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Somewhere in the middle of lunch, as a part of some conversation about who knows what, my mother-in-law announced that she never dresses up for Easter. I asked her why not.

When she grew up as a child, her family were not Christians. They never were. All they knew was that her brother shouldn’t play ball in the front yard on Sunday mornings. This was a part of the same social mores that kept stores closed and moved families inside on Sundays. So her brother moved to the back yard to toss his ball against the wall. But that was the extent of their knowledge about all things Christian.

It was only later, after marriage and invitation to actually explore the Christian faith, that she discovered some the basics of the Christian story and practice. One day she was reading the New Testament for the first time and she discovered something absolutely shocking. Jesus, it seems, was raised from dead. Surely she somehow misread it.  She immediately called a friend and asked if she was understanding the story correctly. Yes, the friend said, she was.

So that is what Easter is about? Resurrection? For her whole life she thought Easter was a time in Spring when everyone bought new dresses and hats and showed them off. She had no other frame of reference. From the outside that’s the only conclusion she drew as she observed the cyclical wardrobe changes of the Easter fashion show.

“And so,” she said without a hint of condescension, “I never dress up for Easter. I wear exactly what I would wear any other Sunday. Because I don’t want to send a message that might be misunderstood, that it’s about the clothes.”

I wonder what other messages we unintentionally send. When do our prevailing culture values and practices become indistinguishable from the real message of the faith? Are we merely reflectors of the culture around us? How, we might ask, are Christians identifiable within the predominant culture of which they are a part?

Do we dress up in the values and accouterments of our culture to such an extent that hardly anyone could know what Jesus has to do with it?

 

Mueller Report Cover PicRather than read other people’s summaries or commentary on the Redacted Mueller Report, just read it for yourself. A group of long-established Republicans who call themselves Republicans for the Rule of Law want to make sure the public does just that. They are making both the Executive Summaries of each section and the Full Report available on their website. After entering the site click on Read it Now. You will be taken to the report page and will be able to download PDFs of both the Executive Summaries and the Full Report.

Engage your citizenship. Read it for yourself. Deal with the facts. Think independently. Draw your own conclusions.

Tonight, the small Christian community in which I participate observed a hybrid service, a blending of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We sang Passion hymns, received the offering of special music, read responsive prayers, shared the Lord’s Supper, and heard the Passion story from Luke’s Gospel. A multi-sensory service, we tied red and black ribbons on a cross covered with chicken wire. And of course, our Pastor shared a brief meditation.

She made a provocative choice, one I appreciate not only for the courage it took to make it at all but the connections it made for the gathered body. She summarized portions of James Cone’s now classic book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone paralleled the Roman state-sponsored terror of mass crucifixions with the state-tolerated plague of lynchings in white supremacist America. Both used violence and threats of violence to control the masses.

Every soul in the church came face to face with the ways that the cross of suffering continues to show up everywhere, and what’s more, the image of lynching turns around and back toward our Lord: Jesus had a public lynching.

The cross does continue to show up and God’s people are hauled up upon it today. Elie Wiesel’s haunting recounting of the hanging of a young man in a concentration camp, legs kicking, struggling for life, includes muted questions from those forced to watch:

“Where is God now? Where is God now?”

From the same crowd comes an answer: “There – there on that gallows.”

God is always on the gallows just as Jesus was. God hangs by a noose, swinging from a lynching tree. Because wherever suffering is present, there is God. Wherever the weak and vulnerable are exploited and abused, there is God. Wherever the state uses violence as a form of control, there is God. Wherever humanity is so broken that only pure, unconditional, self-giving love can possibly set us free from ourselves, there is God.

At the end of the service we followed the cross in silent procession outside to the front lawn of the church and posted it in the ground. Immediately across the street from the church are bars, restaurants and hotels, and they were full of Friday night revelers. We forget that Christians in our present American culture comprise an extreme minority. On Good Friday that percentage is even smaller. The people across the street paused to look up at the strange assemblage. They wordlessly considered the ribbon decked cross and people standing around it. What could this public witness possibly mean, this spectacle?

Soon enough they returned to their fun, and like the people walking near Jesus’ cross in his time, became distracted with more pressing and interesting matters.

 

Open, Empty Hands

Posted: April 18, 2019 in Uncategorized
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In Nate Klug’s article in the April edition of Image journal, “Open, Empty Hands,” he tells James Merrill’s story in his volume Water Street, a story that ends with a poem. The story is about settling down in a new house in a small Connecticut village and the poem, “A Tenancy,” describes the arrival of a welcome committee of friends to bless the new arrival.

In a a distinct, unusual ritual, three visitors file past the new tenant, and we read

One has brought violets in a pot;
The second, wine; the best,
His open, empty hand.

Perhaps it is unavoidable to conjure Magi bringing gifts to the stall. Or wine to the ceremonial dedication of a new house, every house, every room, even the upper room, the last meal. Wherever the gifts are delivered and by whom, the same story informs every story, that setting the table unfolds with the beauty of hospitality, rituals of turning, and even more, and even an open hand, for God’s sake.

The first two I grasp quickly, almost instinctively: flowers and wine. Incensing the room, touching with beauty, pouring out life and toasting it at the same time.

But then there is the hand, open as it is. Passing through the threshold, resting on the table, gesturing, patting, beckoning.

Who noticed the hand, open, when so much else was going on? And even later, when wounded rather than wounding. And open and limp, finally.

Then, unexpectedly raised. In blessing.

A doorway. Surprising guests. Gifts. Table.

An open hand. Open. Open still.

I was pleased to recently attend another presentation of the now classic stage play Our Town written by Thornton Wilder. As you know, the sparseness of this play makes it rich. And the running commentary by the Stage Manager actually interprets the normality of life in its bigger view. There are portions of the three act play that always bring me to tears, mostly in the closing act that pulls no punches in bringing the stark reality of mortality and eternity to the fore.

The Stage Manager warns us early on that however intrigued we might be with day-to-day life in Grover’s Corners and refrains of love and marriage, more somber themes are on the way. He wasn’t kidding. Up to the cemetery we go where the dead are “weaned away from the world” step by step.

The living can’t grasp the meaning of life until it’s gone and they sure can’t grasp eternity, not fully, though, as the Stage Manger says, “everybody in their bones knows that something is eternal.”

But it is Emily, dead too early, who captures the longing for life unobserved and missed when she looks back one last time. Her monologue is the nut of the play, and one sentence stands out more than any other:

“Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners. Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking. and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?

And we lean in and listen to the answer of the Stage Manager, our resident philosopher: “No. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”

After Emily returns and takes her place in the company of those who have crossed over, darkness falls over Grover’s Corners and the Stage Manager helps us, one more time, to see how the ordinary turns under the aspect of eternity. After noting the time, the way we finite creatures understand time, he speaks to us and says,  “Hm…Eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners…You get a good rest, too. Good night.”

Do we get a good night’s rest? The saints and poets, maybe.

Is this an Easter story? Part of it? Or larger than it?

Think about that as you watch the close of Act 3 in the Lincoln Center production with actress Penelope Ann Miller.

 

 

Night Train

Posted: April 11, 2019 in Uncategorized
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The rumble always precedes the whistle. That low gravely sound is the one that first rouses me from sleep. It comes from across the river, somewhere behind the tree line. The engine sound is accompanied by the mechanical grinding of steel upon steel, wheel upon track, and a deep vibration that reverberates through the earth.

The whistle always comes next, alerting every creature to clear the tracks, that something big is drawing near. Perhaps it whistles for a deer. Or an owl. And on most nights for nobody. It may be blown for no other reason than the engineer is bored or wanting to break up the monotony.

Years ago, before I was born, the train ran on our side of the river. But now it moves through the night in the distance, something I can only hear. I realize now that I provide my own visuals for this unseen thing. Long ago in another town my family lived not too far from the tracks. As children we watched the locomotives and boxcars move slowly through town. Friends always asked how we could stand the noise. “What noise?” we asked with perfect honesty. We hardly noticed anymore.

My family also told stories about my grandfather, one of those boys who ran away from home and straight to the trains. There was the hobo who saved his life when he was riding in a dangerous place and ordered him to get out at the last moment. And gramps actually served as a telegrapher who was located back in the caboose.  They ate bar food in the towns where they stopped to fill their water tank. What a life, I thought to my young self. Imagine, living and working on a train.  And of course there were the movies and great scenes of  trains, high drama, crime and epic gun battles. Trains.

When it comes to providing the video for this reoccurring, middle of the night movie, I have no lack of raw material that can be retrieved from the archives. What I cannot see with my own eyes in my dimly-lit bedroom, I borrow from the boxcar of the past. The night train keeps doing its part, providing the audio track, every sound that is necessary, and I waltz with the steamy ghost for mile after dreamy mile, rocking to a lullaby that still wheezes through the night spaces.

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