Where Does God Dwell?

The Sacrament of Summer Days

220px-2009-0619-BayView-CottagesWe spent the past week at  Bay View, Michigan.  It’s a summer community on Lake Michigan that started as a Methodist camp meeting in 1875.  Later it joined the Chautauqua movement, providing a summer program of religious, cultural and educational activities that continues to this day.  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places because of its perfectly-preserved Victorian “cottages.”  (Don’t let that word fool you; most of them are actually large houses.)

I had the privilege of preaching and lecturing during the last week of their 141st season. The cool breezes gave hints of autumn which is definitely on the way…up north, at least.  Many  residents have left.  Some of the cottages were already closed for the winter ahead.  By the end of October the community will be entirely shut down until next spring.

In the final lecture, I shared a beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson which captures the feeling of “Indian Summer,” those last fleeting days of warmth before the coming of autumn.

These are the days when Birds come back
A very few—a Bird or two
To take a backward look

These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophistries of June
A blue and gold mistake

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf

Oh Sacrament of summer days
Oh Last Communion in the Haze
Permit a child to join

Thy sacred emblems to partake
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

Where Does God Dwell

Sunday’s sermon included Psalm 84.  It opens with these beautiful words:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord of heavenly forces!
My very being longs, even yearns,
for the Lord’s courtyards…
Yes, the sparrow too has found a home there;
the swallow has found herself a nest
where she can lay her young beside your altars.

I said that it’s hard to imagine a lovelier dwelling place than Bay View. Who wouldn’t want to be like a sparrow and find a home in such a lovely place away from the ugly, noisy, messy, conflicted, painful world out there? Who wouldn’t like to hide away in the idyllic memory of a mythical past? Who wouldn’t wish that the rest of the world might be just as lovely a dwelling place as this historic community?  Who might not wish that we could make the world like this again?

But the writer goes on:

Those who put their strength in you are truly happy;
pilgrimage is in their hearts.
As they pass through the Baca Valley,
they make it a spring of water…
They go from strength to strength,
until they see the supreme God in Zion.

There’s scholarly debate about whether the “Baca Valley” was a literal place, some dry, barren desert. Or whether it is a symbolic place. Some translations call it “the Valley of Tears.” Either way, most of us have been there. We know what it’s like to be in a dry, barren place. We know how it feels to walk through the Valley of Tears.

But people of biblical faith always have “pilgrimage in their hearts.” They carry God’s “dwelling place” with them.  As they walk through the dry, barren, pain-soaked valley of tears, they transform it into a place of springs. Assured of God’s presence, they go from strength to strength until they see the fulfillment of their hope in Zion.

I suggested that as these modern Methodists come to the end of their summer in a lovely place and pack up to go back into the sometimes ugly, messy, conflicted places from which they came, they get to choose.

Is God’s dwelling place at Bay View?
Or does God dwell in the place where we live and work the rest of the year?
Does God only dwell in an idyllic past?
Or does God’s presence give strength for the present and hope for the future?

Even we Floridians, for whom autumn is something we read about in poetry, need the assurance that God’s dwelling place is wherever we are.

May we find the dwelling place of God in our Baca Valley.
May we find God’s strength in our Valley of Tears.
May we know the presence of God in the sometimes ugly, messy, confusing conflicted places where spend the winter of our lives.
And may we be people of faith who travel with pilgrimage in our hearts, so that as we walk through the dry, barren places of this world, we will make it a spring of living water that brings life to others.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

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What Donald and I Have in Common


“You Have Sacrificed Nothing” 

I finally found one thing that Donald Trump and I have in common.

In the eloquent words of Khizr Khan, Donald Trump and I “have sacrificed nothing” for this country.  (I’m sorry, Donald, but working hard to make lots of money is not generally considered to be a sacrifice.) The Khans earned the right to point this out on behalf of all the parents who have buried a child in the service of our nation.
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Mr. Trump and I both had deferments during the Viet Nam draft.  In 1968, I received a 4-D deferment because I was going to seminary to prepare for ministry, for which I’m both unashamed and grateful.  In addition to four college deferments, Trump got another one because he had bone spurs in his heels.

Neither of us made the sacrifices that some of our peers made by being drafted or enlisting to go to Viet Nam.

Nor did I make the sacrifice of others in my generation who protested against the war in Viet Nam.

Bob Lyon was the first Christian pacifist I’d ever met.  He was my New Testament Greek professor in seminary.  I’ve forgotten most of what he taught me about Greek, but I’ve never forgotten what he taught me about taking Jesus seriously in ways that have challenged and guided me ever since.  But I’ve never made any sacrifice for attempting to follow Jesus in the way of non-violence (except for the loss of some friends along the way).

Mr. and Mrs. Kahn reminded me of the unearned gifts enshrined in our Constitution that Donald Trump and I inherited from the generations who came before us. They are a legacy I want to pass on to my grandchildren and to the immigrants Emma Lazarus  described as “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Donald Trump and I have made no sacrifice for this nation.  The difference is that I  humbly acknowledge that fact and Trump either cannot or will not.

Trump’s behavior has demonstrated that he is apparently incapable of empathy for the pain of others, humility in the face of suffering, or the slightest bit of remorse for his self-aggrandizing arrogance. It continues to confirm his declaration that he never apologizes and never asks for forgiveness. 

Changing My Heart 

None of this comes as a surprise.  The surprise has been the way my heart has begun to change.

Diana Butler Bass is a leading scholar and writer on American Christianity.  Her recent reflection on Donald Trump challenged me, as a follower of Christ, to move from disgust through pity toward compassion.

My heart, my baptism vows, my sense of ethics compel me to respect the dignity of all human beings and to try, try, try to navigate my words regarding others with kindness…

And this is the best I can do: Donald Trump is a broken, wounded, person who seems painfully unaware of his own humanity, unfit for the office for which he is running, a violator of the American community, and one who does not know what truth is…The kindest thing we can do is tell Mr Trump as loudly and consistently as we can that we — the good people of the United States — reject him as a leader and that he needs to go home and examine his heart and rediscover his own soul.

God loves you, Mr Trump. And the hope and dream of that God is that when we find ourselves wrapped in the presence of ultimate love & mercy, that we treat others with equal grace and tenderness. This is the path to human maturity. Your money, your television show, your fame, and your quest for power mean nothing if you lack love.

I do not fear you. I pray for you. (https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass)  

The deepest thing Donald Trump and I have in common our common need of undeserved forgiveness and unearned grace.

The one whose wrongdoing is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered over, is truly happy!

When I kept quiet, my bones wore out;
    I was groaning all day long—
    every day, every night!—
because your hand was heavy upon me.

So I admitted my sin to you;
    I didn’t conceal my guilt.
    “I’ll confess my sins to the Lord, ” is what I said.
    Then you removed the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)

Although we have sacrificed nothing, the greatest sacrifice of all has been given for us.

This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. (I John 4:9-11) 

For a multitude of reasons, I can never vote for Donald, but I can pray him.

Grace and peace,

Jim