Tuesday, June 23, 2020

a darkness that can be felt

[NB: This was included in an online Hour of Prayer hosted by the Hingham Hull Interfaith Religious Leaders Association last night.  Many thanks to all who participated.]

a darkness that can be felt
Then the Lord said to Moses,
“Stretch out your hand toward heaven
so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt,
a darkness that can be felt.” – Exodus 10:21

A darkness ‘that can be felt’ is not your usual type of darkness.

As you might imagine, there are many possible reasons for this Biblical ninth plague.  One is that the darkness came when a sandstorm blew across Egypt.  In such storms, the wind becomes electrically charged, and it stings against your skin.  It’s a hot, violent wind.  This kind of darkness can certainly be felt, and you might think it is truly the end of the world.

Another explanation says there may have been an eclipse of the sun, but this darkness lasted three days.  Would an eclipse last that long?  Would that be a darkness one could feel?  The Egyptians were unable to move from where they were.  Would an eclipse incapacitate you?

Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote that the darkness ‘was so thick that light from a fire or candle would not ignite.’  Clearly, this darkness was something different.

Maybe this darkness was a form of collective, transient blindness, leaving the people able only to grope about, to feel their way around.

Isaac Abravanel speculated that the blindness of the ninth plague was not an illness unto itself.  He wrote that ‘God brings this upon the people due to the fear of the enemy who wreak havoc that they see with their own eyes…their mind doesn’t think clearly and their sight is distorted.’

So, a threat or fear can bring on blindness to a group of people.  A continually anxiety-driven atmosphere can cause us to regress to the point where we.stop.seeing.

Much like the Egyptians suffering the ninth plague, this may be where we are today as a result of months of pandemic-induced fear and anxiety.  Maybe we have seen too much of it and can see no end.  Maybe too many deferred funerals and weddings and celebrations have left us blind to all the wonders of life that continue to surround us.  Maybe the worries about how we’ll be able to teach our children or visit our loved ones as we move forward have crowded out our ability to see the light within.

Let us pray:

Holy One,
We lift up our hearts to you in thanks and praise.
Help us in this time of trouble.  Dispel the darkness that we feel all around us.
As you created both light and dark, still the storm within and by your grace, clear our minds, remind us to remain good and helpful neighbors, and fill us with your peace.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

One If By Land

Two hundred and forty-five years ago, the American Revolution began on this day, which happened to be a Wednesday that year.  It all started at sunrise on Lexington's town green:

The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775, Oil on canvas by William Barns Wollen, 1910. 
National Army Museum, London

The rest, as they say, is history.  But history is quirky.  As the story of how we got here, history is often mis-remembered, mis-quoted, rewritten to suit the current audience, or simply forgotten until someone stumbles over it in the dark.
It was quite by chance that this story appeared in my e-mail this morning, from the New England Historical SocietySix Fun Facts About Paul Revere’s Ride.
We have a friend who is a member of the Paul Revere Memorial Association, and I thought of him as I read the article.  He's the type of person who would have known all of this and THEN joined the association.
The first 'fun fact' for me was to learn that Longfellow's poem, Paul Revere's Ride, was really about fighting slavery.  Follow the link to find out how, and you will learn about Longfellow too.  In my generation, this poem was simply something one knew; I can't tell you when I learned it but I'll have to read it again now.
Another item, #6, reminds us of the relative impact that Revere's ride had on him, his family, and anyone not living in Boston at the time: his obituary in 1818 doesn't mention the ride at all.  But in hindsight, it became a big deal for us.
Notice, too, that the painting above resides in the National Army Museum in London.  History may be written by the winners, but everyone can learn from it.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Going Viral

By now, most of us in range of this blog know about the Covid-19 virus.  According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, 'COVID-19 is a new respiratory disease, caused by a novel (or new) coronavirus that has not previously been seen in humans. Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death for confirmed COVID-19 cases.'
Compared to the common flu, it looks like this:

So far, it has made a mess of globalization, our economy, not to mention our anxiety levels.
We are all, to some degree, practicing social distancing, which is hard for a lot of people to deal with.
Who hasn't seen a bubble graph like this lately:

(Confirmed cases in the Sargasso Sea?)
Businesses, such as automobile manufacturers, have very quickly adjusted their television advertising to remind us that they will deliver your new car to your driveway without you having to interact with anyone.  Restaurants that have never offered takeout meals now do so, just to survive.  Our roadways and town squares are mostly deserted or closed.  Even beaches are empty of human life and activity.
Some good news: pollution levels in some parts of China have dropped considerably.  The canals in Venice are showing clear water too.
Then it hit me: I've seen this before, here:

The cats have been batting this thing around for years and I never noticed how much it resembles a disease.  Check the video here:

We will get through this.  In the meantime, enjoy the downtime.  God loves you.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Some Change

The hand of the LORD came upon me,
and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD
and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 
He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley,
and they were very dry.
He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel 37:1-3

At the moment, we are in the midst of what Confucius called 'interesting times.'

We are being challenged in ways we never imagined even a few months ago.  Many people are now working from home, to limit their exposure to co-workers who might be sick with the CoVid-19 virus and vice-versa.  Supermarket shelves have been strafed by hoarders, especially those who seem to need a lot of toilet paper and paper towels (not to mention sanitizing wipes, chicken, beans, and Coca-Cola).  Plenty of eggs but no shredded cheese.  It varies, depending on where you live and where you shop:

And we all must now leave a six-foot gap between ourselves and our neighbors, like it or not:

Fortunately, and despite all of this, we haven't yet lost our sense of humor.  Some of the more clever meme-makers have been working overtime, for example, here:

In his song, Some Change, Boz Scaggs points out what should be obvious to everyone now:
Some change comes down for the better
You feel it move
Then some come around like the weather
You take that in too
But like some change in your pocket
Sometimes it seems to be too little too late

As a pastor serving a small church, these are indeed challenging, interesting times.  Most of the pastors I know have been forced to find new ways to offer Sunday worship services, to reach congregants without actually being with them, to visit patients in the hospital in a new way, and so on.  Even funeral services have become problematic.  So what do you do when your congregation needs community but the state says you can't gather in the sanctuary as you usually do?

Like Noah said you'd better wake up
You don't want to get stuck in this zoo
Cause when he leaves the dock
He ain't waiting round for you
Be prepared to change some too

Yes, we have to change some.  Like it or not, it's raining.  So many pastors, including yours truly, are learning to become the IT guy and the camera operator all at the same time.  For some, it's exciting; for others, it is a daunting task.

We now record a stripped-down version of the worship service, upload it to YouTube, and then post it to Facebook.  Next week is Palm Sunday and we hope to experiment with Facebook Live as we distribute palms and Communion on-the-go.  It'll be fun, if it works.

Bottom line: We will get through this.  God has our back.  These bones can live.
Hang loose.
And may peace be with you.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Pulpit Rock

Ten miles out in Muscongus Bay, there is a rock formation on the northeast side of an island.  Clinging to the 'bold shore' of Monhegan Island, Pulpit Rock invites the intrepid hiker to come out and see the ocean from a unique perspective.  To get there, however, one needs either to walk through the woods or hike the ups and downs of a difficult cliff-side trail.  Do it, and you are rewarded with a spectacular view.

Here is how Marjorie Bouvé saw it around the turn of the century before last:

Here is how my iPhone saw it just the other day:

Notice the trees which are absent from Marjorie's photo.  It's all different on the island these days.  In some ways, things are getting back to the way they were.  In other ways, things are the way they are and that's just fine.

It's called Pulpit Rock because ... it looks like a pulpit.  As a pastor, I can see it.  I am also called to jump out to it and get to work, but I have a feeling I might get wet along the way.  In any event, it is enticing.

The pulpit in the sanctuary of the church I serve is fairly high up.  It is not the highest but it is higher than most.  It seems that way to me, anyway.  And I love standing in it.

Knowing there is a pulpit rock out there helps me when I stand before the congregation.  Being a Type A sort, I always know what I'm going to say because I'm reading a carefully prepared sermon.  What I never know is how my words will be received.  Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that preaching is the one thing she loved, feared, and most wanted to do.  Her self-assessment applies to me too.

So I make my annual trek out to the island, to hear the wild gulls and the sound of the sea; to drink coffee while I try to read despite the wonders of the world around me; to see the solid stoicism of Pulpit Rock, unchanged and unchanging; and to know that all is well and will be well if I can just see it again next year.


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

June 5, 1944

As is typical around here, when I need to find a book, I find lots of other interesting books that I really ought to read next, but rarely do I find the book I'm looking for.  This happened again today when I went looking for the 1959 history book The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan.  I know where it is; I just can't find it.  God help my daughter when it's time to clear out my garret.  I should tell her I left a $20 bill in one of the volumes, just to be sure someone flips through them all before they go to the landfill.

Anyway.  We are coming up on the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy that would eventually lead to the liberation of Europe.  Here is what happened on June 5, 1944 according to www.dayinhistory.net:

World War II: 
More than 1000 British bombers drop 5,000 
tons of bombs on German gun batteries on the Normandy 
coast in preparation for D-Day.

They say that all Americans would benefit with a visit to Normandy.  I have yet to make the trip, but I have been to the Gettysburg battlefield.  It didn't help that I went in late October, close to Halloween, or that Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, one of the spookiest states in the nation.  The place has a palpable feel to it.  You know you're not alone.

One thing about Gettysburg that I am sure is true of the beaches in Normandy: knowing what lay ahead of them, these men went anyway.

Today, we can find just about anything on the interwebs, including raw footage of the D-Day landings:

Rare color footage exists too, thanks to well-placed film directors who happened to be in the right place at the right time:

We also tend to forget, thanks to YouTube and the internet, that people sometimes got their news from clips shown in theaters before the feature film began:

All this film adds up to an astounding look at what we are capable of doing, both good and bad.
Let us remember, then, that these were our fathers and grandfathers going off to do what they had to do.  We'll never see their like again.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

A & Ω

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. 
- Revelation 1:1-3

A sermon preached at New North Church
Based on Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8

We are still in the Easter season, and the lectionary wants us to hear readings from Acts and Revelation throughout.  Each week, the three-year lectionary cycle offers selected readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the epistles, and the Gospels.  We can choose some or all of the readings for that day, and there are readings for each weekday too.  But Acts and Revelation don’t quite fit into that format, so the powers that be decided Easter would be the perfect time to hear about the apocalypse.
Tradition and literary analysis both hold that Luke wrote the Book of the Acts of the Apostles as a sequel to his Gospel.  For this reason, it is sometimes called the Fifth Gospel.  It could also be called the Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit, owing to how the Spirit empowers and guides the church in its formative years.  In fact, Acts is the only book in the Bible that describes life in the early church.
An apocalypse is a ‘revelatory vision’ about the future or about heaven, or both.  They are stories usually told in the first-person; they use a lot of symbolism; and they tend to make a distinction between the evil in this world and the expected good times of the future.  The Greek word transliterated as Apocalypse simply means Revelation.
Revelation, or, more precisely, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, is a letter written by a man named John which he shared with seven specific churches to be read aloud from start to finish.  These seven churches happen to be in Asia, in that part of the world we now call Turkey.  And while we say it was written by John, John himself says that it came from God through Jesus who made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.  So, let’s give credit where credit is due.
Having said all that, what are these two readings about?  Basically, they are about the persecution of early Christians.  That’s a big discussion, and we tend to understand it as a time when Christians were being actively hunted down, thrown in jail, beaten, tortured, or worse.  And while some of that did happen, it tended to be localized here and there, for there was no widespread, state-sponsored persecution of Christians by Rome at the end of the first century.
A governor named Pliny, wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan, right around the time John delivered his letter, looking for advice.  He asked, should these people be punished simply for calling themselves Christians, even if they have committed no other crime?  Pliny admitted executing a few Christians, but only after giving them three tries to renounce their ‘superstition,’ but he didn’t kill them for being Christians; he killed them for their ‘obstinacy and stubbornness,’ which could be dangerous to the state.
Trajan’s response was very short: Christians should not be sought out.  They should be punished only if they are accused and handed over, and only if they do not deny being Christians.  He wrote that ‘anonymous accusations may not be considered in any trial.’
So, even though the state took a lenient view, one’s neighbors often did not, and it was that sporadic, local sort of persecution that John felt these seven churches might expect to experience, now or in the near future.
Everyone – Romans, Greeks, Egyptians – found themselves living in interesting times.  The Parthians had defeated Rome on the far eastern edge of the empire in 62; then Rome also had to deal with unrest in Gaul, then Germania, and finally Judea.  Add into the mix the political instability caused by having three emperors in two years at one point, a famine, and even earthquakes and volcanoes.  This added up to about forty years of disaster and uncertainty.  People wanted to know, what the heck is going on?
When Rome destroyed the Temple in 70, that caused many Jewish and Jewish-Christian people to migrate north into Asia.  At the time, Christ followers were still a new thing, both the Jewish and Gentile kind.  They had no history, no established place of worship, most of them were lower class, they might have been cannibals, and they followed a convicted criminal who had been executed as an enemy of the state.
They were considered irreligious atheists because they had no ‘gods,’ and they made easy scapegoats when things went wrong, as when Rome burned during Nero’s reign.  Christians were subject to social and economic discrimination everywhere, and sometimes became victims of mob violence.  They were the ultimate outsiders.  To survive all that and thrive, you needed a strong sense of identity, and a strong faith.
These days, it’s almost impossible for us to understand the stresses endured by our Christian ancestors.  But in every age since, people of faith have been tested, tempted, scorned, and attacked simply for being people of faith.
In many countries, people manage to get through their days without beating someone up, or setting a car on fire, or having anything more unusual than a delayed commute happen to them.  If you stay on your side of the road and I stay on mine, we will pass each other without incident or a spike in blood pressure.  Most of the time, we’re just people being people, running around, getting our errands done.  We cross paths in every direction, going hither and yon – sometimes, we even talk to each other – and it all seems to work just fine.
So, when something inexplicably evil happens, without any motivation other than hatred, we’re caught by surprise; we’re shocked, saddened, and angered.
In the past six months, people have been killed at a synagogue in Pittsburgh; at a mosque in Christchurch, NZ; at multiple churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday; and yesterday, on the last day of Passover, at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, California.  In the same period, we have seen or heard about three churches burned in Opelousas, LA.  In France, multiple Catholic churches have been defaced or burned, not to mention the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, which may or may not have been arson.
Slowly but surely, Christianity is being driven out of the Middle East, from Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.  On the whole, things are pretty good for people of faith in this country, but around the world, it’s the first century all over again.
We are far from being a religious society these days, and many of us question what it means to be a Christian (or a person in any faith tradition) in a secular world.  Around here, what does it mean to belong to a church, to this one in particular or to any church, to any place of worship?  What does it mean to say, ‘my life belongs to God’ when there are people out there who want to end it for that very reason?
Would we be as courageous as Peter and the apostles, when they answered the council by saying, “We must obey God rather than any human authority?”  This was after they had been arrested and told to stop their teaching and healing in the Temple.  They kept it up because that’s what you do when you live according to God’s ways.
If we back up to the beginning of chapter five in Acts, we see that the apostles, after doing their work in the Temple, suffered for Jesus by getting arrested and thrown in jail.  But after a miraculous jail break engineered by an angel of the Lord, they went right back out there to continue proclaiming Jesus.  There is no further mention of the angel or the mysterious escape.  Maybe Luke is saying that miracles are part of every-day life.  Maybe good things happen when we are steadfast in the face of persecution.
Sometimes, obeying God rather than human authority can put people at needless risk, for example, missionaries evangelizing in a place where religious activity has been declared illegal.  It may be that standing in solidarity with those who ‘suffer dishonor for the sake of the name (Acts 5:41)’ is a better way to obey God rather than human authority.  Maybe it’s better to choose a cause and fight for it in ways that cause no harm to those for whom you fight.
In this Easter season, we proclaim Christ has risen, and that Jesus is out among us.  In Revelation, John tells us that Jesus loves us and has freed us from our sins and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving God.  Come what may, John is confident that all will be well.
Knowing all that, how do we embody Easter?  How will we, as a church, reflect God’s presence in our lives and in the community?  How will we go about our Father’s business, as one church organist once put it?  Whatever it is, we are called to do it boldly, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Blessed are those who hear the words of the prophecy and who keep what is written in it; for the time is now.