Tuesday, February 20, 2024

A Ribbon of Light

Every day I turn on my laptop and am greeted with the desktop wallpaper. It depicts an evening scene on a beach. It is an example of what is called long exposure photography. The shutter was left open for several seconds while someone moved a light source to form a pattern. This photo looks like a red and white ribbon of light hanging in the air. 

I used to take pictures like this back when I was a photographer for my high school newspaper and yearbook. Usually the subject was just a friend writing a word with a flashlight. Often in such photos there is a blur of the person visible in the background, almost like a ghost. But if you do it correctly, the person is completely invisible. The pattern of light appears to be suspended in thin air.  

I have been pondering this image recently. One might even say I have been meditating upon it. Several biblical verses have come to mind. One is Jesus’ teaching that that we are the light of the world. The other is his brother James’ words, “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” The Teacher of Ecclesiastes made a similar observation, “Life is fleeting, like a passing mist.”  

The photo communicates to me the fleeting nature of human existence. The spiritual teaching is known as impermanence. Our lives are brief appearances in the fabric of spacetime. A shooting star. One could even say we are nothing at all. All we leave behind is a brief streak of light that is gone before a person blinks. 

I recall a scene in the old movie The Time Machine, based on H. G. Wells’ famous novel. The main character is operating his time machine in his workshop, watching the history of the world whiz by. At first he sees people come and go quickly. As he speeds it up, people become a blur and then invisible. He can see only buildings arise and fall. Then he watches as civilizations rise and fallGeological eras pass.  

Speeding through time gives us an eternal viewpoint on our lives and the human race as a whole. It puts things in perspective. It is easy to get bent out of shape by what happens during our lives. Elections seem so important at the moment. We paint political choices in apocalyptic terms. If the other side wins it will be the end of our nation as we know it! Possibly the end of our world! 

Such eschatological language fails to remember that this has always been the case. Jesus spoke in apocalyptic terms about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of John, saw the end of the world coming with the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet Rome fell, and the world continues. 

The universe will survive with either Biden or Trump in the White House for four more years. The world will survive with or without the United States. The earth will survive fine without the human race. It prospered without our species for millions of years, and it will undoubtedly do better without us. Humans are nothing more than a blip in the history of the planet. 

Our individual lives are even more ephemeral. Just a brief ribbon of light shining in the darkness. Our faces and names are forgotten quickly. It will be as if we never were. We are a momentary eddy in the river of time, a dust devil that takes form for a moment and dissipates. We are dust and to dust we shall return. That is what the preacher said on Ash Wednesday.  

We are nothing. Yet we are. We know intuitively that we are more than these passing forms. Jesus knew this. He said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” We are that which does not arise and fall in time. When we see we are nothing, we also see we are everything. The balance of these two is the fullness of truth.  

Nisargadatta, the sage of Mumbai, said, “Wisdom says I am nothing. Love says I am everything. Between the two my life flows.” Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.... Let your light so shine that others might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” We are a ribbon of light shining for a moment in the twilight. Yet by that light people may glimpse the Kingdom of Heaven.  

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Lenten Love

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which also happens to be Valentine’s Day this year. The coincidence of these two holidays naturally leads me to ponder the relationship between Lent and Love.

This year is special to me because my wife, Jude, and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary last month. We did not go overboard in the celebration. No big party or gifts. We simply shared a meal with our sons and their families at a local restaurant. Our daughter really wanted to celebrate with us, but it was too far to travel from western Pennsylvania for a meal.  

It may not have been a big party, but it was a big deal for Jude and me. We have been married for twice as long as we were unmarried. I call her “my love.” That is how I address all my cards to her. I always have. She is the love of my life. It was not love at first sight, but it was love at first dance.  

Our first date in college was at an all-night dance marathon. It has been love ever since, in spite of the fact that I am not a great dancer. I even took dancing lessons as an adolescent. My father was a wonderful dancer, and my mother wanted me to follow in his footsteps... literally. It didn’t work.  

Unlike the Gerswhins, who wrote their famous song nearly a century ago, I ain't got rhythm. (Neither has Jude, but don’t tell her I said that!) We took ballroom dancing lessons back in the last century to address our dance impairment. I remember practicing in the basement of the church, but it did not help either of us much. As a couple we still have four left feet.  

I have been blessed to share this earthly life with the most wonderful, loving, kind-hearted, beautiful, spiritually-minded, woman imaginable. I do not know why I am so blessed. She has been my rock. Together we have built our home upon the Rock of Ages.  

If I had to credit our lasting love for each other, I would credit it to our partnership in faith. The spiritual life has been a priority for both of us. At our wedding the song “We are One in the Spirit” was sung, as well as Dylan’s “If Not for You.” Those two songs sum up our lives. We got married on the evening of the twelfth day of Christmas, and the Spirit of Christ has stayed with us.  

We have both changed during the last fifty years, yet we have grown together and not apart because we have shared our love for God. That doesn’t mean we agree on everything, but we support each other in everything.

We have different styles of spirituality. I tend to be more academic, contemplative and mystical. She is more prayerful, interpersonal and devotional. Yet both of us fill our days – especially our mornings – with spiritual activities. My wife is naturally more affectionate, but a bit of that has rubbed off on me over the decades.  

Human love finds its Source in Divine Love. The apostle famously wrote, “God is love.” The rest of the verse says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Love is the heart of the Christian gospel. Any person or church that does not love all people, does not know God, regardless of how much they use the words Christian or Christ.  

Spiritual love is true religion. Love for spouse, family and others flows from that love. That is what keeps us sane in a world and a society that seems to be erupting in hate. Lent is a time to remember this love.

The ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us that love is stronger than death. We are mortal, but Love is immortal. We are dust and ashes, but love rises from the ashes. To lose ourselves in Divine Love is to gain eternal life. That the link between Love and Lent. (Happy Valentine’s Day, my love!) 

(Artwork depicts the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day, Feb, 14, 2018, CNS illustration/Elizabeth Butterfield, Diocese of Erie) 

Monday, February 5, 2024

Gluten Free Worship

Three weeks
ago I started a gluten-free diet. I had been having digestive issues for six months and nothing seemed to resolve the problems. So I decided to try an alternative diet for a while and see if it helps. So far so good. I read that six weeks is a good trial period for this diet. So I am halfway there. Then I will decide whether to make it permanent.
 

Yesterday was the first time I came to the Lord’s Table gluten free. Our church has had a gluten free option for communion for a long time, including during the time I served as the pastor here years ago. But I had never partaken of the gluten free wafers. Last Sunday I did.  

It made communion feel different. First of all, I saw two different type of “bread” on the plate. One was made of wheat and one of rice. It immediately said “duality” to me rather than unity. I had always approached communion as a symbolic meal proclaiming union with God. That is the literal meaning of the word communion – union with. That is the symbolism of the one cup and one loaf.  How do two breads communicate oneness? 

Then I thought again. The intent of offering the gluten free “bread” is inclusion.  People who previously were unable to partake of both elements were now included in the symbolic meal. I was being included. The two breads were communicating openness and oneness. Two is one. Gluten free communion is another form of “open communion.” 

This message was reinforced by something that happened at the very beginning of the Lord’s Supper. The small children in the congregation were invited by the pastor to come forward and partake of the elements first.  As the adults waited in the pews, five small children – all under the age of six - came forward to partake of communion. This was different for me, and it got me thinking. 

I come from a tradition where communion is taken only by “believers.” And it happens only after believers baptism, which occurs only after “the age of accountability,” which is considered to be the age when a person is mature enough to make a spiritual decision. Even then we Christians find all sorts of other reasons to prevent people from taking communion: theology, denominational affiliation, church membership, morality, sexuality, politics.... We are very good at finding ways to exclude people! 

Yet God is always available to all. So why make our rituals more exclusive than God? When Jesus’ disciples prevented children from seeing him, Jesus insisted that they come to the front of the line. “Let the little children come to me and forbid them not, for of such are the Kingdom of God.” In worship last Sunday these little children represented a more open attitude to the Lord’s Supper.  As the prophet said, “And a little child shall lead them....”  

Jesus said that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God. He said that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us and all around us. Our religious rituals should reflect that reality rather than obfuscate it. So should our theology. This old preacher learned a couple of things about openness last Sunday. Old symbols yielded new meaning. Whenever that happens, I count it to be a good Sunday.