It is cold today, bitterly cold. The wind adds to the temperature, already in the low teens, driving it into the single digits. A dusting of snow covers the driveway. I walk down to the house fearing that my little car might not make the grade tomorrow if it snows again tonight. The weight of my boots separates the frozen crushed-river-rock; loud crackling sounds accompany each footfall. The flooded river is the only other sound in an otherwise silent universe.

All the leaves are gone, exposing the forest. In the distance, deer graze, though on what I do not know. Ahead, the river runs high and dark and fast – too high and fast for ice to form except in sheltered margins. Along the river bank, motionless with eyes closed, a great blue heron perches on one leg. He ignores me, but he is not asleep. I come too close and in one swift movement he unfolds his seven-foot wings and is gone down river.

I brought one of my Favorite books, The Classic Tradition of Haiku, edited by Faubion Bowers. Later, in the warmth of the house, I reread Basho’s classic poem:

sleeping at noon

the body of the blue heron

poised in nobility

Through most of the year, a blue heron is a common sight, but in mid-winter an uncommon visitor. Poised in nobility is an apt description of this magnificent bird. At the same time fragile and powerful, resting and vigilant. This haiku captures the serenity of a moment, a vision of peace and tranquility, but it also challenges us: If there is a such a noble creature, such serenity in a wild bird of prey, where is my nobility, my peace? Basho is not an idle dreamer. He is a keen observer of nature and knows well the struggle for survival that is part of life itself. But Basho also knows that there is in each of us a center, a place of composure from which, viewing the world, we may regain the poise and balance that is our true nature.

The world requires action. An authentic life is one lived in the full exercise of our talents and training but not to the exclusion of all else. There is a yearning within each of us that seeks to find meaning. Even the most ambitious and avaricious among us have moments of disquiet, even fear, when truth can’t be suppressed and the great question overwhelms us: Does this mean anything? The Preacher of Ecclesiastes writes: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

The question of meaning finds its answer in the solitude of the heart. In The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.” How many moments, piled one upon another, go unnoticed? The sound of my boots on frozen stone is such a moment, a moment to be savored, and a moment never to be repeated. And there will be other blue herons on other river banks, but there will never be this blue heron on this river bank on this frozen afternoon.

Sabbaths are made by us not for us. In an otherwise silent universe there is music because I choose to hear it; there is beauty because I choose to see it. The cares of the world are far away, forgotten for a moment, because, now, in this moment, I choose to be poised in the nobility God has chosen for me; I choose eternity. I choose to live. As Abraham Heschel writes, “The world has our hands but not our souls.”

By the Ford of the Jabbok

Only in dreams is a ladder thrown
From the weary earth to the sapphire walls;
But the dreams depart, and the vision falls,
And the sleeper wakes on his pillow of stone.
Josiah Gilbert Holland

The sleeper wakes on his pillar of stone is an apt metaphor for the lives many of us lead. How many mountains have we climbed, how many Rubicons have we crossed, how many ladders to heaven have we ascended, all in glorious technicolor dreams that fade with the morning light? In “Gradatim,” Josiah Holland writes: “Heaven is not reached at a single bound;/ But we build the ladder by which we rise/ From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies,/ And we mount to its summit round by round.” These words, used as both the first and last stanzas, are bookends. Between them, Holland reminds us that life is lived not in dreams but in action. Jacob’s vision of angels at Bethel ascending and descending from the sapphire walls is not an answer to his desperate situation – his frantic flight for his life from his brother Esau. It is an occasion for God to renew his promise to Abraham and his offspring, Jacob. But Jacob awakes to a hard stone pillow and miles to go before he reaches the safety of Laban’s household, where he will toil, almost as a slave, for fourteen years.

Each new day brings its own toil and troubles, but each new day also brings with it the possibility of growth and change – and always, the possibility that God will act in new and powerful ways in our lives. This was the promise of God to Jacob at Bethel, and it is God’s promise to us. Patience is a virtue shared by few, but patience is precisely what is required of us. Jacob’s flight would not have been necessary had he not cheated Esau of his birthright and the patriarchal blessing of the firstborn. Impatient, he tried to take by guile what was already promised – God’s rich blessings. One can only wonder how the story would have been written had Jacob been content to remain the second son and allowed God’s blessings to accumulate.

God is active in our lives, but he expects us to do our part. Passivity is not a virtue. No one whose feet are firmly mired in clay ascends to heaven. Holland writes that heaven is not reached in a single bound but we must build our own ladder and mount it rung by rung. Although God is present to guide us and to lead us to his rich blessings, he expects us to climb.

Later in Jacob’s story, returning to Canaan, he stops the night at the ford of the Jabbok. There in a dream he again encounters God, this time in the guise of an angelic being with whom he wrestles until daybreak. Jacob does not come away unscathed. He is given a blessing and a new name (Israel – one who struggles with God), but he is also given a lifelong limp. We too are called to wrestle with God. And like Jacob, to cry out to God, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” That is precisely the meaning of Jesus’ parables about persistent prayer. Prayer is intentionally seeking the one who blesses, sometimes seeking him in praise, sometimes in quiet listening, and sometimes as one who wrestles with God. But Jacob is reminded that he wrestles with God only because God allows it. In one deft stroke the angel dislocates Jacob’s hip, causing him to limp for the rest of his life.

Prayer is work but not work to be taken lightly. It transports us into dangerous realms where a single touch may mark us for life. Here we meet the God whose arm moves the world, the God who invites us to wrestle – not only to wrestle with him but more often to wrestle with ourselves. Here in the inner sanctum of prayer, we come face to face with our naked selves. And it is the self who wounds. God has promised to hear, promised to answer, but not before the work is done. It is only then that God answers, in his own time and in his own way. What would God have us learn? Who would God have us be? Those lessons are often learned only on the banks of the Jabbok, where God comes first to show us the sapphire walls, then to test our wills, our strength, and our faith. Those who dream by night wake to stone pillows, those whose nights are spent in the garden of prayer wake to a new world.

Is something in your life not going well? Do you know you need to change but find you can’t? Maybe it’s time to pitch a tent by the ford of the Jabbok, to enter the dangerous realms. “Heaven is not reached at a single bound;/ But we build the ladder by which we rise/ From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies …” The ladder is prayer.

Porcelain Shepherds

When we behold the child in the manger, porcelain or plastic or perhaps a woven corn-husk figurine, nestled among Joseph and Mary, three wise men, a shepherd, a smattering of camels and sheep carefully arranged on a mantle or coffee table, do we go back in our minds to that winter night? In this, the biggest of holidays and the busiest of seasons, the crèche, with its tiny figurines, often goes unnoticed, one among many decorations, plain when seen against the lights and glittering ornaments of an artificial tree. But perhaps, just perhaps, that is as it should be. For the Jesus of our crèche calls to us from a stable, after all. The first Christmas, announced by angels as the world slept, was witnessed only be shepherds. Unlike the wise men, these simple folk brought no gifts, for they had none to bring. Each brought only himself and his capacity for wonder and awe, his capacity for joy, and his capacity for worship.

There is a shepherd in one of our manger scenes, a small, three-inch, porcelain figure from Italy – a shepherd who, holding his hat in his hands, directs his gaze perpetually downward. He waits silently in his box for the Christmas season; he waits to be placed near the manger, so that his eyes may behold the Baby-Jesus.

We are not porcelain figures, boxed and stored on a shelf, waiting for December to see Jesus. The child, now grown up, now the Risen Lord of Easter, calls to us daily, promising that through the Holy Spirit he is always with us. He needs no special day. We do. We need special times, special seasons that refocus us, that redirect our gazes to the one who came to us on a cold winter night so long ago. Yes, it is proper that our manger scenes are unadorned and seem plain when viewed against the lights of Christmas because this Jesus comes to us plain, simple, without pretense – he comes to us as he is. He calls us to come as we are, not the people we project to the world, but to come as a simple shepherd, hat in hand, our gaze forever fixed on the one whose heart is fixed on us.

We are indeed molded, not of fired clay, but by all that we have experienced: love and loss, joy and sorrow, triumph and failure. But unlike the shepherd we have the capacity for change, the capacity for movement, and the capacity for growth. We can heal, sometimes slowly, sometimes painfully, but we can heal. Perhaps this season, on a quiet December evening, we might sit quietly before all of those tiny figurines and remember the words of Helen Lemmel’s hymn:

O soul, are you wearied and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Turn you eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

So many years ago in another world, perhaps the same, yet remembered as another or at least one so very different, I went out on Christmas Eve, shepherding a group of confirmands. It was wind-cold, smelling of snow, a snow still hours away. We loaded our old, donated food truck with hot chocolate and coffee, with sandwiches and chicken soup. Minutes later we entered a world of motels and motor-courts, all of which had seen their best days decades ago. Generations of tourists had given way to the homeless, those fortunate enough to receive county assistance – families of three and four and five in the same room. No Holiday Inns or Comfort Suites, no Radissons or Marriotts, only forgotten people in neglected hotels. They gathered in parking lots, lining up to receive Christmas dinner.

Leaving the church, the children had been laughing and playful, talking of gifts already received and hopes for more to come. Perhaps, just perhaps, they had been a little apprehensive, too; apprehensive about a world only blocks away but as unknown to many of them as the farthest continent. Now they were quiet, respectful, even gentle as at stop after stop they delivered meager meals to mothers and fathers, to children of all ages – to some they recognized from school. They received in return thankyous and quiet blessings and always, “Merry Christmas.”

In Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Candles”, the tallow candle cannot help but be jealous of the wax candle, destined to burn brightly in a silver candle holder, lighting a ball, while he is given, along with a basket of potatoes, to a poor widow. Destined to preside over the most meager of dinners, he remembers nostalgically and somewhat bitterly the bright-faced happiness of the little girl, soon to be dancing gaily in “a big red ribbon.” “’Happiness is a blessed thing to see,’ the tallow candle thought to himself. ‘I mustn’t forget how it looks, for I certainly shant see it again.’” Later, as the poor mother and her children finish their meager meal and go off to bed, the tallow candle thinks of the littlest girl in the family and what she had so joyously said to her brothers and sisters, “Tonight we’re going to have – just think of it – warm potatoes this very night.” The stars shine on the rich and the poor with the same clear and kind light. And as his own light burned out, the tallow candle realized he had learned the greatest of all Christmas lessons. “He remembered the two happy children, one face lighted up by the wax candle, the other shining in the tallow candle’s light. One was as happy as the other. Yes, that is the whole story.”

That, of course, is not the whole story, but it is an important lesson. On that long ago Christmas Eve, the confirmands witnessed in the faces of those they served (most but not all) peace, joy, and gratitude. And for a few hours, privileged children stepped out of the warmth of their homes and traveling only a few blocks shared Christmas with those a world away. The motels are long gone and so are the children. What became of them I don’t know. But I can’t help believing that night changed them. They were quiet as we returned to the church for our Christmas candlelight service. The air was crisp and cold and light snow fell silently on the parking lot as they filed off of the old truck, and there was a new light in their eyes as they passed the church’s sign, “Welcome to Nativity.”


Insula Barataria

Near the end of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and his donkey fall into a darkened pit, ending a series of misadventures in which he is tricked into believing that he is the governor of Insula Barataria (a non-existent realm). After being humbled by the demands of governorship, he flees, taking with him only a cheese wheel and some barley. He is further humiliated by his need for rescue at the hands of those who conspired to discomfit him, but Cervantes will not allow them the last word. His character, Sancho Panza, makes an impassioned defense of his actions, displaying an integrity, self-knowledge, and self-understanding lacking in most of the other characters.

It is here where Sancho utters one of the classic lines in the novel: “man proposes but God disposes, and God knows what suits each man and what’s best for him …” That is indeed a hard lesson to learn. As Sancho discovers, for our hopes and dreams to be fulfilling they must be consonant with not only our abilities but also our true selves. Sancho, the illiterate servant, is unprepared for public office, yet he is surprisingly wise, and in the end, far more admirable than those he attempts to govern and the duke and duchess whose private amusement he becomes. God does indeed know not only the plans of the duke and duchess but also the heart of Sancho Panza, and he allows the ruse to go forward. In the end, as Cervantes writes, “The duke and duchess did not repent of the joke played on Sancho Panza with regard to the governorship they had given him … giving them no small pleasure.” Yet Sancho remains to the end of the novel devoted and loyal to his master, and even though cast as a comedic foil, he retains a true dignity. He does so because even though he begins inexorably to share Don Quixote’s delusion, he never really forgets who and what he is.

This kind of self-knowledge is achievable by everyone, but it takes work, and it takes honesty. God does indeed dispose of things as he sees fit, and often it doesn’t matter to him how much planning and energy we have expended in an effort, because as Cervantes writes: “God knows what suits each man and what is best for him.” Learning to listen to our inner selves with discernment is the first step toward learning both what are our true desires and recognizing what God believes is best for us. If we seek him, as the Apostle James writes, he will be found. Yet far too often we are driven by other voices to seek places far removed from where God would have us be. Like Sancho Panza we will not be abandoned by God, who in his own time will place us squarely back on the path, but in the meantime, we may have to spend a disquieting time in a darkened pit with only our donkey for company.

There are Insula Baratarias in every life, calls to be who we were not meant to be. It is not an admission of inferiority or failure to turn away from such people, places, and things. It is wisdom.

Last weekend I watched the departure of the Pope from New York and his Arrival in Philadelphia. I turned on the news with my morning coffee and found that all of the cable news networks were covering the same story as BREAKING NEWS. Representing more than 1 billion Catholics, he speaks with authority, an authority that matters to the whole Christian world and an authoritative voice that needs to be recognized by the Protestant world, Baptists included. Our congregational structure – bottom up authority– gives us enormous autonomy and power in the local church, but it results in us having no central power structure and no recognized leader that speak with one voice on the important social and moral issues of our day. In a fragmented, denominationally exclusive Christianity, no other Christian religious leader could command the air time, the BREAKING NEWS spotlight that accompanies Pope Francis.

Like Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II before him, his magnetic personality and his deep faith and personal piety enabled him to reach out not only to Roman Catholics but to millions of others: those rooted in other traditions, those spiritually questing for a source of meaning, and those curious to understand why anyone would care about his visit. His simple life in a small Vatican apartment, the sight of him on the streets of Rome, behind the wheel of an aging Renault, make him a “People’s Pope.”  Hence the respectful and generally positive coverage. Yet, as cameras moved to a closeup of the Pope’s Fiat, one commentator couldn’t resist pointing out that it was the most expensive Fiat. Really? The 500 L MSRP is $24,695 dollars. Hardly a luxury model, not to mention it is one of the few models that will comfortably seat someone in the back seat. Why the comment? It is a distraction from the message, a need to discredit the messenger, however trivial the criticism. And I believe it comes from a deep, unconscious hostility, so prevalent in our society, to any prophetic voice.

There are times in history when a voice needs to call out into the wilderness to make straight the crooked paths. This is such a time; Pope Francis is such a voice. American Christians are deeply divided over social and political issues, seemingly consumed with the culture wars. We have forgotten the Great Commission. Pope Francis calls us back to the primitive church, to the church known simply as the Way. At a time when Christians are being beheaded on a beach for refusing to denounce their faith, when a Christian pastor and his children are set afire in their car, when hundreds of thousands are fleeing as refugees, fearing for their lives, when converting to Christianity is a death sentence in a growing number of countries, he calls us back to the center – to Jesus and to Him Crucified.

There is an irrefutable fact: Jesus died in history – on a Friday afternoon in early spring, outside the walls of Jerusalem, this man called Jesus, was crucified. Undeniable, historical fact. But what we do with that fact makes all the difference. From its earliest hours on that fateful Sunday morning, the church – the living witness to the risen Christ – has made one proclamation: Jesus died for my sins. And we are called to witness not only to the fact but also to the confession. We are called to that proclamation again and again, day after day, and there is no time in the long history of the world when the world did not need to hear us. And there is no other time for us, for you and for me – this is our age, our time for that bold confession.

And we are called to make that confession with one voice. As Jesus prepared to depart from his disciples he prayed “that they may all be one.” (John 17:21) The Latin: Ut unum sint, is the ecumenical call for unity, for one voice. There will not, in our lifetime, be organic unity, that is, one church. But there can and must be recognition of our mutual call to witness against the destructive forces at work in our world, recognition of our common membership in the priesthood of all believers, recognition of our common Lord. For there “is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Agreeing to disagree on the things that divide us, Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox must proclaim with one voice: Jesus died in history; Jesus died for my sins. In this, at least, we can rejoice, that message was, for a few hours on cable news networks, BEAKING NEWS.

Both Time magazine and the Modern Library ranked On the Road one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. Jack Kerouac’s thinly veiled autobiographical novel, originally typed without paragraphing on a 120 foot scroll of paper, became the manifesto for the beat generation, but the controversy it ignited seems to us quaint. Sex and drug use are so much a part of modern storytelling, Kerouac’s descriptions of sexual encounters only dimly recalled through a cheap wine and marijuana induced haze no longer shock nor, truth be told, interest us.

What is of interest is the lengths both men go to avoid taking responsibility for their lives.   Superficially, Kerouac’s protagonist, Sal Paradise, and his friend, Dean Moriarty (real-life Neal Cassady) crisscross the country in an extended series of road trips looking for the big IT – the meaning of life. They become increasingly estranged as they slowly confront what the reader has long guessed, their restless wandering is not a quest for meaning, for freedom, for empowerment; it is a flight from responsibility – for Dean, a flight from relationships he can’t maintain; for Sal, a flight from anything that would anchor him to the adult world. For me, a pivotal moment in the book comes when Dean confronts Sal with his insensitivity to his friends’ feelings and needs. Sal replies: “’It’s not my fault! It’s not my fault!’ I told Him. ‘Nothing in this lousy world is my fault, don’t you see that? I don’t want it to be and it can’t be and it won’t be.’”

“It’s not my fault!” is not a cry of innocence. It is at once a cry of rage surrender guilt pain panic despair powerlessness hopelessness. It is the cry of New York and Shanghai and San Francisco and Tokyo, of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Frankfort, Paris, and London – of every city where millions of the disillusioned struggle for meaning, freedom, and empowerment. It is the last, desperate cry of the lonely.

It would be a sad commentary on life to accept the world as experienced by so many, to say “This is all there is,” to acquiesce to every assault on human dignity, to believe finally with the nihilist that there is no meaning to life. Viktor Frankl, noted psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines for himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.” This is the power of free will – the power not to change the moment but to change how I react to the moment – to become the active agent in my own life. Life finds its meaning in the choices I make.

It trivializes struggle and suffering to suggest that they are under our control, but it is empowering to say that struggle and suffering have only the “meaning I give to them.” They have the power to become for me avenues to despair or avenues to growth, hope, and faith. The difference lies in whom we trust, with whom we travel. Do we walk alone, unaided, or do we walk with one whose wisdom and power can transform every situation? For Christians that person is Jesus – the still voice, the lightly felt touch, the momentary brightness in a dark soul. We are never alone. It is to this presence that T.S. Elliot refers in The Wasteland, in what is a clear reference to the Gospel of Luke and the disciples encounter with Jesus along the road to Emmaus.

Who is the third who walks beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look up ahead the white road

There is always another walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman –

But who is that on the other side of you?

Who is that who walks beside you?


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