Friday, September 28, 2012

Try a Little Tenderness

Sermon preached September 23, 2012

Text: James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37

Water. This summer I had a couple of profound experiences with water. 2:45 am June 20 the phone at our house rang. That is usually not good news. It wasn’t. The Red Cross was calling to see if we would open our church as an emergency shelter because the rains had been pouring so hard that residents of Fond Du Lac and other areas were being evacuated. On my way to the church in the dark, I drove along Skyline Parkway, and just a couple of blocks from here were some cones around what looked like a deep hole with light shining out of it. Having a small car I navigated around the cones to get to the church. Later I realized I had driven right by that car that had sunk into the sink hole on Skyline. It was probably not the smartest thing I have ever done. Later that morning a couple who were at the church asked if anyone could take them down to CHUM. I agreed to do so. The rain was still falling hard, and driving downtown I could see how some avenues had become rivers, and how pavement had been torn loose. Few of us will forget what we witnessed June 20 and after here in Duluth.
Later in the summer, as part of our vacation we visited Niagara Falls. They are an amazing sight to see. We signed up for a tour, and as part of our tour, we were driven up river from the falls, toward Lake Ontario. A few miles north of the falls, at a much more serene place in the Niagara River, our driver told us that thousands of years ago, this was where the falls were located. The falls have gradually moved down stream to their current location, and the current rate of the movement of the falls is about 1 foot per year. Water falling over rock wears away at it year after year. It happens even when the water is flowing gently.
Gentleness. The American Heritage Dictionary defines gentle this way: considerate or kindly in disposition, amiable and tender. I have become impressed in more recent years by how often “gentleness” is mentioned in the New Testament, including in our readings for today. In James we read: Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
The image of Jesus is Mark 9 is an image of gentleness, along with an image of strength. The disciples argue about greatness. Jesus tells them that the greatest are those who serve. Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Gentleness.
I have become convinced that gentleness is a hallmark of the Christian life, of the Jesus way. Someone has written: “gentleness is a vital dimension of the kingdom of God” (John Swinton, Living Gently in a Violent World, 19). What does that mean for us who want to be on the Jesus way?
We need to know that gentleness is not weakness. The gentle Jesus welcoming children is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross. It will take deep strength to keep integrity in the midst of all that will be happening. There is remarkable strength in the gentleness of Jesus. Gentleness is the strength of a flowing stream. In the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching we find these words: The softest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world. (#43, translated by Stephen Mitchell). Another translation of that same text reads: The softest, most pliable thing in the world runs roughshod over the firmest thing in the world (tr. Robert G. Hendricks).
What does gentle strength look like? There could be a book in this, but I have just a few minutes. Let me quickly identify five dimensions of the gentleness of the Jesus way.
Gentleness means smoothing over rough edges. Who of us does not have some rough places in our lives – impatience, anger, less compassion than we would like, some pattern of behavior that is not life-giving? In a speech given the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, Bobby Kennedy said: let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Some of that “savageness” rests inside us. We have rough edges that need smoothing inside our lives – we need some self-monitoring and self-discipline.
I have been thinking about the need for self-monitoring and self-discipline lately in regard to free speech and freedom of expression. I believe strongly in free speech and freedom of expression. I also think people need to think a bit about how they want to express their viewpoint. Is it helpful to criticize radical Islam by making an awful film trashing the prophet Mohammed? A woman named Pamela Geller is taking out ads in a few New York subway stations that will read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Is equating Islam with savagery really helpful? The violent response of some Muslims to the wretched film, “Innocence of the Muslims” is another example of expression run amok. An offensive film is no justification at all for violence and killing. On another front, is the best use of free speech the publication of topless photos of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge?
Gentleness encourages some self-restraint, self-examination, self-discipline so that rough edges in our lives can be smoothed over, making more gentle our lives and our world.
Gentleness means openness to others. Children in Jesus’ day were not given a lot of attention in the society. They were marginalized. Jesus takes time for them. Jesus embraces them. Gentleness means openness to others. We keep the possibility of friendship open with those who are different from us and those on the margins. We are able to say to others, in the words of Josef Pieper: “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world” (quoted in Living Gently in a Violent World, 20). Let’s try it with a neighbor. It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world. Might such gentleness affect how we think about the constitutional amendments we have to vote on this fall – on marriage and on voter identification?
Gentleness as openness to others also means be willing to learn from others. I was so pleased that we held an event called “Respectful Conversations” here. It provided a structure for people to talk about the marriage amendment in a respectful way. The goal was to open and soften hearts rather than to change minds. The process can be used with other issues. Gentleness.
Gentleness entails compassion for others. When we get to know others, we may encounter suffering, and gentleness moves us to do what we can to help those who suffer. We want to make more gentle the life of this world.
Gentleness involves engaging conflict well. Gentle people will disagree with one another. James cautions us about conflict, but his words are about conflict gone awry. Engaging conflict well is a part of gentleness. I am pleased that our denomination supports an organization called JustPeace. It is a center for mediation and conflict transformation and it offers wonderful guidance for working with differences and conflicts. It starts by suggesting building strong relationships as a context for dealing with differences, relationships where we listen well and share lovingly. We cultivate in ourselves God’s love. We use processes for conversation that help us understand each other better – processes like respectful conversations or circle processes. I am going to post the JustPeace web site when I post my sermon (
Finally, gentleness has to do with recognizing that we need to give ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. I am going to explore some of this more next week in a sermon whose title will be: “It’s All About Not About You.” Here’s what I need to say this morning. In our lives, we want to leave something worthwhile behind. There is this song by Lee Ann Womack with the lyrics: I’ll probably never hold the brush that paints a masterpiece/I’ll probably never find the pen that writes a symphony/But if I will love then I will find/I’ve touched another life and that’s something/Something worth leaving behind. When we live life with that kind of gentleness, we not only leave something worthwhile behind, we give God something God can use in God’s work of building a newer world.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes no me but the one who sent me.
The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling us to live gently. Try a little tenderness – a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. Amen.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Just Getting Started

Sermon preached September 16, 2012

Text: Mark 8:27-38

Thirty years ago this past summer, just about a mile from here at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, a young woman named Julie and a young man named David said “I do.” Even if I said that we were both sixteen at the time, we still would not be all that young today. Thirty years.
In those years I have had the wonderful opportunity to officiate at a lot of weddings for others. There is a great deal of work and planning that goes into most weddings, that goes into that moment when a couple says, “I do.” But that is just the beginning. Those who think that is the moment in a marriage are mistaken. It is an important moment, but only a beginning. Things are just getting started.
Thirty years ago, Julie and I made that beginning, and a lot has happened in those thirty years. We have three children, all now in their twenties. The day of their births was significant. David wanted to come early. He was born six weeks prematurely on the day one of Julie’s cousins was married. Beth arrived a little early, too. She was born on a Sunday morning right in the middle of the worship service at Roseau United Methodist Church where I was the pastor. You will be pleased to know I missed church that day. Sarah was a little early, as well. Julie was scheduled for a c-section, but Sarah could not wait and the operation happened a few days earlier than expected. Our children were born, named and baptized. But that is just getting started. It is just getting started for them. It is just getting started as a parent. As a parent you don’t just get to name your children then move on.
School began this past week. It is always fun to talk with parents and children about that. At Wednesday dinner I got to hear some wonderful stories from Abby Adamec about school. That first day when your child enters kindergarten is a milestone, for both parent and child. But it is just getting started. I went to kindergarten at Lakeside Elementary, and I was just getting started. K-12, then four years of college, then three years of seminary, then seven more years completing a Ph.D.
I like to cook. I am not a great chef or anything, but I like to cook. I know that when you get your recipe out and you put all the ingredients on the counter, you are just getting started. You don’t holler out “dinner’s ready” if that’s only how far you’ve progressed.
I remember an episode of the television show Seinfeld. It is still on quite a bit on re-runs. Jerry is going to pick up a rental car. He is told that they don’t have a car for him. “But I made a reservation.” “I know.” “Isn’t the reservation supposed to hold the car? I don’t think you understand what a reservation is.” “I know what a reservation is.” I don’t think you do. You know how to take the reservation. Anyone can take a reservation. You just don’t know how to hold the reservation, and that’s really the most important part of the reservation.” Taking a reservation is just getting started.
There is something of that just getting started thing happening in the Gospel reading for today. Jesus inquires about who people think he is, and then asks who the disciples think he is. Peter: “You are the Messiah.” It is often translated, “You are the Christ.” Apparently Peter is spot on. You get the sense from the way the conversation moves forward, however, that Peter thinks this is it. It is going to be easy street from here on out. They have discovered who Jesus is, and now it is just a matter of sliding into glory.
In the starkest, boldest terms, Jesus says, “no.” Jesus says, “you’re just getting started.” Here is how he says it. First he tells them all that suffering is on the horizon. Then he says: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. To say Jesus is the Christ is just getting started.
There is a stream in the Christian faith tradition that places a great deal of emphasis on that moment of decision for Jesus. The ministry of Billy Graham, which has influenced my life along the way, focuses a lot on that moment of decision. His radio program, which I listened to some in my teenage years was called “The Hour of Decision.” It began in 1950 and is still being broadcast. The magazine of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which I once subscribed to is called Decision. There is a stream in the Christian faith tradition that emphasizes that moment of decision. In my Christian coffee house days, I remember a song we sometimes sang. Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me. Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me. Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me. I know it was the hand of the Lord. It was on a ________, somebody touched me. We were all invited to know that day of the week on which we had made our decision for Jesus. After the sermon, we are going to sing a song that I first sang in my Christian coffee house days.
Deciding for Jesus, saying yes to Jesus in an hour of decision, whether it was at an evangelistic rally, watching Billy Graham on television, in Sunday School, at camp, or maybe just over a period of time, that is important. Such a moment of decision matters. But it is just getting started. There was a study done awhile back that indicated that a significant number of people who come forward at Billy Graham events have come forward before. Nothing wrong with that, unless they have forgotten that coming forward to decide for Jesus is just getting started. I want to give Billy Graham credit. He understands that. I remember doing some of his bible studies as a youth as one way to move forward after my hour of decision. Saying yes to Jesus, saying about Jesus, “you are the Christ,” is just getting started.
Here’s what we know about the way forward. There is some suffering along the Jesus way. This is not to say God causes our suffering to teach us something. This is not meant to be a blind acceptance of suffering, not at all. Suffering is there in the world – hunger, homelessness, abuse, addiction. There are children with distended bellies and children dying of malaria. We have a choice. We can see it, and suffer because we truly see it and respond, or we can turn away. The way of life is to look, see, respond. Those who would try to save their lives by looking away, lose their lives. Those who look, suffer and respond find their lives. I think there is some link between being able to see the hurt and pain of the world and being able to see the beauty and wonder of the world.
The way forward is the way of the cross. Here the cross is not meant only as a symbol of suffering, which is most often how we see it. Jesus’ cross was a literal cross. Our cross is living out our lives in response to God. It is to respond to God in all things. It is to live wide open and to love with abandon. This is the way of life.
To say “yes” to Jesus is just getting started. It is like saying “I do,” or the first day of school, or a birth, or getting all the ingredients ready to be prepared into a meal. It is important to say “yes,” and even more important to keep saying “yes,” top stay on the journey.
There is good news here. The good news is that this way that refuses to avoid suffering, that this way of the cross, is the way of life. There is more good news. No matter who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, the way is always open. And if you once said “yes,” and then gotten lost on the way, a new beginning is always possible. With Jesus you can always say “yes” again as if for the first time.
There are moments in our lives where we all may need a new beginning, a sense that we are just getting started. There is a certain joy and excitement in that. Maybe now is such a time in your life. Maybe now is such a time as we come together as a new congregation. There is joy and excitement in that.
Let’s get started again on the Jesus way. Let’s keep going in the Jesus way. Amen.

Friday, September 14, 2012

All Together Now

Sermon preached September 9, 2012

Texts: James 2:1-7; Mark 7:24-37

His name was Ed. I can’t remember just what grade I was in at Lester Park Elementary when I met Ed, but Ed stood out. His skin was a little darker, though I never really thought much about that. His clothes were a little dingy. His body gave off a distinctive odor. Because of that, Ed was often teased, and often left out. I never knew much about Ed, though the story was that he had a big family and had to share a bed with brothers.
Anyway, I am not sure why, but I felt bad for Ed. I noticed the odor, but didn’t think that was enough for people to be mean. I empathized with his predicament, feeling left out. I reached out to include Ed on the playground or in class. It seemed like the right thing to do. Maybe something Iwas learning in Sunday School and at home was having an effect. After a couple of years, Ed’s family moved and he was no longer in school with me. I don’t know what ever happened to him.
I tell this story not to tout my moral heroism from childhood on. I tell it because I still remember it, and I tell it fully aware of other failings on my part to be inclusive, to reach out. Kids can sometimes be cruel and excluding. Sometimes to feel in, we collude and keep others out. Most of us know both sides of that experience – being in, feeling left out.
Thinking about this I also remember poets I read in high school. They are the only two poets I remember reading in high school though I am sure there must have been others. My love for poetry developed later. So I remember the poet Carl Sandburg, and I remember that one time he was asked what he considered the ugliest word in the English language. “The ugliest word in the English language is exclusive,” the old poet said.
I remember Robert Frost, he of the two roads diverging in a wood. In one of his poems (“Mending Wall”) Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Later in the poem he reflects, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.”
The human experience is often of walling in or feeling walled out. Our human experience is filled with times when we have felt excluded or we have excluded. Though there may be something in us that doesn’t love a wall, the roots of exclusion run deep in the human heart. Psycho-social theorists offer a number of explanations for the human tendency to exclude, to draw lines that differentiate between in and out. That tendency is rooted in our need for self-esteem and self-significance (Rollo May, Power and Innocence). One unhealthy way we bolster ourselves is by putting others down. That tendency is rooted in our fear of death (Ernest Becker, Escape From Evil). If we can become part of a larger, exclusive group, we live on in a certain sense. That tendency is rooted in a discomfort with our own shadow side, those internal things that we project onto others so we don’t have to deal with them in ourselves (Jung, in Becker, 94-95).
We have a tendency to exclude, and when we are at our best, we struggle against that tendency. Might Jesus have been struggling with that tendency in today’s gospel story? Being fully human, he was born into a certain culture and would have been influenced, as we all are, by cultural understandings of in-groups and out-groups. Is this a story about struggling with the human tendency to exclude? Perhaps. What is most important to note is that walls are broken down, potential exclusion becomes inclusion. As a good Jew, Jesus should not have been talking to a woman, let alone a Syrophonecian woman. But he discovers a rather remarkable person – a woman displaying enormous care for her daughter, a woman of wit and intelligence. For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter. The humanity of the other person is affirmed. She is no longer outside, excluded.
The very next story continues the theme of inclusion. Jesus is traveling in Gentile territory. The Decapolis was a name for a region of ten Greek cities. Here, too, there are hurting people, and Jesus takes time for one, touching him, bringing healing.
But if you like your lessons straight up, James gives it to us that way. He recognizes the human struggle with exclusion, labeling people in and out, favored and not. My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? James pushes us to see the humanity of all and to widen the circle of care.
I can’t help but think that these scriptures might speak to us as we consider constitutional amendments about marriage and voter id in November, but I don’t want to say more about that now. We will have Faith Forum discussions about each of these issues in the coming weeks.
Friends, Christian faith is about our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but not only about that. Christian faith is about eternal life after death, but not only about that. Christian faith is about creating community, about bringing different people together who can walk with each other on their journey with God in Jesus. It is about mutual respect and care. It is about widening the circle. It is about seeing the image of God in others, all others.
Right here, right now it is about two streams, one river. I have been using that image to talk about the coming together of Chester Park United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church. Two streams, one river. We are all together now, and all have a place and all are important. Christian faith for us, right here, right now, has something to do with being all together now. It is not that every person here will be best friends with every other person. It will be that there are possibilities for friendship in faith here, and always mutual respect.
As we come together, the task before us is more than combining the two streams of our histories, people, and communities of faith. The task before us is to make sure the one river is a river flowing with living water. We want our river to flow with the living water of God’s Spirit. We want our river to flow with the living water of faith, hope and love. We want our river to be a river where justice flows down like water, and righteousness like and ever flowing stream.
And friends, when the river of our life together in Jesus is flowing with living water, there will always be room for more. We will keep widening the banks. God is not done adding to our river here. We will embrace any who want to join us on our journey with Jesus. We will welcome all. We will invite others who need a little of the refreshing water of God’s Spirit in their lives.
This is who we are. This is who God is calling us to be - two streams, one river, a river flowing with living water, embracing all, recognizing the image of God in all. All together now.
We are going to reaffirm our commitment to our faith and to our faith community. We are going to dedicate ourselves to the work of two streams, one river and that river to flow with the living water of God’s Spirit and God’s inclusive love. All together now.

Adapted from Ruth C. Duck, Bread for the Journey
The church is a family of people with varieties of gifts, united by the Spirit revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. It is the Spirit of caring for one another, of forgiving, of helping each other, of love revealed in the life and death of Jesus. All together now:

The church is the people of God, with a diversity of needs, ideas, and visions, inspired by the Spirit burning through the words and deeds of Jesus as recorded in Scripture. May that same Spirit rest upon us. It is the Spirit of openness to the world and to all people as our sisters and brothers, of continual searching and learning and of saying, “We believe, help our unbelief.” It is the stirring toward growth and renewal that takes many forms. All together now:

The Spirit of the Christ calls us into a life of servanthood, even when it means suffering. The Suffering Servant bears the grief and sorrow of others, and trough suffering brings wholeness. All together now:

The Spirit of the Christ which was present in Jesus is the Spirit of the Exodus – the Spirit that opts for liberation and justice. The cries of the brick-makers in Egypt and throughout history have been heard by the God of the Exodus. All together now:

The Spirit of the Christ which was present with Jesus is the Spirit of covenant formation, of community-building. We stand in a line with a great cloud of witnesses that include Abraham and Sarah, Miriam and Moses, Esther and David, Job’s daughters and the sons of the prophets, Martha and Jesus, John Wesley, Jacob Albright, Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm, our forefathers and foremothers from Chester Park UMC and First UMC, and brothers and sisters in our midst who stand open to the Spirit’s bidding. All together now:

The Spirit of the Christ is also the Ruler of creation. The Spirit that was the creative brooding Presence in the midst of the waters of chaos is still moving in our midst and in the midst of the ongoing creation of the world to bring order out of chaos, unity in the midst of disunity, life in the midst of death. All together now:

As followers of God in the Jesus way, we enact the embrace of God’s grace and love through the waters of baptism. Remember your baptism and be thankful.

As baptized people, we again say “yes” to God – Creator, Christ and Spirit, when we become part of the community of faith, of The United Methodist Church, and of this congregation of The United Methodist Church. I ask you all together now to renew your commitment to uphold the ministries of this church by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness, that in all things God may be glorified. All together now: YES

This is a day of new beginnings. Amen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The 59th Bridge Street

Sermon preached September 2, 2012

Texts: Song of Songs 2:8-13

I am going to share a story from television in a moment, but in thinking about it, I have to admit, that my television references are pretty dated. It says something about my tv watching. I used to know a lot more about current tv programs. Now whole popular television series have gone by without my ever having watched them. I saw a couple episodes of the show “Monk” and enjoyed them, but that series has been off television for three years now. The shows I know best have been off the air, except for reruns, for quite a few years now. Some of this has to do with what I choose to watch – baseball, football, the Olympics, news, movies on dvd. I watched a lot of the Republican Convention this past week, and I will watch a lot of the Democratic Convention this coming week. Some of this also has to do with time. I don’t have a lot of time to watch television. Life is too busy.
So MASH, the last episode of which aired when I was in seminary. Father Mulcahy was visiting the hospital ward and came upon a soldier reading the Bible. Impressed, Father Mulcahy asked what part of the Bible he was reading. “The Song of Solomon.” “Maybe you should read something a little less edifying.”
The Song of Solomon or The Song of Songs – this is, I think, the first time I have every preached on this fascinating book of the Bible, at least on a Sunday morning.
So why now, why today?
We are headed into a busy time. I am headed into a busy time. We continue to work together as people from the former Chester Park and the former First UMC to make our merger a success. There is work yet to do. As you read in the newsletter, this fall we are going to begin a partnership with Hillside Community Church, renting them space in the social hall on Sunday evenings for their worship services. There will be bumps along the way, but I think there are some good things that can come from this, beyond the additional income for our church. There is the typical autumn programming and before you know it we will be discussing Christmas Eve. Minnesota is receiving a new bishop, and as Chairperson of the Minnesota Conference Committee on the Episcopacy, I am in charge of planning the welcome and installation service next Sunday afternoon. I will be leaving for the Twin Cities shortly following worship next Sunday.
I have found myself saying, “I will be glad when this is over.” I have said it about the new bishop’s installation service, not that I am not looking forward to it, but it is stressful planning it. I know that some of you say that same thing, from time to time – “I will be glad when X is done.” We all will say that from time to time, but if that becomes our default mode, think about what that means. We are wishing our life away.
We need to slow down. Especially as we get busy, we need to make sure we take time to slow down. Last Sunday in talking about thin places, places where we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around and within us (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 156) – I said we work with God to create thin places by praying for open hearts, by paying attention, and by slowing down.
Paying attention and slowing down, that returns me to the Song of Songs – that is the Hebrew name for the book, “The Song of Songs” which probably means the greatest of songs. The Song of Songs is a series of love poems, often in dialogue, between a woman and a man. In the section we read today, the woman imagines her beloved coming to her, and imagines him inviting her away “now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.” The entire book is comprised of such songs, some more sensual than what we read, all that pay attention to imagery, to emotion, to the natural world, to love.
Reading this book, one is encouraged to slow down, to pay attention to what is going on in the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the human soul. We are encouraged to notice beauty, to pay attention and foster human connection, to celebrate human love.
So we are going to do a little of that in the next few moments.
One important piece of writing about beauty, one that is beautiful in itself is this passage from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I have shared it before but in seven plus years I think one is entitled to a couple of repeats.
Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist, there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous…. About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star. The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The anwer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (Annie Dillard Reader, 286-287)
Beauty and grace happen. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Beauty and grace happen, but when we are crazy busy, we walk right by, we miss them. What moment of beauty last captured your eyes, your ears? What moment of beauty last took your breath away?
Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, essayist, novelist and poet. He has an on-going series of poems he has entitled “Sabbath Poems.” Of them he writes: These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors…. I hope that some readers will read them as they were written: slowly, and with more patience than effort…. The poems are about moments when the heart and mind are open and aware. (from “Preface” to A Timbered Choir)
One of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems is this:

The incarnate Word is with us,
is still speaking, is present
always, yet leaves no sign
but everything that is.

There is a connection between beauty and grace and love and God. The incarnate Word is with us, is still speaking, is present always, yet leaves no sign but everything that is. The signs of God’s presence in the world are beauty, grace and love. One could wonder why those who made decisions about books to include in the Bible made the decision to include the Song of Songs, a book which uses the word “kiss” more than the word “God,” a book, in fact, which does not mention God at all. This has often been embarrassing, and both Jewish and Christian commentators have often offered allegorical interpretations of the book – it is really about the love of God for God’s people.
Maybe, but perhaps the real wisdom here is a celebration of beauty, grace and love as signs of God’s presence in the world, and an encouragement to us to slow down, to pay attention.
It is September. Life, busy as always, is going to get crazy busy again. To take the Song of Songs seriously as Scripture is to take the advice of a song about the Queensboro Bridge – the 59th Street Bridge.
Play Simon and Garfunkel, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”
Slow down. Feel groovy. See beauty. Feel God. Amen.

Feelin' Groovy