Archive for October, 2015

Beauty: Finite and InfiniteAutumn series on insights from Courage and Renewal 3

Autumn common time

October 11, 2015

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2015
Bible Reading 

Psalm 19:1-4

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

   and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. 

Day to day pours forth speech,

   and night to night declares knowledge. 

There is no speech, nor are there words;

   their voice is not heard; 

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

   and their words to the end of the world. 

The infinity of song

As for myself, when I sing or play a song,

 part of the mystery of it all

  is that I am joining with an enormity,
a grand cloud of artistic witness 

 that gathers to a greatness

  of communities and histories and 

   human endeavor.
“Their voice goes out through all the earth,

 and their words to the end of the world.”
For example, consider the song

 Precious Lord, take my hand.
Thomas Dorsey wrote the song in 1932

 after his wife died giving birth

  to a daughter.
The daughter also died shortly thereafter.

 Dorsey gave the song to his friend,

  the gospel singer Theodore Frye.
The next Sunday,

 Frye’s choir sang the song

  at the Ebenezer Baptist church.

Even the briefest glance at the history

 and the most casual listening to the song

  showers forth embedded meaning,

   soul, and longing.
“Day to day pours forth speech,

  and night to night declares knowledge.”
The immediate occasion of the song is sorrow,

 the wrenching loss of wife and child.
The cadences of the words

 are the cadences of gospel preaching:
Precious Lord, take my hand,

lead me on, let me stand,

I am tired, I am weak,

I am worn.
The words flow from great linguistic streams.

 The practice of rhetoric.
The practice of English Christian preaching,

 especially perhaps the passionate

  Scottish tradition.
And most importantly

 the black baptist practice

  of iteration and call and response speech.

I am tired. I am weak. I am worn.

 Repeating statements changing with

  each repetition to carry 

   the affirmation forward.
And call and response:

This is suggested, rather than

 written into the text.
There is room after the phrases,

 to respond:

Through the storm…

Through the night…

Lead me on…

to the light…
When we play it, we often do the response

 with a blues fill on piano or harmonica or strings.
Many choirs will echo

 “through the storm” and so on

  with an answering “through the storm”

   or “oh, the storm” or the

    soulful invitation “listen now.”
There is room for this.

 The song is written 

  with all this in the ear which

   Dorsey brings to the words.
And of course, black baptist cadences

 are infused with the cries and songs

  that arise from the American 

   crime of slavery
and the great human spirit

 of the enslaved Africans

  whose voices rose from the burning

   and the ashes to create 

    cadences of hope.
“…their voice goes out through all the earth.”
The music was adapted by Dorsey

 from a popular hymn by George N. Allen

   “Must Jesus bear the cross alone”
Allen was a professor of music

 at Oberlin College in Ohio

  and therefore a leader and creator

   within the greatest of 19th century

    hymn composition

     based in the European tradition.
But the tune was printed numerous times

 without attribution before Allen.

  It arises unattributed in the early 1800s

   American songbook.

Where did it come from?

 Appalachian Welsh and Irish folk singing?

  Or perhaps an African-American spiritual?
In any case, it falls beautifully into the

 common and open 1, 4, 5 chords

  of blues and gospel
with deep roots in simple five-tone

 folk singing from around the world.
That’s my analysis, in any case.
But that is only the beginning

 of the grandeur of the song
which of course draws upon 

 the centuries of the Christian movement.
And where do words and music

 ultimately begin?
The first words of John’s gospel:

 In the beginning was the Word.
And as John Phillip Newell remarks,

 the Celtic theologians said

  “in the beginning was the sound.”
The words and sounds echo from

 the heart of the birth of creation.

Finite and Infinite

And so there is infinity in this one small song.

 There are vast cultures

  and heinous crimes

   and intimate suffering

    and the beauties

     of a grand spiritual movement.
But we would have none of this

 opened up for us

  if Dorsey had just said

   “My suffering is infinite

    and the beauty of song and words

     is infinite.”
Rather, we have this demonstrated for us

 in the very small and specific choices

  of the words and tune.
“Precious Lord, lead me on.”

 Spiritual affirmation,

  a sense of journey

   in the midst of great difficulty.
Small word choices that tell it so well.
And then the way he changes the

 tune just slightly,

  which makes it so bluesy.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone?

Precious Lord, take my hand.
Hear how the line turns

 and rises?
And so it is with each one of our lives

 and the things we make

  and care about.
Our best work is just small

 and very particular:
This pie baked,

 this phone call taken,

  the thank-you written,

   this donation made

    this smile shared.
The iterations of small graces.
And this is what makes our lives great.

 Mark Nepo writes:

“Doing small things with love releases our courage. And each small act we’re led to leads to more. Doing small things with love is the atom of bravery.”
And it is the atom of infinity.

 Each act flows from its great source

  in culture, in humanity, in divine inspiration.
And each act is a seed of courage,

 a seed of new creation.
Precious Lord, take my hand.

 The sorrow of a man’s heart.

  The song at Ebenezer Baptist.

   Now a cultural joy and legacy,

    a landmark of American

     and African-American endeavor.
And so God’s work of creation

 is made and made again.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;

   and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork
Play vs 1 of Precious Lord

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Bicycles, Baptism, and Amazing GraceWorld Communion Sunday

October 4, 2015

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2015
Bible Reading – 6: 29-40 (NRSV paraphrased vkr)

Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in the one whom God has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “God gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my dear abba who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that abba gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that God has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my dear abba, that all who see the Christ and believe in Christ may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.

Part 1: The bread of life
In John’s telling about Jesus,

 there’s the feeding of the 5,000,

  also known as “enough stuff for everyone”,

   sufficiency, a gift beyond measure.
Then walking on the water

 also could be known as addressing our fears,

  the watery deeps of whatever it is,

   spiritual grace and strength addressing fears
Then this:

 “I am the bread of life,

 whoever comes to me will never hunger,

 whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
And much more:

 God’s bread gives life to the world.

  to the whole world

   this bread is for healing, for the whole world
the whole world, the whole shooting match,

 from our dear children, to the distortions of ISIS,

  from the grace of Dorothy Day and Dr. King

   to the terrifying vacancy of Nazis.
And a year of mass shootings.

 Let us have bread instead of guns.
God’s bread gives life to everybody, to the world.

 As the president on the West Wing

  says in one episode about evil doers:

   “They weren’t born wanting to do this.”
What evil has been done, has been done.

 And we seek healing 

  and recovery from our trauma together.
And we work with sweat and joy

 to make a finer humanity.
God’s bread gives life to the world.

 We work for bread for all, rather than violence.
And also, “everyone who comes to me…,

 I will welcome them.”

  Jesus is saying a version

   of the Courage and Renewal Touchstone:
“We will presume welcome and extend welcome.”

 And also, “I will lose none of you,

  I will lose nothing,

   but rather everything, everyone,

    will be raised up.”
In the end, everyone will be raised up.

 All we have to do is receive it,

  let our hearts also love,

   also presume and extend welcome.

    Let us share bread.

Part 2: Bicycles
As I noted last week,

 poet David Whyte writes:

  “Attention is the hidden discipline of familiarity.”

  (in Everything is waiting for you)
When we’re in a small new community

 such as this, we pay attention 

  in different ways.
It’s fun and it’s work.

 Show up with a few people

  and make church happen. 

   It’s not pretend, it’s all very real.


But although powerful and rich

 beyond measure

  in the Spirit of Christ,

   it can all still feel fragile.
It’s like riding a bicycle

 instead of driving a car.
On a bicycle, riding around Littleton,

 one quickly learns where the hills are,

  how the land falls toward the Platte River,

   where there’s a ridge.
In a car, it is largely invisible, irrelevant.

 Internal combustion.

  Was there a hill? Didn’t notice.
But on a bicycle, one notices a hill.

 One might notice hunger and thirst as well.

  One might come to need things.
Whoever comes to me will never hunger,

 never thirst.

  And if you’re hungry or thirsty,

   those words sound out differently.
Being in a small community is a way

 of placing ourselves in need,

  vulnerable, but vulnerable to the grace of God

   who is the bread of life.

Part 3: Baptism
When I was a child,

 I grew up among the Mennonite Brethren.
Like Baptists, we had baptistries,

 those water tanks in front of the sanctuary.
They were nicely crafted,

 molded with steps going in

  from either side.
There was room for the minister

 and the one receiving baptism

  to be in the water together.
Down you went, in the name of the 

 Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

  I would say Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost.
It was the Holy of Holies of our church,

 the place of watery mystery.
We used to walk through the tank

 when it was empty,

  get a little feel for it,

   a little spiritual zip.
And then to be baptized,

 at least in my experience,

  was to say “yes” to a lot of good things.
Yes to a God who loved us,

 yes to community of people who sang and prayed together.

  yes to a grand movement of love.
Sure there were problems and distortions.

 Always. But also so much love.
I will lose nothing, Jesus says to

 the people who are questioning him.

I will lose none of you.

 All this will be caught up in the last day,

  made whole, made light,

   in eternal life.
That’s baptism.

Part 4: The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
One of the less-sung verses of John Newton’s Amazing Grace

 is this one:

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,/

The sun forbear to shine;/

But God, who called me here below,/

Will be forever mine.
It has been called bad theology.

 And it probably is.

  Better to say the earth will be redeemed 

   like the first days of a new spring.
But it also feels right.

 A couple of weeks ago, 

  I led a service for a 16-year-old

   who died suddenly.
The earth of that family,

 surely had dissolved like snow.

  Their sun did forbear to shine.
But God who calls us here below

 will be forever mine.

  Will be forever ours.
It rings true for me in that moment of devastation.
I think the earth will be redeemed,

 “All the birds and creatures of the world”

  as David Whyte continues in his poem.
On this feast day of St. Francis,

 that’s right. All the creatures,

  God bless them and keep them.
David Whyte’s final line then is:

 “Everything is waiting for you.”
Which is in sympathetic vibration

 with Jesus:

  “I should lose nothing of all that God has given me.”


I am grateful for the love of Christ,

 for this small community,

  for new attentions and vulnerabilities

   and joy in love

    and love even in the midst of loss.
I am the bread of life, says Christ.

 Thanks be to God.


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