Sunday, July 7, 2019

By the Dead Sea

This poem was inspired by a trip I recently took to Masada. The beauty of the landscape amazed me and made the architecture of the fortress far more impressive.

I stand upon Earth’s deepest height,
My spirit yearning to take wing,
To leap up toward the greater light.
The craggy cliffs in silence sing
To me of beauty brave and bare,
Of solid sculpted forms that stand,
That, crowned by solar beauty, bear
The fingerprints of Heaven’s hand,
And distantly I think I see
An echo of the closer song,
A blue-gray ridge, its melody
More faint from distance, yet as strong.
Its cliffs cascade down toward the sea
That scatters salt upon the shore
In crystals that plant poetry
In me. I stand. I adore.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Chaos and Pentecost

The first time we meet the Holy Spirit in the Bible is in Genesis 1, where the earth is formless and empty and God’s Spirit hovers over the water. In the ancient Near East, water was a common symbol for chaos as it has no regular shape and can be both a source of life and a terrifying force of destruction (think of a storm at sea). Many ancient creation stories spoke of a deity associated with water being defeated by the god who would become head of the pantheon. But in Genesis, the water is not a god; it’s just the state of disorder that exists before God forms the world. The first chapter of Genesis is the story of God’s spirit bringing order out of disorder.

The formless, surging waters return a few chapters later in the story of Noah’s flood. Once again, the water is not a deity but a tool in the hand of God. It’s also a consequence of human sin; God sends the flood in response to the moral chaos of a world of violence and bloodshed. But the Holy Spirit, though not mentioned in the text, still hovers over the waters, which we know because God plans to bring new life into this world of formlessness. That new life is Noah, his family and the animals aboard the ark.

Skip ahead another few chapters. Once again humanity is sinning against God, this time by building a tower designed to reach heaven. God responds by once again returning the world to chaos. But this time the chaos isn’t water (since God promised not to do that again). This time the chaos is the babble of thousands of languages, which the people now speak. Unable to understand one another, the people scatter over the face of the earth. This time there is no Noah who escapes the judgment. But in the next chapter, God calls a man named Abram, who will become the ancestor of a nation through which all families of the earth will be blessed.

Thousands of years later, people from all over the world gather in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. These are descendants of Abram (now called Abraham), but they speak the languages of a myriad of nations. Suddenly the sound of a wind begins to blow. The Spirit is once again hovering over the chaos. A group of men stand up and begin speaking about Jesus, the one who fulfilled the entirety of the promise to Abram. And everyone hears them speaking in their own language. The chaos of Babel is finally brought to order. A new community is created. And the mark of that new community is water – the water of baptism.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Autumn Poems

Autumn Wonders

Why are dead leaves so lovely?
Why is the sky so blue?
Why does the starlight reach into our night
And whisper that hope is true?

Our world is infused with blessing
That my logic cannot explain
And it whispers “rejoice” in a still, small, voice
Beyond the clamor of pain.

So I’ll dance as the leaves are dying,
I’ll look up at the bright blue sky
I’ll let starlight into my heart’s dark night
And trust that hope does not lie.

For love makes the dead leaves lovely
And soon buds will burst forth new
Love colors the sky and makes the stars cry,
“In the night, hope still is true.”

Flames unfurling in the cold
Paint the landscape red and gold.
Drained of green, yet vibrant still,
Waiting for the winter’s chill.
The wind picks up; they tumble down
And in falling gild the ground.
Thus they whisper without breath,
“Beauty blossoms out of death”

Years spent in New England and the Upper Midwest have taught me to love autumn. The leaves are so beautiful, and yet they only change color because they’re in the process of dying. Here are two poems I wrote this year meditating on this paradox. Looking at the poems, I see the beaten-down paths depression has left on my soul, but in my better moments I know that this death, too, is giving way to beauty.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Tabernacle: God in Our Midst

The first few times I tried reading the Bible through from start to finish, the place where I ran into trouble was the section on the Tabernacle. I could get through the genealogies in Genesis, which only lasted a chapter or so at most, but the tabernacle account contains six chapters (Exod. 25-31) of building instructions and lists of materials, dimensions, parts of pieces of furniture, and so on. These chapters are followed by the story of the Golden Calf, which lasts about three chapters, and then five more chapters (Exod. 35-40) of descriptions of the building instructions being carried out. This raises the question of why the text places so much emphasis on how the Tabernacle was constructed.

Read more at 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

News and the Kingdom

The world is in turmoil. Last week it looked like the U.S. was on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea. This week the news is buzzing with reports of white supremacists marching and violence that flows from that. If you come across this post a few weeks from now, there will probably be some new disaster in the news that has people worried. There is a lot of genuine evil in the world, and it can get overwhelming.

Two days in a row, my devotions have pointed me to verses that seem particularly relevant to all the nonsense that's happening in the world.* Yesterday was Isaiah 9:6-7 "To us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on the throne of David and over His kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”

Now that you, my readers, all have Handel’s Messiah going through your heads, let me point out the themes that he overlooked. We’re talking about a king who establishes a just, righteous government that is never overthrown and establishes peace. The Hebrew concept of peace is much broader than just a cessation of fighting. It refers to wellbeing, flourishing, a state where all is, generally speaking, well.

Today I read Daniel 7:13-14: “The Son of Man will come with the clouds of heaven. In the presence of the Ancient of Days, He will be given dominion and glory and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations, and men of every language will worship Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

This verse isn’t about events that will happen in the future. It’s about Jesus coming into the presence of the Ancient of Days (God the Father) after His ascension to receive authority. Already we see people from all peoples, nations and languages worshipping Him.

Jesus already reigns over our broken world. On a cosmic level, all is well. That doesn’t mean we just sit around and wait for him to act. It means that as we do the work of advancing justice and righteousness, we can be confident that in the end good will triumph.

*The verses were collected by Ken Boa in his book A Journal of Sacred Readings, which I highly recommend.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Welcoming Audrey

I recently had the opportunity to translate at the baptism of a beautiful little girl from China. It was a moving experience, and I wrote about it for our church blog.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

God of Harmony: A Song for David (Spicer)

A song for David, the choirmaster. To “Dives and Lazarus.”*

Sing praises to the Three in One, the God of harmony,
Who makes the universe ring out in varied unity
Join with the music of the stars, the earth, the sea, the air,
For everywhere that beauty shines, His handiwork is there.

Sing praises to our saving Lord who led us through the sea
When waves of sin and hatred raged in dark cacophony.
We sing to Him who split the waves and led us on dry land,
And feeds us in this wilderness with manna from His hand.

Sing praises to the God of love who died our lives to save,
Who tasted all death’s bitterness, lay cold within the grave.
Who shattered death, burst from the tomb. No pow’r could hold him there.
We shout with joy, “He is alive!” The glad news we declare.

Sing praises to the Lamb who rules the universe in might.
Who will return, restore His world, set all creation right.
Though flesh may fail and life may flee and death may close our eyes,
He will breathe life into dead bones; our song again shall rise.

* David Spicer, the choir director at the church I grew up in, passed away last week. He was a genius, the musical equivalent of the architect of a Gothic cathedral in Europe. He crafted the accompaniments of every hymn he played to convey the message of the lyrics. On many Sundays he improvised incredible, intricate medleys of every hymn and anthem we sang during the service, often using these as an introduction to the Doxology. He conducted choirs with professionally trained singers but also children’s choirs. In addition to teaching me music theory and singing techniques, he encouraged me in my faith profoundly. He was also the first person to ask me to write a hymn. He asked for words that could be sung to a tune called “Dives and Lazarus.” I wrote a hymn to that tune then, and he praised the result so much that I just kept writing hymns. Even after I had moved away, he often asked me if I was still writing them. I can think of no better way to honor Mr. Spicer than to write a hymn in his memory to the first and only specific tune he requested lyrics for.