Sunday, June 18, 2017

God visits His people in strangers

My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant… since you have come to your servant.”  Genesis 18:3,5

I picked up Sarge just outside of Oneonta, and told him I was only going as far as Cooperstown, but he was welcome to the ride.  He was familiar to me, a fixture of the Otsego County landscape, but we’d never spoken before.  Sarge was maybe 75, a thin man with leathery skin and squinty eyes.  He always wore a garrison cap and an olive-green army uniform, with a few medals sprinkled across the chest.   No one was quite sure if he had actually earned them or if they were just window dressing.  But in patriotic upstate New York, Sarge could hitch his way from one end of the county to another by just putting on a good show. 

He began talking the moment he sat down and kept it up for a solid half hour, a rambling discourse mostly about old cars, and the evils of politicians.  Looking over after about twenty minutes, he noticed I was a clergyman and launched into a discussion of true Christians and hypocrites.  Sarge had been to most of the churches in these parts, he assured me, and he could certainly tell the difference between them.  Catholics wouldn’t give a man like him the time of day, and would you believe that they once ran him out of a Pentecostal church because he stood up to speak his mind during the service.  But Methodists—they laid on the best spread for coffee hours, and sometimes the fellas would even slip him a few cigarettes. 

It did cross my mind as he opened the door to go his way that Sarge could well have been a kind of messenger.  I was a little relieved that he didn’t seem to know anything about Episcopalians, so he hadn’t turned up in my congregation and discovered that we came up short.  Wouldn’t it be just like God to separate the true believers from the false ones by the way they responded to a mysterious stranger?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Little Bird Told Me

“We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God."  Acts 2:11

“A little bird told me”—that was one of my grandmother’s favorite phrases.  My grandparents lived a mile down the road from us, and many an evening she and Pap would come over after supper.  She usually brought “guess packages”—paper bags with some crackers or cookies, maybe even a bottle of pop—things my mother rarely bought.  Before we could put in our guesses and win the prize, she wanted a little chat.  Small boys, especially when distracted by the prospect of a cookie, are not very conversational, and she would prompt us a bit: “a little bird told me that someone had two base hits last night.” “A little bird told me that someone threw a fit about taking out the garbage.”

Of course, we all knew well that my mother was the “little bird,” and I probably thought that “little bird” was a special nickname for my mother at first.  But it’s an old saying, though I don’t hear it much anymore.  I have a source of secret knowledge, it means.  You don’t need to know how I learned it, but I know something important about you. 

It’s quite a strange phrase, really—talking birds revealing hidden messages.   Some folklorists attribute it to an ancient tale about King Solomon, and there’s also an obscure Norse legend about a hero who tastes dragon’s blood and can immediately comprehend the speech of the birds—it turns up in the second act of one of Wagner’s operas.  The phrase definitely predates Twitter, though.  Most scholars attribute it to an offhand remark in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which warns against cursing the king in your bedchamber, lest “a bird on the wing report what you say.[1]” 

Della Robbia at the National Gallery: Tender, Humble, and Devout

From the Sounds of St. Francis, 4 June, 2017
The terracotta statuary created by the Della Robbia family of Florence is instantly recognizable: white figures surrounded by vivid blue backgrounds, often wreathed by bright green leaves and fruit. But these statues don’t always get so much respect. Modern connoisseurs of high Renaissance art usually swoon over the Leonardos, Raphaels, and Michelangelos instead and galleries sometimes consign Della Robbia statues to the hallways or overstuffed “ojects d’arte” rooms.

In their own time, though, the Della Robbias (an uncle, a nephew and a grand-nephew) were highly regarded and received enormous numbers of commissions. In some ways, victims of their own success, the family developed a unique process for glazing terracotta, leaving behind vivid colors and a glassy sheen. Their impressive workshop method allowed extensive production for over a century. We tend to overlook their statues because there are so many of them, not just at world-class museums like the National Gallery, but in all sorts of private collections (including an impressive Madonna and Child that hung in the library of my former parish in Cooperstown). If you’ve been to Tuscany or Umbria you will know how cheap knock-offs of Della Robbia work abound in souvenir shops, cheapening one’s experience of beholding the real thing.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sharing His Glory

All mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them.  St. John 17:10

For a few days back in 2012, everyone in Cooperstown, New York had Olympic fever.  Team USA banners hung in all the shop windows, people wore Olympic buttons on their lapels.  The Chamber of Commerce sponsored a watch party and there were drink specials in the local bar. 

We were all so excited because Sarah True, one of our own, was going for the gold.  Sarah was then America’s leading triathlete, and she had grown up in our village of 2000 souls.  Her parents still live in town, working at the local hospital.  Sarah had swum across the Lake on the edge of the village when she was 14, and competed on the high school track team.  Her old coaches and babysitters could remember how it was when she was just so tall.  

In the end Sarah finished fourth, ten seconds short of a medal.  But when she finally made it home, we paraded her down Main Street as a hero, with firetrucks and the high school band, proud as could be that one of our own had achieved something so incredible. 

Behind our excitement was a sense that Sarah was carrying a little of all of us into her great moment before the eyes of the world.  Some people felt they had helped to form her for this moment, for others her triumph was showing us just what could be possible for a kid from a little town in upstate New York.  We had a little share in her glory, and for one unique moment, that was a thrilling thing.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The 'Bounds of Habitation' and the Whitetail Invasion

From my In the Sound of the Bells column in the May 11 issue of The Potomac Almanac.

After last week’s spot of yardwork, I feel like a real permanent resident of Potomac.  I now have a deer fence.  A “heavy duty” deer fence, to be precise, no mere agglomeration of netting and iron stakes, but a 7.5-foot-tall fence, its posts sunk deep into the ground, bound by high tensile wire top and bottom, staked every foot into the ground. 

I’ve been wanting to plant a raspberry patch for years, and we identified a great spot in the backyard.  I researched the varieties I wanted to use and worked out a plan for a raised bed.  But if it would all be for naught if I didn’t find a reliable way to keep out the local wildlife, if the saucy, bovine creatures that saunter through our yard and the woods around us really deserve the name. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Praying, Not Electioneering


Last Thursday was the National Day of Prayer. US Presidents have designated days of prayer, fasting and thanksgiving since the very beginning of our republic.  Our earlier prayer books had liturgical forms for these occasions, which were once quite prominent and numerous.  The National Day of Prayer, as an annual, recurring spring event is relatively modern, though.  It was resolved by Congress in 1952, in the dark days of the Korean War, at the urgent prompting of then young and dynamic evangelist, Billy Graham.

Prayer services for our nation and its leaders are held across the country on this day, including sometimes in the White House and on Capitol Hill.  I’ve participated in at least one ecumenical service for the day, and at Evening Prayer last Thursday at Saint Francis, we included a petition for the President and the Congress, nodding to the occasion.  Our leaders need our prayers, especially at times of great change.  It’s surely a good thing to gather people of different creeds and traditions to ask God for wisdom and courage for those who face such daunting challenges.

But this year’s National Day of Prayer will be remembered for something else as well.  At the White House event marking the occasion, President Trump announced his decision to sign an executive order directing the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, part of the US Tax Code.  The amendment is nearly as old as the Day of Prayer itself, having been authored by then-senator Lyndon B. Johnson in 1954.  It also reflects a time when religion had a more prominent role in American public life.  The amendment essentially says that churches, like other non-profit organizations, risk losing their tax-exempt status if they endorse political candidates. 

By a stroke of the pen, President Trump has given a wide berth for American religious institutions to dramatically expand their involvement in the political system.  To my mind, that’s a very bad thing. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

To Make Something Good Together in the World

From The Potomac Almanac, 30 Mar. 2017 (and The Sounds of St. Francis, 3 May)

Shortly after we moved to Potomac, our eldest son joined the local Cub Scout pack, 773, which is sponsored by Potomac United Methodist Church.  The pack our son had joined near our former home in Virginia was newly established, with just a handful of kids and a rather harried group of parent volunteers always scrambling to pull things together.  It’s been exciting to be part of a much larger pack here, with a really talented and committed group of leaders and an impressive variety of activities.

We were expecting that the Pinewood Derby at the pack here in Potomac would be pretty special.  But nothing we had seen yet quite prepared us for the event that unfolded a few Saturdays ago in the United Methodist Church’s Parish Center. 

The Pinewood Derby isn’t quite as old as scouting itself, but it goes back over sixty years, when a scoutmaster in California decided that his charges weren’t quite ready for the then common project of constructing cars out of soapboxes to ride in down a hill themselves (these were the days before soap came in plastic wrap and people worried much about liability insurance).  The scoutmaster’s idea was to have the boys to whittle or cut a car out of a small piece of pine, to nail on some simple wheels, and then to race the cars down an inclined track.