High and Lifted Up

Road Leading to High Mountains

Isaiah 6:1: In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

I don’t know that many of us think about escalators and elevators. They’re there and we use them, and a few people aside who have claustrophobia or a fear of falling, most of us think they’re convenient. Evensong Bells thinks an elevator in this building would be a gift from God, and while God’s time is best, my hope as someone who plays bells and, as part of the job, schleps cases around when we play in the front of the sanctuary or take our bell songs on the road. It takes either two bell players to carry one of the two largest cases, but Jim Harris can carry both at once. He is one strong man. And here ends the commercial from Evensong.

I’ve always been fond of any device that can transport me to a higher level be it airplane, funicular, ski lift, rescue basket, and of course escalator and elevator. (I’m talking physically being lifted up here–hold on for the spiritual transport. You’re on your own for the emotional version.

Now, if you’re claustrophobia and must avoid elevators, I can’t help you much. But I can do something about fear of an elevator cable snapping as it seems to in the movies and a car packed with people falling to their horrible demise. In our local writing group, Write by the Rails we had a visitor one evening who was an elevator inspector. Normally we go around at the end of the meeting and talk for a few minutes about what we’re doing and what help we may need, if any. When our guest’s turn came up, someone asked about falling elevators such as those we see in disaster movies. His answer was that it’s physically impossible for an elevator in good repair to fall because of the way they’re designed. Think about—how many times is there a story about an elevator falling with multiple fatalities on the news? I can’t ever remember seeing one. Not that that proves anything, but if you find out about such an accident, please let me know.

Escalators fascinated me from an early age. If I had to choose between them and elevators, I would choose the moving steps. The engineering is fantastic, and while you’re more likely to be injured on an escalator, if you tie your shoes, watch where you’re putting your feet and hold on to the handrail, you’ll be fine. (The preceding announcement was brought to you by your mom, who also wants to remind you to wear a raincoat, eat healthy food and not talk to strangers.)

On teacher workdays in elementary and intermediate school, our mom would take my brother Ron and me to what was then called Parkington and now Virginia Square. Parkington was so called because of the large multi-story parking garage behind the multi-story Hecht Company building, whose façade was made up of large glass windows. It was an imposing sight and sported escalators which, while new and made of steel, lacked the soul of the ones in a store at our next stop, McCrory’s in Clarendon. For most of my pre-high school career, they had wooden escalators. I wish I could tell you what kind of wood they used, but I didn’t develop an appreciation for different kinds of wood until high school. The escalators at McCrory’s were old and funky, and our mom would leave us to ride the escalators up and down while we shopped. We would have ridden all day had she not threatened to leave us and see how much we would enjoy walking the thirteen miles to our house in Fairfax. Somehow, we managed to never make that walk, which would have spoiled a nice day of riding elevators.

Now, it seems to me that sometimes God lets us carry the heaviest hand bell cases over all kinds of terrain, including high mountains. At other times, he provides a nice wooden escalator to take us to new heights. And at other times, we have those rapid breathtaking ascents as we do in one of those glass elevators that pop out from the building and we feel there’s nothing holding us up but the floor. All these experiences are part of the journey we’re on, and whether we’re toiling up the mountain on foot or riding in style to the top the God who created us and loves us so much is there with us and ahead of us. Thanks be to God for God’s eternal presence and care!

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A Valediction

Lovers Parting

Bye, bye, Love!

(Note: I wrote this post as a devotional for the Sanctuary Choir at Manassas Baptist Church. The choir doesn’t rehearse or sing in services during the month of July.)

1 Thessalonians 4:13: Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.

I don’t know if you have run across the word “valediction” lately. It’s not used a lot: in fact, I can think of only one occasion in John Donne’s famous poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” If you haven’t heard of it or don’t know what it means, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. It doesn’t come up in casual conversation a lot. And while I have a general idea of its meaning, I had to look up a precise definition. Basically, it consists of words of farewell, but here’s the complete definition:

A valediction (derived  from the Latin vale dicere, “to say farewell”) or complimentary close in American English as an expression used to say farewell, especially a word or phrase used to end a letter or message, or the act of saying parting words whether brief or extensive.

Alternatively, valediction can refer to the final prayers and remarks at the graveside before burial given by the presiding priest, after the Mass and the rite of Final Commendation, during a Roman Catholic Funeral Service.

John Donne’s poem is on the “extensive” side. I won’t read it in the interests of time, but I’ve made copies for you to have if you’d like. It’s a so-called “metaphysical” poem, and one of the characteristics of this poetry is that it is very dense. It would take us half and hour to go over it. In my graduate seminar in seventeenth century poetry, we spent three hours talking about the poem and its meaning. But then, graduate students in English are different from you and me. Well, maybe I have a lot in common with them since I was one once. But I haven’t forgotten what I learned about the poem, largely because I inflicted it on thousands of seniors in my English class. Most of them are none the worse for the experience.

Anyhow, briefly, Donne wrote them poem when he was about to undertake a trip to France and would be separated from his wife Anne for several months. In the poem, he reminds her that they are not only one physically as husband and wife, but also spiritually. In a famous metaphor, he compares this spiritual connection to gold, which is almost infinitely malleable, meaning it can be beaten to the thickness of an atom. Now, that’s thin! So, when they are apart, their souls not only are not separated, they cannot be parted. Hence, the title: he is telling his wife in a poem of parting that she should not mourn because of this spiritual reality.

And so it is with us. We endure all kinds of separations all our lives: separations of distance, of time, of diseases such as Alzheimers which affect memory and recognition, and we are called on not only by John Donne, but also be Paul in his passage about the importance of hope and faith at the death of a loved one. It’s a short step to extend that idea to any kind of separation.

And so, as we take a break from choir during the month of July, we needn’t be sad or depressed. We will miss each other, but we know we will see each other again, in this life or the next. When we sing the old hymn, ”Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” we are reminded that

When we asunder part

It gives us inward pain.

But we shall still be joined in heart

And seek to meet again.

 

It’s interesting that the version sung in England includes the line When for a while we part, while a more modern revision of the verse changes the line to When we are called to part. You can put me down for “asunder,” please. We don’t hear it much any more, but it’s a word I like.

English clergyman John Fawcett who wrote this hymn in 1740 was clearly echoing Donne’s poem composed in 1611 or 1612. He would have been familiar with it as an educated person.

And so, I wish you a safe and refreshing July, ever mindful that God holds all of us, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that we are never separated from each other as well.