Transitions in Scotland

We just returned from two weeks in Scotland. Many months ago we planned to visit the Island of Iona to participate in a week-long retreat at the historic Abbey. We then added on a brief stay in Edinburgh to taste its long history and present spirit. Every year, thousands of people make a pilgrimage, or at least a tourist stop, at the little island adjacent to the larger island of Mull, gateway to the inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Claimed for a missionary monastery in 563 AD by St. Columba, of Ireland, it has long been revered, even in ruins, as the cradle of Christianity in the land of the Picts and the Scots. Over the last century, much of the Abbey and its buildings has been restored. Programs of spiritual renewal and ecological awareness are conducted by the Iona Community within its precincts and beyond. Sheep and Highland cattle browse the clipped fields while the bones of centuries of monks, warriors, kings, fishermen, and farmers sleep beneath the sod.

While we had simply wanted to soak up any spirits these grounds might yield, our retreat agenda was suddenly reshaped by the decision to buy a house in town to sustain us in this next lap of our life’s journey. The time on Iona became a chance to suspend our daily chores in order to assimilate this profound movement from our beloved dream home in the mountains to a smaller house in town that was being resurrected by a caring and competent couple whose “fixer-upper” work seems as much a ministry as a profession. Our own life transition became an unexpected part of our group’s conversation as the week progressed amidst internet connections that were, let’s say, somewhat medieval.

So Iona became for us a hinge between our personal past and future, just as it has been the hinge between Scotland’s ancient past and its Christian era. The stone walls of the old Abbey where we prayed, listened, and shared our deeper thoughts contained a darkness like the fears and mysteries encasing us, but the sea outside was brilliant in the summer sun, the sheep and cows like the still patience of God. The stones and beams arching over us became a sheltering presence re-arranged to argue for a future only dimly augured by the past.

Out of ruins

a place of devotion

Not drawn from the sky of speculation

and pristine plans

But from the broken stones that lie about

detritus of an unknown hand.

And so we move from our beloved home built

pure amidst the mountain brambles and the trees

To claim a domicile from the bones of long-neglected rooms

left desolate by loss of hope, of means, of caring hand.

Out of life

a dissolution

Out of death

a resurrection

All one life in the builder’s hands

Seeking habitations for our souls.

But Scotland was not finished with us. For four days the long “Royal mile” of Edinburgh, sloping from the old town of castle and Cathedral to the royal palace of Holyrood and the new Parliament building, was yet another metaphor of our transition in life. At the high end, we worshipped in contemporary yet formal language at St. Giles Cathedral and heard a lovely concert of contemporary music by the visiting choir of Myers Park United Methodist Church of Charlotte (how strange to come so far to hear our neighbors!). At the bottom of the road was the wholly original doorway to the future, Scotland’s new Parliament building, completed in 1999. Here was openness to the future as well as voices of the past inscribed on outside walls for passersby to contemplate. We were able to get tickets to attend a session of Parliament to hear debate about how to respond if or when the UK leaves the European Union. Scotland stands at yet another threshold of possibilities, with dangers on either side, trusting only in the power of mutual persuasion in the face of grim necessities of trade, immigration, climate change, and new expressions of ancient rivalries.

It was not the trip we expected. It was a chance to pause between past and future, to sense the anxiety as well as the liberation of change. I’ll try to share some relevant thoughts about this in the months ahead.

 

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Riley Howell

Our church and community just suffered the trauma of the death of Riley Howell, a young man raised in our congregation, who hurled himself at a gunman who invaded his classroom at UNC-Charlotte, shooting at the students. As his strong body crushed the young man beneath his own, a bullet took his life. His action gave police time to capture the killer. Only one other student died in the shooting. Though we did not know Riley personally, we know several members of the family and have spent many hours with his great aunt. Riley’s heroism did not arise from a vacuum. It was the core of his communal and familial ethos.

This is a town knit together by long-standing family ties, civic associations, school friendships, and a common love of these beautiful mountains. Streets and bridges were lined with well-wishers as his body was returned here for burial. The funeral had to be held in the largest auditorium in the county. Our local paper, The Mountaineer, devoted most of an issue to Riley’s life and his heroic action in death.

At our monthly roundtable worship Sunday evening his Sunday School teacher, who had put her hand on his head at baptism and confirmation, was able to share her grief and her thanks for this blessing that blazed through our life like a meteor. He is one more marker, not only to the demonic violence of our society but to the self-giving love that will get us out of it. It is at tables like this that reconciliation takes root. The table is a place for healing as well as conversation and nurture.

Riley’s exuberant, self-giving life will remain in our consciousness as a light to guide us out of the isolation of suspicious fear into the solidarity of mutual giving that is life itself. His own gift calls all of us to do what we can, where we are, to demand laws, policies, and redoubled commitment to our communal fabric to turn back the gun violence that rips at our children’s lives, at our congregations’ sanctity, and our public life itself. Take a minute with us to give thanks for Riley and for all those who have lived out to the full Jesus’s ancient words that no one has greater love than this, to lay down his or her life not only for their friend but for the stranger and their neighbor (John 15:13).

 

 

 

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Annunciation

Annunciation. That is what we call the angel Gabriel’s message to the virgin Mary in Luke’s Gospel story (Luke 1:26-38). In Matthew’s version, it is only related that “an angel” came to Joseph to tell him that Mary would bear a son, not by Joseph’s act but by the work of the Holy Spirit. All of this was to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that “”a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

Embellished in poems, liturgies, stories, songs, paintings and sculptures for centuries since, it is also an ethical and theological stumbling block for many, including me. It is yet another image of a male sovereign violating the integrity of a woman for his own purposes. The violations of biological science are merely additional burdens the story must bear. And yet it has walked the corridors of my imagination all these years, thanks not only to Botticelli and the Renaissance masters, but also to this stunning sculpture by my friend Charles McCollough, which was presented to me on my retirement from Andover Newton Theological School. It is only now, however, that I have finally made a proper pedestal for it, bringing her gasp and her stunned hand closer to my eyes, lifted up, so to speak, on angels’ wings.

And now it continues to provoke me. Separated out from the gender politics and scientific critique, it speaks to an even more universal religious question: How am I to be a bearer of the divine creativity in this world? The Annunciation tells us that we will be taken wholly by surprise by God’s answer to this question. It will stop our words in our throats. It will cause us to clutch our gut. It will drive us to our knees. We will not understand it until we search our distant past and attend on our distant future. And even then our understanding of the meaning of our life’s work is stunted by the limits of our minds and hearts.

Gabriel was not offering a proposal or a contract. He was simply announcing. It was left to Mary only to ponder it in her heart, to wonder, to “bear” this news until it issued in painful birth and painful death. And so we are offered a glimpse into our own bearing of whatever mysterious vocation is ours. The faith for which Mary is honored is a form of knowledge in only the sketchiest sense—the knowledge that she has been called into a mystery. The model of faith she gives us is more simply to live with and into whatever working of God is going on in our life and that our life participates in a wider work that brings the creation closer to its ultimate fullness and beauty. And so we gasp, and clutch, and kneel in pain. Waiting. Hoping. Becoming the beauty the world longs for.

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Yet, We Live

During this season of Lent we have been visually inspired by Sylvia’s newest piece, hanging in the midst of our sanctuary at First United Methodist Church, Waynesville. Entitled “Yet, We Live,” it seems to grow out of the whitened, ash-like branches of a tree known as a contorted filbert. An overlay of netting contains a series of crosses against the purple tones of the silk fabric.

In her description, Sylvia pointed out that “On Ash Wednesday we are marked with ashes and reminded that we are made of dust, and will return to dust. The purple silk hanging over the altar table, with its shadows of crosses and dry branches, reminds us that we walk Christ’s passion road through Lent and Holy Week. Lest we succumb to despair as we annually rehearse this cycle of life and death, we also remember the promise of new life as we await the breakthrough of light and renewal on Easter.”

This is a time when we place our own dark shadows and struggles within the larger drama in which the very Creator of all life struggles with us and  indeed bears with us the signs of our own dying as well as the hope and intimations of the deeper life from which we spring and to which we return. We are especially aware that we walk this dying way with a planet that is struggling to stay in harmony with the system of life in which we humans have emerged. All around us are the forces of fear and violence that would extinguish this life for the sake of a vain and transient self-glorification. But the God of all returns again and again to whisper and reveal, “yet shall you live.”

 

 

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