There’s something about a gate, an entryway, a threshold between two places. This one was in the Idaho Botanical Gardens just outside Boise in 2005. I don’t know if this stunning gate actually opened or whether it was there just to suggest that gate to something whimsical, almost magical—to Narnia or Middle Earth or Joy Chant’s Vandarei. In the gardens, you come through this gate (actually around) this gate from the dry, barren, almost desert heat of the hills above the Boise River to this beautiful green garden feeling like you have entered some place very different.
A gate is a physical marking of a threshold where one moves from one place to another. That was the wardrobe in the Narnia series. But, there are other “gates” we experience when we move from one state of being to another. I recently read a description of the immersion rite for converts to Judaism. I had never understood Christian baptism so well as the description by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. (See My Jewish Learning.com, search for “Why Immerse in the Mikveh?”) A convert is to be entirely immerse so as to arise from the waters taking one’s first breath as a new person. The key, of course, is to live differently afterward, to give the spirit room within.
We can walk through “magical” gates that take us to some place different, but we aren’t different. Baptism is a gate that takes us to a new existence because we, or for infants, those bringing us to baptism, want us to live differently, to enter a new and “greener” life.
To me, there are few foods that are better than a fresh, ripe peach. It is sweet and soft in your mouth with the most delicate and singular flavor. Some friends gave me a sack of tree-ripened peaches, two of which are in that picture. The wife apologized that they were “seconds” which she liked to buy because she was going to can and make preserves out of them. The orchard considered them lower than premium grade because these had pockmarks from hail. Some were so ripe they were already bruised. I loved them! They might not have looked perfect, but they tasted marvelous. It was the taste that mattered, not the looks.
They remind me of the struggle we are having in many of our Christian congregations right now. To many outsiders, our congregations are pockmarked by their not-so-Christian-ness. Those blemishes, just like the ones on the peaches, are genuine. We have become comfortable in our buildings that were once monuments to our success and are now half empty. But, many (not all) of our young people are turned off by how judgmental we are and our defense of the status quo.
Yes, indeed, congregations are pockmarked things. We can look and act a lot like the Pharisees of this day and age. BUT, I still don’t know a better place to begin to work out how we love God and our neighbor as ourselves. That’s why we are in a Christian congregation. I have never been loved as I have been loved in a congregation by people I wouldn’t know from Adam any other way. The first people I ever learned to pray for outside of my family were people in my congregation. We have disagreements in congregations, but we are at least weekly reminded that our egos are not the most important thing. God loves us, but God also loves the person two rows up that we are at odds with, and with the people who live next door to the church but don’t attend anywhere. In the long run, the love of God wins—in our congregations and in our lives.
Hail to thee, blemished peaches. You are still ripe and sweet.
Most mornings, I walk on a rail trail near my home where nature has been allowed to grow in abundance. Friday, I came across this female swallowtail butterfly. Swallowtails are moving most of their lives. Even resting, they are either pumping their wings or have them folded upward. Rarely are they spread like this one.
She was still alive, but mortally wounded. Her wings lay flat because the muscle she needed to close them was badly damaged. I almost left her for some hungry bird, then went back and coaxed her onto my fingers without brushing off those beautiful scales and put her near the kudzu before going on. I couldn’t do anything more. Sigh.
Two days later, I was in the pulpit preaching about the life we are called to as Christians. It’s about all of us living together and learning how to do that harmoniously even though we are different people. Yesterday, I learned that a family that had joined my previous congregation had left it. The wife had shared with me her deep disenchantment with a leader of that congregation who had made significant decisions without consulting the committee she was part of. She had looked forward to serving the congregation on that committee only to be told the committee didn’t need to meet after all.
We live in an imperfect world where lots of things happen that shouldn’t. Butterflies get mortally wounded, perhaps by a car. People hurt and stifle us. It hurts even more when it happens in church because that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. No, but a Christian congregation is a place where we begin to practice the life we really want to have. We hear about forgiveness, but we also get to practice it because we will need to practice it. All of us there have communally confessed our sins, received absolution, and now we have to live it and give it. Nobody said it was easy, least of all Jesus because the world isn’t yet what it should be. That just means we have to keep trying.
In 2007, I took my second ever away from home vacation by myself. I went to the New River valley in West Virginia. My first morning, I got up at dawn and raced from my motel to the main lookout. The river valley was full of fog with only the tops of the ridges showing. It was late September which I had expected to show some fall color, but it was hot instead. The fog formed off the cool waters of the deep valley and rose to the top where the warm air was. Some fog did condense higher and drifted across the newly risen sun.
It was the like dawn of creation when things were still becoming out of the mists of creation and the light and power of the Spirit drifted over the face of the deep, robed in cloud, too glorious to be seen by mortals, not yet created.
That morning, it was a glorious thing for me to be in that spot with a camera to get that scene of the fog slowly dissipating under the sun’s light. I don’t think it’s an unusual sight in the morning at the overlook, but it was spectacular for me.