Love this from Jana Reiss interview with Eugene Peterson. “What we used to call common worship, with people worshiping together in a common way, has now been replaced by noise. Can you imagine doing lectio divina in a congregation of 10,000 people? You can’t. It’s impossible to do that. Silence, waiting, patience—those are all cultivated responses of the spirit when we’re dealing with the transcendent. I think we’ve been robbed of something that is very basic to a healthy spiritual life.”
As this You-tube self-portrait reveals, my friend Dieter Zander is on an amazing journey. I first met Dieter when he moved to Chicago in the 90’s to try a skunk-works, 20-something church plant within Willow Creek. Very bright guy who knew the insufferable spotlight of evangelical dalliances with their sub-cultural celebrity. Four years ago Dieter experienced a stroke. You can read about it at his Facebook page in a wonderful piece titled FINDING A NEW VOICE and written by LaDonna Williams. Better yet, you can see it in this haunting You-tube self-portrait. FYI for Kindlings Hearth Alum, Dieter will be at the Hearth Retreat in March 2012.
A.W. Tozer’s mystical bent drew him to Frederick Faber’s poetry. Faber and Tozer shared the belief that cultivating a personal knowledge of the holy requires time. A hurried man or woman cannot synchronize with the eternal now.
John Ortberg asked a wise friend, What do I need to do to be spiritually healthy? Long pause. “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life,” he said at last. Another long pause. “Okay, I’ve written that one down,” I told him, a little impatiently. “That’s a good one. Now what else is there?” Another long pause. “There is nothing else,” he said. “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”
Faber wrote about unhurriedness in God’s presence.
Only to sit and think of God, Oh what a joy it is!
To think the thought, to breathe the Name; Earth has no higher bliss.
Father of Jesus, love’s reward! What rapture will it be,
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on Thee.
I love Thee so, I know not how my transports to control;
Thy love is like a burning fire within my very soul.
O Spirit, beautiful and dread, my heart is fit to break,
With love of all Thy tenderness for us poor sinners’ sake.
Tozer comments on Faber’s lyrics. “Men of the breaking hearts had a quality about them not known to or understood by common men. They habitually spoke with spiritual authority. They had been in the Presence of God and they reported what they saw there. They were prophets, not scribes, for the scribe tells us what he has read, and the prophet tells what he has seen.
The distinction is not an imaginary one. Between the scribe who has read and the prophet who has seen there is a difference as wide as the sea. We are today overrun with orthodox scribes, but the prophets, where are they? The hard voice of the scribe sounds over evangelicalism, but the Church waits for the tender voice of the saint who has penetrated the veil and has gazed with inward eye upon the Wonder that is God. And yet, thus to penetrate, to push in sensitive living experience into the holy Presence, is a privilege open to every child of God.”
The message to me? Oh to seek and find God, to see so that I might share what I’ve seen and not just what I’ve read.
The real reason I saw Spike Lee’s new film at the Sundance Film Festival is because it is set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, where my oldest daughter started her career in an elementary school with Teach for America.
Even though I think and write about religion for a living, my primary reason for attending “Red Hook Summer” was not because the program guide describes it as the story of a “firebrand preacher bent on getting (his grandson) to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior.”
After all, why would anyone expect a nuanced, respectful exploration of the black church in America from Spike Lee? Let’s face it, the words “Spike Lee” and “theologian” don’t roll off the tongue very easily, if at all.
So imagine my surprise when “Red Hook Summer” delivered a humorous, honest look at the vibrancy, complexity, sincerity and messiness of African-American Christianity.
The story begins with Flik, a teenager who attends a private school in Atlanta and enjoys the finer things of life. His life is turned upside down when his mother sends him off to Brooklyn for the summer to stay with his preacher grandfather, Enoch.
Flik is certainly unprepared for life in the projects, but is even less prepared for working every day at his grandfather’s Little Piece of Heaven church. The only upside is meeting Chazz, a sassy teen who has learned to negotiate life on the streets of Red Hook with her life in the church.
She’s a believer but not stuffy about it, and helps Flik get through the Sunday worship service, which is punctuated by Enoch’s theatrical rants, the spirited “Amens!” of the congregation and the melodramatic sounds of the Hammond organ.
The heart of this film is grandpa Enoch. As the story begins we get hints that Enoch is a man with a past, and it reaches its dramatic climax when we realize that though Enoch is done with his past, his past is not done with him.
Clarke Peters (Det. Lester Freamon from “The Wire”) in the role of Enoch delivers a textured, multi-layered performance that does for the role of a black pastor what Robert Duvall did for revivalists in “The Apostle.” These characters are believable, complicated and likable.
At the Q&A following the film, it was obvious that I wasn’t the only one surprised that Lee delivered a thoughtful, respectful and savvy film about religion. The first audience question was about Lee’s personal religious background. He never attended church as a boy in Brooklyn, he explained, although some summers he was sent to stay with relatives in Atlanta who made sure he did.
Suffice it to say that church and religion have not played a central role in Lee’s life.
So what is the source of the film’s religious content? To answer that question, Lee introduced his co-author on the script, James McBride, and the richness of the film immediately made complete sense.
I interviewed McBride in Chicago in the 1990’s about his best-selling book “The Color of Water.” It was an autobiographical account of his Jewish mother who converted to Christianity and, with her husband, founded the church where “Red Hook Summer” was filmed.
McBride talked about his belief in God and Jesus, and said his faith was renewed and strengthened during the writing and making of the film. He also talked about spirited debates with Lee about certain scenes where McBride’s desire to respect religion collided with Lee’s determination to keep it gritty and real. It was a productive tension, and it worked.
I still find it fascinating that Lee would make a film about religion, and that he teamed up with McBride to do it. Sundance is all about telling stories, and “Red Hook Summer” tells a center-stage story about the importance of religion.
In the liturgical calendar, yesterday was the 12th day of Christmas and today, January 6th is Epiphany, the Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ.
Western Christians commemorate principally (but not solely) the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the Baby Jesus, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God.
Epiphany means to “be brought to light” or “to cause to appear.”
This is the day we celebrate the revelation that the word became flesh in Jesus Christ. This is the best of all news because as early church father St. Athanasius said, “He was made man that we might become god.”
The poet Mary Oliver said, Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
I’ve been thinking lately about how we “tell about it.”
My friend Susan Osborn has been helping me see the inadequacy of words and the importance of silence. Here is a powerful poem she wrote:
Kindling By Susan Osborn
If I am deaf and cannot hear
And if I am blind and cannot see
If I am mute and cannot speak
If all of my senses are numb and dull
Will I be saved?
Is the soul impoverished in any way?
Or does the utter silence ring
with the Truth?
Does Love care
what the words are
that lead us home?
The One I love
of showing not telling.
fanning the fire
until it completely
consumes the house.
I’ve been thinking about how “wordy” protestant Christians often are.
Don’t get me wrong, words are important, but do not the heavens declare the glory of God without uttering a single word? Words matter. Ideas matter. But the incarnation is the reminder that even God, the Word, became most articulate by the act of enfleshing the word.
I wonder if there is an important lesson in the magi who came from the east? They were called by a star and responded obediently to it, not to a spoken word. The message of the star was augmented by the written word when the magi asked the teachers of the law, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Isn’t it ironic that the written word was searched out by King Herod, who wanted to use the written word to find and kill the newborn King, not to worship?” How many legalists, fundamentalists and religionists of all traditions have mastered the written word, but never really encountered the living word?
Called by a star, further enlightened by the written word, the Magi’s epiphany was revealed not in words, but in a baby.
So if I truly want to heed poet Mary Oliver’s advice, “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it,” should not my telling be through the light of Christ within me shining like a star? Should it not be in the living Christ within me revealed in my acts? Should not verbal telling be used sparingly? Did not St. Francis say, “preach the gospel and if necessary, use words?”
A thought by Thomas Merton. “We who have seen the light of Christ are obliged, by the greatness of the grace that has been given us, to make known the presence of the Savior to the ends of the earth…not only by preaching the glad tidings of His coming; but above all by revealing Him in our lives…Every day of our mortal lives must be His manifestation, His divine Epiphany, in the world which He has created & redeemed.”
Before we tell, we must see and be astonished. Is it possible those who resort to words are often those who have not actually seen?
This is what A.W. Tozer concluded. “Every age has its own characteristics. Right now we are in an age of religious complexity. The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us. In its stead are programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities, which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart. The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship, and that servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods all testify that we, in this day, know God only imperfectly, and the peace of God scarcely at all.
If we would find God amid all the religious externals we must first determine to find Him, and then proceed in the way of simplicity. Now as always God discovers Himself to “babes” and hides Himself in thick darkness from the wise and the prudent. We must simplify our approach to Him. We must strip down to essentials (and they will be found to be blessedly few). We must put away all effort to impress, and come with the guileless candor of childhood. If we do this, without doubt God will quickly respond.”
ART: Epiphany by Jan L. Richardson
Eli’s First Christmas
A Story written by Dick Staub for children of all ages and first read on December 25, 2011.
When Handel wrote his Messiah
He spoke of “shepherd’s watching their flocks by night, when an angel appeared.”
But apparently he knew nothing of Eli, Poof and Goof.
Handel said. “All we like sheep have gone astray
We’ve turned everyone to our own way,”
But he obviously knew nothing of Bunny, Bobo and Bullwinkle.
There are those who take offense at my telling of Eli’s story.
They feel it trivializes the great tale of Jesus birth.
But from the standpoint of young Eli,
Nothing could be further from the truth, as you are about to see.
And I just felt you deserved to know…the rest of the story.
So here it is.
Eli’s First Christmas
Once upon a time there was a young shepherd named Eli *who lived in Bethlehem, a suburb of Jerusalem. His family had been shepherds for so many generations. They each wore a button in the shape of a mutton,That said, “Sheep R Us. One wintry night over 2000 years ago, Eli was very excited as he got dressed for work. That very night he would for the first time take charge of all the sheep, and all the other shepherds. He was the youngest boy ever to be honored in this way. Centuries earlier a legendary shepherd boy named Davidwas only 17 years-old when he was put in charge.Not since then had such a young man been chosen and Eli felt very honored. The owners of the sheep trusted Eli to do a great job And that is what he set out to do on that cold December night.I will leave it to you to decide whether or not Eli succeeded. The minute Eli arrived in the fields he could tell trouble was brewing;Trouble with the sheep AND trouble with the shepherds. The assistant shepherds on duty that night were Goof and Poof, And they announced to EliThat they had lost Not one, Not two, But THREE Sheep already, And the night was still young!Eli listened as Poof and Goof explained how Bunny, Bobo and Bullwinkle had all wandered off and were nowhere to be found. “Great,” Eli muttered, “my first night in charge and already Bunny, Bobo and Bullwinkle have gone missing.” If you feel the names of these sheep do not convey dignity, you, oh reader are perceptive indeed, for I don’t know what you know about sheep, but I can tell you this, when you look at them from a distance they may look soft, cute and huggable, but get up close and your typical sheep stinks like the county dump. Furthermore, and there is no delicate way to put it dear friends,Sheep are often thought to be downright stupid.“It has been said that sheep are the only domesticated animal that cannot go wild. They are slow and they have no protective fangs like a wolf, No claws like a cat, no shell like an armadillo, Not even a spray like a skunk.One sheep expert claims that “Cats, dogs, birds, horses, pigs, even cows, If you set them loose in the world They’ll get thin, they’ll get smart, and they’ll get by. What about Sheep? ….Set them loose in the world and they’ll get eaten.” Dogs bark, cats hiss, rattlesnakes rattle… Sheep say Baaa! Baaa! That’s the barnyard equivalent of saying‘I’m soft and cute, Please don’t eat me, please don’t eat me!”* Despite their stupidity and essential helplessness, Or should I say, because of it, Sheep love to wander off the path into mischief And that is just what had happened on this fateful night. Eli sent Goof and Poof off in search of the missing sheep. Did you know if a sheep rolls over on its back it cannot get back on its feet? That’s how Goof found Bobo, Lying helplessly on his back in a moonlit meadow, With his little legs of lamb churning and flailing away Like Elvis turned upside down dancing the Charleston While covered with willowy white cotton candy. A few minutes later Poof saw a patch of white hanging like a cloudTwenty feet up the top of a ladder in a nearby barn. “Who do you think you are Brian Wright?” yelled Poof.*** Bunny sheepishly bleated, “I got up here, but I can’t get down.”Poof climbed up and lifted Bunny onto his shoulders And carried her to where Goof, Bobo And the other sheep had gathered with Eli, Who was relieved that on his big night only one sheep was now missing. Bullwinkle. Things were looking up! Eli sat down on a rock and thought about what to do about Bullwinkle.He warmed himself while roasting chestnuts on the open fire. Of his 100 sheep, Bullwinkle was the one who always managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eli worried about Bullwinkle and where he might be on this cold dark night. Dark ravines, steep cliffs, wolve’s dens, These were the kinds of places this prodigal, baaaad sheep was often found. When Eli read the book, “why bad things happen to good sheep,” He thought, based in his experience as a shepherd, A better title would have been, “Why do good sheep often do bad or really stupid things?” He looked up at the night sky as dark as Orcas Islandor a Katherine Taylor chocolate. ****Eli gazed at the silvery moon and dazzling white stars above. He marveled that he was now watching sheep Under the same sky that David the shepherd boy and then King Did 1000 years earlier. Eli had just resolved to search for Bullwinkle,When all at once there arose such a clatter He jumped from the rock to see what was the matter. There in front of him in dazzling white was a man who looked like he was wearing a radioactive bathrobe. A spotlight shined on this creature and yeah verily, Eli found himself sore afraid. Then Eli heard a voice that sounded like Yoda.“Fear not; for behold good tidings of great joy I bring you, for unto you is born this day in the City of David, A Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” When Poof and Goof saw the bright light They came with haste and found Eli staring up at the sky, Where suddenly there was with the first angel A multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill towards men.” “Great”, muttered Eli under his breath,“My first night in charge and a multitude of the heavenly host shows up.” For centuries shepherds had heard stories That one-day in the little town of Bethlehem, A virgin would give birth to a baby boy, Who would be called Jesus the Christ, the messiah, the anointed one. This child would establish the throne of the Shepherd-King David forever. Eli thought about this: “Could it be, 1000 years after David the Shepherd-King of Israel, That I Eli, on my first night in charge of the sheep, Have been chosen to see this newborn Son of God?” Eli was eager to head off to Bethlehem,But then he remembered Bullwinkle.“The shepherd’s job is to find and protect his sheep.”His mind was made up. He said to Poof and Goof, Let’s secure these 99 mangy sheep. You go to Bethlehem to find the newborn child! I will go off in search of Bullwinkle. Poof and Goof went to the Bethlehem synagogue, Figuring this is where the messiah would be born, But they found only a group of old men called elders arguing among themselves. They rushed off to the Holy-land Hilton, but found only wealthy tourists Dressed in their finery and eating bagels and lox as if they were in Miami Beach. oof and Goof had just about given upWhen they came upon a cheap hotel in the bad part of town.They saw a small crowd gathered outside the camel’s stalls. And there in the midst of cows, camels, roosters and chickensWas a most amazing sight… It was Bullwinkle the missing sheep!Lying flat on his back with his little legs of lamb churning and flailing away Like Elvis turned upside down dancing the Charleston while covered with willowy white cotton candy.
As Poof and Goof turned Bullwinkle upright and onto his feet, Eli arrived on the scene, having heard Bullwinkle’s cry. While Poof and Goof attended to Bullwinkle, Eli could not take his eyes off the newborn baby boy lying in a manger. Jesus the Christ, the messiah, the one God had promised. Legend has it you can tell a good shepherd at birth. Eyes attentive to danger, hands gentle but strong, A quick mind and shepherd’s heart, brave, tender and true. King David had written a song about a great shepherd, one who would guide, protect, nurture and restore. Eli gazed down on the child who would one day be called the Good Shepherd.The Shepherd would leave the 99 sheep to find the one lost one.And who would one day sacrifice his own life for his sheep. Eli got on his knees and wept at his good fortune to be witnessing this great sight.I am a shepherd of the sheep, he said, But this is the Lord, MY shepherd. Over the next years Eli watched as self-righteous religious people turned their backs on this Jesus, while sinners flocked to him. It always reminded Eli of Bullwinkle the lost sheep who found Jesus before Eli did. And how that even though he was just a baby, Jesus had found Bullwinkle before Poof, Goof or Eli did! So that is my story of Eli. It is now 2000 years later and I am a shepherd of sorts trusted with a local flock on Orcas Island.*****Often when I walk among the sheep, rain-drenched and soaked,Watching my flock of Bullwinkles,I think of the wonder of those first shepherds when they came upon the Christ child in the manger stall.And I think of the wandering sheep both then and now. And I think of our wonderful ShepherdJesus, the Messiah, The Hope and Savior of mankind.The one who invites all to join in the dance. Now and evermore.The End* Eli is the name of my first and only (so far) grandson.
** The extended section in quote brackets is inspired by and adapted from a sermon on the 23rd Psalm by Rob Brink @ http://revsmilez.com/2010/04/28/sermon-23rd-psalm/
*** Brian Wright is a friend of mine who fell from a latter feet up, had back surgery and is recovering right now. He was in church with a body brace on, laying across five chairs in his pajamas on Christmas Sunday when I read this for the first time.
**** I live on Orcas Island where it is really dark at night. The best homemade chocolates in the world are made right here at Kathryn Taylor Chocolates, and yes, you can order online.
***** I graduated from seminary 35 years ago and am pastoring for the first time since then at a wonderful place called Orcas Island Community Church.
©CRS Communications, DICK STAUB, December 2011