Sunday, December 23, 2012

SOME ROUGH LINES AT CHRISTMAS, II


Rough lines, indeed. For the last few years I've challenged myself to write a Christmas sermon in verse (or is that doggerel?). I offer this as my blog Christmas Card, with thanks for your reading. God bless us every one!



Love came down at Christmas... ~Christina Rossetti


What saves Christmas for us from being just
sentiment is that crude barn, and the dust,
and those shepherds – why shepherds? There are no
princes or holy men in Luke’s tale, so

although we have beautified the small scene
and placed our nativity under the green
boughs of our lovely, well-shaped Christmas tree,
the gospel each season calls us to see

a baby, new-born, in a chilly old shed,
away in a manger – no crib for his bed.
Homeless, with rags his first baby clothes;
bleak midwinter, indeed! and nobody knows

where they are. Of course, in history’s view
they’re nowhere. That is to say, lost in the new
geopolitical empire of Rome --
refugees, wandering, looking for home.

Nobody knows – and who cares where they are?
Who wants to find them? Who’d look very far
for this young mother, this father, this son?
Like most homeless folks they are out there alone.

Nobody knows, that is, except the creator of
the universe. This family, held in love
by one another, is held, too in the heart
of God. Though lost in the night – he knows where they are.

But tonight that’s reversed, and God is the one
who in the arms of his mother is held as a son;
who sleeps in a strawbox, with animals round;
the high king of heaven thus here is found

among us: the word became flesh. Please know
that God so loved the world, and this love will show
most deeply if God in the heaven stoops down
to the lowest repute he can own.

It’s not how I’d do it – or you? It would be
more impressive if the whole world would see
a flash of great power, an army of might.
Not an impoverished family in cover of night.

But God, in the end, is not power or might;
he’ll not use the weapons of terror or fright.
In the end, God is love, and that’s all he will be:
A cosmos of love in this baby we see.

In that barn, on that night, in that backwater place,
Love came down at Christmas to show us the face
of God in the strange but familiar guise
of... one of us – in a small baby’s eyes.

And the news is not shouted from a castle’s high gable,
but shepherds are sent from pasture to stable.
Shepherds! And when this poor baby is grown
it’s still to the poorest he’ll make himself known.

The wrong kind of people, society will
think it’s an outrage, but Jesus will still
love and forgive both the low and the high;
he’ll forgive from the cross where they take him to die.

And Mary, who pondered by a small wooden manger,
will ponder again as she sees the sad danger
that her son has grown into, she’ll weep at the loss
of this wonderful boy on a crude wooden cross.

And we’ve beautified that, too -- made crosses of gold.
It’s as though we don’t quite get the story we’re told:
That the creator of everything came down to die,
to take our death upon him, the king standing by --

the King, who thinks that his troubles are gone
with the rabble that followed this rebellious one.
But rebellion does not even begin to describe
what will be unleashed when the stone’s set aside

from a rocky carved tomb on the side of a hill,
and we see that it wasn’t a man they would kill,
but they tried to kill love, and it wouldn’t stay down;
love arose, the same love that early was shown

on that night when the star broke the darkness so deep,
in that place where, exhausted, a young mother did sleep.
Where the wrong kind of people gave birth to a boy
who was God the creator. And all the world’s joy!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

EMMANUEL: THE FIRST HEART TO BREAK


Note: I determined early on that this web journal would not be a depository for my sermons, so this is a first. This is slightly revised from a sermon I preached last Sunday, December 16, in response to the tragedy in Connecticut. The Philippians passage was one of the regularly assigned lectionary texts for the day.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. ~Paul, to the Philippians, 4:4-7 
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The Gospel of John, speaking of Jesus, says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overpower it." This light is not a supernova or a sunburst, but the tiniest pin-point of light in a sea of darkness. The darkness cannot put it out. That's not to say it isn't trying awfully hard. ~adapted from Douglas John Hall, "Lighten Our Darkness."
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Earlier this week I began to prepare a sermon based on this part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians from our lectionary for today -- a letter he wrote from prison: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Double rejoicing! And then the tragic events of Friday in Connecticut happened, and my hand moved to toss the sermon – and Paul’s text – into the recycling bin. But I hesitated, and thought, and… we’ll come back to that letter in a moment, but first I want to take a detour, a detour through the path of suffering and sorrow that is found in our scriptures and winds through the heart of our faith.

In a few days we will celebrate Christmas – perhaps a more subdued celebration this year, as we see Mary and Joseph huddle protectively around a little one born into darkness, doubt, and danger. And a few days after that, our calendar will commemorate a day that the church for centuries has called, “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”  A day and title that has a sadly recent familiar sound to it. It is a remembrance of the time when a threatened King Herod arranged for the killing of all boy babies under a certain age. The gospel writer Matthew, quoting Jeremiah, says,

A voice was heard in Ramah
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled
Because they are no more.

“She refused to be consoled because they are no more.” The scriptures simply do not whitewash or deny the pain of life. Rather they give voice to it. Scripture is not a dispenser of easy answers, it is place of questions – our questions-- a treasury of words, and the Word, to express the expressionless. In fact, so-called “holy scripture” is not holy because of some religious decree or because it’s so beautiful, but because – down through the centuries – it rings true to the human experience. It turns out that life is, in fact, a walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Where have we gotten the idea that our faith teaches “every day in every way things are getting better and better,” or, “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”?

C.S. Lewis writes that “In every age there have been civilized people, and in every age they have been surrounded by barbarism.” And theologian Douglas John Hall asserts that “the Bible writers will give up on the glory of God before they’ll deny the reality of human suffering.” The central sign of our faith is that in the cross God is with us in our suffering. The cross, from which Jesus, echoing the despair of the unconsoled Rachel, cries, “My God, my God! Why have you abandoned me?” Do you not suppose that there are parents in Connecticut this very morning, who may not even know they are quoting scripture, who are crying out with that same lament? “God, why have you abandoned me?”

Jesus’ questions are our questions; the answer that faith offers does not deny death but takes it on and takes it in and defeats it with love. But there’s no getting around that cross.

Perhaps it is we preachers, or the way we build our Sunday School lessons, that have caused many to adopt the notion that if we simply have enough faith (or enough “religion”) we will prosper and all will go well for us; suffering will be averted. Jesus promises – promises – the opposite: “In this world you will have trouble.” It’s a promise. Paul makes a similar case: “We are afflicted in every way.” Get used to it. We are afflicted in every way, “but not crushed.” And Jesus adds, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” I would not be in this pulpit this morning if I did not believe both parts of that promise. How does Jesus overcome the world? The cross. The cross on which Jesus is with us in our suffering. From which he laments and forgives. On which he dies. The executioner’s cross – not a valentine heart – is the real sign of love.

When the late William Sloan Coffin lost a young son to another kind of tragedy (death by drowning in an alcohol-related auto accident) he was appalled at the number of his fellow preachers who observed that this must have been God’s will. To which Coffin replied, “I think it was God’s will that my son would have had one or two fewer beers that night!” And he went on to say, “We have to get it out of our heads that God goes around with his hands on the steering wheels of cars or his finger on the triggers of guns. When the waters closed over the top of my son’s car, the first of our hearts to break was God’s.”

God is with us. It’s what “Emmanuel” means. With us. In our suffering. In our despair.

Here is Psalm 88. (In the church service we read it together.) There is something distinctive about it:

O LORD, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O LORD, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.

What sets this Psalm apart from the other one hundred and forty-nine is this: It is the only psalm that begins in despair and ends in despair and, in the middle – more despair. What the heck is this doing in the Bible?! A number of years ago a friend, another pastor, told me of a time in which he was lost in depression and sorrow – almost paralyzed. He said that he was leafing idly through the Bible, and his eyes landed on this psalm. “There is where my healing began!” he told me. “Here was someone who knew what I was feeling.”

Does this psalm also, perhaps, speak for some in Connecticut? From despair to despair to despair? We pray for the beginning of a deep healing that matches a deep sorrow.

And so we come back to Paul, sitting in that prison cell in Rome, writing to his beloved congregation in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord….” What restrained my hand from tossing his letter into the recycling bin is that picture – that thought: That Paul – who also sat in darkness and danger in the prison cell that would lead to his murder by a madman; the same threatened, mad emperor who had killed his friend Peter – could write, “Rejoice in  the Lord….” In the Lord.

Rejoice in the Lord – who is with us in our suffering. Who walks with us into a darkness so deep that we cannot see the light. Who leads us to green pastures. Still waters. Peace.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

DADDY, IS THERE REALLY A SANTA CLAUS?

From the time that our kids were little, I determined that I didn't want to mislead them about Santa Claus. Now I also want to be truthful with our grandkids. But I don't want to play the role of the Grinch! So my answer, when the direct question comes, is "There was a real man named St. Nicholas who lived many years ago. He was kind to children and poor people, and over many years his name changed to Santa Claus. Our Santa Claus is a fun way that we remember St. Nicholas at Christmas."

Here's one way to tell the story:




HOW SAINT NICHOLAS BECAME SANTA CLAUS

Saint Nicholas, the legends say,
became our Santa in this way:
while passing by a widow's door
his heart was moved to help the poor.

Her humble hut brought to his mind
the  little shed Joseph did find
on Christmas Eve so long ago,
when Christ was born to Mary. So

he went to church and knelt in prayer
to ask a way that he could care
for widows and for chidren, too;
and as he stood, he spied his shoe!

His shoe?! An idea came to mind:   
"I know just the place to find
a way to do what I will do!
The answer's here inside my shoe!"

He took a stocking from the shelf,
and – all in secret, by himself –
he poured a few gold coins inside,
and said, "I’ll take a Christmas ride!”

No--no reindeer – no, not yet.
Don't rush the story – don't forget
that we're still at the early part.
He rode off in a donkey cart!

They trotted up the village road
and found the widow's small abode.
"Shh, you stay here," said good St. Nick,
"While I go play my little trick."

He tossed the sock as he passed by,
but then his aim went far too high!
(The old saints eyes were old, you see.)
He threw it down the chim-n-ey!

(And ever since, on Christmas Eve,
like all good children, we believe
St. Nicholas with his sock of gold
will find all Christmas chimneys cold!)

The widow thought she heard a sound
and toward her hearth she turned around,
and there upon the ashes cold
she found a stocking full of gold!

In her happiness she knew
exactly what she had to do:
A feast for the whole neighborhood!
(The good saint's deed was doing good!)

And Nicholas kept giving more,
kept finding ways to help the poor.
Stockings, sacks. And sometimes toys
were in his bag for girls and boys.

All this started way down south;
but soon – by song and word-of-mouth –
the story told on desert sands
had found its way to winter lands.

So way up north, in ice and snow,
the donkey – well, he had to go;
he's grazing in the southern sun.
It's reindeer now for St. Nick's run!

And stockings? It's not hard to see
that they're still near the chim-n-ey;
but not down in the fireplace –
the mantle's a much nicer place.

And lips like cherries? Twinkling eyes?
Reindeer flying through the skies?
All that about "The Night Before...?"
The credit goes to Clement Moore.*

But what about old Santa's name?
you said St. Nicholas became
the Santa that we know today.
Has Nick's name changed along the way?

That's easy. Say it two times, fast:
Saint Nicholas, San-ti-calas;
now, two times more, don't stop to pause:
San-ti-calus – Hey! "Santa Claus!"

Some things change, some stay the same.
And Santa Claus by any name
is still the spirit of St. Nick,
still chuckling at his little trick.

And we, with stockings lined up straight
on Christmas Eve can hardly wait.
We go to bed, we wake to see
what Santa brings for you and me.

But there's a lesson we learn, too,
when Santa visits me and you.
It's from a story, long and old:
The widow shared good St. Nick's gold.

Saint Nicholas, the legends say,
became our Santa in this way:
While passing by a widow's door
his heart was moved to help the poor.

                                                                                                    
 © Richard Jorgensen

This  story is based (very loosely!) on legends that grew up around the historical
figure of Nicholas, a bishop who lived in Turkey in the fourth century. Nicholas
was renowned for his good deeds, and was later declared to be “Saint Nicholas.”

*Most of our images and traditions about Santa Claus today come from
the delightful poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” (“’Twas the Night Before
Christmas”) written by The Rev. Clement Moore for his children on Christmas
Eve, 1822.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

THREE FILMS IN SEARCH OF A SCREENWRITER


I enjoy history and biography, and one of my favorite film genres is the historical docudrama or biopic, especially if the writer and director stay pretty close to the facts. (But, I agree that all history-writing is interpretation; I don’t mind a bit of creative interpretation.) I’m thinking of movies like “Shadowlands,” "The King's Speech," and (a gem you’ve never heard of because it went straight to DVD) “Einstein and Eddington.”

(Okay, I admit that these films would all feel at home on “Masterpiece Theatre,” but, as a forty-year MT aficionado, that recommends them to me all the more.)

Every once in a while an historical account or relationship begins to take shape in my brain as a film. Alas, I’m no screenwriter, but here are three I offer to anyone who is. I would love to see high-quality, (even “small”) films made of the following:

Edward Thomas, left, and Frost
I. The story of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas.  The American Frost and Brit Thomas met in London in 1913, before either of them had become recognized as a poet. They rambled the English countryside together, and their brief friendship was deep and consequential. Thomas, after much agonizing, enlisted in WWI (though he did not have to) and was soon killed in action. A dramatic hook for the screenplay: The poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which was later to become one of Frost’s most famous, was written in response to Thomas’ uncertainty about enlisting, and may have had an influence on his fateful decision.* 


Bishop Henry Whipple
c. 1862
II. The Bishop and the President. Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, befriended the Dakota in the years leading up to the 1862 war known as “The Sioux Uprising.” During the conflict, more than eight hundred (white) members of the bishop's diocese were killed, and Whipple was among those who treated the wounded. Nevertheless, after the war, Whipple personally lobbied President Abraham Lincoln with the result of reducing the number of Native leaders to be executed from three hundred to thirty-eight (still the largest mass execution in US history).

Screenwriting hooks: 1) Whipple was “friend” to both Lincoln and the Dakota chief Taopi. 2) Lincoln examined the trial transcripts of the three hundred sentenced to hang, and wrote out the reduced list of thirty-eight with his own hand. Lincoln's judicious magnanimity was highly unpopular in Minnesota, and nearly cost him the 1864 election in that state. (He said, "I will not buy votes at the cost of a man's life.") Whipple’s advocacy for the Dakota was equally unpopular. In the archives of Whipple's Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior, in Faribault, Minnesota, is a photograph of Dakota tipi's pitched closely around the church -- an illustration of the closeness of this relationship.** 

Bonhoeffer in prison, 1945.
III. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Spoke in the Wheel. Outside of the circle of those who are drawn to Bonhoeffer by his work in Christian ethics and moral theology (highlighted by his martyrdom by the Nazis), his story is only dimly known, usually concentrating on his minor role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. (But not minor enough  to prevent his execution.) What is even less well-known is that Dietrich’s brother, Klaus, and two brothers-in-law were also executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was a leader in the "Confessing Church," that branch of Christianity that remained true to it's faith while the majority of German Lutherans signed on to a pledge that essentially said, "One Church, One Fuhrer, and out with the Jews." Bonhoeffer established and bravely led a seminary of the Confessing Church until it was closed down by the Gestapo. Through his brother-in-law's connections he then accepted a position in the Abwher (military intelligence) where he worked behind the scenes on behalf of condemned Jews and to slow down the machinery of destruction. It was in this capacity that he joined his brother-in-law and others, including high-ranking officers, in the plan to assassinate Hitler. He lived what he said: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” He was arrested for resistance activities and executed at Flossenburg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945, just days before the end of the war. He was thirty-nine years old.

Chapters for a screenplay: 1) Bonhoeffer's urbane, secular family – headed by his father, a distinguished professor at the University of Berlin – were surprised and bemused by Dietrich’s decision for a vocation in the church. 2) During an academic year in New York, Bonhoeffer, who had thought that America had “no theology,” met Frank Fisher, a black theologian and fellow student, who became a friend and introduced him to a completely new world: the cultural riches of Harlem and jazz and the vivacity of the black church. Fisher and other American friends tried to encourage Dietrich to sit out the war on this side of the Atlantic, but as the storm clouds gathered, he felt he had no choice but to go back and play his part against the madness.  3) Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, and he considered his part in an assassination plot to be deeply sinful, yet, as he later wrote from prison"Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God's question and call."  Bonhoeffer considered that he was "sacrificing his principles" in the struggle against evil.  4) While imprisoned and awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer became “pastor” to an assortment of fellow-prisoners from a variety of countries and backgrounds (including some of the guards). Without taking too much dramatic license, the film could show this motley assembly all gathered around the sacrament of Holy Communion --offered by Pastor Bonhoeffer.***

In the great sweep of history, these are small stories about big people, deserving of a small film by a good screenwriter.

_______________________________________________________
*The Guardian makes a good case for the connection between The Road Less Traveled and Edward Thomas' decision in this fascinating article.

**This recent episode of This American Life is a thorough, provocative, and moving account of the 1862 "Sioux Uprising."

***The New York Review of Books recently featured this article on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "The Spoke in the Wheel" is also the title of a biography by Renata Wind.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE ELECTION? (OR IS THAT "HOW DO YOU FEEL...?")


Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.    ~David Hume, 1739
"It was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of  their emotional reactions." ~ Jonathan Haidt, observation regarding the subjects of a university research project in moral psychology. 

Andy Borowitz, in his New Yorker blog, wryly reports that in the last campaign the nation “spent $2.5 billion on nothing” – his point being that after the expensive dust had settled, the political scene looked much the same as before.

We keep hearing that both sides use negative and attack ads “because they work.” But we are also hearing, increasingly, that, on the one hand, they don’t really change many minds and, on the other, there are only a handful of actual “independents” out there toward whom the ads are supposedly targeted. So what gives?

Jonathan Haidt’s very persuasive theory in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics” is that we are all guided fundamentally by our intuitions and “feelings,” and that our powers of reason and logic are used primarily to support what we feel. (Run, don’t walk, to order this book. It will change how you view your own strongly-held beliefs as well as those of your political opponent.)

The central metaphor of much of Haidt’s thesis is that
...the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior. 
The elephant and the rider.
In this metaphor, the elephant lurches where it will, and the rider follows dutifully along--trying to make the best of it.

This is why--if objective facts contradict my subjective belief--I will maneuver or discount the facts so that I do not have to abandon my feelings.

This is why I give my candidate the benefit of the doubt, but hold the other guy’s feet to the fire. In both cases I use “reason” to be able to do this.

This is why a legislator in our Minnesota House of Representatives can say, “I just don’t feel that global warming can be true.

This is why there are no consistent biblical literalists. All “literalists” accept what they feel is right, and interpret the rest away. (In all of the Bible-based argument against homosexuals, I’ve never heard anyone propose that they should just be killed. That’s in there, too. Leviticus 20:13)  1

You can give yourself a little test to determine the applicability of this theory: 1) From the time you began to care about political matters, did you “think” yourself into your current place on the conservative-liberal spectrum, or did you come to “discover” your social and political persuasion. 2) Regarding the upcoming election, what would it take to change your vote to the other candidate? Did you approach the debates and speeches with an openness to changing your mind if the opponent made a more intelligent, reasonable argument? 3) [This applies only to self-described Christians:] The New Testament clearly states that your wealth is to be surrendered and divided up to benefit the poor. How much does it bother you that you are not doing this? 2

Haidt does not say that reason is never relevant or consequential, it is just that, most often, when we think we are being guided by reason and rationality, it is something deeper and more primal that is actually calling the shots. 3

It would be easy to conclude from this that the billions spent on attack ads are a waste of money, because nobody’s mind is going to be changed. Yet we are told that they are effective. The other recent truism in campaign politics is that it may be more important for a candidate to motivate his or her own supporters to vote than to try to win over the supporters of the opponent. If we combine these two theses, perhaps what is happening is that the negative ads are feeding the primal beast (to slightly adapt Haidt’s elephant metaphor) – throwing red meat to nourish the antipathy we already feel, not to change our minds but to stoke our “feelings.”

But I hope that it could lead to a more civilized conclusion: If we all realize that (with a few exceptions) our minds are made up and are not going to be changed, the whole campaign ad industry could be re-directed to simply and positively encourage us to see the importance of voting as a way of supporting our candidate. It becomes a contest not of who can change the most minds, but who can get out the most voters.

And to Haidt’s psychological research we can add another intriguing subject of recent study: that our political (and religious) tendencies may be genetically influenced. If we put all this together, we could arrive at a conclusion that the most negative thing you can say about your political-opponent neighbor is, “He can’t help it.”

____________________________________________________________

1 Another conclusion of Haidt's study is that our beliefs can be influenced by someone whom we respect and are close to. I think the reason most biblical literalists don't work for a ban on divorce (even though it is roundly condemned in the Bible) is that it's literally too close to home.

2 This little test is my own crude application of Haidt’s thesis. The case made in his book is much more sophisticated.

3 In the New York Times column, “The Stone,” Haidt has an ongoing debate with some philosphers regarding the use of reason. It is interesting (to me) that in the current campaign my gut, or "feelings" lurched me unquestionably into the Democratic camp; but I had to use my reason to ponder between Bernie and Hillary.