Pigeon

I like to hang around the fountains,
water coolers of the city, where traffic intersects,
dropping crumbs of cake and gossip, lies and lives.
Few notice me, but in the moment that it takes
their breath to fall I have named them all.

It all began with water. I surfed the wind that
whipped the waves of creation,
tossed the ark like a toy; I brought them
an olive branch to make them feel better.
I am known for carrying messages long distances.

Once, I fell in love, dropping headlong from the sky;
they tried to tame me, but he turned the tables,
broke the cage. Spooked, I flew the coop.

I like best the kind that spring up
unsuspected from the ground,
surprising squealing children;
water should always be astonishing,
considering where it came from.

The saddest sight that I have seen,
a fountain cracked and empty, dry and bitter
fallen angels face-down lying broken in its basin.

(This Sunday’s readings include the table-turning temple scene where the dove-sellers are rebuked and the sheep and cattle set free, although the fate of the doves is not clear.)

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Year B Lent 2: putting a spin on the gospel

One of the good things to come out of the trials and tribulations of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, in hot water over the accuracy of their memories of reporting from dangerous places, accused of polishing their credentials, of burnishing their badges of courage; one of the good things to come out of their difficulties is the learning that we have acquired about our memories, and the stories that we tell ourselves.

Scientists say that when we remember an event, we lay down a narrative which, the next time we remember, is what we recall instead of the original event. So each time we remember, we remember not the event but the story, and its editorial flourishes and polishes, until we end up with a pearl of a tale to tuck away and pull out whenever it’s needed, whether it still rings true or not.

I remember the first time I realized that, hearing my mother relate her end of a phone call that I’d overheard, sharpening and brightening her responses; she sounded good! Then she appealed to me to confirm her story, and I thought about the difference between what I had heard, with its hesitations and prevarications and backtracks, and the story she had told, and I said, “It wasn’t quite like that.” She was outraged, not because she had been caught in a lie, but because she knew that it happened the way that she told it, and she couldn’t understand why I was lying, throwing her under the bus. One of us, at least, had edited the memory of that phone conversation. I may even have edited this memory; it is, after all, a little too neat.

We all do it, burnishing the truth up to a brassy finish, spinning a yarn. Are we ashamed to be ourselves, to be human, made in the image of God?

Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory.”

It is not a new phenomenon. Even saintly Paul got to telling the story of Abraham in a seriously revisionist fashion.

Paul says that Abraham didn’t weaken in faith nor waver when he considered his own body nor the barrenness of Sarah’s womb, which is simply not the case. Abraham might have believed that God could work with his old bones, but he wasn’t so sure about hers, which is how Ismael came to be born to Sarah’s slave woman, Hagar, because they did not trust God with Sarah’s old womb. And then there’s the matching pair of incidents in which Abraham gave up Sarah, pretending she was his sister, because he was afraid of the foreign king. Of course he got her back, both times, but even so. The only time Abraham truly showed no doubt, he nearly killed his son. What kind of faith was that?

Abraham was our father in faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, but to say that his faith never wavered is polishing the truth a tad, spinning the story for Paul’s own purposes. We all do it.

Peter even tried it with Jesus. Peter did not want the story told as Jesus was telling it; he pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him, told him off, told him there was a better story to tell, a better way to tell it. And Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory.”

Was Paul ashamed that even the most unassailable role model for faith was a flawed and fragile old man, fully human?

Was Peter ashamed of the gospel that Jesus was proclaiming: that the kingdom of God had drawn near, but that didn’t mean an end to Roman rule, corruption, crucifixion; that there would still be the cross to consider?

Are we ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified? Does the sight of the cross make us waver? Are we ashamed of the gospel?

Can you imagine turning your face and your feet toward Jerusalem, knowing what was coming, telling your closest friends, confessing your deepest fears, and then one says, “Ach, don’t worry about it! It’s not going to be so bad! God won’t give you more than you can handle!”

Actually, that’s a spin on a verse in 1 Corinthians: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to all. God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

The promise that God is faithful is true, but it is not a promise that no misfortune will ever befall, that no suffering will overwhelm our spirits, still less that God carefully measures out suffering to each of us just to the point of breaking. That’s a spin on the gospel I could do without. The gospel does entreat us not to despair; but it also acknowledges that we all bear that temptation; that it is common to all; and Jesus knew it. He was disappointed, angry, maybe even ashamed when his good friend Peter tried to wash it all out with denial and spin. Peter, of course, did a good line in denial.

Devoid of spin, the gospel is not a promise that we will all live happily ever after. The flood did not wash the earth clean of all suffering and sin, and the cross; the cross may have put a stake through the heart of evil, but its death throes are not yet done. And a gospel that denies the cross, the death of God, that skips straight to glory; that is a gospel that will ring untrue when it is tested beyond what it can bear.

The gospel of the cross is that God has, in the person of Jesus, taken our suffering into God’s self, and redeemed it, transformed it, remade it into resurrection. The gospel of the cross is that God has not forsaken us, even at the time of deepest crisis; even at the pinnacle of pain; God is there with us, and will raise us up, has raised us up with his resurrection. The gospel is not a word that denies or dismisses our suffering, but one that redeems it.

In We Preach Christ Crucified, Kenneth Leech says,

“To remember Christ in his dying is to become his members, his limbs and organs, to be his body crucified and risen.”

When we, like Peter, want to forget about the crucifixion, pretend nothing bad ever happens, and skip straight to glory, we miss out much more than the hill of Calvary. We miss out on the whole Incarnation, on God becoming human enough to die with us, for us. When we deny the cross, we miss out on the comfort of a God who is close to us, who has suffered for us, who stays with us. We miss out on the closeness of a God who can understand and empathize with our darkest hours. We miss out on the re-membering, the putting back together of a life which ends not in death, but in resurrection. We miss becoming Christ’s body, broken and resurrected, for the sake of the world.

Is it enough? Are we ashamed of such a gospel?

Peter and Paul each had their moments of doubt, as did Abraham, and yet God was faithful to them. Peter’s denial, ashamed to acknowledge Jesus in the courtyard, is countered by Jesus’ kiss of peace. There is nothing to fear from confessing that we have our moments, too. And in them, in those moments of doubt and despair, what polish do we apply to our stories, our faith, afraid to tell the unvarnished truth to ourselves and to one another? Fortunately, God has heard it all before, and God bears with us graciously.

Because the simple, unspun truth of the gospel is this: the kingdom of God is drawn near. God is as close to us as our own bodies, and even when our bodies fail us, God won’t. God will not let us down, will not let us go, in our hour of need; and we will need that assurance. God will stand by us, stand with us, and God will raise us up, even if it takes until the last day. And if it does, then there is no shame in that.

Amen.

Kenneth Leech, We Preach Christ Crucified (tenth anniversary edn) (Church Publishing, 2005), 6

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Simon Peter Says

Think positive
Put on a brave face
Put your best foot forward
Do not waver

Do not speak of death
and it will not happen
Do not look upon the cross
and it will not crush you

Look on the bright side
Think positive
Do not waver
Jesus

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo suffering and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’

Updated to include scriptural context.

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Year B Lent 1: aftermath

Why – why in God’s name would God, of all people, need to set a reminder to remember not to wipe out creation?

We tell the story to our children, that the rainbow was a gift from God to remind us that God loves us, will not abandon us, will not destroy us. But here it is in black and white: the sign was not for us. The rainbow was God’s reminder of the covenant God made, single-sidedly, as if there were anything Noah or any of us could do should God choose to break or amend or set it aside; the rainbow was God’s reminder to godself.

“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” God said to Noah.

It is still a sign of God’s loving care for creation, of God’s promise, God’s commitment, God’s covenant not to return creation to chaos, undo the mess we have made of what God has made.

But why would God, of all people, need to set a visible reminder, to remember that God loves us?

I’m almost afraid to ask the question.

It’s easy to see how we need the reminder. It is easy to feel as though everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, with ISIS wreaking havoc in the middle east and north Africa, Christian martyrs dying once more for their faith as though we were back in the time after Christ. With eastern Europe sabre-rattling as though we were back in the fifties. Even in our own little lives, quiet on the outside, we know death and destruction and abandon. It is easy to see why we might need a reminder that God loves us and has not decided to leave us to destruction, has not forgotten that God created us for good.

Even Jesus, right after God has announced to him at his baptism that he is beloved, well pleasing to God, doing the right thing in the right place at the right time – even Jesus, immediately after this, finds himself driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, the desolate place, abandoned to the devil, tempted on all sides, at the mercy of wild beasts. It is the very Spirit of God that sends him there, out of sight and out of mind, and out of food. When Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” it isn’t for the first time.

Then God remembered him, and angels came and ministered to him.

The first time in the Bible that God is said to have remembered is about halfway through the Noah story, when the rains had fallen for forty days and the floods had swelled for another 150 – six months of misery on the Ark. After all, God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all of the domestic animals that were with him on the Ark, says the Bible. And when God remembered, God closed the doors to the waters over the earth, the waters of chaos that had been confined at the time of creation and let loose in the deluge. And when God remembered, God sent a wind to sweep over the waters, as the Spirit of God swept over the waters at creation, and dried the earth, reclaiming the dry land that had been separated from the sea on the third day.

Old Testament scholar Gordon J. Wenham notes, “When God remembers, he acts.”[i]

When God remembers, God acts.

The dirty little secret about that flood story is that the world is not washed clean. The dirt is not removed. The Ark lands on squishy mud and the giraffe probably breaks a leg sliding down the hillside, and the crocodile thinks it’s died and gone to heaven. Noah goes out and pretty much straight away disgraces himself. Humanity is not set upon a new trajectory, but continues to grow into the path it has set for itself. The arrival on the mountaintop is the high point; it’s all downhill from there.

When God looked upon creation, God saw that all was good. When God looked at the lands in which Noah lived, God was pained, anguished by the difficulties and the hardness and the evil that had grown up. The word that is used for God’s pain is that of a woman in labour, in the throes of contractions, the completion of forty-odd weeks of pregnancy.

It is as if creation was God’s conception of the world, and this, this deluge, this crisis born out of the pain and anguish of God, is God’s labour, God’s bringing to birth of the creation that will endure, that will live out its days not in the garden of Eden, but in the whole earth; not in innocence, but in worldliness; not in forgetfulness, but accumulating days and years and lives and deaths and joys and sorrows and grief and pain and anguish – and love.

Things would never be quite as they had been, when God walked in the garden in the cool of the day. Giving birth involves a lot of letting go. But not forgetting.

We are not innocent. We do not live in paradise. We have not resisted temptation, and we have hidden ourselves from God when God would walk with us in the cool of the day, afraid to show our whole selves. We have seen the wilderness. We have felt the pain of birth, the giving and the receiving. We have known death.

God loves us anyway. Even when we feel that God is far away – my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? – God remembers. God doesn’t need the rainbow to remember God’s covenant of compassion for us, any more than a woman needs a lock of hair in a silver pendant to remember her child, or a man needs a ring to remember that he is married, or a scar to remember what has been lost.

Perhaps God is a little bit sentimental.

Or perhaps the sign, after all, is for us a reminder that God remembers and will act on our behalf, even when it seems as though the storms will never end; it is God writing in the sky, “You are my child, my beloved.”

Maybe we will turn around and find ourselves in the wilderness right afterwards. But God has not forgotten God’s resolve, to remain in relationship with us, to keep reaching out to us not matter how trying we may be – through Exodus and wilderness, Exile and return the cross and the grave and the crowds crying crucify – God nevertheless returns to us, returns life to us, time and again.

It seems a long way from rainbow season right now, in the season of Lent, in the season of winter, in the winter of much discontent. But no matter how deluged in distress, no matter how swamped in sin we may become, we have been given a sure sign, assurance, that God will remember us, in the fullness of time; because the good news is that God’s kingdom has drawn near; God has drawn near, and will send angels to minister to us, when our forty days are over.

[i] Gordon J. Wenham. Gensis 1-15, World Biblical Commentary Volume 1 (Word, Inc., 1987), 184

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Prayer writing

I should be solidly on my way to Youngstown to offer a prayer writing retreat at the beginning of a quiet and somewhat subdued lenten season, spirits dampened by snow and oppressed by falling temperatures; but it’s snowing yet again and the outlook for this midwinter day is bleak, so I’m staying at home.

But yesterday, thinking about the adventure to come, I was led to reflect on how this all got started, this putting words on paper instead of simply shouting them into the breeze or burying them under my tongue, this prayer writing business.

I remember three things about my primary school in Frampton Cotterell.

I remember Mrs Chesterton’s class, the last I attended before we moved away. I remember my very best friends, Charlotte, and Richard, and Andrew. I remember our bully, Larry, and Jane, who always breathed through her mouth and who got the part in the Nativity pageant that I wanted. I remember Sally, who moved in halfway through the year, and who lived over the pub, so that I wasn’t allowed to go and play at her house.

I remember a couple of years earlier, Mrs Evans’ class. We were building with wooden blocks, and I don’t know how they all came tumbling down like thunder, and I honestly don’t think it was my fault, despite the pointing finger; but I was the one who got sent to sit in the corner. I broke my heart crying, sure that no one would ever think well of me or love me again. I still don’t know how I feel about original sin, but I was sure that I was born with original guilt. I was also worried that Mrs Evans would tell my mother. Mrs Evans was somewhat astonished at the idea, and explained to me about forgiveness, and moving on, and a pile of blocks being not that big a deal, and she picked me up and sent me off to assembly.

I remember the assemblies that Mr Jones, the headmaster, taught about the Lord’s Prayer, breaking it down piece by piece, so that even a six-year-old might have some chance at understanding what she was saying. I think that’s where it all began, where I fell in love with prayer. I already knew that the words were beautiful around my tongue: “Hallowed be thy name,” and now they had meaning, too; a match made in heaven.

In the beginning, when God brooded over the waters before creation, what was hatched were words: “Let there be.” Let there be light, day, night, plants and animals, and lastly us, someone to talk to, made in God’s image, to speak God’s language.

When we brood over prayer, growing and shifting and warming and breaking open words, knitting beauty and meaning together, sometimes one, sometimes the other shining through, and the pattern on the reverse side as intricate and confused as the one that we show; when we break open our hearts and bleed prayer, spilling words across the page, or into the air, or swallowing them whole, perhaps we participate in God’s ongoing work of creating us, making us into the image we were formed to become, the ones who speak God’s language.

Amen.

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Ashes and coaldust

Of all the symbols that we use in the Christian year, the ashes of Ash Wednesday might be at once the most unambiguous and the most strange.

A wise colleague was recently heard to remark on the popularity of “ashes-to-go” services, that if people don’t yet know what we are all about, then greeting them on the street with the admonition that they are going to die might not give the greatest first impression.

And yet it’s a phenomenally popular movement amongst people who are in the know, who already know that we’re all going to die, and that God loves our silly, fragile, mortal little lives anyway.

I think that’s the key. Ashes work for those who know already that God loves us. For those of us who know how much God loved the world – that God gave Jesus Christ to live and die for us, so that we might know how much God loves the world – for those who have already heard this good news, the gulf between the ashes of the grave and the promise of salvation is profound, and deserves to be marked, acknowledged, lived out even if only for one day a year.

We spend a lot more time thinking on the promise than on the perdition in which we would find ourselves without it; and rightly so, because the economy of God’s love is in charge of creation, thank God.

We talked a little at this morning’s service, those of us whose parents sometimes told us, in the months before Christmas, that if we didn’t behave, then our Christmas stockings would feature a piece of coal, or that our present would be a sack of coal – dust and ashes in the making, nothing more, nothing less.

Most of us did not believe our parents’ blandishments. Most of us had enough experience of forgiveness, or simple forgetfulness, to believe that by Christmas morning, our sins would be left behind and our reward would be wrapped in shiny paper under the tree. Most of us.

But all of us paid attention, nevertheless. Because the secret that we would never tell was that we knew that we deserved that coal – for telling a lie, for breaking a plate, for coming home late, for breaking our mother’s heart, for failing to love our sister, our uncle, for taking it out on the dog, for hiding uneaten food, torn and dirty clothing, bad grades, for fighting, for falling, for falling short. We grew up knowing our shortcomings, knowing that no one’s perfect. No one’s perfect.

Is it too childish to suggest that the ashes we wipe on our heads today are in a way our reclaiming of our sacks of coal, the dust and ashes which we know that we deserve, which we know that God, our perfect Parent, will not leave us holding in place of the gifts of grace and love which are the promise of the Gospel?

Because although no one is perfect, God is, and God loves us perfectly, healing our brokenness, lifting us up when we fall, blessing our little efforts at love and mercy, steadfast in God’s own mercy.

Do you remember that cartoon which used to proclaim, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”?

It’s pure ashes.

Love gives us permission to say we’re sorry, to own up to our sorry little selves, our sack of coal sins, our misgivings and our mischief and our misery, safe in the knowledge that love forgives, love restores, love heals.

I think that it is worth remembering that it is not God who places the ashes on our faces on Ash Wednesday. We do it to ourselves. We line up to be marked with the signs of fasting and repentance, confident in our forgiveness, otherwise we would still be hiding in our shame. We are able to own up to our ashiness, our coal-dust characters, because we are assured of the embrace of God.

We line up behind Abraham, arguing with God, pleading his case although he told himself he was but dust and ashes. We line up behind Job, marking his pain and sorrow, sitting in the dust and ashes. We line up behind Jonah, the reluctant penitent, and David, ashen with guilt and with grief, all of whom God restored, raised up rejoicing, when all was said and done.

We line up to be marked with our sorry, sad sack of coal dust and ashes, and we confess our sorry stories, and we hear God’s forgiveness, absolute absolution, wiping us clean, wiping our foreheads and our eyes and our hearts, restoring us to grace, absolutely.

May you know a holy Lent, filled with the grace and benediction of the knowledge of God’s embrace, now and in the life to come, beyond the dust and ashes.

Amen.

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Transfiguration: no shades of gray, only glory

“For the glory of God is a living human; and the life of a person consists in beholding God. For if the manifestation of God which is made by means of the creation, affords life to all living in the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who see God.” – Irenaus, Adverses Haereses 4.34.5-7

“The revelation of the Father which comes through the Word gives life to those who see God.”

There is an old tradition that those who see God will die. Understandable; the most reliable time for meeting one’s maker is at death’s door. Still, there are those who have sought God out and lived to tell the tale.

Take Moses, on the mountaintop; and when he came down from his encounter with the glory of God, his face shone so brightly that the people begged him to veil it.

Elisha refuses to turn back from his journey with Elijah, even though the prophets warn him of what is coming. They are not asking him to abandon Elijah in his final hours; they are seeking to save Elisha’s life, knowing that he risks seeing God and dying right alongside his master.

Except that Elisha doesn’t die. In fact, he becomes even more alive. He inherits a double share of Elijah’s spirit, just as he asked. In the verses that follow, he returns to the Jordan with Elijah’s rolled-up cloak, and marks the flowing water into separate pieces just as Elijah did, just as Moses did at the Red Sea, and God confirms his call by drawing the waters apart and sending him back to the doubtful prophets on dry land.

Peter, James, and John, unlikely prophets, hardly men you’d mark down as mystics, are invited into the mystery of God’s glory revealed in the person of Jesus, blazing through him like an all-consuming fire. And they heard the voice of God, the voice that spoke out at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, now telling his disciples, “listen to him.” And although they would witness the death of God on the cross, they also knew resurrection, and they all lived to tell the tale, and lived and told it passionately.

“For the glory of God is a living human; and the life of the person consists in beholding God.”

*

The last of our baptismal covenant promises asks, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” For the glory of God is a living human, and the manifestation of God is what affords life to all living in the earth.

There are many challenges to this promise. Some are clear: murder, mayhem, the death of the young at the hands of the deranged and the over-armed. We have heard the slogans: Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. Moslem lives matter. Women’s lives matter. All lives matter. The glory of God is a living human being. Respect the dignity of every human being.

Sure, sometimes, the issues are nuanced. But sometimes, the grey areas themselves are just smudges, dirt that been smeared around rather than being wiped clean.

*

Speaking of grey areas, I have been challenged this Valentine’s weekend by the release of a certain movie, about which I know there are differing opinions, but which many have criticized as symptomatic of the fifty or more ways in which our culture has glorified power and eroticized violence that has nothing to do with true intimacy, and much less to do with dignity, let alone love.

It’s not an easy subject to think about, let alone talk about. But I read a blog by a Presbyterian minister – I’ll post the link to our facebook page – and at one point she says this,

Meanwhile the rest of the world watches. Friends, you do know they are watching, don’t you? Because Christ’s resurrection makes us one family with people around the world, they are our sisters and daughters and nieces and mothers. While women we [meaning, I think, her Presbyterian church] love and partner with in Congo try to heal from the physical and emotional scars of rape, we are munching on popcorn watching violations of physical and emotional safety being sexualized. While we lay down 20 bucks to be “entertained” by sexualized violence, young men and women in the Philippines are outsourced to Malaysia where they must service 21 men a night in order to eat the next day.

Do you see the connection?

The author of the blog, Shannon Beck, suggests not seeing the movie, and instead donating the cost of a movie ticket and popcorn to a local women’s shelter or an international organization. I’ve donated my twenty bucks to a local organization here in Cleveland that helps to prevent human trafficking and supports its survivors, those living right here among us.

*

We are all connected, and what we teach by our actions, accidentally or one purpose, will be learned by those who watch us. Whether in the arena of community relations or race relations, or even in romantic or domestic relations, the kinds of relationships that we make and break will show the world what we mean by love, respect, and dignity. We are always an example to someone, no matter what kind of example we may be.

*

When I think about Transfiguration, about the glory of God made manifest in the Son of Man, I remember a summer’s day, July 7th. Across the ocean, London was in bedlam, murder and mayhem wielded by the deranged and the over-armed had just taken place. Here, the day dawned bright, clear, sunny. At the pool, it was playday, the last morning in the week’s swimming lesson sessions. A gaggle of children slid down the slide, hauled themselves out of the water, and round and round to do it again. My friend sat down beside me. “I’m sorry they attacked your country,” she said. We sat together in silence, watching the children go round and round. The lifeguards tried to dampen at least some of their exuberance. “No running!” The children stopped running. But they did not walk. Instead, they began to skip. Round and round, down the slide, out of the pool, and skipping, skipping away, and laughing, their lifeguards laughing with them with unfeigned delight, at their courage, their creativity, the dignity of their choices, their irrepressible joy.

They were my example that day of the glory of God in the human being fully alive, bright lights shining in dark times.

Those children deserve to grow up with justice and the promise of peace. They deserve to grow up knowing the dignity of their bodies as well as their souls, deserving of respect, knowing how to demonstrate respect to one another. They deserve better than shades of grey; they deserve the light that shines brighter than any fuller can bleach it. They deserve not light at the end of the tunnel, but the brightness of God’s love surrounding them this and every day. No exceptions.

They will not die if they see God. We will not die from seeking or from seeing God, nor from showing God’s love to one another. Indeed, it is the only way to become fully, brightly alive.

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