The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough. ~Ezra Pound “In a Station of the Metro”
All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the Lord endures forever. 1Peter 1:24-25
We won’t be visiting Japan this spring as we have the past several years – we were there over Christmas to meet a new grandson and with the specter of coronavirus has dampened any desire to travel. There are millions of people there and here wondering how this new reality will impact their daily lives. It already has: the store shelves are bare of basic necessities as nervous families stockpile.
In the past, during our time in Tokyo, we are overwhelmed by the sea of faces — each man, woman and child with a place to go to work or school, a place to return home to, a bed to rest upon. Millions pass through the same place in one day and each person, each hair on their head, is cared for and counted by God.
Yet, we are like the transient flowers, reminded again by the emergence of a potentially lethal viral protein packet: we are mortal, each of us, in our clinging like petals to a wet bough – the word of the Lord, our Creator. Only then we become more than apparition. We bloom where God has planted us.
This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:
God sees us as we are, loves us as we are, and accepts us as we are. But by His grace, He does not leave us where we are. ~Tim Keller
1. In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
2. In Christ shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find; his service is the golden cord close binding humankind.
3. Join hands, companions in the faith, whate’er your race may be! Who loves and serves the one in him, throughout the whole wide earth.
4. In Christ now meet both east and west; in him meet south and north, all Christly souls are one in him throughout the whole wide earth. ~William Dunkerley
We Christians are often rightfully accused of being judgmental and unwilling to consider other points of view. We can be the first to criticize another Christian of being unfaithful or heretical, not following doctrine and creeds, or being too liberal or too conservative or just too plain stubborn.
I’ve done it myself (doing it now in this post!) and have received more than my share of mean-spirited, even hateful, messages from Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with my point of view on some issue. Christians can tend to revel in eating their own.
When I’m tempted to judge lest I be judged, I remember who Christ hung out with: the cast offs and most undesirable people in society. They were surely more receptive to His message than those who believed they knew better than Him, who questioned His actions and motives, and who plotted against Him behind His back.
We need reminding that Christ isn’t more present in one political party over another, one denomination or faith community over another, one zip code over another, or in one racial or ethnic group over another.
We, east and west, north and south, constitute His body on earth, we dwell fully in His image just as we were created to be. It is only through His loving Spirit we are brought home where we belong, back to the center from the fraying edges of our faith.
Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery — those moments when we suddenly know there is a God about whom we “know” absolutely nothing –– accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives.
And more crucially: definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots. ~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. ~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk
Unexpected God, your advent alarms us. Wake us from drowsy worship, from the sleep that neglects love, and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. Awaken us now to your coming, and bend our angers into your peace. Amen. ~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent
We are only a few weeks away from the beginning of Advent, a time when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of Christmas Eve’s silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.
The reality, I’m confident, was far different.
There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver. There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets. There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered. There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son. There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry: itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days, owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples, sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured and hung on a cross until he took his last breath.
Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven, and back again someday. No signal flares needed there.
When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who will never ever save oneself. We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on. It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the radical mystery of God.
It is not for the faint of heart, this finding a “definite belief” within our ordinary unmysterious lives and giving it deep roots to thrive. It is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.
Skin was earth; it was soil.
I could see, even on my own skin,
the joined trapezoids of dust specks God had wetted and stuck with his spit
the morning he made Adam from dirt.
Now, all these generations later,
we people could still see on our skin
the inherited prints of the dust specks of Eden. ~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood
A goodly portion of my work as a physician is spent looking at my patients’ skin. Most of the time, it is a quick assessment of color, moisture and texture before I go on to concentrate on the chief complaint that brought the patient in. However, skin concerns frequently are the chief complaint — perhaps as straight forward as an abrasion or laceration, or a puzzling bump, an oozing sore, a total body itch, or an ominous pigmented lesion.
I feel like Sherlock Holmes when I focus on a patient’s outer covering in magnified detail. I assume the identity of detective, inspector and archeologist all at once, trying to discern what is taking place on or beneath a piece of dermatologic geography.
No matter what the diagnosis or the treatment plan, I’m continually awestruck by the topography of skin. This supple landscape is made up of trapezoidal specks connected one to another, just like the soil upon which I tread. Skin cells are in a state of constant renewal, the dead and discarded falling off to rejoin the dust from which it came.
This elaborate matrix of collagen and keratin is the foundation for our scaffolding and our shroud.
His spit provides the superglue: the rivets, the bolts and the nails that bind us together for a lifetime, creating us to be far more than a mere pile of random dust specks.
Imagine yourself in a big city in a crowd of people. What it would be like to see all the people in the crowd like Jesus does — an anonymous crowd with old ones and young one, fat ones and thin ones, attractive ones and ugly ones—think what it would be like to love them. If our faith is true, if there is a God, and if God loves, he loves each one of those. Try to see them as loved. And then try to see them, these faces, as loved by you. What would it be like to love these people, to love these faces — the lovable faces, the kind faces, gentle compassionate faces? That’s not so hard. But there are lots of other faces — disagreeable faces, frightening faces, frightened faces, cruel faces, closed faces. …they are all peculiar treasures. In Exodus, God said to Israel, “You shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people.” God meant it for all of us.
~Frederick Buechner from The Remarkable Ordinary
It doesn’t take long for us to be overwhelmed by humanity when we visit our family in Tokyo. The airport is a shock of weaving lines of weary people and crying children, the trains are packed with people standing like sardines for an hour or more on their commute, the stations are a sea of bobbing heads flowing out onto the streets where the cross walks become a mass hive of activity whenever the light changes.
Yet we’ve been struck by the effort some locals make to help us foreigners who look lost, or who simply look different. There is outreach at times that is spontaneous, genuine and completely unexpected. Those are easy faces to love and we do. What is much much harder to is love those hundreds of thousands who pass by us on their way to work, to shop, to return home. How can I even begin to have the capacity?
What greeted Jesus as he entered the city in that final week was not friendly faces. He loved them all any way, every single one of them peculiar treasures to him, forgiven and redeemed.
I realize I’m not very friendly too much of the time. Yet he still loves me too, flaws and all, as his redeeming grace is meant for one such as me. Because of his love, I can become the real thing, not just a reflection of what I think I should be.
Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.
…Listening to great music, or reading great literature, an inner rhythm is detected and the heart rejoices, and a light breaks which is none other than God’s love shining through all of creation. ~Malcolm Muggeridge from his lecture “Christ and the Media”
For Lent this year, each day will be devoted to a story Jesus told –his parables–
to help each of us “get the message” in a way we might not otherwise.
Whether about a lost coin, a wandering sheep, a light hidden from view,
or a hypercritical older brother: the parable told is about me and choices I make.
Every day is filled with stories told
and I feel too rushed to listen,
to take time for transformation
by what I see or feel or hear,
no matter how seemingly
small and insignificant.
When I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:
A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.
An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
An old barn roof awaiting repair
has gaps torn of fierce winds,
allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside
what once was safe and secure,
a sanctuary exposed to storms.
I am looking.
I am listening.
Getting the message.
Badly in need of repair.
To be changed, transformed,
and to become part
of the story being told.
We want to reach the kingdom of God,
but we don’t want to travel by way of death.
And yet there stands Necessity saying:
‘This way, please.’
Do not hesitate to go this way,
when this is the way that God came to you.
We too easily forget;
we are not asked to bear more
than God endured for us.
We follow a well-worn path
bearing the footprints of Him
who has come to lead us home.
“‘We would have healed Babylon, but she cannot be healed; let us leave her and each go to our own land, for her judgment reaches to the skies, it rises as high as the heavens.’
10 “‘The Lord has vindicated us; come, let us tell in Zion what the Lord our God has done.’ Jeremiah 51: 9-10
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. ~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk
During Advent there are times when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of that silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.
The reality, I’m confident, was far different.
There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough.
I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.”
The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, trying to cling to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry: itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days, owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples, sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate.
Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven.
No signal flares needed there.
When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who can never ever save oneself. We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on. It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, self-doubt, guilt to confront the reality of the wrath of God.
It is not for the faint of heart. There are times it is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid.”
And not forget our crash helmets.
Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born
The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town
But mark right well what came to pass
From every door repelled, alas
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angel did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Arise and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born
With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife
There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet. ~Traditional Irish — the Wexford Carol 12th century
In the beginning is a dream of being. This is real: What the earthworm and slug do in their becoming what cells and galaxies do what the atoms in lichen and microbes are– the glue and the forces that hold us together– the armature of bones and stones. How the mountain and trees and oceans breathe. What the whale knows. We don’t know why only glimpses of how and what from the source of compassion– life making life and becoming as it turns again and again. ~Carol Snyder Halberstadt “What We Are”
Each day I glimpse cells organized into structures programmed to reproduce themselves. The essence of life making life comes from a spark of continuous renewal, from the dying away to the born once again.
The spark may be sheer chemistry between molecules, or an electromagnetic interaction of particles.
It may be a prophecy fulfilled or an old story retold or a dream made real.
I believe the spark is nothing less than Love itself, whether within the DNA of slugs or lichens or that of our precious next generation born in the image of God.
In the beginning, we were begun by this Love. In His compassionate grace, we will begin again and again.