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Dec 12 18

The dragon stood before the woman

by davesandel

The dragon stood before the woman

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God. – From Revelation 11

For those of us inclined, this is a feast day to celebrate Mary in Guadalupe, Mexico. The endless and amazing stories about Mary call me to rise up and rejoice in mystery and things unseen. Even by the time St. John in his 90’s was writing Revelation, stories about Mary, factually or mythically true, rolled off the tongues of Christ-followers gathered to pray and praise the Lord.

This one in chapter 11 knocks our socks off. I want to see the movie, right? Bright black-and-blue sky is ripped in two. A mother, clothed with the sun, stands above the moon. She wears a crown of twelve stars. She is heavily pregnant and laboring to give birth. Her screams fill the sky.

But she is not alone.

A huge red dragon waits, eager to eat the baby as it appears. Covered with green eyes, marked with a hideous yellow gash of a mouth, its ten horns and seven heads crowned with sovereign jewels, the dragon’s tail sweeps away a third of the stars in the sky. And sweeps again. It sweeps and sweeps, waiting to eat.

Night? Day? Above the sea, above the land? The fear here transcends geography and time. The whole world below holds its breath. Everything hangs in balance, every hope and all our dreams. Life given, life removed? What now, death? Rebirth? Come, Lord Jesus.

Frank Peretti turned this cataclysm into This Present Darkness, a novel of the twentieth century. What century has not been turned and polished by this battle between the maiden and the beast? Which one of us has not been smoothed and shaped by the baby?

The baby who does, by the way, survive.

Like Charles Dickens said about Tiny Tim, “The baby did not die.” Mary’s child was caught up to God and his throne. And she herself … she fled into the desert (much like the land around Mexico City, around Guadalupe) “where she had a place prepared by God.”

Stories of Mary swirl around us in these days before the birthday of Jesus. Our Christ masses, our Advent services dedicated to praise and worship, are all grounded in Mary’s simple words, which we do well to repeat, “May it be done unto me according to your word.”

Devil be-gone. Serpent be surrounded and defanged.

The baby did not die.

By your word, O Lord, we are made your brothers and your sisters. We too are born like you, surrounded by spirits who need to eat us, or think they do. We clamor for your protection and we receive your spirit, which always keeps watch, holds evil at bay, lifts us and keeps us, and makes its face shine upon us. We too, do not die. We live.

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Dec 11 18

Kentucky love affair

by davesandel

Kentucky love affair

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Her service is at an end. Her guilt is covered. Yes, from the hand of the Lord she has received double for all her sins. – From Isaiah 40

There are many ways to say, “I’ve got your back.” Probably the best of them are wordless, anchored by touch and service. I hold your hand, rub your feet, make you coffee in the morning, and you know I am not going anywhere. I am on your team.

God’s always got my back. This is more clear to me as I get older. He speaks tenderly and gently to me: “Your service is at an end. Your guilt is covered.” Perhaps I am not quite ready to hear these words, but I know they are there for me.

I think about Hannah Coulter’s words in Wendell Berry’s novel: “The room of love is the love that holds us all, and it is not ours. It goes back before we were born. It goes all the way back. It is Heaven’s.”

Hannah’s husband Nathan is sick. He refuses treatment. And Hannah is beside herself.

I was beating the hell out of a dozen egg whites in a bowl. My tears were falling into the bowl and then my nose dripped into it. I flung the whole frothy mess into the sink. I said, “Well, what are you planning to do? Just die? Or what?”

“Dear Hannah, I’m going to live right on. Dying is none of my business. Dying will have to take care of itself.” He came to me then. He held me a long time as if under a passing storm, and then the quiet came. I fixed some supper, and we ate. (p. 158-161)

Hannah went back with her daughters to the doctor. “Nathan doesn’t want to die of a cure,” she told him. And then the two of them, they lived right on. “Living right on called for nothing out of the ordinary. We made no changes. We only accepted the changes as they came.”

There is never a reason to shut off the singing. Sleigh bells ring. Am I listening? No appropriate description of life excludes the fact of death, and so we live right on. Grass withers, flowers wilt, the word of our Lord stands forever.

Hannah finishes the story of her life standing at the gate. Nathan “looks at me with a look I know. The shiver of the altogether given passes over me from head to foot.”

Remember us, Lord, when we fly from the flock and are lost at night. Do not let us go. Come after us, and bring us back. Your comfort makes me far more free than anything I can ever do alone. “Just stay,” you say. “Just be.” I will. This is all I need.

Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter, 2004, chapters 20 and 24



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Dec 10 18

Strengthen the hands, make firm the knees

by davesandel

Strengthen the hands, make firm the knees

Monday, December 10, 2018

See the glory of the Lord, behold the splendor of our God. Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, and say to those whose hearts are frightened: “Be strong, fear not. Here is your God!” – From Isaiah 35

We can’t wait to see Mary Poppins Returns. It’s out in a week, and Dick Van Dyke will, hopefully, be in the audience at the premiere. At age 92, he danced and pranced again, just like Bert in that first Mary Poppins decades ago (1964).

In a Parade magazine interview last week he remembered, “Everyone on the set was surprised I could do it. And nobody was more surprised than I was!”

I’ll bet Dick Van Dyke loves this text from Isaiah. It appeals to old people.

Older people.

People feeling their age. Like me.

Because although my body wears out, hope springs eternal that some tune-up or other will make me new again. New bearings, new spark plugs, new air filter. Fresh oil. Get out on the highway!

“Streams will burst forth in the desert. Burning sands will become pools. A highway will be there, called the holy way. It is for those with a journey to make, and on it the redeemed will walk, singing, crowned with everlasting joy.”

I hold Isaiah’s images in my mind and know how delicately they are balanced. Dick Van Dyke seemed to be so superbly awkward all his life, but still, every day even now he does a little dancing. If he goes tumbling down, he gets up again. “To sing like nobody can hear you, dance like nobody can see you and love like you’ve never been hurt,” he says. “That’s a good way to live.”

People around here know he grew up in Danville, Illinois. Just thirty miles away, he made that city famous. Several other entertainers, including van Dyke’s cousin Gene Hackman, Bobby Short, Donald O’Connor, and his brother Jerry, lived in Danville at the same time. There must have something in the water.

Mom is three years older than Dick Van Dyke. She smiles more and is more content now than perhaps ever before in her life. Her glimpses into the past and future are short, and she lives her life in each moment as it comes.

I love her so much for that, for showing me how to walk the highway. “Singing and crowned with everlasting joy.”

Lord let me live my life today with the breath I breathe. Claiming the life you have given me to live. Surrounded by your glory, free to stop seeking my own. Walking on the path you make straight for me.

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Dec 9 18

I always pray with joy

by davesandel

I always pray with joy

Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018

I always pray with joy in every prayer for all of you. I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more, that you may discern more and more what is of value, that you will be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. – From Philippians 1

Of course Paul speaks intimately with his Philippians. He loves them. But Paul … he’s been down the road a piece, he’s started churches, visited synagogues, fallen into friendships, cultivated friendships. He loves so many people. He is thinking of them all. As author Wendell Berry has Jayber Crow say, “They said nothing, and I said nothing. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me.”

I hope you have thoughts of churches in the vale of your past, and visions of some of the folks who lived there with you. I certainly do. In my life there have been churches all along, where I was baptized, married, where I buried my dad. Where our kids were baptized, where we’ve sung and preached prayed and heard a thousand thousand sermons and sung a million million songs.

We moved to Waynesville, a small Illinois town, where, as it turned out, we would love and be loved as well and as deeply as anywhere else in our lives. The small old school building became a brand spanking new home-built church. So many people pitched in on this Reconstruction. I helped raise one of the first walls, fifteen of us alongside each other lifting, lifting, and setting it in place so Bill Fineran, our master carpenter from Atlanta, Georgia, could sink the all-important joining nail. Right then I felt just a little Amish.

Bill and Hazel brought their kids from Atlanta and settled in Waynesville, drawn by the magnetic love of gracious people in the countryside. Like them, we watched our children grow in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Some of our kids’ friends then are friends forever.

We settled into a Sabbath routine that started with dinner Saturday night, begun with a blessing time for each kiddo, then food and games and sleep. In the morning we often walked to church, down Waynesville’s main street, by the library and the bar and grocery store. It was a seven minute walk, I suppose.

So many sweet stories from those three years.

“I always pray with joy in every prayer for all of you. I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”

Not only Waynesville, but those in all the churches of my life … Jayber Crow’s rundown of the folks fits my memories too:

I saw them in all the times past and to come: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying, the little children tucked into the pews beside their elders, the young married couples full of visions, the old men with their dreams, the parents proud of their children, the grandparents with tears in their eyes, the pairs of young lovers attentive only to each other on the edge of the world, the grieving widows and widowers, the mothers and fathers of children newly dead, the proud, the humble, the attentive, the distracted. I saw them all.

In church and out, we are all God’s people. One by one, we have our stories. Every story is shaped in flesh and blood and bone, marked by smiles and frowns and tears, held together by anger and by joy, by betrayal and by trust, by our costly, chosen faith and the profound, always extravagant, gracious love of God.

Lord, each touch how precious, each smile how priceless, each word I can remember quiets my mind now, during the days when I too often feel alone and unsure of how to love. These memories of mine are just a taste of the storehouse of joy you have waiting. Let me give what I can where I can when I can, knowing how much you love me.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 2000, p. 165

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Dec 8 18

In praise of the glory of his grace

by davesandel

In praise of the glory of his grace

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. So we praise the glory of his grace, which he granted us in the beloved. We exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ. – From Ephesians 1

Three times now in our lifetimes we have been approached by our children, held in silence by a kind of a hush, their wide eyes sparkling, hints of smile, dimples wide. There’s something they can’t wait to say.

“We’re going to have a baby!”

The mom and dad thing is no longer our monopoly. Our kids have turned away from paths of less resistance and chosen the way of parenthood, diapers, nighttime fears, busting laughter from the gut, smiles of plenty, comfort, casualty and pain. Hold on tight, the baby’s comin’! Stand up and face the music. No … play the music … sing for joy!

Blessings get no better. We get to feel like God a bit; we have chosen these people before the foundation of the world. Our kinship is unquestioned. And so we praise the glory of God’s grace, which he grants us in our beloved. We exist as one being, one family tree, one whole part for the praise of his glory. We, who first hoped in Christ.

On this day, this “Solemnity,” Mary learned that she was pregnant. Jesus is coming! This is the day we remind each other of what she heard from the angel. All the fall-aways of our past turned aside and forgotten. The enmity and curses pronounced in the garden no longer hold. Eve, the mother of all the living, has been succeeded by Mary, the mother of the one who gives all life.

“Behold,” the angel said to Mother Mary. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. Of his kingdom there will be no end. The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

On Sunday evening we visited the first church planted in Champaign County. These First Church Urbana Methodists hosted a performance of Handel’s Messiah. The famous music, alive in voice and horns and strings, stunned me with its beauty. It was as if I heard the words for the first time.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, unto us … And the government shall be upon is shoulders. His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Hold on now. Breathe … the baby’s coming! Rejoice together. Always and forever, we are the family of God.

Put the trumpet to our lips, Lord, and let us blow the song of joy. Together we make the music of the spheres, of the family, of the quiet night on a hill, surprised by the crowning moment of history, all now forever.

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Dec 7 18

But a very little while

by davesandel

But a very little while

Friday, December 7, 2018

On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. The lowly will ever find joy and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. – From Isaiah 29

Because we turn away from God, in our world it is always the blind leading the blind. I look back on journals from weeks of hitchhiking and I marvel that I’m still alive. I was careless with everything, except perhaps the words I used to describe my carelessness. And most of the folks around me seemed to be just like me. Who’s driving this car, anyway?

Isaiah goes on to say, “When his children see the work of my hands in his midst, they shall keep my name holy. And those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding. Those who find fault shall receive instruction.”

A few mystics see God more often through the mist, but for most of us it’s a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime experience. The intimacy I crave with God goes the way of all flesh, and I mostly choose to eat, drink and be merry. Not that God is a stick-in-the-mud who disdains celebration, because he isn’t. Jesus loved his parties. Jesus loved to surprise people and announce he was coming for dinner, coming for the party!

But something seems different for me. Looking back or looking forward, I wonder why I am so careless with my worship. “When you see the work of my hands in your midst, you will keep my name holy.” YES! I have seen the work of his hands. “When you err in spirit, you will acquire understanding.”

OK. Thank you. I am growing. Day by day, I love thee more dearly. For that I fall down and thank you.

But I fall short. Follow thee more nearly? I am continually tempted to eat from the haunting, omnipresent Eden tree, so sure I know the difference between good and evil on my own. I’m careless with what you show me, and then I extrapolate, until I think I’m just so much smarter than I am. Soon I am judging others, and almost as soon I realize that I have judged myself (Romans 2:1-2).

Despair calls me to its side. Come and taste the bitter stony soup. No!

“When you find fault, you shall receive instruction.” Hope rises. Teach me your way, O Lord. Lead me in a straight path. Let me dwell in your house all the days of my life.

I remain confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. I will wait for you, Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for you.

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Dec 6 18

They will sing this song

by davesandel

They will sing this song

Thursday, December 6, 2018

On that day they will sing this song. “Trust in the Lord forever! For the Lord is an eternal Rock.” – From Isaiah 26

There was a lot of walking involved, in from the road. But at last I found a deep cleft in the rock, put down my pack, and made a fire from nearby deadwood. A circle of stones. The sun setting. I ate the second half of my turkey sandwich.

I suppose there was a beautiful moon over Beaver Lake that night, but I was dead to the world. Cozy in my sleeping bag, a rock for my pillow. Felt the June air slowly cool, closed my eyes, enveloped by a prayer. I was in Gospel country, the Bible belt, snake handlers just around the corner and I rested easy … come, Lord Jesus.

Those rocks have not moved since 1976. I don’t expect they’ll move much in the next fifty years, either.

In the morning the dreams break and I crack my eyes open. The fire’s out, but the sun is just so beautiful, rising in the blue sky above the blue lake. What else is there to do but jump in, dive in, get clean?

So yes, I do. And that’s the best part of all. Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean.

I had to walk out too, of course, the same way I came in. But that’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re hitchhiking, when you have no car and no obligations. It really didn’t matter when I got to Fayetteville. No one was holding dinner. I was glad to be on the road, and I would be glad to get off the road. Just for a week or so.

If we could just hear them, the rocks would tell their stories. Of Jesus and his guys, and all the miracles they’ve seen. Of my quick and quiet night beneath the stars. A different kind of miracle, but wonderful to me.

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm and through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me home.

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Dec 5 18

At that time

by davesandel

At that time

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

At that time Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, went up on the mountain, and sat down there. Great crowds came to him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others. They placed them at his feet. And he cured them. – From Matthew 15

Last week Sarah Young heard this from Jesus: “Problems are part of life. They are inescapable: woven into the very fabric of this fallen world. You tend to go into problem-solving mode all too readily, acting as if you have the capacity to fix everything. This is a habitual response, so automatic that it bypasses your conscious thinking. Not only does this habit frustrate you, it also distances you from me.”

What made Jesus’ problem-solving different? What did he do beforehand? What did he do in these moments with one-after-another-person-with-a-problem? Jesus seems to have excelled at both giving these problems to his Father, and receiving back the power to solve them. “They placed them at his feet. And he cured them.”

The sweet Japanese word “ma” stands for the silence between sounds. What goes on in those mystical instants, those infinite moments between Jesus and his Father? What song is Jesus listening to? To turn a phrase in T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece “The Hollow Men,”

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the (Spirit)

Between the conception

And the creation

Between the emotion

And the response

Falls the (Spirit)

For Thine is the Kingdom

No wonder the theologians of the early Christian centuries settled on a “Trinity” to describe the one God. Their dance lifts our spirits, their song heals us. We destroy, they repair. We despair, they rejoice. We are God’s children, they love us forever.

Lord, I curl up like a baby in your lap and hold on tight. But do not be afraid, you say, even if you let go, I’ll keep you close and keep you safe and warm your soul. Just place yourself at my feet, and I will cure you. You are my sweet baby-child, and I love you.

From Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young, entry for November 30. 2004-201

T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” 1925

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Dec 4 18

On that day

by davesandel

On that day

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and there shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain. And the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as waters cover the sea. – From Isaiah 11

Settled in his chair on a December morning much like this one, New Englander Robert Frost thought … and wrote, “Whose woods these are, I think I know.”

Whose woods, indeed.

In “The Bear,” William Faulkner claims the wilderness back from human interlopes: the wilderness “whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with axes and plows, the old wild life at which the puny humans swarmed and hacked in a fury of abhorrence and fear, like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant.”

What happens when a shoot sprouts, as Isaiah describes? It breaks the ground, and then it grows roots that break the ground all around. And then it rises up in blossom, makes fruit, provides shelter. It becomes what Shel Silverstein called a “giving tree.” It sacrifices itself for those who need it, or think they do.

Lumberjacks and robber barons don’t need trees, but people do. Little boys do. The children need trees. Even God’s cobra has enough sense to leave alone the children, or did. Things seem to have changed during the centuries arranged according to the “knowledge of good and evil.” We ate too soon from a tree created for us, and then we took wrong road after wrong road.

We took too many trees.

Faulkner’s hero is Isaac. Isaac refuses to accept his inheritance, convinced that neither he nor any man has a right to own the ground God gave, or own the men God made. He knows his ancestors owned and abused African slaves. He wants no part of that. He tries to make amends where he can.

But mostly he cannot help but return to the land where he became a man, to honor his memory of a wildly courageous dog who spoke clearer than his humans: “I can’t be dangerous because there’s nothing much smaller than I am. I can’t be humble, because I’m already too close to the ground to genuflect. I don’t even know that I’m not going to heaven, because they already decided that I don’t possess an immortal soul. So all I can be is brave.”

This is the earth filled with the knowledge of the Lord. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Lord, my little horse must think it queer to stop without a farmhouse near, between the woods and frozen lake on the darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake to ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake … The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.

(Thank you, Robert Frost)                                                         

from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, published in New Hampshire, 1923

from Go Down, Moses, “The Bear” by William Faulkner, 1942

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Dec 3 18

In days to come

by davesandel

In days to come

Monday, December 3, 2018

In days to come, many peoples shall say, “Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” – From Isaiah 2

Margaret called to me, “I’m out of your way.”

“Should I start cooking?”

“Any time.” I’m making liver and onions, with bacon, peas and boiled potatoes. Margaret doesn’t want to handle liver on the same day she eats it. So that slimy task falls to me. I don’t mind. I like being needed.

Who doesn’t?

In his new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How We Heal, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse quotes Arthur Brooks, “Work is where we create value with our lives. Properly understood, work is the sacred practice of offering up our talents for the service of others.”

In other words, as an enthusiastic bedbug exterminator exclaimed to Brooks, “I am needed. I have a purpose. I’ve become a go-to guy for the company. These people need me. I’ve never had that.”

I’m getting better at the liver gig. Even before opening the white butcher paper-wrapped package, I cut it into thirds. And then as the manageably small, thin pieces of liver are fried in the bacon grease, I put them on top of the fried onions, and then small pieces of bacon on top of that. I keep layering until all the liver is soft, tantalizing, and piled high. Wonderful flavors, smells, textures. And at the table, alongside the potatoes and peas, it is still hot.

Being German on both sides, I’m “blessed” with the Protestant work ethic. If I make the right kind of list, I usually get the work done and am ready to start fresh the next day. But what I do not do enough is “climb the Lord’s mountain.”

That’s a different kind of work. Mostly, it requires that I sit rather than move, and quiet my mind rather than engage it to solve problems. In this work I feel rich and satisfied. I know the value of my life. I am appreciated by God and by those I can more easily pray for. I breathe more deeply. I wait, while the rebirth of wonder that I crave rides up alongside me. “Come on!” God cries. “Follow me.”

This mountain-climbing is the foundation of everything. When I walk in God’s path, instructed in his ways, I do not get lost. I am less compulsive. I feel my kinship with all God’s family, and I consider more carefully the work of my hands.

Maya Angelou wrote:

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet,

Whose hands can strike with such abandon

That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living

Those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness

That the haughty neck is glad to bend.

Out of such chaos, of such contradiction

We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it, we, this people …

*      *         *

There it is, Lord. This is how you make us to live, day by day. Seeing thee more clearly, loving thee more dearly, following thee more nearly, while you establish the work of our hands, O Lord.

 Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal, p. 65, 2018

Maya Angelou, “A Brave and Startling Truth,” 1995, from The Complete Poetry, 2015

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