Lent


{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.

{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

DSC07425{Holy Week…2017…a Tuesday without much going on, and a mug that fits just right.}

There’s not much going on with this mug. It holds no printed message, no child’s art, nor any design that says, “Hey, write about this!” This mug isn’t even drunk from. It’s purely decorative, occupying a shelf in the kitchen. Where did we get it? Isn’t there some story to tell?

I turned it over, and etched into the bottom of the mug it says, “Williamsburg.” And it’s in the trademarked logo script. So that makes it official. And probably expensive, at least compared to most of the other mugs in our kitchen. Nice design. Love the color. But what does it prompt me to write about as this forty day retreat into the wilderness of my imagination heads toward a conclusion?

Unlike some of the other mugs we use for daily coffee and tea, this one is real pottery. I suspect it’s handmade, out of clay. Earthenware, we call it. Imagined, then shaped and molded, formed into a useful vessel, and then painted to make it more attractive. I’ve never been to a pottery class, and I won’t try to write about the creative process that puts hands to wet clay, tactile art, sensuous touch, massaging earthly elements into some ceramic shape, artistic or practical or both. I’m mostly interested in the clay.

When I was in youth ministry, so long ago that those teens may be grandparents now for all I know, I led a retreat at a lovely place in Virginia called Shrinemont. Located in the northern reaches of the Jefferson National Forest, the conference center is operated by the Episcopal Church. The weekend focus was the gift of music, and one activity I planned centered on using art materials to interpret some of the songs we were listening to. One teenaged guy used pipe cleaners to sculpt a rock band! I had bought a lot of modeling clay, the kind that was non-drying, non-hardening, so it could be reused after our event.

Obviously, it wasn’t pure clay from the earth. More like some plastic goo from a factory. But it met our needs for the weekend. I really got into that exercise. As is the case with some sculptors some of the time, I had no preconceived plan. I just grabbed a big hunk, and worked it. Yes, it was therapeutic, I’m sure. All the tension and anxiety of programming and leading a retreat for over a hundred teens dispersed as I squeezed and pressed, and gouged and shaped that ball of clay into…a head. Eventually, an old man’s head. Long face, deep set eyes, a weary look, a few lines here and there.

It was no masterpiece, but I liked it. Then I saw that there was a bit more clay left. I rolled it into a ball, and sculpted the head of an infant, to contrast with the old guy. When the retreat ended on Sunday afternoon, I packed up the art supplies and saw my creation(s) there, waiting for me to mash them into a shapeless lump, art recycled. I had told everyone that they could keep what they had fashioned if they wanted to. So, I listened to myself and carefully packed the old man and the infant in a box to take home.

Those clay heads remained in my office for years, and the manufacturer was right: the clay never hardened. When it was time to move out of state to new work, I made the hard decision to finally blend the two lumps together, and leave them for someone else to play with. That ended my sculpting days.

Thankfully, some art is permanent, as lasting as anything on this planet Earth can be. The paintings of the masters, massive cathedrals, The Pieta, castle tapestries, and great-grandma’s quilts. The words of published authors and the music of whatever is considered “classic” these days — words and music live on, for generations. And carpentry, too. The old family hutch and the hand-carved pulpit.

But some art is temporary, too. And intentionally so. At a Montreat, NC, conference a few years ago, huge paper banners, perhaps 20 feet long, decorated the cavernous auditorium. The designs were religious symbols, intricately cut into sturdy paper, letting the light shine through the patterns with stunning effect. The uninitiated wondered aloud how the artist would roll up the huge sheets without damaging the delicate creations. But for those who were present when the plain sheets were first unrolled to be scissored into art, the artist had made it clear: this was to be tempoarary art, inspiring only for a few days, much like sand art on a beach, ice sculpture in winter, or a sand mandala of Tibeten monks. It was a celebration of the temporary.

As were my plastic clay figures.

[It just occurred to me that if there were any “art” to my years of producing music-oriented radio programs, with sometimes, not always, thoughtfully-written scripts, that was temporary too. You hope to write creatively, join the script to popular music, voice it with sensitivity, edit the tape, and then it all airs. Within a few minutes, the tape could have been erased, and the effort begun for the following broadcast. And before we ministers could preserve our sermon manuscripts on the church website, blog them, or at least print them out for the reading public in our pews, what we preached was surely a temporary art too. OK, many of my radio programs and maybe most of my sermons didn’t achieve the status of art, per se. This paragraph was inserted for only illustrative purposes.]

But back to clay. It’s a cousin to the dust and ashes of Mother Earth. It’s related to the soil that brings forth crops, and to the mud we track in on a rainy day. It’s red there, and black here, and gray, too. The earliest use of clay? Pottery. We date civilizations by the remaining shards we dig up. But clay was used for bricks, too, to build structures that sheltered and memorialized. Archeological discoveries included toys and idols made of clay. And, of course, clay tablets preserved ancient writings.

When Jesus gathered his disciples together in an upper room to break bread with them one last time, that bread sat on clay plates. There was some gravy in a clay bowl. And wine in pitcher and chalice of clay. Maybe today we would consider doing pottery, bread making and wine making as “arts,” but in Jesus’ time, it was just the customary stuff of a meal shared with friends. Except when it was a ritual meal, like Passover. Except when it was transformed into what has become a sacramental meal, when Jesus took bread and wine and said, “Remember me.”

There on the table was the clay-ware. Nothing sacramental about it, but the same elements as gave life to the grain and the grapes and to humanity, for in the second of the creation myths in Genesis we read, “The Lord God made man from the dust of the earth.”

On Maundy Thursday, look for that day’s “mug” to look more like a chalice, clay pottery with sacred meaning.

Until then, remember that all the ground we walk on is holy.

 

 

DSC07426.JPG{The last few days of Lent, and the last few mugs to write about. It’s more than a discipline of writing; I have to actually think, too.}

Our daughter Wendy gave this mug to my wife Joan. What a nice way to begin the morning! Pull the mug out, heat up the water, make some tea, and be reminded, “You are loved.”

We are reminded of that fact every time someone expresses love in words, especially when those words come from the heart and not a mere ritual. An embrace, a caring or empathetic look, a phone call or a note — reminders come regularly, or maybe at just the right time. You are loved. Even maybe when you are not particularly lovable. That may be the real test of authentic love, don’t you think?

You’ve said something a little hurtful, or neglected to say the right thing, or perhaps somehow offended. But your transgression didn’t break the bond of love. You are loved, still. And anyway. Because, as the Apostle Paul wrote to that often unlovely church in Corinth a couple of millennia ago, “Love is patient and kind…it bears all things.” Paul’s song of love has more to it, as you know if you’ve ever been to a wedding. He wasn’t writing about marriage, but we preachers seem to lock on to that 1 Corinthians 13 passage for most of the weddings we do. Just before the vows, we read, “So faith, hope, and love remain. But the greatest of these is love.”

True. Even though back in the ’70s brides and their grooms wanted to have “Evergreen” sung during the ceremony. “Love,” the song opened, “soft as an easy chair.” Uh-uh. No match for the Apostle’s poetry. Because sometimes, love, authentic love, isn’t soft at all It’s tough.

I’ve known at least two families where love meant locking a loved one out of the house. Driving to a church meeting many years ago, a mother in our congregation broke through the mundane conversation we were having about some church tidbit, and told me that she had had to change the locks on her house to keep her daughter from coming home. Her young adult daughter was an addict, had dropped out of treatment more than once, and needed to lean on her Mama for money, housing, and food. Her mother’s own support group had advised the “tough love” policy, and she told me in the car that night that she had to do what she had to do. No emotion. No regret. Sadness, yes. But for her own mental well-being, and for her daughter’s best chance at eventual recovery, without second thoughts, she would no longer open the door or answer the phone if it was her beloved (yes, still) daughter.

That’s tough, all right. More recently, I heard a father describe the same situation with his son. “If I can’t come in, can you at least give me something to eat?” No. “Well, then…toilet paper? I’m living on the streets, Pop!” No. Because, “You are loved. Some day, if you survive this, you will understand.”

Haven’t enough words been written about love? More than enough. Some powerful and poetic; but many more pretty mushy and trite. Just listen to the loves songs on the charts today. Or, yesterday. Why write more? Why read mine?

Maybe because of the Stevie Wonder song I referenced here recently. From the “Songs in the Key of Life” album, he sang, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Not more silly love songs, but true expressions of love, in all its power and toughness and determination and heartfelt compassion for the other.

I think about those two parents who needed to summon the toughest love to try to bring about the salvation of their young adult kids. How did love begin in their life together, the life of infant and parent? We learn love as children who receive and share in love unconditionally, no strings attached, so full of grace, so pure, untainted, honest: infants so warmly and affectionately embraced, as we wonder at the miracle of that tiny life with its clear, bright eyes, a body so vulnerable. That love comes so naturally. No games to play here, no bargaining, no conditions laid down, as later when an angry parent begins making threats that imply love will be withheld until terms are met. (Please…that is not the tough love referred to above; it’s more the “Santa won’t come if you don’t start behaving!!” thing.)

Part of the miracle of that early love that children learn is this: before the child knows his or her name or recognizes a face or understands a relationship, the child can sense the security of the parents’ love. And receiving it and sensing it, the child will learn to return it, a lifelong mutually empowering, unconditional bond parent to child, child to parent. That is, when things turn out as they should… which they sometimes don’t.

That mug in the photo, given by a beloved daughter to a beloved mother, might have said, “I love you” on it. And that would have been nice. But I like the words that are there: You are loved. Though in the passive voice, it’s a more broad, even cosmic affirmation, that says, “I love you, and so do many others, and so does the universe, and so does God.” Think about it. You. Are. Loved.

You have done many things, perhaps, to earn or deserve that love. But that is not why you are constantly, consistently, and forever loved. Love goes beyond the reasons. It is not a reward. Yes, unreasonable love. Maybe the only kind there is.

As we enter Holy Week, think of the love between God and humanity. Tough love that saves. The earliest verse many young Christians memorize is the same one held up on signs at athletic events: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world…” Us. And one of the first things we teach children in Sunday School is a three word creed: God is love.

That unconditional love is known by the Greek word agape [ἀγάπη]. One way to describe it comes from C. S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain. He writes:

But God’s love, far from being caused by goodness in the object, causes all the goodness the object has, loving it first into existence, and then into real, though derivative, lovability…In that sense, all [God’s] love is, as it were, bottomlessly selfless by very definition; it has everything to give and nothing to receive.

Perhaps another word for that love this Holy Week is passion.

As we move from yesterday’s joyous, but surely ominous, Palm Sunday parade, toward the events of upper room, garden, courts, cross, and tomb, the message resounds in ways clear and cosmic, you are loved.

+++++++++++++++++++

SONY DSC{This meditation is based on the mug seen here, and intended for the Saturday in Lent that proceeds Palm Sunday. Then begins Holy Week…and six final mugs.}

This mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard is really Joan’s. It hasn’t seen a drip of coffee; Joan drinks tea. But I’ve chosen this mug for today because it reminds me of a Palm Sunday procession that fit the day, the neighborhood, and the churches there perfectly.

Joan was the Church Musician at the First English Lutheran Church on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. She was the choir director there, and played both pipe organs (one in the chapel, a larger one in the sanctuary) for worship services. I suppose that after all these years, it’s OK to write this publicly, that she broke the Lutheran stiffness of the choir within a few weeks and they brightened up considerably under her leadership. Joy found a welcome in their midst.

I had once worked at the Presbyterian church next door to the one Joan served. It too had an imposing structure and a substantial congregation, among whom were the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and even more daunting, some of my former seminary professors. Those two churches were part of an ecumenical alliance of congregations that shared a neighborhood near Stuart Circle. Around or near the Jeb Stuart monument were the Lutherans and Presbyterians already noted, but also Episcopalians and UCC-ers (United Church of Christ), with the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart a few blocks away.  Those churches still make up what is called the Stuart Circle Parish.

And, as far as I know, they continue to parade together on Palm Sunday. The model is an impressive show of commonality as members of the five churches gather at mid-morning on Palm Sunday near the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church. Opening words of welcome and prayer begin the festivities, with everyone joining voices in singing the hymn of the day, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” The crowd then moves down Monument Avenue to where it becomes West Franklin Street, and then on a few blocks to the Cathedral.

The year I videotaped the parade for a cable TV program (1982?), there was a high school marching band providing the cadence, biodegradable helium balloons for kids of all ages (!), palms for everyone to wave, with various clergy in their traditional colorful vestments, and hundreds of participants crowding the broad boulevard. The street narrowed once we got to Franklin, and the townhouses lining the path had some onlookers peering out second story windows, some of those folk probably having no idea what was going on. I caught one on tape, adding it to the final edit, hinting at the suspicion that greeted Jesus on that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem.

Another scene I got at the end of the route was a priest conferring with a police officer, an innocent conversation that, in the context of the video and its narrative, hinted at religious authorities conspiring with Roman soldiers on that day almost 2000 years before in Jerusalem. (Admittedly, it was a pretty subtle hint.)  In the photo above, note the band uniform: it wasn’t meant to be a Roman soldier, but it worked for the video. And speaking of Jerusalem, I needed some background music to fill out the story, so I chose a Don McLean tune entitled “Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem, Jerusalem all roads lead to you.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem your light is shining through.
And you will show, show the way, to all who see it shine,
That we can live, in peace, in Jerusalem this time.

I also used “Hosanna” from a then-current rock opera called “Truth of Truths,” as participants marched. It seemed a better choice than the similar tune from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with its cynical take on the parade. “Ho-sanna, hey-sanna, sanna-sanna-ho.”

I still have a grainy third or fourth generation VHS version of that “film,” and even after thirty years it effectively chronicles the story, low tech as it seems today. What I love about that procession, and no doubt others like it throughout the world, is the unity of diverse denominations joining in commemoration and celebration of the joyful entry into Jerusalem amid shouts of “Hosanna!” In Richmond it was not only the ecumenical nature of the event in 1982 (when I shot the video), but the interracial diversity, with the Jefferson-Huguenot-Wythe Marching Band from what we called a “predominately African-American” high school leading the way.

Among the churches involved in that parade all those years ago, my guess is that the most integrated parish was the Cathedral, with the other Stuart Circle churches more than “predominately white.” (I’m glad to be corrected in the comment section at the end of the blog.) Important to note here, too, is that the Palm Sunday parade is not the only activity these congregations engage in together. There are social and outreach ministries that serve the larger neighborhood, among them a Meal Ministry that in 1996 was threatened with court action because of neighbors’ complaints about certain conduct that they claimed injurious to their community. The Parish claimed that to prevent them from feeding the hungry was a violation of the free exercise of religion. The Jesus who had entered Jerusalem on that fateful day would no doubt have stood in solidarity with the lines of hungry folk awaiting food, and then he would have moved behind the counter to serve them. Hosanna, indeed.

As this is being posted, another Palm Sunday will be celebrated tomorrow, April 9. Some churches will join with others in a public procession and witness to the shared strength of ecumenicity. Others will have their own smaller parades, perhaps just a half block around the building as my church will do. Still others will process less publicly, moving around their sanctuary waving palms and singing the hymn. These mostly modest pageants are all the theater that remains in many churches. Yet, there are others: living nativity scenes at Christmas, Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, and Easter Sunrise services. The more, the better, to put some drama, some life, into the people of the pews. The choreography of merely sitting and standing for an hour in church is flat and, I think the operative word is, boring. The “processional” may be a weak dance, but at least it has movement.

Processions in churches have many expressions: groom and bride process to the front of the sanctuary to say their vows; in some traditions, Bible, cross, banners, flame, and water for the baptismal font are carried forward as worship begins; choirs process during the opening hymn to take their place in the loft. To see bodies move during the service may remind us that the church itself must be on the move, processing from the sanctuary into the world, where eyes will watch for signs of courage and hope, where ears will listen for words of encouragement and songs of joy, where hands may join in feeding the hungry (no matter what ticked-off neighbors think), and where feet carry Jesus’ followers into alleys, highways, rural roads, and all the places love is in need of love today (as Stevie Wonder has sung).

Instead of palms, we may wave protest signs. Rather than releasing colorful balloons, we may let go of prejudice and fear of “the other.” And in place of the marching band’s cadence, we may well march to the beat of that different drummer, whose heart beats in time to Easter’s newest rhythm, Jesus. We have pledged to follow him in his processional footsteps.

On Palm Sunday, he comes amid celebrating cheers and songs.

But later in the week…

Next Page »