December “Sadness and Silences”

winter-night

An important writing mentor of mine was my friend and colleague the late Arnold Kenseth. Here are a reflection and a prayer of his for Advent. For more about this remarkable writer, poet and minister see my  post “Arnold Kenseth: A New England Poet of the Sacred.” Continue reading

Ordination: “I found Fluency but not roar”

rick

Today is the forty-first anniversary of my ordination to the Christian ministry. It is hard to believe that such time has gone by.

When I was a young man I became friends with the minister and poet Arnold Kenseth. I have written about him here. But this poem of his on ordination always seem to strike the right notes of humility and awe about what it means to be a minister.

Ordination

I was anointed. A fire. Yes, I tell you.
An adazzle. His rare thump numbed me, awed
Me down to size and up to Him. Prayed, pawed
By the laying on of hands, myself anew
And aloft; I became lion to roar Him,
Eagle to lift Him, donkey to bear Him. I,
In that sunburst, languaged with seraphim,
Promised myself to be (Ha!) His emissary.

I did not, friends, manage much. True, I found
Fluency, but not roar. I have been sparrow;
And though jackass as most, I could not be least
Even for Him. He was scarlet and vast
And radiant and restful. He sang such sound
I heard the earth unloose itself from sorrow.

(Arnold Kenseth, Seasons and Sceneries, Windhover Press, 2002)

I was ordained forty years ago today

I was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament forty years ago today. Over the years I have ruminated on this blog about my ordination. Here are bits of two of my favorites. This first one is from 2009, but I’ve changed the dates as needed:

Martha and meI was ordained to the Christian ministry on this day in 1975 at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church (UCC) in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, by the Metropolitan Boston Association of the United Church of Christ. Dudne Breeze, the pastor, preached the sermon, and a good one it was. Jerry Handspicker, my teacher at Andover Newton Theological School and the associate pastor, offered the ordaining prayer, which asked God to endow me with all manner of things for my ministry, and he seemed in deadly earnest. After forty years I now understand why. Jerry, ironically, also presided at the service of thanksgiving for my ministry when I retired 10 years ago, so he book-ended my three decades of active ministry.

At the ordination we sang “Holy, holy, holy,” and “Be Thou My Vision.” My then girlfriend, now wife, Martha, made me a handsome set of liturgical stoles. Good food was served. There were probably grape leaves.

There were no tongues of fire or other obvious signs and wonders, although the whole event was wondrous to me, and when the clergy laid their hands on me I felt an enormous weight, a feeling about ordination that has never entirely left me.

I got to my first parish in rural Maine and realized soon enough that I didn’t know what I was doing, and that feeling has never entirely left me either. My first congregations (I had two) taught me how to be a minister every bit as much as seminary, and I will always be grateful to them. God blessed me throughout my ministry with wonderful saints of the church who encouraged and sustained me, and put up with me even when I was acting like a damn fool.

Early in my ministry I refused all honoraria, and thereby offended nearly everyone that offered me one. I was shopping for clothes the week before my wedding, and the good Roman Catholic salesman at the haberdashery rang me up with a ten percent clergy discount. I tried to explain all the high-minded reasons I couldn’t accept it and watched his face fall. I called my mentor Fred Robie, the sage of Sanford, who simply said, “My Daddy taught me that when someone gives you something, you say ‘thank you.’” Lesson learned. Would that everything I needed to learn was that simple.

What else did I learn?  Continue reading

The Towers we build? or God our Strong Tower? A Sermon on Psalm 46

strong towerGod is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear . . .  (Psalm 46)

 In ancient Israel strong fortifications offered security against the inevitable sweep of vast armies attacking from the North.  For hundreds of years Israel knew a succession of invaders:  Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans.  Years or even decades of peace could not erase the memories of long generations who knew what it meant to suffer at the hands of an invading army, or the fear that attends such memories.

Around 700 B.C. King Hezekiah of Judah created an alliance among his fortified cities with the help of Phoenician, Philistine and South Syrians states to stand up to the Assyrian King Sennacherib.  In preparation for the inevitable response Hezekiah beefed up his fortifications and even drilled a tunnel for the stream of Siloam to bring water to Jerusalem in case of a siege.

When Sennacherib did finally come in 701 the coastal cities fell quickly to his powerful army and he was soon able to bring the full power of his wrath to bear on Jerusalem.  This was during the time of the Prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem and you can read about this episode in the first part of the Book of Isaiah and also in the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of the Book of Kings.

At the worst hour Jerusalem was completely surrounded by the enemy and the people were full of fear. Their official spokesman, standing on the wall talking to the Assyrian emissaries, begged them to speak in Aramaic rather than in the Hebrew that could be understood so as not to demoralize the doomed people within the walls.  It was dawning on many of them that their strong towers had failed to provide the security that had been promised.

But when morning dawned the Assyrian army was gone, vanished, leaving only thousands of their dead at the camp.  How they died remains a mystery.  Somehow, by the grace of God, Jerusalem had been saved just as Isaiah had prophesied.  “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” (Psalm 46:5)

This event has traditionally been thought to be the original setting for Psalm 46, although it is always tricky to try to reconstruct a genuine historical setting from a psalm, “as if one could write the history of England on the basis of the Methodist hymn book!” (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture,Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979, 509.)

Whatever its original setting this psalm speaks to our perennial human inclination to rely on strong towers of our own making rather than on God, who is “our  refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” No one builds a tower without counting the cost, said Jesus, but, O, the cost of these towers we build, from the tower of Babel to the tower of Siloam that fell and killed eighteen men. (Genesis 11:4–5; Luke 14:28; Luke 13:4)  So Hezekiah was neither the first nor the last to attempt to secure himself from harm by fortifying his defenses, as booming gun sales will confirm in our day.

That his provisions failed Israel but that God’s did not, may or may not have been the occasion for Psalm 46, but such an event is typical of Israel’s experience of the living God who provides the only real security they ever knew.  Many Psalms reflect this faith.  Gerhard Van Rad called his work on the Psalms Israel’s Answer to indicate that the Psalter is the community of faith’s response to it’s ongoing relationship to the living God.

The setting of the Psalm is a world turned upside down:

“Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

This is not just trouble, this is TROUBLE!  The language is the language of cosmic upheaval.  The waters above and the waters below that God pushed back on the third day of creation threaten to flood back in. “Water,” writes Karl Barth,

has a part in all the force of the human world which is hostile to Israel and therefore opposes the interests and glory of Israel’s God, but which is nevertheless ruled and guided and used by Him.”. . . [The existence of the waters of the upper as well as the lower cosmos] “demonstrates that the will of God will be fulfilled in a history which takes place in the sphere of His creation, and that what God does with the waters is no more and no less than a preliminary indication, indeed an anticipation of this history in its character as a divine triumph.” (Church Dogmatics,3.1, 149)

The roaring and foaming waters are more than a storm, they are chaos, a sign of all that threatens God’s order.

Likewise the mountains that shake in the heart of the sea are not just any mountains but the mountains which hold up the world, the foundations which are being shaken.  This mythologized cosmic TROUBLE is of a kind with all the trouble that “flesh is heir to”:  the test reports come back positive; an earthquake or riot shakes your neighborhood; you lose your job, or your spouse, or your faith, or your self–respect; Sennacherib and all his army waits outside your gates.

Trouble is often the beginning of faith in God who is our refuge and strength, for only when we have the “props of self–assertion” (Barth) knocked out from under us are we ready for the Word of God.  The therefore  that comes before “we will not fear” refers to God our refuge and strength.  Our lack of fear is conditional; it is trust in God alone, rather than some easy calm of our own devising.  Hear Calvin on this, in his commentary on Psalm 46:

It is an easy matter to manifest the appearance of great confidence, so long as we are not placed in imminent danger: but if, in the midst of a general crash of the whole world, our minds continue undisturbed and free of trouble, this is an evident proof that we attribute to the power of God the honor which belongs to him.  When the sacred poet says, “We will not fear”, he is not to be understood as meaning that the minds of the godly are exempt from all solicitude or fear, as if they were destitute of feeling, for there is a great difference between insensibility and the confidence of faith. John Calvin, “Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Volume 2”, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 5, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,1979, 196.

This confidence of God is captured in Martin Luther’s marvelous hymn based on Psalm 46: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” which was then put into English by Thomas Carlyle as “A safe stronghold our God is still” and, better known in America, as “A Mighty Fortress is our God” by Frederick Hedge.  In any version of the hymn God the fortress stands in contrast to all strongholds built with hands.

We see in the Psalm another contrast, that between the roaring, tumultuous waters of chaos and the “river whose streams make glad the city of God.”  Where before God restrains the water, here God sends the water for a life–giving purpose.  Like Ezekiel 47:1-12, where a river is described that encircles the temple and gets deeper and deeper, bringing forth trees “whose leaves do not fade nor fruits fail” till finally it reaches the Dead Sea and desalinates it, here in Psalm 46 is a river of life.  These passages “speak of a river of life which first blesses the earthly sanctuary chosen and established by God, and then the whole face of the earth, fructifying it, quenching its thirst, healing its wounds, refreshing and renewing all creation.  This is what has become of the universally destructive chaos–element of water in the second creation saga.  This is what it now attests and signifies.  It is no longer the water averted and restrained but the water summoned forth by God.  It is no longer now the suppressed enemy of man but his most intimate friend.  It is no longer his destruction but his salvation.  It is not a principle of death, but of life.” (Barth, CD 3.1,280)

This river of life is now no longer geographically localized in Jerusalem, just as God’s dwelling place gets unfixed from the earthly Zion.  The statements in the Psalms about the dwelling place or throne of God are made of the place which can not be found on any map.

So where can God, who is our refuge and strength, be found?  In the Old Testament there is, of course, always a dwelling place that can be found on a map, but the freedom of God prohibits a simple equation of God with any place.  This is the point of Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:20), when she notes that the Jews worship in Jerusalem and the Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim.   Jesus’s declaration to her that God is to be worshipped “in Spirit and in truth” and that he himself is the expected Messiah who will “tell us all things” shows us where God has now chosen to reside:

“The opposite of Jerusalem and Gerizim and all temples made with hands—and we can apply it and say the opposite of Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, and Canterbury—is not the universe at large, which is the superficial interpretation of Liberalism, but Jesus.” (Barth, CD, 2.1, 481)

What Israel once looked for in Zion is now found in Jesus Christ, the one Word of God. The God who speaks this Word in the flesh of Jesus is the One who calls back the waters of chaos and calls forth the waters of life; who conquers the forces of evil, the sources of trouble (“one little word shall fell him”, Luther says of the devil”) who “makes wars to cease to the end of the earth”

John the Divine’s vision of the river of life describes it as flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb.  “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (Revelation  22:1,2a)

Although the heavenly city can not be strictly identified with any earthly city, those who pray daily, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”  do well to practice its life–giving imperatives in every earthly city, even the contemporary cities of wrath where the enemy lies not without the walls but within.  The one who piles up the weapons for burning (Psalm 46:9) reminds us to “Be still, and know that I an God!  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

Commentator J. Clinton McCann, Jr. suggests that “Be still, and know that I am God!” is not a good translation. “Contemporary readers almost inevitably hear it as a call to meditation or relaxation, when it should be heard in light of verse 9 as something like ‘Stop!’ or ‘Throw down your weapons!’ In other words, depend on your God instead of yourselves.”

Depend on God, our refuge and strength, a fortress never failing. A strong tower, God causes the towers built by our hands to fall, as in this Easter poem by Arnold Kenseth:

On Easter the great tower of me falls.

I had built it well; my mind had planned it

After being schooled; my will had special wit

To dig me deep foundations, solid walls,

Blocks of moral toughness, windows to see

The enemy, the friend; large rooms, I thought

For light; and storey upon storey me

I raised, and famously my fame I sought.

So driven to prove the world with my estate.

I had not heard Christ on Good Friday die,

His body crooked, broke, and all friends fled.

I had not wept his cause in my carouse.

But now bold bells scatter against the sky,

And Christ is shattering my death, my pride;

As walls, blocks, windows, rooms, my silly penthouse

Spill into the dust I am, my narrow fate.

At last set free from virtue, knowledge, strife,

I mourn, then praise my God, and enter life.

“Easter” by Arnold Kenseth

The Ritual Year, Amherst Writers and Artists Press, 1993

I preached this on April 8, 1994 at First Church of Christ (UCC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts 01201.

One of my favorites: “Easter” by Arnold Kenseth

Sunrise

An Easter offering by my late friend and colleague Arnold Kenseth:

“Easter”

On Easter the great tower of me falls.
I had built it well; my mind had planned it
After being schooled; my will had special wit
To dig me deep foundations, solid walls,
Blocks of moral toughness, windows to see
The enemy, the friend; large rooms, I thought
For light; and storey upon storey me
I raised, and famously my fame I sought.
So driven to prove the world with my estate.
I had not heard Christ on Good Friday die,
His body crooked, broke, and all friends fled.
I had not wept his cause in my carouse.
But now bold bells scatter against the sky,
And Christ is shattering my death, my pride;
As walls, blocks, windows, rooms, my silly penthouse
Spill into the dust I am, my narrow fate.
At last set free from virtue, knowledge, strife,
I mourn, then praise my God, and enter life.

(“Easter” by Arnold Kenseth

The Ritual Year, Amherst Writers and Artists Press, 1993)

(Photo by Rebecca M. Floyd)

Grace among the bedpans

Pastors spend a lot of time in hospitals. There they meet their congregants in trying moments, ill or hurt, facing or recovering from procedures that frighten and confuse. The most formidable lay pope, the one who thwarted your every dream at the last trustee’s meeting, now looks diminished in a “johnny” gown. Even in the best of hospitals the smell of mortality is ambient.

Which is why hospitals are such fertile spaces for grace to make an appearance, and why ministers do well to be present there as often as they can. Most people get better and come back into the life and flow of the congregation, but they will not forget that in one of life’s delicate moments you were there, and through you, their congregation was there, and through you, by grace, God was there.

Once again my late friend Arnold Kenseth, a Congregational minister who died in 2003, captures the truth of this in another of his exquisite poems:

In the Hospitals

In the hospitals trussed up to blood;
Or heaving breath so that the pulse can count,
The heart re-beat; or leaving the damp food
Untouched; or stuffed into the oxygen tent:
The sick, sexless as death, are fondled by
Machines, are stroked, pummeled, impaled, and Oh!
Ecstasies in the valley of the shadow,
The morphine murmur under the lost sigh!

And I think how we may die down down down
In the needle haze, in the white mercy
Of nurses, after the seance of x-ray,
Our souls stringed, buttocked in the bleak nightgown;
How dignity, dreaming, passion, faith, all
Will need God to retrieve them as we fall.

Arnold Kenseth (Seasons and Sceneries, Windover Press, 2002)

Ruminations on the Perplexing Task of Ministry: Arnold Kenseth’s “Ordination”

I have been ordained now nearly thirty-six years, and although I can rattle off a pretty coherent explanation of the meaning of ordination my own has never entirely lost a sense of mystery and wonder about it.

My daughter is presently in her final year of divinity school and about to present her ordination paper this week, and I think it was reading hers that got me ruminating on my own.

Being a minister of the church is a living conundrum, as Karl Barth describes it so well in his section on “the Task of Ministry”: “As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison’ (The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 186).

Where prose fails to capture this paradox poetry frequently does better.  I have often turned to the poetry of my friend Arnold Kenseth, who died in 2003, especially the collection of poems he entitled “Reflections of an Unprofitable Servant.” Here’s one of my favorites:

Ordination

I was anointed. A fire. Yes, I tell you.
An adazzle. His rare thump numbed me, awed
Me down to size and up to Him. Prayed, pawed
By the laying on of hands, myself anew
And aloft; I became lion to roar Him,
Eagle to lift Him, donkey to bear Him. I,
In that sunburst, languaged with seraphim,
Promised myself to be (Ha!) His emissary.

I did not, friends, manage much. True, I found
Fluency, but not roar. I have been sparrow;
And though jackass as most, I could not be least
Even for Him.  He was scarlet and vast
And radiant and restful. He sang such sound
I heard the earth unloose itself from sorrow.

(Arnold Kenseth, Seasons and Sceneries, Windhover Press, 2002)