The very best place in the world to be is in his arms, or hers. Dad is the most amusing fellow, full of funny tricks; Mom is the ultimate source of love and sustenance. From this vantage point she’ll work at catching the eye of everyone she passes; she doesn’t doubt that they’d be pleased to receive her smile and return it. I’m so grateful to have raised my children in a time and place of peace and plenty; grateful, too, that my granddaughter can view the world as a fundamentally safe place. But I cry for all the children whose world isn’t safe: the children of Mosul and all the war-torn places of the world; the children of South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen who don’t have enough to eat; the children who don’t have access to education or health care; the children whose parents fear gun violence, overdose, and all the other threats. So pray for the children, but remember too that these are all things we can change if we have the will to do so.
Often as not these days, I look at the morning news and wonder how we got here. The whole world seems to have changed, and not for the better. There is so much hate. So much. The headlines are full of it; where did it come from? Was it always there, hidden and now unleashed, or is this something new? And where do we go from here? Where is the activism that can change the human heart? Where is our hope?
Walter Wink, who has a lot to say about the powers in this world, talks about hope and prayer: “Hope envisions its future and then acts as if that future is then irresistible, thus helping to create the reality for which it longs. … Even a small number of people, totally committed to the new inevitability on which they have fixed their imaginations, can decisively affect the shape the future takes. These shapers of the future are the intercessors, who call out of the future the longed-for new present; they believe the future into being. In the New Testament, the name and texture and aura of that future is the reign of God.”*
I’ve heard it said that as much as anything, prayer changes us who pray. Wink holds that it really can change the world. Perhaps both are true; in that case, let us pray.
*Walter Wink, “Prayer,” from Engaging the Powers
I bet I can guess what you’re thinking. What the heck is that a picture of?! Well, I had this inspiration to try to take a picture of the fireflies in our backyard. I thought, really long exposure, maybe I’d get an image of 10 or 20 of them making little light trails. It didn’t work out that way, although if you look carefully you can see one firefly in this picture.
So the lightning bug thing wasn’t particularly successful, but something else did happen. While I was standing quite still beside the camera, a doe came walking toward me from the next yard. She saw me and froze, and we stayed that way for a minute or so before she turned and went away. Then a few minutes later she was back. She slipped into the shade at the far left of the picture where I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was there, and she knew I knew, and etc. Watching, waiting. She lingered maybe two or three minutes, and for that whole time I felt a powerful sense of transcendent presence. And then she was gone.
There’s a space at church that I think of as mine. It isn’t marked and I don’t know if others look at it that way, but I always arrive early enough to park there before anyone else has a chance. In church, assigned or not, the regulars all have a particular pew they think of as theirs, and everyone else respects that.
What creatures of habit we are. We park in the same place, sit in the same pew, go to the same table at coffee hour. Knowing you have a place that’s yours in this world: what a comfort, and yet at the same time, what a temptation. We weren’t made to sit and stay put.
Years ago I belonged to a church that held two services in all seasons except summer, when we cut back to one. That meant the folks who claimed a particular seat at the 8:30 came face to face with their counterparts from the 10. Now that was interesting.
I keep coming back to day lilies. I think maybe they’ve become my favorite; that color is joy to me, and they bloom so abundantly in this season. Sometimes I look in the morning to see if I can catch one that’s lasted more than a single day, but I never do. Why would Creation take the trouble to make something so glorious but so short-lived, and to what purpose? Simply to be what it was created to be. I suppose you could say the same of us.
I cross this bridge a couple of times a week. It’s narrow and the 15 MPH speed limit is for real, because there’s not much margin for error between the guardrail on one side and the passing sideview mirrors on the other. It’s only when I look up at it from the riverbank that I see it as a thing of beauty: the grace and efficiency of the design against the sky, the play of light around it at different times of day. Perspective is everything.
Bridge of light: It’s only when I stand on the shore that I realize this crossing as liminal space – suspended between heaven and earth, midway between two towns, two states. And yet this where I see all of those other places more clearly than anywhere else.
When I try to imagine the showdown between prophets that’s described in this morning’s Old Testament reading, the scene I picture looks a little like a pro wrestling match. Certainly Jeremiah is dressed for spectacle, wearing the wooden yoke – that’s the thing that goes over an animal’s neck so it can pull a cart or a plow – because God told him to wear a yoke to symbolize God’s command to submit to the conquerors from Babylon.
And now entering the ring, Jeremiah’s opponent, the prophet Hananiah!
And if the name Hananiah isn’t familiar to you, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Hananiah’s entire story takes up one short chapter in the book of Jeremiah – just 17 verses – and the chapter heading in my Bible is Hananiah Opposes Jeremiah and Dies. He stood before the king and the people and told them what they wanted to hear – but he was wrong, and that was the end of him.
And I want to talk about this story because – as short as it is – I think it raises some important questions for us. How do we recognize the false prophets of our time? How do we decide what to believe when we hear conflicting messages from people who all claim to be speaking truth? Those are important questions, but before we consider them in the light of this reading, we need to go back and take a closer look at the story of Jeremiah and Hananiah, because the five verses we just heard read aren’t nearly enough to understand what’s going on here.
Not preaching this week for a change, I have the leisure to thumb through any book that happens to be at hand. This morning I happened on Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life, and found this:
“While preaching and celebrating sacraments are discrete tasks, the two particular functions to which I was ordained, they are also metaphors for the whole church’s understanding of life and faith. For me, to preach is first of all to immerse myself in the word of God, to look inside every sentence and underneath every phrase for the layers of meaning that have accumulated there over the centuries. It is to examine my own life and the life of the congregation with the same care, hunting the connections between the word of the page and the word at work in the world. It is to find my own words for bringing those connections to life, so that others can experience them for themselves. When that happens—when the act of preaching becomes of source of revelation for me as well as for those who listen to me—then the good news every sermon proclaims it that the God who acted is the God who acts, and that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the world.
“Understood in this way, preaching becomes something that the whole community participates in, not only through their response to a particular sermon but also through identifying with the preacher. As they listen week after week, they are invited to see the world the way the preacher does—as the realm of God’s activity—and to make connections between their Christian faith and their lives the same way they hear them made from the pulpit. If the preaching they hear is effective, it will not hand them sacks of wisdom and advice to take home and consume during the week, but invite them into the field to harvest those fruits for themselves, until they become preachers in their own right. Preaching is not something an ordained minister does for fifteen minutes on Sundays, but what the whole congregation does all week long; it is a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.
“Likewise, the sacraments of the church embody a broad Christian understanding of life on earth: chiefly, that the most ordinary things in the world are signs of grace. The God who created them and called them good keeps on doing so. Through the sacraments, we are invited to understand that all the things of this world are good enough to bear the presence of God and to deepen the relationship between heaven and earth …
“We may spend our whole lives learning what those sacraments mean, but the experience of them exceeds our understanding of them. Reaching out to handle God, it is we who are handled, gently but with powerful effect.” (33-35)
Meaningful words to me, and yet I wonder, is this enough? Or is this only and forever really all we have?
I’ve struggled so much with preaching over the past year. How to touch those who come to church only or mainly to be sweetly comforted, those who long for comfort in the form of a howling lament that gathers their pain into something bigger and harder to turn away from, those who only want confirmation of what they’ve already gleaned from whatever source.
*The photos are of pretty little St. Augustine’s Church (Church of Ireland), which stands next to the city wall of Derry, high above and looking down on Bogside. When the gate swings open and beckons to come in and face “east” toward the altar, leaving behind the “westward” view of that neighborhood with so much painful history, is it a call to know God’s true peace, or a well-disguised temptation?