Day 2 of the ReThink Church photo project (http://rethinkchurch.org/article/advent-photo-a-day) is “bound.” I think of journeys when I hear the word. Advent is a journey of waiting, of expectation, of joyful anticipation. Each year we come to this time to reflect on what it means to receive God anew into our world. Tradition plays a major role in our preparations, but we know that even in the midst of the familiar, there are surprises waiting for us along the way. God will be with us in new ways as we continue to journey on to Bethlehem each year. My Advent prayer today is that in the midst of the familiar Bethlehem journey we are on, we might also be open to the new and exciting ways God calls to us.
The United Methodist Church in their ReThink Church program has started a photo a day project for Advent. http://rethinkchurch.org/article/advent-photo-a-day The idea is to take a photo that illustrates the given word and then talk about it…or not! The idea caught my attention and I’m going to try and blog about the pictures and words through the season. Ok, so I’m already three days behind. But I’m going to work on that! The first word in the project is Go!
Yesterday, with camera in hand, I went on a walk through down town Red Bank to see what I could see. My eye was caught by a sign in a store window: Keep Calm and Carry On. What an appropriate message for the beginning of Advent, and the first word, “go,” from the ReThink photo campaign! What if instead of going off in the frenzy of lines and traffic horns…instead of being in an “on your mark, get set go!” frame of mind…we take a moment to breath in deeply the presence of God and do just what the sign says: Keep Calm and Carry On. Maybe, just maybe we would be less conscious of our to do lists and all we have decided needs to be done; and be more conscious of how God is working in our days. What signs of God’s presence might we become aware of that would otherwise be missed?
In doing some cleaning and rearranging this week, my eyes were drawn to where we store the equipment and dyes for making Pysanky Eggs. Pysanky eggs come from the Ukraine and the traditions around them are many. It is the process of making them that draws me in right now. You first picture the end design. From there you think backwards, and work from the lightest dye bath to the darkest. The designs are “drawn” with a kitska—a device that lets you scoop up melted beeswax, and then apply it to the egg. The beeswax coating protects the designs as you continue the dying process. As the process continues you end up with an egg that looks sooty and messy—there is no hint of any beauty. Then, slowly and carefully you heat up a portion of the egg and wipe the sooty wax off. Little by little a beautiful design is revealed.
The beginning of the Bible reveals God’s love for us in creation. God looked around at all God had created and pronounced it good. Things got a little messy from there and the beauty of God’s love in creation was…and is, not always apparent. Paul talks about that reality in I Corinthians: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known.” Just like the Pysanky egg in process, so too is our living. We know the goodness of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we have a vision of God’s kingdom. But, in between looking back at the moment of creation and the completion of God’s kingdom we often see the only the sooty, wax covered times. It becomes hard to see how we are going to get to that time of completion.
The messy times have seemed all too apparent in the United Methodist Church the past several weeks. Our Council of Bishops has asked that charges be brought against Bishop Melvin Talbert for performing a same sex marriage in another bishop’s area. The Rev. Frank Schaefer was found guilty of performing a same sex marriage and suspended for 30 days. At the end of the period he must either agree to uphold our Discipline in its entirety or surrender his credentials. Good and faithful United Methodists stand on both sides of the issue—some throwing hateful, derogatory speech into the mix. For me this is a troubling time, a time spent wrestling with what it means to be United Methodist and a disciple of Jesus Christ when those two realities seem at odds over the issue of homosexuality. As a disciple of Jesus Christ I believe I and all of us who claim the name of Jesus follow in his example. Jesus broke so many of the accepted practices of his time because they kept people from God and God’s love. As a United Methodist pastor I have vowed to uphold the Book of Discipline. But in this instance I believe the Discipline is not in keeping with the love of God in Jesus Christ. The example of Jesus Christ is that love wins! So much that is the best of United Methodism seems dimmed in this time.
Yet, I am reminded each time I gently and carefully remove the wax from a Pysanky Egg and reveal its beauty that God is working on us in much the same way. Even when we are hidden behind the messiness of life, God is at work gently shaping us and calling us to be the person we were created to be. A line from one of my favorite hymns, “How Like a Gentle Spirit,” says: “Through all our fretful claims of sex and race the universal love of God shines through, for God is love transcending style and place and all the idle options we pursue.” And so, I will trust that God is not finished with us yet. The beauty of the end result is still being shaped. For now that will be enough.
A few days ago, I decided go running along the Manasquan walkway after a district meeting nearby. (Note to self, don’t run along the beach during a Nor’easter!) After a dismal attempt at a run, I spent some time watching the swells coming into the inlet. I noticed a bird flappy oddly in the water and realized that it had gotten caught in the line of a fisherman. He was gently reeling the bird in, but couldn’t do it on his own. Another fisherman stepped in to help with the effort. Together they got the bird in and over the fence. The bird was understandably agitated and wanted no part of any attempt to free its wings from the fishing line. One of the men had a small towel and attempted to throw it on the bird’s head to quiet it down. The towel was too small, and the bird managed to slash the man’s fingers with its beak. Two others noticed the problem, and one of them had a sweat shirt on which was big enough to cover the bird enough to quiet it down. He took off the shirt and gently covered the upset bird. Head covered, the bird lay oddly still. Yet another person provided a utility knife to cut away the line wrapped around the bird’s wings. Soon, the wings were free and we all stepped back as the shirt was removed from the bird. Immediately the bird was up and back into the water. Success! Now to take care of the man’s cuts. The handy first aid kit in my car was put to use and we had him cleaned and bandaged up in no time.
Two things stand out in this experience. First there were a lot of bystanders. They watched the man struggle with getting the bird to the walkway, they watched the attempts to free the bird, they watched the first aid process. Second, for those who got involved it was evident that none of us had everything needed for the rescue. Each of us had something different and necessary to contribute.
There will always be bystanders who do not get involved. For those who choose to get involved this event is a reminder that we can’t do everything alone. It is also a reminder that even if we think we have nothing to contribute, more than likely we do. God calls us out into the world to get involved and reach out to the most vulnerable and left out–not alone, but with others who step up and out with us. It takes a village!!
Disturbing hope is the heading used by the Common English Bible for this week’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures. The reading from Jeremiah is a letter the prophet sends to the exiles in Babylon. In his letter, Jeremiah urges the captives to settle down, to build houses, and have children. He ends with this: Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
We’ve been going through the hundreds of pictures we took on our travels this summer. I thought of this text when looking at the picture of this flower blooming in the midst of the rocky Oregon coastline. It is a marvel that somehow it managed to find a way to flower in spite of the hostile conditions.
The text and picture are indeed about disturbing hope. They are disturbing in that it’s not fair this one flower seed landed where it did. Even more disturbing are Jeremiah’s words. Imagine the complaining of those hearing his letter. What do you mean–make this place of exile a better place…pray for the welfare of our enemies? You’ve got to be kidding! They are hopeful first in the obvious beauty of this one flower in the midst of the drab rocks. Hopeful in that the exiles were not to waste away in Babylon, but instead to tenaciously bring about beauty and goodness in the drabness of their Babylonian existence.
Disturbing hope shapes our own existence when we find ourselves in places we’d rather not be. Life is not fair. We end up in groups we don’t want to be in…get teachers we don’t like…we get sick, face surgery…live in places not of our choosing…experience grief. What do you mean we should make our exiles a better place?! We’d rather whine and complain. Yet, God calls us to hope and goodness even in the hardest of times. I invite you to be aware of examples of those living this disturbing hope out in their living; and to be conscious of how you are called to be such a presence to others.
More on this theme in worship this Sunday
Birds of a feather flock together…except if you are an injured bird. I’ve noticed while walking the beach that birds with injured wings or feet stay away from the rest of their flock. If the injured bird gets too near the group it is driven away. I know this is partly a natural survival strategy–the injured bird is vulnerable and attractive to prey. The other birds don’t want to be in the vicinity when the injured bird is attacked.
While this behavior is part of the so called natural order of things, it also makes me sad. Sad, and mindful of how often this kind of isolation happens to humans. We shun people who are different and vulnerable. We look right through them as if they weren’t even there. I’ve been more conscious of greeting people, particularly those who appear to alone not by choice. I’ve had conversations with people who sit alone at the inlet all day long, and gotten to know some interesting people!
Jesus taught by word and example that in God’s love there is a place for all people. So many times he shocked the religious elders and authorities by including people who had no place in their society. He talked to women, he healed those considered unworthy, and interacted with those of ill-repute. This is what we are called to continue in the name of Jesus–reaching out to the isolated of our day, expanding the table so that all have a place. May we be conscious of our actions and follow in the example of Jesus Christ so that those we encounter know there is a place for them.
These two tiny scallop shells were glistening on the beach this morning. As I picked them up I thought of something Julian of Norwich wrote: “And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.”
It is a wonder that these fragile shells survived their journey of being spun around by the waves and tossed up on the beach with the incoming tide. (Wondrous that I saw them, too!) How true those words of Julian of Norwich are: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.”
If scallop shells and hazelnuts are amazing, how much more so are human beings made in the very image of God. Scripture reminds us in so many ways of that truth. In Psalm 8 we read: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth…when I look at the skies, at what your fingers made–the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place–what are human beings that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them? You’ve made them only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur.”
You are a treasure of God’s love. May that realization seep into your soul and influence all that you do.