An Advent Paradox: A Baby Sleeps But God Does Not

God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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
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 bedtime story of that silent night, the infant napping away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.   All is calm.  All is bright.

I’m dozing if I think that is all there was to it.

The reality is God Himself never sleeps.

This is no gentle bedtime story: 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.
This is no gentle bedtime story: the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
This is no gentle bedtime story: 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.
This is no gentle bedtime story:  a family’s flight to Egypt, immigrants seeking asylum,  fleeing that fate for their only Son.
This is no gentle bedtime story:   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, hung on a cross until he gave up his spirit.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth as a helpless infant to be sacrificed, to die and rise again, to return again as King of all nations.  No signal flares needed.

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 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 wrath of God who is not dead and never sleeps.

This bedtime story is not for the faint of heart — we are “sore afraid” and should “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men
And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God’s grace our warring world
shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.
Words: Carl P. Daw, Jr.

Thankful for Stillness

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There is a basic lesson that all young horses must learn (and a fewer older horses must relearn) on our farm. It is to stand still when asked and move only when asked. This does not come naturally to a young horse–they tend to be impatient and fidgety and fretful and full of energy. If they are hungry, they want food now and if they are bored, they want something different to do and if they are fearful, they want to be outta there.

Teaching a horse to be still is actually a greater lesson in persistence and consistency for the human handler, which means I don’t always do well in teaching this to my horses and they (and I) lapse frequently–wiggly pushy horses and a weary frustrated handler. It means correcting each little transgression the horse makes, asking them to move back to their original spot, even if there is hay waiting just beyond their nose, asking them to focus not on their hunger, their boredom, their fear, but asking them to focus only on me and where they are in relationship to me. It means they must forget about themselves and recognize something outside of themselves that is in control–even if I move away from them to do other things.

The greatest trust is when I can stand a horse in one spot, ask them to be still, walk away from them, briefly go out of sight, and return to find them as I left them, still focused on me even when I was not visible.

I was reminded of this during Pastor Bert’s sermon on the book of Exodus when he preached on the moments before Moses parted the Red Sea, allowing the Hebrews an escape route away from Pharoah and the Egyptian chariots and soldiers. In those moments beforehand, the Hebrews were pressed up against the Sea with the Egyptians bearing down on them and they lamented they should never have left Egypt in the first place, and that generations of bondage in slavery would have been preferable to dying in the desert at the hands of the soldiers or drowning in the Sea.

Moses told them to “be still”. Or as our pastor said, he told them to “shut up”. Stay focused, be obedient, trust in the Lord’s plan. And the next thing that happened was the Sea opened up. Then the Hebrews rejoiced in thanksgiving for their freedom.

Thanksgiving, as it has developed over the years from the first historical observance of a meal shared jointly between the Pilgrims and their Native American hosts, is just such a moment to “be still and know” about the gifts from our God. Yet in our hurried and harried culture, Thanksgiving is about buying the best bargain turkey (or this year the most free range heritage turkey costing close to $150!), creating the most memorable recipes, decorating in perfect Martha Stewart style, eating together in Norman Rockwell style extended family gatherings, watching football and parades on the biggest flat screen TV, while preparing for the mad dash out the door the next day to start the Christmas shopping season.

Instead of all that fol de rol –  be still.

Like my horses, I need correction when I start to agitate out of “hunger”–wanting to literally stuff myself full, or out of my boredom– seeking the latest in entertainment or satisfaction, or out of my fear–  feeling the threats that surround us all in the world today. I need to be reminded continually that my focus must be outside myself and my perceived needs, and to be still long enough to know God is with us even though we cannot see Him every moment.

I do not do well at this.

My horses learn much faster than I do. I am restless, rarely taking the time to be still and acknowledge God who continually watches, waiting for me to settle down and focus on Him.

May this Thanksgiving remind me of my need for God, and my gratitude for His patient persistence in moving me back into place when I wiggle and fret and stuff myself even when I’m really not hungry.

May I remember that to be still and know God is the greatest gift I can give and that I can receive.

And may His Stillness be with you as well.

 

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A Bleak Remembrance

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 November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
~Malcolm Guite “Silence”
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So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,

And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?’

 

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” (On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)
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When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 
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I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 99 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.

Remembrance means
~never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom.
~acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf.
~never ceasing to care.
~a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported.
~unending prayers for safe return home to family.
~we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all,
it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

 

 

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A Mosaic of Life

 

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It started with a one hundred year old congregation moving into a new church building after an earthquake destroyed the old one.  These weren’t people of great wealth or prestige so the new building, by necessity, was a simple rectangular design, the sanctuary paneled in light birchwood, the high windows with clear textured glass allowing floods of muted natural light to stream in even on cloudy days.  It was a pleasant enough place to worship, well-lit and airy.

Then a new pastor arrived–a man well-traveled, well-read with a keen artist’s eye and a mind able to mix together a palette of history, colors and words.   He could see what others had not in the empty canvas of the huge space.  What he envisioned for the sanctuary was to enhance the worship experience through the illustration of Life’s passage, of people growing and changing in God’s glory.  Any worshipper entering the sanctuary would become part of the woven tapestry of color cast by a series of stained glass windows.

Six large symmetrical panels of divided narrow vertical windows lined both upper outer walls leading up to the altar.   In our pastor’s design, these were to become stained glass representations of the various stages of life from young to old.  Our pastor recruited would-be artisans from the congregation to be the primary stained glass workers, teaching them how to precisely cut and fit the glass pieces.  Each church member had an opportunity to choose and place a pane matching his or her stage of life, to become a permanent part of the portrait of this diverse church family.  The new windows were constructed from back to front over the course of a year, all by volunteer effort, until the transformation was complete from simple functional space of wood and light to an encompassing work of art, inclusive for all who entered.  Mosaics of colored sections represented the transition through life, moving from childhood in the windows at the entrance, on to adolescence,  then to young adulthood, moving to middle age, and then finally to the elder years nearest the altar.

Rainbows of color crisscrossed the pews and aisles, starting with pale and barely defined green and yellow at the outset, blending into a blossom of blue, then becoming a startling fervor of red,  fading into a tranquil purple past the center, and lastly immersed in the warmth of orange as one approached the brown of the wood paneled altar.  Depending on where one chose to sit, the light bearing a particular color combination was cast on open pages of scripture, or favorite hymns, or on the skin and clothing of the people,  reflecting the essence of that life phase.  Included in the design was the seemingly random but intentional scattering of all of the colors in each panel.  Gold and orange panes were sprinkled in the “youth” window predicting the wisdom to come, and a smattering of some greens, blues and reds were found throughout the “orange” window of old age,  just like the “spark”  of younger years so often seen in the eyes of the our eldest citizens.

The colored windows reflected the truth of God’s plan for our lives. There was the certainty of the unrelenting passage of time; there was no turning back or turning away from what was to come.  Although each stage shone with its own unique beauty,  none was as warm and welcoming as the orange glow of the autumn of life.  Those final windows focused their brilliance on the plain wood of the cross above the altar.

Beyond the stained glass, as life fades from the richest of colors to the brownest of dust, the light will continue to shine, glorious.

 

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photos thanks to  the Facebook page of First United Methodist Church – Olympia

 

The Heartbeat of Our Country

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Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
~Martin Luther

 

 

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…the heart of this country does not beat in Washington, DC, nor does its soul lie in a seat of power, nor does its destiny lie in which party occupies which section of government.

No, those things all lie with… people like you and me, people who get up and go to work and love their tiny plot of Earth and whose hands are rough and hardened by loving and giving.
~Billy Coffey from “The Heart of this Land”

 

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You and I voted today, because we have the freedom and privilege to do so.

Yet our destiny does not lie with the counting of the ballots nor the results.

We have responsibility to our God, each other and our good earth.  One human election cannot surpass our need to keep planting apple trees to ensure the future is well fed.

 

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Praise the Shadows

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Praise the wet snow
       falling early.
Praise the shadow
       my neighbor’s chimney casts on the tile roof
even this gray October day that should, they say,
have been golden.
               Praise
the invisible sun burning beyond
      the white cold sky, giving us 
light and the chimney’s shadow.
Praise
god or the gods, the unknown,
that which imagined us, which stays
our hand,
our murderous hand,
                   and gives us
still,
in the shadow of death,
           our daily life,
           and the dream still
of goodwill, of peace on earth.
Praise
flow and change, night and
the pulse of day.
~Denise Levertov from “Gloria”, an excerpt from Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus

 

 

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Yes. It is true.
Our murderous hand
is not stayed nearly enough.

We continue to witness the deaths of innocents,
so many homeless cast aside,
and what to do for refugees seeking sanctuary
who may not believe as we do,
who do not look or talk or act like
us.

We are not them.  They are not us.
But all image bearers.

Yet shadows are cast on the grayest of days
only because there is light still there,
hidden though it may be.
Be illuminated by mercy without the shadow cast.
Be mercy.
Be stilled by the pulse of life in others who are not us.

 

 

 

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A Groaning Need For Change

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A voice is heard in Ramah,    
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children     
and refusing to be comforted,     
because they are no more.
~Jeremiah 31:15

 

 

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We live in a time where the groaning need and dividedness of humankind is especially to be felt and recognized. Countless people are subjected to hatred, violence and oppression which go unchecked. The injustice and corruption which exist today are causing many voices to be raised to protest and cry out that something be done. Many men and women are being moved to sacrifice much in the struggle for justice, freedom, and peace. There is a movement afoot in our time, a movement which is growing, awakening.

Yet this terrific human need and burden of the times causes us to see how weak and powerless we are to change this. Then we must see that if we are to advocate change, we must start with ourselves. We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame for social injustice, oppression, and the downgrading of others, whether personal or on a broader plane. We must see that a revolution must take place against all that destroys life. This revolution must become a revolution different from any the world has ever seen. God must intervene and lead such a revolution with his Spirit and his justice and his truth.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

 

 

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Here is the mystery, the secret, one might almost say the cunning, of the deep love of God: that it is bound to draw on to itself the hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world, but to draw all those things on to itself is precisely the means, chosen from all eternity by the generous, loving God, by which to rid his world of the evils which have resulted from human abuse of God-given freedom.
~N.T. Wright from The Crown and the Fire

 

 

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Inundated by more news of deaths of innocents,
unending violence and division and blood-letting,
we have groaning need for transformation:

We cling to the mystery of His magnetism
for our weaknesses and flaws.

He willingly pulls our evil onto Himself and out of us.
Hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness
disappear into the vortex of His love and beauty as
the grungiest corners of our hearts are vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on a secret,
His mystery revealed:

He is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes
we’ve made of our lives
so that our hatred is nullified.

Instead, by His Spirit
we are forever changed
and will groan no more.

 

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