“V” is for Vow (March 22, 2012)

…Opening To…

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation. Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving. (Johann Heermann, from The Hymnal 1982)

…Listening In…

When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The LORD is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven.  After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. He named that sacred place Bethel,though Luz was the city’s original name. Jacob made a solemn promise: “If God is with me and protects me on this trip I’m taking, and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return safely to my father’s household, then the LORD will be my God. This stone that I’ve set up as a sacred pillar will be God’s house, and of everything you give me I will give a tenth back to you.” (Genesis 28:16-22; context)

…Filling Up…

This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “V” is for vow. How often in our lives do we vow something? We might give assurances that we’ll get the paperwork done or promise to pick someone up after school, but we don’t “vow” to do these things.

Vows don’t happen too often – the solemn vow during the marriage service is the only one I can think of off the top of my head. Witnesses swear to tell the whole truth in court; government officials, new citizens, and military folks pledge to uphold the Constitution or obey officers. These are as close to “vows” as people make outside of the covenant of marriage. But the “solemn vow” of marriage is unique in society, and that makes it all the more special.

A vow is in a category by itself. It is neither time nor place specific. It covers more than the limited scenario during which one might make a promise. Indeed, a vow is not a promise, but the framework on which promises are hung. The vow in the marriage service begins “In the name of God.” The vow would mean nothing if God were not part of it. Just as the vow is the framework for all promises, God is the framework for the vow.

Have you ever vowed something? If so, how did the vow change your life? Was God a part of the vow? If not, how could you invite God to help you fulfill it?

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the source of all trust and confidence, and the foundation of all promises and vows. Help me to be unwavering in my fulfillment of every promise and vow I make. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, counting myself blessed that you would choose to make me the person I am and love me into the person I am becoming.

“U” is for Understanding (March 21, 2012)

…Opening To…

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation. Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving. (Johann Heermann, from The Hymnal 1982)

…Listening In…

The woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.’ ” (Genesis 3:2-3; context)

…Filling Up…

This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “U” is for Understanding. Usually, when we think of understanding we think of comprehension, of gaining knowledge that makes something clear. “She’s so understanding” means “She gets me, she knows what I’m going through.” “I don’t understand the math” means that some piece of knowledge or skill is eluding you.

These are perfectly good uses of the word “understanding.” But when we transport the word over to our talk about God, we can run into trouble. “I don’t understand God” clearly means that some piece of knowledge is eluding you. But unlike math, it’s not knowledge that you are likely to come by on this side of death. Lack of understanding is often cited as a reason people do not follow too far along the path of discipleship.

But there’s another way of looking at the word that turns things around. In fact, all you have to do is turn the word “understand” around. It becomes “stand under” in the sense of “these bridge supports stand under the bridge, holding it up and taking its weight.” Now the word applies not to our lack of understanding, but to God’s “standing under” us, supporting us, holding us up. We do not have to understand to believe. In fact, I’m pretty sure that God forbidding Adam and Eve from eating of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil is a fine indicator that we aren’t meant to understand everything. And that’s okay because no matter our limited understanding, God will always be standing under us.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the foundation of existence and the framework on which you are weaving my life. Help me to believe you despite my limited ability to understand. Help me to take that belief and turn it into action so that I can be an instrument that shows you standing under your creation. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, counting myself blessed that you would choose to make me the person I am and love me into the person I am becoming.

“B” is for Blessings (February 23, 2012)

…Opening To…

The glory of these forty days we celebrate with songs of praise; for Christ, through whom all things were made, himself has fasted and has prayed. (Hymn from the 6th century; trans. Maurice F. Bell)

…Listening In…

The LORD said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2; context)

…Filling Up…

This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “B” is for blessings. Grandmas tell us to count them. Football talk about them when they’ve won a big game. We use a different form of the word when someone sneezes. But what are “blessings?”

Well, it might be worth starting with what blessing is not. As my boss often says, “Don’t say you’re lucky, say you’re blessed.” Luck ascribes things happening to chance. Blessing ascribes them to God. People talk about good luck and bad luck. Chance favors those with good luck; not so much with the bad. But there’s no such thing as bad blessing. There are bad situations and tragedies but no bad blessings. There is blessing to be found in every situation and every tragedy. These blessings don’t necessarily minimize the pain and grief of the tragedy, but they do offer glimmers of hope. Sometimes the blessing is hidden until we are ready to see it, but the hope exists whether we notice it or not. The difference between luck and blessing is this hope: subscribe to a life of luck and hope rides on the flip of a coin or roll of dice, but subscribe to a life of blessing and hope rides on God.

There’s one more thing that separates luck from blessing, and that is permanence. Luck is fleeting, if it exists at all. But every blessing is permanent, no matter how quickly they may come or go. I urge you, then, to save them – remember them, write them down. Yesterday my blessings including playing music and embracing my wife. Each of these small blessings sinks down to fortify the bedrock of my soul. Remembering them helps me stay in relationship with the source of all blessing, and that is God.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the source of all blessing. Help me to seek out the blessing in all circumstances so that I may notice the glimmers of hope that exist in all situations. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, glad that you have given me the strength and the will to reflect on my journey with you.

Grander than Fact (January 31, 2012)

…Opening To…

The Bible is a harp with a thousand strings. Play on one to the exclusion of its relationship to the others, and you will develop discord. Play on all of them, keeping them in their places in the divine scale, and you will hear heavenly music all the time. (William P. White)

…Listening In…

The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. On the day the LORD God made earth and sky—before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the LORD God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land, though a stream rose from the earth and watered all of the fertile land—the LORD God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. (Genesis 2:1-7; context)

…Filling Up…

We come to day two of our five days with the Hebrew Scriptures. Today, we are going to touch briefly on the topic of “historicity”; that is, do the Hebrew Scriptures tell an accurate account of the history of the time with which they are concerned. (I’ll warn you: you may think by the end of this devo that I have avoided that question.)

Back in the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries, give or take), it became fashionable to try to figure out the factual basis for things. It was during this time that the idea of “fact” and the idea of “truth” were unfairly melded in a way they had never been before. This unfair melding still holds sway today: often when people ask for the truth, they really mean the fact. (Think about swearing in a courtroom.) So what’s the difference? Well, truth contains fact, but is not limited to it. Oftentimes, true things don’t much care about their own factuality because their focus is much wider and grander.

Okay, so what’s this have to do with the Hebrew Scriptures. Well, let’s focus in on the beginning of the first book, Genesis. Genesis contains two stories about the creation of the world (scholars tell us they come from different sources and both made it into the book). If one is factual, then the other must not be, right? Wrong. Neither creation story is concerned with fact. They are concerned with conveying the truth of God’s involvement with God’s creation. The first story uses the cosmic imagery of God creating and ordering the heavens. The second story uses the intimate imagery of God walking in the garden and sculpting the first human. Both stories tell the truth of God, which is always too big to fit in one, small point of view.

Expanding this idea to the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the texts do take a historical tone in many places. But, as one scholar points out, if anything in the Hebrew Scriptures is historically true (meaning factual), it is by accident. In other words, occasionally the Bible makes historical sense, but it is not limited to historicity. The Scriptures are concerned with the truth of God’s presence in the lives of the people of the nation of Israel. Oftentimes, this presence cannot be captured by the merely factual, but can be hinted at and pointed to by trying to speak the truth.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you created and ordered your creation, and you breath life into each one of your creatures. Help me always to seek after the truth of your Word, as it appears in the Bible in in my life. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, grateful for your presence throughout time and space, as recorded in the Bible and lived in my life.

Creation and pie

An ancient Good Housekeeping cookbook resides in the cabinet above the stove at my parents’ house. Whether it ever had a dusk jacket, I don’t know. Possibly, it was a victim of my childhood crusade against dusk jackets, a period of my life that my mother recalls grimacing every time she runs the feather duster over her shelves of first editions.goodhousekeeping I’ve never been sure why my mother has kept this volume around for so long, what with our constant moving from place to place; the book has been unshelved, boxed, unboxed, and reshelved at least two dozen times since she received it for a wedding present. She definitely doesn’t need the entire book. She only ever uses the pancake page, which has been warped and wrinkled by years of my enthusiastic stirring.

About five years ago, I discovered how glad I was that my mother retained the extraneous five hundred or so pages of the ancient cookbook. A few days before Christmas, I opened the refrigerator and freezer hoping that all the food I had already eaten that day had spontaneously reappeared so I could eat it again. This action was nothing new — I had been doing it several times a day for years, with little efficacy. But that time I noticed the apple pie, boxed and frozen, deposited sideways, squashed between the broccoli and my father’s ice cream quart collection

My shoulders slumped — how unexciting that the apple pie in the freezer would taste like all the other frozen apple pies from all the other Christmases and Thanksgivings and birthdays (yes, I had birthday pie). Since no new food had appeared, I closed the refrigerator’s doors. But a new idea had formed in my mind. I opened the cabinet and selected the ancient cookbook. It fell open to the batter-sodden pancake page, but I was in search of something new. The book’s spine creaked and cracked in protest as I forced it open to a new page, which sported the chapter heading: “Pies that Please.” How promising, I thought.

I wonder if, before the sixth day of creation, God opened the fridge and slumped her shoulders, bored by all the rocks and stars and fish he had been keeping fresh, ready for dispersal into creation. Sure, those rocks and stars and fish were all good, but their pages in God’s recipe book were warped and wrinkled by now. How about something new?

My experiment began with a moment of feverish self-doubt: my mother can’t make piecrust. As I read over the ingredient list, a nagging fear surfaced that I carried the same defective gene. What if I’m genetically unable to make pie? Flour and salt, shortening and water — these base pairs, in certain quantities and combinations, held the secret to flaky, golden-brown goodness. Could I succeed where my mother (and perhaps generations of Parsonses stricken by dough deficiency) had failed?

I pushed my chromosomal makeup out of my mind and began measuring, pouring, sifting, and cutting. I Jackson Pollocked flour all over the kitchen but managed to land two and a quarter cups of it in the correct bowl. Coaxing the Crisco into the mixture raised my blood pressure to stuffing-the-cat-in-the-cat-carrier-level, and only after several of the breaths I imagine they teach at Lamaze classes was I able to continue. Gradually, my flour/salt/Crisco mixture achieved the consistency of peas (a good sign, the recipe assured me), and I added the cold water. Now came the moment of truth. I pushed and prodded my concoction and said some desperate magic words under my breath, hoping by miraculous alchemy that the slimy mass before me would transform into heredity-denying dough.

I wonder whether God worried that her creation mixed from dust and breath might not turn out the way he expected. Would this experiment fail? Was making a being in the image and likeness of herself too complex a recipe? What if he had to start again from scratch?

The transformation worked. Where a bowl of sticky ingredients sat mocking me a minute before, a lump of dough now beckoned me to flatten it with my rolling pin. I placed the dough between two pieces of wax paper (I’m not sure where I picked up this trick — it was either instinct or the Food Network). Then I rolled out the crusts, making two circles my ninth grade geometry teacher would have been proud of.

Buoyed by my success with the crust, I decided to improvise the filling. After checking the oven temperature and baking time, I returned the ancient cookbook to the cabinet above the stove and began peeling apples. Seven or eight would do, I told myself. With a bag of brown sugar in one hand and a box of cinnamon in the other, I showered the cut apple pieces with sweetness. Then I hurried the filling into its pie tin bed and tucked in the top crust. A quick glaze of melted butter and a few knife slits on top and it was into the oven. For the next forty minutes, I paced and fretted like a father outside the delivery room.

I wonder that God gave me the ability to grow and the desire to create. God’s recipe was simple—dust and breath. The dust grows, remembering the earth and the deep things of those creation days that were called good. And the breath creates, remembering the heavens and the Spirit moving and creating and renewing.

Against all odds of genetics and pie-making virginity, my first apple pie succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. I usually take my parents’ compliments with a salt mine (they are my parents, after all), but my own taste buds confirmed their praise. I have tweaked my recipe and method since then, adding a few subtle spices and making sure to cover the crust with tin foil half way through baking. Though some are better than others, each pie is good (and only one — the famous “Lattice Crust Experiment” of 2007 — was an unmitigated failure).  And each pie pushes me to improve, to better my technique, to take the basics from that ancient cookbook and create. And create. And create.

The trapdoor in my gut

(Sermon for February 8, 2009 || Epiphany 5, Year B, RCL || Isaiah 40:21-31)

When I am engaged in a mundane activity—say, brushing my teeth or counting the bleary-eyed seconds until I hit snooze again or watching the digital numbers flick by on the counters at the gas station—the activity itself occupies only a tiny portion of my brain’s processing power. So the rest of my mind often wanders into other sections of my body. Sometimes, my mind meanders past my throat and lungs and finds its way down through that trapdoor in my gut. And I begin to ask those questions that make my gut twinge and pulse, like the feeling you get after narrowly avoiding a car accident.

I’ll be wrapping the floss around my fingers or anticipating the snap of the nozzle that signals a full tank of fuel, and I’ll look up at the sky and say, “Why do you care about me, Lord?” Then the cars will collide in my gut because, in that moment, everything I’ve ever believed is branded with a big red stamp of the word “FOOLISHNESS.”

Why do you care about me, Lord? This gut-twinging question doesn’t necessarily speculate on God’s existence. The question isn’t: “Do you exist, Lord?” There’s no reason to ask God if God exists. That would be like asking all the absent people in a classroom to raise their hands. Instead, the question acknowledges that God does, indeed, exist, but wonders why the heck God would ever care about an insignificant, messy, little thing like me. Of course, there’s no reason why God should care. This is truly first-rate foolishness.

The prophet Isaiah doesn’t help matters. He says, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing… To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.”

There’s a tension in our scriptures — a twofold presentation — about how God relates to us that feeds the pulsing in my gut. The dual stories of creation in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis illustrate this tension. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” says the first verse of Genesis. The narrative goes on to tell how God spoke creation into being. Creation was ordered: light separated from darkness, day from night, land from sea from sky. God orchestrated the emergence of life and proclaimed the creation “good” and, indeed, “very good.” This ordering, this filling the void with matter and energy and life and light, speaks of the Cosmic Creator, whose voice and arm stretch into the vast expanse of eternity. This is the understanding of God that Bette Midler promotes when she sings: “God is watching us from a distance.” This is the understanding of God that the Enlightenment era Deists caricatured as a great Watchmaker, who set the gears running and then left well enough alone.

The second chapter of Genesis presents another view of this same creative God. God is not standing at the podium, waving a baton as the performing forces of creation harmonize the music of life. In the second story, God, rather the being the conductor, is the instrumentalist: God plays each violin and French horn and clarinet. “In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” says Genesis, God bent down in the dust and formed a human being. Then, into his nostrils, God breathed the “breath of life.” When the human became lonely, God put him to sleep, and out of the man’s own flesh God created another human being. As the story continues, the man and woman heard God “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” This movement and participation in the creation, this intimacy, speak of the God who eventually becomes incarnate as the word made flesh, Jesus Christ. This is the understanding of God that Joan Osbourne wonders about when she sings: “What if God was one of us…just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?” This is the understanding of God that the old hymn describes: “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”

The tension between our understanding of God as “Cosmic Creator” and as “Intimate Companion” brings us back to the gut-twinging question: “Why do you care about me, Lord?” In those moments of existential angst, the Cosmic Creator easily trumps the Intimate Companion because the former seems so much bigger, holier, more powerful. When my gut compares the two, the latter seems somehow lessened by my own shabbiness.

And this misguided transfer of shabbiness is difficult to suspend. Human nature dictates that we narcissistically use ourselves as the measuring sticks by which other things are evaluated. Our ability to reason, manufacture tools, and put our thoughts into speech elevates us above other animals. We then use these factors to order other species by “intelligence.” Chimpanzees eat using rudimentary utensils. Dolphins communicate with their cackling code. Therefore, based on the anthropomorphic scale, these creatures are closer to our presumed preeminence.

But the scale works the other way, as well. Our penchants for betrayal, mistrust, indifference and our well-rehearsed disregard for the welfare of others knock a bleaker set of notches into the measuring stick. When the gut-twinging question surfaces – “Why do you care about me, Lord? – these regrettable attributes emigrate from our world and narcissistically modify our understanding of God.

Having thus remade God in my own lamentable image, the collision in my gut worsens. The Cosmic Creator looks down and sees a bunch of tiny grasshoppers, so why should that God be bothered? The Intimate Companion is probably just as apathetic and self-centered as I am, so why should that God care?

Do you see the twisted, oxymoronic reasoning that leads to these conclusions? The gut-twinging question appears when I notice my own laughable insignificance. At the same time, I use myself as the measuring stick for which to assess God’s motivation to care about me. This logic definitely deserves the red FOOLISHNESS stamp.

You see, when the prophet Isaiah expounds on God’s greatness and ineffability, he is not extolling God’s distance and isolation. Instead, he is warning people not to engage in the foolish business of looking for God in the mirror. The Holy One says, “To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” The answer is quite obviously a resounding “NO ONE!” When you escape the twisted logic that seeks to anthropomorphize God, you are one step closer to resolving the gut-twinging question – “Why do you care about me, Lord?”

God as Cosmic Creator, who “stretches out the heavens like a curtain,” did not need a reason to speak creation into being. I might need a reason to build a bookcase or compose a letter, but God doesn’t need to share my motivations. If God did not need a reason to create, why would that same creator need a reason to care about us insignificant grasshoppers? God’s very greatness subsumes the “Why” question into God’s eternal being and renders it irrelevant. With the “Why” expunged, the gut-twinging question becomes a glorious statement of faith: “You care about me, Lord.”

You care about me, Lord. When I finally realize this, I notice that God as Intimate Companion has been whispering these words in my ear the whole time. Then I realize that God’s care for me (another word for which is grace) enables and enthuses me to care for others. The penchant for betrayal and disregard for others’ welfare, once unfairly plastered onto God’s being, now fall away as God continues to make me in God’s own image.

Our world is vast and full of questions. We are insignificant. We are messy. We are little things. But God’s vastness stretches into eternity. In staggering showers of grace-filled generosity, God both answers and removes the need to question. In those same showers falls the gift of sanctifying love, which removes our insignificance and scrubs us cleans. As we discern the Cosmic Creator and Intimate Companion in the same loving face of God, more words from the prophet Isaiah resound: “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”