I remember years ago standing on the side porch of a church and hearing news from one of our leaders that he was heading into a divorce. My immediate response was compassion – for him and all concerned. But for him something else was at stake, namely, his role and place in the community. He offered to resign, worried that his personal situation would somehow cast a poor light on the whole church. I encouraged him to not resign, to instead serve out his term, reminding him that the essence of what we were about was the pure, unfettered love of God. That divine love is realized most not when all is well, but rather when things become dicey.

In retrospect, after serving for decades in the pastoral role, I realize how much I was a dispenser of grace for hundreds of people just like this man. I was also a dispenser of grace for hundreds more who discovered that message of grace in some indirect way, through something I said or wrote publicly. I know this because they told me later, often to my surprise.

Though most of us may know something of the love that will not let us go through our religious convictions or personal experience, we need to be reminded by flesh and flood people. For some that takes the form of absolution in the confessional booth or a pronouncement of forgiveness at the conclusion of a corporate confession of sin in worship. But for most I would say it comes down to another person saying, in one way or another, “God loves you, we’re all imperfect, there are do-overs, and God’s grace is bigger than your failures.”

Most people can tell you the time and place such words were spoken or communicated to them. It may or may not have been in a religious context. But the reality of grace is always transformative. When we are on the receiving end of it we can stand our full height again, and stand our full height with a sense of freedom and power.

I believe our unique vocation is to serve up generous portions of grace – especially for those who have not been on the receiving end of it. The world is cruel. Religious communities can be as well. It doesn’t take much to stand in the breach where kindness has been conspicuously absent. If we wait patiently, the opportunity always arises.  If you have ever been on the receiving end of that it becomes perfectly natural to be on the giving end. So that people can find their dignity again.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, and I don’t mean for this introduction to sound like a fairy story, I lived in a place that had two banks on the same town square. One of those banks was mine because in that town you had to choose, just like you had to choose between two car dealerships and choose between two funeral homes and choose between two breakfast cafes. These were choices of loyalty and everybody knew you were either one or the other.

One day I went into my bank and right off noticed one of the bank officers, a middle aged man who seemed to be but a shadow of his former self. Had I not noticed the precipitous weight loss before? This was a guy who didn’t really pride himself in appearance so much and this change was conspicuous. I began to worry. Was it his health? I hoped not. Doing what you do in small towns you ask somebody. So I did and, no, he wasn’t near death’s door. He had been making use of a novel diet plan. I was curious.

So one thing led to another and I found myself in conversation with this slender rail  and asked what his secret was.

Canned Green Beans“Green beans,” he said without a bit of hesitation.” Not really knowing much about green beans other than we usually had them with meatloaf, I thought they might have magical properties, a new secret weapon that negates all the buttered rolls that had my name on them. Sadly, that was not the case.

“Why green beans,” I asked innocently.

“Because,” he said leaning with his new svelte self against the counter, “if you eat only green beans and nothing else, this is what happens.” Did I understand him correctly? Only green beans? Yes I did.

It seems that is all he ate, morning, noon and night. The canned version. He brought them to work and put them under his desk, popped the top and ate them at his desk. He didn’t go out to lunch anymore because, well, he couldn’t eat anything else on this plan anyway and it’s a little awkward eating the beans out of the can while others are munching on their cheeseburgers.

He bought them by the case. The grocery store people all knew what he was coming for and sometimes the checkout boy had carried them to his car and put them in his trunk before he was done paying his bill.

Now, I’m no nutritionist, but I have some friends who are. And even without asking I could hear them screaming from about a mile or so away that no fool can live healthily eating only green beans. Nothing wrong with green beans, mind you, but you’re not going to do well with nothing else in your diet. That is a formula for some health catastrophe. That’s what I thought my health nut friends would say. I was probably right because that just can’t be sustainable. Nothing all by its lonesome is going to work in whatever food pyramid you devise for yourself.

Fad diets in general are bad ideas because they are artificial and function on the idea of restriction. As opposed to some healthy combination that is sustainable over the long haul. Well, suffice it to say that the green bean man wasn’t in the mood to talk nutrition. The pounds were falling off him like leaves dropping from trees in the fall.

Just so you know, I saw him later. Was it a year or so later? He wasn’t working at the bank anymore and he was dressed like he crawled out of the swamp. Evidently he had run out of green beans because he had traded in that boyish figure for the puffy old model he had before. Like Jesus casting out one demon only to have seven rush in to take its place, he looked worse than before.

I wish there was a moral to this tale besides don’t go the green bean route, but I’m not sure there is. Or maybe quit looking for the silver bullet in the life that’s going to make everything better and do it in the extreme. I don’t know. Like most parables you have to find your own meaning because there’s not just one. You could sum it all up with some brilliant little moralism only to have somebody else say that doesn’t really work for them. So whatever.

As for me and my house maybe the best we’ve found so far is this: Man does not live by green beans alone.  

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.