Cosmos Threatened

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IMG_0802 Cosmos Threatened number 2

This hymn text was written in 2013, while I was re-reading Scott Weidensaul’s book “Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds,”  and is dedicated in appreciation of Scott’s writings. It may be sung to the tune Ebenezer.

Cosmos threatened, life in danger
Is there time to save it yet?
Can we hear the cries of nature;
And upon right paths be set?
God has made a good creation,
To provide our ev’ry need.
Can we now avoid the danger
Of destroying it with greed?

Lord, on knees we fall before you,
Filled with thankful gratitude
For rich blessings you have given
Latitude to latitude.
Singing warbler, rich rainforest,
Glacial ice and polar bear.
South and north is your creation,
Gifts of your great loving care.

Lift us, Lord, to new beginnings
To protect your cherished earth.
Fill our hearts, our minds, our actions
With your Spirit of new birth.
Grant that we may steward wisely
River, mountain, land and sea.
Keep us living in your image:
Caring for the wild and free.

Daydream on the Porch

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          On the hot, hazy days of summer, Jesse Christopher’s favorite activity was sitting on his front porch. Jesse would arrive home from work about 4:30 and eat supper. Then, newspaper in hand, he sat on his favorite porch chair. He paid special attention to the front page, the sports, and the comics. When he finished reading, he would set the paper aside, take off his glasses, and prop his feet on the front railing. Then his eyes would close. And in a state of semi-sleep, he would daydream of being a hero.

        In one daydream, he thought of the people who lived next door, Jim and Pat Elbertson. They were good and caring people.  Jim, an executive in local industry, had helped create jobs for the region. Outside of work, Jim volunteered his time to organize the local bloodmobile and to coach a Little League team. He was always willing to help in whatever way he could. His wife, Pat, was kept busy raising her three children: an infant, a six year old, and an eleven year old. Yet she also found time for community through involvement with the League of Women Voters, the United Way, and the PTA.

          Jim and Pat Elbertson were very good people.

        Jesse would sit on his front porch and daydream of rescuing them from death. He imagined their house on fire. He saw himself break in the front door, and begin to look for the family. He found the infant, and picked her up in his arms. Next he found the older children, and shouted, “Follow me!” Quickly he led them out of the house. But where were the parents?

         He went back into the house. He climbed the steps through the thick smoke. He kicked in a hot door. He found Jim wandering around, disoriented. Pat was lying on the floor, overcome by fumes.

         So Jesse saw himself lifting her over his shoulders, and taking Jim by the hand. Back down the smoke-filled stairs they went. They rushed through a wall of flame, so quickly that they barely felt the scorching heat. He burst through the front door, into the yard.
        In his daydream, Jesse had rescued one of the finest families in town. He would be praised as a hero, for risking his life, his very blood, to save such good people.         Jesse enjoyed his daydreams. But he didn’t always get to finish them. Some evenings, he would be interrupted by Ted.

        No one knew Ted’s last name. And nobody wanted to know Ted’s last name.     For that matter, no one really wanted to know Ted. He was one of those people everyone wished would just disappear.
        Ted’s beard was scraggly, and his hair came down to his shoulders. He was always wearing the same torn jeans, the same tattered sneakers, and the same ripped tee-shirt. He bathed rarely. And on the hot, hazy nights of summer, you could smell him approaching you.
        Ted was considered by most, if not all, a worthless bum. Parents told their children to stay away from him. Teenagers insulted one another by saying, “You’re a Ted!” Townspeople often called the police and demanded they do something about him. But the police could only shrug their shoulders. The most they could ever do was put him in jail overnight for public drunkenness.
        Ted might be offensive; he might be worthless; he might be a bum. But he had had never committed a major crime. (Although many people in the town swore up and down that he had to be drug dealer. How else could he get money to survive? He never held a job for more than two weeks. 

         Well, as I said, Ted would sometimes interrupt Jesse’s daydreams. Jesse would be relaxed, sitting on his porch, feet propped up on the railing. And along would come Ted, who sputtered out, “Whatcha’ doin’, Jesse, good buddy? Isn’t it terrible what’s going on in the world today?” And then he would begin one of his senseless, rambling tirades about current events.
           Jesse would listen until it became unbearable. Then he would reach into his pocket and hand Ted a dollar or two. Jesse knew it was the wrong thing to do; Ted would take the money and buy some cheap whiskey. But it was worth it to get rid of him. And as Ted staggered down the street, Jesse would think, “What a worthless excuse of a man. The world would never miss him if he were gone.

        Late one summer—on one of the last hot, hazy nights of that year—Jesse was sitting on the porch. He saw Ted coming down the other side of the street. From across the road, Ted yelled, “Hiyah, Jesse good buddy,” and he began to cross the street. Just then, a large truck came careening around the corner. It was going much too fast. Jesse yelled, “Ted, get out of the street!”
         But Ted froze. He just stood in the path of the onrushing truck. And then, more quickly than I can say this sentence, Jesse sprang from the porch. In a few steps he was in the street, pushing Ted out of the truck’s way.  But the truck caught Jesse, and hurled him through the air. He came crashing to the street. The blood poured from his side, and by the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. Jesse had bled to death.

        The people of the town were shocked and saddened. And they couldn’t understand it. Had Jesse given his life to save a good family like the Elbertson’s next door, his death would have made some sense. But to give his life for someone like Ted just didn’t make any sense at all.

        Except, of course, to Ted. The evening he was saved from the speeding truck, Ted sat on the curb all through the night. He just sat there, looking at the pool of blood which had flowed from Jesse’s side.

         And for days after, he came back each evening to look at the blood-stained street. He kept doing that, until the rain had washed away every trace of the blood.

         In the months which followed, Ted changed.

         He stopped drinking.

         He got a job—and kept it.

         He still wore jeans—but they were always clean.

         He still wore sneakers—but never a tattered pair.

         He still wore tee-shirts—but never the same one for more than a day at a time.

         Ted gradually became a caring and sensitive person.

         And people learned his last name: it’s Hawkins.

        It’s three decades or so since Ted was saved from that speeding truck.

         The townspeople now invite him to their cookouts on the hot, haze days of summer.

         Parents encourage their children to play with him in the park.

         Teenagers, when asked to list their local heroes, always include the name “Ted Hawkins.

        Ted is changed person. When you ask him why, he will say, “I used to be a no-good bum. But now I’m the one Jesse Christopher died for. I saw his blood lying there on the road. It was blood shed for me. And I knew I could never be the same again.”

The Trinity Bird

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towhee photo from sue schmoyer

(Photograph of Eastern Towhee by Sue Schmoyer; used with permission.)

This poem brings together the joy I find in both birding and in theology.

On spring days, Towhee,
I hear you sing,
“Drink your tea!”

And the theologian
In me also hears,
“Tri-ni-ty!”

Your April sound
Echoes through the woods,
Alerting us that spring is here.

It is fitting
That the time you appear
Is near Easter Day,

For you sing of hope:
The forest comes alive
After winter dormancy.

Towhee, not only in sound,
But in color,
You are the Trinity Bird:

Black for Good Friday,
White for Easter Sunday,
Rufous for Pentecost Day.

In appearance and song,
You bear witness to
Three-in-One, One-in-Three.

Your invitation to tea
Reminds me of the invitation
Of Jesus at Table:

“Come–eat–drink–
This is my body–
This is my blood–

“Given for you,
For all of you,
For all creation.”

Towhee, your words
And your colors
Are signs of God’s inclusive grace,

A grace which embraces
White, and black, and red,
And every shade of God’s creation.

 

A Child, a Dandelion, and God

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IMG_0775 dandelions

My granddaughter Zoe is now eight years old. She has touched my life with memorable moments, including the one described in this sermon from Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2010.

If you would know something about the eighth chapter of the book of Proverbs, spend time with a child. Proverbs 8 speaks of wisdom. Or rather, Wisdom speaks. This is one of the places in the Bible where “wisdom” does not refer to sayings or stories that instruct in good living. Rather, “Wisdom” here is a living being. Because the Hebrew word for wisdom is in the feminine form, it is sometimes translated “Lady Wisdom.”

Drawing upon Eugene Peterson’s “The Message,” here’s a portion of what Lady Wisdom says: “God made me before anything else. And so I was there when God created the earth, the oceans, the mountains, the sky. I saw all things come into being. Day after day I was there, with my joyful applause, always enjoying God’s company, delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family.”

“Lady Wisdom” tells us she was present at the beginning of all things, and saw God’s creation unfold. Of course, I did not see the beginning of God’s world. But I have been watching the creation of Zoe’s world. And in doing so, have seen something of “Lady Wisdom” and God’s creativity.

Zoe is my granddaughter, age one year, four months, eleven days. I spend a few hours with her each week. And recently, she showed me something of Proverbs, chapter 8. She and I were going for a walk. I said, “Zoe, there are no sidewalks here, so you absolutely must hold my hand.” She’s not always happy about that; she sometimes bolts and goes her own way. But this time she was very good about it. She never let go, not even when she suddenly stopped, leaned over, and picked a dandelion that had caught her attention. She carried the small flower as we continued our walk. A bit later, we turned around, and headed back the way we had come. When we reached the spot where she had picked the flower, she stopped, knelt, placed the flower on the grass, and gently patted it into the ground.

Given my overactive theological imagination, I could see her looking at me and saying, “There, that’s where it belongs! God planted it, we borrowed it for awhile to enjoy, and now it’s back in its place.”

Of course, I have no idea what Zoe was thinking. But it seems fair to say that something about the flower caught her attention and brought her delight. And it was fascinating that she put it back in the spot where she found it.

Spending time with a child opened my eyes anew to the eighth chapter of Proverbs. I was shown something of  “Lady Wisdom” and her delight in God’s world.

Proverbs 8 is a reading for Trinity Sunday because this day we stand in marvel before the mystery and marvel of God. The Feast of the Holy Trinity reminds us that we know only a tiny bit of the grandeur of the God we name One-in-Three, Three-in-One. This is a day we are reminded that no matter how old we may be, there is always more to know, new things to experience, and surprising joys to behold.

Sometimes I forget that. Sometimes I feel tired and old. Sometimes I lose sight of the mystery of the Trinity, and the marvel of creation. But a walk with a child opens me again to the delight and wonder that is all around us.

Seminary professor William P. Brown writes, ” . . . [A]ll knowledge and insight never arrive within a giving lifetime. The aged still have much to learn. As Wisdom’s growth begins in joy, may the wide-eyed delight of children never be lost on the wise. For in Wisdom’s eyes there are really no grown-ups. The quest for wisdom is ever ongoing, and progress on the path will always be marked with baby steps.”

Sometimes we fail to see the wonder of the world, and the One who made it. When that happens, walk with a child. Or at least, walk with child’s eyes. And you will be opened anew to the wonder of God.

To the joyous and astonishing mystery of the God we name Holy Trinity, be all honor and glory and power, forever and ever. Amen.

Front is Moving, Clouds are Breaking

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This hymn text, the first in a new blog category called “Nature/Raptor Writings,” was first sung in the summer of  2011 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Orwigsburg, PA. Dedicated in honor of hawk watching friends Laurie Goodrich and Ron Homa, it makes use of images drawn from many years of visiting Hawk Mountain. The text may be sung to Beethoven’s tune “Hymn to Joy.” 

Front is moving, clouds are breaking,
winds are coming from northwest
Birders wake up all attentive:
“These days are among the best.”
Climbing rocks of ancient making,
dancing from the rattlesnake;
Watching chipmunks run and scatter,
coming to the owl who’s fake.

Sitting down upon the lookout,
optics raised up to the eyes–
Patient waiting for what’s coming
soon to dot the sunny skies.
Coopers gliding, sharpshin flapping,
falcon racing through the sky.
Broadwing climbing, vulture rocking,
many birds to please the eye.

Eagles golden, and bald also,
make our hearts begin to race;
And the redtails now are coming
keeping up their steady pace.
Monarchs flitting, sometimes landing,
decorations on a tree;
And upon ground voles are skipping,
feasting on a meal for free.

Watch for showers here and there now,
leading to a rainbow sky.
Red and yellow; green and violet;
promise from our God on high:
“I have made this good  creation
that I vow not to destroy;
So I tell you, treat it gently,
precious gift now to enjoy.”

God’s creation filled with glory
of which Wisdom had first sight;
We may join with Wisdom also
in the laughter of delight.
So we lift up songs of praises
to the Holy Trinity:
“Thank you Father, Son, and Spirit
for the gifts of what we see.”

 

Thank you, Col. Arlean Miller

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IMG_0725 St. Peter Plainfiel Plaque

This plaque is in the church yard of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Plainfield Township (near Pen Argyl.)I’ll be at St. Peter’s on May 28, presiding at two worship Services, and participating in a ceremony at the plaque between the Services. In my sermon, printed  below, I’ll remember Col. Arlean Miller, United States Army Nurse. I was privileged to be Arlean’s pastor during the final years of her life. 

In the church year, today is called the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I think of it as a kind of in-between time. You see, this past Thursday was the church’s  festival of the Ascension. Although Ascension Day has fallen out of popular usage, it’s one of the church’s principle festivals, recalling the return of Jesus to the Father in heaven. At the time of the Ascension, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to the church. When the Spirit came, Jesus said, the church would be empowered to tell and live his good news. The promised Spirit came ten days after Ascension, on what we call the Day of Pentecost. During those ten days of in-between time, the followers of Jesus, says today’s First Reading, were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.

When I was a parish pastor, I would sometimes encourage my congregation to use these ten days of Ascensiontide as a time of prayer for the church’s mission. I would urge them to think about what we have received as the people of God, and how we might live faithfully as God’s people today.

This year, in the midst of Ascensiontide, falls the American civic holiday called Memorial Day. It, too, is a fitting time for thoughtful reflection, as we recall our nation’s heritage, and think about how we can live as responsible citizens.

This coincidence of Ascension and Memorial Day falling together cause me to ask, What’s the relationship between love of country and faith in God? How do the two fit together?

For some people, there’s an easy answer: God and country are the same thing. God favors us above all others.

That’s the answer many Americans gave in the years 1861-1865. Northerners said, “Slavery is an evil institution. God is on our side.” Southerners said, “Slavery is a divine institution. God is on our side.”

But at least one American, Abraham Lincoln, had trouble with such simplistic answers. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln, speaking of the two sides in the Civil War, said, “Both read from the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes the aid of God against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

Lincoln’s words remind me that a patriotism too sure of itself, too certain of itself, is a patriotism out of touch with the God of the Bible. For in God’s eyes, all people are beloved.

And so I find myself asking questions like: Is my patriotism too simplistic? Is it so centered on my own nation that it excludes the worthiness and value of other nations? How do I express patriotism in a way that both loves country and trusts God?

A few years ago, in attempting to deal with such questions, I wrote a hymn text for the occasion of the Day of Pentecost falling on Memorial Day weekend. The hymn attempts to lift up themes of both days. Also inspiring the text (especially the third stanza) was a conversation with a serviceman about the difficulties some soldiers have in transitioning back to civilian life, including those who suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome. The hymn as a whole is plea for peace in our troubled world. It says:

O, Spirit’s gentle power,
Come to our hurting earth
And fill the whole creation
With joy of your new birth.
Grant soon the prophets’ promise,
The way that you intend:
An earth filled with your justice,
Shalom that has no end.

Lord, we would honor heroes
By seeking what is right:
And so we pray for new times,
When nations cease to fight.
And for the men and women
Whose lives are on the line,
We pray they safely come home
To families left behind.

We pray for all the wounded
In body or in mind,
We ask your Spirit’s blessing,
In mercies that are kind.
Renew the scarred and broken,
Calm thoughts that will not rest;
Soothe bodies full of fever;
Bring peace to minds distressed.

Oh, hasten the time coming
When peace is drawing near,
And drive from ev’ry nation
The curse of war and fear.
O, Holy One, the Spirit
Save us from conflict’s strife,
And lead us into sharing
A Christ-like way of life.

After writing the hymn, I dedicated it in memory of Arlean Miller. Arlean had been a career Army nurse, retiring with the rank of Colonel. In retirement, she lived in her home town of Orwigsburg. During the final years of her life, I was privileged to be her pastor. We had many conversation, and I learned early on that she had been a nurse during the Viet Nam War. I always pictured her nursing wounded soldiers several miles behind the lines.

But one day, in another one of our talks, she was telling me the story of the time she was in a helicopter that was being shot at. I stopped her and said, “Shot at?” “Yes,” she said matter of factly. I still recall how shaken I was when she told me that. It’s  one thing to read stories about war. It’s another to sit face-to-face with someone who has experienced its danger.

Arlean died at the age of 85. I presided at her funeral, during which I said, “Arlean was a dyed-in-the-wool Orwigsburg Lutheran. She was proud of the town in which she grew up. She never wanted to be from anyplace else.

“And she was dedicated to being a Lutheran. She never wanted to be anything else. She was firm in her beliefs, and certain of where she was from. Yet she had this wonderful ability to move comfortably among people of other places and other beliefs. For example, she spoke often of her visits to her Baptist friends in Alabama. And locally, she volunteered in a Roman Catholic hospital, becoming great friends with the nuns.

“Arlean was patriotic to the core. Yet hers was not the thoughtless patriotism that assumes ‘My country is always right.’ Arlean was not afraid to be critical, and own up to the nation’s mistakes. Such patriotism is the best kind there is.

“She was deeply committed to the military, and to the men and women who served in it. Yet because she had seen first-hand what war does to minds and bodies, she knew the best solutions are not always military ones. On any given issue, you couldn’t assume what her opinion would be. She was not afraid to think things out.”

That’s who Arlean was: a faithful Christian, and a dedicated patriot, who gave deep and prayerful thought to what it meant to be both.

This weekend of Ascension and Memorial Day gives us much to think about; much to ponder what it is to follow Christ and to be loyal to country, and how those two allegiances fit together.

And during this time of prayerful thought, I give thanks for people like Colonel Arlean Miller, who struggle with issues of faith and patriotism; who know that love of country is not a blind love, but a love that calls for thoughtful discernment.

May we all be people of such discernment, seeking to build peace and understanding among the differing peoples of this world.  Amen

 

Baptism at the Stream

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In this eighth and final sermon of my series called “Jensi’s Story,” Jensi’s child is baptized in the presence of family and friends, who represent a variety of races, cultures, and faiths.

IMG_0612 Stream

We’ve been hearing the story of Jensi, who is expecting the birth of the child to be born to her and her late husband. I’m happy to announce that early one morning Jensi’s great-aunt called their pastor and said, “The baby is here, arriving late last night.”

         The pastor quickly set aside what he had been doing, and drove to the hospital. He knew he had to visit today, or he would miss Jensi. They don’t keep Moms and new-borns as long as they used to. And he really enjoyed visiting mothers who had recently given birth. They were exhausted, yes; but there was a glow about them that was delightful to see.

         During the visit, Jensi said, “Pastor, I have a request that may seem a bit strange. I was wondering if instead of having my child’s baptism at the church, we could have it at the stream along the trail?”

Jensi made that request because the voice of Jesus had spoken to her at the stream. The pastor didn’t know about that, though. Other than Aunt Elizabeth, Jensi had told no one about the voice.

         But from previous conversations, the pastor knew the stream was an important place for Jensi. She had many fond memories of special events that had occurred along that trail.

         He replied, “I’ve never done a baptism at a stream before. But I have taken confirmation classes there to renew our baptismal vows. So, sure, we can have the baptism there.”

         A few Sundays later, after worship at the church, several car loads of people made their way to the trailhead parking lot. There the procession to the bridge began. It was led by the pastor, a crucifer carrying a cross, and two acolytes carrying banners that moved in the gentle breeze. Then came Jensi pushing the stroller, with Aunt Elizabeth by her side.

         Right behind them were Jensi’s parents: white, Lutheran, of European ancestry. Next to them were Jensi’s father and mother-in-law: black, Roman Catholic, of African ancestry.

         In the procession were many members of her congregation, along with many of Jensi’s friends. These included Clint and Matt, the married couple who were actively involved in social outreach at a near-by congregation. Her next door neighbors, wearing traditional garb of their Hindu faith. Her child’s pediatrician, bearded, and wearing the turban of the Sikh religion. The Buddhist woman, from whom Jensi had learned the value of daily meditation. The Jewish rabbi who lived down the street from Jensi’s parents. The Muslim couple, who owned a store where Jensi shopped; she had first met them years before when her church had sponsored them as refugees fleeing from terror.

         And there was the children’s choir, skipping and hopping as they joyfully sang a baptismal song.

         Enjoying the spirited song, the procession made its way down the trail, and then at the bridge, stopped next to the stream.

         The Pastor looked at everyone, and said, “As I look out at this assembly today, I think of words spoken by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was preaching at a town above the Arctic Circle in Norway, in 1991. He said,

‘At home in South Africa I have sometimes said in big meetings where you have black and white together, ‘Raise your hands!’ Then I’ve said, ‘Move your hands,’ and I’ve said, ‘Look at your hands—different colors representing different people. You are the rainbow people of God. And you remember the rainbow in the Bible is the sign of peace. The rainbow is the sign of prosperity. We want peace, prosperity and justice and we can have it when all the people of God, the rainbow people of God, work together.’”

         Then the pastor said, “The rainbow people of God. What a wonderful image! We see it alive here, in this gathering. Most of us here for this baptism are Christians, but not all. Yet you have come to celebrate with Jensi and her child. Thank you for your presence. Thank you for being with us.

“Join us in the prayers as your conscience allows. And when you cannot with integrity join aloud in those prayers, pray silently in whatever way you can, asking God’s blessing upon this child.

         “And if what we do today seems puzzling, feel free to speak with me afterwards, and I’ll try my best to explain our rituals and actions to you.”

         Then the pastor went on to say, “Today Jensi’s child is joined to Jesus through the word and water of Holy Baptism, and so receives the command to follow Jesus. On the mount of Transfiguration, the voice of God spoke to Peter, James, and John about Jesus. The voice said, ‘This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.’

         “When we listen, what do we hear?  When the disciples wanted to dismiss a hungry crowd, Jesus said, ‘Do not send them away. You give them something to eat.’

         “When Jesus was asked, ‘what is the greatest commandment?’ he replied “Love the Lord your God with all your might and soul and strength.” That is, we are to be drawn ever more deeply into God.

         “And Jesus said, ‘A second commandment is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ And your neighbor, said Jesus, includes your enemy. And so we are to work to break down barriers which would separate us from one another.

         “And Jesus said, ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither toil nor reap, yet your Father in heaven provides for their need.’ And so we are to join with God in the good work of caring for creation.”

         As Jensi listened to the pastor, she recalled that the voice of Jesus had spoken to her at this stream, telling her that the child had a special role to play in God’s work, and that Jensi had a role to play in raising the child.

         When the pastor had finished speaking, he and Jensi, who carried the child, entered the stream. Scooping up water, the pastor poured it over the baby’s head three times, saying, “Jessica Corinne, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

         And so Jessica was joined to Jesus and to the community which bears his name. She would never hear the voice of her earthly father, who had died before her birth. But she will come to know her heavenly Father; she will hear the voice of Jesus; and she will be touched with the power of the Holy Spirit who will move her to draw people to God; to care for creation; to feed the hungry; and to build bridges that bring people together.   Amen.