Finding traces and following the footprints

It is a well-known fact that the nations of Scandinavia and the Baltics are becoming rapidly secular with relatively little practice of religion. Estonia is second only to Czech Republic in terms of the number of people who claim no religious faith at all and in these nations the percentage of folks who attend worship regularily is in the single digits.  Yesterday we worshiped in the main cathedral of Stockholm with only a couple hundred people at most. In some of these countries the oppression of Communism and the active persecution of the church has left itwith only a faithful remnant bearing witness.

And yet…

And yet, you can’t ignore the traces of the saints who planted Christianity here a millennium ago.  You can see the footprints of those who carried the Gospel and built these incredible churches to the glory of God.  Agreed, sometimes it was melded with political power, kings and kingdoms of this world who used the church to expand their control and exert their will.  That is what happens when you wrap the cross in the flag…even in America, even today. But even so, the signs and symbols, the art and architecture all point to a higher Kingdom and to The Christ who is Lord of all. Even in Russia, all the forces of the Soviet era could not entirely remove the traces of Christianity which are so deeply rooted in the culture, soil and soul of the nation.

One of my favorite saints is St. Christopher who carried the Christ Child on his shoulder.  This statue of St. Christopher comes from the church in Wardemunde, Germany.  May a new generation of Christophers, Christ-bearers, follow the traces and footsteps til, as the hymn says “all the world adore His name.”

 

 

image

Maybe it really is the end of the world

Of course some of the hack preacher/prophets have been having a field day predicting God’s judgement and “end of the world”.  It seems they are convinced that God is trying to send us a message about His (with them God is always a “He”) wrath through Harvey, Irma, forest fires and earthquakes and eclipses. What can I say? If that’s true, I would suggest God’s message has to do with climate change and God’s judgement on the man-made causes of it, but I doubt they would agree with me on that.

Well, today I saw a pretty darn good sign that the end of the world is at hand.  We were visiting the St. Marien’s Church in Rostock, Germany and saw the astronomical clock.  Built in 1472, it tells not only the time of day, but it also notes the agricultural and liturgical seasons of the year, the dates for Christmas and Easter and much more.  When it strikes 12:00, the disciples parade around in front of Jesus, but when Judas gets to him, Jesus closes the door on him and shuts him out–twice a day since 1472. Poor Judas.

But here is what must be the true sign of the end of the world:

IMG_8654.JPG

When the clock was built 1472, it was created to run…until 2017!  After keeping time for  545 years, the calendar ends on December 31, 2017.  Maybe it really is the end of time.

Or maybe not.  It seems there is team of artists and workmen who are trying to create a new face for the clock which will keep it going for another 500 years.

In the midst of incredible suffering, extreme weather and mass destruction, rather than a God of judgement, I would prefer to preach a God of compassion and care, a God who meets us in our pain and gives us courage and hope for the work of healing, rehabilitation and renewal of life. After the great Pacific tsunami of 2014, a preacher from Australia said, “Any theology that can’t be preached in the presence of parents who saw their children being wash away in the flood shouldn’t be preached anywhere.”  I will preach the God of the rainbow, the covenant with all the Creation that God will never again destroy the earth.

And the St. Marien’s clock will keep telling time…until the  end of time.

 

 

“We have apples in Clarion”

I was a student in my first year in seminary when Mom and Dad came to visit.  One of my new friends was a new professor at Asbury–Dr. Charles Killian.  During the visit we all went to lunch at the seminary cafeteria and as we were going through the line, I said to Chuck, “What do you think of my parents?”  He picked up an apple from the food line and said, “This is an apple.  We have apples in Clarion.”  It was classic because it was true.  If you met my Dad, no matter what the subject was it would always return to our hometown, Clarion, Pennsylvania. In the last weeks of her life, my brother Jim took Mom to the Christmas party in the nursing home.”  At one point she said, “Can you take me home?”  Jim said, “Yes, we’ll head back to your room.” She responded, “No, I mean home to Clarion.”  It seemed that no matter where they were, Clarion was always the center of their world, it was where they wanted to be.

Now to my generation….This weekend I had the joy of celebrating the wedding of my cousin’s daughter in Saratoga, Wyoming.  My cousins gathered from South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi and Ohio. Others of our generation are in Florida, Hawaii and California.  If you go to the next generation, our kids can be found in Montana, South Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Colorado, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Maine, West Virginia, New York and Malawi. The old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree” certainly doesn’t apply to us geographically! Only one aunt and one cousin still live in Clarion, Pennsylvania and its not likely that most of us ever will. And yet we are all apples off the same tree. Thanks to Facebook, we’ve reconnected with some cousins we hadn’t seen in 50 years and hopefully we will find a way to stay connected in the years ahead.

Our family is not uncommon in this day of mobile families.  The challenge is how to remain family and to stay connected, to tell some of the stories and to remember where we came from even though we may never go back. And as our families get smaller (my Dad had 6 siblings, I have two, my sons have one) what it means to be family will be changing as well.  Perhaps we will find “family” to include persons who are not related by blood, but rather by love and friendship.  What will it mean when some of us get old with no children or other relatives nearby?  What will family mean when the old fashioned “nuclear family” of a mom, dad and 2 1/2 kids is no longer the dominate model? Those who think they can save family by fighting for “traditional marriage” are probably fighting a losing battle but that doesn’t mean family will not continue to be significant in our lives.  It might just look a lot different than it did in the days when everyone stayed in Clarion.

Today, I give thanks for my family with all of its follies and foibles.  I give thanks for my Mom and Dad and my Aunts and Uncles and cousins.  I even give thanks for Clarion…and the apples.

Jack

“…the authority and realness of what you are about to say.”

I preached this morning at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Beulah.  It was probably the last time I will preach for quite a while.  As I stood in the pulpit I thought about a phrase I heard on NPR following the death of comedian and social critic Dick Gregory.  The speaker was comparing Gregory’s informal comedic style with his powerful message at the anniversary of the Freedom March in Selma.  In that case he spoke from a podium instead of an open mike.  The speaker said, “When you step behind a podium it gives an elegance and realness to what you are about to say.”

And I thought, “That’s why I preach from the pulpit.”  There is an authority and a power which comes from the simple piece of furniture, a sense that what I am saying is not just off the cuff, I am not just making it up, but rather it comes from a source of authority beyond the preacher himself.  The pulpit stands as a reminder that the word I preach is not just MY words, but it is rooted in THE Word.

I’ve preached from lots of pulpits in my time.  Metropolitan UMC in Detroit has a massive stone pulpit and carved into the desk for the preacher to see is the reminder “Preach the Word”.  I was in another pulpit with the simple message from the Gospel where Greek pilgrims come to Andrew with the request,  “Sir, we would see Jesus.”  I once preached in a sanctuary where the choir loft was directly behind the speaker and the note card taped to the pulpit said, “Remember the choir”.  Of course the one message which no preacher pays any attention to is a clock in the pulpit!   (I preached in a pulpit with a clock once, but the clock had stopped long ago and no one had bothered to fix it.)  Hopefully, whatever the message, the pulpit “gives elegance and realness to what we have to say” and the Word of God takes on life through our words.

Now let me quickly say I understand the desire to get away from the pulpit, to be closer to the congregation, to be freer with movement and to connect with the hearers on a more human level.  That all makes a lot of sense. I admire preachers who can preach without notes and do it with clarity and authority.  Part of my problem is I am no longer very good at memorizing and after I have worked diligently to perfect the words, the sentence structure and the movement of the sermon, I want to make sure I deliver it well…hence, my notes and the need for a pulpit.  But deeper than that, I want to communicate that this is not about me.  It’s not about my ability to memorize or to wing it, to be a good stand-up comedian or an entertaining after dinner speaker.  It’s about The Word and the ways in which Scripture relates to real life.  For that, I make use of the pulpit which hopefully will lend some elegance and realness to what I have to say.

I love to preach.  It’s my calling and my joy and hopefully in the future I will have opportunities to do it again.  But for today, I give thanks for the gift and for the Word and I pray that all of our pulpits will be blessed with elegance and realness as we try to faithful proclaim the Good News.

God bless the preachers…and may their tribe increase.

Jack Harnish,  the preacher.

A Midday Dark and Silent

The writer in me couldn’t help but catch the symbolism of it.  This afternoon the track of the moon across the sun will turn the American midday into darkness and at noon in London, Big Ben will sound for the last time for two years….a midday dark and silent.  We know the eclipse will be short-lived, the repair of the Elizabeth Tower will be completed in due time and everything will be back to normal, but just for today let me reflect on this midday dark and silent.

The solar eclipse is easily explained scientifically, just like the the real causes of climate change, but there are those who will still view it through medieval eyes of some strange heavenly portent promising doom and destruction.  Ann Graham Lotz, Billy Graham’s daughter, sees it as a sign of God’s potential judgement and some of the fortune-teller evangelists are still suggesting it has something to do with “end-times”, and who knows?  Maybe they are right.  I prefer to see it as one more of those majestic signs of this incredibly ordered universe, a creation that is so amazingly constructed that we can even predict the path of the moon and the sun–the work of a master Creator God.

Big Ben is probably the best known symbol of England whose resounding bong rang out during the London Blitz as a sound of hope and courage.  As the song says “Land of hope and glory, mother of the free.  How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?  Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set.  God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.” 

And today, even if just for a brief time, the light will go out and the bell will no longer ring.

I’d suggest the real  descending darkness came last week with the ugly rise of white supremacy and bigotry on display in Charlottesville.  And the silence?  Clearly it is the silence of the leader of our nation in his tepid and ambiguous response.  If we can’t speak out with boldness against such a blatant display of hatred, how we can speak against the more subtle forms of racism and pride that infect our national life everyday?  If we can’t shine the bright light of moral indignation on something as brazen as Nazi flags on parade, how can we offer the light of freedom to the world?  If the old bell in Philadelphia doesn’t still ring here, how can it be heard around the globe?  Darkness and silence descends.

The song of my era still rings in my brain–“If I had a bell, I’d ring it in the morning, I’d ring it in the evening all over this land.  It’s bell of  freedom, it’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.” 

I pray for the day when the will light shine and the bell will ring all over this land.  Then we truly will be great once again.

Jack Harnish

Horatio and James, Forgive Us

Horatio Stearns Harnish…what a name!  One of my Pennsylvania ancestors, he would have been my Grandfather’s uncle.  I say ‘would have been” because he didn’t live that long.  He was a Civil War soldier who was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, returned to the fight and was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness.

image

James Alexander Harnish would have been my uncle.  I say “would have been” because he was a World War II airman who died when his plane was shot down over Holland.  He was only 23 years old when he died, three years before I was born.

Uncle Jim

I thought about Horatio and James when I saw this photo from Charlottesville:

Charlottesville

Horatio died to save this nation from the desire to divide it in two over slavery, represented by the stars and bars.  James died to end the evil of the Nazi regime as it consumed Europe, represented by the Swastika.  Both flags represent the bigotry of white supremacy and the evil of racism that formed the foundation for both causes.  Who would have dreamed we would see the day when these hate-filled symbols would be carried once again in the streets of America?  After the hundreds of thousands of deaths in these two wars, who would have thought we would be facing the same fight in the 21st Century?

But at least now we know what the the slogan “Take Back America” actually means.  It means take back America for the white folk.  It means take back America from the African Americans, the Jews, the immigrants, the Muslims, the gays and lesbians, the women. It means take America back to the days of Hitler and “Aryan Supremacy”.  It means take America back to the pre-Civil War days and the oppression of African Americans.  It means “Make America White Again” and “Make America Hate Again”.

When in Charlottesville David Duke said, “We are taking America back. We are fulfilling the promises of Donald Trump”, now we know what he meant.  And when Mr. Trump decried hatred “…on many sides, on many sides” (obviously repeated for emphasis), his failure to name the hatred represented by the white supremacists spoke volumes about his campaign and his promises.

After a bloody Civil War to save this nation from the Confederacy and after a World War to save this world from Nazism, all I can say is “Horatio and James, forgive us.”

God have mercy on us all,

Jack Harnish