Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Monday, December 10, 2018

Advent 2: Monday

Now, concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2

True confession time: I'm not exactly sure what I believe about "the day of the Lord."

I know that Paul is committed to the idea. For him, it is a given-- something that will happen in his lifetime, or certainly in the lifetime of most of his readers. It will happen fast and it may happen in stealth. A thief in the night may or may not be recognized by the sleepy occupants of the home, hence the need to stay awake and stay sober.

And I take Paul seriously. This is the earliest New Testament writing we have; it's the closest to the days when Jesus walked the earth, so it is filled with the energy of his early followers.

Still, I'm not sure what I believe about it. But I can tell you what I hope for. I can tell you what I long for.

I long for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Note: Not self-righteousness-- which is about being arrogant and sure of yourself. Righteousness--which is about people taking seriously what God wants them to do, and doing it, whether it benefits them directly or not.

I long for a world where we care for the last, the least, and the lost.

I long for a world in which all this happens, not because God makes us do it (or Jesus kills bad people with death-breath, as some "Christian" writers would have us believe), but because we are filled with love and joy and are overwhelmed by our need to do it. I want this to happen because people catch the love that I believe Jesus is really about, that is the fundamental attribute of our God.

The other day a friend put her head in her hands and said, "I just want Jesus to come back so much." That day I was feeling pretty optimistic about humanity for one reason or another, but some days, I'm right with her. On those days I just cannot believe humanity can pull itself out of the colossal mess we are presently in without divine intervention.

But I long to be wrong.

(For a taste of the joy I long for in this era of justice and righteousness, get a load of this... "Zion's Walls" by Aaron Copland, performed by ProMusica of Washington Adventist University.)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Advent 1: Things We Already Know, AKA: The (Fig) Tree, Part 2

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. ~Luke 21:29-31

... But:

The people Jesus is talking to in this passage... a group that appears to include disciples, visitors to the temple, and some officials who are hostile to him... he isn't talking to them about a tree they don't know or understand. This is not something they have to do the ancient version of Googling about (which, I'm guessing, would be: find an expert or ask an old person?).

In fact, he's hardly talking to them about the tree at all. He's talking about something they all understand, completely, easily.... something they've known since childhood. When new leaves come, summer is near. Which is exactly the same where I live and where anyone who has deciduous trees around knows. Leaves change, season changes. Leaves turn and fall off, it is fall. It gets cold, and things start looking like this. >>>>>>>>>>>

This isn't about expert ability to read the signs. It's the exact opposite. It's about paying attention to what we already know.

What are the things you know?

Here are some of mine:

The world is beautiful and broken.

Our brokenness means we need one another, which is a truly beautiful state of affairs.

We keep watch... now, as the days get shorter and the Advent candles get brighter, in the past when we sought to understand our own pain and wonder, in the future when we are in a world we can't yet envision.

We keep watch, because just when we think things are ending, it turns out they've only just begun (thanks, Carpenters and #NateBorofsky!).

We keep watch because it helps us to be ready for the big stuff.

We keep watch, not as anxious guardians of missile silos; we keep watch as people who begin to learn to listen more than speak, and listen in silence for what can only be perceived with the heart.

We keep watch, and what we already know helps us to be present when everything is new again.

Advent 1: The (Fig) Tree

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near."    ~Luke 21:29-31

I did not grow up in a gardening household. Both of my parents were from Philadelphia-- city, not suburbs-- and my mom summarized her affinity to flora by saying, "Put be between two trees, turn me around, and I am lost." My dad planted petunias in the summer in patriotic colors (though, the striped ones were really white and purple), and also called me "Sweet Petunia." But I didn't grow up with a lawn or flower beds or rows of baby lettuce that needed looking after.

And I certainly didn't grow up with trees. There were some trees in my neighborhood, but you had to go inland from the beach to really see foliage. Going to college in New England gave me an experience of trees that felt new-born. In autumn especially-- of course--I marveled at their color, thrilled at the variety one found in leaf and bark, and went on about it all at such length that the women in my bible study gave one another worried looks, and wondered aloud whether I might go off the road, I was so enthralled with the landscape.

Several years ago a friend gave me a cutting from a bush I admired that was growing around her house. When I mentioned it, she had eagerly asked whether I wanted some, and I sensed that its growth was pretty fast and furious and she was glad to send some off to a good home. Its flowers looked so exotic to me, like blooms one might see in Hawaii or Fiji. When I put pictures of the flowers online the following summer, about a dozen folks told me what I had was Rose of Sharon.

I was intrigued. A plant with a biblical connection (whose botanical name, Hibiscus syriacus, misinforms: it is actually from farther east-- think, China, Tibet): score! And not only that, but the mention was from Song of Songs, which is definitely the sexiest book in the bible. The bride sings, "I am a rose of Sharon, and a lily of the valleys" (Cant. 2:1), but just a verse or two earlier, she is sighing that her lover is a bag of myrrh between her breasts. Pretty steamy stuff.

You know what's not steamy? Pruning. My Rose of Sharon went from 2-1/2 feet when I planted it to about ten feet this summer, just four years later. (I understand that's typical.) I have a great helper for gardening stuff, and when I asked anxiously about pruning, she looked up and said something like, "Yeah. It needs it," but didn't offer to do it. I Googled and was informed that late fall (after leaves drop) or early spring (before buds form) was best. But I had a day in early November when I was motivated, so that's when I got out my tree lopper and went to town on the long, curving branches.

I was nervous. I was afraid to cut too much, I was determined not to cut too little. I kept stepping back to see the shape of the thing, and deciding, "More." I cut two large garbage cans full of branches, and still, I wondered, "Enough?"

How do you know? As the fall progressed and the leaves actually fell off the bush (oops...), I looked hard at what was left, and wondered. Had I gone too far? Had I misread the signs the plant was giving me? Am I completely inept at reading those signs, to the point I have killed any likelihood of blooming?

"You can see for yourselves, and know..." Jesus tells his friends, and the matters they are hoping to be able to discern are far more weighty than the question of whether I'll once again have my lovely rose of Sharon blooms. I got out my loppers and went to town. I hope I got it right. 

I hope I get it right.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Advent 1: Apocalyptic Visions

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” ~Luke 21:25-28

As a child I learned about Advent-- I'm sure-- in school, Saint James' Parochial School, in Ventnor, NJ. (The school and the church were exactly one block from the beach and the vast, amazing Atlantic ocean, in which I was immersed every summer for approximately 8 hours each day. Saint James was where I learned all about God. The Atlantic ocean was God started to get under my skin.)

And I learned-- I'm sure-- that Advent was about preparing for the birth of Jesus, which we would celebrate at Christmas. I imagine (more than I remember) that we had an Advent wreath in church, whose candles would have been lit by an altar boy before mass began. I remember (and don't have to imagine) that the church was particularly beautiful during Advent. And even as a child--maybe a slightly older child, maybe a 10 or 11-year-old--I knew that Advent was, in some powerful way, about longing.

If I had to tell you what I (as a 10 or 11-year-old) was longing for, it probably would have sounded like: I want so-and-so to be my friend; why isn't she my friend? But I think beneath that was: a sense of belonging, a sense of security in my connections with other people.

My sense of longing would NOT have been focused on exposure to what, even when I was 10 or 11, was the reading each and every First Sunday in Advent: something apocalyptic. (Apocalypse, from a Greek word mean "uncovering," or "unveiling." Overtones of end-of-life-as-we-know-it catastrophe are a recent development.) I know I went to church every single weekend unless I was sick. So, I must have heard these readings. This one, for instance, talking about signs in the sun, moon, and stars. (I, who wished on more than one star, to know: Why didn't she want me?). Talking about distress among nations. (When I was a 10-year-old, one cousin on each side of the family was in Viet Nam.) Talking about roaring seas and waves. (I knew by that age that the ocean was fun, but it was also dangerous. You only have to get caught in a riptide once.)

I read this week that Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in the 12th century about the three comings of Christ: "in the flesh in Bethlehem; in our hearts daily; and in glory at the end of time."Advent kicks off like a war film evoking the utter chaos, fear, and dread that, supposedly, will mark that last one.

Most every Advent of my adult life I've greeted these readings with a jaded eyeroll. After all, hasn't every era, every generation, believed at some point that the world was about to end? A lovely older gentleman in my congregation tells a story of riding his bike down by the river as a boy, and coming upon a group of people in white robes at the water's edge. He said, "Watcha doin'?" And one of them responded, "Waiting for the world to end." He was intrigued. "Can I watch?" "Sure," was the reply. He lasted about fifteen minutes. Tedious stuff, waiting for the end of the world.

But we're just a couple of weeks out from a congressionally mandated report on global climate change that should make the knees of every human being weak as we contemplate its implications. I'm no prophet, but I do tend to think the scientific consensus on this issue is pretty compelling. We're in trouble, friends.

So, Jesus says, "Stand up and raise your heads." I've always assumed he says that so that we will be aware of his advent, that third one, the coming of the Son of Man in glory.

I wonder, though: If the earth is prematurely nearing its demise-- if this isn't, in fact, God's Original Plan for how this should all unfold--whether God wouldn't want us to stand up and raise our heads and hands and voices in outraged protest (rather than in eager anticipation). At the risk of sounding like I'm encouraging us to be our own saviors, I do think it's a damned shame to lose a perfectly good planet a good 500 million years early. Maybe we could do something about that?

My preference for signs in the stars would be to be able to stand outside, somewhere away from light pollution, and see the ridiculous millions of them that are mostly obscured from our sight and yet wheeling across the sky all day long, and all night, too. Or, to see the first star, the evening star, shyly showing itself to my 10-year-old self, a reminder of things and people impossibly far away and yet, somehow, as close as opening my eyes. In either case, the outcome would be lovely. It would be longing. I'm sure.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Still Easter 2: Hearts on Fire

I have some favorite passages of scripture.

The theological and slightly sensuous conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well (ask me about the song I wrote about it).

The liberation anthem sung by Mary, Jesus' mother.

Pretty much everything in Genesis, but in particular: the story of Hagar.

The friends who lower their buddy through a roof and into Jesus' presence for healing.

The midwives' shenanigans in Exodus. The burning bush in Exodus. Miriam's arc in Exodus and beyond.

That there is a tree of life.

It's ridiculous, really. So many it starts to feel silly calling them "favorites." But then there's this:

A couple of people (maybe, a couple) are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus (a site for which there are about 7 contenders, not sure where it is, really, except, a day's walk or thereabouts). Jesus falls in with them, but they can't recognize him. They try to school him on Jesus, because he acts clueless (a little). But then he begins to talk to them about scripture, and suddenly, they are in the presence of a rabbi.

(Hey, this feels kind of familiar.)

They invite him to stay with them when they get to their house. (A couple, I'm pretty sure.)

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us[f] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” ~ Luke 24:29b-31

I don't know why, but I feel this passage viscerally. Because it's a story about a stranger getting under your skin, maybe? A story about the elusive nature of knowing, or not knowing. A story about something you can't quite identify, which reveals itself as something at the very core of you that you'd forgotten, or tried to bury, or abandon.

But then, there it is. And it's real, and it's undeniable, and it brings with it both grief and joy, an ending and a beginning.

In my own life I have so many stories of gathering around a table with friends, and finding more there than I could have hoped or imagined. And it's never long enough, even though that time is more kairos than chronos, and timeless in its own way.

But the question that's asked--"Weren't our hearts on fire...?" suggests that we know before we know.

We know, even before we know. And then we spend our lives marveling at it.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Still Easter 1: The Resurrection Body

There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.   ~ 1 Corinthians 15:41-44a
... and [Mary Magdalene] saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”   ~ John 20:12-17
A few years ago, I started hearing about Zombie Jesus. I wondered what on earth that could mean, as the Zombie appeared to be everywhere already-- TV, movies, video games. But this idea and image started popping up on social media, and I have to admit, I just kind of snorted and looked the other way. 
But eventually, I had to have a closer look, and in order to understand what Zombie Jesus is about, all you have to do is do a Google image search with those words. 
(If you've never done this before, go ahead, I'll wait.)
See what I'm talking about? I think the Zombie Jesus phenomenon is nicely captured in this image and text.

Yeah, that sounds nuts.
And if this were my understanding of resurrection-- that Jesus was basically resuscitated and then the once-dead corpse taken bodily into heaven-- I am pretty sure I wouldn't be doing what I do for a living. This is the fundamental misunderstanding that lays the groundwork for this understanding of faith. People think resurrection = resuscitation.
Resurrection sure looks like resuscitation in some of the appearances of Jesus. (I'm looking at you, this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 20:19-31), in which Jesus shows his disciples his hands and side as proof that it is he, truly, who stands before them...)
... But wait: How did he get into the room again? Oh yeah. He appeared, despite the locked doors and all. Hmm.
Earlier in that same chapter, we have Mary Magdalene's encounter with Jesus, and notice, she doesn't recognize him at first. (Not recognizing Jesus happens a couple of times, actually.) And then, apparently, Mary tries to embrace Jesus, to which he replies...
The gospels seem to be telling us something about the resurrection body: It is not the same as the physical body. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul states this pretty emphatically. There are different kinds of glory, be begins, and notes: what is sown, the seed, is perishable... but not what is raised. Or, who is raised.

Jesus is appearing to people, and maybe also doing things that seem very body-based, such as eating with them. But he is also appearing out of thin air, leaving the same way, and establishing boundaries around his body that seem like new rules to his friends. His body seems continuous with the body he had as he walked the hills of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem-- eating, wounds-- but also, discontinous with it. Changed. More, Paul suggests, glorious.
If I had to summarize my faith (in contrast to what you can find on the Zombie poster above), I might say something like:
I trust in Jesus as a window through which I can see some of what God is. He was a Palestinian Jew who taught, healed, and offered an unconditional welcome to all kinds of people; he also was tortured and killed by the state because he was seen as a threat to Roman sovereignty. And afterwards, his followers experienced him as alive again-- raised from the dead-- for a limited time (between 40-50 days, or thereabouts). After that, they found themselves empowered to take on his ministry, and did so, and that's why I know about him. I have been invited into his community through baptism, I confirmed those promises for myself in young adulthood, and I believe that Jesus' way is the best way: a way of love, healing, welcome, and table fellowship that includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, welcoming the immigrant, remembering and affirming the humanity of all, including those society casts away, such as prisoners and the poor. I think this way of living is at least partly what he meant by "eternal" life-- that's not something for later, it's something for now.
It's not about resuscitation. It's about glorious life.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Lent 26: Holy Saturday

It is the bright morning of the day before Easter, and the sun is blazing so directly into the window of my study that it makes it difficult to see the screen of my laptop.

Easter, so often imaged as the risen Sun. Son.

Today would seem to be a swell day for Easter. The optics are absolutely on point.

But, alas, Easter does not come according to our timetable. My Easter sermon has the working title, "Who Will Roll Away the Stone?" It makes me acutely aware that we may have two-ton boulders sitting on our hearts, but that does not mean we can dictate the moment when they will be removed.

So today is a day for waiting. (And writing.) And understanding that there are things we cannot see yet, life-things, that are going on, but they are going on in the dark.