Friday, April 21, 2017

"'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus": Not Always as Simple as It Sounds

Louisa Stead was a young woman with a husband and a daughter when her family decided to take a picnic lunch on Staten Island Sound one sunny day.

Their lunch was interrupted by the screams of a young boy caught in the current. Her husband sprang into action, and rushed into the water to save the boy. It was a heroic effort, but a doomed one. As Louisa and their daughter looked on, both her husband and the boy he had intended to save, drowned.

This was in the 1800s, and employment options for a woman were limited, even without a dependent.
Without the income her husband provided, Louisa and her daughter, Lily, soon became destitute.

God, however, remained faithful, and with what he provided for them, the Steads moved to South Africa and served as missionaries. In 1882, Louisa published a hymn titled “'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” a simple but inspiring song about a simple faith that is honored and rewarded to the very end.

As Christian folklore goes, this story has all the elements needed for a hearty amen chorus at the revival service. It has a deep, personal tragedy that breaks the heart of anyone who hears and considers it. (How could you not cry at the thought of a young widow having to raise a child on her own after watching her husband drown?) It has a simple, unassuming faith in God that is proved justified time and again.

In the end, that faith even carries the young widow and her daughter into frontier missions work, where one assumes that they lived long, faithful and fruitful lives of service to those around them. Who would like to be the first tonight to dedicate her life to serving God?

Perhaps I mock a little, but only a little. A simple faith that says “I will trust God to provide for my needs” is the faith of children, and it's a not a bad place to start. It gets us through tough spots like “Janine was my friend yesterday but today she says she's not my friend anymore” and “I failed the test” and even “I can't go to the movies today, mom is so mean.”

It's a Golden Book sort of faith, one that tells us that God rescued Daniel from the lions because Daniel kept the faith, or that David was able to kill Goliath because David trusted him. It's a well-intended faith that says that we'll always be safe with God, because God-plus-one is a majority. You never lose, you never suffer, and you always come out on top because God is faithful.

It's a great faith for 4-year-olds, but it doesn't hold up well over the long haul. Sooner or later, the rest of life happens. Your dog dies. A friend betrays you. You get cancer. You lose a child. Your partner leaves you.

I've known people who try to sail through life on that same simple faith that got them through the travails of kindergarten, and it never works out well. Some bury pain deep and insist that things are all right, even when they're plainly not, because they don't want to be found lacking in faith.

So they smile and say they're happy that their child is with Jesus now; or they nurture a quiet revenge fantasy where the errant spouse will return, admit to being wrong, and then beg for forgiveness (which will be granted most magnanimously, once the humiliation has been paid back in equal measure).

That's never a good idea, because pain is real and it happens for a reason. You can plaster a smile over it for only so long until that son-of-a-bitch comes back and demands payment, with interest.

Others flounder on the rocks. Maybe they abandon the ruins of the ship; or maybe they stay there, with the ship still intact, too afraid to try pulling loose and sailing free on the ocean again. You'll see them years later, hollow ghosts of who they once were, identified entirely by the crisis they couldn't handle.

It's good to enter through the wicket gate as a child. It's a bad idea to stay a child your whole life.

“You need meat,” Paul lectures his readers. “Stop drinking milk.”

“Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity,” writes the author of Hebrews.

God never said bad stuff wouldn't happen. People still lose their parents, and it's always too soon. Spouses still stray, and even when they don't, sometimes the relationship withers on the vine anyway. Sometimes friends act with unspeakable cruelty. Sometimes life is unfair, and sometimes it's positively unjust.

Sometimes, it's true, faith shuts the mouths of lions. But for all the heroes of faith who miraculously were rescued, there are many others who were not:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:35-38)

Faith, real faith, the kind of faith we all boast that we have, even if only to ourselves, affirms that sometimes life is awful. She acknowledges the pain of loss, the grief of separation and the searing burn of injustice. Faith sheds real tears, and she even rages against God in the face of undeserved suffering.

Faith also knows not to offer answers at these moments. She keeps her peace, and simply holds on while the storm rocks the ship and threatens to wash everyone off.

It's also faith who finds the courage to ask the important questions. Is God still worth following – not just believing in, but actually following to the end – when he turns his back on us, or when he leads us into the Shadow of Death and leaves us there? Would Christ still be worth the effort if the lions had eaten Daniel, or if Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had perished in the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar?

Is faith still worth having if your husband dies, and you're left destitute with a child to raise on your own? That's not a question anyone can answer until it has been asked in the most personal way, but I think we know how Louisa Stead answered it.

God grant us the faith to do likewise.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

"'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus"

’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take him at his word;
Just to rest upon his promise,
And to know, "Thus says the Lord!"

    Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him.
    How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er.
    Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
    O for grace to trust him more.

O how sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to trust his cleansing blood;
And in simple faith to plunge me
’Neath the healing, cleansing flood.


Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just from sin and self to cease;
Just from Jesus simply taking
Life and rest, and joy and peace.


I’m so glad I learned to trust him,
Precious Jesus, savior, friend;
And I know that Thou art with me,
Wilt be with me to the end.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lent: Hope

It's much more fun when my cup overflows, but there are times when it is as dry as a valley of bones.

Hope, as Emily Dickinson once observed, is a bundle of contradictions. It's frail, yet it survives in the harshest lands; it's small and flighty, yet it perches in our very souls where it cannot be dislodged. Its trilling keeps us warm, and yet it never asks even a crumb in return.

Especially today when we remember that all hopes have a day to flounder and even to fail, that little bird looks more like a farmhouse canary whose neck has been wrung than it does like a phoenix whose lament eases the burden of loss.

During times like these, it's easy to believe that selfish and powerful men have won the long game. Through treachery and corrupt tricks, by taking advantage of others' decency and by leveraging their own power, they'll roll back the hardwon progress of people who don't sit at the board with them. They'll get their damnable wars and send the rest of us to fight them; they'll get rid of everyone who's not like them, and they'll teach us to be grateful for the chance to eat their scraps and pick through their garbage. It's easy to believe that we're headed into darkness where there is no sun, no trees, no grass, no moon and no stars.

Screw that. I'm going to keep my hope and keep listening to that little bird singing its heart out, even if the singing is an empty reflex. I'm going to learn wisdom from a marshwiggle.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lent: Spirit

I read a story 25 years ago about a woman who was made from flowers.

Blodeuwedd's story isn't really the one that was told. She was a character in the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a mythic Welsh hero who, due to a curse placed on him by his mother, was unable to marry a woman of any race upon the earth. His uncle Gwydion, a slippery sort of person, found a way around that curse fairly easily, by fashioning a body for Lleu's wife-to-be from flowers, and enticing a spirit to enter it.

The story, told in the Mabinogion, soon reveals the shortcoming in Gwydion's plans, namely that a spirit so easily enticed to enter a body of flowers may just as easily be enticed to other courses of action that neither Gwydion nor his nephew intended, nor wanted.

I'd be curious to hear Blodewedd's story, and discover how she felt about all these developments. If that story has been told, I have yet to find it.

I did hear another story, though, about a human who was shaped not from flowers but from clay, and how a spirit was breathed into him, and he became a living thing, animated by the breath of God. There's a story related to that one too, about a bride found suitable for a king. She was fashioned not of flowers, nor of clay, but of all the races of humanity to walk upon the earth. She also was brought to life by the spirit of God.

Unlike Blodewedd's, this woman's wedding day hasn't come yet. She's still waiting for her groom to come for her. Her spirit is capricious too, and she sometimes has had dalliances with people she shouldn't have.

Hers is a story I'm still learning. I'll let you know how it goes once I understand it better.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Maundy Thursday: Celebrating the ordinary before the storm

Thursday may be my favorite day in Holy Week. Thursday was the day we remember for a meal Jesus ate with his friends.

Formally known as Maundy Thursday, today marks the day Jesus and his disciples shared the Last Supper. On Sunday they threw Jesus a parade. On Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday, he mixed it up all over town, sparring in the Temple and winning accolades for his quick wit and sharp words. Good Friday will be set aside for horror and grief, Saturday is for despair, and Sunday is for celebrating the impossible, but tonight is for celebrating the Passover with those around you.

Dinner with friends. What could be more mundane, more ordinary and more profoundly human than that? We always wonder what we would do if we knew we only had 24 hours to live. The gospels show us what Jesus did. He ate dinner and spent a quiet evening with the people who mattered most to him.

We often think of the Last Supper as a fairly staid affair. The disciples had their little dustup, of course, they always did; but Jesus reclined at the table, serene and above the fray, absolutely stoic and unaffected as he drew the errant children back into good behavior.

I can't see it that way, try as I might. Jesus knew what was coming tomorrow, after all. How could he not? For the past three years he'd been defying social conventions and crossing lines to heal, honor and befriend outcasts in ways that scandalized decent society: welfare cheats, sex workers, immigrants, gays and lesbians, the transgender, adulterers, trained killers and religious people. Even before he looked at Jerusalem from the vantage of the Mount of Olives Jesus already was predicting his death.

When, I wonder, did he know that hammerfall was imminent? Maybe it was the heightened scrutiny. Verbal traps that masqueraded as friendly questions or as mere arguments had been ratcheting up the tension all week, the nets and spears of his opponents drawing closer all the time.Something was going to give, and soon.

Jesus had been on the road with his disciples for three years, and he knew them intimately. When did he first sense that Judas had started to pull back, moving first from all-in support to mixed feelings, and then onward to skepticism and finally to outright rejection? It must have happened quickly, but none of the other disciples noticed it. When Judas left partway through the Seder to betray their teacher, everyone else assumed that he was running out to get something they had forgotten for the meal.

When did Jesus realize that Peter was about to fail? For three years, Peter had been part of the inner circle of Jesus' intimates. Along with the brothers John and James, Peter had been there with Jesus when he raised the daughter of Jairus up from the dead. He'd also been one of the three to witness the Transfiguration.

Peter was someone Jesus clearly had been impressed with. Originally he'd been named Simon, but Jesus had likened him to a rock and renamed him Peter. Over the past week, Jesus had watched as a crack had formed in that rock and threatened to split it down the middle. He'd started praying that the rock would be strong enough to hold together.

Moments of terrible clarity come to all of us at one time or another. We realize that things are about to take a turn for the south and there's nothing we can do about it. The marriage has died, and divorce is now inevitable. Child Protective Services wants simply to close the case, and the girl you love like your own is headed back to the people who abused her. The boss has made his decision, and you're about to be fired. The mob has you at its mercy, and you're going to die.

People who survive such moments often report after it's all over that during the moment of crisis, there was a supernatural calm that fell over them and held them upright and aloft long after they would have given out on their own steam. The future didn't change; they still could hear the march of doom as clear as ever. It just didn't matter right then. These moments of serenity stretch across the surface of simmering trouble. From time to time that calm shakes from the tension of what is happening beneath, but it holds.

Did Jesus' voice tremble when he told Judas to go take care of what he had to do? Did the words catch in his throat when he predicted Peter would deny knowing him, and he described the prayers he had made for his friend's sake? Were there tears in his eyes as he held the Passover cup aloft after dinner and promised to drink it with them again in the Kingdom of Heaven?

All possible. Jesus was human, after all, and he stands squarely with us in our weakness, in our fears and in those secret places where we tremble for what we see coming for ourselves, our loved ones, for our nation and for our world.

The next moment may bring ruin, or it may bring death. Right now that doesn't matter. At this moment, there is only this moment. Right now, friends are gathered around, and it's time for dinner.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lent: Deny

With a word prompt like deny during Lent, it's hard not to think of Peter and his denial of Christ.

That string of denials started late Thursday night and continued into early Friday morning. The thought of denying that he knew Jesus almost certainly was as far from Peter's mind on Wednesday as it was on Thursday.

And yet Jesus clearly saw something going on during Holy Week. By the time Thursday night rolled around, he knew what Peter would do with such certainty that he even gave a time that it would happen by.

None of thinks we'll ever be the one to deny our faith, our principles or those we love. Let's walk in humility and with care. None of us knows what we're capable of until we discover our true price.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Lent: Above

The word for today is "Above," a nice focus for direction, or for perspective.

Keeping your eyes fixed on what is above means not being preoccupied with the things that bring us down. In the same way, looking at things from above helps us to keep perspective. Viewing the city from above shows us the way traffic drifts from one neighborhood into another. It lets us see commuters as they go to work, follow the households as they carry hard-earned cash to the business district, and track our streams and our wildlife as they move from one green area to another.

Viewed from above, there are no neighborhoods. There's just a city, with all its flaws, inequities, triumphs and selling points on display.

Above also can be a vantage point that gives you perspective, and frees to laugh at things that otherwise might annoy.

Tonight was Beloved Wife's birthday, so the girls and I took her out to eat at Chili's. Our server was distracted, so it took her a while to order our food, and even longer before it arrived. When it did arrive, someone accidentally spilled a piece of it on the floor.

Life happens. It was one piece of flatbread of four, and the woman who spilled it promised to bring my daughter a replacement right away.

My daughter set to eating, and it didn't come.

She finished her meal, and it hadn't come.

About a half-hour after the food had spilled, not only hadn't its replacement come, the old was still there, staring at us from below, lying on the floor where it had been dropped.

I took a picture and started to livetweet the flatbread, tagging Chili's in each post. Employees walked over it. It stayed on the floor. The manager walked past it twice. It stayed on the floor. Other customers at the restaurant walked over it and on it. It stayed on the floor, and I started livetweeting how many people had stepped on it.

About 35 minutes after the server had spilled the food, she came back to ask if we were ready for dessert. I pointed out the food on the floor, not for the first time, and mentioned that my daughter still was waiting for the replacement.

Later, when we were ready to go, we took one of those automated surveys intended to gauge customer satisfaction. "The restaurant was clean," was the prompt. My family, who had been following my livetweets of the flatbread saga, cracked up.

"See your Twitter feed," my daughter advised the restaurant. (To this date I haven't received an acknowledgment.)

Spilled food? No big deal. Not replaced in a timely manner? Disappointing.

Perspective gained by staying above the situation and laughing at it? Indispensible.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Lent: Celebrate

Like many other children her age, Middle Daughter has a thing for Alexander Hamilton.

Her celebration of all things Hamilton began a little more than two Christmases ago, when it was not yet clear that the musical on Broadway, while definitely A Thing, was going to be the juggernaut it since has become. She began singing "You'll Be Back" during car trips where once she had sung "Popular," and began displaying an unexpected familiarity with the Founding Fathers and early American history.

Lacking tickets to the show, Middle Daughter has embarked upon pilgrimages to sites sacred to the memory of Hamilton. Last summer, she celebrated his life at the Hamilton-Schuyler house in Morristown, N.J. Today we were in New York for an acting callback, so we built in extra time to ride the subway to Wall Street and visit his grave in the Trinity Church Cemetery.

It was barely 11 a.m. when we arrived to pay our respects. Pilgrims were out in full force. Hamilton's grave, as well as the graves of his wife, Eliza, and their son Philip, were adorned with flags and other patriotic trinkets, as well as votive offerings of money, in coins and bills of all denominations.

For my daughter, the visit alone was cause for celebration, as it is another place that she has been able to cross paths with one of her heroes. A man who gave so many years and such a legacy of wisdom and guidance to his adopted country is worth celebrating. I only pray that in remembering his life, and his accomplishments, that we also glean some of his wisdom for the days that lie ahead of us.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Lent: Blessing

Fresh food.
A house.
A dog.
Climate control.
A yard.
Playground equipment.
Publicly funded education.
Publicly supported arts.
Community theatre.
Good health.
Running water.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Lent: Voice

Even though it leads into Holy Week, Lent ostensibly is about the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism. It's all about two voices.

The first voice of Lent is the voice of God. It makes one appearance in the story, at the very beginning. As Jesus rises up from the water, he hears the voice declare "You are my son, in whom I am pleased," and then it falls silent. After this unusual declaration, Jesus heads into the Judean desert and fasts to the point that he begins to starve.

The end of the fast is marked by a second, sibilant voice, one far more familiar to us than the voice of thunder. I can imagine this voice approaching Jesus like an old friend with a helping hand, eager to help him resolve the questions that have been perplexing him for nearly six weeks.

"If you are the son of God," the voice begins, and the game is on.

Anyone familiar with the story knows whose voice it was, and probably recalls the suggestions it makes to resolve the quandary Jesus found himself in. Have something to eat. If you can turn stones to bread, you have all the proof you need of who you are. Throw yourself off the Temple, and you can see if God will save you. Sucks if he doesn't, but at least you'll know. And lastly: Take the easy way out. I'll give you the whole world, you can set to rights everything that is wrong. You won't ever need to worry about these questions again.

Every temptation that comes from the mouth of Satan is one that cuts to the very heart of Jesus' identity. He rejects self-indulgence, and sets forth a life of giving that is focused on others. He rejects easy answers, and puts himself on a road where he and others around him will have to judge Truth on its own merits rather than appealing to hard proof. He rejects worldly power, and sets himself on the road that ultimately will lead to his execution as an enemy of the state.

Navigating the perils of the beguiling voice, Jesus discovered his own voice, and his life (and ours) would never be the same.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Lent: Belief

I don't remember when I first got this coat. It must have been when I was very young, because I've had it for almost as long as I can remember. I've no idea how someone else might have enjoyed it; for my part, I have found it to be perfectly suitable for long and meandering walks.

It didn't mean much to me for the longest time. I wore it like I was expected to, but it wasn't until I was almost 17 that I really began to appreciate what having a coat like this means, and what it could mean for me personally.

For a while I ran with a crowd that wore coats like it, but they were a fairly unpleasant group: a little snobbish, very cliquish and carrying a huge chip on their collective shoulder. I took the coat off for a while, but discovered on the eve of college that it was worth more than I had realized. Over the next four years, I patched it up, made alterations and tried to get it to fit but it never did.

I realized eventually how bad a job I had done with it, and I took it to a tailor. He didn't say anything about the alterations I'd made to it, but he took them out and mended the coat properly so that it fit comfortably for the first time that I could remember.

Some years ago, I took a bad spill in the coat, right down the rocky side of a hill, all the way to the bottom. The coat was shredded on the way. The buttons came off, I lost one of the sleeves, and a few pockets ripped open. A few people thought I'd lost it for good.

Nothing doing. Some people don't like the way it looks, or think that their coats are better than mine, which is fine. I've found that the raggedy look suits me. It's certainly not too stiff and uncomfortable, and if I'm cold sometimes, at least I know why.

The coat's got me through a lot. All those tears, those holes, those stains and those missing pieces remind me of places I've been, experiences I've had, and even things that I didn't need after all. I've worn this coat for years, and I expect I'll wear it for many more.

See you on the trails.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Lent: Hear

"Mwen grangou." It's a sentence you hear every day in Haiti when you're an American living there. "I'm hungry."

I heard it all the time. Sometimes it came from the mouth of an obnoxious beggar, like Gwo-bouch; but sometimes it came from a boy like Daniel who was 12 years old but looked like he was 8. I heard the phrase come from the mouths of laborers who were working their jobs, from people who came round to our gate on Route de Kenscoff asking for a handout, and from vendors by the One Stop shop whom I'd got to know. I heard it from national friends like Luben, who meant it as a joke. I heard it from prostitutes once they'd accepted that I wasn't going to buy sex from them. I heard it improbably from a portly security guard and even from a well-to-do woman who had just stepped out of her sport utility vehicle.

Hearing, like seeing, is an incidental sense. You can't turn it on and off at will. It just picks up noises and feeds them into your head. It's not enough to see; you have to look. It's not enough to hear, you have to listen.

Listening takes practice. It involves learning to hear better. You learn to hear the desperation in the voice of the teenage girl who tried to sell you a piece of herself like she's done to so many others, and the hunger of the boy who spends his days on the streets because there's no other school his parents can afford. You learn to hear the con in the voice of the man who acts too familiar with you, or whose tale of hardship belies his mien of comfort.

Hearing like that is a tough skill, but it's essential to acquire it. Your only other option is to become bitter, distant and cold and the cost to your soul for that choice is too high to pay.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Lent: Breath

For those who pay attention to such things, there's a transcendent quality to the creation account in Genesis 1. The world doesn't form from the conflict of elemental forces, but by the authority of a Creator who speaks it into being. Let there be light. Let there be a firmament. Let there be dry land. Let there be people.

I love the account in Genesis 2. In a sharply contrasting view, we see God getting his hands dirty as he digs in the mud and plants trees. He scoops up the earth, and gets dirt under his fingernails. He carefully sculpts man from the earth, and breathes the breath of life into him; and gives him life.

Elihua declares in the book of Job: "The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life."

Whatever our background, whatever our age. whatever our nationality or religion, these words are true for all who draw the breath of life. May God be with all who do so, and may he demand an accounting from any who disregard the value of the life he has breathed into others.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Lent: Light

Winter is a dark time in Hoover Point, and when the temperature gets low and the frost lingers on the ground past 11 in the morning, the people of Hoover Point begin stocking up on candles, blankets and water.

That's because the last major civic project was run by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. Come January, everyone knows that the power will fail every time it rains, snows or gets wet; and the water mains will break every other week, right as clockwork. You can set your calendar by it. If you're really good, you can even figure out where you are by which water main or branch has broken.

Theophila Shula, when she was on the Hoover Point Town Council, had the idea to use this to draw carloads of tourists into town, bringing enough spending money with them to fix the town's roads.

Signs dutifully appeared all over the state, declaring Hoover Point as the destination for family vacations. “An entire community still with its original plumbing!” the signs boasted. “While you're here, come meet Bossie the Goat!” Bossie had won an honorable mention at the livestock fair, making her our first local celebrity since 1946, when Edith Magpie had swooned after shaking hands with Jimmy Stewart on vacation and rode in an actual ambulance to the hospital.

Councilwoman Shula was determined not to squander an opportunity like that one, not like previous town councils had done with Ellen Magpie. Ellen Magpie had finally passed away in 1973, without ever bringing anyone to town except for her cousin Cyrus.

The tourism effort was declared an overwhelming success when the Steadman family and their dog, Hooper, rolled into town one bright January midday and stopped at Lou's gas station at the edge of town.

The tourism board and its welcoming committee promptly convened and raced to Lou's gas station to meet our first tourists in memory. There they found Elizabeth Steadman muttering about being lost and trying to find the way back to the highway; her husband, Roy Steadman, complaining about the sheet of ice covering the main road because of a water main that had broken; and their children, Loki and Sandy Steadman, complaining that they were hungry.

As for their dog, Hooper, he had escaped the car when Mrs. Steadman opened the door to get stretch her legs and buy some gas. Hooper had proceeded to jump a fence, and was chasing Bossie around her pen as fast as the she would go.

The family took no interest in waiting for the next scheduled tour of the municipal plumbing at one o'clock, nor for a chance to watch crews from the Public Works Department as they labored to fix the transformers that had blown out from the fog six days earlier.

Instead they simply left town 20 minutes later, after retrieving their dog from Bossie's pen, and after buying nothing more than $35 worth of gas and a six-month-old Slim Jim from Lou's gas station. On behalf of the tourism board and its welcoming committee, Councilwoman Shula watched them go with a philosophical detachment that suited Hoover Point.

“They were probably Methodists anyway,” she said.

There was no denying, it was an even darker time that February. The water main on Johnson Avenue broke for the second time in two months and the transformers blew out again after a particularly bad fog, and plunged the entire town into darkness when there were almost no candles left. Worse, the wind smelled like frozen cow manure on account of the farm Old Man Cahill kept on his side of the Albany River. The final insult was that Bossie the Goat had eaten Councilwoman Shula's hat during a photo op to boost the town's tourism industry, which hadn't had any new breakthroughs since the Steadmans' visit.

Light came, as it always did, in announcements about the upcoming annual revival service in July. Organized by the Ladies Mission Society of Hoover Point, the revival service was the main social event of the year. Everyone looked forward to it, no matter what church they went to, even the Lutherans.

The revival was an old-fashioned tent meeting that came after a community picnic the likes of which was never seen outside Hoover Point. Ellie Park always brought the powdered doughnuts she had learned to make in Paris once, and everyone else always brought the food they had learned to make from their mothers.

There would be hot fresh buttered cornbread, twenty-seven different kinds of roast pork, fifteen different types of roast chicken, nineteen kinds of potato salad and sixteen kinds of macaroni salad, to say nothing of the lemonade, cakes. It was enough to make you start salivating even though it was only March.

Even the Feinsteins promised to come, even though they were Jewish and not Christian. Each year they brought something called gelfite fish, to go with something else that they called Moo Goo Gai Pan and insisted was a traditional Jewish dish.

The revival ran for a week, and every evening just before sundown people would gather by the big tent in the park and argue over whose turn it was to sit under the tent, and who had to sit outside the tent and listen at a distance.

As the service went on, the Spirit would begin to move and the Pentecostals would start whooping and hollering while the decent Baptist folk watched nervously, and the Presbyterians would sit so still that every now and then the doctor would have to walk past their seats and make sure that they were still breathing. (They always were, except for one summer when he noticed that Ross Van Cleef had been sitting in the same chair for three nights in a row and the doctor became suspicious that he might not just be getting there early and claiming his favorite seat before everyone else arrived.)

And now the Ladies Mission Society announced that it was bringing in the legendary Amos MacPherson for the annual revival, a man so close to God that he was known as God's Light-Bearer.

Amos MacPherson had taken the light of the gospel to the darkest places in the world in his time. He had gone to Africa, where he had brought revival to an entire city in Sudan. He had gone to India, and planted a church that now had 10,000 members. He had traveled into the jungle in South America and reached a dozen different tribes.

Once he even had gone under the bleachers at a high school football game and brought eight teenagers back out into the light with him.

And now he was coming here.

Six weeks before his arrival, posters appeared all over Hoover Point. “The Dawning of the Light!” they shouted. “Amos MacPherson, God's Light-Bearer!” “Healings!” the posters promised. “Revelation!” they declared. “You will see the light – you will be changed! You WILL thank him for coming.”

Before the spirit of revival could begin, the spirit of preparation had to do its work. The men of town went to the campground and removed all the beer bottles that had gathered in the past year, cleared the dead brush, saw that the fence was sturdy and that the campground sign was freshly painted, and removed the newest round of beer bottles to gather since the work began.

The ladies of Hoover Point meanwhile kept themselves busy preparing in their own way. Nice dresses were pulled from the closet and mended. Amelia Cheesit once had attended a revival service with a dress that had a small tear under the left arm, and that, everyone knew, was the only thing worse than attending a revival wearing the same dress as the previous year. In some extreme cases, entirely new dresses would need to be bought or even made.

Pastors prepared sermons urging people to attend the revival series. Days before the Dawning of the Light, Daisy Miller announced that she had discovered a seventeenth kind of macaroni salad; and as the entire town drooled, Ezayi Benamoz and Alexander Smith began preparing their secret sauces for their pulled pork.

And then the day came. Everyone agreed that tear in Kurt Wenz's pants knee was regrettable, but not as bad as the tear Amelia Cheesit had once had, and Councilwoman Theophila Shula's new hat was even better than the one Bossie the Goat had eaten. Opinion was split on whether Daisy Miller's macaroni salad really counted as a new variety since all she had done was to change the type of onion she chopped for it, but the consensus was that Ezayi Benamoz once again had crushed his arch-rival in the pulled pork department.

So, well-fed and weary of the darkness, the entire town turned out for the Dawning of the Light to hear Amos MacPherson preach.

It was a sermon for the ages.

Amos MacPherson shined God's light into the darkest places of our souls. He spoke about our wretchedness and sinfulness, warning that the wages of sin is death with such passion and conviction that by the end of the first night, the entire kindergarten class of the Danae Llavsa Elementary School had confessed to taking extra cookies when the cafeteria staff wasn't looking.

Revival tarried, so on the second night, Amos MacPherson shined the light of God over our heads. He pointed to the stars in the heavens, explained that God had made light on the way from the stars before he even made the stars, and that God was lofty and mighty and so far above us that we were less before him than the worms were beneath him.

By the time he finished that sermon, it was past midnight. The entire high school astronomy club had renounced their telescopes as the devil's handiwork and vowed to study earthworms, while the entire high school invertebrates club had announced their newfound God-inspired interest in astronomy.

Revival still tarried, and people began to wonder what horrible sin was at work in our community. The whispers grew and speculation ran wild, so that when revival still tarried on Wednesday, the pastors and elders of the churches in Hoover Point met in private to ferret it out. We would all be thankful, they vowed, once we had rooted out the sin and corruption in our community that were keeping God at bay.

On Thursday night, the bomb hit. Before Amos MacPherson could come before us and shine God's light onto us, the Rev. Greenwood came out and took the podium.

“After much prayer today with the other pastors and elders of Hoover Point, I have decided today to submit my resignation as pastor of Hoover Point Lutheran Church,” he said, with such solemnity that even the Presbyterians were impressed.

He went on, and discussed the sin of divorce, and explained that as such a divorced minister, he was deeply flawed and had come to the conclusion that he was blocking the outpouring of God's spirit upon the community and upon his flock that they so desperately wanted. There was more but I don't think anyone heard it, we were all stunned.

We all knew that the Rev. Greenwood – Pastor Bob, we all called him when we were in his office with him – was divorced. He and his first wife had split three years before he came to Hoover Point, and two years after he had moved here, he had taken up with Lisa Anglewood and eventually married her, even though she had been a Baptist until then.

In the seventeen years since then, Pastor Bob had been a warm, caring man who more than a dozen couples from around town had credited with saving their marriages. He was known not just in Hoover Point but over at Old Man Cahill's farm and among the other people outside town limits as a good listener, a decent guitarist and one of the worst euchre players in the county. The thought that God wouldn't deal with us because of Pastor Bob's sin was a sobering one.

The night and in the days that followed we were forced to ask ourselves what sin looked like, and if we might have misunderstood it. We started to think about grace instead of sin, and about light instead of darkness. Some people (primarily the Lutherans, who convinced Pastor Bob to stay) say that we began to have a revival for the first time in ages.

Thanks, Gods Light-Bearer. The light did dawn that year, and we owe you for it.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Lent: Celebrate

My daughter has to take an egg with her everywhere she goes for two weeks, as part of a high school unit on teenage parenthood.

In the process, she and her classmates are supposed to see that parenthood is not glamorous, nor exciting, nor fun when it comes before you are ready for it. It's a serious business, disruptive complicated, inconvenient and even embarrassing.

She accidentally dropped her egg the other day, and had to write a letter to Child Protective Services explaining what had happened and how she would prevent further such incidents. (Based on what actually happened, my daughter wrote a letter explaining that the child carrier was poorly built, and that she has filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer.)

Life is a serious business, with weighty responsibilities, but my daughter also realizes that life also is meant to be fun and celebrated. So she named her egg Carolina, drew a face on her, and put her in a cloth diaper. Carolina went to church today with us and got to play with the plastic eggs we were stuffing for the upcoming Easter egg hunt. We also have photos of Carolina at a restaurant with us, and I'd love to get pictures of the little grandegg doing other things and going other places with us as the opportunity arises.

Life is short. There's a lot to do that's important, and at times we have heavy responsibilities that we're not ready for and need to grow into. I like my daughter's attitude: The assignment is an inconvenient one, but it's something she has embraced and has found a way to celebrate and even enjoy.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Lent: Darkness

I've seen darkness. I stood across the street from it once, the day it came to my city. It stood across the street from us, carried ugly signs that said things like "Rabbis rape kids" and "God hates fags," and it sang.

Other times I've felt the darkness. On 9-11 it was terrifying. I woke up at 10 am. after a late night in the news room, and rumors were flying. Planes had hit the Twin Towers and a spot in Pennsylvania. My neighbor told me that there a dozen more planes in the air, and the Air Force had been ordered to shoot them down. No one knew where the president was. No one knew what was going to happen next.

I saw the face of unfathomable darkness on Dec. 14, 2012. That was when Adam Lanza gunned down 20 students and their teachers in Newtown, Conn.

Lately it seems that darkness has been growing bolder. A man was arrested in New York this week after traveling there specifically to kill black people.

A 12-year-old girl a few days ago saw her father arrested by ICE officers who intend to deport him, not because of a felony but because he is in the country without documentation. The U.S. Congress signed away our privacy on the Internet to help line the pockets of cable Internet providers.

The national GOP has announced its intent to continue its quest to remove insurance protection for Americans.

The president and his family have disregarded every ethics rule and expectation that they can, and seem intent on looting the country for as long as they can, and all the while his chief adviser is an avowed white nationalist.

The darkness is heavy, but darkness is dispelled by light.

When Westboro Baptist Church came to my city on October 28, 2009, I stood there with my oldest daughter for as long as their rally lasted.

I was there because I have gay friends, and I cannot allow homophobia to go unchallenged.

I was there because I have transgender friends, and I cannot allow transphobia to go unchallenged.

I was there because I have Jewish friends, and I cannot allow anti-Semitism to go unchallenged.

I was there because I have black friends, and I cannot allow racism to go unchallenged.

I was there because I am human, and I cannot allow hatred to go unchallenged.

I was there because I am a father, and I need my children to understand that while we cannot stop people from doing evil things, we can stand up against them and identify with the people they hate. It's never enough just to attend a counterdemonstration. We can stand in the way with our words, with our voices, with our friendship and even with our bodies.

It doesn't matter what the politicians say, what the crowds say, or what the people with the badges say. When the darkness moves in, it's our job to hold up a candle and chase it back.

"The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.