Sunday, March 26, 2017

Lent: Celebrate

Celebrate the routine wonders. They will dazzle your heart.

Hot fresh cowboy coffee in the morning.

Medicine that keeps me alive.

A choice of what to eat, all of food that is safe to eat.

A child with foster parents who want to adopt her.

A daughter who gets to play with one of her best friends after church. Another daughter who spends the afternoon visiting one of her friends.

Lunch with friends at the mosque. Making the effort to cross lines people don't cross, and finding things that transcend religions differences: a desire to push back against the darkness, a tendency to ask speakers to share a few words with no advance notice, and remarks that go on too long when there is food waiting.

Art class.

More food, and a family that eats, squabbles and loves together.

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Did you notice that today was the Annunciation? I didn't

I almost completely forgot that today was the Feast of the Annunciation.

The Annunciation is the day that traditionally marks the proclamation of the angel Gabriel to Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus. It comes nine months to the day before Christmas, which should make it a cinch to remember. And yet here it is, and I've only just noticed.

And yet, isn't that completely appropriate? The day was certainly significant to Mary – according to the gospel of Luke, where the story of the annunciation is recorded, Gabriel appeared to her and said: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”  And then, seeing her troubled by this unorthodox greeting, the angel went on to tell her that she miraculously would become pregnant, have a son and name him Jesus; and that this child would be the long-awaited messiah.

Movies often depict Mary as a young adult, but the gospels never really say how old she was. Our only clue is when Matthew and Luke's gospels identify her as engaged to marry Joseph. Jewish custom at the time would have permitted a girl to betrothed while she was 12 to 14 years old. If she were alive today, Mary would have been in seventh to ninth grades.

I'm imagining Gabriel's came as something of a shock to Mary, as it probably did to her parents and to Joseph when she told them. That shock is probably one of the reasons that Gabriel told her that her relative Elizabeth, who was childless and past the age of having children, already was entering her final trimester of pregnancy with John the Baptist – so Mary could go and verify the report, which she promptly did.

But outside that room where the angel confronted her, and outside the immediate circle of Mary's family and Joseph and his family, the visitation and announcement wouldn't have made much of a splash.

Galilee and Judea were still under the iron rule both of Rome and Herod the Great, its client king. Most people living there were struggling just to survive, especially where Herod was concerned. The old king in his later years had become astonishingly paranoid and cruel. Among the other things he did, the old goat ordered one of his own sons strangled to death at the table during dinner. He also wrote in his will that when he himself died, the leading men of the city were to be crucified, all to guarantee that there would be mourning for his death.

By the time of the Emperor Claudius, there would be riots in the Jewish quarter of Rome over the missionary efforts of Priscilla and Aquila. In 5 BCE, Mary's pregnancy would have held absolutely no interest. Caesar Augustus was turning 53 that year. He had been princeps, what the Romans called “first citizen,” for 22 years, a position he had only strengthened over the intervening period. His long-term goal was to making arrangements so this position could become hereditary without actually appearing to do so.

In China, the bigger birth would prove to be Liu Xiu. In 25 C.E., Liu Xiu would become Emperor Guangwu, restore the Han dynasty and eventually consolidate China into one nation before his death in 57 C.E. It's doubtful that if anyone there cared about Judea and Galilee, if they had ever even heard of them, let alone what was going on in Nazareth.

And thus it is with the works of God. He starts with a whisper, and we don't even notice that he's talking. We go on with our lives as we always have, while his work continues and grows, until finally the day arrives when people begin to take notice.

The first to notice something odd would be the wine steward at a wedding in Cana, and he would misunderstand what it was he found.

The first ones really to grasp the significance of Jesus' coming will be outcasts. Lepers would notice him, prostitutes would look for him, and the peasants would rally to him wherever he went.

The last to notice him would be the leaders: the magistrates, the kings and the governors. And one day the emperors would notice him, and the world would turn on its axis.

But today is the Feast of Annunciation. God is on the move, and no one notices or cares. Life goes on as it always has, and we are blind to the wonders in our midst.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Lent: Journey

There's a lot to learn about a person if you know how to look, the little mementos that life leaves about our person: the scars we carry, both visible and not; the mannerisms we wear like armor, like a sword or like a rifle; even our habits of speech.

Look at my face and you'll see scars from the time my brother chased me into a wall, and from the time I wiped out on Murrysville Road while bicyling with my brother. (Same brother. Hmmm.)

That's just the obvious stuff. My speech reveals where I've lived in the Caribbean and the South Pacific, its accents. cadences and irregulaties showcase where I've lived and the company I've kept. Even the way I use humor suggests something. Is it a weapon I use to disarm people, an open door to invite people to come up further up and further in, or is it a barrier to keep people from getting too close?

We begin our journeys as tabulae rosae, but every way-station where we lodge leaves its impression. Every fall into the Slough of Despond, every visit to Vanity Fair, every passage through the Valley of the Shadows, and every stay in Doubting Castle leaves a mark. Every encounter with other pilgrims changes us. The one who passes through the waters is not the same as the one who entered through the wicket gate, nor should she be.

If you know where someone is on her journey, you can tell where she's been so far; and, what's more, you can tell where she probably is headed.

I don't always relish what my journey reveals about me. What does yours say about you?

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lent: Love

Love isn't found in the big gestures like a new car or remodeling in the house. There may be aspects of love found there, but those are mostly showmanship. Love is found in the small things.

Love is a homemade meal at the end of the day. It is a hug when you weren't expecting one.

Love is an unexpected phone call that says "I know that things have ben rough and I wanted to see how you were doing." It's the signoff that says "Text me in the morning so I know you're OK."

When you're sick, it's love that puts its arm around you and stays at your side through all the unpleasantness. It's love that drops all its plans, comes to your side and does whatever you need it to do.

Love says "I forgive you" and "We'll get through this together."

Love doesn't look back. It looks ahead and sees a bright and beautiful future, full of possibility; and then it gives all that it has to bring that future into being, together.

Years ago, a group of explorers found a stone that was the cornerstone that all the world rested on. Filled with curiosity and wonder, they lifted it up. Love was what they found underneath.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lent: Rest

It came to pass in the days of Pen-y-Cat that the lady had need to send a messenger to her kinsman Ludd. So she met with her best courier, and they consulted together about the best way for her courier to take.

The need was urgent, and so they decided that he would take a shortcut through the wasteland. It would be a difficult journey, one where he was certain to face wild beasts and one where his endurance would be tested, but it also would cut a week off his journey.

Soon after he entered the wasteland, the messenger became aware that he was being followed by a creature like his shadow. It moved when he did, stopped when he took his rest and always stayed at the limits of his sight so that he could never engage it nor quite be rid of it. As darkness fell each day and compelled him to stop for the night, the messenger would gather what wood he could find, and build a fire to keep the creature at bay. He heard it draw closer in the darkness, but still beyond his clear sight. It had all the patience in the world.

It was on the fifth day since he entered the wasteland, as the sun was almost directly overhead, that the messenger came upon an oasis. There he bathed in a pool of water to refresh himself, filled his canteen with clean water and ate some of the fruits that grew there. He ran the bare soles of his feet over the grass, stretched out on the ground, and rested. Out of the harsh glare of the sun, his eyes relaxed and he took his rest. Within minutes and without intending to, he fell asleep.

When he woke, the sun was low in the horizon. The morning had gone and taken the afternoon with it, and now the evening was well on its way. The shadows were growing long, and in each one was the perfect hiding spot for his foe, which was now so close that he could measure time by each breath it foe took. He didn't need to see it to know that it was smiling with satisfaction.

Rest is a mercy of the Almighty. It is there to revive the flagging spirit and to renew our strength when it is almost gone. Taking our rest isn't just a luxury; it's an obligation to ourselves and to those around us.

But rest poses a danger too. Stay too long in the oasis and you can lose sight of the mission, forget the discipline that carried you through the desert, and blind you to growing danger. There comes a time when we all need to get up, heave the pack back onto our shoulders, and carry on.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lent: Joyful

I got a message today from someone I consider one of my best friends. Anne's message was straightforward: She was headed into surgery to have her appendix removed, and she'd appreciate prayers.

Appendectomies generally aren't high-risk surgeries, but it was still a shock. Like my thyroidectomy 12 years ago, it's a reminder that the skien of life is something the ancients considered thin enough that all it took to sever it was an old woman with a pair of shears.

Friends like Anne are like extra family. They're a source of tremendous joy. Back when she attended the Church with an Extra E with us, we were known to miss the entire service while we stood in the hall outside talking. My wife and I passed many evenings with Anne and her husband, and on Halloweens always took care to take our kids around to trick-or-treat at their house.

Happiness, it may be said, is fleeting; but joy endures. Happiness is a pillar that stands tall and makes us take notice. Joy is the platform that holds it up and gives us support like the earth beneath our feet.

Sometimes we even take it for granted until the earth trembles, just a little.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lent: Go

In Detroit there is a place where three sisters, dressed all in gray overalls, work nonstop making cars for all the world. (You know this is true.)

The first of the sisters builds the chassis. It is she who determines the size and shape of the car, how stylish and attractive the car will be. If she builds a car people admire, they will throng you by the thousands wherever you go, just so they can see the car, touch it, or maybe (heaven grant it) go for a ride with you.

Very few people get those, and mostly those who do are celebrities and other royalty. Most others get a sedan that looks decent enough, and while it may get some attention as you drive, it generally blends in wherever you go.

The second sister builds the suspension system, puts in the seats and equips the car for comfort. If she favors you, the car will give you a smooth ride, no matter what it looks like. The car may not be flashy on the outside, but the unassuming people who go with you discover what a joy it is to ride in with you, even if it's just for a little while.

Other cars have just the basics. You feel the potholes but you've got decent seats, so you don't mind. (A few cars have wooden boards for seats and a sound system with blown speakers that play nothing but reggae, and they play it badly..)

The last sister adds the engine and other components. It's her actions that determine whether the car is smooth and sleek, powerful, with excellent timing; if it's one that pings and misfires occasionally; or even if it is a wretched mess that starts and stops fitfully.

Each car they make is custom-built for the driver, but they always get complaints. The car is too big or too small, it draws too much attention in the city or goes unnoticed completely even when it's in the countryside by itself.

People complain about the color, the smell, or the model; and they always complain about where the car takes them, as if that were up to the mechanics who built their car, and not up to the person who drives it. However they're built, the cars are all guaranteed to last a lifetime.

The car is yours. Where are you going to go?

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Lent: Afraid

There are racoons who live in the storm sewers around here. I saw one jump into a tree once at night, as I pulled up in my car. It was a big thing, the size of a large dog.

I'm not afraid of the racoons, but the idea of something that large living in the sewer does strike an eerie chord, like the legends of the alligators that live in the sewers of New York, where they supposedly feed on rats and derelicts. In some ways it's reminiscent of the monsters that ancient heroes like Aeneas, Orpheus and Odysseus had to pass on their way out of the sunlight and into the Underworld.

God knows there's enough to be afraid of, without appealing to half-remembered monsters from the id. It's impossible to read the news without encountering some new outrage against immigrants and citizens whose appearance, religion or language makes them stand out. We also have a presidential administration that spreads falsehood and stokes those fears, rather than appealing for or working toward civility. And these are just the fears our nation has inflicted upon itself.

The monsters are no longer due on Maple Street. We've arrived, and we're all afraid.

I don't intend to descend into the sewers any time soon to meet the racoons, but I do remember one thing from reading "The Odyssey" and "The Aeneid," along with those other Greek myths. The heroes also found it terrifying when they began their journey into the unknown, but when they faced their fears, they found there was nothing to worry about.

Aeneas even found that the time he spent with those shades was the best part of his journey, and they gave him what he needed to see it through to the end.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.