December 12, 2010

God’s “Glory”

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. (Hebrews 1:3)

There were so many Roman Catholics in the South Louisiana of my upbringing that even as late as the 1980s, we never ate meat on Fridays at my public school.  Half my friends were altar boys, who often were excused early from middle school classes to attend training with their priest.  Given this context, on occasion as a boy I found myself in a Roman Catholic sanctuary.  Somewhere along the line, even my mother—a cradle Presbyterian—fell into the habit of attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Benedictine seminary that lay hidden in the woods north of our town.

More often than not, I went with her.  To be honest, I’m not sure why.  What was probably only 45 minutes of Roman liturgy felt to this kid like an eon of chatter, not to mention the funny smoke up and down the aisle and those kneelers that were hard on the knees.  As Protestants, we could not share in the mass-meal, but my mom always said she loved the scripture readings and the traditional chanting-in-song that went with them.  As for me, all I wanted to do was get back home—back to bed, so as to shorten the chronological distance between me and my latest Lego acquisition on Christmas morning.  My mom would count the chants leading to the birth; I was counting the minutes leading to my exit.

Except for the ceiling.

There was (is) in the chapel there at St. Joseph’s Abbey the most marvelous ceiling.  To my discredit, it was the only feature of the night that ever held my attention.  Sweeping arches, running in what seemed like every direction, with every space filled with the most marvelous fresco paintings I have ever beheld.  The ceiling was chock-a-block with characters.  Biblical characters.  Adam and Eve and Moses and Miriam.  All the prophets, kings, apostles.  Mother Mary (of course), but also father Joseph.  They were all up there, vibrant like Kodachrome, with their quasi-human faces.  And of course, front and center in fab fresco was Jesus.  Massive and magisterial, taking up more real estate than most others combined, he loomed large before us—over us, really.  I can remember studying his steely eyes and flowing robes for what seemed like hours.

Ironic: We were supposed to be paying attention to everything happening all around us, but I confess I spent most of the midnight hour looking up above us.

So it is sometimes with the birth of the Son of God.

The title itself is grandiose. The expectations, enormous.  “The Son of God!”  No wonder the fresco on his Facebook page was 10 times that of all the others.  This guy is a big deal.  God announces the sending of a Son, the Son (meaning: the way a King sends a Prince, as in Psalm 2), and instinctively we all look up—to see power, to see prestige, to see a picture of God’s presence which of course must be high and lofty.

This is perhaps the great comedy of Christmas: We are all looking up to heaven, for the big bang of his appearance, for the pomp and circumstance of those marvelous vaulted ceilings, for a boy whose resume’ matches the Messiah we sing.   Instead, Son of God comes as a mere neighbor to sit down on the pew, just next to us.  He comes as a 1st century Palestinian rabbi from the other side of the tracks, with little to his name and even less for a bed.  Instead of bang, he slips in with a whisper.  Hardly the stuff of larger-than-life frescos.

It is not that he doesn’t deserve the ceiling, or could not himself secure it.  It is that he consistently chooses otherwise, as in Philippians 2.  The Christ appears in this world, not in a grandiose display of power and might, but in the arms of a woman who never in her right mind imagined she herself would one day be enthroned on the ceilings of sanctuaries.  Every year, the world looks up for a Hail Mary pass from God; Jesus turns out once again to be a lateral move down on our level.

This is God’s glory—a birthing center full of domestic animals?  This is God’s awesome power—mercy for those who need it most?  This is the potency of God’s wrath—a life laid down for those whose life needs lifting up?  Christmas comedy: I’m looking up at the sky for a Cecil B. Demille production; meanwhile, the risen Jesus comes alongside me as a stranger asking, with a touch of irony, “Hey, what are you looking for up there? I’m down here: in the broken bread, in the call to service, in the face of your neighbor in the pew and the stranger on the curb, in the stables, in the trenches, on the crosses.  I’m down here: the true reflection of God’s greatest glory.”

Thanks be to God for the drab ceiling and the long pews.

December 11, 2010


Saturday, September 18, 2004

Beloved Alma,

The invitation to speak a word in tribute about another’s life is an unqualified honor.  To speak of your life thus far is certainly that.  But given our friendship, this summons to speak of you is a sheer delight as well.

What’s a preacher to do in such a moment as this?  How is one rightly to proceed?  A tribute in the third person seems an option. “She was, she is, she will be …”  Yet, in this mode, the words pass too easily over your ears, serving more as gift to those who gather with you on this day. This seems to me to miss the point of this hour, for this is your time to receive, as a living gift, some measure of how it is your words and your way have blessed the lives of those who love you – so many of whom are gathered here with you in this place.

“Tribute.”  From the Latin, of course!  TRIBUTUM: to grant, to allot, to bestow.

And so I am delighted to bestow these words to you, about you, all the while knowing that your hearing them will likely be a difficult pill for your otherwise self-effacing spirit to swallow.  Indeed, your humility – that mild bit of embarrassment you evidence when in your presence someone draws attention to your many virtues – is one of graces we love about you, even if it tempts you now not to believe what you hear.

So listen you must, and listen well.

We are multivalent creatures, we who are created in God’s image.  That is to say, our lives, if we are blessed, are thick with many layers.  A tribute of any merit must furrow up these rich layers of a life.  And with you, dear friend, this cultivation is an easy effort.

An initial glance at the vita of your life, Alma, and one finds in your personal and public résumé the touchstones of those deeper layers that define the woman you have become.  This uppermost stratum is diverse and textured, and thoroughly noble.  One notes your storied Virginia upbringing, an early heritage of Christian faith, stimulating collegiate study, training in the classics, public service to public education, a beloved marital bond, devoted motherhood (now on a grand scale), civic engagement with this fair town, volunteered time to those in need, and, of course, active membership and ordained office in this Presbyterian kirk.  (You will note where my list culminates!)

There are other roles to note, other seasons that define, I am certain.  But of these, I know.  And for these, we all give thanks to God, because in some measure, every one in this room has connections to your story.  In greater measure, everyone in this room has been made better having known you.

But even still, vitae are one-dimensional lists.  We can all list the seasons of our lives; it does not mean that we have lived them well.  But with you, Alma, deeper layers reveal deeper ways, for no one could ever accuse you of superficiality.  Indeed, the underlying layer of any life is the one on which stand CORAM DEO, in the presence of God.  And we Presbyterians are prone to believe that anything good that arises from our lives, any virtue evident to the world, is both a gift from God and a response to what God has done.  “We love, because God first loved us.”  If we sing, it is because God has song his song.  If we pray, it is because God has spoken to us.  If we compose, it is because God has written the poem of his works into our hearts.  God acts; we respond.

And so, a pastor and friend cannot help but to note and name the myriad ways in which you, as a child of God in Christ, have responded to the graceful claim on your life.

For instance, I have always noted your devotion to your children: that durable, lasting bond that only a mother develops with her beloved offspring.  So deeply have you rejoiced with them, wept with them, implanted faith in them, prayed for them.  More than once have you offered them to the Lord: that most difficult of prayers, offered at the intersection of your desire to shelter them under your wings forever and your knowledge that you cannot save them, that you cannot be both Lord and mother.  It is a mother’s prayer offered in a world “upside down.”

I also sense in you Alma, a deep love of place.  When you speak of your life, one notes in your stories the rich details about the places in which you have responded to God.  The hallowed halls of a collegiate library, where the beauty and the splendor of the Almighty and the creation began to come alive in your mind’s eye.  The many classrooms of your profession, whose air was filled with chalky dust and words from languages long laid down, even while your mind and heart were filled with the names and lives and the welfare of your students.  This little town, with its numerous meandering streets, each one mirroring a specific relationship you have woven with so many friends, colleagues, students, and neighbors.  And certainly your lovely home, filled with the stuff of Alma: books and papers and letters … and piles … and memories: the raising of your children, the buttressing of your marriage, the welcoming of friends.  And all the while, the working out of your salvation in word and in prayer.  To transfer description: “A little house sitting and waiting, as if with a silent yearning.”

It seems to me that too many of us with faith in Christ have bought a Gnostic lie, believing ourselves sometimes too good for this world that God has gifted.  We float on the surface of their lives, never really discovering that grace comes alive down deep in the thickness of life – in the odd, peculiar, specific places where we conduct our lives.  “Let it be on earth, as it is in heaven,” we pray.

What I love about you Alma, is that you have taken God’s word into every nook and cranny of your earthy (rooted) life.  Yours is not a subdivided spirit, nor are you more spiritual than God.  And yet precisely because you are rooted in God’s creation, that God-shaped heart of yours – hardly ninety – awaits in eager expectation for the world yet to come.  Living well, yet looking ahead.  This is a witness to me.

Another layer in you that I love are all the unlikely juxtapositions, the contrasts of your person.  Consider your innocent absentmindedness, set against your wise, luminous mind; your playful, even impish of sense of humor, set against a streak of sober righteousness that charts through your life like a burst of radiant sun, parting the fog and lighting our way behind you.  And I love the fact that even after nine decades of life, you still wonder about things, you still chuckle when you hear a funny phrase, you still pray with childlike expectation – prayers carried on wise, old words.  And you still dabble in innocent irreverence, while always making your nest in true doxology.

I also love that your Christianity cannot easily be pinned down, to one particular tradition or its perfunctory ways.   Talk about juxtapositions:  you are too passionate about the gospel of Jesus to be contained by stuffy, proper Presbyterians, yet you are too thoughtful, too full of faith, to roost with simplistic fundamentalists.  You are too prayerful, too Spirit-filled for these tired old mainline traditions of ours, yet you are too grounded in the Word and its wisdom to be swept away by charismata alone.  Alma, you are a consummate Christian, a virtuous daughter of faith, and you have been a model of devotion to this church, its members, and its several pastors, lo these many years.

And I have theory about you: that the frequently forgotten purse, the keys locked in the car, the water for tea too often left boiling on the stove …   These are signs, not of decline, but that your thoughts regularly take up the great and glorious subjects, that your heart is absorbed with the grandeur of God, and that your life now has a nearly constant an upward gaze.  So I say: Let the tea and the keys and purse be gone.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Which brings me to my last love about you, the final and best layer in which I have seen your regular response to God and his gracious Son.  So many titles could name your life, so many roles: daughter, wife, mother; student, teacher, neighbor; disciple, elder, sister in Christ.  But the one that has settled in me, that title that best describes you when I ponder your life, is poet. “Poet.”

POETA.  Maker of verses. A creative artist with words.  Says Webster, “a writer having great imaginative, expressive gifts, possessing a special sensitivity to language.”  This is how I best imagine your life.

Now I know that you are not fond of this title, at least in reference to yourself.  You think it too lofty, too immense, unfitting of one who “scribbled and imposed” her poetic verse.  But you must learn to embrace it, Alma, before it is too late, for it is one of the manifold gifts that God has given you, specifically you, in order that you might bless the world for him.  Poet. And let us be clear that a poet is not merely a rhymer of words.  There is difference, after all, between Dr. Seuss and Gerard Manly Hopkins, and in that spectrum you take your providential place.  Maybe in rhyme, but maybe not, a poet is one whose heart and mind are so awed to heaven that they cannot help but speak about its glories in the language of earth.  Poets do not see their lives or the world in regimented sections or dangerous taxonomies.  They do not settle for manufactured truth or easy, customary answers.  They resist the opiate of busyness and constant pleasure, choosing instead to see with a vision through which few perceive: a view that God and his Word is indeed all in all – all over the world as Almighty, all over your life, Alma, as Lord.

As providence would have it, I recently stumbled upon a little verse of Walt Whitman, buried in a book written mostly for preachers.  Whitman’s vision of the world is certainly different than mine and yours, yet his words came alive as I pondered this tribute for you.  Says Walt:

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) 
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work, 
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, 
the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, 
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name, 
The true son of God shall come singing his songs. 

I note that, whatever his intentions, his “son of God” could easily be our dear Christ, our Lord.  But I also note that his “singer,” his “poet,” could also be you, and me, and anyone who seeks to put the stuff off heaven into the words of earth.

For after all is said is done, after the facts and figures are all exhausted, after the cheap grace and prayer-less thought have run out … finally the poet comes, to speak about God and his grace, about faith, hope, and love.

And finally you come to us, as well, with your words and your ways:

You speak of your life, ruminating on the unstoppable providence of God, and “the tiny nudgings that come from time to time from beyond the stars.”

You speak of a grace, and of finding it in the most unlikely of places, like in “ice and water,” and in the kindness of one who delivers.

You speak to your children – words to them yet unborn, “tiny babes, in a world grown old.”  You speak to their coming up and their playful years, and you speak to them in their going away.

You poke fun at us, too easily consumed with ourselves.  You notice our all too funny ways.  And in not thinking so highly of yourself, you have learned to take note of the frolicking, playful side of God’s gifted life: leaves crunching under foot, dogs burying their biscuits, chiggers in the blackberry patch.  These too, make up the splendid creation.

And in your poetic way, you speak to God – particularly and often, I notice, about the world yet to come.  Your writing make this clear: So ready are you, dear friend, for the great resurrection and the new day.  How you long for that day in your words and in your heart.  Perhaps your childlike hope is now disciplined and tuned by the loss of those you have so deeply embraced.

Only poets learn to speak out loud about that tensive space between the now and the not yet.  But to turn your phrase, “Do not worry; far off places no longer matter.  You are traveling now toward God.”

My dear friend,
with these words you come to us,
worthy of the poet name,
a true daughter of God,
singing his songs,
and speaking his words.

Beloved Alma, on behalf of all the Presbyterians of this flock, then and now, we give thanks to God for the wonder, joy, and beauty of your life lived so well before him.  And we offer our fervent prayers (though not quite as well offered as by you) that there are still ample more days for you to listen to your storied life and to offer your words back to God.  “Finally shall come the poet worthy that name.”

To God be all the glory; to you, all our love.

Godspeed and happy 90th birthday.