Why We Sing

My father’s theme song could have been “How can I keep from Singing?” He was completely tone deaf and had no musical background whatsoever. He sang in church. . No matter what. As I became more musically erudite, his rumbling monotone embarassed me. I have a different appreciation for singing in worship now. Singing in worship is absolutely not about ability or performance. . Singing with others is deep in our bones. Martin Luther and the reformers wrote many hymns so that ordinary persons could to sing. Lutheran identity was forged in music as much as in declarations and debates. Still, people have been fussing about singing in church for generations. The very fact that we fuss reveals how important it is.

Why doesn’t this church sing more familiar hymns?

I don’t understand music and I hate to sing  I wish we didn’t have all this music in church.

raising a hand to question

I like to sing with others around me who know how to sing..

Why doesn’t this church sing more upbeat songs like (fill in the blank Church) does?

So if it’s just going to be fuss, why do we keep doing it?  WHY DON’T WE JUST DROP MUSIC ALTOGETHER?

Drums/instruments  /contemporary music/chant/other languages/dance oh my,  in MY church? 

I don’t get anything out of all these “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs.

cover my ears

I think I’d just rather go out on the deck and listen to the birds.  

Every single church of which I have been a member fusses this way.
So why do we sing? Because singing matters. Singing with others has become
rare in our times. We consume music performed by others, often with our headphones on.
Church is one of the few places where we sing with others. Singing joins us together
Singing comforts. Singing forges community and bolsters us in courage and will.
A few weeks ago 300 Firefighters from South Africa came to Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada to fight the wildfires that have overwhelmed the area. They had only known one other for a couple days. Arriving at the airport, before they faced the furies, they needed to sing. And dance. It is what warriors do before going into battle. It is what people do to unite. Not a choir. Just people. No books. Canadian Broadcasting interviewed one of the firefighters: “Why do you do this? “ He answered. It gives us courage. It makes us one. We always do this. When the work is hard or dangerous we sing out to encourage, unite, and make us stronger. I would not trust someone who does not sing with me.  You can see more about it here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0nbAQm-N_4

[Unfortunately, the firefighters did not fight the fires they came to fight as the situation deteriorated when it came to fare wages.  That does not change the way they fortified themselves for the job they expected to do.]
It’s not just a cultural thing. My dad still remembered the Marine drill sergeant’s calling of cadences to the day he died. In the movie/ book “The Lord of the Rings” the dwarves sing their ancient songs the night before they set out on their dangerous journey. Powerful music emerges from protest movements: slavery, women’s suffrage, union strikes, apartheid, and war. The Gospel of Matthew speaks of Jesus and his followers singing in exactly the same way. Matthew 26:30 “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives…” It almost slips past us because the text assumes that the reader would know this is something they would naturally and always do. Jesus sings before the great ordeal begins. The disciples sing with Jesus, not fully understanding the ordeal that lies ahead.
So we sing. And when we are teary eyed, or too croaky or in too much pain to sing, the congregation sings for us. We sing for one another: to comfort, to strengthen, to unite, to give courage, to sit together in grieving or to join together in joy. People all over the nation gathered in vigil after Orlando, and Columbine, and 9/11, and Sandy Hook. Too many more times. They lit candles. They sang. Often “Amazing Grace” is the only song everyone knows. We sing when we don’t know what to say. When we are overwhelmed. If it is only one song in the darkness, it matters. We sing to be present to God and one another whether we weep and rejoice. We sing so that we can insert one sliver of light into unmanageable darkness and evil. We sing to be ready. How indeed can we keep from singing?

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Prone to wander…

I have been Missing in Action when it comes to blogging the last several months. I have been–and still am–wandering on purpose. Every morning I wander around the latest place I have moved. I look for needles in haystacks, a cup of coffee, an important paper, keys…I know you understand. I wander around the countryside (which is very beautiful out here) trying to find my way when I have no points of reference. I do a lot of wandering. And Wondering. “What’s that?” “Why does that….” Where does this go? Where did that go? I’ve also been sorting a lot. Moving in middle age is an enormous exercise in values clarification, not unlike later life downsizing. One becomes more generous, realizing that the thing in one’s hand would be more treasured or useful to someone else. My hold on things simultaneously becomes more fierce and more lax. I can’t let that desk go because my maternal grandfather made it. I can’t let that desk go because my father made it. I have too many desks that do not accommodate today’s technology.
wandering mind 1My mind wanders. Sorting things, opening boxes, packing boxes,
finding new places for things….the whole time my mind wanders remembering who gave me that thing, where I placed it in previous houses.  Then there’s the delightful moment of finding something that went missing, and wondering where i’st been all this time. I actually enjoy this part of the journey. This is, however, slow work.
Yes, I have wandered off the path. I haven’t been lost, just traveling.
I am continuing this blog with great affection. It is more
personal in nature, and usually connects to the scriptures I read in worship. Folks at St. Paul’s are asking me to publish my sermons weekly. If you know me personally, you will wandering brainknow how difficult that is for me and laugh. I am working to comply with the expressed need, however, by means of compromise. I am setting up another blog that relates directly to the St. Paul’s, preaching, and reaching people. It will be less personal, more public, and provide weekly summaries of the sermon I preach on Sunday–after the fact, say on Tuesdays. I am calling it “Keep On Sowing” and I will let you know when it is ready to go live! I’ve missed writing terribly, but I promise the last few months have given a lot of fuel for the fire. Stay tuned.

KeepOnSowing.wordpress.com

 

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The Magic Hat

Merry Christmas friends.  As last Epiphany I gave you Two Guys and a Gal, I give you this short story for Christmas this year.  It all began with grief over a lost Tilley hat……

 

Justin was at that uncomfortable age.  That is, that age where he was so uncomfortable in his own skin that he was very adept at making everyone else in the room just a uncomfortable.  That is, any age after 12.  Since summer vacation he had been distant, reclusive, sarcastic, and prone to outbursts of anger easily deflected from himself to others.  Especially his dad.  It did not escape Justin’s attention that his parents seemed to tag team with each other as to which got to be the bad cop this time.

Jon was beginning to long for long nights holding the baby through colic and ear aches.  Summer vacation had been a disaster, ruined by Justin’s unwillingness to do anything he had once loved doing with his family on the island.

School started and everyone began to relax a bit in the familiar routine.  There was, however, nothing familiar about 7th grade for Justin.  Sometimes he just wanted to be a kid again.  The scolding lectures on every front kept repeating the word ‘RESPONSIBILE” in bold print.  One night he bolted into the computer room with a measuring tape.  He wrapped the tape around Jon’s wrists and head, neck, then stretched it down the length of his back, and then asked his dad,’What’s an inseam?”

“I’ll do that.”  Jon replied firmly.  “What is this all about?”

“School project.  We’re trying to predict how big we will be when we stop growing.”

Sounded well enough, so Jon went back to clicking at the keys and Justin disappeared as quickly as he barged in.

Weeks passed, during which Justin seemed to make himself more scarce than ever.  There was always a reason–studying with a friend, going to a school social, hanging out with the guys, going to the library.His father marveled at his sudden studiousness and teased Justin about having a secret girlfriend.  Justin was not amused.  His mother shot Jon a withering look.  Jon shrugged his shoulders.

Christmas made it all worse, not better.  It was as though Justin could not bear to be with his family and participated in the family’s holiday traditions only under scowling duress.  Jon missed his son, who had once been so cheerful and funny, and hoped that he would come back someday when this stage was over.  Every night  Jon tapped on Justin’s locked bedroom door and softly spoke into the door frame,  “Good night. Thank you for another day.”   Sometimes he wondered if it were really true, but he figured if he said it enough it would be.  It was hard to get into a spirit of generosity as he and his wife hovered over the computer screen Christmas shopping.  Yet he did not stop talking to the door frame each night.

Sallie’s parents, grandmother, and sister, with her three kids, gathered Christmas afternoon to exchange presents.  All the kids were past the Santa Clause years, so time around the tree was more flexible now:  “A Moveable Feast” Sallie called it.  On the way to Aunt Charlie’s house, Justin picked the first fight.

“So why don’t we open packages on Christmas Eve, like we used to?”  Sallie knew a storm was brewing, and the tension in her voice rose.  “This just makes it easier for everyone, especially for Oma.  You want her to be there, don’t you?”

“I don’t see why.  She hardly knows that I’m there anymore.”

“Justin Adam Charles!”  his father bellowed.  “You owe your mother an apology!”

Sullen silence wafted from the back seat.  No apology came.

The rest of the half hour drive was silent.  His anger getting the best of him, Jonathan  shut Justin’s open door before Justin could step out.

“You can come in when you are ready to apologize to your mother.”

“What?  What did I do?  I don’t know what I am supposed to apologize about!”  Jonathan slammed his own door and stalked away.  Justin slouched into the seat, put in his earbuds, and retreated to the safety of his own world.

Jonathan kept peeking out from the curtains in the front room to check on Justin, hoping he would come in.  He did not.  ‘Why don’t you go out to him?  Sallie tried to cajole Jonathan.  ” I can’t back down this time.  This is getting way out of hand.  My father would have smacked me to kingdom come if I talked that way to my mother.”

Quietly, Sallie stood on tip toe to whisper in his ear,  “But you are not your father.”  She paused before elevating on tip toe again.  ” And your son is not you.”

Jonathan joined the Christmas festivities, but the gladness rang hollow as he came out to look between the curtains again and again.

Jonathan and Justin retreated to their bedrooms immediately upon arriving home, without exchanging gifts.  Jonathan could see that Justin had been crying.  Justin could not see that his mother had also been crying, escaping the party repeatedly to stand alone on the back porch. Tonight, Jonathan could not do it.  He could not talk to the door frame.  He remembered Sallie’s words, churning them over and over again as he lie awake in bed.  Sallie had still not come to bed, when he heard a soft voice outside the door.

‘Merry Christmas, Dad.  Thank you for another day.”

Jonathan lie in bed, tears running into his ears for a good three minutes before he could come to the door.  Justin was still there, a package in his hands.   Awkwardly, he thrust it toward his father.  Sallie stood behind him, hands on his shoulders.  Soon, those shoulders would be above her reach.

“Open it.” She ordered Jonathan.  Together, the three  collapsed on Jonathan and Sallie’s king-sized bed.

“Go ahead, Dad.  Please open it.”  Justin’s voice cracked.  Jonathon carefully pulled on each corner of the box when Justin reached over and grabbed it.

“Don’t you know how to open presents Dad?”

There in has hands it was.  The hat Jonathan had admired for two summer vacations down on the island.  It was too expensive to lavish upon himself, so he refused to buy it when Sallie urged.  He looked at Sallie in amazement.

“I didn’t do it.  Your son did.  I bought it, and he has paid me back in his lawn mowing money and extra chores since then.  Even Steven.”

Without hesitation he pulled his son into his arms.

“I am so sorry.  Just so sorry.”

Awkward with the unfamiliar intimacy, Justin pulled back.

“Dad, I don’t know what gets into me sometimes.  It’s not what I want.  I wish I could say it won’t happen again, but I know that may not be true.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I can’t be the son you want me to be.”

Jonathan grabbed Justin’s face and looked at him straight on–a look Justin had been dodging for months now.  “Justin, I don’t know what gets into me sometimes.  Sometimes I open my mouth and my father’s words come out.  I am not my father.  You are a fine son.  A better son than I knew how to be.  I am thankful for every day I get to be your father.”

Jonathan wore the hat in summer and in winter, and treasured it every day.  Sometimes his colleagues teased him about doing “walkabout” when he spent his lunch hours walking in his hat.    The hat had some kind of magic that made him not mind.  The hat had some kind of magic to repair the scars of the past and knit his son ever more tightly into his grateful heart.

Slowly, Justin left the stormy weather of early adolescence and began to emerge as a young man, ready to leave for college.  The hat sheltered Jonathan’s face from winter’s cold, spring rains, and summer heat.  One rainy day, Jonathan slipped into the bus shelter and slipped off his hat to shake the rain off the brim.   He could never remember what distracted him so much that he put the hat down, then climbed into the bus several minutes later.

II

Henry ducked into the bus shelter for some relief from the cold rain.  The weather was getting harder for him to bear as he got older.  It never used to bother him so much.  He preferred being free and outside, no matter how cold or wet it was.  He used to avoid going inside the shelters at all costs.  Bad things happen there.  They would steal an honest man blind.  Eat.  Leave.  Talk to no one and get into no trouble.  He may not have looked like much, but he prided himself in being an honest man.  He could have done like so many others and run away to Canada.  He didn’t have the money rich boys had to run away and go to college.  When his number came up, he took it like a man even though he was still mostly boy.  He’d seen so many come and go, and hardly even knew where they went.  Maybe to the pokey.  Maybe they just moved on.  He doubted that any of them ever went home, wherever that was.  Sometimes he would hear of one freezing to death because he was too stupid to go into the shelter.  He could have been that stupid, he admitted to himself.  Now I’m just old and can’t do that nonsense anymore.

The bus was coming when he ducked into the shelter, and everyone jostled into position to get onto it.  People would get pushy at going home time, when the bus would pull away when it got full whether everyone was on or not.  The rain made everyone more pushy than usual, so a seat on the bench quickly became available and Henry slipped into it.  The bus was pulling away when he saw it.  There was a hat on the bench next to him.  A nice hat.  He admired it while running the brim through his fingers.  A person could snap up one side and look like a regular Crocodile Dundee.  He held it out in the rain to discover that the rain ran off the brim in rivlets.  A hat like this could really protect a person.  Especially a person so often exposed to the elements, like himself.  Henry prided himself for being an honest man, and decided he could not just take the hat without seeing if someone returned for it.  Dry enough, he stayed at the bus bench into the night.  After the last bus ran, a police officer got out of his car and offered to take him to a shelter.  Henry waved him on, saying he was waiting for a friend.  When the police officer drove around the neighborhood a few more times,  no friend had come. He told Henry he would have to leave and could not spend the night on the bench.   He was reluctant, but stood up stiffly and put the hat on his head.  He walked and walked until the next police shift took over, then went back to the bus shelter and waited, holding the hat between his folded hands.  People got off the express buses and bustled on to work, but no one saw the hat and said, “There’s my hat!  Thank you so much!  Here, here, let me give you $20 for keeping it safe.”  By mid-afternoon, he was hungry.  He put the hat on his head and walked to the Front Street Shelter, where he could wait on the steps until dinner was served.

When the doors opened, he was happy to see the young college girl at the table in the entry.  She always asked how you were doing and even remembered his name.  She tried to get him to stay in the shelter after every dinner, but he refused every time.  Sometimes she told him to sit next to her for a while and play cards.  No gambling though.  Never.  “What is the worse thing that could happen if you stayed?”  she pleaded with him.

He made a slashing motion across his throat.

“Why, I’ve never known such a thing to happen here.”

He just shook his head.  Being inside felt dangerous.  The bad dreams would come, and he would wake up hollering and everyone would stare at him like he was some kind of crazy.

Tonight she admired his hat.   “Where’d you get such a fine hat Henry?”  ‘I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you mean.”

Well, no.  Not really.  I was just worried someone might try to steal it from you.

“That’s why i don’t spend the night.”

He told her about finding the hat, waiting until the police ran him off, then coming back until the morning express buses had all run.

“I figure I’m just babysitting it until someone misses it and comes back for it.”

“We could take it to the lost and found at the bus office.  I’ll go over with you.”

“What?  And let some other bum steal it?”

She couldn’t argue with that.

Henry walked casually around that bus bench every day except Sunday when the buses didn’t run.  No one ever claimed that the hat was his.  Maybe if that guy recognized his hat on the old man’s dirty head he would change his mind about wanting it back.

One sunny day he stretched out with his legs in front of him, the hat covering his face, and settled comfortably into a nap.   After a time he could not have guessed, he felt the bench give at the other end as a thin young man plopped down.  His hair had been dyed a brilliant red no human was ever born to, but now the dark brown roots were growing out more than two inches.  This boy had been away from his hair stylist for a while.  His shoes were free of laces, and slipped shabbily on his feet.

‘Where you stayin'” Henry ventured in a friendy way.  The boy did not respond.  He was talking, just not responding to Henry’s presence.  Henry watched the boy for a moment, then stretched out again and put the hat over his face.  Protected by the hat, he could watch the boy more closely.  He studied the boy’s arms and saw no track marks or scars.  Then he saw the bands of scars on his wrists, and realized the boy had been cutting.  His skin seemed too smooth to be much of a man.  His eyes darted for a few minutes, then fixed on a point, unblinking, for several more minutes.  He was so still that Henry had to check carefully to see his chest rise and fall, rise and fall.

“Do you need some drugs?”  Henry tested him.

“NO!  NO DRUGS!”  The young man became agitated and jumped up.

“Now calm down, sit back down here.  I was just trying to be helpful, not accuse you of anything.  What’s your name?”

The boy was silent and stared at Henry as though he were growing another head and horns.

“You hear voices in your head don’t you?”

The boy was shaking now, mumbling something under his breath.

“You hear voices and think one of them is going to hurt you if you go to sleep, don’t you?”

The boy shook his head.

Ah, I guessed his number, Henry said softly to himself.  He felt sad to see someone so young like this, like some war-worn bomb weary veteran half poisoned to death and doped up.  He seemed too young to have seen any action, except in his head.

The boy jumped up as if to run.  In a stern voice, Henry gruffly commanded him, ‘Sit Down Young’un!”  To his astonishment, the boy obeyed.   Henry worried about the boy, too new to the streets to know any better, surely not experienced enough to know how to help himself. Too sick inside.

‘You have no business out on the streets like this, Young’un.  Don’t you have no one to go to?”

The boy shook his head fiercely.  ‘No.”

“Look, you need a safe place to stay.  I’ll take you somewhere they are real nice.”

The boy panicked and started to run.  Henry jumped faster than he knew he could anymore and grabbed the boy by the shoulders.  “Now I said, Sit Down!”  He pushed the boy down on the bench again.  He had seen this kind many times and knew how hard it was to help them.  He wished he had a magic wand to take the sickness away.

Magic wand.  His hat.  He loved his hat, but he would have to part with it to help this boy.  He took it off his head, and pushed it down on the boy’s ahead.  Before the boy could push it off, he put his hands down heavily on the crown.

“Now boy, I want you to know this is a magic hat.  I’ve worn it and know how powerful it is.  You wear this and no one can hurt you.  You can tell those voices to shut up.  You will be stronger than you know you are.  Just leave it on.”

The boy tried to shove it off again, but Henry clasped his head even more firmly.  Now I’m going to name you, name you …Henry thought rapidly for a proper name….Sir Dundee. ”

That was a stupid name, Henry thought.  But before he could recant it, the boy repeated it ,  his voice calm and firm.  Sir Dundee.  yessir.   Reporting for duty.

Henry wasn’t sure if the boy was getting all the metaphors straight, but he saluted him nonetheless.  “Henry you’re gonna get caught this time.” he told himself.  “You be making promises you can’t keep.  This boy is in a heap of trouble, and can’t punch his way out of a paper bag.  Soon enough he’ll know you be lying, man, he’ll know you be lying before he be dead.”

He knew the boy needed to be somewhere safe, somewhere inside.  He couldn’t stay up all day and night making sure the boy didn’t run into the street or hurt himself, or worse yet, attack someone he thought was a devil or about to attack him.  He knew that young college girl at the Front Street Shelter who was always trying to help him might actually enjoy helping this boy.

‘Come.  Come with me boy.  Come with me Dundee.”  The boy stood by Henry’s side and followed him to the steps of the shelter.   At the steps, the magic broke.  Dundee realized he was about to be taken inside and began to fight Henry and the other guys standing on the steps.  The college girl came outside, shouting with a stern voice and her hands mounted on her hips, ‘Eh!  What’s going on here!”  A big muscular guy Henry recognized as a resident walked up behind College Girl and stood at the top of the steps.  Henry rushed to her, only to be intercepted by Muscles.  Hissing through his teeth, he quickly told her about the boy and looked at her with pleading eyes.  Grabbing Dundee by the arm, he dragged him to College Girl.

“Now Dundee, I’ve told College Girl here all about the magic hat.  She’s been real helpful to me, and she wants you to come inside and tell her more about the magic hat.  That’s an order, Sir.”

Calm returned to Dundee as he regained composure and manners.

‘Miss, I am Sir Dundee and I’m here to serve.”

She was nonplussed at the sudden change in the boy’s demeanor.

‘Do you want to stay here in, in the barracks tonight?”

Henry tensed, waiting for another explosion.  It didn’t come.

‘Yes ma’m, if he stays I have to stay. ”

Henry wondered where that rule came from.  College Girl looked at him with questions in her eyes.  He had never spent the night in the shelter.

“okay, Dundee, but you keep that hat with you every minute, here?  I don’t want to find it somewhere you ain’t.’

Dundee kept his word, and Henry kept his.  Soon they were inseparable and busy doing chores around the shelter.   The boy was actually pretty handy fixing things.

III

Paul leaned on the suitcase as he zipped it up and set it upright on its wheels.  He went through his mental checklists: one for what he would need if he succeeded in his mission, another for what he would need if he did not.  He checked his jacket pocket for the tickets,  picked up his suitcase and his laptop, and headed downstairs just as the doorbell rang to announce that his neighbor was standing on the other side ready to take him to the airport.

‘That’s it?  That’s all you are taking for a month?” Joe eyed Paul and his luggage.

“Not going to pay the airlines a fortune, and if I’m lucky it won’t take me a month.  If not, there’s such a thing as a laundromat.  Thanks for your concern Joe, and I can’t thank you enough for taking me to the airport at the buttcrack of dawn like this.”

“What’s a neighbor good for?” Joe grinned and picked up the luggage.  “I’ve got coffee waiting in the car.  Cream, no sugar, right?”

Paul pulled out a postcard from his jacket pocket as Joe pulled out of the subdivision.

“That’s all you have to go on?”

“Yep.  But it’s enough.  A postmark and a note that he’s alive.”

“Paul, I don’t know whether I should admire you or pity you.  That boy has put you and Melanie through hell.”

“Maybe.  But he hasn’t put us through anything he hasn’t suffered ten fold.  I can’t stop trying.”

Melanie left first.  She said she couldn’t take the stress anymore, and no matter how much she loved her husband and son she needed a break.  Tim left then, leaving blood all over the bathroom and not even a note.  He didn’t understand the demons that seemed to overcome Tim as he struggled into young adulthood.  He had to drop out of college because the voices were telling him to hurt himself, or hurt someone else who was plotting a terrorist attack.  He tried to understand, but it seemed as though Tim couldn’t do anything to help himself or snap out of it.  He and Melanie took turns sitting at his bedroom door, searching the house for anything he might hurt himself with, emptying medicine cabinets, and of course the guns were the first thing to leave the house.  He didn’t blame Melanie at all.  In fact, he thought at times she had just beaten him to it.

He checked into the hotel he had reserved for a week.  Looking in the mirror, he saw less a face he recognized as much as he saw a faded apparition of a man he once was.  Life had been a nightmare for three years, but his face showed ten years of wear in that time.  He splashed water on his face and combed his thinning hair.  The uninvited thought occurred to him that he might not recognize Tim  or that Tim might not recognize him and refuse to come with him.    He carefully laid out the pictures of Tim in happier days.  ‘Who am I kidding?” he said outloud.  “Who is going to recognize Tim from these pictures?”  The kid in the pictures had normal hair, no bleached or neon colors.  The kid in the pictures was smiling, confident and friendly.  Since Tim had bolted from the house that night, Paul had not stopped praying that God would send Tim  a guardian, or that God would forgive Paul for whatever he did or didn’t do that made Tim like this.  Maybe it was too little, too late. For a while, he was afraid Tim had died or was in prison somewhere.  Then the postcard came.  The picture was of Wrigley Field.  Chicago.  Of course, that didn’t mean Tim was there, but it was the best thing he had to go on.  He read the words over and over.

“Dad, I am sorry I am so much trouble.  Don’t worry about me.  Henry said so and gave me a magic hat.  Bye.”

Paul wondered what delusion Tim was living now.  Henry.  Magic Hat.  Not even his own name.

 

IV

Emma was getting ready to open the doors for the first shift of clients to come in when she heard a knock.

“You know I can’t let anyone in until the St. Joseph bells!”  she yelled back, without opening the doors.

The knock became more insistent, unrelenting.

“you can knock until your knuckles fall off, I’m not allowed and you know it!” she yelled again.

This time a man yelled back.  “I’m not here to eat!  I’m not one of them!”

As her grandmother used to say, that “Got my I’rsh up.”  She cracked the door open and addressed the man who stood there.

“What do you mean you aren’t one of “THEM.”  Just who do you think “THEY” are?  People who don’t matter?  People you hope won’t ask you for anything, or follow you on your way to your highrise office building?  Why are you so afraid I might think you are one of THEM?  God forbid.  God forbid that I get caught with the likes of you!”

She was ready to slam the door when the man pushed his arm into the closing door, holding a picture.

‘Please, I’m begging.  I’m sorry.  Please, have you seen this boy?”

She stopped the door.

“Are you a cop?  Has he done something?”

“No.  I’m his father.”

Relaxing, she invited him in after reminding the eavesdropping clients that the doors would not open for dinner until the St. Joseph bells rang.

Taking the picture, she studied it until she called a man from the kitchen.

What do you think, Henry?  Could this be Dundee?  Henry took the picture, sucked on his teeth while he studied it.

“What do you want with him?”

“I’m his father.”

“So, what do you want to do with him?”

“Take him home….if he’ll have me, that is.”

“He’s one messed up kid.  But he’s a good kid.”

“I know.”  Paul was meek.  “The doctors said he’s a paranoid schizophrenic.  Very hard case.”

“No.”  Henry was forceful.  “He is not.”

Paul began to feel defensive.  What did this old guy off the streets know about his son that he and a dozen doctors didn’t know?

Henry continued firmly, jamming his finger into the picture.

“This.  This is YOUR SON.  He’s got a whole lotta stuff going on in his head and the doctor’s might have all kinds of names for it, but first-he’s your son.   Not in spite of all the mess in his head.  You can’t have him and not have all of him.”

Not wanting to be patient any longer, Paul demanded now.  “Where is my son?  Do you know?  I got this postcard from him.”

Paul pulled out the very worn postcard from his pants pocket.  Look here, it says he has a magic hat, and something about a guy named Henry.

Henry’s face brightened and he called to Emily.  ‘Emmy, come here.  Remember that postcard you made Dundee write to tell his family he is ok?  Here it is!”

She grabbed the card.  “Praise God.  I wondered if that would ever do anybody any good. ”

Looking now to Paul with friendlier demeanor, she introduced Henry as the man who brought Dundee–the only name the boy would allow himself to be called–and stayed with him.

Seeing Paul’s crestfallen face, Henry hurried to reassure him.  “He’s just gone walkabout a bit.  Does that sometimes when the voices won’t let him alone.  Just takes his Magic Hat for a walk until they settle down.”

‘Magic Hat?”  Paul was puzzled.

“Yeah, that’s what I called it so he would start settling down.  Old trick I learned in the army when some kid flipped.  Give him something he can borrow strength from.   i don’t know why it works, but that Magic Hat really worked for him.  Hell, I guess it worked some kind of magic on me too.  Found the thing forgotten on a bus bench.  Great at keeping off the rain, covering up my face so I can sleep in the day.  Used it to get him to come inside here.  I couldn’t get him to stay unless i stayed…and here I am.  Under roof.  And working in the kitchen.

‘But he’s gone now?  I’ve looked everywhere for him, and I’ve just about drained my bank account and have to go home. ”

“Just take yourself for a little walkabout around here.  Look for this Australian Cowboy hat–you know, Crocodile Dundee type.  That’s why i named him Dundee when he wouldn’t tell me no name.  It’s like he didn’t remember who he was.  Look for the hat.  you’ll find it.  I told not to ever take it off.”

The St. Joseph bells started to toll the hour, and Emily pushed the heavy doors open for dinner.  About an hour later, just before the second shift was about to come in, she saw the hat first.  Paul stood next to it.

“Can I eat here tonight too?  You see….here’s my son.I’m with him.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Report from And

Earlier this month, I preached a sermon somewhat related to the post “The Queen of But.”  I stepped down from my throne and became intentional about living in the uncertain land of And.  On my last Sunday at St Matt’s, a dear lady and her grandchildren gave me this awesome light up ampersAND.   It is delightful!  I can’t wait until it finds a new permanent home after we move.

I have a number of new followers AND think I should again post about what I write and why.   Sometimes there are connections between what I write here AND what I preach.  It is, after all, reflections on the lectionary–more or less.  The frontier of AND connects me more vigorously to the world around me.  That includes politics AND other subjects likely to become uncivil in  mixed company.  I spent most of my career to date tiptoeing around politics because people embroiled in uncivil conversations are unlikely to hear the Gospel through the din of dissent.  I am less guarded, more personal in this blog.  It isn’t a sermon.  I write more freely here.  I take more risks.  That’s what happens when one travels to rugged frontier of AND.  Thanks for taking the risk to follow me!

Dr. Mark Powell, of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, tells a story from the frontier of early baptism mosaicencounters between Christian missionaries and the fierce Celtic warriors on the edge of the crumbling Roman empire.  When baptized , these ferocious men would hold their swords high above the water.   You might think they were protecting their swords from damage.  When asked, they explained that by holding their sword arm and sword out of the baptismal water they were exempting that sword and arm from baptism.  This allowed them to be Christ men AND still carry on their war making.

You might chuckle about this story.  You also might realize that we continue to raise our sword arms out of the water.  We do that with our wallets, Dr  Powell points out.  We don’t want Jesus or the Church in our business.  AND we do it with our politics.  We hold our political positions high out of the water of our baptism.  We don’t want our preachers getting too specific about politics and getting water all over them.  That is life in under the potentate of BUT.  All belongs to God, BUT this.

I have been thinking and praying mightily about the Syrian refugees.  I tremble at some of the things people are saying–good people, kind people, sincere people.   We should register Muslims, put tags on them.  The kingdom under BUT is a dangerous and pervasive threat that allows us to hold our faith high out of the boiling waters of politics and matters of the world.

To do that, I have to take exception to many important scriptures, hold them high over my head.  Maybe so high that no one can actually see me holding them and hold me accountable to them.

Deuteronomy 10:17-1919

For the LORD your God is God of gods and LORD of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

So, if God loves the strangers, even provides them food and clothing, and executes justice for the orphan and the widow….whose side are we on when we do otherwise?

Jesus says it:  Matthew 25

I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

So, if Jesus claims the naked and the hungry and the thirsty, the imprisoned and the stranger as members of his own family…whose side are we on when we ignore or abuse those same people?

 

Paul writes:

2Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:12

Overcome evil with good.  I haven’t heard that in anyone’s rhetoric or posts recently.  I have heard a lot of people overcome by evil, seeking greater harm to come to those who have harmed them.   I have heard people making mockery of one another.  Leave room for the wrath of God.  What kind of person does that?  We are like Jonah–angry and spiteful because we knew God would exercise mercy instead of wrath.  We don’t trust God to smite the people we so dearly wish to be smitten.   We come off sounding weak, like sniveling victims ready to be abused and taken advantage of some more.  (For more on that, see a past blog about “Kick Ass Jesus.”  )   In God’s economy and household, it is possible to feed the hungry, even if your enemies are among them.  The weeds grow alongside the wheat, to the advantage of the wheat.  One has to trust that God knows the difference.  That’s how it is in the kingdom of AND.

Deuteronomy 5
When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5you shall make this response before the LORD your God:my father was a wandering aramean
. 8The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Try using that as a prelude to the typically rushed and mumbled family Thanksgiving prayer.  I believe it could start some lively conversation before the pies come out.  We forget that our ancestors were wandering Arameans too, that among our forebears are saints and sinners, immigrants who came without permission, or with tickets in steerage, stow aways or first class.  More  than a few escaped famine and economic hardship, religious persecution,  or even criminal charges. We forget the people who belonged to this land, and how light our own claim upon it really is.

 Moses teaches Israel to observe Passover as the day when God brought them over from slavery into freedom.   All of Israel, past, present, and future, stands on the banks of the sea between desperation and salvation.  It was those relatively few Israelites with a lot of Egypt running in their veins, AND all who have been driven to the shore of their destruction and desparate for salvation in every time and generation.  Maybe God’s mighty arm brought us here too.   Thanksgiving is a good time to figure out what runs in our veins as we once again gather with family familiar and brand new, the interloper, matriarch and patriarch,  maybe remembering when we came across water and why, or came to be wherever we are now.

middle passageAnd what about those who were brought to this land against their will, bought and sold?  What about the millions who died in the Middle Passage?  God stood with the slaves on the banks of the Red Sea when Egypt pressed hard against them.  Where do we stand with those who have been pressed hard together and brought across the sea?  What exception, what “But” is necessary for us to make in order to believe this too is not our  story, to deny that we have ever been slaves to anyone or oppressors of anyone?

We can not hold anything high above the water and live.  It’s all or nothing.  The waters claim us all and claim all of us. And God rescues the drowned. And so?

 

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Beating Dragons

Fairytales don’t tell children that dragons exist.  Children already know that dragons exist.  Fairytales tell them dragons can be beaten. – (paraphrased quote from G.K. Chesterton)

Many have lauded and condemned the video of the father and 4 year old in a conversation about the Paris tragedy.

 

The ones condemning the video have basically indicated that the father should have discussed a more retaliatory tale (an eye for an eye) and say the son’s understanding of the “bad guys” was more to the point than the father’s talk.

The ones lauding the video have basically said that the father was shielding the son from life’s brutality and was a good father.

I think the father was telling a story that indicated that there is an alternate way to “beat the dragons” of this world.   Very much like the prophets, Jesus, Mohammed and all religions who have like minded tenets, they all guide their flocks into an alternate way to think about justice and peace in this world.  Don’t live in hate, revenge or fear.  Live in the light.

All the evil in this world cannot be conquered by guns and war.   Neither can it be conquered by inaction.   Good people are dying at the hands of radicalized men and women whose views run counter to Jewish, Christian and Islamic teachings.

Thanksgiving is a day for the entire nation to show gratitude for its many blessings.  One of those blessings for many has been that America has been a refuge for peoples of every nation who have experienced famine, racism, political unrest, armed conflict and religious oppression.  We have been viewed by many as a land of new beginnings, a land of new opportunities and a place to heal wounds of the heart, soul and body.

As a nation of immigrants, we should be keenly aware that the lives of these displaced peoples in all conflicts matter and need to be shielded from the harm.  We need to shield and shelter them both here and abroad. There is a fairy tale working in us.  It’s the vision of a land where the bounty is plentiful, where work is rewarded, where the welcome is generous.  It’s the vision of the second coming of Christ, and God who wipes away every tear, and all things are made new.  That’s the vision.  Or fairytale. Whichever.  It tells us that the dragons do indeed exist but will be overcome at the end of the story.  How then are we supposed to live in the meantime?   If we can overcome our fear of the dragon, what is now possible for us?

dragon

 

This post is from my guest blogger, Jim Williams.  Yes, we are related.  He has listened to me preach for many years, in and out of the pulpit.  I thought it was worth sharing with you.   

 

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Not all who wander are lost….really.

I am about to set out again, not knowing entirely where I’m going but trusting that God’s hand is taking….er…..dragging me there.  This Sunday will be my last worship with the good people of St. Matthew Darrtown and St. Peter Trenton.  Lovingly, I let them go and place them in God’s hand to take them wherever God needs them to go.

I was caught off guard when Willis called late one evening on the cusp of August.  Five months passed from the time I interviewed and the time I talked to Willis that night.  I was entirely speechless.  The air seemed to be sucked out of the room.

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Newark Ohio

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Newark Ohio

Now, On November 28, I  begin ministry with the good people of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Newark, Ohio.  I plan to continue writing here, but may be preoccupied now and then with the business of moving.  We have been in this house for 14 years, and I spent most of those years not able to forgive it.  We were continually stumbling upon the prior occupant’s deceit and coverups of the house’s failings and mishaps.  Most cost us quite a bit of money to remediate.  After the major bathroom remodeling project, I began to love this house for the first time.  And then the call came.   The Call.

I am overwhelmed with all there is to do, to pack, to fix, to clean.  I will be off work for the next two weeks to devote myself wholeheartedly to the task.  My left hand is still quite injured from the Zombie Apocalypse on September 16 (being harshly  pulled down in a cemetery by zombies  hyperextending four fingers) and isn’t able to fully show up for duty.     I  begin preaching at St.Paul Thanksgiving weekend, and will live in Newark five days a week.  Two days a week I return to Mason  (2 hr trip) to take care of Carys’ therapies, therapy for my hand, and take Carys to choir.  Some weekends she and Jim will be able to join me in Newark.

I am praying that the house I have not loved well will sell very quickly and be loved by someone else.  I want to live with my family.   Soon.

In the meantime, David has been promoted to Assistant Manager at Rockler Woodworking, with all the salary, privileges, and hours therunto.  Sometimes the mama bird has to nudge the babies out of the nest.  Sometimes she just moves the nest.  He is apartment hunting and both eager and anxious about being on his own.  We have wonderful friends here who will be/already are his safety net.  We’re only 2 hours away.  The speed limit is up to 70 now.

I am looking forward to leaving on this next leg of the journey.  I cannot say that I will miss

The Good Shepherd Window St. Paul Lutheran Church Newark, OH

The Good Shepherd Window
St. Paul Lutheran Church
Newark, OH

living here much. (I will miss some dearest friends, and our remodeled bathrooms, however) The past two and half years  (in truth, well over 3) have been the wandering, detaching, disengaging, lustrating years.  I am profoundly grateful for those who held on to me and my family, and the congregations that have gently and lovingly helped my feet find the path again.  I have wandered, but never been lost –because of those who helped me find the hand of God taking me somewhere even when I didn’t know where that was.

Thank you.  Check in on my blog again.  Your interest keeps me writing.

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Queen of But

My options are limited.  That was what the lady at the wig shop said to me after she measured my head before I lost my hair to chemo.  My head is too big.  My options are limited.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  My options are never limited.   I may not always understand my options, or take advantage of my options, but I will always have options even if I don’t know what they are yet.

I am a Myers-Briggs P.   That’s usually the result for ADD people.  P’s in a J world.  J’s–judging, ordered, organized, prioritized.   We’re the possibilities thinkers.  J’s get impatient with us because we can always think of one more option, one more way to look at things.  We can overwhelm the brainstorming session, and fall apart in the details.  That’s what J’s do best.  It’s not easy being P.  I need J’s on my team.  The J’s don’t always get why they need me on theirs.  I’m always happy to help them with the options.  Without J’s in my world…let’s just say my options eventually become limited.

I know how annoying I can be.  I’m the Queen of But.  I can always take exception, offer other ideas, create new ideas by putting the old ones together.  At my darkest times, I can bring skeptic doubt into any conversation with a “But.”   When I am doubtful and uncertain, insecure in myself, I abound with Buts.  It’s how my worry and anxiety finds expression.

Scarcity doesn’t scare me.  I’m the Queen of Buts, and I am outrageously delighted when I find a way to turn the disadvantages in a situation into new possibilities.  Sometimes it’s good to be Queen.

Even the Queen of But can have a broken heart.  The readings of  this  past week’s lectionary break my heart.  A widow is gathering sticks to make a small fire upon which she can cook a small cake with the last of her flour and oil before she watches her (probably already severely malnourished) young son die and wait for her own death to come.  They are not hungry because they won’t work.  They are not hungry because they failed to plan.  There are no other options.  There is a drought.  No one has food.  There are simply no options left.  That’s where the story would have ended, BUT Elijah, God’s Man, comes into the picture.  He asks her to give up her very last option–cooking that little meagre cake for her son, and give it to him.   It is unspeakably cruel.  Sure, the reader knows that the possibilities for God’s Man Elijah are greater than this poor woman can know.  She is, after all, not of the clans of Israel.  She is a stranger and outsider to the story.  And on no other cognizance Elijah asks for her very last option.  Cruel.  Unspeakably.  But she cooks it for Elijah.  Go figure.

This story is paired up with the story of the poor widow at the temple, who puts her last two tiny meager coins in the temple tax collector’s hands.  Jesus holds her up as an example to those who had been hounding and stalking him, looking for just cause to have him arrested.  Jesus gives them just cause.

Temple administration had become corrupted under Roman occupation.  It may have been corrupted from its beginning along with its’ remodeler–Herod the Great.  He wanted a more magnificent edifice to endear himself to the Jews.  Happy Jews would appease his friends in the Roman empire.  (He also had a crush on Queen Cleopatra, truth to be told, and impressing her would just sweeten the deal.)  Some did very well for themselves under Roman occupation–temple administration in particular.  Jesus points to them with their long robes and long prayers in the verses immediately prior to this week’s lectionary.

Generations have been taught to look up to the widow as the perfect example of real stewardship and generosity.  I wonder that stewardship committees revel in this lectionary choice right in the middle of church stewardship campaigning season.  When we step back from the reading far enough that we see it’s context, it is a terrifying judgment.  Not on those whose pledge falls short of the idyllic 10% tithe.  On those who would take the widow’s last dime.  Her last option.  If it was about the widow in the way we usually read the text and fold it into our stewardship purposes, it would go on to tell what happened to her next.   We would see her give her last dime and go home to find out that her landlord had erased her debt, there was a check for half a million dollars from an annonymous donor who happened to see her deposit those tiny miserable coins in the offering plate, her children were miraculously clothed and fed, her health problems mysteriously vanish, and someone would offer her a well-paying job.   All because she ventured out in unjustified risk that some believe make her the poster child of faithfulness.

But.  But no.   The point of the story is that those who had seemingly unlimited options in life would take the last tiny copper coin from a woman who had no more options.  There is no “but” that could rescue this story in favor of the widow’s survival.   That’s very painful stuff to a person like me who always sees possibilities and choices, who loves to use the word “but….” when feeling trapped by linear, sequential and binary thinking.

There are no “buts.”   But (!) there is an AND.   And she went home to her misery, possibly to watch her children die of hunger before she joined them.  And Jesus went on to condemn the temple to its certain destruction, and all the powers with it  (read Mark 13.)  And those who defended the temple until their last choice, their last option, would sentence Jesus to death for suggesting that the temple and its corruption would fall.   And Jesus would die for it.   Die for proclaiming the most unlikely possibility:   that even if the temple rubbletemple and all of Jerusalem would be destroyed, if the unthinkable happened and the stars fell out of the sky, if no stone was left on stone, the last “But” would belong to God.  Not to Rome.  Not to people who like to go about in long robes and say long prayers and preach long sermons.  But God.     But God would rescue Adam and Eve from the consequences of their disobedience.  But God would rescue Joseph from the pit into which his brothers tossed him, and raise him up to rescue those same brothers, all of Egypt, and ultimately all of Israel in bondage. But God would fill the widow’s flour bin and oil jar.   But God would bring the exiles home.  But God would raise Jesus from the dead.

All the “buts” for those who are looking at the final option belong to God.   The faithful can only ask  “And?” while waiting. “And what does this mean?”    “And then what happened next?”   “And what do we do in the meantime?” “And just how are we supposed to live in this evil and corrupt time?”

I am liberated –not despairing at all, in this.   NPR  featured  a powerful interview this week about a cookbook.  Imagine that.  Power in a cookbook.  And it wasn’t even a cookbook about powerful foods.  It was a cookbook about prison.  A place where a lot of people have very few, if any options.   It was a cookbook about Ramen noodles, the cheapest of foods that fill the bellies of a lot of people who have few, if any options.   Hear the interview at:

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/11/04/454671629/behind-bars-cheap-ramen-is-as-good-as-gold

While you’re at it, peek at this one too;

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/08/16/212671438/ramen-to-the-rescue-how-instant-noodles-fight-global-hunger

In prison, ramen noodles are currency.   It gives the well-behaved prisoner some options.  It gives the innovator, as the writer of the cookbook most certainly is, tools to work with. Talk about limited options.   The writer was an inmate. He was in the Latino cell block.  Next door there was the Black cell block.  The two groups’ gangs were enemies on the outside and the violence between them continued right into prison.  A terrible prison riot broke out and the black cell block emerged with all sorts of improvised weapons, headed to the Latino cell block. As they pressed in toward the door and the Latinos began to arm themselves, an old prisoner who had been there a long time stepped up.  He talked to the prisoners on the other side.  He had nothing to lose.  He came back to the Latinos with his discovery:  the black prisoners were hungry.  He directed his fellow prisoners to bring out prison ramen their secretly stashed food.  Their ramen noodles. They gave up the last of their treasure, the most humble of foods.   They fed their hungry neighbors.  The atmosphere cleared of the ugly epithets and cloud of hatred.  The inspiration for this cookbook came out of that communion.   The writer of this cookbook gives an amazing variety of things you can do with a package of ramen noodles when all other options are limited.  What a vision of Psalm 23:  “He prepares a table in the presence of my enemies.”

Back to the widow.  Jesus does lift her up.  The least of these is publicly cherished.  This is a good news/bad news story.  Her generosity condemns those considered the best, who enjoyed nothing but the best, and the temple system that gave them great reward and recognition.

It’s too easy to simply find a moral in her generosity that suggests that we should be giving more and feel guilty if we don’t or can’t give more. Stewardship campaigns love this story, but not framed by the judgments fore and aft.   See, I think Jesus is revealing God in this story, and God is the widow.  God is the one who gives everything,  even the beloved son.  The Son is the one who reveals the grace and generosity of God all the way to the cross, even giving up his own life, his everything, all he had to live on.

There are no neat ways to partition our lives.  “This is for God.”  “This is for me.”  “This is for taxes.”   It’s all  what we have to live on, rich and poor alike.   It’s all for God.  Our  lives are holy and wholly.  All life is holy and wholly God’s because God  wholly invests in life and well being on this planet.  That’s what it means to say “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth.”   And then what?  And what happens after that?  And so what does this mean?  And what am I going to do about that?  And where am I going to find the resources to do that?  And what about my hungry neighbor?  And what about my violent enemies?  And?

The Queen of But is stepping down.  Throw a party and invite all the commoners in the Kingdom of And.  No one is excepted in the kingdom of And because well, it’s AND, not But.    Ramen Noodles.  Bread and Wine.  The Feast of And.

pnuts

 

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Greetings, Salutations and the Force be with you!

Wilbur jumped to his feet.  “Salu-what?”

“Salutations!”  repeated the voice.
What are they and where are you? screamed Wilbur.

Please, please tell me where you are.  And what are salutations?

“Salutations are greetings,” said the voice.  “When I say ‘salutations’ it is just my fancy way of saying ‘hello’or ‘good morning.”

(Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White, p. 34)

So began one of the most unlikely friendships in literary history:  Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider.

How do we begin?  Stranger meets stranger, child greets parent after a day at school, teenager walks in the house, the Pope comes to the United States, friends meet after a long separation with much to catch up with one another, a meeting begins.  We meet one another at Easter, at church, during the Christmas season.  We post facebook memes about “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas.”  As you picture these scenes, it might occur to you how complex  greetings really are.  Context (location, location, loctation) is  all important to understanding what is going on, and you know how often we read into context!   Salutations–a fancy way of saying hello–aren’t supposed to come from a spider regarding a pig, in a barn.  Charlotte’s greeting lifts a corner of the pages still to come.

Let’s start with the handshake.  We coach the upstart, “Always use a firm handshake.”    A hndshakehandshake was  originally shorthand for ” I come without a weapon in my hand, and here’s proof,”  It became a sign of trustworthiness between those who may or may not come in goodwill.  A handshake became the visible sign that whatever uncertainty or ill will exists, weapons have been set aside.  No one hardly thinks a thing of it these days, as politicians glad 12_02_10_kiss_of_peacehand a crowd and people experience a rush of intimacy, saying “I shook hands with…”   Touching hands, we become connected in our stories.  I doubt that any celebrity or politician can possibly remember every moment of contact, but I do not doubt that we always remember our brush with their hands.

Biblical greetings  have no handshakes.   Kisses sometimes.   Every being who brings a message from God has to say, “Do not be afraid.”  Our encounters with the Holy begin with fear, and the fear has to be disarmed so that we can even hear what the kisspeace1messenger of the Holy One has to say.  I think that counts as a verbal handshake.    Paul’s letters always begin with a greeting to set the stage for the words to come.  He presents his credentials to the recipients, and says whatever is needed to make them ready to hear:  a scolding in the case of the Galatians, or tender words to his friends  the Philippians.

“Peace to you.”  Jesus greets the disciples after the resurrection.  Jesus’ words and presence bring about the peace his greeting promises.   Guilty consciences are relieved, denials forgiven, fears set aside.  Something is about to happen in the space between Jesus and the disciples, and it begins with peace.  Peace that Jesus creates just by showing Stom,_Matthias_-_Le_repas_d'Emmaüsup. Peace is not passivity.  It is conceived, like ovum and sperm, in the junction between Christ and the world.  It instills a  swelling and indwelling, that like pregnancy does not end without change and pain.  We wait for what feels like a very long time. We know that something has happened, but not all that will happen.  Nor will we fully understand what is happening, maybe never, or maybe only when we look back over our shoulder. Trusting, we wait.  The Annunciation-2disciples are told to wait for the Holy Spirit.  I can’t imagine waiting for the Holy Spirit without anxiety, doubt, irritability, questioning, or prayer.  Did we hear that right?  Is that the Holy Spirit?  You’ll know it when you see it.  What did you see?  I didn’t see anything.      Peace comes none the less, overcoming anxiety and fear as it opens the space between us to be filled by a spirit that is Holy.    Peace is what Jesus leaves  with his followers, “not as the world gives.”   He isn’t just trying to make them feel warm and comfortable.  This is the peace they need in order to fulfill the mission Jesus entrusts to them.  Jesus’ peace  overcomes fear.    Peace to face what is not warm and comfortable.  Peace to endure in the face of affliction and persecution.  The peace that Jesus brings is God’s love made visible  (1 John 4) between us and by us and for us.

“The Lord be with you.”   Lutherans know that greeting from the liturgy, not always
connecting it to Jesus’ own greeting . The common joke is that if you say “The Force be with you”  (Star Wars) all the Lutherans present will reply  “And also with you.”  To be fair, Catholics will reply too–“And with your Spirit.”   Our Muslim neighbors greet one another “Alasalaam Aleikum” or one of its seasonal variants.  “Peace be upon you.”  The Jewish  greeting is close to it:  shalom aleichem .   Peace be upon you.

What does this mean?  (the good Lutheran question)   Shalom/salaam isn’t just a variant on “Keep calm and carry on.”  It is the declaration of good between two people, and their people.  It is the prayer that sets aside hostilities and desires all that is needful and good for the other:  food, shelter, healing, safety, water, and so much more.   To say “Peace” to another is to  commit one’s self to making that peace.  The word lifts the corner of the page on which is written and drawn  the kingdom of God and the world made whole and well.

That’s a lot to pack into a handshake.  Haven’t these words become so commonplace in our rituals that they have lost their meaning?  We just reply like a knee jerk.  You might say the opposite too.  “These words are too churchy and they don’t mean anything to people outside.”  We substitute “Good morning” for our Sunday morning greetings.  Anyone knows what that means.  It’s common.  It’s automatic.  No one thinks too much about it either.  All these things are true.

I  like to greet people at the beginning of church meetings and gatherings with “The Lord orans 1be with you.”   I like it better than hollering “Listen up!” or “Be quiet!”   I think it helpfully declares the purpose and meaning of our gathering in shorthand.  It says “Jesus is present here, between us.  Jesus’ peace is coming upon us here.  What we  doing here  happens in the presence of Jesus.    What we are here to do are the works that make for Shalom/Peace.  Yes, they are churchy words because they ARE about the church.  If we leave them at church, or if our lives as individuals or community are inconsistent and incongruous with peace and the presence of Jesus, then they  become bankrupt words.   Our very lives, our daily words and deeds  make the greeting creditworthy.    Those are the things that happen in our lives, where Jesus is daily present in the sanctuary of our bodies, time, and powers.  With these hands, with these words, with these feet, with this broken and contrite spirit, with this heart filled with joy….with these the promise of “The Lord be with you.” will be fulfilled.

The Lord be with ya’ll.  Shalom aleichem.  Assalaam Aleikum.  What God intends between us is good–for us, for the kingdom, for the peace of the whole world. My prayer for you is that our work together will make Christ known in our community and in one another’s presence.  With these words we declare the space between us as holy–dedicated for the works of God.   We won’t always be perfect, or even good enough at it.  We might fail  along the way.   When Jesus met those disciples in the upper room after his resurrection, There were enough mistakes and failures among those disciples in the upper room to go around for everyone. Still he declared peace. First.  And again.  And again.
charlottes web 2 His peace created the peace for which they yearned:  forgiveness, mercy, hope, restoration of purpose and vision.  That’s how it is when Jesus shows up.  That’s what happens when the Lord be with us.  That’s what happens when Jesus says “Peace.”  That’s what happens when Jesus’ people say yes, amen, make it so.

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The Issue’s Not the Issue

Source: The Issue’s Not the Issue

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The Issue’s Not the Issue

Jim and I were reminiscing about our science teachers the other night.

The conversation pushed buttons on memories long crowded out by more important things.   Most of 7thsaving yourself grade fits that description.  What passed for “Science, Health, and Math Module” was team taught by two guys.  First Aid  was  disguised in “How to Survive a Nuclear War.”   We took a break from math to study Gun Safety with a curriculum provided by the NRA.
The lesson on that particular day was about obtaining food and water after The Bomb.   Assuming that we survived by hiding in our basements with 18 inch granite walls, safe from radiation,  Mr. B. suggested that urine could be made drinkable by rigging up an evaporator/condensation unit from the tarps we certainly had on hand in our basements.  I was appalled.  He made a pitch for credibility by rehearsing the science of the water cycle. Then he crossed the bridge too far.   He suggested we could make raids on what was left in the refrigerator, or in our neighbor’s refrigerator by making brief forays out of our basement bomb shelter.  If we found meat, even if it was green or slimy we could just cut off the green part and eat it anyway.   On the heels of the Urine Evaporator Condensation Unit, this suggestion was too outrageous.

“You can’t eat slimy green meat!” I protested.   “It will make you sick!”

He insisted that it would not, because it would be irradiated meat, and therefore the radiation would have rendered it sterile.

“I don’t  believe you!” I challenged him.  “How do you know this?”

“It’s right there in the book. ” He laughed and waved the book before us.

“Would you eat it?”

Still grinning, he replied, “If you’re hungry enough you won’t care.”

I was very upset.  His cavalier grin and dismissal of my challenge upset me even more.  Then he addressed the unacknowledged elephant in the room.

“If a bomb were dropped on us–and we would be a prime target where we live here   –no one is going to survive it anyway.”

underground fallout shelterOf course, he was right.  Nothing he could say could make it right, though.  The Issue just wasn’t the issue.     Our house didn’t have a basement, with or without 18″ granite walls.  My seventh grade soul was afflicted by visions of the apocalypse, vividly described by the southern baptist extension of the family and their church.   My seventh grade soul feared losing my parents. There was a draft, and my brother was old enough to get called into it.  I was even afraid of losing him.  The Issue was the profound fear of loss and helplessness in the face of loss that terrified me nightly.   I’ve since learned that this is a very typical and common experience for 7th graders.  The course was predicated by the wrong question, so all the supposed right answers were destined to be ridiculous.

There are times: an otherwise calm discussion escalates for no apparent reason, an issue that should be rather benign is  weighted with much more emotion and importance than it deserves, solutions to easy problems become suddenly complicated, expensive, and convoluted.  We even have an expression for it:  “it went nuclear.”  When an issue erupts like this, bystanders shake their heads in clueless wonder.

Money is a bell-weather. We think a $500 newspaper advertisement will build our church membership, or a younger pastor, or an older pastor, or a new sidewalk.   We spend money on the small issues and are satisfied  we have done something about it.  Too much money is required to satisfy a simple problem.  Too little money is afforded to resolve too great an issue.  That money is proposed to solve the problem at all makes one scratch and wonder if we’re missing the point.   There is a risk of believing that all problems can be solved with more money.   There is a risk of believing that great problems can be solved without money.  Altogether, something seems to be off kilter in the conversation, and people stopped listening to one another a long time ago.

The issue –whatever it is–just isn’t the issue.  Jesus is accused of not observing proper handwashing in our reading from Mark 7 this weekend.  Bear with me while I wander a bit.  I’m not lost.

We think handwashing is a big deal because we know about germs.  That’s a pretty recent understanding of only the past 165 years. Ingaz Semmelweis was a young doctor was assigned to the maternity clinic at General Hospital in Vienna in 1846.  He wanted to figure out why women died of childbed fever.  He discovered that the women who ignazdelivered babies in the midwife clinic died less frequently than women in the clinic attended by physicians just down the hall.  He noticed all kinds of things.   Women who delivered in the midwife clinic labored on their backs, doctors delivered babies as women lie on the sides.  Maybe the position of the birth mattered.  The priest would visit the physician clinic followed by an acolyte ringing a bell.  Maybe the sound of the bell frightened the women of high breeding.   Then the hospital pathologist, his close friend, died with symptoms very much like child bed fever. The light bulb went on.  Physicians must be carrying some kind of invisible particle on their hands as they moved from morgue to bedside.  He insisted that doctors wash hands in chlorine.  For a while, the number of deaths from childbed fever declined sharply.   You would think everyone would have jumped up and down and on board, but they didn’t.  He wasn’t exactly diplomatic, and offended important people.  His colleagues were offended that he was accusing them of killing their patients.  No one believed him, and the handwashing stopped.    He lost his job and died in an asylum at age 47.   You might think that the most important issue to the doctors of General Hospital in Vienna was the loss of life, but it wasn’t.   Other issues crowded to the fore:  seniority, status and stature, manners, respect, insult, education and so much more.   I wonder if class and wealth were also clouding the issue–women of the lesser classes delivered with midwives.  The wealthy were attended by doctors and visited by priests.  Even Ignaz had a hard time sorting through what was and was not relevant to the issue of women dying after childbirth.  Ultimately, lives continued to be lost.

Handwashing is a big deal for the religious folks in Mark 7 because it was about religion, not germs.  Religion is that complex web of rules and behaviors designed to win favor and fortune from the greater powers of the universe.   Handwashing was part of the complex web of rules described in the laws of Moses in Leviticus, well embroidered and interpreted since Israel’s return from exile. Some religious authorities had a lot to gain from the interpretation of these laws and support of the temple.    Jesus was not about religion. (Don’t leave me now.) The religious authorities were like the medical authorities I just described:  do this, do that, avoid this, twirl and dance under the blue moon and you will live.      The religious authorities were like that crazy curriculum on how to survive a nuclear blast.  They avoided the elephant in the room wearing a broadside “We ALL die.”  They were like us and our evangelism committees:  putting stickers on bumpers and pages on the internet in order to broaden our base of support.   They could justify a person as holy for attending church every week, tithing, and posting their faith on facebook, while ignoring how that person treated family and neighbor.  They were, in fact, just like us.  In attempting to do the good thing–live a life that is holy, as God is holy–they strayed from the The Issue.

Jesus was about relationship, not religion.   Relationship with God is the source of all that is life giving.  Jesus becomes quite crass when the disciples don’t get it again.  Don’t you see?  What goes in a person comes out as crap.  Crap is what defiles.    All these things driven by evil intentions–murder, adultery, avarice, slander–they come from within a person and come out as defilement.  Sewage.  The real issue here isn’t about some dainty handwashing.  It’s about drowning and dying and gasping for air as we come up out of the water, air that rips our lungs and our hearts open and makes life new again.  That dainty ritual handwashing isn’t going to do the trick.  The issue is about living and doing more than just Not Dying.  Is it possible to survive a nuclear blast?  Hard to imagine.  Would you want to?   I’m not qualified to answer that.   What if we spent all that precious space in our brains and our hearts becoming the kind of people who wouldn’t launch bombs in the first place?   That’s the real issue.  The answers aren’t as neat and well packaged.  In fact, it gets quite messy when one can’t rely on the rules and traditions of the elders to protect us from what is truly dangerous in this world.  You could find yourself sitting with Ignaz in the insane asylum.  Or nailed to a cross.

Ultimately, it is time and love that reveals the real issues in our world.  Ignaz didn’t live to see those signs in every public restroom and hospital room, or the hand sanitizer pumps at every school, hospital, and desk top.   He would have been pleased.   The sages of his day could not  see through the obfuscating clouds of what they thought they knew.    Love clears the clouds, even a little.   Love anchors us to life and one another so that we stay in the conversation, even when it takes us to places we don’t want to go.   Love is where patience comes from when time doesn’t hurry.   Love is where courage comes from when there is no more time for patience.  Love is the real issue, and all the ways we try to weaken or avoid love  or to justify our hard heartedness  distract us from Love.

nuclear bomb testDistraction and obfuscation are the devil’s workshop.  We succumb when we  take our eyes off God’s love for this world and the real matters of life and death.  Listen longer.    Wait for The Issue.  Ignore pettiness.    The cross is the real issue at the end of every Gospel.  It’s the matter of life and death.  Anything else makes us believe we can escape a nuclear blast because we have 18″ granite walls in our basement, eat green slimy meat, and know how to recycle pee.

Read more about Ignaz at http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/01/12/375663920/the-doctor-who-championed-hand-washing-and-saved-women-s-lives

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