from the Bangor Daily News
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Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 15, 2019
You’ve probably noticed it’s the Christmas season. Holiday lights, decorated trees, cookies with icing and sprinkles, advertisements, glitter and glow. The season when couples apparently give each other pick-up trucks.
There’s a lot of bustling about. And somewhere, some of the time, there’s a story about the birth of the person who will be named Jesus, who will be revealed as the son of God, and thirty-some years later will be crucified by some of us at Calvary outside Jerusalem. And three days later he will declare a victory over death and sin through his resurrection. We know this story about the birth of Jesus and about what comes later from the Bible – and the Bible alone. Nowhere else is this story told. There are very few mentions of this person Jesus in any other source than our Bible.
In all the glitter and glow, the pomp and parade of Christmas, we can easily lose sight of the Christmas story. This morning I want to say a very few things about what we might make of the story of Jesus’s birth, the Christmas story. Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” We don’t have that much time and I’m not that good, so let’s call this “Three Ways of Looking at the Christmas Story.”
I. The Bible has four accounts of the life of Jesus, but only two of them have a Christmas story: Matthew and Luke. There is no Christmas story in Mark and none in John. What’s more interesting, to me, is that once the Christmas story is finished, there’s no mention of the miraculous birth of Jesus in the rest of Matthew or in the rest of Luke. The Christmas story becomes irrelevant. No one says to Jesus after he performs a miracle, “oh, you’re the guy born in the manger, with all the angels and animals in attendance.” No one says, “oh, you’re the guy the kings came to honor when you were born.” Not a word, not a whisper. It’s as if everyone forgot about the Christmas story.
Or maybe it was just added later on. Maybe it really isn’t part of the Jesus story that begins with preaching and praying and ends with a triumph over death. Maybe Mark has it right. Maybe the story really starts when Jesus is a young man and John the Baptist announces that Jesus is the one. That story about John the Baptist is in all four gospels.
Miraculous birth stories were a common feature of stories told about heroes back in those days. In the Iliad, Achilles had a goddess for a mother. Roman emperors all had miraculous birth stories told about them, for example: their mother or their father was a god. So maybe Matthew and Luke made up a miraculous birth story and added it to their story of Jesus. ‘You think your guy is special?’ they might be saying. ‘Well ours is even more special. Our miraculous birth story has everything: a manger, animals, shepherds, kings, even a narrow escape from assassins. “Ours Is Just as Big as Yours,” they might be saying, “Maybe Even Bigger.”
This isn’t my favorite way of looking at Christmas, but when we start getting carried away with the pomp and the glitz and pick-up trucks, I start thinking we’re skidding in this direction. When you see the product ads on TV this time of year, ask yourself if this isn’t the story: “Ours Is Even Bigger Than Yours.”
II. Here’s a different way to look at it. Take the four gospels. Each tells a story of a life. For the moment, put the Christmas story, the birth, to one side. And also put to one side the stuff at the end about the end of Jesus’s life: about Jesus coming to Jerusalem where he’s arrested, crucified and resurrected. Now without that beginning and that end, we have the story of a preacher and healer who wanders the countryside doing and saying attention-getting things. Fresh things. World turned upside down things. Be humble. Be so generous as to give away your only coat. Love your enemy no matter what. In that big middle story, Jesus gets crosswise with the religious leaders of his time. He heals on the sabbath, for example. But Jesus really doesn’t encounter a soldier or a policeman. He’s never really in danger. He never gets a ticket or a fine. He never spends a day in jail.
In the middle of the story there’s no mention of the Emperor or the Romans. And they’re in control, we need to remember. The Romans have conquered Israel and Judah and subjugated them. Their Empire is the greatest, the mightiest ever known. At the end of story, when Jesus comes to Jerusalem, Jesus does get in trouble with the authorities. Crucifixion is a Roman penalty for the most serious crimes – for challenging the authority of the Emperor.
If we remember how it ends, that puts the Christmas story in a new light. The Christmas story announces the birth of a king: not just a mighty king, but the mightiest of all. It announces the birth of a king who will sweep away all worldly kings, even the Roman emperor. Born in a stable, laid in a manger. But here is a baby to whom the wisest of kings bow down. Here is a baby attended by angels. Here is baby who is hunted by a wicked king, but a baby who escapes and triumphs. And here triumphant is a new kind of king who triumphs through love not through the sword.
“This is the Anti-Empire,” we might call this story. This is the empire out-empired. The story at the end is the same story told at the beginning. Christmas and Resurrection are versions of the same story.
III. I’m much more drawn to the second way of looking at Christmas than the first. If the first one says Christmas is not really part of the Jesus story, the second one says the Christmas story is a telling of the whole miraculous story of the Christ unfolding in his first days and weeks of His life. It’s concentrated essence of the Jesus story if you really take it all in.
For some people, I know, the whole Jesus story, start to end, is a little too much. Maybe you have friends like this. Miracles aren’t for them. Humility is OK but only in measured doses. Sometimes love can triumph, but sometimes we need the sword. Turning the other cheek doesn’t really work. And so on. Know anyone like that? Know anyone who can only go part of the way with Jesus?
So for them, and for us, too, here’s a third way of looking at Christmas.
The Christmas story is the story of a birth, the birth of a baby. There’s a little pain with this birth, but there always is. And there is also a great deal of hope and anticipation. There’s much more of this. This is a baby born in love – as is almost always the case. Once the baby is born, friends and neighbors crowd around to see the baby. They want to touch the baby; they want to hold the baby. Have you had that experience? I bet most of us have. It is a joyful time, the birth of a baby, wherever the baby is born, whoever are the parents.
Think of what most excites members of this Meeting. Isn’t it the birth of a child or grandchild? Isn’t that the very best story we look forward to hearing? It’s the most universal story. It is a story of love, and an essential one.
The birth of every baby is a fresh beginning. It is a fresh beginning not just for that baby but for the parents, for the siblings, for the friends and neighbors – really for all of us. Who knows what this new child will grow up to be? A scientist? A poet? A leader? a healer? A mother? A stand-up guy? A prophet who challenges the Empire? There are so many wonderful possibilities. Can’t we imagine shepherds and sheep, angels and kings celebrating at every birth?
Call this telling of the Christmas story “Every Child Is a Miracle Beginning.” That’s a story all of us can celebrate.
Message at Durham Friends Meeting, November 17, 2019
As the days shorten and grow colder, I find myself eyeing the woodpile and the fireplace. I find myself thinking of fires to come.
I was a Boy Scout: it was an important part of my teenage years. I had the good fortune to be a member of a troop that had extraordinary adult leadership, and to those leaders I still feel an immense debt of gratitude.
One very strong memory I have concerns a jamboree across the border in Ontario with a lot of Canadian scouts. The Saturday of that weekend was a day of competition at all kinds of skills. We estimated the heights of trees, followed maps to undisclosed destinations, crossed streams without getting wet (or most of us), hoisted ourselves over walls, and so on. On the whole, the Canadian scouts were much better than we were at all these events. That was hard because we thought we were pretty good. Maybe we were, relative to most American scouts, but these Canadian scouts were more prepared than we were.
There was one event that day at which we were terrific – better than any of them. It involved building a fire. And boy could we build a fire – a big fire and fast. Here was the challenge. The organizers had stuck some poles in the ground and then tied strings horizontally between the poles, about two or three feet off the ground. Each scout troop had to gather up material from wherever they could find it nearby, then make and light a fire between the poles that burned through the string. Fastest to accomplish that was the winner. Our troop gathered up dead grasses and sticks and built a tall teepee like fire. We ignited the grasses by using one kid’s glasses to focus the sun and the grasses ignited the sticks. We did a little careful blowing to make it all go up in flames a little faster. I think it took us about two minutes. Other troops took ten or twenty minutes, and some couldn’t do it at all. On that one triumph, we salvaged a little pride.
Fires can be magic; they can put us in fear and awe. In the Bible, fire often signals the presence of God. Think of the burning bush in Exodus. John the Baptist tells those who come to him “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (John 3:16).
Today, most of the fires I build are either in our outdoor Weber grill or inside in the fireplace. Occasionally, at a campsite. I still think I can build a pretty good fire out of whatever materials I have close at hand though sometimes my family isn’t so sure as I fiddle and puff.
One of the things I learned as a scout about building fires is that you can’t build a fire with one stick or even two. All of you know this, too. It takes several, and they have to be carefully laid together. If the sticks are too far apart, they won’t help each other catch on fire and stay on fire. That’s essential: each stick or log helps the others ignite and burn. You also have to leave a little room for air. It helps to have a couple of different kinds of materials. Something that will light easily and burn quickly to start the fire – like the grasses we used that day in Ontario. Some small sticks that will catch on fire next and help ignite some logs. And, of course, you need some logs, maybe some pine first because it catches fire at a lower temperature. Then some good hardwood logs that will burn hot and long – but they take a while to get going, and they need a little help.
I’ve been thinking that Meeting for worship is a little like building a fire. It takes at least a few of us gathered together in worship. One person alone can hardly do it. Even two or three doesn’t feel like quite enough, though I suppose it can be.
When I’m here at Meeting and watching people come into the Meeting room, it fills me with gladness to see us gather. Oh there’s that person and that person; I was hoping they’d be here. There’s so-and-so: I wish we saw her more often. Ah, and some folks I haven’t seen before, that’s terrific. It takes all kinds to build a good fire, one that will catch and burn for a while.
As we gather and seat ourselves, I can see us building a fire together. We have to leave room for God, or the Spirit. Perhaps that’s why we ask that there be silence between spoken messages. That silence is like the oxygen the fire needs. Together we invite the presence of God.
There’s magic in the fire, but we make the preparations that invite the magic.
Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice has this Advice: “We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence. We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us.”
“A gathered stillness:” that’s what we need. A gathering in stillness. If you want to put a fire out, you pull it apart; you scatter it. Scattering chases away the magic. Once a fire dies down, it takes effort and time to make it blaze again. For us, scattering is latecomers, the opening and closing of the doors, bustling about, people entering and leaving after we’ve gathered.
We want to welcome and encourage everyone to come, but we want everyone to remember we are building a fire together.
A Southeastern Yearly Meeting Advice says “Be prompt and diligent in attendance at meetings.” That discipline is what it takes for us to build a fire together: to be prompt in gathering and then to join together in stillness.” That means: Come on time to meeting. Once in the room, settle yourself for the hour or so. Stay settled; Together, in stillness, we invite the presence of the Divine.
An old hymn says,
Lord, I have shut the door, Speak now the word Which in the din and throng Could not be heard;
Hushed now my inner heart, Whisper Thy will, While I have come apart, While all is still.
Without that stillness, we may not find our way to God.
In the stillness, the fire can ignite. God is invited to come near.
Message at Durham Friends Meeting, October 27, 2019
When I think about God, or about Spirit, or the Light I quickly realize I don’t know very much. I know that many questions – important questions – are beyond me. Beyond me. They’re over my head, outside my ken, too deep for me. I don’t know why there’s pain in the world. Why who gets sick is often very unfair. Whether there is life after death. Those things are beyond me.
Sitting in a meeting last week, someone used those words, “beyond me,” and I jotted them down. They’ve stayed on my mind. What’s “me” and what’s “beyond me?”
A lot of the time I’m pretty taken with myself. I admit that. I know that. Many days, maybe most days, I can float on a river of “me-ness.” I’m in “me-land” much of the time.
It’s my concerns I’m thinking about; my needs, my wants, my worries, my hopes, my pleasures, my pains. Me Me Me Me Me Me Me. There’s a lot of me in my world.
I may be worse in this regard than most people. I don’t really know, but maybe. I certainly don’t think I’m better at getting away from me-land than most people.
Still, I do notice that most other people most of the time are wondering around in me-land.
It can be a comfortable place to be, even when I’m annoyed or unhappy about something. I’m the most important person in me-land. What I want is the most important thing. My thoughts are the ones I want to hear – and often the ones I want others to hear. My hurts, my pains are the ones that seem to most need attention.
How about you? Are you number one in your feelings and thoughts most of the time? Are you in Me-land much of the time?
There are some philosophers who think we can’t be anywhere else. Me-land is all there is. It’s the only place each of us can be. The only pain I can feel is my pain. The only pleasure I can feel is my pleasure. If I feel pain about something that’s happened to you, it’s because I’ve come to like you, and it causes me pain when something bad happens to you.
It’s always just my pain or my pleasure, these philosophers think. Empathy is just an illusion, they say. I don’t really “feel your pain.” I feel my pain, nothing more.
That’s their view. I want to say straight up, living here as I do in Me-land, I don’t agree with these philosophers, smart as they may be.
I believe I can escape from Me-land – at least some of the time. I may find myself back in Me-land. I may never escape for very long or get very far away, but I do think I can escape. There is somewhere else that is not Me-land.
That’s really why the phrase “beyond me” struck my attention last weekend and why it has stayed there.
I hope at least a few of you remember an old TV show called “The Prisoner.” It was a British show that first aired in 1967 and 1968 and starred Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan was also the prime creative force behind the show. It was just 17 episodes.
Here’s a brief synopsis. After resigning from his job, a secret agent is abducted and taken to what looks like an idyllic Village but is really a bizarre prison. There he is known only as ‘Number 6’. Those in charge of the Village demand information. He gives them nothing, but only tries to escape.” In each episode, he does try to escape. He appears to be succeeding, but each time he winds up back in this isolated, lovely village. (“No man is a number,” the Prisoner used to say each episode.)
Do any of you remember this?
For me, this is something of an allegory of what Me-land is like. Me-land is pleasant, but I don’t want to be confined there. I think it’s important to escape. I try to escape all the time. Sometimes I think I succeed for a while. It can feel exciting, even liberating. However often I fail, I have to keep trying.
I don’t believe I’ll ever fully escape Me-land, but I think I’m better for getting out as often as I can. I know I’m going to wind up back in Me-land (in the Village), but I don’t give up trying to escape.
Where’s the door? Where’s the pathway out? Where’s the secret tunnel or hidden stairway? How do I get outside of Me-land? How does anyone?
Actually, I’ve come to think there may be many ways to escape. Some work better for some people; some work better for others. (Number 6 found a different way to try in each episode of The Prisoner.) If you want to escape and are willing to try, you have to find the way or the ways that work for you.
Here’s one way that works for me – one pathway: waiting worship.
In Meeting for Worship, I try to lay down all the Me-ness. I try to quiet the voices in my head that I know are “me” voices. I try to lay aside the voices that are talking about my wants, my needs, my hopes, my concerns, and see if I can hear another voice – let’s call it the voice of God.
Is it really God’s voice? (How do I know who or what God is? I don’t know. That’s ‘beyond me.’) All I know is that sometimes I can find another voice, and it’s not mine. It’s a voice ‘beyond me.’ It’s more than me.
Making friends with that voice is important to me. Making friends with that voice settles me, makes me more aware. Makes me (I think) a better person.
It’s a voice that connects me. It connects me to ‘whoever-that-voice-is’ (call it God or Spirit or Light). But it also connects me to other people. It helps me know them better – and in a way that’s less colored by “me-ness.”
Do you have someone in your life who really knows you well? Who’s honest with you, always, but always tells you things in a really tender and loving way? I hope so. (Actually, I’m pretty sure you do.)
It’s great if that someone is another person: a partner, a child a friend. That bond of knowing you well, that connection, is love.
But there’s something else, I believe, that can know each of us really well – who loves us. That’s the voice of God I seek in worship. That’s the voice we seek together.
And the connection that voice makes with us is love. Love: that’s what’s “beyond me.”
I want to talk more about the Light today. We Quakers talk often of “the Light.” It’s one of our ways of talking about Jesus or God or divinity.
There is a particular phrase that’s especially on my mind this morning: “hold in the light.” Pretty much every week here, during joys and concerns, someone speaks of a friend or a relative who is ill and asks that we “hold this person in the light.” Or someone going through a difficult patch asks the rest of us to “hold him in the light.” We do that often. Quite often we hear someone in Meeting thank us for holding them in the Light, telling us it helped them get through a difficult time.
George Fox says, “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” When we “hold someone in the Light,” we’re hoping, aren’t we, to lift them up out of the ocean of darkness into the yet more powerful and abundant ocean of light – into God’s radiant goodness.
I think this “holding in the Light” is a peculiarly Quaker phrase. Others might speak of praying for someone. Others might pray to God to give particular attention to this particular person who is going through a tough time: ill health or troubles of some kind.
There’s a powerful metaphor here. Talking of God’s love can seem a little abstract. But talking of holding someone the Light makes it more tangible. We can feel the Light and feel the warmth around us. When we say we’re holding someone in the Light I have an imagine of bathing that person in Light, and I imagine that we expect or hope the Light will have a healing effect. And we’re doing something. We’re not just waiting for God to do something. We’re holding someone, lifting someone into the Light.
One reason this phrase is on my mind is because I recently had a heart attack, and a number of people – Quaker friends – said they were “holding me in the light.” I was on the receiving end of the Light.
I appreciated all these good sentiments. I love the image of being bathed in the Light. But I’m not sure I really understand what it means – or rather how it might work.
This is a stumbling block that goes back to my teens — so it’s been with me a long while. If God knows everything, and if God shines love on everyone, what is the point of prayer? God already knows who is in need, and God is already making a maximum effort on behalf of those in need – and on behalf of everyone else for that matter. So what is the point? Are we really doing anything when we are holding someone in the Light?
I do see in the Bible that spiritually gifted people pray all the time: they pray for healing, they pray for guidance. They pray for forgiveness. Moses does it. David does it. I’ve grown very fond of the Psalms, many of which are prayers of David. Even, or maybe especially Jesus does it. Jesus teaches a simple, profound prayer to his disciples that we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus prays for guidance and for acceptance just before his arrest. And he prays again on the cross for the forgiveness of those who have crucified him. Jesus is asking that these people, too, be held in the Light.
The most helpful thing I ever reads about prayer, about this holding in the light business, was a book by C.S. Lewis called Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly On Prayer. Lewis tells us the point of prayer isn’t to change God’s mind. God’s mind is something we will never understand, let alone change, but rather we should pray to align ourselves with God’s will and God’s love. The point is not to change God’s mind; the point is to change our minds. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus taught us to pray. We are submitting ourselves and we are reminding ourselves of God’s steady and eternal love for all of us.
I recently had occasion to read again about a very unusual episode in the history of Friends. It’s a story told in Elizabeth Gray Vining’s biography of Rufus Jones.
November 9 & 10, 1938: that was Kristalnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass. All over Germany people broke into Jewish homes, stores and synagogues wreaking destruction and terror, and carrying many Jews off towards Concentration camps. It seemed spontaneous but we now know it was a well-planned attack that helped the Nazis take yet greater control.
In the wake of that horrible night, three Quakers resolved to make a visit to Germany. Rufus Jones, Robert Yarnall and George Walton hatched a plan to travel to Germany, to speak to the highest ranking official in Germany to whom they could gain access, and to ask to be allowed to intercede. The statement they eventually delivered in person to German officials stated they wanted “to inquire in the most friendly manner whether there is anything we can do to promote life and human welfare and to relieve suffering.”
They hoped to meet with Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and someone we now remember as a chief architect of the Holocaust. They didn’t succeed in seeing Himmler, but they did meet with two very high-ranking members of the SS. They made their presentation, the two men they met with left the room and went to speak with someone in higher authority, perhaps Himmler himself. Jones and Yarnall and Walton sat in silent worship — holding the German authorities in the Light.
In the end, they did receive permission for some Quaker relief work to go forward in the days before the Second World War broke out, and for some additional Jews to be allowed to leave Germany to safety. But of course, they didn’t stop the Holocaust.
In his journal, Rufus Jones described to officials with whom they met as “Hard-faced, iron-natured men.” He didn’t think they were ‘good guys.’ They didn’t have any illusions about the character of the men they would meet. Still, it’s hard to say what Jones and Yarnall and Walton expected. But in her biography, Elizabeth Gray Vining said that “Rufus Jones to the end of his days believed there had been a softening and a moment of vision.”
A good deal of history looks back on this episode as an instance of profound naiveté. A foolish gesture, one perhaps even bordering on treason.
But weren’t they holding the SS officers in the Light? Weren’t they trying to lift up the way of love and peace, trying to lift it above the way of violence and death? Whatever they expected, wasn’t it worth the effort? I guess I think so.
Reading about this desperate mission to the SS leave me wondering why we mostly “hold in the Light” those we most care about, our friends and family. Certainly, we should hold our dear ones in the Light. But shouldn’t we also “hold in the Light” those who trouble us most: those who seem most wrong-headed or dangerous? Do we believe they are beyond God’s reach, beyond God’s love? I guess I don’t think so.
As we settle into waiting worship, I invite each of us to call to mind people we think are as bad as people can be, and hold them in the light, believing that the Light, the love, can reach them too.
That’s what Maida Heatter yelled at her TV. A doctor was talking about the ways you could reduce stress. He started listing ways: Exercise. Diet. Yoga. Take a walk. “I yelled, ‘Bake cookies.’ ” “Baking cookies is a great escape,” she added. “It’s fun. It’s happiness. It’s creative. It’s good for your health. It reduces stress.” Amen, I say. For me, baking is a spiritual practice.
Maida Heatter enriched my life. She died about a week ago at age 102. Who says desserts will shorten your life?
It was a Maida Heatter recipe that first got me seriously interested in baking, a recipe for a Chocolate Mousse Torte that appeared in the Sunday New York Times Magazine in May, 1972. (I was in graduate school.) The recipe had just a few ingredients: 8 eggs, 8 ounces of chocolate, sugar, salt, vanilla, some espresso, and some cream for whipping. You separate the eggs and make an mousse from these, divide what you’ve made into two two halves, chill one and bake the other, then fill the chilled stuff into the baked layer. Frost with whipped cream.
How could this be? The same stuff chilled and baked and this makes something good. This I have to try, I said to myself. I did (learned to separate eggs that day), and voila, I’m still baking, several times a week. The daily feed of NYTimes Cooking, now a morning must-read, leads with a shout-out to Maida Heatter and this recipe.
I love her cookies, but I also love her cakes, especially her Queen Mother Cake. (Both the Chocolate Mousse Torte and the Queen Mother Cake are mentioned in the NYTimes obituary I’m delighted to see.)
All Hail Maida Heatter, Queen of Cakes! Also, Chairperson of the Board of the Chocolate Lovers Association of the World, as she styled herself.
photo by Robbie Bennett