We spent yesterday floundering on surfboards. Over the last few years we’ve taken lessons and even surfed a few waves with the help of instructors and on boards the size of small aircraft carriers. So yesterday we rented boards and took off on our own for a beach with dependable but small waves. It was a day of laughter and giggling, swallowing more salt water than is recommended, with a few waves surfed in the prone position. The really good surfers we met were laid back and kind hearted, and, while finding us comically entertaining, were nothing but encouraging. We asked them about the beach. They welcomed us, pointed out where beginners might be most comfortable. Warned us against the part of the beach that was more dangerous. They made us feel comfortable in a strange environment that was clearly “their” beach.
In a sense it was a return to the childhood experience of learning to ride a bike. It was a bit scary and wobbly, but as long as dad or mom was running along beside giving us a gentle push to get us started and keeping us from falling too hard it was OK. Then we went out on our own for the first time of testing all the skills of balance and movement needed to stay upright and go somewhere. It took some practice and a few skinned knees to get it down.
Too often we older folks forget both the excitement and difficulty of learning something new like that, so I heartily recommend taking up the surfboard for every senior citizen. In fact, every landlubber Christian should do the same because it will also teach you something about what it is to be new to our faith. How, you ask, can you get from surfing to the pew? Isn’t it obvious?
Someone new coming in the door on a Sunday morning looking for something but not quite sure what that something is, is about to get into the water and take up religious surfing. It takes courage to even begin. Will there be knowledgeable and skilled instructors ready to outfit her with the basics needed to get started? Will they stand beside him helping him get up and going and not letting him fall too hard? When she is ready to go it alone will there be veteran Christians providing welcome and encouragement? Will he be subtly ridiculed for dressing wrong, not being the right age, speaking a different language, demonstrating comic ineptness at the way we do things here? Worst of all, will she encounter a bunch of Christians who have sat around on the beach guzzling liturgical beer for so long that they no longer know how to surf, but who are exceedingly proud, confident in their ignorance, and more than willing to offer an abundance of advice, snide and otherwise?
Think about it.
A prayer of gratitude for the wonder of all creation is embedded in the Song of the Three Young Men and reads, in part, “Let the earth glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him forever. Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas and streams, O whales and all that move in the waters. All birds of the air, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever.”
I rise early most mornings to sit in the dark and watch the dawn creep over the West Maui Mountains shedding light across the sea, illuminating the pali of Molokai across the way, dispersing the clouds and awakening life. Whales are everywhere this morning. Excited voices from the lanai next door shout “There it is; see it; there; it’s a breach; wow!” Five or six whales, at least one a new born, laze a few hundred yards off shore. The sea is calm to it’s easy to see many more as far as five miles out. I am surrounded by birds, mostly mynahs and sparrows, in heavy conversation about something.
By this time next week we will have returned home to Walla Walla. I’ll rise early and sit in the dark to watch the dawn creep over the Blue Mountains shedding light across our valley, and the Three Young Men will sing, “Glorify the Lord O beasts of the wild, and all you flocks and herds. O men and women everywhere, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever.”
AP writers Michelle Roberts and Michael Tarm wrote an article claiming that the recent small plane suicide crash in Texas exposed a gap in U.S. air security. The Texas incident was sad, tragic and evil, no doubt about it. But it would be a shame if America succumbed to closing this newly discovered security gap out of fearful hysteria. However, since fearful hysteria seems to be the stuff of some elements of society, I do have a suggestion.
Important government buildings are protected from car and truck bombers by concrete barricades, and they do a pretty decent job of it. So all that is needed is a slight extension. Build up the barricades to just above the height of each building, with additional roof mounted barricades extending a hundred feet or so into the sky. Basically it’s a technologically up to date version of the castle with outer walls, turrets and an inner keep. Think about it. Not only safe but, when finally handed over for private sector use, they would make terrific theme parks and resort hotels.
Yes, I know I’m supposed to be a theologian and it is Lent, so I should be writing something of pithy theological value, and I’ll get back to that soon before they kick me off the Christian Century Network.
My member of Congress, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, is one of those John Boehner minions who had nothing but utter contempt for the stimulus legislation, has voted no on almost everything, and frequently offers public statements sympathetic to some of the goofiest tea party allegations. But she was thrilled to send out a news release announcing a $35 million competitive grant from stimulus money for highway construction near Spokane. Vote against it. Ridicule it. Take credit for it. That’s a trick.
She is also articulate, attractive, smarter than some, reasonably good at constituent relations, and knows when to flash her conservative Christian credentials, so she can stay in congress as long as she wants given that her opposition will be the product of an inept and flaccid district Democratic organization.
Lest you think that I am making overly harsh judgements unbefitting a priest, especially in Lent, there are no judgments here, just observations.
In recent posts Sunrise Sister and Lucy (my wife and her sister) thanked me for a tour of the Iao Valley on Maui, a narrow, steep and lush valley of unsurpassed beauty. It’s an important historical site for many reasons, the most famous of which is the 1790 battle in which Kamahameha I defeated the forces of Maui to begin the march toward an islands wide consolidated monarchy. On the one hand, it was the triumph of tactics, discipline and modern technology over traditional means of warfare. On the other hand, it was the brutal slaughter of human life in which the bodies of Maui’s warriors damed the streams flowing down from Pu’u Kukui. One cannot leave that aside, but there is more, enough that, for me, the valley is also a microcosm not only of Hawaiian history but of humanity itself.
The Iao Valley channels streams of seemingly inexhaustible clean fresh water from the rains of Pu’u Kukui. Produce grown in it was able to feed many villages without fear of famine. Its upper reaches were (are) sacred ground once reserved for the burial of the elite. In some ways it could be as close to the Garden of Eden as one might get, but the bloody battle of 1790 destroyed whatever pretensions of innocence to which it may have aspired. Waves of immigrants and plantation farming of sugar cane and pineapple resulted in the abandonment of the valley as an agricultural site. The inexhaustible supply of clean mountain water proved to be both exhaustible and easily polluted. The growing town of Wailuku encroached on it with uncontrolled development.
I don’t know when, but the state stepped in to preserve the valley as a historical site and state park. Today concrete trails take tourists up, down and through it with stops along the way for incredible views and signs describing historical events. Taro and other crops are grown in miniature patches to remind people of what was once there. Sacred grounds are kapu, kept off limits, but one can see into them from a distance. The stream runs free and clear, if not altogether clean. A heritage park displays near life size models of buildings and decorations from each of the major immigrant communities, and from several vantage points one can look down at the industrial harbor of Kahului in the far distance. From nature no longer touched by human presence to shoreline compounds of petroleum tanks and big box stores, it’s all present.
When I am there I cannot help but meditate on how almost every historical human impact on the goodness of God’s creation is present in such a compact space of great beauty: the good, selfish, evil and redemptive work of human being all there and on display for the thousands who come to marvel at its beauty with unseeing eyes and ears that cannot hear the voices in the wind.
Gospel healing stories amaze me, especially the ones where the blind receive their sight. Consider, for instance, the story in John where the man born blind and earned his living as a beggar was told by Jesus to go wash in the pool of Siloam. To be sure he received his ability to see, but what is more amazing is that he could see with comprehension. There is no indication that he had any trouble recognizing people or places; he had no difficulty adjusting to his new world of sight. He could see with comprehension, and I wonder if that is what we need to focus on.
Is that what Paul was getting at when he wrote about seeing in a glass dimly now but once fully in God’s presence seeing clearly? It’s not about seeing but about comprehension. The man born blind could see with comprehension once he had been touched by Jesus, but he could not comprehend everything. Places and people were no problem. He knew that the man Jesus was the one who had given him the gift of comprehending sight. He could even engage in sophisticated argument with the Pharisees. But he did not recognize Jesus until he heard his voice, and even then had to listen again to begin to comprehend who Jesus really was. He had much to learn. He had to learn who he, himself, was called to really be. Who do you suppose he became? Did he become one of the 120 or so who formed the nucleus of the early Church? Was he one of those who carried the gospel abroad to make more converts and travel farther than Paul?
What about us? I have no doubt that we were born blind, but what sort of comprehending sight do you and I now have? Any? Where did it come from and how did we get it? How much have we learned and how much do we yet have to learn? Who have we been, who are we now, and who yet are we called to become?
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yet even at the grave we make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. These familiar lines from services for Ash Wednesday and Burial drive home an essential point in Christian doctrine. Human beings are creatures not gods. In spite of our meager abilities to transcend the limitations of nature, we remain finite creatures who are born, live and die with few of us leaving more than fading memories to mark our passing. And yet we are creatures in whom the image of God is present, creatures beloved of God, creatures who, though judged by God, are also redeemed by God for life eternal, not as disembodied spirits but as unique human beings. It is what allows us to sing Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia even at the grave.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of our creatureliness, our finitude. It is an important reminder because our original sin is to assert self assumed divinity. Because we are able, in some degree, to transcend the limitations of nature, because our ability to reason takes us far beyond our own time and space, we too easily assume our own godliness. The ashes on our foreheads remind us that we are but creatures formed of the dust and to dust we shall return. At the very same time, in this moment between the incarnation and resurrection, we are also reminded that, in Christ and through Christ, our creaturely finitude is given new meaning, new purpose and new life in the eternity of God’s kingdom.
That is what gives life purpose and meaning and why human history is not without intention and direction. We are sinful yet forgiven, finite yet redeemed into life eternal, unworthy yet loved by our creator, broken yet called to be bearers of God’s light. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are a lessons in the humility of divine self confidence that is ours as beloved of God through Christ.