March 20, 2017

In the fog, faith matters.

 

Turning 70 with good friends ain’t so bad!  Last week we celebrated my birthday with a trip to Chicago, dinner with friends and family, and a visit to the Chicago Institute of Art.  What a way to celebrate!  I love the work of the Impressionists and one of the Monet paintings caught my attention.  It is entitled “Waterloo Bridge, Gray Weather” and is a mystical, intriguing painting, mostly in grays and blues of the bridge across the Themes River.  But it was the caption on the accompanying poster that caught my attention:  “If not for the fog”, Claude Monet once said, “London wouldn’t be a beautiful city.  It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth.”

 

And as I gazed at the Monet I thought, “Sometimes it really is the fog that gives life its magnificent breadth.”  Sometimes we learn things in the fog we would never learn in the brilliant sunshine.  When everything is clear and bright and every decision appears to be black and white, life can seem so simple.  There’s nothing quite like what Lance Morrow called “the blinding clarity of certainty” to blind us to the subtleties and complexities of life.  And I understand how often we would prefer our faith to be like that too—full of clarity, devoid of complexity, with the simplicity of the old catch phrase I heard when I was a kid, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Over the years, however, I have come to appreciate the fog.  As much as I love the sunlight, I would say I have probably learned more in the gray areas of life.  I have discovered that “faith matters” particularly in those places where things are not so clear, where decisions are difficult and where life can be confounding.  I’ve discovered that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather it is the door way to faith and the companion of faith. So I have learned to live in the fog. St. Paul says “…for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”  (I Cor. 13:12)

 

Don’t get me wrong—I love the sunlight and on these gray Michigan March days when the fog settles in on the Frankfort harbor and the sun barely breaks through on the other side of Platte Lake, I yearn for summer and days of clarity.  But on the way, I would like to learn what I can in the fog, because sometimes I think Monet is right.  Sometimes it is the fog that gives life its magnificent breadth.

 

After 70 years, I think I am learning that lesson.

Jack Harnish

March 13, 2017

It’s my turn to submit my thoughts to “Faith Matters,” but I am empty; I have no idea what I will say.  Today I feel totally inadequate to be a contributor. The deadline looms, but I am thinking more about packing for an upcoming trip, more about tidying the house, more about what to have for dinner. So I go to the bookshelf.

There I pull a book of daily devotionals that I have not read in years:  A Blade of Grass: Different Devotionals.  Each day begins with a Bible verse, followed by a free verse poem, capturing some thought from the verse.  Inside the front cover I had written, “a real ‘picker-upper’ as I limp along with a lame hip – the baby is sitting on something wrong –9/24/72.”  It had been an out-of-the-blue gift from a woman in our church.  That baby who was “sitting wrong” entered the world on 10/5/72, Jill LaRae, our second daughter.

Now, back to “Faith Matters” – My book has many dog-eared pages, occasional margin notes, but what devotional does it provide for 3/13, the day this becomes my contribution to “Faith Matters’?    Here goes . . .

 

Mar. 13 “Stand firm, then, brothers, and hold fast

to the traditions which you have learned from us . . .” 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (NEB)

 

All the world,

and especially the young,

is grasping for some stable

and unchanging thing.

 

Progress must come,

and we will only be blind and irrelevant

if we do not think so . . .

and yet as the mind of man

reaches out into the world of the

unknown,

the heart of man must be anchored

in a sureness.

 

I have faith in God.

May the firmness of this faith

give security not only to me,

but to those who will look to me today

for some sense of sureness.

 

Faith matters; thanks be to God,

Dianne Stephenson

 

DePree, Gladys and Gordon.  a blade of grass: Different Devotionals. Zondervan Publishing

House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1967, p. 43.

March 6, 2017

 

“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common

bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, the rest

sit round it and pluck blackberries, and

daub their faces unaware.”

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

Hello to all from Florida.  It’s warm and sort of nice down here, but it never ceases to amaze me that whether you are- North, South, East,or West, the most valuable part of your surroundings is your perception.  It is the power to see God wherever you are.  It transforms everything.  Recognizing God’s omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent nature is not only comforting, but necessary for our spiritual survival.  The awareness of God’s presence in our immediate environment takes the edge off darkness, elevates the mundane, and harmonizes our spirits.  You can take this perception wherever you go –it is transportable.

St. Andrews Presbyterian Church is hosting a Visio Divina Art show this spring.  If all goes as planned, it will introduce to us the practice of seeing beyond what is on the page.  Meditating on the visual graphics to find fresh, spiritual meaning adds a dimension that nourishes the soul and renews the mind.  I am ready and eager to experience this wholeness since I have often been frustrated by only seeing parts of the truth—I keep looking for more—more truth, more parts.

One of my favorite foreign films is a 1950 Japanese movie, Roshomon  directed by Akira Kurosawa. He uses a technique that presents one incident but one that has four very different, self-serving interpretations. It reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then, shall I know even as also I am known.” This is the inspiration for my poem.

 

Roshomon Effect

 

Only the part and the partial are known.

It’s  like looking through a peephole in a wooden fence.

It’s  like hearing raised voices through a floor vent.

It’s like peeking through a keyhole.

I scrutinize, try to remember, discern

But it’s only p   pa  par  part    s.

Humbling.

We search and wait for something fuller, clearer.

We wait long.

Still doubts.

Death complete.  We learn hearts.

As we enter the Lenten season, it is my prayer that all of us will gain greater awareness and understanding of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

 

Kathryn Den Houter, Ph.D.

February 27, 2017

A central theme in our faith narrative affirms that God’s love is wider than any particular group.   This message has strong roots in the writings of the Old Testament prophets and was  fundamental to Jesus’s words and actions.  Jesus’s preaching reached out across countless borders and barriers, affirming that God’s loving care and concern embraced a great diversity of people who had previously been considered to be “on the margins” or even firmly excluded from God’s favor.  As followers of Jesus, we are invited, we are challenged and instructed to share the news that God yearns for all people to know that they are welcome in the embrace of God’s love, and to do that without fear; God accompanies us in that undertaking.

 

It is no secret that this faith-based vision of inclusiveness faces serious challenges in our country today.  In many ways, our world is being defined in terms of a series of separations between “us” and “them.”   This process of “otherizing” has many overlapping dimensions, involving skin color, religion, national origin, and what might imprecisely be called “culture” or “ethnicity.”  In each of these dimensions, there is a rumbling across our country asserting that “we” are threatened, are under siege, by “them.”  We are told that “we” must be afraid, and must do whatever it takes to keep ourselves safe from “them.”

 

The disconnect between these two visions is stark.  How is it that our faith calls us to live, in the face of this divide?

 

I recently read a report about a conference that took place last month in Montreat, North Carolina.  The theme of that conference, drawing in college students from across the country, concerned the ways in which “God gave an ancient people a holy nudge towards diversity,” asking that they “consider how God is similarly nudging God’s people today.”  One of the main speakers at the conference, Rev. Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, explored those ideas in some powerful preaching.  Tracing a biblical theme that runs from the tower of Babel through to the Pentecost experience, he argued that scripture affirms that God calls on the church to “embrace a radically diverse population.”  Speaking to the more than 1,000 college students gathered there, he told them: “If we’re going to be the radically diverse population we strive toward, you’re going to have to be alert, break out of the bubble, and yes, in the best possible way, you’re going to have to find a way to disrupt the status quo.”

 

In his concluding comments, Rev. Roberts charged his hearers with two assignments. He said that, if they are serious about building a space where radical diversity can take place, they must find a way to engage with someone who has a different perspective.  They must also be alert to what is happening in the world.  Along side these two good ideas, I would add a third, reflecting my own experiences. There are many dimensions of this process of “otherizing,” many different sets of peoples described as “them,” with the warning that each needs to be feared and kept at bay.  Seeking to keeping each of these on my radar screen quickly becomes overwhelming.  I have found it important for me to choose one that is closest to my concerns, digging deeper into the theological, practical and legal dimensions of it, then finding ways to engage in public discourse and action, seeking to move the world in good directions.  In my case, that has led me to a focus on the “otherizing” of Muslims.  While rejecting and condemning terrorism in all of its dimensions, I must also condemn Islamophobia, standing with Muslims to challenge personal acts and words that denigrate them as individuals as well as legal acts that deny them their rights as citizens and residents in our country.  I choose to focus on this area of concern not because I believe it is more important or more threatening than others but because it has not received the attention it requires as the latest addition to the long list of enemies to be brought under control.

 

How will you seek to find a balance between Jesus’s call for an inclusive view of God’s love for all, on the one hand, and the voices in this world that call for us to beware of those who are not “us,” on the other?  No easy answers, to be sure, but important choices facing each of us.  May God give us wisdom.

Don Mead

A fuller report on Rev. Roberts’ presentations can be found at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/yearbook/February-25/

 

February 20, 2017

We use the word faith in different ways. We may ask a person, “What is your faith?”  We might answer, “Presbyterian.” That question relates the word ‘faith’ to denomination.  Faith in the O.T. is related to trust.  That understanding makes the word ‘faith’ a personal relationship. Do you trust the person with whom you are married?  Do you trust the people with whom you are working?   How far do we trust God?  When the Lord called me into the ministry I had no money. I was married and we had one child. I was looking at three and a half years of college and four years of seminary. My only income was four years of the G.I. Bill.  I said to the Lord, “If you want me in the ministry, you will have to see me through.”  So when I finished Alma College, all my bills were paid and we had $400.00 in the bank.  We put everything we owned in a 5 by 10 U-haul and headed for Dubuque, Iowa for four years of seminary. Yes, that was God directing my life in faith.  So when Jesus said, “I am the way,”  he was calling us to live the life of the Way of life. In that Way we live out the ministry Jesus was doing.  Faith is living the life of truth, trust and love. John 14:12, Jesus said to his disciples which also means us, “You who believe in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will you do you, because I go to the Father.” Christian faith is doing the work of Love being directed by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Russ Brandt

February 6, 2017

Balance becomes a concern when you reach a certain age.  Many I know have reached that age, and we talk about the importance of learning how to keep our balance, particularly in the walks we take up and down, in and out.  A few years ago, I took a class discovering exercises designed to keep you steady on your feet.  I learned the importance of thinking about what you are doing, or what you are going to do.

We talked about imagining a traffic light.  Some things we used to do we cannot do anymore.  (climbing ladders). Red light!  There are other things we will need to be more careful doing.  (going down stairs). Yellow light!  Most of the time we can manage very well.  (walking down the sidewalk). Green light.  The imagery has been very helpful.  Look before you leap.  Think before you act.

My daughter gave me a book this Christmas.  “The Book of Awakening” written by Mark Nepo, poet and teacher. It offers a daily word of inspiration that I have found worth reading.  A few weeks ago he tells the story of a friend getting ready to paint his house.  He has gathered together all his supples – two cans of paint, small ladder, drop cloth and a stir paddle in his mouth.    He had the door almost opened when he stumbled, fell backwards, and ended up with red paint all over him.   It is one of those epic stories that becomes family lore.

But Mark makes the point that with our ego, we sometimes refuse to put down what we are carrying to open the door.  We go through the “red light”, not thinking, and lose our balance.  Sometimes we hurt more than our pride.  He puts together a simple suggestion in a few words:

Gather

Prepare

Put down

Enter

I translate these into moral and spiritual steps to keep our balance.  They become the deep breaths we take before entering a new experience, a new commitment, a new relationship.  Even a new year.  The “gathering” and “preparing” are the homework we do in anticipation of a new adventure.  Like packing the suitcase with what we need for the journey.  But it is the “putting down” that is most difficult.  We think we can take it all.  We think we can carry it all.

In following our Lord, we continually are learning what we need to put down before we enter.  Put down our anger.  Put down our judgments of others.  “Judge not!”  Put down our worries.  Put down our fears.  “Fear not.”  Put down our pride.  “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”  Every day we are faced with the challenge of falling.  And of failing to be steady on our faith journey.

Our Christian life is a balancing act in a variety of ways.  To conscientiously and prayerfully think about what we need to let go of is a healthy ritual as we go through the many doors of life.

 

Bob McQuilkin

December 28, 2016

Image result for amen corner augusta“Shoutin’ On That Amen Corner”

Any golfer or duffer worth his putter is familiar with the name given to the last bend around the 11th, 12th and 13th holes of the Augusta National Golf Course—“Amen Corner”.  In the 1958 Masters, Arnie Palmer won his first major championship with a crucial rule decision coming at that point.  Writing about it in Sports Illustrated, Herbert Warren Wind coined the name, calling it the “Amen Corner” for the first time.  When asked how he came up with the term, Wind said, “I thought I should try to come up with some appropriate name for that far corner of the course where the central action had taken place.  The only phrase I could think of with the word ‘corner’ in it was the title of an old Bluebird record, “Shoutin’ On That Amen Corner”. 

So here we are, making the final turn through this incredible year and looking forward to a new one.  In the light of this divisive and decisive election, I think history will show that these last few months have been a time when “central action” has taken place which will shape our country and our world for good or for ill.  Only time will tell.  Whether we are ready to stand and shout or if we face the bend with foreboding, we will make the turn none the less.  So what is around the corner?  What will this New Year hold?  I am not sure even God knows, but there is one thing I know for sure.  It is a promise from the Psalms which has become one of my favorite verses for this time of year.  The Psalmist says, “My God, in his steadfast love will meet me.”  The Moffett translation gives it an even more meaningful spin:  “My God in his loving kindness will meet me around every corner.”  Interestingly enough, if you read the whole Psalm you discover David is caught up in mortal combat with enemies howling like dogs and King Saul trying to kill him.  Even in the midst of his distress, however, he could claim the promise and in the face of it all he concludes, “But I will sing of your might, I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.  I will sing praises to you, the God who shows me steadfast love.” Even in the face of turmoil and the cry for deliverance, he was still shoutin’ on the amen corner.

I’ve been to the amen corner, haven’t you?

-That sacred turning point where a couple comes together to pledge their lives to each other with a prayer and a promise and a kiss.

-That moment of incredible joy when a new life enters the world through the miracle of birth

-That far corner in the hospital hallway just outside the surgical suite when the nurse says, “This is where we part ways”, and we gather for a brief prayer;

-That last bend of way where we pause at the graveside with one final word of blessing commending our loved ones on their journey into resurrection and new life.

Some of us have turned those corners in 2016 and some of us will face them in 2017.  Sure enough, at the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, the promise stands fast: “My God, in his lovingkindness will meet me at every corner…I will sing aloud of God’s steadfast love in the morning.”

Still shoutin’ at the amen corner,

Jack Harnish

 

 

December 14, 2016

 

 

The passage of time is momentous especially around Christmas.   As a child, I felt like a passenger on a train watching motion spinning around me.  Nothing seemed distinct or understandable, and I experienced a jumble of people, places, and scenery.  Slowly as I grew, people and events took shape and became more distinct.  The season of Christmas played a significant role in my understanding of order and the passage of time.  Out of the chaos came clarity and predictability. I learned to anticipate, to delay gratification, and I learned patience.  This time of year helped me comprehend what  “in the fullness of time” means.

Christmas memories are consequential and remain vivid in our hearts forever.

For instance, do you remember the old time Christmas candies that were usually given to children after the Christmas program?    Highly anticipated little, brown bags were filled with sticky ribbon candy, Necco wafers,  licorice allsorts, Lifesavers rolls with five flavors and my favorite, the chocolate covered crème drops. What sweet deliciousness!  Unshelled peanuts filled the rest of the bag and made the size something to behold. That wonderful memory happened the same time every year and the excitement was unmistakably the highlight of the evening. Christmas was the church’s finest event of the year, a feast for all the senses.  The sweet flavors activated the gustatory sense, the candles the olfactory sense, the Christmas service and decorations, the visual sense, and the rapturous music the auditory sense.  It was worth the wait!

Here is another example of Christians learning to wait. Oscar Cullmann, a Christian theologian whose life spanned the twentieth century (1902-1999) proposed a linear time line for history.  He placed Christ at the midpoint of sacred history, and believed that God revealed himself through a series of redemptive acts.  For the Old Testament believer, the midpoint is still in the future, but for us, the New Testament believers, it is in the past. The first coming of Jesus and his crucifixion was the spectacular midpoint and it lies behind us.  We are now in a state of “already, but not yet.”  Our faith tension is the tension between the already fulfilled and the not yet completed.

Oscar Cullman uses a compelling analogy of a disciple of Jesus living between D-Day (June 1944) and V-Day (Spring 1945) during WW II.  D-day was when the allied troops invaded Europe and began to push back the German army to Germany.  D-Day was when they actually claimed victory.  Even though the decisive battle had been won, the war still continued because the official, final Victory had not been declared.

“Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting? … But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory though our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:55,56

The crucial battle has been fought and won in the incarnation and resurrection, but the cease-fire is still in the future.  We don’t know how long we have to fight evil and injustice, but we fight with the conviction that someday the weapons will be placed at the feet of Jesus.  It is crucial that we stay faithful to the cause until the fullness of time.  In the meantime, let us celebrate our past, the glorious birth of the baby Jesus.  For now, may our shouts of joy ease our tension of “already, but not yet.”     May peace abound in your households during this time of Advent.

 

In anticipation of what lies ahead, I am,

Kathryn Den Houter

 

 

December 5, 2016

In these early weeks of Advent, our time of waiting for the arrival of the One who will bring to us good news of salvation is often grounded in a mood of lament. “In the bleak midwinter,” when days are dark, our troubles and burdens can seem overwhelming.  Our eager anticipation and yearning for good news is firmly rooted in the gloom that surrounds us.

 

For many of us, that bleak feeling is unusually strong this year.  A combative election cycle has eroded our sense of community across our nation and our world.  We are warned of dangers at our borders, while many different definitions of “the other” are held up as threatening our well-being, requiring new vigilance to protect us from imminent danger.

 

During these Advent days, I ponder  the ways in which I am called to live out my faith – to make my faith matter – in the face of so much accumulating fear and hatred.  The angel’s announcement to the shepherds frames the good news of the gospel, so often repeated by Jesus throughout his ministry: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

 

What does that message mean for me, as I seek to be a faithful follower of the Christ?  There are many dimensions of my answer; here I list only three.

 

First, I will identify individuals who are threatened by the current mood of fear and anger, will get to know them and seek to encourage and support them.  There is a straightforward way for me to do that here in Louisville, where we are living for these months: a family of Syrian refugees is being sponsored by our church here and arrived in our community three months ago.  I will do what I can to help them.  Whether “other-ness” is defined by religion, race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or economic status, there are people in all of our communities who are being marginalized by the current mood of fear and anger and who need encouragement. Let us seek them out as individuals and do what we can to reassure them that we, as Christians, stand with them in their need.

 

I will be careful of my language, to avoid giving way to either fear or anger in ways that demean and denigrate whole groups of people.  I will also challenge others who fall into that practice.  A reported sharp increase in cases of verbal harassment in recent weeks, especially in schools, is a major cause of concern.  Such patterns of speech must be challenged and not be “normalized” in our discourse.

 

Finally, among the many policy changes under consideration that go against my understanding of what it means to establish a just and fair society, I will identify one or two that are of greatest importance to me and will work with other like-minded people to try to move things in what my faith teaches me are good directions.  I will try to do that with humility and with respect for those with whom I disagree (see the point made above!); but I also know that major changes in the ways in which people who “fall among thieves” get their wounds bound up require more than individual acts of getting off our personal mules and paying the local innkeeper to take care of them.  Our policies and communal practices must also reflect those broader visions.

 

If Advent starts out in a dark night, it ends with the birth of a child who came to “bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”  May this message of inclusive love undergird our individual actions and the actions and decisions we take together in this season and in the coming years.

 

Don Mead

October 31, 2016

“Happy Halloween!” Isn’t this an ironic greeting on a day filled with ghosts and goblins and  meant to conjure up our most horrible fears and anxieties? As you know, Halloween began as “All Hallows Eve”, the night before All Saints Day, when the church celebrates the lives of those who are now in Heaven with God. It was supposed on that All Hallows Eve that the souls of the damned rose from the grave, and being denied entrance to Heaven, roamed the earth as ghosts, goblins, witches and other agents of the Devil to bring fear into the hearts of the living. So people began dressing in such costumes to scare people and threaten them with devilish “tricks” if they were not given “treats.”

 

So if you are so unfortunate as to live on Forest Avenue in Frankfort, where you must host seven or eight hundred Trick-or-treaters on Halloween, just remember that these darling children in their clever costumes represent the evil souls of those not allowed in Heaven and be sparing in your treats. I recall as a child wearing my pirate costume and saying “trick or treat” at the door of an elderly neighbor. He came and said, “A pirate, eh? You deserve only one soda cracker, matey, but I’ll give you two.”

 

Halloween is the product of our historic faith, but it is also a lesson in faith. How does a Christian deal with fear, terror and unthinkable horrors, so common in the world today?  Most people escape into their own happier world by watching football games, the World Series, or enjoying the innocence of costumed children on Halloween. But faith is always addressing fear. At Jesus’ birth, the angels said to the shepherds, “Fear not….” At the tomb of Jesus, the angel’s first words to Mary were, “Do not be afraid.”  The 23rd Psalm includes the phrase, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

 

Fear is a basic emotion, encouraging us to run away from an enemy or wild animal. It gives us energy. But let us use that energy for good, and let faith truly matter in our lives, knowing God stands with us, even as we face our worst nightmares. It is only by faith that we can say: “Happy Halloween!”

 

Rev. Ned Edwards, Author