Like a Shepherd

The following meditation is drawn from a 200th anniversary sermon at the Congregational church in Rupert, Vermont: 

"GOD'S IN HIS HEAVEN, all's right with the world," Robert Browning wrote, and the psalm is certainly not saying that any more than you or I can say it either. Whoever wrote it had walked through the valley of the shadow the way one way or another you and I have walked there too. He says so himself. He believed that God was in his Heaven despite the fact that he knew as well as we do that all was far from right with the world. And he believed that God was like a shepherd. 

When I think of shepherds, I think of one man in particular I know who used to keep sheep here in Rupert a few years back. Some of them he gave names to, and some of them he didn't, but he knew them equally well either way. If one of them got lost, he didn't have a moment's peace till he found it again. If one of them got sick or hurt, he would move Heaven and earth to get it well again. He would feed them out of a bottle when they were new-born lambs if for some reason the mother wasn't around or wouldn't "own" them, as he put it. He always called them in at the end of the day so the wild dogs wouldn't get them. I've seen him wade through snow up to his knees with a bale of hay in each hand to feed them on bitter cold winter evenings, shaking it out and putting it in the manger. I've stood with him in their shed with a forty watt bulb hanging down from the low ceiling to light up their timid, greedy, foolish, half holy faces as they pushed and butted each other to get at it because if God is like a shepherd, there are more than just a few ways, needless to say, that people like you and me are like sheep. Being timid, greedy, foolish, and half holy is only part of it. 

Like sheep we get hungry, and hungry for more than just food. We get thirsty for more than just drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty; in fact it is often that sense of inner emptiness that makes us know we have souls in the first place. There is nothing that the world has to give us, there is nothing that we have to give to each other even, that ever quite fills them. But once in a while that inner emptiness is filled even so. That is part of what the psalm means by saying that God is like a shepherd, I think. It means that, like a shepherd, he feeds us. He feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding. 

-Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry 

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Music So Lovely

The following meditation is drawn from a 200th anniversary sermon at the Congregational church in Rupert, Vermont: 

I DON'T SUPPOSE there is any passage in either the Old Testament or the New that sums up the faith this church was founded on more eloquently and movingly than the 23rd Psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want." How many times would you guess those words have been spoken here over the years, especially at dark moments when people needed all the faith they could muster? How many times have we spoken them ourselves, at our own dark moments? But for all their power to bring comfort, do the words hold water? This faith in God that they affirm, is it borne out by our own experience of life on this planet? That is a hard and painful question to raise, but let us honor the occasion by raising it anyway. Does this ancient and beautiful psalm set forth a faith that in the secrecy of our hearts we can still honestly subscribe to? And what exactly is that faith it sets forth? The music of the psalm is so lovely that it's hard sometimes to hear through it to what the psalm is saying. 

-Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry

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Crux of the Matter

The following meditation is drawn from a 200th anniversary sermon at the Congregational church in Rupert, Vermont: 

SINCE 1786 PEOPLE have been coming here the way you and I came here today. Men who fought in the American Revolution and the widows of men who never got back from it. Civil War veterans. Two centuries worth of farmers, dairymen, mill workers, an occasional traveler. Old men and old women with most of their lives behind them, and young men and young women with most of their lives ahead of them. People who made a go of it and are remembered still, and people who somehow never left their mark in any way the world noticed and aren't remembered anymore by anybody. Despite the enormous differences between them, all these men and women entered this building just the way you and I entered it a few minutes ago because of one thing they had in common. 

What they had in common was that, like us, they believed (or sometimes believed and sometimes didn't believe; or wanted to believe; or liked to think they believed) that the universe, that everything there is, didn't come about by chance but was created by God. Like us they believed, on their best days anyway, that all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this God was a God like Jesus, which is to say a God of love. That, I think, is the crux of the matter. In 1786 and 1886 and 1986 and all the years between, that is at the heart of what has made this place a church. That is what all the whooping has been about. In the beginning it was not some vast cosmic explosion that made the heavens and the earth. It was a loving God who did. That is our faith and the faith of all the ones who came before us. 

-Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry

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Its Own Worst Enemy

I was on a train somewhere along that grim stretch of track between New Brunswick, New Jersey, and New York City. It was a gray fall day with low clouds in the sky and a scattering of rain in the air, a day as bleak and insistent as a headache. The train windows were coated with dust, but there wasn't all that much to see through them anyway except for the industrial wilderness that spread out in all directions and looked more barren and more abandoned as we approached Newark—the flat, ravaged earth, the rubble, the endless factories black as soot against the sky with their tall chimneys that every now and then are capped with flame, a landscape out of Dante. I was too tired from where I'd been to feel much like reading and still too caught up in what I'd be doing to be able to doze very satisfactorily, so after gazing more or less blindly out of the dirty window for a while, I let my eyes come to rest on the nearest bright thing there was to look at, which was a large color photograph framed on the wall up at the front end of the coach.  

It was a cigarette ad, and I forget what it was in it exactly, but there was a pretty girl in it and a good-looking boy, and they were sitting together somewhere—by a mountain stream, maybe, or a lake, with a blue sky overhead, green trees. It was a crisp, sunlit scene full of beauty, of youth, full of life more than anything else, and thus as different as it could have been from the drabness I'd been looking at through the window until I felt just about equally drab inside myself. And then down in the lower left-hand corner of the picture, in letters large enough to read from where I was sitting, was the Surgeon General's familiar warning about how cigarette smoking can be hazardous to your health, or whatever the words are that they use for saying that cigarette smoking can cause lung cancer and kill you dead as a doornail.  

It wasn't that I hadn't seen such ads thousands of times before and boggled at the macabre irony of them—those pretty pictures, that fatal message—but for some reason having to do with being tired, I suppose, and having nothing else much to look at or think about, I was so stunned by this one that I haven't forgotten it yet. "Buy this; it will kill you," the ad said. "Choose out of all that is loveliest and greenest and most innocent in the world that which can make you sick before your time and bring your world to an end. Live so you will die."  

I'm not interested here in scoring a point against the advertising business or the tobacco industry, and the dangers of cigarette smoking are not what I want to talk about; what I want to talk about is something a great deal more dangerous still, which the ad seemed to be proclaiming with terrible vividness and power. We are our own worst enemies, the ad said. That's what I want to talk about. I had heard it countless times before as all of us have, but this time the ad hit me over the head with it—that old truism that is always true, spell it out and apply it however you like. As nations we stockpile new weapons and old hostilities that may well end up by destroying us all; and as individuals we do much the same. As individuals we stockpile weapons for defending ourselves against not just the things and people that threaten us but against the very things and people that seek to touch our hearts with healing and make us better and more human than we are. We stockpile weapons for holding each other at arm's length, for wounding sometimes even the ones who are closest to us. And as for hostilities—toward other people, toward ourselves, toward God if we happen to believe in God—we can all name them silently and privately for ourselves.  

The world is its own worst enemy, the ad said. The world, in fact, is its only enemy. No sane person can deny it, I think, as suddenly the picture on the wall of the train jolted me into being sane and being unable to deny it myself. The pretty girl and the good-looking boy. The lake and trees in all their beauty. The blue sky in all its innocence and mystery. And, tucked in among it all, this small, grim warning that we will end by destroying ourselves if we're not lucky. We need no urging to choose what it is that will destroy us because again and again we choose it without urging. If we don't choose to smoke cigarettes ourselves, we choose at least to let such ads stand without batting an eye. "Buy this; it can kill you," the pretty picture said, and nobody on the train, least of all myself, stood up and said, "Look, this is madness!" Because we are more than half in love with our own destruction. All of us are. That is what the ad said. I suppose I had always known it, but for a moment—rattling along through the Jersey flats with the gray rain at the window and not enough energy to pretend otherwise for once—I more than knew it. I choked on it. 

-Originally published in Secrets in the Dark

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AVARICE, GREED, concupiscence, and so forth are all based on the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The remark of Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) is based on the human truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are. It is not just for the sake of other people that Jesus tells us to give rather than get, but for our own sakes too. 

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking 

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