God enters the “real world,” still . . .
Resolving to make a difference “where only the pigeons would see”
A blessed New Year to you and yours. I join with many of you in praying for a new beginning in 2021 as we bid 2020 goodbye. What a year . . .
Gabe called his parents to wish them a happy New Year, and his father answered the phone. “Well, Dad, what’s your New Year’s resolution?” Gabe asked him.
“To make your mother as happy as I can all year,” his father answered.
When his mother joined the conversation on the phone, Gabe asked, “What’s your resolution, Mom?”
She answered, “To see that your father keeps his New Year’s resolution.”
For those who tuned in to our live streaming of worship yesterday, you have my apology for a rerun of that little joke. I hope that it provoked a gentle smile, but I would also single out a simple observation for we who consider the making of a resolution at the beginning of a new year. For the most part, we make resolutions that are self-centered. Self-care is important, but what if our resolved intentionality was directed to others? Keeping a spouse/partner happy is certainly an element of self-care, but there is also the beginning of an intentionality directed outward, less self-serving, in such an image. Still, such a resolution is transactional, seeking to perform that which is received as good for the sake of receiving good in return.
Wise teachers remind us that a higher form of intentionality is to seek to make a positive difference, to serve, in ways that no one will witness, in ways that are not transactional. C. S. Lewis wrote, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” And Jesus taught the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount with like directive:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Back in mid-December, my friend Dan forwarded an opinion piece from the Washington Post by Kay Collier McLaughlin, a leadership consultant, author and retired religious journalist from Kentucky. From the December 20 edition of the Post, it was entitled, “From a long ago sermon, a joyful message for this troubled season.” Though it was written during Advent as a reflection for those preparing for Christmas, I share the beauty of this reflection on the 11th Day of Christmas, knowing that the truth contained herein is more than seasonal and is worthy of our consideration as we embrace resolutions for the new year. The following excerpt from that article provides another take on ‘doing the right thing when no one is watching.’
My friend Bob was a journalist before answering God’s call to the priesthood. Fortunately, he brought the skills of his first calling into the second, as was clear to the staff of the Episcopal newspaper he edited. “Staff” is a fancy word for the four of us who sat around a kitchen table at our portable electric typewriters while Bob wrote the best headlines ever for whatever the rest of us produced . . .
The other thing about Bob — he wasn’t a particularly gifted preacher, as preachers go. Bob was more of a storyteller. Regardless of the pulpit, in tiny chapel or cathedral, he simply told stories, with some of their most unforgettable lines dropped over the edge of the pulpit so casually you might wonder if he really just said what you thought you heard. So people listened. They really listened. They might have said they were listening to the stories, but underneath, they were hungry for those over-the-edge-of-the-pulpit lines that sometimes got turned into handmade posters — “Hug a leper,” “Dog in the snowstorm” — plastered on the hallways of a church or two.
So it was with the pigeons.
That sermon, as I recall . . . was about his friend Phil, an American priest who was serving in Guatemala. While the bulk of the story is no longer with me, the memorable line came after a vivid description of Phil climbing steep, narrow steps to the very top of a bell tower and finding there that local artisans had painted intricate designs “where only the pigeons would see.”
This image, lodged somewhere in my memory bank, has come soaring out as the holiday season of the covid-19 pandemic approaches with its social distancing mandates. If government guidelines are followed, there will be no large family gatherings, no holiday parties. No drop-in visitors. So conversations have arisen about whether we will bother to decorate. “Is it worth the effort?” “It will only be me.” “It will just be the two of us.” Each time the question comes up, I want to shout, “Only the pigeons! Only the pigeons!” Since we can’t physically get into church to hang posters, I want to post it on every Zoom whiteboard.
However my friend Bob completed the story, this is my takeaway. It doesn’t have to go into your memory bank if it encourages whatever effort you are willing to make to decorate for the pigeons. For you. For the coming of the Christ child. You and I are the artisans of our lives. The canvas we have been given this Advent is not a smooth one, primed for an artist’s brush. It is more like I envision the rough walls we might find as we ascend the steep and narrow steps of a bell tower today, arriving at the top exhausted and out of breath — not so much inspired as isolated and discouraged.
But the babe did not come into a perfect world that night in Bethlehem, nor does his arrival this year depend on perfection, the coming of vaccines or absolute compliance with face masks and social distancing. He will come despite it all — the perfect gift in the midst of the uncertainty and brokenness that is Advent 2020. His coming is not dependent on lavish displays of Christmas lights, picture-perfect mantels with stockings hung just so, or whether the tree is the Charlie Brown kind or aspiring toward Rockefeller Center.
I, the artisan, climb whatever symbolic steep and narrow steps define my life this Christmas with paintbrush in hand and joy in my heart to celebrate that no pandemic can stop his coming or the light he brings into the world. I will “paint” because I am beloved by him and worthy of the beauty of the season, whether it is a single candle, a tree full of treasured ornaments or a Nativity scene whose empty manger awaits his arrival. You, the artisan, climb your own steep and narrow steps to create the intricate designs that illuminate life and persistence and hope. We are also, in these darkest nights of the pandemic, the pigeons, witnesses to beauty, awaiting once more the return of the light.
- S. Lewis wrote, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Doing the right thing, offering an act of beauty and light “where only the pigeons would see,” inspires us to bring redemptive hope to our society after a long, hard journey through pandemic, economic uncertainty, societal upheaval and political division, even if we personally gain nothing in that offering. After all, no pandemic can stop the coming of Christ’s light into the world and we are the ones called to bear that light in our time, to “illuminate life and persistence and hope.” Let us resolve to be those who give, serve and pray “in secret,” as Jesus taught. And let us climb the narrow, steep steps of whatever tower stands before us to paint the world with the best of who we are and the gifts we bring.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” Let us resolve to do more than visit, touching the world with love and mercy, forgiveness, generous hearts, and amazing grace, even if witnessed only by the pigeons.
Blessings to you, O people of Trinity, on this 11th Day of Christmas and the beginning of a new year. May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Robert Linstrom