Jesus


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Assassination 1963

{Throughout Lent 2018 I have used panoramic photos from my files to prompt some writing. This is Good Friday.}

Today is Good Friday. The image I’ve chosen for today was taken on a Bad Friday in 1963. I was a student photographer for college publications, the yearbook and weekly newspaper. That day there was some sort of campus-wide fraternity activity, the details of which escape me, since I wasn’t a member. But I was photographing the shenanigans, including one fraternity’s carrying a coffin around the quadrangle, meant to be an outrageous bit of fun, brothers dressed in black, looking like undertakers, but with broad smiles.

Later that day, I was in class when someone suddenly entered the room and announced with a panicked voice, “The President is dead!” I assumed it was the college president. But, no. President John F. Kennedy was dead. Dr. Bleasby immediately dismissed class, and as the news spread, some of us went straight to the chapel to pray. And to cry. (My wife Joan tells me that she was in the school’s Conservatory of Music when the news came, and her professor openly wept at the news. He, like all of us, was shaken by the loss of our charismatic, young President.)

I left the chapel and went to the yearbook office to grab our ancient 4X5 Graflex camera. I looked out the office window and saw students gathered around car radios to listen to the news coming from Dallas. I took the image you see above. The original negative is long gone. Even the prints I made in the darkroom that afternoon have disappeared. All I have left is the image printed in the yearbook, and that was spread across two pages. Thus the poor scan. Nonetheless, the photo still tells the story of that afternoon. We were stunned. And confused. And fearful. What was happening? What would happen next? Who did this? And why?

1963. No smart phones. No internet. And maybe only one television set per dorm. Really. Thus, the radios…volume turned up in cars so all could listen to news they did not want to hear but had to listen to.

The coffin prank was no longer funny.

Something many in today’s younger generations do not grasp is how much many of us loved that President. In my family, his 1960 victory over Richard Nixon brought utter joy. Dad had twice run for local offices as a Democrat, so while not everyone in my school thought Kennedy’s win was good for the country, the Kellam clan was ecstatic. Kennedy, besides being in “our” party, was only 43 when he was elected, handsome, full of personality and good humor, married to a, pardon the expression, classy woman, and he brought two small playful children to the White House, adding to that Camelot image of idealism and hopefulness. I guess we knew he wasn’t perfect, as a man or politician, but he had gotten us through the Cuban Missile crisis. (That was enough to help us forget the CIA’s ill-fated, and ill-conceived, Bay of Pigs invasion.) In years since, even our fallen heroes have reputations blemished by their fallibility. What kind of drugs did Kennedy use to cover severe back pain? What about Marilyn Monroe? Or, the corruption that power and affluence breed?

Still, those students in the old, distorted photo were aware of only one distortion that day: an assassin had taken the life of their national leader. I read this morning in the newspaper filler called “Today in History” that on this day in 1981 President Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt. Politically, I was no fan of the former actor, but had he died, yes, certainly I would have been among the mourners, just as many non-fans of Kennedy mourned his loss that day in 1963. The violence of our culture does rob us all of our hopes, dreams, ideals, national stability. And peace. No matter the party or politics of the lost leader. Look again at the photo, and picture yourself there as the disturbing news sinks in.

It is Good Friday. Good? The word has in its history meanings related to pious or holy. Some traditions call this day Holy Friday. Others, Black Friday. It is the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. And his disciples’ loss.  All that “love your enemies” idealism. Hung on a cross. All the assurance of “My peace I give you…” Stabbed with nails. Hope? As breath and blood ebb and flow, hope dies. For the disciples. And all the family and followers. From the trials, the riled crowds shouting “AYE” to crucify, and the mocking derision of Rome and religious powers — there on the cross, he dies. And something in his followers and friends and beloved family dies too. There on the cross, he dies. For them all.

Am I comparing Jack Kennedy to Jesus Christ? Give me a break. No. I am only thinking of loss. Heartbreak. Fear. I am trying to identify with those faithful at the foot of the cross as well as those who had gone into hiding. On that frightening Friday, when the Hosannas had been silenced and the yearnings and promises had been smothered, what loss, what emptiness… how did it feel? Look again at the image, and multiply the pain and confusion by cosmic exponents.

Today we deal with loss. Tomorrow, more darkness if you can imagine it. The Saturday sunrise may not help. But there is always, always, always the next day! But for now. Loss Friday.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we’ve lost.

 

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wine country on Seneca

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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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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Owego on the Susquehanna

 

 

{Lent 2018 — I’m choosing a panoramic photo each day and letting the image prompt some idea to write about. Many times, it works.}

This is how Owego, NY looks on the approach from the bridge over the Susquehanna. At the end of the road is the towering Tioga County Courthouse (and it might be the end of the road for someone sentenced there).  The downtown buildings that make up “River Row” are restaurants, boutiques, some residences upstairs, and an insurance company that is run by a high school classmate of mine and his sons.

There’s a “river walk” a couple of blocks long that gives one a good view of those old buildings and their history. We can see evidence that boats docked behind those 19th century structures to deliver goods to village merchants, long before the four-lane Rt. 17 carried 18-wheelers and their cargo. Not visible in this photo is the independently-owned Riverow Bookstore, three stories of stories, if you get my drift. Used and new books. Also not visible, but of great interest to me, are two other businesses that most

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A Hometown Station

American small towns have lost: a neighborhood movie house and a storefront radio station.

 

Of course, there are churches (one that boasts that John D. Rockefeller worshipped there from time to time when visiting his childhood home), a couple of small grocery stores, and a big old firehouse.

 

I grew up about 15 miles from Owego. The word was that the village got its name from “Indians” (as we called them in my childhood) who would say, when traveling west from our neck of the woods, “Oh, we go.” Not true, of course. We didn’t follow the Native Americans west to Owego very often. We had everything we needed in Endicott. Schools, stores, factories (lots of them), churches, neighborhoods. But now and then a Sunday drive would take us along the river to Owego, just because it was a scenic drive. Owego was a railroad town, but not much else as I grew up. The old shopping district, sizeable for a small town, shows that there were commercial interests there, but I don’t recall thinking of Owego as anything but a neighboring town.

In the early 1960s, Endicott’s then-sprawling IBM complex built a new plant in Owego, and my Dad had something to do with the facility there. History is full of irony, and here’s the thing: IBM ultimately closed down its hometown plants, and after a series of other landlords, the IBM-Owego plant became home to Lockheed Martin. So, Owego’s chief employer sustains the local economy, and fills the neighborhoods, stores, and churches with its employees, and Endicott struggles with loss.

This is not to say that Owego is immune from lay-offs and economic challenges. A circuit-board plant next store to Lockheed is shutting down, and maybe 300 people are out of jobs. That means fewer folks in church, eating at the old hotel, buying books. Still, the village storefronts are mostly filled, and people who visit consider the place quaint…in a good way. A travel magazine ran a contest a few years back and named Owego “The Coolest Small Town in America.” It was announced on national TV, and then after a film crew visited, the magazine never mentioned it again. It may be that the river-side of those downtown buildings look less than quaint from the bridge.

In fact, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, mentions the view in the image above. When hitchhiking in New York State (from St. Bonaventure College in Olean to Harlem), Merton was picked up by a businessman in a shiny Oldsmobile who gave him a ride “as far as Owego. At Owego I stood at the end of the long iron bridge and looked at the houses across the river, with all their shaky old balconies, and wondered what it was like to live in such a place.”

“Such a place?” Such as “shaky old,” or residences on the river? Some of the homes in the historic district (where Maj. Henry Robert wrote his noted “Rules of Order”) are not quite mansions, but are large and lovely nonetheless, as one might think homes along the river should be. They sit on a wide, tree-lined boulevard with some impressive boat houses where a garage normally would be. But those shaky-porched business district buildings? Well, they do look tenement-like from the back, as if a small town Tony and Maria might sing “Tonight” to one another as the sun set on the Susquehanna. Even seven or eight decades after Merton had done his Owego-wondering.

That river, by the way, doesn’t discriminate. In 2011, it flooded the whole downtown area of our village and affected residents whether they lived above the old store fronts, watching the Susquehanna from their rickety-looking porches, or resided in the mini-mansions up the street, and had to move first floor furniture upstairs for the duration. The flood pushed into the streets, causing the radio station to valiantly broadcast emergency information from a camper on higher ground, and pouring into the Riverow Bookstore, which had to lug soggy volumes into a 15-20 foot pyramid of ruined literature onto the street corner when the waters had receded. The movie house still has no carpet all these years later, and a musty odor persists as we watch first-run films in an auditorium built for vaudeville.

Eighty per cent of the businesses and homes in the village were flooded. The small town churches, built into substantial edifices in an era when membership was strong and “everybody” went, faced perhaps millions of dollars in damages. The Presbyterian church had basement flooding, but being on slightly higher ground, much of the building was useable even during the flood. The church provided bed space, meals, and face-to-face support for neighbors and strangers. For several weeks after the flood, the church served as a recovery center, a hub of hope and healing. It lived up to its purpose in ways that never occurred to those who had fashioned its mission statement.

Some scars remain. But this one-time “cool” small town, where a boy named Rockefeller once ran through the streets, where Robert’s Rules first guided meetings, and where Merton wondered about its people…this small town is more than simply viable; it is vital, alive, and even art and music and theater thrive here.

It was a man named Nathanael who once asked his friend Philip if an itinerate rabbi coming from an obscure place could be any good. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” “Come and see” was the response. And there was Jesus.

I’m hearing this John Mellencamp song now: “Small Town”

 

Educated in a small town
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town
Used to daydream in that small town
Another boring romantic that’s me…

…No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be.

Sure beats the Paul Simon sentiment in “My Little Town:” Nothing but the dead and dying in my little town.”

No, it’s not for everybody. Unless they yearn for quieter streets, a usually friendly river, a movie house where the owner sells you a ticket, pops you some corn and starts the projector, and churches that work together to love their neighbors…literal neighbors.

Tomorrow…I’ll show you a city. THE city.

 

 

 

{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.

 

 

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.

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