Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Pain and Joy of Homecoming

As I have gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the power of Homecomings. Part of the power comes from Nostalgia, of course.

There was a time I could stop by to visit my parents. The garage was always open. You could walk in, give the entry a courtesy knock and walk right in. But those days are gone. There have been so many home invasions over the past 10-20 years, the garage is kept closed, the gates locked, and now I have to call if I’m going to stop by.

This change creates a pain in my gut – and that’s what nostalgia means (by the way). It literally means “coming home pain.” There is the memory of what it ought to be like, and there is the reality of what it IS like, and the heart breaks (just a little).

Our lessons today talk about homecomings. In Nehemiah, the Jewish people have been in exile for 40 years. They’ve come home to Jerusalem, and the city is in ruins. It was destroyed in the war, and it was left to go to seed.

The palace is in ruins. The temple is in ruins. The gardens are overgrown with weeds; the orchards are full of burned out stumps. The peoples’ hearts are broken. It’s a foreign land, in many ways. It’s not even “home”, really. Many of the people were old when they went into captivity, and it is their children and their grandchildren who have come back to a place many of them barely remember, and others have never even seen.

What to do?

The people gather, and Ezra the priest meets them out by the Water-Gate, and he begins to read from the Book of the Law – the Torah. It is in Hebrew, but the people only speak Aramaic, so Ezra reads, another translates, and the people listen. This goes on from sun-up to sun-down, and the people weep.

Now, imagine weeping over the law. If you’ve read civil or criminal codes (or their legislative histories) you may be tempted to do many things, but crying is probably pretty far down the list (unless you’re studying for the Bar Exam). But Torah is different. When we think of LAW, we think of rules & regulations. But Torah is different. For the people of God, Torah isn’t the 613 Commandments. 

It’s this:

It is the story of God’s relationship with THEM. In the beginning, God created. God brought us forth. In God’s image we were created. From all the peoples and tongues in all the world, God chose US! When we were nothing – slaves in Egypt, God rescued US. When we were hungry, God fed US. When we were thirsty, God gave US to drink. God saw to it that when we wandered 40 years in the wilderness, neither our clothes, nor even our sandals wore out. When our enemies surrounded us, the hand of God was with us. When we lost our faith, we were carried away into captivity, but God has brought us home!

Home! They heard the story, and their guts churned, and their hearts ached and Ezra said, “THIS, is how much God loves us.” And the people wept.

In the Gospel, we have another story – another homecoming. Jesus has come home. If you remember a couple weeks back, Jesus was baptized, and Jesus heard that voice: “You are my child, my beloved; in you I am well pleased; in you, I am SO proud.”

Jesus comes home, and on the Sabbath, he attends synagogue, “as is his custom.” He’s given an opportunity to read, so he takes the scroll and he finds what he’s looking for in the scroll. He rolls it open to Isaiah, and he reads this passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me …” When he’s done, he hands it back to the Verger and he says, “Today, God’s promise has been fulfilled.”

Are you poor? God is with you! Are you bound up by attitudes or circumstances beyond your control? God is with you. Are you blinded by prejudice or hatred? God is here to open your eyes and your heart. Are you crushed by the world around you? God is here to lift you up. God has put me here to tell you this – and now you know.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us we are the Body of Christ. That means the work Jesus began in his baptism, we continue as the people of God. And how do we do that? Like Ezra, we share our experience, strength and hope – of  how God created us, chose us, rescued us, healed us, and brought us home – and what he does for us, he does for all.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Eagles' Eyes and Campfires

The eye of the cormorant is emerald … of the eagle is amber … we miss the eyes of the birds, focusing only on feathers. Terry Tempest Williams

I often tell people I am a city boy, for so I am.

I grew up in Seattle and spent the vast majority of my time engaged in the activities of a city-dweller. I walked to school, bicycled miles to Puget Sound to fish off the jetty at Shilshole Bay Marina, bussed to Green Lake in the summertime to swim, and dodged cars along the noisy arteries coursing their way around and through the Emerald City.

However, I was not bereft of experiences in the great out-of-doors. My grandparents had a stake in the wilderness near Lake Cavanaugh, nestled in the foothills of the north Cascade Mountains.

Driving up to the “cabin” for family vacation was always a thrill. We called it a cabin because it had the vague shape of a building, a roof that was sometimes capable of sloughing off some of the rain that occasionally fell, and a door that gave a hint of security (although anything more robust than a fuzzy moth could generally gain access without breaking a sweat).

The road from Oso was a former logging road with switchbacks bracketed by cliffs to either side. Fortunately, my grandparents’ place was on a stretch of mostly level land a couple hundred yards or so from the lake. Dad would quietly nose the ol’ ’56 Studebaker onto the property, but never had to announce our arrival.

Upon setting the parking brake, the car doors would blow open with the force of a jet fighter’s ejector. Riding four kids across in the back seat, with sleeping bags and luggage holding us safely in place (as we had no seat belts back then), was sometimes a less than pleasant experience, and so once the President’s momentum ceased, we bailed out whooping and hollering like there was no tomorrow.

Sometimes it would take a few hours for us to decompress without the benefit of a hyperbaric chamber; if we had the bends, we simply took them in stride as we sallied forth into the wilderness to see if the woods and creeks were still there – and by Jove, they were!

While I would never wish to be ten or twelve again, those were wonderful, carefree, and idyllic times. The days were warm in midsummer, but never hot. The forest kept the air a bit cool, and if we got overly warm, we could go splash about in the near-freezing waters of “our” glacier-fed lake.

It was hard not to feel a bit like Daniel Boone or Davey Crocket up there at Lake Cavanaugh. We would often creep away into the deep woods looking for big game and wild animals armed with nothing more than our wits and some stick we’d picked up on the side of the trail.

The woods were safe for the most part as we moved with the stealth of an armored division on maneuvers, so we seldom spotted anything more magnificent than a pine beetle or a banana slug. But still, it was fun to imagine all the carnivores lurking just out of sight.

At night our extended family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and all would gather ‘round the campfire talking about whatever it was that crossed our minds. The kids would recount their adventures while the adults would solve the problems of the world. We would roast marshmallows (which I had a knack for burning – consuming so much charcoal over the years that I am still quite good at filtering out political kopros, a Greek term that needs no defining).

Believe it or not, it was these family gatherings around the fire that I am reminded of when I am in church. We gather, we light the candles, and we share the stories of our lives – comparing and contrasting them with the stories of biblical villains and heroes. We share what we think and believe, and test those ideas with friends and neighbors who may experience life differently – and while we may disagree on occasion, we respect the dignity of each person gathered, for we are family, and we share a common light.

Respecting one another is largely what keeps the wilderness from becoming a jungle here in this, our valley.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Road Trip

We decided to take a small trip toward Hebgen Lake today
to kill some time and see
what's happening in the world around us.

First, we saw a herd of elk about half a mile off the highway.
These were on the move, heading north to join
another group that was resting out-of-frame
to the right.

Then, as we approached Hebgen Lake
we found the Big Horn sheep were enjoying life
in the lower elevations.

This fellow was quite uninterested in traffic,
but was happy to give us a nice profile shot.

Coming home, I saw this Bald Eagle in a clump of trees.
Normally, Eagles are camera shy and the moment
I jump out to grab a snapshot, they fly off (laughing).
We were far enough away that he just sat there
enjoying a quiet time out
in which to reflect on life and faith.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Hold On - Give Me Your Hand

My wife and I do oft
deign through the neighborhood to walk
and when we do we silent glide
though sometimes we will talk.

Through decades long and decades sweet
we’ve been through thick and thin
We love to watch just where we’re goin’
and reflect on where we’ve been.

The rugged road is slick with snow
this wintry time of year
and so we bundle up so warm
'tis the treacherous ground we fear.

Still, shuffling out the door we go
to make our rounds with faith we dare
“Hold on - give me your hand”
I say to her - she, so fair.

So o’er the icy track we go
a-walkin’ hand in hand,
we make our way in silence warmed
with the glowing song of a gentle lovers’ band.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Seeing the Invisible

Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. - Jesus

When I was growing up, if my brother, sisters, and I were too rambunctious, my dad would remind us that “children are to be seen and not heard.” I don’t know if people still say things like that these days, but I don’t think that’s a healthy attitude.

Children should be seen AND heard. When my siblings and I were quiet, our parents had cause for concern. We weren’t bad kids. Far from it, we were a joy to be around (if memory serves). However, we were also a fairly curious bunch in those days (you can take that any way you wish), and being quiet around the house usually meant we were putting our curiosity to work.

My brother, when he was losing his baby teeth (and having been suitably rewarded by the tooth fairy) found a dead rat one day out in our back yard. He noticed the rodent had plenty of teeth and (cha-ching) he saw no reason the Tooth Fairy would object to paying him for teeth that were technically his. I do believe he had the best legal mind among preschoolers in our neighborhood.

He and I trundled off to the shed to put a set of pliers to work de-fanging the beast when our mother, who had become alarmed by the sound of our silence, came looking for us. She was horrified to discover what we were up to and made us abandon our backyard dental clinic, sending us directly into the house to wash up.

How sad. She could have had a lawyer and a dentist in the family if she had simply encouraged us to pursue our interests, but alas, it was not to be.

When Jesus took children into his arms and commended them to his disciples as models of kingdom principles, I don’t believe Jesus was wearing rose colored glasses and thinking of children as sweet innocents. I am sure Jesus had his share of challenges growing up in a village where his own paternity was questioned. Children of every age, tribe, and tongue can be cruel – a trait certainly not limited to adults or ISIS.

So, if it wasn’t a sense of virtue borne of naiveté, what attribute might Jesus be commending to those who wish to follow him and enter the kingdom of heaven?

The first thing that strikes me is a child’s invisibility. Until Jesus drew the child into his arms, there is no mention of him or her. She was neither seen nor heard, and yet Jesus received her. That is an image of the kingdom, isn’t it? You don’t need power or status to be welcomed into the arms of God. In fact, with power and status, you may not even want God; it’s God who becomes invisible.

Secondly, children are oriented toward the present. The child doesn’t ask Jesus to go away and come back when it is more convenient for the child. A child lives in the moment and is so INTO the moment that all other matters fade into the background. When a child receives a gift, they often rip into it without remembering to say “thank you” to the gift giver.  Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is among you; it is in your midst; it is NOW.”

Like the child, we are expected (I think) to rip into the gift of eternal life now and to enjoy it and put it to work immediately. I think Jesus trusts that the day will come when we will remember to say “thank you” to the Lord and Giver of life; but until that day comes, Jesus is delighted to see our eyes sparkle as we receive the gift and accept it with complete abandon.

Children, you see, are able to understand a gift as nothing more than that: a gift. Adults want to earn what they receive. Adults forget how to accept God’s grace simply, earnestly, honestly, and humbly.

God, who notes with sorrow the passing of a sparrow (and possibly of rats, too) stretches out his arms to embrace all the little ones in this, our valley. You are not invisible to God. With eyes of faith, you’ll discover that God is not invisible to you, either. Peace!