Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Red Light - A True Life Mystery

So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after. Ernest Hemmingway, Death in the Afternoon

What do you do when a signal won’t change? What do you do when you have no director, coordinator, or flagger to tell you what to do?

The other day my wife and I were traveling up to visit relatives we hadn’t seen in a couple decades. We came upon one of those portable traffic signals the state puts up when they are doing road work and, as is usual, the light was red, so we stopped.

Aside from the signal and a little white sign directing us to “Stop Here” (with a helpful little arrow pointing at a specific spot on the road in front of us), there was no evidence of construction in progress. There were no parked cars indicating workers were in the area. There was no flagger standing by the signal to indicate all was as it should be. The road itself was clear as far as the eye could see for a mile or more until it curved and disappeared behind the mountain heading into a valley.

I was a bit perplexed but as that is my normal state of mind I thought nothing of it. There was a car in front of us and the license plate indicated they were from Quebec. I guess red lights are universally understood to mean ArrĂȘt, so our French Canadian neighbours (sic) must have felt at home. I wondered, though, what they thought of a stop light out in the middle of nowhere with no apparent raison d’ĂȘtre.

I sat quietly pondering the imponderable while waiting for the light to change or for some pilot car to approach from beyond the bend in the highway, but nothing was happening.

This went on for about five minutes; then I remembered a line from a movie: “Wait five minutes. If I’m not back, go on without me.” That led me to another line from another movie: “Wait five minutes. If I’m not back, wait longer.”

Oh what to do; what to do. I felt stupid sitting at a red light that had no apparent reason to be there, and yet I also didn’t want to set a bad example for our Canadian voyageurs by going around them with a “damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead” bit of derring-do. After all, David Farragut I am not.

After a full ten minutes had passed I knew we had reached the end of reasonableness. There had still not been a single car (pilot or otherwise) approach us from the other direction. I deduced from that fact that the road was likely closed or blocked at the other end – wherever that might have been. What if there were folks sitting at another traffic signal like us, waiting for the powers that be to finally decide it was time to end the joke and let traffic pass? Is it ever OK to assume a traffic signal is malfunctioning, or that it has been forgotten by a road crew?

Unfortunately, the alternatives before us were not good. In the wilderness there just aren’t that many detours that would have worked with regards to getting us to our destination. We were stuck at a red light with nowhere to go and no other way to get there.

“How long, O Lord,” cries the psalmist. I could relate.

Meanwhile, cars were lining up behind us and, like us, each was committed to obeying the law. A red light means stop. The signal also had unlit amber and green lights, so one couldn’t treat this as a stop-pause-and-go light.

The law is clear: One must obey a traffic signal – or be willing to suffer the consequences of disobedience (a fine or jail time?).

After fifteen minutes wresting with this moral conundrum, a car approached from the other direction. The state’s Pied Piper led a veritable train of hardy pioneers around the bend and past us. Only then did another vehicle come and lead us on toward the Promised Land.

We passed no construction, by the way; both lanes were open in both directions. I’d say we passed a moral test in this, our valley (but I doubt Hemmingway would have).

Sunday, July 9, 2017


O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor …

How do we say good-bye? How do we take leave?

The short answer is: We don’t. If you know the movie ET, Elliot and the Alien realize at the end that they will be here and here (HEART & MIND).

When Elijah ascended into heaven, he left his staff and his cloak behind, so Elisha could carry on the work that Elijah had begun. “If you see me go, you will inherit a double portion of my spirit.”

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he said to his disciples: Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.

In each of these leave-taking events, we are reminded that while we may be apart in body, we are never really apart in spirit.

In our time together, many of you have shared your experiences of clergy past – Dub Wolfrum, Rev. Karen, Ray Brown, Roy Turley, Todd Young, John Hay, Leigh Wallace – to name just a few.

So, maybe the question isn’t so much how we take our leave, but is there something we can offer one another that will serve as bread for the journey that lies ahead?

For my part, I would hope that you will remember that our task, our call, our vocation is always to share the Good News of God’s kingdom. Remember the church’s mission. 

Memorize that passage from the catechism: What is the Mission of the Church? The Mission of the Church is to restore ALL people to unity with God and one another in Christ. We pursue that mission as we worship, pray, serve, and give for the spread of God’s kingdom.

Jesus gives us great material to work with. What is the kingdom like? It is like a Pearl of Great Price. Remember to look at these parables from 2 directions. 

First, you are the Pearl of Great Price. God gave EVERYTHING to acquire you: you the individual; you the parish; you the diocese; you, the people of the world. In other words, look in the mirror and hear the good news: God gave his all for you.

The flip side of that is the kingdom of God is a real treasure to which we are invited to walk along, stub our toes, and discover to our great joy.

Imagine, if you will, stubbing your toe on Sheriff Plummer’s bag of gold in the backyard of some house in VC. You can’t just take it ... that would be stealing. 

So you knock on the door and ask the owners how much they want for the house. “It ain’t for sale.” “I want it. How much?” They suggest some ridiculous price, at least twice what they think it’s worth. You sell everything and you buy it, and when the dust settles, you “discover the bag of gold” – and it is yours fair and square. And then you not only get the value of the bag, but you get the movie rights, and you get Tom Hanks to play you, and Meryl Streep to play your spouse!

“The kingdom of God is like that!” says Jesus.

The question is, are we looking? Are we paying attention? Do we see what God sees? Do we see the value in our neighbor? “You have taught us to keep ALL your commandments by loving you and ...”

The challenge we sometimes face is that we can too easily become Pontius Pilates when it comes to the kingdom of God. We see people and maybe we don’t think they quite measure up – and we’re right. 

As St. Paul says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” But we have to remember that ALL includes US. None of us measures up fully, and if we make like Pilate and wash our hands of our neighbor, are we asking God to wash his hands of us?

God forbid! I want God to embrace me. I want God to hold onto me. I want God to love me with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. And so I need to be willing to let go my prejudices, let go my greed, let go my laziness, let go all my other character defects – because if I let them go, then my hands will be free to become God’s hands; my hands will be free to embrace others in Jesus’ Name.

That’s why we prayed (in our collect): “Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, AND united to one another with pure affection …”

… because it is only by God’s grace that we can hope to do any of that.

Grace. That’s a gift, you know. As Paul tells us, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”

In other words, what Paul tells us is that we have all earned a spot in front of the Firing Squad. We’ve all been fitted with a blind-fold; we’ve all had our last meal; we’ve all had our last cigarette. But just as the executioner is ready to give the command to FIRE, a pigeon has arrived from headquarters, and the message tied to her little pigeon ankle says: Hold Your Fire; the King has granted a full pardon!

The question that leaves us is simply this: Will you tell your friends and neighbors how you deserved to die, but were given your freedom, instead?

Or will you live a lie? Free, but pretending nothing ever happened? You neither deserved death, nor did you ever gain or merit pardon?

There is no greater freedom I know than to admit I was a sinner, am a sinner, and will likely always be a sinner – and that God has a place at table for me anyway.

And the privilege that gives us is to say to another human being, that’s my story; that’s the truth and, you know what? I’d love it if you would join me for dinner, because I’d love to hear your story.
That’s why Jesus invites us (in today’s Gospel reading) to “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

You and I are not lone mules out pulling a plow all by our lonesome. Jesus has fitted us to work together with him and with one another.

I have a friend who used to own a pair of Belgian Draft Horses. One day he said, “You know, these horses may be able to pull a heavy load by themselves, but when teamed up, their strength is multiplied; not added.”

The kingdom of God is like that.

At the risk of moving from preaching to meddling, I would like to suggest that when parishes are yoked together, like Trinity and St. Paul’s are – it might be helpful to consider the yoke as a symbol of how God is strengthening us for service multiplying our faith, rather than adding to or subtracting from.

There is an old story of heaven and hell where people are seated at a grand banquet table, loaded with Good Eats. 

In heaven, everyone is well-fed, healthy, and happy. In hell, everyone is malnourished, sickly, and grumpy

In both heaven and hell, everyone has a long fork tied to their hands – so long they can’t bend their elbows and eat.

What’s the difference between heaven and hell? In heaven, the people feed those sitting across from them; in hell they try to feed themselves.

In concluding my time with you here, I will openly confess that my spiritual health has always depended upon the generosity and grace of those with whom I’ve served – those who have fed us with companionship, friendship, phone calls out of the blue, drop-in visits.

Those are the sorts of things that sustain clergy in this life – more than anything else I can think of.

I would hope and pray that I have given at least half as well as I have received.

As English writer and philosopher Elizabeth Bibesco says, “Blessed are those who give without remembering, and take without forgetting.”

Barb and I have been blessed – honored to have been yoked with you, and we will never forget you. You will always be Here, and Here – in Jesus’ Name.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Air Apparent

DEWEY 1898 – 1910 “He was only a cat” but he was human enough to be a great comfort in hours of loneliness and pain. Found on a Tombstone

Sometimes life confuses me. Mostly when I’m awake, I’ll confess, but never-the-less, I find it quite mystifying.

Everything was quite fine and then one day recently – BLAM – my sinuses erupted in quite a Vesuvian style. I shouldn’t be surprised. It happens this time every year when the local trees begin tossing forth their dander. Most people have no trouble perambulating through this fuzz-filled air, but not me.

I could understand this vegetative assault on my sinuses if I were some sort of vegan or cereal murderer, but I am a carnivore. I am so kind towards the world’s flora I don’t even like mowing the lawn (but do so under the directions of a higher power).

Still, pollen hates me. Either that or it loves to afflict me. I suspect it has to do with my Scandinavian heritage. Snow and ice have no pollens so we blue eyed blonds have developed no defenses against such blights, I’m sorry to say.

It is a good time of year to stock up on your Tissue Stocks as sales bloom prolifically. I should just hang a roll from the ceiling above my chair and pull and tear as needed, for the bounty from my nose requires an endless issue of tissue.

I have tried taking a medical approach to my allergies, but find the instructions, warnings, and the complexity of symptoms each pill, capsule, or syrup addresses leaves me more confused and dizzy than the allergies themselves, and as nasty as it is to have a face that resembles the running of the bulls at Pamplona, it is preferable to the zombie-like trance so many meds put me in (or under).

Still, as my trash can can only hold thirty three gallons of used tissues before needing the bag to be replaced, I decided to try some of the OTC meds to see if they might help slow the mighty muddy flowing from Mount Schnozzola.

Some meds claim to do it all, but I’ve never been crazy for multi-taskers. I don’t want a pill fixing what ain’t broke. I just want something to stop post nasal drip (if that’s the issue), or to stop my coughing, if that’s the problem. I don’t normally have all twelve listed symptoms, so it seems a waste of resources to address that baker’s dozen – although to be completely honest, knowing there is a capsule that can address so many symptoms at once is not a concept to be sneezed at!

So I stopped by the pharmacy to check out my alternatives and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of pharmaceutical options sitting out there on the shelves. My goodness; we are either the sickest nation in the world or the healthiest! Only in retirement can I hope to have the time I need to read all the labels to determine which drug (or combination) I need. And have you seen the size of the print?

When I was a child, my eyesight was so keen I could read a passage of scripture printed on a microdot (although what earthly good a microdot passage of scripture could be is beyond my capacity to conceive). But now, I find it helpful if anything I need to read is done in the headline font of the local paper. How on earth is someone suffering from watery eyes, a runny nose, and constant sneezing and hacking supposed to stand in an aisle and read the micro-fine print that warns the dangers of taking that particular chemical experiment-in-a-box?

So I did the most counter-intuitively thing imaginable; I asked the pharmacist what I should take for what ailed me and he made some suggestions after asking a few pertinent and probing questions. I made my purchases, followed the instructions and, voila, have been improving. I am almost back to normal – or as normal as I ever expect to be – and hope some day to once again be a productive member of the human race.

In the meantime, I think I better start eating more fruits and vegetables. It’s the only way I know how to exact vengeance on that which has had its way with me each spring in this, our pollen-filled valley.