John Prine’s Paradise

And daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
by Singer, Songwriter, John Prine, “Paradise”

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When the late singer and songwriter, John Prine, wrote the song, Paradise, Kentucky had long been one, if not the epicenter, of the coal mining industry.    In 1820 the first commercial coal mine in Kentucky opened in Muhlenberg County, the Western Coalition, whereby 1879 the state produced one million tons of coal.   Then in the 1900s another area within Kentucky, the Eastern Coalition, also began producing coal.  Such that by 2006, Kentucky was the third-largest producer of coal.

Though the coal industry provided for thousands of jobs through direct employment or indirectly over generations, the environmental impact upon the land, air and freshwater has been devastatingly consequential…particularly as concerns public health.  In communities that engaged in mountain top mining, there are elevated mortality rates for lung cancer as well as for chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease.  Tragically, these threats do not appear to go away after mining has ceased nor after land reclamation has taken place. [1]

From the opening chapter of Genesis, we hear these words, “…and God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”   Scripture unequivocally asserts that first, creation belongs first and foremost to God and God alone, and second, as created by God, it is very good.   Likewise, Jesus’ actions (such as in showing solidarity for those on the margins) signify a deep and lasting caring, for those in the present and future generations.   His actions demonstrated a deep kinship and love for neighbor and all of creation.

Yes, we are facing so much loss right now.   Schools remain shuttered; unemployment and poverty are looming; graduation, wedding and travel plans have been put aside; the death toll continues and we remain sheltered in place, wondering how long this will last.  Figures larger than life, on the frontlines and those who lived quietly, have succumbed in the wake of this devastating illness.

Yet even as our hearts break due to the terrible toll this pandemic is taking, even as we’re overwhelmed with the plundering of God’s beloved creation, let us never forget that we are uniquely called to exercise solidarity.   When we wear a mask, when we keep physical distance to protect others and even phone a neighbor to see if they’re alright – have you considered how consequential even simple acts of courtesy and kindness are?    And when you compost, recycle and even resolve to go without meat one day a week – have you considered how simple steps can demonstrate a kinship with this fragile planet, we call home?

[1] Wikipedia, Coal Mining in Kentucky, en.wikipedia.org

[2] Image from – onlyinyourstate.com/kentucky/ghost-town-ky/

What Will Be Said of Us?

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Earth Day 2020

This past week has marked the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.   Notes Jim Antal, environmental activist and public theologian, “Fifty years ago, some rivers were so polluted that they caught fire.  The smog in major cities was so thick it was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.  Thirty-five miles of pristine beach from Santa Barbara to Ventura were covered with 3 million gallons of crude oil from a recent spill.” [2]

It is hard to fathom, but in the 1960s there were no environmental regulations or laws in place to protect even our water supply or the air we breathe.   Perceived as a hindrance to the nation’s economy and a stumbling block for consumers, nothing was in place to protect the very ecosystem that sustained us.   It was in this context, that the first Earth Day was conceived and gained widespread support.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), came on the heels of a bi-partisan commitment that enacted numerous laws including The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.  It was wholeheartedly adopted because it recognized that clean water and clean air, the safeguarding of wilderness and the species that inhabit it, are wholly necessary for health and well-being; no matter what side of the political aisle you sit on and what demographic you belong to.

Yes, this pandemic has shaken us to the core.  But the onset of this devastating virus has also exposed a dangerous dualism, perpetuated by those who insist on returning to business as usual.   As if the care of God’s creation AND protecting public health are two entirely different issues.  As if being a good neighbor to current as well as future generations and all species on this planet, IS AT ODDS with protecting our children from asthma and contaminated drinking water.

In the months and years to come, what will be said of us?  Will it be said that out of expediency and fear – we like Pontious Pilate – washed our hands of injustice, abdicated responsibility, and turned our backs on the destruction of God’s people and creation?   Or will it be said of us – that we did not yield to the temptation of returning to business as usual – but instead built a more just and sustainable world.

[1] Image is from whatsnewindonesia.com.

[2} Jim Antal, Earth Day Sermon, Sunday, April 19, Riverside Church, NY

 

 

Experiences from the inside

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   “The seat of the soul is where the outer and inner world meet” [1]

Last summer, I traveled down the Aberjona River by canoe.   Loaned to us by a friend, we packed within its hull a few belongings and began our journey in shallow waters just north of the Upper and Lower Mystic Lakes.   A well-made vessel of solid wood, the canoe silently carried us while the banks on either side became denser with grass, brush and small pine.

We had only traveled a few minutes when a mother deer and her fawn came into focus.   She stood with her young off the bank to our right, surrounded by tall grasses but within a space of the surrounding vegetation.  Looking at us, they stood perfectly still.  Transfixed, we placed our oars in the water to stop midstream and held our breath.

Author, Belden Lane, speaks of such fleeting experiences as moments of non-separation, where we see everything with sudden familiarity and intimacy – from the inside.   He writes, “In the Jewish scriptures, the deepest realities of existence are always concrete, earth-related and wild.  One might best think of the soul, then, as the place where the body and the rest of the vibrant world converge…when we discover a vital connection with the ordinary details of everyday experience.” [3]

In the wake of this time of social distancing, it is easy to lose sight of this vital connection.  Assuming the connections we must have are those in close proximity to loved ones, friends and neighbors, we forget that the soul’s longing is deeply embedded in the seemingly most ordinary.   The illumination of morning’s light filtering through our window.   The texture of the African Violet leaves, soft to the touch.   The sound of our own breath reminding us, that indeed, we remain very much alive in this world.

Imagine if we are not as isolated as we presume?   What if the divine source actually dwells within, rather than being a distant and intangible entity?   For if what the monastic traditions have been insisting for centuries is true, then “this flesh we inhabit is actually a necessary vehicle by which everything in creation connects.” [4]   Could it be then that our physical bodies and the deepening of our souls are not separate realities but were created to be intrinsically, wondrously and vitally connected?

Writes chaplain, Lisa Steele-Maley, who speaks to this longing for connection:

What love and peace will hold us aloft?   What belonging will sooth our isolation?

What bridges will we build as we spend more time in our homes and communities?

 As we reflect on the impact that our lives have had on the lives of others:

Will we claim our participation in the web of life?  

Will we claim that the deepening of our souls may have ensured our survival?

Will we remember that one day we will be the ancestors in someone else’s story?

 As we recognize the depth of responsibility to the interconnected human family:

 Will we also take note of our interconnection with all living beings?  

Will we be reminded of our interconnection with the living, pulsing earth?  

Will we affirm that we are, in fact, one? [5]

[1] Novalis, 18th-century author, poet, mystic and philosopher

[2] Wildlife image by Meta Aller

[3] Belden C. Lane, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, Oxford University Press, 2015. Pg. 8

[4] ibid. Pg. 13

[5] Lisa Steele-Maley, lisa.steelemaley, adapted

 

It ebbs and flows all around us

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The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide.  [1]

I wondered if Easter would come this year.   “How can you even ask this?” I chided myself.   “Of course Easter will come!”   But the doubts remained.   How could it possibly come, given all that is happening now?

The Spring Equinox had arrived.   Of this I was certain.   The pink and white cherry blossoms, purple hyacinths, and tulips touched with morning’s dew joined in heralding its arrival.   The dazzling blue skies and crisp air, the song of the sparrow and the Blue Jay’s arrival with its resplendent plumage, confirmed that spring is upon us.

But what of Easter?   Would it, could it, come?

Wrote Frederick Buechner, “The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb.  You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness.”   This is true.   As much as we tried in the past to domesticate Easter – with chocolate eggs and images of bunny rabbits – there is a dimension of it that refuses to be tamed, to be put in a box and conveniently put aside until the next year.

Instead, Easter came.   It came because it was the last thing Jesus’ followers would have ever expected, much less believed.  It came because, in a jaded world all too accustomed to harsh realities and bad news, Easter happened.

Easter came then and comes still.    It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide.

The Season of Easter.

 

[1] Frederick Buechner, from Whistling in the Dark, and later, Beyond Words

[2] Image from Unearthing the World of Jesus, Smithsonian Magazine

Morning Star Rising

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“…You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” 2 Peter 1:19

You, the lamp that shines in a dark place.  You, the morning star that rises in our hearts.   You, who awakens us, having spoken through prophets of old and your people in this time and place.

Yet faced with the trepidation of yet more chaos, we acknowledge our anxiety and fear.  Unable to hear you above the cacophony of divisive and egocentric speech, we resort to apathy or downright cynicism.  For while there was a time we dwelt securely, we find ourselves at the whim of those who are ruled not by conscience but the unconscionable.

But it is not just darkness that overwhelms us.  Unable to make out even the faintest glimmer of your distant star, we see no future canopy to guide us.  Overcome and in despair, we stumble.  O Divine Maker, what will become of us?

But you – you in your creative power, you in your mercy, you in your paradoxical vulnerability – have not left us without recourse.   Formed in your image and likeness, you do not abandon us, but equip your servants to disempower the diabolical forces that threaten humanity and all creation.

So summon us, we implore you, Sovereign God.    Issue your authoritative warrant, the one we cannot ignore.  Wake us up from stupefying slumber so that we, with eyes wide open, may serve you all the days of our life.  We ask this in the name of the One who was, and is, and is to be.  Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A prayer of lament

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Holy One, you audaciously call us the “salt of the earth,” but who can hear you above the deafening roar of retaliation and mayhem?   You say that your followers are “the light of the world,” but what do you make of us, we who stumble in the darkness of despair?   You insist that “our light shines before others, so that they may see our good works and given glory to God in heaven,” but what if our efforts are insignificant when compared to the degradation and injustice that confronts us?

O Lord, in the face of suffering across our planet and this land now veiled in darkness, can you even hear the cries of your people?    Do you perceive the injustice committed in your name?   Are you aware of the cruelty committed against all your creation, but nevertheless justified by those who pervert your Word?

Yet you have promised that we are your children and will not forsake us – even to the end of our days.   You have sworn to be faithful, even when we have abandoned you.    You have suffused us with grace, so that we may set our sights on your hope once more.

Could it be when even a single voice is raised in opposition to wholesale complicity, it becomes salt for those weary of fabrication and incivility?   What if acts of kindness, however seemingly remote in the face of cruelty, become the illumination that lifts up the discouraged and disheartened?   Imagine if even the seemingly little that we strive to do becomes yeast, expanding the possibilities of what had seemed unlikely at best?

Hear our prayer, Divine Maker.   In your mercy, heed the distress of those who suffer – human and creature alike.   Hear the cry of those who despair of waiting in vain.    In these weary times, cover us with thy grace.  Come and come quickly, we pray.    Amen.

 

A Prayer for MLK Sunday

“Jesus said to his followers, ‘Come and see.”  John 1:39

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In our walk with you, Jesus, you are described as the “Light of the World.”  Whoever follows you will never walk in darkness.   So – no matter where we are on the spectrum that encompasses belief as well as bewilderment – be with us in these fearsome times.  For You, the Lamb of God who takes away the lovelessness, greed and the cruelty of the world, know us far better than we know ourselves.

We give thanks that your light embodies a gracious but unyielding persistence – calling forth the young and old – but particularly during times of unrest.     Acknowledging our own trepidation, compel us to remember those who answered were flesh and blood like us: Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, William DuBois, Rosa Parks, and gay activist Bayard Ruskin, who was an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.   Still, You, You in your extravagant love, You in your mercy, You in your tireless commitment to justice, continue to beckon, calling those who decry the wholesale destruction of our planet, those who have pledged themselves to protecting the refugee, those who advocate for affordable health care, those who confront the deceit that undermines institutional life.  For just as you promised them, so you assure us, that whoever follows you will never walk in darkness.

We pray for those who are hurting and grieving.    For those who contend with serious illness, for those who struggle under the weight of disability, memory loss and declining health, for those whose grief weighs heavy upon them and those whom they love.   For the impoverished and the imprisoned, the falsely accused and unjustly condemned, those who out of fear and shame hide who they are as created by you.

Light of the World, Redeemer of the Lost, Healer of the Broken and Defender of the Powerless, we pray that you will equip even the likes of us.   So that we, will be beacons of your light, champions of your justice and visible reminders of your astonishing grace.   We ask this in Christ’s name.  Amen.

[1] image from the website, BibleStudyTools.  Photo credit, Meg Bucher

Called by name: a recollection of baptism

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43:5 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43:6-7

    A year and a half ago, overcoming breast cancer consumed me.   Though the tumor was discovered early – its aggressiveness meant undergoing chemotherapy in addition to surgery and radiation.    Recalling the ordeal and how sick one can get during treatment, the passage from Isaiah 43’s theme of exiles came to mind, “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold…”

How I longed to be released from the exile of illness and returned to the land of the living.

Throughout scripture, the Sovereign’s mandate bodes with nothing less than the full emancipation of God’s people.    Nor are God’s people summoned out of darkness nameless.   To be called by Jahweh’s name jettisons us out of categories long claimed by mortals.     Whatever our life’s circumstances, we were created for the Sovereign’s glory.

When a child is to be baptized, the officiant standing before the parents, asks, “What is the Christian name of this child?”

Note that the officiant doesn’t ask merely for the child’s name – be it Marie, Benjamin, Cynthia, or Andrew.   Whatever name is to be given to the child, it is not just prefaced but profoundly altered by the addition of the word, Christian.    Looking at its Greek equivalent, the name, Christian or Christianos, literally means “a follower of Christ.”

You and I belong to God-in-Christ.  No matter how long or brief our lifespan, the losses we’ve suffered, the deep-seated regrets we’ve shouldered, the assaults incurred, and the failures endured, the marvelous mystery is this: you and I remain faithfully known and irrevocably claimed by God.

And this is Good News…

 

Be a Light (in a dark place)…a sermon during the Season of Epiphany

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When [the Three Kings] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  Matthew 2:11-12

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  John 1:5

Some fifty-two hundred years ago, before Stonehenge, before the great pyramids and before the birth of Christ, stone age farmers just north of what is now Dublin, conceived and constructed a large stone mound called Newgrange.   Two-hundred feet in diameter but just under fifty feet high, Newgrange consists of a solitary opening connected to a long passageway that leads into the interior of the mound.  At its center is a cavern made up of three alcoves.  What makes this structure especially remarkable is that the long passageway and its interior chamber are aligned to the rising of the sun each year during the Winter Solstice.

For at dawn, and on December 21st, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box of Newgrange and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear.
As the sun rises higher, the beam extends and widens, reaching its interior cruciform chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated.

Each year scores of people gather in the darkness…and wait.

The activist theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman was quoted by Sojourner’s, noting, [The Epiphany season] ‘beings and ends in light.   From the heavenly star to the radiant robes of transfiguration, Epiphany is about revelation, [a]…sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order.    The light reveals, but not passively; it summons and it sends.” [1]

Epiphany reminds us that we are summoned and sent to Be a Light (…in a dark place). [2]

Just last Tuesday and while offering a Bible study about the Christmas Season at the retirement community where I work, a resident asked, “If December 25 is over, just why are you continuing to talk about Christmas?”

But provided (as one author notes) that your eggnog hasn’t soured or that you haven’t stashed the creche until next December [3], there is a reason why the lectionary lingers on the Christmas Season and Epiphany.  Because the arrival of the Christ child is anything but sentimental…as much as we’re tempted to make it so.

Scripture recalls the visitation of Three Kings from the east, who seeing that the star’s radiance remained over Bethlehem, entered the house where Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Joseph were with the infant Jesus.   Despite that the newborn king was not surrounded by a royal entourage but lay in a feeding trough, the Magi were overcome with joy and adulation.  Kneeling down, these distant travelers paid him homage.  Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream NOT to return to Herod, they left for their country by another road.

But there is a problem – both as identified by scripture, and as experienced in the world, Jesus was born into.   It is not coincidental that the journey of the Magi to see the newborn king begins and ends with Herod.    The subsequent passage that speaks of the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt following the Magi’s visit – because an enraged Herod sought to destroy the Light of the World by ordering the massacre of children and infants in the vicinity where Christ was born is not coincidental either.   Any more than it is coincidental that the gifts to the infant Jesus, foreshadowed his death.

Scripture points to this problem unequivocally, for darkness continues to cast its shadow.

Indeed, Herod and his kind have plundered humankind and all of creation for that matter, for thousands of years.

The birth of the Christ child and thus, the incarnation challenges our assumption – that the physical and the spiritual are irreconcilable.   Christ’s birth challenges the dualism and disconnect between matter and spirit, the secular and the religious, the practical, and the temporal.   It took a vulnerable infant born to impoverished Palestinian refugees who later crossed a border to flee from violence – to confront the lengths we go to – to keep the incarnation only about Jesus – so that we can get on with business as usual.

But what if each of us, as suggested by Augustine, Meister Eckhart, and others, were created to make real the incarnation, this synthesis between matter and spirit?   What if each of us like Mary are summoned and sent to give birth to the Son of God in our own persons and time and culture, to reconcile our spiritual sides with the work and action so desperately needed in the world?

In other words, to Be a Light (in a dark place).

Serene Jones, seminary president, theologian, and author observed how, for years, the conversion of the slave trader, John Newton, writer of the Song Amazing Grace, was often spoken of at the church she attended [4].  She had been told growing up, that after nearly losing his life at sea, John Newton became a Christian and completely turned his life around: returning to Africa to set the slaves on his ship free and becoming a fervent abolitionist from that time forward.

But the real story is quite different.  For though John Newton felt grateful to God that he had survived when others had perished in the storm, he did not immediately turn his ship around and free the slaves incarcerated on board.   If anything, though he became a personally pious Christian, he continued to trade and ship enslaved Africans for years – contributing his growing success to a state of blessedness.  It wasn’t until Newton reckoned the disconnect between his personal piety as being at complete odds with the human trafficking business he was engaged in that Newton realized aligned his professed beliefs with action.   It was then that he finally wrote the song, Amazing Grace, and became the abolitionist he is known for.

He finally chose to Be a Light (in a dark place).

I confess it is difficult to align one’s personal commitment – the matter of the heart – with what we do in the world.    It is and continues to be a lifelong struggle for me.    I suspect that many others struggle with this too.  But this is where God’s grace comes in.   To be an incarnate one of God, to continue to birth Christ in ourselves in this time and place is a high calling.   But I believe it is the only one worth giving our lives for.

Epiphany points to the incarnation, God made flesh in Jesus.   But as the incarnation means the synthesis of physical matter and the spiritual, then the nativity isn’t only about Mary giving birth to Jesus.

The birth of the Christ child didn’t begin and end on Christmas morning.  Christ came so that God would be born within us and reconcile the dualism that has long separated matter from spirit.  Christ came so that we as God bearers can “Be A Light (in a dark place), champions and advocates for ALL of humanity and God’s good creation.

For our desperate world hungers for light.   Remarkably, though Newgrange is 5,200 years old, the acquisition and reliance upon the sun’s energy have continued to illuminate not only the passageway and chamber but people’s lives, who come for miles if not across the world.   It is extraordinary to wait in darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end. 

Poet Laureate Maren Tirabassi’s recently made a decision to leave Christmas candles in her window in the months ahead, despite taking down the tree and other decorations. [5] Knowing of how challenging it can be to synthesize matters of the heart with our work in the world, the candles are testimony to a grace-filled decision to be an incarnate one of God in a time of great trepidation…

…to be a light in a dark place.

[1] Jim Rice, Epiphany: A Light To The World, (Sojourners, Jan. 2012)

[2] John Pavlovitz, PavlovitzDesign

[3] Mary Luti, Merry Christmas (Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, Jan. 4, 2020)

[4] Serene Jones, Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World (Penguin House, 2019), 126-27.

[5] Maren Tirabassi, The candles in my windows (Gifts in Open Hands, Jan. 4, 2020)

[6] Photo Image from the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) website of Greater Mercer County,

 

 

Not Just Glad Tidings…

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“The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all, frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Holy One, often, I crave nothing more than to be rendered senseless.  As if in a deep and dreamless slumber.   Oblivious of the circumstances afflicting our planet, its creatures, and all humankind.    Numbed beyond recognition given the onslaught of violence inflicted on the most vulnerable.  Content to dwell amongst the distractions of the holiday season. Employing your nativity as a salve for my conscious, so that it is not anything other than nostalgic.

Yet you came and come still not just with glad tidings but as a power and force to be reckoned with.   You came and come again not to placate but to radically alter the landscape of our lives and whole communities.    You came and come still as a bearer of good news, yes, but one who abruptly awakens us not as accomplices but agents of change.

So, come, Sovereign Jesus, come!  Raise us from our self-inflicted lifelessness.  Summon us to speak truth to power, comfort the afflicted, and repair your beloved creation.  Come, so that we – newly awakened – may be harbingers of your costly hope, peace, and love.   Amen.