The Past Ain’t What It Used To Be

Wizard of Oz

When I was a boy, there was one Sunday night a year my siblings and I got to stay home from church: the night The Wizard of Oz was on television. On that very magical night, my mother let her maternal instincts overrule her religious devotion. And for that lapse in zeal, she was considered a liberal or at least, a slacker.

I didn’t understand then, as I don’t understand now, why honoring the Sabbath meant having absolutely no fun. At least as viewed through my nine-year-old eyes, there was no more sacred rest than entering into a fanciful world where a lovely young lady accompanied by a tin man, lion, and scarecrow, battled and unmasked the powers of darkness.

This was during the sixties when Blue Laws were fading in America. For many, this slackening of prohibitions against commerce and yes, fun on the Sabbath, was a sign of America’s moral and spiritual decline.

Well, recently, I had the opportunity to revisit that time when America was considered a God-fearing nation because you couldn’t buy gas for your car or milk for your kids on Sunday. It was not a pleasant experience.

This experience unfolded on the Isle of Lewis where Bambi and I spent the weekend. Lewis is a lovely gem in that string of islands off the Scottish coast known as the Hebrides. The scenery in Lewis is heart-stopping and the people are welcoming and kind. If they just knew how to say, “Bless your heart” with a Scottish brogue, I’d feel right at home.

Isle of Lewis lake

But on the Isle of Lewis, life comes to a grinding halt on Sundays. It is a hallowed tradition dating from the time when the state church made the rules for the faithful and unfaithful alike. The locals seem very proud of this heritage, even though during a visit of several days, I met only one resident who attended church. In fact, we could not find a church service near us last Sunday so we decided to spend the day exploring the island.

That’s when we discovered that on Lewis, everything is closed on Sunday. Parks are padlocked. Shops, restaurants, and visitor centers are closed and woe is you if your car runs low on fuel. Even fishing is illegal on Sundays, something that seems strange for a Lord so partial to anglers (Mark 1:16-20). Public bathrooms are locked up on Sunday. Yes, bathrooms.

Monument Closed

Now as a guy, finding a bathroom in a pinch is never much of a problem. More than once during our Sunday traipsing about the island, I found a suitable privy behind a boulder or a thick patch of brush. Then, when I popped back out and Bambi asked, a bit peevishly, “Where were you?!” I always answered mischievously, “There’s a bathroom behind that rock.”

She was not smiling.

Eventually, we set off in hot pursuit of a bathroom that was feminine-friendly. We saw a lot of the Isle of Lewis without ever finding one. With my wife’s frustration level understandably on the rise, Jesus’ reprimand to the Pharisees of another age kept resounding in my brain: “The Sabbath was made for humanity and not humanity for the Sabbath! (Mark 2:27).

Finally, we made it back to our B&B where the object of our pursuit was blissfully present, ready, and unlocked!

Isle of Lewis with Sheep

Now the moral of this story is not that keeping Sabbath is an empty ritual that should be dumped once and for all. No generation needs the gift of Sabbath worship, rest, and renewal more than our own. Locked in the echo chamber of our cyber-crazed, web-centric, 24/7 world, we need at least one day a week to be reminded that God is God and we are not.

But Sabbath observances imposed from without have no power to awaken our sense of the divine or deepen our connection with God, one another, or our own deepest selves. In fact, Sabbath-keeping decreed by law or tradition has the opposite effect breeding only anger, resentment, and hypocrisy. As our B&B hostess said me in a low voice on Sunday afternoon, “I’ll be glad to do your laundry but I’ll have to tumble dry it. I can’t be seen hanging laundry on the line on a Sunday!”

By contrast, voluntarily choosing to honor the Sabbath by slowing down, participating in a community of faith, getting some rest, and making time for play is to give a precious gift to ourselves and those we love. Such a freely chosen Sabbath can restore our sanity, put our problems in perspective, and remind us we are not alone.  If the Creator of the cosmos needed Day Seven to relish the wonder and beauty of what God created the six days before (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:10-11), then maybe we need some downtime for reflection, rest, and yes, recreation.  For the Lord who said, “Unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3)  does not smile on a faith where children are forced to go to church the one Sunday night a year when the Wizard of Oz is on television.

For those who want to romanticize the past and talk about the Good Ole Days, when everyone was forced to pretend to be religious at least once a week, please make that trip without me. I have been “back to the future” and I did not like what I saw.

Blessings,

Bob Setzer, Jr.

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Bob in front of Abbey

 

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God’s Sheepdogs

Friendly Persuasion

When Bambi and I drove off the ferry to Skye, an enchanted island off the Scottish coast, we decided to take what Robert Frost called “the road not taken.” All the other cars turned right and we turned left. Soon our road dissolved into a single lane where we crept along, hoping to dodge any oncoming vehicles.

Twenty minutes later, after traveling all of three miles, we were confronted by a cattle gate, barbed wire fence, and a sign that proclaimed in big red letters, “CAUTION.” The fine print alerted wayfarers like us there was a bull roaming the property. At that point, Bambi decided to take a break and I opened the gate and pressed on up the lane.

As the gods would have it, I was blessed for my dogged (or foolhardy) determination to continue down that path. For soon I was confronted not by a raging bull, but by a lovely flock of sheep cresting a hilltop on the road ahead. The sheep surged down the road toward me like a great, white tide, eager to sweep me into its wooly embrace. But just as I prepared myself for the hug of a lifetime, the sheep veered off the road, just ahead of me, and set off into a wild, unkempt pasture.

I saw and heard the shepherds, three generations of them–father, son, and grandfather–calling to their sheep from a distant hilltop. Or so I thought. Actually, they were giving directions to their border collies who came bounding over the hill. The border collies set about corralling the sheep, alternately blocking and terrorizing them in the right direction. Whenever the sheep started to stray from the pen where they were headed for the night, the sheepdogs swept in with their yips and snarls and constant, buzzing motion. I watched in amazement at this perfectly choreographed movement.

3 generations autocorrected

Watching these sheepdogs working their craft, I remembered what the renowned English clergyman and author, Leslie Weatherhead said about God’s sheepdogs. He said that in ancient Palestine, shepherds led their flocks but in Weatherhead’s native England, shepherds came along behind, calling to their sheepdogs who in turn, nudged their sheep in the right direction. Musing about the meaning of the last line in the 23rd Psalm–“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me forever and ever”–Weatherhead suggested “Goodness” and “Mercy” were God’s sheepdogs, pursuing God’s flock with focused, unflagging devotion.

Even so, God the Good Shepherd goes ahead, leading us through life’s every delight (“green pastures, still waters”) and peril (“the valley of the shadow”) while Goodness and Mercy chase us from behind. Thus, throughout our lives, we are surrounded by God’s grace on every side: grace before us, grace beside us, and grace behind.

Goodness and Mercy autocorrected

As I mused about the 23rd Psalm, the great tide of sheep flowed slowly, inexorably toward their pen. Suddenly, a lamb decided to make a break for it. He darted off from the flock, heading in the opposite direction. I wondered what would become of that little lamb, so wobbly and frail, out there in that vast terrain, all by himself, for a long, lonesome night.

Just then, one of the sheepdogs–either Goodness or Mercy– took off after the fleeing lamb. The dog shot across the pasture, bounding the rocks, brush, and creek in zealous pursuit of his prize. In very short order, the dog caught up with the fugitive lamb, got behind him, and pointed the errant lamb back to the flock with a poised muzzle and popping bark.

Jesus said the Good Shepherd seeks the lost sheep until he finds it (Luke 15:4). I take comfort in this promise because as one of God’s wayward lambs, I have a way of getting lost: I lose my focus, my resoluteness, my sense of God’s presence. I lose my perspective, my forgiving spirit, my willingness to be wrong. I lose my passion for serving those who are suffering and oppressed, the vulnerable and the week. That’s when I pray, or better yet, the Holy Spirit prays on my behalf (a la Romans 8:26) the desperate S.0.S. of the Psalmist: “I wander about like a lost sheep; so come and look for me, your servant” (Psalm 119:176).

And so, on a forbidden path where I, the lost soul, was not supposed to be, God’s all-embracing grace surprised me in a powerful, palpable way. For surrounded by a sea of wool and the soft down and sharp barks of sheepdogs, I was reminded it is impossible to outrun, outfox, or defeat the restless, relentless, ever-resourceful love of God.

It comforts my fretful heart to know that Christ, the Good Shepherd–and his sheepdogs, Goodness and Mercy–will never give up on finding me. For as with all God’s flock, it is when I am lost, that I need him most.

Blessings,

Bob Setzer, Jr.

Shepherd and Sheep Dog

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Bob in front of Abbey

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Holy Ground

Bench at B&B

Bambi and I left the isle of Iona this week on a suitably dreary day. The fog-shrouded harbor and the gently misting rain bore silent witness to our heaviness of heart. It is not easy to leave so dear a friend.

Most people find that rain adds to the gloominess of a sad occasion. As a pastor, I often hear someone mutter by a rain-soaked graveside, “What a terrible day for a funeral!”

“Not for me,” a friend of mine from another time and place always answered. “To me the rain means God is crying too.”

That’s how I felt as we got on the ferry to leave Iona, the rain wrapping us in its misty embrace: I felt like God was crying too.

Iona is a tiny isle off the west Scottish coast where a sixth century saint named Columba founded a monastery. He landed there while fleeing his demons, hoping to find tranquility and peace. He and his hearty band of twelve island-hopped until they reached an island from which Columba could not see his homeland. That island was Iona and there, he and his disciples built a monastery and launched their mission to the mainland. That’s why the Scots call Iona the “cradle of Christianity.” For them, it is.

During Columba’s life, pilgrims came from faraway places, seeking his counsel and blessing. After he died, many sought burial near him, including nearly forty Scottish, Irish, and Scandianian kings. It was believed at the end of time the saints would rise first. Even so august a soul as Macbeth was buried on Iona in the hope he would be caught up in the great saint’s rising. Thus, since Columba’s time, Iona has been a place of pilgrimage.

I came to Iona as Columba did and others do, seeking spiritual peace and renewal. I wasn’t so much fleeing my demons as yearning for a deepening of my life God or perhaps, better said, of God’s life in me. And like countless pilgrims before me, God found me, touched me, and gently changed me as I traipsed about that windswept, sea-ringed plot of land. Somewhere between my arrival and the rain-soaked day of my departure, one week later, Iona became holy ground for me.

For many pilgrims to Iona, the church and Abbey built on the ruins of Columba’s originals are central to their spiritual renewal on Iona. To me, those were important, but not quite so formative. For one thing, Bambi and I didn’t stay at the Abbey but at a Bed and Breakfast on the other side of the island, removed from the hubbub. It was on our daily walks to and from the village, nearly a mile distant, that I most felt God’s nearness. I felt God’s nearness in the animals, ever-present and never far from one’s touch–the sheep and goats and chicken, baaing and squawking their praise and yes, their demands to their Creator; in the ever-present sea, rarely out of sight and lapping the shore on every side, reminding me of the primordial soup from which all life came (Genesis 1:2); in the persistent wind rustling even my hair-sprayed stiff mane, as though an unseen hand was tousling my hair; and yes, in the Word of God “hidden in my heart” (Psalm 19:11, KJV) each morning and pondered throughout the day.

Flock of Sheep on Iona

It is surely true, as the poet said, that “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God.” But most of the time we are too busy, preoccupied, or consumed with self-importance to notice. So we need places and practices that awaken our spiritual center and our senses to the One who is ever near, the One in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We need Jesus, as surely as any blind or deaf soul in the Gospels, to give us “ears to hear and eyes to see.”

We need holy ground. We need the holiness of certain spaces to help us see and hear and smell and taste and touch the holiness of all spaces.

And so, Iona became for me what it became to countless pilgrims before me: Holy Ground. It became what the burning bush on Mount Sinai was to Moses: the place where the living God surprised my reverie with the summons, “Take off your shoes, son. The place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). For me, Iona became the place I discovered anew how deeply I, all God’s creation, all God’s creatures, and all God’s children are passionately beloved by the One who breathed them into life and breathes life into them still.

Little wonder the sky wept with me on that misty morning I boarded a ferry to leave.

Leaving Iona

Blessings,

Bob Setzer, Jr.

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Bob in front of Abbey

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Running with the Wind

The weather on the isle of Iona has been bright and balmy. One especially beautiful day, a patch of clouds looking like an angel’s wing, hovered above, beckoning us on our way.

Angels Wings over Iona

Yesterday morning, however, more traditional Scottish weather blew in from the sea. The day turned soggy, blustery, and cold, not ideal for the run I was planning. Still, my muscles yearned for a workout like agitated children wailing for their promised playtime in the park.

So I set out running into a stinging, rain-soaked headwind and immediately regretted my decision. But as usual, when running, my body quickly warmed to the task. Soon, I was relatively comfortable lumbering along, even as I wondered what windshield wipers for eyeglasses might net on eBay. A few hearty Scots were out walking their dogs or otherwise defying the weather, but most everyone was still indoors, sipping hot tea.

My destination was the other end of the island, which on Iona (only one mile wide and four miles long) is never very far. I passed the little village by the pier, the wet grasslands by the sea, the ever-present flocks of sheep. Much of my run was on paths across pastures so periodically I stopped to open a farmer’s gate and then secure it behind me.

Finally, I topped a windswept hill and saw a lonely ocean, grinning with delight, at an unexpected visitor. Having reached the shore at the far end of the island, I stopped long enough to bask in the tranquil beauty of the misty scene. Then the chill started creeping back up my bones and I set off again, heading back the way I came.

Rain soaked beach from run

This time, however, the wind was at my back, nudging me on. The swirling embrace of the wind invigorated my body and awakened my soul. My lungs drank deeply of the fresh gusts of air. Soon a plodding determination to complete a difficult run turned into the light steps of a rhythmic dance. Chugging up hills that seemed daunting moments before was suddenly easy. The foggy, rain-soaked world surrounding me became more sharply focused, more lustrous and alive, more God-filled and less clouded by my own projections.

The image of the Holy Spirit as the wind came to me unbidden. In both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and in the Greek of the New, the word for “spirit” can be mean both “breath” and “wind.” In fact, the Bible begins with that very image: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind (Hebrew, “spirit”) from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).

Yes, sometimes the Holy Spirit comes quietly and gently, like a dove, bringing God’s calm at the center of our storm. But sometimes the Holy Spirit comes like the famed wild goose of Celtic spirituality, wild and unpredictable, knocking things over and stirring things up. Think “Pentecost” when the Holy Spirit disrupted a nice, respectable prayer meeting with the force of a “mighty rushing wind” (Acts 2:2), bowling over tired, spent expectations and breathing life into the church’s new beginning. As Jesus said it, “The wind (“spirit”) blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

So as I ran down the isle of Iona with the wind at my back, I felt the Holy Spirit near: more wild goose than dove, more a mighty rushing wind (a la Acts 2) than the Spirit (“wind”) quietly brooding over the waters in Genesis 1.

In a divine coincidence those who don’t know any better call “luck,” I crested one last hill. There before me was Iona’s abbey, built to commemorate the life and mission of Saint Columba who brought the Good News of Jesus to Scotland. That abbey and its call to a renewed life and mission was what drew me to Iona. Still panting, I couldn’t help but smile.

Abbey on Cloudy running morning

Tradition says Columba died on the very hill where I was now standing, taking in this final, awe inspiring scene. And that’s when I realized why Columba went to that hilltop to die. It’s because a hilltop is where the Wind is strongest. And one last time, that grand old saint intended to ride the Wind, on angel’s wings, all the way Home.

Blessings,

Bob Setzer, Jr.

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“The Son of Man Has No Place to Lay His Head”

When confronting some would-be disciples, eager to go traipsing after him, Jesus offered the sober warning: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

I doubt Jesus’ words met with much success. Probably those wannabe disciples responded as I would: “What could be more cool than going on a camping trip with Jesus?”

Footpath outside Faversham

But after spending three weeks on the road, roughing it twenty-first century style, I have a new appreciation for the unique stresses of being away from home for an extended period. Even if one’s accommodations are adequate, nice, or even plush, being perpetually on the go taxes the body and wearies the spirit.

Bambi and I left Salisbury, England one week ago yesterday. After completing a course on “Celtic Spirituality” at Sarum College, we had a few days to rest, reflect, and regroup. That was a grace-filled Godsend.

From there, we set off for Canterbury in a rental car, constantly trying to remember to drive on the right side of the road (which in Britain is the wrong side). Meanwhile, dodging vehicles hurtling toward us on country roads not much wider than a cow path, created some anxious moments, a few “expletives deleted,” and much growth in faith!

Canterbury was our destination because there Augustine landed from Rome bringing Christianity to southern Britain. That brand of Christianity was soon on a collision course with the Celtic variety, the two coming to near fisticuffs at the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D. Suffice to say, Saint Columba and his friends decidedly lost that contest.

Catching up with that bit of Canterbury’s history was rewarding for me, as was our visit to Canterbury’s stately cathedral. However, in some ways even more memorable was discovering at our B&B that it is possible to put a toilet seat in a space eighteen inches wide, even if it is not possible to sit upon so pitiful a throne.

From Canterbury, we launched northward toward Scotland and our ultimate destination, the isle of Iona. Google predicted our daily drives to take about 3 hours but each turned into a 7-8 hour mini-marathon due to my not-ready-for-prime time driving skills, the endless “roundabouts,” and Bambi’s penchant for photography (“STOP!”).

And because we were pursuing the “no place to lay one’s head” experience, each night we spent an hour pouring over a laptop, trying to find our next place to land. “Flying by the seat of your pants” sounds appealing until you discover you’re 3,000 feet high, running out of fuel, and no airport is in sight.

Still, we were richly rewarded for our adventuresome spirit. Along the way, we saw the haunting, mysterious circle of pillars called Stonehenge; old Sarum where the footprint of the Salisbury Cathedral can still be seen since it was moved, stone by stone, to a site two miles distant; soaring sacred spaces that clawed heavenward to the glory of God; crumbling remains of once impregnable stone fortresses, a sober reminder that nothing lasts forever; an enchanting train ride across the lush, green hills and deep blue lochs of Scotland; harbor towns where white, billowing sails looked like splashes of paint on a sky-blue canvas.

Stonehenge pic with Bambi

Nonetheless, I am getting homesick. I miss my church, my colleagues and friends, my work, my preaching, my fishing hole, and breakfast without black pudding (don’t ask). I want my “place to lay my head” back!

Turns out as usual, Jesus is right. The hardest part about following him (and perhaps what he found hardest in honoring his own call) is leaving your familiar securities and comforts to set out on a new adventure with God. And yes, that means making the endless adjustments, managing the stresses, and grieving the losses every unfolding journey leaves in its wake.

But as fellow pilgrims in the way of Jesus can attest, the sometimes unsettling experience of following him is worth the cost. The uncertainties, the hairpin turns, and the brushes with catastrophe stretch your faith and grow your soul. In his company, every dead end is just another Easter, waiting to happen.

Just don’t expect to know exactly where you’ll land or who, in Jesus’ company, you might find the courage to be. That’s a surprise he is keeping hidden for now in his strong and able hands (Colossians 3:3).

Blessings,

Bob Setzer, Jr.

P. S. Yesterday, we arrived in Iona, an island off the western coast of Scotland. It was here that Saint Columba brought Christianity to the Scots and founded a monastic movement. In many ways, this the heart of our journey. We are in a restful B&B by the sea where we will spend the next week basking in the healing powers of this “thin space” where heaven and earth draw near.

Bob at Abbey first day II

 

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Angels Unawares

The lovely, lilting English of the King James Bible reminds us, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).

One of the great delights of traveling, especially far from home, are the encounters with unexpected “angels” along the way. By “angels,” I mean perfect strangers (pun intended) who bring God’s help or blessing, disguised as an ordinary mortals.

One of angels Bambi and I met this week was Gary, a British veteran of the war in Iraq. Gary met his Russian wife while working on an oil rig in the North Sea where she served as an interpreter. Now Gary and his wife live in England with their beautiful, young son and another child on the way.

Gary was staying in Salisbury, England while learning to fly a Gyrocopter, a sort of “flying motorcycle,” at the local airport. More on that later.

Me in Gyrocopter

Bambi and I first met Gary at the “bar,” the sitting room and concession area of the college where we were staying. Gary was sitting alone and Bambi and I fell to talking with him. He found this surprising because in three weeks of staying at the college, mostly populated by theological students and clergy, virtually no one had spoken to him, let alone shared a meal or drink.

Gary said the Church of England was terribly out of touch with ordinary people and represents the worst of the lingering class system in Britain. In his mind, the clergy ignoring a tattooed war veteran like himself was symptomatic of the problem.

One night, while sitting alone in the college bar, yet again, Gary overheard a group of clergy bemoaning the fact the “working people” don’t support the church anymore. Irritated to the breaking point, Gary promptly told them the problem wasn’t the “working people;” the problem was a church that didn’t care about regular Joes like himself. Gary then left in a huff. To her credit, one priest sought Gary out the following day to hear his story.

Anyway, Gary seemed genuinely touched that Bambi and I, a man of the cloth and his wife, took a real interest in him. That was due to no virtue on our part. Gary was an easy person to like. Energetic and engaging, he enthralled us with his stories of combat, flying, and a host of other topics. After learning more about who he was, I told Gary I considered him an “anonymous Christian,” someone whose tender heart and concern for others confessed Christ, even if he did not.

By week’s end, Gary, Bambi, and I were becoming fast friends. He offered to take me up in the Gyrocopter he and his cousin, Simon, were learning to fly. Simon was qualified to take passengers up so I got into his and Gary’s open-cockpit Gyrocopter called a “motorbike of the sky” by flying enthusiasts.  With Simon at the controls, I sat back and marveled at the lush, green English countryside sweeping by beneath our rotor-swept craft, riding the wind.

Gyrocopter flying

Last Sunday, Bambi and I attended Sunday morning worship at Salisbury Cathedral. The liturgy and music were regal and stirring. During the consecration of new deacons (Anglican clergy-in-training), several bishops took off their clerical vestments and washed the feet of those about to be ordained. It was a touching gesture.

However, still stinging from Gary’s rebuke to the clergy, of which I am a part, I couldn’t help but think: All this is well and good, but in imploring his disciples to “wash another’s feet,” Jesus wasn’t suggesting a lovely ceremony. Jesus was talking about stepping down from a posture of pride and privilege to really connect with and care about another human being. That is the essential calling of the clergy and for that matter, of every Christian.

Somewhere between the college bar and the cathedral, Gary became an angel of God’s grace to me. And not just by arranging a world-class Gyrocopter ride, but by reminding me of the sacred calling that is mine: to listen to every person as if I really believed he or she is a child of God . . . because they are.

Blessings,

Bob Setzer, Jr.

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Another angel Bambi and I met this week was a young Pakistani man who not only pointed us to a store in Salisbury, England we needed to find, but insisted on walking us there through a tangle of medieval streets. I told him what a delight it was to meet a kind, helpful Pakistani since the ones we see on the news are almost universally mean and violent. He suppressed a smile and said the same was true of how Americans are perceived in his country.

Sometimes God speaks to us in a sucker punch.

Blessings, Bob

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