Saturday, December 14, 2013

Soul Stirrings

We often see only what we expect to see: familiar routines can restrict the flow of creative juices and obstruct our vision of even the most ordinary sights. Sometimes a step back and a pause can help us see better.

Leaving a doorway I have exited countless time in the last 32 years, I stood squarely and raised my phone to record the picture in the aperture of my camera.  I had never realized the Victorian house that has stood on this corner since 1889 fit cozily within the frame of open doors. I stopped long enough to pause and take a closer look. It only cost a few moments. How often I need to do that in the course of an ordinary day: pause, refocus and see things from a fresh perspective.

Taking time to see rightly may take just that: time.

I take a lesson in seeing rightly from one the world said is blind. 

They took away what should have been my eyes

(But I remembered Milton's Paradise).

They took away what should have been my ears,

(Beethoven came and wiped away my tears).

They took away what should have been my tongue,

(But I had talked with God when I was young).

He would not let them take away my soul -

Possessing that, I still possess the whole.

-Helen Keller

Helen Keller writes of losing her sight and hearing using the phrase "they took away." Such an immense loss at only 19 months of age must have been utterly confusing for little Helen and her parents. She spent the next four years blind, deaf, and unable to speak and was said to be half-wild. 

Can we imagine the trauma this family experienced? There were no social supports or schools in the late 1880's to offer help for them.

But a miracle worker emerged who relentlessly and passionately gave herself to the child, defying all odds, to teach language and communication to Helen through her fingertips. 

The breakthrough moment arrived with the pumping of w-a-t-e-r splashing onto Helen Keller's outstretched hand. Anne Sullivan stayed with her through childhood, adolescence, even through college at Radcliffe where Helen graduated cum laude in 1904 with Anne interpreting all lectures and class discussions.

Helen later traveled the world lecturing in 25 countries and bringing hope to millions of blind and deaf people.

Though we may marvel that one person could do so much, we quickly remember that it was not one, but at least two--two passionate, dedicated people who would not let no be an obstacle.

Upon re-reading her lines above days later, I am struck by something new that was not apparent initially. She refers to her lost senses not as "my sight" or "my speech", but as "what should have been my sight." Do we catch the difference? 

For all appearances, she had lost each one, but her declaration is that in entrusting her soul to God, she still possessed the whole. 

The essence of Helen Keller was intact.

How beautiful.

We may have the sense of sight and be able to hear ambient sound, yet many of us are still living in darkness.

We see, but have no vision. 

We hear, but do not listen. 

We tune out a call for self-denial and resist the whisper of a still, small voice.

May we consider the weight of this strong Southern woman's words over 100 years later as a point for thought when we are tempted to complain of all that we do not have. May we remember that there is unbridled beauty in even the most bleak circumstance if we look beyond our limitations. 

And how do we define our limitations? How do we set the boundary of what we cannot do? What would we do if we were not afraid of failing?

Let us not have our limitations define us. What a reminder her words present in a human example: think back to what we know first! If Helen Keller can find joy and power and inspiration and vision summed up in her brief words above, surely we can take courage and face our day with renewed grace and power from God's Presence.

Sometimes those who do not have a crisis looming or a huge, identifiable loss are the very ones living in the darkness.

We can become so acclimated to low-light conditions and low-level living that we are unaware that we move through our days with self-imposed limitations and unexamined minds. May light and truth penetrate our hearts as God 'draws in our palms' the message of unconditional love....of living w-a-t-e-r...and awakens our souls to live with the mighty power God provides.

At this season of Advent and in the midst of retail flurry where I am engaged daily in the course of business, I need that pause that refreshes. I need a counterweight to offset the press of the marketplace tipping the scale out of balance in my life.

So I offer words of a call to worship this week:

Come once more, with eager longing, to receive the promises of God.
Out of the desert places of our lives, we gather with joy and gladness. 
Our God has promised that lonely places and deserts will be glad and blossom as the rose.
 The Lord has promised that the blind with be able to see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy.
Our God, who made heaven and earth and all that is in them, keeps faith forever God sets the prisoners free and brings healing to all who seek him.
 The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down and watches over strangers. The Lord upholds the orphan and the widow. Our  God executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. 
Come once more with eager longing and bless the holy name of our God.

(Some portions reprinted from previous post on the subject.)
Photo of Galloway House.  Dating to 1889, this beautiful home was built for Bishop Charles Betts Galloway, an internationally known preacher of the Methodist faith and longtime head of the Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church, which is located across the street. Author of many books on religion, history and temperance, Galloway was a secular celebrity for many years and his sermons were said to be legendary. This two-story frame Victorian was constructed in the Second Empire style. The building was renovated in 1983 and now houses the offices of several lawyers.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Aslan is on the Move

“Aslan is a lion--the Lion, the great Lion." 

"Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"...

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

 C.S. Lewis is both poet and apologist: He is profoundly shaped by imagination and grounded in faith and rational argument. And he, like Aslan, is on the move in a sense into the South Transept of Westminster Abbey later this month.

Oxford novelist, literary critic, and apologist C.S. Lewis died 50  years ago, and his writings resound through the decades to teach and to encourage. Lewis believed that knowledge itself was fundamentally poetic— meaning shaped by the imagination. His was a creative genius using illustrations painted with words to communicate philosophy and truth. His approach to commending and defending the Christian faith still lights the way for us today. 


 "Every year you grow you will find me bigger." Aslan

 Aslan, the lion of Narnia, is often said to be 'on the move' as he communicates powerfully a story of divine seeking and provision.  Lewis's series The Chronicles of Narnia has entertained and educated people of all ages. If one would understand a great truth, distil it to its essence and tell it to a child.

His great strength, many say, was his ability to present Christianity both rationally and imaginatively. His rational approach is seen in The Abolition of Man, Miracles, and Mere Christianity. Those who are say they open-minded, if they truly are, will make room for considering the case for faith Lewis makes by reading carefully these works.  

Surprised by Joy contains more about the atheistic and agnostic viewpoint which he had proudly held as truth before he became a believer in Jesus as the son of God--quite a leap, but not at all an emotional experience as many characterize it today.

“Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

 “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — "Bibles laid open, millions of surprises," as Herbert says, "fine nets and stratagems." God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
― C.S. Lewis,
Surprised by Joy

Some of his works are non-theological and are devoted to his scholarly probing of the meaning of words and instructions on careful crafting of literature, as in The Allegory of Love.

Two powerful works that plumb the depth of despair that is an essential part of the human experience are The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, written twenty years later.

A Grief Observed is his reflection on the process of grieving for his wife who died of cancer after three years of marriage. His journal entries throughout the months following her death honestly describe his anger and bewilderment at God, his observations of his impressions of life without his beloved Joy, or H (for Helen) as he refers to her, and his process of moving in and out of stages of grieving and remembering her. His growth through pain,  his redefinition of his own characterization of God, and his ability to live gratefully for the gift of a rare true love, ring clearly in this work. This work was troubling for some because the intensity of his grief and profound loss caused him to question what he understood about God.

He is not alone. I believe that such a place of questioning comes to most of us: that time when we reckon with the veracity of that which we always thought to be true. 

There comes a time when we need to know what is bedrock and what is a merely a lovely platitude, but will no longer support the weight of a grief-stricken soul.

What is real, and what is shifting sand or a pacifying illusion? 

The death of illusion is not without value. That which is real can clearly be seen when that which was only illusion falls away, crumbled. If we are seeking the revealing of truth, much that is false must fall away.

The faith we hold and that Lewis recounts will withstand the strictest scrutiny, the closest inspection. What we believe matters. Our 'picture of God' underpinning our beliefs is flawed when we apply to it a saccharine coating--sweet but of no nutritive value--or when our cultural understanding shapes God in our own image.

Those who struggle with the claims of Christ but remain open-minded have pursued Lewis's writings, as well as those of G.K. Chesterton from the former days, and contemporary authors Maxie Dunnam, Ravi Zacharias and Tim Keller among others who embrace varying points of view in their professing Christ. Each of these has helped shape my understanding.

A memorial to Lewis will be unveiled in Poets Corner in the  South Transept of Westminster Abbey on November 22, 2013, honoring his place in history and memorializing his scholarly  contributions. It is fitting that the public announcement of this event says, "all are welcome to attend."

All are welcome indeed: that is what this search for life and faith and meaning is all about. All are invited to have a seat at the table, a place at the feast. The invitation from the Lord God to each of us is not based upon erudition, nobility, education, perfection, goodness, generosity or any measure or condition other than the contrite heart that can answer 'yes'.


 Happy Birthday, C.S. Lewis. And thank you.



Official announcement follows:

C S Lewis Symposium and Commemoration

Thursday 21st and Friday 22nd November 2013
St Margaret’s Church and Westminster Abbey

On the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C S Lewis, Westminster Abbey Institute hosts a series of events marking his career as one of the 20th century's most notable Christian writers and thinkers. As well as celebrating Lewis's remarkable achievements as a writer of fiction, apologetics and scholarship, the series will look at the question of how, in the 21st century, his example may be emulated and his legacy continued.
On Thursday 21st November, Alister McGrath and Malcolm Guite will deliver lectures examining Lewis's philosophical and fictional approaches to communicating the Christian faith.  Michael Ward will chair a panel discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Lewis's various endeavours and taking questions from the conferees. On the panel with be novelist Jeanette Sears, theologian Judith Wolfe, and apologists William Lane Craig, Peter S. Williams, and Michael Ramsden.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

What We Need When Life is a Blurr

 Sometimes we move through life on autopilot seeing only what we expect to see. Then something holds our gaze long enough for our brains to tune in to the moment. Part of living fully in the present is to be more aware of our surroundings and grateful for unacknowledged gifts. I find that such an attentiveness helps me daily.

But I do not always do it well...


Was that you, Lord, in the lady with the purple coat?

She wore purple with a red cap shielding her from the rain. Robed in purple, topped with crimson: a royal image, I recalled.

She hobbled clutching her cane in her right hand, pushing a three-wheeled cart with her left, wobbling upright with each step, with her bag swinging as a pendulum from the elbow. She looked right at home leaving the bus station or making her way through an airport terminal but not here—not in my part of town. I waited at the light as she crossed.

We say we are mindful of your Presence among us, Lord, but are we really? We usually see what we expect to see while on our way to work on a busy morning.  Predictable routines leave little time for unexpected sightings of glory.

Then again, you show up at unexpected places. I heard myself ask aloud to no one present, “Was that you, Lord?”

She caught my eye, but did I stop to see if I could help? No. She was a stranger, and I was on my way to somewhere else.

Aren't we always on the way to somewhere else when you break through our day and beckon for our attention? We need you to make it clear, Lord, if we are to step aside and see a great sight. I have this rule, you see, a rule that I do not pick up strangers. I'm afraid of taking them into my car for some perfectly good reasons you would understand. But sometimes we need to set aside our closely-held rules, else we just go on about our business, living by our own rules--kind of like I just did today when I saw her brown skin glistening wet from the morning rain on her purple coat.

This mental conversation filled the space of a glimpse, just the time it takes for the light to glow red then green. But a glimpse is all we have sometimes, is it not?

 Just a brush with glory. 

A brief visitation. 

A few seconds should be enough when we walk closely enough with you to recognize when you have a task for us to relieve suffering, to lighten another's load. But we can be so encumbered with our own cares as I was this morning that we cannot see another's.

We may miss the message.

We may not see you when you show up at times and places we are not expecting.

And I was strongly impressed with the reminder to look for you in the faces of the hurting, the aged, the lonely, the foreigner among us. The glimpse turned me inside out. My little morning sadness about other concerns vanished in a breath--the breath that I took in as I asked aloud, “Was that you, Lord?"

You give us our next breath, and you take it away. You take it away with beauty, nature and music, and you take it away with pain. And in that split second when we inhale silently and take in the sight before us, you remind us you are present. God with us.

So, yes, perhaps that was you, Lord, not transfigured at all but mysteriously present in the realigning of my thoughts and the shuffling of my priorities so that I might see more fully those around me.

Later my friend told me of an auto accident near the highway. An ambulance’s blue lights held waiting cars at bay while an upturned cart sat spinning silently at the edge of the road. I wondered if I had seen her earlier, but I was on my way to somewhere else.

On the way to somewhere else: that’s where much of life happens.

 Lord, speak to our hearts. Interrupt our days of ordinary sights and sounds so that we do not miss an opportunity to serve.

To you O Lord, I lift my soul. Show me your paths and teach me to follow;
guide me by your truth and instruct me.
Psalm 25: 1, 4

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Surprising Stop on the A Train

I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.

~L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

This beautiful October Saturday's harvest festival featured pie contests, cake walks, live music, scarecrow decorating, children's activities and fun for all. Ahhhh, I do love a good fall festival, and this was one of the best.

Two things were surprising here: These photos were taken at the last stop of the A Train north of NYC just outside The Cloisters--hardly the location of a Deep South State Fair or a church carnival.

Secondly, the food was all complimentary.  Abundant, beautiful, carefully prepared and presented food--free for all. Homemade cinnamon sugar donuts.  Cookies of every kind. Brownies. Apple cider. The welcome sign meant just that. We knew no one there, and we were still welcome.

Just a delightful scene to come upon when I least expected it. We were on the way to somewhere else when we encountered the merriment. It beckoned us in.

I left wondering if our churches could be a little more inviting to those who venture near. 
Do we send the clear message that all are welcome, no matter who they are? 
Do we share with others as abundantly as we have received from our Heavenly Father's bounty--extending forgiveness without price, offering our best we can prepare in our relationships, not waiting to see what we can exchange in return?

That's the simple beauty of a fall festival: it's all about a community's celebrating the yield of the kitchen or the crops and enjoying October blue skies at their best. A wonderful precursor to Thanksgiving, October festivals serve as our warm up act for a season of giving thanks. Just to get the juices flowing, if you will. 

Thanksgiving is not merely a holiday; it is a way of life. Let us live as those who are willing to welcome others as we share what we have, especially in the life of faith.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Imagining the Future

How did we imagine life would unfold 100 years in the future? 

Those who remember The Wonderful World of Disney saw teasing glimpses of Disneyland’s House of the Future, a plastic Monsanto marvel made in 1957 with no natural materials--and they boasted about that.  It was short-lived, surviving only a decade before destruction and obsolescence. 

Disneyworld’s Dream Home came later with silhouettes of the previous model tucked inside like drawings from Hidden Pictures of Highlights magazine. It featured automatic lights, cameras watching inside and outdoors, and wall-mounted TV screens in every room. 

Preposterous, many said: That will never happen.

Now flash back to 1962. Feeding the national fascination with space, ABC chose for its first color broadcast an animated series for adults. What was this seminal work set in 2062?  Hardly a heavyweight documentary, The Jetsons with George and Jane atop their Skypad apartment celebrated its 51st birthday this week. Teaming with his boy Elroy, Judy, Rosey the robot and Astro, ABC gave us episodes from a future we are blitzing toward with the speed of a flung Spacely sprocket.
2062 is not so far away; in fact, we are halfway there.   

The Jetsons might be merely a footnote on the 1960s cultural landscape, but I discovered a cult following. What can this show teach us?

The Jetsons’ anniversary this week is a simple—very simple--visual reminder of the human tendency to create a new thing in our own image.  The producers imagined a distant century but reflected the norms of its time. Do we not do the same? Myopic or distorted or blemished, our lenses inform the way we view life.

Seeing and interpreting the future through 1960s lenses, for example, they gave us turn-knob technology rather than touch screen digital operation.

Transistor radios were all the rage in the 60s. If we could reach all the way to WTIX in New Orleans on our AM dial or KAAY or WNOE FM at night, maybe a Dick Tracy video watch would not be far behind. After all, we could rotate the TV antenna outside to pick up new stations, offering a vast improvement over aluminum foil crimped around rabbit ears. 

They created Jane Jetson, homemaker, reflecting the domestic scenery of the time because that’s what most women did. The family’s robot housekeeper merged images of a steel tank and a French maid in black skirt, apron and dainty white cap with a feather duster. Now we know feathers move the dust around; microfiber or wool captures it. A real robot or real homemaker would know this. But the duster is an image—cliché perhaps—for their depiction of Rosey. We, too, communicate in visual shorthand using images that pack an unspoken punch. Lapel pins and bumper stickers have given way to social media icons, donkeys and elephants.

What we and the Jetsons’ creators could not accurately foresee, however, was the concept of the internet and instantaneous worldwide communication. Some things are just too big to imagine; They exceed our capacity for taking in so expansive and new a concept .

Flying with a jet-propelled back pack, hovering in personal spacecrafts, living among the planets have been the stuff of Disney and science fiction for years. People are curious about what lies beyond our horizon.

Developing vivid imaginations and pursuing knowledge are worthwhile, stretching our capacity for human understanding. We yearn to understand how things fit together and to reconcile discord. And how often do people cry out in times of heartache or distress, “I just don’t understand…” 

It serves to remind me that there are some things in life we’re just not meant to understand.

 Understanding may offer wisdom or discernment.

 Understanding may bring a measure of satisfaction.

 But understanding alone will never bring us Peace. 

The human drive to figure things out—even to control our circumstances and master our lives—can propel us in a circuitous maze whether in 1962 or 2062. Rather than live frenzied lives in futility, we can make a mid-course correction halfway to an unseen future. We can trust our present and future to the only One who is not bound by our human limitations of time and space, who offers Peace in God’s very Presence. 

We can never understand our way into that kind of love. It’s out of this world.

(Reality, not imagined, as photographed by the Hubble telescope.)

 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through the Spirit in your inner being,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  
Ephesians 3:16-19