Leaf Peeping

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Ecc. 3:1

One of the pleasures of living in a region in which the seasons change is experiencing the beauty that each season offers. There are few things more pleasurable than driving through New Jersey farmland in October. Corn stalks are tall and changing. The trees are changing. Rich earth tones transform the landscape: reds, copper, yellow. It’s a season for leaf-peeping, for stopping at farm stands, for purchasing fresh apple-butter, pumpkins, gourds.

One of the paradoxes of the season though, is that its beauty is actually due to the dying of the leaves. Shorter days and cooler temperature result in a process called senescence. There is an increase in enzymes that break down the leaf’s cells. There is less chlorophyl causing the green to fade. Other pigments become prominent, carotenoids, tannins, and anthocyanins, producing the brilliant red, yellow, purple, and brown colors. Slowly the leave’s veins close down. The leaves separate from the branches and fall to the ground.

Autumn has its own unique beauty. Its beauty is also a reminder of what Buddhists name impermanence. Nothing remains the same forever. Everything changes. Each transition, each season, has its own beauty. One thing passes away, and in its passing, gives birth to something new.

The teacher of Ecclesiastes begins to reflect on life with the observation that for everything there is a season. Life does not stop. It ebbs and flows. To cling too tightly to the present moment makes it more difficult to receive the gift hidden in the next. Such is the nature of the life we are given. One challenge that comes with being human: to embrace and fully enjoy the beauty of what is, knowing that it will inevitably change, to remain open to the beauty of what will come next.

We enter the season of the harvest. The work of ploughing, planting, tending, watering, waiting is over. Growth is full. It is time to gather.

Soon winter will be here. Then Spring returns, and summer.

Faith teaches that God is in every moment and in every season, that in God nothing is lost forever.

Resistance

I learned something this morning, something you probably already knew. I didn’t. I bought a new LG smart phone, turned it on, and there it was, this new (to me) fact: beneath the LG logo are two words: “Life’s Good.” I did not know that LG stood for “Life’s Good.” In addition to all the other magical things this little device does, it makes a very basic religious, philosophical, existential statement. Turn it on, listen to a short delightful musical prelude, know: LG – Life’s Good.

I needed the reminder. I woke up with a headache. My body felt soggy. My arms and legs were struggling to wake up. I fixed my coffee, opened my newspaper, skimmed the headlines. Things had not changed much since yesterday. Angry violent people continue to drag the rest of us into larger cycles of violence. The plight of refugees continues. A congressman reports a dream of rising terrorism and burning American cities. Another child is shot while sitting on a porch playing. My heart aches. My conscience is tweaked. I am frustrated; I know I can do so very little about any of it. In addition, I was scheduled for a root canal in the afternoon. So it was good to get a reminder: LG – Life’s Good!

Sometimes it takes an act of the will and all the strength of a deep conviction to claim, assert, embrace, even fight for this: Life is Good! This day, this moment, these bodies, this air, just being here: a miracle.

Think about it. I read recently that it takes 5,000 years for light to travel from the center of the sun to its surface. Only then does it flare out into the solar system, striking the surface of planets, including our earth. Our very lives are contingent upon light that began its trek toward our planet 5,000 years ago. It takes a universe to support a life.

Somehow everything came together, comes together, consistently, reliably, so that we are here. This day: a miracle. Me with a toothache, drinking coffee, grumbling about the news, wondering if getting up today is worth the trouble. You, reading this page.

I think the most basic religious quest is to reclaim, to embody this aspect of reality: life is good. The goal and practice of good religion is not to diminish our experience of life, to fill us with guilt, anxiety, or dread, but to enhance our lives, to enlarge them! To set us free from the distortions we tend to impose upon life, the harm we do to each other. In Christian language, it is the work of redemption.

One of my favorite Gospel stories is the healing of the Gerasene demonic in Mark 5. A man who is naked, who lives his life howling, sleeping in tombs, cutting himself with rocks, terrifying his neighbors, runs up to Jesus. Jesus heals him. When the people of the town hear about it, they run out to see what happened. What they see is the man, who had been possessed by legions, sitting near Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.” (Mark 5:15) Jesus has redeemed him, set him free from all that had distorted his life. Jesus restored the goodness of his life. Jesus sends him home to live well with his family, within his village. His life is meant to be good. Jesus made it so.

Why do I go to church? Because here it is (or at least, at its best should be),  that I remember that life is a sacred gift. Not because it is an opportunity to produce something more than what it is, or different than it is. But before anything else to affirm, grasp, breathe in this basic reality: Life is good, holy, of God. 

And this day it helps that my phone reminds me: LG – Life is Good. Let us resist everything that would tell us otherwise. Let’s claim its goodness. The act of doing so is a moral imperative. For those of us who are religious: doing so honors the God of life.

Strawberry Jam

 

A Confession (1985) by Czeslaw Milosz

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.

Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man?

Nothing like stating the obvious: creation came to be not by accident, but by intention.

Read Gen. 1:31. It does not say that God saw everything that God had made and said “oops”, or “Oh no!” Rather it reads: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (NRSV)

We seem to forget that the bible begins with Gen. 1 and not with Gen. 3. The overarching biblical plot is not that of an angry God whose desire is to curse and to destroy, who must be appeased, but of a creative God of blessing, whose intention is that all life should flourish.

Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that the cow grazing in a field under a tree praises God perfectly, by simply being there.

The material world, this embodied life is not a mistake. It s a gift. It is not meant to be endured and suffered, but to be lived, to be celebrated.The spiritual life is not an escape from this life, but a deeper embrace of it.

That’s why I so love Czeslaw Milosz’s A Confession. Maybe only a person who loves the taste of strawberry jam can be a prophet.

Maybe only the person who shares God’s love for this created world will be moved enough to protest our violence, our readiness to destroy and kill, our careless abuse of the earth.

A New Mind

Jesus Christ Crucifix

Image via Wikipedia

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Rom. 12:2

With this verse Paul makes a transition from writing about theology, ideas about God, to a discussion about how Christian people are to live. Finally, to be a Christian is not primarily about our ideas about God, but about a way of life informed and inspired by the reality that God has come among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul writes to be Christian involves a transformation of the mind, so that one is able to see, know, discern, and one hopes actually do, what is the will of God.

Paul writes that the mind is to be renewed, made new, brought alive. The mind here is not something located in our brains, the thing we think with.  It is the center of our selves. It is the seat of our personalities. It is where our feeling, thinking, and willing come together. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is a call to be completely changed and made new, from the inside out. Only through and inside that process, can we begin to see what is good.

Robert Barron, in The Priority of Christ, identifies three different transformations that the Spirit works in us: from fear to trust; from arrogance to humility; from autonomy to service. He suggests we are converted from fear to trust as our faith in God becomes a source hope and confidence in life as a whole. We move from arrogance to humility as we wake up to the fact that we are not the center of the universe, and the servant love of Jesus takes root in us. We move from autonomy to obedience as we realize that serving the love of God in this world brings much more joy and satisfaction than being a servant of our desires. (As Bill Coffin wrote: there is no smaller package than a person all wrapped up in him or her self.)

Paul writes, and I would affirm, that apart from that transformation, we are not able to see or do the will of God. We can only operate out of our desires, experience, and prejudices. Our biases act like glasses through which we view the world. We have our buttons and people tend to push them. This is why Jesus warns us not to try to take a splinter out of someone else’s eye; we have a bean in our own, clouding our vision. Jesus and Paul promise that God will cleanse our eyes, transform our minds, enabling us to see more clearly what is good and pleasing to God. Paul places that before us as the ongoing transformation within the life of a believer.  It is the work of the Spirit within us. It is our challenge to work with and not hinder that work.

Life in church is one important way that we help each other become transformed people. Regular weekly worship, time in prayer and reflection, time serving others, sharing in Christian conversation, all are vehicles through which the Spirit touches and renews us.  I am grateful to each and every person who has helped me in my faith walk. It is my prayer that we continue on this wonderful path together.

See you in church,

Pastor Bill

Moving Toward Easter

c. 1632

Image via Wikipedia

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom!” Luke 23:42

I remember visiting a woman I in a nursing home many years ago.  It was my first visit with her. I introduced myself saying: “Hi Mrs. Smith, I’m Pastor Bill, the new associate at your church.” I will never forget her response. She turned toward me with tears in her eyes and said: “How good it is that someone remembers my name! How good it is that someone from outside this place remembers my name!”

She was the last surviving member of her nuclear family. Her children lived a number of states away and did not get to visit with her very often. It was so important to her that she had not been forgotten, that her church, someone from her church, someone from the outside world remembered her, and called her by name. She was not forgotten.

One of the most celebrated attributes of God is that God remembers. In the third chapter of Exodus God calls to Moses from a burning bush and says: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6) God remembers all three. God remembers their names. God hears the cries of Israel. God has not forgotten them. God will redeem them. (Ex. 3:7-10)

Many years later, when Israel is in exile in Babylon, when the people of Israel feel abandoned, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isa. 49:15-16) The people of Israel have not been forgotten. Their names are carved in the palm of God’s hand. God will redeem them.

From the cross a thief cries out to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Jesus responds: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) He will not be forgotten. From the cross Jesus promises redemption. He will not forget.

There is a real difference between dis-membering and re-membering. To dis-member something is to take it apart. It is to separate the parts from the whole. To be dis-membered is to be removed from the group, the community, to be cast off, to be forgotten. The work of Jesus is re-membering. Jesus remembers, restores, redeems, makes whole.

The Gospel is packed with stories of Jesus going to, touching, healing, and remembering people who have been dis-membered, cut off, pushed to the margins of society. He touches lepers and cleanses them. He hears the cry of the poor and the blind. He heals the sick, claims prostitutes and tax collectors, remembering that they too are children of God. One of the earliest Christian hymns (Phil. 2:5-11) celebrates that Jesus takes the form of a slave, the most oppressed and forgotten of all people, so that no one is lost, or left behind, or forgotten. From the cross he promises to remember the thief crucified next to him.

We are living in tumultuous times. We can begin to feel as if we are forgotten. But the good news of the Gospel is that we are not forgotten. We are moving toward Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday, and ends with the celebration of Easter. It is the story of how far God goes to remember and restore us. Jesus goes all the way to a place so dark it is called the place of the skull. He even enters the grave, the darkness of death. And God remembers and raises him from the grave! His victory is our victory! God would have it that no one is forgotten or left behind. And that is good news!

Pastor Bill

Why Worship?

Remember flight, The bird is mortal

Image by HORIZON via Flickr

Worship is perhaps the most important act of the church. It is true that there are many other things of importance in which the church is involved, and must be: works of mercy, feeding the hungry, serving the homeless, visiting the sick, working for justice, education, nurture, teaching, etc.  But worship uniquely defines the church, and all other work flows out of its worship. But why worship?

Stephen Dunn is a marvelous poet who frequently writes about his struggles with religion. In one of his poems he develops an image of worship and comments on it in a way that I think speaks for many people I have met. If this is the image of worship which they hold, then I can understand why they would prefer to avoid church. He writes:

“For birds salvation isn’t very complicated –

a good meal or two, a few life or death maneuvers

in hostile skies. And how lovely that they don’t

need an invisible Bird-of –All-Birds to bring

twigs and worms to, that they aren’t supplicants

before their own creation.

That error seems to be exclusively ours.”

(from “The Mistaken,” Stephen Dunn, What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, 191)

I love Dunn’s poetry He enters deeply into the mind and heart of the contemporary experience. He embraces life in all of its concreteness. So it is that he applauds the simplicity of birds because they are fulfilled simply by being birds, without any need for what he considers to be a constructed and imaginary reality beyond this one.  The live out of who they are. That is salvation enough.

Worship then, at least in this poem, is a somewhat silly act of bowing before and offering sacrifices to something that is not real. It diminishes the worshiper. It is as if to worship is to apologize for the simple fact that we are alive. It is an “error” that Dunn says “seems to be exclusively ours.”

Worship as I experience it, is something quite different. I am not diminished by my worship. I am enlarged by it. I do not fall down to apologize for my existence, but come before a beauty and mystery that draws me into itself and fills me with awe. In worship I enter a space in which I discover that life itself is deeper, more mysterious and wonderful than I have imagined it to be. In worship I discover that I am more than who I imagined myself to be; I open to the deepest realms of the Spirit, which are things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity.

Christian theology proclaims that God is love. In worship I connect my life to the center of all things, which is the very essence and fire of love. And I do it with and in the presence of others.

There are two other contemporary poets who express things much closer to my experience. I share with you some of what they write.

One is Denise Levertov. The poem I would share is “Primary Wonder.” She writes:

“Days pass when I forget the mystery.

problems insoluble and problems offering

their own ignored solutions

jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber

along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing

their colored clothes; cap and bells.

And then

Once more the quiet mystery

is present to me, the throng’s clamor

recedes: the mystery

that there is anything at all,

let alone the cosmos, joy, memory, everything,

rather than the void: and that, O Lord,

Creator, Hallowed One, You still,

hour by hour sustain it.”

(“Primary Wonder.”, from Denise Levertov,  Denise Levertov: Selected Poems, a New Directions Book, 2002, 192.)

With Levertov, there are those moments when suddenly I am drawn into the mystery of God who  sustains all things. Worship is not a forced apology for my existence, but a deep breath in which I breathe in something of the holy.  In worship I find myself caught up in the One who is larger and more beautiful.

Mary Oliver is another poet who speaks powerfully of her faith. She writes:

“Lord, I will learn also to kneel down

into the world of the invisible,

the inscrutable and the everlasting.

Then  I will move no more than the leaves of a tree

on a day of no wind,

bathed in light,

like the wanderer who has come home at last

and kneels in peace, done with unnecessary things;

every motion; even words.”

(from “Coming to God: First Days,”  Mary Oliver, Thirst, Beacon Press,2006, 23.)

Again, as is it is for Levertov, worship is not a diminishment, but an enlargement of life, and a celebration. It is the deep breath taken in awe before great beauty and in the presence of something sacred and holy.

Worship is the most important thing we do as a church. In worship we come with awe before the beauty of God who calls all things into being and sustains them in love. Everything else we do flows out of our worship. We breathe in. We breathe out. We worship. We serve. And we do it together publically.

My prayer is that we come together often in worship. It is a gift.

I wonder how Stephen Dunn would respond to Thomas Merton, who once wrote in his journals that the cow grazing in the field praises God by being perfectly itself.

Pasor Bill