Archive for November, 2008

“Advent? It’s just like watching out the window.”–Irie

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

I recently stumbled upon a blog called Ralph Milton’s Rumors, which is billed as an ‘e-zine (on-line magazine) for people of faith with a sense of humor.’ He throws in jokes, great stories, and the ever popular church publication bloopers that appear in letters, bulletins, and newsletters. One that he related in this week’s edition was the newsletter that announced a new staff member at the congregation, with the promise of a “bull bio in the next edition of the newsletter.”

I appreciate a sense of humor, but I think the best stuff in his blog is when he is gets very, very serious. Like this week, for example, when he questions the mental capabilities of the folk who set up the lectionary readings for Advent. A good deal of the Advent readings are really downers. They are about judgment, and the second coming of Jesus. They are about watching and waiting, usually in the aforementioned context of judgment. They are about the despair of feeling like God is not listening. Here’s a part of Psalm 80 which is one of today’s lectionary readings,

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Ralph Milton just doesn’t get why we read such passages during advent, and he doesn’t mind saying so. That’s why he offered the alternative reading we did from Isaiah this morning. It’s not a part of the lectionary readings, but something that he thinks, and I agree with him, puts Advent into a better context.

The lectionary purists don’t like such things. And there are folk out there, some of them even in this town, some of them clergy colleagues, who continue to fight the ill-conceived battle, from my perspective, of upholding the liturgical distinctions between Advent and Christmas. It’s not only an ill-conceived battle, but a losing one.

Originally, Advent was to be seen more like Lent than Christmas. Advent was to be a time of self-examination, to contemplate the meaning of the second coming of Jesus with all it’s hope and fear. Advent was a time to confess our sins and live better lives so we won’t be found unworthy when Jesus returns.

That’s why Advent starts out in darkness and the darkness is resolved a bit each week until the blazing light of Christmas. It’s not so much that it’s a bad perspective, just inadequate. There is more to us.

Some of those clergy colleagues refuse to let their congregations sing Christmas carols during Advent. According to the old customs, Christmas carols, as the stories about the birth of Jesus, are for Christmas Eve until Epiphany, and the Epiphany hymns, (i.e. We Three Kings) aren’t to be sung until January 6th.

That doesn’t work. I understand some of what they are trying to get at, but who wants to wait until Christmas Eve to start singing or playing carols like ‘Joy to the World,’ ‘Angels We Have Heard on High,’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem?’ I’m not immune to this myself. Every year I refuse to start playing Christmas Carols until the first Sunday of Advent. And when I get home today, that is exactly what I will do. Christmas does not start, for me, the first day after Thanksgiving. But that’s as far as I go.

There is good reason to try to get Christmas in a better perspective, particularly when it has become such a commercial orgy that has nothing to do with Jesus. And there is nothing wrong with taking time to ponder what all that stuff about the second coming is, because that was imporant to Jesus. But maybe Advent is not the time of year on the church calendar to focus on that. Maybe Advent and Christmas would be better spent thinking about what that first coming, the birth of Jesus is all about. We need to make sure we understand that a bit better, since his second coming it seems should reflect rather than contradict his first coming.

I don’t have to tell most of you here, that I have serious disagreements with what people do with this idea of the second coming of Jesus. Most of what passes as end times theology these days with all it’s promise of vengeance and a warrior Jesus has nothing to do with the Jesus who was born in that stable in Bethlehem. If we are looking for a God who is going to pay back God’s enemies, pay back our enemies, then we are looking in the wrong place.

Here’s something to remember about those stories about the second coming of Jesus that talk about the suffering that is coming because of wars and rumors or wars, because of the charlatans who deceive people into seeing the Messiah here or there, the suffering that is coming because of persecution, the deceptions that happen. These are not things God does. As one commentator wrote, “These are the sadly predictable human failings that cause human suffering without any divine intervention. The wrath is the suffering we inflict on ourselves and each other.”

Bethlehem points us to something new and good, something better to wait and watch and hope for at Advent, at Christmas, at Epiphany and all year around than these images of destruction and vengeance that fill the Christian TV stations and too many pulpits.

It’s also not a bad idea in itself, during Advent, to highlight the notion of waiting and hoping for the fulfillment of the things of God for this world. But do we have to put it in the context of judgment and violence that most talk of the second coming has become?

Ralph Milton got me on to something when he suggested his dog as an example of what the waiting and expectation of Advent should be about. His dog, like our dog, Irie, is good at waiting in hope. Mary and I are amazed that so often when we’ve been gone for a few minutes or several hours, there is Irie looking out the window when we get home. Just this week, Mary and I were trading off Sofia care in Columbus. There was Irie looking out the window when I pulled in our parking area. It had been four hours since Mary left, and I have no idea how long Irie was watching and waiting for my return, but there she was.

Here is what I think is going on in her mind while she is waiting. “When they get back, after I’ve gone outside, we’ll run around the house and play chase. Then I’ll have a nap and my afternoon snack. Then I’ll go outside again, come back in and run around the house for a couple of minutes and play chase. After that another nap, and then the late afternoon walk. Then it’s supper, I go outside, and more chase. And then it’s the cube with the cheese and other stuff in it that falls out when I push it around. A little more chase and then it’s into the family room to get some pets and curl up on the couch while they watch Rachel Maddow. Then I go out for the last time of the day and it’s bedtime.”

In other words, while Irie is standing at that window, she is waiting and watching for the world that is meant to be. And it is worth the wait even when it is four hours, or we are at church and there is no Rachel Maddow. It’s worth it even when it’s just me coming home, and she eventually has to go up to Mary’s office to make sure Mary’s not there. It’s worth the wait when her stomach is bothering her and she doesn’t feel like eating supper. It’s worth the wait when I come in the house and get on the phone or start working on something and am not going to play chase right then and there.

Irie knows what’s worth waiting for. Do you think she would stand at the window for hours at a time if she thought something awful was going to happen when we returned, or we were going to ignore her or inflict abuse on her, even if she might deserve it because she had peed on the floor or taken everything out of the trash can?

She may or may not know her own failings. I’m never quite sure. But she does know to stay at her post and keep watch. And she knows that when we get home she is going to be loved and cared for no matter what.

I think Ralph Milton got it right. The lectionary folk could have done a better job with the Advent themes and readings. But despite their best efforts, we have managed to sense, like Irie does, what hope is really about. It’s about a place called Bethlehem and all that will unfold in this world because of Jesus, and all that will unfold in our lives, even when we pee on the floor and turn over the trash cans, so to speak. That’s why we wait at Advent. We know things are going to be as they should be.

A Simple Prayer

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

I do not remember ever preaching on a Psalm unless it was at a funeral. As I read through parts of Walter Brueggemann’s book, The Message of the Psalms, I was struck by his insistence that we unpack the entire gamut of human emotions expressed in this most varied literature. In the church, we generally read the Psalms “selectively,” stopping before the vengeful conclusion of Psalm 139, or selecting only the gentlest of passages to share with the sick or dying.

Brueggemann identifies “two decisive moves of faith” visible in the Psalms–either the move “out of a settled orientation into a season of disorientation,” or, conversely, “ from a context of disorientation to a new orientation.” The Psalms offer both lament and praise, complaint and thanksgiving. They chronicle the foibles and triumphs of Israel’s history and the overriding tenacity of hope.

All of these emotions and stories are rooted in the primal context of faith–faith in Yahweh, a God who lives and acts in space and time. Yahweh is no sanitized God who needs to hear only praise from our mouths; to the contrary, God is interested in our deepest needs and cares. Whether the situation is glorious or dire, whether there is fruit on the vine or there is none, the people of God continue their ongoing dialogue with the Holy One. The texts of these poems usher from the depths of long personal and communal histories of honest interactions with God.

So we come to this simple prayer, a “pilgrim song,” that we know as Psalm 123. Beginning with a personal prayer, the psalmist speaks to Yahweh, saying, “I look to you for help.” The need is profound and aid is sought in God, not in the things of this world, a change in politicians, or even the support of neighbors.

The psalm quickly opens up and becomes a communal lament, “We’re watching and waiting, holding our breath…” Two analogies help the ancient audience of this poem understand the intensity and surrender embodied in this waiting. It is compared to servants attending their masters’ commands and a maiden attending her lady. A few commentators seize on the latter simile, suggesting that perhaps this poem was written by a woman.

Would a man never compare such waiting to a maiden attending her lady? Is this offering us a feminine image of God as well, or is the psalmist trying to underscore the urgency and watchfulness of this waiting? To me, the psalmist emphasizes with these similes how deeply the community of faith is attending to the presence of the One sought in heaven.

From a personal prayer for help to a communal cry for mercy, the Psalm progresses to a brief, objective statement about the way things are. In a nutshell, people are being trampled upon, and the rich simply don’t care. The arrogance of the powerful is further squashing the vulnerable, when they are already being squashed. With terse language, the psalmist makes it clear that the situation is untenable, it is not ‘new’ news.

End of Psalm. There is no reorientation in this psalm, although it comes soon enough in Psalm 124, if one looks at the body of the Psalms as a whole. Yet, sometimes it is important to just “sit with” the poem as it is, present the situation to God as it is, offer our heartfelt responses as they are, and just wait–-watch and wait, hold our breath, hang on any word from the Lord that we might receive.

This Psalm struck me full-force this past week as I studied it because of its central cry, “Mercy, God, mercy!” As the pre-election months dragged on, I was filled with a deluge of concerns and emotions. Alongside all the craziness accompanying a perpetual election cycle stood the crescendo of militaristic, nativist voices pronouncing the onward march toward Armaggedon. I, like many others, held a legitimate concern for the safety of Barack Obama. The wars were dragging on, the economy collapsing, the nation asleep at the switch regarding the realities of global warming…

I harbored the additional grief over the public persona of Christianity. Its distorted, tarnished image could take a generation or more to repair. I wanted to pray for the election, for its results, for the candidates (yes, all of them), and there was only one prayer that could come out of my mouth, and I prayed it again and again. “Mercy, God, mercy!”

Because I was fully aware of the impact our national policies have on this planet, I simply prayed, “God, please have mercy on our nation. God, please have mercy on the world.”

The psalmist neither rains fire down upon the unjust nor begs God to avenge the blood of the innocent. Instead, he or she just cries out for mercy–mercy seemingly for everyone, the rich and the poor, the arrogant and the humble. Mercy for one turns out to be mercy for the other because there is conversion and reorientation when mercy flows.

This simple prayer embodies a posture of readiness. The psalmist is poised to meet God in this season of distress and lament. The community is waiting, watching, expecting to hear God’s voice. Every sense is engaged. They listen, they look, they feel. Even their bodies are engaged in this waiting—as if they are holding their breath.

The Psalmist speaks with boldness and decisiveness. There is no question as to where this community’s commitments lie. There is no question about where this community places its trust. It is squarely located in the One who loves us and looks out for us, even in the most trying of circumstances.

Many in the United States and throughout the world live in the same season as the psalmist. During the rapid globalization of trade and knowledge, along with the threats of global warming, terrorism, and a host of other concerns, we swim in a wide sea of disorientation.

This fall, I sat at a meeting where those present discussed ways to better communicate with college students. Someone commented that “e-mail was for old people.” There was a collective gasp in the room by everyone over 35–and I’m way over 35! Finally, as we settled down, someone said, “Well, then, how do we communicate with college students now?”

I remember visiting Juanita Brown at the nursing home as she shared stories of her childhood. 104 ½ years old when she died, Juanita had seen it all–from horse-drawn buggies to intercontinental air travel. While in my 20’s, I would never have guessed that the world could change so much in three decades.

Our eyes and ears are turned toward God. We look to the Holy One for help, and mercy, in these times of dislocation and accelerating change. With the eyes of faith, we see such periods of history as moments of opportunity that offer the possibility of re-orientation, transformation, and new life. Jesus boldly testifies to the promise that death leads to resurrection. This is our hope, and the song of our faith. Let us remember, like the psalmist, to watch, wait, and trust. Amen.

The Audacity of Church

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

A few weeks back I had this idea that I should prepare my post election sermon before the election took place. The thinking behind that was the issues for the church were going to be the same no matter who was elected. I didn’t want what I said to be influenced positively or negatively by the outcome of the election.

Well, first of all, to actually prepare a sermon before the election, I would have had to have it all done before November 4th, which didn’t quite happen. And if it had happened, it would have been a tremendous waste of time. How can anybody not be influenced positively by what happened in this country on Tuesday? Change has actually come. This country is now a different place than it was on November 3.

Let’s be clear. People had legitimate reasons to support John McCain in this year’s election. But, even Senator McCain and President Bush have spoken about the remarkable thing that transpired in this country when Barack Obama, an African-American man was elected President of the United States. Even if you think someone else would have been a better President than him, the fact still remains that this country confronted its legacy of racism. That does not mean racism has ended in this country by any means, but it has taken a bit of a setback.

Danielle was one of the folk at our house watching the events of the evening unfold and said it was one of those occasions like the assassination of John Kennedy or the terrorist attack on New York City, where people will always remember where they were when they heard, as we did at our house, Jon Stewart say that Barack Obama had been elected President of the United States.

This was an historic event. But it was much more than history. Anna Claire Stinebering told me about the election party that was going on at their house and how an older African American woman just laid in Dan Stinebring’s arms and wept when she heard that Barack Obama had been elected President. That is history on a very personal level that those of us who are white can’t fully understand.

We are going through history in the making. But the sad fact is that the church, once again, finds itself on the wrong side of history and, I believe, the wrong side of God’s purposes for this world. According to Associated Press exit polls, 34 percent of white Protestants voted for Obama, while 65 percent went with McCain (That’s 2-1). Obama won the overall Roman Catholic vote, but white Catholics backed McCain by a slim majority, 52 percent to 47 percent. Among white Christians, the racial gap was most pronounced with evangelicals: 74 percent backed McCain, 24 percent backed Obama (that’s 3-1). If it had just been white Christians voting, John McCain would have won the popular vote by something like 60% to 40%. So instead of Barack Obama winning 365 electoral votes and John McCain 173, it would have been John McCain 538 electoral votes and Barack Obama 0. Think about that.

I don’t know if its better or worse, but the preference for McCain amongst White Christians wasn’t all about race. Some of it was, way too much, for sure. But while most of this country was moving forward to something new, white Christians were clinging to the past. There were enough Black and Hispanic Christians voting to counter the influence the church had on this year’s Presidential election. But Black and White and Hispanic Christians, Catholics and Protestants and Mormons did find an area of agreement; suppressing the rights of gays and lesbians. The church took the leadership in the passage of various initiatives around the country that prevented gays and lesbians from marrying or adopting children.

Now people may have their disagreements about what something like Gay Rights means. But are you noticing a pattern here, especially when you add the fact that Christians, as a whole in this nation, offer the greatest support for the war in Iraq, the crack down on undocumented immigrants, and are the least concerned about the effects of global warming? And even if people have legitimate concerns about abortion, and I think I have what are some legitimate concerns about the number of abortions in this country, when John McCain ridiculed the idea of a woman’s right to have an abortion if her “health” is threatened by a pregnancy, that was a play to that segment of the Christian anti-abortion movement that is as much anti-woman as it is pro-life. And we wonder why there are so few young people in church these days.

Mary and I have noticed a change on campus since this semester began. There is a much deeper distrust and disregard and maybe even disgust for Christianity and the church than there has even been in the past. That’s not because of secular humanism, or banning prayer in schools, or the liberal press. It’s because of the church. The wounds are self-inflicted. And what’s happened in this election only serves to confirm what so many students and young adults believe about the church and Christianity. This country was moving toward Barack Obama and his vision for the United States in the 21st century, while Christians, if they had had the opportunity would have stopped him in his tracks.

Again, there are good arguments that Christians can make for supporting John McCain and the Republican party. But when the Church says that real Christians support the most radical elements of the Religious Right’s agenda, and claims the most conservative iteration of the Republican Party as the Party of God, then the church is on its own suicide mission. We will inflict lots of casualties but die in the process. This election has made that clear.

I should make it clear that the church in this country has managed to be on the wrong side of history in a bipartisan manner. Don’t forget that the Democrats up until the 1960’s propped up segregation and that John Kennedy didn’t want to have any thing to do with Civil Rights, because supporting Civil Rights would cost the democrats their base, white Christians. In fact, they only turned away from the Democrats, when a Democratic President and Congress passed Civil Rights legislation.

Now here’s the point where it would have been good to have this sermon ready before the election. I need to make it clear. I am very glad that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. I supported him, I voted for him, I sent him money. And I have to say this country really surprised me. Not only because it elected a Black man, but it also endorsed his agenda of inclusion and equality, of fairness, and of getting out of the war in Iraq. In Tuesday’s election this country also decided to side with the voices of hope rather than fear. I didn’t think this country would do any of that. And I am thankful to have been wrong. But, all of my eggs are not in the basket called the United States of America or the Democratic Party, but in the one called the Church. And frankly, that makes me nervous right now.

I wish the church were leading the way, I wish students, young adults, and so many others could look at the church and say, “they get it, they are like a city on a hill, or a light in the darkness.” I wish they could turn on the TV and see the preacher proclaiming a gospel of inclusion, of hope, of peace, of equality, of love, and compassion. But they don’t. Nor does it occur to them that Barack Obama himself is a Christian. We have put the light under a bushel.

It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why I still have hope not just for my country, but for my church. In fact, in spite of it all, I have more hope for the church than even this country right now. The church, if it can get its act together, has so much more potential than this or any country does. This country can’t tell people about the ways of God, or the life that is in Jesus Christ. It was Jesus who taught us about standing with the poor and the outsider. Jesus taught us about God’s love, about breaking down the barriers between people. Jesus taught us about forgiveness and humility and gentleness. Jesus talked about peace and non violence. Jesus taught us about commitment to God’s Commonwealth. Jesus willingly took on sin and death. The Holy Spirit wasn’t poured out on the Roman Empire, or the United States of America, or even Canada, but on the church of Jesus Christ. Barack Obama is not the Messiah, Jesus is.

I have hope for the church because we have the audacity to call ourselves the Body of Christ, to be the living presence of the living Jesus in this world. The United States of America can’t do that. I just hope the church really can.

What did we learn in the Obama election? Jesse Stinebring could tell you. It’s about the grass roots, about people taking responsibility for what this country becomes.

It’s the same way with the church. I have hope because of people like us in places like this, not only in this country but around the world. We can be real frustrated at what others have made of the church, but we can’t do much about them. We can do a lot about ourselves. We can deepen our own commitments. We can decide we are going to grow in the ways of Jesus Christ, and get better at following him.

We heard too much in this past campaign from both sides about what the problem is with the other guy. I was much more interested in hearing both of them say what they were going to do, and now I am going to see what our new President does.

Our calling in life, as followers of Jesus Christ, is not to talk about what the church ought to be, but to make it what it ought to be. Complaining about what someone else makes of the church is spinning our wheels when Jesus has places where he wants us to go. And maybe there is something here and there along the way we can learn from those other folk.

You know what I would have loved to see in one of the debates? After John McCain had just talked about something he was planning on doing if he were elected President, Barack Obama would lean over the podium and with complete sincerity say, “John, that’s a great idea. I’m going to write that down and work on that when I become President.” Or John McCain saying “Wow, Barack. I wish I had thought of that. After I become President let’s have lunch so you can tell me more about it.”

I don’t think our political system is there. But the church surely can be. We can learn from lots of people, even other Christians.

Something amazing has happened in this country that we have to take seriously. It’s worth it’s own sermon. The church can lead, follow, or get out of the way. The Church will lead if we take leadership in our own little bit of the Body of Christ that is called the Peace Community Church. If we can have the audacity to be the church, to work with each other, to believe we can discern God’s Spirit with each other, that we can learn how to follow Jesus with each other, that we can believe in the God Jesus believed in, then we may just have something to offer this world, that far transcends the politics of even this good day. And we just might make history ourselves.

______________________________________________________________________________

This was at the end of the service:

Before we leave this morning, I just have to mention this. Already, the voices of hate are gearing up to try to do in Barack Obama’s Presidency. Those voices of hate that you hear every afternoon and evening on the radio and TV are counting on Christians as their base. Listen to that. They are counting on Christians to supply the hate for our new president. They think they can work the church up to believe that Barack Obama is a radical Muslim who hates America, that he would never have been elected President if it weren’t for the liberal media, that Community Organizers are terrible people, and that those who voted for Barack Obama are not real Americans.

Do you know how Rush Limbaugh refers to the current economic crisis in this country? As the Obama recession. They want to undermine Barack Obama and are depending on Christians going along with them. And if they don’t have Christians going along with them, they know they’ve got nothing.

And if you hear some TV preacher saying that Barack Obama is the anti-Christ and his election is somehow predicted in the Bible, and is all about the end times, just say no to hate, turn off the TV, and go out and be the church and make some history.

WORSHIP–AN OASIS OF HOPE IN A CHAOTIC SEA

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

“Are you preaching about the elections this Sunday? Do you think it is ‘irresponsible’ not to?” a pastor-friend asked me this week, having seen such a viewpoint expressed in a preachers’ blog.

“Good question,” I replied. “At Peace Community Church, we embrace as best we can our responsibilities as citizens of the global community 365 days a year. We don’t just speak about incarnation during Advent; neither do we just practice resurrection at Easter. Besides, we are grounded in a Baptist tradition, which believes in the right of individuals to exercise free conscience as they feel led by the Spirit,” I replied.

On Thursday, Gene Rogers couldn’t have offered a better illustration for me. Hospitalized since last Sunday afternoon, the doctors were thinking of keeping him in the Physical Therapy wing for a few more days. Gene told the staff, “I know you can’t make me stay, but I’ll stay if you allow me two things–to get out and vote on Tuesday and to go to church on Sunday morning.”

So, no, I’m not going to preach about the election. Today, I am drawn to reflect on the topic of worship. Why worship, of all things? Isn’t worship the antithesis of electoral politics? Doesn’t worship call us away from all that tears at the fabric of our minds and bank accounts (or lack thereof) and medicine cabinets right now? Yes, it does, and so it should.

Worship has been on my mind for many reasons, but one of the most nagging is this: so many people of good will see a great need to help others, but express no need at all for worship. Yet , there are still others that substitute worship for doing justice, practicing mercy, and loving their enemies. “Why mix in all that ‘God stuff’?” skeptics ask. “Why mix in all that radical stuff?” some religious folks ask.

I have been thinking a lot about young people lately, about the world in which they are growing up. It is a world filled with vicious “My God is bigger than your God” crusades in the name of religious fundamentalisms–whether that fundamentalism is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever. It is a world where human carnage and environmental rape, at times, is committed in the name of some militaristic or triumphalist God, whether labeled Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, or some brand of Jesus. Is all violence about religion? Certainly not, but some of this terror is, and none of it should be, in my opinion.

What sane person witnessing all this would be attracted to religion at all? Who, not personally knowing communities of faith, would be rushing to church on Sunday morning? If you were seeking a radically different kind of God than this–a compassionate, welcoming God–where would you look?

Paradoxically, by the grace of a loving and merciful God, we are here. And at the core and center of our life together is worship.

Our scripture from Revelation 7 is part of an expansive word painting about worship forged in the midst of persecution and suffering. When I teach piano students Debussy or Ravel, I tell them to go to Allen Art Museum and look at the Impressionistic paintings of that period. “What the painter does with a brush, you will do with your music,” I explain. “The lines will blur, the colors will mix, the textures and sounds will blend–this is the heart of Impressionistic music.”

John’s Revelation is much like an Impressionistic masterpiece, only this time it is no Debussy or Renoir. It comes by way of a vision John receives while on the Island of Patmos. He paints a picture where the lines blur and the colors mix. Darkness attending great catastrophe is punctured by moments of blinding light and penultimate redemption. The plot line heaves back and forth, back and forth, between good and evil–pushing forward like a woman in labor, struggling so hard to give birth to a new world.

I completed two Silent Retreats this summer, one a week long and the other just two days. At the first retreat, my Spiritual Director instructed me to go outside and see what in nature called to me. I was then to stay with that and meditate on it throughout the week.

The first invitation came from a solitary tree, growing tall, but at a nearly 45 degree angle from the ground. Between two stubby dead limbs, the tree gently held a broken log. I think the tree called to me because Steve and I hold a lot of broken logs in our ministry.

A day or two later, I noticed that this tree was not alone in cradling the deadwood. Next to it stood another tree, straight and tall. Looking up, I could see that some storm had come by and ripped away several upper branches. Together, in their lofty heights, the two trees gently held these broken limbs. You can imagine where this symbolism led me since Steve and I have worked together in ministry for most of our marriage and even before it began.

Eventually, I noticed another tree, not far away. Out of one strong, thick base, the tree then split apart in two directions, with one weaving in and out of the other as they both reached toward the sky. This made four trees and at least four stories.

Two months later on my mini-Silent Retreat, I went outside and stared again at the trees. My eyes were riveted upward, seeing them in the context of the sky, clouds, and sun. I took in the fullness of the woods that they shared with deer, chipmunks, butterflies, and many other trees. At last, I saw the whole picture.

“Look up!” I heard a voice deep within. “Keep looking up!” the voice reassured me, as I stayed with this nature painting that became its own means of Spiritual Direction. The whole scene morphed into one giant, sustained metaphor, much like the Impressionistic work of Debussy, Ravel, or the Revelation of St. John on the Island of Patmos.

On my morning walks, I often have a lot on my mind, but every day I stop and look up. I take time to fix my gaze on the configurations of the clouds, the jet stream of a plane against the blue sky, or the silhouettes of the trees. The view above becomes both sign and symbol of the view beyond the veil of this world. “Remember to look at the big picture,” the Spirit reminds me.

The snapshot we get of worship in the seventh chapter of the Revelation of St. John is mammoth. It is multicultural, multilingual, mutinational, and multiracial. There’s nothing fluffy or superficial about this worship–it is the worship of those who have survived the great tribulation and persevered in faithfulness. It is worship that includes not only human beings, but also heavenly beings and animals. It’s worship that is embedded in a new creation, where there is neither hunger nor thirst, neither weeping nor sorrow.

Worship grounds us in God’s big picture. Worship in community is a powerful counter-sign to the priorities of this world. In the shelter of God’s wings, we find hope amid the chaotic seas that swirl around us.

The more complicated the world gets, the more simple my faith becomes. The more Christianity is slung near and far as a militaristic crusade hurtling toward Armageddon, replete with the politics of intolerance and the machinery of war, the more I cling to the most basic of Gospel teachings. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth…” (Matthew 5:1-12).

While self-proclaimed prophets and teachers piece together verses of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, coming up with endless scenarios for the last days, blessing the rain of cluster bombs on Lebanon and predator drones on who-knows-who, I remember the words of the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:6-8).

In this time when electoral politics seize our national attention, let’s keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, let’s keep our heart stayed on God. Let’s keep our lives ablaze with the simplest of offerings. Let’s keep our ears attuned to the most vulnerable of the earth. Let’s keep our hands and feet at work for the common good.

David Reese is going to share a poem as we prepare for the Lord’s Supper. These are serious days that require a lot of us. These are difficult times that promise to test us. Yet, I have a deep sense of assurance that the God who has gone before us endless times in the past is leading the way forward. Let us follow!