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The Giving Tree (Special Guest: Tiffin Wilsford)

 Photo by  Marina Khrapova  on  Unsplash

Director of Youth Ministries, Tiffin Wilsford, sits down with Rev. Tommy Williams, bringing along a book by one of his favorite poets, Shel Silverstein. For Tiffin, this poem speaks to him about the lesson in being content in all circumstances. So often we rush from one thing to another, seeking what might make us happy. But there is wisdom in remaining in a place of contentment in every stage of life. 

The Giving Tree
by Shel Silverstein

Once there was a tree....
and she loved a little boy.
And everyday the boy would come and he would gather her leaves
and make them into crowns
and play king of the forest.
He would climb up her trunk
and swing from her branches
and eat apples.
And they would play hide-and-go-seek. And when he was tired,
he would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree....
very much.
And the tree was happy.

But time went by.
And the boy grew older.
And the tree was often alone. Then one day the boy came to the tree and the tree said, "Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy."
"I am too big to climb and play" said the boy.
"I want to buy things and have fun.
I want some money?"
"I'm sorry," said the tree, "but I have no money.
I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy."

And so the boy climbed up the
tree and gathered her apples
and carried them away.
And the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away for a long time.... and the tree was sad.
And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy
and she said, "Come, Boy, climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and be happy." "I am too busy to climb trees," said the boy. "I want a house to keep me warm," he said. "I want a wife and I want children,
and so I need a house.
Can you give me a house ?"
" I have no house," said the tree.
"The forest is my house,
but you may cut off
my branches and build a
house. Then you will be happy."
And so the boy cut off her branches and carried them away
to build his house.
And the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away for a long time. And when he came back,
the tree was so happy
she could hardly speak.
"Come, Boy," she whispered, "come and play."
"I am too old and sad to play,"
said the boy.
"I want a boat that will
take me far away from here.
Can you give me a boat?"
"Cut down my trunk
and make a boat," said the tree. "Then you can sail away...
and be happy."
And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away. And the tree was happy
... but not really.

And after a long time
the boy came back again.
"I am sorry, Boy,"
said the tree," but I have nothing
left to give you -
My apples are gone."
"My teeth are too weak
for apples," said the boy.
"My branches are gone,"
said the tree. " You
cannot swing on them - "
"I am too old to swing
on branches," said the boy.
"My trunk is gone, " said the tree.
"You cannot climb - "
"I am too tired to climb" said the boy.
"I am sorry," sighed the tree.
"I wish that I could give you something.... but I have nothing left.
I am just an old stump.
I am sorry...."
"I don't need very much now," said the boy. "just a quiet place to sit and rest.
I am very tired."
"Well," said the tree, straightening
herself up as much as she could,
"well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. 
Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest."
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.

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At a Solemn Musick (Special Guest: Christopher Betts)

 Neri, da Rimini, 13th/14th cent. Leaf from an Antiphonary, from   Art in the Christian Tradition  , a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source: www.mfa.org

Neri, da Rimini, 13th/14th cent. Leaf from an Antiphonary, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source: www.mfa.org

Director of Music Christopher Betts admits he initially found it difficult to choose a favorite poem. After all, he doesn't consider himself having much exposure to poetry over the years. But then it dawned on him: he is constantly surrounded by poetry! 

"I realized how much poetry I do know and love because it's been introduced to me through music," he says.

In this conversation between Christopher Betts and Rev. Tommy Williams, you'll hear about the interplay of sacred music and poetry. Inspired by John Milton's 17th century poem, "At a Solemn Musick," we reflect on how the metaphor of music can shape our understanding of our relationship with God.

Feel free to leave a comment below. You might ponder...

  1. How do these art forms of music and poetry create "thin spaces" (as it's described in the Celtic tradition) between humans and the divine?
  2. We certainly absorb theology through poetic lines paired with memorable melodies, as in the hymns of Charles Wesley. Which of Wesley's hymns is your favorite and what impact has it had on your understanding of what it means to be Methodist?

At a Solemn Musick
by John Milton

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav'ns joy, 
Sphear-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers, 
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Dead things with inbreath'd sense able to pierce, 
And to our high-rais'd phantasie present,
That undisturbèd Song of pure content, 
Ay sung before the saphire-colour'd throne
To him that sits theron
With Saintly shout, and solemn Jubily, 
Where the bright Seraphim in burning row
Their loud up-lifted Angel trumpets blow, 
And the Cherubick host in thousand quires
Touch their immortal Harps of golden wires, 
With those just Spirits that wear victorious Palms, 

Hymns devout and holy Psalms
Singing everlastingly; 
That we on Earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise; 
As once we did, till disproportion'd sin
Jarr'd against natures chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway’d
In perfect Diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience, and their state of good. 
O may we soon again renew that Song
And keep in tune with Heav'n, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite, 
To live with him, and sing in endles morn of light.  

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The Peace of Wild Things + The Little Duck (Special Guest: Judy Leatherwood Smith)

 Photo by  Ameen Fahmy  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

For our first episode in the 2018 series of Summer Together, special guest Judy Leatherwood Smith joins Rev. Tommy Williams to share a couple of her favorite poems.

Judy, who is a member of St. Paul's UMC, remarks about why she loves these poems, "There's a preciousness of being a creature on earth... we are held by something so much larger and going out in nature just reminds me of that."

The Peace Of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 

And Judy shares another poem, one that fell out of book she had pulled from her shelf. Rev. Williams joyfully quips, "Anytime the poem falls out of a book, it probably needs to be read!" 

The Little Duck
by Donald Babcock

Now we are ready to look at something pretty special.
It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf,
And he cuddles in the swells.

There is a big heaving in the Atlantic.
And he is part of it.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.

And neither do you.
But he realizes it.

And what does he do, I ask you.
He sits down in it.
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity – which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.

I like the little duck.
He doesn’t know much.
But he has religion.

Now, it's your turn for reflection! Feel free to leave your comments below. Do you have a favorite poem that vividly captures images of the natural world? What about it speaks to you and your soul? Share it with us.

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Summer Together 2017 Finale

summer-together-podcast-screen.jpg

In this final conversation centered around the summer's lectionary texts, Rev. Williams and Dr. Levison describe the enduring promise of God through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Even in the midst of a devastating famine (in the story of Joseph) and Pharoah's order of mass murder (in the story of Moses), life is preserved and sustained through the bold, determined action of God and God's people.

What can we do to be preservers of life?

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 10

This week’s scripture text is heart-wrenching. It is the long hoped for reunion of Joseph with the brothers who betrayed him. There are lots of tears and expressions here as the brothers listen with awe to Joseph retelling the story of how God redeemed his journey. Listen in for the conversation with Jack and Tommy and reflect on the mercy of God and how meaning is made in the worst of times.

 Early study for "Joseph Greeting his Brethren" by Pier Francesco Mola (c. 1656) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Early study for "Joseph Greeting his Brethren" by Pier Francesco Mola (c. 1656) © The Trustees of the British Museum

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 9

 "Joseph and his Brethren" by Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo (oil on canvas, c.1670)

"Joseph and his Brethren" by Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo (oil on canvas, c.1670)

After the reconciliation with Esau (his brother), Jacob settles in Canaan with his family. On this week's podcast, we trace the stories of the many sons of Jacob, including his youngest son, Joseph (Genesis 37). The story is rife with favoritism, jealousy, violence and estrangement. However, listen especially for the sub-plot with Joseph's brother, Reuben, who is a “glimmer of grace,” according to Dr. Jack Levison.

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 8

 "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" by Eugène Delacroix (mural completed in 1861, Church of Saint-Sulpice, Paris)   

"Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" by Eugène Delacroix (mural completed in 1861, Church of Saint-Sulpice, Paris)

 

In this week's text, Genesis 32:22-31, Dr. Levison ponders the mysterious person with whom Jacob wrestles. Is it a man? Is it an angel? Is it God? "One of the important things about being a person of faith is discerning God's presence in apparent absence," he says.

Later, Rev. Williams emphasizes Jacob's persistence in prayer: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (v. 26). And in the course of intense wrestling through the night, we find Jacob at daybreak, both bruised and blessed. He greets the new day by naming the place Peniel, meaning "face of God."

Resources:

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 7

 Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds by Joseph von Führich, 1836

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds by Joseph von Führich, 1836

Lectionary text from Genesis 29

The Genesis drama intensifies as Jacob falls in love with Rachel, but is tricked by his father-in-law and marries Leah (Rachel's sister) instead. Jacob, who once deceived his father to steal his brother's blessing, now falls victim to being deceived himself. As Dr. Levison and Rev. Williams discuss, in the midst of relationship upheaval and what starts to sound like a modern-day soap opera, somehow the promise of God remains steadfast and continues to be fulfilled.

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 6

 Jacob’s Ladder (woodcut from Luther Bibles of 1534 and 1545)

Jacob’s Ladder (woodcut from Luther Bibles of 1534 and 1545)

Rev. Williams and Dr. Levison dig into this week's passage from Genesis 28:10-19.

Jacob dreams of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. Through the dream, we hear God repeat the promise of how his descendants will multiply and be a blessing to all peoples. 

"...And all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring." (v. 14b)

As Dr. Levison notes, "The sign of a great nation is not whether it [thinks itself] great, but whether the earth is blessed by that nation." Rev. Williams adds that often it takes the perspective of others to reveal what is true.

Resources:

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 5

 "Jacob and Esau" by Lorenzo Ghilber Gilded bronze panel in the Gates of Paradise doors, Bapistery of St. John in Florence, Italy 

"Jacob and Esau" by Lorenzo Ghilber Gilded bronze panel in the Gates of Paradise doors, Bapistery of St. John in Florence, Italy 

Wherever you may be this summer, listen in to engage in this Bible study discussion with Rev. Tommy Williams and Dr. Jack Levison. "Summer Together" follows the lectionary passages in Genesis, week by week. This week's scripture takes us to the story of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. It's an account of struggle, competition and deception. 

"And the LORD said to [Rebekah]: 'Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.'” – Genesis 25:23

Read the full lectionary passage: Genesis 25:19–34

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 4

Turning to Chapter 24 in Genesis, we find the story of Rebekah and Isaac. Dr. Levison and Rev. Williams remark how--even within the patriarchal constraints of the ancient world--Rebekah is an active figure who exercises agency in her own way. "Watch for the women embedded in the story," Dr. Levison remarks.

Wherever you are this summer, we hope you enjoy the easy pace of engaging these lectionary texts week by week. As Dr. Levison encourages us, we are reading scripture slowly so we can pay attention to the remarkable details.

Resources:

  Eliezer and Rebecca at the Well  by Nicolas Poussin, 1648

Eliezer and Rebecca at the Well by Nicolas Poussin, 1648

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 3

  Abraham’s Sacrifice  by Adi Holzer (Hand colored etching, 1997) 

Abraham’s Sacrifice by Adi Holzer (Hand colored etching, 1997) 

Following along with the summer's lectionary texts, we enter into a particularly difficult passage of scripture this week in Genesis 22. Rev. Williams and Dr. Levison candidly discuss the raw emotion and anguish of this account where God puts before Abraham a test, telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac, whom he loves.

There are no easy answers here. Dr. Levison encourages us, the readers, not to rush to the end too soon and reassure ourselves that God halts the sacrifice of Isaac. He also recommends for us not to try to find "the moral of the story" and tie everything up neatly. In this complex passage (as so much of scripture so often is) there is simply not a way to fully understand it, yet we still engage it together.

Resources: 

  • Watch the sermon by SMU professor, Dr. Roy Heller, who preaches about how Abraham failed the test God gave him--it wasn't a matter of obedience but of compassion and mercy
  • Find out more about the bookThe Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 2

 Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness, W. L. Taylor

Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness, W. L. Taylor

This week, Rev. Williams and Dr. Levison continue the conversation around Abraham and Sarah as the couple grapples with believing God’s promise to make a great nation through them.

"Is there anything too wonderful for God?" or put another way, "Is there anything too difficult for God?" (Genesis 18:14) Dr. Levison remarks on how the difficult and the wonderful often go together.

New characters emerge in Hagar and Ishmael adding layers of complexity and opportunity to realize God's provision and protection. We see how God stays steadfast in keeping old promises and making new ones.

Listen in and let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

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Dialogue on Genesis: Week 1

 Abraham and the Three Angels, Felix Fossey

Abraham and the Three Angels, Felix Fossey

This is a beginning overview of the Book of Genesis. In the Q&A, Dr. Jack Levison names Genesis as a book that holds the promises of God and the threats to God’s promise. One promise is “to be fruitful and multiply.” This week’s readings (Genesis 18: 1-15) recount the visitation to Abraham and Sarah by three strangers who bring a promise from God.

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Podcast series: Dialogue on Genesis

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For Summer 2017, St. Paul's "Summer Together" series will take shape as podcast episodes. Starting June 18, Rev. Tommy Williams sits down with Dr. Jack Levison to chat about passages from Genesis. Following the lectionary texts throughout the summer, Rev. Williams and Dr. Levison take on a lighthearted tone in this informal Bible study, released each week as a 20-minute segment. Check back at www.stpaulshouston.org/summer-together for new episodes or subscribe in iTunes. 

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Gratitude

 Rogier van der Weyden.  Mary's Tears, detail from Descent from the Cross  (circa 1399)   from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

Rogier van der Weyden. Mary's Tears, detail from Descent from the Cross (circa 1399) from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

I’ll close the Summer Together blog posts with some poignant notes from Marilynne Robinson in the voice of John Ames in Gilead.

“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us” (245). Your thoughts?

Augustine said, “The Lord loves each of us as an only child,” and that has to be true, Ames affirms. “He will wipe the tears from all faces. It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.”

The word that jumps off the pages toward the close of the book is –- gratitude. Gratitude for those closest to him, gratitude in the realism of his life and death, gratitude for what will come for him and those he loves.

What are you grateful for? Maybe we could be intentional about expressing our gratitude not in spite of reality, but in the very middle of it.

It is wholly insufficient to capture this masterful work in a few short blog posts or to encapsulate two international trips and a poignant film in June. My hope has been that they have spurred our thinking in faithful ways and that it has in some small part, bound us together once again. That is, after all, the root of religion. Ligion means to be bound together, as in ligament, and re, of course, to do it again. To be bound together again and again is something for which I am grateful.

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Mysterious trust

 "Angel Statue" by Louise Docker from Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

"Angel Statue" by Louise Docker from Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

At one point in Gilead, John Ames shares a summary of a sermon given on the story of Hagar and Ishmael and compared it with the story of Abraham going off with son Issac to sacrifice him, as he thought God wanted him to do (p. 128–129). These are strange, mysterious and even troubling stories. In each case, Ames says, Abraham was being asked to sacrifice his sons. In each case, angels are sent to intervene and rescue the child.

There are many directions you can go with his sermon but Ames’ point is this –- we are often asked to send our beloved ones out into wildernesses of many kinds –- the school hallway, the college dorm, the new job or marriage. Or, I think of the elderly neighbor whose own children are long gone from his household but who walks his dog and enjoys the play of children outdoors in his path. He sees them grow and move farther into the wilderness of life.

Throughout the book we're reading this month, we hear Ames ruminating at his late stage of life.

What season of life do you find yourself?

Who or what are you being asked to send out into life’s wilderness?

What is it requiring of you spiritually?

We entrust our beloved ones to the care of others. We entrust them to God. I don’t have a fleshed out theology of angelic beings. But, I have found myself lately praying for angels to come to my children’s school and keep watch.

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How big is your God?

Marilynne Robinson offers good theological questions through Rev. Ames in Gilead. On page 179, Ames is musing about the nature of God and existence and comes against a wall. To “prove” this is like trying to build a ladder to the moon. “It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.”

“Don’t look for proofs,” he concludes. “Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent… because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.”

Samuel Coleridge said, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.” And yet, before that loaded word is easily dismissed, I wonder what ways doctrines (understandings of a particular faith tradition) are helpful or limited?

In what ways does Jesus both give us concept and context for knowing God and in what ways does Jesus deepen the mystery of knowing God?

I think Jesus does both. What do you think?

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A conversation about beauty

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” someone famously said. John Ames, Gilead’s main character, expresses two observations early in the book about beauty.

Is beauty something you notice more when you are dying like Ames? Is it something that can be awakened or reawakened in us in other moments? I hope so.

Worship in every place for me displays the beauty of God. I have worshipped in grand sanctuaries like at St. Paul’s, as well as house churches, warehouses and neighborhood churches. I’ve been in small chapels and in settings where the languages spoken were not my native tongue. In each, the beauty of God is on exhibit.

Even as Ames muses that he “doesn’t know what is beautiful anymore,” he names two experiences (p. 5) that are very different and each beautiful to him.

One is the sound of his wife singing to their child as he listens from the other room. He can’t make out what song she is singing but “it sounds beautiful to me, but she laughs when I say that.” I guess beauty doesn’t need corroboration. Maybe it really is in the eye (or ear!) of the beholder.

The next one Ames witnesses and claims is two young “rascally fellows” who work in a local mechanical garage. They are joking and leaning against the side of the garage as they go back and forth with each other laughing. He has no idea what they are talking about but the scene is “beautiful” to him. Laughter takes us over, he says, and letting it be unleashed is a beautiful thing to watch.

Are you awake to the beauty of God around you? Are you watching for the varied ways it shows up in the world and in our lives? 

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To Write something

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS

Throughout the month of August, I invite you to read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This powerful novel is addressed in the first person through the voice of John Ames, an elderly pastor who is dying. He writes to his son in poignant ways about his own relationships with his father and grandfather, his enculturation in a life of ministry, and now his musings on what his son is inheriting.

In some ways, it reminds me of TaNehisi Coates’ style in Between the World and Me, a fairly new book from father to son about the experience of being black in America. While the center of these fathers' letters to their sons is different, each are dosed with lament, melancholy, and wonder about what will become of the life of the next generation.

Is journaling or letter-writing a practice for you? It can be a spiritual practice of reflection and reconciliation. Writing something to God, to oneself, or to those you love can be a transformative exercise.

Consider doing that this month, asking:

  • Where have I come from?
  • How has it shaped my worldview?
  • How is it shaping the worldview of those I love and care for?
  • How might a Christ-centered worldview impact my own?

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