Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Joyful Noise: Two Sermons - Part 2

We finally called a new pastor after a year long period of transition.  This past Sunday I was scheduled to serve as the lay worship leader when our new pastor asked me to stand in for her.  The guest pastor she had invited to replace her while she was traveling had to cancel at the last moment.  So I ended up handling the entire service.  Whereas my last sermon [see Part 1] was on a subject of my own choosing, this past Sunday I followed the lectionary for the Third Sunday of Epiphany.  Still, I made the message my own.

Some Body That We Used to Know?
1 Corinthians 12:12-31

I must admit that I feel humbled standing before you this morning.  Pastor Jill has asked me to fill in for her at the last minute when today’s guest pastor was forced to cancel unexpectedly.  I will freely admit that I am not a pastor, nor am I a Biblical scholar or a theologian of note.  I am one of you, standing here before you asking, I hope, the same questions you are and looking for the same answers.  We are one and the same, united in the body of Christ.  So I want to share a few thoughts with you this morning and I thank you for your patience and indulgence.

If you are at all plugged into the current pop music scene, then you are more than likely familiar with the phenomenal success of the Belgian-Australian singer Gotye and his hit song “Somebody That I Used to Know.”  If you have heard it, you will remember it; it is one of those catchy tunes that burrows into your skull and you just can’t seem to shake it.  I liked it the first time I heard it, and this is good, because it a hard one to forget and I find myself singing it under by breath as I go about my daily routine.  He is singing about a single person, a somebody that he use to know that has left him alone and feeling rough, mistreated and unwanted.

The title of this morning’s sermon, a reworking of the song’s title, is not referring to a single individual, but rather the collective body, a sum of its individual parts.  If we look back at today’s Scripture reading - 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 - we can see that this is the foundation of Paul's argument to affirm, against the arrogance and self-centeredness of many of the Corinthians, that all members of the body are needed and that despite whether the weaker members are convinced of their place, or whether the stronger members are not convinced of the weaker person's place in the body, God is the One who has placed all the members in the body and who works with them so that there might be no obvious divisions.  God condemns division.

As it was for the Corinthian and others to whom Paul brought the good news, so too it is for all of us.  We - all of us - are a single body in Christ and the survival of that body is dependent on each one of us bringing our individual gifts and talents into play so that the body, the community, can survive and be whole.  It makes no difference what color our skin might be, what nation we come from, what language we speak, the manner in which we worship and pray, who we choose to love, or whether we are rich or poor.  We are all equal in the eyes of God.  And God want us to be together, to stay together, to work and play together.  The body, Paul tells us, cannot survive and function properly unless all its members exist in harmony and fulfill their roles properly.  And for this to succeed, no single member can assume the body can survive and function without it. Although there in no sin in cherishing our individuality and our unique talents and gifts, God wants us each to apply these talents and gifts so that all of us can reap what we sow together.  We need each other, plain and simple.  We sometime forget this - we forget the body that we use to know, when we become wrapped up in our own lives and forget about others, just as the Corinthians did.

And we often tend to forget that those less fortunate, those with lesser talents and gifts, still contribute to the survival and wellness of the body.  Each and every one of us has a mutual relation and subserviency, and each has his or her proper place and use in the grander scheme of things.

Those of us who appear weaker, or are made to feel weaker by others, are indispensable Paul tells us; the weak and the dispossessed, those who are looked down upon by others, should be treated with greater honor and respect.  God, by calling on us to function as one body, is leveling the playing field so that there should be no dissension among us.  We must care for others just as we need to be cared for.  If one of us suffers, we all must suffer.  If one of us is looked down upon as inferior as a result of ignorance and prejudice, then we are all likewise diminished.  The body becomes unhealthy and is unable to live up to its full potential.  On the other hand, if each one of us is honored and respected for our individual talents and gifts, regardless of what they may be or how they may be judged, then we are the mutual beneficiaries of this honor and respect.  Then we will properly know our place and what is expected of us.  We are the body of Christ just as God intended for us to be.  As this was the message Paul brought to the Corinthians, so too he told the church in Rome - “ For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.  Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” [Romans 12: 3-5]

This, in a sense, is what the Body of Christ and community of faith is – God’s hands delivering the promise of good news to all who come in need. Afraid? We may ask those around us. Come here to find courage. Lonely? Come join our community. Ill? Come here – or better, let us come to you – to care for you. Isolated? We will visit you. Discouraged? Let us gather together and encourage one another.

This is a valuable lesson that we can apply to our daily lives.  Individuals and families function within the context of a community, which in turn functions within a larger society, nation, and world. The individual's and family's well-being is bound up with the community's well-being, and likewise its well-being is inseparable from the peace and prosperity of the society, the nation, and ultimately, the world. Religious precepts undergird community by teaching the virtues of cooperation, friendship, justice, and public-mindedness. These create the spirit of unity by which community can thrive and prosper.  Unity is first of all a gift of grace--a manifestation of the oneness and the reconciliation of those who would otherwise be enemies.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I listened with great interest, and with hope in my heart, to the President’s second inaugural address on Monday.  He also reminded us of the importance of unity and working together so that we may enjoy those freedoms afforded those of us who are lucky to live in this country.  He recalled those words penned by our Founding Fathers - “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and women, although it took many long years for them to be properly recognized) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Yet he reminded us that although we have been endowed with these rights as a gift from God, they must be secured by God’s people on earth.  We must work together to insure that we all equally benefit from these rights.  In order to move forward, we must move forward together. To retain fidelity to these rights and the principles which guide us in the preservation of our individual freedoms, ultimately require collective action.  We cannot meet the myriad  challenges of today’s world by acting alone.  No single person, or group of persons, has the answers to meet all of these challenges.  Each one of us must cultivate his or her own gifts and talents.  Now, more than ever, we must do these things together as one nation, one people.  We are equal, not just in the eyes of God, but also in our own, and each and every one of us, regardless of our skin, our creed, our beliefs, deserves these God-given rights and the dignity to exercise them for the commonweal.  This is how we will preserve the planet, commanded to our care by God.

There is no harm in reminding ourselves of our duties as individuals.  The body of Christ is a body we have come to know, yet unless we take care to work together with a common effort and purpose to guarantee that all of us benefit equally, we will never fully know and understand it and our place in it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Joyful Noise: Two Sermons - Part 1

What follows is the text of sermon I delivered at the Twinbrook Baptist Church on May 20, 2012.  Our pastor had left and we were facing a rough period of transition and the congregation was finding it difficult to decide which direction we were going to take.  We are an independent and progressive congregation and while serving on the transition committee, I asked our temporary interim pastor whether I might address the congregation.  She agreed and this is what I had to say:

Gone Fishin'

Luke 5: 1-11

Sally Ann and I have been members of Twinbrook Baptist Church for almost a year now, joining in early June of last year just before we departed for our summer hiatus in Maine.  We can’t tell you how much it has meant to us to be a part of the Twinbrook family and we thank you all for welcoming us among you.  When it was announced that I would be speaking this morning, a number of you came up with words of encouragement, and I was even asked if there might be a little fire and brimstone in my message.  I am afraid that is not my nature and so I can only hope you won’t disappointed in what I have to share with you today.  It was also hinted that I keep it short and sweet; to paint pictures with a few well chosen words.  Some wondered if I could talk for 15-20 minutes.  That has never been a problem; you only have to ask Sally Ann about that. She’ll tell you the truth of the matter.  Brevity has not been one of my better qualities when it comes to speaking.  So I am happy to see everyone here this morning.  I will keep it short and to the point . . . I promise.

Just a week ago I participated in what has become an annual rite of spring.  Gathering with good friends on Tilghman Island, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, we set off before dawn for a day on the Chesapeake Bay in search of trophy rockfish.  It is a time to celebrate friendship and camaraderie on the fantail of a 46-foot fishing boat as we trolled our lines over fishing grounds that have been good to us in years past. We have always caught fish.  Always . . . but not this year.  The season was right, the weather was right, there was plenty of baitfish, but the usual plentiful rockfish were nowhere to be found.  Perhaps early onset of warm weather this spring upset their biorhythms.  Who knows?  But such is the nature of fishing.  Sometimes they are there; other times they are not.

I am reminded of Isaiah 19:5-8.  Israel was confronting an invasion by the Assyrians, and there were proclamations calling for the destruction of Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt.  There was change; the ebb and flow of history.  It is written that the waters from the sea will fail, and the rivers will be fouled, wasted and dried up.  And the fishermen - those who cast hooks and spread nets - will languish and lament.  By the very nature of their work, fishermen have learned to expect disappointment for there is always famine between times of rich harvest.

During his early ministry, which was then centered in and around Capernaum, Jesus was walking one morning along the shores of the Sea of Galilee when he chanced upon two fishermen, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, cleaning and drying their nets after a fruitless night of fishing, busy at their task and unaware of the multitude who had gathered along the shoreline to hear Jesus speak. They were accomplished fishermen and the fact that they had not caught a single fish was not due to their lack of ability or industriousness.  Sometime the fish just aren’t where and when they are suppose to be.  Jesus certainly sensed Simon’s and Andrew’s disappointment and recruited the two men to row him a short distance from shore so that he might better address the crowd who had gathered to hear his message.  After addressing the crowd and while still standing in the boat, Jesus bid Simon Peter to lower his nets into the water, which he did although he had yet to catch a fish. However, when he gathered his nets back into the boat they were filled to capacity causing them to begin breaking under the sheer weight of the catch.  A neighboring fishing boat manned by two brothers, James and John, came to the aid of Simon and Andrew and they also gathered so many fish that both boats began to sink.  The four fishermen are amazed and astonished by the sea’s bounty.  Who was this man who could command fish to appear where there were previously none?  Jesus told them to fear not, for henceforth they would become fishers of men, and the four men left their boats and nets behind and walked in the footsteps of Jesus as his first disciples.

In this manner, Jesus eventually gathered around him twelve faithful disciples, literally “those who learn,”  whom he charged to go forth as apostles, as teachers, and bring God’s word and promise of a new kingdom on earth to all people, to force out evil spirits and to heal the sick.  Jesus also warned his new disciples that their task would not be an easy one for there would be those who would threaten them and attempt to silence them.  Keep the faith, he told them, for God would guide them, give them wisdom, and tell them what to say.

Jesus’ invitation to the disciples was a simple one: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”   Yet, it was an invitation that would alter their lives forever.  Jesus took these simple Galilean fishermen and transformed them into the apostles that would tell the world of the coming of the Kingdom of God. He would teach them that every life matters to God regardless of whether a person is rich or poor, sick or healthy, a believer or a skeptic.  They all matter, and Jesus loved them all and hoped to win them all over to that promise of a better world ahead.   Jesus told his disciples to go into the world, to make certain their nets were tight and firm, and then to cast them wide and deep.  If they did, they would be amazed at the bounty they would gather in.

If you think about it, all of us here at Twinbrook Baptist Church, as we practice our own discipleship as individuals as well as members of this congregation, can take a lesson from Jesus’ message to his earliest disciples, especially during this time of transition when we look at the life of our church and its congregation and wonder what the future holds for us.  We are all fishers of men (and women).  The lives we lead, and our dedication to the future of this church, are our small yet important contributions to spreading the good news.  We, too, are in the business of casting our nets in everything we do and say, and everywhere we go.  Just as Christ and his disciples shared their message everywhere they went, so, too, we go about our daily lives trying to follow His lead.  He used every situation as an opportunity to talk to someone about the promise of a better life to come.  And isn’t that what we are trying to do as members of Twinbrook Baptist Church?

And we are not alone in this effort.  We have each other and we are working hard together to find a future course for our church.  No one person, no small group of people, can alone do the heavy lifting that is required of us as we cast our nets wide and deep.  For there is a rich bounty to be gathered in.  It is no use to believe that one person, or a small group of people, can haul a net full of fish on board.. They are not going to be able to do it any more than Simon Peter and the early disciples were able to land their catch single-handedly. And even when they worked together, there was the threat that their boats might sink from the weight of their catch.

Last weekend, as my friends and I trolled our dozen and a half lines at a variety of depths and back and forth across the fishing grounds of the Chesapeake Bay, we knew that we were covering every conceivable place where the fish might be.  If there were fish down there, we were going to catch them.  Maybe we did not catch them that day, but it was not for a lack of ability or hard work.  There is an inherent truth in what we were doing.  Fishing boats manned by a decent sized crew are always going to catch more than a person fishing off the end of the pier. 

This same truth holds when it comes to the matter of growing our church by living the life God has taught us to lead.  We have to heed the words Jesus spoke to his disciples.  We are going to go where the fish are.  We are going to have to go outside the walls of Twinbrook Baptist Church, we are going to have to go into our community, into our neighborhoods, with our nets mended, strong and ready.  God will guide our steps to those places where the fish are biting!  He will send us to the right places if we will follow Him and fish how and where He tells us to!  There is a possibility He will send us to fish in a place we feel might not be the best place to cast our nets.  But we have to cover every conceivable spot where the fish might be, and there we must cast our nets wide and deep.  At that moment, we face a decision.  Will we follow Jesus and fish where He says, or will we do it our way and come up empty?   There is so much to be learned from the lessons of the past.

Let me repeat something I said earlier.  “By the very nature of their work, fishermen have learned to expect disappointment for there is always famine between time of rich harvest.”   Our Twinbrook family has been dealing with disappointment in our recent history.  Yet amid the disappointment there is always a reason, many reasons, to hope.  There has been a great deal of soul searching going on and a variety of options have been brought to the table and discussed openly and honestly.  But the simple truth of it is - just standing around the tackle shop talking about fish doesn’t put any fish in the boat.  There is that old saying.  It’s time to fish or cut bait.  Friends, it is time to go  fishin’!  Our patience and our determination will eventually overcome any disappointments in the past.  Our nets will soon be full and we will be amazed and give thanks.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Novel Approach - The Next Big Thing

I was recently contacted by my friend Bernadette Geyer, whose new book of poems, The Scabbard of Her Throat, will be published this year by The Word Works [], and tagged to participate in the blog interview,  The Next Big Thing.  The format is simple; answer ten questions about a just recently completed or current writing project.  I have chosen the draft manuscript of my first novel.

Ten Interview Questions for the “Next Big Thing”:

1.   What is your working title of your book (or story)?

An Unheard Whisper.  The title is taken from 1 Kings 19:12.  “And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper.”

2.   Where did the idea come from for the book?

I took a spur of the moment road trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia during the summer of 2011 at which time I came up with the germ of an idea for a novel.  I returned to Halifax in early 2012 when I explored the possibilities further and began to map out in my mind where I wanted the story to go.  For the past year I have been outlining the chapters and drafting character studies and narrative summaries.  Now I am writing and hope to finish this year.

3.   What genre does your book fall under?
It is a novel - a Bildungsroman - constructed of several books.  I would consider it more literary than popular fiction.

4.   Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

There are a great many characters in the novel covering a period of time from 1914 through 2001.  Much of the narrative is set in the late 1990s in Europe, Canada and New England.  I see the main characters from this period being played by Matt Damon as Geoffrey Kingston, Jennifer Lawrence as Susanna Emerson, Shawna Waldron (she played the daughter in The American President [1995]) as Kelly O’Shaunessy, and Anthony Hopkins as Professor Duncan Massey.  There are a series of flashbacks to World War I and the great Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917 and its aftermath.  These are peopled with a rich variety of characters, and my wife insists that one of them should be played by George Clooney.

5.   What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The main story line revolves around Geoffrey Kingston, a historian attempting to write a book about the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

6.   Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I hope to publish through an established publishing house or small press.

7.   How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I am currently deep in that process.

8.   What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising (1941), Robert MacNeil’s The Burden of Desire (1992), and Jennie Marsland’s Shattered (2011).  All three of these novels, written by Canadian authors, use the Halifax explosion as a focal point of the narrative although their individual denouements are widely varied.  As far as I know, I am the first to construct a novel on the subject from a mostly American perspective.

9.   Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My visits to Halifax, Nova Scotia over the past year and a half (and another one in the planning stages) and my readings on the Halifax explosion and its place in modern Canadian history and culture.

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
They might find the balancing of foreshadowing and flashbacks interesting as they both lend verisimilitude to the suffering of the people of Canada, and especially Halifax, during World War I.

I, in turn, have tagged Miles David Moore [] who will post next week.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Few Notes From the Panic Hole

Here is the first blogspot of the new year after an extended holiday season.  Where did January go?!?!

“I have never seen a grander or more beautiful sight than the northern woods in winter.” These are the words of a young Theodore Roosevelt describing his regular sojourns to a wilderness camp in northern Maine’s Aroostook County.  I could not agree more.

For the past several years, as I have written here in earlier postings, I have been making regular trips to northern New England during the height of winter.  Trekking the ridges and hollows hard on the border with Québec has proven a palliative and it has helped me put my life in perspective on more than one occasion.  These environs have become my “panic hole” which, as defined by Gerald Vizenor, is a physical or mental locus offering respite from the real or imagined pressures and stresses of daily life and the responsibilities that go with it.  That sounds about right.  It was on one such trip three years ago that I headed into the snowy back country to consider retirement and what the rest of my life might hold for me.  The mind cleanses itself with each inhalation of the crisp, cold mountain air.  When asked why he liked the desert, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) supposedly replied: “It’s clean.”  The same can be said for the Great North Woods of New Hampshire.

I watched the countryside gradually turn white as I flew north from Baltimore to Manchester, and from there I continued above the White Mountain notches into the north country at the roof tree of New Hampshire.  There is one constant here in late January . . . the days are short.  The sun does not inch above Mount Magalloway and the eastern ridge lines until around 7:30am, and from there it makes a slow arc above the southern horizon and sets around 4:30pm below the western height of land that marks the US-Canadian frontier.

One afternoon I trekked along the margins of the Third Connecticut Lake less than a mile below the Canadian frontier.  I was looking for animal tracks and hoping I might be lucky enough to come across a shed, a moose or deer antler no longer required by its former proprietor.  It is not all downhill skiing or snowmobiling up here where speed seems to be the common denominator.  I prefer snow-trekking, the slow and often painstaking movement across deep snow and ice.  Slow is good.  You can see what there is to see in the winter landscape while enjoying a silence interrupted only by the sound of wind blowing through bare, creaking branches.  I first snowshoed on my grandparent’s Michigan farm when I was a kid.  Back then it was the old wooden frames and webbing made of deer hide.  Now snowshoes are constructed of tempered steel, aluminum,  and plastic and are much easier to navigate. My wife and I first tried these new-stye snowshoes a few years ago in western Montana and I was sold.    

I chanced upon several whitetail deer on the trail.  I approached from upwind and got fairly close before we made eye contact.  The snow was over two feet deep in most places, and drifting even deeper, so there was no clear path of escape.   We stood there . . .  motionless for a minute or so, watching each other.  Soon it tired of this and it sprang quickly and quietly into the snowy puckerbrush. 

I did not have anything as momentous as possible retirement to ponder on this visit to one of my favorite places on earth.  It was just a pleasant opportunity to be far away from another human soul and alone with my thoughts as the vast expanse of ice stretched out before me with miles of unbroken and snow laden forests beyond.  Teddy was right.  It doesn’t get much grander than this!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

Wishing everyone a Happy, Healthy, Safe and Peaceful New Year.  May 2013 see us accomplish what we failed to do in 2012!