Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Matters--A New Year's Meditation

"It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That's why we wake
and look out--no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening."    
           -William Stafford,
             The Way It is

Today begins a brand new year. I put a brand new calendar on the wall. I took my appointment book and started over. The pages are all blank. A new year is beginning. A new chance to do things differently than we have before. These new pages remind me of a story. When James McCord retired from the Presidency of Princeton Seminary he took the new President, Tom Gillespie out to lunch. McCord had served during the turbulent sixties, seventies and eighties. It was not an easy time to lead a school. But the outgoing President told Gillespie that day, “I gave in on everything that didn’t matter and on nothing that did.” Pretty good advice for a new year. The trick is knowing what does not matter and what is really important.

To learn to give our energy to the things that count and to spend little, if any time on the inconsequential seems a healthy way to live. Most of us spend too much firepower on the things that do not matter. Dr. Ernest Campbell once preached a sermon on: “Every Battle is Not Armageddon.” Why should we drag out the big guns on every concern?

It seems to me that much of the church has yet to learn this. There was a time when the church was silent on every social issue. I remember the deafening quiet of the white church during the Civil Rights days. Now the reverse seems to be true. Pick any issue: gay rights, women’s rights, abortion, stem cell research, evolution, supreme court justices, supporting the war, illegal immigrants, pornography, voting for particular political candidates, church and state issues, prayer in schools, school vouchers, defense of private schools, the Alabama state constitution, taxes, environmental concerns, health care for all our citizens, capital punishment. The list is seemingly endless. Whether we are church people or not we all spend a lot on a multitude of issues. Churches and nation are divided along these particular issues. Are you a red state or blue state—somehow it matters terribly.

I am not advocating turning our back on the world. But maybe it is time for all of us to prioritize. Some things we all have to compromise on or we can get nothing done. A nun used to hearing confessions in the nunnery said it was like being stoned to death with popcorn. We all feel like that most days. We are pelted with too many issues and problems. Do they all need our response?

How do we make sure that we do not give in on the things that truly matter? Perhaps our Judeo-Christian heritage gives us some clues. A little boy talked about rules in his home one day. “There are ten kids in my family and one bathroom,” he said, “you gotta have rules.” And we know there are rules and there are rules.

What matters? The old prophet may have been right: “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.” Our constitution says: “Liberty and justice for all.” That all covers a lot of territory. And anytime we try to pare down that great big word, all it is time to go to work. Justice is the God-given right of every human being. And if some group or groups are being ignored or categorized or treated less than human it violates the heart of faith. When Nazi propaganda smeared the Jews long enough—this was the first step to the gas chambers. And the tragedy was that most of other countries and religious institutions did not raise their voice until it was almost too late. Liberty and justice for all are worth fighting for.

What matters? Mercy, or the love of mercy. The stratification of our society may not change. The lines that divide us grow harder and firmer. But every person deserves mercy, even those behind bars. William James’ nephew asked the great man if he had any words of advice before he left home. “Just three words,” Mr. James said. “Be ye kind, be ye kind, be ye kind.” Mercy and kindness are linked. You cannot be kind without showing mercy. This year think of ways you might be kind and show mercy.

What matters? Walking humbly with our God. There should be some transcendent quality about life. We are more than what we see and feel and touch. We are more than consumers. We are more than Democrats and Republicans. We have to come to terms with mystery. There ought to be some moments in every day and every week in which we can stand back and just say: “Ahhhhhhh.” We can’t compute love. We can’t compute faith. We can’t compute hope. Find some way in the New Year to put down our ipods, our blackberries, our DVD and turn off the computer and ponder mystery and touch wonder.

We have been promised three score years and ten. Many never make that. But even those that do know those years are not near enough. The New Year offers us a new chance and a new start. We have a new opportunity to separate the things that do not matter from the things that we cannot live without. Someone said of retirees, “I have never met any one of them who told me they wished they had spent more time on their job.” It’s those other things the New Year calls us to. They teach us justice, they make us merciful and doing these we may just learn more than we thought about walking with God.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Oh Not-so-Holy Night

Being a Baptist preacher came be a trying time at the Christmas season. Especially if you try to haul some wonder and mystery into the house. It all began in my first church way out in the country. There was little festivity in that little clapboard church and so I decided that back of the pulpit where everyone could see would be a great place for a large Christmas wreath. Maybe the wreath could add a little Christmas spirit. Single-handed I took a hula-hoop and around it I wrapped greenery and greenery. I stood back and it look, I thought fantastic. So on the first Saturday before the first Sunday of Advent I got a ladder, went down to the church and put our Christmas wreath up. I was so proud of myself—I thought. But I didn’t reckon with the fact that a hula-hoop has little support. Every Sunday of Advent the wreath sagged more and more until it looked more a Christmas oval than a wreath.

That same year my wife was directing the choir—or trying to. The Choir had no robes and so we thought it would be great to get those “Sing and Sew” outfits and let the Choir make their own robes. They were so proud of their efforts and so that same oval-shaped Christmas, the Choir would wear their robes for the first time. My wife had instructed the women not to wear long dangly earrings or necklaces because they would take away from the robes. So that Sunday morning they marched by the beginning-to-sag wreath and sure enough the women had obeyed my wife’s order about the jewelry. But nobody had mentioned hats. And robed Thelma marched in with the biggest fuscia hat you’ve ever seen. Young and foolish, I was in a snit that Christmas. Looking back I think Jesus just might have approved of our efforts.

I could write a whole chapter on Advent wreaths. No liturgists that I know of have written a piece on “How to Make Sure You Get Candles that will Light.” I don’t know how many years one and sometimes more of the candles just would not light. The most heart-breaking Christmas Eve was the year a family came down the darkened aisle at the beginning of the service with a lighted candle. They had been selected to light the Advent wreath as the choir snag softly in the balcony: “This Little Light of Mine.” All went well until the daughter was given the candle to light the wreath. It didn’t work. She tried and tried. Her parents whispered to each other and then to her. She tried again. Finally in desperation she blew out the candle, threw it on the floor, said a loud, “Damn” and stalked off as her family still stood at the front. How’s that for openers on Christmas Eve?

One year we put candles down all the aisles and as one man started to move from the pew to the front to take Communion he knocked over the candled and it fell to the floor and he stomped and stomped until he put it out.

Another year the church was breath taking on Christmas Eve. We had luminaries all up and down the walk leading into the church. The Foyer was only lit by candles. You entered the Sanctuary where the only lights came from the ten-foot Chrismon tree and just enough light to get to your pew. We were ready for Christmas Eve and the Church was all dressed up for Jesus’ birthday. I went to put on my robe and when I returned every light in the house was on. It almost blinded you. Some engineer had muttered as he reached for the light switch: “You can’t see your hands in front of your face.” So much for pageantry.

The scariest event though happened the Sunday after Christmas. In October we had just finished our new sanctuary and everybody was so proud. We decorated this new space with all the festivity we could think of. And on the Sunday after Christmas, we lit all five of the Advent candles and they all burned. In fact they burned too long. The service ended, everybody went our separate ways. And the Custodian called me the next morning and said: “We’ve had a fire down here. Somebody forgot to blow out the candles on the Wreath—they burned all the way down, burned through the Communion table, burned the carpet underneath and I guess it must have been fire-retardant carpet-it burned itself out.” I rushed down to the church and sure enough we had had a fire. The whole placed smelled like smoke. The hand-made Communion table fashioned especially for us had a hole all the way through. The carpet was ruined.

We had a crew that spent a week de-smoking the place, getting out the smoke smell from the padded pews. Our carpet had to be replaced and the sanctuary had to be repainted. The man that had made our beautiful Communion table said he would make another.But the point is: Never leave the Advent candles burning! We Baptists missed that lesson.

But like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever  reports:  "Christmas comes, maybe not the way we expected. “Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman—sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing a ham. And the Angel of the Lord, mean old Gladys with her skinny legs and dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us, everywhere: “Hey, Unto you a child is born!”

Gays, the Military and Christmas

Christmas came early last week for the gays in the military. In an unexpected vote of 63 to 33 the Senate mustered up the courage to cut off debate on this issue. So Wednesday the President will sit down at his desk and sign a document which will put an end to “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. Gay members of the military closeted for so long can breathe just a little freer. They can simply be who they are—at least in the service.

14,000 gay members of the armed forces have been forced to leave the service because of the old policy. Of course there has been much opposition to this new ruling. Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said, “In the middle of a military conflict, is not the time to do this.” Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma stated, “This isn’t broke…it is working well.” Far right church groups are saying this is the just another step toward Armageddon. Senator John McCain issued a strong statement about how our troops in battle will suffer and this action would hurt our efforts in the war.

We’ve been here before. Blacks have served in the military since before the Revolution. But always they were segregated. One of the issues in the Civil War was if slaves should fight for their freedom. The film, “Glory” told of the courage of those black soldiers that fought for the Union. There was a strong movement to desegregate the military during the Roosevelt days of the Second World War but he demurred. But President Truman in an Executive order in July of 1948 officially desegregated the military. Remember that this was six years before the public schools were officially desegregated. Which means that this executive order signed by President Truman was as enormously courageous move. It would take two years before the policy was fully implemented. Opponents argued that insurrection would ensue. The morale of the soldiers would be seriously affected. This issue would cripple the war effort. None of these things happened.

Senator Joseph Lieberman who led to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” said that this ban undermined the integrity of the military by forcing troops to lie. What a waste, he said that we had hounded our thousands who should still be serving our country.

I talked to a gay friend of mine some time ago. “Don’t you get discouraged having to stay closeted. Not being able to say who you are at work. Not even using your hospital insurance since you are HIV positive and you afraid that your bosses will find out.” He told me it was hard but he felt that a sea change was beginning to occur. I will live to say the day when these attitudes change.” I wondered if he was too optimistic. But we know that in the last few years we have seen a change of attitude in the public toward homosexuality.
Even after this ruling change will come slowly as did our attitudes toward race. As we witness the invectives toward our first black President we know that our work is far from finished. Mr. Obama declared while he was running for President that he would change this discriminatory policy in the military. After all the difficulties that have rained down on his head of late, I doubted this would ever happen. And yet—this week we will begin to put aside yet another discriminatory act.

Gay people want what everyone wants—simply to have the basic rights that our constitution promises every citizen. We have not gotten there—but we are on the road. And this Christmas gift by our government is a very large present to a segment of our population that has felt discrimination every day they live. This not-so-simple act makes one more step in keeping faith once more with that phrase in our Constitution: “liberty and justice for all.”

Where's the Star?

"It asks a little of us here.
 It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid."
     --Robert Frost

High up on our Christmas tree, near the top, if you look closely you may see it. If you don’t squint your eyes and look carefully you’ll probably miss it entirely. I’m talking about the star.

It may be the tiniest ornament on the tree. The little star is probably an inch and a half in diameter. The star was made in the church kitchen by a little girl and her Sunday school teacher over forty years ago in Southside Virginia.

Every year, without fail she breezes into the house with her own two daughters. After lugging in suitcases, pillows and presents she always moves toward the Christmas tree in the corner. She asks the same question year after year. “Where’s the star?” Christmas would not be Christmas without that star. I used to think it was a foolish request hanging on to that old homemade star. But I have changed my mind.

We all need some ties to back there. We need some stack pole of remembering that sends us back, back toward yesterday and the past and our roots. What’s your star? Probably not a paste ornament. What is it that calls you back to what used to be with a tug and a pull that is almost magic? I have a buddy who keeps high on a shelf an old threadbare teddy bear. Some of the stuffing is missing and one eye has been lost. His Daddy bought it for him at the fair one time. They stood there looking at the wonderful stuffed animals and he pointed and his Daddy shook his head. The little boy burst into tears and snubbed and snubbed. Finally the Father sighed took out his billfold and handed the clerk the money. His Daddy has been dead for more than thirty years, yet that teddy bare are one of his most precious possessions. I have another friend, long gone now, that kept an old pouch of chewing tobacco pinned to the bookcase behind his desk. He told me he grew up in this little tiny cotton mill village and smoke breaks were few and far between. Almost everybody then chewed tobacco in the mill. The man has written a score of books. He taught hundreds of students. And he always kept a pouch of chewing tobacco as a reminder of how far he had come and how grateful he was. Five years ago I stopped by to see the old black lady that we would now call a Nanny. She kept my brother and me for years and loved us fiercely. As I started to leave she told me she wanted to show me something. She opened a dresser drawer and pulled out something wrapped in tissue paper. She unfolded the yellowing paper and held up a slip. “Miz Ruth give me this slip. She always gave me the nicest presents.” She had never worn it but she kept it and remembered.

Christmas is a time for stirring memories. Silver Bells. Silent Night. Santa Claus is coming to town. I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. O Come All Ye Faithful. But this season is much, much more. The faces loom up before us. Names of those long dead get mixed up with fun-filled times from our crowded pasts. Christmas is a remembering time.

Some of us hang the symbols of our memories on a Christmas tree. Some pack them away in tissue paper. Some place these mementoes carefully in a jewelry box and open it up from time to time and just smile. Some just keep our treasures tucked away in our hearts.

“Where’s the star?” Good question. Unpack it gently. Hang it high in your own way. And remember. Remember. Remember.

(This article appeared first in the Op Ed section of the Sunday Birmingham News, 12/20/09 - I printed in on my blog last Christmas and thought it might be appropriate again this year.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Christmas Surprise

Days ago we had our Christmas cards printed. On the card is a picture of my wife and me standing high on a hill overlooking Budapest, Hungary. Next is a picture of my wife and our daughter and her two daughters taken at our church. As they stood to leave I thought their profile would make a great picture. "Stand still girls, turn this way, " I said. The picture of my four girls is wonderful. Next there is a picture of my son and his partner and my wife. They are all three acting crazy but it is a good picture. Last there is a picture of my daughter’s dog, Jesse asleep under our Christmas tree. When I got the cards back I wrote a note to go with them. Next came the big job of sorting through our Christmas file. We’ve lived in a lot of places and been graced with the friendships of a multitude of people. So I addressed the envelopes, placed the Christmas photo card and the note in each envelope.

Two days later I stood in that long line at the Post Office to get stamps for the cards. My turn finally came and moved to another room to stamp the envelopes. But as I riffled through the cards a strange sensation  came over me. As I stamped each envelope I began to notice the names. The cards went everywhere—some even to England.  I was surrounded by a sea of faces. Some were addressed to solitary widows who lost their mates this year. One card went to a friend battling breast cancer in South Carolina. There was the card to be sent to my friend who lost her 40-year-old daughter. Not all the cards were sad. I smiled as I remembered other days and other times. My brother’s surprise 50th Anniversary Party with all of his friends and family there. My buddy who completely changed vocations and is happier than I have seen him in years. In that stack were the names of several staff members that I leaned on heavily to get our work done. There was a card to my old buddy in California that used to sit on my porch in the twilight and argue politics. There was the name of a couple that moved away this year that I still miss seeing. There were several cards in that stack were to old friends who go all the way back to the beginning of college and marriage and first jobs. I sent one card to my old friend who, never able to go to college herself, saved up her nickels and dimes from her job in a knitting mill to help me do what she could never do.

I told my wife at supper, “I sent the cards out today. I had the strangest feeling as I stamped card after card. I remembered the hurt of so many we love. But I was caught off guard but that vast number who have changed our lives by living next door somewhere, by working with us side by side, just getting through college. Remembering the kindnesses that came on those the days when our lives were hard.”

Our preacher preached on the Surprises of Christmas last Sunday. He challenged us to open our eyes and discover a touch of wonder somewhere we least expected. This is the essence of Christmas, finding in a manger on a cold, windy night a child that would change it all.  Memory washed over and I remembered so many places we have lived, so many people that we have been blessed to know.

I placed the cards in the slot at the post office. And as I moved toward my car  the Christmas surprise hit me. My life has been touched and changed by a multitude along the way. I remembered a quote that a member gave me as I was leaving my job at the church. I still have that yellowing paper under glass on my desk. The words come from the writer, Katherine Mansfield, “How hard,” she wrote, “it is to escape from places! However carefully one goes; they hold you—you leave bits of yourself fluttering on the fences, little rags and shreds of your very life.” I think Christmas came to me standing in a long line at the Post office, sorting through cards, placing stamps on envelopes. We never know when Christmas will walk down our street and knock on our door.

(This article appeared in the Op Ed section of The Birmingham News (AL.) December 25, 2010.) 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ponderings for the Last Week in Advent

Sunday – December 19 – Isaiah 42. 10. “Sing to the Lord a new song…” Strange, some of the great art and music have come out of the poorest of soils. In Isaiah 42 the nightmares of the people had come true. Assyria, wild and violent had dragged the best and brightest of their people off into exile. Those old, infirm and helpless were left at home in a broken land to fend for themselves. This was the setting of Isaiah 40-55—one of the great pieces of literature. It begins in a wasteland, far from home: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people…” Could God take the stuff of your life and mine—the hard things we face—and put a song on our lips even in a strange land? Like Israel we all wonder. Yet Isaiah 43 reminds us: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you.”

Leslie Weatherhead, the great English preacher of another era wrote: "I can only write down this simple testimony. Like all men, I love and prefer the sunny uplands of experience when health, happiness and success abound; but I have learned more about God, life and myself in the darkness of fear and failure than I have eve learned in the sunshine. There are such things as the treasure of darkness. The darkness, thank God passes, but when one learns in the darkness, one possesses forever.” Maybe the best songs really do come from the hardest of places.

Monday – December 20 – Psalm 61 . This Psalm is a prayer. It begins with a lament and ends with a thanksgiving. Maybe this hard Christmas for so many people really is a wilderness. Little money, homes foreclosed on by the thousands, desperate people looking for jobs—boys and girls in Afghanistan and Iraq and their families scared back home. And we turn to a prayer that has helped believers through the ages. What helps move us from despair to hope? A picture of God we find painted here. Look at the words the Psalmist uses for God: refuge, tower, tent, shelter of your wings.

And then we turn to today’s scripture passage in Isaiah 11. One shall come, the writer says and wonderful things are promised: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Whatever your condition today—put down refuge, tower, tent, and the shelter of his wings next to them. The promise of Christmas is for us all.

Tuesday – December 21 – Psalm 66. “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.”Later on in this same Psalm the writer reminds his people: “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you brought us out to a spacious place.”

If that is not enough the Psalm ends: “But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.” As we begin to glimpse Bethlehem just a few days from our journey’s end—let us know deep in our hearts that here, under the shining star, surrounded by scruffy shepherds and kings from a foreign land we find the Psalmist is right. He really has done awesome deeds among us. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday – December 22 – Luke 1. 26-38. The tom-tom beat of Luke 1 is one phrase: “Do not be afraid.” Old Zechariah, world-weary priest heard the words when the angel came. Mary, a little slip of a girl heard the same words. And Joseph wondering what in the world he had gotten himself into—heard the same promise in another book. Shepherds heard it on a hillside: “Do not be afeared.” And like a silver thread it runs throughout out the Bible: Do not be afraid. Jesus said it over and over.

John Updike who left us just about two years ago once wrote, “Fear is the mood. People are bringing the shutters down from the attics and putting them back on their windows. Fences are appearing where children used to stray freely from backyard to backyard…Locksmiths are working overtime. Once we parked our cards with the keys dangling from the dashboard, And a dog could sleep undisturbed in the middle of the street. No more. Fear reigns.”

From then until now the demon fear is alive and well. Christmas says whatever your worry and anxiety and fear—God comes. Do not be afeared.

Thursday – December 23 – Psalm 146. 7-9. Strange isn’t it? Christmas first came to peasants, a poor couple, an obscure priest and his wife, shepherds of all people. The setting was a drafty barn where the animals stayed when the nights were cold. And today—we rich and middle class have captured Christmas. And the poor, outside the plate (and stained) glass windows feel shut out. Luke 4 told us what this Messiah would do. He opened the Isaiah scroll and read what his charge: “To bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4. ,18-19) His hearers were incensed.

Fighting for the rights of the poor has always been an uphill battle. Especially today. Christmas baskets may help some. Toys for Tots can certainly assure some child of a happy Christmas day. Yet Christmas never really will be fulfilled until we move over on our pews and welcome those to whom God first came.

Friday – December 24 – Isaiah 35. Remember the setting. They lived always on the edge of a wilderness. For forty years they have lived in a desert. And then—even after they made it to the Promised Land they fought the desert almost every day of their lives. The wind, the scorpions, the oppressive heat and the lack of enough water. Drought was an every-present fear. And here, Isaiah 35 says, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” But all this is prelude for the rest of this wonderful chapter. Read it for yourself. Put down today’s newspaper beside these wonderful words of promise.

I love the way that Buechner frames this promise: “A child on Christmas Eve…lives for the presents that he will open the next day, and in this sense we all live like children. There are so many presents to be opened—tomorrow, next month, next year—and in a way it is our looking forward to the presents that keeps us going. The unexpected friendship, the new job, seeing our names in the paper, falling in love, the birth of a child—all of these are presents that life gives us if we want them badly enough and if we are lucky enough, and in a way every new days is a present to be opened just as today was and tomorrow will be.”The waiting is almost over. Tomorrow is the day. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Saturday – December 25 – I John 4. 7-16. The writer John reminds of something we already know. Love really did come down at Christmas. Dear Paul Scherer (my favorite preacher of another day) said, “On the night of nights—God came down the stairs of heaven with a child in his arms.”

Bill Cosby expressed this wonder and this love on television yeas ago. He was trying to help a woman about to have a baby. Bill was stranded with this woman and her other two children in a terrible rainstorm which had knocked out the telephone and the lights. The woman had had her other two children by natural childbirth so there wasn’t much to worry about—although you couldn’t tall bill that. His attempts to be helpful, when he actually almost helpless were ingenious. He offered to get boiling water. He tried to smile at the woman but it wasn’t very reassuring. He finally ended up with this magnificently helpless look on his face, swinging his arms in the air.
The mother survived, the baby came and Bill, thrilled by the wonder of it all, walked out in the rain and with a voice colored with man meanings, simply repeated in thanks and wonder, “A baby! A baby! A baby!” Christmas is the time when, amidst power failures and with rain in our faces, we affirm the miracle of God’s love present with us. “A baby! A baby! A baby!”

I can’t leave this day without leaving with you this wonderful love-poem that my young friend Maura Capps wrote:

“…Song of the Magi
when we came
we came through the cold
we came bearing gifts of gold
and frankincense and myrrh
and there were trumpets playing
there were angels looking down
on a west bank town
and so he loved the world!
Wore we then our warmest capes
wore we then our walking shoes
opened wide the city gates
and let us through
a child is born
born in Bethlehem
born in a cattle pen
a child is born on the killing floor
and still he no crying makes
still as the air is he
lying so prayerfully there
waiting for the war
welcome home, my child
your home is a checkpoint now
your home is a border town
welcome to the brawl
life ain’t fair, my child
put your hands in the air, my child
slowly now, single file, now
up against the wall
wear we now our warmest coats
wear we now our walking shoes
open wide the gates of hope
and let us through
when we came
we came through the cold
we came bearing gifts of gold
and frankincense and myrrh
and there were lions laying down
with the lambs in a west bank town
and he so loved the world!”

And so we come to this day of days. Christmas! May this be the day you find that love that first loved the world and loves us all.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ponderings for the Third Week in Advent

"This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
happened. Only dull peace
sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
could find nothing better to do
than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
when a few farm workers and three
members of an obscure Persian sect
walked haphazardly by starlight
into the kingdom of heaven."
--U.A. Fanthorpe

Sunday –December 12 – Hebrews 12.28a – “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks…”There is so little certainty in our world. Everything changes much too fast. Our parents grow old and die. Our children do not stay small. One day they are in the Nursery and the next day heading off to college. And we change. Tummies get bigger. We need glasses. We can’t hear quite as well as we did. Hair falls out or thins. And the terrain of our lives shifts—where is John or Don? Where are Margie and Herbert or Harriet and Tommy? Gone. We stood by their graves and said goodbye.

Old timers look out at a world of I-pods, I-phones, I-pads, Kindles, Internet and cell phones. Most of these were not with us 15 years ago. And in five years something new and shiny will render them obsolete. The ground shifts under our feet and it gets scary. And the old book says there is comfort and security in the shadow of God’s wings. In a changing world we reach out for something to hold on to. Most of our recipes don’t work. And this is the Christmas setting for 2010. The days grow shorter and the cold wind blows and we turn slowly toward Bethlehem. We’ve been here before—many times. The story is old and we know if by heart—but every year it comes to us fresh as if we meet it for the first time. Robert McAfee Brown and his family stood before the tiny crèche of the baby Jesus and his family. Here, he wrote, standing before the manger and the Christ child we find a small center of sanity in a wild and crazy world. So much changes—but Bethlehem remains reminding us that in this kind of a world there are wings in which we can find comfort. There really is a kingdom that will never be shaken.

Monday – December 13 – Psalm 41. “Happy are those who consider the poor, the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.” As we move another day closer to Christmas there are 14.8 million people in our country that are unemployed. Long-term unemployment—which means people who have been out of work longer than six months—total over six million of our citizens. To date Congress has refused to extend unemployment insurance any longer—or if they do there will certainly be something in the package for the well heeled. This is a scary time and for the unemployed this is especially a dark season.

I know one family who takes their children and grandchildren and find a family in their community in real need. Each Christmas they provide a Christmas for this family. Instead of giving gifts to each other—they reach out to someone needing help. I know. I know. Churches fill Christmas baskets and other groups provide Christmas dinner for the homeless. Critics say all these efforts are a drop in the bucket—and they are right. And yet I remember Mother Theresa’s words when a reporter asked her why she kept picking up little starving children in India. The task was seemingly endless. She simply said, “Young man, I do what I can, where I am, with what I have.” As Christmas comes we must all find some way “to consider the poor.”

Tuesday – December 14 – Isaiah 9.2. “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light…”
When my granddaughter was little she was scared of what she called, the dart. “Mama, I’m afraid of the dart—come lie down with me.” The dark—where we cannot see very far—is really the unknown Israel faced in Isaiah 9. God’s chosen were afraid that they were about to be invaded—and the far proved to be right. But the prophet standing in the darkness with them had a vision. He kept telling them that in the middle of their darkness light would somehow come. When John wrote his gospel he picked up this same theme in his first chapter: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.” People of faith know deep in their hearts that the light is stronger than the darkness. Meditate on the darkness in your life and in our world and remember that shining light that never goes out.

Wednesday – December 15 – Mark 1.1. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God…” There are no stars or shepherds or manger or even angels in Mark’s gospel. He falls back on the essence of the story. And what he says is:  that this is the beginning of the good news.

There is a strong resurgence of atheism today. Books on why there is no God have climbed to the top of the bestseller list. Most of their complaints say that belief in God brings bad news—not good. They footnote this idea with a multitude of injustices that can be found throughout church history. I concur with many of their ideas. When religion is bad news—it has missed the point. The angel sang, “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy which shall come to all people…” Ponder today the good news this gospel still brings.

Thursday – December 16 – Matthew 3.1-12. After Matthew had spent two chapters on the familiar Christmas story, he suddenly shifted gears in his third chapter. John the Baptist was now a full-grown man. He was wild looking. The whole theatre shook as he spoke. His eyes blazed and his message was strong. And the writer, Matthew simply says, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” Doesn’t that sum up much of the story?

God uses human beings as wild as the adult John. Even with his strange clothing and even weirder eating habits. But this John preached a message of repentance. So God can use any of us. His name was John. Your name is___________. But it could be Fred or Harriet or James or Mary. It hardly matters. God just might use you and me and bring some good news to somebody. I’m not talking about being a Billy Graham or a Mother Theresa. No—just using our humanity—that God-given you-ness can make the world a better place. What could you do, human as you are, top make your world a better place today?

Friday – December 17 – Psalm 40.1a.I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined his ear to me and heard my cry.” As I read this Psalm I first thought I would write about answered prayer But I looked back on many of the prayers I have prayed that seem to have no answer or were not answered to my liking. I have prayed for people to get well and yet they slipped away into the mystery. I have prayed for God to stop the madness of this seemingly endless war. And yet the fighting goes on and on. I have prayed for people I love to have it easier and maybe just not so hard—and still they carry heavy burdens.

This Psalm does not talk about answered prayer. It does say that when the writer waited for God her cry was heard. Long ago I began to learn a painful lesson. When my wife talks about a problem she usually is not seeking a solution. But she does want to be heard and listened to. Isn’t the Psalmist saying that when we cry out of the depths of whatever we face—we are heard and cared for? One of my favorite verses is Psalm 6.8b “…the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping…” Lift up your cares and longings to the Loving One. Hold on to the great promise of Christmas: We will be heard.

Saturday – December 18 – Psalm 55.6. “O that I had the wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest…” Life gets messy sometimes. The Psalmist in verses 4-5 says: “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.” These words are the prelude to the wistful longing for the wings of a dove to take us away from all that hurts and harms. Unfortunately for those in the Scriptures and for us—those longing are not fulfilled. We have to face the music, the consequences, a bad lab report—the strictures of life.

When Martin Luther King was so afraid and despairing, he would have the choir to sing an old Gospel song: “No, never alone, No, never alone, He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone”. So here, where we live and ache and dream and often hurt—Christmas says we are not alone. And in the strength of that strong word we can make it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Does Not Come in a Box

Remember Dr. Seuss’ story of the Grinch that stole Christmas? Or tried to. The Grinch hated Christmas and hoped to find a way to keep Christmas from coming to his town. Christmas Eve when everyone was asleep, he decided to sneak into the houses in his village. He would steal all the presents, the goodies, the Christmas trees and even the logs in the fireplaces. The Grinch thought this would solve the Christmas problem. But Christmas morning when the town woke up the Grinch was dumbfounded. Despite all his hard work, he heard singing and laughter coming from house after house. And the Grinch learned a powerful lesson: Christmas does not come in a box.

The reason? No box is ever big enough to hold the real Christmas. Think back on the Christmases you remember. Those memories have little to do with Santa Claus or presents or decorations. If we recall our fondest Christmases; they never came wrapped in paper and tied with a ribbon . Our little four room house across from the mill Christmas came year after year despite whatever was going on in the world. Sometimes it was the war. Often money was tight. Some years there was grief and disappointment. Other years we had much to celebrate

But year after year we started early in December at the Hardware store where we bought little cans of gold and silver paint. We cut limbs with berries and greenery off the bushes. We sprayed them silver and gold. When they were dry we covered our mantles and made some kind of arrangement on the kitchen table. Next came the cakes. Our little kitchen was weighed down with flour and real coconuts and raisins and spices and vanilla flavoring and lots of eggs and a heaping mound of butter. Our maid, Nancy  was instructed to go the liquor store after dark and furtively get the whiskey for the Fruitcakes. We shelled pecans all week long. We used a hammer to break open the coconuts. By Christmas day every spare surface would be covered with enough sweets to send anyone into a diabetic coma.

We always had a live Christmas tree that stretched all the way to the top of our little ceiling. My father chopped and hacked away at the base until it was finally ready for the living room. Next came the big colored lights, the ornaments. We whipped up Lux flakes in the kitchen and loaded the branches down with make-believe snow. Icicles covered the tree and the floor, too.

Our Church up the street opened its doors every Friday just before Christmas. And every year all the mill children would gather in the sanctuary to wait breathlessly for Santa Claus to walk down the aisle of the church. The man in the red suit and the fake beard always brought a box of oranges, apples, nuts and a little candy for every child present. As we sat there holding our boxes, the Preacher would open the big black book and read the old story: “And there was in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” And we would hear, as if for the first time the tale of a tired mother and a frightened father and a mean old innkeeper. And at the center of it all was a baby—a wonderful baby. When the reading was finished, someone would move to the piano and we would all sing: “Silent Night” and a hush would settle over us all.

Christmas day after the presents were opened and we grew bored; the best part of the day lay before us. We sat down to Christmas dinner. Always there were two hams: a cured and a fresh ham, a huge fat hen and dressing and cranberry sauce. There were vegetables that had been canned the summer before. My Mother carefully took out of our kitchen cabinet the best dishes reserved for such a day as this. And around that old table, with the silver and gold centerpiece was my family: Mama, Daddy and my redheaded brother.

Christmas did not come in a box. It came much like that first Christmas. Despite the odds there was a mother and a father and a child and wonder and love and hope and joy always. Someone called Christmas the glorious impossible. And this we take with us throughout the year. This we hold on to for the rest of our lives.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Searching for the Real Christmas

"They all were looking 
    for a king 
  to slay their foes
   and lift them high
 there cam'st a tiny baby
that made a woman cry."

I want us to talk today about the real Christmas. Newsweek this week had a two page picture spread on the Christmas season. And you know what it showed a huge store, crowded with people. Just packed in like sardines. And everybody had a cart and every cart was full of stuff. And some had scowls on their faces and some just looked wild and some looked like they wished they had stayed at home. One woman who hadn’t been able to pay her rent in three months said, “Well, it’s Christmas—and I just couldn’t quit buying.”

Several years ago when Jim and Tammy Faye were still popular at PTL and everybody was watching—in Fort Mill, South Carolina they decorated the whole place with lights and wreaths and ribbons and everything. People came from everywhere just to see how everything glittered. And one night they were interviewing some man who had just come back from the Holy Land and Bethlehem. And he told Jim and Tammy Faye, “I just got back from Bethlehem—but I want to tell you something. That place don’t hold a candle to PTL. This is what I call the real Christmas.” Is Christmas glitz and sparkly stuff and lights and music playing so loud it hurts your ears? We all know that’s not Christmas. And we all know that we won’t find it at Target or Wal Mart or even Macy’s. So I want us to think today about the real Christmas.

When they told the story for the first time, Mark would write the first account of what happened in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and all the dusty miles in between. And Luke and Matthew would use Mark as a model as they wrote. And later John would write his own understanding of Jesus' life.

Good News

But when Mark wrote I find it interesting how he starts. First verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And he quotes the old prophets. One day, they would say, one day one shall come and things will be forever different. They dreamed of a time when the world would change and love would rule and hate would recede. A world in which they would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nations would not lift up sword against nation, and they would study war no more. There would come a time, they dreamed when the light would come into the world and the darkness could never put it out. And so, Mark says the real Christmas has nothing to do with stars and angels and mangers and wise men and shepherds. The real Christmas has nothing to do with I Saw Mama Kissin’ Santa Claus or wondering what in the world are we gonna get so and so.

Read Mark. Real Christmas he says in that first verse is good news. That’s what gospel means. Isaiah said that “One day I will send my messenger to prepare the way…” And so in Mark it begins with a messenger—John the Baptist. And this John appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So John would baptize Jesus, Jesus would call fishermen to follow him, he would teach and preach and heal. And then Mark says: “That evening at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons and the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”So, you see there at the beginning Santa Claus was not coming to town. The real Christmas was when John said the good news was a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.


Good news is repentance? What does that mean? The word, repentance means change. It means newness. It means to turn 180 degrees. It means an about face. I am going this way and I suddenly turn completely around. It is like the Prodigal who left home, landed in a pig sty, no money, no place to go--he was as far down as he could go. And he said: And so, eating with the pigs, he said: I will arise and go to my Father and maybe, just maybe he will take me back as a hired hand. The boy turned completely around. He turned from his old, self-destructive ways. He went back home. He changed.

I agree with Wendy Wright who says that repentance is not necessarily gloomy and self-loathing that it is sometimes made out to be. That's what the Prodigal thought it was. But repentance does not mean to be confirmed in what that little voice within that keeps whispering: you are no good, everything that happens to you is your own fault, and if they only knew what you were really like they would move away from you in a minute. Remember the story. The boy came back with this written-out confession. He even made a proposal. I will scrub the floor and clean out the animal stalls and do all the dirty work. He thought that was repentance. But the Father said: "My son, my son..." And the Father took that list and tore it up and threw it away. So true repentance begins with the felt knowledge that we are loved by God. That we are children of God. And if we don't feel beloved today then maybe our prayer is that we will come to know that we are beloved and that all that self-hatred we've been carrying around will just one day vanish. That's repentance. And unless I misunderstand it--that's good news.


So this brings us to a second understanding of good news--the meaning of this gospel. The good news is that our sins are forgiven. And baptism is a sign that we can be cleansed. We really are forgiven and the slate is washed clean and we really do start all over again.

Some time ago I was invited back to the church I used to serve in Virginia. It was a Virginia homecoming, which meant people came back home who used to live there, filled the church on that one day and after the service we had wall to wall food for about two hours and then we all waddled back home and took our Mylanta and Tums and Alka Seltzer. And during that service one of the members introduced me before I preached. She said: While Mr. Lovette was here my husband didn't ever go to church. I'd load up the kids every Sunday and bring them by myself. He drank a lot. He drank up much of our money. Wasn't really mean to us but he just wasn't much of a Daddy or much of a husband. I asked Mr. Lovette to visit him and he started doing that. And one Sunday my hsband came to church. And about a year later he walked down the aisle and accepted Christ as his savior. Mr. Lovette baptized him right back there in our baptistry. Mr. Lovette left. But my husband changed and found some kind of forgiveness. He quit drinking. He began to pay attention to me and to the kids. He came to church with us and even joined a Sunday School class. He's sitting back there today and he's a Deacon in this church. I didn't remember those visits. I did remember him. I didn't even remember that I baptized him. But all the way back to Birmingham I remember telling Gayle. You know sometimes in this business we don't see much change and much forgiveness. But when the forgiveness of God's love touches us we have to change.


Mark says when you search for Christmas you better be on the lookout for an angel. Angel? There's no angel in these verses. I"m not so sure. The second verse says: I will send my messenger. And the word means angel. And this is followed by the emergence of John the Baptist in the wilderness. He was a wild man. Clothed in camel's hair. Leather girdle--he ate locusts and wild honey. Long tangled-up matted down hair. He was a mess. He was a cross between Tarzan and Sylvester Stallone on a bad day. And Mark says that John said--I'm not the Messiah. Even though there was a whole group that thought he was and became quite a force in the early church. What did John say? I'm only the messenger. And the words means angel.

So, I want you to be on the look out for some angel this Christmas. I'm not talking about some winged creature. No. Real angels are more like John the Baptist. They come to us in disguise. But Mark says we hear this good news through some unlikely angel.

Let me tell you what I think he means. When I was at Clemson there was a Doctor that had his office across the street. And that first Sunday as Pastor he came by the door and introduced me to his daughter, Maria. Maria was downs syndrome. That first Sunday she hugged me and said she wanted to be baptized. Well, we baptized her months later. I think she was the first person I baptized in that church. And every Sunday she’d come out and say: “I want to get baptized.” And I would say: “You don’t get baptized but one time. You’ve already been baptized.” She would laugh.

The Doctor told me that when she was born that his Doctor friends came in and told him and his wife, “She’ll never be normal. Why don’t you put her in a home where she can get the best care.” They wouldn’t do that. And so they brought her home and she was sickly and lot of problems. But they loved her…and she changed their lives. They got interested in other Down Syndrome kids. They started a group of parents. They gave a lot of money and time to helping others. And all the time Maria was growing and finding an enormous place in their hearts.

One Saturday morning I got a call from the Doctor. Maria had died. Her heart just stopped. And I went over and cried with the family. Saying goodbye was hard. But every time I go back they talk about how their lives would never, ever have been what they were without Maria. Can you imagine, they would say, if we had put her away somewhere—what we would have missed? The point? Open your eyes—we never know when God is gonna knock on our door and some angel in disguise is going to come into our house and change us forever. That’s what Mark says Christmas means.


I kept looking at our text. Good news. Be on the lookout for an angel. And I saw here something else I almost missed. Mark's Christmas gospel is a strange story. For, you see it begins in a wilderness. He begins by saying that's what the prophet says: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. And that's what Mark says about John--he begins his ministry in the wilderness.

Mark quoted the prophet Isaiah first. One day, he wrote, he shall come. He will bring comfort. He will exalt the valleys. He will make low the mountains that block our way. He will make the crooked straight. And in exile, far from home, they would hear a promise: One shall come in this wilderness. Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace.

Vincent Taylor said that when Mark wrote of the wilderness he had in mind the wild, uncultivated wasteland to the west of the Dead Sea. Christmas does not begin when they turn on the light at the Galleria or when they light the White House Christmas tree. It begins in the wilderness where there is darkness and scorpions and no roadmaps and fear and loneliness and for Jesus, temptation.

Where are the silver bells and Rudolph and and chestnuts roasting on an open fire? That's not in Mark's Christmas story. His Christmas setting was a hard world where hearts were broken and it was hard to believe.So don't you tell me that Christmas won't come this year because you lost someone. Or that you got a bad lab report and you're scared. Don't tell me Christmas won't come because your job is shaky and the children won't be home for Christmas or you are all by yourself.

Fred Craddock says that advent pilgrims on the way to the manger must pass through the desert. That's what that ugly manger and no room in the inn and a smelly stable and a King that would kill him if he could find him really means. Wilderness. Hard times. This is where he does his best work.

The story is told about a Department store in a large city. It was Christmas Eve and the store was closed. And a night watchman was making his rounds. You can imagine the mess. Merchandise everywhere. All over the tables and the floors. It looked like a tornado had been through. Floor after floor was the same. It would take days to clean up that place and get all the dresses and shirts and blue jeans and cosmetics back on the shelves. On the third floor, under a table the night watchmen though he saw something. Looked like a foot. Covered over with fabric and coats and shirts. He began to pull away all that stuff people did not buy. And there was a man lying there. Dead. The watchmen searched his pockets for identification but could find nothing to indicate who he was. The only identifying signs on the body were nail prints in his hands and a scar in his side.

The real Christmas had been trampled over, covered up and left for dead. Don’t miss it. Don’t miss Christmas. It’s good news of a great joy that will come to all people. Not bad news—good news. Like the prodigal he’ll take you back. He'll forgive all your sins.He’ll send some angel just down your street and stop at your house so you better keep your eyes open. And most of all in the wilderness—your wilderness God will meet you there warts and all. And Christmas will come whether there is a tree or a carol or a light anywhere. No wonder Mark called it Good News.

Ponderings for the Second Week in Advent

"On your way to Bethlehem
may you be surprised
by some crazy angel
who has for you
good news
of a great joy
which will come
to all the people
and expecially to you."
--Deryl Fleming

Sunday – December 5 – Isaiah 5. 1-7. Today we light the second candle of Advent. We move closer to the manger. It is still weeks before Christmas and there is much to do. Isaiah, waiting for the enemy to take their land reminded the people of God’s love and care for God’s people. The first two verses sound like part of the love song in Song of Songs. The Lord God planted a vineyard—Israel—he cared for it and loved it like a good farmer. But they dismantled what God had done. The field did not yield the fruit they longed for. Judgment is at the center of this reading. Is this why the dark storm clouds gathered and Israel would be invaded? We must not forget the standard by which our country, our lives and the world is to be judged.

Monday – December 6 – Psalm 25 – The story comes from Paris. A tourist stepped into the vestibule of the cathedral  as the choir was practicing the Twenty-third portion of the Mass. “Lamb of God who takest away the sin of the world have mercy upon us.” From the shadows the man heard a moan as the choir sang the chorus over and over. The tourist looking closely saw someone in the shadows who was visibly upset. He began to cry out: “Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world—if only he could…oh, if only he could.” And with that the man ran out of the church and down the street. Ponder the mystery written to exiles and sinners everywhere—God can! God can! Thanks be to God.

Tuesday – December 7 – Luke 21. 20-28. I used to hear preachers preach on this Lukan passage. Jesus was coming soon. We better be careful of what we do. Not Santa Claus but Jesus was coming to town! It would be an awful time…rivers turned to blood, God’s wrath poured out everywhere. For a little boy this was scary talk and this passage found its way into my dreams—or at least the preachers’ interpretation. On this day in 1961 I was six years old. One of my earliest memories was the attack on Pearl Harbor. The President calling this “a day of infamy.” I wondered even then was the old passage coming true before my very eyes? 49 years have passed. Many died after that attack in World War II. Some rivers really did turn to blood. The Greatest generation was born and we are still here. I missed the point—as did those preachers. Verse 28 sets it in context: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing nigh.” Maybe it simply means we are, in the hard times, raise our heads and give ourselves to the care of the Father.

Wednesday – December 8 – Psalm 38. The Bible is a realistic book—especially the Psalms. Here some believer stands in the darkness. It think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “In the dark night of the soul it is always 3:00 o’clock in the morning.” Remember the outcry when some reporter opened up Mother Theresa’s diary and read that some days she confessed she could not believe at all. Many were outraged. We Christians know better. There really is a dark night of the soul and it doesn’t last forever. Mother Theresa kept picking up those little starving of babies and tried to nurse them back to life. So, like dear Mother and the Psalmist, too—even in our darkness we wait for God.

Thursday – December 9 – Psalm 37. The tom-tom beat of the Psalm is: “do not fret.” The injustices of the world pressed down on that writer and his people. No wonder they fretted. But, thank God, there is a word that outlasts our frets. Verse 7 says: “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him…” Rita Snowden tells the story of the little woman in an English village having a hard time. “How can you stand it?” someone asked. The little woman smiled and said, “I thatched my roof when the sun was shining.”

Friday – December 10 – Isaiah 7. 1-9. When the RSV came out there had not been that many translations of the Bible that had been popularized. And part of the church was outraged. Some because they said the Elizabethan language had been destroyed in the Bible. Some said the ndew translation was just heresy. A few even burned this new Bible. One of the reasons they gave was Isaiah 7.14: “ Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a child…” The KJV said: “A virgin shall conceive.” Critics said these new translators were trying to sneak in the idea that Mary was not a virgin. Scholars tell us that this passage was not  talking about Mary. The original really should read: young woman. Well, the hoopla is gone. The church loved this verse and made it their own. Isaiah did not have the Messiah in mind but some king. Whatever. Once upon a time, years later a young woman named Mary did conceive…and thank God Immanuel really has come to stay.

Saturday – December 11 – Luke 22.31. Jesus’ last days were running out. Judas had already left the table to plot his demise. Disciples jostled about who was the greatest. And Simon, the strong belligerent disciple Jesus always leaned on would deny his Lord three times that very night. But Jesus told him that he would fail miserably. Simon, of course protested. But when Luke put his gospel together he stitched in some words of Jesus: “I have prayed for you, Simon that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once again you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” We know the rest of that story. Peter's story reminds me of the old farmer asked the old monk what they did they do, up there on the hill behind those monastery walls. The old monk replied, “We fall down and we get up and we fall down and we get up.” This has always been the journey of the pilgrim.