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

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.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Book Review: 'The wise frame their stories with care'

Robertson, Anne. New Vision for an Old Story: Why the Bible Might Not Be the Book You Think It Is. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. xii + 158 pp. Softcover.

 If you are someone who likes to talk about God, the Rev. Anne Robertson would be a good person to seek out.  Robertson, the executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society and the author of three books about God as well as the popular Bible study series, Exploring the Bible: The Dickinson Series, now adds to this a book about how we read the Bible.
The phrase ‘Reading the Bible’ can be a showstopper for those who have never entered into a relationship with it.  Some people try reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, which usually starts out well because Genesis is full of great stories.  But then you get to Leviticus and there your relationship with God’s Word will end.
In our churches, we typically hear snippets of the Gospels paired with a psalm or other reading from Hebrew Scripture, or from one of Paul’s letters.  Unless your pastor provides it, these few verses seldom reveal any context, making it difficult to get the big picture.  We really need a broader view, if not the whole canvas, in order to gain an understanding about what it is we are hearing.  Reading provides that context, because we can start at Point A and go as far as we want to.  That works well until we can no longer see the forest for the trees.  Hopefully, my metaphors have not been too mixed, but you get the idea: we need a strategy if we’re going to make sense of the Bible.
This is where Robertson comes in.  A gifted writer, she somehow simplifies complex topics – God, the Bible! – even as she opens them up and expands them, leaving us to wonder why we didn’t think of that in the first place.
Her basic premise, one she repeats throughout, is that people are resistant to seeing the Bible as story.  She points out that ‘the Bible’ isn’t just one book, in the same way that ‘Africa’ isn’t a country.  The Bible is a collection of books containing histories, poetry, laments, myths, legends, instruction, wisdom, and truth.  It is a collection of stories meant to invite us into a relationship with God and which can guide us into a life lived in community.
We lose that if we read the Bible strictly as monolithic legal codes or as a textbook.
Robertson deftly navigates us through these other ways of reading the Bible.  Along the way, she removes any hint of intimidation we may have felt beforehand.  In fact, after reading any of Robertson’s books, especially the Exploring the Bible series, you will be inspired to go out and buy a new study Bible, even if you already have one.
Robertson intends to give us a new lens through and by which we can read the Bible fruitfully, and by and large, she succeeds.
As ordained clergy and as the executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, Robertson has a unique perspective on how people perceive the Bible.  She gets that perspective the old-fashioned way: she asks people what they think about it.  And, like most clergy, she also has a vested interest in opening access to the Bible to as many people as possible.
Robertson writes with the idea of the Bible as story, not as a law or science text.  She talks about Biblical facts vs. truth, which is an important distinction to make.  People come to the Bible looking for answers and their questions don’t always have to do with how many cubits long God wanted Noah to make the Ark.  People want to know how God can help them, and if they think of the Bible only as dogma or doctrine, they won’t ever open it to look inside.  Neither would I.
So, Robertson begins by explaining the difference between truth and ‘true,’ and how it relates to the Bible.  She talks about God’s involvement in writing the Bible, and whether it is inerrant or infallible (45).  An inerrant or infallible Bible is, she writes, a false choice, if we read the Bible as story.  And that is her main concern: that when we read the Bible, we must read it for what it is: a long, complicated story.
The book includes many helpful sidebars and, at the end, questions for reflection that work for both self-study or in groups.  It is a book meant to be read with pencil in hand, the better to underline the many passages you might want to refer to later.
In her writing, Robertson typically aims at a general audience but one which includes regular church-goers, though she is also trying to reach anyone who has ever struggled with reading the Bible for instruction, hope, or inspiration.  Anyone involved with church, whether ordained clergy or a lay person, can use a book like this.  Anyone who is reluctant to approach the Bible would do well to start with this book.
In talking about the Bible, scholar, theologian, and translator Robert Alter says, ‘It is always better to trust the concrete language of the biblical writers, which is more frank and energetic than any decorous paraphrase.’[1]  This Robertson does well.  Her prose is clean and easy to read yet filled with wisdom and insight.
We don’t necessarily agree on everything – is there such a thing as too much pizza or chocolate-covered bacon? (16) – but there is nothing to infuriate either.  When I read that ‘if you’re a Christian, it’s almost necessary to believe God had some hand in shaping the Bible’ (51), my first thought was, ‘What if I’m Jewish?  And, being a Massachusetts native who lives in the southeastern part of the state, I want her editor to correct her claim that the ‘Mayflower passengers established the Massachusetts Bay Colony (68).’  The separatist Pilgrims on the Mayflower established the Plymouth Colony, not the later separatist Puritans who did establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Robertson writes that ‘the wise frame their stories with care,’ (17) and in this book, she carefully gives us an invitation to enter into a relationship with the Bible in a new way.  She opens the door to understanding a complex collection of books by showing how to read it as a story – a long, sweeping arc of a story intentionally told (21) – and not as a legal code or a science textbook.  Nor is it meant to be taken literally.  In my experience, the only people who take the Bible literally seem to be atheists.
Depending on what the Bible means to you, do you want to know what the Bible says, or do you want to know what it means?  Robertson does not pose this as a question (107) but I do.  What she does do is give us new vision – new eyes – with which to see the Bible as an ancient collection of books containing poems, history, law codes, and, above all else, as a guide to human nature and the human condition.
The Massachusetts Bible Society's mission statement says that the organization ‘exists to promote biblical literacy, understanding, and dialogue that is grounded in scholarship, socially relevant, and respectful of the many voices within the Bible and all those who turn to the Bible in faith.’  As the head of that organization, Robertson is doing a fine and enthusiastic job in fulfilling that mission.