Gordon Watt Returns April 23 to 26, 2020

Mark your calendars for our next Gordon Watt clinic here at Heatherhope: Thursday through Sunday, April 23 to 26, 2020.

Gordon moved to the US from England several years ago. Before that he lived on the Isle of Man and was born in Ireland. He and his father before him were lifetime shepherds, and Gordon has won all sorts of singles and brace championships, including National Championships of Ireland and England and the World Sheepdog Championship. For many years he has dedicated himself to teaching others the fine art of sheepdog training and handling, and helping people to advance as far as they aspire to in that beautiful partnership of dog and handler.

Gordon Watt at Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

Gordon Watt at Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

As always we will welcome dogs and handlers of all levels. To guarantee a working slot, which gives you two times out with Gordon with your dog for one day of the clinic, send a check, dated for April 1, 2020, in the amount of $140. That is a $10 raise in price from the past, but allows us to cover all the costs of the clinic, including Gordon’s fee and a little to provide sheep. When you attend to work a dog or to audit we provide a continental breakfast, snacks, and a full lunch. Make checks out to John Seraphine, and mail them to the address on the “contact us” tab on the pages of this web site.

The price of auditing will be $45 as in the past.

You can sign up for one to four days, and you can run either a single dog in a day’s slot, or two different dogs.

On this web site you will find directions to the farm (see the “directions” tab at the top of each page), or you can phone, mail or email for more information.

Say It With Your Body

“Lean on him!”

That’s what Gordon Watt used to say when I was working my young, excitable dog, Zac. It has taken me years to understand all that was bound up with that tiny bit of advice.

Gordon Watt (r) demonstrates how to get a dog in the "zone" with body language. Photo by John

Gordon Watt (r) demonstrates how to get a dog in the “zone” with body language. Photo by John

We just completed one of our semi-annual handling clinics with Gordon, and I was reminded of how important, yet mysterious, this advice is. I think all novice sheepdog handlers make the mistake of thinking they are there to put something into their dogs rather than draw things out. With this comes the mistake of thinking they communicate with and control their dogs with their shouts, their whistles, their grand gestures with their wands or crooks or boogey bags filled with pebbles.

The truth is they are there to draw the sheepdog out of the dog. Because of this they are there to communicate mostly with their bodies.

Young border collies first on sheep are feeling the stuff come out of them. They are so excited to be finally getting to do what they have been created to do that their own emotions are skyrocketing. Hyper alert, they are first and foremost figuring out the meaning of the body movements—the ear twitches and head turnings—of the sheep. Second, they are coming to terms with their own potential. Gradually they are also reading carefully every sound and even the tiniest movement of the human bodies of their beloved owners.

Border collies are wired to watch and react to the movement of sheep and handler. This young pup cant keep eyes off!! Photo by John

Border collies are wired to watch and react to the movement of sheep and handler. This young pup cant keep eyes off!! Photo by John

So, less is more. “With all this happening at once, someone out there has to be the calm one,” a wise shepherd once advised. So when the shepherd/dog handler moves, every movement, if it is to get the right job done, must bear the right meaning.

The most important thing I can tell a novice handler, who is taking a lesson or attending a dog handling clinic, is to watch the way the best handlers move their bodies. You will learn that the best handlers are letting the dog learn—not teaching. The best handlers are not hyper-reactive. They move quietly and calmly. And the exact way they turn their body has a powerful effect on the dog. A lean to this side or that, or a step in this direction or that makes all the difference in putting the dog at ease and getting the dog into that zone where it is feeling its own power come out.

Indeed, it is best, with a beginning dog, not to use verbal commands at all. Instead, a very occasional growl, or “hey,” or a mere slap on the leg, if they are used to convey the same meaning consistently, have a helpful effect on the dog. But a well thought out lean is always, always better than throwing up a wall of sound with shouts that have no meaningful body language to back it up, or a confusing random display of flailing arms.

Now, if this is true for dog training, it is perhaps even truer for people. In our smart-phone, and text-messaging age we have surrendered our most important tools of communication. The tone of voice has been surrendered because we prefer texting to voice mail. But it is even more tragic that we routinely deprive ourselves of the power of facial expression and the leaning in and out of face-to-face communication.

We used to learn and practice the art of salutation. A smile, a bow, a handshake as we spoke to people laid the foundation for our relationships. With them we said, “I respect you. I trust you. I believe in you.” And with this body language, so common that we were barely conscious of it, we calmed each other and got ourselves ready to get down to business. We weren’t there to be the center of the circle of belonging, or to control the other. We were there to lean on each other–to cooperate!

How many walls could we repair—how many wounds could we heal—if we could put aside our devices, take deep breaths, calm ourselves, lean in, and look into each other’s eyes when we talk?

Bullying is on the rise; but people don’t bully as much when they see a full human being in front of them. Opioid addiction is on the rise; but people don’t feel isolated, bitter and depressed, and turn to chemicals, when someone is there to understand them. Division and polarization is on the rise; but people become visible and valuable when we see their bodies and their body language. Face to face we don’t throw them away or throw them under the bus with our digital memes. The best instruments we have for communicating are our bodies. We are tuned to read each other’s bodies just as our dogs are tuned in to us. We just need to put our best instruments to good use.

 

Another Snowy, Character-building Gordon Watt Clinic

It happened late last April. It happened again this Halloween. Our semi-annual Gordon Watt clinic here at Heatherhope Farm is getting to be the kind of thing that builds real character. It was in 1895 that we last had an October snow like this—with three or five inches of the stuff and a good stiff wind to make it come down horizontally. Just as, last April we had almost eight inches of the white stuff enhance our event.

Happy Halloween! The first day of our fall, 2019 Gordon Watt Clinic saw about 5 inches of snow. Great training weather! Photo by John

Happy Halloween! The first day of our fall, 2019 Gordon Watt Clinic saw about 5 inches of snow. Great training weather! Photo by John

But our intrepid team of students, and our hearty leader, forged on. In fact, we didn’t skip a beat, but got 11 dogs out twice that day.

Dogs that wanted to buzz learned to calm down and get into the zone. Dogs that wanted to avoid conflict, learned to have confidence. And most importantly, all the handlers got better and better and polished up their skills throughout the four-day clinic. And when they weren’t on the field themselves they were watching how problems-to-come might be handled as they watched Gordon with other dogs. And when they weren’t watching dogs they were laughing and solving all the world’s problems around the great food they brought to add to the typical yummy spread that Connie puts out. (Connie, her foot in a cast, is very appreciative of the special help this time around.)

So, it was cold outside, but we are all warm inside—the way farming and sheepdog handling should be.

So, we look forward to April 23-26 as our dates for next spring’s Watt clinic. Perhaps the good Lord will grant us a little less character-building!

Friday, Nov. 1 of our fall Watt clinic saw the sun rise beautifully over the snowy land. Photo by John

Friday, Nov. 1 of our fall Watt clinic saw the sun rise beautifully over the snowy land. Photo by John

Should We Buy a New ATV?

Reflections on Luke 12:13-21, the Gospel reading for the 8th Sunday of Pentecost.

Almost every day on the farm we are faced with quite consequential decisions. Today it is about our ATV. Most days we use it several times for all sorts of jobs. But now it is squeaky after 17 years of hard use. Now it is very lopsided after a good friend had a hard encounter with it and the machine shed. Now we are afraid it won’t make it through another winter.

But both my wife and I are up in years; so a different kind of calculus comes to mind. Is this a wise investment? How much longer will we have the sheep to tend, or the dogs? How much longer will we live.

In this coming Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke relates a “parable” of Jesus about how God positively mocks a farmer about making a dire calculus. This man has had a surprisingly good harvest that his barn cannot contain. So he has an interior monolog with his own soul and says he will have to build a bigger barn that will allow him to store so much that he will then enjoy years of leisure and pleasure.

That’s when God interrupts and says to him, in effect, you have left me and my calculus out of your equation. Today they will be calling in your chips. Today they will demand your life!

Who the “they” are in the rather creepy Greek third-person-plural verb for “demand” that our English translations avoid by making it passive? We are left to speculate about that. Are these the angels or demons of death?

But then Jesus adds his own stark and demanding conclusion: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

With this in mind I am shocked to have to admit that, really, all my life I have had to make similar consequential decisions. And often I have figured wrongly. Shall I strive for this? Shall I invest my time in this? Shall I buy this?

Here Jesus is challenging me to consider always not self, but God.

Perhaps the most haunting of all of the teachings of Jesus, recorded by Luke, that relate to these sorts of decisions, comes in chapter 14.

27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

There is virtue and even stark necessity for planning and critical decision making—for saying to your soul, “Soul, what shall we do to see the job through—to make this a meaningful life?” It is vital to get set and to set a good foundation and to build on it, and to finish the job. Most decisions are much more consequential than we realize. And, the real way to see life through to the finish—the real way to have a full life—is not to accumulate, but to give. The real way to be rich it to be rich toward God. And the real way to be rich toward God is to look around and see what others around you need, and to give to them.

What can help me make the right decision about our squeaky, lopsided ATV? According to Luke, Jesus goes on and on about us and our possessions. He says it’s worry and fear of the future that trips us up—that distracts us from the calculus that counts—about our relationship with God and with the people who need us. It’s this Kingdom—this invisible network—this wholeness of humanity that counts. The good Father knows we need stuff. But it’s the Kingdom that really counts. And, here’s the thing that frees us to do good calculus:

          “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

How much of the stuff that surrounds me and clutters the machine shed and the basement of my house, and the corners of my soul? All of it is a rather embarrassing and shameful testimony of how bad I am at this calculus—how many bad decisions I’ve made.

Good Lord help me get rich toward you!

Dare I Share This Photograph?

A child reminds us of the beauty of the life God has given. Photo by Rebekah.

A child reminds us of the beauty of the life God has given. Photo by Rebekah.

I can’t help but share this photograph, though I have strong reservations. Yes, I know people use their smart phones to share countless pictures every day of their precious children. But it’s also no secret that there are not-so-nice folk who misuse such images. And, yes, I know, with the help of my son-in-law, that I am a peculiar Luddite and curmudgeon. He asked me this year if there was ANYTHING modern that I liked. He was joking, and believe me, we had a good laugh together.

But, still. I use my share of technology, but I have implicit trust in none of it.

I stick by my cautious approach to technology in general, and the Internet in particular. I know technology has done and is doing wondrous things. But the easy power it puts in the palms of our hands is a power that the worst among us eagerly put to destructive use.

That said, just look at this picture! Look at this child! Her image here is so eloquent and so pure. It is hard not to see it as a symbol of an entire generation, unspoiled, fresh-faced, looking expectantly for what is coming over the horizon.

She is thinking. This world is so absolutely overflowing with big things and little things, things that are rough and things that are smooth, things that are solid and everlasting and things that are here one moment and burst away with delight the next. And the people: all sizes and shapes, and each of them full of stories that open up even more wonders. In short, “Wow! Awesome! Amazing!”

Could this beautiful emblem of a girl also be wondering, “Why would anyone want to throw even the tiniest bit of this away? Could there be people so ignorant that they exploit, spoil, waste, and destroy any of this?”

Yes, darling one, take the word of your curmudgeon of a grandfather, there are such people. And we all are them. Sometimes we just forget. Sometimes we are lazy. Sometimes we have an emptiness inside that gnaws at us until we just lash out. Sometimes we get feeling sorry for ourselves, or resentful, or fearful; and we let things rot, we misuse them, we annihilate them. And, horror of horror, we do it all to people too. Routinely we do it to fresh-faced, innocent children like you. We worry more over our right to keep guns than we do over how many children are killed by them. We love the freedom to drive fast more than we love the children in the streets. We love balanced budgets more than we love good schools. We love building prisons more than we love providing safe sidewalks for kids to walk. We are fools, sometimes, believing stupidly that hoarding stuff is a more urgent need than protecting and nourishing young souls.

Please, child, never lose your capacity to behold in wonder this miracle-filled world we live in. Look! Gaze in sweetness at it all! Share that sweet joy with others–it will help heal us all. Put some cautious hope in the virtual world of technology, but hope extravagantly for the living world of birds and bees and people.

But, above all, be prepared also to pray often for us fools, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And know that, as you pray those words, Jesus is praying with you.

A Brother’s Death and Thoughts of Home

My big brother, Jim, died last week. So I drove, alone, to Louisville for his funeral. Connie and I couldn’t make the arrangements for the care of the animals on the farm with the storms and coyotes and a bitch in heat. And so I drove alone.

My big brother, with a big heart, Jim. Photo by John

My big brother, with a big heart, Jim. Photo by John

The rain poured and wind forced me to fight to stay in my lane, and stay safe for the six hour drive. Then I walked into the Evergreen Funeral Home on Preston Highway, and all my composure collapsed.

I was back in the loop. Hundreds of miles, a different time zone, a different world of busy concerns, and we drift. We aren’t in touch as much as we should. But cords bind tight, nonetheless. And the instant I walk in those doors where we said goodbyes three and a half years ago when Jim’s wife, Carol died, and the instant I saw Jim’s sons Jeff and Jimmy and Jason, their wives, and then my sister, Jane…the sobs just kept coming.

Hours of talking with family and friends drained me; but the next day, after a good breakfast and good coffee, I went for my usual Louisville drive—tracing the way of almost all my dreams.

First impression: Preston Highway looked old and beaten down.

Second: Madhouse traffic along the Interstate, around the airport and fairgrounds; and I could see my younger self, picking up my papers for delivery, and wondering where the hell all the people were going.

Third: No matter how many times I’ve made this pilgrimage as an adult, I’m still surprised about how small and close everything seems. I still carry that childhood perspective of this personal universe. Fayette Avenue to Fern Valley Road? So way out there! But really only a few minutes’ drive.

Fourth impression: Entering into my old neighborhood is like going through a decompression chamber—up too fast—getting the “bends,” kind of feeling. It’s not just memories—it’s the eruption to the surface of all I’ve carried with me.

Overall impression: The closer to home the more shocking the change. The streets are the same. The trees are the same. The sounds of the birds are the same. But all is different. Value City Furniture stands where my school used to be. Lots of other stores instead of the two little farms where I delivered the papers. No Doug Shirley on that corner. No Kenny Jackey in that house with the Magnolia Stone. No Butch Boblitt, or Moody kids, or Georgie Miller. No kids outside at all. No ball games. No shouting. No dogs wandering from back porch to back porch. Too many cars out front. Too many cars, nobody walking or biking or running.

A train was standing along the tracks. Okay. But the planes were obviously using a different flight path and were no longer scraping the top of our chimney as they roared overhead.

And our old house. Which one is it? And no Lynn Werst next door, or Miss Borman, or Davy Hamilton or Sarah Mary or Louis. And no Ruth Seraphine putting the sheets on the line to dry. No Dudley, smoking a cigarette in the swing and looking for the Purple Martins to come enjoy the double-decker house he had cleaned out for them.

Everything the same. Everything changed. Everything empty.

I drove back to my motel, at the Interstate intersection and on an industrial corridor. Then, at the light to turn into the service drive to the motel, a young woman stood, facing the traffic, holding up a cardboard sign that said “Homeless.”

Homeless.

It killed me to think. Asphalt, and concrete, and car exhaust, and noise, and decay, and confusion, and no retreat–no one to touch the pain, and no one to share the questions with no answers.

There are three things that abide—these three: Faith, Hope, and Love. And the greatest is Love.

But love lives in family. Not family contained by a house, but family that overflows into home—family that is fueled by an instinct that EVERYONE hungers to belong. Everyone should belong. We must be restless until everyone rests and belongs.

The Apostle Paul called all believers in cross-formed love, adelphoi. We used to translate that “brothers,” but now know to translate it “brothers and sisters.” But adelphoi live in a cross-formed family in which people believe no one belongs outside. All belong inside. And we ache as Jesus ached to see anyone homeless and family-less. Jesus thought and ached like a hen aches to gather every chick and every sheep–even those outside the fold. Even those way outside.

So, while concrete can be poured, and “progress” can whiz by and pollute and destroy, there are things that abide: Faith, hope, love, and the belonging we all hunger for.

At his funeral we were reminded by a dear friend that Jim, my big brother, presided for years over youth athletics on Louisville’s south side. He saw lots of kids who wanted to take part, but didn’t have much in the way of family. So he welcomed them into his. He gave discounts. He gave candy. He taught kids how to follow the rules that mattered, and how to break the rules that got in the way. He helped them shoot off a lot of fireworks, and eat more and more candy. Through it all he was the Good-Time Charlie for three generations. And the spirit of a cross-formed love that rippled and shaped Jim’s spirit, keeps rippling out for all the generations to come

And so, there were lots of sobs going on at Evergreen Funeral Home this week. But before they sealed Jim’s body behind the granite at the Mausoleum, there was a good-ole funeral rule-breaking song to celebrate his spirit that can’t be contained. I guess it was called “Baby Shark,” a song the grandkids and their friends knew Jim hated. But they also knew he loved to tease and to be teased, he loved to break the boundaries of family, and he loved it when people broke the rules that got in the way. And so they sang it for Jim and for all of us, so that we could cherish the things that abide.

The ripples keep on. And these things abide.

 

 

Thinking of Death Surrounded by Life

On this sixth day of May, 2019, Connie and I have just come off of hosting a four-day, Gordon Watt-led training clinic for sheepdogs, and leading two days of sheepdog demonstrations at Kline Creek Farm in DuPage County. And like Lilli Von Shtupp in “Blazing Saddles,” let’s face it, we’re pooped.

At my age, and in my condition, with knees that feel for all the world like they are much older than the rest of my body, I sometimes think about my own death. How will I handle it? What will it feel like? What will meet me on the other side? Will my faith let me down, and will there be no “other side?” Golden streets and crystal fountains do not excite me. What am I to hope for and expect?

This morning—the morning after the demonstrations, these thoughts crept into me as I was exercising the dogs around our alfalfa fields. Fields of deep green, dripping and sparkling with last week’s rain. Sky of blue. Tree leaves finally bursting from their buds. The air filled with the trills of house finches, robins, red-wing blackbirds, meadow larks, and noisy sparrows and starlings. Thinking of death, surrounded by life.

Death thoughts numbed me a bit—wetted my eyes, clenched my chest. I thought, of course, of the halo of holiness that was spun around me by mother, father, faithful pastors, noble friends, and heroes. All these things formed me, but what would happen to me after they shoveled the soil on my casket or consigned me to the flames of the crematory?

Then that organic, cosmic, bright green birthing thing that surrounded me finally seized my imagination, and I felt invited to rightfully take my place as part of the All.

I recalled the cardinal teaching of the Buddha–that striving to possess is the problem, and that “no-self” is the path to the solution. As a Christian, clinging in my particularly western way of understanding the resurrection of the Body, I used to be repelled by this idea of ultimately losing my self in death. But, if I now understand the Buddha rightly, the self is what we construct when we cling and strive to differentiate ourselves from all “other” things. The emptying of self may well be a necessary step toward living (and dying) not as islands, but as part of the sea.

But are we western Christians reading our Bibles rightly? Wasn’t the first Adam an earth creature, made of the dust of the earth, and made a living creature not by it’s own physiology, but by virtue of sharing in the breath of the Creator? Before all the “chosen people” stuff, doesn’t the Bible fix us firmly among all the people’s of the earth ala Genesis 10? Isn’t anyone chosen not chosen to bless—to heal and nurture the webwork that connects us to the All? Have we ever begun the plumb the depths of Jesus as the vine and we the branches; or of the image that “all things have been created through him and for him…[and] in him all things hold together (Colossians 1.16-17)?

And right smack dab in the middle of this “no-self” idea, funded as it is with the idea of the life of all things, and resonating as it does with Jesus the Vine and the holding together, is the glory of difference. When Connie and I demonstrate the grace of Border Collies it’s natural to stress that each dog is different. And that is a great good thing. We used our Hector for the first time in a demonstration yesterday. Excited by the crowds he reverted to his old ways of bossing the sheep around with little (or no) regard to my commands. It was a bit embarrassing to me as a so-called handler. But he was indeed showing off his amazing power over the sheep. Tired and hot with their fleeces still intact, the sheep tried to hide in the midst of the panels the farm volunteers had set up in the shape of a Maltese cross. These barriers frustrated our other, much more obedient and careful dogs; but Hector, like a little bulldozer, had little regard for the obstacles, and quickly pushed the sheep to me.

So, I explained the audience, “All dogs are different, just like people. But each has gifts to share.”

And when I compared that to the people of the world, and commented on the widespread, irrational fear of immigrants and refugees who are coming to our borders, I could see many nods of agreement.

But what about this on the cosmic scale? On the scale of eternity? What of the Buddhist, or vine-and-branches, or Holy Eucharist scale. Are we not invited to a banquet that does away with the poisonous aspects of self? Is this vision true: The “other side” is a banquet with guests from the highways, and byways, and alleyways—all those places where we relegate the in-valid ones? Will we not be seated with the people we fear and have even grown to hate?

Perhaps this loss of self is a doorway to the “abundant life” of difference! Perhaps the loss of our selves is something good. Perhaps we should have taken care of it a long time ago when we realized how our own insecurity, and competitiveness, and fear of difference were impoverishing our lives. Perhaps what awaits us on the “other side” is a dissolving for the sake of a Great Rejoining. Perhaps hope is indeed one of the things that remains; but hope not for a new hermetically sealed, resurrected body that keeps coveting and acquiring, and indulging, but a rejoining of us to the eternal birthing that surrounds us every day of our lives—something like the perfect love that casts out all fear (1 John 4.18).

 

Sheepdog Demonstrations 2019

Sheepdog demonstrations show what working dogs can do. Photo by Sandi Scott

Sheepdog demonstrations show what working dogs can do. Photo by Sandi Scott

For all of human history there has been a bond between people, land, and animals. The Creator God has given us to each other. In spite of the industrialization of agriculture we all feel the need for to feel part of this circle of belonging.

Sheepdog demonstrations are the way Connie and John try to help people get in touch, or stay in touch, with this beautiful harmony. We try to explain what a marvel it is that sheep provide people with a wonder fabric that keeps us warm, even when wet, and breathes enough to be worn comfortably in the heat of summer. We demonstrate the miracle of the Border Collie who, with a little understanding and direction from human partners, will work its heart out moving, sorting, and penning sheep with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of stress.

We have seen thousands of people be fascinated and inspired by these demonstrations all over the western suburbs of Chicago, and into northern Illinois. This year we will make our first foray into central Illinois as we bring the dogs to work the flock at the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site south of Charleston.

Here is the calendar of our demonstrations:

  • Sunday, April 7, Naper Settlement, 523 S. Webster Street, Naperville, IL 60540, demonstrations at 1:45 and 2:45 p.m. There is an entrance fee for the Settlement, and there will be other demonstrations at this historic living museum on this day.
  • Saturday and Sunday, May 4 and 5, Kline Creek Farm (DuPage County Forest Preserve), 1N600 County Farm Road, West Chicago, IL, 60185, four demonstrations between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. each day. No entrance fee. The weekend will include sheep shearing, traditional spinning and weaving, and tours of the 1890s farm.
  • Saturday, May 25, Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site, 402 S Lincoln Hwy, Lerna, IL 62440 (8 mi south of Charleston, IL). Details to be determined.
  • Saturday, June 1, St. James Farm (DuPage County Forest Preserve), 2S541 Winfield Road, Warrenville, IL 60555, four demonstrations between noon and 3:00 p.m. This is part of the Farm’s annual Family Field Day which offers a host of farm related exhibits and demonstrations.
  • Saturday, June 29, Peck Farm Park (Geneva Park District), 4038 Kaneville Road, Geneva, IL 60134, demonstrations between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. as part of the Farm’s 150th Birthday Celebration.
  • Saturday, July 20, we will do a morning demonstration at the big Lions Cllub Summerfest and Antique Tractor Show at the Lion’s Club Park in Waterman, Illinois. There’s much more than tractors at the show–something for all ages, including cowboys and old-timey baseball and a regular carnival atmosphere. The Park is at 435 S. Birch Street in Waterman.

Jesus Calls All Religions to Repent and Reform

If Christians understood Jesus as he came to us, as the One who calls all religions to reform and repentance, we would listen to and respect, and not ignore or hate, the voices of all other faiths.

Concerned citizens gathered this past week at the Islamic Center of DeKalb, Illinois, to share grief, hope, and shared humanity in the face of the massacre of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was one more bit of evidence that people with hatred in their hearts and guns in their hands can, tragically, cause immense bloodshed; but people with respect for the infinite worth of each human life will always be victorious.

As a Christian, I take heart in the thought that respect, and even love, for all people is a quality that is cherished and espoused by the faith I live for. I believe that this quality is alive in the hearts of good people in all of our denominations. However, there is a viral ideology out there that has the power to infect and degrade universal respect of shared humanity.

That ideology is known as Christian, or evangelical Zionism. To be precise, it is neither Christian nor evangelical. Born out of a false view of biblical prophecy, this ideology leads people to think of God’s love for all the world’s peoples as being trumped by an almighty, cold chain of inevitability. This imagined “divine plan” is all about an idolatry of fate and has nothing to do with the self-giving love of a sovereign God that we see and celebrate in Lent, Holy Week and Easter. The idea that the future we hope for includes a rapture to heaven of true believers to make way for the destruction of despised and rejected infidels is an abomination, and a total distortion of the biblical witness. When Christians are fooled into searching for prophesied signs of God’s plan in the events in Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East, they inevitably look past God’s real, eternal concern: the lives of all of the peoples there—Jewish, Muslim, Christian and secular.

The most tragic effect of this is that it has caused some of the most powerful people in our nation and our world to disregard the real suffering of Palestinians, and to discount their human rights and needs in the equations of foreign affairs. Hundreds of thousands of them have languished for generations in refugee camps, hoping some day to breathe free. Meanwhile, no less a central figure in our nation’s diplomacy than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly declares that this kind of rapture ideology and blinkered understanding steers his vision and work.

It is essential that all people of good will treasure the religion of Judaism, recoil at the horrors of the Holocaust, learn the lessons from that tragedy, and stand against all anti-Semitism. It is also essential that we support the state of Israel as a bulwark of democracy in a region with far too much brutal autocracy, and stand against terrorism as the threat against human decency that it is. But, for the sake of the respect and love for all humanity that the biblical God champions, we must also reject any ideology that causes us to think of people—real flesh and blood people—as mere pawns in a warped vision of some heavenly great game of chess.

The Letter to the Ephesians asserts that Jesus Christ, on the cross, broke down the dividing wall between peoples. In 2 Corinthians 5.17 the Apostle Paul says that in Christ there is a new creation. The impact of Christ is such because he was not the agent of any particular religion, but a power from God to call all religion to repentance and to reformation.

It is inevitable that part of the exercise of religion is to define boundaries in the hope of defining identity and belonging. “We believe this. We do thus. We live and die for these things. And this distinguishes us from them.”

But the universal restoration that Peter talks about in Jerusalem on Solomon’s Portico of the Temple in Acts 3.17-21, means that God’s aim is to break down much of those things we build up in our religion. All that divides is to be swept away. All that gathers is to be championed.

The Banquet of the Blessed and Unblessed

Reflections on the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

 

Amy-Jill Levine has a nice Youtube presentation on Jesus’ parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son (the Gospel for this Sunday in Luke 15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIxpPZvqGdI&t=6s

Levine would rather call them the parables of the Frantic Woman, the Frantic Shepherd, and the Frantic Father – all looking for the lost. But she also, wisely, ties these together and points out that Jesus is setting us up for a twist. God is like these people who cherish and will leave no stone unturned in search of the lost coin, the lost lamb, and the lost son. But the whole thing with the son is complicated by the fact that there is another son who seems lost in the shuffle.

Levine points out that upon the return of the prodigal, there is a great banquet given, and the dutiful, stay-at-home son is left in the fields unknowing. He is so forgotten that it is only a household slave who sort of accidentally goes out to inform him that the table is set.

Levine goes on to wisely connect this story with the biblical stories that have other unblessed sons: Cain, Ishmael, and Esau. And this parable of Jesus opens a window for us to see them and to ask, what about them. Are we to think that God forgets those other sons – has God forgotten to count them?

No! No! It cannot be. The father in Jesus’ story says, “All I have is yours.” The banquet is for all these unblessed.

Yes, we must remember the unblessed. And we must lift up this coming banquet that is in all of our futures. A banquet for the scattered lost sons and daughters—the whole creation is aching and groaning and waiting for the revealing of those lost children of God, and for their gathering, and for the Great Banquet that God has promised.

And while creation waits, we who are ambassadors of the good news, have a responsibility to be part of the party of reconciliation and gathering. So says our second reading for this coming Sunday of Lent, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21:

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

In other words, we are to go out into the fields and find those unblessed of every size and shape, and to tell them the banquet is for them and for all of us.