Thursday, March 31, 2016

Thanking God for armadillos

This morning I awoke to a front yard that looked like it had been bombed by tiny bombs. Small holes about six inches deep and a couple inches across. A dozen or more of them. Not the first time I have encountered these holes but they had been in the back yard before. Now here was our lawn torn up for all to see. Since becoming a home owner in Florida with a little less than an acre to care for, I have been frustrated with fire ants, watching wasp nests form, surprised by snakes, awakened by barking frogs, taking notes on new breeds of spiders, tracking opossums, and now, discovering that fighting an armadillo is pointless. There is nothing you can do. They are hard to catch at their digging. They are nearly impossible to trap. You might be able to poison your lawn to kill off all the grubs they feed on but who knows what else you would kill. If you stayed up all night you might shoot one but it is not recommended in residential neighborhoods. One Florida wildlife brochure said to look on the bright side: they aerate your lawn and keep the grub population down.

I was not feeling the bright side this morning. What am I going to do, I wondered. Sell the place? Who wants to buy an armadillo war zone? I sat down to read with a cup of coffee and a book by Norman Wirzba. Wirzba is a professor of theology and ecology at Duke. He writes about the importance of creation. Christians have often left the world behind or lived as if they were waiting to. Ecology has not often been uttered in the context of theology. Creation has taken a back seat to salvation and salvation has had little to do with material creation. In contrast, hear this word from Wirzba: "any form of disparagement and abandonment of creation amounts to a denial of God." In modern times, he says human beings are the ones who determine the measures by which everything is sorted and weighed... resulting in a remaking of the world that brings satisfaction and glory to us. This experiment in engineering has led to the twin disasters of genocide and ecocide.

Creatureliness is Wirzba's word for the way of life that is faithful to God. It is nurturing and healing instead of degrading and destructive. It is Christ centered rather than self centered. He challenges Christians to think again about the reasons the earliest creation story in the Bible takes place in a garden. Gardens are places where we learn our limitations, our inefficiencies and our essential passivity when it comes to dealing with weather, parasites, blight and armadillos! Give me all the Roundup in the world and I am still not in control of life. Gardens are places where we learn about death and life. Gardens teach us about the interdependence of all created life. "Creatureliness is inescapably marked by need and by dependence on fellow creatures and a creator." Creaturely life is possible, quoting David Kelsey, only because it breathes a borrowed breath from God."

So that is why I began to see armadillos differently and thank God for them.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Turning tables

Our pastor preached on hell yesterday. The title of her sermon was "Taking Hell Seriously". Many of us who were listening to her had come from traditions where hell was taken seriously. Very seriously. It was to escape hell that Jesus came. We learned that faith in Jesus saves us from hell. So in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16, the rich man ends up in hell (hades, or sheol in the Old Testament) and Lazarus finds himself in heaven at the bosom of Abraham. Somehow Lazarus must have had faith in Jesus and the rich man did not. Otherwise how did each man end up where he did. Of course. Except the parable does not say that. Lazarus did nothing right and the rich man did nothing wrong. Yet, this complete reversal of fortunes. It is as if Lazarus being poor was now rich and the rich man who enjoyed wealth his whole life was now poor. Rich became poor and poor became rich. The teaching of the Bible on the responsibilities to care for the poor is an embarrassment of riches. The rich man who was a son of Abraham knew what God expected of him when it came to the poor man at his gate. At his gate. Right in plain sight. Where only the dogs gave him any comfort. All  Lazarus wanted was a crumb from the rich man's plate. Or a drop of water.

The extreme situations of each person are briefly but poignantly drawn. It is picture of the world we live in. We see it every day on tv news and maybe on our drive into work. We all have poor persons at our gates. Compared to most of the world we are rich.

So is this parable telling us that the suffering have-nots in this life will become non-suffering haves in the next and the non-suffering haves in this life will become the suffering have-nots in the next life, asks John Dominic Crossan. Or is the poor man blessed in the next life because he was poor in this life and the rich man suffers in the next life simply because he was rich in this one, queries Richard Bauckham.

Most Christians have traditionally said, no that misses the point. Although, early Christian commentators were reluctant to let their congregants off too easy. Jerome pointed out the rich man was guilty of sins of omission: he neglected the poor and the needy and that damned him. For most of us modern Christians we tend to take our theology of heaven and hell and superimpose it on this parable. Thus, Lazarus must have had faith in Jesus which saved him and the rich man was an unbelieving hedonist. That is one way to interpret it. Certainly, it takes the edge off of it for us.

Albert Schweitzer cited this parable for why he left Europe to practise medicine in Africa. Some have faulted Schweiter's faith but whose to say he is not the one who got it's point.

Amy Jill-Levine observes that the parable teaches we do not need supernatural revelation to tell us we have the poor with us. It shows us what happens if we don't care.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Isaiah, chapter 6, has always intrigued me. It is a familiar text of Scripture called the Call or Commissioning of Isaiah the prophet. It is dramatic with it's vision of angels, and seraphim and the celestial choir singing, Holy, Holy, Holy. It has inspired hymns and choruses we still sing in churches. Following a formula for prophetic calls, Isaiah confesses his incompetence. It is not only that he feels unqualified, he knows he is inadequate to answer God's call. Already having condemned the community of faith, now he includes himself in the general condemnation. He is one of them. No one is worthy. God sends an angel to purify Isaiah offering hope that he may have a plan for the people, too. But, it is after Isaiah says yes to God's call that we get a clue to what he was called. Verses 9 and 10 are quoted in all four gospels and referred to by Paul. It is because of these verses that the Gentile mission opened up for Paul. The verses speak of resistance to God's message. They have been seen as a kind of explanation for the rejection of Jesus and the Church. It is a harsh message without much hope.

I have pondered Isaiah's message in light of the political season we find ourselves in. I have noted politicians of all stripes making their way to the pulpits of Christian Churches, using Christian language, quoting the Bible, liberally using terms like guaranteeing "our" values. Just vote for me. It is a dangerous seduction to think that one man or woman will do what God has not done yet. That perhaps God has been waiting for this one. Are we looking for a savior in the wrong places? Is it as easy as filling out a ballot, or as simple as choosing the right candidate.

I don't see any saviors on the horizon. I see people manipulating Christians with fear, false promises, and scapegoating others. The problem is them, and if you elect me I can fix it.

Isaiah tells us that it doesn't work like that. "The throne room of God is the policy room of world government," Walter Bruggemann writes. And we have hardly a clue. The will of God is not as easy and simple to grasp as we have been led to believe. Isaiah asks, How Long, LORD? How long before we are given to understand your purposes? How can we notice?

God's word to the prophet is bracing. It says our senses are so blunted by the distractions of our age that it is very hard for his word to get through. The list of problems our world faces has not changed all that much since Isaiah's day: extreme wealth and extreme poverty, wars, refugees, a hostile climate, and self indulgence. It's hard to get a word through. Especially when we think we have the answers. The gospel has never been easy; Bonhoeffer told us there is no cheap grace. Bruggemann says, "there is no good word that gives assurances to those who drop by hoping for a quick and comfortable deal."

There are six words at the end of this passage. We look here for hope. It doesn't look like much. A stump. That stumps us but if we stick with it, and notice, it is the seed of the gospel.

Keeping Lent

I decided to give up buying books for Lent. It was either that or beer. How hard could it be? I kept the beer and went with the books. I should have known. My addiction was worse than I thought. To books. I hadn't taken notice that I had begun hiding my Amazon book boxes from my wife. I was in denial about timing the UPS truck and meeting the guy outside the front door before he rang the door bell. Sometimes my wife would hear me talking outside. Who was that, she would ask, when I came back in. Oh just some Jehovah's Witnesses, I said. I handled it. There were times when she caught me red handed. Are  you keeping track of how many books you are buying, she would ask. Of course, I said. I had a rough idea. Until, I really took a close look at the credit card statement. Oh my gosh, there must be a clerical error. It can't be that much. Those Kindle books, so easy to buy, so quick to add up. Then, I looked at my bookshelves. I have had to add more shelving. Two full rows of books on the to be read shelf. I admitted to myself there might be a problem. So, I decided to face it head one. No more books during Lent. I let my wife in on my Lenten discipline. She couldn't believe I would be able to do it. I almost didn't. It was harder than I thought. I stayed out of Barnes and Noble, and off I discreetly read the NY Times book section. I didn't exactly have the cold sweats but there were times I wondered why I had done this. I almost gave in when I took some books to the used book store and exchanged them for a couple of used ones. I was up front with my wife and she questioned whether I was keeping the spirit of my Lenten discipline. I didn't see her point. So, now Lent is almost over. I checked and some religious authorities say Lent is over Palm Sunday, or some say the day before Maundy Thursday and the most rigorous Lenten practitioners keep it right up til the dawn of Easter morning. I will probably go for the mid Holy Week one (since I will be in Oregon very close to Powell's bookstore).

What have I learned from my Lenten sacrifice? I had given up something that was very important to me so I was reminded of Lent numerous times and why I was doing what I was doing. In the larger scheme of things I had given up very little but I had given up something. Much of the time I get what I want. I don't stop to think. This Lenten practice stopped me to think. It made me think I buy too many books, I have too many books, I don't need so many books. I use book buying to fulfill other needs. And it made me think it's not just books.

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Texas pastor is about the only minister not carrying a weapon behind the pulpit on Sundays in a city where ushers carry and deacons carry and anyone can come to church carrying unless the church specifically prohibits it in writing at the doorways.  Pastor says we look at guests warily as if they are a threat to us. (Christian Century) Could give new meaning to church fights and the pastor shooting from the hip during a sermon. I wonder if giving will go up when ushers packing heat take the offering?

Seen at recent Trump rallies: the heil hitler salute, fighting and protesters being manhandled by burly security forces while Trump looks on encouragingly.

Trump states Islam hates the west.

Rubio roots for Kasich in Ohio to block Trump momentum.

Florida legislature passes bill protecting pastors from having to perform gay marriages. What about second, third or fourth marriages or bad marriages or shotgun marriages?

Florida passes a bill allowing parents to transfer their children to out of county schools and another bill allowing athletes who transfer to be immediately eligible to play sports in the new school and another bill requiring stricter violations for coaches who recruit athletes out of their district. (any one see a problem here)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Homeless at starbucks

Most any day I am in Jacksonville I will meet a homeless person. Some times I don't really know if the person is homeless or is running a scam. If it is a scam it is still a pretty hard way to survive. So, I usually try to take some time and talk to the person before I learn what he or she is asking for. One time coming from a grocery store I heard a voice behind me asking if I knew of a pastor he could talk to. Good scam if it was because how did he know I was a pastor. He showed me a book he bought with his last dollars on prayer. He was serious so we talked for a while about finding  God's answers before he asked me for a ride to a hotel nearby where he was going to look for a job. If I couldn't take him then, some money for a taxi would help. I got him a taxi rather than have to tell my wife we were giving this forlorn individual a ride down the road. She has told me a number of times how easy a mark I am. She says I am a handout magnet. People know I will give them something. It seems she is right. I don't doubt I have been scammed many times.

We had some guests in town and we were on our way into Starbucks for coffee to help us make decisions about what we were going to do next. On the way in a man asked me if I could spare a penny or a nickel. What are you going to buy with just a penny or a nickel, I asked. A cup of coffee, he said. Come with me, I said, I will buy you one. He wouldn't look me in the eyes. Head down embarrassed or ashamed, I guess I would be too. On the street, I asked. Yes. How long?  Couple years. What did you do before you hit the streets? I was a cook. Pretty good one? He looked at me. Yeah, he said, spicy food, a Spanish restaurant. In Southern Georgia, Pepe's or something like that. Any family close? No, no family.

He had several layers on and it was near 80. Hard soled black boots. Loose fitting jeans. Maybe 60 but it's hard to tell when someone has been living on the streets for long. He could have been younger. Do you want something to eat? No, I already ate. What size coffee, the barista asked. Small drip, he said. How about a medium I said. Ok, a medium. While he moved away to wait for his coffee a young, well dressed, woman who was in front of us and had already ordered tapped my shoulder and put a ten dollar gift card in my hand. Give this to him. Thank you, I said. Ok, she said, nice thing you are doing.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Puzzling parables

The parables of Jesus are not easy nuts to crack. In fact, Mark in his gospel says that that is the way they are supposed to be- hard to open. In chapter 4 where Mark retells the parable of the sower he explains the nature of parables, as well. Their purpose is to conceal. Then in verse 34 Mark says that in many parables Jesus spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. In private he explained the parables to his disciples. The crowds following Jesus got just the parable while the disciples got the parable plus the meaning. Not that it seemed to help all that much. The disciples could still be pretty dense.

A lot is riding on the phrase, "as they were able to hear it". How one receives the word is critical. The sower parable explains the ministry of Jesus and why so many rejected his word. It also has been  used to explain our ministries of failure ever since. Look, only one fourth of those who heard the word received it. The sowing of the word has never been easy.

So, is this parable talking about election?  God controls who gets it and who doesn't. Is it predestination or does God see and know who will receive the word in advance? Mark is the gospel of secrecy. Jesus is constantly telling people not to tell who he is or what he has done. Is the concealing purpose of parables part of that motif?

This text about parables comes from the book of Isaiah where it was used to foretell the rejection of Isaiah and his message from God. It is a Biblical theme that God has a difficult time getting his point across to us. Is the problem that God conceals or that we don't get it what is obvious or a bit of both?

We don't often see it this way especially in this political season when some candidates and their followers say they know God's will for us quite clearly. What is there not to know?

Even with our Bibles equipped with study aids and commentary by the experts, and all the sermons and bible studies at our disposal, the word of God is hard to get. See the disunity of the church.

God's way is a mystery. No one gets it right away. No one gets it easily on the way. Without God's help.  And by his grace, he gives it to us. Not getting it does not define us. God does. Yes, the parables conceal and we might flail about trying to understand God's way but the condition is not permanent. God can make plain what He can also obscure. The Holy Spirit comes to make known what has been up to that point hidden.

I grew up with a form of Christian teaching that encouraged me to receive the word of God while I could. And upon reception to keep checking to make sure no one had stolen it away, or it hadn't gotten lost among the weeds and thistles. I was rooted in anxious soil. Any gardener knows that the seed that is planted grows on its own. It doesn't help to pull it up regularly to check on its progress.

Anxiousness is inimical to healthy spiritual growth. How it happens is a mystery but it's best to trust the sower of the seed.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Meditation on Psalm 91

Meditation on Psalm 91 (and the next two psalms).
There is no human possibility here.
In this day of great rhetoric about what men and women will accomplish.
There is no human possibility here.
Where there is much talk about who will make us great.
There is no human possibility here.
When many make the claim to be our savior.
There is no human possibility here.
When great and staggering promises are made.
There is no human possibility here.

When certain ones tell us they will make us secure and safe.
There is no human possibility here.

LORD, make us humble especially those who are vying to lead us.

Help them to know there is no human possibility here.
Only the impossibility of God.

(thanks to Fleming Rutledge for the words: there is no human possibility here. only the impossibility of God)