spirituality


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.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
DSC06381

United Nations, NYC, USA

{Today marks the last day of the 40 day Lenten season. Each day I have posted panoramic photos and written some reflections on those images. Joan will be glad to have me back in the mornings. It usually takes a couple of hours to write these things. I know that may surprise you, but choosing the photo and waiting for inspiration and looking for words…well, I write (and type) slowly. So, I too will be glad to have my mornings back. I am grateful for you who have read the daily meditation/essays and shared comments. Frankly, I have written mostly for myself, and have sometimes been a bit too “self-revealing,” but as a friend says, “It is what it is.” So, we have reached the day after which is also the day before.}

Nobody knows how long Saturday will last or if it will never end. Saturday is that in-between day of stillness and doubt and despair when time stands still in lethal flatness. The old Saturday was about abandonment and disappointment at the far edge of the crucifixion. And then came all the Saturdays of fear and abusiveness, of the Crusades and the ovens and genocides in too many places.

Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent.

Yesterday, I wrote of loss. Today, on this day between the days, I write of hope. Persistent hope. The kind of hope that is not mere wishful thinking, or keeping fingers crossed or the “where one door closes God will open another” kind of hope. It is not even the light at the end of the tunnel, that hope I call persistent.

I’m thinking of the hope that remains in that 5% of people in the most rural areas of Puerto Rico who still do not have power restored after Hurricane Maria. I’m thinking of the kind of hope that remains after a devastating personal defeat. Or, that flickers in the heart after a deep, deep loss. It is the hope that will not be extinguished, or, expressed more positively, that will persist no matter what.

I have never quoted a Bengali polymath before (have you?), but this quotation speaks to me.

Within us we have a hope which always walks in front of our present narrow experience; it is the undying faith in the infinite in us.

Rabindranath Tagore, (1861-1941), Sadhana

For many who read these words of mine, the infinite in us is the God both within and beyond us. It is God who will not let hope fade or die. But, God knows, hope is hard work. And we must persist in it.

Have you figured out why I chose that photo? To me that monolithic slab of New York City skyline is a symbol of hope. Since the League of Nations was founded in 1920, at the end of the First World War, a global  yearning for peace has at least had a forum. With the founding of the United Nations in 1945 (optimistically in Lake Success, NY), that forum has continued to struggle with political and social upheaval, military skirmishes and all-out wars, emerging nations, tyrants and dictators, border violations, shoe-pounding tantrums and verbose threats, and untold barriers to the peace for which the world yearns.

Yet, there it stands, that building along the river. And if it weren’t for some persistent, deep-seated hope that we can keep from blowing the world to hell, the whole grand idea, the 72 year-old scheme, might whiffle away. As our leaders falter, as words fail, as visions are vetoed, and negotiations are negated, no wonder it all seems futile. And yet…

A few years ago, I met Robert Smylie at a Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference. At that time, Smylie headed our denomination’s Presbyterian Mission at the United Nations. I learned that since the UN’s founding, our church had a stake there in working for peace and justice, and interpreting UN programs to our congregations. On line, I found this statement:

Amid the restless spirits and often-tough diplomacy of the United Nations, the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations helps inspire, equip and connect Presbyterians for ministry as faithful disciples of Jesus in the global community. We educate with the hope of helping individuals live out God’s call in Christ to live with compassion, seek peace, and pursue justice wherever they go.

We do that because our hope will not die. Nineteenth Century minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker offered this prayer: “We look to Thee; Thy truth is still the Light which guides the nations, groping on their way. Stumbling and falling in disastrous night, yet hoping ever for the perfect day.”

Today, this Saturday, this last day of Lent, leads us to consider the shadow of emptiness and fear that gripped stunned disciples hours after the crucifixion of Jesus. Was all hope lost? I wouldn’t be surprised. He had told them to believe otherwise. He had whispered, preached, promised them concerning that third day, that perfect day. But they weren’t the brightest candles against the darkness. So who knows?

But there is something in us that hopes against hope, that prays earnestly for peace in the  world and in the heart. It is a hope that persists. That lives. It is the very breath of life. Somehow, amid the diplomats and  bureaucrats and ambassadors and interpreters and worker bees of that monolithic hive, that which has been elusive through almost a century of striving continues to plod toward peace. We hope. For the world depends on it.

And the world depends on this too: that hope will ultimately win. And the sun will rise, and the wideness in God’s mercy will shine through the whole of creation, bringing at the last our peace to the world God so loves.

Expect Easter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC06007

Grand Teton National Park

{Lent 2018 has provided me with time to let my photographs prompt some writing. The days dwindle down to a precious few, as the old song says.}

As I age I grow aware of my limitations. This is the time of our lives when we just have to admit that some things we had hoped to do, or dreamed of doing one day, or even things we had once enjoyed — well, those things are no longer possible.

This is not to say that advancing age means we are now invalids, or in-valid as persons. It simply means that we know we must learn to deal with some limitations. While retirement has brought awesome (I rarely use that word unless I mean it) opportunities for travel, our sight-seeing reminds us that our trails are shorter, our hikes less intense, our energy levels not what they were when we were 35. No kidding, huh? You too?

There we were in Grand Teton National Park. We had hiked, and thoroughly enjoyed the journey over some fairly easy trails. But looking into the distance at that grand panorama, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be climbing any of those peaks. Just gazing at them from afar would have to do.

 

There was a time, however, that I climbed, and with a heavy backpack weighing

8495_edited-1-1

The Writer Back When…

me down. I’m not a veteran climber of the most challenging high peaks, handling ropes, harnesses, rappel devices, grip savers, etc. I liked the smaller challenges of Virginia sections of the Appalachian Trail, or hiking up Montreat’s Lookout Mountain in western North Carolina. I had the legs back then, and the energy, and the will. Today, I still have the will, but less energy, and a bad knee. So my climbs are more modest. I know my limits.

 

That expanse of water in the photo above prompts another limitation of mine. After three local attempts at swimming lessons when I was a kid, and even after a couple of years of weekly classes in college, I am not a swimmer. I never got over my fear of high water. I guess I could do the back stroke, but why would I want to? So, swimming in that lake, or canoeing or kayaking? No, thanks. It’s been a lifetime limitation; not one related to aging. What is related to my growing more elderly is the realization that at my age, I do not hold out much hope that I will ever learn to swim. Please…I know it’s possible. But, I’ve gotten along just fine, so far. I like boat rides, from my friend Matt Matthews’ speed boat ride through Hampton Roads, to transatlantic cruises on huge ships.

A recent episode in deep water brought back my water-related phobia. We were in the Caribbean and a boat ride was to take us to an island for lunch. When the boat’s pilot learned I wasn’t a swimmer, he rather casually noted, “Hmmm, that might be a problem. There’s no dock I can get to there. We usually anchor a ways out and swim in for lunch. But I’ll try to get as close as I can. If the tide is right, you can probably wade in.” Probably. I left the boat and the water was chest high. All I could think of was stepping into some hole and… Or, what if the tide rose a bit and water that was chest high would be over my head? Turns out, the wading thing worked, and I am here to write this.

Living with limitations is something we all have to adjust to. And aging does mean the limitations grow. But, for every sign of slowing down, there is an opportunity to compensate. I won’t be learning to swim and enjoy water sports. So what? I won’t miss it. But, look, I’ve learned to over-write about it! (Freshman composition professor Dr. Bleasby would not be pleased.) I have other skills I can continue to develop. I may not be able to climb Mt. Ranier’s peak, but I can take a lesser trail there and pull out my camera. I may not follow my cousin Danny around the track at Watkins Glen at 100 mph, but I’m content to put miles and miles on my RAV4 between here and there.

One more limitation I’ve learned to live with. I can’t play an instrument. I go to jazz jams and wonder what it would be like to just get up there and play…play anything! Piano. Guitar. Trombone. But as I near the end of my third quarter of a century, I’m realistic. If I didn’t have the self-discipline to practice back then, what makes me think I would be able to “take lessons” now, and how much time would it take to actually play well? (The estimate, I’ve heard, is 10,000 hours. OK then.) So, while I can’t blow into a mouthpiece, strum strings, or beat a drum, I am a big fan of those who can. I am a music appreciation junkie. And, thanks to an invitation a few months ago, I am writing a monthly column about jazz artists in our community.

I live with one limitation after another, but adjust, adapt, compensate, and continue to bloom where I’m planted. Like a weed.

One more limitation: my understanding of God. The older I get, the more the Mystery deepens. One would think that after some sixty-plus years of Christian education and nurture, my aging would bring my theology into clearer focus. Maybe I have a theological cataract that’s come with age. I certainly hold to my faith, but my system of belief is blurrier. Maybe that’s not really a limitation after all. Maybe it’s a liberation. I am free to be me, and God is free to be God.

And perhaps — just maybe — that is indeed the wideness in God’s mercy!DSC06037

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_0304

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…

 

 

DSC08198

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.

 

 

 

 

B0006214 (2)

New York City from the Staten Island Ferry

{Lent is winding down, but I have a few more panoramic photos to reflect on before the season is over. If you’ve come in late, you can backtrack to catch previous essays.}

Yesterday I wrote of a small town upstate, the town we now call home. Today, something–  some place — completely different. (Although it might be said that within New York city are thousands of small towns.)

The file attached to this image indicates that the picture was taken in 2009, with my first digital camera. I mention that because, unlike most small towns, the City is always changing, the skyline in flux, as cranes tower over Manhattan and new skyscrapers appear. Thus, while the icons are visible here, Lady Liberty and the Empire State Building, this view may have already been amended by new construction.

My history with NYC goes back to childhood. We lived upstate, but my Uncle Tom and Aunt Viv lived in Tenafly, NJ and when we made that rare visit south, Uncle Tom would stuff us into his huge station wagon and drive us across the George Washington Bridge into the City. Now, there were six kids in our family and ten in his and Viv’s, but this would have been before all were born. It was a big car, but not that big!

Tom worked in television at the time, so he knew people. He knew places. And he regaled us with stories, and drove around up and down town, through Times Square, and in total command. He spoke as if he knew Toots Shor personally. I have no doubt he did. Of course, we couldn’t see much from the windows of the wagon, so the next trips to NYC were more revealing.

Our church youth group “earned” trips to New York City (and Boston and D.C. in alternating years), getting points for good attendance in Sunday School, youth group, and worship services. So, we’d take a train to New York, stay at the Taft, and see the sights. For me, the highlight was always a movie at Radio City Music Hall. One year it was “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” with Doris Day. Another year, “The Brothers Karamazov.” Plus the Rockettes! We toured the United Nations, and ate at automats. Very cool, those trips.

(One other NYC visit came when our school journalism club went to a short conference at Columbia University. Again, we did the sight-seeing thing, but the sight many of us hoped to see was the very popular singer at the time Pat Boone. He was a student at Columbia and we did keep an eye out for him and his signature white buck shoes…to no avail.)

Oh, and there was the college era drive from western Pennsylvania to New York for the

img480

My 1964 slide of the World’s Fair

opening weekend of the 1964 World’s Fair. Ostensibly the yearbook editor and I went to see the photo studio that wanted the senior photo contract, but there was the World’s Fair. Who would miss that?

 

Skip ahead to the present, and we can take a bus into the city in the morning and come back that night; or stay over for a show, as we have done a few times in the past few years. My cousin’s daughter Erin Davie has starred in “Side Show,” last year’s revival of “Sunday in the Park with George,” and earlier in “Grey Gardens” and the revival of “A Little Night Music.” We saw three of four, plus other shows as the budget allowed. The theater district is one of my favorite small towns within the city.

Recently our church again offered a bus trip, this time for us adults, and we enjoyed one of New York’s cultural festivals, the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy. Oh, my!

Every major city around the globe has its sights to see, its iconic views, its restaurants and museums, festivals and nightlife. But there is the underside of the urban environment. Homelessness, crime, corruption. Things not missing from small towns, no, but more pronounced, more reported perhaps, than in the suburbs or countryside that surround the city. In NYC, 63,000 people are homeless, including 23,000 children. It’s difficult to conceive that many people have nowhere to lay their heads. New York City is rightfully proud of having lowered its crime rate to far below the per capita rate of other large U.S. cities. But homelessness is a crime too.

In 1974, I recorded an hour-long radio program that centered on urban ministries, the ways churches in larger cities reached out to the “least of these,” our brothers and sisters, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the disenfranchised. That radio program in the “Celebration Rock” series changed the course of my ministry. It was awarded a Gabriel Citation by UNDA-USA a national association of Catholic broadcasters. “Celebration Rock” was basically a music-themed local program on a Richmond AM station, but once the Catholics awarded the show, it drew some national attention, and the program went into limited syndication. (For more information than you will even need, see my other blog at http://www.celebrationrock.wordpress.com.)

Among the songs I chose were Cashman and West’s “American City Suite,” Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” “Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield, and “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago. I filled the hour with similar songs and several stories of downtown churches at work in their neighborhoods. That led to many other radio programs I produced in Richmond, highlighting urban issues and the people who were committed to address them in positive ways.

Look at that gleaming city in the photo at the top. Those massive buildings create dark shadows. And in the shadows are people in need. Hidden now in the skyline are the once-prominent tall steeples of the houses of worship of people of faith. Those churches, synagogues, and mosques may struggle for membership these days, but those that remain vital are the ones that embrace the poor who slip through the cracks of a city’s social services. Those who have slipped through the net are caught by those who were called to “fish for people,” for people to serve, to shepherd, ultimately to partner with.

I love that city. I look forward to every bus ride there and back. But I have to remember to honor the work of the people of faith who minister to the city’s needs and who sing with the characters in the movie “Godspell,” “We Can Build a Beautiful City.”

 

WE MAY NOT REACH THE ENDING
BUT WE CAN START
SLOWLY BUT TRULY MENDING
BRICK BY BRICK, HEART BY HEART
NOW, MAYBE NOW
WE START LEARNING HOW
WE CAN BUILD A BEAUTIFUL CITY
YES, WE CAN; YES, WE CAN
WE CAN BUILD A BEAUTIFUL CITY
NOT A CITY OF ANGELS
BUT WE CAN BUILD A CITY OF MAN*

* [That’s the way they put it back then; today, I’d make it “a city of love.”]

Next Page »