Where has the time gone?

I used to think about the passage of time in my elementary school playground. Above the swing set grew these tall, leafy trees and in the branches of these trees I noticed a thin, white veil of tissue paper. Well, it wasn’t tissue paper after all. In fact, what I spied in that canopy of green were the carefully crafted cocoons of a certain butterfly. And do you know what fascinating about the colorful creatures who emerge from these cottony-white lairs? What I find fascinating is that the butterfly actually has to struggle to get out… that if you and I were to take a stick and open up the cocoon before the butterfly had struggled that it wouldn’t be able to fly. Anyway, when I saw those pockets, those cloisters, those enclaves of life in the trees above the swing set that’s when I thought about time.

I thought about time when I was seven or eight years old and I’d like to think about time right now—with you—some forty years later. Ecclesiastes, in case you missed it, includes a huge section on time. And yet, as we read through the various and peculiar seasons of time, what’s clear is that there’s no such thing as this giant monolith that starts out five thousand or five billion years ago and stretches minute by minute until now. Instead, we’re invited to ponder time as if it were a cocoon or a chrysalis—as if it were a series of sheer graduation robes that we try on and discard, day by day and season after season:
“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh…”

Now, I’ve been reviewing our years here at Latah Valley and it seems to me that we have had a decent share in the struggle. In some cases, you may have crawled here—emotionally speaking. In other cases, you may have landed here after years and years of experiencing a spiritual high. Time has gone by, and for many of you, the energy that’s left in your wings seemed depleted. So what are we to do? Now that we’ve gathered here in the eaves of this canopy, what’s the next assignment of time?

Sheryl has observed how many of the professional sports season now seem to pile up on one another. Once the National Hockey League culminates with the winning of the Stanley Cup, for example, Major League Baseball is also underway. That 162 game schedule will finish up in September, from which follows the Pennant Race and the World Series and when that’s all over, the various college and professional football games are heating up. And when we make it through the play-offs to the Super Bowl, March Madness spring into action and then it’s back to the National Hockey League.

You see, for someone who likes to watch sports on television, this is a spouse’s perfect storm. Seasons collide with seasons and pretty soon there’s no time left for actually pondering the players and their performances.
In Ecclesiastes, chapter three, the dynamic is exactly the opposite. Each season spans the gap between two opposite activities, and when we place, for example, “a time to be born” next to “a time to die” the net result is that we are stretched.
“What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with? He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

One of the things that caterpillars do in their cocoons is digest all that food they’ve consumed, and in his book, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy, Thomas Sine tells this story about a group of friends who are about ready to do the same. Henry and Rhoda from Scandinavia came to this country with a love of wild mushrooms. One weekend, in fact, they scour the foothills and carry back baskets and baskets full of the little morsels. And, feeling blessed by their abundant harvest, Henry and Rhonda decide to have a dinner party.

Well, at the party the couple prepares mushroom crepes, mushroom soufflés, mushroom omelets and they eat until they cannot eat anymore. And then, finally, they scrape the leftovers into the cat dish. Near midnight then the guests are beginning to get their coats when they hear a scream from the kitchen: “The cat!” Everyone comes rushing into the room to observe the cat thrashing, kicking, crying, her sides heaving uncontrollably—giving every indication of a grand mal seizure.

“Ut—oh,” some exclaim and quickly call the emergency room, where the doctor on call asks them what they ate and tells them that poison mushrooms are nothing to mess around with. So everyone piles into their cars, dashes to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped. Eck! What a way to end a dinner party!

Afterwards they all struggle back to their cars and back to Henry and Rhonda’s to get their coats. Before leaving the house though someone remembers the cat and quietly they inch open the kitchen door. There on the floor is the poor cat, licking her paws and looking totally relaxed… with eight new kittens by her side.
You see, an experience like that one doesn’t simply stretch the cat in the kitchen. It also stretches out our thinking and our feeling about God’s activity in the world and our response to that activity. What I’m saying is simply this: We don’t automatically know where we stand in relation to the purpose of this time, and just when we think it’s time to die, or just when we think it’s time to get our stomachs pumped, it may be time to live, to love and to show the colors of Christ Jesus to the world.

Amen.

How To Enjoy A Face

July 19, 2010

Last Thursday, during my pottery class, I asked my instructor if I could make a mask. He said that I could, and then gave me some guidance on how I could make the mask curved, rather than flat. First, he pointed me in the direction of the old newspapers and, after gathering a few of those front page headlines, a few obituaries, some birth announcements and baseball scores, I crumpled them up and formed them into the shape of an egg. Second, I draped a thin layer of clay over the mangled ball of news stories. And third, I began to carve out the eye cavities. In the palms of my moistened hands I then started to shape a nose, a mouth, strands of facial hair and ears. And, you know, it was interesting. As I grabbed the chunks of clay that would eventually be transformed into these flesh-tags with which we hear, I found myself looking at the face of my instructor. I looked at him—this living person—to get my bearings on the placement of the ears. And, I don’t know. I can’t really explain it. But as I studied the face of this teacher who had been telling me how to make a pseudo-face, we shared this weird, mutually self-conscious moment. Or maybe not. Maybe it wasn’t self-conscious at all.

I’d like to talk with you this morning about the spirituality of the human face—about how to enjoy a face without reducing it to just an ordinary part of the scenery, or without making it into another knick knack of your household décor.

Now, the first question that may occur to you, as I lay out this focus, is why. Why would anyone—other than a dermatologist, or a cosmetologist, or a plastic surgeon or a modeling agent—want to know how to enjoy a face? And the answer lies in some of the verses that we’ve read today:
“O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely.”

No, that’s not an excerpt of the latest Harlequin romance. I didn’t steal those words from the script of a bad soap opera. They actually came from the Holy Bible, somewhere between Ecclesiastes and the prophet Isaiah—namely, the Song of Solomon, which, as you may know, drips with hot and erotic passion. And yet, here’s the other thing that we know about the two lovers who are depicted in the Song of Solomon. We know that they actually cherish and long for each other’s particular faces. In pursuing the consummation of their affection and intimacy, no other face, no other person, will do. And this is an important insight when it comes to what most interpreters of the Bible have done with the Song of Solomon. That is, when we make the metaphorical and allegorical leap and compare the face of these two loves with the face of God and the face of Israel, something clicks into place. No other will do. It will not suffice, for example, for Israel to settle for anyone less than the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt. And it will not suffice for Yahweh—the God of Israel—to settle for the Hittites or for the Philistines, let alone the Persians, Greeks and Romans.
God, in other words, loves Israel as a uniquely chosen community and through Israel God channels his love for all the peoples of the world and all the peoples of human history and for the ever-expanding cosmic creation. So one reason that you and I may want to learn how to enjoy a face is that complex theological statements like may have now been molded into a pair of eyes, a nose and mouth. Enter the face of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel especially, represents the people of Israel. Where Israel often hides and plays hard to get, however, Jesus makes himself available. He makes himself available on behalf of Israel and then on behalf of the world. And in chapter nine, verse fifty one, we see how:
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Jesus set his face.

In The Color Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg, there’s an emotional scene when two sisters are violently separated from one another. Celie’s abusive husband, known as simply as Mister, actually rips the two women apart by placing his hand between their faces. Nettie, however, is determined. She runs back and, with Celie, grabs onto the trunk of a tree. Then, as both the sisters sob and scream, Mister pries loose Nettie’s fingers from the tree and from Celie’s limbs too.
Nettie is then taken to the fence surrounding Mister’s land and thrown to the grown. But, amazingly, she turns and faces Celie from a distance. She says to Mister, “Why?” and she says to her sister, “Nothing but death can keep me from it.”

Nettie sets her face and in so many ways this is the image that I have of Jesus as well.

You see, it’s important for us to recognize something that the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church years and years ago. He had been writing them about his absence—about his lack of face time with them. And yet, he wants them to understand and to love out one thing:
“For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

What matters, according to Paul, isn’t his face time. What matters is “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” And listen. That face is not the same as the “good face” that we put on. That face is not simply the courage that it takes for us to face a personal crisis. That face is a face of redemption and reunion and resurrection. It’s the face that Celie and Nettie give to one another at the end of The Color Purple. And it can be the face that we enjoy with one another here at Latah Valley. Marcel Proust says, “The features of our face are hardly more than gestures which force of habit made permanent…” May the gestures that we practice in this place give us the face of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Poem

July 14, 2010

Where It Could Be

The creek bends where we look over and nothing returns the gaze,
Where it could be
That a few creatures kibitz and rub their legs together in the night.

The creek bends and from where we swell like a rhythmic pulse
The whole wrist will go limp,
Where it could be
That seraphs tunnel beneath the panoramic view

And with two of their wings they expose themselves to history.

This morning, I’m going to mention at least two events which took place on the Fourth of July, and I’d like you to tell me which one is more important—that is, which is more shared with most people throughout human history… Is it the declaration that we make about our independence? Or the haunting experience of being utterly dependent?

But first, before I outline those two events, let’s review the historical information that’s just been reported to us in the book of Ezra. According to Ezra, chapter one, formerly exiled Jewish families may now return home. King Cyrus of Persia, it seems, has issued a declaration which clarifies the religious freedom of certain people within his realm and the Jews, who had been deported to Babylon, are among them. They are now free, and within certain parameters, the people whose belief in Yahweh had been banished, may now govern themselves independently.

Verse one is therefore a precursor to our Independence Day:

“In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared…”

Independence Day. I remember one of the first times that I celebrated my independence, or what I thought of as independence. A German shepherd, on the other side of the neighbor’s fence, had just given birth to puppies. My parents and I had just returned from a short vacation at the beach. And as we got out of the car, on the Fourth of July, I heard the little fur balls yapping and yipping. So I did what any curious kid would do: I reached over the neighbors’ fence to touch them. I had even received permission from the owners to hold one of the puppies and let her lick my face. That, of course, was the last pleasantly independent thing that I remember doing on that holiday—because, as I bent over to put the little dog back down on the ground, the protective mother lunged for my throat.

Then came that blood curdling scream (my own).
Then came the neighbors, running.
Then came the anxious trip to the emergency room.
Then came the experience of my first wincing tetanus shot…

And then, finally, came the declaration of the doctor that I could return home.

Now, experientially, I’d like you to take a leap with me. Take a leap to that first time that you tried to exercise a little independence and got hurt. Take a leap to that moment when you realized that for all the hoopla and political rhetoric, dependence is the way of the world. All of us, sooner or later, are dependent. And the question, therefore, is on what? On who?

“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.”

You see, one of the first things that we might notice about this imperial decree is the verbs. “The Lord, the God of heaven” has GIVEN and has CHARGED, which is another way of putting the power of King Cyrus in perspective. According to Ezra, King Cyrus is dependent, which means that the following awkward situation carries the day—and perhaps every day until now:

Think about this: King Cyrus has actually just conquered a nationality, whose deity—or whose divine authority—has allowed that country to be conquered. Now that’s what I call awkward. And today, we have to wonder what that kind of awkward predicament might mean for us. For example, could this part of Holy Scripture mean that what we often think of as “independence” is, upon closer examination, our DEPENDENCE upon a God who comes to us when we feel most vulnerable—that is, when we are hurt, or bitten by German shepherds?

“Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem…”

You see, I hear Ezra 1:3 and I immediately recognize the resemblance with where we are today. Where we are today isn’t simply the celebration of our break with Great Britain and King George in 1776. Today, you and I are “permitted to go up…” But would you go up? Would you go up again and gather another generation around the hope of a God who would allow you to be conquered and conquered again and again?

In his book, Notes From A Mud Hut, author and anthropologist, Nigel Barley describes the kind of field work that he does, venturing into the remote areas of South America and Africa. He describes it in terms of a conversation:

“Ah, you’re back.”
“Yes”
“Was it boring?”
“Yes.”
“Did you get very sick?”
“Yes.”
“Did you bring back notes you can’t make heads or tails of and forget to ask all the right questions?”
“Yes.”
“When are you going back?”

You see, this stark dialogue highlights for me the humility with which we should celebrate our independence. Today, you and I are free to go up and to begin the re-building of God’s temple in Jerusalem. Just like the time that all the Jews had been given permission to go back, you and I have been given the spiritual freedom to seek God’s presence in the world. But let’s not mistake that freedom with the destination, with the final goal that God has in mind and for which Jesus died and rose again from the dead.

Independence is a relative reason to celebrate, which is why passages like John 2:19 and Hebrews 9:23—24 point us toward a mysterious dependence. In the shadow of the re-built temple, you see, Jesus expresses his beliefs freely, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will be raise it up again.” He can only do that, of course, if he’s dependent on some Mysterious and Powerful relationship. Likewise, the author of the Hebrews passage points out that the purpose of things like the national symbol of the temple depend upon the work of God in Jesus Christ, which transcends them. Verse four:

“and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and animals, beside freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”

Let all survivors be assisted! And isn’t that what we are as forgiven sinners! We have survived our own prideful attempts at building an independent life. We have survived and realized that we truly need the assistance and support of others. In fact, as we journey toward the spiritual home of the new Jerusalem, that may be the most important lesson that we have to learn.

Ken Burns made a documentary special on the history of Baseball, and one segment recently kept me spell-bound. It told the story of the Yankees legendary slugger, Lou Gehrig, who hit some many homeruns and played in so many consecutive games that the sports writers nicknamed him the Iron Horse. Others marveled and compared him to the rock of Gibrater on cleats. But then something changed. Lou Gehrig’s body, around the age of 35, began to weaken. His muscles began to atrophy, and finally on July 4th, 1939, he retired with the news that he had been diagnosed with Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis, what would become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. And the reason that I bring up this episode is not to quote you that famous line, Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth, but something else he said later. He said, “You have to get knocked down to realize how people really feel about you. I’ve realized that more than ever lately. The other day, I was on my way to the car. It was hailing, the streets were slippery and I was having a tough time of it. I came to a corner and started to slip. But before I could fall, four people jumped out of nowhere to help me. When I thanked them, they all said they knew about my illness and had been keeping an eye on me.”

So, what if that statement says more than we care to admit? What if it’s more than the symbol of our national pastime realizing that he now prone to slipping on the street? Rather, what if it’s like Ezra says in verse five:

“The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—EVERYONE whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem…”?

Think for a moment about what stirs you, or about the possibility of who is stirring you. Latah Valley is a sign for those of you who are here and even those who are not yet among us that God stirs. God stirs and eventually, according to verse six,

“All their neighbors aided them…” Do we have neighbors who aid us?

God stirs and eventually, gradually, “King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods…” Have we, in our time, seen vessels that had been carried away from faith now being returned to faith?

God stirs, and sooner or later, people like Sheshbazzar, are put in charge of counting all the vessels that will be returned.

God stirs and there’s an inventory taken and grace abounds. God stirs and people who once considered themselves as exiles are at last going home.

Last Friday and Saturday (June 25 & 26) were good days. Sheryl and I traveled south to the Nez Perce reservation, where the six congregations of that region hosted a two week camp-out. On Friday, Sheryl preached from John 4 and focused her words on “the scandalous conversation.” Jesus, she said, has a scandalous conversation with the Samaritan woman and likewise we are called to risk those same relationships today. On Saturday I then dealt with the passage which directly follows the story of the woman at the well. Beginning with John 4:27 I highlighted the AWKWARD SILENCE of the disciples as they discover Jesus talking with this thirsty outcast…

Anyway, I am powerfully TRANSFORMED. I don’t know if it was the night air in the mountains or the faces of those Nez Perce, but those days rocked me off my road of depression. Following the message, when I mentioned (at the end) my apprehension about entering a “sweat lodge” the daughter of a man, who built a sweat lodge, invited over. I told her that we couldn’t stay. Still, something in her eyes made me think that I’ve come full circle. The Northwest has me, and a’la Acts 1 & 2, I intend to linger until the Holy Spirit comes with power. Stay tuned.