Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Orion's Cosmic Cartwheel

For those keen to enjoy the heavens, these are the nights of Orion's brilliant, cosmic cartwheel arcing southeast to southwest across the sky - coming into view above the horizon especially around 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What Glory Was It That Suffered

What glory was it that suffered
a little child to bear such weight
when there was all the world for the part?

Ah, such glory was love, love divine,
discontent to lord in majesty above,
passionate to plod among us, as one of us,
so low and worn, so destitute we were.

And so was fleshed in humility, in sacrifice,
through and for love, a thing of little weight,
a child, yet of such glory, for all the world.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Photography and Self

In my best moments, in my photographs I do not want people to see me but to see what I see.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Old Waterford Road

My wife, Karen, and I found a break between rains this morning for a lovely drive out of Leesburg VA up Old Waterford Road (much of it gravel and narrow) to historic Waterford VA. The fall colors are at or near peak, inducing wonder at the glory curving along land and sky and foliage. Adding to all, the weather was strange and wild, with warm and gusty winds in front of an approaching cold front. Gusts strong enough to crack and blow a 25 to 30-foot tree down onto the the road at one point, some time a short while before our coming, and leaving little space to pass. I drove carefully far to the left on the road, crunching over the very top branches. The sight and experience so impressed me, I was lost in amazement. (It doesn't take much to do this to me.) Karen, more level-headed and civic-minded, despite her suffering with a cold, suggested it would be a good idea to move the tree from the road. Conceding the sense and sensibility of this, I parked as far to one side of the road as I could and slowly (barely) dragged the tree off the roadbed as far as I could, with Karen clearing broken branches and debris from the road. None the worse for wear (surprisingly), and a bit chuffed with civic pride, we drove on in the splendor of the morning, glad to have been of some slight service to a greater good.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Late the Blood-Red Rose

Here and now in mid October
has late the blood-red rose
opened to the dying sun,
which by the day is paling
toward that flat of wintered light,
yet does still bleed such beauty
through thorn through petal
for this our ruinous fall.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Like Water Striders

Like water striders, we skate along on the surface of glory we scarcely fathom.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Reading Wallace Stegner

To read Wallace Stegner is to become more human. His was a life that mattered, in word and deed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sunday into Monday: Taking Worship into the Week

“Work is not redemptive – God’s work – but it is or it can be devoted.” So writes Donald Hall in his book Life Work. I take this to mean that our work, however dutifully and diligently we apply ourselves, does not redeem. It does not redeem ourselves or others. God does. God redeems us and others. That’s his business, his work.

Yet our work can be devoted. I don’t think Hall urges us to be workaholics. I don’t think he presses an argument for work as life. Rather, he refers to how we might go about our work; indeed, how we might go about life. The implicit encouragement is to engage work in specific and life in general devotedly rather than blithely. This suggests a way of undertaking our work, our life, wherein we labor lovingly – toward God, toward neighbor, toward the world around us. Thus, not work as life, but life as work. As craft.

Liturgy assists us here. The word “liturgy” stems from the Greek “leitourgia,” referring to a “public work.” When Greek citizens undertook a project of public service, they performed “leitourgia.” The translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek used this word for the public service in the temple. Early Christians carried forward this religious sense. When they gathered to worship God, they performed “leitourgia.” The aim, at best, is to serve God devotedly not blithely. “Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.” (Psalm 29:2, ESV.)

Incorporating Greek and Judeo-Christian notions then, when we undertake work and life devotedly, lovingly, toward God and neighbor and world, we perform public service, liturgy, worship – the craft of holiness – Sunday into Monday.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day

Today, Labor Day, we recognize and honor workers and their achievements through organized labor. Many of the benefits of modern work we take for granted today resulted at least in part from the efforts and sacrifices of women and men acting in solidarity against injustice, against inhumane living and working conditions: fair labor standards, child labor laws, living wages, reasonable hours for work per day and per week, and more. The following links provide brief surveys of some of those efforts, sacrifices, and achievements.


Additionally, these four movies vividly depict aspects of workers' struggles to make a better life for themselves, their children, and others: "Salt of the Earth" (1954), "Northern Lights" (1978), "Norma Rae" (1979), and "Matewan" (1987).

May we enjoy and acknowledge this Labor Day for what it is -- a holiday and a recognition of ordinary people banding together to seek fairness for themselves and others!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Some Thoughts on James 2:1-13

Jesus summed up the way his followers should live in a twofold love commandment: Love God with the entirety of your being; love your neighbor as yourself. The first love begets the second love. The second love reflects and expresses the authenticity of the first love.

James assumes and applies this twofold love commandment in writing to the community of Jesus-followers in those first years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. “You believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord,” he says, “then love your neighbor as yourself.”

That sounds grand, but how do we love our neighbor as our self? James gives us one concrete, highly practical way to love our neighbor: Do not show favoritism to those who are rich in worldly terms. Success and wealth as measured in terms of our worldly culture – money, clothes, jewelry, property, popularity, physical appearance, and so on – are not God’s marks of favor. God favors those who are poor in worldly terms. He lavishes them with richness of faith – with trust, hope, and love. These are their assets. These are true riches. (Compare Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20.)

Clearly even in James’s time, so close to Jesus’ sojourn on earth, the love commandment was a challenge. When believers gathered for worship, they tended to show favor to the wealthy and disdain for the poor. James warned that this pattern of thinking and behaving contradicted the twofold love commandment of love for neighbor and love for God.

Do we show this kind of favoritism today? In what ways? Why might we do this? I suspect that we do it because – in too many ways shaped as much as by our culture as by the kingdom of God – we desire to possess the cultural marks of favor for our self. We envy worldly riches in others because we want them for our self. Consciously or unconsciously, we betray this cultural pattern of thinking and behaving when we show favoritism to those who possess worldly riches.

Yet God wants to humble us in order to exalt us with true richness – richness of trust, hope, and love in him. When we possess true riches, the riches of the kingdom, we will lavish not envy and favoritism but love on our neighbor, no matter their circumstances in worldly terms.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Some Brief Thoughts on Work as Blessing and Curse

In the world as we know it, work is ambiguous. It is both blessing and curse. The admixture makes us ambivalent about work. In general, it is better to have work than not, though we tire of work and desire not to work. Yet not having work or not being at work finally has positive value for us only as respite from having work or being at work.

Even this way of putting the matter evokes the ambiguity and our ambivalence, for there is a subtle but significant difference between the phrases "to have work" and "to work". Likewise, there is a subtle but distinct difference in meaning between "at work" as a place and "work" or "at work" as a verb or an activity. "I am at work" means something different from "I work" or "I am working."

God created us to be, yes, and also to do or to make. So in God's good created order, being and making are blessing, even if, as finite creatures, we tire as we live and act. Yet in a sinful world, tiredness takes on a different quality, the character of a curse. Tiredness results not only from our finitude but from our servitude, our bondage to sin and death. Being wears upon us, and making wears us out. Compare the tiredness an athlete feels after hours of exertion in a favorite sport with the tiredness a seamstress feels after long days in a sweatshop.

Work as God intended it and made us for in original creation is more like what we experience in this life as activity when engaged in hobbies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

God Loves Us

God loves us as we are, but he never leaves as we are.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Glory in This Day

Well into July, there is a glory in this day seldom experienced around here this deep into summer. We have traded winds from the southwest for winds from the northwest, a pattern not unheard of but infrequent for our summer weathers. In the low 80s, humidity is tolerable. Clouds and sky have not hazed into each other in nondescript color. Rather the clouds, white and light gray beneath, insubstantial as they would be were we flying through them, but seemingly massive and dense from earthly vantage, slowly move in sharp relief against the clear enamel of cerulean sky. Leaves of tulip poplar and bigtooth aspen and beech, on fractal branches from sturdily rising trunks, play their solid and varied greens on the breeze, under the pure light. A cardinal flits about, feathering the trees and grasses with bolded red. Today these created things body forth glory and praise without trying - simply by being. The kingdom of God is near.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Leaves Live Light upon the Wind

In this trinity of tree and dawn and air,
chlorophyll now greens your glory, Lord,
as leaves live light upon the wind.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Love is Grace, Love is Gift

St. Paul makes clear that none of us deserves a relationship with God on the basis of our worth, in character or deed. "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ...." (Romans 3:22a-23, New Revised Standard Version.) All of us must say in the end, whether to God or to any person who loves or cares for us, "You are good to me; I don't deserve it." Hence, in our relationships with each other, in marriage or in family or in friendship, when we love and care for one another, we image in our own small but true way the divine character and deed, that we are all "justified by ... grace as a gift." (Romans 3:24a, NRSV.)

It is true that for various reasons we experience some people as simply, intrinsically more lovable. We find that caring for certain people - spouse, family member, or friend - comes more easily and naturally, perhaps even compellingly. Yet no one is
wholly lovable, even ourselves. We may joyfully and affectionately connect with the best self in another person, yet no one is entirely his or her best self. Therefore, when we truly love and care for another, we embrace both that person's best and worst self - in grace as a gift. Likewise, when a person truly loves and cares for us, that person embraces both our best and our worst self - in grace as a gift. In the end we all must acknowledge that, in God's sight and even in the sight of those around us, we fall short, we sin, we do not deserve. None of us merits love from and a relationship with another person.

So when we love and care for another, we image God's character and act, in creation and redemption. Love is grace. Love is gift. Essentially. From first to last.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Consider a Basic Thought about Work and Worth

Consider a basic thought about work and worth which is most essential to understand. Work is not the measure of our person. If it were, then many persons would measure as worthless. I think here of those for whom work is no question at all – the severely handicapped, the chronically infirm, the imprisoned, the utterly destitute in this land and other lands. For them work as the measure of their person would be but burden and condemnation. But in God’s sight, important as work ought to be, it is but part of a total scheme of things, and in this divine scheme the ultimate and therefore true measure of a person’s worth is God himself. Namely, it is God who measures the person, so to speak. It is God who accords worth to each person. When we seek the measure of a person, we go to the cross on which our Savior and Lord died, and we see God’s ultimate affirmation of this world and the persons who live in it. Do we see there the intrinsic goodness of persons or the intrinsic value of human beings? No, we see that God gives worth, and so in this ultimate giving do we see where persons – equally, with no pleading of one’s ability or skill or virtue or ambition or perseverance of courage, for at the cross all such illusions and oppressions of self-worth are stripped of their vain power and appeal – stand. They stand judged and redeemed by the holy mercy of God, incarnated and manifested in Christ. They stand made worthy by the very God who made them stand at all.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Some Thoughts on Art and Existence

The trouble with existence is that it’s too much. The soul wishes that God had given us, shall we say, a less detailed world—a world of less overgrowth. For example, when my mind really gets going, when I really start thinking, it works like history. The more it goes, the more detail there is, and the less any sense can be seen in it. Detail begets detail, which obscures and chokes out the shape we seek, as honeysuckle increases and tangles while the shed wallows and goes under the burgeoning mass. The same happens when I write, as even now. Word begets word; sentence begets sentence. Writing becomes a vain attempt to catch up with and bring to a satisfactory completion the verbal profligacy. Writing sometimes seems like an arithmetic model attempting to solve an exponential process. It isn’t even so much that word begets word. It’s more like word begets twins, or quadruplets, or worse. Even now I can’t stop, satisfactorily. Oh, I can stop, and I will. But I can’t stop by having brought it to a satisfactory completion. That’s the real trouble with it. I utterly long to pursue words, sentences, existence; I long to pursue until all comes to perfect completion under one grand shape, and nothing is left to pursue. Yet I can’t do it. The more I pursue, the more I get lost; it’s all too much. I wallow and go under. There are always more words.

Here is where art comes in, though it’s a toss up whether art is more than a gloriously brave and orderly retreat against the overwhelming. As Frost said in the character of Job, “The artist in me cries out for design.” And elsewhere he wrote,

"The present

Is too much for the senses,

Too crowding, too confusing—

Too present to imagine."

As an example, the art of telling history is knowing what to include and what to leave out. Indeed, the art of every explanation is knowing when to stop.

Compare an example in another vein.

I saw a lovely ink drawing of a tree at the Sarah Scaife gallery of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. I thought to myself, “It’s quite lovely and poignant, but it’s so ordinary a subject—a sketch of a tree. Why draw it? Why look at it?” And then it occurred to me. The drawing stops the tree in a very particular way; it stops the tree, and now gives it to us to examine. And here we have a tree, which in a forest or a meadow or a yard is far too much for us to take in. If we see a tree in any of those places, we see, as it were, but a glimpse of the tree, the barest fraction of what it was and is now and shall become. So when we see it we want to hold it still so we can get a good look at it and see it all. But the tree is in a jetstream of time; it never holds still long enough to satisfy our looking. And we have not the power to hold it still. Except in art. The drawing holds the tree still, and while I know in my mind that I’m still not going to satisfy my looking, I somehow feel that at least I’ve got a chance to look enough to see it all, or even to see all of a fraction. I feel I’ve got the time to look satisfactorily, or I would if I also could hold still. The soul sometimes longs for an Artist to hold it still.

Art then works to redeem the trouble with existence. Art takes life (actually, the barest fraction thereof), holds it still, and gives it to us to examine. Art takes all this unmanageable begetting and puts a kind of stop to it so we can try to make some sense of it. Or we could say that Art takes hold of this profusive begetting and tries to direct it to a satisfactory completion. The trouble with existence is that it’s too much: art perfects by reducing to essence. Then things have a chance at making sense. Art is a gardener. It clips the honeysuckle where necessary; the shed emerges, to be seen again.