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

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

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:

Hiring/Firing

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.


Resources:

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