February 28, 2008

Manny comes home!

He is very beautiful and very sweet. Already he is playing and running around and making himself at home. I have been a long time without another warm body in the house and it is nice to have company.
He was abandoned in the city, dropped off and living on the streets. When he was found, he had likely been hit by a car and all his feet were bleeding and wounded. He has gotten lots of TLC from some good and caring vets, and all his travails have not injured his spirit.
He came to me already named -- Manuel. And it means "God with us." So he keeps this name, and he reminds me that God is with all of us, that somehow we have all been rescued and cared for and offered healing and a loving home.

February 24, 2008

Third Sunday in Lent

In Troubled Times
Exodus 17: 1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5: 1-11
Luke 4: 5-42

The children of Israel wandered in their wilderness for forty years. It was a long time, a time filled with troubles. They were in a barren place, a place of fear and isolation. Nothing was certain, not even life itself. They worried about water, they were afraid they would not have enough, they did not feel safe and secure. They quarreled and complained. They grumbled and murmured. They were full of discord, out there in that desert. They thought Moses was to blame for their troubles, but the real cause of their woe was the worry that lay at the heart of their complaint: “Is God among us or not?”

There was no longer any conviction among the people about the presence of God. In Egypt, they had been so sure. God came to them, God rescued them, God guided them. And then at the mountain, God spoke to them and gave them the law. God went before them in fire and smoke. But now….. now they were thirsty, and it was dry, and they were worried and afraid.

They had been willing to follow Moses -- up to a point. And they had reached that point. It seemed that God had abandoned them, brought them out into a wasteland to die. And they complained. And their complaint reached God’s ears.

Then, when Moses struck the rock, the water was there. God provided for them again. But the water had been there all along; they just couldn’t hear it flowing because the sound of their own discord was so loud that it drowned out the sweet life-giving music of the water.

All this happened a long time ago. It’s an old story, one that really doesn’t seem to bear much relationship to us. These were primitive people, wandering in the desert, thirsty and afraid. We, on the other hand, are modern and sophisticated by comparison, we have a settled society, we are not in danger of dying of thirst. We are very different from the Hebrew children. Or are we?

Maybe we too are wandering in a wilderness, except perhaps our wilderness is one of our own making. You see, we have made a world where war is the way to solve problems, where it is never possible to have enough stuff, where we are always wanting more and more and more. We worry about – everything.

And certainly, we do have our share of legitimate troubles. Things are mess in our society --
with the stock market and the housing market and the supermarket; everywhere high prices, high debts, high consumption. We worry about the economy; we worry about our future, our life after school; we worry about our health or the health of our parents; we worry about paying off our student loans or the mortgage or our credit card. We work hard to stay ahead and the reward is just – more work. And we worry about politics and who will be the next president; we worry about the war or the national debt; we worry about the kind of future our children and grandchildren will inherit.

We grumble, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately, because we don’t deserve these troubles, this uncertainty. In our heart of hearts, maybe we think God should be taking better care of us. And where is God anyway? Is God among us or not?

The answer to our troubles is held in the truth of the gospel: All that we need is already present in our lives, in our world. Like water hidden deep within the rock, God is here. With God there is an overflowing abundance of all that we need for life. But sometimes it is the sound of our own complaint, the low discordant notes of our murmuring, that keeps us from hearing God’s voice – a voice that calls us to the work of faithfulness and justice and peacemaking.

Today we are guided in our worship by a grand work of music. Haydn’s Mass in D Minor soars with beauty and power. It was written in a time of war and upheaval. Its title, Missa in Angustiis, means mass for troubled times. As it was a prayer for worship when it was first sung, so it is a prayer for worship for us here today. The Kyrie of our confession sounds a drumbeat that punctuates our need for mercy. The Gloria acknowledges the power and might of God and gives voice to a kind of adoration that we rarely express on our own. The Sanctus begins with a plaintive cry to God that quickly bursts into praise. In fact, the whole of this Mass sets to music the tension between our faith and our doubt, our certainty of God’s presence and our simultaneous skepticism. The blending here of minor and major keys, of dark, heavy chords and brilliant soaring solos, of power and of pleading – all this gives voice to the tension of our own troubled times.

And woven into this music is one form of the answer to the question: Is God among us or not? Can you hear it? The answer is in the music. The answer is in us. And as beautiful as this music is, it is just a small song in God’s cosmic symphony. And whether you can carry a tune or not, you have a note to sing in God’s song.

God’s people have always lived in times of trouble. We are no different. And in whatever wilderness we find ourselves, in the midst of whatever worries and complaints, with whatever doubt or despair, God is here, deep and flowing, hidden and powerful, present among us in abundance as a life-giving force.

So listen.


And you will hear the sound of God’s living water, flowing forever. You will know that you have everything you need for life. You will not thirst for anything. Yes, God is indeed among us – here, now and always.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

February 23, 2008


only the black ones and
only the winter ones......

February 21, 2008

Refracted sunrises and sunsets

I went out into the cold dark night to see the lunar eclipse. It was very beautiful -- the full moon in shadow, dark but somehow glowing with a kind of dark red-gold color. On NPR's All Things Considered, Kelly Beatty, executive editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, had said that it would be "a pale ruddy orb, like a glowing ember in the sky." He said that the glow is caused by "sunlight leaking through the earth, kind of like all the sunrises and sunsets simultaneously allowing a little of their light to be refracted onto the moon’s surface." It was quite amazing to see. And it is also amazing to think of all the sunrises and sunsets of the whole earth being mirrored in the moon, a whole day's worth of earth's light reflected back to us. When I was a little girl, Mama used to get me up to watch eclipses and unusual alignments of planets and stars. I remember sitting on the front porch on a dark cold morning, wrapped in a big blanket, watching Venus shining huge and low in the sky. Last night, outside watching the moon, I had the same feelings of awe and wonder as I did then (as the psalmist did, too) when I considered the heavens, the work of God's fingers, the moon and the stars that God has ordained.

February 15, 2008

No Cloistered Airport

I have been reading "An Infinity of Little Hours" which is about five young men who seek to become Carthusian monks. The order is one of the most demanding, with the monks living lives of solitude and silence, in a setting that is much as it might have been when the order was founded just after the first millennium. I had this book in my bag on Wednesday when I was traveling. It was a morning of snow and ice, and the airport was shut down for about five hours. There were crowds of people trying to get to warm places, or places for business, or just places other than where they were. And the planes were not flying and the children were fussy and so were the grownups. I tried to read a bit in the book, but it seemed such a contrast that I gave up. And I have been wondering about the struggle of the monks to sense the presence of God, to immerse themselves in prayer, to live faithful lives in a place where the the distraction is themselves. It was a struggle for them, as the book recounts, and not all of them succeeded. And how much more for those of us in places like that airport on Wednesday morning, with noise and crowds and frustration, with short tempers and long waits, with too much coffee and too little sleep and nothing even to remind us of thinking about the presence of God. But there we were, and God was there, too, I suppose, even if it was hard to know that. No one I know lives the kind of life that the Carthusians do, but I do know people who live faithful lives of prayer. It is just a lot harder to do outside the cloister.

February 11, 2008

First Sunday in Lent

Of Trees and Gardens

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Once upon a time, at the beginning of time, the whole world was like a garden. It was so beautiful, planted and populated with every good thing, fresh and fragrant, because it was God’s garden. God created the garden for us, and it was God’s delight to be there with us.

The garden was full of trees, trees of all kinds: shade trees and fruit trees and flowering trees, trees bearing nuts and spices, quaking aspens and weeping willows, elms and oaks and evergreens. And in the middle of the garden, God planted a special tree, one of a kind. It was the tree of life. I imagine it as a big and beautiful tree, high and lifted up, with branches spread wide, and deeply rooted, too, firm and faithful, established there for all time. And it must have been that everything there was centered around this tree of life, and the life of the tree flowed out to everything else. It was as God intended: life in the center, goodness in abundance.

There were many trees in the garden and they were all meant for us, all of them except one. Somewhere in the garden, there was a tree called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God planted the tree in the garden where we lived but that tree was reserved for God alone.

We lived in that garden for a time, back when time was new, and we had everything we needed. And God would come and walk with us in the cool of the day. We lived with all creation and with God in perfect harmony. We even lived with each other in perfect harmony – that is part of what made it seem like paradise. It was so good, but since it was all we knew, we didn’t know there was anything so special about it. It was just the way the world was. It was just the way God meant it to be.

But it didn’t last. We began to have some stirrings, some longings, some cravings. It is hard to say where they came from exactly. They sneaked up on us somehow, like a snake in the grass, and pretty soon we became convinced that it wasn’t enough to be made in the image of God, to be like God. And it wasn’t enough to walk with God in the cool of the day, to be with God. It wasn’t enough to be like God, to be with God; we wanted to be God. So we reached out and seized that which was reserved for God alone. We claimed for ourselves the knowledge of good and evil.

And we scattered the seeds of that knowledge through the whole garden. And good sprouted up, yes, but so did evil. And somehow the evil has grown thicker and more pervasive, like briers in a garden, growing up so thick and fast that the tender green goodness almost gets choked out. And pretty soon the world doesn’t even look a garden at all any more. It looks like a wilderness. It is a dangerous place; it is a threatening place; this place where we live, this place where good and evil grow up together and become so entwined we cannot even tell them apart any more. And we feel alone in the wilderness; we are afraid of everything. We even hide ourselves from God.

And the world has been this way for so long that the pure green goodness of the garden seems like a fairy tale, a myth. We can no longer remember how it was when the world was new. We can’t even imagine what it was like we walked with God. We have a hard time believing that it was ever so. But God can remember it, God can envision it, God is faithful still. And deep in God’s heart, in the place where memory and vision and faithfulness flourish, God’s original intention for the world has not changed: life in the center, goodness in abundance.

And maybe the word that best describes all this is love. There is really no other way to explain why God just doesn’t give up on us. But God doesn’t. And God has gone to extraordinary lengths to show us what this love looks like. In order to reach humans who want to be God, God becomes human. And this human God, this God-man, the one we know as Jesus, walks into the world’s wilderness. He comes to us where we are, as we are. And just like all the rest of us, he too possesses the knowledge of good and evil. But unlike all the rest of us, he alone is not distracted by that knowledge; he is not corrupted by it. And because he has dwelled for all eternity in the realm of God, in the place where the garden still grows green, he knows the heart of God. He understands God’s intention for all creation. He understands it and he embodies it. He is life and he is love. And all that is good in creation is centered around him. And the life that is in him flows out to everything else. It is just what God intended: life in the center, goodness in abundance.

And because he is somehow like us, it seems possible for us to be somehow like him. It seems possible for us to resist the temptation to be other than who God intends us to be. It seems possible for us to resist the temptation to use our gifts for our own good, rather than the good of others. It seems possible for us to resist the temptation to exchange the power and glory of God for the sparkly glitter of the world. It even seems possible to see the world as God always intended it to be: life in the center, goodness in abundance. And if we are paying attention, we can even catch a glimpse of the garden.

And maybe that is what we are called to do in these forty days of Lent, these forty days of wilderness. Maybe we are called to pay attention to the places where the garden is breaking through. At the end of these forty days, there will be another kind of garden, and there will be another tree. Those who see only the wilderness, will look at it and think that it is a tree of death. But those of us who have caught a glimpse of God’s garden will come to the tree and know it as it really is: rooted and grounded in love, firm and faithful, established here among us for all time; and high and lifted up, with arms spread wide. We will come to the tree and know that it is the tree of life. And Jesus will be waiting for us, there in God’s garden – as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever more. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith 2008

February 7, 2008

The Art of the Vote

My polling place is an elementary school. The voting booths are set up in the art classroom and it is a wonderful place. There are many tools for making things there – paints and brushes, scissors, glue, string and paper – and the room is full of paintings and collage and fabric and papier-mache sculptures that children have made. The teacher has hung signs around with quotations about art, I suppose as a way of encouraging and inspiring the students. When I went to vote on Tuesday, this sign was hanging right outside the room:

A man paints with his brain
and not with his hands.

It made me hope in that place of creativity and exploration that maybe people would come and vote with their brains and not just their hands. But I don’t know.

Ash Wednesday

Broken Hearts

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In my office, I keep a jar full of beach glass. The pieces are mostly small, many different shapes, and the colors are soft and muted, pale green, translucent brown, blue and frosty white, some almost clear. I have collected these fragments as I walked the long lovely beach where my family and I spend our summer times. A lot of glass has washed up on that shore. There have been some terrible hurricanes there, and I am sure that many of these fragments are the result of those storms.

Most of the pieces are smooth, worn down by the sea and the sand, the jagged, wounding edges softened. It is no longer possible to tell what the original purpose was for these pieces; they are completely transformed by the battering of tide and time. Once in a while, though, there is a piece that is raw and new, sharp and dangerous, its former identity still apparent but no longer functional. I have found glass that was part of light fixtures and window panes, jars and bottles and kitchenware. These pieces are the dangerous ones, capable of slicing into a bare foot as one walks through the sand. It is more common, though, to find glass that is worn down, smoothed and gentled. The jar in my office has both kinds.

I keep these fragments, not because they have any real function, but only because they are beautiful. Whatever the first intent for their use, that purpose is gone, broken: destroyed by some accident or the fury of a storm, or just discarded, thrown away. And then, battered by the surf and scrubbed on the sand, the pieces are changed. They become like little works of art. Through destruction and force, the glass is transformed. It becomes beautiful.

And so it is with us, although it is hard to think that transformation and even beauty can come out of brokenness. It is a paradox, a paradox where brokenness becomes essential to wholeness. This is hard for us because we do not want to know how fragile we are. We treasure the notion that we can manage, that we can function, that we are in control. But the great and violent storms of life break that illusion. We can find ourselves shattered, like splinters of glass scattered on the summer sand.

Storms and accidents and discardings can destroy our hopes and dreams, leave our goals and purposes in pieces, and even alter the function of our lives forever. The aftermath of such times is painful and raw. We are left with jagged edges that can be dangerous to ourselves and to those around us. We are no strangers to this. It comes from the death of a dream, from a broken relationship, from a career-ending injury, from the loss of someone you love, from a doctor's report, even from everyday disappointments. Yes, we cherish our strength and self-sufficiency, but the truth of the matter is that we are finite, fragile creatures. Remember: we are dust.

We are dust, and yet we have been shaped and molded and given life through the hand of our creator. And the one who granted life at the beginning of time is still at work. God is at work creating new life in spite of brokenness, creating new life through brokenness. Like the waves of the sea that pound on the glass, the great and powerful love of God transforms the fragments of our broken lives, smoothing our jagged edges, making us beautiful. Perhaps it is hard to think that brokenness might open the way to God and that God's transformation might be known in and through and even as brokenness. It is a strange wisdom to know first-hand this way of God's working.

Yes, it is a strange wisdom and even more strange to seek it out, to ask for it, to pray this kind of prayer:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

John Donne's poem is a hard prayer. "Batter my heart, three-person'd God. . . breake, blowe, burn -- and make me new." It is a hard thing to ask, but even so, I invite you to take this as your Lenten prayer. I warn you, though, that it will be much more difficult than giving up chocolate or coffee, or deciding to forego the movies. Those kinds of sacrifices may be helpful, but not on their own. The word of God is clear: It is not enough to deal only with the external. Fasting is not the repentance that God asks. Neither is the appearance of goodness what God desires. In fact, Jesus warns us about appearance for its own sake: "Beware of practicing your piety before others. . . ." he says. Instead, through the voices of prophet and psalmist, God calls us to a Lenten preparation that involves an interior change. "Rend your hearts . . . ." That is the sacrifice acceptable to God: a broken and contrite spirit -- a broken heart.

To know this wisdom in your innermost being, in your secret heart, is, indeed, to know the strange way of God's working. God desires a complete and utter renovation of the places deep within, the places that are known only to God and to you. There is no change from the outside in that is quite as radical. God would set God's truth within you, by breaking down all the structures of your pride and your purposefulness and your striving, even your goodness and righteousness. God would crush those bones, so that there is an open and empty space. And that is the space, that God-shaped void, that God would fill with the steadfast love and mercy of an incomprehensible grace. Out of this brokenness, come joy and gladness and beauty – a new creation.

But remember that creation is disruptive. Without noise, there can be no sound of silence; without darkness, no understanding of the light; without death, no sense of the preciousness of life. It is out of chaos and upheaval that great change comes about. New creation involves a break with the old, a breaking of the old. In order for God to create in you a clean, new heart, the old heart must be broken and destroyed. "Batter my heart, three-person'd God. . . breake, blowe, burn -- and make me new."

In this transformation, we are given a new purpose, a new identity. Or perhaps it is more truthful to say that we come to know what our true identity and purpose really are – to be beautiful for God. The beach glass on my table serves no useful function. It is there only because it is beautiful, because I enjoy it.

You are this way, too, whenever you allow the transforming love of God to work on you. You do not have to earn God's grace— you cannot. You do not have to function as the perfect Christian – you cannot do that either. And it is a hard truth to know in a place like this, but no amount of effort will prove your worth. No amount of sacrifice will buy God's love. The only sacrifice acceptable to God is your heart, your broken heart -- yourself.

And if your heart has not been broken already, it surely will be, because that is the way of the world. It is also the way of God, because God is at work in brokenness.

So let your heart be broken. And then gather up the fragments of that broken heart, that heart you thought was yours alone, and hand them over to God. Because that is the offering that God desires.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith, 2008