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.


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