Saturday, March 29, 2014


 John 9:1-41
It struck me the other day that the gospels need to be approached as a sort of unfolding - the unfolding of who Jesus is and what that can mean about who we are called to be. So perhaps it helps to think of a time-lapse video of a flower opening, one petal at a time until the entire flower is open and we can see every detail down to the tiniest specks of pollen on the stamen and anthers. The difference being that the gospels begin by saying just who Jesus is.

John's gospel begins with the most astonishing claim: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through  him, and without  him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society.

Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John's gospel is to illuminate, if you will, the essence of who Jesus is. The revelation comes from his own mouth: "I Am the light of the world." John has already told us this "in the beginning." And we need always to remind ourselves that whenever Jesus utters the words, "I Am," we are meant to recall that sacred moment of self revelation at the Burning Bush when Moses is being given a task and asks, "Who shall I say sent me?" The voice from the bush replies, "I Am who I shall say...I Am sent me to you."(Ex 3:14)

The very first word God utters in creation is, "Light!" Jesus says, "I am the light of the world." This story sheds light on just what that means. And what it means is justice for all people and the need to respect the dignity of every human being.

In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the protagonist is Jean Valjean - who is forever called by his prison number, 24601. A person reduced to a number. The stage version of the story depicts prisoner 24601 as a complex character. Is he just a thief, plain and simple? Is he a victim of an unfair system of justice? Is he a compassionate businessman and mayor? A benevolent step-father? A valiant revolutionary of the Paris Uprising of 1832? A compassionate liberator of his most persistent enemy, Inspector Javert? Or, in his own words, is he "no better and no worse than any other man"?

Just as Hugo attempts to shed light on the complexities of post-Revolutionary France, so the Jesus in John seeks to shed light on all sorts and conditions of humankind - and the artificial and often arbitrary ways in which we treat others - especially others who are not at all like ourselves.
The Man Born Blind is a figure not unlike 24601. That is, like prisoner 24601, the man is cast into a lifetime of darkness - he must be a beggar on the streets. What he says carries no weight.
Even Jesus' own disciples believe he is blind because of his own or his parents' sin. Note that the man does not seek to be healed. Jesus states that he is the light of the world, and as long as he is in the world there is work to do. After Jesus restores the man's sight, he seeks to shed light on what real sin exists in the world.

For the man is not a victim of his own sin or that of his parents. Rather he is the victim of an entrenched system of fear that declares some people unclean - rather like the untouchables in India. We watch and we listen as all those people and societal institutions expected to support the Man Born Blind just step away - they recoil, even though now he can see! His parents disown him. The Pharisees chastise him. The neighbors pretend he is not the same man. All those societal systems meant to be a support just collapse, until in a most astonishing moment, the Man Born Blind becomes not only his own advocate, but he defends Jesus against all criticism as now he is lecturing the Pharisees, the doctors of the law of Moses.

He whose being has had no standing whatsoever in the community when the story begins is now the one who is exhorting them, the arbiters of society and religiousies to "see." -to see the Light of the World - The Word that was with God and is God. Egads, he seems to say, this can be no other than the will and the work of God!

Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The miracle is not that the man can see. The scandal is not that the Sabbath has been broken. The miracle in one part is the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World that can turn the darkness of blindness and the darkness rejection and persecution of the world into light.

But more than that, this story is meant to demonstrate that we can be the light. We can turn darkness into light. Just as Jesus changed the life of the Samaritan woman (John 4) by giving her dignity, by giving her purpose, by giving her a new identity, by asking her to do something for him - give him a drink - so the Man Born Blind is given a new lease on life.

Well anyone, the neighbors, his parents, the Pharisees, whomever, could have granted The Man Born Blind more purpose in life, made him a more integral part of the community, rather than writing him off as an outcast. Jesus says, "There is something you can do for me." The woman becomes the first evangelist. The Man Born Blind (notice how he, like her, is so marginalized that he has no name!) becomes a vocal advocate for God and The Light of the World! He has dared to step beyond the barriers the others created for him.

There is something you can do for Jesus. Whatever it is, it will heal you and heal the world. Prisoner 24601 became a person who compassionately cares for others all the while accepting and acknowledging the wrongs he has done.

If the Samaritan Woman at the Well, The Man Born Blind and 24601 can do God's work so effectively, what are we being called to do? What barriers are we willing to break down so that people like the woman, the man and 24601 can be granted personhood? Looking at the world in which we live, there is not much time given to us to ask such questions. Lent means to be such a time.  Amen.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nicodemus, The Samaritan Woman, and Mahler All Walked into a Watering Hole....

Listening to the Mahler 4 and 5 in the same week one is struck by the contrast. Like day and night. The 4th ends on notes of near silence reminiscent of the still, small voice Elijah hears, after Judith Blegen sings of heavenly music: “The angelic voices refresh our spirits, and joy wakens in all.” Then comes the opening funeral march of the 5th alternating with second theme, “Suddenly faster. Passionate. Savage.” All followed by the second movement headed, “Stormily and with utmost vehemence!”  It is two different sonic worlds! Which apparently was Mahler’s goal: “To write a symphony is to construct a world with all the means at our disposal.” Whole worlds complete with light and shade, joy and sorrow, despair and hope, rough edges and all.

The Fourth Gospel is like this. Chapter 3 has Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, coming to Jesus in the dark of night to ask questions, to probe him, but not wanting to risk his reputation. Nicodemus has questions. He cannot be seen with Jesus. Jesus seems to be offering riddles and plays on words: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) To which Nic is left asking, “How can these things be?” He is not seen again until he joins Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a decent burial. He appears to have come in darkness and left in darkness with Jesus concluding that “light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light….”

In chapter 4 it is “about noon.” The sun is high in the sky. Jesus has been traveling through Samaria near Jacob’s well. Jesus is tired and sitting by the well when a Samaritan woman comes to draw water.  As we learn later, there is a reason she does not come in the cool of the early morning when all the other women in town come to draw water. She has had five husbands, and the man she is with now is not her husband. Were she to come in the cool of the day with the others she would be open to taunts, the subject of gossip, and most likely shunned, so she comes mid-day, alone, by herself.  Jesus speaks to her of Spirit as well. That he speaks to her at all is daring since it was considered taboo for a man to speak to any woman publicly that was not his wife. But he engages her in theological discourse, and she, unlike the somewhat timid and perplexed Nicodemus, pushes back, challenges Jesus’ claims. It is like the ancient days when patriarchs like Abraham and Moses would debate God, challenge God, and persuade God to make other choices.

What is striking about this story is in the beginning. Jesus is tired. The woman comes to draw water. Jesus addresses her, “Give me a drink.” She is shocked, but able to reply, “How is it that you a Jew, as a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For not only was it unusual for a man to speak to a woman in public, but it was even more surprising for a Jew to speak to a Samaritan. There was a long history of bad feelings among Jews and Samaritans in part having to do with the correct place to worship: Jerusalem or Samaria. Things have not changed much in that regard.

So here is the scene. Perhaps the most broken, lonely, and repeatedly abandoned woman in all of scripture, this Samaritan woman, who is not even given a name in the story, is addressed in the light of mid-day for a drink of water. Jesus now, like Nicodemus in chapter 3, is the one risking his reputation, but as we know that was the way he rolled. But she does not know this. All she knows is that here is a stranger, an enemy of her people no less, addressing her out of his weakness. He is tired. He is thirsty. For the first time in as long as she can remember, here is someone who needs her to do him a favor.

That is, by asking for a drink of water, Jesus has given her value – there is something she can do for him.

Most men would have ignored her. Or, walked away. Or, said something derogatory.  But this is Jesus, and he sees that she is someone who, broken though she is, is beloved in the eyes of God. After a probing conversation about Spirit and water and worshipping God neither in Samaria nor Jerusalem but in Spirit and truth, she says, “I know that God’s anointed is coming….when he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus says, “I am he.”

The Mahler 4 ends on the quietest most silent of notes. The fourth movement of the 5th is a long, meditative moment in time with just harp and strings. I imagine when Jesus says “I am he,” time stands still. The Samaritan Woman, The Word, the Logos, the Word that is with God and is God, silently looking at one another.  How she must have felt! She is talking to the one her people, all people, had been waiting for, and he asks her to do  him a favor because he is tired, he is thirsty, and it is all out in the open at Jacob’s well in the light of day for all to see!

“Just then the disciples came. They were astonished that he was talking with a woman….” Leave it to the disciples to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time! The woman flees back to her city, newly empowered, given new freedom, new  identity. She becomes the first evangelist! She says to the people who had shunned her, gossiped about her and looked down upon her, “Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him to see for themselves.

There is so much in this story, in these two stories, one at night, one in broad daylight. There is an entire world contained in these two stories. John the evangelist uses every story telling technique at his disposal to open our eyes and ears and minds and hearts. How often have we crept about in the darkness afraid to let others know what we are thinking? How often do we see someone, woman or man, like this lonely, broken Samaritan Woman and pass them by? Let alone stop to affirm that yes, you are a person like me. I am a person like you. For that is what Jesus is doing. He lets his vulnerability reach out to hers. He may as well be saying, “Do not listen to all the others. Let them have their petty squabbles. It is not about all your husbands. It is not about Jacob’s well. It is not about what mountain, place or temple in which to worship the Almighty. It is about this moment here and now. Let’s share a drink together and initiate a new way of being in this world.”

She is then empowered to proclaim to others what she has seen and heard. Others go out to see for themselves. A movement begins in the most unlikely manner, in the most unlikely place, among the most unlikely two people.

There is a mystery in the Fourth Gospel not unlike the more mysterious passages in Mahler’s music. Near the end of the gospel  there is made mention of “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” or the Beloved Disciple. Go look at Amazon and you will see dozens of books claiming to settle the mystery of who the Beloved Disciple is. There is one book, however, by James P. Carse called, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, which does not seek to make a case or cite evidence.  Carse simply imagines this woman, the Samaritan Woman, is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” I am good with that. We all should be. This fourth chapter of John may in fact be the Gospel, the Good News, in miniature. If this is the only gospel story you knew, it would be enough to know the entire universe about Jesus. It is an entire world in one easy to remember story. We should all be the Samaritan Woman, because in the end, we all are.

“The angelic voices refresh our spirits, and joy wakens in all.” Amen.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Mahler No.3, Abram, and Wendell Berry

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Genesis 12:1-4

Thus begins a long journey for a man and for civilization. It is difficult to comprehend that on orders from an unseen and often unheard spirit-voice in time, in history, that a man would pack up his family and set out for an unknown destination. All this at age 75 no less! And yet, because Abram and his wife Sarai (later to be renamed Abraham and Sarah) departed from Haran, so much that we take for granted in this world is here. We are here. We are here contemplating, meditating on just what this story, this journey, might mean. As creatures made imago Dei, in the image of God, we seek meaning.

This journey eventually comes to represent what is meant by faith. Faith - a word that is both revered by many and ridiculed by many. As if there is anyone who does not live by faith.

Abram and Sarai are living a comfortable suburban existence in Ur of the Chaldes, when God says, “Children go where I send thee.” Remarkably, they do! Little could they know they would reach a new homeland. Little did they know they would have a child at ages 100 and 90! Little did they know their names would become Abraham and Sarah. Little did they know that their journey would eventually lead to a young man named Jesus carrying on the tradition of faith as a journey with God. Little did they know that through Isaac and Ishmael they would be the matriarch and patriarch of three “faiths”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

This is where it all begins. The very notion that the life of faith is a journey, directed by God’s Spirit/Wind, taking us from we know not when and to take us to we know not where, begins with Sarah and Abraham.

All of which is why, as Frederick Beuchner reminds us in his little book, Wishful Thinking (Harper and Row, NY:1973), “Faith is better understood as a verb than a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure of where you’re going but going anyway - a journey without maps. Tillich said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith….doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” (p.25, p.20)

Faith is a verb, a process, not a possession. Despite years, decades, centuries of assertions, one cannot “have” faith. This is where we go wrong. We live by faith. All of us. It is the essence of what it means to be alive. We are all traveling on a journey from where we came from to where we are going. Whether or not you understand that starting point to be God or a Big Bang, it turns out that in at least one respect the Bible is right: we are dust and we return to dust. We are fundamentally animated, reorganized, photosynthesized dust. This realization ought to bring us to some sense of humility – grounded, of the earth, as the word  humility derives by turns its meaning from the Latin humus, or earth.
Gustave Mahler sought to “create a world” in each of his symphonies. I have been listening to his third symphony for several years during Lent. It has been a journey, a process, an on-again-off-again affair. One might say that I have had faith that one day I might understand it, or get it. It is a massive work – six movements, two of which are as long as some complete symphonies! When one sets out to listen to the Mahler 3, one, like Sarai and Abram, commits to a journey. One accepts that it is going to take time, and that you do not really know where you are going to end up.

Life is like that. Science is like that. Faith is like that. Whether our faith is in God, Science or that we have no faith, we are all traveling together on a journey of which the end-point is uncertain. Now that theoretical and astrophysicists have determined that fully 95% of the universe (universes?) are currently undetectable by human senses many have become aware that the long perceived differences between faith and science have been erased. The objectivism of Ayn Rand which is built upon the foundation of sensory perception collapses as the mysteries of the universe stretch out before us on a journey that seeks to comprehend where we come from and where we are going. It is really quite simple. We are dust and to dust we shall return.

Mahler leads us on this same journey not so much with words, though he does incorporate words into his music, but rather with the mystery of vibrations. Music is sound, a series of vibrations organized in ways that speak to our inner selves in ways that we may never “understand” but nevertheless ways that “speak” to us of the essence of what it means to be alive. Music demands a kind of humility for it is composed of basic elements and properties of the same kind that lead the mostly hidden universe to continue to expand – that is, the universe of scientific inquiry is itself on a journey – or at least we take our understanding of this remarkable discovery on faith.

Mahler himself seems to have been uncertain just what his symphony was “about” – as if it must have an inherent meaning. He wrote and re-wrote descriptions like, “The first movement is in two parts: Pan awakens and Summer marches in.” Later he changed that to, “What the stony mountains tell me and Summer marches in.” He once called it A Midsummer’s Day Dream, and then declared that the best overall title might be “Pan” since that one word has two meanings: the name of a Greek god, and in Greek it means “all.” All those arranged vibrations seeking to open up to the listener the content and meaning of “all.” He discarded all such descriptions when he published the symphony.

While listening to the Mahler 3 this past week I read poems by Wendell Berry from a collection titled Leavings (Counterpoint, Berkeley: 2010). From one of his Sabbath Poems 2007, no. VI :
Listen privately, silently, to the voices that rise up
from the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it also be lighted by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
you see the likeness of other people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.

In a very real sense, the music of Mahler, the words of Berry, the theories of science, the way of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all begin with a 75 year-old man and his wife leaving on a journey by faith, of faith, initiated by a voice from without that speaks to the person within. The voice itself an organized series of vibrations emanating from primal light, eventuating in primal dust, dust that can detect and interpret those vibrations to somehow make sense of where we are, who we are, and why we are here. Invariably it must instill a sense of humility. When that humility is lost is when tragedy begins, not only for those other people in other places who are like ourselves, but to the very fabric of the earth itself, and all that is therein. Pan. All. The rest is silence. Listen privately, silently, to the voices that rise up…

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mahler 2, Temptation and Original Sin

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
It’s the First Sunday of Lent: Temptations in the Wilderness, Paul waxing eloquently on the depravity of humankind, the first man and woman give into temptation and are embarrassed – and I find myself listening and meditating on Mahler 2, often called “Resurrection.” Mahler of course would have none of it. But then he was the one who put texts to music that pleadingly beg for resurrection and immortality (which are not exactly the same thing).  If it seems odd to focus on resurrection this early in the Lenten game, it strikes me as even more peculiar to dwell on things like temptation, the depravity of humankind and original sin – the latter not easily attested to in scripture, and most certainly would have been anathema to Jesus and his early Jewish followers.

Even without the implications of how the space-time continuum of post-relativity physics it seems to me that to split up the life, death and resurrection of Jesus into anything more than one continuous event is bound to be problematic. Even more so are attempts to link any sort of doctrine like original sin to the singularity of the Jesus event . Jesus was about right practices over against notions of right belief.  Original sin? The Bible and scriptures of Jesus and his followers is unequivocal that male and female we are created in the image of God, that God’s word is very near in our heart and in our mouth so that “we can do it,” we have free choice to choose life or death, blessings or curses, and exemplars like Job demonstrate the human capability to resist all temptations and depravations of Satan in remaining loyal to the God of Sara and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel, Leah and Jacob, the God of Jesus and all the apostles, themselves exemplars of our God given capability to do right and do good.

How I see Jesus and his forty days in the wilderness is a time of Sabbath, Reflection and Return – a return to where it all begins, forty years in which God makes a people out of a rag-tag group of escapees from slavery in the empire of Pharaoh who it turns out is simply a placeholder for Satan.  They become a people who are themselves to be exemplars – God’s demonstration community of what it means to be loved by God, what it means to be a people who reflect the light of imago Dei, the image of God, of what it means to have the freedom to choose life and to choose to do good.

Jesus had just asked to receive the baptism of John along with all the community of Jerusalem and all the community of all of Judea. As he comes up out of the water there is an off-stage voice, “You are my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Immediately, we are told, the Spirit, the Ruach, the wind, the breath, the Spirit of God compels him to return to the wilderness to reflect on what it means to be God’s Beloved. What it means that god is well pleased with you.

So much is made of the temptations, but it all boils down to great humility. All three temptations are temptations to become great, to become powerful, to become the king of the earth. Jesus says no. That is not what it means to be created in the image of God. That is not what it means to be God’s beloved. That is not what it means to be God’s demonstration community. Humility in serving God and serving others is.

This is important to grasp. All the temptations that the Church has given in to are not characteristics of being God’s demonstration community. Declaring all persons, every single baby, depraved and sinful by association with Adam and Eve cannot possibly be what the man who shared meals with every kind of sinner came to proclaim. He never held even the slightest pretention to want people to kneel at his feet and worship him. Indeed, he continually asks people to stand up and walk, to follow him, to walk with him in his way – the way of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Which way leads directly to certain death and beyond to most surprisingly resurrection – which sadly is becoming a network TV show in the midst of our Lenten journey.  Talk about missing the point of his forty day period of return and reflection!

But I digress. So as the first Sunday of Lent unfolds the complex structure of Mahler’s Second Symphony unfolds as well. And whether or not Mahler intended it to be “Resurrection,” it conveys in sound and a minimum of text what that moment of resurrection may have been like. There is outlandish bombast followed by ethereal, otherworldly melody, and words of dust returning to where it comes from after a “short rest.”

“You are sown so that you my bloom again! The Lord of the harvest goes and gathers the sheaves – us, who died!” – Friedrich Gottlieb  Klopstock

These words seem to quietly emanate out of absolute silence, slowly, gaining strength from a large chorus of voices that seem capable of the tiniest of pianissimo humanly possible. The vibrations of their voicing of these words in a language I cannot understand (German) send my heart, mind, soul back back back into wherever the stardust comes from to embody whatever it is that we are here in this place, in this time-space continuum. The crescendo as the Mahler 2 reaches its climax soars upward and outward as no doubt it must have been in that eternal moment that stunned the women into eternal silence, caused the Roman guards to fall over as if dead, that moment that was all at once like a thundering earthquake on the one hand and the silence of a still small voice on the other.

Of all attempts at theologizing, describing, and narrating what happens in that space-time continuum outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem it may be only music that even comes close to giving some approximate sense of what it is like. What it is all about.

I am grateful to live at a time and place where I can say these things and not be branded a heretic by the very church in which I have received Holy Orders. Just a few hundred years ago and it very likely would be otherwise. So perhaps progress is being made in becoming the demonstration community God wants us to be. Perhaps the folly of doctrinal correctness is slowly giving way to a movement toward right practices in following in the way – movement toward light, the primal light that shines in the darkness  urging us to accept our imago Dei, to accept our belovedness, accept that God is well pleased with us and continue from there to take Sabbath time to return and reflect on how we might emulate the kind of humility Jesus demonstrates in his momentary encounter with Satan. “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” Perhaps when the Church learns the lesson of the forty days angels will come and wait on us as well. Amen. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1

As I sit in the car at 6:30am, 14 degrees, looking at the snow covered fields where only yesterday there were some one hundred Canadian Geese enjoying the sunlight, the opening bars of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 begin yet another Ash Wednesday morning. It always strikes me as what it must sound like in a German forest as the sun rises and creatures great and small begin to stir. I pull out into the road and as I make my way around the second of two bends in the road I look out over a pink and grey sunrise over the fields on either side of the road which usually yield acres of corn or soybeans in rotation, a symphony of photosynthesis grinding out ears of corn and beans year after year. It is still. It is beautiful, and Mahler captures the mood once again. 

For as many years as I can remember my Lenten discipline is to forego talk radio, yes, even NPR, and listen to nothing but classical music in the car for these forty days, beginning with the ten symphonies of Mahler and working my way around to Copeland, Dvorak, Panufnik, and always ending up with Penderecki’s St. Luke’s Passion in Holy Week. Ash Wednesday begins a long musical meditation. Music is mysterious. It reaches deeper into the human soul and psyche than any words can hope to. 

Ash Wednesday is a time to reflect, and what better way to reflect than with wordless music? Music of infinite and timeless vibrations stirring memories of Ash Wednesdays past - the morning after many a Mardi Gras celebration signaling a farewell to Alleluias and the invitation to a Holy Lent. Some beads and candy left on the sanctuary floor, echoes of A Closer Walk with Thee still stirring in the rafters, and a quiet 7am crowd of the usual suspects who also choose to begin their Ash Wednesday near the crack of dawn with confessions, ashes, communion on the way to work, to school, to wherever the Spirit sends us to witness to the power of ash, the power of dust. Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.

Today the morning Baltimore Sun proclaims that Episcopal clergy will fan out across the diocese offering ashes to go to any and all passersby. 21st Century evangelism. Tailgate Eucharists, ashes at the train station as they pass Charlie a sandwich through the open window as the train goes rumbling through. A fair enough idea I suppose, yet it strikes one as somewhat disembodied. Disembodied from the tender vision of the prophet Joel imagining the people weary, disheartened, unable to make an offering to our God, the God of Exodus and Resurrection himself , Joel wonders, might “turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord.” A God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” who invites us to return, to repent, to come home to the heart of God’s love. (Joel 2: 13-14).

How can it be Ash Wednesday with ashes somehow disembodied from such a vision, such an invitation, such love? Disembodied from the Litany of Penitence, perhaps the most thorough accounting of our sins of commission and omission (BCP 267-269). “We have not loved you with our whole heart....We have been deaf to your call...We have grieved your Holy Spirit....For all false judgments....for our waste and pollution of your creation....Restore us, Good Lord....” 

As Mahler 1 moves into its haunting third movement on minor themes of Bruder Martin/Frere Jacques with sprinklings of Jewish dance music calling to mind the stirring spirituality of great Hasidic masters like the Baal Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov I find myself wondering just when has the church relented, repented of such sins that required Mahler to become Christian before he could assume the baton of the 
Vienna Hofoper - Mahler who to pursue his career as perhaps one of the most celebrated conductors of opera, Mahler who had suffered from anti-Semitism, had to leave his Jewishness behind as it were to do what God had put him on this earth to do.
Perhaps that is why I begin Ash Wednesday with this third movement - as a form of penance on behalf of my church, my tradition, that has so much to answer for throughout the ages and only recently is willing to even confront with any degree of honesty and shame. But a careful listening to Mahler’s music reveals the church’s folly. His Jewishness, his Jewish soul could not be left behind whatever the demands to do so for professional reasons may have been.

Ashes the reduced remains of last year’s palms, palms that heralded another bittersweet passion as Jesus entered Jerusalem for what would be the last time. Each year I would marvel at just how-white hot palms become when burned for the ashes of Ash Wednesday. A most vehement flame as the Song of Songs would have it. Many waters cannot quench such a flame, cannot quench such steadfast, gracious and merciful love as that of Israel for her God and YHWH for Israel and all people, as in “all” people. 

I recall a four year-old girl at the communion rail with her mother recoiling from the imposition of ashes and thinking, she understands. She gets it. These ashes into which the God of creation breathes his Spirit, his breath, his ruach, also mark the sign of our own mortality. A mortality that is at once aligned with the eternal love of the God of Joel, the God of the Song of Songs, the God who creates the music of the universe, the vibrations that make it all work, make it possible for us to see the sunrise, to hear the opening notes of Mahler on a bitter cold Wednesday morning looking out at snow-covered fields where only yesterday a hundred Canada Geese were sitting, preening, luxuriating in the bright sunshine as it reflects off the snow the light of that first light, that first burst of light that signals the beginning of it all, of this all, of all in all, the light that shines through the darkness, 13.7 billion years of darkness to shine on those itinerant birds, on the snow, on you, on me, on us, a light that continues to shine shine shine, a light that the darkness has not overcome, starlight, star bright, starlight whose very dust makes up the composition of my very body, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. My God, it is good, it is very good this dust into which you breathe the very Spirit of your life into each and every thing that has life, that reflects your light, that shines in and through all darkness. Yes, this four year-old girl sensed all of that and more and had the good sense to step back and look with a mixture of wonder and fear as her mother places a reassuring hand on her shoulder, as her mother has the ash placed on her own forehead wondering if her daughter’s response is not perhaps more appropriate than her own. But then, it is Ash Wednesday, Mahler 1 continues to play, creatures begin to stir in the woods, the sun continues to shine, and for another day perhaps we can imagine God himself leaving the offering we are too weary and too busy to leave, making the sacrifice  on our behalf which we are unable to make ourselves. We can only hope it is so, but hoping will be enough. Today, Ash Wednesday, such hope is enough to get us through another day. Perhaps all this somehow makes itself evident on the train platform. Perhaps we will never know......

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Light, Life and the Incarnate Word

The incarnate Word is with us,
is still speaking, is present
always, yet leaves no sign
but for everything that is.
-Sabbaths, 1999, IX, Wendell Berry

“ For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
    -2 Peter 1: 17-19
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” -John 1

The incarnate Word is with us. Emmanuel – God with us. Like a lamp shining in a dark place.

Darkness, thick darkness, everywhere dark darkness – in the Ukraine, in Crimea, in Syria, in Fukushima, in Kabul, in Arizona, darkness in human trafficking, darkness in drone attacks, darkness in drug cartels, in a church office, in a movie theatre, in a shopping mall, in a classroom of young children, darkness in warming oceans, darkness in Congress, darkness in oil tar sands, darkness in the Gulf, darkness in racism, in militarism, in materialism, in objectivism, darkness thick darkness in religious chauvinism, religious egotism, religious bigotry, darkness thick darkness in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls, thickening, darkening, dark places in back alleys and on the streets, in abandoned and foreclosed farms and factories, in coal fires darkening the skies, poisoning the air, polluting the streams as we blow mountain tops to smithereens so as to burn more darkness, thicken the darkness, feel the darkness, breathe the darkness, swallow the darkness.

The incarnate Word is with us. Emmanuel – God with us. Like a lamp shining in a dark place.

Light. The Word is life, and his life is the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, has not, will not, cannot overcome it. We will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the Morning Star rises in our hearts.

May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May, Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning – he who gives his light to all creation, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. How can we embody this Light?

Creation lives by light. Leaves turn green with light. Leaves produce oxygen that sustains life by light. Trees store light’s energy. Atoms split, light emits, energy is released, energy that can sustain or destroy. Just ask Hiroshima and Nagasaki what it is like. Or, look at your local nuclear power plant that powers your iPad, iPod, iPhone, i-yi-yi-yi…
The incarnate Word is with us. In all that is. In leaf and tree, bird and song, the light shines and shines and shines for 13.7 billion years of shining, beginning with one micro-second of flash, boom, bang.
On The Theory Of The Big Bang and The Origin of The Universe
What banged?
Before banging,
how did it get there?
When it got there,
where was it?
-Wendell Berry, Leavings

Berry is a farmer. He works the soil, he plants trees, he tends to animals, he enters into the rhythms of life on earth, in earth, of earth. He knows incarnation. He knows life and death. He sees how we casually poison the earth, air and water which form the basic elements of life on earth. How we covet darkness over light, space over time, things over being. He observes Sabbath time, looking at, reflecting on, our relationship, or not, with things that shine light and bring life to earth. Walking the hills and valleys, listening to the river, worshipping among a timbered choir of light, living light, light enlivening leaf and wood and tree and the creatures that live therein.

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life's a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

-Wendell Berry, Sabbath Poems, 1986, I