If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Recalling 2009

As I end the year 2009 and begin 2010 tomorrow , I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on the highlights of my life by making a list of things I did during the year. Here is what I was up to during 2009.

My Life in 2009:

1. Celebrated my 60th birthday, 36th wedding anniversary, 30th year of ordination.
2. Ended my job as Minister of Peace and Justice with Mennonite Mission Network.
3. Moved from Lancaster, PA to Portland, OR.
4. Deaths of friends and family: Karen Throckmorton, sister-in-law; Bob Keane, producer of my group Beauregard Ajax.
5. Trips/Events: Peace and Justice Support Network meeting in New Orleans, LA (visited 9th Ward, Congo Square, Edgar Degas House); Mission Leaders meeting and Psychedelic Poster Art exhibit in Denver, CO; Mennonite Central Committee Sales in Albany, OR and Ritzville, WA; Seattle Mennonite Church in Seattle, WA; Pacific Coast and Aquarium at Newport, OR; Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg, PA; Bike shows in Carlisle, PA, Gettysburg, PA, Millville, NJ; Mennonite Church USA national assembly in Columbus, OH (led 2 peace workshops, 2 Drumming for Peace workshops had a total of about 2-300 people, set up PJSN booth, judged Step contest, supported Pink Mennos, presented first Different Drummer Youth Peace Award, presented Peace Pitcher Award, hosted two PJSN Bible studies), attended concert of Rain: the Beatles Experience in NJ, Escher exhibit, Portland, OR.
6. Writing: entries in my two blogs, produced and printed booklet The Economic Crisis and the Divine Economy; finished writing and illustrating Readings for Radicals: a peace and justice lectionary, awarded second place award of merit in editorial/opinion piece from Associated Church Press for my Mennonite Weekly Review Article When is a Peace Church No Longer a Peace Church.
7. Artwork: Added drawings to my Artisans of Social Change and M.U.S.I.C. series of Oumou Sangare, Michael Jackson, Chuck D and Public Enemy, Edwin Hawkins, Aung San Suu Kyi , William Sloane Coffin, Babatunde Olatunji, Marvin Gaye, Malvina Reynolds, about 20 Rock ‘n Rollers (face drawings on rocks), 13 drawings in Da Vinci sketchbook, 4 paintings in Revelation 21 series, scratchboard drawing published in Beyond Ourselves magazines.
8. Movies: (Note some I saw with my 5 year old grandson, Gavin) 9, Monsters vs. Aliens, Christmas Carol, Sherlock Holmes, Avatar, Doubt, Miss Potter, Coraline, This Is It, Watchmen, Surrogates, Angels and Demons, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Inkheart\, Wolverine, Star Trek, Up, G-Force, Aliens in the Attic, and more.
9. Books: The Beat of My Drum, Preaching as Testimony, Politics of Heaven, Altar in the World, Jesus Interrupted, In the Shadow of Empire, Leonardo, Durer, Jesus DUB, Underground Together, Being Consumed, Inspiration: The Artist’s Way, Between Barack and a Hard Place, The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, Speaking Treason Fluently, and others.
10. Preaching: Peace Mennonite, Portland, OR, Frazer Mennonite, Frazer, PA, Blossom Hill Mennonite, Lancaster, PA, St. Andrews UCC, Lancaster, PA.
11. Drumming: Peacemaking and the Arts Festival, Frazer, PA, MC USA National Assembly, Columbus, OH, Blossom Hill Mennonite Sunday School class, Lancaster, PA, 2Sacred Drumming workshops at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, PA, New Danville Elementary School, New Danville, PA, Ten Thousand Villages warehouse, Akron, PA


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

no more tears

Today I finished the fourth painting in my series "Revelation 21" entitled "no more tears."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Wishing Everyone a Peaceful Christmas!

*Drawing from Readings for Radicals: a peace and justice lectionary by Leo Hartshorn

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Hint Half-Guessed: A Christmas meditation

In the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh. And my first sound was a cry like that of all. I was nursed in swaddling clothes. For there is for all humanity, even a king, one entrance into life (I).

The above quote sounds like words to a familiar story. Immediately a scene pops into our head. We could easily guess the person who is being described, right? The hints are all there. Mother. Birth. Swaddling clothes. King. A few words and our imagination see the bright star overhead. But, we had better be careful about jumping to conclusions. Sometimes, we hear what we want to hear.

It's like the Christmas story. We have heard the story repeated over and over so many times that we have trouble really hearing it. Hearing the story of the birth of the Christ child can be like having the answer to a riddle before it is told or knowing the punch line of a joke. And if you heard the plot of a mystery novel told over and over again, it would tend to lose its mystery. We are all too familiar with the Christmas story---census, Bethlehem, inn, manger, shepherds, star, magi, angels, baby, swaddling clothes.

We know where the story is headed and that it is really a king who lies in the hay. And we come to the same conclusions each time we hear the story. Just like we probably concluded that the opening quotation about a king in swaddling clothes was describing the baby Jesus, when in fact the words are from a book known as The Wisdom of Solomon written about 30 BCE and is speaking of king Solomon. Who would
have guessed?

In order to hear the Christmas story afresh, our preconceived notions need to be tossed out the window, if only for a moment; even if our conclusions are correct. We must approach the story as if with virgin ears. Only with a new hearing will the baby begin to stir once again.

Walk with me as we peek into the manger. Listen to the crunch of hay beneath your feet as you come to the opening of the stable carved out of a hill, a womb in the earth. Outside the artist moon outlines the hills and cypress trees with a silver pen. Your hand touches the rough rope tied to the wooden beams of the mouth of the cave as you turn to enter. There is a rustling of animals, skin to skin,as they notice you have intruded into their quiet sanctuary. The air inside is cool. It smells of hay and animals. You can see the foggy breath of the sheep, whose bell clinks as she turns to look at you. You take another slow step closer into the stall.

The shades of light are brushed with the golden glow from an oil lamp, like in a Rembrandt painting. The silhouette of a person lies in the hay near the flickering light. It is a young girl. She couldn't be more than fourteen years old. Her lips are dry and stick together. Her breathing comes in short gasps. She looks exhausted. In her arms is a small bundle wrapped in strips of cloth. Next to her is a man with a peppered beard bending over the mother and child and speaking in a hushed tone. He turns to you and smiles proudly. The mother pulls back the strips of cloth to reveal to you the face of. ... a baby, as earthy as the ground beneath your feet.

Who among us, looking into the fresh face of that baby, would have guessed that a king had been born? Who would have guessed that his squalling cry would one day proclaim words of hope to the hopeless? Could anyone ever have looked upon those tiny hands and guessed that they would touch the sick and make them whole? Given the hints, who would have guessed that this child born in the rags of poverty would someday be proclaimed the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords?

Caesar Augustus never would have guessed that the Savior of the world was born. For he was the one proclaimed "Savior of the whole human race." He was the ruler to be honored as a god. Why would Caesar be looking for good news in a Jewish baby, seeing that it was decreed of Augustus in 9 BCE that "the birthday of the god ( Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news."

Emperor Augustus would never have guessed that this child in the manger was to become the Prince of Peace, when it was the Caesars who had brought in the Pax Romana, a peace imposed by the might of Rome? It would be ludicrous to think: that a savior, a king who brings good news and peace, would be born under the thumb of Rome. Caesar was too busy taxing his subjects to death, squeezing tribute from them like blood from a turnip. Tribute must be paid to the king. But, the real tribute will be rendered to another king by strange travelers from the East. Caesar never could have guessed that a poor Jewish child born under his oppressive reign would someday be a ruler mightier than all the Caesars.

How strange are the words spoken of this child: "He came unto his own, but his own received him not." Surely those who longed for the Coming One would have guessed that their hope lay in the hay. They had hints of the Messiah's coming inscribed in their papyrus scrolls. Their eyes squinted for signs of Christ's coming. This blessed hope kept them going as their bodies bent beneath the yoke of Roman oppression. But, no sage in his musings could have contemplated that such Wisdom would spring from a mother's womb. No prophet could have envisioned the reign of peace that was nestled in this child's bosom. No scribe could have deciphered that this baby would become a human scroll upon which God would write the Living Word. No Pharisee could have read in the eyes of this frail one and seen that he would speak to the deadness of the law and cause it to have new life. No zealot could have known that revolutionary words would come forth like swords from the tiny lips of the babe. No Essene, tucked away in their antiseptic, desert community, could have believed that this child would turn dining with sinners into an art. Who would have guessed from the hints given?

The most obvious hints came to some peasant shepherds and not to the power brokers of the day. They got the "inside line" on the babe. The hint was a shout from heaven. An angel brought the hint with these words:

I bring you good news of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Savior, which is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2: 1 0-11).

And if that wasn't enough to give it away, a whole platoon of angels came to announce, not the Pax Romana of Caesar, but to proclaim the peace this child would bring as they sang:

Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth
to those whom God favors (Luke 2: 14)

This blatant blast from heaven's horn sounds like a hint that no one could miss. But, let's remember that faith shouts what grace has whispered. Remember the voice at Jesus' baptism? Some thought it was thunder. The light that struck Paul on the road to Damascus and the voice from heaven went unheard and unseen by those accompanying him. Angels are messengers who shout what God has whispered. They come to us like excited children telling us the end of the story. They trumpet what is only a hint.

Be honest. Who would have guessed that this was the Christ lying in the hay with only an empty sky overhead, a sweaty young girl, and a babe in a barnyard? We hear the real hint, a sign, that is given to the shepherds. And the hint is as bare as the baby.

You shall find a baby
wrapped in swaddling clothes
lying in a.manger (Luke 2: 12).

There you are standing in the hay squinting at the newborn, looking as if with a third eye. You look for something that might mark this baby as different from any other ordinary infant; maybe a faint golden halo. The sky with pinholes for light does not tip you off, even though one star seems brighter than the others. This king has no royal bassinet, no kingly robe, no jeweled crown. You listen for the flutter of angels, but there is no sound of flapping in the air. Only the buzzing of flies around fresh cow dung. No flash from the heavens. No cracking apart of the sky. All that you have is the sign, a heavenly hint; a baby wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a feeding trough. With those hints, could you have guessed that the glory of God was resident in that child? With only a whisper of grace and the sweet breath of God fogging the air?

Finding God hidden in the hints of the human is the task of the seeker of the Sacred. For there is nowhere else we will find God, except in the utterly human, the profoundly earthbound. The pulse of God beats beneath the skin of life. It is there that we must peek for the hints and guesses of the Sacred. Poet T.S. Eliot has movingly spoken of this truth in lines from his poem Four Quartets:

To apprehend the point of the intersection of the timeless with time
something given and taken, in a lifetime death in love,
ardor and selflessness and self surrender
a shaft of sunlight
the wild thyme unseen or the winter lightning
or the waterfall or music heard so deeply
These are only hints and guesses
hints followed by guesses; and the rest is
prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action
The hint half-guessed, the gift half-understood
is Incarnation
Here the impossible union (2)

The Word became flesh ... and dwelt among us. Incarnation. Heaven wedded to earth in an impossible union. That is the mysterious plot of the incarnation. God in Christ. Christ in the world. The Holy in the mundane. The extraordinary in the ordinary. And we have been guessing ever since. For the hard lines between the sacred and the secular have been forever blurred. For the Mysterious God of the ages has come to us in this vulnerable Jewish baby. The divine has enfolded the human in an eternal embrace. That is why the hints of God's presence among us are stuffed in life, like fortunes in cookies, like leaven in bread. And the hints of God are all wrapped up tight in that child in the manger. Hints and guesses.

The hints of Mystery are all around us wrapped up tight in the swaddling cloths of the human. Even while the Caesars of this world oppress and make war, whispers of God's peace can still be heard by messengers with clipped wings. Even with the TV flooding our living rooms with the sewage of gossip, scandals, violence, and sexual titillation, the good news of hope and forgiveness still trickles from human lips. The hints are there in the pulpits and in the streets, the stained glass and the graffiti on the wall, the pipe organs and the blaring guitars. God is there in the old man rocking alone in the rest home, the laughing child, the black mother nursing her baby. God is hope in the presence of hopelessness, light in the pit of night, the glue that holds us together when all seems to have fallen apart. God is there hidden beneath the skin of it all. As hints and guesses. Just as God was hidden beneath the skin of that baby born in the stable.

Jesus is born. The hint half-guessed. The gift half-understood in Incarnation. And life will never be the same. God will never be the same. God has dwelt among us. God still dwells among us. In the laughter and tears, the hope and despair, the triumphs and struggles. There are hints of God's presence, if we but listen; to those solitary moments, when the silence screams; to the whispers of grace in the warmth of human companionship. The hints are there, human and vulnerable. As human and vulnerable as the baby in the manger. God is in the human. And who of us will dare to guess. No. More than that. Who of us will dare to believe?


(1) The Wisdom of Solomon 7: 1-6
(2) T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955 ), 136.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

No More Hunger: Revelation 21 painting series

This painting is the second in my Revelation 21 series. It illustrates the biblical text on "no more hunger." One report stated that as of June 19, 2009 there are one billion people in the world malnourished, a sixth of the earth's population. This icon reflects the hope of a different world, the world to come, where the hungry are fed and beggars no longer exist.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Racism in the Workplace

Amanda (fictional name), an African-American female, works for an advertising firm. Many of the employees feel her rise in the company was due to Affirmative Action or for simply being black. At a planning meeting Amanda offers an idea about how the firm might work at customer relations. Other members of the committee listen but quickly move on with other ideas. A few minutes later a white member of the committee offers the same idea that Jenny offered earlier, as if it were his own original idea. The idea is applauded and added to the firm’s strategies.

Racism is entrenched in institutions, even church institutions, often going without notice. At a recent meeting of an antiracism team working with a church institution I heard a number of personal stories of racism within Christian institutions from people of color that occurred without any acknowledgement by the white workers involved. It caused me to want to reflect on the need to educate employees in institutions about racism in the workplace.

I am aware of the promotion of diversity and multicultural training in the workplace. Multicultural training has its limits in addressing the dynamics of institutional racism. A focus on multiculturalism in the workplace tends to focus tolerance of diversity, respect for racial and ethnic differences, and creating harmonious relationships, but does not address the key issues of racism as a systemic abuse of power and the underlying white privileges within institutions.

Today racism is more subtle and cloaked than in the days of Jim Crow, but it is still alive and well nonetheless. And the workplace is a significant arena for racism to operate “openly undercover.” By this I mean, that racism is not blatant and is often indirect and excused as “unintentional,” “a misunderstanding in communication,” or “people of color being too racially sensitivity.”

Some questions might be helpful as a beginning place for reflecting on racism in the workplace:


1. Are job openings posted and advertised in places where people of color have access?
2. What is the racial composition within the institution and its departments?
3. Have a disproportionate number of people of color been laid off or resigned?
4. Are dismissals performed by the same criteria and process for whites and people of color?

Orientation and Training

1. Is antiracism training a part of the orientation of new staff?
2. Are current staff members required to take antiracism training as a necessary job skill?
3. Is there ongoing training and conversation about the dynamics of racism in the workplace?

Institutional culture and interpersonal relations

1. Does the office culture create expectations for people of color to fit into white, European ways of relating (e.g., “Around here we do not openly express our emotions or confront someone personally when it comes to differences of opinion).
2. Do white people take the initiative to bring to light racist comments, viewpoints, or actions?
3. Is there a fear that a negative evaluation of the incompetence of a person of color will be viewed as racist?
4. Do white employees expect people of color to represent or be the spokesperson for their race?
5. Is race openly and non-defensively discussed in the workplace?
6. Are racial grievances taken seriously?

Planning and Decisionmaking

1. Are people of color found in positions of decision making and power?
2. Are people of color in places of power and position actually allowed to use their power and position in planning and decisionmaking?
3. Are the skills and opinions of people of color valued as highly as those of whites?

This is simply a beginning list of reflection questions on racism in the workplace. The workplace takes up a significant proportion of our lives. More work needs to be done in training staff and employees of companies, corporations, and institutions on creating an environment of antiracism within the workplace.


Joseph Brandt, Dismantling Racism: The Continuing Challenge to White America. Augsburg, 1991.
Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. New Society Publishers, 1996.
Lena Williams, It’s the Little Things: The Everyday Interactions that Get Under the Skin of Blacks and Whites. Harcourt, Inc., 2000.
New Demographic blog site, www.raceintheworkplace.com

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Christmas Ritual: Watching Scrooge

This afternoon I performed a Christmas ritual that has been going on for a long time. I watched the musical Scrooge starring Albert Finney and based on Charles Dickens novella The Christmas Carol. The first time I saw the movie in December of 1970, when it was first released. I was 21 years old and away from home for the holidays, in the Third Army Soldier Show based in Atlanta, Georgia. When I first saw the movie it evoked many feelings, one being a longing for home.

Of the many movies made of Dicken's novella, this one is my favorite. At the age of 34 Finney did an amazing job of portraying old miser Ebenezer Scrooge. In 1971, the year I got out of the army and returned home for the Christmas season, Finney won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a musical/comedy for Scrooge. Not only the great acting but the music makes the movie for me. When I see the movie and hear the songs like "Thank You Very Much" I am transported through 39 years of Christmases since I first saw the film.

I have since looked at Charles Dickens novella, upon which the film is based, through a socio-critical lens. Dickens is showing the wealthier members of mid 1800's English society how to navigate the waters of a society filled with impoverishment, particularly during the Christmas season. England in the 1800's was plagued with class division. Rather than falling into guilt or "indiscrimate giving" to the poor, Dickens showed a way for the more wealthy to provide charity (rather than justice), a merry Christmas practice kept alive today during the Christmas season. 'Tis the season for charity! And Dickens portrayed the poor, like the Cratchits, in a manner the wealthy imagined the poor, since they had little personal contact with them---docile, subservient, thankful, cheerful in their lot, and grateful, like poor Bob Cratchit. The Cratchits are the idealized poor of the wealthy.

Still, I have watched the movie over the past 39 years because I love this powerful story of human redemption on a personal level, even though there is no redemption on the socio-economic level. And I will probably be watching it each Christmas for years to come, thank you very much.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

No More Mourning: First Painting in Series Entitled "Revelation 21"

I have started a new series of paintings entitled Revelation 21. It is based upon the sayings in the book of Revelation that envisions a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be "no more mourning, no more hunger, no more death, no more tears, no more pain." The biblical text describes a new age in which all the brokenness of the present world is ended. The images I am creating will depict the struggles and pains of this world that will be transformed in the world to come.

The vision of Revelation 21 is not merely pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye. It is a lens through which we see the possibilities for shaping a new world here and now. The city of God provides a model for a liberated city of humanity. These icons of Revelation will serve as reminders to continue to resist the systems of death, destruction, despair and to replace them with life, healing. and hope.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

In Memoriam to Bob Keane, record producer (January 5, 1922 – November 28, 2009)

Tonight I was watching on TV the old movie "La Bamba" about the 50's singer Ritchie Valens. I have seen it a number of times and everytime I watch it I think about an old friend, Bob Keane, who produced Ritchie Valens and the group I played drums for in the late 60's, Beauregard Ajax. After the movie I went to my computer and googled "Ritchie Valens" and then "Bob Keane." I soon discovered that Bob Keane died recently on November 28, 2009 at the age of 87.

Our group connected with Bob Keane through a high school friend of mine from my Home town, Oxnard California, Patrick Landreville. Bob Keane listened to our demos and invited us to LA to consider a recording contract with Del-Fi Records. Our group moved into an apartment in LA in 1968 and started recording with Bob at Del-Fi recording studios a block south of Hollywood and Vine Streets. The recording sessions were long and often tedious, but we completed most of the recordings. All was left was some fine tuning, addition of strings and other concluding work when Bob lost his studio. That was the end of our recordings. Bob kept the masters. Years later copies of those master ended up floating around in Europe. Beaurgeard Ajax split up in early 1969 and went different directions. Clint Williams, the bass player, and myself joined an 18 year old amazing guitarist Bill Conners, who later joined with Chick Corea's Return to Forever. I stayed with "Middle Earth" until I was drafted into the Army late 1969, where I ended up playing drums in the Third Army Soldier Show.

Many years later, 36 years to be exact, I googled the name "Beauregard Ajax" and to my surprise discovered that our album, first recorded with Bob Keane at Del-Fi, had been released on a vinyl record by Shadoks Records in Germany and later on a CD. None of the original band members has made any royalties off those recordings that we made as young men so long ago, but I am blessed to have known Bob Keane, to have recorded at Del-Fi, to have been able to see others from another generation enjoy our music today. Thanks, Bob, for your life story and for connecting to my life story. Rest in peace, Bob.

LA Times story on Bob Keane: http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-bob-keane1-2009dec01,0,2711217.story

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Let it be: An Advent Meditation on Luke 1:26-38

Florentine artist Fra Angelico painted an interesting fresco of the annunciation. during the Renaissance. The painting contains the figures of the angel Gabriel and Mary. They are under the arches of a building. Their heads are hallooed in circular disks. The folds of their robes are the delight of every Renaissance artist. Gabriel and Mary are colored with the kind of pastel pink and blue you might see in a nursery awaiting a newborn. The painting is divided in half by a Corinthian column. Each figure is separately framed within the arched openings of the building. On one half is the bowed figure of the angel Gabriel with rainbow colored wings and arms folded across his chest. On the other half is Mary looking toward Gabriel also with her hands folded across her chest, a traditional artist's symbol of her submission to God's will.

The artist has captured that moment when the angel Gabriel announced earthshaking news to the virgin Mary. She will have a child by the Holy Spirit. His name will be called Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High God and reign on the throne of his ancestor King David. Will Mary accept the calling to be the messiah’s mother? It is not a done deal. The angel awaits her response. In the painting there is naturally no movement. Everything is as still as death. No flutter in the angel’s wings. Not one eye blinks. The soft folds of their garments hold as if starched. The moment is frozen in time. As if the world had stopped on its axis. As if time itself were hinged on the answer of Mary. You can almost feel the question that hangs in the still air: "What will be her response?" In this motionless moment heaven and earth hold their breath.

Let's go back to the beginning of the story. The angel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Sounds similar to what happened in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" doesn't it? An angel is sent at a turning point in someone's life. A life-saving message needs to be communicated. So God sends an angel. The biblical text talks about angels as if they were as common as houseflies. Gabriel shows up out of nowhere and greets Mary as if he were your typical mailman. The angel's voice probably didn't sound like Charlton Heston speaking in King's English as if inside a cavern. Although in centuries to come the words, "Hail Mary, full of grace" will be uttered in prayer by millions of the devout, those words roll off the angel's tongue with an earthiness as common as "Hi, Mary, you lucky lady." But Mary is more perplexed by what might be behind such a greeting than she is about an angel showing up on her doorstep.

The angel says, "Don't be afraid." Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said that whenever an angel says "Do not be afraid" then you can bet you’re in for a big assignment. And what was Mary's assignment? Oh, not much. Just to be the Mother of God's Son! Talk about big assignments! Mary does not break out in a deep belly laugh, like Sarah did at the idea of giving birth to a nation while still in a rest home. Instead, Mary has a question to ask. Just a little question. If you were Mary, you would have at least one question, wouldn't you? "Just how is this going to happen, Mr. Angel, seeing that I’m a virgin, duhhh?" Mary is no na├»ve teenager. She knows the facts of life. What the angel tells her must have sounded just as incredible to Mary as did Sarah's news of giving birth in a geriatric ward. Mary's child come to be through the Holy Spirit. Mary must have been thinking, "What other impossible things are you going to tell me." Could the angel Gabriel have overheard what the angel of the Lord said to a giggling Sarah near the oak trees long ago? For the final words of these two angels are practically the same: "Nothing will be impossible with God."

In the world of the Bible nothing is impossible. Angel's buzz around like flies. A nation is born from a barren womb. Seas part before God's people. God steps into the world clothed in human flesh. Water turns into wine. A few loaves of bread and a fish feed thousands. A dead man comes to life again. Nothing is impossible with God. With his otherworldly message spoken the angel Gabriel awaits Mary's response to God's message.

Let's stop the action between the angel's last word and the first tremble of Mary's lips. Freeze that moment in the text between the words "God" and "Mary", like the moment frozen in Fra Angelico's painting. Let's brush into that small space in the canvas of time a hypothetical question. What if Mary said, "No"? I'm not being facetious. I'm serious. What if she refused to be the mother of God's Messiah? What if she didn't fold her arms across her chest? It was a real possibility. She had the freedom and the will. What if Mary told the angel, "Forget it, Gabe. Go ask some other teeny bopper"? What if when God spoke to Isaiah and said, "Whom shall I send and who will go for me", Isaiah responded, "Lord, you gotta be kidding. That's just too big of a job for me."

Or what if Nikos Kazantzaki's novel idea were true, that Jesus could have refused the way of the cross and lived out an everyday life like everyone else. In the movie, based upon the novel The Last Temptation of Christ, at a crucial moment on the cross time stops. An "angel" appears to Jesus and he is presented with the choice of coming down from the cross, getting married, having children, growing old, and dying a natural death. What if Jesus had not chosen the way that eventually led him to the cross? What if Jesus had not folded his arms across his chest before God's way, which would eventually lead to spreading his arms out on the dying pole? Now, in that frozen moment between the angel's announcement and Mary's response we ask, "What if Mary had said 'No'"?

Maybe we don’t face momentous decisions of such great significance as Mary faced. But maybe at times we do. Maybe our responses to God come in small steps, but added up they change our lives and destinies in indiscernible, yet significant ways. Our messages from God may not come from the lips of angels, but they come to us nonetheless. And we’re called upon to respond, to act upon that word. There are moments when God's message comes to us as clear as a bell on a Sunday morning and we can go one way or another.

Let's take some of those moments and freeze frame them. Paint on the canvas of your mind a man, named John, sitting in church on a Sunday morning in Advent. Beside John is his wife, who has a look of contentment on her face. She feels at home. In his childhood John was taken to church sporadically, but always on the holidays. Unlike his wife, church had never become much of a habit for him. Out of a sense of family duty he would show up with his wife on special Sundays to see his children perform or at Easter and Christmas services. John didn't tell his wife, but he thought church was for women and children.

Over the years John sat through quite a few sermons out of respect for his wife and children. On this Advent Sunday, though, something happened. During a moment in the service it seemed like time stopped. It was as if the preacher were speaking directly to him. No, it was more than the preacher. It was as if the preacher were merely a messenger conveying a message directly to him. The preacher was talking about people needing to have a faith of their own and not a faith of their parents or family. It seemed as if she were speaking in slow motion as she was inviting people to commit their lives to Christ and to be baptized into the fellowship of the church. John knows it would be a life changing decision. It would mean living a different kind of life, a life for Christ.

John’s wife, who sits next to him in the pew, is unaware that her husband is frozen in an eternal moment, which has broken in upon time. John is struggling with this life-altering commitment as if he were wrestling with an angel. An unseen finger is gently tapping him on the shoulder. He thumbs through the hymnal trying to avoid thinking about it. He folds he arms and bows his head. It's one of those moments that you feel you finally have to settle with a "yes" or a "no" answer. John opens his eyes and looks up. He must decide. What will be his response?

Fill in the details of this pencil sketch. Joan is very talented. Her skills of leadership are evident to everyone where she works. If she comes across a problem, she will meet it head on and with real creative solutions. There was no problem too big for her to wrestle. Her skills have caused many promotions and raises to come her way. Everyone at the company adores Joan, or maybe I should say, they adore her performance. She has it made. Or so you would think. Yet, when she's done with all the meetings and comes home to her empty, twentieth floor apartment, there is a hole inside her soul. Something's missing from her high-powered lifestyle. She goes to bed, clicks off the light, and stares at the red numbers on her digital clock until she falls asleep.

This morning a printed piece of paper sits on her desk waiting for Joan to arrive. She walks into the office and pulls back her desk chair. The plain piece of paper catches her attention, even amidst the piles of flashy, multicolored advertisements. She lifts the paper to her face. Where did this come from? Printed on the paper are the words: "City project for the homeless needs new director." Now, in her world of high rise and high finance, she was not one to think about such issues, except those found on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. But there she was with this job opening stuck to her hand like flypaper. She couldn't put it down. Something deep inside her seemed to be pulling. It was as if the plainly printed words on the paper had been inscribed in gold with an angel's pen. If there was ever the right person to creatively tackle such a problem, it was Joan. She looks out her office window at the skyline of the city as if searching for someone to help her make a decision. What will be her response?

We could fill a gallery with portraits of people who have been greeted by angels unaware and have been called upon to make crucial decisions. A voice speaks from a conference newsletter calling us to build a relationship with a church in another country. Images of working with people in an inner city ministry get painted on the ceiling of our brain. A service opportunity for retired persons somehow lands in our lap. An announcement at church, as common as a housefly, buzzes in our ear, “A teacher is needed for the fifth grade boy’s class.” And you thought someone called your name.

God speaks to us in many and diverse ways-----through the words of a sermon, through the reading of the scriptures in a quiet place, in the wind through the trees near the lake, in the comforting words of a friend, in the gravel voice of a gap-toothed man on the street, or as we stare off into the awe-inspiring life of someone named Jesus. God speaks. We can freeze those moments in time, when something, someone bigger than ourselves and our agendas calls us. What will be our response?

Let's go back to Mary. Let's unfreeze the moment held fast in Fra Angelico's painting. Let's read a little farther in the gospel story. Mary has heard the Word of God from the angel. What will she say? Put your ear up close to the Bible and listen. We know what she will say, even before she speaks the words. With arms folded she replies, "Here I am. The servant of the Lord. Let it be... according to your word." Let it be. Mary has spoken the words of a true disciple. Let it be. This is Mary’s “Amen” to God’s call. As the Beatles put it, Mary is “speaking words of wisdom...Let it be."

We who sit here in this church building far away from Nazareth, beyond the shores of Galilee, on the far side of the cross, and the other side of the open tomb, can thank God that Mary said, "Let it be." For in her decision the divine and the human embraced in a earthshaking, history-making moment. In that moment when she said, "Let it be," God was also saying "Let it be." As in the beginning, when the womb of space was an empty void and God said "Let it be" and it was. Now, through the child born of Mary, God says to a world needing to be reborn, "Let it be." The world is born anew through our many responses of “Let it be.” When we say “let it be” to God’s call, the divine and human embrace.

The divine and human embrace when someone says “yes” to follow Christ. The divine and human embrace when a friend is forgiven. The divine and human embrace when a woman enrolls in seminary. The divine and human embrace when someone takes a trip to a foreign land to serve people who are suffering. The divine and human embrace when wounds from harsh parents are healed. The divine and human embrace when a child is adopted. The divine and human embrace when new possibilities are born. When we say, “Let it be,” to God’s word and will the divine and human embrace. And we come closer to the birth of a new world.

God calls each of us to go where God sends us, to do what God asks us, to be that person God has uniquely created us to be, to share in the birthing of a new world. What will be our response? That crack in time between God's Word to us and our response may be this very moment, when human words become the Word of God. God may be speaking a Word to you, calling upon you to be God's instrument of new life in some small way, in this still moment, frozen in time..... To God's call the true disciple responds, as did Mary, "Here I am. The servant of the Lord. Let it be."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

waiting for god knows what: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

Where is god when you need him?
Lost in traffic and won’t ask for directions?
Too self-absorbed in all those praises
arising from around the world to notice me
killing time in the alleys of my patience,
sitting nervously with angst in my pants?
Maybe he’s so caught up in finally putting an end
to war, famine, hunger, disease, death, and destruction
that he doesn’t have time for my petty petitions.
Or could it be that the god of nuclear physics
has forgotten me amid all the facts and faces to remember?
Possibly I have slipped his mind or it’s the onset of divine Alzheimer's
or a just a case of old age; god is getting pretty old, you know.
Probably walks with a cane, needs a hearing aid, has back problems,
forgets where he left his compassion last night.

It’s not like I haven’t had to deal with god’s senility before.
Waiting on god, tapping my foot, drumming my fingers,
humming a tune, glancing at my watch, yawning,
marking another day off on the crooked calendar.
But this delay is getting old, as old as god,
lost on the back roads of my heart, caught up in his perenniel
“big agenda” items that never seem to get checked off the list,
scratching his hoary head trying to remember something……..
Oh, yeah, me, over here, in the silence, forever waiting,
on this bleak landscape beneath a barren tree
like Estragon waiting for god knows what

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Prepare the Way: an Advent sermon

The senses come alive during this holiday season. The smell of burning candles rising into the air. The lights of the Christmas tree shimmering in the darkness. The warmth of a crackling fire while sipping a hot cup of chocolate with small marshmallows floating on top. Ahhhhhh… and the hushed silence of snowflakes gently falling on the…PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD! MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!!

John the Baptist enters the Advent season like a bull in a china closet. Amid the jingling of bells and carolers singing “Joy to the world,” we hear a cry that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. The grating voice of the Baptist disturbs our tender thoughts of a cooing baby in a makeshift crib. His ragged message of repentance seems as out of place as a wild eyed soup box preacher interrupting a presentation of Handel’s Messiah. John the Baptist brings strange gifts to our Advent table. Instead of a golden brown turkey, we get locusts with wild honey dip. In place of a new night robe and warm cotton lined slippers, we get scratchy camel’s hair with a leather belt.

Even so, if we are going to welcome the good news from the sweet voices of angels from on high, we will need to first listen to the raspy voice of John the Baptist crying out down there in the wilderness.

Listen…listen carefully to that distant voice crying out in the wilderness. The Baptist cries out for us to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. His voice echoes through the wilderness canyons. His apocalyptic cry has political overtones. In John’s day there were other prophets, like the one known as the Egyptian and is referred to in the book of Acts, who called the people of Israel out into the wilderness. It wasn’t because these prophets thought the desert might be a good place to spread their message. They cried out in the wilderness in a type of ritual reenactment of Moses’ deliverance of the slaves from Egypt through the wilderness and Joshua’s crossing the Jordan river in conquest of the Promised Land. Wilderness and river represented places of liberation from their oppressors and the possession of their land.

This may be the background of John’s prophetic wail in the wilderness. As Israel moans under the heavy weight of Roman imperialism, John the Baptist calls her out over the wilderness and through the river, the places where Israel was once liberated from the bonds of Egypt and took the land as their own. His cry in the wilderness may have been heard as an anticipation or preparation for liberation from Roman domination as the beginning of the coming reign of God. The symbolism of the setting was probably not lost on the politicians of the day, particularly king Herod. It wouldn’t be long for Herod to end a dinner date with John’s head on a dinner plate.

Words like “politics” “oppression,” “imperialism” and “liberation” are not words we necessarily want intruding into our Advent meditations. Who wants to hear the harsh voice of the Baptist howling, “Prepare the Way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”? We might more readily welcome his words if his announcement was akin to “O, you better watch out. You better not cry. Jesus Christ is coming to town!” You know what, when the words John quoted were first uttered, they did come as welcomed words. John was quoting the prophet Isaiah, who first spoke those words in the days of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. The imagery Isaiah uses is from the practice of clearing the pathway of a potentate or god in preparation for the ruler’s procession to the city in order to be inaugurated as the sovereign of the people.

Bumps were leveled. Potholes were filled. Rocks were removed. Weeds were pulled up. Crooked places were straightened for the ruler’s procession to his people. Isaiah uses this imagery to proclaim a word of hope to his people sitting with drooping faces and arms limp at their sides in Babylonian captivity. “Prepare the way for God, who comes to liberate you and lead you across the wilderness, where God will reign among you in your own land,” cries the prophet Isaiah. Now, that’s a welcome Advent message.

John uses Isaiah’s imagery to tell his people to prepare the pathway for the One who comes bringing salvation and liberation to the people. Prepare the way! Remove the injustices and inequities that block God’s pathway. Lift up those valleys sunken by despair and despondency. Knock down the haughty hills of pride and prejudice. Prepare the way for God, who comes bringing justice and liberation through the messiah.

I remember picking up an edition of The Marketplace, a Mennonite business magazine, and seeing on the cover a roadway full of poor, barefoot Haitians clearing stones from a dirt road. With hoes and hands they removed rocks, filled in holes, and knocked down bumps in the roadway. These roadways are the only route for bringing in food supplies, gaining access to medical facilities, and transporting products to market. The new smooth roads are a vein pumping life blood to some of the poorest people in the world. These roads are highways of hope. Mennonite business people have been about the business of preparing the way. They have helped the Haitian people fill in their valleys with fruit trees and improved springs of water. They have assisted them in smoothing out the rough places of 125 roads and 5 dilapidated bridges. The glory of the Lord has been revealed in the form of food, livelihood, and healing medicines coming down those smooth roadways. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!

This may not be the Advent message we were hoping to hear amid the consumerist clamor. It is the season to buy and consume, not to care for the poor and hungry. ‘Tis is the season to be jolly and to trample someone to death in order to be the first to get a bargain at the department store! We don’t need no sermons on liberation and caring for the poor, preacher. It’s not something we like to hear. Even my 4 year old grandson, Gavin, knows that. What we need is a more cheery message during Advent.

One evening coming home from school my wife our grandson, Gavin, if he had a good day at school. Gavin cheerfully said, “Everyone in the world had a good day.” Iris responded, “Well, not everyone had a good day. Some people are poor and don’t have anything to eat. You would’nt want to be without anything to eat, would you? Gavin came back, “I don’t need no sermon talk!” In other words, “Don’t preach to me your pious moralisms!” 'Tis the season to be jolly! Who wants to hear “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” during Advent? I don’t need no sermon talk.

Many did not want to hear this kind of “sermon talk” from another Baptist of our own day---Martin Luther King, Jr. We resisted his prophetic words, because it meant changing our way of life. And it still does. Martin used the very words of Isaiah in his I have a Dream speech in at the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C. (Get the symbolism of the setting?) He was not there just to create a warm, fuzzy Kum-Ba-Yah moment with blacks and whites holding hands and singing in harmony. His speech was both a sharpened prophetic vision of the reign of God and a concrete political and spiritual call for an end to white racism, discrimination, and segregation.
Like the prophets Isaiah and John, Martin stood in the wilderness of racial inequality and proclaimed:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted,
Every hill and mountain shall be made low,
The rough places shall be made plain,
And the crooked places shall be made straight
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed
and all flesh will see it together.
I have a dream…

And for the messenger, like John the Baptist Martin would end up with his head on a platter, so to speak. Prepare a way for the Lord! Make his paths straight! Do we really want to hear this harsh message during Advent? Do we want to listen to some cranky old voice denouncing racism after we have heard the joyful cheers around the world as Barack Obama, an African-American, was elected to the highest office in our land? Is the old sad song of antiracism what we want to hear when white racism seems to many people to be an anachronism, a thing of the past? Aren’t we now a post-racial nation?

Did we really need an open letter from Jim Schrag, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, going out to congregations during the 2008 Advent season about racism? Isn’t it just another “sermon talk,” pious platitudes amid the joyful sounds of “peace on earth, good will to all’? Doesn’t it sound too political? Doesn’t it just leave a sour taste in the church’s mouth? Isn’t Jim just “preaching to the choir”? Listen to this voice crying out in the wilderness of Mennonite Church USA:

Whether you voted or not in the recent election, or who you voted for, is not the issue about which I am writing. The issue is that the election of an African-American brings hope to our nation with its past record of discrimination and racism. At the same time it brings danger to our president-elect in threats of harm based on the color of his skin. People of color throughout our nation, some who may be our fellow church members, close neighbors, are experiencing new harassment and threats from some whites who are fearful, resentful or feel threatened by the election of President-Elect Obama.

Now we face a time when we must give witness to what we have said we believe. We are not dependent upon the political process to witness for justice and equality; these are not mere ideals of our nation, they are part of our witness of faith in Jesus and the power of His Gospel.

We are called to give witness that the healing of nations comes when Christians live up to the teachings of Christ in our daily lives. Now in this historic time of opportunity and danger, we must speak and act in witness of life, not fear and death. When we see oppression born of fear, we will speak against it. When we observe racist behavior, or hear racist language or stories, we will not silently ignore it, especially when we see and hear this among Christians, even in our own congregations. We have an active role to play in our congregations, community, at our places of employment, and in our social interactions. We can help to turn around a conversation from something negative and frightening by witnessing with our positive listening and speaking.

We are all created in God’s image. We will live our lives in witness of this truth from scripture. Now is a particularly important time to offer this clear and certain witness for the “one new humanity” in Christ.

Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! It’s seems such an intrusive message into this Advent season.

What makes the message so intrusive is that it calls for us to change. Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand! Change the direction of your lives! It sounds so guilt-producing. It seems such a negative message for Advent. In our seeker-sensitive-megachurch-consumer-oriented-self-absorbed-war-is-okay-until-it-becomes-inconvenient-culture words like “sin” and “repent” and “redemption” go over like a lead balloon.

This attitude is reflected in a Doonesbury comic strip. The “Reverend” is explaining to a couple inquiring about church membership about the basic approach of his Little Church on Walden:

Reverend: I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity. Basically I believe we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, its about recommitment, about redemption. It’s all in the brochure there.

Wife: Wait a minute---sinners? Redemption? Doesn’t that imply guilt?

Husband: I dunno, there’s so much negativity in the world as it is.

Wife: That’s right. We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.

Husband: On the other hand, you do offer racketball.

Wife: So do the Unitarians, honey. Let’s shop around some more .

There you have it--- John’s abrasive message for Advent. Do we have Advent ears open to hear what he is really saying? Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand! The dominion of heaven is near! The age of God’s reign is just around the corner. The time is coming when God will cut down the trees of self-centeredness and injustice at the root. The season is at hand when peace and hope will bud and bloom. The day when war and violence shall forever cease is upon us. The hour when we will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character is at the doorstep.

As the streets are decorated with wreaths and fake snow is sprayed on windows, the time is close at hand. As we make our shopping list and check it twice, the kingdom is coming! As we decorate the tree with lights and get out the Christmas recipes, the reign of God has a foot in the door. So, prepare a way for the Lord! Make his paths straight!

If we’re going to prepare the way for the coming reign of God, we better get started now. Grab a hoe. Get a shovel. Fill in a pothole. Level the road. Pick up a rock. Pull up a weed. Volunteer to feed the hungry. Work on a project for peace. Dismantle white racism. Let go of some of your privileges and possessions. Welcome a stranger. Visit a prisoner. For God’s dominion has already begun. God is coming down the highway of this wilderness world. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!

The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas reminds us that the coming reign of God we prepare the way for is already here:

(Jesus’) disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather the kingdom (of God) is spread out upon the earth, and (people) do not see it.”

From the baptismal waters John cried out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” It was nearer than even John could imagine. But, thanks be to God, he had Advent eyes to see. For the road sign pointing to God’s reign stepped into the muddy waters of the Jordan river right next to him. He opened his eyes and looked at Jesus, stepping into the muddy Jordan river and said, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The Messiah of God’s dominion has come. Do we have Advent eyes to see even now God’s reign is spread out across this wilderness world?

Look. An older man kneels in the front to the church to be initiated. He has just found faith. The water drips from his head. His smile is brighter than the Advent candles. Look. Soldiers are packing their camouflage duffle bags in Iraq and unloading their weapons. An army airplane hums outside their tent. It’s taking them home. Listen. The chatter of people waiting in line sounds like a Christmas carol. A doctor is spooning some stuffing into the plate of a homeless woman at the shelter. He does this every year during his vacation time. Listen. Children shout and laugh as water gushes from a newly built pump just finished in their village.

Listen…listen closely…can you hear it? A distant coyote is howling in the wilderness and a faint voice is crying out…Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Burning God: an old poem by Leo Hartshorn

flood my soul, O burning God
with light eternal shining brilliant
brighten my spirit against the darkness
that covers the world like thick tar

open the windows of the eternal
and blow a fresh wind across my face
that I might breathe in deep
the sweet air of freedom

as I live in the autumn of my days
cause my eyes to see the spring of life
fresh, alive, vibrant with color
dancing in the breeze of the Spirit

feed me with the bread of wisdom
and I will break off a piece and share
with others the food of my God
Baker and Maker of light

Thursday, November 26, 2009

life is not simple: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

life is not simple
no one, two, three steps
to peace and serenity
no bumpersticker morality
can capture ethical complexity
those who make it look easy
spent years struggling
in the fox holes of the heart

the preacher of singular purpose
does not speak for me
or for millions
caught in the teeth of time
who have married miss-fortune
and wear the rags of uncertainty

i would beg to differ
with the one road to happiness
the sure fire way to success
the prosperity in your pocket
messages of simpletons
who don't see life as it is
in its raw jagged-edged
complex and ambiguous beauty

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Gate and the Gap: A word from beyond the chasm

I remember being stunned when I first read Ron Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger back in the late 70's. Sider's book, which has been re-published several times, is a both a biblical study on wealth and poverty and a critique of the widening gap between the rich and the poor in our world. Reading the statistics on poverty was enough to send my head and heart reeling. But, what cracked open my eyeswas his compilation of biblical texts dealing with wealth and poverty. You see, I had been reading the Bible through the lens of a fundamentalist perspective, which was more concerned about dotting the eyes on its doctrine and sending souls safely off to the next life, than it was with compassion for the poor and feeding hungry bodies in this life. I started to see that the law, the prophets, and Jesus' life and teachings were crowded with words of warning about wealth and good news to the poor. I started to see my own world was crowded with people who lived in desperate poverty without enough to eat. My eyes were opened to another world on the other side of the gate.

The Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is one of those stories I read with new eyes. It was no longer just a story about heaven and hell. It became a story about life and death issues here and now. Jesus' parable paints two worlds---the world of Dives, Latin for "rich man", and the world of Lazarus, which means "God helps." The world of Dives and Lazarus are separated by a gate, but life in these worlds is as far apart as the earth is from the moon.

Take a look at the world of Dives. Peer through the gate from poor Lazarus' side. Dives is dressed in purple cloth and fine linen, signs of wealth and honor. He feasts at a table spread with sumptuous foods. Roasted hens. Nuts. Figs. Dates. Pomegranates. Jugs of wine. Dives wipes his greasy hands with bread and tosses it underneath the table. Boy, don't those rich people live high off the hog!

On Dives side of the gate you might see paper thin supermodels strutting down the runway in the latest Paris fashions. Racks and racks of clothing hanging at the department store of your choice. Muslin and mink, silk and suede, leather and lace. More styles of shoes than Heinz has pickles. Jewelry, diamonds, rubies, earrings, watches that can wake you up in the morning. And the food, glorious food, on Dives side of the gate! There is a smorgasbord to choose from. Turkey and chicken, steak and pork, Caesar salad, egg salad, tuna salad, chicken noodle soup, tomato soup, celery soup, Clam chowder, Reuben sandwich, roast beef sandwich, cheese steak sandwich, corn, potatoes, green beans, snow peas, with your choice of low sodium or cooked in butter. Wine, champagne, mixed drinks, apple juice, lemonade, milk, chocolate, sodas and teas in every flavor under the sun. And don't forget desert. Pumpkin, cherry, apple, lemon marangue, shoofly pie, ice cream, sundaes, banana splits with a cherry on top! Mmmmm!

On Dives side of the gate you might run into Donald Trump or Bill Gates with their billion dollar fortunes, their big casinos, their big houses, their big yachts. 0, those rich people have it all at their fingertips. Greedy, selfish people. You may not have all their money but you can turn on the TV and dream of being rich as you watch So You Want to Be a Millionaire or buy a ticket and hope to win the Powerball lottery. You may not be rich, but you still have your shiny new car, truck, jeep, van, convertible, station wagon, Ford, Chevy, Dodge, GM, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Honda, hybrid, or whatever you drive. You may not be rich, but you can turn on your surround sound stereo, CD player, Wii, Xbox, blu-ray player, surf the internet, watch over 1000 channels on your flat screen TV, call your friends on the cell phone or iphone. You may not be rich, but you can eat Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Soul Food, Southern style, Ethiopian, Indian, or go out to just plain ol’ McDonald’s, Carl’s Junior, Wendy’s, Burgerville, or Taco Bell for a change. Then, you can go to the spa, gym, weightlifting, aerobics, Tae Bo, Pilates, or get your own home equipment to work off all that food. You may not be rich, but you can still go to the bookstore, clothes store, furniture store, craft store, tool store, lawn care store, or pet store. And, thank God, there's always that one place where it all comes together….the mall! You may not be rich? Well, maybe we do live on Dives side of the gate!

Now, take a gander through the gate at Lazarus' side of the tracks. Look over at Lazarus' world. Lazarus is lying by the gate. He has no energy. Life is drained from his body. His arms and legs are covered with infected, runny sores. Flies buzz around them. Street dogs lick his wounds. Is it out of compassion or are they tasting their next meal? Lazarus' stomach is bloated. It growls like the dogs. Wet eyes look through the gate to see if a tossed scrap of bread might fall from Dives' table and land near his paper thin arms.

On Lazarus' side of the gate you might meet two-thirds of the world. 1.3 billion living in absolute poverty. A simple wardrobe or rags hang on their bodies. No shoes. A little rice and beans. Maybe some tortillas. Bad water. Sometimes nothing but empty stomachs. Starvation. Glassy eyes and supermodel-thin arms and legs. Walking skeletons. Open sores. Disease. No medical insurance. Few doctors. Long hour bending over in the fields or standing in welfare lines. Dirty diaper and alcohol smells. Run arounds and put downs. Frustration and anger seething. Drug dealers on the corner. Trash on the streets. At times it can be a hell hole. For heaven's sake, let's not linger long. Looking through the gate is too horrible, too painful. It makes us feel helpless, hopeless, and guilty. Lazarus' world overwhelms us. Be assured, we are on Dives' side. Everything will be all right in our world. Thank God, there's a gate that still separates us ... from them!

O, that gate. It separates Dives from Lazarus, rich from poor, insiders from outsiders. According to the prophet Amos, the gate is a place of judgment, where justice is to be done for the poor (Amos 5). If only Dives would have opened the gate, or at least passed threw a scrap of bread. But, I understand how tough that is. As I look back through the gate think I spot ol’ Bill Hawkins. Bill was a 62 year old, with a slow walk and mind. He lived in a rundown house painted proudly in red, white and blue, the colors of our great nation of tired and poor and huddled masses. Anyway, I got pulled into his world because he lived across the street from one of the deacons of the church where I was pastor. I was called upon to occasionally visit Bill. He wore old, Goodwill, secondhand clothes that smelled of body odor. His yard was knee high in grass, weeds, trash, and rusty vehicles.
I remember holding my breath as I walked into his home through piles of garbage on the floor.

Bill showed me his altar with pictures of Jesus and his mother lit by burning candles. At the time he had been hit by a Ford Mustang and was on crutches. His sole companion was his dog. "Me and my puppy is all I got," Bill said. He had no wealthy relatives, no brothers or sisters, no income, no disability or health insurance. I remember taking him to the Free Clinic and waiting there six hours to see a doctor. I wasn't being an angel. I was frustrated as a demon trying to get Mother Teresa's attention. Bill was used to waiting upon help from others. Or was he? The world on the other side of the gate is not a heaven on earth.

So, I can understand not wanting to linger too long on Lazarus' side of the gate. Helping Lazarus can take up your precious time. He's always in need of food, money, gas, rental assistance, payment for doctor bills, or some kind of help. Thank heavens, Lazarus is on the other side of the gate. He can become a bit dependent, expensive, and time consuming. And if you want to change Lazarus situation it’s a bigger issue than charity and a hand out. It’s also trying to change the whole darn system that creates m ore Lazarus’ than you can shake a dollar at.

Knowing that, let's not come down too hard on ol’ Dives. Dives worked hard for his money, while Lazarus lays around the gate doing nothing. Why toss it away on lazy Lazarus. Besides, Lazarus would probably just go out and spend it on booze. Besides, if you help Lazarus it’s not going to change anything for all those others in his situation. So, why do anything for him? Cut Dives some slack. Maybe Dives thought of Lazarus when he was tossing his bread napkins under the table. Maybe he was just too busy to take them over to the gate. Mercy takes time. You know how busy life can get taking care of your children, your home, your friends, your work. Who knows? Dives might have been pondering the plight of Lazarus when he scraped piles of leftovers from his plates. "Remember all those hungry kids in China," he might have told his children. Away from the table Dives might have flicked past a TV commercial displaying a child with hungry eyes pleading, "Have mercy." I'll bet he was probably going to sit down and write out a check to World Vision or MCC or Sally Struthers or somebody who helps those kind of people. It must have just slipped his mind. For pity's sake, you can understand that, can't you? Mercy me, it's not like helping the poor is a life or death decision.

Lazarus dies. I wonder if he died from hunger. I wonder if he even got a descent burial. It doesn't say. Lazarus is carried away like a newborn baby to the rock-a-my-soul-in-the-bosom-of-Abraham. Abraham was a rich man. Now, ain't that a kick in the head. A rich man in heaven. Remember, Abraham, along with his wife Sarah, was also rich in hospitality. They fed three strangers at their gate. And, glory be, the strangers turned out to be God Almighty in cognito. Whew! Old Abe was lucky he treated them strangers nice. On the other side, where heaven's hospitality spreads its bountiful table, Lazarus is robed in God's justice. He feasts on the fatness of God's banquet.

Around the same time, Dives kicks the bucket. Maybe it was some bad caviar. You've got to watch out for bad fish eggs. He must have gotten more than a decent burial. Funeral home, hearse, organ, flowers, stone monument, the works. But, things get turned around in the world on the other side of the gate of life. Dives, poor soul. becomes a helluva guy. Literally. He ends up cooking like a potato in the Devil's stew. Gone to the dogs. No medical coverage for his fevered brow. No fire insurance. Not even a drop of water to quench his raging thirst. You would think that he would have changed his menu there in Hell's kitchen. No way. He feeds on the same old stuff he fed on as in his life.

Dives is still trusting in his family and religious heritage to save him. "Father Abraham," he cries. Even in Hades, Dives is still self- centered. "Father Abraham, have mercy on me." He still thinks of Lazarus as a second-class citizen and is trying to boss him around. "Father Abraham, have mercy on me, send Lazarus, my waterboy. The flames are licking my sore legs." Dives is cooking in his own sour juices. He is still imprisoned by his own narrow self-interests. "Father Abraham, I beg you, have mercy and send Lazarus to my father's house to my five brothers. Have him warn them so they don't end up tormented like me." As if his family was the only family, the only people in the world. Poor Dives, still trying to protect home and hearth. Still trying to protect the comfy world of plenty. Still reinforcing the bars that separate the two worlds. Except, in the world on the other side of life, the gate has been locked. It is now an unchangeable chasm, an unbridgeable gulf, an impassable gap.

If only someone from the dead could come back across the gap and give us the score. Tell it like it is. Show us how we build gates that separate the rich from poor, the haves from the have nots, the insiders from the outsiders. Have mercy, Lord. If only some resurrected person could come and tell us some good news, like how we can open the gate and unfix the gap. If only three Charles-Dickens-holy-ghosts could come to us in the dead of night to save us from ourselves. Or what about an Emmaus-road-resurrected- stranger who could walk along side us and teach us the law and the prophets, then we could invite him over for dinner and he could break bread with us. Then our eyes would be opened and we would recognize him. Mercy, Lord.

No. We don't need someone to come back from the dead to tell us the truth, to transcend this gap, to bridge the chasm. We have the bridge of this story. We have the bridge of Jesus’ words. We have the bridge of Scripture. We have preachers and teachers and storytellers and poets to tell us. We have a message from across the other side. We’ve already heard the voice from across the chasm. The voice has already said, “You have the poor with you always. You are your brother’s and sister's keeper. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Visit the prisoner. Care for the widow and orphan. Welcome the stranger and outcast.” So, hear God's Word from beyond the gate and have mercy.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Wedding of Thanks and Giving: a Thanksgiving sermon

This sermon, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11. was preached at Peace Mennonite Church, Portland, Oregon on November 22, 2009

Once upon a time God gave a party for all the virtues, great and small, humble and heroic. They all gathered together in a splendidly decorated hall in heaven and soon began to enjoy themselves immensely because they were all acquainted with one another. Some were even closely related. Suddenly God spotted two virtues who didn't seem to know each other at all and appeared ill at ease in each other's company. So God took one of them by the hand and formally introduced her to the other. "Gratitude," God said, "this is Charity." God had hardly turned around and they had already begun talking to each other as if they were long lost friends. And the story now goes around that ever since God brought them together wherever Gratitude is there you will also find Charity.

We also know the virtues of gratitude and charity as thankfulness and love that gives. We find these both relating to each other in today's text from the book of Deuteronomy. This scripture comes at the conclusion of a list of statutes and ordinances given by Moses to the people. It includes two sets of instructions that have to do with liturgy, particularly offerings. These acts of giving were to function as concrete demonstrations of love for God accompanied by the virtue of thankfulness. Let's take a peek at our text and watch the relationship develop between Thanks and Giving.

We see in our text in Deuteronomy that thankfulness begins with an act of remembering. Someone once said that gratitude is the memory of the heart. Thankfulness arises from a heart that has been moved by its memory. We look back at something we have experienced or received and perceive it to be a gift of God and we respond with thankfulness and gratitude. Like that time that you saw your first child being born and lifted up by the heels screaming to high heaven. With glassy eyes you held back the flood of wonder over the gift. Later, with sprigs of gray in your hair you thumb through the baby pictures and remember that moment and sigh, "Thank you, God."

Or someone asks a prayer in church concerning their shaky job situation and you remember when you were laid off. Those envelopes with see-through windows sat there quietly on the table waiting for a check and a trip to the mailbox. But, they just piled up one on top of another. All the newspapers in the house had circles in the classified section. The numbers on your phone are faded from all the dialing but each call ended with “Sorry…” on the other end of the line. Then one day, unexpectedly, the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, "Can you be here in the morning?"You hung up the receiver and almost jumped to the ceiling. And as you looked back over the months and months and remembered the phone call, you whispered a "Thank you, Lord." Memory gives rise to thankfulness.

For the Israelites thankfulness was to arise from the memory of their own story of Exodus from bondage and entry into the promise land. They were to remember from where and to where God had brought them. Their act of offering the first fruits upon entry into the promise land was to be coupled with the ritual of remembering and reciting God's mighty and gracious acts of delivering them, sustaining them, and gifting them with a land flowing with milk and honey. From the remembrance of God's gifts of liberation and land, Israel was to respond with thanksgiving.

Shouldn’t the remembrance of our own stories cause us to give thanks? Walk down the dusty back roads of your memory. Do you come across any stories of deliverance or release from your own bondages, addictions, or habitual patterns in your life? Are there any memories of being sustained with heavenly bread as you walked through desert experiences in your life? Can you think of places in your memory where you came upon a land of friends or unexpected opportunities or church experiences that made everything around you seem to flow with milk and honey? And when you remember those moments, don't you just you want to shout to the sky "Thank you, God!" Then, you know what I mean when I say that thankfulness arises from the memory of the heart.

One way we express our thankfulness is through worship. As we remember God's gifts we may want to go beyond the spontaneous “Thank you, God.” We may want to respond in worship. Thanks arises from the perception of being "graced" or “gifted.” We naturally want to express our thanks when given a gift. But, who do we thank for the sunshine and rain and growth of crops? Or the beauty of a rainbow or the purple hills and orange sky at sunset? Who do we thank for waking to a new day or a moment of silence that wraps its warm arms around us? Who do we thank? The atheist is in a rather awkward position when moved by awe, wonder or feelings of gratitude for life's giftedness. To whom do they offer thanks? Worship, prayer, and praise is one way that the believer expresses thanks to God for the gifts life has given them. As in the prayer of Johnny Appleseed, "The Lord's been good to me, and so I thank the Lord."

Israel's offering of the first fruits was, first and foremost, an act of thankful worship. It involved a sacred place---the tabernacle, sacred persons---the priest and Levites, sacred objects---the altar and offering, sacred words---their confession of faith, and sacred gestures- --bowing down. The offering of first fruits was an ongoing part of Israel's worship. The offering of first fruits to God was a ritualized form of expressing thanksgiving for the gifts life offered.
But isn't the offering within a church service merely something we have to do to pay our interim pastor, cover the bills, and support mission projects? No. It's true that we offer our gifts to keep the church running. But, first and foremost, it is an act of worship. It is a concrete, tangible response to the experience of our having been graced and gifted. We offer the first fruits of our labors. Notice I didn't say what little we have left over after paying off our bills and entertaining ourselves. We offer our first fruits as a response of joyful thanks for what God has given to us.

Worship as an act of thanksgiving does not mean our offering of thanks is to be isolated to yearly holidays, Sundays, or even religious activities, such as prayers of thanksgiving. It is an attitude of gratitude that permeates our living with thanksgiving. As one father learned from his wise child. The father of a certain household, as usual, at the morning meal asked the blessing, thanking God for a bountiful provision. But immediately after the prayer, he began grumbling about the hard times, the poor quality of the food he was forced to eat, and the way it was cooked. His little daughter interrupted him. "Father, do you suppose God heard what you said in your prayer?" "Certainly," he confidently replied. "And did he hear what you said about the breakfast?" "Of course," he said hesitantly. "Then, Daddy, which did God believe?"

Worship and thankfulness are not to be isolated to religious rituals or particular days of our lives, as if we could come here on Sunday and give thanks, but live with an attitude of ungratefulness the rest of the week. Worship is a ritualizing of our response to God and serves as a reminder that all of life is sacred, all of life is gift, and deserves a response of thanksgiving. Worship is a most important form of expressing our thanks to God.

Our thankfulness is also expressed in giving and sharing. Gratitude begins within the person or community as an act of remembering, moves upward in worship toward God, then outward toward others in acts of giving and sharing. Israel's first fruits offering was not only a gift to God, but was be shared and eaten by the Levites and the sojourners who resided in the land, those who had no direct access to the fruits of the land. Thanksgiving to God is expressed in the giving and sharing of our gifts with others, particularly those without access to the fruits of the earth. Our acts of giving and sharing become a repetition of the God's giving and sharing with us.

There is no more powerful way to express our thanks than to give and to share with others. Rosemary Prichett and Cheryl Wood both understand that thanks is expressed in giving. But after you hear their story you may wonder which one was most thankful and who gave to whom. Rosemary, an African-American mother of three, living in a homeless shelter, found an endorsed $400 check on a windy downtown sidewalk. She could have seen the money as a gift of God to her. Instead, she looked through the phonebook and found the name on the check---Cheryl Wood, a white nurse from a nearby town. Cheryl was so grateful that her check was returned she wanted to offer a gift to Rosemary, but she refused. As they sat and shared about their lives and their children, Cheryl learned that Rosemary had bid $1200--- her entire savings---on an abandoned house, which she hoped to fix up. Two days later, who shows up at Rosemary's dilapidated house, but Cheryl. She had called a number of businesses asking for donations of supplies, workers and equipment. An army of contractors, suppliers and volunteers donated $30,000 in goods and work! All of this came as a response of thanks for the gift of a returned $400 check!

Thankfulness to God is expressed through giving and sharing with others. When we give and share our money, our time, our talents, our support, our encouragement, and our energies with others, we are making concrete our gratitude for the gifts that God has given to us. Sharing and giving as a thankful response to God is a way of creating a little slice of heaven on earth.

There is a story about a man who wanted to see both heaven and hell. "I'll show you hell,"said the Lord, and they went into a room which had a large pot of stew in the middle. The smell floated through the air and caressed the man's nose. But around the pot sat a bunch of desperate, thin, grumbling people who were starving. All were holding spoons with very long handles which reached into the pot, but because the handle of the spoon was longer than their arm, it was impossible to get the stew into their mouths. Their suffering was terrible. "Now I will show you heaven," said the Lord, and they went into an identical room as the first one. There was a similar pot of delicious stew and the people had the same long-handled spoons, but were well-nourished, talking, happy, and thankful. At first the man didn’t understand. "It is simple,” said the Lord: "You see, they have learned to feed each other." Giving and sharing can be a bit of heaven on earth.

Our gratitude to God is best expressed in sharing our bounty with others. We give because God has first given to us. And what greater way to express our thanks to God than by giving to others. We say “thanks” to God when we share the first fruits of our labor and support this church's ministry and the ministry of others. We say “thanks” to God when we give a cup of cold water to the thirsty or a piece of bread to the hungry. What more noble virtue could there be than to share our gifts, time, and support for the homeless, the hurting, and the hopeless? Are we not giving thanks to God when we visit someone who is sick or lonely or elderly? And, thanks be to God, are we not making a little patch of heaven right here on this sod where we live? In giving of ourselves we are celebrating the wedding of the two virtues----Thanks and Giving.

So, you see, that ever since God first introduced Gratitude and Charity, they have always been found together. And their marriage has produced the fruit of thankfulness. So, as one poet put it:

Go break to the needy sweet Charity's bread
for giving is living;" the angel said
"and must I be giving again and again?"
My peevish and pitiless answer ran.
"Oh" no,," said the angel" piercing me through
"Just give till the Master stops giving to you."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Aung San Suu Kyi: Artisan of Social Change

Finished a new drawing in my series Artisans of Social Change of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1991). Seeking a new democracy for Burma she was elected by an overwhelming majority as Prime Minister of Burma but was arrested by the Burmese military before she could serve. Aung has been under house arrest 14 of the past 20 years. She was the recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, both while under house arrest.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things I Will Probably Never Do Again in This Lifetime

As I get older sometimes I look back and ponder things that I have done in my life that I will probably never do again. It’s not that there is no possibility to do any of these things again. Some people re-engage in some of these kinds of activities because they have grandchildren or in order to revive their inner child or to see if they still have the energy. But, as you grow older you tend to leave certain things behind that you did when you were younger or they became more of a physical challenge.

Remembering these ordinary things is a way of appreciating the life I have lived. As I mediate on these things, realizing that they are activities that are now gone from my life, they feel like sacred activities, although most of these things have nothing to do with religion. But, come to think of it, isn’t it because life itself is sacred? As they say, you only come by this way once. It is a grace just to have lived.

Here are some of those things I will probably never do again:

1. Run barefoot through the lemon fields. Ouch! Stickers!
2. Swim with goggles in a creek with crawdads, and a few crawmoms. Watch out for those pinchers!
3. Buy a plastic model car, glue it together and paint it. Ed “Big Daddy” Roth rules!
4. Eat a hamburger , fries and coke for breakfast. I did this on my summer vacation trips to Oklahoma.
5. Poke sticks in my chest while jumping off high places with my new superman shirt on. Ouch again!
6. Chase girls with my sword and Zorro outfit on. Touche!
7. Pop wheelies on a Lambretta scooter. Sometimes with another kid sitting on the back tire.
8. Cruise “A Street” downtown and race against another car on a dark back road. Watch out for the cops!
9. Awkwardly call up a girl and ask her to the prom and get rejected. Ouch! Knife to the heart.
10. Hoe weeds in the bean fields under the hot summer sun. Whew!
11. Avoid horse poop while marching with the band in white buck shoes. Yuuuck!
12. Feel the exhilaration of playing “Wipe Out” on the drums in a surf band. Ha-ha-ha-ha. Wipe out!
13. Work on an engine under a car hood with my dad.
14. Go to Sunday School with my mom.