Wow (Ch. 1)

My reflection on Chapter 1 (“Awe and Wonder”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

So we are back to beginning of McLaren’s book (remember we actually began at chapter 14 at the start of Advent), and now we are back to where everything began. Not just where McLaren’s book began, but where EVERYTHING began. I remember how this particular chapter captured my attention because it reminded me how all creation contains in it beauty and majesty and power and awesomeness. All because of God our Maker. McLaren writes that as we walk on the road through this world and witness this creation, we are filled with that aliveness God desires us to have. For the world—all of it—has become sacred space.

So, yes, nothing is boring, as McLaren indicates. Not walruses or spiders (ick) or sunsets (ahh) or blades of grass. Of course, in a world where we are always looking for the next exciting thing (right now it is the Olympics in Rio and Ryan Lochte’s concocted story about a hold-up) we forget that right under our nose…and right at our eye level…and right there above us…and all around us…is some pretty magnificent creation waiting to be appreciated. And McLaren adds that God isn’t boring either!

God’s dream that God brought into reality out of nothing is nothing short of amazing.

We Make the Road by Walking

McLaren, in his discussion questions, suggests we name the most beautiful place we have ever seen. Fine, happy to do that, Brian—but why do you limit me to one most beautiful place? The moment I bring up one memory of a place I have seen, a memory of another beautiful place rises up to meet it.

So I will offer my short list of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. You go ahead and consider yours. Betcha can’t list just one.

Niagara Falls (I sense a “Three Stooges” routine coming on, so let’s keep going.)

The first view down into Zion Canyon from the tunnel

 A full moon reflected on the water, seen from a Dunes Motel balcony in Ocean City, MD

Looking down upon tiny Innsbruck, Austria from atop a mountain in the Alps (reached by 2 inclines and 1 aerial cable car)

 The Vernal Falls at Yosemite (both from the bottom, and then, upon reaching the top)

 My Hershey Red azalea bushes in front of our house in mid-April

 Fall foliage along Route 322 west (from about Newport to Lewistown)

 The Grand Tetons, viewed while boating on Jackson Lake

The massive tossed-about rocks of Devil’s Den, as seen from Little Round Top, Gettysburg

The bluest of blue waters at Horseshoe Bay in Bermuda

 The baby bunny and its parent eating our clover and playing in our backyard

 Seeing as I can’t seem to stop thinking about beautiful places, and my list is ever-growing, I’ll come to a stop here. You get the point. You probably got the point as you considered your own most beautiful places. They are legion. God has made creation so.

Of course, there are places I have yet to see in my lifetime. They are legion as well. One of those places is Iceland. A parishioner is there right now, as I speak. I hope he puts a few photos on Facebook for me. I’m sure it’s beautiful.

The main reason I want to go to Iceland is Mrs. Gresh, my 6th grade Social Studies teacher, once assigned the class a big report on the country of our choice. I chose Iceland, entranced by the pictures in the encyclopedia. First I wrote to their tourist bureaus to receive colorful pamphlets, and then cut those pictures out and glued them on my hand-printed report. (Definitely low-tech in 1968.) Then, with the help of my mom, who was much better at crafts, I produced a large visual aid of the typical Iceland landscape. It helped that my dad was a dentist, so I had ample compound material (the gooey stuff you chomp on in a mouth tray so the dentist can create an impression of your teeth?) to create glaciers and mountains and lakes and hot springs. Mom and I mounded up this compound, shaping it until it was in the form desired, allowed it to harden, then painted it brown and green and blue and white. Glitter was sprinkled on the “snow caps.” A handful of fiber glass was applied at one end, and curved to form the “spray” of a geyser. Plastic wrap was stretched tight over a depression in the compound that had been painted blue, then more compound applied to hold the plastic wrap down. A crater lake with a shiny flat surface was formed on the landscape.

Last year, when I helped my mom clean out her attic, we found the Iceland project. She suggested I take it home to keep it. I suggested I take a photo to remember it by, then chuck it.

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I have included the photo (disregard the liquor boxes in the background. Remember, this is an attic filled with my parents’ stuff in liquor boxes and whatever other containers they found over the years.)

The whole point of this story is that, to be honest, it was hard work to create that Iceland landscape. Mound up the mountains, dot the peaks with snow, fill the lake with water. And I was just using dental compound, and needed my mother’s help at that. Think of the Maker with stardust and snowflakes, water droplets and sun rays, seeds and stones and sand. What masterful work is creation in God’s hands—no wonder all we can do some days is say “Wow!”

 Our next chapter is 2: “Being Human.” See you on the journey!

 

 

When We Reach the End of All Things (Ch. 52)

My reflection on Chapter 52 (“God in the End”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

Unable to look much further past our noses, unable to glimpse too far into the future, people of faith do turn to God’s stories and promises about what is to be when we reach the end of all things. McLaren’s final chapter of his book deals with this by lifting up the hypothetical and theoretical concepts of our greatest scientists. This universe, and perhaps other universes as well, die off. Stars burn out and planets grow cold. Black holes expand infinitely as creation collapses into them. While still countless years off from coming true, these scientific theories frighten us in their finality and bleakness, their cold and dark nothingness.

And all this—or some of this—may come to fruition. But the story of God and God’s people describes an end that is not bleak, that is not nothing. Instead, it is an end to our journey that leads us back to the One who created us in the first place.

McLaren finds that Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) best describes for him what happens as we reach the end of all earthly things. He calls it the “Big Celebration” to which God the loving parent invites his children, both the rebellious and the resentful. Whatever that celebration is like, one feels as if staying out in the cold, dark evening all alone (as the older brother seems bent on doing), and merely looking in the window at the warmth and light and laughter of the celebration inside is the wrong choice to make. Accept the invitation! Enter the open door! Be loved and love in return!

prodigal son

Just as the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son is McLaren’s choice for the ideal image of what that heavenly banquet looks like, there are other writers outside scripture who have captured images of the Big Celebration in one way or another. For example, I remember watching the 1984 movie “Places in the Heart” with Sally Fields, and when I reached the end of the movie, found myself weeping at its sheer beauty.

places in the heart

The final scene shows Sally Fields, her family, and her neighbors, all in church. It is a communion Sunday, and they are passing a tray of bread cubes and little glasses of grape juice down through the pews (you may not be familiar with pew communion as a Lutheran, but this was a fairly common practice in other denominations). Sally passes the tray to one neighbor, and they pass it to another, and suddenly the tray of communion elements is being passed to her husband, a character who died very early in the movie. Then it is being passed by him to the young black boy who accidentally caused the husband’s death, and who then was lynched by the townspeople. The camera widens its scene and the congregation is filled with the communion of saints, living and dead, now reconciled, now sharing in the Lord’s Supper as one Body of Christ.

That final scene of the movie still gives me chills.

Then there is the beautiful writing of the late, great writer Madeleine L’Engle. In her book, The Irrational Season, L’Engle follows the church year with essays on faith and life.

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Having begun at the start of Advent, and reaching through the year to the beginning of the next Advent, she considers what it will be like when Christ finally returns to this broken world of ours. She notes that the long days of summer and fall have now shortened, and the cold air fills the early dark evenings. Here are the last words of her essay “The Day is at Hand”: We have much to be judged on when he comes, slums and battlefields and insane asylums, but these are the symptoms of our illness, and the result of our failures in love. In the evening of life we shall be judged on love, and not one of us is going to come off very well, and were it not for my absolute faith in the loving forgiveness of my Lord I could not call on him to come. But his love is greater than all our hate, and he will not rest until Judas has turned to him, until Satan has turned to him, until the dark has turned to him; until we can all, all of us without exception, freely return his look of love with love in our own eyes and hearts. And then, healed, whole, complete but not finished, we will know the joy of being co-creators with the one to whom we call. Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus. (Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season, 1977, Crosswicks, Ltd.)

The theme for these three visions of the end of all things is reconciliation with God and with one another. There may well be some huge black hole into which all the universes collapse, but as for me, as for the children of God from all times and places, we will collapse into the arms of the One who made and loved us all.

We may have reached the final chapter of McLaren’s book, but our journey is not over! Go the front of the book and begin by reading Chapter 1 (“Awe and Wonder”). We’ll read the first 13 chapters. See you on the road!

 

 

Simply Put, Jesus Wins (Ch. 51)

My reflection on chapter 51 (“Spirit of Hope”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

I recall the brief story of an old, wizened pastor and a troubled young man in his church. The young man had read portions of the book of Revelation, and was concerned about its vivid descriptions of persecution, violence, and bloodshed. He wondered what all the imagery referred to, and in its entirety, what the last book of the Bible was intending to say. The pastor looked at him tenderly, and, with a smile, simply said, “All you need to know about Revelation is that Jesus wins.”

I’ve referenced that story more than once when asked about its enigmatic words. But it is surely too simplistic an answer.

On the other hand, I’ve taught a Bible study on the book of Revelation, and I recall using a variety of resources from sound scholars. Dr. Gerhard Krodel, Dean of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg when I was a seminarian, wrote a small but dense biblical commentary on Revelation that I found indispensable. I referred to it verse by verse. The Bible study itself took an entire Springtime to lead. Each week we’d take a few more chapters and plow through them. A valuable experience, but not something I can tackle in this blog. Way too much material!

But Brian McLaren, in one simple chapter, gives us a sound understanding of the intent of the writer of the book of Revelation—what it proclaimed to the earliest Christians persecuted under brutal Roman emperors (Nero and Domitian), and what it means for us today.

We Make the Road by Walking

Contrary to some televangelists and denominations, the “beast” out of the sea does not refer to our current president or any of the presidential candidates. Revelation did not predict the HIV-AIDS epidemic or the war in Afghanistan. We can stop trying to sort out the numbers and images, as if they were some secret message to us.

As McLaren writes, the numbers and images and actions were a helpful, comforting, strengthening “secret message” to those early Christians who found life uncertain and intolerable under the Roman Empire, and who desperately needed to know that “Jesus wins.”

Of course, the irony in Jesus’ victory is that the Lamb on the throne (Jesus) at the end of the book of Revelation has sacrificed his own life. The martyrs’ blood may have been shed under the savage regime in Rome, but it was actually Jesus’ blood that brought victory, new life, God’s kingdom come. That’s how “Jesus wins.” Now the martyred ones gather around the Lamb in a new city filled with the light of God, a river of life flowing through it.

And we’ve always known that, haven’t we? “The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.” We proclaim this great truth all the time. We proclaim what our sisters and brothers so long ago who faced such tribulation proclaimed.

Yet even if the numbers, symbols, images, and events detailed so graphically in Revelation were meant to reveal something about the era of our early Christian sisters and brothers, there is still something that it says to us in 2016. Listen to McLaren here: “Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now. The Tree of Life is bearing fruit now. True aliveness is available now.”

This is the great new thing God longs for us to be part of, and to which God invites us. Simply put, Jesus wins US.

Our next chapter is 52: “God in the End.” See you on the journey!

Life with God–Now and Then (Ch. 50)

My reflection on chapter 50 (“Spirit of Life”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren. 

One of my colleagues on our staff opens up every sermon with these words: “From the One who is, and who was, and who is to come…” This phrase is found in the book of Revelation near its beginning (chapter 1:4b).

I have never used that phrase to open up my sermons, instead preferring the traditional Pauline opening (Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.) or Psalm 19:14 (May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.)

But having read chapter 50, I realize my colleague begins his sermons in a most meaningful way. McLaren opened my eyes to see how powerful those words are, for they speak of God’s continual presence with us. McLaren says that phrase describes our God thusly: “The God who was holds all our past. The God who is surrounds us now. And the God who is to come will be there for us beyond this life as we know it.”

We Make the Road by Walking

I felt such peace when reading McLaren’s words here, and, in fact, throughout chapter 50. Brian gave us space to be able to contemplate our own eventual death, and I didn’t even flinch (at least not too much) because I know I have a God who will never leave me—even in my last breaths. And I know that whatever is to come will be rich and full and right. I might not be able to imagine NOW what that life with God is beyond death, but I trust that when I get there, it will be more than I could have hoped for.

This summer of 2016 has been so brutal, with death casting its pall over many people and many nations. We have been made to feel afraid of death, and we fear the possibility of any pain or terror or helplessness in our own final moments. How I needed to hear once again that God is busy pulling me into a future goodness and love that will envelope me eternally. It is balm for the soul.

We’ve had a busy week in our parish. 200 children are enjoying Vacation Bible School. How delightful to see their eagerness, openness, and joy. How inspiring to witness their childlike trust in God. It is wonderful to watch them grow in faith. They have many years ahead of them in this life to learn and follow Jesus, the one who is and who was and who is to come. We don’t yet know what their journeys will be like, except that we know God will accompany them.

This week I also visited one of our oldest members, my homebound friend Pearl, who is 95. In our conversation, we talked about her growing up on a farm, of working hard over many years, of the joys and sorrows, gains and losses inherent in human life. She wonders why she has lived so long, what purpose she has at this stage in her life, and admits her frustration at her physical limitations. Then I shared a meal with her, feasting on the life of Jesus, the one who is and who was and who is to come. It’s a glimpse of that banquet in store for her and for me at a time we cannot predict, but for which we can only hope.

Young and old and somewhere in between, all of us make the road by walking. I come to the end of this week with peace in my heart.

Our Next Chapter is 51: “Spirit of Hope.” See you on the journey!

I Want to Be More Like Him (Chapter 49)

My reflection on Chapter 49 (“Spirit of Holiness”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren. 

Favorite scripture verse, hands down. Well, maybe not my favorite, but how about in my Top 10? It’s this passage from the 1st Letter of John, which Brian McLaren references in chapter 49: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. (I John 3:1a, 2—NRSV)

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I remember the old Gatorade commercial from years ago (early ‘90’s maybe?) with a cute and catchy jingle about being like basketball great Michael Jordan. “Be like Mike!” the song went, with a child’s voice chiming in, “I want to be like Mike!” Everyone in the commercial, including Michael, is drinking Gatorade.

I appreciate Gatorade, especially on these hot summer days, and I mean no offense to Michael Jordan, but as great an athletic celebrity he was (is), I don’t particularly want to be like Mike. (Well, I wouldn’t mind being a little taller, and a wee bit better at sports. J )

The point is there is no person I know of—neither athlete, TV or film star, celebrity or political candidate—that I wish to be like. And to be frank, if we did wish to BE LIKE SOMEONE, it smacks of idolatry. Worshiping someone other than God. No, I don’t want to be like Mike.

There is only one person I want to be like—and that is Jesus. The good news is that’s exactly what is promised in the 1st Letter of John. WE WILL BE LIKE HIM. That is the promise of our future with God, and I am guessing this means we will be like Jesus (since that is the only person of God in that mysterious doctrine of the Trinity I can truly picture). The thought of that is most appealing and most comforting. WE WILL BE LIKE HIM.

It is especially appealing and comforting while journeying through this tumultuous and uncertain world, currently filled with such division, discord, and hatred. Knowing that God’s intention is to restore creation to God’s original dream, and knowing that the beloved children of God will, in the end, be like him, is a source of great hope.

But a couple things to bear in mind. One, John says what we will be has not yet been revealed. It is something for the end of time. So in the midst of this time, we beloved children of God live in an imperfect world with our own imperfectness, frailties, failings. Some days you and I bear shockingly little resemblance to this Lord of ours who gives of himself so generously and fully. In the midst of this time, we children of God are always dependent upon God. We are always in need of his gracious forgiveness and wise guidance.

Second, just because that promise of restoration exists in our far-off future at some final time doesn’t mean we can’t live into that, LEAN INTO that promise today. The promised future shapes our present profoundly, as it should, and thus we find ourselves chiming in with the people of God of every age, “I want to be more like him!”

McLaren beautifully describes what happens today when we lean into that future promised by God: If we believe in judgment—in God’s great “setting things right,” we won’t live in fear. We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world. If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice, and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just, and peaceable now. If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward the light each day in this life.

The song goes, “I want to be more like you…I want to be a vessel you work through…I want to be more like you.” That is my mantra, my hope, my desire.

Our next chapter is 50: “Spirit of Life.” See you on the journey!

            

Possessed by the Holy (Chapter 48)

My reflection on Chapter 48 (“Spirit of Power”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

How in the world could McLaren have known? How ironic is it that this chapter comes up in our calendar as we grieve the deaths of 5 Dallas police officers, as we grapple with a racial divide (and divisions among all sorts of “us and those others”) in our nation, and as the Church seeks to speak justice, peace, and unity in the name of Jesus Christ?

McLaren paints a scenario that is all too realistic. First he describes a gathering where someone yells “Fire!” and panic and chaos ensue. He imagines this spirit of panic that takes hold of people, and the stampede causes as much destruction as the fire. Innocent people who would no more murder another person than you or I still might, in the spirit of panic and fear, do heartless things in their desperation to survive. They might trample others, push past others, just to get out in the cold, fresh air.

We Make the Road by Walking

Then McLaren writes, “Now, imagine a similar spirit of racism, revenge, religious supremacy, nationalism, political partisanship, greed, or fear getting a foothold in a community. You can imagine previously decent people being possessed, controlled, and driven by these forces…Bullets can fly, bombs explode, and death tolls soar—among people who seemed so decent, normal, and peace loving just minutes or months before.”

I don’t have to imagine it. I see it daily in our news reports. I see it on my television and computer screens. Are we not being possessed by some unholy spirit in these days? Are we to end up, once decent and normal people, doing terrible things out of our fear and hate?

These days of summer 2016 have born witness to terrible events. One tragedy seems to meld into another, so that I can’t recall which week held which particular tragedy. My sermons and prayers in worship have struggled to articulate both our communal shock and pain, and the gracious Gospel I am called to deliver in the midst of the shock and pain. I already expressed in one sermon my inability to provide answer. I said all I could offer was how we as apprentices of Jesus Christ are to respond.

McLaren reminds us that responding to hate with hatred, to violence with violence, will not put an end to the madness and this unholy spirit at work in our lives and world. Instead, we will be possessed all the more by it. A never-ending cycle of self-and-other-destruction.

So McLaren hearkens back to St. Paul, who also spoke of principalities and powers that rule in our world and threaten our existence. These are the unholy spirits we battle against. And the weapon we must use in the battle is the light of Christ. Kindness in the face of harsh words. Unifying actions when others start choosing sides. Humility when the boastfulness and one-upmanship begins. Love and compassion when a person has been brought so low they can only despair.

It is never easy to do these things. But it is always right and good and faithful.

And besides, there is utterly nothing else that will work. Trust that God will empower us with this powerful, holy Spirit in these days.

Our next chapter is 49: “Spirit of Holiness.” See you on the journey!

Shhhhh! It’s a Secret! (Chapter 47)

My reflection on Chapter 47 (“The Spirit Conspiracy”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren. (Note I skipped Ch. 46….I was on vacation!)

I could really get into this idea of being in a conspiracy with the Holy Spirit. McLaren’s opening words grabbed my attention: There are circles of people that the Spirit of God wants to touch and bless, and you are the person through whom the Spirit wants to work. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing to others. With those words, I imagined myself on “Mission: Impossible” and sitting like Peter Graves as James Phelps, the tape recording having handed me my mission, then self-destructing in a small puff of smoke. Not that MY mission would be impossible, but that it would be this delicious secret of mine going forward. There I was, conspiring with the Spirit to be a blessing to someone else.

We Make the Road by Walking

Have you ever experienced a situation where another person has been a blessing to you, but done so secretly? Or at least surprised you with their kindness or grace? McLaren describes the various circles of community in which we live, and where this conspiracy with the Spirit can be manifest. Let me share with you a memory from the circle of parish life.

I recall how, in the first year after ordination, as I became acquainted with my first congregation, I experienced blessings at the hands of a conspirator with the Spirit. The conspirator was named Louise Bell, and she was the most inconspicuous conspirator you would ever meet. Louise was a tiny woman, very quiet and unassuming. Easily overlooked. Not likely to serve on church council, speak up at a congregational meeting, or volunteer as lector.

But there was that first Christmas when two large cookie tins arrived at my doorstep. Inside were the lightest, thinnest, most delicate sand tarts I’d ever seen (or eaten). The note attached said one tin was for me, and the other tin was for my parents, whom I would be traveling to visit after Christmas services were over.

I learned later the cookies were from Louise. In fact, I learned she made a habit of delivering a rather large number of tins of her luscious sand tarts around the community. Which was amazing because it obviously took a lot of skill and work to make these cookies (how thin did she roll the dough, and how long did she actually place them in the oven before whisking them back out again?). As well, Louise did not have much of an income to rely on. Eggs, flour, sugar…and lots of it—the costs could really add up.

In the New Year, with cookies consumed and the season of Lent begun, I didn’t give much more thought to Louise and her conspiracy with the Spirit. Parish life was busy and I was still learning the ropes. Uncertain about traditions, unclear of responsibilities, and unaware that Louise had more blessings to bestow.

As we neared the Day of Pentecost, and I prepared to celebrate the confirmation (affirmation of Baptism) of 6 young people in the congregation, I began to ask about the details. Are they given red carnations? Should a cake be ordered and punch prepared for a reception in the undercroft? Do they wear robes? ROBES! Oh, my, should I have rented some robes? Is there still time to get them? What will folks say if the kids don’t have robes to wear?

And then someone casually said to me, “You know, Louise Bell took the confirmation robes home to wash and iron. She does that every year. In a week you will find them hung up neatly in the church hall closet.”

Well, I’ll be. Tiny nondescript Louise Bell is a regular church mouse! When it’s not the season to be baking sand tarts and slaving over a hot oven, she’ll labor over a hot iron and press the wrinkled cotton confirmation robes until they are starched smooth. Labor, yes, but truly a labor of love. That sneaky little conspirator!

Doesn’t it make you just want to join in conspiracy with the Spirit, too?

Our next chapter is 48: “Spirit of Power.” See you on the journey!