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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

On the Reformation's 500th Anniversary

       I love the bells of St Christopher’s Parish.    From my prayer garden I can hear the tower chime out the hymnal's strength for my soul.  While I’m running in Leonard Park the bells will occasionally erupt announcing Jesus’ victory, and I always run faster and easier knowing that death can’t finally catch those hidden in Christ. 
     This week I’ve thought as much about my brothers and sisters in the Roman tradition as I have the Speedway congregations who have celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.   This 500 year-old divorce between Catholic and Protestant has been painful, but, as is often the case when relationships are strained, people on both sides of a break-up end up learning.  
      I’m glad we’re celebrating what they learned this week.  The Lutheran Reformation reminds us that while we may work for wages, life always is a gift.  Protestant traditions insist that God already has everything he needs.  We can do nothing to make him love us more.  God’s help for the world is exclusively received by trusting what the church calls “the grace of Christ alone.” 
      But there were Catholic Reformers, too.  These men and women remind me that my faith is not just an individual matter.  I function as part of a team in a program that has a long winning tradition.  I listen to coaches who help me see the gifts of God’s love.  I often pray for insight using the prayer exercises of the Catholic reformer, Ignatius Loyola.  So, both Catholic and Protestant Reformations continue to be blessings to me. 

      Catholic and Lutheran scholars have recently expressed wide agreement over the issues that once divided them.  So I take it as a sign that the bells of St. Christopher’s occasionally play A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  This was the banner hymn of the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther who used it to gather support for the Protestant cause.  That today Catholics worship with a weapon once aimed at them, reminds me of Jesus’ assurance that all bitterness can be healed-- that faithful people will not be estranged forever.  

Monday, October 23, 2017

Walking with All the Saints

       I’ve always loved the summer’s care-free adventures.  But autumn seems to say the party is over. It makes us wonder where all the time has gone.  
      Walking through the fall-colored hills where I grew up used to fill me with nostalgia.  My old haunts would bring back difficult memories.  Is there anything more painful than the memory of unrequited love?  Are there regrets that run deeper than thinking we have missed opportunities for friendship?  Such autumn walks can be difficult because many of the people we would most like to walk with us are no longer here.
     Yet, the more I become acquainted with grief the more I appreciate my autumn walks and the longing they awaken.  As death approaches I’m assured my “redemption is nearer than when I first believed.”   Once I could not see Hallows Eve as anything but a morbid obsession with death.  Now, I see the celebration of All Saints Eve as an affirmation of the truth Jesus taught: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” 
      Christians believe in something called the “communion of the saints.”  It means the dead are still present to us.  The Hebrew writer imagines us walking into an arena, where we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” who cheer for us.   When the church receives the Communion, (or the Lord’s Supper) we mysteriously walk into this crowd.  We hear their reassuring voices re-echoing in our hearts.  By mysteriously connecting with Jesus, we are ushered into the presence of a great host who are joined to Christ’s cause.  

      Eating at the Lord’s Table takes us “back to this future.” It is a foretaste of the family reunion we don’t want to miss. With Mary in the garden of Christ’s resurrection (John 20:16) we discover that those who love Jesus never have to say good bye for the last time.   Someday we shall see the departed just like Mary saw the dead and risen Jesus. And, like Mary, we will hear our loved ones greet us again by name.

A Halloween Walk

      In May of 2014 I set off from the village of Nether Stowe, past the remains of a Norman Castle and into the Quantock Hills.  Following the footsteps of the belated poet-philosopher, Samuel Coleridge, I hoped to glimpse what filled his imagination as he trampled over these English hills.  
     I followed a beautiful brook to a rise from which I could see West across the Bristol Channel into Wales.  But then I turned eastward into a thick, dark wood…   Stumbling onto the depressions of an iron-age fort, my sixth sense began to feel this place’s history of occult violence. The forest is literally rooted in thousands of years of bloodshed. 
     One spot is called Walford’s Gibbet, where in 1789 John Walford, murdered his pregnant wife.  The locals carted him and his sobbing mistress to this spot in order to restore the land’s equilibrium. They hung Walford on a gallows, leaving his body until it fell to the ground exactly one year from the day of the murder.
    I escaped out on a delicate meadow called a heath. But then, I remembered Shakespeare in Macbeth evidently believed witches were regularly out upon such heaths stirring the pot of history.  
       No wonder such a walk inspired Coleridge to write, “I readily believe there to be more invisible beings, than visible ones in the universe.”  Such walks inspired Coleridge to write The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which a character kills an albatross.  The sailors in the poem blame the ship’s misfortunes on the killing’s ill-effects, and they hang the dead bird around the Mariner’s neck as a remedy.  
      Today, few sports fans are aware of this origin for the expression about an athlete “carrying an albatross around his neck.”  But the persistence of the expression suggests we do intuitively understand carrying around psycho-spiritual burdens from past mistakes.   
      Nobody escapes such burdens if they seek to navigate the spiritual world without guidance.  There are macabre realities that will weigh us down.  Often the only godly response is to pray and run to the one who frees us from nature’s haunting memories.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Braving Horror

         Don’t tell anybody, but when I walk with my children through the old Speedway neighborhood on Halloween I’m as frightened as any child over two years of age. 
        I suspect this discomfort stems from my own childhood.  Most of my Hoosier school friends grew up laughing at the local celebrity, Sammy Terry, who introduced horror movies on a local channel in the 1970’s. He scared me out of my wits.  While my friends giggled at modest fright, I suffered from nightmares.   They tried to reassure me that the fanciful supernatural elements in these movies “were not real,” but I knew the horror genre traded on fears which were all too realistic. 
      So, for twenty years I’ve hidden this discomfort, dressed the kids up in their costumes, and went into the neighborhood trying to play in the face of death.  There was only one year nobody took kids “trick or treating.”  In 2001 when the threat of mass terrorism was still only a month old, nobody came to my church’s long-planned Festival of Light. Horror was too real for the community to feel safe playing around with matters of life and death. At that time my old horror movie fears seemed well-founded. 
      Given all the cultural instability, I’m thankful my children can still go “trick or treating.” I’m really touched by the amount of trust which still exists in the American Midwest.  It takes a bit of good feeling to let your kids go door to door and eat hundreds of neighbors’ stuff. 

      My neighborhood still does this despite our modest fears. As much as we want to protect our families, we know that ultimately we have to place them in God’s hands.  While we may want to make our world moderately safer, we know we will seldom agree on how to do that.  We know ultimately the only fully safe place in the world is in the center of the will of God.  Only He has the power to swallow up death.  He is a refuge from the horrors of societal breakdown.  The fear of God is the only thing that will save us from the fear of one another.   

Monday, October 9, 2017

Ken Burns' Complexity

From National Archives
      I was glued to Ken Burn’s series on the Vietnam War.  Burns knows how to listen.  That’s why he can document American history in a way that leaves all of us all feeling heard.
     In his 1990 documentary, The Civil War, Burns wove the voices of Barbara Fields and Shelby Foot together without there being the slightest hint of an argument.  Seven years later, in the film, Thomas Jefferson, it was harder for me to imagine George Will and Gore Vidal agreeing about anything, but Burns had me sympathizing with them both. 
      Now, Burns has taken on the monumental task of listening to all the parties in the Vietnam War.   North Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong, South Vietnamese officials, as well as diverse American soldiers and marines—they all have their say.  Their stories are woven into a coherent whole that leaves me wanting to carry along something from all of them. 
       Very few public figures can still convene such conversations.  If Burns is not America’s poet laureate, he is something more important.  For two generations he has used his combination of images, words and music to become our national storyteller.  He is one of our few remaining shapers of national identity precisely because he listens generously to everyone.
       Burn’s current film highlights that America failed in Southeast Asia precisely because we refused to listen to people on the ground.  We willfully ignored complexities.     
       Being able to feel what other people’s lives are really like is what Christians call compassion.  Compassion is a capacity to understand others even when their motivations for behaving like they do are complex or even contradictory.  Agreement is not necessary.  Compassion is something more fundamental.   It comes from the Father of all compassion.  It imitates the Son, who came into our world in order to sympathize with weaknesses.  Compassion is empowered by the Spirit who resides within us. This Spirit interprets our complex groans to ourselves, one another, and to God.  Compassion is very slow to speak and always quick to listen—even when it’s complicated.
        Only this kind of compassion is qualified to speak.

Aging Eyes

       My fingers seldom tap the keyboard without remembering Gene, my mentor in devotional writing.  In my early life his column helped to see that a Christian writer does not search for illustrations as much as he learns to see God’s activity in everyday experience.   
       While I was in my thirties I came to appreciate how this sacredness of the ordinary speaks to people from every denomination and walk of life.
     But by the time I was 40, I feared he was leaving young people behind.   I chuckled with my wife: “No matter what Gene writes about these days, he’s really writing about aging.” 
     Now that I am in my fifties, I know better why he did.  A month ago I went to the eye doctor for my annual exam, and he told me that I was less nearsighted this year than last.  I blinked. 
    “You’re kidding!” I said.  Every year since 1974, my optometrists have told me with experienced grace that my eyes were a half-diopter more nearsighted.  But after 43 years of this ritual, the athletic kid now doing my examination blithely told me my eyes had started to ossify. He teased about my having cataracts (and yellowing of the vision) to look forward to. 
     For a split second I wanted to challenge him to a bench press contest.  But he had no way of understanding how difficult this obvious metaphor would be for me.  The notion that my eyes had stretched as far as they were going to, and are hardening into a more rigid condition, devoid of creativity and growing insight frightened me.  I don't want to be old in mind. 

    Then, last Sunday, I experienced what’s since been diagnosed as a retinal tear.  The retinal debris and internal bleeding caused me to lose much of my sight in my dominant eye.  My optical surgeon assures me all should be well.  Yet, this week of impaired vision has helped me see clearly that all things will always be “all manner of well.” Whether my thinking is considered fresh or stale, I need not worry.  At any age even blind eyes fixed on Jesus are always given what is important to behold.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Rewriting History

      For 25 years I’ve wondered what the Speedway class of 1976 put in their time capsule at the town hall.   What did that class intentionally try to remember?  If I’m alive in 2026, when they plan to open the capsule on our nation’s 250th anniversary, I want to watch.   A generation’s collective memory is a holy thing.
      Thomas Jefferson’s declining health prevented him from attending the 50th anniversary of his Declaration of Independence. In fact, by July 1, 1826 he was on what would be his deathbed.  Nevertheless, he rousted himself to receive Henry Lee, whose father had written a popular memoir critical of Jefferson. 
      The younger Lee had told the former president that he’d like to issue another addition of his Father’s memoirs, revising some parts that were objectionable to Jefferson if the ailing man could provide additional documentation. 
     Jefferson desperately wanted to get his version of events to the public.  Chief Justice, John Marshall, who had exclusive access to George Washington’s papers, had written a history of the Revolution which Jefferson believed drew the wrong moral and political conclusions.  Getting the history of the American Revolution retold was foremost in the dying president’s mind, so  with only three days to live, the sage of Monticello spent several of his last coherent hours trying to rewrite history.
      That’s what healthy people do.  
      Folks who are growing older need to tell their story in order to make sense of the present.  From the distance of fifty years the class of 1976 will be able to see how much of what occupied their time around the bicentennial ended up being trivial, while other barely noticed events will now loom large.  That’s not “Revisionist history,” or “playing loose with the facts.” It is in such retelling of stories that we acquire wisdom.

     One thing is for sure, if there is no such thing as transcendent Wisdom to be discovered, then all our story-telling is just a cynical attempt to selfishly edit other people’s memory.