Tuesday, November 27, 2007


This past Thanksgiving weekend, many of us had several days in which we departed from our usual routine and time-tables and calendars and spent time with family or around the house, not paying much attention to the time. On one day, it was either Thursday or Friday (I’m not sure which, since I wasn’t paying much attention to the day, either!) I looked out the window and saw that it was dark, and yawned and figured it was about time to get ready for bed. I then looked at the clock for the first time in hours, and noticed that it was 6:00. It is an irony, isn’t it, that the most hopeful of all Christian seasons, the season of Advent, takes place when it is the darkest season of the calendar year.
And it’s not only dark physically with shorter days, but somehow, the anticipation, the preparation for the coming of Christ stands in sharp contrast with darkness. The war in Iraq has now gone longer than World War II . The genocide in Darfur, the summit in Annapolis that will focus on Palestine and Israel. The world seems to be ever so fragile. There was crime in Plainfield and we are all aware of the violence in our own communities, on our streets, in our homes. And though this season should be a time of excitement and joy, we are reminded that illness and suffering and death do not take a holiday during the holiday season. The clouds of anxiety about the future are hovering so low and close that you can barely see your hand in front of your face.That’s why the candles on the Advent wreath does not come one second too soon for me. I need a light, a light that comes from God. And I need to hear the angel appearing to Mary, I need to feel her joy and sing with her. I need to hear a whole heavenly chorus of angels singing glorias to the shepherds. I need to visit the manger and bow with the wise men. I need this Advent season.
But hold on, scripture remind us. We need to prepare. And not just by getting the tree up and buying the presents and baking the cookies. We prepare...get this... by hearing this heart-stopping message that predicts the end of the world. Jesus speaks of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” of “distress among nations,” of people who will “faint from fear and foreboding.” Isn’t that where we already are? Isn’t there enough fear and foreboding in our lives, and in our religion?
The good news that God intends to make the world right again. The good news that Jeremiah proclaimed years before Jesus came onto the scene: “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made.” Things were every bit as dark in Jeremiah’s days, perhaps even darker, yet he was sustained by his conviction that the outcome of human history was in the hands of God, who could be trusted to make the city a place of safety and the land a center of salvation. The coming of a Savior, then, is not just a personal thing between me and God. It’s not something that just begins in the heart and stops there. It’s not something that doesn’t cover much more territory than our living rooms. It’s something that happens to the whole world. Something or someone is coming to redeem not just us, and people like us, but the whole groaning and travailing creation.
How about that! “the whole world waiting at the window for the day of redemption. The promise of Advent is that day will come. We do not know the day, but we do know that we will not be forsaken. For the shaking of the cosmos is not a sign of the world’s falling apart. Rather, it is just the opposite. It is evidence that, as Jesus himself put it, “your redemption is drawing near.”
And so bring on the candles. Bring on the candles as we light candles to pierce the darkness of our hearts, our streets in Plainfield, and our world. Light candles to prepare for that redemption, we people of hope, by waiting at the window on behalf of the whole wide world. Light a candle, for the world’s greatest drama is about to begin! The Good News is near, even for us.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Opening lines

Something grabbed me this week as I took a look at the Epistle to the church in Colossae. I don’t know what it was, but the opening touched me, and touched me almost to tears. It’s not particularly scintillating. These greetings to the church rarely are: “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” Nothing unusual there. It was the proper greeting of the day for those early Christians.

And then he let those dear Colossians know that he was praying for them, giving thanks to God for them. He had heard of their faith, and their love and their hope through his friend, and maybe that’s where it struck me.

“Have I told you recently that I love you?” Can you see why Paul’s letter struck a chord in me? “Have I told you recently that I love you?” But Paul didn’t stop there, of course. There is a prayer of thanksgiving, but there is also a prayer for the future of the church a prayer that in a gentle way urges the church on, gives us our marching orders. And so my prayers have not only been prayers of gratitude for you, but more. Paul continued: “I have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will ... so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord ... as you bear fruit in every good work.” (1:9-10)

Some of you have read Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Secret Life of Bees. There’s a passage in which Lily and August are talking.

“How come if your favorite color is blue, you painted your house so pink? Lily asks.

August answers, “That’s May’s doing. She was with me the day I went to the paint store to pick out the color. I had a nice tan color in mind, but May latched on to this sample called Caribbean Pink. She said it made her feel like dancing a Spanish flamenco. I thought, well, this is the tackiest color I’ve ever seen, and we’ll have half the town talking about us, but it can lift May’s heart like that, I guess she ought to live inside it.”

“All this time I just figured you liked pink,” I said.

She laughed again. “You know, some things don’t matter that much, Lily. Like the
color of a house. How big is that in the over all scheme of life? But lifting a person’s heart, no, that matters. The whole problem with people is...” “They don’t know what matters and what doesn’t,” I said.

“I was gonna say, the problem is they know what matters, but they don’t choose it.
You know how hard that is, Lily? I love May, but it was still so hard to choose

Caribbean Pink. The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.”

We know what matters. We know what God requires of us. Jesus made it very simple and very clear: We love God and we love our neighbor. We know that. But the really, really hard task is to choose to do that. And so my prayer for all of us is that as we grow in our faith and in our commitment to Christ, we will choose what matters; we will choose to do what God requires of us.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Peaceable Kingdom

I met 19th century artist, Edward Hicks, and began a life long journey with “the Peaceable Kingdom.”

Edward Hicks was trained as a carriage maker, and got acquainted with paint only as a necessary step to a finished product. Then he started to do what was called “ornamental painting,” things like tavern signs. He’d seen quite a few of those, evidently. And then he got religion. After a winter’s night of following tavern signs he saw the light. He felt the Inner Light of the Quakers and became an ardent member of the Society of Friends. He gave up drinking but not painting. The Quakers frowned on ornamental art, certainly tavern signs. But they winked. Brother Hicks needed to make a living to support his family and his other newfound vocation: that of preacher.

The man history remembers as an artist was known by his contemporaries as an eloquent preacher, a master of metaphor, and a not quite Quaker-like adversary in a conflict that eventually divided Quakerism. No peaceable kingdom there. The man who died painting the peaceable kingdom lived in an unpeaceable one, in the place you should most expect some semblance of peaceable: in the church. In his case, the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, known as pacifists, were deeply divided and finally broken apart over some of the same issues that have us quaking and dividing and unpeaceable today.

Somewhere in all of that, Hicks’ imagination was caught by Isaiah’s prophetic vision. It expressed a longing for reconciliation and unity. It acknowledged that every person had animal propensities and passions. So with carriage paint and signboards he created “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

It was a visual call for peace. The children and the animals were mild; no tension visible in postures or expressions. An ideal to make real. He painted over sixty variations on this theme over a period of thirty-some years.

Hicks had a kind of holy obsession with the peaceable kingdom. Or perhaps the kingdom had a hold on him. No mere curiosity about how a world at peace might look, but a passionate pursuit of an ideal that was as elusive—and as essential—to his world as it is to ours. He continued to bring the peaceable kingdom into sight the rest of his life, painting the subject until the very eve of his death. Moving through a chronological sequence of the kingdom paintings you start to see more than variations on composition and color. You see explorations of the meanings of Isaiah’s prophesy and their relevance to a possible reconciliation between the Quaker factions. The animals’ expressions change, as do their positions with one another. After the opposing Quaker groups actually separated, he painted tightly unified groups of animals with tense, fearful expressions as if gathered in uncomfortable and tentative peace. You wonder if Hicks kept painting that image more because he saw it less.

In one particular painting from 1834, all of Isaiah’s animals are there, some at home in the Pennsylvanian woods, and others, a little exotic and out of place, let alone proportion. Check the scale of the lion and the ox! A sermon Hicks preached during the winter of 1837 paints the lamb, the kid, the cow, and the ox as “good men and women”; the wolf, leopard, bear, and lion as “figures of the wicked” who would “cruelly destroy each other.” Interesting personality profile! All of the kingdom paintings from this period on have in the upper left a depiction of William Penn’s treaty with the Leni-Lenapi Indians, a statement about human predators and the peace needed in our political kingdoms. Isaiah’s children are there, too. Hicks painted his own children into the scene, as if to give that ancient vision a future face. A hopeful, human face.

In the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom the distinctions between predator and prey collapse. Instinct bows to a higher calling. Creatures great and small go beyond co-existence to community. They live together, sleep together, eat together, play together. The lion need not control and the lamb need not fear. The bear eats corn. The wolf looks mellow. Little children pet wild beasts. The world is a safe place even for the most vulnerable ones.

The Peaceable Kingdom. Where is it? How to love the animals in it? How to hold it and unfold it as God’s vision for us? Who are the lions, who are the lambs? Someone like Edward Hicks gives us an image, but the story of his image gives us pause, as well. It is always difficult for our vision to be clear, because we look through human experience and personal need and prejudice, and the expression of an ideal easily becomes a reflection of what is real. The animals still line up as predators and prey, good guys and bad guys. Our peace is still tentative and tense. God’s promised peace is always confident and joyful.

“The Peaceable Kingdom” hangs peacefully at the top of our stairs at home. I see in it something of Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one. I see in it something of Isaiah’s prophesy that creatures and children may be at peace, even in a new time and a strange place.

In his last painting of the Peaceable Kingdom, just before he died, Hicks portrayed a child leading a young lion off, beyond the canvas. As if to say, “Not here, not yet, but on the way. It will come. To the wolves and the lambs and all the rest. The Peaceable Kingdom. As promised.”


Songlines are part of the sacred belief of the Australian aborigines. These people believe that the wisdom and knowledge of their ancestors are like invisible footprints, sacred tracks through their land, which they call songlines. By finding the right songline, they connect with their ancestors. In the beginning, the Great Ancestors sang the world into existence. Thus, these people believe that part of their task in life is to help keep the world created.... All of their songs, their works of art, their tending of creation is their way of making real what is already present. Perhaps not unlike the Psalms which are so precious to our faith tradition and which were originally sung. They, too, carry great wisdom and knowledge, expressing the fullest possible range of human emotions, all of which are embraced by Almighty God.

The Psalms help sing our faith into being. Many of us have held dear the promise from Psalm 40: “He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” Sacred tracks for the terrain of our soul. Such singing is a knowing, a power and an exchange, a web and a connection to the past.... It acts like connective tissue to hold the community together and make it human.... Once you know the song, you can never get lost.

Our ancient songline is the same, even as we are different. Throughout time, communities, as well as individual lives, have experienced the ups and downs, the ebb and flow of our common story. Our human story. Our faith story.

“He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.” These images hold different things for different people: despair, danger, death, isolation, pain, fear, depression, anxiety. It is in the desolate pit or the miry bog that we often finally face our souls and the ambiguity and chaos of our inner world.

But then how remarkable it is when at last you feel the rock underfoot and can sing again.... Realizing you have escaped the quicksand of despair or failure or grief. Embracing the good, the bad and the ugly—then means we have our life in our arms to give to others; and a knowing that we are held in God’s arms always.

Consider the verbs from the Psalm—active verbs: God DREW him up and SET his feet upon a rock and PUT a new song on his mouth. That’s what God did. And what did the Psalmist do? “I waited patiently for the Lord...he inclined to me and heard my cry.” “I waited patiently.” Waited expectantly. Anticipating that surely God would respond to his cry. This is our hope. This is our songline. This is God’s promise.

Living, breathing examples of Psalm 40—of those who surely cry out to God to be drawn up from the pit. God sets our feet upon a rock so that in the graced moments that find us high and dry and hopeful, we may help others negotiate the currents and quicksand. The strength is the rock of faith.

The new song in our mouths is in the truth of our ancient songlines as we continue to sing God’s world into being. We are out of tune with God’s universe if we are unable to find joy in that hope. The God who has delivered us and continues to deliver us is the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ and thus fell into the desolate pit, the miry bog, in order to know us fully, and so that we might fully know God and the saving ways of God which will lead us from rock to rock to rock.

Sometimes we have trouble singing from the miry bog, but the melody still haunts us. Sometimes it is the waiting which stretches tunelessly ahead of us. Sometimes when we do sing, we are singing the same words but our tunes are different. This may lead to great dissonance, but may also with humility lead to new harmonies. Sometimes we’re not always sure of the next note. But sing we will and sing we must, because God gives us a new song when we least expect it, and it is part of an ancient songline. Once you know the song—you can never be lost.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Climb

There is a mountain in New Hampshire, which is sort of a Mecca for me when I vacation up there. Mount Shaw. You just go around Lake Winnepesauke to the west side and park your car and start hiking up. You can make the trek up and down in part of an afternoon. It’s not like climbing nearby Mount Washington, or far away Pike’s Peak, or even farther away Mount Everest. I have been with a 3 year old who climbed it, and I have been with an 83 year old who climbed it.
The first time I trekked up Shaw was probably 8 years ago, with my son Benji. If I remember correctly, I ran virtually all the way. The last time I climbed Shaw was this past summer. I didn’t run virtually all the way. As a matter of fact, I was amazed at how much steeper and higher it had gotten over the years. (Probably due to the geo-dynamic shifting of the earth’s crust to make higher and steeper mountains.) Hiking up Shaw made me think about a book called A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, which was a journal depicting his hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.
“On the first day of the trail,” he writes, “it was hell. First days on hiking trips always are. I was hopelessly out of shape—hopelessly. The pack weighed way to much. Way to much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle.
The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill...Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long. Eventually you reach a height where you can see the tops of the topmost trees, with nothing but clear sky beyond, and your faltering spirit stirs ... nearly there now! ... but this is pitiless deception. The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you oppress forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?”
Mountain climbing, I suppose, is not a bad metaphor for the life of faith. Scripture is full of stories that take place on mountains. There’s Moses on Mt. Sinai, Elijah on Horeb, Jesus with the Sermon on the Mount. The mountain is the place for God’s self disclosure. Back in the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote “The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed, and difficult to climb.” That’s not the way we usually think of it, is it? If only we could find the right book on spiritual self-help. Perhaps there’s a conference, a spiritual retreat, perhaps if only we could develop the discipline of reading the Bible daily. All good things, don’t get me wrong. But building a relationship with God that gives us a sure sense of God’s presence, God’s guidance, and God’s sustaining love is hard, like climbing a steep mountain.
Is it worth it? Is the hard climb worth the view? Bill Bryson thought so. He continued in his journal after collapsing from exhaustion: “Finally, with a weary puff, you roll over ... struggle to your feet, and realize ... that the view is sensational ... This really could be heaven. It’s splendid, no question; but the thought you cannot escape is that you have to walk this view.”
We understand that. Too many people I know have been climbing and climbing and climbing to the point of exhaustion and despair. Some are in the midst of one heck of a climb: a teenager I know is diagnosed with cancer; parents I know whose son will soon be deployed in Iraq; a friend whose new job has crumbled after a month. Some feel that they have been walking for such a long time: Every time they hear their boss yell, it conjures up memories of their father yelling all those years. Sometimes a loss triggers memories of other losses. Sometimes it’s just weariness from too many responsibilities and too little sleep. Kids’ needs on the one hand and aging parents needs on the other, and the light is not at the end of the tunnel. And though we try hard, faith does not always come through as the comfort we would like.
But dear friends, let me say this. I believe with my whole heart that it is worth the climb, and at the end we will see the glory of God. We will know God as never before. That doesn’t mean we won’t encounter dangers and difficulties on the trek to the top. I know that there is so much more I need to learn about myself and my own limits, that I need a strength far beyond my own to make it up to the top of the mountain.
How long the climb is, I don’t know, because I’m still climbing. I do know that at times it is
difficult, a hard climb. Sometimes the ascent is treacherous and demanding. But from all that I
have been told, it’s well worth the climb.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Doom and Gloom


If there ever was a prophet of doom and gloom, it was Zephaniah. His name in Hebrew actually means “The Lord will hide.” He prophesied in Judah in the reign of the good king Josiah, a time of reform, a time of hope that things would get better. But Zephaniah did not share that hope. His message was unmitigated doom. “The Lord will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” he began, and his message goes downhill from there. To paraphrase a bumper sticker I’ve seen, “The Lord is coming and boy is he angry!” “You remember that good creation I made? It’s all going to be wiped away if you don’t straighten up and fly right!” The only hope he holds out for the humble of the land who obey God and seek righteousness is that perhaps they may be hidden on the day of the wrath of the Lord. “The Lord will hide.”
And then, suddenly and unaccountably, at the very end of his book, we come upon a song of rapturous joy. “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
The contrast is jarring, so jarring that some scholars feel that it couldn’t have been written by the same man who warned of doom and gloom only a few verses earlier. Perhaps it was written, they say, 100 years later, at the time after the exile when the captives returned from Babylon. A little balance was needed. But if you know the human psyche, your own, you know that Zephaniah himself could have written it. The sensitive spirit that can plumb the depths of despair can also, on another day, soar to the highest heights. Haven’t you found that true to your experience, that life is made up of both?
You can be down in the dumps one moment and then at the heights of ecstasy the next. It’s the human spirit. But whatever it is for Zephaniah, it is a study in joy. Israel sings to the Lord, and the Lord sings to Israel—a duet! Israel shouts and the Lord responds with loud singing. Israel exults and the Lord exults. There is an end to fear—that is said twice. An end of guilt—the Lord has taken away the judgments against you. The lame are going to be saved, the outcast will no longer be shamed; and I’m going to gather you up and bring you home! Sheer, unadulterated joy.
Why the joy? Zephaniah lets us in on the secret: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” The Lord might be hidden, but the Lord is in our midst. This same God, whom we have heard so much about, the God who seemed so remote and far away, the God whom no one had ever seen, the God who dwelt in light unapproachable...this God would be in our midst.
And when the news of the nearness of the Lord begins to unfold inside each of us, we begin to get the sense that there is no time to waste in dealing with the unfinished business of our lives. We begin to get the message that our lives count for something, that what we do for good or for ill is not insignificant. In theological language, we take part in the redemption of our time. For this is the one who, yes, comes to judge, but also comes with healing in his wings. When the Lord draws near, he intends to do us good, for the Lord loves us better than we love ourselves.
This is the One Whose heart breaks over all of our brokenness, who desires nothing more than to put us back together again. This Lord who is near stands in the midst of our quarreling—in the midst of our wars and violence and our love affair with weapons and our volleys of words, even, that are turned into weapons—and offers us a way out of such a spiral.
This is the One who laughs out loud when a new baby is born, or when for some other reason there is joy in our world. This is the One Who stands with us, too, when tragedy strikes. This is the One who is in your midst, Who watches expectantly through the night in the hospital room as the IV solution runs into the vein of someone who for us is the most important person on earth. This is the One who rejoices when we rejoice, who weeps when we weep, is in our midst.
A week ago I arrived here early one Tuesday morning in a bit of a funk, I guess you’d say. Sunday wasn’t bad, but I just felt that maybe I hadn’t made the connection between the scripture and the congregation. It’s an occupational hazard. It was a busy week ahead of me, a lot of things were on my mind. I was really concerned about our capital campaign, feeling down over the recent loss of my Dad, and generally miserable. And then on Sunday, April 22nd I was surprised by joy. In the midst of that glorious Plainfield area Children’s Choir Festival I heard a word of hope. All was right with the world because I knew we were doing some things right. God was present in the children right here in Crescent Avenue. At that point it mattered not how my sermon was that day, or what would happen tomorrow, or that I still had thank you cards that were unwritten and the bank account at a low ebb. And that day I was reminded that even the darker things could be borne, because I read to some of our grieving that week at a members funeral service: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Even on the final judgment day, God will not abandon us.
So Zephaniah, you ol’ prophet of doom and gloom, your mother named you better than she know. God hides. God hid God’s very self in the midst of this disturbing and perplexing time. Right in the midst of Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church. “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” Therefore, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem ... for I will bring you home ... and I will make you praised before all the peoples of the earth.”


TWELFTH NIGHT/EPIPHANY      I read this line in a interview with Christian Wiman in Christianity Today:   "Jurgen Mol...