Francis at the Manger

When asked to provide something for a clergy gathering on Christmas themes held at a rural Franciscan retreat center, I recalled the story of Francis’ recreation of Jesus’ nativity. I also composed a hymn based on the event, “Come Spirit, Occupy the Earth” (below article).

Mount Irenaeus bell

As his time on earth drew to a close, Francis of Assisi doubtless sensed he would not have the chance to return to the “Holy Land” (located in today’s “Middle East”). He had been there once before, in an effort to convert Muslims to Christianity or, failing that, to die trying as a witness (“martyr”) to his faith. Having failed at either attempt, he ended up having one of the first recorded interfaith dialogues, as the Sultan he met instead treated him with respect and escorted him safely across military boundaries in order to speak with him. But that is a story for another season. For Christmas is at hand…

Beautiful as the Umbrian hill country was, poverty was one of the chief afflictions of those who lived beyond the walled city of Assisi, which claimed Francis primarily before his conversion and after his death: in other words, after the lepers he served early on (and called his brothers to return serving late) were no longer so much part of the picture.

So it seemed unlikely that he expected many of those surrounding him in his last years of illness would be to afford a trip to the Holy Land. In the hinterland of the Italian countryside few had the wealth needed or time available to make such a journey, at least apart from those in the military, which Francis himself had participated in prior to his conversion.

How then, removed from grand cathedrals, majestic music or arming countrymen for crusades, could he convey something of Christ’s advent to the poor, lowly and needy where he was? The stage was thus set for the first “Christmas Pageant” to be born, as Francis sought to depict the birth of Christ for “simple” folk, “unlettered,” as he called himself.

Calling a friend named (appropriately enough for the herald of Christ) John, “who had a good reputation but an even better manner of life,” Francis asked him to prepare a place for people to encounter at Christmas not a royal habitation for a king come to rule earth, but rather a mat of hay on which to lay an infant to be born into the bracing cold the people themselves knew in their bones.

“The night is lit up like day,” Francis’ earliest biographer tells us, painting a picture of something akin to our own Christmas Eve, when “the forest amplifies the cries [of people singing], and the boulders echo back the joyful crowd” as they cross through the rural countryside. On their arrival they discover a wooden manger where “simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, humility is commended, and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.”

Located at the end of the major portion of his life story as told by his earliest biographer, the nativity of Francis raises for an adult (not children’s!) audience the question of whether there is room in their lives for Christ to be born. As a subsequent liturgist put it, “He who was asleep or dead in the hearts of many, owing to forgetfulness, was awakened and recalled to memory by the teaching and example of Blessed Francis.”

We might ask equivalently today whether, out of hearts which may have forgotten the gift of God’s grace where we ourselves live, a new holy land for Christ to be welcomed may be made in our own lives. One in which he can continue to “multiply his holy mercy” for the healing of those in the world around us.

“Come Spirit, Occupy the Earth” is a new hymn that tells the story of Francis’ manger scene.

Come, Holy Spirit

Peace and good,
Rev. William B. Jones
Christmas, 2011

 

 

 

 

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Embarked on God’s Mission

“Embarked on God’s Mission”

At the close of Don Quixote, the first and some say most telling novel of Western culture, the main character forswears the heroic efforts he has made with his sidekick, Sancho Panza. As his life comes to an end, Quixote tells us his intent is to bring tales of knightly heroics to an end too, exposing them in all their foolishness as false guides to true personhood. And we, like Panza become companions of his now too, are left to sort out what to make of these many chapters of life we’ve shared. Were they true exploits of false errantry? Were they false efforts of true hearts? Was it all just a dream?

Jesus’ followers at the close of his life faced similar threats to making meaning out of what was happening to them. John’s gospel tells us that Simon Peter drew his sword and attacked soldiers coming for Jesus (chapter 18). Given the fact that the guards come to arrest him have already fallen to the ground once on encountering Jesus, it is all the more remarkable that, when Jesus’ side-man raises weapons to defend him, he is told to put his sword away instead. What is Peter to make of this? Are we comrades-at-arms or not, Jesus? Are we on a mission from God, or what?

Before the word “mission” was co-opted for use in military attacks, there was indeed a sense of comradeship recognized among those sent out on actual missions for God. We see it in the lives of the disciples and Christ, as he says “I shall no longer call you servants…[but rather] I call you friends” (John 15:15). In this very passage, in fact, we are told that “no one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Note it does not say that love is demonstrated by taking someone else’s life for one’s friends, which is what Peter was willing to do in attacking those who came for Jesus. No, a different kind of heroism will apparently be involved for those who follow this leader.

Thus Peter slowly realizes that his task is not to try and “protect” his teacher from himself after all. Nor can he defend against his own past denials of his master (John 18:15-18). All he can do is be faithful in following Jesus as he is called to do (John 21). Or he can refuse to do so.

The temptation to think we control the movement of God’s Spirit is not new. On one level, we may think renewal results from our own manipulations. At depth, however, being renewed in Jesus’ faith requires an openness to the Spirit which “blows as it will” (John 3:8). Ours is to be open to God’s Spirit, and respond to it in commitment to Christ.

Living after the way Jesus walked, through the crucifixion he suffered, into the resurrection he led — this is the mission Jesus set for his disciples. It seems God’s mission for us still.

Peace and good,
Pastor Bill Jones (April, 2011)

 

 

 

 

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“Fire and Ice”

“The Song of the Ice”

When Linda Underhill, author of The Unequal Hours, gave her Lenten presentation for us in 2008, she spoke of “the song of the ice” she heard as she walked the Allegany hills one winter. There are two basic ways people approach writing, she said as we gathered in the midst of an ice storm here that night. One is to announce to the world what you have to say. The other is to listen first to what it may say to you. Her suggestion was to listen first, and then write. (Jesus taught similarly, in Matthew 10:27.)

As we move through our season of ice this year, we have said goodbye to a wise teacher in Linda on her passing. On her return visit during Lent last year, Linda drew from a chapter in her new book, The Way of the Woods, on “Impermanence.” As she spoke at our A-framed, high-ceilinged church of the after-effects of a fire generated by a lightning strike at “Cathedral Pines” forest in Connecticut, I was reminded of a number of dramatic events our community of faith had also recently experienced.

After the fire, there were those who thought the under-growth of the forest should be cleared out, to attempt returning to what they remembered it being. There were others who felt nothing should be done, but be left alone. Perhaps there were those who left altogether, seeking easier paths to walk elsewhere. In all events, the woods were not the same as they were before, and neither were the people. The question there, as elsewhere in life, is not “whether change will come to us,” but how we respond to it.

In the midst of anxious debates over what to do (or not to do) about it all, Linda’s husband Bill looked down while on a family walk through their beloved, if now visibly wounded, “cathedral-in-the-woods,” and noted new life come into the midst of old — not only of the oak which came forth naturally, but of the pine many longed to see again too.

The forest there may never return to the “pine cathedral” it was imagined to be before, but it is worth traversing nonetheless, admixed now of old and new with paths cut through still-tangled brush. Those willing to enter find life given anew, if beyond their ability to determine.

I would not try to name the “lightning strikes” experienced, together and separately, since the ice storm of 2008, say. But hearing Linda speak last March of witnessing new growth in half-burned-out forests led me to give thanks for being yet able to walk in this half-stunned, half-visible world. God, “our strength and our song,” has not forgotten us on our way (Exodus 15:2).

To pray, to sing, to listen first and yes, then speak something of God’s word into the world — this is what we are gathered in this part of “God’s forest” to do. We break bread as we’ve been given to do; tell the stories of Jesus that they may live on; and give of ourselves that God’s love be known.

This is what “renewal” is about. This is why we come to God’s cathedral. This is why we venture forth our song, “speaking forth in daylight what is whispered in our ear at night.” Thank God for the woods of life in which to walk, and for those who teach us to listen for the whisper of the ice.

Peace and good,
Pastor Bill Jones (March 2011)

 

 

 

 

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True Grace

“True Grace”

In the recent remake of the movie “True Grit,” a haunting piano echoes beneath fourteen-year-old Maddie Ross’ opening voice-over as she notes there is nothing free in life, save for God’s grace. The tune will be recognizable to most churchgoers, as it is played out in numerous variations in the course of the film. The words will have to come from memory, or wait to be stirred when they are sung at the last by Iris DeMent as the closing credits roll. No, it isn’t “Amazing Grace” (for once) which flows under this film of the American frontier; it is “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Given the degree to which the characters come to lean on each other in order to accomplish their task, it seems a hymn fitting to their plight. The tough but dissipated U.S. marshal (first played by John Wayne and now by Jeff Bridges) hardly seems able to stand on his own, much less to carry another; the girl who thinks she is “about her father’s business” in seeking to bring his killer to justice is determined in her efforts, but does not know the terrain before her; and the Texas Ranger seemingly capable of leading them has differing plans regarding the acquisition and disposition of their prey. They do indeed come to lean on each other in moments of desperate grit and need.

Beyond the testing, failing and reconnecting the main characters make in the course of their quest, there is a carrying quality that is underwritten by something like grace. The lyric for the hymn that accompanies perhaps three-quarters of the film comes from Deuteronomy 33:27 — “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (King James Version). It was written in condolence to a widower by a hymn-writer who asked a friend to complete the beginning he made of the lyric, which thus came to enter American hymnody complete as “What a Fellowship.”

From the Proverb (28:1) quoted at the beginning of the movie to the myriad of stars spanning the skies under which an unlikely protagonist is carried to healing by an unlikely hero, there are echoes of both divine sanction and saving grace not unlike those found in the blessings “enveloping” Moses’ benediction in Deuteronomy 33.

There may be a rough grace reached for in the kind of desperate situation portrayed here; not the kind that comes from wading quietly in a river (but are the waters ever only still?); nor found in some place where desperados leave “peaceable” people alone in their silences (note here the caution of that opening proverb!). No, it is found more in leaning and learning to be leaned upon, seeking still “a fellowship divine.”

It will take the telling of God someday to sift out what was more holy than not in our lives (Matthew 13:24-30). In the meantime we may grasp for what grace comes our way in the midst of life’s grit, leaning on the everlasting arms.

Listen to sample of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" sample, Iris DeMent (True Grit, 2010)

Peace,
and true grace,
Pastor William B. Jones (January, 2011)

 

 

 

 

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“I Sing as I Arise Today” (St. Patrick’s Hymn)

“I Sing as I Arise Today”
(A hymn based on St. Patrick’s prayer)

I sing as I arise today,
I call on my Creator’s might
Wisdom of God to be my guide
the eye of God to be my sight.

The word of God to be my speech
the hand of God to be my stay
the shield of God to be my strength
the path of God to be my way.

Splendor of fire, swiftness of wind
firmness of earth, depth of the sea
light of the sun, radiance of moon
all heaven’s strength be given me.

Christ with me here, Christ with me now
when I arise or go to sleep
Christ in the heart of ev’ryone
who hears or speaks a word of me.

 

Based on St. Patrick’s prayer (c. 372 – c. 461),
adapted for hymn-tune by William B. Jones, 1999,
tune “O Waly Waly” (“The Water is Wide”) LM.

 

 

 

 

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“Before the I of God”

A recent online devotional by a minister of the church I was married in, and ordained by, asks “what do you love about the place where you worship? What’s your favorite part of your sanctuary? And what do you know about God because of it?” I would have other answers for churches I’ve worshipped in before and served since, but Quinn Caldwell’s question brought to mind what struck me most when I worshipped in the Old South Church in Boston.

“singe” (Ash Wednesday)

“singe”

blue the fire,
kiln to blaze

leaving ashes
here to trace.

seared the palms
we waved of you;

cupping embers
yet engraced.

–William B. Jones (Ash Wednesday, 2012)

 

(on the gift of a clay pot made by a
church member for the mixing of ashes)

 

[a variant on “singe” may be found in “ash-borne”, which, set during Holy Week, “book-ends” the season of Lent begun on Ash-Wednesday]

 

 

 

 

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