Friday, March 31, 2017

Lent: With

I enjoy a bit of solitude as much as the next person, but when it goes on for too long, it can feel like rats are eating my brain.

Little tasks become insurmountable, bigger tasks take on the scope and size of an iceberg and an actual crisis is fatal. That sense of being alone carves out an oubliette and locks me, in without even the movement of shadows on the wall to reassure me that there is anything beyond the cave.

I've been fortunate. When things have been that bad, I've had friends who have crawled into the hole with me and stayed as long as I needed them to. No judgment, no dismissal of how I'm feeling, just a presence and a support that can hold the darkness at bay without relying on words.

When the world is stacked against you, and each day brings new fears of loss, of rejection, or worse, it can make all the difference to know that we're not alone, that someone is with us.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Lent: Will

While we were getting free wood chips at the park the other day, Youngest Daughter and I played a game of King of the Mountain. (Actually, that's what I played. She sensibly played Queen of the Mountain.)

Have you ever tried climbing a hill of wood chips? It's a challenge even without the reigning monarch of the mountain trying to push you back down. You struggle to get a sturdy foothold, but the earth keeps shifting under your feet, and every step up that you take becomes a slide back down.

Walking sideways doesn't help, leaning forward doesn't help, and when you're almost as tall as the pile, it becomes especially difficult. There's a limit to how high you can get, now matter how big the strides you attempt, and it seems all you accomplish is to make a giant mess.

But there's something to be said for going second and being the younger of the two people trying to get to the top. Once she had the idea, Youngest Daughter's will was indomitable. She tackled the mountain time and again, picked different directions to come from, and slowly but inexorably made her way to the top, laughing all the way and then reveling in her victory.

We shall overcome.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Lent: Open, Mark II

One of the things that attracts me to the person of Jesus, despite my frustrations with Christianity and the failings of people like me who claim to follow him, is how open he is to other people, and the vision he presents of the Kingdom of God as one with open borders.

Someone in the past year made a bumper sticker that says "Even heaven has a wall," which technically is true. The book of Revelation portrays the heavenly city of Jerusalem as one with a wall -- a wall with 12 gates of pearl that are always left open.

Earlier in the book, St. John of Patmos describes seeing a worship service in the Kingdom of God. It is attended by men, women and children of every tribe, nation and language.

That means the City of God includes Iranians speaking Farsi, Egyptians speaking Arabic, Indians speaking Urdu, Mexicans speaking Spanish, and Americans who speak all of those (and even other languages). I suppose there may be a few Esperantists in there too, speaking Esperanto.

I attended a worship service like that once at Dave Wilkerson's Times Square church. Worship that week was in Tagalog, and it was among the greatest worship services I've ever attended.

When the church started out, it was called the Way, a sect of Judaism that distinguished itself by professing that the Resurrection of the Dead had begun with one person. It started out with about 120 people who spoke Aramaic. On the Day of Pentecost, the first day the Way became a distinct movement, about 3,000 more people joined, representing a dozen or so different groups of the first diaspora.

Over the next 40 years, the church spread throughout Judea, Galilee, Samaria, the Arabian peninsula, Africa, Greece and the Roman Empire. Each place it spread, it picked up new members with their own cultural backgrounds and different languages -- primarily from the lower classes of Roman society, but also including wealthy and powerful landowners, the educated and the middle class.

Some people felt that new Christians had to assimilate into a Jewish lifestyle in order to be real Christians: get circumcised, keep kosher laws, observe the Jewish festivals. There are at least two books in the Christian Scriptures that present theological arguments rejecting this. The belief of those writers was evident: the Kingdom of God is open to everyone, including people from every ethnicity. We don't want you to integrate into us, it's on us to integrate into your life and experience.

I think it's clear from the biblical record that God values our cultural differences, and his dream for humanity is that we welcome others in, and celebrate their culutral uniqueness. Our greatest moments as a church have come when we've opened our doors to others with other ideas, other views, and other ways of doing things. Our greatest shame has been when we have shut that door.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Lent: Open

Some of the happiest people I know are the ones who are open to new ideas, new people, new experiences, other viewpoints and even the possibility that they are wrong. Every moment to them is a chance to learn, to discover, and to grow as a human being.

And isn't that close to the heart of God? The book of Revelation describes the pearly gates as always open, and it hardly can be said that God is closed off. He embraced the experience of being human, with all its weaknesses and disappointments; welcomes everyone who comes to him, no matter where we are from or what we have done; and even lets us convince him to change his mind.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Lent: Grace

About 13 or 14 years ago, my friend Jane's parents discovered that she was gay. During the ensuing tsursis, the mother of one of Jane's friends stepped forward with an offer: "If you need a place to stay, our home is yours."

I've never met Catherine, but she made a tremendous impression on me the day I heard about that invitation. She was under no obligation to make the offer she did. Jane had no claim on her hospitality. It was simply an act of grace.

Grace is part of the essential character of God. It's a manifestation of his holiness. It's the notion that although there's no reason for God to want to be with us, he does. He finds an abandoned baby screaming on the side of the road, and he adopts that child, cares for her, and gives her his name and his wealth.

He sees a people who are not mighty and who do not rule an empire, he places his hands on their shoulders, and says to their rulers, “These are my people, and you will not make them slaves any longer.” At every stage of the passover celebration, the people sing “Dayenu, it would have been enough.” And yet to God, it wasn't enough. He couldn't be satisfied until he had given them everything.

Grace that has been received is grace that also must be extended. It means violating the expectations of our peers and allowing oursevles to be identified with another's shame, so that their shame falls away. One can only imagine the confusion and even the howls of derision at the Council of Gods when other deities saw that God had chosen the enslaved Israelites as his people.

It's the same disapproval we encounter when we stand with protesters and say "Black Lives Matter"; when we affirm the dignity of the transgender and their right to use the bathrooms of their choice; and every time we befriend Those People, and don't let their otherness (whatever it is) be an issue.

It's always worth it.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Lent: Sign

Thirty years ago, someone near where I grew up thought it would be funny to remove one of these from an intersection. A few days later, without the sign around, a driver sailed into the intersection and was killed. The story I recall was that the culprit ultimately was charged with homicide.

Signs can be helpful for the guidance they give, but only when they tell us things we don't know. I'm sure we've all laughed at pictures of  signs with useless advisories like "Beware Jumping Gay Walrus" or "Caution: Sign Has Sharp Edges."

I've known a few people who look for special signs from God to tell them what to do. Experience has taught me that often when we do this, either we're looking for a way to avoid responsibility for making a decisions, or we're looking for a way to claim a divine seal of approval on a decision we've already made.

I'm not a fan of looking for signs from God. Actual direct signs from God should be  pretty spectacular, hard to ignore, and in the Bible at least they're for the really dense among us who don't understand what should be plainly obvious: Feed the hungry, welcome the immigrant, provide sanctuary and shelter to those who need it, and spend what you have to advance those who lack it.

Who needs a sign for that?

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 announcement 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 been 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.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lent: Celebrate

Two weeks ago, my crocuses were blooming. One week ago, my daffodils were bursting through the mulch and getting ready to soar. Five days ago, the entire city was covered in ice and snow that lay on my flowers like a burial shroud.

Think it's coincidence that Lent falls in the spring? This is a time for renewal, for fresh awakenings, and for new beginnings. A heavy snowfall this late in the spring can mean death, but this is a season of life and a season for resurrection. The flowers lost beneath the snow are rising once again.

And that, my friend, is a parable.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Lent: Beloved

During a visit two summers ago, my mother fell and had to go to the hospital.

Once there an X-ray revealed that, at 75, she had broken her hip. A four-day visit to see the grandchildren perform in one of their shows soon stretched into several weeks as she needed first surgery to pin the broken hip together, and then therapy to rebuild her strength and endurance so that she could walk again.

The Wednesday after her accident, I arrived at the hospital a half-hour before visiting hours officially would end. My mother already had had the surgery, but earlier this day had developed an arrhythmia in which her resting heart rate unexpectedly had spiked and needed medication to slow it back down. When I arrived, she was in the intensive care unit with my father, who had stayed the entire day and only now was getting ready to leave for the night.

During that half-hour when we all were in the room together, I witnessed such tender expressions of affection between the two of them that I was left in awe. It was in the way she held his arm when he bent over by her bed, to pick up something off the floor. It was in the way he helped her to clean up after she had brushed her teeth. Those simple, unremarkable things were the poetry of love, born of more than 50 years together.

After my father had left, I lingered in the room for another hour, until hospital security finally told me that I had to leave. As we talked my mother shared how she first met my father on a blind date that a mutual friend had arranged, how my father had proposed after a courtship that involved sending letters to each of the hotels she and her parents were visiting on a European vacation, so that a letter always would be waiting for her when she arrived, and other details of their courtship.

I already knew all these stories, but I enjoyed hearing again. It was a privilege to bask in the glow with her for a while.

My parents' love for one another has been a given for my entire life, and for my brothers'. We don't even have to ask, we know that it's there, and that it's real. As I write this now, my parents are both 77 and my brothers and I once again are facing subtle reminders that our parents are mortal and one day will die.

But I'm certain of this: Their love never will.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Lent: Speak

It all started with the spoken word.

That must have occurred to Jesus a few times during his fast in the Judean Desert. The Torah had it that God had spoken the world into being, first with light and darkness, then the sky and the earth, and then sea and dry land. But his sojourn into the desert and its accompanying odyssey of the spirit also began that way.

Like hundreds of others -- some curious, some eager and some hostile -- Jesus had headed down to the Jordan River to see the prophet. Like many others, he had listened, and had felt his spirit stir, and decided to be baptized. That's where the similarities had ended.

When Jesus came up from the river, his clothes hanging tight to his skin, water dripping into his eyes from his hair and beading on the tip of his nose, there had been a noise like thunder. To some, that's all it was; just the rumble of a storm that might approach and bring rain, or that might blow past and carry its rain somewhere else. But Jesus thought he had heard a voice speak.

"This is my beloved son," it had said. "With him I am well pleased."

Jesus hadn't been that different from the other children growing up in Nazareth. Like the others, he'd enjoyed running and playing games when he was little; and when he became a teen he'd learned a good trade helping his father with the work in Sepphoris. He'd even picked up a decent amount of Greek there, to go along with his Aramaic and Hebrew. There was that embarrassing story his parents told about the time he'd stayed behind in Jerusalem when he was a child; but he'd stayed out of trouble for the most part. He hadn't been one of the boys trying to pull a King David when the girls went to use the mikveh, for instance.

But the voice had unsettled him. The rabbi had always been impressed with his understanding of Torah when he'd studied it, and looked at him wonderingly when Jesus asked some of the questions he had. "Jesus questions," the rabbi had called them. Now, in the aftermath of that voice, those Jesus questions were rising to the surface faster than the bubbles in a pot of boiling water. With no one to hear him but the open air and animals like the gazelles he stumbled upon, he spoke the questions fearlessly in a prayer that already had run for weeks and would continue for even more before it finally ran out.

"Who am I?"
"What do you mean, your son?"
"What is it you want from me?"
"What's the point to all this?"

Like those ancient words that sculpted mountains, formed fish, and gave shape to the jackal the questions that Jesus spoke became solid, fixed things. Over the weeks in the desert as he spoke them, they in turn birthed more complex questions, and then these too gained form, size and feel as he spoke them aloud, considered them, and settled them.

The fast began with the spoken word, and in the end, it was the spoken word that would end it. In a final conversation about his identity, in the words spoken to him, in the words he knew, and in the words he woud speak himself, Jesus would find his purpose.

And, speaking, he would remake the world.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Lent: Presence

Here's a secret that I remember when I'm not so busy that I forget: I don't need to go anywhere to experience the presence of God.

Some people think you have to go to a house of worship to be in the presence of God, and it's true that God is there.

Some people think you have to go out into nature to experience the presence of God, and it's true that God is there as well.

The presence of God also lies in the warm sunlight, in the cool of a cave, and in a dark puddle of mud. We can find God's presence in familiar places and in strange locales; among friends and family, by ourselves and among strangers; in times of plenty and contentment, and in times of need.

God can be found in all these places, and many more. Our every moment, waking or sleeping, from birth to death, is a moment that God sidles up next to us, not just to experience our joys, griefs and idle moments with us; but so that we also might enjoy the joys, griefs and quiet moments of God as well.

Sometimes the presence of God is easy to experience. Often it is elusive.

We can experience the presence of God when we reach out to the child who is alone and cold, and when someone else notices our tears, and holds us until the pain goes away. The touch of a human hand, the sound of a human voice: this may be one of the most transcendent experiences possible.

We all hunger in our own way for the Presence of God in our lives. One of the surest ways to find it is to be that presence for someone else.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Lent: See

There's so much I see from the table where I am seated at the computer: a glass of water, an empty cereal bowl, three apples and two oranges. Beyond that are the case for my glasses, a box of taco shells that no one put away last night, and the rest of the clutter that swarms over any surface left uncovered for more than 15 seconds.

Things accumulate with ease on the table because sometimes it's easier not to see than it is to see. Seeing the mess would prompt action to remove the clutter and clean the table. That's too much work; it's too unpleasant. It's much easier to pretend it's not there, at least until it's dinnertime and it's all staring me in the face.

Through the window I see snow on the railing, snow in the yard, snow on my neighbors' cars, and snow on their houses. Then there are the houses themselves. There's a house that came from a Sears catalog; a brick house that looks like it may have been built in the 1950s; and other houses like mine, many of them over a hundred years old.

Some of these houses are inhabited by people I don't see, because it's easier not to see them. We live our lives separately from theirs, in a parallel city that never touches theirs because they go to college and do things we never did when we were that age, or because their jobs are somewhere else and the place where they belong is, too. And others I don't see because they don't come out anymore, whether because of snow, age or fear.

If we saw each other, we might discover our common humanity, the needs and the fears that we all have. We might become advocates for each other in the face of xenophobia or racial animus, or feel that fundamental need to belong to a community. We might see one another's needs and strive to meet them. We might start working on bringing things to be on earth as they are in heaven.

There's a lot to see, and a lot to do. I'm going to start with the kitchen table.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lent: Faith

Back in college I read a poem by Emily Dickinson that has stayed with me for 26 years. Popularly known as "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," the poem describes the "members of the Resurrection" as they lie in state while days and years pass them by.

Some Resurrection.

This in many ways is the heart of faith for the Christian. It's a sort of intellectual dishonesty that says, "Yes, I know there is no evidence for God, but I believe in him anyway" or that says "I've been to the cemetery, and I've seen all the bodies that are still there, but I still believe the Resurrection of the dead is coming."

Our spirits may have faith that we will be raised, but in our bones we know a different, much colder and often stronger truth. It echoes through the dusty centuries and past the withered lives of generations past. The dead don't rise, and never have. It's a superstitition to say that they do.

Death is inarguable and inevitable. In its own way, the Lenten season marks this march toward finality, since each day of Lent brings us one day closer to the day the state executed Christ as an enemy to law and order. As for the Resurrection, there is no certainty of that, just a promise that may or may not have been made, written down by people living thousands of years ago who may or may not have known what they were talking about.

While a life of faith obviously requires trusting that promise, I have found it also requires acknowledging the cold realities of death. To do otherwise is to become a simpleton who meets Christ on the road to Golgotha and says, "Chin up, it's not so bad."

Faith doesn't mean looking at an abusive or controlling husband and saying "He's actually very loving and devoted." It does not mean having cancer and insisting that God miraculously has healed it. And it certainly doesn't mean death and suffering don't matter.

Instead, faith acknowledges the grim realities that face us -- the presence of abuse, the corruption of illness and the finality of death -- and sees beyond them, without proof, reason or evidence, not just to how things ought to be, but to when they will.

Denial? Not at all. Just faith.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Lent: Kindred

There's no one else here at the moment, but in the evening this table brims and bubbles with commotion. My wife and I have three daughters, and one of the most important rules we have is that everyone has to be present at the dinner table who is home.

It doesn't matter how much homework there is; whether the book sits at the zenith of literature, or its nadir; if you're so full of energy that you can't sit still; or even if you ate already at a friend's house. Dinner time is family time. Attendance is mandatory.

Thus it was that last night the girls sang a medley that ran through "Before He Cheats," "Set Fire to the Rain," selections from "Hamilton" and a dozen other songs. They sang in harmony and they sang over each other, but either way they were having a blast.

Sometimes at dinner the girls encourage each other, and sometimes they instigate. Often the youngest will switch from egging one sister on to egging on the other. Doesn't matter. I wouldn't trade a moment of it away.

The girls raise such a din that it can be a lost cause trying to communicate, but amid all the hullabaloo that they whoop up together, the girls are forging the same adamantine bonds that my brothers and I forged more than 30 years ago. They're one another's best friends, with a circle knit so tightly that no one and nothing can tear it apart.

Sisters can have a powerful bond because they were born to the same parents, but luckily there are times God sends us other kindred born to different parents, in a different culture, or from a different walk of life. Born together or discovered separately, the unbreakable relationship is something to be treasured and never cast aside.

There are times that it's the only thing that makes this life bearable.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lent: Celebrate

I was in New York today with my daughter, who was auditioning for a part in a movie at New York University. A day with my daughter is always a time to celebrate, but being in New York only makes it better.

It's not better because of the New York pizza we ate. It's not better because we went to Schmackery's, and it's not better because we visited the Rockefeller Center. It's better because New York, like other metropolises, is like a little slice of heaven. An imperfect slice, to be sure, but a very real one.

Walk down the street in New York and you will hear every language under heaven spoken there, by people gathered from every tribe, nation and tongue. You'll hear Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, French, Chinese and Spanish. You'll hear Kreyol, Portugese, Italian, Korean and Japanese. You'll hear Tagalog, Swahili and Urdu. You'll hear languages you never even heard of, spoken by parents to children, spoken by brothers to sisters, spoken from one friend to another, and even spoken among strangers.

Amd the people! Visit the boroughs and you'll see the old-school communities still nestled away in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem. But you'll see unexpected variety blooming everywhere in a riotous garden of humanity. There are Syrian German women married to the Argentine-Indian men whom they met in Japan; French Egyptians married to Afro-Russians they met at a conference in Texas, and on and on.

New York is the mass of humanity gathered together, and laboring to make it work. That's something we look forward to seeing in its culmination, and it's something we celebrate.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lent: Led

When I lead my daughter somewhere, often we follow the principle that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. We get out of the car, we walk directly to the theater. She pays for the tickets, we walk directly to the seats. Short, to the point, and effective.

When she leads me, at times we have followed the principle that the best journey between two points is all around the universe: leave the house, visit the Pokemon gym at the Quaker Meeting House, walk past the bar and grab some Pokeballs to catch whatever is hiding three blocks away at the Victory Christian Center, pass the neighborhood church, meander around the library for a bit, pop into 7-Eleven for a Slurpee, play in the park for a while and then ask daddy for a piggyback ride because our feet are too tired.

I like it when my daughter can lead. It's not at all short or to the point, but it's definitely a lot more fun.

Other times instead of following my own feet, I allow others to lead me. That's not always wrong, but it often is a mistake because it gets me confused about the path I'm supposed to be on. By the time I realize how far off-course I am, hours, months and even years may have passed; and I'm mortified at how much time I have wasted. Faith means having the courage to be who we are, and taking the paths we know are there for us, even if no one else goes with us; or, going, they moan that they see nothing ahead of us, not even the shadow of a lion.

There is a fourth way to be led; John Bunyan wrote about it. As you follow the path set before you, it leads you at times into a darkness that grows ever deeper as the whispers amid it grow ever louder. That's a darkness that is terrifying not because of what hides in it, but because you were led there by someone you trusted, and now the light is failing, and now it is gone and one wrong step means ruin. When that happens, as it must, be encouraged! Others have gone before you and have seen the light of life on the other side. Be led, and by faith one day the darkness and the light alike will become a glory-song.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Lent: Free

We discourage the girls from taking the dog into the back yard with them without a leash because whenever he's out there, the old sinner is sure to pull a Count of Monte Cristo and escape.

When he gets out like that, Loki cuts loose. He runs down the street, squeezes through fences or just jumps over them. and does everything he can to avoid being caught. His legs remember that they have power, and he thunders like a dog twice his size across yards. It's a glorious time for him. He's free!

Over the few years we've had him, though, I've noticed something -- he never wanders too far. In fact, he'll cross one street occasionally, but never two. Sooner or later, we'll see him walking happily up the street toward our house, with an almost-innocent look on his face, as if to say, "What, you didn't think I had really run away this time, did you?"

Loki has grasped what we might call the Rule of the Leaf. The leaf may long to be free of the tree, but it never survives for long that way. When he's off the leash and out of the house, Loki is free to run, and possibly even to chase squirrels and connect with the ancient heritage of wolves that still stirs in his blood. But Loki also has strong ties to his pack. We feed him, care for him and love him; and in return he loves and protects us.

If all he wanted was the freedom to run, he'd discover that he'd surrendered his freedom to belong, and the freedom he'd chosen was not freedom at all, but a form of captivity with no way out.

We should all be as wise, and as free, as he is.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Lent: Live

A little over 11 years ago I learned that I had cancer.

It was thyroid cancer, easily treated; but it was a reminder that, like everyone, I am under sentence of death. Six years ago I found myself staring down the barrel of 40. In less than four years, I'll be staring down the barrel of 50. Time is, time was, time's done.

With the time we spend on the business of living, sometimes it seems like it's not possible actually to live. And yet it is! I've met so many people for whom stagecraft is not a hobby or something they do. It's a driving passion.

The march of hours may demand its pound of flesh at work and even at home, but when they are on stage, time stands still. There, in their element, they transcend themselves and become life's master. If life is a light, that is a moment when it has the intensity of the noonday sun upon a winter's day where the world is blanketed in snow.

Life like this is rarely a solitary thing. It is something shared, something given. We impart our passions to another, and they elevate us in turn.

On Wednesday afternoon Youngest Daughter decided she wanted a flower bed of her own. So we set down some cardboard over part of the lawn, and added compost and a layer of mulch. Then I took a shovel and dug up a clump of daffodils from the front yard. Together we broke those up, and planted a dozen in the new flower bed.

Youngest Daughter's soul danced. Her face glowed. The flower bed is an aspiration for the future, as all gardens are at this season. Her only wish is that the flowers live and bring beauty. In that hour of working together on her garden, she didn't exist. She lived and I lived with her.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Lent: Preserve

We took the girls to Morristown back on Aug. 27, 2016, to see a few bits of American history. There is the Wick house and the Revolutionary war barracks at Jockey Hollow, for instance; and also there was this place, once the home of Elizabeth Schuyler and her husband, Alexander Hamilton, a couple fairly obscure historical figures of little importance and less fame.

Preservation is about keeping something of value around for later. That could be something like the fruit preserves they sell at the Baptist Haiti Mission in Fermathe, the wildlife preserves kept and maintained by the U.S. National Parks Department. Sometimes it's even ironic, like the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which deserves to be preserved not because Pettus is worth remembering, but because of the events of Bloody Sunday, and the triumph of dignity and civil rights over Pettus and his ideological heirs.

Preserving things takes work, sometimes hard work, and however worthy a cause it is, it eventually fails. The ancient Greeks once famously compiled a list of seven wonders. Of all these ancient things, only one remains intact.

We do what we can, and we preserve places and things of value. They remind us where we were, how far we've come and even the distance left to go; but in the end, preservation is just a shadow of what we've left behind and what is to come. A garden preserved for the ages is no Garden of Eden, and even the Garden of Eden from the beginning is nothing like the City of Eden at the back of the book.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Lent: Forgive

Anyone can forgive a rude customer or a cop who pulls people over because he can. You figure they're just jerks who don't know better. It's harder to forgive the friend who snubs you without explanation, the teacher who humiliates you in front of the entire school, or even the stranger who upends your life.

But each day of Lent moves us inexorably toward an act of supreme forgiveness, a pardon as grand as new flowers bursting up from the earth and heralding the arrival of spring. The remains of what was ruined when winter came are still there, but they're forgotten and don't matter. There are new blooms, and they're glorious.

When we learn to forgive, we will change the course of the world.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Lent: Wisdom

The word of the day is wisdom. In Greek: sophia; in Hebrew: Hokmot. I'm only 46, and my hair is only beginning to turn gray. What do I know about wisdom?

Knowledge is no good without her, but by her advice, a little wealth can increase and work much good in the world.

Disaster befalls those who ignore her, and a nation flounders when its rulers forget her; but those who treasure her become as tall and as strong as trees.

The people who claim to know her best usually are liars to the core, but you will find her in unexpected places and with people you never thought you'd see her associate with. Often that's where she stands tallest and most at her ease.

She gives her advice for free, but even though she stands by the roadside and offers it to everyone, we never want to listen until we've paid a great price. The more we know her, the lighter our load becomes; and yet our sorrow increases, because the better we know her, the less we find that we understand.

Sometimes I feel like she'll drive me mad, but I do know this. She's more precious than gold, property and even a good reputation. It's impossible to have enough of her.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Lent: Celebrate

My close personal friend Ruth Hersey commented today that "celebrate" seems like an odd thing to associate with Lent. It does, because we've been taught to associate Lent with the droopy-dog sort of piety that Jesus used to make fun of.

Fast if you want to, but Lent is a time to celebrate! In the Christian faith, Lent traditionally mirrors the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert following his baptism. This was a period in which Jesus began to understand his unique relationship with God, and his sense of purpose began to take shape.

That purpose proved to be not just the Cross, but more fundamentally a life fully lived for others. Read the gospel accounts, and you'll find no one so lowborn that Jesus wouldn't spend time with, no one so important that Jesus wouldn't risk offending them, no one so hated that Jesus couldn't find something admirable to praise them for, and no one so outside that Jesus wouldn't welcome in.

That's a life to celebrate, and when it's joined to yours, your life is worth celebrating as well every single day.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Lent: Treasure

I can't speak for anyone else, but I usually think of treasure as something valuable that a person owns. Usually that means money; for some people, it means mementos of happy times, like movie tickets or photos; and when we want to sound like our priorities are right, we'll say our children are our chief treasures.

Thing is, the people who hold onto their treasures are called "misers," or maybe "hoarders." Real treasure isn't what we hang onto for fear of losing, it's what we give generously from the soul. We give it to the rest of the world because we want to enrich the world and improve it by the gifting.

What's your treasure?

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Lent: Sacrifice

Let me tell you about two of my heroes.

My brother Steve and his wife, Rhonda, are the proud parents of three boys and one girl. Their daughter, Hannah, is the only one who was born to them. All three boys -- Caleb, David and Joe -- were born somewhere else, and Steve and Rhonda had to go find them. Put bluntly, the boys all were adopted, as teenagers.

Stop and think about that. For a child to be available for adoption in his teens, you can depend on it that the adoption process will be anything but smooth. Chances are higher than 99 percent that the child has been in the foster system for a while, and has moved from one home to another.

You can depend on behavior issues as the child pushes and tests the limits you've put in place. You can expect trust issues; after all, every time this child has trusted an adult, the adult has vanished. And you can bet your munsb├╝scher that there are going to be some challenges forming anything sort of a bond.

It takes an mountain of patience to adopt a child in his teens. It takes depths of love that the human heart rarely plumbs. It takes sacrifice to do it -- all that you have to give, and then more.

Anyone who sees the orphan standing alone, and then puts her hands on the orphan's shoulders and says, "This is my child" is a person who lives and moves in the very heart of God. She is someone who has discovered what it is to be shattered by the depth of humanity's need and to be cut on the shards of a child's pain.

It is because of such people that God is merciful to us all.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Lent: Injustice

I realized a while ago how alluring injustice can be, and how easily it beguiles with its appeals to law and order.

There are students right now at my daughter's school who are scared of deportation. You know the drill. Some of them came here before they were old enough to remember. Others were born here, but their parents came without documentation or had it but overstayed their visa. Others are just scared because it feels like brown skin is all its takes these days to make you a target. (I doubt the undocumented immigrants in Manville, who come mainly from Poland and Eastern Europe, are having nearly these difficulties.)

Supporters of the Trump administration's aggressive posture on immigration point to the rules governing immigration. "We're a society of laws," they say. "Follow the rules, or pay the piper."

"Follow the rules." That's something we try to instill in our children from the day they're born. If you track mud on the floor, you're going to clean it. If you play ball in the house, you're going to pay for whatever you break. If you're out past curfew, you're going to be grounded. If the rule of law is upheld, then there is justice.

Well, no. Sometimes the law can be wrong, and upholding it is an injustice. When the law is kind to the wealthy and harsh to the poor, it is an agent of injustice. When the law is harsh and demands more than is reasonable, it is a vehicle of injustice. When the law acts without mercy and demeans the value of those it prosecutes and punishes, then the law undermines its own authority, cheapens its own value and makes Justice its enemy.

My faith teaches me that the principle of the law is more important to Justice than the letter is, and that people are the most fundamental part of all. When Jesus saw how the law was used to push people to the side, to shame them and to remind them that their place was outside, he took their place.

We all know how that worked out for him.

I have no doubt where Jesus would stand on deportation. May God grant us the opportunities to take his side, and the courage to seize them.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Lent: Heal

I was bitten by a dog back in August, an encounter with a vicious little monster that left me with several tears on my fingers and hands that made it difficult to grip things.

The crew in the emergency room gave me rabies shots but said there was nothing they could do for the bites. Those would have to heal on their own. As you can see, they did.

Not all injuries are so obvious. Bullies leave marks that go deep, and relationships that don't work out leave broken hearts. The past three months we've seen how small-minded people with power can stir hatred so that the ignorant and the cowardly inflict fear and act out.

They vandalize cemeteries; they attack immigrants and threaten to deport them; they vilify Muslims; and they demean gays, lesbians and the transgender. They're like that dog, possessed by an outsize aggression belied by the small size of their spirits.

As a people we can heal the injuries that they inflict, by closing ranks and standing with those being targeted by the Donald Trumps, David Dukes and Steve Bannons of the world. We say of the Muslim, he is my brother; of the lesbian, she is my sister; of the transgender, they are my family. When you hurt them, you hurt us, and we will oppose you.

There are others who led the way to healing before, men and women who have seen that the world is bigger than themselves and contains more nations than their own. The movements that they inspire are a wine that heals and brings joy; and the Lee Harvey Oswalds, Nathuram Godseas, John Wilkes Boothes and Judas Iscariots who can't understand them always want to stir ashes into the bottle.

Healing takes time and always comes with a cost, but it's always worth it.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.