Thursday, January 26, 2017

Arsenic (Only One Lie)


Only one lie
Something about thou and surely die
Casts is into doubt
And replaces it with seems
A lie once let out
Merges real and dreams
Leaving no way to answer why
Only one lie

Monday, January 23, 2017

Go Fish

Go Fish
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 22, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 4: 12-23

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the 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.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

So at this point in the Gospel of Matthew, the wise men have come and left, Joseph and Mary ran away to Egypt to avoid Herod, and then they returned to Nazareth, Jesus came to age and was Baptized by John in the Jordan river, and then directly from his baptism he headed out into the wilderness to fast, faced the devil and his temptations, and now has wasted no time, beginning his ministry by calling his disciples to follow him. So out on the sea of Galilee Jesus walk is walking by, and he calls to some fishermen, Simon and Andrew. .  . and he says follow me, I will make you fishers of men, and then it was born. The idea of discipleship and then this metaphor about fishing for people. What does it mean that as disciples we are to be fishing for people. Is it that we are to lure people into the church? Is that what it is all about? I’ve seen the church signs, and I’m sure you have, too, the ones that say, ‘gone fishing, we hook’em and Jesus cleans’ em” which is based on that simple idea. . . or as I’ve had conversation with many church people about using this very verse to describe the basis of discipleship, as evangelism, going out and finding people and bringing them into the church. . . and the definition of success then for a church is to be a vibrant, growing, healthy enterprise. . . but is that what is going on here? Because that seems to be an easy understanding of the metaphor, and the one most commonly accepted, but I can’t help but think that there is more to fishing than just catching fish because my Dad has said that to me before. . . well do you like to fish, or do you like to catch fish, because there is a difference. . . could it be that some of the best days of fishing don’t feature a single bite, or that fish are caught, but none are cleaned and fried up for breakfast, or that there was a fish, and a fight, and that fight didn’t result in a trophy, but instead a broken line. . . let’s look at fishing a little bit, this morning, and seek to send our hook into the deeper waters and see what turns up. . . Let me start here, listen to this:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
                                   ~ from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

How old are we? How long have we been fishing? Almost 2000 years, right being, fishers of men? Or us here, in Gordonsville, since 1845, that’s 172 years of fishing. . . are there connections between this Old Man, Santiago, from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and ourselves? Are we old and wrinkled, with great lines of experience, great cancers of year being out in the sun, thin and gaunt, blistered and scarred, and above all unlucky? Do we sometimes feel our age, and has the world given us up for past our prime, sent their kids instead to the newer models of church, simple and easy, new equipment, updated simplified messages, starbucks and guitars and drums, because they seem to have all the luck. . . Hemingway tells us that everything about Santiago is old, that is except his eyes which were the same color as the sea, cheerful and undefeated. . . everything about this church is old, except for our hearts which are the same color as the blood of Christ on which our foundation lies, leaving us forever cheerful and undefeated, too. Undefeated, for we are still fishing. . .
And he says. . . man is not made for defeat, a man can be destroyed but not defeated. . .
Do we like to catch fish or do we like to fish? Because there is much about fishing that is not catching fish, and to some extent has nothing to do with catching fish. . . and many of the stories about fishing have to do with the great draughts of fishing. . . like the disciples whose nets are empty, and Jesus comes by and fills them. . . fish on the other side of the boat. . . this wouldn’t resonate so much with us unless we knew what it was like to fish on the wrong side of the boat and not catch anything. . . or remember the movie, “The Perfect Storm” where George Clooney is a captain who used to be able to bring in the fish, but lately hasn’t had the luck. . . but this is going to be the difference. . . so they head out, earlier than they had planned, for the big score, going further than they have before, further than is safe, and of course out farther, deeper, beyond the normal waters, find the fish, but then the ice machine breaks and they need to head back or risk losing all the fish, but then the storm, the perfect storm, is directly between them and home. . . they don’t make it. . . it is such a part about fishing to have periods of no luck. . . there is another story, this one from the 1001 Arabian Nights, called the “Fisherman and the Jinni” the fisherman, like Santiago, the Old man, and like the captain in the Perfect Storm hasn’t caught fish in many days. . . he prays to Allah, fishes once, nothing, prays again, fishes again, nothing, prays a third time, casts that final third time, this time saying it will be his last, that he will quit, and he feels something, and hauls it in, but it is not a fish, but rather a lamp, he rubs it and out pops the Jinni, saying “There is no God but Allah and Solomon is his prophet,” which of course is the main pillar of Islam, except Solomon is in the place of Mohammad, you see the Jinni and the lamp is like a time capsule, and the story is claiming that Islam is not a new religion, but a new understanding of an older one, that if the Jinni was put in the bottle at another time, the Jinni would have come out saying, “there is no God but Allah and David is his prophet, or Moses, or Abraham, or even Jesus. . . but you can see that this idea of the unlucky fishermen transcends culture. . .  there are even superstitions around it. . . . I remember being out fishing and having no luck, and dad telling me that I must not be holding my mouth right, or that I was letting my hind foot slip. . . Fishing is a pastime fraught with failure. Is discipleship as well. . . are there times of plenty and times when it doesn’t matter what you do, what bait you use, how you hold your mouth or how slippery the footing is under your so called hind foot. . . are there times when the disciples of the Bible are told to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on? Depressing, but again, do you like to fish or do you like to catch fish? What is it all about?
Another fishing book has to do with this connection between fishing and life, and may just give us another insight. . .
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.
It is true that one day a week was given over wholly to religion. On Sunday mornings my brother, Paul, and I went to Sunday school and then to "morning services" to hear our father preach and in the evenings to Christian Endeavor and afterwards to "evening services" to hear our father preach again. In between on Sunday afternoons we had to study The Westminster Shorter Catechism for an hour and then recite before we could walk the hills with him while he unwound between services. But he never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, "What is the chief end of man?" And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the other forgot, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful answer should have, and besides he was anxious to be on the hills where he could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing for the evening sermon. His chief way of recharging himself was to recite to us from the sermon that was coming, enriched here and there with selections from the most successful passages of his morning sermon.
Even so, in a typical week of our childhood Paul and I probably received as many hours of instruction in fly fishing as we did in all other spiritual matters.
After my brother and I became good fishermen, we realized that our father was not a great fly caster, but he was accurate and stylish and wore a glove on his casting hand. As he buttoned his glove in preparation to giving us a lesson, he would say, "It is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock."
As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God's rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word "beautiful."  . . .
Well, until man is redeemed he will always take a fly rod too far back, just as natural man always overswings with an ax or golf club and loses all his power somewhere in the air: only with a rod it's worse, because the fly often comes so far back it gets caught behind in a bush or rock. When my father said it was an art that ended at two o'clock, he often added, "closer to ten than to two," meaning that the rod should be taken back only slightly farther than overhead (straight overhead being twelve o'clock). . . .
The four-count rhythm, of course, is functional. The one count takes the line, leader, and fly off the water; the two count tosses them seemingly straight into the sky; the three count was my father's way of saying that at the top the leader and fly have to be given a little beat of time to get behind the line as it is starting forward; the four count means put on the power and throw the line into the rod until you reach ten o'clock—then check-cast, let the fly and leader get ahead of the line, and coast to a soft and perfect landing. Power comes not from power everywhere, but from knowing where to put it on. "Remember," as my father kept saying, "it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock."
My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.
                   ~ from Norman MacLean's A River Runs through It

Now in that description theology and fishing are wrapped around each other so beautifully that there are many entrances and exits, and points of interest  you could point to, but I am drawn to the end. . . “grace comes by art and art does not come easy” and he says that after describing a process of becoming connected to the “rhythms” the natural god made rhythms of the universe. . . and also man’s own state of being a complete mess. . . I’ve fly fished, and I’ve turned the line into a rats nest, and I’ve caught the tree branches behind me, and I’ve spent more time untangling knots then fishing, but then again, I wouldn’t trade any of it. . . If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, there may be more to this fishers of men stuff than just bringing in folks to church. . .
There is a oneness and a connectedness between the person and the stream, the rod and the fish, the connectedness of it all. . . . and of course one cannot really hope to catch much fish standing on the shore. . . at least not as a fly fisher. . . wading out in the stream is a part of it all. . . and of course that fits the metaphor for entering into the living waters, the Jordan river, to Wade in the Water, children, waiting for God to trouble that water. . . I think of this story:
He stepped into the stream. It was a shock. His trousers clung tight to his legs.   His shoes felt the gravel. The water was a rising cold shock.      
Rushing, the current sucked against his legs. Where he stepped in, the water   was over his knees. He waded with the current. The gravel slipt under his   shoes. He looked down at the swirl of water below each leg and tipped up the   bottle to get a grasshopper.      The first grasshopper gave a jump in the neck of the bottle and went out into   the water. He was sucked under in the whirl by Nick's right leg and came to   the surface a little way down stream. He floated rapidly, kicking. In a quick   circle, breaking the smooth surface of the water, he disappeared. A trout had   taken him.      
Another hopper poked his face out of the bottle. His antennas wavered.  He   was getting his front legs out of the bottle to jump. Nick took him by the   head and held him while he threaded the slim hook under his chin, down   through his thorax and into the last segments of his abdomen. The   grasshopper took hold of the hook with his front feet, spitting tobacco juice   on it. Nick dropped him into the water.      
Holding the rod in his right hand he let out line against the pull of the   grasshopper in the current. He stripped off line from the reel with his left hand   and let it run free. He could see the hopper in the little waves of the current. It   went out of sight.      
There was a tug on the line. Nick pulled against the taut line. It was his first   strike. Holding the now living rod across the current, he hauled in the line   with his left hand. The rod bent in jerks, the trout pulling against the   current. Nick knew it was a small one. He lifted the rod straight up in the air.   It bowed with the pull.      
He saw the trout in the water jerking with his head and body against the   shifting tangent of the line in the stream.      
Nick took the line in his left hand and pulled the trout, thumping tiredly   against the current, to the surface. His back was mottled the clear, water-over-   gravel color, his side flashing in the sun. The rod under his right arm, Nick   stooped, dipping his right hand into the current. He held the trout, never still,   with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the barb from his mouth, then   dropped him back into the stream.      - from Hemingway;s "Big Two-Hearted River, part 2"

That story of course being Hemingway’s “Two-Hearted River” about the power of fishing to calm the unnamed pain of his post war world. . .  there is a healing piece to fishing as well. , Could the fishing of men business be about the disciples themselves as much as those men who are to be caught?
I have my own fishing story as well, a poem that I wrote last summer that has found its way into my latest collection of Poem’s Life Matters, this poem entitled “Three Old Fishermen” describes a pelican fishing out on the eastern horizon as the sun sets behind us, and the second fishermen is a man, seated by the shore with his rod stationary in the sand. . . and then the third fishermen is only suggested. Let me read that: “Three Old Fishermen”
They were both fishing in the evening as the sun set to my back,
And I watched, trying to figure out for myself who was the more
Successful, that is if the definition of fishing success is actually
Catching fish because from my experience it may not be the case.
I never saw either catch any fish, though the pelican could have,
Being so far away, certainly been packing them away in his beak,
For it was made for him special to hold more than his belly can,
But I couldn’t see, and so, set my mind imagining his failure in
Tandem with the man to my right. I watched him for hours, sitting,
Beer in hand, line extended out into the surf, waiting, so patiently
For exactly zero bites. Though I didn’t know for sure, I imagine,
He was so patient because the rest of the world moved so fast,
This extended moment was a break from it all, to sit, with nothing
More to do, than to get to sit and wait, and that somehow the reel
And rod made it active enough to be considered doing something.
He couldn’t simply say, “Hey Honey, I’m going to the beach to do
Nothing,” and it had been years since heading to the beach to drink
Beer (as the only attraction) was an acceptable pastime, and fishing,
Therefore, was somehow something enough, and so there he was
Sitting and waiting. In the time I watched him, I never saw him cast,
Nor did I ever see him reel. In fact, I never saw him raise the rod,
Jiggle the line, or bring in the slack enough to check for a bite. No,
He just sat, and waited, taking occasional sips. He didn’t even drink
Aggressively, but rather seemed to wait for that, too, with no need
To rush the buzz. Like an Old Bull, sauntering slowly down a shady
Hill, knowing that what he sought awaited, so he must seek other fruit
Than fish. I wonder if the pelican shares such silly notions, for his
Fishing ritual, is at least as ancient as ours, if not more. Could he,
This avian symbol of insentient freedom, fish to escape, to pass time,
To rewind, to clear his mind, to seek and find, something sublime,
Like we do? His inherited ritual is much more active, gliding, this way,
Then that, just above surface of the water, when something flashing
Beneath, catches his eye, just enough, and he rises up, just enough.
He gets that perfect angle, and dives, disappearing for a moment,
A fish for a split second, before emerging back to the surface, floating,
Wings tucked, like a duck, perfectly still. Is there something to turning
Into what you want to catch, for a moment? We don’t do that, instead
We send our surrogate to lure our prey, a little wiggly worm, or squid,
Or some plastic fish replica, shiny and bright enough to hide a hook.
I wish I could have seen whether he hid some fish in his beak because
Then I would prove my preconceptions about birds, like other animal
Species, that they do not fish for fun, but for food. As fun as it looks,
The flying and the diving, alone and part of a V, it’s necessary to life,
And tied directly to surviving. Do we feel that when we fish, despite
The sport, the escape, or is the escape just that, an escape from life’s
Imposters, for a moment of the real? I don’t think my fisherman, beer
In hand, was seeking such things, but I was—when I headed to the beach
As the sun was sinking behind me, facing my shadow stretching ahead,
Watching a bird and a man fish, seeing with much more than my eyes,
Allowing my imagination to soar, to sit, to dive and to ponder—seeking
A sense of the sublime, and found it in a connected empathetic moment
Of place in my mind, and I will take it with me the next time I go fishing.

The first two fishermen are obvious, the pelican and the man on the beach, and you may have guessed that I, the poet, the voice of the poem, am the third, and that I was seeking a sense of the sublime, a sense of truth, an insight into the world, God, the way it all comes together, and I found it in what I call an “empathetic moment,” in other words a moment when I look outside of my own pain, struggle, point of view, and think, feel, notice, and seek to understand someone else’s. . . . and I found in the Pelican’s fishing, an insight into our call to be “Fishers of Men,” and how it is connected to this idea of empathy. The pelican dives into the water, and becomes a fish, if only for a moment, rather than sending out his surrogate to lure, instead he goes into the water, becomes like a fish, tries to be fish, feel what it is like to be a fish, before catching a fish, and that his fishing is necessary for our survival. . . is it possible that our call to be fishers of men is also necessary to our survival, not because we catch fish, but that the idea of fishing sustains us, and is connected uniquely to what it means to be human. . . is this what Santiago knows regardless of the results? Is this what the unique 4 count rhythm between 10 and 2 is, the art that does not come easy but is inextricable connected to grace? Is this what the healing action of the “Big Two Hearted River” points to. . . and if so, fishing is connected in this way to life, and that fishing requires becoming the other, rather than merely sending a surrogate to lure in your stead, isn’t this exactly what Jesus does, by becoming one of us to save us. . . it would then stand to reason that the work of his disciples would be no different. . . may we never seek a cheaper definition. . . amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 15, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Matthew 2: 1-12
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.

 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

What to do when you have a snow day on a Sunday? Do you stay with the plan for the week before, even though talking about the wisemen on January 8th, two days after epiphany was a little bit of a stretch, so add another week and it is really a stretch. . . Are people still ready to listen about part of the Christmas story this far into January and the New Year, or have we long ago left Bethlehem behind, because now all of the Christmas decorations are down at our house, though we make a special dispensation for anything snow centered, it lets us hold on just a little bit longer, and we don’t get rid of our Christmas tree, instead we take all the decorations off and put in on the back porch as a living bird feeder. It was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had, and I don’t mind saying that it was a development and invention born not from necessity but from laziness, because who likes to take Christmas decorations down, and who wants to deal with the old dead, dried up, well dried up all except for the stickiness of the sap, that stays around, but who wants to deal with the dead tree? No we leave it up, but move it to the back porch and it is an awesome bird feeder, they hide and burrow in the branches, and when it snows it is the coolest. But yeah how far have we gotten away from Christmas? How did you like singing We Three Kings today? Are your ready to return to Bethlehem or have you gone home another way, or have you long since fled to Egypt?
I have to be honest, the Wisemen are my favorite visitors to the Christmas story. . . them and the poor Innkeeper, who always gets bad press, but I love the wise men. They spark my imagination so much. . . . Who are they? Where did they come from? Why did they leave their lands behind to follow a star? What were they hoping to find? Did they find it? Were they sure? How were they sure? I mean yeah they brought gifts and they gave the gifts, but were they convinced that they had travelled all that way for a momentous occasion, or did they feel like at the end of the trip the goal, the culmination of afterall the journey, was kinda anticlimactic? But it does say that they saw Mary with the child and bowed down and worshipped, so they must have known and seen something that clinched it for them, thinking somehow, yes this is the child we seek, this is the Christ Child, this is the promised one, born king of the Jews, what made them so sure? Was it the star alone, something about Mary, something about the face of this baby Jesus, something about his eyes, did he have a glow, did they just see him and know, like it wasn’t anything that they saw with their eyes, just something they saw with their souls, their inner eyes, the intuition from deep within, and if so then what were they sure of? What did they envision the future of the child to be? What did they mean by, this child born King of the Jews? Did they see an end to the Roman occupation like many later would, hoping that Jesus would be a military leader, a great king who would come and destroy the oppressors? Because these guys were from the East, presumably far enough east to be outside of Roman control? Were they from Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, or more like Persia, or as far as India, what about China? Why would someone from so far care about the oppression of Jews in Palestine? You see why I like them so much, the possibilities for imagination and myth making about them are endless. . .
and the Bible is mostly silent on them. Here in Matthew is the only one of the four Gospels to include them. It just says they are from the East, and that they have come asking where is born he is who is born king of the Jews, so that they may worship him. It says that they are, and the Greek Word is Magoi. . . so that is where we get Magi, which is contains the root similar to that in magician or magic. . . troubling, were these crazy eastern sorcerers. . . or some have translated it kings, like the hymn we sang We three kings, where does that come from, who knows, some say from Psalm 72 where in verse 11 it says, “may all kings bow down before him” and of course there is no mention of three, just that there were some Magi from the east. . . the three is based on the gifts, that there were three of them, and the translation wisemen, seems to remove the magic and the astronomy, making them more to be some kind of Philosopher seekers, much more safe for the superstition concerned Reformed folks like ourselves. So with there not being much here included factually about them you can speculate and create traditions about them, or as some do now, the more skeptical Biblical Scholars, looking for Scientific and Historical certainty, down grade them completely to saying that they are merely, like so many of the details from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew a way of once again showing the connection of Jesus to the Prophetic books. . . so often do you see when reading Matthew. . . so it was to fulfill the prophecy. . . that he would be called a Nazorean, that he would come out of Egypt, that he would be born in Bethlehem. . . you know all that stuff. . . and that these wise men fit the prophecy from the reading of Isaiah that we read this morning:
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.  

Yes of course camels right, I mean wise men without camels would be like Santa with no reindeer, though there is no mention of camels in Matthew, but here in Isaiah the prophecy about the Gold and the Frankincense. . . no mention of the myrrh though. . .
But me, I’m too much of a Romantic for such scientific and skeptical pseudo historical readings that think that anything not doubly attested to, must be made up. . . no I prefer the expanded apocryphal versions of the story. The Wise Men of the songs and the stories and poetry, riding their camels, traversing from afar over field and fountain, moor and mountain, a cold coming they had coming of it, in the worst time of year[1], “their ancient faces like rain beaten stones”[2] The three wisemen named Gaspar, Melchior, and Baltazar. . . . with the idea that Gaspar was an Indian scholar, Melchior a Persion Scholar, and Balthazar a Babylonian. . . the novel and movie Ben Hur develop on this tradition, especially that of Balthazar who the writer, Lew Wallace develops more into a character, who teaches Judah Ben Hur about Jesus and forgiveness and seeks to dissuade him from his singleminded quest for revenge. . . I’ve always liked this idea of the wisemen because it seeks to connect some of the ancient religions and philosophies to Christianity. . . I’ve always in my own writings wanted to take this one step further and show them seeking in Christ what is missing in their own religions and Philosophies, to connect Christianity to other cultures as it is already to Greek and Jewish.
But that gets into to the two main takeaways that people usually take from the Wise Men story. . . the first being about the idea that the inclusion of the Wise Men speaks to the universal nature of the message of Christ, that it wasn’t  to just be a Jewish thing, but also include Gentiles, that Jesus was coming for all of Creation. And then the other take away is that the Wise Men begin the idea of the giving of gifts at Christmas time. . . . everything from the most secular traditions of Santa Claus, Barbie Dolls, and Lego Blocks, to even the words connected with the collection of the offering on Christmas Eve. . . I used those words, taking them from the Book of Common Worship years ago, that, let us in the tradition of the Wise Men and the gifts that they brought to the Christ Child, let us bring our own gifts this night. . . may the offering be given and received, something like that. .. .seems a bit of a shallow stretch. . . but a harmless one I guess.
For the Wise Men do come bearing gifts. . . Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. . . I know right, what every child needs. It is a strange detail of the story when you think about it, here is a poor couple who has travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, why, for taxes, can’t imagine too happy about that one, finds no room in the inn, is given a stable, they have the baby, and all they have to give are gold, frankincense, and myrrh. . . seems inappropriate. . . like getting a savings bond or like getting a gift for an 8 year old when you’re only 3. . . what are these wise men? Bad uncles? What are they going to do with the Gold, Frankincense, and Myrhh? “We Three Kings” helps out a little bit with the lyrics of the verses, putting the gifts into context:
“Gold I bring to crown him again, king forever ceasing never, over us all to reign” – Ok, now I get it, this helps a lot. . .

Frankincense to offer have I incense owns a deity nigh, prayer and praising all men raising, worship him God most high – you see these are symbolic gifts, keep sakes, mementos, things, not meant to be useful just meaningful. . .

Myrrh is mine its bitter perfume, breathes of life of gathering gloom. . . sorrowing sighing bleeding dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb. . . – Whoa wait a minute? I don’t know if this is the choice I would have gone with?

Yeah, that’s even worse than the dude in the Do you Hear what I hear song, who hears the child, the child, shivering in the cold, and brings him silver and gold. . . not much warmth their from those hunks of metal in the short term. . . and all the stores are probably closed for the holiday anyway. . . . and these are the sources of our traditions of gift giving?
As long as we are going with extra biblical narratives and apocrypha I think the Animals, those friendly beasts do a much better job for practical gift giving. . . at least for a newborn.
The shaggy brown donkey, carrying his mother to Bethlehem town, and the cow, all white and red giving the manger for the bed, or the sheep with the curly horn, giving his wool for the blanket warm, and those doves always make me cry, cooing him to sleep his love and I, from those rafters high. . . that is a much better model. . . they each did their part, no repeats, no overlaps, very practical, they must have checked the registry, very responsible gift giving for sure. . . or even that Little Drummer Boy, who gives of his talents, or the Littlest Angel who gives his most prized possessions, you know the butterfly with golden wing, the little piece of the hollow log, and the two shining stones from the river bank, and the worn out strap from his faithful dog?
These are our models for our gift giving at Christmastime. . . but what do we think about gifts? What do they mean? Is it about the getting or the giving? Is it about how much the gift cost? How much thought went into it? How much time? Was it crafted and created by hand? Was it reciprocated? Was it used? Was it useful? Is it symbolic? Does it make you laugh? Do they sometimes make you uncomfortable, and why? Do they play games with our senses of pride. . . our humility. . . what about envy? Gifts can be a funny thing. . . we sometimes think about dessert. . . do we deserve this gift given to me? How do I? But I didn’t get you anything? Or what I got you wasn’t quite as grand. . . how come gifts have the unique ability to make us feel warm and loved and grateful, and at the same time uncomfortable, guilty, and disappointed?  Why is that? Because we can say all we want about our best days where we don’t feel any of those emotions, but I guarantee that you have felt each of them at some point in your life in and around Christmas time. . . I know I have. . . . why?
But to be honest the gift of Christmas isn’t the wise men, nor the sheep with the curly horn, it is the gift of Jesus Christ, born into our world, with all of the grace and love and crucifixion and resurrection tied up in it. How do you feel about the grace of God offered in the Manger, the Cross, and the Empty tomb? At the same time warm and loved and grateful, but uncomfortable, guilty, and disappointed, too? Yeah there is something about gifts, even the greatest gift of all that appeals to the best and worst of us all. . . Is it that we are wired for the world and trained in the world that we are so wrapped up in the exchange, the deserving, the owing, the putting forth that we have trouble with both the giving and receiving of a free gift of grace. . . at some level, I think so. . . it is too unlike our world and our fallen nature. . . it makes us uncomfortable. . . what were those wise men seeking? And what were they offering? I subtly alluded to TS Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi, earlier, if you caught it, but he brings up this idea of what they were searching for and what they found in the end of the poem. . . I want to read it, it makes you think. . .
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

They had experienced God in their midst. . . but they had to return to their kingdoms, their worlds, this world, and they had been changed. . . forever changed. . . you see this was the birth and the death, the birth of the new and the death of the old, for all change includes both. . . but they were still living in a world unchanged. . . is this our discomfort with gifts rearing its head. . . that we linger with one foot on both sides of the river. . . we like the world of gift giving or making the other happy, of feeling what it is like to love, fully to give of yourself, your time, your talents, your all, to follow Jesus’ example of gift giving, to learn and seek who  you are just to become that and to give of  yourself, we long for it. . . but the fact that we remain here. . . holds us back. . . and it’s funny it’s like a circular trap. . . we are holding ourselves back while were are being held back by the world. . . it is our doubts making us uncomfortable, or cynicism, or Sin. . .  what would it take to transcend such feelings. . . another death and rebirth. . . if only in metaphor. . . is the metaphor enough? May it ever be so. . .

[1] “Journey of the Magi” T.S. Eliot
[2] “The Magi” W.B. Yeats

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Afraid in the Dark

Afraid in the Dark
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 1, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 63: 7-9
Matthew 2: 13-23
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.

The interesting thing about having Christmas fall on a Sunday was how fast most of the world moved on from the Christmas celebration. Monday happened fast, and Christmas for the most part, for most of the world was over. The radio stations had already moved on, sure they’d started playing Christmas music way back in October, some of them, but sure enough Monday came and the regular programming had returned. I saw people already taking decorations down. . . some even on Christmas day itself. I saw a friend of mine on Facebook giving the business to a church who was already taking down their Christmas festives Sunday afternoon. . . I guess they were doing it while they were there, so they didn’t have to come back that week to do so. . . he was giving them the business for not knowing that Christmas is a season, and that the twelve days of Christmas actually happen after Christmas Day, making Christmas a season, one that lingers for twelve days until the next Church Holiday of Epiphany, which is on January 6. Christmas should linger. . . and it does as a religious holiday, the secular world moves on, but we here in church should try to linger in Bethlehem. . . and not because we Need More Christmas. . . because of course we do. . . but the real reason we need to linger is that the story continues, and it continues in one of the saddest darkest stories of the Bible, and it is one that we cannot forget, should not forget. . . for it represents some of the darkness that human sin, fear, and frailty just can’t seem to escape from, at our peril. . . the Murder of the Innocents. . . which is detailed in the  reading for today, Matthew 2: 13-23:
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Of course that story is tragic, but it also echoes some other stories from the Bible, especially that of the beginning of Exodus, where the Pharaoh, there in Egypt seeks to kill all of the first born of his Hebrew slaves because they have been promised a deliverer. . . and of course Moses escapes by being put into the basket, set afloat on the Nile to be rescued and raised within the royal palace. Yes it is a repeated pattern, and we can certainly see the parallels between Jesus the Redeemer and Moses the Deliverer. . . but what I want to look at this morning because perhaps it contains the warnings of history, at least the warning signs, is the parallels between Herod and Pharaoh. . . because their motivation is the same, I think, and it touches on one of our greatest fears. . . change. . . revolutionary change. . . challenges to our comfort. . . our status quo. . . our routines. . . out beliefs. . . what we hold dear. . . even the evils we have grown used to bearing, because even the hope of a change from darkness is terrifying. . . Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed” and Shakespeare through the voicing of Hamlet puts it this way, that we would rather “bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of.” Yes the fear of the unknown in the future often makes us grab hold and tightly to what we can. . . and this happens to all of us, but with those who have more to lose, more wealth, more power, more status, more seeming control, more ability to fight against the tides of change, more reach. . . can truly do a lot of damage when their control is threatened. . . even by a rumor, a promise, a legend, and the whispers of the wind. . . the more control becomes fleeting the harder we seek to control that space. . . such is what happens to Herod and Pharaoh. . . and my favorite writing on the character of Herod comes from the pen of WH Auden. It puts this situation in such great perspective. . . Let me read and to put some explanation to it as I go.             !`

Because I am bewildered, because I must decide, because my decision must be in conformity with Nature and Necessity, let me honour those through whom my nature is by necessity what it is.
To Fortune--that I have become Tetrarch, that I have escaped assassination, that at sixty my head is clear and my digestion sound.
To my Father--f or the means to gratify my love of  travel and study.
To my Mother--for a straight nose.
To Eva, my coloured nurse--for regular habits.
To my brother, Sandy, who married a trapeze-artist and died of drink--for so refuting the position of the Hedonists.
To Mr. Stewart, nicknamed: The Carp, who instructed me in the elements of geometry through which I came to perceive the errors of the tragic poets.
To Professor Lighthouse--for his lectures on The Peloponnesian War.
To the stranger on the boat to Sicily--for recommending to me Brown on Resolution.
To my secretary, Miss Button--for admitting that my speeches were inaudible.

There is no visible disorder. No crime what could be more innocent than the birth of an artisan's child? Today has been one of those perfect winter days, cold, brilliant, and utterly still, when the bark of a shepherd's dog carries for miles, and the great wild mountains come up quite close to the city walls, and the mind feels intensely awake, and this evening as I stand at this window high up in the citadel there is nothing in the whole magnificent panorama of plain and mountains to indicate that the Empire is threatened by a danger more dreadful than any invasion of Tartars on racing camels or conspiracy of the Praetorian Guard.

Barges are unloading soil fertiliser at the river wharves. Soft drinks and sandwiches may be had in the inns at reasonable prices. Allotment gardening has become popular. The highway to the coast goes straight up over the mountains and the truck-drivers no longer carry guns. Things are beginning to take shape. It is a long time since anyone stole the park benches or murdered the swans. There are children in this province who have never seen a louse, shopkeepers who have never handled a counterfeit coin, women of forty who have never hidden in a ditch except for fun. Yes, in twenty years I have managed to do a little. Not enough, of course. There are villages only a few miles from here where they still believe in witches. There isn't a single town where a good bookshop would pay. One could count on the fingers of one hand the people capable of solving the problem of Achilles and the Tortoise. Still it is a beginning. In twenty years the darkness has been pushed back a few inches. And what, after all, is the whole Empire, with its few thousand square miles on which it is possible to lead the Rational Life, but a tiny patch of light compared with those immense areas of barbaric night that surround it on all sides, that incoherent wilderness of rage and terror, where Mongolian idiots are regarded as sacred and mothers who give birth to twins are instantly put to death, where malaria is treated by yelling, where warriors of superb courage obey the commands of hysterical female impersonators, where the best cuts of meat are reserved for the dead, where, if a white blackbird has been seen, no more work may be done that day, where it is firmly believed that the world was created by a giant with three heads or that the motions of the stars are controlled from the liver of a rogue elephant?

Yet even inside this little civilised patch itself, where, at the cost of heaven knows how much grief and bloodshed, it has been made unnecessary for anyone over the age of twelve to believe in fairies or that First Causes reside in mortal and finite objects, so many are still homesick for that disorder wherein every passion formerly enjoyed a frantic licence. Caesar flies to his hunting lodge pursued by ennui; in the faubourgs of the Capital, Society grows savage, corrupted by silks and scents, softened by sugar and hot water, made insolent by theatres and attractive slaves; and everywhere, including this province, new prophets spring up every day to sound the old barbaric note.

I have tried everything. I have prohibited the sale of crystals and ouija-boards; I have slapped a heavy tax on playing cards; the courts are empowered to sentence alchemists to hard labour in the mines; it is a statutory offence to turn tables or feel bumps. But nothing is really effective. How can I expect the masses to be sensible when, for instance, to my certain knowledge, the captain of my own guard wears an amulet against the Evil Eye, and the richest merchant in the city consults a medium over every important transaction?

Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing that rises, day in, day out, from all these households under my protection: "O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave Thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves."

Reason is helpless, and now even the Poetic Compromise no longer works, all those lovely fairy tales in which Zeus, disguising himself as a swan or a bull or a shower of rain or what-have-you, lay with some beautiful woman and begot a hero. For the Public has grown too sophisticated. Under all the charming metaphors and symbols, it detects the stern command, "Be and act heroically"; behind the myth of divine origin, it senses the real human excellence that is a reproach to its own baseness. So, with a bellow of rage, it kicks Poetry downstairs and sends for Prophecy. "Your sister has just insulted me. I asked for a God who should be as like me as possible. What use to me is a God whose divinity consists in doing difficult things that I cannot do or saying clever things that I cannot understand? The God I want and intend to get must be someone I can recognise immediately without having to wait and see what he says or does. There must be nothing in the least extraordinary about him. Produce him at once, please. I'm sick of waiting."

Today, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. "God has been born," they cried, "we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters."

One needn't be much of a psychologist to realise that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn't have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of school children ranked above the greatest masterpieces.

Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Priapus will only have to move to a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver teapots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumours, or four o'clock in the afternoon.

Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow” Every crook will argue: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.” And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance. The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilisation always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate. O dear. Why couldn't this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can't people be sensible? I don't want to be horrid. Why can't they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is, And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn't, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse. For it could only mean this; that once having shown them how, God would expect every man, whatever his fortune, to lead a sinless life in the flesh and on earth. Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair. And for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in. He could not play such a horrible practical joke. Why should He dislike me so? I've worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I've taken elocution lessons. I've hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? Tve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.
- WH Auden, from "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio"

Afraid of the dark, afraid in the dark. . . this is what Herod is, and this is what Pharaoh was, and this is what we are at times. We stand on the precipice of the future, and this is never more apparent than on days like today, where we start a new year. What will 2017 hold? We just don’t know. I don’t think if we jumped back in time to this day a year ago, when 2016 was fresh and new, would we be able to picture the world that we are living in today. . . It is more in our face on days like today, but the truth is that it is the same on all days. We stand in the present looking ahead of us to a future filled with mystery. . . but also promise. There is darkness, but Christmas shows us that there is a light shining in that darkness. . . The difficult task we have then is to allow the coming of the light to loosen or grip, to open our eyes to a new morning, and to be shaped by the coming moments rather than trying to shape them. . .