Friday, February 10, 2012

Be Afraid... Be Very Afraid?!

What are you afraid of?

If you fear all eight-eyed creatures with venomous fangs that scuttle around on eight legs, you're an arachnophobe.

I’m arachnophobic and acrophobic, which means I’m also afraid of heights. Even when sitting in a movie theater. Recently I went to see the film Mission, Impossible: – Ghost Protocol. When Tom Cruise scuttled up the glass exterior of the Burj Khalifaq in Dubai – the tallest building in the world – all kinds of alarm bells went off in my brain, my heart pounded in my chest, and weird chemicals coursed through my veins. I was afraid. I was very afraid. (Ironically, I paid good money to experience this fear!)

Technically, a "phobia" is an irrational fear. But who’s to say which fears are reasonable, and which aren’t? A middle-aged man, fearing bad news, decides to leave the doctor’s office before hearing the results of his PSA blood test. An old woman, fearing tight places, requests a valium before being squeezed into a narrow MRI tube. A young soldier, on a mission in Kandahar, scans the road ahead, fearing an IED. A young girl on the streets of Damascus, demonstrating for freedom, fears the clubs wielded by Syrian security forces. Fear can protect us. Fear can paralyze us.

Dealing with even the most basic fears is a complex challenge. For example, we teach our young children to beware of strangers. "Never accept a ride from someone you don’t know!" we wisely caution. Generally, this is a good rule of thumb. But if this caution turns to chronic, irrational fear, we become xenophobic – afraid of all strangers or people who are different from us. This anxiety can lead to cliquishness or inhospitality, or morph into the evil of racism, even genocide.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that fear is an exceedingly common and complex matter in the Bible – perhaps especially when it comes to describing our relationship with God.

In Psalm 147, for example, the psalmist sings: "But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him..." (147:12a) Oh, really?! God is delighted when we suffer from the fear of God?! Is God this tyrannic? This sadistic? Well, we’ve all heard the proverb: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom..." (Proverbs 1:7)

On the other hand, how many times does God say, "Don’t be afraid?"
  • When God calls Abraham and Sarah to get up and leave everything safe and familiar behind them to go to a strange place, the first thing God says is: "Don’t be afraid." (Genesis 15:1)
  • To Israel, violently torn from land and Temple and marched off into Babylonian exile, God says, "Do not fear." (Isaiah 44:2)
  • When an angel comes to Mary, unexpectedly pregnant with a divine child, God says, "Do not be afraid." (Luke 1:30)
  • When Joseph hears of the problem pregnancy and knows the public shame Mary will face, God says, "Do not be afraid." (Matthew 1:20)
  • When the disciples are caught in a storm at sea so deadly that not even the experienced fishermen among them could navigate it, Jesus appears out of nowhere and says, "Do not be afraid." (Mark 6:50)
  • The night before St. Paul is to meet the emperor of the Roman Empire face to face, God says, "Do not be afraid." (Acts 27:24)
  • Even the Book of Revelation, with its horrible demons and lake of fire, begins with a vision of the risen Jesus saying, "Do not be afraid." (Revelation 1:17)

So, the question remains: is "the fear of the Lord" an irrational phobia ("theophobia" – Greek: theos = god + phobos = fear), or a good and wise thing? Like most mysteries in life, it’s a little of both...

Whenever we struggle with a theological conundrum, it’s always a good idea to consult at least one German theologian! In this post I call upon Rudolph Otto. In the middle of the horror of WWI, Otto published a profoundly influential book entitled The Idea of the Holy. To put it in a nutshell, Otto suggests that when people have a true encounter with God, we encounter a "numinous" mystery. By numinous, Otto means something/somebody outside of ourselves. A true experience of God is not merely an "inner experience."  Nor is it the result of our brain's psychological rationalization or projection or wishful thinking. Neither is it, to quote Ebeneezer Scrooge, a dream resulting from "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese!"

An authentic experience of God, Otto asserts, is an encounter with the Real.  Yet any true experience of the holy is neither rational (we can't wrap our minds around it), nor comprehensible through our five senses (we can't wrap our fingers around it). In short, God is simply too awesomely Real for us creatures to behold!

This is precisely why a true encounter with God leaves human beings simultaneously fascinated and terrified! We want to draw closer, and we want to run away... at the same time!

The Bible is full of stories about people who encounter the living God in precisely this way. One of the most beloved is the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus is on a mountaintop praying with Peter, James, and John. Nothing unusual. Suddenly, they see Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, long dead! Then Jesus becomes luminous, intensely bright, brighter than anything they’ve ever seen in nature, including the sun! The disciples are terrified. They fall to the ground. They cover their eyes. Their encounter with the holy is so direct, intense, and unfathomable they can’t bear it.

And yet... they’re simultaneously fascinated! Why else would Peter suggest, "Hey, Jesus, this is awesome!  Let’s build a few huts so we can all hang out together! Let’s don't let this holy moment end!"

Perhaps Rudolph Otto’s "idea of the holy" helps us understand Psalm 147. Yes, God delights in those who fear him. Why? Because that fear is a sign that we’re actually having an authentic encounter with the living God!

If we look at the full verse, we see that the Psalmist says that God delights in those who fear him, those who await his gracious favor. In this context we see that the fear of the Lord is intertwined with faith! No wonder it delights God! When we creatures dare take off our shoes and step onto holy ground, and – in spite of our trepidation – expect good things, we are saying to our Creator, "I trust you. I will come closer." And isn’t this why God made us? To know and to be known by God? To love and to be loved by God? God's inviting (if awesome) presence and our trusting response makes both God and the Psalmist sing out for joy!

Ah, but there are many more facets to human fear. There’s one I especially hate to admit: fear can be a great motivator.

Recently my wife and I were talking with a woman about banking matters, and the conversation drifted into the challenges of parenting. This mother confided that she and her husband had been having a lot of trouble with a teenage son who had become incorrigible. So they ordered a catalog from a famous military school. When it arrived, they just left it out on the counter for a few days. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t have to. Miraculously, within days, they began to see encouraging changes in their son’s attitude and behavior!

OK, sometimes fear "works!"  In a similar way, the fear of cancer can lead a smoker to give up cigarettes.

But the fear of the Lord seems to be qualitatively different. Consider Exodus 20. God’s presence is so awesome that only Moses dares to enter the cloud and stand in the presence of the holy (yet even he has to shield his eyes from the intensity). God gives Moses the 10 commandments to pass on to the people. The people, not surprisingly, stand warily at a distance. And Moses says to them: "Do not be afraid. For God has come only to test you and to put the fear of God upon you so that you do not sin." Don’t be afraid – God’s just putting the fear of God into you!?

What Moses seems to be saying is that an encounter with the living God is likely to remind us how far we've strayed. In the light of God's loving goodness, the consequences of our sin become painfully clear. We awaken to how we've hurt ourselves and others. This isn't a pleasant experience. But this awakening is a gift as it becomes our first step in turning around and becoming the people God created us to be.

Humankind should beware: fear is crude tool. Any parent knows this. Instilling fear in a child is likely to lead to alienation, resentment, even rebellion. Ultimately, we want our children to love and respect us. We want them to grow into good people – not out of duty, certainly not out of dread, but because they want to. As parents who struggle to raise children, we hope to encourage, even shape positive behavior. But more than anything, we long for a change of heart. We can't make this happen, but we can help or hinder. This is the trick, of course. This is the mysterious dance that goes on in every household, everywhere, in every time.

If this is true for us, how much more true it is in our relationship with God! Yes, God commands. Hours before his own death, gathered with his closest friends in the world, Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another. This is why God:
  • gives us the Law to set some helpful parameters about how to be fully human.
  • sends us prophets, when we inevitably stray, to help us find our way back to the path of full humanity.
  • ultimately sent us a human being who embodied love like no other. The holy in human form, not quite so scary, could draw us in... 
Jesus said,"Follow me." Some came closer, wanting to be a part of it. But others ran away. Still others stood warily at a distance, not knowing which way to turn. Eventually, fearful people sought to silence him. Most of us have responded to the living God in all four of these ways.

But here’s the rub: God commands, but never coerces. For how can Love be coerced?!

God created us to be the real deal too, both inside and out. God wants us to share in Jesus' holiness. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. And to follow Jesus requires a change of heart (or, to use that unfairly-maligned biblical word, repentance).

Who changes hearts? It’s a little bit us. It’s a lot God. It’s a mysterious dance.

Sometimes this dance makes me afraid. Not because I fear that God will punish me. But because I know how unloving I can be, and how much damage I can do to myself, and to others. This is a rational fear based on experience.

But this is no basis for theophobia. There is no reason to be afraid of God when we remember that God – as revealed in Jesus – is more loving, more patient, more compassionate than any human being who has ever lived. This grace gives us hope that we can have a change of heart, draw a little closer, and even follow.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Water, Water Everywhere

“Let there be light!”

No human being witnessed this singularity some 13 billion years ago. Nevertheless, Genesis 1 imagines primordial Mystery with the haunting beauty of a poetic astrophysicist. 

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters...

Water.  So ordinary – like tap water.  Yet so profoundly mysterious – like the untouched depths of the sea, like amniotic fluid, like the permafrost beneath the surface of Mars, like a human tear...

Water.  Even those of us who’ve never taken a chemistry class can identify the compound H20:  1 molecule, consisting of 2 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of oxygen, bonded together.

Water is a shape-shifter.  Just this morning, I experienced water as gaseous (in the steam from my shower), as a liquid (dripping through my coffee maker), and as a solid (coating my windshield with frost).

It makes up 60-70% of most adult human bodies.  Paradoxically, water can be as rare as it’s ubiquitous.  Yes, it covers 70% of the earth’s surface.  And yet only a tiny fraction of it – 3/10 of 1% (the water that's accessible in groundwater aquifers, rivers, and freshwater lakes) – can be utilized by humans.

Oddly, as common and plentiful as water is on this planet, clean water has always been a precious resource. Even in the United States, a fairly wet country, cities built in dry places look with covetous eyes, across many miles, to the Great Lakes.  As world population balloons and environmental degradation continues, clean water will become ever more central as a justice issue in economic and political life, not to mention a fundamental matter of survival for all life forms.

No one uses water like an American.  The average person in the United States – when all uses are added up – consumes anywhere from 80-100 gallons of clean water per day (most of it in the bathroom).

While not always a good steward of water, it seems humankind has always sensed its sacred nature. There’s more to water than meets the eye.  Water is elemental to life. Nothing can live long without it. Water refreshes; water cleanses.  Ironically, water can also bring chaos and death, so say the stories from ancient Babylon to contemporary New Orleans.

All the water the earth has ever contained is here now. Our planet is a closed system, like a terrarium. So the same water that existed on this planet millions of years ago is still present today. In other words, the water within us and around us is the same water over which the Spirit brooded so long ago...


Water, or its lack, is a huge theme in the Bible. Scripture was written by people who lived in an arid land. Its abundance was seen as a sign of God’s providence. Its scarcity was seen as a sign of God’s judgement. Moses saw the clear, fertile Nile turned to a bloody cesspool; he also saw sweet water gush up from a rock in the wilderness. The Psalmist imaginatively compared our thirst for God to a deer’s longing for the waterbrooks. Jesus turned water to wine. He healed with his own saliva and with local spring water. He stilled an angry sea. He engaged in multi-layered conversation with a woman at a well. He sweated as he prayed in the garden; he thirsted as he died on the cross.
The story of the baptism of Jesus is one of the most precious water stories in the Church. What a strange story it is. John, as usual, is out on the edge – both theologically and geographically. He’s standing in the Jordan River, the eastern border of the nation.  And he's preaching repentance as he announces the coming of a new kingdom, and a new king.

Why is John calling Jews to repentance? And why is he baptizing them? Haven't the Jewish people already, both historically and mystically, passed from bondage to freedom through the Red Sea waters by God's mighty hand?

Then Jesus comes along. He steps into the primordial water, that same water over which the wind of God once blew before there was even light. He stands with John, the atoms of hydrogen and oxygen swirling ‘round their legs, soothing their tired feet, soaking their cloaks.

John, for once, hesitates.  He senses Who this is.  It's an awkward moment.  Does Jesus need to repent? Does Jesus need to be washed before entering the Holy Land?

John says no. Jesus says yes. Who knows what all this means?  But Jesus seems to be choosing to throw his lot with us – to be with us, in every way, in everything, all the way.  "It’s righteous," he says – the way it’s supposed to be.

So John cups a handful of cool river water and pours.  Love is heard, and Life gushes forth...

We Christians are baptized in water. That same sacred, primordial compound – we see it poured, we hear it splash the font, we touch its wetness, smell its freshness, even taste its tastelessness. But, like the ancients, we sense that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Somehow, this water makes us clean, cleaner than any new year’s resolution or any hot soak in the tub ever will.  This water slakes our thirst, satisfying more profoundly than the most refreshing cocktail or sports drink. This water sustains our lives for the journey – even through danger and chaos and death – leading us into new and deeper life, over and over again – forever.

In this water we hear the song we long to hear, yet still find so difficult to believe:  we too are God's beloved.

The Baptism of Jesus (1987)
by Lorenzo Scott

Friday, December 09, 2011

Light in the Darkness

We’ve had a gentle winter so far.  When I awoke this morning, it was a balmy 50°.  But eventually the temperatures will drop, the snow will fall, and the darkness will deepen...

I seem to be a little “light-sensitive.”  At some point each winter I start feeling a little blue. Mental health experts might diagnose my malady as “SAD” (Seasonal Affect Disorder) caused by insufficient exposure to light.  As I understand it, there’s only one sure-fire cure for SAD:  leave the colder latitudes and check into a sunny seaside bungalow!

Realistically, most of us have had to learn to cope by just waiting it out. What keeps us from falling into utter despair is the knowledge that it will get better – every year, without fail, winter’s darkness has given way to increasing light. In fact, the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year – is less than two weeks away. After that, each day will grow a little longer than the last. And finally, in the blink of an eye...  boom! It’ll be spring, and we’ll be basking once again in the sunny, warm light!  (And shortly thereafter complaining about the heat and humidity...)

But there’s another kind of darkness... the darkness of suffering. This kind of darkness is always near, whatever the season. It’s part of being human.

Let’s be honest – most of us lead blessed lives. Armored tanks don’t rumble down our streets. We have shoes on our feet and coats on our backs. When hungry, we eat our fill. Tonight we’ll sleep safely in our warm homes. When we get sick, we make an appointment with our doctor and she helps us get well. We usually even have enough resources left over to write a (tax deductible) check to the non-profit of our choice.  But life is not so for many, many people...

And yet nothing – not our wealth, our health, our skill, nor our well-ordered lives – nothing can completely shield us from suffering.

The Christian tradition is rumored to have an “explanation” for suffering. If so, I have yet to hear one that satisfies!  Certainly no one’s found a cure for it! But the Gospel does help us imagine a hopeful way to live...

In the Church, the Advent wreath is one sign of this hope. Each Sunday in Advent, even as the days grow shorter and darker, we light one more candle. Just one at first. Then another... then three... then four. Each week, the increasing light pushes the darkness back a little more.

What are we doing? Are we simply counting down the shopping days until Christmas?!

No!  The “great flaring forth” of the Advent wreath dramatically expresses the good news that the Light is coming into the world. Not just celestial sunlight, but the very Light of God... Jesus – whose birth we’ll celebrate on Christmas Day with every candle we can find ablaze!

There once was a man named John. John pointed to the Light. Standing out there in the darkness, even before a flicker of Light could be seen, John cried:  “Look, everyone!  God's coming!  Get ready!” John was so impressive that many assumed that he was the Light. But he said, “Not so!  The One... is coming after me!”

All Christians share the ministry of John the Baptist. Because we've experienced the risen One who has come into our world, we can muster the hope to point to the Light even when it can’t be seen... even when we ourselves are enshrouded in darkness.  We can cope and wait it out because we know the Light is near.

Paradoxically, as Jesus reminded us quite clearly, we don't simply point to Jesus as the Light who once came into the world, and will come again some day.  We are the light of the world too!  Right now!  Whenever we embody God's love, by word or deed, God's Light pours anew into the world, and pushes back the darkness.  This is one way in which the mystery of the Incarnation is experienced to this very day.

Sometimes my eyes don’t see so well, especially in the dark. So I need help. When I can’t see the Light, especially when I suffer, I need someone to point it out for me.  This helps me hang on in hope until I can see it for myself. And perhaps, on my better days, I can see the Light and point it out for you.  Together, we allow the Light to shine – this Season of Advent, and always.

Oh, Great Spirit!

Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind,
Whose breath gives life to all the world…
Make me always ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes,
so when life fades, as the fading sunset,
my spirit may come to you without shame.
(Chief Yellow Lark of the Lakota Sioux, 1887)

On a recent walk through a county park I noticed a sign near the gazebo that I had passed countless times before. This time I paused to read it, and learned that the mound of earth in front of me (which I had assumed to be a nifty bit of landscaping by the park service) had been constructed by Woodland Indians between 500 B.C.E. to 350 C.E.

I was stunned. In other words, sometime between Israel’s return from exile in Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Church’s gathering in Nicaea to grapple with the mystery of the humanity/divinity of Christ – within this very same slice of history – people were falling in love, giving birth, raising families, hunting elk, growing squash, crafting artwork, settling disputes, telling stories, and burying their dead… right here in my own neighborhood!

That day I had been ruminating over my upcoming sermon for All Saints’ Sunday. And so I wondered: “How do these Pre-Columbian Native Americans fit into the story?” We don’t read about the Adena in the Bible; the Hopewell aren’t included on any lists of saints! And still... while Jesus and his followers walked the deserts, oases and villages of Palestine, human beings also created in God’s image walked the forest trails and paddled the rivers in what is today my neck of the woods near the Ohio River!

Could it be that our traditional way of thinking about saints has been a bit parochial? The stories of the Christian tradition are sacred, and the stories of Jesus are the most sacred of all. They give our lives joy, meaning, and hope. But our stories aren’t the only sacred stories...

These thoughts steeped in my heart and mind as my father-in-law neared death. Lex had been a pilgrim soul – always searching, never fully at rest in body, mind, or spirit. Raised Lutheran in rural Indiana, he eventually found a home in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. His faith seemed most deeply rooted in Native American spirituality. Indeed, he spoke often and passionately of the Great Spirit, the divine breath that infuses all of creation.

As Lex weakened, each of his daughters held a hand as we invoked the Great Spirit in prayer. His labored breathing seemed to relax in response to the soothing balm of touch and voice. Moments later, his blue eyes opened wide, as if surprised and amazed. He gazed steadily to the left, then to the right. Then his eyes closed, his body quieted and soon became still. Falling into the embrace of the Great Spirit who had created and sustained him, Lex was finally at rest. His astonished gaze was his final witness in this world, leaving each of us who remained with a blessing.

There is an extraordinary moment recorded in the Book of Acts.  Paul and Barnabas are in Lystra (modern-day Turkey) to preach the Gospel to people who didn’t know Judaism from Jesus. To these people Paul makes one of the most remarkable declarations in all of Holy Scripture: “God has never been without witnesses!” He then acknowledges respectfully that the people of Lystra knew God long before he and Barnabas showed up – in the rains that fell, in the bounty of the harvest, in the joy in their hearts. Chief Yellow Lark of the Lakota Sioux and Lex of Wells County, Indiana experienced God in a similar way.

Could it be that a saint is a witness to the providential generosity of God? Or, to quote our baptismal liturgy, one who’s experienced “the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works?” If so, then our concept of the “communion of saints” explodes into something far bigger and more gracious than we have heretofore imagined!  And isn’t this the good news that Jesus tried to show us, in both word and deed?

In a way, these may seem like strange thoughts for an Episcopal priest preparing – during this holy and solemn Season of Advent – for the yearly celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day. After all, the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation has been called "the scandal of particularity!"  And yet... what is the Incarnation but that most sacred story we tell of the time the Creator chose to become human so that the divine spark planted within all might be kindled?  I’ve heard this story for over a half-century, and it still surprises and amazes me.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

9/11 Tribute

The world recently observed the 10th anniversary of “9/11” – that infamous day when the United States was suddenly and viciously attacked.  Thousands of people lost their lives at the World Trade Center in New York City, at the Pentagon in N. Virginia, and in Somerset County, PA, near Shanksville.  Many more have died, and continue to die, in the wars that followed.

On 9/11/11 we paused to look back and remember the horror and the heroism.  We held before God all who died on 9/11/01, and those who live yet suffer still – the injured, the traumatized, and the grieving around the world.  And we peered into the hazy future, wondering with trepidation about what might lie ahead.

All this is quite natural.  But we must not invest too much energy in either the past or the future.  For the most pressing question on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is this:  What kind of people do we choose to be... NOW?

I often resist this kind of question!  I’m easily mired in my past – reminiscing about (and even idealizing) the good, while obsessing about (and being haunted by) the bad.  Likewise, I’m easily absorbed in speculation about possible futures – hoping or worrying about what might or might not unfold.  What I've discovered is this:  while learning from the past and planning for the future is a good thing, when I’m captured by the past or the future (or both), I get terribly stuck.

I’m not alone.  Consider the United States Congress.  Our economy is reeling.  There’s a lot of energy – for looking back and casting blame on who’s responsible for bringing us to this place.  There’s a lot of energy – for looking ahead and plotting the next re-election campaign.  But there’s very little energy for the hard work of collaboration and getting something useful done NOW.  Snagged by the past and seduced by the future, Congress is terribly stuck.  Nothing is accomplished.  And all suffer.

Are we surprised?  Look at ourselves.  How many of us are harboring a hurt or a resentment or a shame right now?  It may be something that happened this past week, or 10 years ago.  It happened.  And it cannot be changed or erased.  But we’re still stuck in the pain.  And how many of us are anxious – right now – about what may happen next week, or 10 years from now?  It hasn’t happened yet.  It may never happen.  Yet the fear paralyzes and demoralizes us.

In the midst of all this, Jesus calls us.
  • But Jesus does not call us in our past:  “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back,” he said, “Is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
  • Nor does Jesus call us in our future:  “Do not worry about tomorrow,” he said, “For tomorrow will worry about itself.”
Jesus always calls us in the present moment.  Because NOW is the only place we live, and will ever live.

If we think about it, it’s so obvious.  If we want to have a relationship with God, it can only be experienced in this moment.  If we want to forgive, or feel forgiven, we can only give/receive that grace now.  If we want to love a friend, a neighbor, a stranger, or even an enemy, we can only do so in the present.

Who gives us the courage to get unstuck and live in the present?  The living God who is with us now.

Consider Abraham and Sarah.  God promised them that they would bring a child into the world, and that their descendants would become more numerous than the stars in the sky.  Moreover, this wouldn’t be just a private gift for two.  Through Abraham and Sarah, God would bless the whole world!

We admire Abraham and Sarah to this day because they didn’t remain stuck grieving their childless past, or dreading the prospect of a childless future.  They said "yes" to God in the present, as improbable as it must have seemed at the time.  And the blessing flowed.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all descendants of Abraham and Sarah, and heirs of this same blessing – right NOW.

Blessing takes countless shapes.  Consider this photograph that recently appeared on the front page of our local newspaper.   They say a picture speaks a thousand words.  What does this picture say?

On the left is Basel, a Muslim born in Kuwait of Palestinian parents.  He now lives near Cincinnati.  On the right is Niya, age 3, who is a member of a family in need of shelter.  These two met in a local church as participants in the Interfaith Hospitality Network.  So, this picture speaks of a Muslim man playing a game with a homeless child in a Christian church.

This is wonderful.  But through the eyes of faith, one can see much more.  One sees God’s people:
  • collaborating to ensure that all are welcomed and all are fed.
  • laboring together to provide a safe and dignified place for people to shower, to play, to sleep. 
  • freely giving and receiving, enjoying one another's company. 
  • setting aside differences – age, race, religion, community – to make a difference.
In short, this photograph is a snapshot of God’s blessing upon Abraham and Sarah as it continues to pour into this world today!

All people of good will want to honor the memory of 9/11.  We do so by saying no to violence, hatred, indifference, revenge, selfishness, despair, and all the powers of darkness.  We do so by saying yes to compassion, cooperation, forgiveness, joy, love, hope, and all the powers of light. 

This is never easy to do in a world that is so often chaotic and perilous.  But our chances are greatly improved if we're not stuck in grief or dread!

Make a 9/11 tribute.  
Pass on a blessing today.  

+ + + + +

Now the silence
Now the peace
Now the empty hands uplifted

Now the kneeling
Now the plea
Now the Father's arms in welcome

Now the hearing
Now the power
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring

Now the Body
Now the Blood
Now the joyful celebration

Now the wedding
Now the songs
Now the heart forgiven leaping

Now the Spirit's visitation
Now the Son's epiphany
Now the Father's blessing


Hymn 333 (The Hymnal 1982)
Words:  Jaroslav J. Vajda
Music:  Now, Carl Flentge Schalk

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Who do you say that I am?"

According to The Wall Street Journal, Public Policy Polling is one of the most reliable polling organizations.  When PPP takes a snapshot of the American electorate, they usually obtain an accurate reading of the political temperature of our country.

Recently, PPP polled Americans to find out what they thought of God's performance.  Specifically, the question posed was this:  "If God exists, do you approve or disapprove of its performance?"  The result?  8% disapprove.  40% are not sure.  And 52% approve.

My immediate reaction was twofold.  First:  our President and Congress would be delighted to receive those polling numbers.  A 52% approval rating?  Woohoo!

Second:  a 52% approval rating?  For God??!!

 Photo of God?
(illustrating the recent CNN story
"Poll:  52 percent approve of God's job performance")

Once, when Jesus was hanging out with his friends, he asked what sounds a lot like a calculated political question:  “Who do people say that I am?”

Politicians ask that question all the time.  That’s why they pay big money to gather focus groups.  Each one wants to know: “What’s the buzz out there?  What’s the perception about me?"  Then, "What, if anything, do I need to do or say differently in order to really turn people on?"

“Well,” Jesus’ friends responded, “Some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”  The polling results are all over the board.  But the the scuttlebutt is crystal clear:  People sense that Jesus is special – so special that some wonder that he might even be a dead hero from the glory days brought back to life!

Then Jesus asked his friends a follow-up question, one that sounds decidedly unpolitical:  “OK, but who do YOU say that I am?”

What a gaffe!  If you’re serious about PR, you tell people who you are, or (perhaps more often) who you want them to believe you are!  Bottom line:  if you want the fame and the money and the votes to pour in, you've got to “massage” your message and “buff” your image.

But Jesus didn't tell his friends who he is.  He asked, "Who do YOU say that I am?"

No one outside his immediate family knew Jesus better than the disciples.  For quite a while they had been with him hour by hour, day after day – from the moment he opened his eyes in the morning until the moment he closed them at night.  They heard what he said; they saw what he did.  They observed Jesus in his most intimate, unguarded moments.  And they stood nearby when he was in the public spotlight.  They witnessed how Jesus interacted with rabbis, prostitutes, soldiers, shopkeepers, adulterers, teachers, foreigners, and lepers.  In short, they had a very good handle on who Jesus of Nazareth really was.

No surprisingly, it was Peter who blurted out:  “You are the Messiah, the Christ.”  Who knows what Peter really knew, or what he really meant?  In that culture people had wildly differing ideas about who the Christ would be and what the Messiah should do.  But one thing is for sure – Peter knew Jesus well.  And he saw God in Jesus.  Peter saw God in Jesus like no one else he had ever known, or anyone else he could even imagine.

Then Jesus said another unpolitical thing.  If he had really wanted to capitalize on "Peter's confession," he would’ve said, “All right.  Get out there and tell the world.  I’m the Messiah!  Sell me!  And don't forget to take up a collection!”

Instead, Jesus said, “Don’t tell a soul” (the famous "messianic secret").  Why?  Perhaps this was his way of saying that he wasn’t going to play the cheap PR game of trying to shape reality merely by manipulating perceptions.  No, Jesus was going to try to change the world by being real.  And he was going to be real by walking in God’s way.

"Who do YOU say that I am?"  That’s the question Jesus has asked his friends in every generation.  

A lot of people say that they’re Jesus’ friend.  But if you ask them who Jesus is, more often than not you'll hear a well-worn laundry list of bullet points about theology, doctrine, liturgy, and whatnot that makes your eyes glaze over.  

These ideas aren't unimportant.  But, then and now, Jesus isn’t looking for supporters to regurgitate “talking points.”  Jesus is looking for people to follow his walking points – to put one foot in front of the other and strike out on God's way by embodying love, compassion, justice, mercy, truth, and joy.

Jesus modeled what a fully human life looks like, a template to guide us as we struggle to grow into our humanity.  To follow Jesus is to become – in St. Paul's famous image – the Body of Christ:  Jesus' hands and heart reaching out to embrace this broken, hurting world.

Who do YOU say Jesus is, right now?  Don't consult your crib sheet.  Just look at your life.  You'll see your unvarnished answer there.

What you see might be encouraging.  Or it might not be very pretty.  Thankfully, every single day we have a new opportunity to (as James Brown used to sing):  "Get on the good foot!"

Friday, August 12, 2011

The 10th Anniversary of 9/11

On that brilliant morning in early autumn, I was working at my desk at Forward Movement Publications in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Suddenly, my colleague George stuck his head in the door:  "A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!"  In that moment I imagined a tiny Piper Cub, flown by an inexperienced sightseer, accidentally veering into one of the twin towers.  But within minutes my co-workers and I were glued to a small TV, watching an unfolding scene so horrible that my mind was reluctant to process what my eyes were seeing.

Soon we and scores of others in the downtown area gravitated toward Christ Church Cathedral.  We needed sanctuary; we needed to pray; we needed to be together.  As we walked in a daze along Sycamore Street, I noticed an odd sight – the steel doors of the parking garage across the street had been shut tight and sealed in the middle of a work day.  Nobody felt safe.

The dark consequences of that tragedy have continued to ripple out and shape us all.  But I was affected most personally when my son, who was only 15 on 9/11/01, was deployed to Iraq to lead a platoon providing "force security" for convoys traveling outside the wire.  The evening he returned from his deployment was bittersweet.  We were overjoyed that he had made it home.  But there would be no celebration, for that very night he packed his dress blues and drove to Geneva, Ohio for the military funeral of Michael, his friend and comrade – killed by an IED detonated by insurgents in Muqdadiyah, Iraq on July 21, 2010 – who, like thousands of others, did not make it home.

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 will arouse vivid memories of horror and heroism, and rekindle deeply-felt passions within and beyond the United States.  A multitude of voices will give expression to every conceivable thought and feeling:  from grief, humility, and forgiveness to jingoism, hatred, and revenge.  And, if you're anything like me, you'll suffer from the crossfire inside your own head and heart.  What will it mean for Gospel proclaimers to add our voices to this cacophony?  What will it mean for Jesus followers to not only remember, but to respond?

Our planet is polarized and dangerous.  Yet Jesus commands us to wade into the world and labor to break the brutal cycle of injustice, revenge, violence, and fear.  This is hard work.  It isn't easy to foster healthy dialogue, reconciliation, and collaboration anywhere, from the Church to Capitol Hill to our own circle of family and friends!  But it's necessary work.

On September 11, 2011 we will not be "first responders" but "ongoing responders."  This effort, as poet William Stafford once wrote, "will take us millions of intricate moves."  We have such a long way to go.  The path will twist and turn.  We will stumble and fall.  The light of hope will flicker like a guttering candle.  But we must keep the faith, and keep moving...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Autumn Morning

Autumn dawn, rooftop
dewdrops dangle, chill silence ~
a motorbike barks.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Looking through the Bent-backed Tulips

In the early spring of my life
I wrote a poem about
(each word neatly inked, firmly pressed
onto wide-lined blueish-greenish paper).
A tiny wooden desk.
Miss Niley’s sunny classroom.
Top of the stairs. Third grade.  North School.  
Spring Street.

Greenville, Ohio – 1965.

That same year we learned how to compose a letter,
and practiced by writing “a famous person.”
Some wrote to the Governor
(the bucolic road from Columbus to Kent
not yet treacherous).
Others wrote to the President
(the heavy heart still a small, dark cloud – 
 the size of a child’s fist –
on the distant horizon).

I wrote to John Winston Lennon.

I remember when I met the Beatles.
The needle thumped on revolving vinyl 
and caught the groove.
The Voice of the Theater exploded,
a primal scream that pierced my soul.
Glued to the tube I beheld John in black & white –
outrageous hair, legs spread insolently,
strumming bar chords on his exotic Rickenbacker 325 –
so cool he even came with subtitles: 
“Sorry girls – he’s married!”
And that music...

Revolution or revelation?

My letter to the famous John Winston Lennon
gushed about a band where nothing is real.
PJ was Paul, Mike was Ringo, Randy was John, 
and I...was George.  (I wanted to be John.)
Crude plywood guitars, stringless, knobless,
ice cream tub drums wrapped in shiny foil,
paper plate cymbals on Tinker Toy stands –
we spun 45s and flailed away
as if these songs were our own...

They were.

The years tumbled blindly by.
You let slip that you were more popular than Christ,
and they crucified you 
(because it was true?).
Maharishi Om, Yoko Ono, hair peace, bag productions,
Merry Christmas, war is over 
(if you want it).
Then one December morning, as I soaked in the tub,
elegiac news from the Dakota.
Shattered glasses.  Shattered world.
Oh, boy.
Give peace a chance...

and look what you get.

Decades come, go. 
We still twist and shout.
Real guitars; real drums; real loud.
Your songs, John.
And tonight, as the vernal equinox
summons yet another spring
(in the early autumn of my life),
a circle of poets...


You never wrote back.  No reply.
Not a word in your own write.
Even so, John Ono Lennon,
across the universe, I feel fine.
Nothing to get hung about.
Yet one question still haunts me.
Did you give us the truth,
or were you just playing with our minds,
when you let slip that the walrus was


CFB (2002/2011)

Ed Sullivan Show

Photo by Bob Gruen, 1974

Friday, June 10, 2011

Going... Going... Gone

In the darkness
the TV glows.
The graduate
and his father
slouch in chairs.

The son rises.
“I’m really going to miss you,” I venture.
“It’s time to grow up,” he says
over his shoulder
as he ambles
toward his computer,
his world.

A moment passes.
It sinks in.
He meant
CFB (2007/2011)