The Rugged Terrain of a Hostile World

“Father, Into Your Hand…” (Luke 23.46)

As in the first ‘word’ in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the Father again. We might remember that his very first words in the Gospel are about being in his Father’s house. So it may not surprise us that his final words prior to his death are about being taken into his Father’s hands. Jesus on the cross is consistent with the rest of Jesus’ life. Luke wants us to know that nothing, not even the cross, can stop Jesus from demonstrating the ways of God. He has already forgiven his executioners and made reservations for a criminal to enter paradise, now he commits his spirit to the Father.

We may find ourselves thinking of Psalm 31, especially the part where the psalmist says “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus was saturated in the Psalms. The Psalms reveal some rugged emotional terrain. So does the cross. Jesus knows about rugged terrain. It should not surprise us that in challenging moments he reaches into the language of the psalms and adds “Father” before he goes on to quote “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Again, we should not be surprised. It was Jesus who taught us when we pray to say “Our Father…”

When we read this “word” we should not forget the connection between spirit and breath. We are reminded of a true gift from God. We do not possess our breath. We cannot hold it in or keep it. It is gift. Given again and again and again. We inhale, we exhale – gift.

Jesus gives his spirit willingly. Like the rabbi at his own funeral, he commits his life to God the Father. His spirit is not taken from him by those who put him on the cross. He gives it back to the One who gave it to him. He gave away what they thought they were taking from him. Admittedly, this is contrary to the visible evidence. From all appearances, Jesus had his breath taken from him. Meanwhile, Jesus is trusting that the Father is greater than the power of death.

This text reminds us of our dependence on the Father. Our spirit, our very breath is a gift from the Father and our lives are dependent on him. Perhaps we can think of many things we easily take for granted that in wiser moments we recognize as gift. We have been given much. Just look around. Look at your clothes, hands, feet. Breathe deep. Color, smell, taste – all gift. During Lent, we are reminded that following Jesus demands thankful, grateful spirits. May we give even those back to him.

Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with an observation. While many were hostile toward Jesus, Luke highlights that Simon carried the cross, the daughters of Jerusalem mourned for him, a criminal was welcomed into paradise, the centurion praised God, and Joseph was waiting for the kingdom. Some of these may have been aware of the conclusion of Psalm 31 “Be strong and let your heart take courage, All you who hope in the Lord.” We too follow Jesus into the emotional terrain of a hostile world. May we also “Be strong… take courage… and hope in the Lord.”

A prayer from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Thank you for the gift of life, Father God. There will come a day when I will meet you face-to-face. The One who gave me life and has numbered my days. As I take in each breath and exhale may I remember, by your grace, that my life is not my own. Just as Jesus gave His life up to save humanity, it is my desire to give my life in service and worship to you. In a world that invites me to worship and serve anything and everything but you, may I be fixed on the breath that you gave and remember the name of Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for your Lordship and leadership. It is my desire to follow you unto my last breath.”

A Christmas Commercial

Christmas is around the corner. Well, not really but retailers and publishers would like you to think so. So, here is my reminder that Christmas is ten weeks away. If you are looking for a gift that exercises the part of someone that reads, then consider a copy of Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now. Here is an excerpt from what might be considered the Christmas portion of the book;

What a strange God this is who announces his plan to deliver with the birth of a child who is laid in a manger. Ever held a baby? Cradled him in your arms? Felt the heartbeat? Breathed in the newborn smell? Rubbed your lips over the top of his head? Tasted his cheek with a kiss? Listened to his cry? Watched while he slept? Certainly there are more efficient, effective ways. Certainly there are ways that may leave a greater impact. Who comes up with these plans? Does God need a public relations person? Nevertheless, God thinks this is a good way to bring good news into the world. And at this time of year, we celebrate God’s great plan to deliver by sending a baby and laying the baby in a manger.

You may order from the publisher through www.fieldnotesfromhereandnow.com

If you prefer to order directly from me, I have a limited number of copies available. Just e-mail me with an address and tell me that a check for $15.00 is in the mail and I will make sure you receive a copy. If you prefer to order from Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Christian Book Distributors or your favorite online book distributor, please feel free to do that also. Whether you choose to purchase a copy or not, a happy ten weeks til Christmas to you!

Participants in a Grand Adventure

My days and years are filled with more than I can imagine and I fight to hold on while paying attention the best I can. Annie Dillard said, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” She is right. She later says “there is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.” Again, I say amen and think that it would do us all well to think of how we string our days together. The ways we spend our time should not be taken lightly. You and I are participants in a grand adventure.

No matter what else you might expect, expect the unexpected. Plan to be surprised. We are surrounded, all of us, by danger and risk and cruelty. But also by beauty and mystery and grace. We are observers, explorers, on alert. Sometimes we are patient. Other times, not so much. We are witnesses at this intersection where danger meets grace. We acknowledge mystery and know there is more than meets the eye. So we light the candles, ring the bells, and sing the songs. Sometimes we sing from habit. Sometimes we sing in doubt. But sometimes we sing in celebration of endless gifts and grace.

Creation Adventure

Curiosity sets me into motion.  It pulls me along throughout the day.  It opens my eyes and prompts me to tune into the world around me.  Curiosity is just there, I do not summon it.  Instead, it summons me.  Curiosity leads to discovery.  But exploring is not about finding facts.  It is about capturing stories.  Paying attention to what goes on during the course of a day helps us to capture story.  If we just move through the motions it is like turning the pages of a book without reading the words.  Curiosity is a companion that I did not ask for but am glad to have along.  When I become distracted, it shakes me awake and begs that I join it in a new adventure.

Curiosity pulls me into a world of gifts where I participate in a creation experience that is a theater full of stories to be captured.  The best that I can do is to be there with open eyes when the next performance takes place.  This is a cosmic drama.  And we participate in it, according to Virginia Stem Owens, “just by opening our eyes and metabolizing carbohydrates.”  There are sights to behold and sounds to be listened to and tastes to enjoy.  These gifts are to be respected.  If they are not treated with proper reverence, they may bite back.  Creation is filled with beauty, but also with risk.  Be vigilant – there is danger.  Yet be thankful – there is grace.

As I write this, I am on the Atlantic coast and I stare out over its waters.  I see shells churned out by its waves, pelicans flying close to its surface, and dolphins playing offshore.  But most of the life that resides in this water is unseen and a mystery to me.  Underneath the constant waves is more than I can imagine.  The psalmist says that the ocean contains “swarms without number, animals both small and great.”  This includes Leviathan, created just “to sport in it.”  Eugene Peterson says that the psalmists are season ticket holders in creation’s theater.  They certainly seem to have a seat close to the action.

There are many things about the coast that are different from things back in the Susquehanna River basin.  The sound of the waves lapping against the shore is unlike anything I hear in a usual day.  The freshwater clam shells I find in local streams are nothing like the assortment of shells that wash up on shore here.  The amount of sand that I have been stepping in is far different from the red clay soil in my backyard.

Yet, the things that orient me are the same.  When I take a deep breath, oxygen still fills my lungs.  The same sun rises in the morning and sets at night.  The same stars shine and the same moon wanes overhead.  Venus, the morning star, is visible at dawn in both places.  Temperature and occasion still determine what I wear.  Such regularities are reliable and generous and provide me with direction.  They remind me that this part of the world is connected with the part that I will return to.  They are proof that we are part of something bigger than just what is available now.  Look around at unlimited beauty.  Breathe deep.  Experience creation.  Be grateful.

The Gift of Taste

While we seek food out for reasons of survival, we also seek food for enjoyment.  Taste is a complex satisfaction.  As omnivores, we enjoy many tastes and so we like to try new foods.  We never seem to stop tasting new things.  We take chances on new flavors and acquire tastes for the unusual.  Jalapeños, olives, dill pickles, sauerkraut, blue cheese, and mustard are all tastes that may not have appealed to us at first bite.

Diane Ackerman tells us that we had more taste buds when we were babies than when we are grown.  Adults have about 10,000 taste buds grouped by theme that are found primarily on the tongue but also on the palate, pharynx, and tonsils.  These are salty, sour, sweet, and bitter.  New research even suggests a fifth taste “savory.”  No matter how many, the tongue is “like a kingdom divided into principalities according to sensory talent.”  A flavor that travels “through this kingdom is not recognized in the same way at any two places.”  That makes combining flavors an interesting experiment.  Probably why my dad always salts cantaloupe.

I too like to explore tastes.  I like to bite into a cranberry and feel it pop in my mouth followed by pleasant sour-ness.  The sweet that squirts from a fresh strawberry.  The crunch of an almond followed by that woodsy taste.  The fresh piney taste of rosemary.  Nearly anything cooked over fire.  The exhilaration of a sip of lemonade.  The mix of flavors in a bite of salsa.  The combination of spices and pumpkin put together in a pie.  I could go on, maple syrup, marinara sauce, black tea over ice – yum.

This summer we visited an ice cream shop where I ordered a bowl of sweet corn and black raspberry ice cream.  Not a combination I would have thought of myself but I would like to have some again sometime.  Right now would be a good time.  When we lick ice cream with the tip of our tongue, the taste buds for sweetness give an extra jolt of pleasure.  The taste buds that lie in the back of the tongue pick up bitter tastes and “as a final defense against danger they can make us gag to keep a substance from sliding down the throat.”

We can taste something only when it begins to dissolve, and we can do that only with saliva.  Everyone’s saliva is different.  Ackerman suggests that it is flavored by diet, habits, heredity and even mood.  Of course, even taste should be enjoyed in moderation.  We can be excessive or overindulgent.  Ackerman suggests that this may be an attempt to fight boredom.  What will we not do to entertain ourselves?  Our stomachs may be full while our souls starve.  How ironic that we can be both a glutton and a starved soul all at once.

We are sometimes guilty of eating too fast.  But “if we let something linger, feel its texture, smell its bouquet, roll it around on the tongue, and chew slowly so we can listen to it, we savor it.”  Or use “several senses in a gustatory free-for-all.”  She suggests that “a food’s flavor includes its texture, smell, temperature, color, and painfulness… among many other features.”  I agree.  Some of us are lucky supertasters who experience more intense flavors because we have more taste buds.

Butterflies taste things by stepping into them.  Most of their taste organs are on their front feet.  What would it be like for us to taste a bowl of sweet corn and black raspberry ice cream by stepping into it first?  Other creatures have a sweet tooth (we are not the only ones).  A friend of mine used to board a horse nearby where Karissa and Keightley would visit to ride, groom, and muck.  At Christmas, the horse loved to eat candy canes.

Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, says that while we may think of taste as something that helps us to choose food, the sense of taste may have developed to help us screen foods.  Our taste buds desire sweet foods as good to eat and dislike bitter foods that might harm us.  Sweetness is a sign that food is a rich source of energy.  We do not have to be taught to like sweet foods.  It is an instinct to help us through times of food shortage.

I can’t help but wonder if that desire is similar to what the psalmist is telling us when he declares “How sweet are Your words to my taste!  Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  No wonder he declares elsewhere, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Greater than Danger

I have been reading Psalm 23 and cannot help but notice the confidence that the gifts of God are greater than the dangers of life.  We enter this psalm with the name of the Lord.  The phrase following the initial naming of the Lord sets the tone for the remainder of the psalm “I shall not want.”  The Lord is the satisfaction of all needs.  Nothing else is necessary.  The psalm suggests that this is not only a spiritual satisfaction.  With the later reference to cup and table comes the implication that the Lord is the satisfaction for all needs.

The psalm then proceeds to talk about God.  “He” makes, leads, restores, and guides.  Then in the center of the psalm we find a more direct address with the strong pronoun “Thou.”  Perhaps this part of the psalm is more immediate or is stated with more emotion.  The psalmist speaks directly to this “Thou” while walking through a deep dark valley and while in the presence of enemies.  The psalmist does not fear impending danger because of the presence of this “Thou.”

Another interesting observation in the psalm is the pronoun ”I.”  This is no self-centered “I”, but one full of gratitude and thanksgiving.  One that acknowledges that the presence and actions of this “Thou” are enough.  This “I” is trusting that life, no matter how dangerous, no matter how evil, is in the hands of this “Thou.”

The psalm knows about threatening situations.  The psalm knows that evil is real.  That danger exists.  But it also knows that the Lord is greater than the threat.  The presence of the Lord is enough.  No matter the situation.  It does not mean that there are no deep dark valleys.  It does not mean that there is no evil.  It does not mean that there are no enemies.  It does mean that He might prepare a table for you right in the presence of your enemies.  The presence of the Lord is enough even in (perhaps specifically in) situations where danger is the greatest.

As in the beginning, the psalm ends with the name of the Lord.  This may be noteworthy and suggest that life is lived in the presence of the One with this name.  The One who walks the deep dark valley with me also leads me beside quiet waters. The Lord is with us.  The psalm knows that danger is real, but it also knows that the Lord is greater than danger.

The Gift of Touch

I was outside in the garden when I felt something bite me.  I flinched and was bit again.  And then again.  Something was trapped between my clothes and my skin and did not like it.  (I did not like it either).   I felt kind of weird afterward.  Like slow motion man.  (Worst Super Hero ever).  My skin itched for days afterward.

Diane Ackerman points out that our skin is what stands between us and the world.  She likens our skin to a kind of space suit which protects us from an atmosphere of harsh gases, cosmic rays, radiation, and other obstacles.  It is our largest organ.  It gives us our shape.  It protects us.  Cools us down.  Heats us up.  Holds in our body fluids.  It can mend itself.  It is constantly renewing itself.  It is waterproof, washable, and elastic.  Some of us decorate it with ink and jewelry.  There is much we can say about our skin, “But, most of all, it harbors the sense of touch.”

Our skin is like a sentry on constant watch, announcing to the rest of our body what is going on at the surface.  Is it hot out here?  Cold?  Are we in contact with something soft?  Or sharp?  When we touch something the localized place may know it first but the entire body responds.  We know this to be true when we have an itch, when we are tickled, when we are sunburned, when we shiver, when we sweat.  When we get bit, get stuck by a thorn, get stung by a bee, get a haircut, or get goose bumps.  The sense of touch can alert us to pain, but also to pleasure and comfort.  I was reminded of this when my daughters both carried special blankets at a young age.  I was reminded of this during a hot shower this morning.

I once caught a fish at the Litwhiler’s Pond and had a brilliant idea.  I would take this fish to the creek and place it in a pool where I could watch it.  I had noticed a bucket on the other side of the pond and I took off running to get it.  On the way around the pond, there was a pile of scrap lumber which I attempted to jump over.  Upon landing, a nail went through my shoe and into my foot.  I limped to the creek with the fish and then limped home.  Dad took me to the hospital where I received a tetanus shot.  I watched the needle enter my skin but that wasn’t necessary to know what happened.  I also felt it.

Touch is a gift.  Touch is the shorthand of the eyes, says Ackerman.  It “teaches us that we live in a three-dimensional world.”  Touch teaches us to see that life has depth and shape.  As she says it “the skin has eyes.”  Touch is one of the ways that we experience the world.  Through our senses, we are not just spectators.  We are pulled in to experience the world as a participant.  Someone has claimed that “touch is far more essential than our other senses.”  Ackerman says that touch is the oldest sense, and the most urgent.  “If a saber-toothed tiger is touching a paw to your shoulder, you need to know right away.”

Some touch is accidental, some touch in intentional.  A handshake is a form of touch that once proved the lack of a weapon or deal making.  More recently, it has become a common greeting.  Ackerman says that it is “still a watered-down contract that says; Let’s at least pretend that we’ll deal honorably with each other.”  Touch is a healer.  Enough so that people go to professional “touchers” (doctors, hairdressers, massage therapists).  Someone has said that we raise our children without touch but compensate with teddy bears, blankets, and pets.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus took Simon’s mother in law by the hand and her fever left her.  He touched a leper.  A woman touched His garments and he asked “who touched me?”  He took a dead girl by the hand and she came back to life.  The sick just wanted to touch His cloak.  He stuck His fingers in a deaf man’s ears.  And after He spit in a blind man’s eyes, He touched him.  We would not encourage touching the sick or one with leprosy or one who is dead.  We certainly would not encourage sticking our fingers in another’s ears or spitting in their eyes.  But it appears certain that Jesus gave the gift of touch.

Some touch is holy.  Some touch is desirable.  Some touch is taboo.  Touch can be comforting.  Touch can be painful.  Yet, touch is gift.  We have given the gift of touch to others.  We have received the gift of touch from others.  Jesus gave the gift of touch.  Touch is a gift to help us see and experience the world differently.

A Fragrant Offering

When Noah climbed out of the ark and offered sacrifices on the altar, “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma…”  We open up to Ephesians chapter five and read that we should walk about in love “just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”  Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church “we are a fragrance of Christ to God.”  When under house arrest, he received a gift from the Philippians and he called it “a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.”

At the very least, we can admit that God equates an offering of gifts as a sweet smell.  I recently learned a new word while reading A Natural History of the Senses.  Diane Ackerman defines ‘sensuist’ as “someone who rejoices in sensory experience.”  I wonder, is God a sensuist?  Am I?  I wonder if this is part of that complex notion that we are created in the image of God?

We may lack the sense of smell that other creatures have.  We may not use scent to mark territory.  We may not need it to survive.  Yet, we crave it.  You could say that we are obsessed with it.  Perfumes, colognes, sprays, detergents, soaps, shampoos, candles, and lotions are all the evidence we need.  We drench ourselves in smell.  We cover ourselves and spray our cars.  Magazines come scented and so does toilet paper.

Ackerman is right that if nature enters our home as a mouse or a house fly or a bat in the attic – “we stalk it with the blood lust of a hunter.”  Yet, we insist on bringing it in on our terms.  “We touch the wall and make daylight flood a room, we turn a dial and its summer, we surround ourselves with a caravan of completely unnecessary outdoor smells – pine, lemon, flowers.  We may not need smell to survive, but without it we feel lost and disconnected.”

I walk outside and take a deep breath.  With every breath we smell.  Ackerman points out that if we cover our eyes, we will not see.  If we cover our ears, we will not hear.  But “if you cover your nose and try to stop smelling, you will die.”  A breath is not neutral – “its cooked air; we live in a constant simmering.  There is a furnace in our cells, and when we breathe we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly, and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us.”

Everything has a smell.  We may be on the verge of forgetting this in our sedentary, technological age.  We take so much for granted, but everything smells.  (Yes, that includes you).  Ackerman claims that one of the reasons that people kiss is the joy of smelling another’s face.  That a kiss is actually the prolonged smelling of another.  Nothing is more memorable than smell.  Ackerman says that “when we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory.”

I often pick off a sprig of mint or lavender when I pass by the garden.  I grab a branch of evergreen and breath deep.  Honeysuckle, lilac, cinnamon, sassafras, onion, a wood burning fire, fresh-baked bread, the ocean, a pot of chili – just a short list of things that grab my attention.  They all smell like gifts to me.  But a greater question might be “do our gifts, our lives give off a fragrant aroma”?  Everything smells, but not all smells are equal.  John Milton described odors that are pleasing to God as well as odors preferred by Satan.  “An ace sniffer of carrion” picking out the “scent of living carcasses.”

Fragrances, aromas, and scents begin with things of earth but climb quickly into the heavenly realm.  So do our actions and behaviors.  Our gifts and offerings.  I have always thought it unusual that among the first gifts to the Christ Child was incense.  But given God’s apparent desire for a fragrant aroma, perhaps I should be more surprised by the gold.  After all, God has always enjoyed the smell of a faithful offering.

Fortaste: an Amateur’s Definition

It is overture

the smell from the kitchen

and the saliva before the first bite

 

it is the inside pounding before you jump

heartbeat before the whistle blows

and the tensing before the wave crashes

 

It is the moment before opening your eyes

anticipation before turning the page

and the dip of your brush into color

 

It is the tug before you set the hook

your gaze before the arrow flies

and the thrill of the hunt

 

it is the breath before song

and the space before prayer

It is fleeting gift

Something for Nothing

I can’t help but notice a theme that occurs in many of the New Testament letters.  Letters from Paul, the Pastoral Letters, letters from Peter, the letter to the Hebrews.  All include grace as part of a greeting or benediction or both.  What can be said about letters whose content is surrounded by grace?  It is an interesting pattern.  If grace is our hello and grace is our goodbye, then should not grace be reflected in between our hellos and our goodbyes?

Of particular interest are letters written during the persecution to Christians by Nero.  These letters suggest some urgency in light of the persecution.  And yet the readers are not to forget grace.  Can they continue to extend grace even when their lives are in danger?  Can they extend grace to those persecuting them?  Can they extend grace to Nero?  Can they forgive the emperor that killed their friends and their family members?  Can they forgive the one who threatens their own lives?

It would be easy to believe that certain deeds always end with certain results.  That certain decisions always have certain rewards.  That certain activities always come with certain consequences.  That everyone be treated fairly.  That an evil Nero be treated with evil.  This all sounds good.  But it is not reality.  These are the attempts of people like us to make sense of things.  Such attempts fall short.  Such attempts lack imagination.  They are boring.  They are lazy.  They lack adventure.  Nineveh does not deserve good news.  The wasteful rebellious younger son does not deserve to receive a party when he returns home.

Any attempt to think you have earned something or that you deserve it or that someone else does not deserve what you have been given or that you deserve what someone else has is against the reality of God.  Would you offer grace to Nero?  Would I?  Would God?  His way is grace.  Grace can become messy.  Grace does not make sense.  Grace is unfair.  We all know that Nero does not deserve God’s grace.  The wasteful younger son does not deserve grace.  But, grace is the way of God.  It is unpredictable.  It is extravagant.  It comes unexpected.  It sets us on an adventure that is unlike any other.  So the Ninevites get another chance.  The prodigal gets a party.  Paul begins to substitute it for hello and goodbye.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that grace “is always a gift on which one has no claim.”  It goes on to add that grace is sufficient.  “One neither needs more nor will get more.”  The hymnal says that this stuff is amazing.  But we seem to find it more amazing when we are the recipients.  We should be singing that it is unfair.  That it is unpredictable, unexpected, undeserved, unbelievable.  We sing that is higher than a mountain and deeper than the mighty rolling sea.  Should we also be singing about its mystery and its danger?  Should we sing of its untidiness and extravagance?  We never know where we will find it.  Who it will be poured upon or when.  But there are glimpses everywhere.  Even where you least expect it.

I am reminded of an interview I once read with rock star Bono.  He contrasted grace with karma by suggesting that karma is at the center of all religions.  I think he is right.  Many of us, even those who claim not to believe in karma, hold to a philosophy that we get what we deserve.  Then along comes grace and shakes everything up.  Grace defies reason and logic. You certainly do not deserve it, nor have you earned it.  It is a gift like no other.  It is more than we can ask for, more than we can expect.

It pours down upon us.  It bubbles up from beneath us.  We are soaked in it.  John Mark McMillan says that “if grace is an ocean we’re all sinking.”  It is greater than we are.  It comes upon us, wave after wave.  Does this stuff ever end?  Can we stop it or stand in its way?  In the next line McMillan says that “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss.”  Will you think of grace the next time you are licked by a dog?  The next time you stare at a body of water?  The next time you feel drops from the sky?  The next time you wade into a cool stream?  The next time you take a warm shower?  The next time you enjoy a cold drink?  The next time you receive a free refill?  The next time you receive any gift at all?  Grace.