Archive for the 'Ordinary Time' Category

Trinity Sunday, Isaiah 6:1-8

May 22, 2012

Historical Description:  

Trinity was inspired by questions that have occupied me for some time: the ever-present suffering in the world; the question of God’s presence during such times; and the desire to reconcile such times with faith.

Though the questions seem eternal and have occupied generation after generation, the concept for the painting came in a moment—a picture in a local German newspaper of two male concentration camp survivors standing next to a Bavarian boy in German traditional clothing provided the vision for this walk of faith.

Nathan Kurz (brother of Miriam Kurz, Pr. Erick Kurz, and Pr. Joel Kurz of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, MO. and the son of Pr. Rudolph and Carol Kurz) lives and works in Germany together with his wife Marion and 3 children.  We thank him for his multi-faceted contribution to this project, weaving together art, poetry, and biblical reflection.

Devotional Reflection:  

Sometimes difficulty descends like a sudden summer storm.

The tempest takes its toll—and shaken, perhaps shattered, we search for meaning.

A string of personal and professional events has forced intensified reflection lately—one of the things I found myself returning to was the 23rd Psalm.

The peace and tranquility that the Psalm offers dominates our altar pieces and Sunday school lessons—yet the darker portion is often ignored.  For many, daily reality is not the peaceful pasture but the dark valley, filled with shadows, with memories that haunt and with fear that is hard to shake.

In art (as in life), the magnificence of light is revealed through the dark—and not in its absence.  Shadows are essential to complete the work—to shape, reflect and give meaning to the light.

A poem I wrote several years ago entitled “Heaven” touched on this point. “To touch the heights of heaven…we must fall…we must be broken…we must surrender…and become the prodigal…mired, desolate and alone, to grieve and hunger, till nothing is left but faith—and the hand of God.”

There is good reason for the Gospel message: “Do not be afraid.” Christ purposely and visually presents himself as “light in our darkness”—to lead us—this moment, this day, each day. This message is embedded in the very nature of creation, played out, as night gives way to day—as fear gives way to hope.

Trinity”, a painting from 2011, inspired by a Dietrich Bonhoeffer seminar earlier that year, focuses on the presence of Christ in our lives—specifically in dark and difficult times.

A bald and beaten Christ—perhaps ten years old—takes his place in the center of our circumstance. The “distant” and powerful king from Isaiah’s vision…is here—lowly and suffering in our midst. This boy, this innocence, this power, this hope is Emmanuel—God with us.

The two other figures, a man and a woman in prison clothing, stand against an unsettling orange background. Mary, Joseph. (You? Me?). They wear the scars of their earthly journey, vision and hope obscured by life itself.

And the Christ child?

He stands in their midst—bearing the scars of His earthy experience. This is the holy family—where Jesus dwells.  This is the trinity.

The tree of life/death anchors the piece and is central to the work of the carpenter—purpose and patience essential for the beauty of finished work.

A triangle provides an inner frame—joining humanity to the divine. In Christianity, the triangle marked the mystery of the trinity. In history, the triangle, in various combinations and colors, has marked the “unwanted” and the “non-human”. The divine trinity and the earthly one stand in stark contrast. While divine mysteries and purpose may remain hidden, Christ steps out of our bitter and broken trinity, His gaze set, penetrating and clear.

He knows where He is leading as night gives way to day.

If we are willing to accept any truth that the 23rd Psalm might offer, let us accept following:  the intentions of the shepherd are good; His role (and desire) is to lead. Our task is to follow—and to trust.

Following may involve prolonged periods over dry and dusty ground or very real and personal pain. The path may be hidden, the destination unclear—yet we must remember that we are being led—and our journey has a reason.

“Trinity” was accompanied by the following Bonhoeffer poem (my translation):

            Tag (Day)

This day is the border of our worries and efforts…

this day is long enough to hurt or to heal…

to preserve faith or fall into shame…

to find or lose God…

in the history of the world there is only one important moment—this day.

Proper 20, James 3:13-4:10

May 3, 2012

Historical Description:

Though it is known for its extensive Rembrandt collection, the Rijks Museum of Amsterdam is also the home of one of the most famous works of Laurens Alma Tadema. The work is entitled, “Death of the Firstborn” (1872), which earned Tadema numerous awards and widespread recognition in his day.

Tadema had a passion for the ancient Egyptian world. In “Death of the Firstborn,” he set out to portray a historically accurate scene from the Exodus event, rich with detailed artifacts from the period. Yet through these details, he also endeavored to depict vividly one of the most horrific, heart-wrenching moments in the scriptures.

Devotional Reflection:

Gaze into the eyes of Pharaoh. That vacant stare is hardly watching mourners and musicians surrounding him. Tonight, those eyes recount the days that have passed him by. Days of joy. Days of laughter. Days he haughtily believed he was the untouchable god of Egypt.

Gaze into those eyes. These are eyes that remember the wonders of Yahweh — water turned to blood, frogs, boils, hail, darkness — yet, time and time again, these are eyes that had merely scoffed at the will of this “God of Israel.”

Yet now, as Pharaoh holds his lifeless son in his arms, he realizes his son was not the only thing stricken down tonight. Along with his firstborn, so also died his pride. He may be the god of Egypt, but tonight he was powerless. No power he possesses, no magical words, no heartfelt prayer could ever bring his son back to life.

But gaze into those eyes again. Something was interrupting the wails and songs of lament. He hears something just over his left shoulder. Notice Moses and Aaron that are peering into the scene in the upper right corner.

Perhaps tonight was the night. His eyes had seen enough. His pride was dead. Perhaps now was the moment to surrender his pride to the will of Yahweh.

As we turn to today’s text, we now gaze into the eyes of James. In his world, James sees a timeless truth of human nature: pride. He sees fellow Christians quarreling and fighting, all because of their prideful inner passions. They choose their own desires over their neighbor’s. They choose their own desires over God’s. Just like Pharaoh, they have fallen victim to the sin of pride.

Yet, true to his style, James spares no words for these prideful Christians. God opposes the proud (4:6). Like Pharaoh, their ill-founded laughter and joy is spiraling into a pit of mourning and gloom. Not only will their sin be judged by God, but even now it’s darkening their relationships with those around them.

The timeless truth of human pride certainly persists in our world, too. Just take a look around. Everywhere, we see people so caught up with their own desires that they easily forget their neighbor and their God. We see it everywhere, even in our own hearts.

As we gaze into the eyes of Pharaoh, we may marvel at how such a man could have  resisted Yahweh again and again, plague after plague. But as we gaze into our own hearts, we understand. That our life, again and again. And, like Pharaoh, our pride only leads us to gloom and mourning over our sin. James must be right. Pride only leads to a world of despair.

So where to from here? What can bring us out of our gloom? What can bring us from our mourning? Can anything interrupt our wailing and tears?

Gaze again into the eyes of Pharaoh, but this time, look at him as a different kind of father. One who mourned the death of his only son. One who tragically sat by a mother overcome with grief. One who in his arms held his lifeless son, slaughtered by the sin of human pride. (Notice how Tadema even portrays the lifeless son in a strikingly Christ-like pose.) Yet this son was being held by a different kind of father. This father could turn around the mourning and gloom. This father could bring this son back to life.

He could, and he did. Gaze into those eyes, and you see the eyes of our Heavenly Father. They are eyes that have seen our prideful sin. They have seen us in our gloom and despair. Yet interrupting our night of mourning, today those same eyes look upon us with grace.

Through Christ, God turns our gloom to joy. He turns our mourning to laughter. Through Christ, God resurrects us from our pride, and brings us into a whole new kind life. It’s a life of humility. It’s a life of purified hearts. It’s a life of being carried by a loving, forgiving Heavenly Father.

Proper 7, Mark 4:35-41

December 1, 2011

Historical Description:

Throughout history sculpture has provided the means to create incredibly lifelike, three-dimensional images that can exemplify a scriptural passage.  Some of these sculptures are famous, situated in the best-known galleries in the world.  Others are less well known, but perhaps more influential because of their anonymity and surprising grace.  If you go to the Memorial Park Cemetery in Gainesville GA, you might not expect to see statuary.  Instead, you may be visiting a grave.  There, among the graves, however, are surprising statues, depicting scenes from the life of Christ.  Not hidden in a museum, Christ is here among us in the world.  One such statue depicts Jesus calming the storm.  This piece was created of carrara marble by Italian sculptor Almo Lavinigo, who produced many more pieces for the cemetery grounds.  While the pond might be still, its visitors are not.  Often they come tossed and turned by the suffering of grief.  Yet, there in the midst of their suffering is Christ calming the storm.  Although not located in one of the great museums of the world, this sculpture no doubt brings calm to the hundreds of people who come visit each year.

Devotional Reflection:

And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” Mark 4:41 (ESV)

The backdrop to the above verse was a terrifying one.  The disciples were attempting to keep their boat from taking on water and being pushed over by wind all the while Jesus was sleeping on a cushion.  Most everyone knows what happens next: the disciples wake Jesus up, He stills the wind and sea, chastises the disciples and then . . . the disciples were filled with great fear.  This passage seems a bit odd at first glance and the above verse may often be overlooked.  After all, there is a lot of “fear” mentioned as the disciples try to keep their boat afloat during the storm, which is understandable.  What might be less understandable is that the disciples were “filled with great fear” AFTER the storm had died down.   They were afraid of this man standing in the boat with them whom they now realized was God.   It is one thing to fear a deadly storm, it is quite another thing altogether to fear the One who mastered that deadly storm.

That’s why the statue at Memorial Park Cemetery is so fascinating.  The statue captures that moment in time AFTER Jesus stills the storm and the disciples are in the boat cowering in fear wondering, “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Like that first scriptural event, death surrounds everyone.  The corpses of people are buried for a ½ mile around in every direction.  I can only imagine burying your own grandparent, parent, spouse or child, seeing the casket lowered into the ground and having the cold realization seep in that you will never see your loved one again.   As the car drives away and the tears stain your face, the emptiness begins.  Your sense of being small and powerless in this world seems to cripple you.  As you turn the corner of the cemetery you see a small statue in the pond.  It is Jesus stilling the storm.  The pond does not move.  It just shimmers.  Every turbulence has been made quiet.  Every threat has been disarmed.  There is only peace.  The disciples cower in fear, not at their impending death, but at the greatness of the Peace Giver, Jesus, the One who mastered the storm.   And in that moment, I can imagine people being comforted, maybe even struck for the first time, by the realization that Jesus truly is master over all things even death itself.  The statue helps people see, and maybe even Christians experience for the first time, the power of this God-man Jesus Christ.  And who is He?  Nothing less than the One who has the power to still storms, heal the sick, and yes, even raise the dead.  Amen.