Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

The other day I was talking to my brother about some family members who are considering a move to Maine.  That brought to mind E.B. White who left his position at the New Yorker along with his duplex on Manhattan's east side to move to a saltwater farm in North Brooklin, Maine.  The year was 1938 and rather thoughtfully, he took his wife and young son with him.

     Elwyn Brooks White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1899.  He graduated from Cornell in 1921, and bounced around through a number of different jobs (including working on a fire-boat in Alaska) until 1925 when he submitted a number of pieces to a brand new magazine called The New Yorker.  The literary editor, who years later would become his wife, recommended he be hired.  It took months to convince White to actually visit the office for an interview, and additional weeks to talk him into working on the premises.  He agreed to come in on Thursdays.  White wasn't exactly a people person.  His friend, James Thurber, would later write:

Most of us, out of a politeness made up of faint curiosity and profound resignation, go out to meet the smiling stranger with a gesture of surrender and a fixed grin, but White has always taken to the fire escape. He has avoided the Man in the Reception Room as he has avoided the interviewer, the photographer, the microphone, the rostrum, the literary tea, and the Stork Club.  His life is his own. He is the only writer of prominence I know of who could walk through the Algonquin lobby or between the tables at Jack and Charlie's and be recognized only by his friends.

     Thurber wasn’t kidding about the fire escape.  White used it regularly to get away from visitors he didn’t know.  Small wonder, then, that this man would choose to leave the crowded streets of New York City for a saltwater farm along the coast of Maine.

     Ask people about E.B. White and they will probably talk about Stuart Little or Charlotte’s Web. Another book, well-known in different circles, is "Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style."  But while he is best known today for the books he wrote, in White's own time he was at least equally well-known for his essays.  They are still great reading.  To give you a sense, here is an excerpt from a piece he wrote on the tendency of some poets to be obscure:

There are many types of poetical obscurity.  There is the obscurity that results from the poet’s being mad.  This is rare.  Madness in poets is as uncommon as madness in dogs.  A discouraging number of reputable poets are sane beyond recall.  There is also the obscurity that is the result of the poet’s wishing to appear mad, even if only a little mad.  This is rather common and rather dreadful.  I know of nothing more distasteful than the work of a poet who has taken leave of his reason deliberately, as a commuter might of his wife… I think Americans, perhaps more than other people, are impressed by what they don’t understand, and the poets take advantage of this.  Gertrude Stein has had an amazing amount of newspaper space, out of all proportion to the pleasure she has given people by her writings, it seems to me, although I am just guessing.

     Who hasn’t been frustrated by a poet who seems intent on being as obscure and opaque as possible in the hope of appearing clever?  Their thinking seems to be that if you can’t understand it then it must be really deep.  On the other side, we have the greatest of all poets -- our Creator -- whose work is gloriously accessible, and yet is so deep and so profoundly complex that one could spend a lifetime exploring it and still have just scratched the surface.

     Pause for a moment and take a look at the world around you.  What a world God has made for us.  What a God to so richly bless us.  On second thought, perhaps it wasn’t the need to get away from the crush of people that took White to the coast of Maine in 1938.  Perhaps it was a deep love for creation itself.

“Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20).

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

     Teddy Roosevelt was raised a Presbyterian.  His family was part of Madison Square Presbyterian Church in New York City.  As a very small child, however, Roosevelt (“Teedie” as he was called at the time) developed a peculiar fear of the church.  He refused to set foot inside if he was alone.  When his mother pressed him, he said he was afraid of something called the “zeal.”  He said it crouched in the dark corners of the church, waiting to jump out at him.

     His mother asked what a “zeal” might look like, and Teedie said he wasn’t sure.  He thought it was probably a large animal like an alligator or a dragon, and said he had heard the pastor read about it from the Bible.  Mittie (his mother) pulled out a concordance and began reading to the little boy every passage that contained the word “zeal.”  Suddenly, very excited, he told her to stop.  The passage was John 2:17, “And his disciples remembered that it was written, 'The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.'”  No wonder he was scared.

     We forget, sometimes, how literal children can be.  I remember standing in the hallway outside of Mrs. Glass’ art room with the rest of my class.  It must have been kindergarten or perhaps first grade.  We were being a bit rowdy, and Mrs. Glass suddenly announced, “The next one to speak up will be on the playground bench before you know it.”  The bench was a well-established punishment for bad behavior; sitting beside a teacher while the rest of the class enjoyed their recess.  It was the phrase “before you know it” that caught my attention.

     At that magical age when anything is possible and Santa is still real, my thoughts immediately went to the idea of standing in the hallway one moment, and the very next (“before I knew it”) sitting on the playground bench.  That, I thought, would be fantastic.  So of course, I spoke up.  Mrs. Glass was incredulous.  It was maybe the only time I ever saw her angry.  I didn’t help my cause when a few minutes later, very disappointed to still be around, I approached her and said, “I thought you said I’d be on the playground bench before I knew it?”

     There are those who believe that every word of Scripture should be taken literally.  We are not among them.  One of the great church fathers, Origen, famously took a literal approach to that part of the Sermon on the Mount which begins, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”  Only it wasn’t his right eye that (much to his later regret) he cut away.

     There are some teachings that are meant to be taken literally – the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) or Jesus declaration, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  But Scripture is also full of poetry, hyperbole and metaphor, and there are occasions when it clearly reflects the culture of the time at which it was written: the view of the cosmos, for example, evidenced in the opening chapters of Genesis; or the instruction in 1 Timothy that women should not have their hair braided when they enter into worship (1 Timothy 2:9).

     Does that mean there are some passages that we should ignore?  Thomas Jefferson simply cut out the parts of the Bible he didn’t like.  But no, we don’t do that.  What it means, rather, is that sometimes we have to dig beneath the surface – the literal take – in order to find the truth that is offered there.  We don’t discard 1 Timothy 2:9, and we don’t take it literally.  When we dig down, rather, we find that the real message is about worship: worship is not the place to be parading our wealth or status (at the time 1 Timothy was written, wealthy women would sometimes show up with elaborate braids that could only have been created by servants or slaves).

     Sometimes, taking a passage literally, as Theodore Roosevelt once did, is to miss the point entirely.  Simply skipping over it, however, can mean missing a truth we need to hear.

“All Scripture is inspired by God…” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Monday, June 8, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

At a low point in his career, with his business in jeopardy and half his staff gone, Walt Disney came up with Mickey Mouse.  His studio produced two silent shorts with Mickey, Plane Crazy  (spoofing Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic) and The Gallopin’ Gaucho (a takeoff on the swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks), but they failed to generate the enthusiasm and new contract the company needed if it was going to survive.  That’s when they got the idea of adding sound.  Walt and his brother Roy gambled everything and the resulting cartoon, Steamboat Willie, debuted on November 18, 1928.  It was a huge success.  Steamboat Willie not only saved the studio, but went on to be considered a cinematic milestone.

     The early Mickey was a mischief maker; puckish, impudent and a bit of an anarchist.  Within a few years, however, he had evolved into something very different; cute, boyish and inoffensive.  Walt Disney wasn’t about to risk the popularity of his most important product.  As Mickey lost his edge, the studio realized it needed a new star – “a character” as Neal Gabler writes in biography of Disney, “who would be immune to the expectations of civility that burdened Mickey.”

     Donald Duck was introduced in a 1934 cartoon, The Wise Little Hen.  He didn’t have his blue sailor suit yet (what do ducks and sailors have in common?), but the other qualities that would come to define Donald were recognizably present: testy, grumpy, selfish and allergic to work.  In the next cartoon, Orphan’s Benefit, Mickey and the anti-Mickey were paired for the first time, and from that point forward Donald Duck took off.  By the following year, the Duck was overtaking the Mouse in popularity.  Gabler explains his success:

In some respects Donald Duck seemed to offer audiences both a vicarious liberation from the conventional behavior and morality to which they had to subscribe in their own live and which the Duck clearly transgressed and, since his usually got his comeuppance, a vicarious revenge against the pretentious, unattractive, and ornery at a time when the entire world seemed to be roiling in anger and violence [1935 was the height of the Depression, and the year Hitler announced he was going to rearm Germany, and introduced race laws making Jews second-class citizens].  Whereas Mickey had turned into a smiling cipher, the lumpy Duck was hot-tempered, vain, pompous, boastful, rude, suspicious, self-satisfied, and self-indulgent – a taxonomy of misconduct and offensiveness.

     Unlike the polite, watered-down Mickey, Donald was free to blow his top and commit mayhem as Disney himself recognized.  Who do you think would be more likely to make people laugh?

     Donald Duck was intentionally created to serve as a foil to Mickey.  In that sense, you could say he was a part of Mickey – an extension of what Mickey could no longer be.  Are those two parts present in us, as well; the conventional and the rebellious?  In his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle talks about not understanding his own actions -- doing the very thing he doesn't want to do.  But I'm not sure that's the same thing that we are seeing in Mickey and Donald.  The need to please is as much a reflection of our brokenness as the need to rebel.  But what if we phrased it as faithfulness and freedom?

     If Mickey and Donald represent two parts of ourselves, then it would seem the way to spiritual and emotional well-being would lie in bringing those two parts together into an integrated whole.  And that, I believe, is exactly the whole that we see in Jesus: truly faithful and utterly free.  That's the life that Jesus offers to each of us.

     In Jesus we find the freedom to be faithful to God’s intent, not out of a felt need to be socially acceptable (Mickey), but because we know that in God’s intent we begin to experience life at its richest and at its best.  We choose obedience, in other words, not because we have to (what the Duck was rebelling against), but because our hearts long for the kind of life that obedience brings.

“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.  Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart…” (Psalm 119:1-2).

Friday, June 5, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

     From 1962 to 1967, a television series called “Combat!” ran on ABC.  It was about a squad of American soldiers making their way through Europe during the Second World War.  It was not a favorite of mine and I don’t know that I watched many episodes, but one episode has stayed with me.  It featured a new guy (like Star Trek, it was never good to be the newbie) who was a deeply committed Christian.      
     This new man's faith had a marked impact upon his life.  He wasn’t afraid of dying.  He believed his days were in God’s hands, or, as the psalmist put it, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me…”  So he did his duty to the best of his ability, and was at peace with whatever might happen.  When he died at the end of the episode, he did so without fear or regret.
     It is this same sense that I get when I look at El Greco’s famous painting of Saint Sebastian (the one in the Prado Museum).  Sebastian, who lived from 256 – 288 C.E., was an early Christian martyr and became a favorite subject of Renaissance artists.  Tradition has it he joined the Roman army in order to assist martyrs without arousing suspicion.  Because of his courage, he was promoted to a captain in the Praetorian Guards, but the day came when his faith was discovered.  The Emperor Diocletian ordered his death, and turned him over to Mauritanian archers who tied him to a post and used him as a target.  Pierced by numerous arrows Sebastian was left for dead, but a woman came to retrieve his body and bury him and found that he was still alive.  She took him home and nursed him back to health.
     Following his recovery, instead of leaving and preserving his life Sebastian chose to confront the Emperor.  He stationed himself near a stairway that the emperor was going to be using, and then berated him for his persecution of Christians.  This second time there was no mistake.  On the emperor’s orders, he was clubbed to death.  He was buried on the Appian Way, near the catacombs that bear his name.
     El Greco’s rendering of Sebastian features his characteristic elongation of the body. While recognizable, the body is not realistic; certain elements are exaggerated to serve the artist’s purposes.  The body itself twists, moving from left to right and back again in a sinuous form.  The movement of light and dark across that form suggests flames surging upwards.  Sebastian’s head is tilted up, as well, with a calm, peaceful gaze focused on heaven above.  This is a man who accepts his fate, and whose soul longs for God.
     That’s the connection with that episode from “Combat!”  They each feature men of great faith, and what they got right is that faith does, indeed, impact the way we look at death.  Does that mean that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of death?  No, that’s where the two can mislead us.  Jesus, after all, was filled with anguish as he contemplated his pending death in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He even prayed to be delivered from it, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” The Apostle Paul describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed.”
     Faith doesn’t mean the absence of fear.  What it means, rather, is that we have a source of hope and comfort even in the midst of our fear.  To put it differently, I like the idea of what El Greco was getting at in his rendering of Saint Sebastian – the idea that Sebastian found comfort in his faith even as he was being shot.  But I suspect that much like Jesus upon the cross, the anguish of that moment was very real for Sebastian.  Faith doesn’t take away our pain.  What faith does, rather, is speak to us in our suffering; assuring us that we are not alone, and that our future rests in the hands of a loving God.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39)

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Weekday Devotion With Pastor Chris

One of my favorite stories to come out of the Civil War was about a sergeant in General Joseph Kershaw’s Second South Carolina Regiment named Richard Kirkland.  Ambrose Burnside had massed 115,000 Union soldiers just outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia.  He designed a two-pronged attack to try and drive Lee’s forces from a series of hills just outside the city.  The main assault struck south of the city and was ultimately driven back by Stonewall Jackson.  The second prong struck against the Confederate left on Marye’s Heights.  It did not go well.

Wave after wave of Federal attackers were mown down by Confederate troops firing from an unassailable position in a sunken road protected by a stone wall.  Over the course of the afternoon, no fewer than fourteen successive Federal brigades charged the wall of Confederate fire.  Not a single Federal soldier reached Longstreet’s line.   

     Twelve thousand Union troops were left on the fields approaching Marye’s Heights.  Throughout the long night and into the next day the wounded and dying cried out for water.  As General Kershaw looked out on the carnage from his headquarters, he was approached by Sergeant Kirkland.  Kirkland couldn’t stand the cries any longer.  He wanted permission to go out and help.  In the general’s own account of the incident, he turned to the sergeant and said, “Kirkland, don’t you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?”

     Kirkland replied that he understood the risk, but wanted to try anyway.  Reluctantly, the general gave him permission.

     Kirkland moved down to the sunken road and the stone wall that formed the front line of the Confederate defenses.  And then, armed with all the canteens he could carry, he climbed over the wall – exposing himself to every Union sharpshooter on the other side.  He was met by a hail of bullets.

     Climbing over the wall is what God has done for us in Jesus, making the choice to enter this great no-man’s land in which the wounded and broken cry out for help.  In Jesus, God chose to cross that great dividing line which separates the Kingdom of Heaven from the Kingdom of earth in order to be there for us; exposing himself to the hurts and struggles of this world; exposing himself to our anger, bitterness, hostility and rejection.

     This, in other words, is not some distant God sitting passively to one side.  This is a God who crosses the wall.  This is a God who chooses to join us on the field; who reaches amid the killing hail of our anger and sin with the message of his redemptive love.

     Incredibly, Kirkland survived that initial shower of bullets untouched. When the Federals saw him reach out to the nearest sufferer, they stopped firing.  They understood what he was doing.  For the rest of that afternoon Kirkland moved from man to man of the wounded enemy, his own comrades gladly refilling his canteens, to offer what relief he could.

     It was compassion that drove Sergeant Kirkland over the wall, and it is compassion -- it is boundless love -- that leads God to reach out to us – to cross the wall – even when we have turned away time and time again.  The God revealed in Jesus is a God who longs to bridge the gap; a God who longs to come up beside us and envelop us in his care.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).