pastoral ministry, the tradition was to offer a tray of little glasses, with grape juice in the outer ring, and red wine filling the rest of the tray.  That way, everybody could decide which sacramental “cup” fit their desires. It was a very good compromise.

I’m fond of what Frederick Buechner wrote about wine in his book Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC:

“Unfermented grape juice is a bland and pleasant drink, especially on a warm afternoon mixed half-and-half with ginger ale. It is a ghastly symbol of the life blood of Jesus Christ, especially when served in individual antiseptic, thimble-sized glasses.

Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one.” (p. 95)

Within that quotation, there is a phrase I like to add when I officiate at the Sacrament of Holy Communion. “Life blood.” I have grown to dislike the blood sacrifice symbolism of this ritual. Fountains filled with blood, being washed in the blood, all those bloody hymns. In spite of Christian traditions that speak of Jesus’ “sacrificial death,” sins washed away by his blood, my theology has no room for such primitive belief. While the ancients did make sacrifices on blood-spattered altars of old, (lambs, doves, and other innocents), my evolving image of a loving God has no room for “killing Jesus” to effect my salvation.

I get Jesus sacrificing himself, just as many heroes have done for their comrades on life’s battlefields, but now more cosmic for all of humanity. Giving himself up to show us the wideness in God’s mercy, unconditional love made flesh, and forgiveness made radical (“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”) — that I understand. And bread broken and wine poured, a cup shared (a multi-layered symbol for sure), in remembrance… that I understand. And this: that we, hisDSC07464 followers, share in his life blood, in his blood line even, I get that. And tonight, as I lead a small congregation in the Sacrament, I will combine their understanding of the tradition with my “always being reformed”* interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, and we will all, as one, share in what my home church used to call “The Meal with the Master.” It will be a holy communion with Jesus.

Or, as many traditions know it, Eucharist, the Sacrament of Grace and Gratitude and Remembrance. Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

[*That’s a Presbyterian catch phrase.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Alone in Glacier National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I can go home and take a nap.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Walking in the Glen (Again)

{Lent 2018…the last week during which I post panoramic pictures I’ve taken, along with some words that are suggested by the images. If you are looking for profundity, please move along. Nothing more to see here.}

On Ash Wednesday, I posted a picture taken along the same path as the one seen here. That photo showed a stranger walking in solitude, an apt way to begin my Lenten journey of images, memories, and miscellaneous reflections. In a few days, we’ll have reached our destination, an empty tomb in a faraway garden, but for now…

As a teen I walked these roads and trails with my friend David Cook. Both our Dads worked at IBM, and this was (and is still) called the “IBM Glen.” Back when cars were smaller and times were simpler, this path carried automobiles up and down the gentle hills of this IBM-owned property. Thus, we see these ancient guardrails made up of concrete uprights and heavy braided wire cables designed to keep cars from slipping into the glens.

Whether those rails were ever tested, I have no idea. Many have disappeared, perhaps intentionally uprooted for path improvements or just falling away due to erosion. These remain a reminder of the times when the Glen was an active recreational area, rather than the quieter conservation area it has become. Decades ago, almost all highway guardrails looked similar to these. Today, these are almost quaint compared with the heavy steel rails that line the Interstates.

And, back in the day, we did call these guardrails. As if they would guard cars and trucks from leaving the road. It’s a vague memory now, but didn’t I read that a few years back states such as Pennsylvania rebadged these rails as guiderails? Seems to me it was a legal issue connected to one or more lawsuits that contended that the rails didn’t guard effectively enough to keep people safe. Rather than facing more litigation, someone suggested new nomenclature. Call them “guide” rails instead. No longer promised to guard, they were now merely a guide. No guarantee of safety was stated or implied. So there.

Which would you rather have along your life’s journey, a guard or a guide? If you choose a guard, the next question is, What is it you fear? Is that fear such that it hinders your journey? So, a guard, eh? Brawny, well-armed, omnipresent, and alert? Will that guard give you at least a sense of security. Can a bodyguard completely cancel out anxiety, suspicion, or paranoia? Maybe a second guard would be good. Just in case.

Or, maybe we’re not considering a physical human presence, not a literal guard, but more a kind of mental or psychological prophylactic. Some defense against the unseen terror that lurks in the shadows of our very being. What would that kind of guard look like? Figuratively speaking. Maybe the figure of a plastic statue of the patron saint of travelers, St. Christopher, mounted on the dashboard to protect and guard. Or, some other talisman, within or without, to defend, to shield us, shelter us,  ride shotgun for us against that which threatens our spiritual well-being.

Another kind of guard just came to mind. Some U. S. Christians have traveled to Central American countries to provide protection for Christian folk who, while in their own neighborhoods, have faced kidnapping or physical violence because of their faith. Working for justice and peace can be a dangerous mission for followers of Jesus under some regimes, but it is often enough just to have an accompanier sharing the path, walking to the market, to church, to school. That’s all it takes to be safe. I suppose the North American Christians who volunteer for such ministry have some training before leaving the security of the U. S., but they are not trained as if in a militia; the pre-deployment instruction is more situational, but clearly intensive.

I just looked on an Australian website that describes recruitment for a World Council of Churches program for Ecumenical Accompaniers. I read:

It is a theoretical model for humanitarian work in conflict zones, and a biblical model for acting justly in the way of Christ. The effectiveness of the model comes from a combination of strategic local presence and international pressure.

Turns out that that particular program went beyond the theoretical, and was recruiting people to spend three months as accompaniers, not for Central American countries, but for seven locations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Funny how this writing was turned from wanting a guard to being a guard.

But let’s look the other way. Maybe you’d rather have a guide than a guard. Not so much fearing what today or tomorrow might bring, but wondering how you might approach the mystery of the future, from later this afternoon to the rest of your earthly life. Who might accompany us on this journey, as a guide, or, to use the biblical term, a shepherd? More brains than brawn would be required here. And a good bit of heart. No judgment, no wagging fingers, or shrill warning voice. But a walking alongside, maybe some handholding, thoughts gently shared after care-filled listening.

This guide might be a close, trusted friend (that’s redundant, isn’t it?), or a life coach. It might be a counselor, therapist, a spouse, parent, or another family member. Maybe even a pastor, the very term relating to a “shepherd of souls.” Doesn’t every soul need a guide?

A shepherd? A good shepherd? One who is also good at saving us as we walk life’s paths.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, there is still tomorrow!

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

There will be Easter!

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flowers still grow in the garden near the grave.

 

 

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