ministry


My 10 year old grandson spent the day with us recently. It was his spring break and we offered him a kind of retreat for a day at our home. I heard him use the word “literally” soon after he arrived. And then again. And again. It started several sentences in our conversations with him, and I was pleased that almost each time, he used the word correctly.

I got to thinking. Literally. One of the issues our progressive adult Sunday School crowd (of 15 or 20) has talked about recently is the break we adults have made from taking the whole Bible literally. In our various faith journeys (not literal ones), somewhere along the way each of us grew to understand that much of the Bible is very creative literature: lots of poetry, countless parables, ancient myths, and many wonderful stories. Maybe two of Jesus’ followers did literally walk a road to Emmaus and encounter a stranger who turned out to be their resurrected Lord. But so much Biblical content is far from literal.

That poetry? The best-known Psalm (23) speaks of a shepherd. That’s a figure of speech. We are not literal sheep. The parables? Guess what? There was no specific, historical person who was the one prodigal son. (There were legions of them, and still are; but the story Jesus made up is designed to teach a lesson.) Myths? Well, let’s count the Genesis creation stories as mythology, and those stories run parallel to the creation stories found in other ancient cultic literature.

Now, to be sure, there are millions of good Christian folk out there who feel compelled to “believe the Bible” as literal factual truth. They will not be persuaded otherwise, for to take some of the scripture as figurative or allegorical or symbolic, well…who’s to decide what’s True (capital T intended). Best just accept it all as fact.

Now that Easter 2018 has come, the discussion in our class (had we met that morning) might have been centered on whether God literally raised Jesus from the dead, or whether the story is more symbolic. And before long, we’ll be thinking about Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascending. Up.  A direct line stretching from somewhere in the Mideast into cosmic space? And ending up at “the right hand of God.” Literally? If not, then what?

As I thought about the debate among committed Christians of every stripe, the Fundamentalists vs. flaming liberals, for example, it occurred to me that one reason so many people these days have backed away from the faith in which these stories were told, or rejected them outright, or thought this “faith” thing was silly and non-reasonable to begin with — well, I have the feeling that there is an understanding of our Christian story (from scripture to dogma) that is skewed because agnostics and atheists are taking that story literally. (Heavens! Don’t try diagraming that sentence; you’ll strain something…though not literally.)

The non-believers, doubters, scoffers, and others may think all of us Christian folk are fundy literalists. They read the pamphlet left by the two Witnesses who knocked at their door one Saturday, and they assume we all subscribe to that theology. Or, they see some cock-eyed evangelist on TV, catch a bit of the sermon/rant, and think, so that’s what my church-going neighbor believes. Maybe two white-shirt-tie-and-jacket Mormons dropped off their Book while making the rounds of the neighborhood. And, upon hearing some of their story, the steeped-in-reason guy across the street thought that was my systematic theology as well.

Go ahead and reject my faith if I don’t live by it or up to it. But please, my rational-minded “non-believing” friend, don’t judge me or my faith because of perceived  literalism I too have spurned. Virgin birth? Jesus’ ascension? Restoring sight to the blind? Living water?  Well, there are some things that seem unbelievable I do believe. And, as someone wise once said, some things are True, and might also actually have happened. Literally. But Nicodemus was wrong to assume that when Jesus said you must be born again that meant going back into your mother’s womb. And Jesus’ critics were wrong to assume that he would re-build the Jerusalem temple in three literal days. Or, that meal where his body and blood are consumed? Metaphors be with you!

I have to admit that I love living a rational theology, sorting through the meaning of words and parabolic stories and teachings. I’m up to the challenge! Things like grace, peace, justice, and love are of utmost interest to me as I look back and ahead in my faith journey. Oh, and people. Family and community help focus my faith commitment.

This is not all that came to me when my grandson visited. I also had to decide something else of importance. Was it some guy named Plum, in the drawing room, with the knife? That, like our theology, is our best guess given the cards we’ve drawn.

 

 

 

 

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Walking in the Glen (Again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Lake Susan, Montreat, NC

{During the forty days of Lent 2018, I am writing some reflections on panoramic photographs I’ve taken over the years.  Full disclosure, finally: most of these images were taken in a standard format and merely cropped to the wide view. But, so what?}

The image above may not be the iconic photo Montreaters expect to see of their beloved North Carolina “mountain retreat” setting. The massive stone façade of the Assembly Inn hotel as seen above the placid Lake Susan is the more familiar view (just below). Still, this panoramic image communicates the serene beauty of the place that Presbyterians, especially the “southern” ones, call their Mecca.

Montreat is more widely known maybe as the long-time home of the late Billy Graham. He lived in the hills, quite a hike from the conference center.  Montreat’s main gate is just a few miles up the road from Black Mountain, and that village is not far from Asheville. And surrounding it all is the Smoky Mountain range. A friend once admitted he wasn100_0405‘t a fan of Montreat because the high mountains encompassing the retreat and conference center made him feel terribly claustrophobic. But everyone else I know so loves Montreat that they dream of living there year-round, a four-season Eden, but with clothes on.

I was a seminary student from “up north” when I first heard of the place from my Southern Presbyterian classmates. They spoke of it so highly that I was immediately suspicious. Then I attended a conference there one summer. And then another. And then led several, maybe a dozen, and went back summer after summer. Youth conferences, music and worship conferences, peace gatherings, meetings…staying in that hotel, or in the dorms of Montreat College, or in rented cottages and homes, and for many years enjoying the grace of hospitality offered by dear friends, the Williamsons. 2333-1Joan and I looked forward to those music conferences like Trekees look forward to the next Star Trek big screen epic. We also looked forward to the day when we might look at real estate there. Then we did. And put that dream away very quickly. ($)

Climbing Lookout Mountain, walking the hilly roads through the area, attending the events in Anderson Auditorium — those opportunities would never be taken for granted by those fulltime citizens of the Montreat municipality, anymore than a Vermont farmer in the Northeast Kingdom would take the daily view of Mt. Mansfield for granted. But making the place a retreat destination is very special, an occasion of spiritual growth, continuing education, and shaping community with friends old and new.

Yet back home, finding that particular geographical sacred space, that place set apart for special times and holy possibilities is something that surely feeds the human spirit. It may be enough to spend a Saturday fishing, or to sit in the local library apart from the busyness that normally occupies our energies. Perhaps a hike in a nearby glen or a bike ride along a rail trail will help us accomplish a kind of retreat. Whatever turns you on, or around.

There was a time when church doors were open 24/7 for anyone who needed a rest from spiritual weariness or personal strife. Doors are locked against fear today. No quiet prayer in the pews is possible, with few exceptions. We have to create our own retreat spaces elsewhere. A garden bench, a labyrinth, even a table in a café in its off hours– these are ripe for private retreats, however short.

The thing about a big summer conference at Montreat like the ones we participated in is that schedules are usually full, people are everywhere…paddle boating on the little lake, heading toward the bookstore or toward some ice cream, racing to a seminar. Even the Lookout peak can be crowded on a sunny afternoon. So, you see that stone bridge in the panoramic photo? That’s often a good place to stand, somewhat apart from the rest of the retreating world, and watch the swan or the ducks. Retreat from the retreat, as it were. And ponder. Anything.

I only went to church camp twice as a kid. I couldn’t swim, so a week on a lake had absolutely no appeal to me. But when the camp took place at a conference center with a pool, I gave it a try. At the end of my second summer’s week-long “retreat,” we high school youth were to go off by ourselves with a small candle, find a place apart and light the wick, and then stay there in silence until the candle was close to going out. I chose a small wooden bridge over a stream that ran through the conference center property. I stood there by myself, candle flickering against the night breeze, and I did what was expected: meditated, prayed, and wondered. Even as the silence was broken by those who had blown out their candles and ignored the directions for being silent until cabin time, I stood there. And fifty-seven years later I remember that night, that bridge, that brief but oh-so-holy retreat.

We miss Montreat. We’re a number of miles away, way up north of it, and even going for a week there seems expen$ive. But while it may not be Eden or Mecca, it is a very profound reminder that spiritual getaways and personal escapes are good for the soul. A week? Yes! A day away? Sure! Take an hour’s break and breathe deeply? Of course.

Mountains, beaches, deserts. Or, a candle on the kitchen table. Locale is one thing, but the main thing is… make your getaway!

 

 

 

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St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Johnson City, NY

{Each day in Lent (2018) I am posting a panoramic photo and writing a brief reflection inspired by the image. Many of these pictures have appeared in the Binghamton Pres & Sun-Bulletin under the banner “Southern Tier Views.”}

Yesterday I wrote of fences and boundaries, in a specific context. I could have used the same panoramic photo of that rail fence to write of breaking down barriers and tearing down walls, and opening ourselves to wherever the Spirit leads. I’ll do that today, but with the image above.

Our area is full of golden domes atop churches. Greek Orthodox churches. Russian Orthodox Churches. And above, a Ukrainian Orthodox church. This isn’t the place to write authoritatively about church architecture, but there are those domes! Golden domes. They represent, I’ve read, the “light of God” or “celestial glory.” And the gifts of immigrants to our geographical, geopolitical area.

These domes represent the faith of generations of local citizens, the legacy of immigrants who came to Ellis Island and who (it is said in local lore) asked U. S. customs agents, “Which way EJ?”

EJ : Endicott Johnson Shoe Corporation. Immigrants from Slavic countries and Italy knew jobs awaited at the shoe factories of Upstate New York. Those factories would produce almost all the boots for the U.S. Army during two world wars, as well as shoes to supply stores in 30 states. The company’s 20,000 workers made 52 million pairs of footwear annually. It wouldn’t have been possible without workers from abroad.

My school friends had Italian, Polish, Russian, Greek, and Czech names. Many of the older folks on my childhood paper route didn’t speak English, or at least spoke it so hesitantly that when I rang doorbells to “collect” each week, they would seek out a younger member of the family to pay me. Our neighborhoods were, and still are, full of the gifts of various ethnic cultural traditions. Especially the foods. (More about that tomorrow.)

But also the festivals, the music, and their faith. (Music? Our area still has not one, but two Sunday morning polka radio shows, hours and hours of polka music.) And those churches with their golden domes. It was common as I grew up for many classmates to be absent from school a week after the rest of us had celebrated Christmas and Easter. Their liturgical calendar is different from ours. As is their architecture, the shape of their liturgy, the beauty of their art. Presbyterians like me are intrigued even by the aroma of their incense.

Whenever I glance at those domed churches while I drive local roads, I am reminded of the gifts of immigrants. I may not be able to pronounce their names, but thank God, someone pronounced them welcome a few generations ago. Our economy was built on

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anti-immigration song seen at an Ellis Island display

their labor, and the signs of their many gifts still speak of the wideness of God’s mercy.

 

One more thing I note in that picture of the domes. Storm clouds, or at least gray skies that day when we visited the church. Maybe the skies speak of the welcome not extended to all. You know: “Irish need not apply.”

More on this tomorrow, with a photo not quite as impressive as that above, but still a reminder of what contributed to the richness of our neighborhoods here in Upstate New York.

{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!

 

 

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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