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…


{Mug shots… one a day for these 40 days of Lent 2017. About two hours time (I write slowly) and approximately 1200 words ( I write wordily).} DSC05642.jpg

The mug I’ve chosen for today is one of a set of eight. I won’t be writing something about each one, by the way;  just this representative mug. We bought this whole set of china dishes, cups (mugs!), and drinking glasses for our 25th wedding anniversary. Apparently a lot of people bought this pattern, because we’ve seen it everywhere. It’s by Pfaltzgraff, and the pattern is called  Yorktowne.

It is our “everyday” china, as opposed to our “good” china. See, that sentence indicates how old we are, even more than the above reference to our 25th anniversary. We were married way back when brides and grooms (mostly brides) thought it necessary, or at least nice, to have two sets of china. Our “good” china is delicate and beautiful. I helped pick it out, so even I like it. But with its silver ring around the edges and its just plain expensive cost per piece, one would not use that stuff everyday, having it attacked by sharp knives, pointy-pronged forks, and harsh dish washers day after day. Thus, the need for sturdy everyday dishes.

When we got to the 25th year of marriage, we hadn’t exactly beaten up the everyday china to the point of having to replace it. We just decided it was time for a change, so we got this pattern. It was something we liked, and it was on sale on the Williamsburg Pottery. It was defective in some way, though the plates seem to hold food just fine, and the mugs don’t leak. Even after 25 years. This everyday stuff is sturdy.

And when I say every day, I mean it literally. Every day, I eat breakfast cereal from the Yorktowne bowls, and drink my orange juice from the little glasses. Every day, our lunch and dinner go on the plates. Every day, my skim milk at meals is in a Pfaltzgraff tumbler-sized glass. We rarely pull out the “good” china. That reminds me: at a pre-retirement seminar a few years ago, the leader asked the attendees how many had “good” china back home. Most did. “Use it!” he advised. “What are you waiting for?” Those of us of that “certain age” had been saving it for special occasions. At our age, maybe we should treat more days and times as “special.”

When I consider what “everyday” means as an adjective, I realize there are two sides to that term. Let’s begin with the less pleasing side. The everyday might be humdrum. When I wrote of the “vanilla” of life a few days ago, I touted the plain and simple. But everyday isn’t the same as vanilla; it’s just dull, routine, even thoughtless. We might complain to someone (or to ourselves), “Everyday is the same; I do this and that and this today, just as I did it yesterday, and tomorrow doesn’t hold anything else. Damn, I’m bored outta my gourd.” It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day,” but Bill Murray isn’t in it to redeem it, and it’s not funny.

We want to break out, break away, break free… break the everyday and escape to something new and exciting and enlivening. Everyday, there’s the same old job, some addiction to be satisfied, deep ruts to be negotiated without thinking. Life becomes stale.

But wait…there’s another side to everydayness that redeems the word. The sun rises everyday, whether it’s visible or not. If you woke up this morning, here’s a new beginning. Every day brings a chance to begin again, anew! Chances are, if you are reading this blog, you are among the gifted affluent of the world who can count on food and clean water and a roof over your head every day. If there is a loved one (or a beloved many) in your life, you can count on that love always…always, that is, every day. See? Sometimes the everyday is that which is sturdy, as rugged and reliable as the commonplace plates used daily, and sometimes delicate and beautiful as the “good” china we consider special. In other words, dependable.

Yes, every day brings the possibility of an event or occurrence that causes anxiety or sadness. But that same day may be rescued by the accrued grace and blessing of previous days’ encounters with daily, even routine, joys and spirit-fed moments. Especially if we have paid attention at each day’s end, and prayed our gratitude for the gift of life itself, for every breath, every step, every sign of light and love.

I close with two songs. The first is really very old. Psalm 136 begins, “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” That means every day.

Then there’s the one hit song from the off-Broadway musical “Godspell.” It is entitled “Day by Day.” The words came from Richard of Chichester (1197-1253):

Day by day, Dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.

Every day.

Not just during the forty of Lent,

but daily as the bread we pray for and count on and live on.

This is the gift of the everyday.

Let us rejoice in it, one day at a time,

but every day.

{New to this series? I’m writing each day in Lent 2017, using mugs as inspiration, or at least prompts. Why? Don’t get me started.}

Today my oldest grandson turns 17, so it seems appropriate to share another mug he designed in elementary school. His class had been studying rainforSONY DSCests, and the artwork on the mug was Ryan’s imaginative take on the subject.

My own school years are l-o-n-g ago, so maybe I’ve just forgotten by now…but I don’t recall learning anything about rainforests, ever. I suspect that unless you were a biology major in my era of academia, rainforests just didn’t come up in classroom instruction. But when rainforests began disappearing, then teachers and learners took notice.

Here’s what I know now. (Pardon me if this is old news to you, but Ryan’s mug got me thinking…) According to a science website especially for kids, the following are locations of our rainforests: Africa, Asia, Central and South America. The Amazon Rainforest is the largest. Maybe the writer on that site meant to say these were the major rainforests. Because North America has a rainforest I’ve hiked in. It’s in Alaska. And I have a photo that I shared with Ryan when he was studying the topic seven years ago. It’s below.

Interestingly, that site for young learners defines a rainforest as having lots of tall trees, a warm climate, and lots of rain. Well, two out of three. I don’t think Alaska is known for its warm climate. But the main thing is this: rainforests are being destroyed globally with areas the size of New Jersey disappearing annually. Maybe it comes down to greed. At least, we (speaking globally) feel that we need the land for agribusiness, grazing, timber resources, including pulp, and roads, presumably so we can get further into the forests to tear down more trees.

Plus, there’s climate change that brings drought to once rainy climes. Pardon my personal stand on this, but to be clear, it is not a mere cosmic adjustment or realignment that brings about today’s climate change. It is we human beings. And our greed. Our perceived need for that which we could do without if we cared about the future of our planet and maybe our great-grandchildren, to focus it more personally.

The decline of rainforests has a massive impact on the ecological balance of life on our planet. This isn’t the place to go into a depressing list of environmental disasters. Google it, if you must. But I am moved to think about my own complicity in the biological and economic conditions that affect both climate change and rainforest destruction.

For one thing, I need to pay more attention. When Ryan’s mug comes up in the morning coffee rotation, maybe I can use that as a reminder to be more careful, more care-filled, about my want/need decision-making. What impact will today’s choices make in regard to earth-keeping? Every day, we are overwhelmed by how little we can make an impact on enormous problems that confront us. Will turning off an unnecessary lamp help save the rainforests? If I wear this pair of Nikes one more month, or this pair of Wranglers? I already turn off the running water while I brush my teeth. Well, good for me!

I’m paying a premium for fair trade coffee to put in these mugs I’m writing about each day. Some professor writing in the Huffington Post says I’m pretty much being duped. But my church denomination says it’s a good thing I’m shopping for goods with that fair trade designation. I want to do the right thing. If I can just figure out what the right thing is. I’ll keep watch for anything that says it’s rainforest alliance safe to eat/drink/use.

Our prayers of confession, Lent or otherwise, must include our acquisitiveness. That’s a newer name for an ancient sin: greed. We are being sold a bill of goods every minute that we engage in mass media or social media, with advertising designed to convince us that our life would be more fulfilling, happier, if we bought this or acquired that. I once taught a seminar on media advertising and the commercial pitches focused on just a handful of human desires that would be met by almost any product: health, prestige, safety, and appetites (nutritional and sexual). From breakfast cereals to Chevys, from antacids to cosmetics — life would be enhanced if we forked over some money and acquired the product. We all know, though, that life is improved only temporarily by whatever we buy, and maybe, truth be told, life isn’t better at all.

One of my favorite sins, I hearby admit, is covetousness. I break that commandment daily. I don’t covet my neighbor’s wife or donkey, but almost anything I see at the big box store full of electronics would make me happy. Here I am with more than my share of stuff, and yet I’d be estatic to have more. My 40″ LCD TV is aging, and there on the horizon is that 60″ 4K curved screen TV, so perfect for my living room. And then, I’d have to upgrade my DVD player, buy some new versions of old DVD movies, and get a more advanced audio system. And then… I realize it would never be enough. And another tree would fall in the rainforest, and even without my being there, the crash would be deafening.

I must curb my enthusiasm for adding to the clutter of my life. No matter how shiny, advanced, or enticing that stuff might appear. I must rein in my desire for new things, release my hold on some old things, and remember it is not the “things” that matter anyway. My happiness is centered on being more than content, downright fulfilled, with the loving relationships that bless my life: my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my church family.

We share a planet that seems more fragile than when I was born over seven decades ago. When we realize how much the earth is threatened by just one or two generations of human beings whose wants and desires far outstrip their actual needs, the word “stewardship” comes to mind. We are caretakers of this creation if we think about it. Maybe caregivers would be a better term, since our constant “taking” is part of the problem.

Among the many Bibles of various translations on my bookshelves is an edition called The Green Bible, published by Harper One. All the scripture passages that mention the environment are printed in green ink. There is a lot of green ink involved here. References to water, wilderness, the land, seeds and sowers, the earth, meals and sunlight… all in green, plus essays added by Desmond Tutu, Barbara Brown Taylor, and others, and an Earth Day message by Pope John Paul II — along with a “Green Bible Trail Guide” (a study guide on environmentalism) — these features make up an impressive and helpful resource for those committed to earth-keeping.

Thanks to Ryan, his art, and that mug, I’ll remember the rainforests and my own half acre and try to be a better steward of this good earth.


Alaskan Rainforest

{The Kellam kitchen cupboard is filled with mugs, and I’m writing each day in Lent 2017 about one of them…or at least on themes suggested by a glance at the designs.}

Disclaimer: this mug was banned from the cupboard when the Christmas season came to an end, sometime around January 6. It, and others of its ilk, were packed away and carried to the attic, along with the 30 year old artificial tree. We rescued this coffee mug especially for this blog.

It made my list because it doesn’t have Santa on it, nor doedsc07430.jpgs it have a holiday-decorated cow saying Moo-ey Christmas. I do have some standards here. But, still, this cartoony angel is a bit too cute for my purposes today. Angels are supposed to be scary, aren’t they? At least the ones who show up in the Bible. When they suddenly appear, I’m guessing there were double takes, maybe some cowering, certainly fright. Because often when an angel shows up in the scriptures, the first message is, “Don’t be afraid.”

Who’d be afraid of this golden-haired, rosy-cheeked, red-winged cherub? Or, who’d flinch at the sight of any angel that looked like the popular images seen in “Angels Magazine?” Wispy, vaporous, lucent Tinkerbells! “Look up in the sky! Doesn’t it look like an angel? Get the camera, Roscoe! We can submit it to the magazine.” Once published, some readers will think it’s lovely and angel-like. But others will swear a real heavenly visitor hovered above, protecting, guiding, or just watching over somebody, or all of us.

But then there’s that “Do not fear!” thing. In Luke 1and 2, Zechariah was terrified, Mary was perplexed, shepherds were scared witless, and the angels tried to calm them, telling them to not be afraid. Interestingly, there were no physical descriptions of said angels. I’ve often speculated that they may have been frighteningly ugly to have made people so fearful. A male visage with three days’ growth of dark beard, beady but piercing eyes, Saturday morning work-in-the-shed rumpled clothes? Nothing wispy about them!

About these beings, the main thing is that they exist and they have purpose. To the first point, I quote Frederick Buechner:

Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t. An angel spreads his glittering wings over us, and we say things like, “It was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive” or “I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right” or “I don’t know where I ever found the courage.” [from Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC]

Except for the “glittering wings” part, I like that. And I am convinced.

As for purpose, there is the message piece. In fact, the word angel has a derivation that means “messenger.” So, angels bear God’s messages to us. (The wings are necessary if you still believe in the three-storied universe of earth here, heaven way up there, and hell on fire in the core of the planet. Coming from so far UP, the wings were a requirement. As for the red wings on the angel pictured on the mug above? Hockey fans will see a connection with the Detroit Red Wings…for some reason.) Since this is obviously not a treatise on angelology (odd — spellcheck didn’t even flinch there), for my purposes here I note that the message is as Buechner put it: to wish us well, and to start by telling us to not be afraid!

Here we are, though, with lots to fear. We have loved ones and we worry. We read headlines, and we fret. The whole news cycle is little more than a warning sign of desperate times ahead, like tomorrow or “next time.” It may be true that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but fear is fed every day by world events, powerful bullies, greed, vengeance, and weaponry. To say nothing of one’s personal anxieties.

In Walter Brueggemann’s Lenten devotional book A Way Other than Our Own, the scholar quotes the prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear [says God], for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Is. 43:1) And then we have the commentary on what it means to trust God’s word, whether it comes from angels or prophets:

  • The unafraid are open to the neighbor, while the frightened are defending themselves from the neighbor.

  • The unafraid are generous in the community, while the frightened, in their anxiety, must keep and store and accumulate, to make themselves safe.

  • The unafraid commit acts of compassion and mercy, while the frightened do not notice those in need.

  • The unafraid are committed to justice for the weak and the poor, while the frightened see them only as threats.

  • The unafraid pray in the morning, care through the day, and rejoice at night in thanks and praise, while the frightened are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.

So wrote Walter Brueggemann in his book (published by our Presbyterian publishing arm Westminster John Knox Press, ©2017). By the way, an angel just reminded me that such messengers show up at the empty tomb on Easter morning. You can guess that they say first: “Don’t be … alarmed.”

That noted, I will close with the same words with which Brueggemann closes his meditation: So, dear people, each of you: Do not fear!

{And thanks to my friend Bill Carter for the gift of Brueggemann’s book, and for the gift of his friendship.}





{Lent 2017 continues, with a seemingly endless supply of mugs which prompt wordy reflections for the pleasure of writing each day. All these mugs are found in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. None has been stolen.}SONY DSC

My early days at seminary included walking a few blocks to Parker Field to watch the Richmond Braves play AAA baseball. The team and I arrived in Richmond the same year. I had grown up watching the Binghamton Triplets, a Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees, so AAA was that much nearer watching a major league team. I didn’t go to games in Richmond regularly though, until my administrative assistant gave me a season ticket for Christmas one year.

By that time, the old Parker Field had been demolished and replaced with a new ballpark named “The Diamond.” My season ticket was for Box 112, Row A, Seat 1. The usher for that section called me the “Sauce Man” (A-1…get it?). I guess I had that season ticket for three years before we moved out of state.

When we got to Vermont, we’d drive 90 minutes west to Burlington to sit in the oldest active baseball stadium in the country (dubbed “Centennial Field” ages ago) to watch the Vermont Expos, a short season Class A team. I voiced their radio spots one year, but when I showed up at the park for my first game that season, after driving those miles, the stadium was sold out, and I stewed all the way home. (Just ask Joan.)

These days, I try to get to watch young up-and-coming Mets players at the minor league stadium in Binghamton, intending to go once each home stand. The Eastern league has its rookies, yes, but the occasional rehab assignment brings guys from the big leagues here a few games each summer.

I have to admit, unlike my next door neighbor who played some minor league ball, I never played baseball. Nor any other sport for that matter. And unlike other sports fans, I don’t wear some star’s jersey, and I don’t watch much baseball on TV. Good grief, that’s a long time to sit in the recliner and stay awake. But I do like those minor league games just a 25 minute drive and an $8 ticket away. 

As I watch these youngsters play and learn and play and learn the game (which is what this level is for) I look at the coaches and appreciate their dedication to the future of the game. And their patience. Certainly, too, their own athletic skills. The manager (head coach) gets most of the press, but pitching coaches get their share of exposure, walking to the mound a few times in each game to speak with, counsel with, or chastise the pitcher. In other words, to coach. Batting coaches don’t have the visibility, but they’d better be effective if players hope to score any runs.

Back in Richmond, the managers had names true fans would recognize: Tommy Aaron, Eddie Haas, Jim Beauchamp, Phil Niekro, Chris Chambliss, and Grady Little. One of my favorites was Roy Majtyka who led us to a league championship. Full of fire, that guy. Notice: I said he led US. We fans think we own the team. And that we know better than the managers and coaches too. We are good at second guessing. Our ticket gives us the right to cheer our manager on as he argues with umps, and to boo the guy if he waits too long to remove a pitcher. But the fact is that it’s the coaches that, as a professional team, mold our young talents into guys who know how to play the game. Some of those guys will be selling aluminum siding in a couple of years. A handful will become millionaires, prospects for Cooperstown.

There is no easy way to segue here, but I crunch the gears by shifting to another kind of coaching. While the term is practically a trade mark of athletics, there are coaches beyond the arena, the field, and the gym. We have coaches in churches now. And they are not teaching little kids to dribble in the church gym. They are spiritual coaches. Or, church leaders, both clergy and laity, who are being trained to “coach” other leaders, to guide and equip and inspire those church members to strengthen the life and ministry of their faith communities. I just did a quick internet search for “church coaching” and found site after site for coaching church planters, clergy-coaching, coaching  effective youth leaders, and on and on.

I guess we used to call it “leadership training.” but with athletics having such a powerful hold on people (and unfortunately on Sabbath days as well), the term “coaching” is more appealing. It certainly “sells” more than “mentoring” or “training.” Some pastors I know enjoy the guidance of a “spiritual director.” But some of those directors are calling themselves spiritual coaches now. Frankly, as I peruse the websites of those who have made a commercial business of church coaching, I don’t see much, if anything, that distinguishes the benefits of coaching from, say, shepherding, or mentoring. Might we be talking just terminology here?

The Lord is my Coach; I shall need no other. Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you coaches of men and women.” Or, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be coached by the Spirit.” I can see this playing out (no pun intended) in seminaries as professor-coaches create an atmosphere of teaching/learning in which student/players can move professionally from the minor leagues (small rural parishes in Class A communities) to the majors (formerly called “big steeple churches”). Whether one plays for the Protestant League or the Catholic League, the competition will be fierce for the best, most talented and experienced players.

I don’t mean to sound cynical or sarcastic. I write with a bit of a smile, not a sneer. It’s the same way I approached two books on the shelf right behind me. Excuse me as I reach back, and…yes, got ’em. One book is James Penrice’s Crossing Home: the Spiritual Lessons of Baseball. (I see that it was given to me by the same generous person who gave me my R-Braves season tickets. She sure know how to assure job security!) The other volume is And God Said, “Play Ball!” — subtitled, “Amusing and Thought-Provoking Parallels Between the Bible and Baseball.” The author is Gary Graf. Both books are fun, both deal with leaps from baseball to Biblical faith, and both pretty much ignore coaches! Players, umps, and fans get the ink, but managers and coaches? Not so much.

Yet, take away the nomenclature, ignore the newfangled “coaching” terminology, and no one can deny the importance of our spiritual mentors, those whose lives witnessed to deep faith, and whose words guided our understanding of the rules of the game: grace, forgiveness, hospitality, peacemaking. Since Jesus called his first team, ragged as their first efforts were, those who lived the faith best took on the roles of leadership that drew us in, not as mere fans, but as active, dedicated players.

Sport is not my religion. But I can sport about it anyway, right? Right, Coach?

Let us hope that at the last, at the end of our season, we will all be called up.




SONY DSC{Mug-prompted meditations for Lent…a cup-a-day.}

Not to worry. The title doesn’t portend a final goodbye (as far as I know). It is apt when applied to this particular mug though. When we left Richmond after over 25 years there, the goodbyes were difficult. We were excitedly looking forward to our new life in Vermont, yet the leave-taking meant the end of many friendships, even with well-meaning intentions to hold on to people whose lives meant so much to us. Among the parting gifts were two mugs, identical except for the names. This one was Joan’s obviously, and the other will make its appearance here in a few days.

“Your Richmond friends love you,” both mugs read. And inscribed on the underside of the mug it says, “From Bicks.” I recall the gentle caution that came with these gifts. The Bicks had put a ring of felt on the bottom, a bit of soft cushion to protect table surfaces, and the concern was that the glue wouldn’t hold. Seems to me that the instruction was to use the vessel as more of a pen holder than coffee cup. So, that’s what we’ve done.

The history aside, the sentiment is what we hold dear. Don’t forget; your Richmond friends love you. We haven’t forgotten. Our love for them was deeply rooted in the rich soil of neighborhood, work (ministry), and community. A quarter century deep. While we lived briefly on the Northside of the city, and just as briefly in the West End, it was the Bon Air suburb that we called home for two decades. We first moved into a home that had just been built so recently that we got to choose paint colors and wallpaper designs. And grass seed. As the family grew, we needed more space, so we chose a small lot a couple of subdivisions away, picked a house plan, and watched that home go up in just a few weeks. Point being: the neighborhood and church, the park, the schools, the friends…were constant in those years.

When your kids begin kindergarten and finish high school in the same community, and when you get involved with civic groups and plant yourself (or find yourself planted) in the same church, and when your work makes connections with colleagues and comrades you enjoy the occasional lunch with, that is a gift we still cherish after many years and miles away.

Then it was time to go to Vermont. A big celebration at the church, smaller get-togethers in homes, and some more intimate lunches — those brought the farewells. We exchanged hugs and handshakes and mutual words of affection, and shed some tears, all because we loved those people and that place, and the mug says they loved us. Of course, it didn’t take a mug, but there it is. Eventually, a couple of friends found their way up north to see us in the years that followed. And we’ve headed south more than a few times to re-visit Richmond and vicinity. We’ve kept in tentative touch through letters, social media, phone calls, and even through our newspaper writer friend whose columns reminded Richmond we had been there.

Still. Goodbye. Farewell. Adieu. (I’m very close to breaking into that song from “The Sound of Music.” You know the one.) The thing is, the term “goodbye” doesn’t really mean the end of anything. It started as “God be with you.” Implying, ’til we meet again. (Another song…may as well write an opera.) So, saying our goodbyes is just another way of blessing one another as we move in different directions…for awhile. Might be a short while, or forever. But my best wish, or my deepest prayer, is “God be with you” as we separate.

Farewell is like unto it. I pray you will fare well while we are apart. The word has taken on a finality though, as in, “This is the last time we’ll offer words and embraces and share life’s paths; farewell! For good.” But I prefer the term as a prayer, that one would fare well, meet few bumps along the way, and travel safely and joyfully the road ahead. So that next time our paths cross, we will say to one another, “You look so good! You haven’t changed a bit! ” And we’d smile broadly, both having fared so very well.

It’s common to make farewell speeches. Washington’s Farewell Address. McArthur’s.  Obama’s. Some are full of resignation, and others summarize achievements. What they have in common is that they are monologs. The one leaving speaks, as if the ones left behind have nothing to say. But when we lesser types say goodbye at the party or the dinner, the farewells are dialogical.  We wish one another Godspeed and fare thee well. We get to use voices and body language to express gratitude for friendships and hope that we will meet again.

And love. That is the foundation for the most sincere of farewells. Because of our love for one another, we cannot offer anything less than that prayer for God’s keeping us safe while we are away from each other, as well as the hope that that absence will not diminish our friendship. I love that the mugs from the Bick family didn’t say Goodbye. They just reminded us of the love that binds true friends to one another… always.

Perhaps a more precise way to say farewell these days is, “Peace be with you.”

And also with you.

[Once again, this is not goodbye in these Lenten posts! I’ll be back tomorrow. But nonetheless…PEACE to you.}

{Mug-inspired reflections for Lent 2017…forty essays based on vessels found in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. I’m the first to admit the inspiration may come from mDSC05645.jpgore than the mugs.}

Look at this mug. It’s just a plain, ordinary mug. No imprint. No design. No marketing strategy at all. But it does the job for which it was intended with no ulterior purpose. It holds a healthy dose of morning coffee. As I think about it, I wonder where it came from and why we even have it. Maybe the printing has washed off through the years. Or, maybe it’s just one of those mugs we humans used to drink from before someone got the idea to embellish tumblers, beakers, and drinking glasses with art and slogans. The title of this reflection is apt, I think. This is just a plain old vanilla mug.

And you know what it reminds me of? The importance of getting back to basics. In fact, that’s something this Lenten period of forty days is good for, too. Getting back to basics. Removing clutter. Seeking quiet. Focusing on…well, almost anything. In this world of noisy distraction and destruction and obstruction, comes this instruction: focus. It’s simple. Just stop. Take a Sabbath breath or several in each hour, pause a few minutes each day, take a day a week, and stop. Stop the busyness. (Don’t worry; the world will continue to spin.) Just sit there. Or, lie there. Ever stood up in a corner before, leaning against those two walls. That can be very supportive. Really. Then, stopped, and breathing each breath as if it were the last, or the first, we can clear the mind and focus on one thing.

It probably doesn’t matter what that one thing is. An imaginary beach, a gentle breeze, looking out on an azure sea? The summit of a mountain overlooking a green vista of surrounding hills and river-carved valleys? How pleasant. But maybe the focus would be better directed toward a feeling of guilt, an unfortunate word, an expression of disappointment, a regret you had tried to escape, to cover over with daily clutter. That quiet moment can be used for escape or encounter. To evade an unpleasant truth, or to embrace a comforting thought. What is essential is to have stopped. To breathe. To focus. And to move toward healing. Simple, right?

Back to the flavor of the day: vanilla. Howard Johnson’s restaurants used to boast of 28 flavors of ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s may not have 28, but their flavors are exotic, clever, and very rich. The Kellam freezer usually contains five or six half-gallons of various flavors. Often, among those cartons, is plain vanilla. While we may enhance it with syrup of some sort (pure Vermont maple syrup is even better than chocolate), a scoop or three of vanilla by itself, unembellished, is more than just OK; it’s refreshing. And delicious.

But look at the variety of words we use to modify the vanillas of our lives: plain, old, dumb, stupid, flat, ordinary, dull, basic… But another word for basic is…pure.

In a previous blog, I quoted Irenaeus, a second-century bishop, who advised that “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” I fear that for many of us, that “fully-aliveness” means busy, busy, busy doing lots of good and valuable and productive and fulfilling things. But, at least in the context of this plain, old mug (the one pictured here, not my face), I suggest tthTH7T65IPhat fully alive could also be the simple purity of life focused on this moment. A basic beauty, simple and true, like the climbing orchid of the Vanilla genus. It’s not exactly a rose. Not intricate, nor flashy.  A simple vine with not a particularly impressive bloom.

But it yields a flavor and aroma that can be rich, inviting, and ambrosial. When we first lived in Richmond, Virginia, we were just a mile or so from the Southern Biscuit Company where millions of cookies were baked, and the aroma of vanilla filled the whole neighborhood. Chocolate, peanut butter, almonds…they couldn’t make one’s mouth water like the wafting aroma of vanilla wafers baking there on the city’s north side. Plain vanilla gets back to basics.

I’ll admit there is a place for extravagance, embellishment, decoration, and the downright clever. A few blocks down the road from that cookie factory is the Byrd Theatre, a 1920s movie palace, gaudy and grand, and still open. It’s never been “restored,” just kept clean and polished, and updated only in technology. Last I knew, the Wurlitzer pipe organ still rose from the pit on weekends to play before the feature. I love that place. But more vanilla is a family showing home movies on a bed sheet in the living room. More vanilla is a grandfather telling his grandchildren about his paper route and his adventures in 6th grade. More vanilla is a 2nd grader reading her scrawled-in-crayon story to her Mom.

Joan and I spend a lot of our vacation time in grand cathedrals. New York. Berlin. Amsterdam. Awesome, sacred spaces filled with light from stained glass, magnificent pipe organs, tapestries and statuary, rich warm wood and soaring ceilings. We love those places. More vanilla is the white clapboard rural church with rustic benches and clear glass windows looking out on a pasture. More vanilla is the quiet worship of Friends, “Quakers” who have never debated music choices: traditional or contemporary? More vanilla is the backyard where a teenaged girl lies in the summer grass humming a private psalm to God.

The plain, the ordinary has a richness all its own. Here’s another quick reference to my Richmond singer-songwriter friend Steve Bassett. One of the first records he released was called “A Poor Man’s Life (Is a Rich Man’s Dream).” It was based on a familiar theme: simple is better. Getting back to basics means loosening bonds, becoming unburdened, letting go. Many who have too much (success, stuff, clutter) may find simpler living appealing. Not to glamorize the poor in spirit, or the hungry, or those living just on or over the edge, but their blessedness is evident to Jesus. His beatitudes may well be troubling, or at least puzzling, to both the rich and poor ones, those burdened by poverty and those burdened by riches. If we stop and take one of those Sabbath moments of peace and quiet, and focus on it, the meaning of being blessed may become more clear.

It’s Lent. A good time to consider a vanilla blessedness that transcends the trappings of what we thought was an abundantly rich life. I think that’s the truth, plain and simple.