Saturday, October 29, 2016

Camping Community

“What do you do all day?,” I asked my friend seated at the edge of the camp fire.  “This.,” he answered.  I was beginning to understand.  We walked from his campsite to the next campsite I wanted to visit and I asked my camping friends, sitting around the fire with a cold beverage in hand how their day was and then inquired, “So, what did you do today?,”. They looked at me with this smile that says, “You don’t know what you are missing”, and replied, “This.”  I understood a little better. All of these people came here to do nothing more than “This.”

My friends took me on a walk through the state park where I was visiting members of our church who were camped out for the weekend to celebrate Halloween. I wanted to see for myself what the attraction was that drew them, along with hundreds of other people, to this heavily wooded location right along the shores of Lake Michigan. We were on our way to see an amazing display of tricks and treats that one family had set up to entertain the crowds on Saturday night.  Creatures popping out of garbage cans, an old-fashioned popcorn stand with the “bearded lady” as the hostess, and so much more.  Even their kids get in the act of entertainment by and for the whole family.  The site I viewed was the best, but there were dozens of others which were similarly decorated by people with creative imaginations, people who spent hours erecting sights like Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin amid the chorus of gravesite markers, ghosts and goblins.

On the walk back I asked my tour guides, this wonderful young couple with their young children scampering on ahead of us, “So what’s the attraction? What is it that draws so many people here on a late fall weekend in quite cool weather?”  It’s a hard kind of question to answer, the kind which asks you to put into words why you love doing something you love. But answer they did.  The answer was, as the song says, “blowin’ in the wind.”  “The smell is amazing,  isn’t it, Pastor Bill?” So, I focused on the smell, and it was like being transported to another era.  Try to smell in your mind a hundred campfires burning, the smoke and the smell wafting through the trees and over the marsh.  Listen for the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore, the rhythm of the water retreating and returning.  And, they said, “We never know what time it is.”  The dad clarified, “Except when we are hungry, we know it’s time to eat.”  “We fish for hours and maybe catch nothing but we are having a blast, together. We go on long hikes. The kids ride their bikes and we sit by the fire.” Quiet. Together.

Do you know what the “this” is that my friends did all day? Sabbath. Do you know what my friends were describing in their experience of the smells and sounds of smoke and waves and quiet? Shalom.  This is why God invited, no commanded, us to rest every seventh day.  Not because God knew we would be tired and needed to sleep in, but because God knew the Creation was so beautiful that, by just experiencing it in silence and in community, it could draw us closer to God, to our families, to our friends, to a whole new community.  Taking the time to be intentional in forming and keeping a camping community could create memories that will last a lifetime.  The laughs lifted up, the food and drink shared from camper to camper, this is how you make community. This is how you learn what it means to rest in the peace of God. It is not the experience of doing nothing. It is the experience of doing something together with no goal in mind other than “This.”

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Christmas in October or 'The Bells of Bartella'

I wonder why they didn’t destroy the bells?  The armed forces of the Islamic State desecrated the interior of St. Matthew’s Syriac Orthodox Church in the town of Bartella, located in northern Iraq, which had been the home of thousands of Assyrian Christians until two or so years ago. The Islamic State, according to news reports, had turned the church into some sort of training facility for their army. The floors are covered with filth, the hymnbooks are strewn about and the pews are no longer in their orderly formation.  There are other signs of destruction and defacing in and around the church, yet the church bells remain intact.  And yesterday, when the Iraqi forces freed the town and reclaimed the church, the sound of church bells rang across the liberated skies.

The bells rang messages to the world: the city is taken back from the enemy; the thousands of refugees may start to plan their return home; evil had lost a foothold; God is not dead.

I imagine that for at least some of those soldiers working for the Joint Operations Command, whether Christians or Muslims, this was what we might call “Christmas in October.” This was good news. It was more than one small victory in one small city. The opportunity to ring the church bells was an opportunity to send a message from God: “Do not doubt that God will win the battle.”

As I read the headlines in the newspapers and watch the nightly news it becomes tempting to conclude that God has given up on this world.  The litany of death and destruction caused by humans against humans is enough to cause one to give up any hope that there is a “Good” which is waging battle against “Evil.”  But then, even though it might not be lead story material, we hear that the bells of Bartella are ringing again.  I wonder if this is how God always invades history: small, even insignificant events in time are signs. Signs of hope. Signs that God is surely alive and acting.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."
(“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1867)

I know it’s only October.  But today, hearing the “Bells of Bartella”, I cannot help but think of Christmas.  If God seems “dead” to you today, keep listening for the bells. God promises that he will send you a sign. You may need to search in some remote village, but there, in a small stable, behind the animals, in a feeding trough, you will find your sign. And if you have lost the heart to search, which sometimes happens, please keep an ear open for the sound of bells.  Do you hear them peal, loud and deep? Keep listening…

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"Raking Leaves"

A confession: I hate doing yard work.  An admission: I have complained about and dodged yard work so much that my loving spouse has reduced my sentence to two days a year. Once in the spring and once in the fall.  An explanation: we have agreed to allocate a part of our discretionary income to paying people to cut the grass, shovel the snow, deal with the landscape. So, the money and time you spend fishing or hunting or camping, I spend on avoiding hard labor. So sue me.

But, today is one of the two days.  I anticipated this day all week, like the week before you know you have get a root canal. You cannot stop thinking about it. And now the day is here.  Look, I know you are thinking, “Oh poor baby” or “Cry me river, you wimp”, but, really, this is cutting into my time I should be reading and writing. Or golfing.  Or watching football. But today is here, and I need to face the reality that hours from now I will be sore in places I forgot I had muscles, and there will be blood shed, I fear, or at least blisters.

I need to stop writing now. I need to get out there and attack the dead and decaying stuff in my yard. I have someone standing at the door with two rakes in her hands looking at me with this strange, sinister smile.  “Here we go, honey.”  To prepare myself; to give my mind something on which to focus; to give this day some redeeming value, I will do my utter best to channel this poem:

Raking Leaves
There is something soothing about the scrape of a rake,
the rhythmic process of pulling dead leaves,
bending to pick them up, dumping them
in curbside lawn bags,
something soothing about the way the sun
warms your hair one of these last
seventy-degree days as you labor past
soreness in your arms, until you forget
emails to send, reports to file,
take-home work you left at the office,
until you forget the splendid mums will shrivel,
the tree that sheds now will wear nothing soon,
and you will curse the cold.

Brian Fanelli
Source: Waiting for the Dead to Speak from inward/outward

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Do You Have a Reservation?

We were planning a special Friday night out on the town, beginning at one of our favorite local restaurants.  They have a reservation “system” which allows you to call in during the day and reserve a table by leaving a message. When we arrived at the appointed hour we approached the hostess and announced our arrival.  The hostess announced, “I am sorry, we don’t have your name in our book.”  The usual “discussion” followed: we called and left a message; we are not saying you didn’t, but we still don’t have your name in the book; etc., etc.  No amount of talking was going to change the fact, our names were not in the reservation book, and it being a very busy night, there was just no way to get us a table.  We were turned away at the door.

During Rosh Hashanah, the time of celebration of the Jewish New Year, one of the traditions is to greet each other with wishes that a person’s name is written in the book of life.  According to Jewish tradition, there are three “books”: the book of life, the book of death, and the book for “doubters”, those who are unsure whether their lives have been lived sufficiently well to have earned inscription in the book of life.  For all of those whose names are sealed in the book of life there is joyful anticipation of the judgments that follow and the next festival, called Tabernacles, which is a feast of celebration and joy for all whose names are sealed in the book of life.  For those who are unsure, there is a time for repentance, a time to get your life in order so that your name can be written in the book of life.  So, for observant Jews, during Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to greet each other with words which amount to good wishes for an inscription into the book of life and for a good year. (source: Wikipedia, “Rosh Hashanah”)

I believe that there is a book of life, and that it amounts to a “reservation book” for God’s children to dwell with God in the life to come.  We are promised that the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem, which will appear when the New Heaven and the New Earth are revealed, will be “only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:27) 

But here is the thing, it is the “Lamb’s book of life.”  The Lamb, Jesus, does not write with a pencil that bears an eraser. The Lamb’s book is not smeared with erasures caused by cancellations.  The Lamb reservation system does not rely on you leaving a message on voice mail. 

In the biblical understanding of the names written in the book of life there is no “wishing” about it.  There is no concept of “living a better life this year” so as to earn an inscription.  When someone who knows Jesus says, “I hope my name is written there”, what they mean is “I know my name is written there, because my reservation was made for me by the Lamb.”  You can rest assured that you will not be turned away at the door.  You can know that you have a reservation at the Table for the celebration of a lifetime and beyond.  “Yes, I see your name right here! Your table is ready!”

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Happy Birthday, People!

This Saturday is, for our friends in the Jewish faith, the last weekend of the year.  Tomorrow, October 2, at sundown, the New Year begins.  (God-created time begins with sundown, not sunrise. Read Genesis 1:5 if you don’t believe me.)  So, on the first day of the 7th month of the biblical year, the Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah are observed. It begins with the blast of a shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn), and so it is a time also known as the Feast of Trumpets.  The trumpet announces the arrival of the time to celebrate the old being made new.

Some people believe that this day is the anniversary of the day God created humankind, namely, Adam and Eve.  We can argue about the meaning of the “six days” of Creation, and all that goes with it, but the thought that brings me joy today is this: humanity has a birthday, and we should celebrate it. October 2 is the day that God spoke the words that ushered in humanity,  which followed the days that God spoke the words which ushered in the globe on which humanity would walk, the Lights which would show them the way, and the animals and plants which would surround them.

“People” have a birthday.  There was a time there were no people. When I woke up this morning I was trying to picture what that must have looked like, when nothingness became the World and all that is in it. What was it like on the day when the rabbits and deer first saw Eve’s eyes admiring them; when the plants first felt Adam’s hands gathered  them up in the harvest?

Why doesn’t the Christian faith have a day to celebrate the birth of humanity? (There is a lot more to Rosh Hashanah than this, of course. Indeed, the Holy Days that follow are known as the Days of Awe, and it all ends with Yom Kippur,  the Day of Atonement. The holy days are filled with thoughts of the Book of Life, a topic to which I will return next Saturday.)

I wonder if Christianity’s lack of a day to celebrate humanity’s birth is because the Christian focus is not so much on what is as it is on what will be.  What the Christian expression of faith in One God adds to the Jewish expression of faith in that same One God is a focus on Hope.  We focus on the Hope that is found in the birth of the Creator who became a human.  We focus on the Hope that is found in the transformation of a new body after the old body dies.  And we focus on the Hope that this Old Earth will become the New Earth. We celebrate Genesis 1 and 2 by reading it through the lens of Revelation 21 and 22.  Go and read just the headings of those chapters and you will see what I mean.

So, yes, we should join our Jewish friends in the faith in helping them to celebrate the anniversary of humanity. Tomorrow night we should raise a “happy birthday, people” shout. I do believe there was a time when we “were not”, and I want to celebrate that we “are.”  But mostly, I want to celebrate the Hope that we “will be”.  Forever. Hallelujah. Sound the Trumpet!