Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Autumn Glory

Here in Maryland, as I write these words, it’s October and autumn’s glory is unfolding before our eyes.  It begins slowly; we notice an isolated tree starting to change color and then day-by-day it quietly spreads; color seemingly descends from the sky.  The highest branches often turn first (the top of the canopy is more exposed) but the Artist of Autumn continues to work until the entire landscape, which was lush and green not all that long ago, is now afire in hues of orange, yellow, gold, and red.  The display only lasts a short time before the brighter colors give way to the dull hues of November and the barrenness of the winter months sets in—when only the hardy pines and other conifers stay green. 

The whole process happens without us giving it much conscious thought. We go on about our daily routines of living, and then suddenly, one day we are driving along, and we look up at just the right time and a patch of color peeking out from the green catches our attention and captivates our imagination.  A while later, perhaps we come around a bend and behold a scenic vista overlooking a valley with the Sun hitting it at just the right angle—and we are undone.  With the Psalmist we echo:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God… the firmament declares his handiwork. —Psalm 19:1

Science can explain what’s going on.  Triggered by longer nights and cooler temperatures, deciduous trees start to get ready for winter.  The photosynthetic activity wanes, and the chlorophyll pigment that produces the green color gives way to other chemicals present in the leaves that lead to the colors we associate with autumn. The exact timing of the change and intensity of the colors vary from year to year depending on the weather conditions experienced during the summer and fall, but we can count on the fact that come October the leaves are going to start to change color and we’ll be treated to autumnal splendor for yet another year.

After that, the trees will drop their leaves and hunker down for the winter—and we will all be raking like crazy in a few weeks J. In the winter, the trees around here will look pretty dead, but, of course, they really aren’t.  They are just lying dormant for a season; they actually need this time to prepare for spring and the next season of growth.  Just as we can count on the leaves falling in the fall, assuming the tree is healthy, you can expect that come next spring, buds will appear and new leaves will follow as the whole cycle of life begins anew. 

So science has a pretty good handle on what happens to the trees, how it happens, and even when it will happen, but it doesn’t begin to explain why it happens the way it does. No, delving into the why question requires something deeper. It takes faith[1] to ask why—even if the question often goes unanswered.

Have you ever wondered why autumn unfolds as it does? It certainly didn’t have to unfold this way each year.  God the creator didn’t have to design these trees so that in the process of them doing what they were created to do and hunkering down for the winter months, we humans are treated to a spectacular display every autumn.    But God has put this in place, almost as if he knew that we would enjoy it so.  And the Almighty’s hunch must have been on target—try getting a room anywhere in the Shenandoah Valley right now! 

When we view life through the eyes of faith, a whole new dimension of reality dawns.  The glory of autumn is no accident; it is a glimpse of the glory of God.

Glory is the essence of what something or who someone is.

The glory of autumn.
Every tree in the forest is unique in the way it changes color in the fall.  We can say that each tree reflects God’s glory in its own distinct way.  By itself, it has beauty that we recognize when we see it, but when it joins with an entire forest, that beauty is magnified and we get the views that take our breath away—we behold the glory of autumn

If it’s true for trees, then how much more must it be true for human beings—the pinnacle of creation.  By ourselves we are wondrously made, but when we join together with one another and connect with God, we rise to a whole different level of living—we come fully alive.

Says St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive and the life of a human being is the vision of God.”  With due deference to the Saint, I might say it this way: 

God is glorified when we are fully ourselves and we become most fully ourselves as we behold God’s glory and reflect it to the world in our own unique way.

In Jesus Christ, we see the perfect reflection of God—the glory of God. We learn from the example of Jesus and others in Scripture, who each saw glimpses of that glory and reflected it in their own unique way in a specific place and time. (Hebrews 11 contains a list of examples.)  But we also see plenty of glimpses of glory in this life.  There are people, places, and moments along our journey that help us connect with and experience God more fully. Autumn leaves are just one example of the glory that surrounds us—if we can just train our eyes to see.  I urge us all to take time to discover and savor those gifts.  Live life with full intensity.  Become all God has created you to be.   

Reflect God’s glory to the world! —2 Corinthians 3:18

[1] While I say takes faith in something to ask why, I also recognize that some would not call that something “God”.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Most Unusual Dinner Party

[A story inspired by Luke 14:7-24—The Parable of the Great Dinner]

This story was originally created and presented orally as part of a class I took on storytelling.  I present slightly modified written version here…

It was the party of the year, and somehow I had scored an invitation!
I wondered if there had been a clerical error somewhere?  Was some rich debutant with whom I happened to share the same name being deprived of an invite? 
But I can rationalize with the best of them, and I soon convinced myself that “nameless rich guy” probably gets invited to a party like this every week.  Surely he won’t miss this one little invite. 
“He probably has turned down invitations to more posh parties than I’ll ever be invited to attend in my life.”
I got myself ready.
I had to admit I cleaned up well.
Better to look rich than to be rich.
I was excited!  Anybody who’s anybody in this town will be there—and for this one night I was going to be one of them
For this one night, at least, I would be somebody that matters!
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
The party was at one of the nicer homes in town.  I had always wanted to see the inside of that place, and tonight I finally got my chance.
We were ushered into an elegant entryway and I took in the scene. Wow!  What a fancy place. At first, I was a little afraid to move for fear of breaking something expensive; but after a while I loosened up.  I was rubbing elbows with the elite of society.
It was a neat experience and I tried to enjoy it, but I suddenly found that I empathized with Jack Dawson from the movie Titanic.  By virtue of a set of circumstances, I had been received what amounted to a “promotion” from third class to first class.
Like Dawson, looking the part on the outside was easy enough, but now I would have to convince them I actually belonged here.
I felt more than a little nervous as the doors to the banquet room opened, but if the appetizers were this good, I certainly intended to stick around for the main course!
Okay, Alan, this is your big moment.  Don’t screw up!  Make them think you belong…
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
I slowly made my way to the front of the room and started looking around for my place at the table.  Aided by Vaseline on my lips, I smiled broadly and tried to look like I belonged right where I was—but still I felt so self-conscious, like my ruse would be discovered at any moment.
As I approached the first table, I saw that there were name-cards at each seat. 
I started looking at the names. One said “homeless”…  another “poor,”… another “downtrodden,”… another “weak,”… another “hopeless”… another “sick.”
Thinking these names were a bit odd, I moved to the next table.  But the names on these cards still didn’t make sense:  “prostitute,”  “AIDS patient,” “mentally ill,”  “prisoner,” and so on. 
As I continued to move from table to table, I found more and more nameless names but I couldn’t find my name anywhere!  I tried to remain calm on the outside but I was a bit panicked inside.
Of course, the irony of this situation wasn’t lost on me.  Someone who felt that he didn’t belong here to begin with is now getting quite upset that he couldn’t find the place where he belonged.
I continued to work the room and smile while at the same time glancing at the place cards at each table, trying in vein to find my seat.  Eventually, I encountered a modestly dressed man whom I assumed was one of the staff.  Trying to be discrete, I informed him of my quandary.
“Sir, can you help me.  I have an invitation but I don’t seem to have a seat.”
The person acknowledged me and then disappeared into the crowd.  I presumed he was going to inquire with the host about the mix-up…
While I waited for the servant to come back, I keep looking around.  Double-checking to see if I missed my name somewhere.  But to no avail, I couldn’t find my name anywhere.  I was really getting worried now.
“You know, it’s a little arrogant to assume your seat is up front.  If the host arrived and had to move you back, that would be, well—AWKWARD!”
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
I was so engrossed in search that the booming voice coming from behind startled me.  The first thing that went through my mind was: 
Oh no!  They’ve figured me out!
My tie suddenly felt like a noose.
I figured the next thing I would feel would be the hands of a burly security guard with no neck who would proceed to unceremoniously remove me from the premises. 
But after a moment, I realized, with more than a small amount of relief, that the person speaking was addressing not just me, but the entire room. Until now I had been so caught up trying to find my own seat that I hadn’t really noticed, but as Iooked around, I realized that not a single guest was seated yet.  I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t find a seat. In fact the whole room seem confused…  The noise level increased; confusion reigned; people tried to figure out where they belonged.
“Now, on the other hand, if you sit back here, you might just find that the host will come along and say, ‘Why are you all the way back here in the back?!  Move up to the head table and join the party.’“
The man speaking was seated at a table in the back of the room that I had hardly noticed when I walked in.  It was in a dimly lit corner and was much more simply decorated than the other tables.  I think I assumed it was for the servants, not the invited guests.
Well, whoever this guy was, he definitely had my attention now—and, for that matter, everyone else in the room!  He stood up from his chair and started walking slowly up the aisle toward the head table.  All eyes were fixed on this relative stranger.
“My point is simple.  We’ve all come here tonight because we think it will benefit us in some way. This is so typical of our race: Obsessed with our quest to be the best.  
"So, we fight for the seats of honor at the table, the fanciest home in the neighborhood, the highest paying job, the best school for our kids, the nicest and newest clothes, the prettiest wife or handsomest husband. We have an incessant need for status.  And yet we never quite seem to find what we’re seeking—it’s always just ahead of us on the trail.  It’s like a treadmill we can’t escape!  We run faster, work harder, but we never get there!"  
"We spend so much of life fighting to “get ahead” that we have precious little time to live life the way it was meant to be lived.
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
Finally the man broke the uncomfortable silence—the kind that inevitably follows whenever someone names the elephant in the room.
“Well friends, I have a surprise for you, tonight is not about any of us getting further ahead….  No… tonight is about them finally finding a place at the table…”
The true "guests of honor" at the party.
Photo Credit: L'habitant
The man made a slight motion with his arms and at that instant the doors to the place flung open and, for lack of a better term, a mass of humanity began to enter the banquet room.  They certainly weren’t dressed for a posh party.  In fact, many if not most of them were wearing shabby clothing, and more than a few hadn’t bathed in some time. Reflexively, I stepped back from a few of them as they passed by—I didn’t want to get my rented clothes dirty.
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
We all stood and watched in amazement for a good while as this legion of the least, the last, and the lost entered the ballroom and took the seats that had been prepared for them. By the time they were all in place a distinctive and potent mix of human aromatics hung over the room. Some among them couldn’t even walk and had to be carried by their friends.  But all seemed determined to take their place at the table.
After a few moments, the man approached me from behind. 
So, Alan, have you figured out where you belong?
Startled, I turned to look…  All I wanted tonight was to be the center of attention, the person in the spotlight, but now I wished I could crawl under a rock and hide.  Every eye in the place was staring at me.
Now, for the first time I got a good look at the man who had been speaking and realized that this was the same man I talked to earlier in the evening—the man I had assumed was a servant. 
“You came to this party because you wanted so desperately to belong.  You thought this was your chance to finally be seen as somebody.  You thought that meant you would sit up front and be served by people like them. “
“Not surprising really; that’s what most people think it means to “get ahead” in life.” 
“But the host of this party is a little eccentric; he sees things differently than most. In his house, the tables are turned; the “head table” is in the back where I was seated.  And if you want to dine with him this evening, then you are going to have to stoop to serve.”
“The guests of honor at this party are the ones willing to get their hands and knees dirty serving people like the ones around these tables.  You know, the ones we often ignore, push aside, or climb over on our way to “the top.”
“So all that to say that if you came looking to dine at the “head table” tonight, you’re probably a smidge overdressed.  You might want to put these on instead...” 
The man handed me a cloth bag.  Looking inside I saw it contained clothes very similar to the clothes that he himself was wearing—simple, black, with at least one or two old stains that clearly didn’t come out in the wash. 
Once you change you can join me in the back…” 

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