Sunday, June 4, 2017

For the sport of it

This is Pentecost Sunday, considered the birthday of the Church. With Easter and Christmas it is one of the "big three" Christian holidays. There's plenty to love about celebrating Pentecost (wear red! read the Gospel in a language other than English! read the Gospel in English, even!). Some churches have birthday cakes. I can remember once as a Sunday School teacher bringing a kite shaped like a dove to church, festooning it with flame-colored ribbons, and hanging it in the stairwell leading to our classroom.

And - yes -did I mention some churches have birthday cakes?

But today, I was struck by two things during the service.

First, that I was going to be sorry to see the Paschal candle leave its prime spot in the chancel after today. Pentecost is considered the last day of Easter season, and so the Paschal candle, which is lit throughout the Easter season, will go into hibernation - at least, until the next baptism. I'll miss it.

Second, of all the scripture readings we heard today, the one that reached out and grabbed me was one of my favorite psalm portions:

Psalm 104, verses 25 through 28

O LORD, how manifold are your works!*
  in wisdom you have made then all;
  the earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number,*
  creatures both small and great.

There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan,*
  which you have made for the sport of it.

All of them look to you*
  to give them their food in due season.

Let me summarize: God has pets! "There is that Leviathan, which you have made for the sport of it." I think of God enjoying, just reveling in, the antics of some great sea monster  (I picture it as something between a whale and a sea-serpent, perhaps throwing itself out of the water and splashing back in). This can't be very different from the way I enjoy watching a cat play, or watching birds outside at the bird feeder.

And all these creatures, Leviathan included, look to God to feed them. Anyone who ever hears one of my cats complaining when one of the food dishes is only partially full will get the image here.

How marvelous is God's creation! And how generous is God, to share with us the ability to delight in other creatures around us, just for the sport of it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Children of God

Many years ago I was babysitting a friend's children. My friend and her family are observant Jews, and I did my best to honor their beliefs and practices. I expected that once each child had gone through their bat or bar mitzvah, and was a responsible adult under the Jewish Law, I would be comfortable respectfully answering questions about the differences between Christianity and Judaism. Until then, I tried to refer such questions to their parents. As often happens, such plans don't always work.

One of the little boys asked me if my God was the same as their God. I answered, "yes." After all, I believe that I worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But the younger brother immediately gasped "No!" He seemed shocked to identify the God of Christianity with the God of Judaism. For these children, raised in a minority faith, maintaining its boundaries, the very separateness (being set apart)  of their Jewish identity, was critical. So now the older brother politely asked me what the difference was between Christianity and Judaism. I replied diffidently that Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God.

I was then informed "All boys are sons of God - all Jewish boys, anyway." So it seemed that my statement, which I thought would be shocking to the boys, was simply considered by them to be a matter-of-fact commonplace. Of course, I didn't get into "only-begotten" and the theology of the Incarnation with these children. But I think I learned a lot more from than they did from me. (I should add that I haven't checked this statement with a Rabbi, who might be able to give me a more nuanced explanation of who is and is not considered a Child of God in Judaism. Are Jewish girls considered "daughters of God"? I don't know.) Certainly, in the Hebrew psalms, we can read of the King claiming to be God's son (see Psalm 2).

Flash forward, and there I am reading the Gospel of Luke, which traces Jesus's ancestry all the way back to "Adam, the son of God." In Acts, St. Paul, speaking to the Athenians, refers to them as "offspring of God." In the Epistles in the New Testament, I learn that baptism makes us adopted heirs, or children of God.

So, who are the children of God? I think of it this way: all human beings, descended from Adam, are created children of God - or at least created in order to be children of God. After all, we are all made in God's image, capable of reason, creativity, love. Then, there are baptized Christians, who are children of God by adoption, by the Grace of God in Jesus Christ, and not for any merit of our own. Finally, there is the only-begotten, Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.

It is, of course, perfectly possible that I have this wrong. I know that some Christians do not believe that all humans are children of God. Maybe my ideas are all wrong. But it is refreshing - and challenging - to think that all human beings are, in some sense, my brothers and sisters. Relatives, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies - all of us were made in the image of God. This does not mean that baptism is pointless - it binds us to God in a most profound way. For me, it is the very source of my identity. But it is an identiy I claim with humility. How blessed I am to be a created, adopted, beloved, child of God.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Sheep of Thine own Fold

Yesterday, I attended a funeral. It was a celebration of the life of the Right Reverend David Standish Ball, seventh Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.

The entire service - readings, music - had been selected by Bishop Ball himself, and, as the preacher told us, we needed to pay attention to the readings and even the words of the hymns. They all spoke of Bishop Ball's great faith and trust in his Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel lesson was about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and the homily included references to sheep, bishop's staffs resembling shepherds' staffs, and more. As I listened, I found myself looking forward to one of my favorite parts of an Episcopal funeral. I know it's strange that I have a favorite part of funerals, but here it is:

The Celebrant, facing the body, says
Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant
N. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine
own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own
redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the
blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious
company of the saints in light. Amen.

"...a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming." Honestly, if I could figure out how to turn this into a t-shirt or coffee-mug slogan, I  would use it. The problem is, any change I could imagine that would make it meaningful to someone who doesn't already understand it - well, any such change would ruin the sheer poetry. But I know that I am a sheep of Jesus's fold, a lamb of His flock, and a sinner of His redeeming. I don't have to wear it on a t-shirt. It was written on my soul at my baptism. It is who I am. It was, of course, who Bishop Ball was. May his memory be a blessing, and may he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Something New about Easter

I was visiting one of my doctors, a faithful Muslim, and told him how wonderful Holy Week and Easter had been.

My doctor asked me what I learned about Easter that was "new". I was taken aback. I know the Easter stories pretty well, and it would be hard to say what is new, though each year I probably focus on something different. So I talked about the Harrowing of Hell, how Jesus "descended to the dead" during the time between his burial and resurrection. He brought Adam and Eve and Abraham and others out of Sheol so they could enter heaven. I said that I hoped that Sheol was outside of time, so that all those who die without encountering Jesus in their lifetime could be liberated. (Of course, that is not - as far as I know - part of Christian doctrine.)

What was new about Easter this year? Perhaps, in struggling to explain Easter to someone else I enriched my own faith. And perhaps I should make a point, each year, of finding the "new" in Easter.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Now We Wait

Today is Holy Saturday, a day of waiting, of holding our breath, of standing on one foot and trying to keep our balance between the tragedy of Good Friday, and the coming joy of the Easter Vigil.

I've read that the Tridium -- the days of Maundy (or Holy) Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening -- are all a single liturgy, a single event, experienced in three parts. How must it have felt for Jesus's closest disciples, going through these three days without (as we do) knowing there was going to be a happy ending? There they were, in what should have been the joyful season of Passover, suffering through an agonizing loss: suffering grief, and doubtless guilt as well. Should I have died with him? Why did I deny him? Couldn't I have shouted louder at Pilate when he asked if we wanted Jesus or Bar-Abbas? and even How could I have betrayed him? 

They didn't know about Easter, yet. For them the waiting was a time to grieve, and also to try to figure out what to do next. Go home? Hide? Split up? Every step at the door was terrifying. Just speaking in a Galilean accent was incriminating. They must have been beyond hope.

But we are not. We can look forward to the amazing encounters - Jesus in a locked room, Jesus by the seashore, Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I wonder, if only, if only Judas had waited a couple of days before taking his own life, and had given himself a chance to encounter the risen Jesus, what kind of saint he might have made.

This evening we will light candles, ring bells, and sing Alleluia with a full heart. But today, during the day, we are waiting. We are spared the terror of the first disciples, but not the waiting. The time drags on, and the waiting takes as long as it takes. But we know that in the end we will be able to release our breath, stand on both feet and rejoice.

So today, let us honor the waiting. And clasp the joy, when it comes, like a long-lost friend.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Too Good to be True

I grew up in Connecticut. Make no mistake - I grew up on the Red Sox side of the state. My Dad was born and raised and educated near Boston and it was simply taken for granted in our home that we were a Red Sox family. And even in school, I seem to recall listening to a particularly imporant game (Carl Yastrzemski - Yay!) in a ninth grade classroom.

But now, my home is definitely not in Red Sox Nation. For example, our church has families that are enthusiastic supporters of the Yankees. We've even had "mixed marriages" in church, with one spouse supporting the Red Sox and the other supporting the Yankees. I don't know how they do it.

Back in 2004, my mom and dad and aunt came for a visit. They came during the American League pennant race, and the Red Sox were one game away from losing the pennant.

That Sunday, I was privileged to give the children's talk in church. The Gospel lesson for the day was the incident when Jesus went to the synagogue in his home town and read the prophetic scroll of the good things God would one day do for the people of Israel and the world. And then he announced that these prophecies were being fulfilled right then, in front of them - in front of his friends and family and neighbors. The people didn't believe him, and ran him out of town.

I sat down on the chancel steps, and the children sat in front of me. I summarized the Gospel story, and then I said something like this:

What Jesus told the people in his home town was unbelievable to them. It was just too good to be true. It's as if I told my Mom and Dad and Aunt, who are here today, that this year the Red Sox will win the World Series.

Alas, I had forgotten my audience. There was a mini-riot among the children. One little boy started pumping his fist in the air and chanting "Yan-KEE! Yan-KEE!" (His mother told me later that she was mortified.)

I don't remember how I finished that talk that day. Perhaps the memory loss is merciful. But the odd thing was that the Red Sox did, indeed, win the World Series that year.

I told a friend this story, and he looked at me seriously and said, "you broke The Curse."

Of course I didn't. It was the great members of a great baseball team who won the World Series that year. They've won the Series since, too. (Yay!) But the lesson I took away from all of this was that "too good to be true" isn't always. Maybe sometimes things are so good that they have to be true.

Second Unsung Hymn

So here is another hymn, which could be sung to the tune to "We gather together" (but at the beginning omitting the note for "We", if that makes any sense). Anyway, I wrote this as part of the narrative for a Christmas Putz, in the Moravian tradition, which our Sunday School presented several years ago. I have edited it slightly. Yes, I know that two or three "mages" are magi, but I checked and "mages" is acceptable usage.

The Star

Mages and sages for ages and ages
had pored over pages and stared at the stars.

Watching and waiting for news of a new king,
predicted by prophets and promised by God.

Then came a new star. Only the wisest
dared to set off and to follow its light.

Slept in the daytime and traveled in darkness;
followed the star as it shined in the night.

Now it stands still over Bethlehem’s slumber.
Now they have found him, and soon they can rest.

Mages and sages and shepherds and wise ones:
all who have sought him and found him are blessed.

Unsung Hymn

In a recent Christian Education class, the teacher explained the difference between a hymn and a tune. A hymn is the words to be sung, and the tune is, well, the music to which you set the words. Many hymns are known with more than one tune (think of "O Little Town of Bethlehem"). In hymnals the hymns are often coded with symbols like "78.78.78" or "LM" indicating the number of syllables in a line. All hymns with the same "metrical" code can be sung to the same tune. And a tune with a certain metrical code can be used with any texts that have the same code. Of course syllables can be stretched out to several notes, or two syllables sung together, so there is a real art to fitting a hymn text to a tune.

It turns out I have written a hymn - actually, two, but I'm only sharing one in this post. I once presented it to a choir director, and she regretfully told me that it wouldn't easily fit any tunes that are in the public domain. Sigh.

But I thought I could share it here as a poem. I think of it as "The Facebook Prayer", although I suppose that is an improper us of the Facebook trademark. Sigh again.

The Facebook Prayer

Jesus, may I call you “Friend”?
I know that I don’t deserve to.
May I call you “Teacher”, when
I have failed to learn to serve you?
How may I address you, Jesus,
when I come to kneel before you?

On the night before the end,
you ate dinner with your students.
Then you called your students “Friends”,
knowing they would soon desert you.
None of us deserves that title;
so we come to kneel before you.

Teach me, Friend, to see you clearly
in the least of those now near me.
Teach me, Friend, to serve you well:
here and now in those around me.
Let me serve you here, and then
let me dare to call you “Friend”.

Jesus, Friend and Teacher, Lord,
when at last I come before you,
raise me to my feet so that
I may know and praise you only.
Give me what I don’t deserve, and
let me serve as you have served.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Stations II


Cold, this place, but dry
and airless, till the flurry
of activity and winding cloth
stirs air and dust both into motion.
Strong odors, too, of myrrh and spices,
itching at the nose while masking other,
all too human, scents.
(Doubtless through the tears
some poor soul tries to press away
a sneeze.) How many fail to hide their
trembling - fear and deep exhaustion from
the night and day now passing?

No one lingers. Now the men are pushing
at the stone, while women watch in silence,
save for groans from one who groaned before,
when pushing that poor body into life.

Now slip away, for soon those under orders
will approach in boredom
and take up their station (soon to fall to sleep),
resenting their assignment meant to to stop a pointless theft.

So too will they approach, unseen,
unseeable, those hosts of wondering angels
once again, not to sing Gloria - not just yet, at least -
but waiting for the earthquake soon to come.
And it will come to wake the sleeping and the dead.
But not just yet.