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.