Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019.12.29 Christmastide and the Politics Set In

The day after Christ-Mass, December 26, is the day we remember St. Stephen, the first deacon and martyr, stoned to death for his faith in the foolishness of such a faith built on vulnerable Love not Power.

Then on December 27, we remember St John the Evangelist who dared to proclaim the gospel of The Word Made Flesh, the great miracle of the Incarnation. No one could believe that God “Almighty” would be such a fool as to take on human flesh, joining humanity and divinity together forever. God, help us to honor the divine spirit in our own flesh.

On December 28, we remember more martyrs of the flesh, Holy Innocents, young children slaughtered by order of a terrified “caesar” who feared the spread of Christianity, and with it the loss of his own kingly power to another one called Jesus the Christ, Lord of all, ruling with Love not Power.

Today, December 29, the first Sunday after Christmas we anticipate the story of the Magi, Eastern sages/astrologers who, instructed by the frightened rival-king, Herod the Great, traveled to Bethlehem in search of a star that would guide them to the birth of this rumored new Messiah. Herod, puffed up with his kingly power, sent for the Magi to find this rival, so he too could bow in worship.  Herod lied. 

The Magi, canny and wise, were not easily fooled. They left their precious gifts at the manger scene and split. Why? They weren’t about to risk being whistle blowers, yet they knew they had seen a more authentic “king” than Herod. Their wisdom was confirmed by the Voice of God, a character in biblical story, warning them that the Herodian establishment  was a threat the land and to their own lives. The godly solution was simple: Don’t tell; Keep Herod in the dark; Don’t buy into his deal; Listen to my voice.

The Voice of God is a prominent character in all biblical story. Do you hear it sometimes too?

Here is a poem written by a Welsh poet and teacher, a man whose life was passionately dedicated to justice in spite of painful personal losses and an early death after a stroke at the age of 67. The young children Williams taught were mesmerized by his charism and riveted by his poetry.  Williams, like the Magi, discerned the voice of God in the mystery of a simple story.  A wise man himself.

In the Days of Caesar, by Waldo Williams (translated from Welsh by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury)

In the days of Caesar, when his subjects went to be reckoned,
there was a poem made, too dark for him (naive with power) to read.
It was a bunch of shepherds who discovered
in Bethlehem of Judah, the great music beyond reason and reckoning:
shepherds, the sort of folk who leave the ninety-nine behind
so as to bring the stray back home, they heard it clear,
the subtle assonances of the day, dawning toward cock-crow,
the birthday of the Lamb of God, shepherd of mortals.
Well, little people, and my little nation, can you see
the secret buried in you, that no Caesar, ever captures in his lists?
Will not the shepherd come to fetch us in our desert,
gathering us in to give us birth again, weaving us into one
in a song heard in the sky over Bethlehem?
He seeks us out as a word-hoard for his workmanship, the laureate of heaven.

Oh God, such poetic politics does give me hope and a swoon.

We cannot, any more than our ancient forebears could, live without the Voice of God, however and wherever, we hear it—very often in some kind of unbelievable story, even your own. Listen for this voice, heed “subtle assonances” beyond reason or politics as usual. Don’t buy into lies or listen to contemporary Caesars, “naive with power.” 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

2019.12.25 Listen Well

Occasionally, a homiletic reflection is offered that is hard as stone and true as the natal cry of Life. Below is one offered by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts. I’m grateful!

And every stone shall cry.  And every stone shall cry, in praises of the Child by whose descent among us the worlds are reconciled.”  [Richard Wilbur, Hymn 104, The Hymnal 1982]

A manger hard as stone.  The poor little family arrived weary from the long journey.  A child was born.  Born in a stable, laid in a manger, so we say.  But in that time and place animals were sheltered not in a stable, really.  It was a cave, hollowed out of the rocky hillsides upon which villages were nestled.  For 20 centuries our human imagination has carried this story.  We place it in settings familiar to us.  Of course we do, because the story belongs to us.  So the holy family is imagined in a barn, and the child is laid in a wooden feeding box.  And that is right, for Christ surely is born into every land and time and culture.  But in ancient Bethlehem that night, that little homeless family was in a rocky place. The manger was hard as stone.

Walls hard as stone.  Twenty-first-century Bethlehem is criss-crossed with walls.  Concrete walls up to 25 feet high divide neighborhood from neighborhood, family from family.  Observation towers appear where the barrier turns a corner. Graffiti on the wall says, “Welcome to Santa’s Ghetto,” and “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Pope Francis, on his visit to Bethlehem, made an unscheduled stop.  He walked to the wall, bowed his head in silent prayer, laid his palm against the cement and touched his forehead to its coldness.  In Bethlehem today the thousands of pilgrims that for centuries flocked to the place of Jesus’ birth at Christmas have dwindled to a trickle.  Too divided.  Too dangerous.  Too broken.  The walls in Bethlehem are hard as stone.

A heart of stone.  The Hebrew prophets knew the stony human heart.  They saw wanton cruelty and needless starvation; sacking and looting; the destruction of God’s temple; plunder and fire and blood and death.  Such hardness of heart has endured in the ensuing millennia.  Crusades and inquisitions; genocides and holocaust; bombs taking planes out of the sky; chemical and biological warfare; murderous attacks in schools, clinics, houses of worship; immigrant children held in cages.  In the face of humanity’s murderous ways, came Ezekiel’s clarion prophecy:  "Thus says the Lord God: … I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” [Ezekiel 36:22,26]  The human heart can be hard as stone.

A heart of flesh.  At Christmas we greet the very heart of God made flesh.  Born 2,000 years ago.  Born again every time the vulnerability of human love fills the rocky trough of human cruelty.  It is in the very nature of love to be vulnerable. Precisely because God loves us was Jesus born, vulnerable to the needs of every helpless infant.  He grew, dependent upon the care of loving parents.  He preached and taught, vulnerable to the resentment of the religious establishment.  And he died, vulnerable to the cruelty of the Roman occupation.  He died every bit as vulnerable as the victims of warfare in Syria and Yemen; as vulnerable as the victims of terror in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, of massacres in Pittsburgh, El Paso and Jersey City.  He died as vulnerable as me and you.

But listen well:  In that infant birth–and in the life, death and resurrection that followed–God in Jesus proclaims that the joy and peace of the incarnation will not surrender to the terror of Herod’s day, nor ours; that vulnerable love is stronger than hateful death; that trust is stronger than suspicion; that faith is stronger than fear; that innocence is stronger than cynicism; that life and love are God’s will for us, and are our ultimate destiny.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  [John 1:1,4-5]  This is the message of Christmas.  Not the stony human heart, but the compassionate and imperishable heart of flesh is what we proclaim, 2,000 years ago, and emphatically now.

Christmas blessings to you!

The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
December 16, 2019

Sunday, December 22, 2019

2019.12.22 Tidbits of Holy Wow

People throughout history have always asked big fat unmanageable questions like: Is there God? How did we get here? What is the meaning of life? Who IS holy? No one has good or manageable answers that satisfy all human hungers for the Holy. Holy is not about being good. It’s about being whole-hearted, letting your soul choose life.

I sometime fret about church attendance. Occasionally, I nudge my children to “go to church.” I’m gentle but I know it’s a little nag. Yet, do I really care? I have to say, not so much. Then I worry that I have detached with denial and not with love from the Holy.

 The Holy is everywhere. All you need is to Wonder and go WOW!

Suffering from impeachment fatigue, sick of life-according-to-Twitter and the temptation to stop caring, I watch for signs that help me to care anyway, to wonder and laugh. Some of what inspires Wonder in me is quirky. In the absence of any objectivity in American politics, I stop trying to find out THE truth. Instead, I find things that make me laugh and feel the uplift of joy—not happiness as if everything is suddenly perfect, but joy—a kind of heart-leaping energy that reminds me I am as alive as when I was born.

The brilliance of the Holy comes to me from inside my religious traditions as well as from outside them. It comes from inside my own mental meanderings as well as from the view outside my window, which today included two men at work on a construction site next door. They were bundled against the cold, likely freezing as they hammered and banged away at the slow-to-rise foundation of a duplex. Suddenly, they started to play—slip-sliding down the snowy slope as if sledding on boots, laughing, throwing snowballs. Childish? You bet. Holy? You bet.

Then I received an image from a friend who has collected Santas for 20 years. Everywhere she goes she finds images of Christmas in the many artistic and cultural variations of Santa Claus, giver of good gifts. She now has a mantel that will hold all her Santas. Room at the “inn” for all.

We have been watching some British television. Its wry humor feels just right. We’ve watched “Fleabag.” It’s a family sitcom, totally unorthodox and outrageous, just what we love, maybe need. At the heart of the drama is a young woman in search of a young man to do “it” with. She becomes smitten with a Roman Catholic priest. Their flirtatious interplay is mutual. In one scene she declares that she does not want to be Catholic, not that he has asked. He quickly, and with total sincerity, replies: “Oh good, I’m so happy that you have such faith in a totally meaningless universe.” This is just before she moves intrepidly into the topic of celibacy.

Just this week I noticed on my home altar a stink bug that had crawled up onto a small cross to die there. The cross is a small replica of the Cross of Nails, originally designed from the burnt nails left after the Coventry Cathedral in England was destroyed by fire. Stink bugs, by the way, are agricultural pests, but they won’t hurt you unless they’re assaulted, and, in defense, emit a hideous stink!  Astounded, I touched the insect to check for life. It was quite dead and quite securely anchored. I laughed. Every critter has soul, is Holy. Of course I projected all kinds of Jesus-y thoughts, settling on: “Into your hands, O God, I commend my spirit.” All Creation is Holy and all returns to its Creator. Here’s my stink bug corpus.
Then in my chiropractor's office I noticed a new addition to the decor. Sitting comfortably in a chair next to the waiting room was a human skeleton, all 270 bones accounted for. The pelvic area looked ample so I thought this skeleton was female. I laughed out loud. What a perfect ad for chiropractic medicine. It keeps your bones in alignment. It feels good to be all lined up inside and out. Thinking with my spiritual imagination, I thought of the word righteousness. In the Bible righteous is a very good way to be. It means being in right relationship with God, yourself and your neighbor—all lined up. The Hebrew word is tsaddiq. When the chiropractor adjusts your bones, you are aligned, righteous, each bone in line to work with the others for a whole body. Here’s my righteous bone-girl.

All these odd tidbits of Holy are not my way of being sarcastic, making fun, or being sacrilegious. They are ways to see beneath the surface of things, and most especially, ways that "life" me and make me laugh with joy—that heart-leaping energy that reminds me I am as alive as when I was born.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

2019.12.15 Bentley's Snowflake

This photograph is called “Bentley’s Snowflake # 4 and is the 167th photographic print out of 200 of the same snowflake. Yes, it really is a snowflake pic, created way back in the late 1800s by the first known photographer of snowflakes, Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley of Jericho, VT. Here's #4.

As a young teen Wilson Bentley was fascinated by snow crystals. Farm folk dreaded the winter but young Willie loved it and looked forward to it. He collected snow crystals and examined them under an old microscope his mom gave him when he was fifteen. Snowflakes were too complex to record before they melted so he attached a bellows camera to a compound microscope and, after lots of experimentation, he photographed his first snowflake on January15,1885.

Eventually, he perfected a process of catching flakes on black velvet in such a way that their images could be captured before they melted. Imagine! 

Bentley described his little flakes as “tiny miracles of beauty” and “ice flowers.” He worked with George Henry Perkins, professor of natural history at the University of Vermont and published an article in which he argues that no two snow crystals are alike, just as no two individuals are alike.
#4 has personal and historical meaning for me and my spouse Dick. It was a gift after we officiated at the marriage of Ellen Riddick and Brian Russo at a small Episcopal parish church in Jericho where a dear old friend, the Rev. Daniel Riddick, Ellen’s dad, was the rector. Jericho is also where Wilson Bentley’s farm was and where he did his best snowflake work.

Wilson Bentley died of pneumonia on December 23rd, 1931 after walking home in a beloved blizzard. His artistic work has made many people happy. Here he is with his camera and  microscope. He didn't die cold of heart.

Bentley’s name is memorialized in the naming of a science center at Johnson State College in Johnson Vermont where John Brakeman went for a year in 1990. I remember staying on the phone with him when he was caught in a terrible blizzard driving his old car that had no snow tires. The college was atop a huge hill. John waited till he saw a large snow plow and slipped in behind it. He drove all the way up the hill safely following that big old plow.

You see lots of things in this life look impossible but might not be if you just stop, sit down, and shut up long enough to think. In the same way lots of things look exactly alike, especially when they’re all together in a heap like snow piles of flakes or hundreds of people in a stadium. But each flake is totally unique and absolutely special just as it is. So it is with people. Each person is totally unique and absolutely special just as they are—every one beloved, a tiny miracle of beauty.

Remember your own uniqueness as this little Snowflake #4 winks at you from wherever it hangs. May it bring you good luck and be a miracle of beauty to remind you you are never alone no matter how small you may feel. Let it be a blessing of Hope, Joy, and Christmas always.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

2019.12.08 You Do Not Have To Believe In God To Pray, Do You?

The Advent season is paradoxical. It’s full of darkness and ominous warnings about endings—of the world, of human lives, of our whole planet in peril. Simultaneously, Advent also offers stunningly compelling images of light—the light of a single matchstick struck to brighten a small space, the light of a single candle passed around to light other candles, the pierce of a single note or voice, calling now and over time for people to look and see and expect.

Such Advent chiaroscuro is just enough to hold a community at worship, or at war, in thrilled suspension for mere seconds. That’s when you hold your breath and breathe. That’s when you murmur, Oh my God, and you don’t know why, but you think it might be prayer.

Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy's brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as "Young Rabbit," or even "Rabbit"; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn't know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray. He would grow up to become a great prayer, this little boy, but only intermittently, only fitfully, praying only when fear and desperation drove him to it, and the night he threw Old Rabbit into the darkness was the night that set the pattern, the night that taught him how. He prayed for Old Rabbit's safe return, and when, hours later, his mother and father came home with the filthy, precious strip of rabbity roadkill, he learned not only that prayers are sometimes answered but also the kind of severe effort they entail, the kind of endless frantic summoning. And so when he threw Old Rabbit out the car window the next time, it was gone for good.

So begins the article “Can You Say  . . . Hero?” by Tom Junod, originally published in the November, 1998 issue of Esquire Magazine.  The current popular movie, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” is the story of Mr. Rogers and Tom Junod and Old Rabbit—and a lot more. Junod is a writer who was assigned to interview Fred Rogers, hero of children’s television and originator of the show for young children: “Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.”

The most wonderful thing about the late Fred Rogers and his show was not its popularity, but the fact that so far no one—no one—has been able to prove that Mr. Rogers was not really, in true life that is, as nice as the person he created for his show, a person who welcomed everyone equally with a smile into his make-believe neighborhood, who spent time listening to each child no matter how off schedule the filming of his show got, and who consistently embodied his message: “I like you just the way you are.”  Oh my God

It was all an act of course, wasn’t it?

Tom Junod was grumpy about being assigned the task of interviewing Mr. Rogers for a series on heroes. Junod was cynical, skeptical, and irritated. He wanted some “hot shot hero” to interview, someone who was a REAL hero, not a schmaltzy kiddie show host. And on top of all that the editor of Esquire only gave him 400 words. Reluctantly, Junod did his job. He hung out at the edges of the make-believe neighborhood to meet this make-believe man, this silly non-hero. He hovered in the darkened gloom of the studio and watched, scribbling notes on and off. He intended to create something passably publishable and do it with haste. Gradually, Junod edged from the darkness into the light of Rogers’s soft voice and the paradoxical truth of actually being liked just as he was—mile-high shoulder chip and all. Here is Junod with Mr. Rogers.

No, Tom Junod did not learn to pray, although that was something Mr. Rogers did regularly, and in one scene Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, called the entire theater audience into a silence—just a short moment. We all became a prayer—all at once one, not a sound. No, Junod did not have a religious conversion or suddenly proclaim the glory of God.  No, he did not say Oh my God out loud. And no, he did not write a paean to a lost beloved rabbit—not really.

Such a mixed-up experience is a bit like Advent. We move slowly and uncertainly to let in a little bit of light and hope at a time, just inches at a time. We do not magically transform our darkness of mood or circumstance into light. Nor do we change our personality any more than Junod did, but we do begin to live allowing light and dark to meet each other, to co-exist, neither one compromising the other.

You could say this is what being really nice and really real is all about. Oh my God.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

2019.12.02 At the Turn of the Year

It is not the calendar year that turns in the bleak mid-winter. It’s the Church year. And the Season’s year. Looking outside at 4 p.m. to see the darkness begin to descend, reminds me that the day is turning itself downwards like the knob on the stove makes the bright fire of the burner’s flame slowly lower and lower and lower.

I understand why people become depressed in this season. I understand why people hasten to put up Christmas lights—prematurely. I understand why we rush to the stores to shop for glitter and glamor. I also understand why the Christian church calls for a slow-down, not a speed-up, a space where candlelight suffices. I understand why my heart thrills at the first silence of the first snowfall, a cold wet blanket of hush that says: Nurture the darkness. Let it wrap your soul in hope. Don’t rush. Wait. Listen. Every single snowflake has it own unique shape and its own silence. So, beloved, do you.

Poets and mystics in all spiritual traditions discover the full presence of the Divine in the stillness. Eastern traditions have lead the way. No wonder the Church sings the hymn, “People Look East” in this season. The East is where the sun rises.

One of the Islamic world’s greatest poets, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), was a Sufi mystic, a lover of philosophy and of humanity. His followers began a school of mysticism for people to encounter the divine presence without mediation. The Sufi religious order was a mendicant order, so not noted for extravagance or shopping sprees. But they were noted for wild ecstatic rituals in which they danced and whirled and often howled. It is known to Westerners as “Whirling Dervishes.”

Notice these dervishes are all men. I find that exciting. Whirling wildly is a form of really letting go without getting drunk or high to do it. Women, then and maybe now, do dance wildly but not often in public, which could be dangerous—an invitation to sexual advances or rape.

Here is the poet Rumi to say it best.

Forget your life.
Say God is Great. Get up.
You think you know what time it is.
It’s time to pray.

You’ve carved so many little figurines, too
Don’t knock on any random door like a

Reach your long hands out to another door,
beyond where you go on the street, the street
where everyone says, “How are you?” and no
one says, “How aren’t you?”

Tomorrow you’ll see what you’ve broken and
torn tonight, thrashing in the dark.

Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know
about. He’s not interested in how things look
different in moonlight.

If you are here unfaithfully with us,
you’re causing terrible damage.

If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,
you’re helping people you don’t know and
have never seen.

Is what I say true? Say yes quickly, if you
know, if you’ve known it from before the
beginning of the universe.

(NO, I don’t understand it either. So I just swallow it whole and say yes quickly—into the darkness, into the love, into myself, into God.)