WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

“The things of the world are ordered and designed to shadow forth spiritual things.  It is apparent and allowed that there is a great and remarkable analogy in God’s works.  The Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature two ways: viz. by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified or typified in the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances.”

Jonathan Edwards, Images of Divine Things (1728)

……….

In 2006, 32,000 acres of the Boundary Waters, the pristine wilderness in far northern Minnesota, was devastated by a raging forest fire in the Cavity Lake area.  There was obvious concern for the welfare of that ecosystem – the glorious Balsam Firs and animals who made it their home – as well as concern that it would diminish the attraction and draw of that destination place for outfitters and hikers.  We’ve also heard, all along, that forest fires are an essential and necessary part of nature’s course.  That’s true, on one level, and not, on another.

University of Minnesota forest ecologist Lee Frelich said that if people tried to suppress or control fires over the last century or so, the forest would look pretty sad.  “You would get essentially a sea of Balsam Fir,” Frelich said, “then the budworm would come, and it goes out and kind of kills half the trees. So you’d have this kind of crappy, half-dead forest which is full of brush and branches and which is not very attractive for people or wildlife.”  Fire can enrich topsoil by speeding up the process of recycling nutrients, and it can effectively take care of grasses or shrubs which would grow too quickly and crowd out sunlight for other species and trees.  Fire is a necessary part of a forest ecosystem.

Even more fascinating, to me, is that certain living things have become fire dependent.  The cone of the jack pine, for instance, has within it a waxy substance that only opens when sustained heat comes from below – and even then it doesn’t release its seeds until another 20 minutes have gone by, obviously essential to the species’ survival lest the seed get dropped on a fire raging below.  Frelich further explains: “In the case of the jack pine, the seeds germinate much better if the leaf litter has been burned away. Jack Pine, in fact, has drier foliage than other species of trees which makes it easier for a fire to run through Jack Pine. It is almost as if they purposely promote fire.”

There is a whole system, it seems, that’s not only adapted to fire, it’s dependent on it.  Nitrogen, for instance, is a major portion of the air we breathe and a basic building block of compounds that make up plant and animal tissues, especially proteins.  Jim Peterson, in Evergeen, notes: “Nitrogen is a marvelous fertilizer, but to do its work it must first be fixed – combined with other elements to form compounds green plants can use.  The heat from fire transforms nitrogen into more easily absorbed organic compounds that fuel photosynthesis, the process by which plants, including trees, capture visible light energy and convert water from the soil and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen.  Glucose is then converted into other organic compounds.  In trees, these organic compounds are converted to wood fiber.”  Fire is not just necessary, it’s essential.

When God comes again to Jesus’ followers, days after Jesus had ascended into heaven, the images are provocative, violent, and stirring: the sound the disciples hear is “the rush of a violent wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.” (Acts 2)  Fire is, here, a lively and animating force, giving them new capacity and spirited courage.  But it’s also, as we’ve seen in the book of nature, a destructive, crippling force.  This image of God’s revelation is profound when understood in both of those senses.  This is how God comes to us, a fire which burns off the dust and dross of our old life but also, we fear, consuming it entirely – even destroying that which we hold on to and treasure, that which we feel might save us in time.  There is new life in this living God; we know that in our minds, at least.  But it’s hard to think about salvation when the old-growth forest of your private world is being ripped through with the licking flames of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask us to become, spiritually, fire dependent.  There are those Christians today and throughout the ages who do a much better job of relying and depending on that devastating fire – the Pentecostals of today are very much related to the mystics in the Christian tradition.

Even if we’re not fire dependent, though, we could stand to be a little less fire averse.  While it’s true that fires have long been a part of a given forest’s internal ecosystem, and that all of this happened long before we came on the scene, it’s not necessarily the same as the devastating tragedies we witness summer after summer, destroying homes, in some cases taking lives, and altogether wreaking havoc in the American southwest.  Historically, at least, these were small and somewhat more contained fires, helping the ecosystem get rid of waste and nourish the soil; Peterson notes, in Evergreen, “they traveled close to the ground [and] most of these fires were not very intense.”  “By contrast,” he continues, “the crown fires that now frequent the Southwest don’t have any redeeming value. In fact, their ferocity is difficult to comprehend: flames moving fast enough to overrun birds in flight, burning hot enough to crack boulders, melting topsoil’s organic layer into a waxy glaze that is impervious to water. The flooding that follows often strips stream channels to bedrock, washing away every vestige of fish habitat.  So the irony: our early attempts to contain wildfire—a societal decision made some 80 years ago— simply postponed the unexpected but inevitable return of even larger fires and more destructive fires.”

The irony indeed is that, like in the natural order of things, we have so tried to make ourselves immune to the kind of low-level flames which are, in fact, good and healthy that we’ve actually brought about even more devastating and consuming fires.  The attempt to make oneself more fire averse will, in the end, be one’s own downfall.  Even if we can’t make ourselves, like those mystics of old, reliant on the Spirit’s flame, we’d be wise to find ways to make our spirits and hearts a whole lot less averse to Her power.

It’s much more godly and, I’d say, a whole lot easier to live this way, anyway.  It’s healthy to have a form of spirituality that is open, not closed; inquisitive, not dismissive; willing to be changed or taken in new directions, not averse or resistant.  If you are rooted in God and you trust God, wholeheartedly, what seems new or different is actually part of God’s drawing out the story of redemption. In fact, this is what it means to follow and worship a living God.  I’ve always valued what the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once said: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

On this point, I find the response of the crowd in Acts 2 interesting: most of those who heard the apostles speaking different languages were, scripture records, “amazed and perplexed.” They were also honest, saying to themselves and one another: “What does this mean?”  That’s a perfectly normal question for an odd, unexpected, even chaotic series of events.  But we often leap-frog over that question on our way to judgmental interpretation or our own spin (or uncritically adopting another’s spin).  Even on that first Pentecost, not all were so open-minded.  Some, maybe more than some sneared and in their negative judgment automatically dismissed the event, labelling the apostles a bunch of drunks: “They are filled with new wine.”

At that, Peter preaches a pretty thorough sermon.  Over the years, I’ve read Peter’s sermon as a definitive, erudite, and bold exposition of the faith, only it’s now a faith revealed in an astonishingly different way.  To be honest, that kind of spirituality can be off-putting, as well.  Those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ aren’t necessarily looking for the answers, given in black-and-white, and if we read Peter’s sermon as a kind of take it or leave it proposition, we might as well leave behind an increasingly vocal majority of American people who genuinely want what we call the Holy Spirit but, in equal measures, are tired of Christian dogma and assertiveness.  Outside these doors and, I know, sitting in these pews are people who are genuinely looking for a community of seekers, a gathering of ordinary folks who want to live with the questions and wonder, together: “What does this mean?”

Looking at it from another angle, though, perhaps Peter was wondering aloud, a seeker himself, drawing into the present the seeds of the past.  Perhaps Peter was simply bringing forth Joel’s words – words which had lay dormant for centuries but were nevertheless imbued with a holy force.  It reminds me of another interesting aspect of the Boundary Waters fire: after the 2006 fire, wild geraniums suddenly shot up everywhere.  A type of perennial known as Bicknell’s Geranium, a geranium which only germinates in direct sunlight, was long buried under all that clutter and leaf litter, just waiting for it to be burned away.  “That site had last burned in 1801,” forester ecologist, Frelich, said: “Those were 200-year-old seeds germinating.”

Describing what visitors would see in the growing seasons immediately following the 2006 devastation, Frelich described a picturesque scene, albeit one that’s radically different from a forest previously dominated by imposing Balsam Firs: “Raspberry plants can have seeds that have been in the soil for decades, and those will sprout,” Frelich added. “Blueberries will sprout from their roots underground. By the end of the first summer, you’ll see Fireweed, which has a bright pink flower.  By the fourth and fifth years, that’s when the berries are the most prolific. Raspberries, blueberries and berries of all sorts. By then, the saplings of trees will be four or five feet high. That’s when it’s really ideal for moose — birch and aspen that are their favorite thing to eat, and there will be billions of them, and they will all be within reach. In an 80-year-old birch forest, the moose is not going to be able to reach the crowns of the trees. But in a young forest like that, they have all the food they want. The population of Black-backed Woodpeckers will go up. You don’t see many of them in mature, closed-canopy forests, but after these big disturbances, by a few years later, you can be sitting there and eating lunch and a dozen of them might fly by.”

An amazing and beautiful landscape, all right there, all along – just waiting for the old-growth to be burned away, waiting to behold the truth that nature conveys: our God is not dead, our faith is not placed in a cabinet of cherished, fading memories, our convictions are not of a bygone era, nor has God forgotten us.  The One we worship is a living God, and ours is a living faith.  Because of which we wonder, aloud, and are unafraid of doing so: “What does this mean?”

……….

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Pentecost Sunday, 19 May 2013

JUST BECAUSE IT BURNS DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE GONNA DIE

“Peter felt hurt because Jesus said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn. 21:17b)  ‘Felt hurt’ or, as in some translations, Peter ‘grieved’ is the Greek word (lupeo) that means to be distressed. When Jesus told his disciples he would be killed (Mt. 17:23), for instance, or when at the Last Supper he declared that one of them would betray him (Mt. 26:22) they became “greatly distressed” (lupeo).  It can indicate being ‘in heaviness’ or ‘suffering’ as in 1 Peter 1:6: “…you have been (lupeo) in heaviness in various trials.”

It’s odd that Peter is distressed when, in fact, Jesus is reaching out to him, asking him three times to love him.  Jesus’ actions are a counterpart to Peter’s earlier three-fold denial, a rather passionate denial, at that, with cursing and swearing in Matthew’s telling: “…Then Peter began to curse and he swore, ‘I do not know the man!’ At that moment the cock crowed.  Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Mt. 26:74-75)

Peter’s once ‘bitter weeping’ becomes, in time, a different kind of grief – Peter’s heavy heart as Jesus restores the relationship once broken.  When God meets us, face to face, we are undoubtedly, like Peter, not just sorry but profoundly distressed, even to the point of grief.

And it feels so good.

Let me explain by way of a story.  (It’s a story told in Adam Makos’ book, A Higher Call; click here.  And in John Blake’s CNN report, “Two enemies discover a ‘higher call’ in battle; click here.)

CHARLES BROWN

Several days before Christmas 1943, high in the skies over France a young American B-17 pilot named Charles Brown was struggling mightily to get his nearly sacked plane and injured crew back to England.  Brown was all of 21 years old, a West Virginia farm boy flying his first combat mission when his “flying fortress” was shot to pieces by swarming fighters.  Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead.

In a moment, Brown glanced outside his cockpit and froze.  Spencer Luke, his co-pilot, saw the same horrible thing.  A German Messerschmitt fighter sat just feet from their wingtip, having closed in ready for the kill.

“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.

“He’s going to destroy us,” Brown added, knowing that that moment was the end of his life.  Never again would he see his family and friends.  Never again would he breathe the mountain air of his hometown.  High above France, alone and frightened, that was how it ends.

But what they saw next was an odd thing.  The German fighter pilot didn’t shoot.  Instead, he nodded at the pilots.  And then did an even more amazing thing.

Second Lt. Franz Stigler was an ace fighter pilot.  One more kill and he’d earn the The Knight’s Cross, the highest award for military valor.  By late 1943, however, Stigler was no longer motivated by thoughts of glory or pride.  Earlier in the war, his older brother, August, a fellow pilot, was shot down and killed.  The tide of the war was shifting, and the war in the skies was increasingly difficult.  Exhaustion, war fatigue and untold loss were starting to get to Stigler.  By war’s end, it should be noted, of the 28,000 pilots who fought for the Luftwaffe only 1,200 survived.

FRANZ STIGLER

Dark and sinister emotions flooded Stigler. While he stood smoking a cigarette near his plane one afternoon, he heard the roar of Charles Brown’s “flying fortress,” a plane that was wreaking destruction upon the homeland he vowed to protect.  Filled with thoughts of revenge, he hopped in his fighter, saluted a ground crewman, and took off in hot pursuit.

Coming upon the American plane, he decided to attack from behind.  His hand was on the trigger.  Then he hesitated – no one was firing at him.  Flying closer to Brown’s B-17, he saw the tail gunner humped over and lying still, his white airman’s collar covered in blood.  The American plane was a sorry sight – its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out.  Inside, he could see men tending the wounds of other crewmen.

He nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings, and locked eyes with the pilot whose own eyes were wide with horror.  Stigler eased his index finger off the trigger.  He couldn’t shoot.  It would be murder.

In that moment, alone in the skies with the crippled bomber, Stigler single-mindedly changed his mission.  He nodded at the American pilot, and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.”

The horror of facing his own death, for Charles Brown, which quickly turned to his salvation is its own shock.  Franz Stigler’s turning from vengeance to empathy was an inner-struggle.  Setting aside revenge for compassion brings its own heaviness.  They saw the other’s humanity.  They met on equal terms.  The ending was happy but the process was heart-wrenching.

And it’s the kind of sorrow that just feels so good.

……….

Because it’s perhaps the one biblical passage with the single worst translation, across the board, any English version of the seaside conversation between Jesus and Peter about love (John 21:15-19) so utterly fails to convey what’s actually going on.  In the Greek of the New Testament, there are multiple words for love.  Agape is perfect and selfless love.  It’s looking out for the interest of the one who is loved, putting them ahead of self.  It’s what we call unconditional love, the love God has for us.  There’s a lesser kind of love, as well; the affection we have for a friend or family member, brotherly love.  In Greek, philios.

When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, in John 21, the text alternates between different words.  You can’t hear this story let alone understand the message, unless you hear it closer to its original tongue.  Let’s give it a shot:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know I (philios) love you like a brother.’

… A second time Jesus said to him, ‘Peter, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.

…Jesus said the third time, ‘Peter, do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.’

Peter felt hurt, but it wasn’t remorse.

Peter felt the profound life-altering hurt of being truly, wholly loved.  God met Peter, face to face.  God comes to our level and loves us.  The response when we are so profoundly known and still loved, oddly enough, is a piercing heart-wrenching pain that is, at once, so refreshing.  Time and again throughout history — above all, when God became a vulnerable baby born in the utter darkness of the year — God risks everything, God risks God’s own majesty and stoops to our level, to our humanity.  God comes to us not in pomp or power, but in humility: along the shoreline for Peter and his fellow fisherfolk; for us, in the context of our own particular circumstances.

God doesn’t expect us to be better or in a different place but where we are, right here, right now.  And God asks us, like Jesus asked Peter, to love him in the way we can, putting aside any question of how we should.  There’s no judgment here, no brow-beating or submission.  There are no power ploys or manipulative games.  Just an honest invitation to relationship, as we can, with the One who loves us in all the ways we can’t.

The story Christian people need to re-learn and tell others is that we are moved to follow Christ not because we feel things that are better than an ordinary person does but, rather, because we are perfectly ordinary people who actually let ourselves feel, who are unafraid to be broken by love.  Perhaps Pink’s wisdom sums it well.  In her song, ‘Try,’ she sings: “Where there is desire, there is gonna be a flame / Where there is a flame, someone’s gonna get burned / But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die / You gotta get up and try.”

Peter was broken by love.  How much more wonderful for you and me that God, the author and lover of souls, would so love us that we find ourselves weeping and laughing, distressed and refreshed, in heaviness and set free, all at the same time.

……….

Whatever happened to Charles Brown and Franz Stigler, you ask?  Brown got married, had two daughters, worked for the State Department and eventually retired to Florida.  Shortly after retirement, he began to have nightmares about that incident with the German fighter pilot. Wanting to find him, he asked around at pilot’s reunions.  He put out an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, telling his story and asking if anyone knew anything.

On January 18, 1990, Brown got a letter in the mail.  It read:

“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to that B-17.  Did she make it or not?”

It was Franz Stigler.  In 1953, he moved to Vancouver.  In the letter, he told Brown he’d be in Florida that summer and, his words, “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”

As the years went on, their acquaintanship became a friendship.  One time, the former members of that B-17 crew assembled a reunion and invited Stigler as guest of honor.  There, they put on a slide show of all the children and grand-children and great-grand-children who were born, all because Stigler didn’t shoot.  Their wives became friends, as well, and Charlie and Franz went on regular fishing outings.

Charles and Jackie Brown, from left, with Hiya and Franz Stigler

The war cost Stigler nearly everything; as I mentioned earlier, of the 28,000 Luftwaffe pilots, only 1,200 survived the war.  They were orphans to their own cause and country; no one to talk to, no one to commiserate with and, as in Franz’s case, not even his own brother remaining.  For Stigler, there was nothing redeeming about the war.  Nothing except that B-17 he let go.  Stigler’s and Brown’s reunion was not only profound but salvific.  At long last, after too many generations of others making war, they had the opportunity to write their life’s score.  When they did, they let love win.

A love, it should be noted, which broke them both.  At one of their earlier meetings, Stigler was asked what he thought of Brown.  In heavily accented English, straining to fight back tears, he said: “I love you, Charlie.”  Sometime later, Stigler gave a book about German fighter jets to Brown, knowing that both of them were country kids who loved, when they were boys, to read about planes.  In the inside cover, Stigler wrote an inscription:

“In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, 1943 I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.

The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie.

Your Brother,

Franz”

In 2008, they died within months of one another.  Stigler was 92.  Brown was 87.

Franz Stigler, on left, with fishing buddy Charlie Brown

Love broke them, permanently, irreparably, wonderfully.  Loving and being loved in that way wasn’t easy, I’m sure, and it brought its own hurts and pains, its own heart-heaviness and distress, its own suffering and sorrow.

And, I’m also certain, it must’ve felt so good.

Be willing to be loved, then, like Peter and Charlie and Franz.  Be willing to be so broken by love so God is, in fact, re-making you.  Be willing to be distressed by God’s love, for surely it means you’ll find yourself in prayer crying pain and joy, all at once.  And it’ll feel so very good.  Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.

WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY

Earlier today, I sat with a Baptist and ate breakfast prepared by Roman Catholic neighbors in an Episcopal church.  All week long, I’ve shared community with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and folks from lots of other traditions I’m not even aware of.  I’m talking about WARM, the intentional network of faith-based organizations who provide shelter and food to persons who are homeless, but it’s obviously bigger than that.

Today, Jan. 18, is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter — when Simon Peter said, “You’re the Messiah;” to which Jesus said, “Righto!  You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”  The week between now and next Friday – Jan. 25, the Confession (or Heavenly Knock-down) of St. Paul – is observed around the world as “the week of prayer for Christian unity.”  If you count it up it’s actually eight days, that is, an octave.  Begun by a Catholic priest in the early 20th century as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the celebration was blessed by Popes Pius (d. 1914) and Benedict XV (d. 1922) and soon caught on among Protestant churches, as well, such that by the middle of last century the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was officially sanctioned by the World Council of Churches and is practiced today by 349 different Christian denominations around the world.

WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY Jan. 18 to Jan. 25

It’s fitting that it’s squeezed between celebrations of Peter and Paul, those two bright lights of early Christianity.  They were bright and gifted and shining lights, no doubt, but they also struggled, both of them, with pride and power and position.  Peter was with Jesus from the earliest days; he helped coordinate the disciples and became, in time, the spokesman for the original twelve and a key leader in the post-Ascension Jesus movement.  He had presence and longevity and personal relationships and skill.  Paul, on the other hand, was the brash, bold, new upstart.  Paul didn’t know Jesus personally, and even if you set aside that whole bit about Saul/Paul persecuting early Christians, he was still the new kid.  But that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind and following the Spirit where it led, even if it meant fights over what shape the Jesus movement was going to take.  If Paul and Peter, in spite of their very human posturing, could be on the same team and work for the same mission, so can we.  Hence, a week of prayer for Christian unity.

When I was in Chicago, serving as curate at the Episcopal church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we did a pulpit swap on the Sunday nearest this week.  One block down the street there was a Presbyterian church, and two blocks down was the UCC congregation.  Three blocks down and two streets over was the big Roman Catholic parish.  The clergy got together around the first of the year and made a plan as to who was hopping over to which church at which service that weekend.  It was really fun not only to get together, at least once a year, with other Christian ministers but also nice to celebrate and hear different preachers and expose ourselves to the rich diversity of Christian faith and practices.

We don’t do a pulpit swap like that in St. Mary’s County, and one logistical reason is that most of us don’t have multi-staff parishes so one priest can stay back in order to lead the service while the other can go and preach.  But we do have WARM, which is, as I’ve said in a previous post, not only about helping people who are homeless but also about helping us, the so-called helpers.  WARM, by intention, brings into relationship people who might otherwise not meet, let alone spend quality time together.  Maybe it’s the way we set it up at St. George’s, Valley Lee, but from the very beginning (due to the fact that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough help) we reached out to our partner Episcopal churches as well as our neighbor Methodist church and Catholic parish and Baptist congregation.  And they not only help us in the work but they partner with us, such that they are known in this congregation and we are known in theirs, such that we are now more than neighbors, we’re brothers and sisters and, indeed, friends.

Christian unity is a gift, not only to us who follow Jesus but to the world we are called to serve.  Christians model, by our very existence, a deep and real unity — not uniformity of belief or practice or custom, but unity in spirit, grounded in relationship, founded in God.

I’ve always thought that one of the greatest things about Christianity is the way in which we’ve preserved our disagreements – theological, doctrinal, liturgical, whatever.  I mean, no one ever went back over the New Testament and tried to downplay or “clean up” the disagreement between Peter and Paul or the others.  No, they left it all in, warts and blow-ups and screaming matches and all.  And we don’t try to water down our worship or diminish our traditions in order to make our modern-day differences less obvious.  Some of us handle snakes (yikes!) and some of us use incense.  Some base everything on the bible, as it is written, others bring in the traditional writings.  Some use the Apocrypha, some only use the Old and New Testaments.  There are priests in some churches, pastors in others, parsons, prophets, bishops, evangelists, and whatever else in every which one.  And that’s great.

And that’s how it should be, for if we’re not united on the outward things our unity must be deeper, much deeper within.  That’s where the Kingdom of God has been, He said, all along.