Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What's love got to do with it

I pulled out an old volume of T. S. Eliot's poems. So old the price on the cover was 95 cents! I bought it used and it was complete with some one else's margin notes. The first poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", was not marked at all. Perhaps the original owner did not read it or she did not understand it. I can empathize. First time through (I may have read it before but it was so long ago I had forgotten), I didn't get it. It was not much of a love song; it seemed kind of depressing. I found out Eliot wrote it when he was only 23 and he spent years working on it. So why was a teenager writing about old age and dying? It seemed to me that's what it was about, anyway. Eliot had some great lines in it like, "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons"." Coffee drinker that I am, I could relate to that way of looking at your life. But, you see, who would want to?

I read the poem several more times. I picked up on references to Shakespeare (Hamlet), the Bible (Ecclesiastes, "a time to murder and create and a time for all the works and days of hands"), and other literary references. The poem begins with a quote from Dante as if to say, here we are in hell. Depressing, but I don't really think Eliot was writing about hell, perhaps, hell on earth. Is that what growing older seemed like to him?

I googled the poem. Students today are fortunate to have so much help online! Too much help it seemed to me. It was confusing to read so many different interpretations of the lines of the poem. After sampling a few, I went back to simply reading. And reading. I am starting to like it.

It reminded me of the parts of the Bible that seem so foreign and all the questions we have about Genesis and Isaiah and the stories about the prophets, or Joshua or the Kings. How many commentaries are there on the Gospels? How many study Bibles that seek to explain verse by verse what the Bible means? Why don't they all agree? Some times I am more confused after reading a few of them. There is literary criticism, and historical criticism and cultural background to keep in mind to help you interpret correctly just like there is with Eliot. Sure it helped to know a little bit about the background of the poem. But knowing too much about what so many experts thought got in the way of my experience of the writing. That happens with the Bible, too. The internet has brought an explosion of information about the Bible. Everyone can know what the experts say each word means even if they don't agree all the time. We have become expert at proof - texting. We know where to go to prove our points. Donald Trump pointed to Two Corinthians when he spoke at Liberty University just to show he had Christian bona fides.

What did Christians do before there were verses? Just a story. Eliot took a lot of time to say what he said. Each of us can get what he meant but it will take some time, too. Reading online shortcuts won't do it. God has a story for us in the Bible, as well. It took a long time to come together; it takes a long time for us to make some sense out of it. We will never get it exactly right. That's not the point; the point is to keep reading and in time God's story becomes our story.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Worship in the garden

Sunday was our last worship service themed on creation. Appropriately, we met in a sustainable community garden. Surrounded by homes in various states of disrepair and repair, the garden plot covered two city lots. One of the lots had a for sale sign in front making the garden in the city more like a dream or a miracle. There were rows of vegetables and one of bees. Beehives, we were warned not to get too close. The beekeeper who was also the community gardener dressed in white overalls with a canvas meshed hat covering his head. He was feeding the bees. Chickens were coming next as a partially finished coop on the property looked hopeful. We had stations set up around the grounds. One invited us to ponder the fruits of the Spirit especially the ones lying dormant in our lives. What would need to happen for them to grow? Another offered a community hymn from the Psalms, praising God for simple bounties. The fruits of the Spirit station doubled as a communion table. Fresh baked bread along with grape juice followed our confession of needed fruits. The table overlooked a large compost pile topped off with egg shells and their cardboard containers, hopefully symbolizing what God was still going to do with our lives. At the end of our ponderings, praying and conversation around the stations we were invited to a table of simple fare created out of the produce of the neighborhood. There was lettuce from the garden and mulberry jam from the wild mulberries growing in the alley. More breads, locally made sausage from Alvarez Farms in the country and egg dishes made possible by the donations of the chickens living in a coop at our pastors's house. Before we left we learned about the needs of the community garden and we washed our dishes that we brought from home under the water pump. No plastic and paper products to throw away which is never away but to a landfill close by. We left with a word thanking God for his bounty and with the hope of learning to live more in harmony with creation.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


There is a disaster brewing of epic proportions right in our neighborhood. Take the interstate from our rural community the 20 miles or so into the city and you can't miss it. But people do. No one seems to care. No one protests. No one came around asking us if we minded. There was no vote yea or nay. One day the heavy equipment operators just started taking trees down. Hundreds of trees. The land looked naked and barren. Homes of squirrels, birds. opossums, armadillos and other creatures uprooted. Now this may not seem like a big deal. It is progress, development. Best for us. We notice an earthquake and help the survivors for a few days until the next big news comes along. We are distracted by disasters. They are routine. So, its not at all surprising that we don't see the destruction of life along the interstate as we race at seventy miles per hour, or more, into work or the store or school or the doctors. Thats' the problem. We don't know what we are doing. Trees seem dispensable. Hope Jahren says in her book, Lab Girl, that in the last ten years we have cut down fifty billion trees. Every ten years we cut down one percent of the total forest left on earth, never to be regrown. That is a land area the size of France. One France after another, for decades, has been wiped from the globe, she says. A tree is nothing less than a miracle, a part of God's creation. For us to care for because it cares for us.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Go outside

We are talking about Christian faith and creation this month at church. Last Saturday some of us gathered at a local park and took a hike. Think flat, well marked trails (still got lost), no wild animals, although there were Zika virus warnings posted. There was dog stuff too and I stepped in it. Had I focused on mosquitoes, and getting lost and stepping in stuff, I might have stayed at the trail head and warned others of the dangers that lay ahead. We have this love/hate thing going on with creation. The first settlers in America found the wilderness dark and threatening and peopled with savages. I think Christians still tend to miss the beauty of creation and would rather stand at the edge of the forest and warn others of the dangers. Save yourselves from this wicked world! The Christian message of salvation often seems to be "from" this world. Erik Reece calls it an indoor religion. Seems mostly true as Christians gather behind closed doors on Sundays and vent against the dangers out there in the world. On this past Sunday, we sang This is My Father's World. For some of us our Father's world has gotten steadily smaller. We worry about how much we have accommodated our faith to culture. If the kingdom is here we need to be about demonstrating how people can accommodate themselves to God's world. I don't want an indoor religion. I want to be outside even if it means stepping in stuff some times.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Pastor on the hot seat

(Note: the following is fiction but it might be true is some places in the future)

I try to imagine a pastoral interview at a church in certain states that have passed laws allowing guns in churches:

The interview was winding down. I was thinking I had nailed it. The theology questions were not tough although one guy was hung up on the virgin birth of Jesus and my interpretation of Isaiah 7 (was the young woman mentioned in v 14 a virgin or not, he wanted a definitive answer). One man wanted to know how I felt about alcohol. I felt fine after a couple drinks, I said. He did not find that funny and made it clear some church members could have trouble with a pastor who was not a teetotaler. I made a note. We got through the gay questions. Always gay questions. The hypotheticals. What if a gay person came to the church (how would you know?). What if a lesbian wanted to join the church, a woman asked with sincere discomfort. Do you hold the position of love the sinner, hate the sin one of the deacons said, offering me an escape route. Finally, the main question lay on the table: have you ever performed a wedding service for same sex individuals. I have not, I said and no one followed up with, would you?

So I was sensing that the job could be mine if I wanted it. I was preparing the closing prayer in my mind when another deacon piped up. I want to know if you have a hunting license, he asked. No, I said, wondering where that came from. Have you ever hunted? Yes, I said, although I had never shot anything. Are you a member of the NRA? No. Why not, do you have anything against guns? Nothing other than they kill people. No one laughed.

Do you know our state is passing a law that will allow church goers to carry guns while at worship? I had heard something about that but hardly took it seriously. Our deacons, who used to be called greeters, are getting training so they can ensure security at the front door, he said. I tried to get my mind around Guys with those funny clip on Greeter tags packing heat. Several of our members intend to carry guns in church, he was going on, including women. Wait, I asked, you don't ordain women or allow them to preach buy they can shoot men? By now, not taking my questions seriously, he wondered if I would have a problem wearing a gun while preaching. It gave me new insight into shooting straight with the word.

The deacon was going on.  Shooters come to church. Never know when you might have an intruder. Intruder? I repeated. Is that what we call visitors now? You can't be too careful today. There have been church shootings you know. I do know, I said, but I am wondering how the gospel would have spread in the early days if the apostles shot everyone they suspected of hostility.  Would Jesus have packed heat? I could sense this interview was misfiring.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A garden setting

At church this morning our pastor announced the theme for this month was "Creation". One of the scripture readings was from Genesis 2. As often happens, there was a phrase there I had never "heard" before, "God planted a garden" (verse 8).  We have been working on a garden since we moved to Florida. It is work. Tilling, seeding, watering, weeding, fencing to keep the critters out and much more. To plant in Hebrew literally means to put the seed in the ground. How did God put the seed in the ground? Did he get as much dirt on himself as we do? Why a garden? God could have put the first humans any place, in a tent in the desert, in a high rise in a city, on a mountaintop. He could have skipped over the years of Israel's desert wanderings and taught them the lessons of water, quail and manna had he started them out in a desert. Instead, he gave them a garden full of edible and beautiful plants. Rather than bread he gave them broccoli. The humans grew up in a garden setting. Today, city dwellers have learned how important garden settings are for urban people. It is healthy to have links to our dirt based life (in verse 7 we learn we have come from the dirt, too). If we can have only a window garden or a pot full of dirt and plants on the front steps, it is important to have a connection to the dirt. Even if it is only a few tomato plants we buy already seeded in a plastic garden  tray, it reminds us we are vitally connected to the dirt. What we eat does not come in a bag at the drive thru at McDonalds; it comes from the ground. From a garden, from a field, from the sea, all gifts of God's grace. We are dependent on God and on others. Interdependent with all other living things on the God who planted the first garden.

Gardens are messy. They are unmanageable. Like life, there are obstacles that frustrate us. There are limits. We cannot take or control, we can only receive. We are not the centers of our universe.

As the First Gardener, God breathes life into the soil he holds close (Norman Wirzba's phrase). Interesting, that Mary "saw" Jesus as the Gardener after the resurrection. God is close to the heart of the action, planting, enjoying, and placing us in the midst of it to enjoy it, too. With God, we draw near to the worms, ladybugs, ants, bees - all of the living things God delights in- in a celebration of life.

It's ironic how we have turned our backs on our garden heritage. Just off the interstate on the way to Jacksonville from our town, the state is in the midst of a major road construction project. Thousands of trees have been uprooted. For what? A road, on and off ramps, our convenience, our efficiency, so we can get there a few minutes sooner. Who decided? I did not get to vote. I would have shouted, No!

So, a month long focus on Creation seems like a very good use of our time. We have ignored it way too long and our world is much the worse for it.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Easter services

Christians have a strange relationship with Good Friday and Easter every year. First, the weekend often falls on or before Spring Break so a number of Christians are traveling to warmer climates and Good Friday/Easter celebrations are postponed for their holidays. Second, there are the Good Friday services which focus on the Crucifixion of Jesus with all kinds of flawed theology proclaimed. Similar to Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ which moved us emotionally by the depiction of the human suffering of Christ, Good Friday sermons recount, in great detail,  the how but confuse us as to what the day means.  Mostly Good Friday services are sparsely attended and most Christians are busy and distracted by Easter festivities so they hop from Palm Sunday to Easter without much theological thought in between. Then, the Easter service itself: great singing of the best hymnology of the Church and a well thought out sermon by the minister. This is her big chance to speak to more people than she has seen recently. There are the cliches about the Easter - Christmas Christians but at least they are there and ready to listen. She hopes, for she faces plenty of competition from egg hunts to the NCAA basketball tournament which sorted itself down to the final four this Easter weekend. Still, she does her best to lay out the Easter theology.

Which is what? What do Christians believe about Easter? Jesus is risen, at least. But what does that mean? It means little without a vital connection to Good Friday. Fleming Rutledge has written that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, we would never have heard of him. The Rome of Jesus' day crucified thousands of people and Jesus is the only one known to us. Consigned to the dustbin of history by Rome within weeks he was being worshipped as LORD. Paul wrote, "If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."

Rutledge makes the point in her book, Crucifixion, that the resurrection from the dead did not cancel out the crucifixion; it vindicated the crucifixion. It is the first fruit of the age to come, the sign within history of the trans historical purpose of God.

On Easter we celebrate our "sure and certain hope " of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is his victory over sin and death for us leading us into a new way of life.