Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The last word

I had never had a fig from a fig tree until I moved to Florida. Our son and daughter in law have one in their yard. I had tasted figs before in fig newtons but I was a little leery of taking a bite out of a real fig. It was pleasant both the texture and the taste! It was in full bloom carrying lots of figs.

The story that both Mark and Matthew tell about a fig tree that stood outside Jerusalem is not so uplifting. It is more like a judgment story. Jesus is hungry and looking for figs and finding it unfruitful curses it and it withers and the disciples can't believe what they have just seen. When they look to Jesus for an explanation, Jesus turns it into a lesson on faith and prayer. Jesus says faith will make it possible for the disciples to wither fig trees ( or to make them fruitful, I suppose) and to move mountains - actually to make them jump into the sea. Obviously, Jesus is speaking metaphorically here.

F. Dale Bruner who comments on this passage after consulting just about everybody admits no one seems to know conclusively what Jesus meant by the cursing a fig tree. It is clear that he was angry, he had just cleaned out the temple. He was hungry. He'd had a few days filled with ups and downs (the Triumphal Entry!) And he was heading for the cross at the end of this week. He had a few things on his mind.

The disciples were not getting it. They question, doubt and get things wrong. Jesus repeats his simple lessons. This is not the first time he has taught about prayer. "Ask and you will receive", has been a common theme.

Other New Testament scholars have dealt with this tough passage in other ways. They assume there was some meaning here. Jesus did not just wither a fig tree for no reason. We might if we could. We would have been very frustrated and angry even if we don't think Jesus was. St John Chrysostom could not accept that Jesus was really hungry so he said Jesus was play acting. We try to make sense out of this any way we can.

Mary Gordon, the writer, is ok with leaving the ambiguity there. We think we know how Jesus felt because we have shaken our fist at a rain filled sky, and kicked at the door of a closed restaurant when we are hungry; what Jesus is doing is what we do when we are up against something we cannot change. This fig tree had no figs because it was not supposed to, it was not the season for ripe figs. Jesus, who calmed the sea with a word, and told his disciples they can make mountains jump, could make a fig tree out of season produce figs if he wanted to. He does not, he says it will be forever fruitless.

Mary Gordon finds a lesson of Gospel Truth here: not everything turns out well.

That is certainly what the parables in Matthew 21 - 25 seem to be about. And, the Temple was just cleansed had not turned out well so it needed Jesus' surgical strike. In a few days, Jesus own life would take a very bad turn.

Most of us have been frustrated with ministry at times. Things way too often do not turn out the way we hoped. I have not moved many (any?) mountains in my day. I have prayed over fruitless fig trees. There is a curse over our lives ("Far as the curse is found"). Fig trees don't ripen out of season, we bang our heads against the walls of our limits. We cannot make ourselves, or others, fruitful.

In Mark's telling of this story (Mark 11), Jesus ends up with a word about forgiveness. "Whenever you pray, he says, and you remember anything you have against anyone, forgive them so your Father in heaven may forgive you." (Mark 11:25). Does that mean those who have cursed you, causing you to wither? Or those who are frustrating you, reminding you of your limits, making your life feel so fruitless?

Maybe the lesson Jesus gives is not to let our curses be the last word?

Friday, December 25, 2015


In the corner of the downtown parking lot
after we carried out the natural tree from inside (with ornaments falling)
and wheeled out the communion cart
and passed out the liturgy
the priest, Mother Mary, welcomed us.

Father John read the gospel from Luke (you know) for the day, it was four in the afternoon
Christmas Eve, Pastor Susan gave us the Word, One man from the church without walls sang O, Holy Night with a trained voice that was a little cracked and weary. His sneakers were well worn, too. So were his loose fitting jeans. What was his story.

We lit candles from the Christ candle at four in the afternoon. A slight wind blew some out. Wax dripped on the warm day. Silent Night. We broke bread and sipped apple juice. Passed the peace. While children climbed trees and rolled down the hill. Parents watched and lined up to partake. Hugs all around with snacking on cookies and coffee. Bags of food for those on the go. Someone left a box of Bibles and some clothes. Some left on bikes, some in cars and the rest walked back downtown to find a place for supper and the night. Like another Christmas eve long ago when God came in the flesh that gathered us all. God is here. Incarnation.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Bridging the Muslim - Christian divide

This week Wheaton College, the evangelical college near Chicago, suspended a popular political science professor for a recent statement of her beliefs. Dr. Larycia Hawkins had taken to wearing a hijab in public during Advent to express solidarity with Muslims who are facing discrimination. In her own words, this was not a protest but an act of "religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." The last phrase was what got her into trouble with Wheaton. Dr Hawkins did not see her theology as being out of line with Evangelicalism, in fact, she quoted the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf who has spoken at Wheaton and authored a book on Muslim-Christian relations as saying the same thing. Volf wrote an op-ed piece supporting Hawkins in today's Washington Post.

Volf made the point that Muslims, and Jews and Christians have different ways of understanding God as well as some similar ways but this does not preclude us from saying we worship the same God. Islam does not believe in the Trinity, nor the divinity of Jesus and his crucifixion. Jewish people do not either. Yet, would there be the animosity toward a Christian who affirmed we worship the same God as Jews do? Volf attributes much of this firestorm over the tensions between "us Christians" and "them Muslims" right now. Many people see all Muslims as harboring hatred toward America. There has been an increase in firebombing and vandalism at Muslim worship centers and mosques. Hawkins is trying to build bridges instead of destroying them. On her facebook post she wrote: asserting our religious solidarity with Muslims and Jews will go a long way toward quelling religious violence..."

Due to the recent terrorist attacks fears about Muslims among Christians have been heightened. Some Christians believe that all Muslims are potential terrorists and that Islam is about taking over the world. Marco Rubio recently said as much when he said ISIS wants to see its black flag flying over our national capitol. For too many people ISIS translates as Muslim. I have had people tell me Muslims are infiltrating President Obama's administration in order to prepare for a takeover. There are Muslims serving in congress and our military as Paul Ryan pointed out when he made it clear he does not believe all Muslims are a threat to our security.

The three major religions (Muslims and Christians make up half of all the people in the world), have plenty of violent clashes in their histories. Not all of them were because of religious hostility. Several were fought over territory, oil and political power. With both Christianity and Islam on the increase worldwide the potential for clashes between the two will not go away.

It makes sense to try to understand each other and work together. That has happened often in the past as well. In the past month, the president of Liberty University in a speech in chapel encouraged his students to carry guns so that if Muslims ever come there his Christian students can put an end to them. Not exactly a bridge building attempt at understanding between cultures and religions.

There is much we have in common with Muslims. President Bush reminded us of that when he said "the God that Muslims pray to is the same God I pray to." Not all Christians agree with that - note the suspension of Dr Hawkins. But, as she said, it is a position that has been taken by numerous Christian leaders throughout history.

There are many different understandings of God among Christians even within the same congregations! Charles Kimball a Southern Baptist pastor and professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma said, "there is in my view no ambiguity at all that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are talking about the same God. What I have found is that this is more of a device that Christian religious leaders use to drive a wedge between Christians and Jews on one side and Muslims on the other."

There is a lot of wedge driving going on right now. There are also opportunities for Christians to gain understanding about what Muslims believe (a good book to read is Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslav Volf) as well as ways  to tone down the harmful rhetoric against Muslims that leads to more fear. In many places there are intereligious venues available to work together on community building and peaceful projects.

We need more acts of religious solidarity like that of Dr Hawkins if we want peace rather than violence to prevail in the future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Best Books read 2015, part two

I enjoy biographies. A new one appeared last year by Charles Marsh entitled Strange Glory on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I've read a few biographies on Bonhoeffer and several of his own books. Marsh's book gives a good sense of Bonhoeffer in historical and cultural context. He makes plain the struggles Bonhoeffer had with both the German Church and the Confessing Church.  He shares new information about Bonhoeffer's trip to NYC and relationships with Niebuhr and an amusing anecdote about Tillich. The discussion of Bonhoeffer's friendship with Barth is explored in depth helping to understand the tensions between these two high powered theological thinkers. Marsh fleshes out Bonhoeffer the person better than most because Bonhoeffer was not one to talk about himself. I have a lasting image from reading Marsh's book of Bonhoeffer in prison awaiting his fate and reading Barth's latest volume of the Dogmatics while working on his own book, Ethics. It adds a bit of drama to read Ethics with that in mind!

Books of poetry: Wendell Berry, This Day: Sabbath Poems and Brett Foster, The Garbage Eater. Walter Bruggemann, Old Testament scholar, has a book called Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth which is a book of prayers which read like poetry.

Sermons: While I don't like to read written sermons usually, I found a couple books of sermons that are a joy to read. Bruggeman's Inscribing the Text and And God Spoke to Abraham by Fleming Rutledge.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Best books of 2015

End of the year best book lists are coming out so here is my list of the best books I read this year. Not all of them were new in 2015.

Best in Fiction was: Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. My favorite of the year. Re-reading it now.

Immigration is in the news as presidential candidates debate the best way to keep people out. Mexicans in particular are not faring well. Louis Urrea writes about the border conflicts with sensitivity to Mexicans and the border patrol. He tells real stories about how and why people are coming over and his writing is unforgettable. The Devil's Highway is non-fiction. The Hummingbirds DaughterQueen of America are historical novels. The Water Museum is a contemporary collection of short stories.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd -Southern history and the civil war as lived on one plantation.

Our Souls Night is a third in a series of novels that take place in a small Iowa town. Likewise Lila by Marilynne Robinson is a third book of a series about a small town minister and his family. This is her best one in my opinion.

Best in Non-Fiction is the already mentioned The Devil's Highway. Jacksonland by Steven Inskeep tells the story about how the Jackson administration took the land from Native Americans and profited from it. Boys of Summer and Rickey and Robinson by Roger Kahn, best baseball writer ever.

Our Only World, essays by Wendell Berry. A wise book.

Backpacking with the Saints. Theology professor is retiring and makes the transition by backpacking with his dog and reading books by the Saints of the Church.

The Great Fire by Lou Urenick. Armenian/Christian genocide by Turkish troops and a heroic American missionary teacher who saved thousands.

Best books in Theology/Church History/ Bible Studies
What Shall We Say About Evil by Thomas Long. Preaching professor hence the emphasis on speaking about evil, suffering and faith in God. Excellent. Also excellent is Fleming Rutledge's Crucifixion on how we understand the death of Christ. Great book. Well written by a preacher and teacher of preachers. She interacts with every body and every thing important to the subject. Amazing.

Seriously Dangerous Religion by Ian Provain. Ten Basic questions the Old Testament answers. Provain takes on critics both outside and inside the church.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas lite

Our small church community has no children's Christmas pageant. Mostly because we have few children. We could muster a close up of Joseph and Mary but we would still lack a baby Jesus. We don't have a choir Christmas concert either. It's not because we don't have some good voices but a choir would basically sing to themselves. Each Sunday, some one brings a keyboard or a guitar and leads the singing. We don't have a Christmas Eve service. We meet with another church and partner with the downtown Church Without Walls that draws about a hundred or so homeless people for a Christmas Eve afternoon service at 4 pm. We meet in a parking lot. Last year it poured rain. We are hoping for better weather. Afterward we pass around refreshments. We don't even meet the Sunday after Christmas losing a chance to take advantage of some end of the year giving as I pointed out to the pastor. She said we need a Sabbath. So stay home. I am not sure what to make of this church. It is different from what I have known. I often ended up bone tired after the Christmas Eve service in the churches I pastored over the years. It was a long season of activities from Halloween to Christmas Eve. The week between Christmas and New Years was my favorite week of the year. Somehow I am finding that less is more.

Refugees at Christmas

Christmas is near. It's ironic that a refugee crisis is so much in the news when at Christmas we celebrate Jewish refugees. Joseph and a very pregnant Mary were on the road trekking to their hometown because of a governor's executive order. We are not fond of governmental executive orders today. Joseph and Mary had no choice but to join thousand of their countrymen and women on the road. Nine months pregnant or not. Jesus was born in whatever last minute accommodations Joseph could arrange. Including a midwife, I presume. Once they got the government business of registering for taxes out of the way (that would go over big today, too), they headed home again. Only to be warned by a messenger from God himself to flee the homeland because they were the target of a government terror plot. Seeking refuge in Egypt, they were allowed over the border and set up housekeeping there until the terror had passed. Jesus had safely missed the massacre of all the children his age in his village. Fortunately, he and his family had some place which would let them in. The situation is much different today.

This past Sunday we heard and saw pictures of a mission in Uganda to refugee women fleeing violence in other parts of Africa. Our church supports it, Amani Sasa, which gives battered and traumatized women a safe place to live and learn a trade to support themselves. Many people in our church give money to Amani Sasa at this time of year instead of spending it on a bunch of presents.

The mood in our country right now is not very pro refugee. In fact, the shrillest voices are the most inhospitable. Which sounds badly off-key in this season of giving and hospitality.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Trump, time and the future

A recent poll reported that we are as fearful of the threat of terror in our future as we were after 9/11. Donald Trump is the presidential candidate who is benefitting the most from our collective fear. Never mind how irrational some of his statements sound, they tend to amp up our fear, too. Trump will keep us safe, Trump will strike fear into the hearts of Muslims, Trump will protect our borders from Mexican intruders. Trump will make America great, again. Trump, our savior.

In some reading I was doing this week I was struck by how short sighted this is. Diana Butler Bass in A People's History of Christianity reminds us how long that history is. The period of the so called "early church" was over 500 years. It is as long as Martin Luther's' day from our own. In that time, the world had gone through huge economic, political and social changes, terrible wars, plagues and famines. The upheaval of civilizations. And the Church was in the midst of all of it. In light of that our politics today and specifically the rise and fall ( at some point) of Donald Trump is like a grain of sand on the seashore of time.
So what are we afraid of? Who do we trust for our future? Does God have a future and a future for us?

Fleming Rutledge in a sermon in New York City well before 9/11 talked about standing atop the World Trade Center and looking out over the city. It was a time in the Cold War when nuclear tensions were high. She thought about the devastation a nuclear bomb dropped on NYC would cause. No Statue of Liberty, no financial district, no Yankee Stadium, no Broadway, no Fulton Street Fish Market, no Brooklyn Bridge, and so on, all ashes, dust and rubble. So unnerved was she about the loss of the future, she had a crisis of faith. She talked to a theological mentor about it. He said, Fleming, did you think God had not thought of that?
The future does not belong to us. It belongs to God. No one of us can fix our problems now. No one we elect can make us safe, or secure our borders, or keep all the Syrians out, and why would we want to live in a world like that anyway?

I was reading a biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer earlier this year and I was struck by the way Bonhoeffer and his mentor Karl Barth kept to their work during the worst of the war. Barth at his desk in Switzerland and Bonhoeffer in a German prison. Bonhoeffer reading Barth's latest volume in his Church Dogmatics with genuine joy even as his life hung by a thread.

God holds the thread. Our future belongs to Him. It is the future of God. So, in our work, and worship we bear witness to our faith in God's future.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Another shooting

Another shooting. The guy on NPR said they are becoming commonplace. There is a website that keeps a running total of mass shootings where more than four people died and it shows there is about one a day in the US. That shocks. Stuns. Unless it has become all too familiar. This latest one was in a center that brings social services to the underprivileged of the community. The least of these. It was at a Christmas party. It was carried out by a husband and wife who had just dropped off their six month old daughter at grandma's. They both had good paying jobs. They were not on any terror lists, in fact the husband was born in Illinois to parents of Pakistani background. It makes no sense. There is some evidence he was a disgruntled employee targeting his colleagues. He left the Christmas party angry, people said. But, then he and his wife came back so well armed, it is hard to believe it was an impulsive act. So far 14 have died and at least 21 more are seriously injured. For no reason. The authorities have said the high powered weapons were obtained legally. They were military type assault weapons. Over 300 million  guns in this country. How many assault type weapons? Why is it so easy to get them? Why does the NRA control the debate? The President came out and said what he said last week after Colorado. Enough is enough. That may be true but we need more than words. When the journalists on NPR were asked, will this shooting change the mood in America enough to change the gun laws, they could not say. It never has. It never does. Will another shooting make a difference? Will we get serious about gun violence? I hope and pray we do before another shooting.  I hope enough is enough.

The Crucifixion

Christians don't know what to make of the cross. That is an odd statement but a fair one. Assessing the message of the various churches today you might conclude that Christians were most concerned about social issues like abortion or homosexuality, or electing a conservative Republican president, or filling huge buildings with people who come to be entertained with the latest technology and hip preaching and listening to the latest worship music hits. Even the churches which cannot claim mega status are confused by the cross. There is usually a big one in the church but it looks nothing like the one Jesus died on or said his followers needed to carry (in the mega churches you might not even see a cross at all). The preaching of the church hardly ever deals with the event of the crucifixion. Even though the passion of Christ makes up most of the four gospels, there is little time to preach on it. On Palm Sunday is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then the next Sunday is Easter. One celebration to another - scant attention paid to the painful events of Holy Week. There may be a Good Friday service but they are fewer and fewer and the preaching could be superficial (Jesus died to show how much God loves us) to harrowing (Jesus paid for the punishment due us for our sins). Questions abound but seldom get asked. Why did Jesus have to die to show God's love? Why did God forsake his Son on the cross? Why did Jesus have to pay for our sins and who got paid? Jesus comes off as a good guy who died for us and God the bad guy who made him do it. How did the Trinity break down on Good Friday? Some critics of Christianity want to indict God for divine child abuse? Where was God when Jesus was crying out for him?

Why did Jesus die on a cross? That's a question the whole Bible deals with. It takes a lot of unpacking. Who was Jesus? Why did He die? What does his death mean? Why a cross? And what does that mean? How did his death affect our relationship with God? Needless to say these are important questions that go unanswered for the most part.

"Why was it necessary for God's son to die in such a peculiarly horrible way in order to show us God's greater love? That's the way Fleming Rutledge puts the question that takes 600 pages to answer in her book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Rutledge is an Episcopal priest and a preacher and teacher of preachers. That's what makes this book so good. She regularly asks, Does this preach? She communicates in language people can understand. She takes that question of the Cross's meaning and interacts with the history of Christian thought, literature and modern culture. Reading her book would go a long way toward "understanding" the cross and it's place in our lives today. I recommend it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A refugee crisis

Then they heard a tapping at the back door. There on the back step was a stinking, filthy urchin. He was a an Indian boy. His bare feet were black, his toenails split and bloody. He wore ruined trousers and a beaten and burned jacket, no shirt. His eyes were runny, and his upper lip was caked in crystallized snot. His hair was hard and vertical, coming off his scalp in spikes. Teresita reached out to him. Come in. He stepped in shyly, his cloud of odor filling the room. The boys collar was stiff. His reek was of rotten meat and old blood. Teresita looked at his head - it was full of infected sores. Pus formed peso -sized pools on his scalp, and the pus had drooled down his back and coagulated in his hair. Dirt stuck to the mess and made hard spikes on his head. She gently pulled apart the boy's hair, and she revealed dark little creatures drawing in the pus. Lice.

She bent to the boys hair and carefully snipped away the stiff locks. We will take away your lice, she said. We will take away your stink. Pluck, she told her father. Pluck what? The lice. Pluck them and pop them. But I will get pus on my fingers. You can wash your hands. But, it's disgusting. No, Father. Letting an orphan suffer and die is disgusting.

He plucked lice for so long that the boy fell asleep. He wiped so much pus on his pants that there were two ugly stains. For the first time in his life, he felt - well, saintly. Teresita went to the pot of hot water and set it on the table to cool. Jesus washed dirty feet, you know. They washed the pus off his head. She smeared a yellow ointment on the wounds and wrapped a white bandage around his head.

What shall we do with him? she asked.
Why are you asking me?
You are the patron, she pointed out,
I am not in charge here, I have lost control of everything.

(from The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea)

Working out commitment

We sat around the table after supper and talked. We were a small group that was part of a small church. We were talking about what to do next. We are reading the book Slow Church together but it hard to imagine being much slower than we are. The church is four years old and we are still talking about how to become a member. Some of us cannot even get the word join out of our mouths. If we do we make the quote sign with our hands. You know, "join" as in how all the other churches do it. We don't want to do it like that. We want to be more inclusive; we don't want anyone to feel excluded or inferior; we want something deeper than just "joining".

We are so small we cannot afford a building. If we had one we couldn't afford to maintain it. We rent space and we use spaces that others are using to live in. This makes it hard to have meetings on days other than Sunday unless we invade some one's living space who might actually be living in it that night. Many week nights that invaded space is our pastor's and her family.

So in this small church which inhabits small spaces maybe it's not big deal if we don't have members but we think it is. It's a big deal to commit which people have such a hard time doing today. It's a big deal for us, too, we think, so we want to come up with a way to do that -that doesn't create a two tier system of Christians, and make any one feel excluded. So we come, we give, we take part in the mission of the church and we share Communion every Sunday. But the problem is our communion, our covenant together, is non specific, it is ambiguous. It is there but how do we know it is there. You know what I mean. We don't want to sign up, or come down the center aisle at the end of the service (we don't have a center aisle anyway), or have a show of hands. We have been there and done that and are looking for a different model. Because it is important. Commitment is important. It could be we are making too big a deal of it (Jesus just said, Follow me.) But we don't think so. So our small group in our small space will continue to eat together and share our lives and pray and try to figure this out (among other things).

Psalm 82, Earthshakes

The gods of the nations are called to account: Have they acted justly
Toward the most vulnerable on the earth
Have they acted justly on behalf of the children
and their mothers who are suddenly without husbands and fathers
Who is hearing the cries of the weak and displaced
or ignoring
Who has plans of refuge for the miles of refugees
that do not include walls, registration lists, and religion tests
Are those with much on the earth paying attention to those with little
God wants to know.

Is this why the earth is shaking so?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


There is a lot of fear in the air today. We should close our borders to keep refugees and immigrants out. We should be afraid of what they might do. A refugee may be a terrorist in disguise carrying a fake passport. Our presidential contenders try to make us very afraid of what can happen if we vote for the wrong person, the one who will not be able to keep us safe and secure. They are running campaigns based on fear. We should be afraid of people who are different from us in race, sexual orientation or religion. We should be armed and ready to defend our properties and lives with deadly force. Strangers are strange and we should suspect the worst in others.

In the neighborhood where our church is located is a small park. It is not used much. It is not seen as a  safe place. It is a diverse community with different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and religions including "nones".  The park has some playground equipment and a basketball court and a couple covered places with grills to eat. Except no one does. Our church has met there a few times putting out some food, playing some games but not many people outside our small church showed up. This past weekend we planned a "harvest party at the park". We collaborated with some other people from the neighborhood who were interested in the idea. As the hour to start got closer it looked like it would be another small affair. But by the end over a hundred people had come. There were games and food and even a pick up basketball game with some of the local Jacksonville police who stopped by in uniform. Some people were heard to say that it felt good to come together in a safe place. The many children who were there (who would not have been there on a normal Saturday afternoon) were having a good time. Adults were meeting and talking. Families were having their pictures taken and faces painted.

For a few hours it was a respite from fear. When the police cars pulled up I thought the worst. What's the trouble now? Do we have to seek shelter? Fear is such a common reaction. It is so easy to let it control our lives. Much easier to avoid something rather than take a risk. But avoidance makes for a smaller and smaller way of life. We get trapped within our own borders. Fear becomes our default setting.

The way of following Christ involves risk. The Incarnation was risky. Jesus' parents took a risky trip when his mother was about to give birth to him. Jesus broke some of his religion's laws by touching people who were deemed unsafe. In his last days he walked into a fire storm in Jerusalem. It ended badly for him. At the cross. A cross, he said, that anyone who wants to follow him has to pick up.

Monday, November 2, 2015

In the eyes of a beggar

We drive through the city of Jacksonville on our way to church in one of it's neighborhoods just north of center city. It's common on Sunday mornings to see homeless people begging for help on street corners. As you slow for a red light they make eye contact and hold up their signs: Help a Homeless Vet or something like that. Acknowledging their need and your resources to meet that need. Most of the time people drive by as I have, though occasionally some one stops as I have, too. Many of the streets we travel run by huge churches with worshippers heading to Sunday services. In those churches this Fall time of the year are Stewardship Campaigns. It is time to raise the money for next year's budget. Even though stewardship is a minor Biblical theme if it occurs at all, the sermons will mine the Scriptures for proper texts. One popular gospel story is called the Parable of the Talents. The  owner gives talents (literal talents or time or money are used interchangeably as if there is no difference) to servants, one gets a large amount, another a smaller amount and the last servant gets the smallest. The servants with the two larger amounts manage to increase their talents by the time the owner returns to check on them. They are good stewards of what the owner has given. The third servant just buried his in the back yard. He is a bad steward and is punished. The moral is clear, God gives us talents and he expects a return on investment. He is the owner and gives gifts for us to manage. We are stewards of all God gives to us. It is a bad thing to waste talents by burying them.

So the people on their way to church are learning to be good stewards of money and stuff and they get to practice it by tithing to the church. God will make up what they have given. He will bless them. However, what about the people on the street. They are poor stewards. They have wasted what God has given to them. They have resorted to begging. They could work, they can get welfare, there are city services that our taxes pay for that they can avail themselves of. We should not encourage them  with handouts. It will not do them any good in the long run (although it might put something in their bellies in the short run). Never give cash because they will just use it for booze or otherwise waste  it. Some of these beggars actually come into the city and make a good living off begging. You are a fool if you think you are helping them. It is hard to make eye contact and not feel like helping so look the other way and remember if you really want to help them you won't give.

Kelly Johnson has written a good book called The Fear of Begging. She tells about St Francis who began an order of beggars, mendicants they were called. Eventually the church put a stop to it. The church has had an uneasy history with money. Stewardship was one of the good ideas it came up with. Not everyone thought it was a good idea, though. Peter Maurin who was one of Dorothy Day's inspirations at the Catholic Worker had good reasons for begging. Like Francis he believed begging was a sacrament. He said: "people who are in need And not afraid to beg Give to people not in need The occasion to do good For goodness' sake. Modern society calls the beggar Bum and gives him the bum's rush. But the Greeks used to say That people in need Are the ambassadors of the gods."

Francis and Maurin called this voluntary poverty. They say it reminds us of the need for justice and charity. An encounter with beggars calls for reverence. We are in the presence of someone close to the heart of God. They read the parable of the talents a little differently. God gives freely and then waits, beggar like, on the fulfillment of that freedom which will be the return, the gift of love. The parable is not about how to make the best use of resources for the owner but how to give oneself - heart, mind, muscles, home to the beggar-Lord in love. Christ you see is the lowly servant who buries his talent as a prophetic act to confront an unjust ruler who gathers where he did not scatter and reaps where he did not sow. This truth telling servant is cast out, into beggary. That figure is like Christ who told the truth to the powerful in Jerusalem, suffered and died, becoming one of the least of these (Matt. 25).

It is a creative interpretation. I don't know if it's the correct one. I don't know if the traditional is either. I do know I am starting to look at beggars differently. I can look them in the eyes.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

WSJ's sorry take on Marilynne Robinson's new book

I have been awaiting Marilynne Robinson's new book of essays, The Givenness of Things. It is due to be delivered to my kindle this week. So, I was drawn to a review of it in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. Expecting a positive reading of her work, I was surprised to find a hatchet job. Does the WSJ have an axe to grind against Robinson or is it just the author of the review, Barton Swaim. Swaim was a speechwriter for Mark Sanford the South Carolina governor who famously said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail while secretly visiting his mistress/soulmate in Brazil. Swaim's thin volume was an interesting diversion on a cross country flight. It is a light, entertaining somewhat inside look at what life was like working for the eccentric, conservative governor. I would not consider Swaim's authorial skills in the same league with Robinson. Thus, it was surprising to read that Robinson's essays were "essentially lazy productions", "frequently ambulatory to the point of aimlessness." This is quite remarkable. I have several copies of Robinson's books on my shelves which I go back to from time to time. I had forgotten Swaim's book until I read his review. It is like a middle school quarterback critiquing Tom Brady's throwing mechanics.

Several times Swaim complains Robinson is so ambiguous in her writing style as to be  unclear. Swaim admits to frustration. I can see how he might be frustrated, too. I would be, as well, if a writer had to spell everything out for me. When she writes, "Martin Luther King's educational achievements would no doubt disqualify him from respectful attention in certain quarters as President Obama's do him", he charges her with unclarity. I have no trouble hearing her point and I think most of her readers will get it. Similarly, he denounces the "unashamed racism that has emerged in public life in recent years" and Swaim claims no clue as to what she means. He may not agree with her but I think he knows exactly what she means.

Swaim makes a big deal of Robinson's assertion to be a Calvinist. She doesn't really know what it means he says and she may say that just to draw attention to her writings, he charges. As anyone who has read her essays knows she has been saying and writing about Calvin's influence on her thinking for years.

I don't know why Swaim was the attack dog for the WSJ. Was it because President Obama recently stated Robinson is one of his favorite authors? I suspect that may be it. If not, it would be interesting to know what Swaim really thinks. He is not clear. In the conclusion of his article, he cleverly uses one of her self-judgments before she makes a point, "my thoughts on this subject have not been entirely formed," as a way of referring to her whole work from his point of view. After reading his review I would say, does it matter what Swaim thinks? I have read Swaim and I have read Robinson and he is no Robinson!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bonhoeffer today

I finished Charles Marsh's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which came out last year.  I have read a few Bonhoeffer bios and several of Bonhoeffer's books. Life Together and Cost of Discipleship are favorites. I tried Ethics and I didn't get it, seemed too ethereal to me which is funny because it was probably his most human, down to earth book. I want to go back and read it now after I finished Strange Glory, Marsh's book.

In the past couple weeks the President of Israel sounded like he was saying Hitler was not such a bad guy he just got some bad advice from a Palestinian who planted the idea in his head to exterminate the Jews. Ben Carson seemed to say there never would have been a Holocaust if the Jews had fought back. If their views are widespread, Marsh's book needs to be required reading.

Bonhoeffer has been claimed as a Christian hero for his resistance to the Nazi's attempt to take over the church in Germany for it's own ends. Bonhoeffer spent a year and a half in prison and then was killed. That's the story many Christians know but there is much more to it. Bonhoeffer grew up in an upper middle class home where his parents and siblings were well educated. His father did not care about religion while his mother made sure the children had a Lutheran religious foundation. They went to church on the main Church holy days but Bonhoeffer decided he wanted to become a theologian when he was 12. He had solid theological training and an early friendship with Karl Barth. He started a small seminary for pastors in training for the confessing church (those who did not believe the Reich Church was a true church). He mentored many pastors who tried to follow their calling outside the state church. He wrote theology. Life Together and Cost of Discipleship were early books which his later thinking went beyond. What challenged and changed his thinking was coming to terms with how his church - the Lutheran State Church- could abide the great evil taking place in his country and do nothing, in fact, even support it.

Ethics grew out of this struggle and he wrote much of it while in prison. It is a reworking of theology - what he knew about God. How the God of the Bible was at work in his day. It seemed as if God had abandoned the church or it had abandoned him. God was no longer in the church (the confessing church was a failure too). So Bonhoeffer, the trained Lutheran theologian, for whom Christ was the center of the church now saw the church had no center. Christ was missing. Where was he?

Facing a crisis that caused many in Germany to lose their faith, including some in Bonhoeffer's family (his mother had a breakdown), Bonhoeffer found Christ in the world, in the poor and suffering and found his faith strengthened through prayer and quiet and living a righteous life as much as he could.

Bonhoeffer's faith in the church died but his faith in God did not. God was not in his state leadership and he was not in his state church but he was in the gifts of every day in the midst of this horrific tragedy Bonhoeffer was living through. Christ shows us how to be truly human. He is revealed in our humanness. Often in the poverty of it.

In our day when the church is confused about what it is and what it's mission is, Bonhoeffer warrants a close study.

Friday, October 16, 2015

David's story

I'm teaching a class at our church on First Samuel this Fall. It has been a good study. I recommend the commentaries by Bruggemann and Goldingay especially. It's not my first time in First Samuel but it's amazing what I've missed over the years! The story of David is a finely textured, many layered story. It's as good as any novel, or better. That's why I was quick to order Geraldine Brooks new novel when I heard about it. It was waiting for me when I got back from our trip north. The Secret Chord is a novel about King David. I love Brooks' writing and People of the Book is one of my favorite books. I am not finished with it but I am disappointed in her attempt to write about David.

David is one of the longest stories in the Bible. There is a lot we know about him. Brooks tries to fill in those parts we don't know. I don't think she succeeds. She fills in the back story of David's childhood and his relationship with his father, Jesse. She uses a fictionalized interview with David's mother who we never meet in the Bible. It doesn't work. The interviewer is the prophet Nathan who is charged with writing the King's biography. Nathan is the one voice in First Samuel who speaks truth to David. In Brooks' telling of the tale, David saved Nathan's life and he became a member of David's staff. This is not the Nathan of the Bible who is not afraid to tell David he is a sinner. In Brooks' book, the encounter between David and Nathan after David's affair with Bathsheba is far less dramatic than what happened in First Samuel.

Complicating Brooks story is her decision to use a transliteration from the Hebrew for the names of people and places. Readers who are not familiar with the Old Testament will be at a loss. Brooks also puts modern jargon in the mouths of the characters of First Samuel. I checked out the origins of some of our favorite four letter words and I am pretty sure they were not in use in David's day. So, it is jarring when you come across them in the text. It works against the credibility of her story.

Most of the conversations in which we learn about David's back story are wholly made up. His brother, Shammah, has no love for David and it is through him we learn about some of the secrets of David's life. Michal, Saul's daughter and David's first wife, does not think highly of David either. From her we learn about the love triangle between Jonathan, David and herself. While possible, it is not very likely and not suggested in the text or in most commentaries I consulted. The story of David and Jonathan, a powerful and important chapter in David's story, is about trust and covenant more than friendship.

That is what Brooks misses most. In her focus on telling David's story she leaves out the sense that First Samuel is not about Samuel or Saul or even David. It is about God and the unfolding of the story of salvation. In the end it matters less what David said or did than what God's word is.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mom at 89

We have just returned from a week up North visiting my Mom who is 89. She has been on the move this past year from her own home to an assisted living facility to the hospital to a skilled nursing home and now to an enhanced assisted living facility where she is on the memory unit. The memory unit is really a lack of memory unit for the people living there are living with varying degrees of memory loss. We saw my Mom on her first day on the unit. My sisters had moved her to this new place the day before. She asked my wife to take her back downstairs, she did not know why she had to come upstairs when she liked it so well downstairs. She did not remember where she had come from or who had brought her "upstairs". She did not remember that we had visited her three other times in the past six months and had moved her a couple of those times. She did not remember my brother had visited her a month before. She remembers some things mostly old things. She recalls a couple names among her many grandchildren and great grandchildren. She used to send a card and gift to every one for their birthdays. That was only a few months ago she was doing that. Her bones got brittle and she got infections and her lungs filled with pneumonia. She has been on a plethora of meds which change whenever a new doctor intervenes. This does not help her confusion. Her careful hygiene and grooming has gone although she still asks how her hair looks. She likes to eat especially ice cream but she has no interest in her morning coffee and oatmeal. Her paper has been cancelled. She has no tv. I have no idea what is going on in her mind as she sits in her chair looking out the window. But, I don't think she does either. She lives in the moment. I am trying to learn that, too. The things that mattered so much to her, and she was a worrier, now do not cause a moment of concern. Her possessions, of which she had many and favorites, have dwindled to a few pictures, some flowers and a chair. No books or Bible which she read daily close by.  Her crystal clear blue eyes sparkle from time to time and she easily smiles at you. Known for her feistiness she can still put you in your place. Her day is waiting on someone to visit or take her to an activity she doesn't really care to go to. There are times when she cannot figure out why you are there. There are lots of things she cannot figure out these days. She is not in pain and she is in a place where the staff are respectful and friendly.

It has been tough for the caregivers principally my two sisters who live close by. There have been so many decisions and conundrums to work through. We are relieved she is in a good place now although the trip to get to this place seems unbelievable.

People will say when they have gone through a tough time that they can't wait to get on with their lives. You hear it all the time. I have said it. I have also thought a lot lately about what it means. Life is not a series of projects that we pick up and take on one at a time, Virginia Stem Owens says. Life goes on not as art but as a continuous wave, she says.

Learning how to care for someone who is dying means learning to live with not knowing how much longer you can hold out. It means living in time differently like you are floating along on the current (Owens, Caring for Mother).

This is life. Life is not a series of episodes that we choose to experience or not. My Mom taught us a lot over the years. She is not done teaching. I am still trying to learn from her.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

That we might Live

Teaching a course on First Samuel at our church. More like leading a discussion, actually. It starts tomorrow. More like leading a small group discussion. I am into it though. It gave me a chance to buy a new commentary on First Samuel. Even though I have a good one by Bruggeman, and one by Goldingay and one by Peterson (each one worth reading).  This new one is by David Jenson in the Belief series published by WJK. I like reading it because it is a theological commentary. The author is a teaching theologian. If you want to know about matters of form, authorship, grammatical analysis, word study, and a whole lot of historical - cultural background, then this commentary is not for you. There are other places to go for this stuff. I admit to having read my share of these kinds of volumes and being bored. But, I did it as background for preaching so I could read what the Word said then. I was supposed to be able to say what the Word said now. Somehow, I learned it was cheating to jump from text to commentary without doing the exegetical work myself. I have preached many and I have heard many sermons preached that left the hearers back there in Bible days wondering why it was important or helpful for their lives now to know what a particular Biblical word meant in that context in which it was written. Relate the Biblical text to me now. Tell me what it means now. Why is this particular word of Jesus theologically important for me today. Let me hear the Living Word that speaks Life to our  world that is up to it's eyeballs in skepticism, anger, consumerism, and materialism. We may have a brand new I-Phone 6, and the latest video game, and are worried about terrorists coming into our country via immigration so shut them out and rising health care costs and increasing our personal debt not to mention the national debt...but can we Live in the midst of Life. Is what we want to know.

So, as we gather to read First Samuel, we want to know how Samuel's call to be a leader of Israel can be like my call to be a mother or a student working on my GED, or a passion to help the homeless or any other thing I am doing because it seems God has got something to do with it. We want to know why God seemed to answer Israel's prayer for a King by giving them something God did not want them to have! Or maybe God did. Why does God give us things we want or don't want? And when we end up with the wrong thing or the wrong place how come God sticks with us?

And here is a good one: how come there is so much violence in First Samuel?  What is God doing in the midst of it? Why does God keep getting mixed up in the messes of our lives? So we might Live?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yesterday's presidential debate

I watched the Republican debate last night. About half an hour of it. I turned it off when John Kasich said viewers were getting ready to turn us off due to lack of substance. I agreed.

When Mike Huckabee (I have to smile when I see his book selling at Walmart: God, Grits and Guns. Sums him up.) said some nice things about his opponents and said he would be proud to have all of them serving in the cabinet of a Huckabee administration it got me thinking after I stopped shivering.

Rand Paul queried whether Donald Trump was acting like a junior high boy with his name calling and insults and general bullying behavior. He is like a bully. I thought of some bullies in junior high. They were bigger, kind of towering over you, and braggarts. They could talk a good game and not very many kids challenged them. Trump is a big guy and even though Jeb is about as tall, he seemed smaller next to Donald. Jeb, standing next to him, looked small and meek.  No way Jeb could take Donald down.  It was hard to get a word in when Bully Donald was talking and he just talked over people, as if they didn't matter, if he had to. He bragged he was the best, the richest, and could talk any one into seeing things his way. If not, he would just beat you up. I wondered what the other candidates might have been like in junior high.

Rand Paul (named after Ayn Rand?) was like the nerdy science student who always had the best science project because his parents wanted him to and helped him out.

Chris Christie was the chubby kid who got humiliated in so many ways in gym class but who made it up by being funny and telling the best dirty jokes.

No one saw Ben Carson becoming a great doctor in junior high.  He was the nicest kid in the class. That's what parents said, You know he is really a nice kid as if there was some reason he wouldn't be. He hated politics though and wouldn't run for class president even though he might have won.

Scott Walker was the kid you really couldn't remember what he was like when you looked at the class yearbook ten years later.

John Kasich was the kid who was a good student. He was president of his church youth group where  his dad was pastor. But, he was Lutheran or some other foreign religion like that that no one really knew what it stood for. He wore a "I like Mother Theresa" pin. No one knew who that was either.  So he was nice but a little out there and so he was not invited to too many birthday parties. He did ok later in life as a politician.  Who knew?

Mike Huckabee was like the kid who wanted to be water boy on the football team just because he liked to be around the cool guys. He was always sticking up for the guys who got in trouble. He carried his Bible to school and liked to ask guys if they knew Jesus. Most of the kids went to church and didn't get what his problem was.

Jeb was the kid who was always well dressed in the latest fashion. He loved to talk and most of the time he would agree with whatever you said. His older brother was a good athlete and popular so Jeb had a hard time standing out.

Marco Rubio was like the kid whose parents came from some mysterious place. He could speak Spanish and he was a good soccer player. Trouble was no one played soccer at his school. It was all American football.

Ted Cruz was the kid who was always stirring things up. He wanted soda served for lunch. He wanted the lunch room ladies to let us switch tables at lunch. He even went to the principal to complain about how things were done wrong in school. If I ran the school..... he would say. Nobody really liked him but it was cool when we got to have soda at lunch.

In junior high boys talked about girls a lot but they didn't talk to girls much. Especially some one like Carly Fiorina. She was the smartest girl in the class and no boy could get close to her. She looked older and acted like a high school kid. She was way more mature than the boys were. She was just about the only kid in the school who would take Bully Boy Donald on. Because she could and she won. She was class president. No contest

Ahh...junior high! Seems like yesterday.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Words and refugees

We are going through James in church. It was the first part of chapter 3 today. A warning to teachers especially but to all of us, as well, about the impact of our words. Through our words we can love others, be good neighbors, bless. We can do the opposite, too. We are a wordy society. We have talk shows on the radio, tv and internet podcasts. We can listen to someone speaking all day. Rants on the radio get good ratings. We seem to like hearing someone else take someone down who we don't care for and the ranter can say what we cannot. Key words are "don't care for". We could hardly care less. Unfortunate words come out of a care less mind. We have plenty of bad examples. Donald Trump is riding a wave of hateful words right now. People love him, some say, because he is saying what lots of us are thinking. He is not afraid to say it. He should be, James says. He is showing he would be a strong leader. Really, all we have are words. What are his actions? What has he done? Does he practice true religion according to James.

Our world is witnessing a refugee crisis the magnitude of which we have never seen. On tv we watch as thousands trek hopefully toward a better, safer place. Babies in arms, small children weary by the side of their parents, parents shouting, begging, crying, at wits end. Some countries build bigger fences with barbed wire on top while other countries offer to take in thousands, ten thousand, twenty thousand but we are hearing of thousands coming toward freedom and safety every day now. President Obama has said we will take ten thousand Syrians. Other leaders in our country criticize this move because it could let in terrorists. Ann Coulter in a column last week spread fear that every refugee is a potential terrorist. She named some, an Uzbeki, Chechnyan Muslims (the Boston Bombers), a Hutu who killed many Tutsis in his homeland, and the list goes on and on, she wrote. If they - the refugees are not coming to kill us then they want to mooch off us and our generous welfare system. Keep them out before they destroy us she demands.

Trump would build walls. I know a person who would have been deported under a Trump presidency. She is a Christian from Mexico who came here illegally in the arms of her father. She is married, held jobs and served Christ in many ways through her church. I know other refugees, a family from Ukraine, and one from Sudan. Christians who have worked hard and are giving back to the country that took them in. They are thankful to have been given a chance for a safer, better life.

The violent landscape the people flee is complicated: Western countries and Russia offer support to one side or the other of the warring factions by sending arms, and other help. The countries of the refugees are torn apart and they flee but the countries who want to fix the problem in their homelands do not want to fix the problem when it becomes too dangerous to stay put. Even if they have the resources to help. Do they care? Do we?

What have we gained in the wealthy West if we have all our material comforts but we keep those in desperate need out. Will we lose our soul, have we?

Today in church we prayed:
Jesus enlarge our hearts,
To embrace the stranger.
To see the vulnerable.
Unstop our ears to hear
the cries for help.
Let us cultivate love,
Grow compassion,
Return to the essentials
Love God,
Love our neighbors,
All else is clutter. (Christine Sine)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Just do it

Our pastor was preaching on James 2 yesterday at church.  Her theme was favoritism. And as they say down here she was "agin" it. Because James is. She asked us to consider how we show favoritism daily, even at church. James paints the picture as if he had seen it happen before: a rich person comes in to church and the ushers stumble over each other to show him to a valued seat up front, followed by a poor person in dirty clothes (and smelling dirty) and no one in particular points her to a back seat in the corner away from every one else. How do we do that, the pastor asked. We had a hard time coming up with much. We could think of how it could possibly happen and how it does happen in other churches, but we try to be more aware of such things.

I was still thinking about our pastor's saying that James was the brother of Jesus while she was asking us to apply the favoritism text. The brother of Jesus, think about that for a moment. Talk about an eyewitness point of view. James grew up with Jesus. I wondered if it was slightly like Joseph (that coat of many colors Joseph) in the Old Testament growing up with his brothers. Was Jesus the favorite of the family? Did his parents show favoritism? Did James resent it? There was a time the gospels tell us when the family of Jesus rejected him. They did not believe he was who he said he was. Was that because Joseph and Mary treated him more special than they were? Favoritism causes a lot of problems in families. Rod Dreher wrote a book about his struggles with it in his family. He was well into middle age before he figured out how to deal with it in a healthy way. The book is, How Dante Can Save Your Life. James figured it out too. He became a follower of Jesus, a leader of the Jerusalem Church and died in AD 62, the victim of a conspiracy against him.

I wondered, as well, about the reputation of the book of James in the Church. His letter  has been seen as a theological lightweight, a "strawy epistle", John Calvin called it. Luther didn't bother to write a commentary on it, about the only book of the Bible he didn't. James is a practical book. In his own words, "be doers of the word not hearers only", and "faith without works is dead". Probably because James had been with Jesus so much he knew he practiced what he preached. James knew it is not what we know but what we do with what we know that matters. In most churches there is plenty to listen to but not enough time to do much.

When I walk into church who do I talk to, sit near, laugh with? Who do I seek out at coffee time afterward? How do I spend my time during the week, and with whom? When am I hearing the word, and how am I doing it?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Ashley Madison and the church

So what do we make of Ashley Madison? Christian media outlets keep us up to date on the latest Christian celebrities/mega church pastors and assorted other Christian leaders who have been discovered to have visited the website that promises to fulfill that fantasy of an extra marital affair. It was supposed to be so secret. Then it wasn't. Some Christian men caught in the hack job on the website confessed to being curious, or filling idle time, or simply being stupid. None were seriously considering unfaithfulness. It's like that judgement day scenario when every secret will be revealed. Only now it is affecting marriages, jobs, and churches who are wondering what to do with the secrets their pastors have been keeping from them. (and if pastors, who else?)

One columnist for Christianity Today even felt it was necessary to propose a process to restore wayward pastors who visited Ashley Madison. Is it really that bad? Did he think we would run out of pastors who have not visited that site?

We can always say, well pastors are only human. Which is not much help because what else would they be? We want them to be humans such as we strive to be. When they fail, what does that do to our self confidence? We want to know they face temptations just like the rest of us,just not give in to them. We want them to be human only not that human. (since most of the Ashley Madison visitors were male this might be a good place to put in a good word for female pastors) Do we really want to know what they are up when no one is watching? Male pastors face the same temptations as any male in the congregation and in the internet age there are not a whole lot of firm boundaries. The male pastor may be the most isolated and lonely male in the congregation. He, a person with a whole lot of high expectations (many that come from himself) and few or no confessors. His marriage may be a mere front, too; they have a united face to put toward the congregation but when they are face to face, well, they are rarely face to face. She may be tired of being the church wife. He may be simply tired, or drinking too much or eating too much, trying to avoid whatever their issues are.

Most of these Christian leaders who have been outed on Ashley's site were probably bored, looking for a brief titillation when the sermon process had ground to a halt. They never intended to go any further than a look see. Now their secret thoughts are public for all to judge. Some of those who were outed were outspoken in their judgment of other Christians who had "fallen into sin". Now others are doing to them what they did to them.

Does the church need a process to restore fallen pastors whose names or email addresses appear on Ashley's website? I doubt it. That will only add to the hypocrisy in the Church. What the Church needs is more counselors and spiritual directors. It needs fewer buildings and programs and more spiritual maturity. And a long time line because most pastors will get there eventually. Churches need to get rid of pedestals; pastors can preach from the floor where everyone sits. They are only human. They are a part of the Body of Christ, no more, no less. They need to be at meetings with the church where their word is a word and their thoughts are considered like anyone else's. They are expected to have struggles, doubts, depression, anxieties; hard times personally, maritally and in their families are normal because they are human. Put retreats on the church schedule. Schedule a counselor or a mediator to come and address the issues that are secret. Expect the pastor to regularly get away to face the issues in his or her life. Stop pretending there are no secrets.

Is the Ashley Madison hack job a scandal for the Church.  No, the scandal is the dis-connect between pastor and people. It's the biggest and most destructive secret we have.

The martyrdom of Kim Davis

No doubt you have heard of Kim Davis who by now must be the most famous county clerk in the nation. One of her jobs is to hand out marriage licenses. Since the Supreme Court granted legitimacy to same -sex marriages her job -by law- is to issue gay couples marriage licenses. Ms Davis has refused for the reason that her religious beliefs won't allow her to. She is a Christian, a member of an Apostolic Church. I was not familiar with this denomination but they have a website with enough information to get a general idea of what they are like. Their beliefs are similar to a number of conservative Christian churches. Their worship style is non participative, instrument free, and male led. The men and women do not sit together and the lay preacher opens the Bible at the beginning of the service and preaches on wherever it opens up. I found that interesting. In seminary preaching classes, we had to do this as an exercise in thinking on your feet. The results were usually unimpressive. The Apostolic Church believes  preparation is a hindrance to the Holy Spirit''s work. They want to know what the Holy Spirit thinks on the spot. I have found when working with human material it is better to let the Holy Spirit take his time.

In the Statement of Faith of the Apostolic Church is the conviction that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. That is the sticking point for Ms Davis. Apparently, she is stuck on the man and woman part of the statement. News sources have reported that she has been married four times which includes divorces, I assume. She does not seem to have trouble with remarriage. This could be due to the fact that she is a recent convert to the Apostolic Christian Church having joined in 2011. Now that she has seen the light she may not get divorced again. I don't know.

Some of the Republican presidential candidates such as Huckabee and Cruz have gone on record as denouncing the judge in Kentucky who ordered Ms Davis to jail for contempt of court as an attack on the Christian foundations of our country. These normally law abiding presidential candidates apparently do not believe Ms Davis broke the law of the land or disobeyed a judge's direct order. Or, if so, they believe that a Christian should be able to choose which laws they think their religious beliefs can tolerate. Interestingly, one of Ms Davis's assistant clerks who issued a marriage certificate to a gay couple today said it was the hardest thing she ever had to do (she was a preacher's kid, she said, as if that explained her anguish). Some people have an easier life than others.

Is Ms Davis a modern Christian martyr as some would make her to be or simply uneducated as to the laws of the land or theology? If she has only been a Christian for a few years she can be excused for not being up to speed on the history of Biblical exposition and theology with regard to marriage. However, as a clerk of the court who took an oath to uphold the laws of the land, she is without excuse. It's her job. She can do it or she can quit and do something else. She could study Apostolic Church doctrine (it has only been a denomination since the mid 1800's) and compare it to other traditions which have a much longer track record. She could read up on what her political party has said on the subject. She's young and hopefully her latest marriage will be long and satisfying but that takes a lot of work, too.

Being 65

I turned 65 this week. My Medicare card came in the mail. A government health card. With all the hostility toward Obamacare who knew we had a national health care policy all the time. Just not for everyone. Especially those who are just trying to make ends meet. It's like Ohio trying to pass legislation outlawing abortion in cases where genetic testing shows the fetus with Down Syndrome. Nearly 90% of all such cases in the country end up aborted currently. That's not good. But, the other side of the coin is that raising a disabled child costs more in money, time and human energy. It takes a village... only there aren't very many villages anymore. The politicians who want to outlaw abortion in cases of Down Syndrome are the same ones who want to cut programs to help poor and disabled children. Makes no sense. If we say we are pro-life then let's be pro-life and that means life after birth, too.

That's just one thing on my mind this week. Trump is another. He was asked foreign policy questions the other day by a conservative talk show host and he showed his ignorance (again). He's like a playground bully I once knew who covered over his lack of intelligence with bluster and promises "to  show you". Trump said, I don't need to know the names of foreign leaders and terror groups because they will all be changed by the time I get there and I'll show you a military that will make your head spin. Scary.

My mom is 89 and cycling in and out of assisted living places and rehab and hospitals. Just like many elderly do. It is no fun for her and taxing for her family trying to keep up with doctors orders, physical therapy and nursing home policies. Most of the people we have met who have taken care of her are wonderful but there are a few who for whatever reason are not and a couple are doctors. It's hard to stay on top of things and you feel like you have to. It takes a village... so I have been thinking about retirement communities the kind that promise to take care of you when you no longer can. When you are younger (post 55) there are all sorts of things to do and as you age and can do less and less the community helps out more and more. There is one near us founded by JC Penney where several residents make wheel carts for amputees around the world. It isn't just an old people's amusement park. It's affordable, too.  Have you looked at the cost of long term care? We need more communities for the elderly where they can have a life of meaning and service.

I've been doing a lot of reading about Genesis, Adam and Eve and the discussions about origins. There was a symposium in Books and Culture recently with contributors who debated the historicity of Adam and Eve. It's a big deal. Some professors at Evangelical schools have been fired for not believing Adam was a real historical figure. Along those lines I discovered a book recommended by John Wilson of Books and Culture, Adam's Ancestors by David N. Livingstone. Absolutely fascinating. Highly recommended.

The Fall is my favorite time of the year although it is still hotter than blazes here in Florida. Football is starting and Tom Brady gets to play (lets see how he does with properly inflated footballs) and a whole lot of college football players don't by the looks of the lists of disciplined and  suspended starters for the first games. Baseball is getting to closer to post season and I'm going to a New York vs Tampa game next week which may even be meaningful. (of course, my wife won't know if it is or isn't and I don't really care - hey, I'm going to a game!)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Slow church

Muggy. We were meeting in an Episcopal church along the river in a deeply wooded neighborhood of North Jacksonville. Good hiking trails to the river we were told at lunch time. No thanks. Too hot! On the deck outside our meeting room a family of raccoons hiked by. Not too hot and humid for them. We got a sandwich and continued talking. Our vision team was retreating, considering the insights from the book, Slow Church. Our church is slow enough I thought. We are out of the mainstream current for sure. So slow I wondered some times if were moving at all. What about finances? What about sustainability? We were a small, slow church. Who was going to replace those who moved on to other places, faster churches, perhaps? Those were some of my anxious questions. We don't have a permanent home. We have had to move several times in the past year. We are like nomads, someone offered. Hard to grow when you are moving all the time. Some Sundays we meet at the laundromat and wash and dry clothes with the locals or at the neighborhood park and clean and cook and talk to the people. I wonder some times what we are doing. If we are getting anywhere. What is our mission? We asked at this retreat.

We have t-shirts that share our vision: Love others, no exceptions. We are a diverse group, if a small one. The pastor led us in a reading from Ephesians 1. We heard the words of grace and blessing. Blessing, we said, a word over used for sure. What if everyone knew they were blessed by God, lavishly. We knew a lot of people who did not know that, and felt like an unblessing. What if people felt they mattered to God and he had blessed them so they could bless others. No matter who they were or how unblessed others saw them. What a powerful vision! By the end of the meetings my anxious questions had melted away. Let's go, slow.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Hope for North Korea

Night time photos shot from space over North Korea reveal a country in total darkness when compared to the night time lights of China or South Korea. Some new memoirs are appearing that shed some light on life in the darkness that is North Korea. Most Westerners know little about life there. Joseph Kim's memoir, Under the Same Sky, is a must read for a number of reasons. Kim, who is only in his late 20's now, begins his story when he is an elementary student. Like many kids he enjoyed playing outside with friends and the love of his parents who desired the best for him. But, the best in NK is very different from the least in many other places. Kim knew nothing about life outside NK. When Kim Il Sung died what economy that NK had died, too. The years of the Great Famine began. Millions died of starvation while others scavenged for something to eat every day. People searched the mountains for food, sold what they could, bargained, stole or tried to sneak into China to trade goods. If they were caught they went to prison; gangs of pre-teens were rounded up and sent to brutal youth detention centers. Young girls were sold as sex slaves. Kim's story reveals a place that deserves to be in one of Dante's circles of hell. Yet, Kim and his fellow North Koreans knew no different and loved their homeland. They hoped for better days even while their friends and families died. After his father died, his mother was in prison and his sister sold over the border in China, Kim chose to try to cross the border himself. One of his ex-con friends told him to look for a church. What is a church, he asked. It is a place that talks about God. Who is God, he asked. North Korea is an atheist country and it has pretty much rid it's life of any traces of God. In fact, NK is what life looks like when people have done that. Or, when the state has done that. The people are quite open to hearing about Christianity. When Kim crosses the border he asks an old man how he can find a church. Look for a cross, the man said. Kim knew what a cross was it meant a hospital in NK. How do I find one, Kim asked the man. Look up, the man said. Kim did and he found a church. Not every church helped him but one did and through a Christian grandmother and LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) he was helped to find a new life in America. It's not a fairy tale story. Kim still has plenty of challenges; some days he is memorizing the Bible and other days spiraling into another round of depression. He has been out of NK for nine years and here with the help of author Stephan Talty tells his story. He says he told his story so that others would have a more compassionate perspective of the North Korean people. "My hope in telling my story, our story, is that the lives of the North Korean people would not be forgotten. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to so many important people in my life who have helped me to make it this far and have been a part of shaping who I am today.

We need these stories. So we don't forget. Some days Kim is consumed by survivor's guilt but he has  hope that things can get better in his home country for his people. And that he will be reunited with  his sister, Bong Sook,  who he dedicated this book to. Hope is what makes us live, he says.

Spiritual warfare

I was preaching on Ephesians 6:10-18 on Sunday. Our pastor was wrapping up a series on Ephesians from the lectionary and since she was away all week asked me to preach on this concluding text. I kidded her about wanting to get out of a difficult text. She told me I could preach on whatever I wanted. So I went with the challenge - and finished the Ephesian series. Eph 6: 10-18 is on spiritual warfare. Judging by the number of Christian books written on this subject, it is a huge deal. I have read some of them. They get into spiritual mapping and many other technical aspects of spiritual warfare. It would seem there is a lot to know - beyond what Paul writes. Some Christian writers/preachers believe that the legion of devils led by satan have targeted individual Christians and their churches to disable the good work God is doing through them.  In their thinking, this text becomes very individualized and personal.  There is a good bit of anxiety and fear of the devil that is a consequence of their teaching. Which seems the opposite of what Paul is saying.

Ralph Martin points out in his commentary on Ephesians that it was a fear of the demonic that led Paul to write about spiritual warfare in the first place. Because of that fear, Christians were defecting under pressure. Thus, Paul writes, Resist, Watch, Pray, and Be Alert!.

What Paul says here is not all that different from the counsel he has given in other places. In fact, to call it spiritual warfare is to put words in Paul's mouth and strange ideas in our own minds. This is not about some special battle with evil we are called to fight. It is a reminder that we live out the gospel in a hostile world. Calling the Church to remain steadfast in the midst of constant trials is a common theme of Paul (and James and Peter). The point here is the strength of God's power (6:10, echoing 1:19) - Which was a at work when God raised Jesus from the dead to rule over all the principalities and powers.

Be strong in the Lord is a command! In the Lord means in union with Christ in whom we are raised and seated above the principalities and powers. But, not just yet. Our hope is tempered by the realities of living in a world that poses numerous opportunities for people to resist God and His will. No less the Church which can be distracted by all sorts of silliness and worse, and tempted to act as if we were above temptation to sin. We can be so optimistic we ignore the evils around us, or so pessimistic we cringe every time a demon peeks at us from behind a bush, or we can be realistic which is what Paul advises here.

God has given us what we need to resist the assaults of the evil powers. We do not have to rely on our own strength which is not very strong at all but that's ok because we have God's mighty strength. "In the interim we are to resist the resistance to God's cause. We are not called to defend God, not even called exactly to defend our own souls; we are called to defend the beachheads God's cause has made, the displays here and there of a renewed creation and a new humanity, the places and times that bear the promise of God's good future." (Verhey and Harvard, Ephesians).

The weapons of war that Paul enumerates are not the secret of our success but the fact that they are God's weapons give us confidence. The weapons have all been mentioned before in the Bible. And they were visible to Paul every day that he was held as Roman prisoner. As Martin notes what is important is that no provision is lacking, no part of the body is unprotected. Our protection as believers is complete and sure.

The Bible does not explain evil - where it came from or why it is - it only says it is and we can readily agree with that. We know it when we see it. As we live out the Kingdom of God life here on earth we will have many encounters with it. "We will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us." (Martin Luther).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Trumps card

I was shaking my head over the whole Donald Trump leading in the polls news feed and wondering what are Republicans thinking. Today on NPR's Diane Rehm show some pundits said it was plausible Trump might actually win the nomination or run on a third party ticket. Scary thought: President Donald Trump. I told my wife we better make plans to move to Mexico if that happened! What are Christians thinking? Here is a caricature of the Rich Fool in the Bible, a supreme egotist. Who has been married many times which matters because Jesus actually said something about that. Not to mention greed. Trump admitted he mostly leaves God out of his life. At least, he tells the truth sometimes.

Anyway on the NPR show, one of the pundits said that any one running for President has to have a big ego to think that he would be the best choice for America to run the country for the next four years. Trump is only saying what everyone else is thinking about himself.

True. Compared to the Bible, we don't pick our candidates for leaders like God does. Think King David, who his own father did not think was leader material when Samuel came looking. Or Moses who mostly begged off the assignment God had for him. Then, there were several of the Judges, leaders, who would rather not have been. The prophets like Jonah who fled rather than lead. Paul who was leading but in the wrong direction before God intervened.

Jesus. The Messiah. We never would have nominated him for King. If he had an ego he left it in heaven, taking the form of a servant, calling his followers to do the same.

It is too much to hope that any of the presidential candidates will be like Jesus. He wouldn't be electable if he or she was. Anyway the coming debates are the new reality shows for the fall tv season. It is entertainment. Trump will drive ratings to new highs. Sell Murdoch's papers even though he claims to dislike Trump he likes to sell the news about Trump. Fox will trump CNN or MSNBC. Limbaugh will add listeners.

While this sideshow is going on, what do you and I do? Pray, Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And practice humility in humble act of service where we are. AMEN

Friday, July 10, 2015

Hope in death valley

Ezekiel 37 is one of my favorite Old Testament texts. The valley of the bones. Scattered bones. Not just skeletons but bones and more bones strewn every which way. Which makes the miracle seen in the vision Ezekiel was given all the more startling. God asks: Ezekiel, can these bones live? Ezekiel is wondering, perhaps, is this a trick question. He would likely say, No! Of course these bones cannot live. They are dry, dead bones. And he did not have a clue which bone went with which. So, he takes the safe way out and answers, O LORD God, you know. I love the response. God knows, of course, he does. There is a lot we would like to know. How was the world created? How many days? Where do the dinosaurs fit in? And that's just the first few verses of the Bible.

God says, Son of man, say to bones, Hear the word of the LORD, and I will put my breath into them and they will be given life.

These bones are not even the skeletons of the lives they once were. They are not even corpses. They are dried out bones, as dead as one can be. Speak to the dead, God says. Some preachers know something about that. Some sermons seem more like funeral orations in a cemetery full of dead people. Nothing happens. There is no hope.

Israel in exile was like that. They were saying, We have no hope. God has abandoned us. We are cut off which means as good as dead. They had no hope, no faith and no love. To quibble with Paul, the greatest of these is hope.

So God's word to Israel at this moment in their history is really three words combined.

First, is the promise that it will get better. Not by their logic or according to their schedules and not with their help by the way, either. God's hope may not look like what they expected God's hope to look like. We should take note. When we are hopeless, God is not. He has hope for us. Hang in there.

Second, God's hope has many layers. Haiti is often pictured as a hopeless place. Its people are poor with little hope for improvement. Their government is corrupt and has ripped the people off for years. The country seems to be in the path of hurricanes and earthquakes. The people live on much less than we think we could survive on. They survive and there are pockets of real joy, and faith fuels love and hope. God has His ways of breathing life into His people where all we see is death.

The source of perseverance, writes John Mogabgab, like the Christian undertaking itself, is not of human origin. To persevere, he writes, means to cling to God's plan and promise in realistic expectation that what a faithful and just God intends cannot be overthrown by human schemes.

From the human side things looked bleak in the valley of dry bones. Even after this word of the LORD, Rabbi Eliezer comments in the Babylonian Talmud: The dead that Ezekiel revived, got up on their feet, sang a hymn and died! Not a lot of hope there.

But God says through Ezekiel that His people should not be defined by their hopeless looking situation. Rather, they must align themselves with the Living God (ruach the Hebrew word for breath is used several times here, and in the Septuagint it is the word translated by Holy Spirit). The Spirit of God breathes life into us. So we can let ourselves be defined by our hopeless looking situations or we can choose to align ourselves with God's Spirit which is Life no matter what. On PBS the other night a journalist reported that over 12,000 Greeks have committed suicide in the past 5 years of financial crisis. For good reasons, they concluded there was no hope, no reason to live. This, too, in a largely Christian nation. It's not easy to sustain hope and hope is necessary for life.

Still, as the good Rabbi pointed out, the revival pictured in this vision was short-lived. Cyrus of Persia allowed the Israelites to return home. But, their return did not turn the land of Israel into a Garden of Eden. Nor was there any large scale outpouring of God's Spirit - at least until Pentecost. And no mass resurrections, only one we know about and that was hundreds of years later. (see Jenson, Ezekiel, 284)

It seems in our world of unrelenting calamity and misery, injustice and war, that hope is a hard commodity to come by. Some times the markers of hope are not very visible. You have to persevere, hopefully, with a generous community full of faith and love.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Theology and life

The Scripture reading on Sunday was from Ephesians chapter one. If you are familiar with it you know it is the chapter that blows you away with its high powered theological language. There's predestination, and chosen, and redemption, the mystery of God's will, forgiveness, our inheritance in Christ, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. A tad bit intimidating. It's a theologians dream and they have written great and huge tomes on one or more of those theological terms. So, you could spend a year of diligent study on this one long Pauline sentence in verses 3-14. There is enough preaching material to keep a preacher busy for months. There is a lot of theological turf to fight over, too. Christians are territorial and most of us have staked out our positions on this chapter's big words. Chosen, does that mean God chooses some and not others? Does it mean God chooses us before we choose him (what about free will?)?

Predestination, and so how is that different from fate and does it mean some are predestined not to be in the family of God? What about free will?

How does the atonement work? What type of atonement view is the right one? How does forgiveness fit in?

How mysterious is God's will, what can we know and not know?

And we still have not gotten to the part of the sentence about the Holy Spirit, the pledge of our inheritance, and what that means.

As the Scripture was read, I was thinking about those great phrases and how divisive they have been for the church. Christians have fought and even died over their interpretations of those holy words! The churches in your area may have totally different approaches to one or more of the ideas in this chapter. In fact, you may have chosen the church you're in because of how they view one of those words (or did God choose your church for you before you did!) Did He lead you there? Did He know where you would fit in the best?

While the pastor talked about how Christians were divided about the weighty decisions of the Supreme Court and the state of South Carolina on the future of the Confederate flag as illuminated on Facebook this week, I was thinking about how divided we are on basic theology. So, it's not surprising we can't agree on social issues.

This Ephesians text begins with the word that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In the middle it says God has lavished the riches of His grace on us. At the end it says we have all received the Holy Spirit, the down payment on our eternal inheritance with the saints.

When I tuned back into what the pastor was saying, I heard her say we can easily miss the Big Picture  of what God is doing and our part in it. God's Big Picture is awesome and we get to work along side of Him. She suggested God might be better served if we were peacemakers rather than dividers.

All this pointed me back to an article I read by Marilynne Robinson in Christian Century this week. In it she wrote: "faith lives in the human world by the grace of God, because of the love and loyalty of God, and in the presence of God, which is free, indifferent to our anxieties, to our categories, and to our very negative judgments about the spiritual state of our neighbors."

Ephesians one is good news. May God help me to live it.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Worship and sandwiches

The weather began to look stormy as we prepared for the worship service in the only shaded corner of the parking lot at Market and Monroe in downtown Jacksonville. The forecast called for severe storms to begin at 1 pm and it looked accurate. We tore down what we had set up, brought the bag lunches we had made at our pastor's house this morning inside and about a hundred of us sought shelter inside the conference room of the Episcopal Diocese. It was steamy inside as we sat or stood shoulder to shoulder. We sang some hymns. Then, we read the Scriptures. I noted how different Psalm 130 sounded in the midst of 90 people who were living on the streets. Some had all they owned in backpacks or in grocery store carts outside. One man in front of me said I need a shower and walked outside to get drenched. Some people were waving their hands to the LORD. Most read the Scripture with the reader. Some added their own interpretive comments.

Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord, we prayed.
Let Your ears consider well the voice of our supplication.
My soul waits for the Lord, and we waited.

While a man, bald and maybe 55, sweat stained and wearing well - worn shorts and a t-shirt, read the New Testament reading from 2 Corinthians 8. I was surprised he read so well (why?), and wondered what he had done before he ended up on the street.

You know the generous act of our LORD Jesus Christ, though he was rich, for your sakes he became poor (Poor - it hit me like a gut punch). Your gift is acceptable according to what one has not according to what one does not have. The one who had much to give did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little.

Then the pastor read the gospel from Mark 5, the story about the raising of Jairus daughter from the dead. There was a woman seated to the right of the pastor who obviously knew the text and kept up a running commentary on it. When he read that the people laughed at Jesus for saying his daughter was not dead only sleeping, she said, of course they did. I imagine she had been laughed at a lot. She nearly shouted, Talitha cum. And then raised her hands and looked around the room, smiling, shaking her head and said, He raises the dead, as if that was a matter of fact and there was no denying it.

The pastor finished up and led the prayers of the people. Many people prayed for the sick, for job interviews, for addictions and for family members a long way off and everyone responded: Hear our prayer.

A few of the young people from our church were recruited to take the plate holding the cups of grape juice around the room following the pastor who held the bread and gave a generous piece to each of us. I thought it tasted like King's Hawaiian, a little bit of paradise.

Everyone got up and passed the peace. The blessing followed another hymn. The bottles of water and sandwiches, cookies and fruit were distributed. The skies had cleared and people hung out in the parking lot talking.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Charleston, the flag, and the Lord's Prayer

The Lord's Prayer is a short prayer. Jesus disciples asked him to teach them to pray and he gave them a prayer they could pray in about a minute! I expect they were looking for something a bit more comprehensive and profound. Most Christians are still looking. Some of us pray it together in church weekly and some of us may have heard a series of sermons on the "points" of the prayer. Do we use it as Jesus gave it to us, as a pattern for prayer? Do we dwell on the "points" of the prayer and let them suggest richly how we might pray? Have we learned how to pray so we have moved on to our own prayers? Do we ever get beyond praying the Lord's Prayer?  I don't think so. I think it along with the Psalms remain our best and basic training in prayer.

So, does Telford Work in a 2007 book entitled, Ain't Too Proud to Beg. He called it a book about living the Lord's Prayer. Praying it in order to live it. And by reading this book I realized he covered a lot of ground. All of life.

This weekend are the funerals of the members of the Charleston AME church who were gunned down at their midweek Bible study in their church. It seems unbelievable to even write that. Died at a church Bible study...killed by someone who did not think Black Lives Matter. And he is not the only person who thinks that. He related to a organization that teaches that. He was only the latest link in a historical process that has systematically denied Black persons the right to live. This was not the first killing of Black people in their church. This was not the first time they had been deprived of their basic human rights, the right to live! This was not the first time they had been terrified that someone would harm them just because of their race. There is a deep history of racial violence in Charleston and in many other places. This was not a one time action by a rogue terrorist.

As I read Work's book this week and prayed the Lord's Prayer he helped me understand what I was praying. He wrote, "apocalyptic prophecy reveals a world so stubbornly evil, so thoroughly schooled in self - centeredness, that our only part in its conquest is the difficult work of perseverance. One must keep evil starved of its sources of power, or it is sure to grow back." I thought of the Confederate Flag debate. How have we let that symbol of oppression and suffering fly for so long? On the Diane Rehm show on NPR this week, Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, was asked about the debate to remove the flag and she said she knows of Black Americans who are terrified when they see that flag. Because of what it stands for. I thought of Work's words that we must keep evil starved of it's power. The day after I heard Wilkerson speak I was on my way to an early morning bike ride and I saw a pick up truck flying the largest Confederate flag the driver could find. I was angry. I thought about what I could say to him if I could catch up to him. Was he a racist, or just a Fool, or was he only thinking about himself, I will fly the flag if I feel like it! I thought of Work's words about how we are so thoroughly schooled in self-centeredness, that that's what it means to be an American, to be free to do whatever the hell I want to do. No matter who or what.

I thought of the difficult work of perseverance Work talked about. I saw the film, Selma, and read the book on which it was based (Selma, 1965 by Chuck Fager). The long fight for civil rights, and it isn't over by a long shot, is nothing if not about perseverance.

Jesus calls us to be ready. To pay attention. He gave us many signs of the kingdom (Matthew 24-25). Work writes the Church thinks we need revival - and churches are holding revivals all the time where I live - but Jesus wants us to wake up. Overcome evil with good. Be ready, vigilant, diligent, righteous and confident that God's grace has given us what we need. Pray, Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be Done.... Deliver us from evil. And live it.