Yesterday, as I looked out my window I STILL saw snow. The day dawned bright and sunny but the grasp of “old man winter” was still here. As I drove into town snow was still on the fields and sides of the road, especially in the shady places where the direct sunlight didn’t reach. I could almost imagine his fingers sliding across my deck as the snow melted as if he was holding on so tightly and not wanting to let us out of his grip.
It is a strange analogy for me because I have enjoyed this winter more than most. My husband and I have always been “cold weather” people. The year we were married was a winter much like this. Yesterday even reminded me of our wedding day, bright sunny and crisp with the hint of Spring.
I’m not sure why I’ve enjoyed this particular winter so much, but I think part of it has to do with my resolve not to let the weather hinder me. We’ve exercised outside through most of it, and somehow that has made me feel more alive. (Not sure if that was the exercise or the weather…but whatever it has been enjoyable.) Maybe part of it was the time we have spent together. He has been home a great deal of the time and we have been adjusting to a new season of our lives, gently feeling our way through all the new experiences, readjusting responsibilities, and also finding a balance in our time together and our time alone. New experiences invigorate me. We’ve enjoyed the challenges and blessings everyday opportunities have brought us. A part of me hates to see this winter end. It’s been almost like a retreat in that my focus has been more defined and less scattered.
But this weekend winter has a different feel. It’s something that needs to go. The jonquils in the yard are up 3-4 inches. The birds have arrived and are singing their springtime songs, and things look old and tattered rather than new and fresh. It feels like it is time for a change.
I think Lent is a bit like that. It is a time for change. A time when we are focused on changing something about us with God’s help, whether it is doing away with a negative or adding a positive into our lives and our relationship with Christ. Today I look at winter as an image of the sin in our lives. When it has a stranglehold on us it’s hard to make changes. Old habits are hard to break and new ones are sometimes even harder to add to our everyday lives. It’s seems the Universe wants us to remain in the status quo. In Ezekiel 18:32 we are told “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone says the Lord God. Turn then and live. The Forward Day by Day writer had this to say on Friday: When we notice destructive patterns in our lives we must stop what we are doing. We must recognize our sins. We must acknowledge that our sins damage our relationships and ourselves. God does not want the consequences of our poor decisions to cause us pain and difficulty. Repent then and live.
As we go through these days of Lent we must remember we are on a journey of change. We are in search of the light to warm our souls and clean out those dark places in our lives where sin still holds us in its grip. Christ is our light and He is taking each step of the journey with us. He will help if we but ask. Amen
This past week we had multiple “snow days” in which our household, like many others, undertook the exercise of juggling work and children. My wife is a much more proficient juggler than I am in this regard, to be certain. But one day I was fortunate to have my son throw me an assist in this great juggling exercise. Thanks to my 3 year old, I got to play church and dad all at the same time. The afternoon went like this:
I was hoping my son would stay entertained with his trucks and books long enough for me to piece together the semblances of a sermon outline. But alas, dad was invited into this Edward’s activity. I was asked to get the scarves out of the closet after which my son took his and draped it over his shoulders and told me to do the same. I expected he wanted to go out and play in the snow; but what followed next made me laugh and cry all at the same time.
At the top of his lungs he sang the doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”) and then gave a solemn bow. For the next 30 minutes we repeated this exercise over and over and over again. It was the most fun I had ever had worshipping God. I learned that day that worship can take place anytime and any where; and you just never know who will help lead you to praise God.
May we open our eyes, ears, hands and hearts to discover new ways to praise God on our Lenten journey.
True, this old warhorse of an adage, designed to steer us away from rendering evil for evil, now more resembles a tired nag, imminently destined for the Elmer's factory. However, in the context of the Lenten season, "Old Paint" starts to feel her oats and kicks up her heels, showcasing her desire for one more summer of life. The high road… I bet it's nice up there.
For most of us, Lent is a time of deeper communion with God - perhaps through a trimming of excess, assiduous meditation, or any number of practices designed for a single purpose - finding (and staying on) the high road.
As a young man in my twenties, while touring the country playing music, I carried a book written by Vernon Howard. Contained therein were stories, accompanied by mental pictures, to aid stressed-out minds in adopting a nature more "in tune" with right living. Many of those picture/stories remained lodged in my brain.
One of those stories told of a village built deep down in a valley whose people were constantly in a state of woe because of problems caused by incessant flooding. One day, a passing wise man noticed their pain and misery. He took compassion on them by instructing them that the source of their woes was not the rushing waters nor the moraine that demolished their homes and businesses. Their problems stemmed from their choice of real estate.
After he explained to them that building and living on a higher plane would end much of their troubles, some who "saw" the sense of his admonition took heed, built and dwelled higher up the terrain and benefitted greatly - while those who "missed it" continued their woeful existence.
The Lenten season provides our village the opportunity to raise its circumstances - not so much by testing our mettle through denial - ( no late-night Chips Ahoy encounters, cold turkey Facebook disconnects, less beer : -) , etc. ) although those are admirable undertakings. Rather, it means incorporating more frequent talks with God, specifically, with our savior Jesus Christ - our shining example of what it means to exist on the highest plane possible.
Over time and with God's help, (and our cumulative Lenten training) when faced with a choice of which path to choose, may we ALWAYS choose the high road. Amen.
Have you ever been in love with someone who was not in love with you? It's embarrassing isn’t it? Not only is it the stuff of great movie-making, but it’s the theme of many Old Testament prophets like Hosea, my favorite OT prophet. God uses Hosea to complain about how rotten God’s people treat Him. In 5:12 he complains, “I am like maggots to Ephraim, and like rottenness to the house of Judah. God’s heart aches as he recounts how much He loves His people even without reciprocity in 11:1,3-4:
When Israel was a child I loved him….It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
A Short Prayer
Lord, I’m sorry I don’t cherish or honor you the way you cherish and honor me. I treat you wrong. Forgive me. Keep those cords of kindness wrapped tightly around my heart and lead me to your cheek. Amen.
A Longer Prayer Unrequited, or more accurately, "RE-requited" love is the theme of God in Christ and it's made plain in this prayerful sonnet by John Donne.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
“The ashes traced upon us and the Church on this day call us to die to that which is not of God. Bearing these ashes we confess our sins and stare into the eyes of Christ as he stares into our heart.”
These words arrived in my email box this morning as part of an Ash Wednesday meditation from my bishop, the Rt. Rev. Terry White. For me, it brought up the question, “What does Christ see when he stares into/at me?”
Does he see the sin? Most certainly. But Christ sees that sin through the lens of His own sacrifice, not through my guilt. Does he see the scars I carry, or the ones I have inflicted upon others? Yes. He sees them with far more clarity than I do, and with far more grace.
What Christ also sees, and this is something that so often eludes my vision, is my “very goodness.”
Perhaps the greatest detriment to my own ability to love others as I love myself is that I have doubted God’s declaration and made it a question. At creation, we were deemed “very good” by God. But the tempter has called all of God’s declarations into question with the simple, little phrase, “Did God really say…?”
This day, as we recall that we are dust, and that to dust we shall return, pay no heed to the voice of the one whose belly slithers over the dust. Yes, you are dust, but precious dust…stardust…molded and shaped and fashioned and formed into a beauty in which God delights and for which Christ died.
What if I told you I possess a medicine that can cure illness and restore health. It’s like a miracle drug and I can give it to you for free. Interested? Now what if I told you that your entire life depends upon this medicine and that if you don’t have it you will die? More interested?
Well, here it is. Just for you.
This is a giant ewer full of the most precious substance on our planet: water. And we are about to pour it on Bobby’s head. And Keenan’s. In this place, nothing around here is going to get done unless we have some water. Holy Scripture contains a small handful of themes such as the love of an omnipotent God, child sacrifice, fertility, faithfulness, and water. Every time God wants to show off, He uses water. In creation His spirit hovers on the water. He conquers Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea. In the final judgement those who love Him gather at the crystal sea to sing His praises forever and ever. There’s a long list of water works in Holy Scripture and if you want more come to Bible Study at 9 o'clock.
You have your own water stories too. Maybe your story includes a lake and a fishing pole, a swimming pool in July, or a spill that either ruined everything or perhaps that spill cleaned something that was desperately dirty. For me, water is where I swim. Get me in the water. If I am cranky make me drink a glass. If I am blue, send me to the pool. And if you want to see sheer unmitigated joy take me to the ocean. In the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well and will be well and all manner of things will be well.”
Water has its dangers too. It’s power has created entire industries for energy and for transportation, but also for restoration. We can’t survive without it but too much of it will kill us. If you get caught in it’s current there’s nothing you can do about it.
Water begins life for all humans when it breaks. And we all know how one little blind and deaf girl was born again when her teacher held her hand under a water spout and spelled the letters w-a-t-e-r into her hand in sign language. Anne Sullivan had made several attempts to give Helen Keller the gift of a new life, but she didn’t get the job done until she used water.
When I was a child learning Bible stories on a Sunday School felt board I was also taught stories about famous Americans. My child’s brain naturally knit the two yarns together. So I learned the names of the Apostles along with people like Helen Keller. Another woman who has enchanted me for years is Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. I don’t know if she was a Christian. Her biography is on a long list of books waiting to be read. What I do know, is that she was the very first Queen of the Waves.
Her throne was established on August 16, 1926 when she swam 21 miles from France to England in 14 hours and 31 minutes, beating the record set by the previous channel swimmers by two hours. When the 19 year old returned home to New York she was greeted a ticker-tape parade in her honor. One historian says, “Her victory had momentous repercussions. Citing her as their inspiration, more than 60,000 women earned American Red Cross swimming certificates during the 1920s.” [Swimmer Gertrude Ederle/Determination Helped Her Make A Record-Breaking English Channel Swim -- By Susan Vanghn, Investor's Business Daily, May 24,
Take one swimmer, add water, and you have 60,000 more swimmers!
But there’s a backstory about the suffering that gave birth to her victory. When she was 8 years old the Queen of the Waves nearly drowned in a pond. After she was rescued she was both terrified of and motivated to learn to swim. So, her father tethered her to a rope and shouted encouragements to her as she struggled to dog paddle in a lake. In addition, the combination of a childhood illness and swimming contributed to her total loss of hearing. She spent her career teaching deaf children how to swim.
Before she was crowned Queen of the Waves Gertrude failed her first swim test. And people jumped in the water to swim in her wake.
Before our Lord took his seat at the right hand of God the Father, Jesus drowned in his own lung’s fluids on the cross, as is the nature of death by crucifixion. At baptism we are drowned in His drowning and raised in His resurrection. Today, Bobby and Keenan follow in His wake.
Every time you take a glass of water in your hands remember the waters of baptism and remember Peter’s message. A message more momentous than the excitement that spread over Gertrude’s swim. From Acts 10, “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee…. And the message started when? after the baptism that John announced. Jesus’ baptism has momentous repercussions. It’s the reason we are all here today. We know this water contains both the victory and the suffering. Because this is the baptism of Jesus.
He can cure illness and restore health. His love is like a miracle drug and I can give it to you for free. Your entire life depends upon His love and if you don’t have it you’re as good as dead. When you get caught in His current there’s nothing you can do about it. Let me spell it out for you, [in American Sign Language] “F-o-r-g-i-v-e-n.”
You may have uttered those very words yourself during the past few days. Maybe it was an uncle or sister or cousin who came for to long a visit. Or maybe it was a family friend who just wouldn’t leave. But this morning I’m talking about someone else: John the Baptist. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into church, with the Advent season now in the review mirror, John pops up again.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t in the middle of today’s gospel reading. I don’t know anyone who isn’t captivated by the beginning of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him…in him was life…the light of all people…The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” We may not understand it completely, but the words just cascade over us, sweeping us into this grand, cosmic Story.
But then we sense that something isn’t quite right. We catch a whiff of something musty, like wet camel’s hair. And just as we wrinkle our noses and think, “Where have I smelled that before?” out steps that wild and wooly witness to the Light, John the Baptist.
This week, as I thought about John in the context of this gospel reading, I made a strange connection. By now, most of you have heard me preach enough to know that I make some rather strange connections in sermons, but this one surprised even me. I’d like to introduce you to someone this morning. He has been with me all of my life, and though my wife thinks he’s pretty scary, I can’t look at him with anything but love. His name is "Bear-Bear."
Bear-Bear was my favorite stuffed animal growing up, and he’s always been there for me. At night, when the monsters under the bed were growling, he was there. On long trips and in unfamiliar places, he was there. When Mom and Dad were away, when the babysitter was no fun, when my older brother punched me, or my younger sisters tattled on me, he was there.
What was yours? Was it a blankie, a binkie, a bobo, a woobie? What was that ragged, scruffy, always-knew-where-it-was, fur-all-loved-off, eyes missing, stitched-together-like-Frankenstein thing that got you through your childhood? I’ll bet many of you still have your old security items tucked away somewhere in the basement or attic. Within all the years of accumulated junk in the house, you can still go to the exact box where it’s safely stored away. They have magical powers, you know? Just pick it up again after years or even decades, and I guarantee you’ll still feel a great wash of warmth and comfort ooze out of that pack of stitched-up stuffing and travel right to the center of your heart.
It’s leftover love. That’s what all our childhood security items did for us. They acted as a portable, squeezable, always-at-the-ready receptacles for the love in our lives. Psychiatrists call these things “transitional objects”1, which is just the clinical name for a warm fuzzy. These transitional objects, utilized to help us move more smoothly from one stage of life to another. Transitional objects help children to distill and make concrete the love and security they need. In loving homes, they soak up and store that love for difficult times. And if a child’s life is nothing but a difficult time, it acts as an amplifier for what little love is there, a safe place for the child’s own love to reside. Eventually, we outgrow these things, right? I think not.
While adults don’t carry around Care Bears™ or blankies anymore, don’t be so sure that you don’t still cling to some transitional objects of our own. They’re probably all over the place in your house, but during Christmas, nowhere are they more concentrated than on the Christmas tree. You know the ornament I’m talking about: the Styrofoam cup covered with tin foil and now-faded construction paper made during your son’s kindergarten class. You may have put them on the back of the tree, but I know they’re on there somewhere. Leftover love that went straight to your heart. Your family may even complain that you keep ruining the tree every year by putting them up, but up they go just the same.
Truth be told, God is a big fan of transitional objects. His love is so vast, his Light so bright, his dream for us so enormous, that our scattered lives can never comprehend the height and depth and length and breadth of God. So God gives us transitional objects to help us get ready for the next stage of our life. Transitional objects like John the Baptist (or John the Witness as he’s called today).
John is one of God’s great "transitional objects." In a dark and hurting world, John acted like a love amplifier, witnessing in the wilderness to the Light. John himself was not the Light, but to a world starving in darkness, John himself seemed like a Christmas feast. That’s one problem with transitional objects; they’re often mistaken or substituted for the real thing. They even asked John if he was the Real Thing. And in his uncouth, unkempt way he said, “Hell no! I smell of wet camel, not cosmic glory. Listen to me, but look past me to the One who is coming!” John was one of God’s transitional objects, which is why he didn’t just vanish into the desert to be forgotten. He still points to the love that came down at Christmas.
Transitional objects are all over the place, if you have eyes to see them. Just look around this building. No, not at the windows or flowers or beautiful vestments. Look at each other. I said that God is a big fan of transitional objects, and He is a big fan of you. All of us sitting here are transitional objects, called by God to be like John the Baptist, to witness to the love which is coming into this dark and hurting world.
As much as we might like to tuck him away in the attic, John’s going to keep hanging around. Just when you think it’s safe to go back to church or trim the tree, there he’ll be, smiling at you from behind your favorite ornament. You see, John’s never going away; he’s always going to keep coming back. The Good News is that there’s a reason John keeps coming back; he points to the One who promised to return.
1See Leonard Sweet’s sermon on PreachingPlus.com to give credit for the idea of “transitional objects.”
Three years ago, I wrote a Christmas Eve homily called "God's Best Day." Each year since, folks have ask be to re-post it, so here it is. My exciting news is that God's Best Day had been picked up by a publisher, is currently being illustrated, and will be released as a "children's-book-for-adults" early in 2014! Merry Christmas to all.
In the beginning, God the Father, God the Word and God the Holy Spirit began to dance. And the more they danced, the more they loved, and the more they loved, the more they found that all that love needed someplace to go. So they got busy creating stuff. Mountains, mushrooms, mastodons...all of it wonderful and good. Then, Adam and Eve: more wonderful and very good. What did God see? God saw that it was all good. But not for long. It didn’t take long for Adam and Eve to taint their “very-good-ness,” and to spoil God’s gazing. No more leisurely strolls in the garden together in the cool of the day. No long walks, no long talks, and no more seeing face-to-face. It was God’s worst day.
God was crazy-in-love with a creation that would not ___ could not ___ love him back. God spent all God’s days (and God’s days are a lot longer than ours!) trying to find a way to woo back His lost love, to get back the “face-to-faceness.”
Oh, there was progress here and there. Through the power of a covenant, God found a way to have long walks again. First with Abraham, but also with others, including Moses. The problem was, there was no walking with; God always had to be out front. God led as cloud, God led as fire...always ahead, the ‘loved’, behind. But it was better than nothing.
Then, through the power of commandment within that covenant, God told us that we would love him. With all our heart and soul and mind and strength, God decreed that we would love him. And we tried. But our wills were not knit together with God’s will, or our spirits with His Spirit. We didn’t have the will or the words. None could say, “I love you, Lord.” Not for a very long time; not until David.
It was David who broke through. David, the warrior-king, wielded a powerful weapon: music. And through words sung to a tune, David is the first one in His-story to tell God, “I love you.” But it was still a love-behind-the-veil. It wasn’t face-to-face, for God had said, “No man shall see my face and live.” No eye could yet see, but the ear could now hear, so God, in the midst of crisis after crisis, told us again and again ___ through the prophets ___ that God had a plan.
Then, silence. Oh, not the silence of solitude, but, instead, a pregnant pause. God took a four-hundred-year breath. It was the deep breath before plunging into the murky depths of His creation, to become part of the matter that mattered so much. And God, whose glorious gaze sees all, through all, into all, even piercing through the boundaries of time and dimensions and dreams, closed His eyes. The fulness of heaven was emptied into earth.
And when God’s eyes opened again, the all-seeing One could see but ten short inches: the distance a newborn can focus it’s eyes. Just ten, tiny inches. But it was more than enough; it was everything. For ten inches was the distance between Jesus’ eyes and the eyes of his most blessed mother, Mary, as she held him in her arms. Love came down at Christmas, but, to Love’s surprise, found love waiting for Him.
And in that instant, that moment we celebrate on Christmas Eve, everything changed. No longer would it be said that no one could see God’s face and live, but now, no one shall really live until they see His face. It was God’s best day.
© Michael E. Blewett, 2010
All rights reserved
This portrait has always influenced how I read the book of Revelation. It’s a warm and inviting vision in the midst of disastrous and blood-tingling description of events.
My family and I recently saw the new Disney movie Frozen. It’s a re-telling of the classic Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen. What made the biggest impression on me was the motif of doors used to show the separation between two people who desperately need and love one another. When the doors are finally opened everything changes for everyone in the entire community, not just the two people who had been yearning to be together. This kind of transformation is something I have witnessed in my life and in my faith community of Christ Episcopal and other places. Where two people open the door to one another, the entire community sees Jesus enter in. Some people call it reconciliation. Some call it a “Christmas miracle.” I call it a fulfillment of the Advent promise.
For more door verses see:
1. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. (Revelation 3:8)
2. After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this. (Revelation 4:1)