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Sunday, January 16, 2022

Nothing can escape the heat of God's Love

 “But who can detect his own failings?”

--Psalm 19:12


The thing that continues to catch my attention in this psalm is the epic simile of the sun coming forth from a tent like a bridegroom from a chamber to run like a champion his course.  That image always catches my eye. It is so visual and so fascinating to me.  The sun comes forth from a tent, like a bridegroom coming from a chamber who is like a champion delighting in a course to be run. This is an epic simile involving another simile…  And those images: the sun having a tent, the bridegroom having a special chamber, and the champion eager to run.  So simple and so clear and so memorable. Plus, it makes me think about the ancient people who wrote the psalms.   What kind of champions did they have back then? Did the Hebrew people have their own kind of Olympics? And what kind of chamber or pavilion or secret room did the bridegroom come out of… I think we know why he was filled with delight… but, it is an image our modern culture associates more with the bride than the groom.  For me, it is just a very memorable image; it feels almost Homeric.  One can imagine Odysseus or Hector being described like this, perhaps Apollo, or Athena.  So, despite the fact that I have read this psalm 19 or 20 times now, I still pause and ponder this little 2 stanza section (19:4-6).  Perhaps it is the last line of these 2 stanzas that really stops me in my tracks. The psalmist circles back to the original image of the sun and writes:


“…And nothing can escape its heat.” (19:6)


Psalm 19 is a psalm of God’s glory, a song of how that glory is revealed.  It starts by reminding us that the glory of God is revealed in all of creation, through all of creation. And that God’s creation declares His glory, even in the silence of a moonless night, or the stillness of an empty street, the quiet stirrings of mist rising from a field at dawn or the migration of clouds on a summer afternoon. God’s glory is present, is always being declared, by the grass, by the mist, by the clouds, by the shadows crossing your lawn, by the birds singing in the trees and by the silences, the stillness, even the darkness.  This declaration is followed by the epic simile and that terrifyingly powerful statement against ignorance: “Nothing can escape its heat…”


That statement implies that God’s glory is inescapable, like the heat of the sun.  We might hide in the shade, we might run inside and turn on the AC, but we haven’t escaped, we cannot escape it.  We know the heat is out there, and we know that it is why we are inside sipping ice-tea and snuggled on the couch under a blanket while the air-conditioning blasts a nice chilly 64 degrees.  Yet, as the psalmist says: Just like there is no escape from the truth that it is hot out there, there is no escape from the truth of God’s glory.  Of course, to the psalmist, this is a good thing.  He is assuring us that it is true and we just have to open our eyes and our hearts to see it, to know it, to have creation itself affirm it for us.


But there are two more things attached to this idea, of God’s inescapable glory.  First there is that simile—comparing the declaration of God’s glory to the sun’s heat; asserting that both are inescapable.  That is a truth we can run away from all we want, but our denial or our running away doesn’t change the fact that it is true. At least that is what the psalmist says, and I agree.  But then that image of the sun’s heat, that also catches my eye.  And I ask myself: what is God’s glory? It is His very being. And what is God’s being? Well, scripture tells us: God is love.  And so, what I hear in this is: the glory of God is God’s Love. And nothing can escape from that. 


And I believe that is true, too.  And so I push a little harder against the text, the Word of God, and ask God to open my eyes that I can read it more clearly, to open my ears that I can hear His message more completely, and to open my heart that I will be filled with His glory—His love—the love that is always found in His word.  And I ask myself: what does this image of God’s inescapable love tell me about God? About our relationship to God?  I think one thing I am hearing is this:  we cannot escape from God’s love.  No matter who we are, no matter what we do; we cannot escape from God’s love.  That seems to me a powerful clue to the truth of sin and the importance of God’s law (cf. 19: 7-14).  What I hear is this: if God’s love is inescapable, then that tells us something surprisingly clear about Heaven and Hell.  They are both within God’s love, manifestations of God’s burning love.  And it is our choice what we make of God’s love.  If we seek God, if we shape our souls to long for the warmth of God’s love, then to enter into that love will be heaven. It will be everything we ever wanted and so much more.  If we train our souls to turn away from God’s love, if we seek to hide from it, then entering into the fullness of God’s love will feel like the flames of Hell.  It is our soul's desire that makes of it Heaven or Hell.  BUT… think about how hard it is sometimes to get yourself off the couch and go outside on a particularly hot afternoon; sometimes we need to prepare ourselves, get ourselves ready for the brightness of the sun, the heat of the day.  Sometimes just stepping out into the light can be blinding and feel oppressive.  I wonder if that is what God’s laws are for. Are they recommendations and practices, kind of an exercise regime, to help us prepare our souls for grace? Stretching our spiritual muscles and opening our sometimes hardened hearts, stirring within us a desire for God's love?  The psalmist tells us that the law of the Lord refreshes the soul, brings joy to the heart, and light to our eyes. It is sweeter than honey and more valuable than gold.  Okay… what if we take God at His word and let ourselves be formed by the Love of God, sweeter than honey, light for our eyes, joy for our hearts.  What if we opened that door by taking just one of God’s laws and saying—this is one I will be shaped by.  Any of them. You could start with the 10 commandments, or perhaps you want to start somewhere a little more familiar to some of us: the sermon on the mount.  Me, I’m thinking about one of Jesus’s more humbling statements:  Judge not, lest ye be judged…  I think that is a place where my prideful heart might need a little reforming.  And yet, as the psalmist also says: Who among us can detect his own failings?       

Certainly not me...  But that doesn't mean I should stop trying.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Do not be afraid, some thoughts on the anxious days before Christmas

“Mary, do not be afraid…”

--Luke 1:30


For some reason this morning I woke at 5am, wide awake, thinking about baking and presents that need wrapping and even though I wanted to go back to sleep, instead I got up, fed the cats, mixed up dough for bread, and went for a walk, hoping to clear my head.  Outside the world was beautiful and dark, whispers of clouds gathered here and there in the sky and on the horizon. But mostly this beautiful vault of darkness hovered over me, pin-points of starlight here and there, and the bright moon dazzling in its slow descent before the dawn.  It was peaceful and quiet and calming to be out there in the midst of it.  As I walked at the park, I passed a neighbor who stopped to ask me about my upcoming surgery. (Could be that is what woke me...) She wanted to know if I was okay? Was I afraid?

 What a beautiful way to start the day. An angel of mercy come to me out of the darkness to offer a word of kindness and encouragement. And, at this time of year isn’t that just what we all need.   

In the Gospel of Luke there is that famous story of another angel who shows up unannounced with a message that begins in a similar way: Do not be afraid.

 Of course that is a little different from meeting someone in the park. If I was just sitting at the kitchen counter with my morning coffee and a bagel, reading the funny pages (as we used to call them), and an angel appeared next to the refrigerator telling me not to be afraid, I think my gut reaction would be to scream like a little girl. PLUS… that kind of talk doesn’t usually bode well. It’s kind of like when people say: This won’t hurt a bit. You won’t even feel it[1]. 

 And yet, an important part of the angel’s message is in those four words, “Do not be afraid…” and I think perhaps that part of the angel’s message has been missing in my Christmas. Despite all the joyous trappings: the lights, the trees, the decorations, so much of how we celebrate Christmas is wrapped up in fear. Instead of resting in the joy of the season, how often do I find myself anxious and worried; afraid that I’m not doing enough, that perhaps I forgot something, a present for someone, an ingredient in a recipe, the egg nog in the trunk of the car… There is even the overriding fear of not getting everything just right. Not having that “perfect Christmas.”

But the angel says, Do not be afraid. 

 And, this morning as I ponder that message I hear something else.  Something much more personal to each and every one of us, yet particular to the story of Mary. What is she being asked to do? On a very basic level, she is being asked to save the world.  But, how…  Does she need to raise an army? Gain political power? Get rich? Become a martyr? Start a charity? No… She is simply asked to yes to God and to be herself, live her normal daily life, the life of a simple ordinary woman in 1st century Palestine. To be who she was made to be.  And through that ordinary everyday life, as a wife and mother, as a refugee and a widow, to bear God into the world.  Of course, Mary is asked this in a very specific way, for she will literally bear the child Jesus into the world—first in her womab and then on her hip, in her arms, and at her side.  Wherever she goes, whatever she does. If she goes to the market, she is bearing Him to the market with her.  When she goes to the well to draw water, Christ goes with her. He is present there at the well, in her, through her, with her.  When she sits in quiet contemplating the beauty of a sunset, Christ is there.  Whether lighting a candle, or humming a song, or going to visit a sick friend, Christ is present in her, with her, through her. 

 That is a message for us to remember this Christmas, that –like Mary-- we are all called to be bearers of Christ into the world. We are all called to be God’s hands and face in the world; we have been given that as a gift.  That is the real gift of Christmas—that God is with us… wherever we go, whatever we do, He is with us. So, if you don’t get those lights up, if you forget to buy presents, or if you happen to leave the egg nog in the trunk of the car (for a week), do not be afraid…

 In fact, that is what we were made for.  And so what do we have to be afraid of? In fact, here’s an idea for this Christmas, a gift that needs no wrapping, and no bows:  why don’t we let go of all those fears and worries and rest in the presence of the one who was born this day in a stable in Bethlehem, the one who is with us always—even unto the ends of the age-- and the one whose hands and feet and face and love we are called to be.  If we could do that, instead of being afraid, we might just relax and Rejoice.  

Merry Christmas, my dear friends.




[1] If you’ve ever awakened during the middle of a colonoscopy, you’ll understand the importance of anesthesia…

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Carping Criticism and Exhaustion and Peter's advice for a healthier home


“Rid yourselves of all spite, deceit,

hypocrisy, envy and carping criticism.

Like new-born babies all your longing

should be for milk…”

1 Peter 2:1-2



It has been a little while since my last reflection.  It is strange how the world has continued moving while I find myself growing more and more still.  Not by choice, I’d say. Though I did throw my back out by reaching over to pick up a postcard (getting an MRI--tomorrow).  And it’s not that I’ve been sick. Mostly, I am just exhausted. I can’t seem to find the energy I once had. Can’t even find enough energy to focus my thoughts. When I get out my pen and begin to scribble a line or two on a page, a bit of mindless musing, I find that—without meaning to—I stop mid-sentence and by the time I notice, there is a blot of ink forming on the page. If I open a book to read, I fall asleep before I get past the first paragraph.


Most of the time, I find myself sitting blank eyed in front of the TV watching Hallmark movies or searching through the channels for something old and black and white; something I have seen so often I don’t have to think about. One thing I know for sure, if Franklin Pangborn is in it, I will probably like it.


But, why am I so exhausted? Is it work? Is it poor diet? Not enough sleep? Lack of exercise? Mid-winter blues? Covid fatigue? Mourning?  I’m not sure.  But, those voices inside of me keep whispering: Get back to work. Don’t be so lazy. You say you want to be a writer; why aren’t you writing? Or reading? Or washing the dishes? Have you seen the sink? By the way, the trash needs to go out. And don’t you have a class tomorrow? Shouldn’t you be planning a lesson? Have you noticed how tight your pants are getting? Might want to hold off on that bowl of popcorn and go for a walk. While you’re at it, you forgot to call your Dad. What kind of son are you? Did I mention your pants? You may need a new belt. And have you checked the garage toilet paper supply lately? Better add another 24 pack to the list!


It is in this context, that I happened to read this passage from the first letter of St. Peter, and in this context that the phrase, “carping criticism,” stung my soul.    


Because of my situation, my initial thought was of the criticism in my own head, so much of it self-directed.  How useless and destructive such criticism can be. Instead of inspiring myself to find joy in my life, and perhaps to get up and do something that I will find satisfying and fulfilling, I carp and criticize myself, nag myself about how lazy I am, or how sloppy I’m getting, or forgetful, etc. I attack myself with criticisms and leave myself wondering why I should even bother trying.  Negative self-talk, carping criticism, can become a self-destructive habit. And can prepare the ground for an often forgotten sin: sloth.  In the secular world, we think of sloth as laziness, an unwillingness to work.  It seems bad, but hardly worthy of being a “Deadly” sin.  But, in the spiritual world, sloth is seen as something far more dangerous.  It is akin to despair—a kind of hopelessness that hides behind questions like: What’s the point?  And if we beat ourselves up enough, we will simply sink into that despair and find ourselves giving up.


But another aspect of this teaching, that occurred to me was outwardly directed. I thought about the carping criticism that lurks within a husband and wife noting and tallying each other’s mistakes, each misstep, each failure of judgment; recording them in some emotional bank account, or on some psychological tape-loop of misdeeds, failures and marital infractions that plays continuously in the back of the mind. Reminding us constantly of past hurt feelings and disappointments, making sure that we never forget, that we cling to each and every one of them.  And making sure the other knows that we are watching them. We remember… each dish left in the sink, each greasy skillet left on the stove, each broken promise, each and every forgotten toothpaste tube that was left uncapped, or every time the toilet paper roll was left empty!! Check the garage!


Carping criticism is the weed of dissent that we sew ourselves, into our own hearts, into our homes, into our friendships and marriages.  St. Peter lists it alongside spite and envy, hypocrisy and deceit.  I think he does this because he knows that all these things are related.  I criticize someone else because (on some level) I envy them. I envy that they are enjoying themselves and I am not. I envy that they are at peace, whether napping or reading a book, scrolling through their emails, or watching Hallmark. And I am standing in judgement of them, not because of anything they have done—but because, like the hypocrite I often am, I want to be at peace doing “nothing.” I want to enjoy a moment of rest. 


The carping criticism that we hear in our own head, that whispers to us words of resentment and spite, it isn’t just bad self-talk. It is a seed being planted, whose fruit is discord and conflict.  Don’t let that seed take root.  If you need rest, take it.  God declared that we should rest, and He declared it good.  So, instead of fighting your exhaustion with a to-do list, close your eyes and take a nap.  If Hallmark movies give you some pleasure and renewal, then watch a Hallmark movie. Let yourself disappear into it completely and enjoy it.  And have a bowl of popcorn, too!  When you feel rested, you’ll be ready to handle that sink full of dishes.  But, don’t stand over them sighing and fuming about who dirtied which cup or which bowl; let yourself offer the work of washing as a prayer for your family, for a friend, for peace in your own heart.  And let each dish be dried with quiet care and a whispered, “Thank you.” Let that be the beginning of your new outlook. Gratitude for the chance to serve another, and a special gratitude if no one notices what you are doing.  As you put away the dishes, bless each one; think about the person who will use it next, and let that blessing be for them.  I hope this doesn’t sound to Pollyanna. All I am saying is this: if your feeling exhausted, it could be because –like me—you are. You are trying to do too much and trying to do it all perfectly.  And disappointing yourself that often can be quite exhausting. 


Dear Lord,

let me rest in You,

trusting that all I have is from You,

even my weakness and frailty

is part of Your plan.

Whether I am waking or sleeping

or washing dishes,

I give it to you.

I am Yours.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Walking in the darkness, listening for the silence --some thoughts on Psalm 19

“…not a sound to be heard…”

--Psalm 19:3b



Walking this morning in the hour before sunrise, I was struck by the depth of the darkness still visible; the depth of the shadows cast across the lawns and into the bushes. Looking up, part of Orion’s belt still lingered high above the treetops.  I was reminded of the night before when my daughter and I had been out walking sometime between nine and ten. As we walked, I commented to her on what seemed to be a difference between the darkness of morning and the darkness of night. And it was not the one I had expected.  In fact, quite the opposite; it seemed to my eye that the darkness of night was more bearable and even somewhat brighter, and that the darkness before dawn was somehow deeper and more impenetrable; perhaps even a little more unsettling.  It was as if nature herself were confirming that old adage: it is always darkest before the dawn.


But another aspect of this is the silence.  Before dawn, walking the streets, I am often alone.  Not a soul out, except for the occasional possum slinking off to a day’s rest after a night of foraging. But at night, as Lucia and I walked, there were still sounds of life all around us.  Cars coming and going, people closing up garages, or pulling trash cans to the curb, neighbors out walking their dogs or riding their bikes.  There was activity, signs of life.  And, Lucia pointed out, there were porch lights and driveway security lights to dim the darkness just a bit.


But back to this morning’s walk. This morning, on my walk, I was stirred by the stillness and the silence. Pausing in the middle of the street to look up into the lingering remnants of the night, I felt the wonder of the silence and the intensity of the darkness. And for a moment, a deep and impenetrable sense of my own incompleteness and isolation swept over me.  For a brief moment, I felt utterly alone. Yet I was not afraid.


I don’t know how long I stood there, before I noticed the headlights of a car stopped some 20 feet away, the driver patiently waiting for me to get out of her way.  I smiled and moved toward the curb and let her pass.  There could only be one reason to get in your car before dawn: a doughnut emergency. And I certainly didn’t want to stand between a driver and her Shipley’s.


Her car crept past cautiously, and she nodded, then drove on. Watching her taillights disappear around the far corner, I figured it was time to head home, so I turned around and started back.  And this was when I noticed something else.  The world around me was stirring, scattered birds had begun calling to the dawn, the shadow of a squirrel crept down into the damp grass, testing the cold, and in the distance I could see another person out for their morning walk. Clearly, I had never been quite as alone as I felt in that moment.


Walking home, I was heading east and I could see the first rosy glow of dawn blossoming on the horizon. The darkness above it fading into a soft bruise of blue and red. It was beautiful and comforting.  Curiosity made me stop and turn and look back the other direction. And with a kind of strange elation, I realized that behind me I could still see the night.  At one end of the street, the sky was filled with darkness, the moon smiled, and a single star still glistened. And at the other end, the day was breaking.  And in the middle was me… getting positively silly with wonder.


Psalm 19 begins with this thrilling image of God’s glory being proclaimed by creation, the day speaks of it to the day and the night to the night.  Not a word is spoken, the psalmist says, but the message is clear, and it reaches the whole world.  Just look around, and even in the darkness of night you will see it –the glory of God’s love is luminous.  It lights the darkest of nights and even the darkness before the dawn is filled with it.  But, to see it, to sense it, to hear it, to know it, we have to pause and look and really listen. We have to listen to the stillness.


“…no utterance at all, no speech,

not a sound to be heard,

but from the entire earth it arises,

a message reaching the entire world…” (cf. 19: 3-4)


And that message, sung by all of creation, that is our Light.