Walk 3aA few weeks ago on a Friday, on my usual morning walk, I was pondering the gospel for the coming Sunday … especially the part known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Knowing I have to watch my time in the mornings (because my commute now takes about three times as long to detour around construction), I was trying to decide whether to take the full walk or save a few minutes time by cutting it a little short.  When I reached the point where I’d need to turn back or keep going, I decided to keep going.

Just past that point, I encountered a white Labrador dog walking around loose … up on the path, then down in the street.  I really did not have time to deal with a lost dog, I tried to tell myself.  But what had I just been thinking about?  A story Jesus told that turns on whether or not people will interrupt their own agendas for the sake of a stranger in need.  And here was a creature in need of help.  The dog had a collar … which would indicate she belongs with someone … so even if the dog didn’t quite qualify as another human being, the person the dog belonged with surely qualified.

I convinced the dog to come to me.  But as I attempted to search her collar for a tag, she darted back into the street.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the street at that time.  The posted speed limit is only 25mph because the road has lots of sharp curves, poor sight lines, and is a popular area for bicyclists, walkers (with and without dogs), and the occasional roller-skier.  However, drivers regularly disregard the speed limits … and one such driver was approaching.  I yelled and waved my arms to warn him of the dog just ahead.  He stopped … and the driver coming from the other direction stopped as well.  The dog made it safely out of the street and I was able to grab her collar.  There was no tag.

As I pondered what to do now, a man rode by on a bicycle.  “That’s a nice puppy you got there,” he said.  I explained she wasn’t mine and asked if he knew where the dog belonged.  He said he didn’t and pedaled on.  Looking around at the houses across the street, I thought I remembered an older man sitting in a lawn chair tossing a ball to a similar dog in one of the yards.  So I started to lead the dog across the street.  Her collar was loose and she pulled out of it.  Once I got her across the street, I managed to slip her collar back on and led her to the house where I thought she might belong.  She went up the steps to the door readily enough and I rang the doorbell … realizing as I did that it was about 6:30am.

The door was answered promptly by a woman who was fully dressed, with a dog beside her and a man standing behind her.  I asked if the dog were hers and she said no.  She recalled a white lab that had been lost from a home a few doors down … but that was a couple years ago.  Then she explained that she was getting ready for her mother’s funeral that morning … if not for that, she would have been glad to help.  She gave me the name of a neighbor a few doors in the other direction who had lived there for years and who might know where the dog belonged.  Watching me struggle with the dog’s collar (it pulled loose again as I tried to lead the dog away), she offered to lend me a leash.  I accepted and promised to return it.

I took the dog to the house she suggested and, knowing it was still pretty early in the morning, I only rang the doorbell once.  A number of lights were on, so I had some hope someone might answer.  But no one did.  Without a watch, I wasn’t sure of the time, but I was going to be late for work at the rate things were going.The loaner leash made it much easier to walk the dog and we headed back home.  As we walked, I noticed she was favoring one of her hind legs a bit and I wondered if it had been that way for a time (she was an older dog) or if she’d been injured while she’d been lost.  But she kept up at a good clip as we walked.

LabradorRetriever_heroOnce we reached the house, I secured the dog’s leash in the back yard, went in the house and woke the kids up.  The time wasn’t as late as I feared; there might still be enough time to make it to work.  I gave my son the task of calling animal control to report the lost dog.   After helping me find dishes to put out some food and water for the dog, my daughter took care of our cats (a task that I usually do) and put my lunch items into the bag.  As I dressed for work, the kids took reluctant turns sitting out with the dog and keeping her company.  My son called animal control as soon as the office opened and reported that they would come at some point to pick up the dog.

I was just a few minutes late to work.  As soon as I reached my desk, I had a text from my daughter letting me know that animal control agents had just picked up the dog.  They had left a card so I could follow up on the situation.  My daughter had also taken a picture of the agent’s card in case she encountered anyone looking for a lost dog when she went out for a walk.  My son was able to walk his dog and make it to his job on time.

Between the bad leg and the fleas my daughter noticed on the dog, we thought she might have been lost for some time.  We agreed the dog had such a sweet disposition; she was instantly charming.  If no owner showed up, we were seriously considering adopting her ourselves.

The following Monday, I called animal control to find out what had happened to our little friend.  I was told that the dog had been reunited with her owner a little more than an hour after she had been picked up at our house.  Maybe she did have a microchip and they had a way of scanning for it in the truck.  Maybe the dog had already been reported lost with such a good description that the officers decided to contact the person who reported the dog missing before taking her to the shelter.  In any case, the dog was reunited with her owner quickly.  It all worked out.

That particular day, I was thinking about that parable of the “Good Samaritan” and how I would actually tell it (rather than read it) to the congregation that coming Sunday.  We all know the form of the story; it is certainly one of the best-known among the parables …

A certain person was going down the road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho.  As he went, he fell among some bandits.  They stripped him and beat him and left him half-dead by the side of the road.  Then they went away.  By chance, a priest (a holy man) came along the same way.  He saw the man lying naked and half-dead by the side of the road.  But he passed by without attending to him.  Likewise, a Levite (a higher order of priest) came along the same way.  He, too, saw the man lying naked and half-dead by the side of the road.  But he, too, passed by without attending to him.  good-samaritanBut when a Samaritan – one of those despicable half-breeds of bad faith and questionable character – when this Samaritan saw the man lying naked and half-dead by the side of the road, his guts were twisted with compassion.  Taking oil and wine, he came near the man and poured these on his wounds.  He bandaged the man’s wounds.  Then he put the man on his own beast of burden and transported him to an inn where travelers lodge.  There, he cared for the man.  The next day, he took out two coins, each worth a day’s wages; these he gave to the innkeeper.  “Take care of him,” he told the innkeeper; “if you spend more than this on his care, let me know, and I will repay you when I return.”

 “Now,” Jesus said to the legal expert who questioned him, “which of these three are you thinking acted as a neighbor to the man who fell among the bandits?”

The whole story, of course, is intended as an answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”  We usually think of neighbors as those close by … people we know … maybe those who live in the places next door to our own.  But Jesus answers a question about neighbors by telling a story about people who are traveling.  The one who acts as a neighbor is the one who has compassion on the one in need – and does something the alleviate that need, something that demonstrates care and concern.  To love our neighbors as ourselves is to act with care and compassion to those we find in need however we find them.

It’s easy enough, I suppose, to stop for a sweet lost dog … for the helpless creature herself, if not for the people who are desperately trying to find her.  For those whom we know, whom we care about, who are dear to us, it requires no thought at all.  Of course, we will drop everything to help as much as we can when they call.  For casual acquaintances, those we know only slightly, we’re a lot less willing – and perhaps wisely so.  But what about the complete stranger?

There’s no easy answer.  The parable makes it seem simple.  The person in need is the neighbor and, to fulfill the commandments, one must show love and compassion to them.  We might stop for someone we saw trip and fall in the street … summon help … direct cars around her … stay until help arrives.  We might help someone in a parking lot jump start a car or stop for someone stranded at the side of the road … or at least call for appropriate help.  But would we stop if there was an accident unless it directly involved us … if there were no police or paramedics or firefighters on the scene yet?  And then what do we do for the man standing at the intersection, holding a sign asking for help?  The woman begging bus fare in the parking lot between the grocery store and the liquor store?  Do the taxes we pay for the transit system count? Does the change we dropped into some kettle back at Christmas count as helping the one with the sign?  And would it truly be helping to give money – or is that delaying the person from accessing real help?  There are no simple, clear answers.

But here are some clues … because we’ve lost sight of who’s who in the zoo of this parable.  We call the Samaritan “good” because of what the character does.  But no one in Jesus’ audience would ever have associated an adjective like good with anyone of Samaritan descent.  Someone like the priest would be expected to be the hero of the tale, the example to emulate.  If not the priest, then certainly the Levite could be expected to rise to the occasion.  But just as the right thing to do is murky for us, it was for these characters as well  The purity codes priests were expected to follow imposed specific sanctions for contact with a dead body.  It would be hard to tell half-dead from all-dead without violating the laws that guided the behaviors of priests.  If the person were indeed dead, the one who had contact with him would be ritually impure, unable to perform his priestly duties.  That the priest and the Levite are coming from Jerusalem suggests they wouldn’t have been expected to perform any temple rites before they could become ritually pure again.  Perhaps for the sake of following the rules, they weren’t willing to risk contact with the man by the road.  Should either of them have made an exception to the rules for the sake of the man by the side of the road?  These are important people in the community, with places to go and things to do.  Should they set aside their duties, obligations, agendas for the sake of whoever, whatever this person by the road happens to be?

The Samaritan, of course, does stop to help.  We forget now, but Jesus’ audience would have regarded him as suspect and dangerous, expected a Samaritan to take advantage of a situation like that and perhaps do further harm to the man by the side of the road.  But the Samaritan in Jesus’ story does the unexpected.  He stops.  He does the right thing.  He does more than just help a little.  He either takes care of what is needed or arranges for the rest of it.  But who do we suspect will harm rather than help?

Accident 4Almost three years ago, I was one in need of help … stuck by the side of the road after a freakish vehicle accident.  Those already at the scene responded immediately … checked that everyone was okay, called for the police.  The police officer came and did his job – collected the information, verified that all of us would be able to drive or otherwise remove our vehicles from the scene.  Once that was done, he left.  Everyone else moved on … except me.  My vehicle didn’t seem to be drivable (and that did later prove to be the case).  I had already called my husband and he was on his way.  But that would take time.  Everyone left and there was nothing more to do but call the insurance company to initiate the claim, get a referral to a body shop, and arrange for the tow.

While I was on my phone, a man came along the sidewalk, walking his bike rather than riding it.  He stopped by my minivan.  When a bus stopped at the nearby stop, he spoke to someone on the bus, but he didn’t board it.  He just waited.  He didn’t say anything to me … didn’t ask what happened.  I suppose I could have (should have?) felt a little frightened.  After all, I’m a white woman and he was African-American.  But I found his mere presence to be a comfort, not a threat.  I was still on the phone with the insurance company when my husband arrived.  The two of them talked a bit … and then the man with the bicycle moved along his way.

I don’t know why he stopped.  Maybe he was curious about what happened.  But he never asked … and I never had a chance to ask him.  I like to think he stopped to keep an eye out for me while I was distracted on the phone.  Once he knew I was safe with the next person who showed up (my husband), then my unexpected helper, my “good Samaritan” went on his way.

We know how to do this with helpless creatures like dogs … We know how to do this for people we know, especially those we love … Can we learn to do these things for one another simply because we are all human beings?

Good Tidings, Dear People — One More Time

I’m indebted to pastor & author Walter Wangerin, Jr.  for the title line (which also appears in the text) as well as for the indentifier “the fear-not angel.”  I also want to acknowledge my mom for the theological insight she gave me twenty-some years ago…

Nativity - GR 1We’re here tonight because it’s Christmas Eve … because this is just what we do. It’s tradition, after all. And like all traditions, it’s not about any one thing; it’s the whole constellation of things. It’s the memories that are wrapped around the specifics like Silent Night will soon be wrapped around our little candles. It’s the togetherness of family – the memories of being children … then adults … then parents with our little ones. It’s a touchpoint as the year winds down – a night to watch and ponder. It’s a moment of stillness and peace amid the frenzy that is our cultural holiday celebration, a time to relax between all the preparations and tomorrow’s gifting and feasting. And it’s a story.

143897fbdf2d8499b1953c50e78e9628We are here tonight for the story … so often-told we know it by heart … perhaps best told by the child’s voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, reciting a part of that story straight out of the good ol’ King James Version. It’s the story we sing in our beloved hymns tonight – the reason why those hymns are beloved. It’s a story of a wondrous baby, stars and angels with a few other characters tossed in like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds out in their fields. So long as Jesus is lovingly tucked into that manger-bed and the angels sing their glorias, then, at least for this night, all is truly right and beautiful in the world.

untitled (2)We need that tonight as much as ever we did – and maybe even more – because so much is not right in this world. Where to start? We’ve seen pictures this year of other little babies washed up on shorelines half a world away. We’ve heard the stories from their devastated parents of the terrible risks they’d taken to find a place of safety after being driven from their homes by war and mayhem.

09-04-2015Refugees_FYROMWe know the violence that drives such desperate choices. We’ve experienced the terror such violence produces as it spilled into Paris, France and San Bernardino, California. We ponder the toll this violence takes on families here in our country as our service men and women continue to serve in these war-torn lands, as we add up the loss of lives and the battle damage that never fully heals. We wonder if our military efforts are helping or hurting. Would more troops help or should we just get out?

Military action elsewhere isn’t the only source of violence that haunts us. We’ve seen a number of mass shootings here in our land this year. images (3)One of the most shocking was the slaying of nine people in the sanctuary of “Mother” Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The young man did it to act out his racist perspectives, citing the slaying of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as his wake-up call.

Touching on that subject, we are becoming more aware of the number of people of color, mostly young males, almost always unarmed, who have been killed by police or died while in police custody. We’ve seen it happen recently here in the untitled (3)Twin Cities and yesterday’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have sought to raise awareness of the struggles people of color face when it comes to matters of justice and equality. A seemingly endless litany of demographic statistics around income, education, housing, you-name-it shows these inequalities are not simply a matter of perception.

Tonight, in our city of Saint Paul, families are doubled up with others or sleeping in cars or huddled anywhere they can be out of the elements for the night. The shelters are full and there is no room to be had. ChristmasTreeRents keep rising and housing that’s affordable to low-wage earners is harder and harder to come by. Supposedly our economy has recovered from the recession, but most of us aren’t feeling it.

I know … this is supposed to be a happy, joyous time and I’m really not trying to deprive you of that happiness and joy or to depress you. But this is the situation that surrounds us as we gather tonight to tell that story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And if that story doesn’t speak into these times in which we live, to the world we know, then it won’t mean much of anything.

So let me tell you another story – a true story. As stories go, it’s neither unique nor unusual. It could have happened five years ago or fifty years ago; it could have happened almost anywhere.

WIN_20151227_181315A new grandmother was watching as her own daughter cradled the new little baby boy who had made the daughter into a mother and the mother into a grandmother. “You know,” the grandmother remarked to her daughter, “watching you with him I wonder if this was what it was like to see Mary with Jesus.” “Mom!” the daughter protested, “I’m sure Baby Jesus never pulled his mother’s hair or kicked her when she was trying to feed him.” But the grandmother smiled back with a wry, knowing smile that seems to come with being a grandmother. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she said; “I think he just might have.”

Yes, Jesus just might have done those things. Sure, he was quiet that first night – worn out from the process of being born as any other newborn is … for a while. But he probably wasn’t quiet the next night or for many more after that. As he grew, he was probably as rambunctious as any other toddler … and got into as much trouble as your average growing boy. We know there was some consternation on Mary and Joseph’s part when Jesus up and decided all on his own to stay back in Jerusalem after Passover and not tell anyone his plans.

No, Jesus wasn’t a perfect angel baby. Jesus was a human baby who was born as all of us are, who grew as all of us do, who experienced human life in all of its complexity and messiness. That’s the whole point of the incarnation. God was rolling up the holy sleeves and plunging wholeheartedly into human existence and all that life in this world involves. Jesus didn’t come because we finally got it all together or fixed ourselves up enough that all we needed was a slightly better model of perfection. God broke into the world in Jesus because it’s a mess, because our lives in this world are a mess.

Tea Lt 3So let me tell you another story … one that might be a bit different in the telling, but familiar nonetheless. It did happen a long time ago, but within a span of years we can reckon. It did not take place in some galaxy far, far away but in an area we still map today. In the days of the Roman Empire, when Augustus ruled as emperor and decreed a census, and so the whims and the demands of the empire set people moving about.

That’s why Joseph had to travel south, from his home in Nazareth to a city called Bethlehem, because his ancestral roots ran there. But over the many years between the time of David the Shepherd Boy who became king and the time of Joseph and Mary and Augustus and Quirinius in neighboring Syria, Joseph’s people had been moved about by exile and return and other needs. Hence, it wasn’t just Joseph; a lot of people were having to move about to satisfy the demands of the empire.

Joseph had to leave his home and he took his very pregnant wife with him. Why? Who knows! Maybe he didn’t want to miss the baby’s birth. Maybe he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to return from Bethlehem (especially if he spent all the little money he had for that initial trip). Maybe Mary having her baby away from their hometown would blunt the counting of the months between their hurried-up wedding and the birth of her child and allow the local gossip chain to settle down.

imagesA3F5A19LIn any case, Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem and there she gave birth to her baby. Like any mother, she wrapped him tight in what cloth she had to keep him snug and warm. Then she laid him in an animal’s feed box for a bassinet because there was no shelter for them, except with the animals. No one took any notice. People such as these don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things.

imagesA07EVF73Now somewhere outside of town, there were some working stiffs up on the night shift. It was to them that the angel of God appeared as the stars overhead seemed to explode into a myriad of heavenly beings. This messenger of God said to them: Don’t be afraid; I have good news that brings great joy – first to you and then to everyone else. To you a Savior has been born in Bethlehem. This is the messiah, the one sent by God to put the world to rights. You’ll find the baby wrapped up like any other, but this one is lying in a feed box. Then the angels sang their glorias and the working stiffs went to see. And when they had seen, they told everyone they met about what they’d seen, what they’d heard. Maybe a few listened … maybe.

What God did some two thousand years ago, God could do again. God broke into this world then and God can break into it now. After all, you really didn’t think God went through all that coming in Jesus just to leave us all on our again, did you? Of course not! In the incarnation, by coming to us in Jesus, God has demonstrated a dedication to this world that God made and continues to love. Trio 10In Jesus’ living and teaching, in his dying and his rising, God acted to put the world back on a course toward the dream God has had for this world and life in it from the moment of creation.  God is still at work in this world to bring that dream to life in the here and now. You just need to know where to look.

What does the story tell you? It wasn’t to the big names like Augustus or Quirinius and their wives that Jesus was born. Instead, the holy child was born to a peasant couple whose names would otherwise have been completely lost to history if not for this story. It wasn’t in the halls of power in the palace or the temple where the messengers of God sang the glorious good news. It was to no-name laborers out in the fields, outside of town and society. If you want to see what God is doing, look there … among the forgotten, neglected, and rejected, those at the margins and on the outside. There you will find Emmanuel, God with us – for God has come to us.

So sing your glad songs. Gather around the table; eat the bread and drink the wine. Take the real presence of Christ into your own flesh and bones. Light your candles and sing the sweet song. Then blow that small flame in – not out, in – into you, God’s love now made flesh in you. untitled (2)Then go out like the shepherds and tell all you meet what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen. Go out as fear-not angels, singing out the good news of great joy which is for all the people, for you and everyone else. Christ is born. God is with us.

Good tidings, dear people, one more time. Amen.

Letting Go … My Son Leaves the Nest

Theme 6I can see my rocking chair again, even sit in it – if I want …which I haven’t in a long time. Until about two months ago, it had gradually disappeared under a rapidly growing pile of things … things like pillows and bedding … surrounded by furnishings like a hamper, lots of hangers, laundry detergent and toiletries … boxes with furniture, a desk and a chair, waiting to be assembled … later … after they were delivered to their real destination (which was not my rocking chair). The growing accumulation of stuff was destined for a room in a fraternity house at a university some three states away. Just over two months ago, the whole pile was loaded up and delivered to the intended destination … along with my son, who’s starting a new chapter in his life.

pI suppose it’s fitting that all this stuff for him piled up around the old rocking chair. I’ve had that chair almost as long as I’ve had him … a gift from my own KSU Journey 2parents to honor their first grandchild. Originally, they planned to give me the rocker in which I’d been rocked as a child. But that was broken in their own move more than a year before my son was born. So they gave us funds to buy a new one. It was a good investment. There’s no way to calculate the hours I’ve spent in that chair … nursing my babies, rocking them to sleep, reading to them.

That chair has been such a symbol of nurturing in the house that even our late cat Yeti recognized it as a place of nurturing. Years ago, when I was in seminary, our house in Blaine became infested with mice. Yeti would dutifully hunt down the mice that came out of the attic into the living space. In the morning, I would find his kill from the previous night left near the rocking chair in the family room. I imagine he considered it to be doing his part to provide and care for the family.

Unlike the old rocker my parents meant to pass along to me, my rocker has survived every move we’ve made so far … the move from Mesa (where the kids were born) to the Twin Cities (where they started school) to Kansas (where they both attended middle school), back to the Twin Cities (where my son graduated and my daughter will soon graduate from the same school district in which they started elementary school). And although this chair was never even considered to make this big move with my son, it served as a gathering point for the things he would be taking on his first big move.

Having his new stuff surrounding that well-loved chair was a way of blessing them, I suppose. The chair was so much a part of my early nurturing of him, maybe it was fitting that it played a central role in one of my last acts of nurturing for him: providing him the things he would need as he stepped out into the world (mostly) on his own.

thCA1MOAC0Oh, he’s not totally on his own. He’s in a fraternity with a band of brothers all around, some of whom may come to be as dear as brothers he might have been raised with (if I’d had other sons). There’s a house dad to keep an eye on things and a cook to prepare dinner most nights. I send care packages with food and other things he may need (a wastepaper basket and, most recently, his Harry Potter wand). But he is making his own nest now, someplace else. He no longer resides under my roof, in my nest … and likely won’t on a full-time basis ever again.

It helps to know that this is making a dream come true for him. He’s known what he wanted to study in college and where he wanted to study it since a Boy Scout merit badge clinic at that very same university years ago. Glad as he was to leave Kansas and come back up to Minnesota (and especially the cold), his heart was still set on that university back in Kansas. I wasn’t sure how that could happen, but it’s worked out. He’s there, living his dream. And I am very glad and happy for that.

Chelsea Hts 2In many ways, taking him to college was much like taking him to Chelsea Heights on that first day of kindergarten. Fourteen years ago, with a mixture of pride and grief, I pulled up in our minivan in front of that school house. I helped him out, gave him a hug, and sent him on his way into his classroom for his very first day of school. While I stood and watched, he walked up the sidewalk, through the open doors and turned left to go into his classroom, never once looking back.

Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t look back so he didn’t see the tears in my eyes. Yes, some of them were tears of sadness that a chapter in my life, a chapter in which I was his main teacher and was present with him for most of his waking hours, was ending. Chelsea Hts 4He was growing up and there was no turning back the clock. That first day of kindergarten was the first rung on a long, but limited, ladder that would lead to graduation … college … and then life on his own as adult. But for him to have all the wonderful experiences and the life I’ve been hoping for him since I knew of him, he would have to take those steps up the sidewalk and into that school.

But some of those tears that day flowed from a heart full of pride – pride in how he’d grown and developed … that he was now ready for the learning adventures of school and excited about going … at the way he walked up that sidewalk and into that school, never once looking back. I was thrilled for him and the experiences he was about to have.

When I saw him the last time two months ago, it was much the same thing. It grieved me to let him go into that house that evening … to drive back to the hotel … knowing that we would leave town the next morning without him. After the pledging ceremony the day before, a mom sitting next to me confided she didn’t know how she would make it until family day, a month away. I said I would have to wait until Thanksgiving. She asked how I was going to make it; I said I didn’t know, but I’d have to somehow.

imagesAnd just like that first day of kindergarten, I was also proud of all he accomplished and excited for the adventure that was about to begin for him.   If he’s going to have all that I’ve hoped for and dreamed for him all this time, this is another step he has to take. So there was pride and happiness mixed in with that grief once more. I tried to focus on that as I gave him a hug that somehow had to be big enough to last three months.

Of course, just like that first day of school, he walked up the sidewalk into that big brick house and never once looked back.

Since we’ve been back here, things have been quieter in the house. The foolish fighting he and his sister would frequently engage in has stopped. His room is clean, with much of what he’s left here packed away. The bed has been made every single morning since I last made it after washing the sheets a month ago. Such wonders rarely happened when he inhabited the room.

Still, I do miss him. I miss having an eye on his comings and goings … hearing the few things he might say about his classes and how things were going … discussing current events and sports news. So I send him things I find that we might have talked about whether it’s links to articles that I email or comic strips clipped from the paper. I write letters; I send emails. I put together care packages to send out … sometimes surprises … sometimes things he’s requested – with a surprise or two or three tucked in with what he asked for.

thCAYQ1BISI don’t hear much in return. That’s to be expected, I suppose. He’s a busy guy these days with a full load of classes that take a lot of study time. He’s a pledge in a fraternity with tasks to complete in order to become a full member as well as social activities. He’s now completely responsible for his laundry, assigned house chores, and arranging his own meals (except for weeknight dinners).

So I learn to live with the “no news is good news” approach. If something bad were to happen, I would hear from someone. If there were a major problem, I think he’d ask for help. He is developing the habit of dropping us a sentence or two by email once a week. At least we know he’s still there. That helps.

In time, I’m sure I’ll get used to the infrequent contact. This is what the future holds. For the next few years, he’ll spend more time there than here … and the time spent here may gradually diminish before he graduates. Then he’ll find work somewhere … maybe close to here, but maybe not. Either way, once he’s working and has his own place, we’ll likely hear from him even less frequently … no more often than I call or write or have contact with my own parents. That is what it means for him to grow up and I never did want him to stay little forever.

But I’m not quite ready for that yet. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to a month from now when he’ll be home on Thanksgiving break and I’ll have him back in my nest for a little while.

Dear God … It’s The Good Wife


The Good Wife 2When I saw the title (“Dear God”) and the briefest of plot synopses (Christian mediation) for the episode of The Good Wife that aired on CBS on Sunday, October 5th, I wondered. It’s not very often that television gets this stuff right. Sure, The Good Wife is reliably one of the best dramas on TV (especially broadcast network TV) right now. The writing and directing and acting are consistently top-notch. Many weeks the guest cast list includes at least one notable name. While faith has come up from time to time throughout the seasons, it’s always been a sideline part of a story, not the main focus. Usually it involves mother-in-law Jackie sniping at Eli Gold (her son’s previous campaign manager who is now his chief of staff) about his Jewishness … or more recently daughter Grace and her burgeoning Christian faith.


thCANZLH9NBut overall, far beyond The Good Wife, television has a long history of getting faith more wrong than right. I still regard TV’s best portrayal of Christian faith and life (at least as I’ve experienced it) as the short-lived series Nothing Sacred, which aired from the fall of 1997 until early spring the following year. Set in Chicago (like The Good Wife), the series centered on the staff of fictional Saint Thomas Catholic Church. Characters wrestled with faith and doubt and questions for which there were no simple, clear, easy answers. Angels never showed up to explain anything; this was no Touched by an Angel (a much more popular program that started a few years earlier). Viewers, it seems, prefer fantasy to reality again and again … a dynamic that does not bode well for those seeking honest, realistic portrayals of people of faith on television. So back to The Good Wife and “Dear God” (Episode 3 in this sixth season)


105162raw-95bThe primary story for this episode features a client named Ed Pratt (Richard Thomas), a sort-of John-Boy Walton who went to business school and then into agribusiness rather than becoming a writer. (Yes, it is a bit of type-casting; however, few actors can convey earnest sincerity and have it seem natural and unforced like Mr. Thomas does.) Ed is a client of attorney Kary Agos (Matt Czuchry), who is on the sidelines due to pending criminal charges. So Alicia (Julianna Margulies) takes over arguing his case, assisted by newcomer Dean Levine-Wilkins (Taye Diggs). The courtroom sparring between Alicia or Dean and the defendant’s attorney, Carter Schmidt (Christian Borle), does not sit well with Ed or with the defendant, Wendell Keller (familiar face Robert Joy). As it turns out, not only are Ed and Wendell neighbors, they are also Christians. So they decide to try a different approach to resolve their dispute: Christian mediation by what is called “the Matthew Process” and appears to draw from instructions in Chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel.


Now here we go … but in which direction? What variety of Christian behavior and practice is going to be on display?


Enter Robert Sean Leonard (more recognizable here than in his recent turn as Dr. Roger Kadar on TNT’s Falling Skies) as the mediator, Del Paul. His mediation sessions take place at a conference-style table set up in a church sanctuary. thCA2YNURYIn the hands of a lesser writer and a lesser actor, this character could have easily become a buffoonish compilation of clichés that the entertainment industry frequently associates with Christians … which is what I feared would happen. But that is not what happens at all.


As the first mediation session begins, the lawyers attempt to recreate the same arguments and strategies we just saw them using in the courtroom. Del, however, is having none of that. The rules and procedures to which the lawyers are accustomed don’t apply here. Instead, Del’s primary concern is what is going on with Ed and Wendell – what is the issue as each understands it? … which is where any mediation process generally begins. This being a Christian mediation process, Del is also concerned about Ed and Wendell’s on-going relationship as neighbors and as fellow believers, their personal integrity and the role their faith has in their interactions. Hence, it is quickly made clear to the attorneys that scripture is to inform their arguments – not legal precedent.


This sends Alicia home to consult with her daughter Grace (Makenzie Vega) for a crash course in what passages from the Bible would be appropriate for her to use. As Alicia lines up the passages to use to support her case and then to argue against what the opposing counsel is likely to say (yes, “Bible bullets” to shoot back with), bibleGrace explains that the Bible doesn’t work that way. This leads to Grace explaining how things in the Bible can be true “the way poetry is true.” It’s a great moment for the characters and a realistic explanation that most pastors would love for a member of the youth group to be able to articulate.


Back in mediation, Alicia and Carter give working from Scripture their best efforts, but they are still attorneys. Del acknowledges that they have done their homework … while at the same time subtly conveying his awareness that their use of scripture is utilitarian … in a manner that is not condescending or insulting. And when Del states he will pray and reflect on the points that have been raised, inviting the others to do the same, he comes across as genuine and conveys an openness to possibilities rather than a mind that is set on a foregone conclusion. When the next mediation session convenes, Del has reached an understanding that opens a safe place for one party to confess … and to explain why he felt he had few options other than to act as he did … and for both parties to work out a means of restitution that honors their relationship as neighbors and friends by not forcing the party in the wrong into destitution.


Also during the back-and-forth of dueling scripture passages in the second mediation, as the Alicia and Carter attempt to use scripture much as they do case law, the heretofore quiet second-chair Dean spontaneously cites a very relevant passage of scripture. That leads to a conversation with Alicia that exposes some backstory for Dean’s character … 9781435132412_p0_v2_s260x420that he considered going into the priesthood before To Kill a Mockingbird drew his interest to what legal practice could accomplish … and, like Alicia, he didn’t consider himself to be “genetically built to believe in God” … until he did. Without this bit of self-disclosure, who would have guessed – or even wondered for a moment – that this character might also be a Christian?


What makes Dean different now that we know he has faith in God, that he considers himself a Christian? Maybe nothing really. After all, what did we assume about this character (or any other character) initially? Do we expect characters we encounter in stories, whether on TV or in film or in books, to be Christian (or have any kind of faith affiliation)? Do we assume, if it isn’t made clear and expressed in a specific way, that some form of religious faith is, therefore, absent?


thCAEZIQQOWhat about the people we meet in real life, day to day? What do we expect or assume about them? If they don’t say they’re Christian … if they don’t throw the word blessed around … if they aren’t given to spouting phrases like “praise the Lord” or “the Lord laid it my heart… if they aren’t constantly putting it out there, do we imagine they might possibly be Christian? Statistics indicate that most of the people we cross paths with (except for those we did see at church on Sunday – if we were there) were not at church the previous Sunday. But is regular church attendance the definition of a Christian? Or is it attending Bible studies? Or does some indication of devotional practices or a prayer life prove that one is a Christian?


What do we expect of people? What do we take as a given to be true of them? And how do our expectations change if we know they are Christian … or if we know they are not?


Looking at this episode of The Good Wife, what evidenced the characters as Christian wasn’t necessarily what they said or the way they said it. What made the mediation process Christian was not the role of prayer (at no time did any of the parties clearly pray during the mediation) or the use of scripture — the non-believing Alicia and the who-knows-what-he-believes Carter cited scripture the most. What marked the characters identified as Christian – Ed, first, and also Wendell and Dean as well as Del – was a sense of integrity.


thCANUXXLCThe dictionary defines integrity as soundness or completeness, honesty and sincerity. The word shares a root with integrate, meaning to bring the pieces together into a whole. It’s not that having religious faith, whether particularly Christian faith or any faith at all, is essential to having integrity. People without religious beliefs can – and do – have integrity. But for those who do have religious faith, that faith is a part that must be included in the whole-making necessary of integrity. The faith has to be expressed in how you live … the way you look at other people and life and things … and how you do what you do in the world.


“A Christian cobbler,” Martin Luther famously explained, “makes good shoes, not shoes with little crosses on them.” Faith isn’t lived out by putting a pious gloss on something, whether it’s little crosses or fish symbols or a “blessed.” Faith is lived out by doing our best work consistently because it is the right thing to do, not because we’ll get a bigger reward (this life or the next … take your pick). Faith is lived out in relationships marked by care, respect, honesty, a concern for the well-being of the other equal to one’s own. “See how they love one another?” remarked a confounded critic, observing the early Christians. This sort of faith made visible in relations with others, how and why we do what we do, is a key piece in Christian integrity.


Kudos to The Good Wife for getting faith right (at least in this aspect). Can we do the same?


"The Lyons" Opening NightAnd, speaking of people doing their best work in whatever role is given, also check out Linda Lavin’s work in this episode. She has a significant role in this episode as part the on-going story line involving criminal charges against Kary. As Joy Grubick, Kary’s Pretrial Service Officer while he’s out on bond, she hits all her marks as a dedicated, hard-working, probably underpaid, clearly underappreciated public servant. Ms. Lavin’s performance in her last scene in this episode is as real as it gets.

Toward a New Pentecost

Trio 10Pentecost has come … and gone … at least the festival day, the celebration of the momentous day millennia ago regarded as the birth of the Church … the very public launch of the Christian movement … when the first followers of Jesus began the work of carrying on what he began among them. Observing this festival is supposed to launch the church today into a fresh season of growth over the following “Sundays of Pentecost” or “Ordinary Time” that’s supposed to be anything but ordinary. Yes, that’s “supposed to.” But six weeks in, how are we doing?

Some weeks ago, on the Day of Pentecost, we read once again of the coming of Spirit, as told in the Book of Acts, with the rush of a mighty wind and flames of fire for each one. Maybe we heard words spoken in other language to capture some of the wonder of that ancient story, how those who heard understood what was said, even though they all spoke different languages. Maybe we paused to wonder how it worked that day in Jerusalem centuries ago. Did each person hear his native language, no matter the speaker’s language? Or did each of the disciples speak in a language he – or she (there were women in that assembly!) – didn’t know, and the hearers gathered round the speaker whose words they recognized? We’ll never know.

IMG_0097Even now, we still might marvel at how 3,000 members joined “the Church” that very day … and wish such a thing could happen in our own time. Many congregations’ numbers continue to decline. Some of the reasons we know: People die. Some move away for all kinds of reasons. Families aren’t connected to the church like they used to be. Grandma’s children may still be attending as middle aged adults, but her young adult grandchildren probably aren’t. “They’ll be back for the wedding,” we assure ourselves … and they might be, if the venue suits their taste and situational needs (location, size, etc.). “Once they settle down and have children, they’ll come regularly like we did.” But they don’t; that hasn’t been happening for some time now. If great-grandma and grandma press hard enough, the baby will likely be baptized. But it’s more about peace in the family and just the way we do things … not so much about pledging this tender new life to a specific way of life that we ourselves are joined to … because maybe we’re not.

Yet another blog post (or article) is floating around out there about signs of a declining church … another piece describing what needs to change in churches to stop this decline. But time and again, it’s really about institutional survival … finding ways to cultivate sufficient adherents who are appreciative enough to give the money and the time it takes to keep things going. Granted, the ways in which things are done needs to change to keep pace with the sensibilities and trends of the younger generations. They cannot be expected to do it the exactly the same way previous generations did. But the end goal in all these discussions and descriptions is the numbers. Get those numbers back up – the numbers of people attending … the number of dollars given … the number of dollars in the budget for staff and for the buildings. It’s about the bottom line – keeping the church going pretty much as we have known it: a building with a group of people who gather there to worship and have their spiritual needs met by properly trained and educated spiritual leaders. But preservation of the status quo is hardly the message one can draw forth from Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, the way he gave it all away.

Just what was the resurrection, what Peter and others testified to on the Day of Pentecost and all the days after that, all about anyway?

Votive 1Too often, in recent times, Jesus’ resurrection seems to be mostly a sort of proof that life goes on even after death. The early imaginings of heaven were as a place above the earth, above the clouds, out of sight but not completely disconnected from earth. Such images find their roots in the account of Jesus’ ascension, in the theophanies of clouds and fire from the Book of Exodus, in the various mountain top experiences in Biblical stories … with perhaps a bit of Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the Greek gods, mixed in as well. Before the advent of aviation and then modern astronomy with far-seeing telescopes and satellites, heavenly life just above the clouds would be easy enough to imagine. But as airplanes took us up above the clouds … as telescopes and rockets and satellites expanded our awareness of the vast universe, the ancient poetic image of the dome of the sky was shattered – quite literally. After discovering just how vast the universe is, a heaven above and beyond the reaches of physical space seemed impossibly far away. Aided and abetted by the enduring sense of a sharp distinction between physical bodies and immortal spiritual souls (which was acquired from pre-Christian Greek Gnosticism), the common understanding of heaven gradually shifted into a purely spiritual existence completely removed from anything on earth. In popular practice, Christian faith and practice became very much about making it to a disembodied heaven after death. To fall short of heaven could mean eternal damnation to the tortures of hell … or much time for purification in the limbo of purgatory.

To be honest, such a vision of eternal existence in a remote, detached, purely spiritual state of bliss as the promised of reward after death has indeed functioned, as Karl Marx (in)famously termed it, “the opiate of the masses.” It’s been used to lull people into accepting situations and conditions they would naturally find unacceptable and even revolting. IMG_0111But through promises of rewards in the hereafter proportionate to the suffering endured here, teachers in the Church over the centuries have numbed people to their real pain and struggles and suffering and problems in their lives, urging them to inaction. Christian life was framed along the lines: “Yes, life may be difficult, hard, even painful – but when you get to heaven, all good things will be yours then. Keep your focus there. Ignore the unpleasantness of the here and now. After all, this is just temporary; heaven is forever. It’ll all be better then. Just wait in faith and hope.”

Is this really all that Jesus lived and taught, suffered and died, rose from the grave to breathe the Spirit into his first followers for – all this just to promise a blissful eternity in heaven … eventually?

The particularly American experience of Christianity has been largely shaped by pietism, a movement focused on personal engagement with religious faith. Over the years, this personal focus has played well with emergence of hyper-individuality in American culture. Now, in popular expression and practice, Christian faith is a matter having Jesus as a personal savior, making a public profession that one is a sinner and accepts the atoning work of Jesus’ death, and in so doing is then saved from the fiery punishment of hell for eternal life in heaven. The vision of heaven is just as personal—a place of eternal bliss with all the people you love, all the good things the world has to offer, endless rest and relaxation.

Tea Lt 3I am well aware that not all American Christians subscribe to this singular personal acceptance of Christ as the sine qua non (without which, none) of authentic Christian faith. This is certainly not my belief, my understanding of Christianity. But I’m also aware that my voice seems a marginal minority within the broad sweep of American culture.

Following from this intensely personalized expression of faith, American churches developed into places where congregants could have their personally felt spiritual needs met.

  • “Here is where I go to get reassurance for my faith, to be reminded that I am indeed a good person … that God does love me … that I will have eternal life after death in an endless paradise, freed from all earthly concerns.“
  • “Here is where the style of worship appeals to me, the hymns express my faith in both words and style of music. What happens in this place speaks to me and moves me.”
  • “Here is where God’s word is taught to me in ways that I understand and (mostly) agree with (since even I might need a little correction from time to time). But if something strays too far from what I am already convinced of, the pastor/teacher is wrong and I must find another church – if she or he doesn’t.”
  • “When my needs aren’t met, when I don’t agree completely with all that happens in a particular congregation, then I no longer belong to that one. I might just avoid the parts I don’t like or agree with … I might need to find a different congregation that is a better fit for my needs and beliefs … or I might just stay away all together, since God loves me anyway and I know I’ll make it to heaven, which is all that really matters.”

Trio 7In a very real way, the struggles most congregations are facing are the results of a long history of bad teaching and poor faith formation. Rather than look around and blame the cultural shifts that seem to have left us high and dry, we would do better to look deep into Christian faith and practice in order to reclaim what has always been present to give meaning and purpose to everything we do. We would do well to heed the ancient Biblical calls to repent – to undergo a complete change, not only in our actions and behaviors, but in our ways of thinking and even our feelings … to return again to God’s calling and purpose for our collective, communal life.

Too often, the message heard from the members of our faith communities (and maybe within many faith communities) has not been the message that Peter boldly preached on the Day of Pentecost. His use of words from the prophet Joel speaks to the coming of the Day of the Lord with dramatic signs, such as what the observers outside the place where the apostles had gathered were experiencing. But this coming of the Day of the Lord is not the fulfillment of some fluffy, cloud-drenched happy-ever-after removed from anything on earth. The Day of the Lord, in its coming, would turn the world upside down. Those who had used their power and abused their authority by actions contrary to the ways of God would find themselves displaced by the divine mandate. Those who had suffered under the abuses of the powerful and privileged would find their situations altered by that same divine mandate. The wrongs done to them would be righted and their lives would be restored to wholeness.

To those on the bottom of the overall scheme of things, the coming of the Day of the Lord would be a welcome event indeed. To those at the top … not so much. And where are we now – really?

Lav Pillar 6Let’s look beyond the exciting drama of Pentecost at events that followed. Do we really think Peter was repeatedly imprisoned, occasionally threatened with execution, and (at least according to tradition) finally executed in Rome for preaching about a blissful life after death similar to that enjoyed by the mythical gods of Olympus? Do we think Paul encountered all the problems he did – run out of town sometimes … imprisoned other times … eventually executed (in Rome, by tradition) – for teaching and writing about the primacy of the eternal soul and the irrelevance of life in this world?   Did Jesus die and rise again just to show that the soul lives on after death? (If you really think so, go back and read your Bibles again.)

Jesus was ultimately arrested by the religious leaders for claiming the ways of God were broader than they imagined, that there was place within the Reign of God for sinners and outcasts and outsiders (types of people who still struggle to find a welcome and place in many congregations), that God’s will was different than they had construed it in order to serve their own purposes. When the religious leaders turned Jesus over to Pilate for a state execution, they accused him of treason against Caesar, the divine emperor because he claimed there was another kingdom, another Reign … another way.

Paul, Peter, all the others martyred through the years were rejected, harassed, threatened, and killed because they insisted Jesus was Lord … which meant that Caesar or any other lesser power-figure was not … that God’s rule would guide their actions within the world, and eventually, ultimately reshape the world as Joel and the ancient prophets foretold. It meant the powerful would be put down and the ones they exercised power over would be freed and lifted up. Not something those with the power of life and death cared to hear… and it isn’t a message we, to the extent we have privilege and power, care to hear either. (And there’s a long tragic history of the Church in its power not wanting to hear any more than anyone else.)

untitled (2)ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton is fond of asking the question: What if the main thing about our churches were that we really believe the resurrection is true? I think she’s pointing beyond the sense of historicity (that it actually happened) to the truth revealed in it: that Jesus’ resurrection ushered in the Reign and Realm of God, that the promised Day of the Lord has begun, that the Spirit of God is loose in the world – at work in the world and in God’s people within the world, that God is already in the process of making all things new and we, named as followers of Christ and empowered by the Spirit, are part of moving things towards that vision of the new heaven and the new earth … which is the eternal future we have actually been promised.

Lamp 3Maybe there’s the way back to the vigor of the Day of Pentecost, a way to revive the life in our congregations … a return to that message that God is at work in the world. The world as we know it does not have to be this way. We who are named as Christians are called and empowered to walk in the ways that Jesus has shown us – not for our own benefit (whether here and now or in the hereafter) but for the purposes of God in making the world more as God always intended it to be. It’s not about building up the numbers, the budget, the physical plant. It’s about doing the work of God in this time and place … those kinds of things that Jesus did, the way of life he showed us.

That might be something to get excited about …

Crimes & Judgement


Donald … Byron … Teenagers Shot …

And a much bigger question we’d rather not face


imagesAt the end of April, two disparate events happened in the same 24-hour news cycle. Both are still being heard on appeal in the respective venues in which their cases have been tried. (One party, however, seems to have just now given up his fight.) On first glance, they couldn’t seem to have less in common. One involves a wealthy owner of a professional basketball team – a team whose name was well-known even if its owner’s was not-so-well-known … at least until the last month or so. The other involved a retired man in a small town in central Minnesota. Although his case was a high-profile one on the local news scene, it garnered scant attention nationally. Offensive statements by both men, albeit in very different circumstances, contributed to the judgments made against them. But that’s only one point of connection.   As Laura Holt would say at the opening of the Remington Steele television series, “Follow …”

untitled (5)The one making headlines in the national (and even international) news was, of course, Donald Sterling. Even if you don’t pay much attention to the NBA in particular or to sports in general, it was all but impossible to miss hearing the story of the remarks Mr. Sterling made to his girlfriend in private, not knowing he was being recorded. The recording of his racially charged remarks was made public and backlash ensued. After an investigation that determined the male voice in the recording was indeed that of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver promptly banned Sterling from the NBA for life, imposed the maximum fine possible, and vowed to force the sale of the team to a new owner.

imagesCAFG5ZHTA few raised the question of privacy – should Donald Sterling be held publically accountable for something he said in private? Wasn’t the secret recording an invasion of his privacy? And since it was in private, why was any of this the public’s business? Those are fair questions. But those questions and the secret recording are over shadowed by the much bigger question: Given how much public evidence already existed of Mr. Sterling’s racist behaviors over the years –imagesCAKDAR7N from complaints of a “plantation mentality” in the organization by various players … insights from former coach and NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar to a wrongful termination lawsuit by former VP and GM (and NBA all-star) Elgin Baylor to a housing discrimination case by the Justice Department that was settled out of court – given all of this: Why didn’t the NBA take action before now?!

Plenty of evidence of Mr. Sterling’s racist behaviors was public before the past month. Real people were directly harmed by his actions (particularly in the housing discrimination). But no one in the NBA took action or even seemed to notice. Perhaps the time for action came not so much because of the general attitude Mr. Sterling expressed in those recorded comments but because he dissed one of the legends of the game, Earvin “Magic” Johnson. While it’s highly unlikely that Mr. Johnson would suffer much from Mr. Sterling’s dislike of his own girlfriend posting a picture of herself at a game with one of the legends of the game, such a poor attitude toward of player of Magic Johnson’s stature (someone who helped make the league the financial and commercial powerhouse it is today) simply could not be tolerated by the NBA organization.

So we get righteously exercised over the terrible person that Mr. Sterling clearly is, bemoan and decry the racist attitudes he voiced, and expel him from the rest of decent society. We feel so much better now, knowing we are not like that. Then we heave a collective sigh of relief and turn our attention to less troubling things instead of looking deeper into the questions of race and power and class that this situation raises in the NBA and elsewhere in our society.

Enter Byron Smith …

untitled (6)Byron Smith is a retired security systems engineer who lived (until very recently) in Little Falls, Minnesota – a setting about as far from the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles as one could get. Little Falls is a small city in central Minnesota at the south end of wide spot in the Mississippi River. It’s along US Highway 10 west and little south from Lake Mille Lacs, northwest of Saint Cloud and the Twin Cities. The greatest claim to any sort of fame for Little Falls is that it was the boyhood home of famed pioneering aviator Charles A. Lindberg. It’s the kind of place where any murder case would be big news. But the one that a jury was deliberating at the same time NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was handing down his verdict on Donald Sterling, was particularly heinous.

On Thanksgiving Day in 2013, two teenagers broke into Byron Smith’s home. The kids had been involved in other break-ins around town and Mr. Smith’s home had been broken into several times before then. (What was never quite clear was whether these two teens had broken into his house previously.) On that Thanksgiving Day, Mr. Smith moved his truck from its customary parking place in front of his house to a location out of sight, supposedly so it would not be damaged while he cleaned his garage. But instead of cleaning the garage, he went back inside the house … unscrewed some light bulbs from fixtures … gathered up some snacks and things to drink … and then went downstairs to the basement where he loaded his guns and sat down to pass the time reading a book.

untitled (8)Mr. Smith heard the sounds of two people entering his house. But he did not call out to the intruders or make any other effort to scare them away. He did not call the police. He picked up his gun and waited in silence. As one of the intruders came down the stairs into the basement, Mr. Smith shot him several times, first wounding Nick Brady, a 17-year old, and then killing him. He wrapped the young man’s body in a tarp, so it wouldn’t bleed all over the place. But he didn’t call the police or warn the other intruder. He waited as Nick’s 18-year old cousin untitled (7)Haile Kifer called out to her cohort, trying to discover where he was, if he was okay. Mr. Smith waited in silence and shot her as she came down the steps into the basement. Much as he did with her cousin, when she had tumbled down the remaining steps, he killed her with another shot. But he didn’t call the police. During the events and in the hours after, the audio recording captured a number of things Mr. Smith voiced out loud regarding his victims – “Now you’re dead, bitch … “I felt like I was cleaning up a mess” … “I was doing my civic duty”  … “I don’t see them as human.  I see them as vermin.”

Within hours, concerned family members were seeking the whereabouts of the missing teens. But Byron Smith did not break his silence. The next day, he spoke with a neighbor … and the neighbor persuaded him to contact the police. He did and an investigation ensued. Clearly, Mr. Smith had the right to defend himself and his property against intruders. The teens had been in violation of all legal and moral standards when they entered his house. But did Mr. Smith’s action cross a line between self-defense and murder? The police investigators and the county attorney decided that line had been crossed. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted Mr. Smith of four counts of murder.

The details of what happened inside Mr. Smith’s house were known in large part because of video and audio recordings from the home security system that Mr. Smith had installed and personally turned on that Thanksgiving Day as he prepared to wait for intruders. (The surveillance recordings show Nick moving around outside the house, looking in windows for more than ten minutes before he attempted to enter.) Because Mr. Smith made the recordings, none of the questions regarding possible violations of privacy have been raised by this case, as they have in the case of Donald Sterling.

imagesCANIKG5G But the Smith case in Little Falls does raise questions of the right to self-defense, property rights, and “Stand Your Ground” types of laws … which Minnesota, unlike Florida and some other states, does not have. From that angle, the Smith case invites comparisons to some other high profile cases in which unarmed teenaged suspects were shot to death by men – the Florida cases of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Like Mr. Smith, Mr. Zimmerman’s suspicions regarding Trayvon Martin were aroused by previous break-ins in his community. Also like Mr. Smith, Mr. Zimmerman claimed self-defense and cited the injury to his head as proof he was the one being attacked. In the second case, untitled (9)Mr. Dunn, like Mr. Smith, did not contact police after shooting into a vehicle full of teenagers, killing one of them, Jordan Davis. But unlike Mr. Smith, Mr. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder. Although the jury in Mr. Dunn’s trial found him guilty of the attempted murders of the other teens in the car, the jurors were deadlocked on the question of Mr. Dunn’s guilt in the death of the one teenager he actually killed. These differences between the outcome in Minnesota from those in Florida is the connection point between the low-profile murder trial in Little Falls and the public opinion trial(s) of Donald Sterling.

imagesCAFXM5L9Whereas both Nick and Haile were clearly engaged in criminal behavior when they broke into Byron Smith’s home, George Zimmerman only suspected that Trayvon Martin might be contemplating a similar action. There was no evidence prior to or found in the aftermath that validated Mr. Zimmerman’s suspicions. Jordan Davisuntitled (10) was only guilty of playing offensive music too loud – a commonplace behavior among teenagers that, although extremely annoying, is not illegal. Neither Trayvon nor Jordan were engaged in anything illegal at the time each was shot to death. Yet, their status as crime victims was widely disputed. However, most readily agreed that, although Nick and Haile should never have been inside of Byron Smith’s home, the proper penalty for breaking and entering is not summary judgment and execution on the spot. Therefore, they were the victims in this situation.

In short, there was no trashing of the reputations of Nick and Haile before or after Mr. Smith’s trial. Yes, they were using drugs – abusing over-the-counter medications, prescriptions they could get their hands on, using stolen property to fund their drug habits.   Nick had an intoxicating amount of cough syrup in his system at the time of death. Apparently a number of teens in Little Falls are engaged in this (much as anywhere else). Yes, Nick and Haile were definitely on the wrong track. Yes, they should face the consequences of the crimes they committed, consequences that could include time in jail (but certainly not execution). It might have been the wake-up call they needed to change their ways and turn their lives around, to become the kinds of people their parents had always hoped they would be. After all, these two were essentially good kids who lost their way, decent kids who deserved another chance.

Perhaps it’s just part of “Minnesota nice” not to speak ill of the dead. But aside from the obvious point that, if Nick and Haile had been having Thanksgiving dinner with their families (as they should have been doing) they would still be alive today, very little was said to dispute this narrative of good kids who lost their way. Some have complained that the verdict gives a green light to all would-be criminals out there to break into any place they want – which is only a gross exaggeration of the situation and not in any way a personal attack on these two victims.

This prevailing narrative of two good kids who lost their way stands in sharp contrast to the public trashing of the reputations of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in Florida (and in the national news) during the time leading up to the trials of their killers. Time and time again, the families of these victims were called upon to show that their sons did not deserve to be shot. In contrast to Nick and Haile, the general assumption seemed to be that if Trayvon or Jordan had not been doing something criminal when they were shot, they would have … eventually … it was just a matter of time. There was an implication that their shooters may have done society a favor by eliminating these future criminals from our midst. (“Vermin,” as Byron Smith said of the teenagers he shot.)

untitled (12)Maybe it’s just that Minnesota is a little nicer, a little more civilized than Florida. We’ll see.  Two weeks ago, another heinous case erupted in Minnesota, this time in Mankato (the “big city” the Ingalls would sometimes mention or visit on Little House on the Prairie). Isaac Kolstad, a 24-year old father and former football player for Minnesota State University, was horrifically beaten to within an inch of his life; two weeks later, he is still in critical condition. The principal assailant was Philip Nelson, a 20-year old former quarterback for the University of Minnesota untitled (11)who had just transferred to Rutgers University to play football there. A second assailant fled the scene; he was apprehended later in the week.  The original headline in the Star Tribune (the largest paper in the state) read: “Flurry of blows leaves 2 lives in ruins.” The headline suggests both the assailant and the victim are suffering rather equally in the aftermath. Nothing could be farther from the reality. The assailant, reportedly “kicked the victim’s head like a soccer ball.” The victim has been in critical condition since the attack; if he does survive, his life will never ever be as it was. Why this confusion of victim and attacker and who is really suffering? The attackers in this case were white. The victim is black.

But that’s Mankato and the outcome remains to be seen. Meanwhile, back in Little Falls … Why, in the case of these two teenagers, who were clearly engaged in criminal activity when they were shot, is it easier to believe they were victims and to find their killer guilty of murder than in the cases of two other teenagers who were doing nothing illegal at the times when they were attacked and shot to death? Unlike Trayvon and Jordan, Nick and Haile were white. That makes a difference in any location. Perhaps the citizens of Little Falls are more sensible than those in Orlando or Jacksonville. Perhaps “Stand Your Ground” laws muddy the line between self-defense and murder. But in murder cases across the country, the race of the dead victim trumps alluntitled (4)

And that brings things back to the fracas over Donald Sterling’s remarks. People are outraged by the racism of that – and rightly so. So we excise the offender from our midst and prove that we are not like him. We are crusaders for justice, equality, fair treatment. Thus satisfied, we sit back on our newly won laurels and don’t look to the deeper questions of the role of race in our society and genuine injustices.

Speaking about lingering disparities on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education, US Attorney General Eric Holder quoted Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in the Michigan college admissions case, saying: we must not “wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. … The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.'”

Suddenly booting out Donald Sterling after years of publicly demonstrated racist behaviors circumvents the kind of deeper exploration that would lead to a more just, more fair, less racialized society. The causes for outrage are real. But spend the energy where it will make a difference, where it will work towards the lofty ambition in the Pledge of Allegiance – that our country truly become a land “with liberty and justice for all” … for Trayvon and Jordan as well as Nick and Halie … for the nameless ones struggling for housing against the likes of Donald Sterling.

Lent to Easter … From the dead of winter to the hope of spring

Open Channel 2The word Lent (as in “the season of,” not a form of “to lend”), we’re told, comes from an Old English word meaning spring. That being the case, if ever we truly needed Lent, this would be the year … at least in northern climes. Despite fairly late start to Lent this year, Ash Wednesday found us still very much in the grasp of winter. The now notorious polar vortex once more slipped south from its proper axis less than a week before the on-set of Lent as March came in, not so much like a lion, but rather as a polar bear. Facing sub-zero temperatures yet again, how we longed for some glimmer of spring.

Snow Sluge 2As Lent progressed, things did warm … at least for a few days … here and there. With warmer temperatures the snow and ice began to melt. But that’s not necessarily an improvement. Cleared of the snow cover, the dormant grass shows brown and dead-looking. Mostly white banks of snow melted into dirty humps of frozen snow and ice and dirt accumulated from passing cars and each time another plow pushed the previous sprinkling of sand after a new fall of snow. As layers of packed snow and ice finally melted from roadways, sand and dirt and all kinds of stuff that had been scattered during the snows collapsed into a single layer of mess all over the streets. And then there are the potholes … lots and lots of potholes carved out by the expansion of water as it freezes and contraction of water as it thaws and eventually evaporates.Pothole 2

The whole landscape around is screaming for renewal … for heavy cleansing rains to come and wash the dirt and grime away … for longer days with more sunlight to revive the grass … for someone to come and do something about all the awful potholes. But even the potholes need to wait until the spring warmth to come and dry things so proper repairs can be made; until then, the only thing that can be done is temporary filling. “Meteorological spring” had come well before Lent. Astronomical spring was in sight by the start of Lent. But still we waited and watched for the thawing … for the sun … for warmth … for cleansing rains.

It’s a lot like liturgical Lent, isn’t it? The word itself may be rooted in spring. But the practices themselves are rooted in a period of preparation for new Christians to be baptized at the Vigil of Easter. Lent is about getting back to baptism, about taking seriously both the death and resurrection of Jesus and how that dying and rising is connected to our own lives through that singular act of baptism.

Melt PuddleLike the world outside my windows, the landscape I’ve been walking through and moving within these last weeks, Lent is a time of longing for renewal … for cleansing water that will wash us and all things new … for renovation and repair work to our damaged lives and damaged relationships … for light to see better so we can know better and do better … for warmth of loving embrace that will hold us forever and never let us go … for new life instead of death and decay. This year, it isn’t just our thoughts that are turning to the ways of Lent; creation is crying for rebirth and renewal and we are crying out with it.

Although it’s acquired a focus on individual personal piety in recent decades, Lent is, at its core, a communal practice. A sense of communal practice remains as we gather for special prayer services at midweek or forgo the word “Alleluia” in our worship services or do some things a little bit differently. We may be encouraged to take on some extra spiritual practice or disciplines (often as a group) or give something up … in the company of others or just privately.  Much of this communal sense has been at least obscured, if not altogether lost, in recent American practice in which the practice of “giving something up” has received the most emphasis. The focus in this practice is to participate in some way in the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross – even if it is in some small way. It can be a useful formative practice as a way of breaking a bad habit or a vestige of the old practice of fasting (which was more of necessity in the past before the development modern food delivery systems and refrigerators and freezers). But it’s less about the community and more about the individual. The emphasis on sharing in the sacrifice also accents certain theories of atonement (like, I’m such a bad sinner and it’s so horrible Jesus had to go through all that because of me and my sins).

IMG_0098As a correction to that trend toward individualism and private personal piety, congregations here and there have taken to reviving the ancient practice of the catechumenate, an intentional preparation of candidates to receive the sacrament of baptism. It’s not really the classic “believer’s baptism,” requiring a public profession of faith as proof that one is worthy and ready to be baptized. It’s more about informing those seeking to be baptized as to just what it is they are entering into with baptism. It’s a shaping process to prepare them for life as part of a faith community … a community that embodies the dying and rising of Christ and together lives as the risen body of Christ in the world.

A return to a sense of preparation for baptism is a return to the central mystery of the day marked by Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday … the mystery of Jesus’ crucifixion, descent into death, resurrection. We don’t so much puzzle it out as we do participate in it … kind of like the sacramental practice of baptism. We don’t fully understand what we’re doing, but we participate in it and live it out.

Martin Luther described baptism as the daily garment of a Christian, rising each day afresh from sleep (which is a little like death) … dying each day a little more to the self that seeks nothing but itself that Christ might live a bit more fully. In the midst of a spring that seems not to come, a creation crying out for renewal, maybe I’m feeling the return to baptism and the resurrection promise a little more strongly this year.

River 1And it’s not just creation that needs renewal. It’s not just a stuck place in my own life that feels like I’ve been waiting for spring, for the river of life to thaw for four years now. The more I look, the more longing for renewal I see.

LCR AdditionMuch has been said (and will continue to be said for some time) about the decline of congregations … declines in numbers of people attending regularly … declines in financial support … declines in position of influence and prestige in society. Perhaps the reasons for the declines are in the proof of the decline. For too long, there’s been too much focus on the numbers – how many members on the rolls? how many dollars in the collections and the budget? how many square feet in the building? how many programs are operating? But what does any of this have to do with the good news of what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – and what God continues to do in the world through what Christ has done? Perhaps the renewal of our congregations is in returning to the central story of the gospels, the mystery of our faith.

God knows we need a renewed people. The communities around our churches are struggling in so many ways. Our political institutions struggle as well … and those struggles are innately connected to the struggling in our community. Red or blue … Democrat or Republican … state or national … it doesn’t make that much difference. The story is always the same: everything is about the next election. What vote will avoid having to face a primary challenger? What position will keep large dollar donors contributing to the campaign fund? Those are the governing principles – not the tasks of leadership and the needs of the community. During this season of Lent, the Supreme Court handed down yet one more decision that guarantees the continuing flow of huge dollars from singular donors to their favored mouthpieces. Neither party is privileged in this; both have their share of ultra-rich donors. Downtown 2But what the decision does is prioritize the concerns of “the 1%” over the rest of us – and their concerns are very different from those of “the 99%”, the rest of us. If money equals speech, then the wealthy have more speech than the poor … and their votes count more than others. So much for equality.

Street Scene 2Our society cries out for renewal and leadership won’t be bringing it – not anytime soon. A renewed society will have to arise from new people just as the renewal of our congregations depends upon people raised up and empowered by the Spirit … living out the resurrection of Christ towards which we journey in Lent … which is ever and always the goal of our Lenten practices. It’s not just about Jesus’ resurrection as proof of life after death and guarantee of heaven when we die. It’s about living in the resurrection starting here … starting now … starting with each believer joined to the community of faith through this death and resurrection that is mirrored in baptism.

Snowdrop 2It starts with Jesus … but then it comes to us. We, as Christians, join him in his dying and in his rising. Now, his resurrection is happening within us; his life is becoming our own life. Our call is to carry on with the work he started – to bring the vision of God’s dream for the world … a dream reflected in images of Eden and of heaven, of peaceful well-being with enough for all, of the sense of wholeness communicated in the word shalom – peace.

photoIt starts with Jesus … but it doesn’t end there. His life comes to life in us and we are made new – new people in a new community who live in new ways … who live in such a way as to renew the world around them.  It’s kind of like these snowdrops … first one emerges and  then there’s a whole bunch of these small, brave early spring flowers opening their wing-like blossoms, braving the lingering cold and even snow, standing in bright green lively witness that spring is here … even when it doesn’t look like — or feel like it.  We are witnesses to the new life, to the new world that is coming forth in our midst — even if (and especially when) it doesn’t seem like new life is possible or that anything will ever change

The world around us is crying for renewal … for a renewed people of God to join in the work of making all things new. God is with us, alive and active, now and forever. Anything is possible…

IMG_0094Christ is risen! Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same.

Break the bread of new creation where the world is still in pain.

Tell its grim, demonic chorus: “Christ is risen! Get you gone!”

God the First and Last is with us.  Sing Hosanna, everyone!

Brian A. Wren, “Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!”

Evangelical Lutheran Worship #383

Text copyright 1986 Hope Publishing Company

Advent Ponderings

Advent 1When Advent began, the brilliant colors of autumn had long since faded to dull brown.  Everything was gray-tinged … the old leaves … the bare trunks and branches … the dormant grass.  The world looked ready to be tucked into bed for the winter-long nap with a blanket of snowy white.  A few days into Advent, that blanket arrived in the form of several inches of snow … which improved appearances considerably (even if it made for difficult driving and cancelled the first of the mid-week Advent services).  However, the coming of the longed-for snow was followed immediately by a swift plunge into sub-zero temperatures … which did NOT help.  It felt as though we had skipped all the way through December and gone straight into January.  But with the bitter cold, we do get clear skies and sun (mostly because all the moisture has completely frozen out of the air).  The increased sunlight helps because there is so little daylight this time of year.

Sunset 2When there’s scarcely eight hours of any sort of daylight, it’s easy to see why so many ancient winter festivals about light have held such enduring popularity.  In the midst of cold and dark, in landscapes that look more dead than dormant, we need some sort of hopeful sign … something to keep us pressing on toward a brighter time.  Whether the eventual association of the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth was an attempt to sanctify unstoppable pagan practices or an effort to subvert the cultural practice for a different religious purpose hardly matters.  The symbolism works.  In the midst of darkness, dormancy, and death, we long for signs of light and life.  Even if we get something of what we’re longing for (like the snow earlier this month), we’re still not fully satisfied for the results.  Partial fulfillment leaves us longing for more … just as our Advent season of preparing for the coming of Christ holds both the remembrance of Jesus’ birth so long ago and the longing for the coming of the Reign and Realm of God toward which that birth still points.

Advent 2Christ has come … and the Reign of God is still yet to be.  So we wait with longing, with expectation, and sometimes even with hope.  But that hope can be so fragile and tenuous and easily crushed.  With the beginning of a new year in the church and the closing of the year on the calendar, some reflection seems in order.  What has been?  What do we still long for to be?

Sandy-Hook-Elementary-School-elite-dailyLast weekend marked the anniversary of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Connecticut.  The deaths of those twenty children – just five or six years old – shattered the peace we cling to in the Christmas season.  However we may celebrate, in society or in church, Christmas has a child at its center.  As we heard the news, how could we not imagine the stockings that would not be emptied on Christmas morning … the presents already purchased, perhaps even wrapped, never to be opened by the children whom those gifts were to delight?  How could we not think about the Christmases of our own childhoods, of our own children (or grandchildren or nieces and nephews) and not be stabbed in the heart?  Christmas, it’s often said, is for children … and these twenty children were no more.

It was too much – one too many of these sorts of tragedies, too many victims at such a young age.  Many of us vowed it would be the last of these events.  This time, things would have to change.  From the President on down the ladder of public offices, leaders stepped up to make some changes … even if the proposed changes were rather small things, if it could make a difference, it would be worth doing.  Something had to be done.

But in the end, for the most part, nothing was done.  In a few places, here and there, some laws were changed.  But in most places efforts for any sensible changes to gun regulations were quickly shouted down by the well-funded, well-oiled machine that is the NRA.  So much hope … so little has come of it … and here we are a year later … still longing for things to be better.  A year later, 200 more children and teens have been lost in episodes of gun violence.  The most recent victim of a school shooting died yesterday.    It’s almost as though we have a Sandy Hook incident a month … except that it takes a lot longer than five minutes when it happens one or two at a time … and most of the time, the children are not picture-perfect white angel babies.  (And what does it say to mothers of color, grieving their slain children, that little white children shot to death in an elementary school matter so very much but theirs do not?)

imagesCA3C3SBRBack at the beginning of the year, I sat among the people gathered for the Martin Luther King Day Breakfast at Progressive Baptist Church in Saint Paul.  In an unusual, but highly significant, alignment of events, President Obama would be inaugurated for his second term a few hours after the breakfast.  The explosion of excitement in that room at any mention of the inauguration was contagious.  What had for so long seemed impossible to many in the crowd gathered that morning – that someone who looked like most of them could be elected President of the United States – had not only happened once, it had happened again.  Was anything still impossible?

untitled (3)Later, as Richard Blanco read his poem “One” during the inauguration ceremony, it seemed that we could indeed be one people in one land under one sky sharing at least as many commonalities as we have differences.  Blanco’s soaring, sweeping work that ranged over the landscape and homes of the country, the daily routines of individuals and everyone, concludes with the words “…hope – a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it – together.”  Perhaps this time the talk of working together, of putting differences aside to serve the interests of the people would finally be more than just talk.  On that day, for a few shining hours, it seemed possible.  (Even if you don’t think much of the President or the poet or the whole idea of inaugural poets or poems in general, the whole poem is worth a read.)

But it has proved impossible again.  Hope, that new constellation Blanco envisioned, remained unmapped and unnamed as things went on in the same old, same old ways.  If anything, the divisiveness and inflexibility were as dominant as ever.  Each side continued to vent to its own supporters, vilifying those who might see things differently.  Problems drag on and brokenness persists as solutions remain elusive … or perhaps even unsought.

Advent 3We watch the craziness of the weather – the superstorms and mudslides, the wildfires and the droughts.  Backyard weather watchers can tell you things are changing.  They see different birds, different plants, and different wildlife.  Scientists know things are changing and they know human activity is a part of it.  It may be too late to reverse these changes.  The best we might be able to hope for is to find ways to mitigate the changes and slow the process of change and the extreme it could reach by changing our behaviors now.  But few want to listen.  Many deep pockets are heavily invested in keeping things just the way they are.  Until there is a financial incentive to make some changes, they see no point in even considering the possibility.  The wellbeing of their future customers and employees means nothing compared to the profits to be had today.  So creation continues to groan around us.

imagesCAYX4ICOThe world watched as Pope Benedict XVI broke with all precedent and tradition by resigning this spring.  Then, as Pope Francis, a heretofore obscure Argentine archbishop named Jorge Mario Bergogilo, charmed the world with his aversion to the trappings of wealth and power, empowering his call for a return to the basics of Christian practice: love and acceptance of all comers, care for the poor.  Many of my non-Catholic friends and ministry colleagues were hoping for some serious policy reforms around ordination, homosexuality, even human reproduction. They’re likely to be disappointed.  My hopes for Pope Francis are more modest: honestly and fully address the plague of sexual abuse by the clergy and reform the highly insular and apparently corrupt Vatican governance.  That might happen … and I hope it does.

What happens in Rome impacts all of us who name the name of Christ, whether we feel any particular connection to the Roman Catholic Church or not.  Just as denominational affiliations don’t matter much to people “shopping” for churches to join, those same labels don’t matter to people on the outside of our congregations looking in.  One church is no better than another.  If one church is unsafe, none are safe.  It may not be fair, but that is what’s happening.  So it’s going to take a better witness to the gospel from all of us to change that public perception.  One thing that has not changed is the aching need in the world to see the love of God lived out, acted out, demonstrated in ways that people can perceive, observe, and understand.  The way people have reacted and responded to Pope Francis is proof enough the need is there.

untitledBut in my own church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we struggle as much as the next to venture into the unknowable future.  What used to be called “mainline” is anything but anymore.  We built for an era that has passed and seems unlikely to return. Sunday school rooms are largely empty … worship attendance continues to drop as youth wander away and elders become homebound … membership continues to decline as people pass away (or are finally dropped from membership rolls when it becomes clear no one knows where these people have gone).  The trends are frightening and troubling.  Clearly things must change.  But more of our attention and energy is directed toward shoring up and preserving what is in the hope that the good times of a past era will return again.  We know that past; we don’t know the future … and because the unknown is so very frightening we balk at venturing forth to find the new ways we must.

untitled (2)In my own house, we also chose a new leader this summer – although it was not nearly the news magnet that the election of a Pope can be.  However, the choice of Elizabeth Eaton as the first woman to serve as Presiding Bishop in the ELCA did catch some attention from the news media and much rejoicing from my peers.  I wish her all the best.  But her election scarcely marks the shattering of the “stained glass ceiling,” the opening of a new era in which the ministry of our female clergy is valued equally with that of male clergy.  Much as I long for it, that day can wait.  The more pressing problem is the need for massive changes in our structures throughout the church.  Whatever the future holds for our congregations, it will not be just like the past.  Letting go of such dreams is a loss requiring attention to the work of grieving.  Turning towards an unknowable future is a work of faith and courage.

Frozen River 2Another year is passing, and still I am waiting for a new call to ministry.  In the meantime, I hear the cries of the people who call where I work.  The lack of affordable housing is staggering … rent assistance is limited … shelters are often full.  Many nights I must tell a mother (just like me) that there is no place where she and her children can go for shelter that she has not already tried or that shelter will not be available to her until the next day.  There are people asking for food shelves that are open in the evening or on the weekends, places they can go to that will be open at times when they are not working at their jobs. Working people are not bringing home enough to pay for their housing and feed their families.  But any talk of raising wages is squashed by doomsday prediction of $10 for a hamburger at McDonalds … never mind how many economists demonstrate that it’s the gaping inequality in wealth that’s keeping the economy stagnant for all of us.

Ornaments 1None of this is to say that I’m untouched by the delights of this season.  My Christmas tree is up and decorated.  Holiday baking is in full swish.  I still sing along with the songs of Christmas on the radio and in the stores.  I’ve appreciated the beautiful holiday decorations as I’ve shopped in the stores and the malls this season.  I light the candles on my Advent wreath and pray with hopeful expectations.

Advent 4I just hope we’re getting more than a baby this year, because it’s going to take something a lot bigger than a baby to change us, to change the world, to turn things around.  When we pray “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come …”, I really hope God does come with power to stir us up and move things around.  Something has to change – and change soon.  Maybe it’s us … all of us who are striving in this holy season to keep our focus on the birth of our savior.  But we’ll need to lift our eyes beyond the baby in the manger to see that what we celebrate then is still what we long for now – God actually breaking into this weary world … to change us … to change things … to move the world a little closer to what God longs for it to be.

Here’s the best prayer I’ve seen this season …by Andrew Foster Connors in Journal for Preachers, Advent 2013:

IMG_0081Dear God, we are in the deep muddy.  We have messed up this world in a terrible way.  Our lives are not what we hoped they would be.  Our relationships are not what we hoped they would be.  Our faith is not what we hoped it would be.  We are out of hope and we know it.  But we’re tired of living in this kind of brokenness.  And you are the only one who can mend it.  You are the only one who can give us our future.

Amen!  Even so, come, Lord Jesus.  Stir up your power, O Lord, and come!  Come with the power to make all things new.  Come to us with the power to make us new.  Stir up your power in us and send us to make things new.  You were sent into our world; now send us into the world in your name to do the work you have come to do: making all things new.

Sunset 4All earth is hopeful, the Savior comes at last!

   A virgin mother will bear Emmanuel

       Almost here!  God is nearing in beauty and grace!

       All clear every gateway, in haste, come out in haste!

All Earth is Hopeful” Alberto Taulé

The Cleveland Tree

 “I think that I shall never see      A poem as lovely as a tree …”  Joyce Kilmer

Cleveland Tree Su4

The Cleveland Tree in Summer

I liked the Cleveland Tree long before it was possible to “like” this tree on Facebook.  One runner who shares the walking/biking trail along Mississippi River Boulevard at the southern edge of the Highland Park area of Saint Paul is clearly even fonder of this particular tree than I am.  He’s the enterprising individual who created the Facebook page – and a Twitter account – for this particular tree.  Initially, he announced these developments with a banner tied around the tree.  Now, there’s (usually) a little sign at the base of tree … and business cards at various places in the area.

The Cleveland Tree is a particularly twisted oak tree that stands by itself beside the walking path near the point where Cleveland Avenue ends at Mississippi River Boulevard.  If you want to visit, just take Cleveland south through Saint Paul to the all-way stop at Mississippi. The tree will be to your left.  It’s easily recognizable by its short stature, fully twisted trunk, and extremely gnarly branches.

My daughter likes the Cleveland Tree (in life, if not on Facebook).  She sees a tree that invites climbing with easy to reach branches and good spots to plant her feet on the trunk. My son does not like the Cleveland Tree – not in the usual sense or even the Facebook sense.  To him it is not a proper tree; it’s too short and stumpy.  A tree worthy of being liked is a tall, towering one … a monarch of the forest … which the Cleveland Tree will never be.  (Although if it were possible to straighten the twists of its trunk, the Cleveland Tree would be considerably taller.)

But that twisted stumpy stature and those extremely gnarly branches are precisely why I’ve always liked the Cleveland Tree even before there was a way to like it on Facebook. As someone who knows me pretty well once put it, there isn’t an underdog out there that I’m not for.  As trees go, the Cleveland Tree is definitely an underdog, not an overlord, among the trees in the area.


The Cleveland Tree in Spring

Many days I’ve walked along that section of the path, noticing the trees and wondering how it was that the Cleveland Tree came to be as it is.  Most of the oaks in that area do have similarly gnarled and kinked branches, if not quite so pronounced as those of the Cleveland Tree.  But none have that extremely twisted trunk with an almost 360⁰ twist before it splits into the two main limbs.  What makes the Cleveland Tree so different?

Botany was not an area of biology that interested me.  (I preferred the animal kingdom and the intricacies of anatomy.)  It’s possible that the type of oak trees in this particular area produce these gnarled branches because that’s just how they grow and develop.  If it’s all in the genes, then perhaps the Cleveland Tree received a stronger set of genes that make for such twisted growth. That might be all there is to it; however, I suspect that may, at best, be just a part of the Cleveland Tree’s story.

I wonder about the wind.  Trees do need wind for their growth and development; it’s essential.  Scientists discovered this with the Biosphere down by Tucson, Arizona.  After a rough start, the project was eventually taken over by scientists who saw plenty of opportunities for study in the small, fully contained miniature of the earth’s ecosystems.  However, after several years had passed, the trees inside the Biosphere started to fall over and no one could figure out why.  The soil had adequate nutrients.  There was sufficient water and light.  There were no indications of any kind of blight or fungus or pest.  For some time, the scientists examined everything in the Biosphere looking for the cause of this unprecedented event.  No one had seen or heard of anything quite like this happening before.  What were they missing?

The answer likely hit one of those scientists with a face-full of desert dirt as he or she walked across the parking lot after work – wind!  The Biosphere had everything earth has, including air circulation.  But it did not have actual wind … strong, hard-blowing winds that shake the tree tops and push against the trees.  As it turns out, trees need the wind blowing against them in order to develop strong trunks to support the limbs and branches and leaves.  Without the wind, the trunks don’t become strong enough to hold everything up.

So I wonder about the wind in times past as I walk through these trees on the bluffs of the Mississippi River.  While none are twisted like the Cleveland Tree, many of trees with trunks of similar girth to the Cleveland Tree’s are leaning considerably.  It’s possible they grew at such angles in order to find space amidst the canopy for their own branches and leaves to reach some sunlight.

But it’s also possible that way back in time, when these trees were much younger (and still developing their trunks) that some fierce wind tore through this area, blowing long enough and hard enough to forever shape these trees … bending a number of them … twisting the Cleveland Tree … and maybe even setting the then-young branches on their own twisted, kinked, and gnarled paths.  Such fierce winds have certainly tore through the area with storms earlier this year.  Tall, strong trees were ripped up by the roots in part by the force of the wind and in part because the soil was so saturated.  It’s not hard to imagine a similar event all those years ago forever twisting a young tree, shaping it into the unique form of the Cleveland Tree today.

The Cleveland Tree in Autumn

The Cleveland Tree in Autumn

Life has a way of doing that … shaping us, testing us, bending us … sometimes marking us forever.  Whatever whims of nature, whether by random genetics or wild winds or some of each and something more, the Cleveland Tree will always have that very twisted, stunted, unique shape.  But that doesn’t stop this particular oak tree from doing what all trees do.  Each spring, it puts forth tender green leaves and indiscernible flowers.  The leaves take in the sunlight and the carbon dioxide, producing the starchy food that feeds the tree and nourishes the growing acorns.  Those leaves breathe out oxygen and provide a cool, shady refuge for birds and squirrels and passers-by.  As fall approaches, the tree drops its acorns … food for the scampering squirrels and occasional chipmunk.  In times past, humans were nourished by acorns as well.  In some places, we still are.  With the fall, the leaves turn brown and eventually drop to the ground … perhaps becoming part of an animal’s winter shelter … or perhaps returning nutrients to the soil for the next year’s growth.  Then the tree stands dormant and silent through winter’s passing until spring comes again.  Year after year, the Cleveland Tree (like any other tree) does this regardless of whatever whims of life and forces of nature have shaped it into the way it is today.

For that, this particular tree, the Cleveland Tree, is an inspiration to me.  It reminds me the value of simply keeping on … keeping about the business of life … whatever work is given me to do … whatever season it happens to be  … through whatever happens.  Life shapes all of us a little differently.  Some of it we do to ourselves by the choices we make and the paths we follow.  But just as trees don’t have choices, some of what happens we have no say in, no control over.  It just happens and all we can do is make the best of it or give up and stop trying.  Like the Cleveland Tree, we can be forever shaped … scared, stunted, bent, even twisted around by things that happen.  But the tree reminds me it is possible to keep going, to keep growing, to keep living.

The Cleveland Tree in Winter

The Cleveland Tree in Winter

No, the Cleveland Tree will never be a proud monarch of the forest.  It will forever be short and stumpy.  But because of its unique shape, it brings joy and support to at least a few runners out there.  (How many trees can you actually give a high-five to?)  Although it’s not one of my dog’s favorite message exchange locations (just as it’s not my son’s favorite tree), no doubt plenty of dogs find it a good place to exchange messages and catch a cool draft on summer days.  Certainly trees were removed when the path and fencing were put in along Mississippi River Boulevard.  Could its unique shape be the reason why the Cleveland Tree was one of the trees to be spared and allowed to continue living and growing?  That weird shape may well be the very reason the tree is still here.

The Cleveland Tree is still here, doing all the normal tree things … but also providing inspiration to runners and walkers and wonderers like me.  Perhaps our own unique features and characters, the shape life has given us and the shape we have given to our lives provides similar joy, encouragement, and even inspiration to people around us … maybe even some we don’t actually know.

Manic Wednesday

From two weeks ago, Wednesday, August 28th…

6:00 already – I was just in the middle of a dream …

This has to be the fault of the local DJ who decided to play “Manic Monday” by the Bangles just after 6:00 am on a Wednesday – not a Monday, a Wednesday … which like most Wednesdays around here was getting off to a slow start.  But no worries here; I don’t have to be at work until noon.

Nor was I “just in the middle of dream” at that time.  I was awake and nothing remotely romantic was happening.  It was just the usual routine of the household getting into gear, with my husband heading off directly to work, my son halfway through his very first week of college, and my daughter having some leadership training events to prepare for assisting freshmen starting at her high school the following week.

Besides, even if the Mississippi River near my house were an acceptable substitute for “a crystal blue Italian stream,” it was already too hot and sticky to be outside for long … which was leading to some changes in plans.  My daughter had been planning to bike to and from school.  But an excessive heat warning was in store for the afternoon when no one would be around to help her if things went badly.  So there was a last minute change to her plans.  I would drive her to school and she’d take the city bus home.  It’s a round-about way and takes a lot longer than biking or even walking (which is why the kids don’t like it), but it would keep her out of the excessive heat after a hot morning at the school.

While she was considering her options, I checked on my son’s bus card.  It needed more funds.  I went on-line to add the money … and found out it might take 24 hours to actually show on his card.  He had enough on it for one trip and I gave him the exact fare for the other. With that settled, I drove my daughter to the high school and my son went to the bus stop to head for the college.   On the previous day most of the traffic had been in the school parking lot; today it was on the roads the whole way there.  Good thing we left early (for once).

Both of the newspapers were late, so when I came back home,  I called to report the delivery problems and then started to prepare my breakfast.  The Star Tribune was delivered first, surprisingly fast after I called it in.  When I opened the door to get it, a little Yorkie came trotting over from our next door neighbor’s yard.  I knew it wasn’t one of his dogs, though.  So I looked at the tag and saw the address was nearby.  Midnight (my daughter’s cat) was at the door looking on at the scene taking place on the front steps and the Yorkie was very interested in the cat.  As I opened the door to go in to get my keys and our dog’s leash to take the Yorkie back home, he darted inside.  Much hissing (from Midnight) and barking (from our dog Jack) and yipping (from the Yorkie) and chasing ensued.

No real damage had been done before I was able to collect the Yorkie, my keys, and the leash.  I proceeded with the Yorkie across the street to the house where he belonged.  No one answered the door when I rang the bell.  But as I was going around the side to see about a back door, one of the neighbors (who was moving her car because of street work being done) saw me and asked about the dog by name.  I said yes, that’s the dog and, as she was explaining what the dog’s owner had told her, the neighbor who owns the dog, showed up and took her dog inside.  (She was very grateful)

Back home, I continued preparing my breakfast only to be interrupted again when the doorbell rang.  Another edition of the Star Tribune was being delivered.  I explained that the paper had arrived soon after I called and apologized that the agent came unnecessarily.  No problem; there must have been some delay with the delivery process.  By that time, I knew there had been a delivery delay with the Pioneer Press as well … which eventually showed up as I was finally eating my breakfast.

Then it was time to walk the oh-so patient Jack-dog (who had been most disappointed to see the Yorkie going out of the house on his leash instead of being taken for a walk himself).  We did cut the usual walk short on account of the heat and humidity (especially the humidity).  But because of the heat, it’s very important to water the recently installed landscaping … which took more time.

Now it’s 10:15 and I still have to wash the breakfast dishes from this morning and get cleaned up for work.  The bed still is not made … and making it to work by noon is looking really tight at this point.

Yeah, it’s been a manic Wednesday.  Blame it on the DJ.