Thursday, December 19, 2013

Promised Land

Israel fascinates us as Christians. It is the land where Jesus lived. It is the "Holy Land". Many Christians sign up for tours of the land of the Bible every year and talk about how the Word became alive for them when they were there. More than that, Israel is our nation's only trusted ally in the Middle East. Then, there is apocalyptic Israel for many Christians believe the last great battle of the world will be fought, or begun, there. But, how much do we know about modern Israel? About how it came to be. And what challenges it faces? And how it sees itself now that it is almost 100 years old (nationhood in 1948, but Zionists began settling years earlier). I visited Israel in 1982 and the tour I was on went to all the traditional sites Christians want to see. I remember our Arab Christian tour guide tried to discourage a few of us from electing a trip to Yad Vashem ( Museum of the Holocaust) which was the most moving part of the trip for me. He also asked me why so many Christians in the West have forgotten about the plight of Christian Palestinians. It may come as a surprise to many Christians (it did me) to discover that 35% of the school children in Jerusalem are Arab and that Israel's population is projected to be majority Arab by 2040.

Modern Israel is a complicated and conflicted place. Ari Shavit gives us a picture of that complicated and conflicted place, his homeland, in his new book, My Promised Land. Shavit, a journalist, has not written an academic work of history, he says, but a story of his personal journey through contemporary and historic Israel. Shavit is a story teller and he tells Israel's story by telling the stories of individuals who settled there and made Israel what it is today. Shavit was on a personal journey of discovery: what is the meaning of Israel? How to understand it? And, most importantly, what is it's future? He writes as an Israeli and as he celebrates the accomplishments of his people he is not blind to their flaws. He is constantly mindful that Israel is the only modern nation that occupies another and lives daily with the thought of it's own annihilation. Israel is a threatened land. From within, Israel today is a very different place from the land of kibbutzes and a fierce will to survive. Israel is an affluent, consumerist nation of six million people who are divided about their identity and what it takes to survive this new century. At the same time, they are surrounded by a billion Arabs most of whom want nothing less than for Israel to disappear. They see their Western allies in decline and their influence weakened in the region. They see a resurgent Iran who has out waited and perhaps outwitted the West and Israel into believing they do not have a nuclear weapon yet. They have not had the moral and political will to end the settlements of the occupied territories which are a drain on the energies of Israeli society.

Israel has always been between a rock and a hard place. The whole world had turned it's back on them, it seemed. There was no where else to go so they heard the call of the Zionists to come to this new, yet   what was their old, homeland. It was in their DNA and they had to have some place to make a stand and try to make a life. Somehow, they withstood the Arab attack in 1948, and grew stronger to face the wars to come. They thrived together in the new land. First, the Jews who survived the holocaust came. Then, the Jews fleeing the Arab world where they had lived in communities for centuries. Then, the Russian immigrants. It was like a huge refugee camp but they made a nation. But the land they came to was not empty, of course. For a long time, no one seemed to notice the Palestinians. With growth, and world war, tensions arose between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel took Palestinian land and villages and homes and livelihoods and the Palestinians became refugees. Now, it seemed no one in the world wanted them. Israel exists on the horns of this dilemma: an occupying nation that lives with the existential threat of annihilation.

Shavit writes with understanding and passion. He deeply cares about his homeland and as Christians we should, too. This book is a helpful guide to fill in the gaps between our knowledge of the "Holy Land" and the reality that is modern day Israel.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Advent: God with us

This is the fourth Sunday of Advent. Finally, we get to the Christmas story in Matthew 1:18-25. Joseph is told by the angel about the birth of his son and what he is to be named. Jesus. Then, the prophecy from Isaiah is quoted and there it is said that the son will be called, Emmanuel which means "God with us". So, Matthew is saying a theological mouthful. Jesus is God with us. The gospel of Christmas. God came to be, for people. He came to be with us. In all manner of circumstances, God is with us. That's what Christmas means. Simple and clear. We can botch that message up badly, can't we.  The perception is, sometimes, that Christians get to decide who God is with and who he isn't. We can make it sound as if God came to be with only, certain, people. People like us or people who we think are ok. There are certain people who need to get their acts together before God will be with them.

I was thinking about this gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent as I was checking out the NY Times today. There was an Op-Ed piece entitled, "A Transgender Volunteer for the Salvation Army. Good, I thought, maybe some good news for this Christian organization that has done so much good over the years. In recent days, the Salvation Army has been slammed for some of it's statements about gay, lesbian and transgendered people. This is sad because the Salvation Army is an organization that has helped many needy and struggling people. Their ringing bells outside many stores are reminders that Christmas is about helping others. That God is with us. It's also sad because they are us, they are Christians, so here is another instance where Christians seem to be insensitive to other people.

The essay was written by a transgendered person who teaches at Colby College in Maine. She wanted to do something to help others at Christmas a few years ago so she became a Salvation Army bell ringer. Apparently, she did not know what the Salvation Army had said about people like her and they did not know who she was. When a friend pointed out to her some of their "anti-gay" statements, she dropped her bell. There is no indication in her essay that she was asked to quit bell ringing and I have no idea if they would have asked her to quit. She still believes in the work they do but not in their statements about people like her. Recently, she says, the Salvation Army has tried to clarify their position. Essentially, she comes off being more charitable than the Salvation Army. Perhaps, that was her point, I don't know.

I do know that sometimes our statements make it hard for people to hear what Matthew said.

Smaug wakes up

I wondered as I was watching The Hobbit #2 or The Desolation of Smaug as it is called what Tolkien would make of it. I guess we will never know but I suspect not much. It was a good film compared to what else is out there but it could have been so much more. Or less. Before the film began there were the obligatory previews of coming attractions, all of which assaulted the senses with visual displays of things blowing up, and the hero fighting unbelievable battles against insurmountable odds, and, of course, prevailing - without a scratch. Unfortunately, when the film began, after some slow moments, the same display of very loud, very visually overwhelming displays of our heroes overcoming terrible obstacles commenced again. There were too many decapitated Orcs and the scenes of Smaug arising from his slumber and causing mayhem were overly long. My complaint is that so many films today seem like they follow the same formula: Keep the viewer entertained with over the top action sequences. There are so many fighting scenes (against huge spiders, and Orcs, and Smaug, etc)  in The Hobbit #2 that the characters get overlooked. Bilbo is an afterthought, I thought. I am not saying I did not enjoy the movie. I did, but I was disappointed. The critics I read liked Hobbit #2 better than Hobbit #1because it had more action.  I didn't. There was no humor in this second Hobbit film. None. Tolkien would not have approved. There is a new female hero  who was not in Tolkien's book. She is a good addition to the story but was a romantic angle necessary? The plot hardly seems to move in this second film. I wondered if there was a need other than economic to drag out the story over three films. This was almost three hours long (much too long for some people to sit through and hold one's attention - especially after 30 minutes of mindless previews). Yet, I would encourage people to go see the film. I did not see it in 3D or Imax although they are available. I doubt they add much to the effect of the movie.

Now for what I did like. The creation of the background scenes are highly enjoyable: the elvish kingdom in the dark woods, Smaug's lair under the mountain, and the impoverished city of the humans are well done. Peter Jackson has brought out some of the Christian symbolism (which Tolkien claimed was not there but some readers find anyway) especially in the battle between Gandalf and Sauron - one of the best scenes in the film. Look for Gandalf on the cross. In this dark film there are brilliant reminders of the LIGHT. Gandalf's scenes are one of them as is the healing scene with Tauriel.

The fault of this movie is that it tries too hard to be like most of today's action movies but the story it tells of the Hobbit is a great one. One of the greatest of all time and it is interesting to see how Jackson puts it on film.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Best books of 2013

Best books of 2013 are not all 2013 releases. They are my favorites of the year in reading.

Fiction: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, Benediction by Kent Haruf, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Thurston

Boston, mystery and suspense: Dennis Lehane's Live by Night, Any Given Day and A Drink Before War

Other mystery: One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

Non-fiction: Farewell, Fred Voodoo by Amy Wilentz, Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario, Devil in the Grove:Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America, The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming by Rod Dreher

Baseball: Francona by Francona and Shaughnessy

Biography/Autobiography: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas and Summoned from the Margins by Lamin Sanneh

Theology: Playing God by Andy Crouch

Spiritual formation: Godric by Frederick Buechner

Bible: Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther by John Goldingay and The Gospel of John by F.D.Bruner

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Third sunday of Advent: the war on Christmas

I was going to write about the war on Christmas but others beat me to it.  Sarah Palin's newest book, timed for Christmas shopping, names those in our culture today who have taken aim at Christmas, according to a couple reviews I have seen. It should do well. For some reason, some Christians are always looking for a fight. If there is a war on Christmas, maybe we should stay out of places like Best Buy and Walmart to keep from getting shot. Most people like Christmas though; Palin's point is that some of "them" want to get Christ out of Christmas. They don't want us to be able to say, Merry Christmas. This is like persecution, or something. I confess to not getting it. Where we live there are nativity scenes in front of nearly every church, and many houses, as well. Some houses have big inflatable Santas and nativity scenes. Take your pick. Mostly, it's take both: Jesus is the reason for the season but that doesn't mean we can't have our Christmas fun, too. No one is firing any shots over our heads. The local school says grace before passing out the Christmas goodies.

 The third week of Advent is coming up on us quickly. The gospel text is from Matthew 11, again it's John the Baptist. Here, he is in prison where he has plenty of time to think. He's thinking about his role as preparer of the way for the Messiah and he has some doubts about the one he prepared the way for. Where is the fire and brimstone? Where is the judgment he predicted was coming? So, far there has been mostly sermons, a couple miracles, a bunch of pretty ordinary followers, and this Jesus has shown a tendency to hang out with the wrong crowd. Is this the Christ of Christmas? John wonders. So he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus that question. Are you the one or did I get it wrong and we are all still waiting for the Christ?

That's the question, isn't it? John's question, Who is this Jesus? Who is this Jesus of Christmas we are worried the secularists are plotting against?  If we believe he is the Christ, the Messiah, then how do we celebrate his birth? If there are battle lines then they are here. We come to honor the one who was humbly born and lived simply and loved greatly and gave his life for us. We honor his day as we follow him and live as he did.

The struggle we have is to know how shopping, decorating a tree, putting up lights and baking cookies honor His birth? It's easy to get caught up in the means so we forget the end. But, most of the Christians I know find their way through this spiritual dilemma. They bake or take food to others; they give meaningful gifts to friends, family and others in need. They share their time and themselves with those who are lonely this time of year. The war at Christmas is not much different from the fight we have the rest of the year. The fight with our selves. Who are living for? What is Christmas for?

Jesus said to John's disciples: Go and let John know what is going on; the blind, they see; the lame, they walk; the lepers, they are clean; the deaf, they hear; the dead, they are raised; and the poor are getting the good news brought to them. Then, he says something that sounds odd at first: Blessed are those who take no offense at me. I take that to mean that we are blessed when we let Jesus be Jesus and not try to fit him into our ideas of who Christ is supposed to be. There are so many good ways to serve Christ this Christmas. Make peace not war.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Church in the Glen

It's called St Peter's in the Glen and it is a small church in the woods. They left their church building, their denomination and the city seven years ago. Since then they have been meeting in a house and building this new church building. It sits on the grounds of the oldest plant nursery in Florida. So, it is surrounded by forest and flowers and it is no problem to come up with fresh green wreaths for Christmas. The dedication service was this past Sunday. Several Anglican clergy from across the state were there and the Bishop led the service and preached. His text was from St Peter. In his first letter, Peter wrote about the church as living stones. The Bishop reflected on the stones of the Temple in Jerusalem that were probably on Peter's mind as he wrote. They were huge, weighing many tons. When I read this second chapter of First Peter before I thought of little stones, like bricks. We, as church members, were little stones but the Bishop pointed out we are BIG Stones. Each of us has a really important part to play in the church of Christ. And, of course, we are living stones because of our faith in the Cornerstone, who is the Living Lord, Jesus Christ. The Anglican service of dedication was tightly scripted so it was a welcome and joyful interruption in the service liturgy to worship with the choir from a local black church who had come to join the celebration. They were not scripted and their wholehearted, soulful, singing moved the congregation, and got them moving. After the dismissal, we adjourned to the house where the church used to be and sat down to a delicious Southern bar-b-que. It was enjoyed on the porch on a warm night under white lights. Food and conversation both were abundant and you could sense the blessing.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Christmas parade

The main downtown street had been closed to traffic all day. This was no small matter since it is a major East - West route in this part of NE Florida. Walmart trucks rumble through all day from the distribution center East of town. Local vendors selling everything from turkey legs to "bullet bling", ammo in the colors of the season for those looking to accessorize their weaponry. Everyone was waiting for the big event of the day which was the Christmas parade set to begin at 6 pm. Florida was spared the deep freeze that had seized the rest of the country although the evening temperatures were down from the daytime high of 84. We wore jeans and sweatshirts not for the chill but in case of mosquitos. The sky was clear but there was still the smell of bar-b-que smoke in the air from the afternoon grilling. The nice weather had brought out a record crowd that sat and stood ten deep along the curbs. Soon we heard the loud blare of fire engines and the parade began. After every piece of fire fighting equipment the county owned passed by, we settled in to watch the floats. First, however, were the beauty pageant queens. We had never seen so many beauty pageant honorees in one parade. There was even a tiny princess who could barely sit up by herself on the back of the new convertible she rode in. Once, when my wife asked one of her classes in the elementary school to name the sports they liked the best, one little girl said, beauty pageants. Down here it is considered a sport and we watched all the winners pass by. Then, there were the church floats. Not much subtlety there. One local church proclaiming The Perfect Gift on the side of the truck pulling the float, had a teenage Christ on a cross. I'm pretty sure he had his feet on the ground because the two other teens guarding him with their makeshift swords were as tall as he was. He had on a sheet spattered with red paint and looked more uncomfortable than in agony. Another church had what looked like a train that was heaven bound with Jesus as the conductor. It was pulling a car load of people who had signs indicating what their previous state of sin was, i.e. I was a liar, etc. When they turned around the back of the shirt let us know that they had found the mercy of God.  Church members, handing out candy and tracts, had on similar t-shirts identifying their particular sin which was overcome by the grace of God, too.  I noticed onboard the train was an open space labeled, You Could Be Here. I wondered if they had a shirt big enough to list all my sins, and I knew I didn't want to wear it in a parade, if they did. Next, came the big trucks. I mean, these monsters were three stories high. They were mud boggers and truck crushers, of the kinds of trucks most of us drive. The passengers  looked like they were having the most fun of anyone in the parade. Then, came the Sons of the Confederacy. They shot their guns into the air every couple hundred yards. When they were in front of us I remembered to remove my NY Yankee cap quickly before they mistook me for a Union sympathizer. Then, there was the high school band followed by lots of people riding horses and it was a good thing they were in that order. If it had been the other way  around there would have been some high stepping for sure. Finally, the two hour parade was winding down or at least the parade goers were winding down and the crowd thinned out. They picked up their chairs and drove off in their golf carts even as the main event came into view. I guess they knew what was coming. There was Santa perched high atop one more fire engine, waving and shouting, Merry Christmas to all.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Second Sunday of Advent

Driving the interstate this week and seeing a car with a big bumper sticker that proclaimed: Jesus said: REPENT! made me think of the Scripture reading for this second week of Advent. It is from Matthew 3 and is about the preparatory ministry of John the Baptizer who came to announce the advent of Jesus. It is John not Jesus who proclaims REPENT. This same car I was following down I-10 this week had another bumper sticker (I mean they were all over this car!) which noted what happens if you don't repent and then if that was your choice, it wished you GOOD LUCK! The meaning taken was not really Good Luck but Bad Luck because you made the wrong choice and somehow I got the feeling that the driver was glad that your luck was bad if you made that choice NOT TO REPENT. You were going to get yours.

The sermon on the car made it seem like the whole point of Jesus coming was to get us to repent. And I assume that driver like many of us had a list of sins in mind we need to repent of. I have nothing against repentance; it's a good and necessary thing. I doubt it means what this driver and many Christian users of the word think it means. Jesus did say: Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand which is pretty much what John and a whole lot of other prophets in the Bible said before him. In fact, without repentance there can be no salvation. But, repentance does not mean saying your sorry for a few sins and then trying to stop doing them again. If we have repented of (fill in the blank), then we are good to go. Then, we are saved.

Repentence is a way of life. It means turning from the false gods we have set up to serve - and the biggest god is our selves - and turning to Christ for mercy and grace. Repentence is getting ourselves out of the way so Christ can have his way in us. Our biggest problem is the pride that keeps wanting to take credit for what God has done. That, somehow, we (Christians) really are better than other people because we have repented and are Saved. So, if those others don't do what we did, well then, Good Luck! Which is really not meant as good luck as much as "see you will get what is coming because you had the chance to listen to us and you didn't.

I am struck this second Sunday of Advent by the fact that John is calling us to a major change not just a tune up, or a heads up, or wake up call. It is a humbling realization that if we don't repent we miss out on the real God. Who came for us, loves us, and wants to include us in His plan for life. Repent is just the beginning -which is symbolized by baptism - an acknowledgment by us that this is as far as we can go - and it is not far at all, on our own, not far enough by a long shot, and it misses out, totally, on what is really important in LIFE. On Life itself.

In a review of the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the reviewer in the NY Times today wrote: (one of the lessons in this film is that), "we are, as a species, ridiculous: vain, ugly, selfish and self - deluding. But, somehow, some of our attempts to take stock of this condition…manage to be beautiful, even sublime." That "taking stock" is repentance, and only then are we open to receive the grace and mercy of God, the beautiful and the sublime.

Monday, December 2, 2013

First Sunday of Advent

The thing about the Christmas story as told in the gospels is that it is unpredictable. We could not have come up with this. The thing about the Christmas story as it is told in our cultural celebrations of Christmas and even in our churches is that it is predictable and we take it for granted. So much so that our focus is on the trappings of Christmas and not on the real story (we know how it comes out).

Bernard of Clairvaux, in one of his Advent meditations, spoke of the three comings of Jesus. The first, of course, is the one we celebrate at Christmas when God became flesh. Bernard reminds us how that turned out. Not well, as we know. Jesus ended up on a cross rejected by all. Even his closest friends on earth had abandoned him because they were so confused by what had happened and scared for their own skins. God came to earth and no one got it. This might suggest to us that we have a hard time recognizing God when he is in our midst and, even if we do, we have other things on our minds. In Matthew 3, which is the New Testament reading for Advent Sunday 2, John the Baptist uses the word, Repent, to describe what we need to do. Here, in Matthew 24:36-44, the reading for Advent Sunday 1, the key words are "Keep Alert". Those words may not be on our Christmas lists unless it is to remind us of the deadlines we have for mailing packages, or shopping sales, or baking cookies. Jesus was talking about the time he will come again. Keep Alert for that coming. That is the third coming Bernard said. The second coming is now, how Jesus comes to us now. He comes to us as we Keep Alert for the third coming. This "keeping alert" Bible scholars point out is literally, "be always on alert". It is what we do. "It is the obedience that takes shape as hope, future expectation, specifically the future expectation of Jesus coming at any time for his judgment on life." (F.D. Bruner)  It is the obedience of everyday life. It is a shout out to make sure our own faith is real. A double check on where we see our life coming from and why we are doing what we are doing. Where are we seeing Jesus in his second coming? And are we following him there? Later on in Matthew's gospel, he will ask us if we see Him in the "least of these"? So, in these days of Advent, what are we doing to Keep Alert?

Here are a couple ideas: Read through Matthew this advent season to sharpen your skills of observation. Include in your Christmas giving a couple checks to those organizations who work with the "least of these". Get the children's book by Eve Bunting entitled, We Were There: A Nativity Story and read and discuss it with some children, and adults, of course.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Thanksgiving blessing

It was cold this Thanksgiving morning here in North Florida. A hard frost on the cars and not an ice scraper in sight. This transplanted Alaskan was enjoying it. I went to my Alaskan wear tub and pulled out my gloves and stocking cap and went to the far end of my closet to find my winter coat. Then, before sunrise I headed out for a walk in the 30 degree morning chill. I stopped at the local convenience store for my newspaper. It was a huge one full of Thanksgiving ads. Wow, I said to the clerk at the register, that's a lot of paper for $1.07. Oh, he said, today's paper is the Sunday price, $2.14. Oh, oh, I said, I only brought enough money for the daily paper price. Guess I will have to stop back later. I'll pay the rest, a gruff voice behind me startled me. I hardly noticed the old guy when I walked in. He was back in the corner of store where the "Best Coffee in Jacksonville" sign is. Like so many of the early morning customers at this convenience store I figured he was on foot or bike and just stopping in to get warmed up. His stocking cap and Carhartts coat were as worn as his face. Surprised at his offer and quickly calculating that his discretionary income was limited and thinking, why should he pay for my paper which was not a necessity, I said, Oh, no, you don't have to do that. I know that but I want to; he said it like he meant business. So, I swallowed my unease at taking his money and told him Thank You! As I was moving toward the door he shot me a sideways glance and said, Now you have a blessed Thanksgiving! Receiving his blessing, I left with much more than a newspaper.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Living marginally

I am continuing to read through Joshua-Judges and Ruth with John Goldingay as guide. I was reading in Ruth today which is a story I have not read very often. It is a good one. Ruth, as you know, was not a Jew; she was from Moab, a country with hostile relations with Jews. She had married an Israelite whose family had come to Moab to escape the famine in their homeland. Then, her husband died, as well as his brother and her father-in-law. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, had lost her husband and both sons. She was destitute and her only choice was to go back to her kin and hope for some kindness and mercy from them. She released her daughters-in-law to remain in their homeland. But, Ruth chose to go with her. It was a hard choice. The journey was going to be rough and there was not much hope for their future. When they arrived in Bethlehem it was the time of the barley harvest. Old Testament law provided for a way for the poor in the community to at least have some food to eat. It was called gleaning and it meant that the farmers were not to harvest so efficiently that there was no waste. They were supposed to leave some grain on the margins of their fields for those who we would call "food insecure" today. The poor or temporarily disadvantaged were permitted to glean from fields which were not their own. The Old Testament recognized that there would always be people without enough and people with enough and it provided a way to bring some balance between the two.

There was a story in today's Florida Times Union newspaper about small farmers in the area. Florida is a big agricultural state but most of the farms are considered small, less than 200 acres. It is not easy for small farms to make it. Their margins for profit are small, too. One farmer said that she had to plow under 30 acres of squash this year because squash prices were so low it wasn't practical to pick and ship  the crop. She said, she wished she could have let people come and pick it but the threat of potential lawsuits made that impossible. Exactly the opposite of Old Testament laws which made this type of gleaning possible.

In our culture efficiency is prized and rewarded with higher profits. People are laid off or fired if the profit margins get too small. It is a radical idea to leave the margins for someone else who may need it. There have been stories in the paper about organizations like Second Harvest who are able to take what might be thrown out by supermarkets or restaurants and recycle those foods to those in need. These are the modern examples of gleaners. We need to support groups like these. But, I wonder how we can leave margins in our lives to help others. Are there inefficiencies we want to build into our lives so others are helped. Is there some "time"we don't manage so well- so it can be used to help someone else? Is there some money -leftover- that is available to meet some "unplanned for need" in someone's life? Do we have some unused food around that could regularly be dropped off at the closest food bank? In the Old Testament, living so that people on the margins might live too, was a way of life. Can we live marginally, as well?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Thanksgiving is this week. It is my favorite holiday. It is remarkably commercial free. Unless you watch football and endure over 100 commercial ads during the game. There are no Thanksgiving sales unless you count the Thanksgiving pre-Christmas sales but there is nothing you have to buy, no shopping you have to do. I know there is shopping for food but most of us do that anyway. People go to homes to celebrate -again mostly- I know there are restaurants open if you have to go out to eat but I am thankful I don't have to eat out on Thanksgiving. I am thankful for family and friends to be with, for a place to go, and for food to eat. I am aware there are many who have none of those blessings this year. There are too many homeless and there has been a lot of talk this year about people who are "food insecure" in our country where agricultural subsidies are increased and food stamps are being cut. I am thankful for food banks, Second Harvest, food drives, and churches who help feed the poor. I'm thankful for ministries and people whose work is with children who are poor, or abused, or unloved. I am thankful for all people who work with children: teachers, coaches, church workers, counselors, tutors, and, of course, parents. This is some of the most important work there is and especially today when we hear so much about those who seek to exploit children. I am thankful for places that offer support and love to children in need, like Hope Farms in Honduras which we heard about in church on Sunday, and all others.

I am thankful for my parents and family for when I was young I thought all families were like mine. Now that I am older I know how fortunate I was and am. I wonder about that. I wonder about that as I watch our newest family member, Tali, who was adopted out of an orphanage in China. Now she is in a family where she is loved unconditionally. I don't know how the mercy and grace of God works but I know it does and I have a lot to be thankful for and to share.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I've had a "thing" about things since I was in seminary and studying the words of Jesus on the dangers of possessions and godlike mammon.  It seemed clear that following Jesus meant living simply. I read John Yoder and the Lausanne documents on Simple Lifestyle and Ron Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and they had a big influence on our lives (my wife and mine). We moved into inner city Philadelphia and participated in an intentional community there. The members were intentional in their  practice of a simpler lifestyle. I worked with Ron Sider and spoke at churches who were interested in exploring these issues. Later on we left to pastor a church and we had a family and we tried to keep this idea of "living simply so others might simply live" as one of our core principles. Of course, on a pastors salary, and raising four children, living simply was not an option but we knew we were pretty well off compared to the rest of the world. Mission trips to Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well as our own country's rural and inner city pockets of poverty kept us in mind of our abundance for which we were thankful and tried to be good stewards of. Two times we moved cross country - from New York to Alaska and then from Alaska to Florida and we had to sort through our stuff to move only what we needed. How much stuff we accumulated that we did not need! We made trips to the Salvation Army and the dump. We had yard sales. We made decisions about what we needed to keep. It seemed on both major moves we left behind half our stuff. Now we live in a much smaller house sized for the two of us. I look around at the things we kept. There are books, of course, although I got rid of plenty. There are photo albums, and pictures to hang on our walls. There are bread pans and favorite coffee mugs and one set of dishes. We brought a couple of old tables and chairs that have value only to us. And several keepsakes that preserve memories from the various chapters of our lives. Most of the things we have kept tell a story. They are  part of us. I guess I have become comfortable with that, with things. I have made peace with having things; I believe what the Bible teaches that God is the owner of everything. We don't own anything. So we try to hold on to things lightly (I confess I have a pretty tight grip on the bread pans, a couple of coffee mugs and a few books).  Things are temporary and for sharing. God made stuff and said it was good. When I look around at some of our stuff which made the long trip with us it makes me feel good, too.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Election day

Yesterday was election day. There were several important elections in this "off election" year. Perhaps the most important election in our country's history was the one in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States - which did not remain united very long. Even before he took the oath to become president seven Southern states had already seceded from the union. Garrison Keillor, in The Writer's Almanac, today reminds us of Lincoln's implausible election. He had lost an election for senator of Illinois only two years prior to his presidential victory. He had never won a national office, had no formal schooling, and little administrative experience. He won the presidency with only 40 percent of the popular vote. He won it in the electoral college even though he had no Southern electoral votes. Before he reached Washington he received several threats on his life.

Down here in Florida it seems some people are still hot about Lincoln's election. Someone pointed out to me that while there are a lot of streets named after Confederates you will be hard pressed to find a Lincoln or Grant street. Rebel flags still fly from pickup trucks and houses. Civil war battles are reenacted every year and battlefields are sacred ground. One high school near us has had several heated meetings debating whether or not to change it's name from that of a Confederate general and founder of the KKK to a name without historical memories, like Westside High. Some people who want the name to stay say they are losing their heritage. These United States are still not very united and the ties that bind us are not as strong as the ideas that divide us. Lincoln saw that clearly too when he said, "If God wills that it (the civil war) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsmen's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"  If Lincoln was right, we still have a while to go.  (Lincoln quote from Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch)

Friday, November 1, 2013

NIght of the walking dead

Yesterday was Halloween, the night of the walking dead. We had several of such walkers looking only slightly dead at our house last night. Here in northern Florida it was the warmest Halloween of my life. At the beginning of the night we noticed people walking right by our house as we waited inside for the doorbell to ring. No, Halloween walkers do not ring doorbells because people being tricked or treated are outside! Some of them in the midst of their elaborate Halloween displays of huge inflatable scary figures and haunted places. Halloween is big here. We had over 250 children stop by once we took our chairs outside. As I said, we had many of the walking dead trying to look scary but mostly looking cute. Duck Dynasty inspired many costumes this year and, of course, there were a number of fair princesses as well. Our grandkids who live near us stopped over: there was a black hole (who would think of being one and then to come up with a costume), a car, and two bumblebees. The littlest bumblebee was experiencing her first Halloween. She is only about two and recently adopted from China. When their family went next door to greet some neighbors they knew (they used to live in the house we live in now) they introduced their newest child who the neighbors had not met yet. They were not sure whether our son and daughter in law were pulling their legs - oh sure, she is your daughter or whether she was a friend who had dressed up as a little Asian bumblebee. The neighbor happens to be a pest control expert down here so maybe he was thinking of some species of bee he had not set eyes on yet.

I was thinking of how this night of walking dead was so popular here in the land that celebrates the Giver of Life on almost every street corner with big churches and full parking lots each Sunday and Wednesday night. There were plenty of haunted houses in town and the streets were filled with zombies and skeletons and blood stained bodies. Then, in a couple of days, the costumes are put away and people are back in church praising the LORD of Life. Mostly, last night was just fun for kids who like to dress up and get candy. For adults, maybe it is a way to deal with our fears. There were new horror films out this week and the tv was showing plenty of reruns of such shows. Maybe we are hedging our bets that this stuff is not really real and death is not all that scary if we can pretend it isn't and dress up like zombies. But then when Sunday comes are we just dressing up again. Putting on Sunday costumes and making believe.  In the gospel of Matthew, the dead rise at the Resurrection and walk into town and were seen by many. It was said that they were saints who had fallen asleep. It also says that many who saw them were terrified. Halloween plays with the idea of the dead as wandering souls. We can't handle that much reality. On Sunday, when we affirm our belief in the Resurrection, Christ's and ours - because of His - we know we have been raised from death to life. There is no fear nor fascination with death and there is no pretend to this Life. Let the dead walk on Halloween if they have to but give me Sunday.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Psalm 146

God's in charge. Hallelujah! God's in charge for good.
God, You do not forget the poor, the suffering, the needy, the outcasts, the left outs, the weak, the miserable, the powerless, the shut out and shut down, the discriminated against, the outsider (the alien, illegal immigrants in our midst), the abused, those trafficked for illegal gain, the violated, the voiceless, the helpless, the downcast, the overlooked, the overwhelmed, the lied about gossiped about talked about contemptuously, the widows, the orphans, the lost children, the lost and confused…..take them under your wing; be their Rock and the Shield about them and Lift their heads; be the Place that is higher than they are; give them strength of soul, Protect and Keep and give them your Peace. Remember them today. God is in charge. Hallelujah!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Pope's message to us

In early October, Pope Francis visited the town of Assisi where his namesake lived. Francis of Assisi was known for his ministry to the poor. Coming from a rich family, he famously gave up his wealth and chose to live and work among the poor. In Assisi, Pope Francis affirmed the Church's ministry to the poor. "This is a good occasion to invite the Church to strip itself of worldliness", and he called on the clergy and the Catholic Church to, " relinquish all vanity, arrogance and pride, and humbly serve the poorest members of society." Pope Francis means what he says. He lives in a small apartment rather than the much finer papal digs at the Vatican. He is driven around in a 20 year old Renault clunker given to him by a priest. So, when he heard of the scandal about the German bishop who was spending tons of money on renovating his residence (a reported $42 million!), he summoned him to Rome where he was suspended from his duties two days later. The press reported it is not unusual for Catholic officials in Germany to live in style. Most of them, the press said, drive high end Mercedes or BMWs. Nor are expenditures in the millions for housing renovations uncommon. A specialist on church finance in Germany said that the German Church officials are not too eager to follow in their Pope's frugal footsteps. But, there is one concern they have and that is if their parishioners learn of their high spending ways, they may not give as much. They don't have much to worry about yet. With assets in land and bonds, the diocese of Cologne's total wealth is much greater than the Vatican's. And German Catholic Christians have to give 8 to 10 percent of their incomes to their churches, by law! Plus, the state pays Church groups an annual allowance. This sweet deal amounted to $12 million for Christian groups in 2012! At the same time the German Church is bleeding members. In the past three years, they have lost over 400,000  worshippers from their membership rolls. Will Pope Francis's call to get back to the nitty-gritty mission of the Church be heard in Germany, and if it is, will it be enough to change the culture of "bling"? I am not holding my breath but I am not Catholic or German so I will wait and see how his message plays out. I appreciate his message and the way he practices what he preaches. It's a message we need to hear in the US too. Among Protestants, as well as Catholics. What if we had a spiritual leader who eschewed the privileges and perks of power, and did not care a bit about status symbols, and lived simply, and told us to depend upon God for our needs, and was comfortable living and ministering among the poor and told us to do the same…. what sort of difference would that make… oh… wait a minute… we do, don't we.


Godric is Frederick Buechner's fictional life of a very real 12th century English saint. Buechner follows the very real chronology of Godric's life. He was a peddler, a merchant who sailed his own ship along the English coast, and a steward to a very rich man. In 1100 he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Soon after he sold all his goods, left home, and lived the life of a hermit for the latter half of his life. Reginald, a monk of Durham, was commissioned to write the Life of Godric. The passages from the last chapter of Buechner's book are free translations from Reginald's biography. Godric died in 1170. That is the rough sketch of his life which Buechner works with. Godric was known for his love of animals, especially snakes. In Buechner's book Godric names them and talks to them. Tune and Fairweather are his companions throughout his life. Reginald noted that two serpents showed up at his cell the day of his death as if to stand vigil. In Buechner's retelling, Godric did not welcome Reginald's visits and the questions he needed to ask in order to write Godric's life. Godric did not want a "saintly" biography. For he knew himself, and he did not confuse himself with a saint. At the end of his life, Reginald read Godric parts of the book he had written. Here, Reginald described Godric's physical appearance at the end, "His beard was thick, and longer than ordinary, his mouth well shaped, with lips of moderate thickness. In youth his hair was black, in age as white as snow. His neck was short and thick, knotted with veins and sinews. His legs were somewhat slender, his instep high, his knees hardened and horny from frequent kneeling to pray. His whole skin was rough beyond the ordinary until all this roughness was softened by old age. Such was the external appearance of this saint." When Godric heard this passage, he cried out, "THIS SAINT!". "Then there was a roaring in my ears as if all the blood I have in me was sucked into my head at once with pain so cruel I think my skull will fly apart. Reginald goes pale as death and hastes to me. I push him off. Blasphemer, Fool, I cry out. Half blind, I crawl away and when he seeks to succor me, I turn and would have bit his hand had he not leaped aside."

Buechner's Godric is saying that the external appearance of a saint does not tell the whole story. As Buechner has Godric tell his story -alongside Reginald's account - it's clear this "Saint" knows he is a sinner who has been saved by God's grace made known to him in Jesus Christ. And he never forgot it. How could he? Reminded as he was by his sins. That's the way it is with saints.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Being Adequate

I have become the substitute Bible study leader for the men's Bible study group in our church. Really, this week was only the second time I have done it. I have been a pastor a long time and led many such studies. But this group intimidates me. Most of the men are older than I and have had successful careers. They have met together for a long time and are students of the Bible. They meet for breakfast but what they want is a Bible study. The man who has been their pastor and is now the area Bishop is their usual leader. They have high expectations. So, it surprised me this past week when one of the men asked who was leading the study because the Bishop was away. I raised my hand, and the group's facilitator, kiddingly, said, its that new guy from Alaska. The man who asked the question looked my way and commented, well you're an adequate replacement. Hmm, I was not sure how to take that. Then, later reflecting on why his comment took me back for a moment, I wondered why. When I shared this moment, and a laugh about it, with a friend, she said, well you know schools are evaluated on whether they make adequate yearly progress. So, adequate is not a bad thing. No, it is not, but why does it sound like it is. I mean would we vote for a political candidate whose campaign slogan was: Vote for me, I will be adequate! Or, if you were looking for a cardiologist to do a bypass on you how would you feel if a friend told you about a doctor and described him as one who would do an adequate job on you. You were looking for a more than adequate heart specialist, weren't you. See, we tend to see adequate as average and so we don't want to settle for that. We want to be more than, and certainly not, barely. But, is adequate so bad. Adequate gets the job done. An adequate teacher will get you reading and counting to a hundred. You can take it from there. An adequate carpenter can build a house. An adequate writer can write a book. Adequate parents raise good kids. An adequate pastor studies the Biblical text and preaches an adequate sermon which is faithful to the text and he/she shows up at the hospital when you need him/her. An adequate baseball player can hit .275 and field his position or win 15 games with an ERA of 3.00.  Adequate is ok. More than ok, it is good for most things in our lives. If we shoot higher we may end up there; if we shoot lower we won't. Being adequate can bring contentment, it's honest, and it lowers expectations which usually lead to disappointment, anyway. There is a law of averages which pertains to all of us. So, go out and be adequate.

Middle age

Middle age is being revised upward. Where age 40 to 60 used to comprise middle age now it is more like 55 to 65. A 45 year old may be offended if you refer to her as middle age. I feel quite "middle aged" in my men's Bible study group where half of the men are older than me, many years older in some cases. They are getting on very well, too. Studies tell us many adults are only getting launched into their adult lives at 30! And we have heard that 75 is the new 60 and so forth. Still there are some not so subtle signs one cannot miss that point to middle age. You might be middle age if: you not only feel like taking a nap most days but you actually do, or if you groan a lot when you bend over or stand up (my granddaughter asked my wife why grandpa makes so many funny noises, he's just old I guess), or if 9:00 has become bedtime instead of the time you leave home to do something, or if you watch what you drink after 6pm because - well if you know, then you might be middle aged, or if you prefer NPR to noisy radio stations, or if you add more fiber to your daily oatmeal, or if you would rather watch Masterpiece Theater than Modern Family, or if you have started calling your daily walk your workout, or if  you regularly substitute a salad for french fries and only eat one side of the bun with your hamburger, or if you have toyed with the idea of having a light beer, or if your dentist is talking about refilling your fillings, or you suddenly have an inordinate interest in your blood lab reports and what all those numbers mean, or if you are losing hair in places you always had it and start growing it in places you never did. If you are noticing some of these things you may be middle age.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Charming Billy

What is the power of a lie? What lies do we tell ourselves to get by? What lies do we tell others because we believe they cannot bear the truth? Or what lies do we let others believe because we have and they have believed them so long that no one really knows the truth any longer? Or believes it matters? How does a lie take on a life of its own? In Alice McDermott's haunting book, Charming Billy, Billy's adult life is based on a lie told him by his best friend. A lie that was told him because it was feared he could not bear the truth. Then, as Billy's life spiraled out of control into alcoholism, his friends and family conspired together with Billy in a complicated web of other lies. The one big lie beget other lies. The story of Charming Billy (there is a lie), opens at the repast after his funeral where family and friends have gathered to pay respects and tell the lies that have helped them cope with Billy's life - and had helped him cope for some 60 years of living. It is not that Billy was a bad person. On the contrary, he was hailed as a good person, someone who would give you the shirt off his back. Someone who courageously lived in the face of the great grief of his life. Someone who denied himself, took up his cross and obediently adhered to his church obligations and kept his marriage vows. His was an unhappy life, everyone agreed, but no one criticized him for that. They understood. But, what did they understand? It was not the truth. It was the tangled web of lies that they used to make sense of his life (and so did he). They understood the truth they had made up out of their lies. Not that they were bad people either, just people trying to understand, trying to be helpful, using everyday, ordinary lies to survive life. It's what we do. In Charming Billy, we see how tragic even the most simple, most helpful, lie can be and we are left to wonder how the truth could have set Billy free.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is a stunning movie but not for the reasons you might think. It does have a great acting performance by Tom Hanks who plays the real life captain of the Maersk Alabama that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. It does have spectacular camera shots of this great hulking tanker which looks so enormous in port and then so tiny when it is adrift in the ocean. It does have a massive display of American power at sea when the warships show up and dwarf the tiny life boat which is being navigated by three Somali pirates holding one US captain captive. It does have a suspenseful chase scene as the Somali jerryrigged skiff chases down the ginormous cargo ship and is then boarded by four utterly fearless pirates. The director, Paul Greengrass, directed the last two Jason Bourne movies so he knows something about creating - on the edge of your seat - dramatic effects. But what separates this film from other Jason Bourne type action adventure films is the focus on the pirates. The pirate actors are Somalis who live in the United States now. This is their first acting performance. The actor who plays the Somali captain is already being talked up as a possible Academy Award nominee for best supporting role. The film takes us into the Somali village where the pirates live. At dawn the Somali warlords sweep into the village in their humvees brandishing their heavy weapons. They roust the men and boys out of bed and yell at them to get to work. Herded down to the seashore, the Somali fishermen jump into their water worn skiffs and head out to land the next big prize. They are fishing for a cargo ship (the fishing grounds are fished out by industrial sized fishing vessels) and hoping for a large insurance payment. The Somali captain tells Hank's character about a recent six million dollar payment for a Greek vessel they hijacked. Six million! Hank's character, Captain Phillips, is amazed. That's a lot of money, he says. We have bosses, his Somali counterpart replies. In such exchanges the Somali pirates are humanized. They are not terrorists as the Somali captain assures the cargo ship crew. We will not hurt you, they they say over and over and you begin to believe them. "We are just fishermen", they tell their captives. "Fishermen, who kidnap people, isn't there anything else you can do?" Captain Phillips puts the question to the Somali captain. "Maybe in America, maybe in America", is his answer. It is clear these Somali pirates don't have many options. The difference between their lives and those of their hostages is bigger than the relative sizes of the ships they sail.

Friday, October 4, 2013

History lesson

A high school nearby held a meeting last night to discuss the school budget but some people had another item on their agenda they wanted to bring up. The high school was named after Nathan B. Forrest who was a Confederate general, slave trader, and KKK leader. Some students and parents said it was demeaning to have to go to a school which bore a name that reflected a shameful past and honored a dishonorable person. Others showed up to defend Forrest and his honor. Still others wondered what difference it made. That was then, what matters is now. Florida is full of place names that honor Confederate generals and leaders who were no friends to Native Americans or African Americans. Jacksonville, with it's larger than life statue of Andrew Jackson on his horse in the center of downtown, honors a slave owner and war hero in the Indian Wars. As President Jackson he oversaw brutal relocation policies for Indian tribes. He was an avowed racist but some would argue that so were many others at that time. So,what is the point of history. Is it only now that matters? How many place names do we change today as sensitivities have changed. More to the point, how many people even care?

That was the point of another meeting last night. This was held at a church. The speaker was an African American professor and principal of a local school. He spoke on race, reconciliation and the Church. He talked about the need to know our histories if we want to be able to understand each other and treat each other with respect. Racism can be defeated by understanding which exposes our stereotypes and prejudices. The Gospel declares that in Christ we are all created in God's image and equally loved and made one body although we may be many ethnicities. But, the breakdown of racial stereotypes and prejudices needs an understanding of who we are and where we come from. So we don't keep repeating the past. Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Struggle, Integration - these topics are not just Black History but all our history as US citizens. We don't need to know it to dwell on the past or cast blame on any group for what happened in the past. We weren't there but we are here. If we don't know the past, we can't understand the present and act in reconciling ways. Why did the Trayvon Martin killing trigger such strong emotions? Why are some people offended by the name of a high school? Why did President Obama call for a conversation about race in this country? Why is Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the week? Why do many white people not see a race problem in our country while many black people do?

The professor who spoke at church last night advocated reading black history and visiting museums that keep that history alive. When we were in Birmingham, AL this summer we visited the Civil Rights museum there. As we walked through the exhibits explicitly detailing the racial history of this city in the context of the wider Civil Rights movement, we were deeply moved. We went across the street to the place where four children died attending Sunday School as a bomb exploded outside their church. Their deaths are marked by a small statue and their names are on plaques near the room where they died.  They are there for us to remember.

There were videos of the violent attempts to put down the demonstrations and marches for racial justice in the city and beyond. There were soundtracks which reverberated with the names and insults shouted at blacks who participated in the demonstrations. It was surreal to stand there watching and listening in a mixed group of black and white persons. I did not know the black persons on my right and left. I wondered what they were experiencing as we heard the profane language and saw the violent attacks on people for the reason of their race. As I felt the tears in my eyes, I wondered if they shed tears for their people, too. I had this thought to reach out and say to someone, I am so sorry for what happened. Forgive us. Pehaps, I should have. But, it felt so awkward, not out of place but out of time. I wasn't there. They weren't there. But we are here and with knowing came understanding, and compassion, an awareness of race, and an awareness of the need to work for racial reconciliation.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Breaking bad

No one ever accused me of being on the cutting edge of cultural trends. That's why after hearing so much about the tv show Breaking Bad for five years, I finally decided to check it out. Right about the time season 5 ended the show for good I began it. I have watched two episodes. I can see how people got hooked on it. It's well done. It's about as good a portrait of the absurdity of sin (it makes no sense) as could be. Walter White is a hardworking high school chemistry teacher who works another job to provide for his family. He is a decent person. Who is also struggling with his job, his marriage and his health - as he discovers his hacking cough is actually lung cancer and he has only a short time to live. In a conversation with his brother in law who works for the DEA he hears an amazing thing. There is a ton of money to be made dealing drugs, especially crystal meth. So he figures with his knowledge of chemistry and a former student, now drug dealer loser, as a team, they could make lots of money. He will die soon anyway and his family will be set for life. A simple plan. But right from the beginning we see it is anything but simple. His venture goes from bad to worse and he is in a mess. The thing is it didn't have to happen that way. He had choices which involved humility, honesty, confession, community, etc, but he chose the other way, the wrong way. And everything unravels. I guess it must unravel for 5 more years before the show ends. Mercifully, it only lasted for 5 years, it often lasts much longer before we realize there is only one way: humility, confession, forgiveness, and community. That's the only way that makes sense of life.

Judgment in Joshua

Joshua is not an easy Old Testament book to read. There's a lot of violence, warfare, and killing. Guess we shouldn't be surprised - it is a book about the displacement of the Canaanites from the Promised Land. They didn't agree that it was time to go so they were forced out. In Joshua 8 is the story of the battle of Ai. As in most of the battles of Joshua, it is clear that the battle belongs to the LORD. The human military factor does not add up to much. These Old Testament battles are presented as the judgment of God against the Canaanites. The execution of the King of Ai is depicted as the outcome of God's sentence of judgment. So says John Goldingay who is a good guide to some hard to understand stuff in Joshua. Goldingay goes on to say that we should be glad God does not act in judgment on us the way he did on the Canaanites. But, he also reminds us it might be good to be just a little scared about the way we modern nations deserve God's judgment to fall in this way, not least because of what Jesus said about God judging the nations when they are separated like sheep from the goats.

Shutdown, day 2

Shutdown, day 2. So as one Republican lawmaker said, see, we shut down the government and it wasn't the end of the world! No, it wasn't. Even the stock market usually so sensitive did not react negatively. Yet, national parks were locked up and tourists inconvenienced. Thousands of federal workers were furloughed without pay including FBI agents and others who work in supportive jobs for our  security forces. It all depends on one's definition of essential. It still amounts to a lot of people out of work and wondering if they will get paid for this involuntary leave. The service academies are waiting to see if they will have to cancel this weekend's football games because they cannot travel without support personnel. I imagine some angry phone calls from the military brass may light a fire under some members of Congress. The crazy thing is this is all about health care. As the phones lines lit up yesterday and the web sites crashed from overwork, there were a lot of people excited and appreciative that they could finally get health insurance - like most of the rest of us. People in low paying jobs, people with previous conditions, young people and old people were finally able to get help. On any reading of the situation that would seem to be a good thing. One we should be proud of as a society. Isn't it ironic that on the day it became possible a few powerful people were trying to keep them uninsured. And they were willing to bring the whole country to a halt to do it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


This morning most of us woke up to the fact that the government of the United States of America is shut down. Most essential services are still available and Congress is getting a paycheck, no doubt. Vacationers whose plans included a visit to a national park or monument may be the most frustrated when they have to make new plans for the day since those government funded destinations are closed. Campers will have to pack up and move from national campgrounds. Unless we work for the government and are furloughed for a time most of us will feel little pain initially. The stock market may react with some down days and that hurts our retirement portfolios. But even if our pain and suffering today is not catastrophic, we might consider where we are at in this country. Politics used to the art of compromise. There would be budget battles and some give an take and then a budget would be adopted by the deadline. That was the work of government. Most of us didn't give it much thought. Today is not like those days. Today, some political groups are willing to shut down everyone's government if they don't get their own way. There is no compromise. There is no sense of the common good. It is my way or no way. The working relationship between Congress and the White House isn't working. That concerns you and me. Andy Crouch has written a new book entitled Playing God. Its about power and its uses. In this most recent Washington debacle we see power wielded in the most negative way and it reinforces our suspicions about power, that is, that power is always corrupting. He writes we see "the Tea Party can embrace a basically Nietzschean (the Will to Power) vision in which our society is like the small Texas town in an old fashioned Western, where the only hope for God-fearing good people is the arrival of someone who will wield decisive power to drive out the forces of disorder." There is no middle ground. Only one way is right. Power cannot be shared. Crouch's premise is that power is not bad; it can be a force for good. Think Creation. So he shares an alternative version of power: Power is the force that can be used "in the creation of flourishing environments for variety and life, and to thrust  back the chaos that limits true being. In doing so it creates other bodies and invites them into mutual creation and tending of the world, building relationships where there had been none: thus they then cooperate together in creating more power for more creation. And the process goes on." In Crouch's view power is not used to win a battle against our opponents but is used to create places where people thrive. Power is not used to force people to work together until one group sees the opportunity to grab all the power. Instead, power is the force we use to cooperate to create better environments in which people can flourish. In the Gospel we see the power to reconcile those who have great differences. In our country's current struggles we see very clearly the great differences among people on display. Each side wants to win but we all lose. One last thought from Crouch: "The worst fate one could wish for would be to end up alone with one's power, for then there would be no one left with whom one could tend and shape the world."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Baseball playoffs

So it looks like the Yankees will not make the playoffs this year, only the second time in the past 20 years. You expect them to be there. This year I don't care. For Mariano's sake, I could wish they were but Jeter is out for the rest of the year and perhaps forever and then there is A-Rod who has no business being there, no business at all. Today in the NY Times there was a report about the high profile team of lawyers he has put together to fight his 211 day suspension. The paper said it was costing him thousands a month and he can afford it since he is paid by the Yankees millions per month. If Mo is the class act (and he is, of course, not acting at all) of the Yankees then A-Rod is the act with no class (and he is all act). So, maybe it is good that the Yankees sit out of the playoffs this year. Maybe, A-Rod will be suspended next year, after all the MLB lawyers are no slouches. Maybe, Jeter will be back as DH next year. Maybe, Sabbathia will find his velocity again. Maybe, Girardi will say no to the Cubs. Maybe, the Yankees will find some ballplayers who are hungry for the chance to play the game in their farm leagues. So I will be happy rooting for the A's and the Pirates to make it to the World Series this year. Wouldn't that be just fine.

A long life

We just got back from a very long drive from South to North, well over 2000 miles of interstate driving. If you did something like that this summer, then you know about the white knuckle adventure of going bumper to bumper with thousands of pounds of STEEL barreling down the highway at 80 mph. Then, there are the smaller, sleeker, lighter and faster models vying for road supremacy, piloted by frustrated office workers by day who become transformed behind the wheel of their new BMW or Jetta, or for that matter, even their Yaris. Zooming up on your rear end as you are trying to get around an RV with a bigger car than you are driving towed behind and carrying bikes, kayaks and bags that could not fit in the RV that is bigger than your house. The driver, channeling his inner Andretti, is about six inches off your rear bumper and flashing his lights on and off. As you try to maneuver around this RV that is the size of a couple of city blocks you see up ahead another truck in your lane so you are not going anywhere which does not please the idiot behind you who thinks you can't see him flashing his lights so he begins hitting his horn. The joys of interstate driving. When we finally get in the slow lane again we turn our attention to NPR. One of the stories we heard was about Google tackling death. Perhaps, you heard about the new project Google's innovators are working on. Last week Larry Page announced the launch of Calico - a new venture aimed at solving the dilemmas of aging and disease. The biomedical gerontologist, Audrey DeGrey is excited, he commented that we need a "bona fide rejuvenation biotechnology industry, providing people with truly comprehensive restoration and preservation of youthful mental and physical function however long they live... and one side effect of this advance is that most people will live a great deal longer than today and do so in the prime of health." Maybe so, but there are lots of ways to die that do not involve the dilemmas of aging and disease and I was reminded of these on the interstate this week. But, this post is going to talk about a different aspect of aging. On our trip North we visited with some relatives we had not seen for a long time. One relative was now in his 90's. His mind was sharp, his conversation intelligent, articulate and engaging. Physically, he seemed to be in good shape and easily got around without assistance. He wanted to tell me a story. I knew he had been raised in a religious cult that had had a very negative influence on his perception of all religion. He had never been to church since he left home as far as I knew. His wife was a devout church goer but he abstained for years which added up to many, many years of non-church going, as you can see. A couple of years ago he told me he experienced a desire to go to church so he visited about six in the community. Finally, he found one that "fit",  he said. He has been there every Sunday since and it has brought great meaning to his life. It took him a long time but he was happy with his new found faith. In my years as a pastor, I had not heard many stories like that. We often hear that older people are too set in their ways to change. Here was one older person who was not. So, when I heard on NPR about the new Google project to revive lives, I was thinking of this encounter with my relative. Technology may help us to live a longer life but it is faith that revives it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A world of orphans

The CAIN Institute estimates there are 153 million orphans worldwide who have lost one or both parents. That number is mind boggling. This weekend we had the privilege of reducing that number by one as we welcomed a little girl from China into our family. Our son and daughter in law arrived home on Saturday night. Sunday night we had a chaotic but joy infused party as both sets of grandparents and our newest grand daughter and her three other siblings gathered together for the first time. She joined with us in an all American meal of pizza and chocolate cake which she wore all over her face. I could not help but marvel at the impossibly huge change in her life. From orphanage where rice was her staple diet to a warm family home. She was held by her parents and welcomed into boisterous family life by her family. Her new brother who is about the same age and twice her size quickly made it clear that she will have fight for a share in the family's cache of matchbox cars and trucks. Her skinny little legs could not hold her up for long but she mixed it up with her new brothers and sisters by scootching along on her bottom. More pizza and walking will soon build up her strength and stamina, she will learn to communicate quickly and it will not be long before she finds her place in the family. That is amazing; she has a family who already has a place for her and already loves her. I wonder how she will look back on this day, a day when her life changed. Will she wonder, why and how it all happened? In a world of orphans and lost and vulnerable children, it is good to know that, at least, today there is one less.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Retirement on purpose

So, are you retired? People ask when they find out you lived in Alaska and now live in Florida. It's hard to imagine how you wound up here. Well, it's hard to imagine how one winds up in Alaska in the first place! Not many people do. It's a big state with a small population. I cannot bring myself to say, yes, I am retired. I was reading a book by Mark Scandrette entitled Free. Something he said makes it a bit easier. We work at jobs because we need to make money for living expenses. The Scandrettes live in San Francisco which is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. They have lived in the city on one modest income for a number of years. They choose to live frugally (some would say cheaply) so they can save and give a large portion of their money away. His book is kind of a Dave Ramsey for those seeking a more simple lifestyle. With no income for the past several months and then living on a much reduced one in the future, this was the book for us! What I noticed in reading this book is that I had the idea that getting paid = meaningful work. I did not want to think of myself as retired because I did not want to think of myself as not doing anything meaningful. Scandrette has some stories in his book about people who retired and then were free to do what they wanted. Not in the sense of living self indulgently which is usually what we think about when we envision the retirement years. But, living on purpose in ways you are freer to choose when no one is paying you to work for them. It is a freeing idea. With a little creativity and a willingness to swim against the current of the modern western lifestyle, you can live on much less than you might think. And live better at the same time. For instance, the Scandrettes, don't eat out at restaurants, or pay for cable tv, or go to movies, or buy new cars, etc. You get the point. They buy what they can afford to pay cash for. They save for emergencies and regular maintenance of such things as vehicles and appliances. As I said, they save so they can give generously to missions and other charities. They meticulously track their spending. What they show is it can be done. When it is done the bills get paid, money gets used wisely, and you have a sense of being a good steward of what God has given you. Which equals meaningful living.

Monday, September 9, 2013

NFL opens with a bang and a dud

The NFL was in full swing this past weekend. Today the experts will begin breaking down the season and correcting their predictions from the many hours of expert analysis before the games began. Living near Jacksonville, as we do now, I endured weeks of buildup to the new season. The Jags have been pretty bad the past few years but with a new coach, gm and qb, they were supposed to be on the rise. Sure enough, with the game only moments old, they already had two points on the board (they are getting a brand new 65 million dollar Super Board next season).  Up 2-0 the preseason hype was looking solid. Unfortunately, it was the only points they put up all game. They had 11 punts, and their receivers could not catch the ball when their qb had time to throw it. They only made it past their own 36 yard line once! At least their offense should be refreshed for the next game! Their new qb, Blaine Gabbert from Missouri, looked shell shocked. His porous line had him running for his life except he showed he could not run. He is not one of the new breed of read-option qbs - his only option is to drop back to pass and take the sack. Losing 28-2 to the Chiefs who were pretty woeful last year, too, was not a good way to start the season. Well, there is always next year. The stadium looked near empty by the 4th quarter. Shouldn't be a problem getting tickets the rest of the year. Looks to me like, barring injury, it's the 49ers and Packers; Patriots and Broncos fighting it out at the end of the season. 49ers and Broncos in the Super Bowl. That's my best guess. What I know is that the hometown favorites, the Jags, will not be there. They may not even need that new scoreboard. In fact, the money might be better spent on getting some players.

Love bugs me

Here is something the Florida Department of Tourism or the Relocate to Florida Department does not tell you. Florida has all kinds of interesting bugs and crawling things that the non-Floridians who visit or relocate here never suspected. So last week when I noticed a new bug crawling on our window I had to look more closely. In fact, there were several of these new insects crawling and flying around. Up close it looked like two elongated flies attached together. Two distinct insects hooking up - looked like a mating dance to me. I showed my wife. What do you think, I asked. She said it looked like a helicopter bug. Not that she had any scientific background to stake her claim on. I said, no, look closely, see how it is two bugs hooking up. They are mating, I think. Right here in public, on our window. Oh, ugh, she said, unromantically. I do see! Our neighbor is the resident pest control guy so I asked him what was up with these new bugs that looked like they were in some kind of mating dance. Sure are, he said, that's why they are called love bugs! No kidding, I never knew there was such a thing. Florida keeps coming up with new ways to make me ponder the question, why is place so popular?  There is the heat, the monsoonal rains, the frogs, and now love bugs. There are swarms of them. They don't bite and they are amazingly slow moving - like they are intoxicated with love. How can you fly fast when you are hooked together with your mate. So they have a hard time avoiding traffic! Everyone's car is covered with these things. And you need to wash them off fast which isn't easy because the heat quickly bakes them on. They leave a gooey residue behind that is hard to get off. What you have on your car windshield and front end is an exploded egg sac with over 350 eggs! Nice, huh. These bugs celebrating their love in public and getting run over by cars only last about a month but they come in May and September. Two months of love! So this is a heads up: if you're planning to visit Florida you might want to skip the love months. I doubt the tourism brochures will mention that!

Friday, September 6, 2013

A bloody ending

I am finishing up my reading of Esther this week. It has a bloody ending. It could have been the blood of Jews if Haman had had his way. Instead, in a twist to the story, the blood shed is that of the Persians. Queen Esther seems to turn from asking for the lives of her own people to be spared to demanding that the lives of others be taken. I still don't know how Veggie Tales ever made a video on Esther! The Old Testament scholar, John Goldingay, I have been reading makes some helpful points; the slaughter of the Persians was DEFENSIVE, and the Jews refused to take plunder from their victims, to gain any profit from their military successes. It is remarkable that the Persians still attacked the Jews even after Haman's plot was exposed and he was put to death. Racial or religious hatreds do not conform to reason often. Goldingay says that the Jews continue to celebrate this victory today (Feast of Purim) by the giving and receiving of gifts especially remembering the poor in their midst, both Jewish and non-Jewish. There is a lot of violence in the Bible and people have a problem with that sometimes. But, why wouldn't there be? There is a lot of violence in the world. In our day, we can pick up a phone and call 911 to have someone else deal with some of that violence. Not so in the days of the Bible. People living in a violent world are going to have to deal with it. God, at least, had some rules for his people that served to restrain the violence. Today, we are debating the national response to the escalating violence in Syria. Will our response lead to more violence, or will it lead to a negotiated settlement and less violence. When we look at our responses in Iraq and Afghanistan, we know there is no easy formula. We do know violence is a given in the world we live in and it is messy and we have to deal with it.

William Glasser, RIP

There was an obit in todays's NY Times marking the passing of Dr. William Glasser. He wrote Reality Therapy, and Schools Without Failure among other books. As a psychology major in college, we read and discussed his works. His work was picked up by others including some Christian authors. He stressed taking responsibility for one's own life. Two concepts that he stressed in his writings were: 1) the only person in the world you can control is yourself, and 2) the effort to change others is wasted. It will only lead to more emotional problems. Related to these two main principles is this: the most profound human need is to love and be loved so it's critical that we repair broken relationships with family, friends or others by taking the initiative on our own to do it. It does no good to wallow in self pity, or hurt feelings, or resentment. Although, I do not know if Glasser was a professing Christian, I found his principles compatible with Christian faith. As a psychiatrist, Glasser broke with the Freudian model of psychoanalysis and focused on helping people take charge of their own lives. While Glasser might have believed we can control more than we actually can, I found his concepts to be like a breath of fresh air in my study of psychology and I found his principles made sense. Glasser was saying what Christians have said for centuries; God's relationship with us is based on forgiveness, and our relationships with others have to be based on forgiveness, too. We find that theological underpinning for relationships in the Lord's Prayer among other places. Glasser wrote that no one has the power to make us miserable nor make us happy. In his phrase, which others have popularized, happiness is a choice. What he meant was that we can control how we respond to the ways others sin against us. We can forgive; we can forget; we can choose to let it go instead of let it fester; we can move on; we can reach out to the ones who have hurt us. It's not always as easy as that but Glasser showed in real life case histories how it works. Jesus showed how it works, too. "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they are doing."

Yankee fan on hold

The Yankees are fighting for a chance to make the baseball postseason. Their star players are mostly all back although they are not as formidable as they once were. Jeter has only recently been in the lineup and is hitting a weak .200. Mariano Rivera is showing his age with 6 blown saves this year including one against Boston last night. Ichiro, the  perennial allstar when he was with the Mariners, is hitting well below his career average. And then we come to he middle of the order where A-Rod is batting. This is the biggest fraud of all. He is fighting his own personal battle against MLB for banning him for 211 games because he has used performance enhancing drugs, for years. His suspension is not in doubt although the length of it may be. Yet, here he is supported by MLB and the Yankees organization and showing up in the middle of the batting order day after day. There are only 20 games or so left. A-Rod has helped the Yankees in this playoff race. This fervent Yankee fan cannot hide his distaste for the way this season is playing out. Despite, Mo's last year and he has been a great player and role model for younger players. Despite, Jeter's valiant comeback attempt, and Cano's grace, Ichiro's gamesmanship, and Girardi's respect for the game, I cannot root them on. I hope baseball does not have to endure the sight of A-Rod in the playoffs, or worse, the World Series. It's a scandal that one of baseball biggest cheats is still on the field.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Adoption process

Our son and daughter in law and grandson are in China. They are concluding a long process of adopting a little girl from there. She has been in an orphanage for most of the first 18 months of her life. No one knows the circumstances but she was dropped off there when she was 4 months old. She had a heart problem and since she was a girl her future in China was very uncertain. She would have remained in the orphanage for a long time. This morning I saw the first pictures of her with her new family, her mother and father and brother holding her. Then, a bit later, I read in Psalm 68 this line: God is the Father of orphans.... This little girl has certainly been in her Father's hands. What a new life she is set to begin. From orphanage to belonging in a family... from a life of poverty to one where her needs and more will be met.... from a life where she did not matter much as a young girl with special needs to a special place where her family will do whatever they can to make sure those needs are met. It is such a dramatic change I cannot quite understand it. It is almost from death to life. From lost to found. From being no one to being someone. She is only one of millions of girls and boys just like her in the world: orphans. Before our son left for China he spoke in church about this experience. He used the analogy of God adopting each of us as his sons and daughters. In a spiritual sense, we were all orphans before being adopted into His family. The mindblowing part is this: He chose us. Our son and daughter in law chose their little girl but they did not "not" choose all the other orphans. That is, there was no rejection in this process. There is a strain of hyper Calvinist theology that draws the conclusion from the doctrine of election that since God chooses some, he must reject others, the ones who are not chosen. Watching our family go through this process of choosing: the paperwork, the heavy financial commitment, the endless arrangements, the stress, the tears, the prayers, and then the actual trip from the USA to China and the travel in a unknown place to finally meet this little girl they have chosen - all of this has spoken to me of God's love in choosing us. Of what he went through to get to us. This little girl will come to know in the days and years ahead what her chosen-ness means. She will grow into it. Much as we do as Christians when we grow into God's love for us. As we mature, we take more responsibility for our adoption into God's family. She will discover what grace and blessing she has received. Much as we do as Christians. It seems to me the point of that theological doctrine of election makes the most sense in this context. Yes, we are chosen. The point of that chosen-ness is to realize how we have been blessed, and to live out that blessing by being a blessing to others. Just as our family could choose only one little girl, we hope and pray others will be chosen, too. There are way too many orphans in the world. What fuels that hope and ignites our prayers is that God is the Father of orphans. We can pray for their chosen-ness, for them to find their place of belonging, however that may happen. God is the Father of orphans, we remember. And what about those we run into today who are not part of the family of God? God may be in the process right now of meeting them, telling them, showing them the new reality. They were lost but now are found, once an orphan but now have a special place in the family of God.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Football is coming

CBS and Time Warner settled their cable dispute which was keeping CBS out of some big city markets. No surprise, since the NFL starts this week and some of it's prime games are on CBS. I don't live in any of those big markets so I didn't really care what happened although we all knew what was going to happen as Football got closer (those stupid pre-season games don't count unless you are totaling up the injured from those games). Since we moved I have not gotten cable or dish or direct tv. The big cable companies down here and the big satellite companies are so darn customer unfriendly that it has put me off. Still, football and the baseball playoffs are coming.... It is also very expensive and upsetting that you should have to pay for all those channels you will never watch - which is most of them for me and none of them except pbs for my wife. Then, there is the fact that it has been kinda nice not to have tv these past few months. I sit less, I read more ( I'm aware that involves sitting too because I don't read standing up!), I have more time for things my wife wants me to do (she reads these blogs), and I go to bed earlier because I am not staying up late watching the end of a game. Truth is, I find I like this tv fast but I know what is coming... I can feel it... can I fight it... stay tuned

Debate on Syria

President Obama has launched the country into a debate on Syria and our response to the unleashing of chemical warfare there. Some will fault him for beginning this national debate and some have said he was too unsure of himself to make the call on his own. There will be critics no matter what course of action we choose. I think it is a good thing to involve our representatives and their constituents in this debate. As I have listened to the officials and the "un" officials, I have heard good points on both sides. One Senator said this is not the first atrocity nor will it be the last and we cannot police the world. It is true there has been no shortage of human atrocities across the world in our lifetimes. In this latest one it looks like Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, killing many hundreds including over 400 children. This atrocity may not be our business, indeed, as some say, a response will only lead to more dead. Needless to say, the blood of these dead Syrians cries out to God, as the Old Testament reminds us. There will be a response; there always is, and whether we will part of it remains to be seen.  In the book of Esther - which never mentions God - his unseen presence is on every page. It is there for the eyes of faith to see. To others the events that transpire may look like coincidences. The King's sleepless night, Mordecai's overhearing the conspiracy plot in the "gates", even Esther's rise to a position where she can influence the King; all of these coincidences assume God's involvement but only to those with the faith to see it. Old Testament scholar John Goldingay makes a good point when he says that sometimes the Old Testament shows God orchestrating events behind the scenes of our lives, but at other times God harnesses our decisions and actions after the fact and creatively uses them to fulfill his purposes. Either way, as the Psalmist says:  "YOU" judge the nations with equity and guide the nations upon earth." In Esther, God is sovereign but that fact does not excuse human courage and responsibility, in fact, it is just the opposite; it requires it.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Church building or people

Some observations on a few of our recent church visits. Each of these several churches we visited were leasing worship space. One meets in a store front in a strip mall right next to a restaurant on one side and a financial services office on the other. It has a small office and childcare space and seating for about one hundred. Another church has recently finished remodeling the worship space. It has state of the art video and audio technology, stadium seating and a large platform in the front. The last church left their building (the diocese owned it so they could not sell it) and leased space in an office park. They completely redid it and fashioned a simple yet profound worship space that appeals to all your senses. It is open and bright with seating in a semi-circle. You can clearly see what is going on up front and you are close enough to the worship action that you feel included. There is a large fellowship area immediately outside the sanctuary with table and chairs and a welcome/information station for visitors (visitors are clearly in mind during the service, too, where everything is explained either by the pastors or on the screen). Coffee is served and the donations support a mission in Honduras. There are   surrounding the fellowship center. There is childcare, and a children's program during the morning worship hours. There is no traditional Sunday School but there is an educational program midweek for all ages, and small groups, and special interest groups like a men's breakfast, and a senior luncheon. There are larger events that focus on social issues. There is an ongoing series called Christ and culture that asks what Christ has to say to the social issues of our time. This month the focus is race and how the church can be involved when racial tensions surface as they have in response to the verdict in the Zimmerman trial.  There are still loads of big, beautiful church buildings here in Florida. Most of the churches are not leasing space. (In downtown Jacksonville, the First Baptist Church takes up several blocks! of prime real estate in center city.) But, it seems to me these churches that have moved out of buildings - or never had one- are on to something. They are debt free and free of many maintenance issues older buildings face, and they can share space with others, ie, such as parking which is plentiful on Sunday because it is not being used by the other tenants. Money that is not spent on buildings can be used for ministry and mission. It is a model being used by some churches and I think in these increasingly tight economic times it makes sense. As we like to say, the church is people not the building.

Church worship

We have attended an Anglican church in Jacksonville the past few weeks. It is different from the Baptist churches we have served for many years in many ways but similar in some ways, too. This is what I like about it: there is a lot of Scripture, an Old Testament, an Epistle and the Gospel readings. A Psalm is used as a call to worship. Then, there is a sense of rehearsing the whole gospel every service. Through the confession, the assurance, the Nicene Creed, the prayers, the communion service, I feel washed over with the Gospel. Then, there are many people taking part, it is not a pastor centered service. The music is simple and powerful. In the early service we have been to there is a piano, guitar, and two vocalists, one who has played a flute. The music is lyric driven but the vocalists have powerful voices. There are many postures which help us worship. Most churches use standing, or sitting. I appreciate the opportunity to kneel on the benches provided at the pews and the invitation to come forward for communion and kneel at the altar. I have found I like the way we receive the "body" in our outstretched hands as the servers place the wafer there. (There is communion at every service.) The lectionary is used for the scripture readings and the sermon is based on them. That way a person can come to worship having already read the Word that will be read and taught. I have felt these past weeks a releasing of what I had been doing (pastoral ministry) and a renewed sense of "being" in worship. It has been emotional, both refreshing and I sense, renewing. For many years I have planned, led, worried, prodded, worried, pulled - and been near the center of much of what I perceived to be happening at worship (although how can we know what God is doing in worship?). I see there were not many times when I was able to worship - too much looking ahead to the next thing I had to do! I am sure the pastors of the church we are attending do that too, but I sense it is freeing to have the liturgy  provide the structure each week. Many of the words they use are repeated at each service (and why not, who can improve on them, ie, the Nicene Creed, for instance). I was talking to my wife about this today on the drive home ( I also like the 8:30 am service and the half hour drive each way to talk). She said, I think you have been a closet Anglican for a while. Maybe, she is right. The church we are attending seems a good fit for us partly because it is doing some of the things I have tried to do over the years as I studied the scripture and the history of worship. In a sense, this church is not doing anything new. Maybe that's what I like about it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Queen for a night

At times the story of Esther is told with a sense of humor. The antics of the King and his officials in chapter 1 is a bit keystone kopish. But the humor is merely a way to express the author's concern about some issues that matter deeply to him. The King's opulent lifestyle is financed through the high taxes and slave labor of his kingdom. Many of his subjects are Jews. As the story progresses we see how vulnerable the Jews are in Persia. In chapter 2, the King's men hold a national beauty contest to find the next Queen. Esther (Hadassah) is very beautiful and is chosen as one of the contestants. Each of the teenage girls underwent a year long course of beauty treatments so she could be fit for the King. The King had his pick; he tried each of them out. Each beauty had her night with the King. The rejects were sent to the second harem to live out their lives as second class wives of the King. Esther was chosen to be the next Queen. John Goldingay points out that Persian women had no choice about who they would marry. They hoped the wedding night might lead to a life of love. No doubt, it did sometimes. Often, it did not. That was life. Hebrew marriages were arranged too, but according to the stories in the Bible Hebrew women had more say in the arrangement. So, what the King and his men were doing was the custom of the times. From our point of view today it was a repugnant practice; we would call it sexual abuse. A man today would be put in jail for what the King did. Of course, Kings are Kings. And this King will do and plan to do much worse. Much is made of the Esther story by Christians who tell how God used her to save her people, and that is right. But, Esther sacrificed her virginity and her hope to marry the one she loved in order to be the right person in the right spot - to save her people. This is one of those times in the Bible when we want to ask God, why allow her to go through what she did? That question is not answered. We have the story. Esther lived this life in this culture. She was beautiful and she was used in ways she would not have chosen. Yet, her God was with her. She would have other more important choices to make, risks to take. God was with her. There are many unpleasant realities in the world in which we live. The Bible does not just deal in the spiritual side of life, but all of life. God does not shield us from real life in the world nor does he protect us from it but God is with us, and we have choices to make, risks to take.