If Not Now, When?

 

This is certainly an opportune time. A kairos moment as the Bible might put it. The Lord has called us to love one another and now is the time for strategic, bold, and courageous love in action.

We have an unusual man in the Presidency–perhaps without parallel in American history, and so in global history. All American Presidents, good or bad, have tried to serve all the people with dignity. This President panders only to his “base.” He respects only those who, support him unwaveringly today. What you did yesterday doesn’t matter. This President only possesses, and only uses, the tools of bluster and bullying that have served him well in the real estate business. But these are the very tools that divide the people and bring contempt upon the office of Presidency and upon the place of the United States in the family of nations.

The phenomenon that now makes this a particular time of crisis is that there are groups of people who recognize many of the character flaws of this President, but who make excuses for his behavior and support him in any way they can despite those flaws. They do so in the vain hope that in his exaggerated appetite for power he will drop some crumbs their way. Republicans hope for control of government. Their benefactors in business want less regulation and taxation for the sake of more profits. Evangelicals hope for a Supreme Court to roll back limits on their influence and roll back the laws that protect reproductive choice.

All of you who support this man, please wake up!! The man in the Presidency holds all the principles you think you share with him in utter contempt. He has amply demonstrated this in his career as he has run vastly different flags up the flag poles until he gets enough salutes. And he never, ever, takes responsibility for his own mistakes. He never cleans up his own messes. He never flinches at throwing his allies under the bus when it seems expedient. So, eventually he will do the same to you.

The saddest thing of all is that these many supporters of this President, people, full of resentment over their own lack of power, and full of appetite for power at any price, are allowing this President to destroy our fundamental democratic institutions. The bedrock of all these institutions consists of the pursuit of truth and fairness and our system of checks and balances. This President now attacks all time-honored principles of objectivity. Daily he attacks what he childishly calls the MSM (main stream media) and “fake news,” when they have only followed long established processes of fact checking, and even when they have largely only shared what he himself has said and done. He sees nothing wrong with his own allies making vast profits by the public policies they set. This President blatantly undermines the all important freedom of the press, the independence of the courts and even now his own staff and the entire intelligence establishment and the Department of Justice. And he has a well practiced habit of, whenever he is caught out for his own blatant crimes and faults, concocting lies by which he attempts to smear his opponents with the very same kinds of sins. The upshot of all of this is that our citizens are being fooled into thinking there is no such thing as truth at all. They are being made to think that anyone with a gift for government is an agent of the “deep state,” that anyone who points out the President’s mistakes or lies is out to destroy him, and that anyone who advocates cooperation with other nations is selling out American sovereignty. So citizens are being fooled into mistrusting any honest government and trusting only their strong-man President.

And so, we should embrace the ageless wisdom of Rabbi Hillel, recorded in the Pirkei Avot and the Mishnah: “If I am not for myself who is for me? and being for my own self what am I? If not now when?”

We need to act on enlightened self interest. We need to act for the sake of our community, our society, our nation and our world. But that last part is most urgent now. This is the time for action. We cannot allow this President to establish a new normal. He is President and will be for four years (God willing, no more!). But we are the nation. And if we refuse to be bullied or to have sand thrown in our faces–if we refused to be silenced, but speak up often and loudly, we can join our voices and make a difference.

We are waiting, defiantly for the election of 2018 when we can cut away some of this President’s cheering section in congress. We are leaning out toward 2020 when we have the opportunity to elect a brand new President who is an adult and is not so pathologically self-centered. But these dates will come up on us fast, so we must make this a fruitful waiting. We must talk to each other, listen to each other, respect each other, and make plans with each other to bring this nation back from the brink of a very bleak new normal.

If we are giving our President the benefit of the doubt, we should say, “Resist till he grows up.” But it is a bit late in the game to be expecting him to change. He has not the talents nor the character nor the inclination to be presidential. So we must call him out, resist, and act.

If not now, when?

The Beauty of Cooperation--The Comedy of Competition

Last weekend the dogs, Betty and Nell, and I, took part in a sheepdog competition. Though the kind of sheepdog trial that we partake in does indeed test almost all of the skills of dogs and handlers that are called upon in practical flock work, I find myself almost always having to check myself when my dogs come away with low scores, or even no scores at all because of disqualification.

There are very many ways to lose points and to be disqualified in a sheepdog trial. It is, almost by definition, a cruel sport. There are many ways to find yourself and your dog out of the prize list. In real farm work you simply shrug these things off, and perhaps quietly stop your dog, regroup, and start over with the right moves rather than the wrong ones.

But in sheepdog trials you get tunnel vision. You sometimes get fooled into thinking you or your dog are no good because of one or two slipups. In fact, odds are, every dog who dares to go out on such a field, with top competition, is still a miracle in motion for their instinct and their skill at moving sheep. And most of the handlers do quite well moving sheep about on their farms or home flocks.

Come to think about it, just about every sport humans have invented–every test of skill there is, is a great and almost silly abstraction. Life takes hard work, strength, stamina, speed and precision. But, in our sports or games we always verge on the ridiculous. We put goal keepers in front of nets. We make the target as small as we can. We stretch ourselves.

Take the spelling bee as an example. Every year there is a ritual we go through where we put a story or two or three on the front page of the papers about the kid who wins the spelling bee. These days it is usually an Asian-American who wins. And always–always that child has had to endure round after round of spelling some ridiculously obscure words. Today we have spell checking software, but some of the words used in the spelling bee can’t even be found in those applications.

This is sport. This is the nature of competition. And we love it when the task is next to impossible, and someone has dedicated their life to being the very best at it.

And the rest are losers. In fact, almost everyone is a loser for the sake of the one who is very best. And those losers feel terrible about it. They came so tantalizingly close, but they just missed.

It is a comedy, isn’t it? Grown men hitting little balls around the hills and into tiny holes–and spending a fortune on expensive clubs and lessons–and getting drunk and cussing, and smashing their expensive club against a tree if they flub a shot. A child breaking down and crying because they left out that all important second “t” in scherenschnitte. What in the world is scherenschnitte? Or being embarrassed about that wonderful dog of yours just because on this day it couldn’t read your mind better when you tooted out all those commands on your whistle.

All the sports and games in the world amount to a great way to kill time and even get your blood pumping faster. You might, once in a while, proclaim to the world that you are number one, and a winner. But never forget, it is all a big joke.

But if it’s beauty you are after, try cooperation. My good mentor, Gordon Watt, was working with my dog, Betty, and me, on blind outrunning–that is, sending the dog to gather sheep over or around hills or woods and out of sight. Betty is quite used to moving gracefully around sheep and bringing them to me. But now I am asking her to bend out the right way when she hasn’t a clue where the sheep are and so doesn’t have anything to bend away from. And at one point, when I am whistling and speaking commands calmly and clearly, and Betty is bending out just right, and heading the right way over the hill, Gordon says, “Now you’re helping your dog!”

Of course that’s what I was always trying to do. That’s what Better was trying to do for me–helping me get the sheep. But now we are making contact. Now we are a team.

And that’s beautiful. That is the most beautiful thing in life, I think. That’s what makes flock work with the dogs so beautiful at home–so beautiful that we can see our dogs relax and enjoying life so much that they seem to smile about it.

Once in a great while sport can get at this, as when the Soviet hockey team skated and passed the puck in magnificent circles around their opponents. But it amazed and frustrated the fans of the teams they beat–the masses of people who think hockey consists of simply knocking people’s teeth out–the people who are stuck in the hilarious comedy of pure, brute competition that produces one winner and a pile of big, fat losers.

 

Merlin and Bald Eagles Add Drama

You can’t beat beautiful raptors for excitement.

About a year ago I was running the dogs and a huge bird flew up from the field. Could it have been a bald eagle?

About six months ago, sure enough, one cruising along parallel to my car as I drove down Airport Road.

Then Connie and I found the nest, and saw one on a nearby branch. Then, recently, I saw a pair of them perching, then going off to hunt. Good friends of ours saw a couple of eaglets sticking their heads up that same day. And I snapped some good shots.

A pair of bald eagles nesting about a mile from Heatherhope. Photo by John

A pair of bald eagles nesting about a mile from Heatherhope. Photo by John

I have also seen a big falcon flying about in winter and early spring. I think, because of its light color on the underside, that it could possibly be a prairie falcon–but they are very uncommon around here.

Yet I keep finding piles of feathers about the yard, and even inside the barn once.

Then, yesterday, I looked out the window, and there was a beautiful falcon, in the midst of a pile of feathers, finishing off his meal. I snapped quite a few pictures; and looking at the bird books, I feel pretty sure it is a Merlin–which is a bit smaller than a prairie falcon, but doesn’t have that bird’s distinctive mustache that curves down from its beak. Here is a couple pictures that I took.

I still think the other bird I’ve seen flying in the past might be a prairie falcon, since it has the light underside, unlike the Merlin. But we will see.

In any case, these birds are quite dramatic, and fun to watch. I inspected the remains of the bird the Merlin killed and ate, quite near our house, and it was interesting to find the head and attached beak of the dead bird, picked very clean indeed. I am guessing it had once been a grackle.

The Merlin, which migrates through Illinois, adds drama to our day. Photo by John

The Merlin, which migrates through Illinois, adds drama to our day. Photo by John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Merlin falcon in our back yard, finishing off his dinner of a grackle. Photo by John

A Merlin falcon in our back yard, finishing off his dinner of a grackle. Photo by John

Fences With Gates

The center of our philosophy and our theology here at Heatherhope is our belief that God gathers and Satan scatters. If you have an allergy to God- and Satan-talk, then at least consider this basic notion that we all share a need to belong, and there are forces at large that discourage and encourage the fulfillment of that shared need. The Epistle of John says, “God is love.” We add, “God gathers.”

So, all of us have strengths and weaknesses, and we feel most at home and most fulfilled when we are able to help others and help them belong with our gifts and when we are lifted up and drawn near where we fall short.

Living at peace with this kind of belonging is what holds us in a good relationship with society around us. Living at war with it keeps us in tension.

A perennial problem in our political world is that people have lined up on two sides of a divide. One side believes society as a whole can only be strong and good when individuals are strong and good. Liberty to do as we wish with what we have as individuals is all important, and any attempt to engineer positive outcomes by government and its powers detracts from individual liberty and from the health of society. The other side of this divide believes that we cannot produce strong and good individuals without good government and good systems; and we must give up some individual liberty to achieve the good of the whole.

An interesting test case of these two perspectives is public health in general and vaccination in particular. The disease of measles was on the verge of being eliminated in the United States when a group of campaigners began to claim that there was strong reason to suspect that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine was causing autism in children. A host of studies has thoroughly debunked those claims, yet there are communities in the nation where parents have refused to have their children immunized.

Those who believe healthy societies make healthy individuals have on their side the argument that the protection of each of us as individuals depends on very high immunization rates so that infections cannot spread far and wide.

But there is a weakness to the “good society leads to good individual” argument. The chief tool that is always lifted up as making society good is education. If we simply help people understand the facts and the consequences of their actions we will build the good society.

The weakness of this idea was exposed by a study of people who were initially hesitant to immunize their children with the MMR vaccine. They were shown a large amount of information from research that clearly debunked the claim that the vaccine caused autism. The result was that those initially hesitant to immunize gave much less credence to that particular myth, but they also were even more adverse to having their children vaccinated.

This shouldn’t be a big surprise. In 1954, the social psychologist, Gordon Alport, published his book, The Nature of Prejudice. One of the concepts he noted there was that all of us have a keen ability, when presented with clear evidence that our prejudices are wrong, to simply “re-fence” them. I think of this as the “Yeahbut” defence. Deep down we may even have an uncomfortable feeling that we have built our notions on a feeble foundation, and that we are acting irrationally. But reason be damned, it is our personal worth that is being questioned, and we cannot give an inch. So, we say, “Yeah, but…” and we go on acting as we had before.

Our society and our individuals need more than good schools or good educational campaigns. We also need good families and churches where a deeper kind of spiritual formation can take place. There is not a single societal program that can be “sold” to the public without there being a deep and broadly shared worldview that causes people to see every individual as sacred, but also the community, and even the family of humankind as sacred. This is the idea of the holy. This is something that we learn not from books or software programs, but from living in community and sharing in the ancient traditions of philosophy and religion.

Fences are quite important on this farm where we keep sheep. But so is moving the stock from place to place to keep the grass from being overgrazed and dying out. So we need gates. We need them in the right places. We need to keep them in good repair and free from ice and snow and briars and brambles. We need to have good dogs that can move the sheep where they don’t want to go so that we can medicate them or just get them to fresh food and water.

The good shepherd knows that there is a place for fences and a place for gates. And the Good Shepherd works always to gather, not to divide and scatter. She knows the health and strength of each little lamb depends on the health of the entire flock. She knows how important it is to have other flocks out there where she can find rams and replacement ewes that are healthy. She knows it because she has found good information in books and online resources, but more importantly because she has been around other good shepherds who have lived this way. They have, slowly perhaps, but surely, discarded ways that scattered and weakened the flock, and adopted the ways that gather and make the whole flock strong.

 

Heatherhope Believes In A Dynamic Church

Easter morning listening to the radio. National Public Radio represents the best of broadcast journalism. But I heard exactly two references to the great Christian Festival Day of Easter. One was an offhand comment, just before the segment with “puzzle master Will Shorts,” in which the host noted that many listeners would possibly be away from the radios at Easter egg hunts. The other was the obligatory quick piece about the Pope’s message to the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City for an Easter message (He’s still for peace, by the way).

That about sums up the popular perception of the church today: a monolithic, authoritarian organization with a bit of superstitious nonsense out at the fringes.

Here at Heatherhope Farm we hope to stand up for the real church: a powerful and ancient dynamic.

This dynamic has many vectors at work, but the two main ones are the power of charisma and the authority of office. The German theologian of the Hans von Campenhausen, who died in 1989, wrote a fine exegetical and sociological exploration of these two vectors in his book, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries. Dairmaid MacCulloch, in his wonderful survey of Christian history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, summarizes this examination nicely noting that in the earliest years of the church there was a rough balance between mobile and local ministries. The mobile was made up of traveling prophets and teachers and had a rather fluid way at looking at functions. There were apostles and prophets and a diversity of “gifts” for ministry. Meanwhile there was a developing local ministry with a “grade known interchangeably as bishops or presbyters, together with a separate grade of deacons” who helped with the Eucharist and carried out the daily routine of the church. The “local ministry” was motivated by a concern for presenting a common front visa vie the critics, competitors, and persecutors of the church. They were the ones who were more and more concerned to define the boundaries of belief and the identity of the church for the sake of this ongoing struggle to survive and thrive (MacCulloch, pp 131-133.) This vector of the church went on to produce what MacCulloch calls a “monarchical, episcopal” church that began to insist on the authority of a single bishop in each large city of the Empire, a defined canon of Scripture, and more closely defined theology.

In the 2nd century, a stream of the “mobile ministry” called the Montanists got caught up in a spiral of conflict with the monarchical, episcopal strain of the church. The Montanists valued wandering prophets and teachers. They championed outpourings of the Holy Spirit. As in the New Testament times they had no problem with women being apostles or prophetesses. They saw real authority coming out of charisma (MacCulloch, pp 138-141).

The bishops of the local ministries saw the claims to charisma-based authority as a threat to the stability they had worked so hard to maintain. With the Roman Empire buffeted by barbarian tribes and increasingly corrupt leadership, and with the church itself experiencing the first Empire-wide persecutions, the monarchical bishops were in no mood for toleration of the wildness and diversity of the spirit-led.

But this back and forth was not a one-off thing for the church. The tension between charismatic power and ecclesiastical authority has really shaped the church of all ages. Of course, history is written by the victors, and the more priestly, status-quo oriented voices of the church have been the victors in the sense that they have managed to shape the chronicles. But it does not take too much acumen to read between the lines. Desert Fathers, monks and nuns, university teachers, humanists and socialists, reformers, pacifists, artists, poets, confraternities–they have all been censured, branded as heretics, and at times burned at the stake; but they have never been silenced. Every “heresy” you can think of lives on today. Today the unbelievers and free thinkers denounce the “organized church;” but they choose not to be honest with just how disorganized the church really is.

There is so much more to Easter than egg hunts and pontification. There is more to the church than constitutions, faith statements, creeds, and official denominational web sites will ever disclose.

The church is what goes on behind altars and pulpits on Sunday mornings, but it is also fueled mightily and constantly by eruptions of the Spirit at food pantries, AA meetings, yoga classes, street protests, backyard fence conversations, and hospital bedsides–twenty-four hours a day and in millions of startling, spontaneous, unpredictable ways, all around the world.

So, Heatherhope Farm would like to go on record as standing with this, the real and the dynamic church. There will never be a static balance of charisma and authority in this church. It will always be a struggle. Always a tension and dialectic.

Connie and I love being part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is a true expression of the church of the ages, even though it takes millions of “man-hours” for it to pass resolutions to do studies and finally to take action about anything important–such as loving our (unlovable) neighbors. Connie and I love our community of faith at Salem Lutheran Church in Sycamore. We are joyful that each week we can kneel at the altar rail and receive the bread and wine and experience the over-arching unity of God’s people that Christ accomplished on the cross. We know that all people are God’s people, and we are thankful that the Spirit has kept this table open to all the poor, the lame, the cripple, and the blind–all the invalid people of the world, for over 2,000 years, despite any exclusionary impulse of priests and pastors. We want that altar to be there. We want that liturgy to be sung. And so we embrace bishops and the “organized church.”

But we also rejoice in that disorganized part of the church with all those invalids that find their way to the altar of the Great Banquet. We rejoice in the messiness that comes with this unauthorized infiltration; and we know it is a godly, creative energy that emerges when we eat and drink with the invalids. But it is worth it, because it is always the misfits who lead the way to the future in the church.

We at Heatherhope affirm feminism. We understand that women have been told to be quiet and obedient, but if they hadn’t been noisy and disruptive the good news of Christ’s resurrection would never have gotten out to the world.

We want to reach out to the poor, and we want to be aware of the ways our own privileges distort the ways we see government and society.

We know the monarchical/episcopal church has not always wanted to see these invalid ones, but we know homosexuals and sexually mixed-up people have always been at the banquet, and have always helped keep the church from rotting away.

And since we know God’s great end-time banquet has places set for all the invalid ones–the ones without papers, we rejoice in the immigrants and refugees that have made our church and our world a rich place.

In order to stand with this dynamic church we take this good old earth seriously. We take history seriously. When people want to cop out and drop out and leave this world by pretending to be “super-human”–by trying to turn to the spiritual, apart from mundane messiness and politics and good gardening and ecology and apart from taking responsibility for the dirt beneath our feet–they are turning their backs on the church. We believe that the church affirms this world. This is the world that Jesus lived and died to redeem.

We believe charismatics and church authorities need each other. The gate crashers and the gate keepers need each other. The authorities have invested in stability, charismatics in the wind of God that blows where it wills. But the Spirit/wind/breath of God has been blowing over the primordial waters from the beginning of creation. She wants to stay here with us as we all struggle and converse and work together. She alone can help us gather and belong to each other as we work things out.

I have been working with a dear friend of Heatherhope Farm, and seminary student, Denise Rode, on a close reading of a potent pericope from Luke, chapter 14. Jesus is teaching us about how to behave as guests when taking our seats at a banquet. He teaches us too about how to be hosts. He tells us that in our race to have standing, we may miss our place in community. He tells us when we invite people we should not aim for a payback that cheapens others, but one that elevates others. We should invite those God is looking for, the in-validated ones–those that many others are looking to exclude, to disqualify, to deem unworthy. Jesus teaches us that no person is unworthy, because all are gifts from God. That’s the way it is in God’s future, perfected reign. That’s the way it is to be in God’s reign among us today that remains all too less-than-perfect. Renounce the scramble for the first seats. Take the last place of belonging. Accept God’s invitation. And accept God’s invitation to be inviting to those who have been invalidated from the invitation lists of others. This is what the Spirit is freeing us to do.

And this is why the church is so much more exciting and vast than egg hunts and Popes.

Passion Sunday Petitions

Lifting our voices and turning toward God, let us pray for the church, the earth, and all who are in need.

A time of silence.

Lord of compassion, as we the people of your family, the church, conclude our Lenten journey with the walk through Jerusalem to the cross, help us to understand that Jesus’ pain and sorrow is the pain and sorrow of our neighbors. Jesus bleeds with the blood of child soldiers in the Congo. When Jesus is scourged, he screams out with the helplessness of every prisoner who is forsaken and tortured. We he feels forsaken, it is the loneliness despair of our neighbors he feels. When Jesus gasps for breath on the cross it is with the convulsions of the children of Syria poisoned by Sarin.    Lord, when we weep for Jesus, teach us to weep for our neighbors around the world whose wounds he takes upon him.

Hear us O God.

Your mercy is great.

Lord of forgiveness, as we walk through Jerusalem with Jesus this week, help us remember that Jesus took our guilt and nailed it to the cross. Help us remember that on the cross he breaks down the dividing walls that we, in our ignorance, keep building up. Help us remember that we are to live this day as resurrection people, freed from our sins and freed from the specter of a judgmental God, so that we may live not for ourselves but for our sisters and brothers–not for ourselves, but for our God.

Hear us O God.

Your mercy is great.

Lord of the Great Banquet of victory to come, We thank you for the Victory Feast of our Lord’s body and blood. We thank you for the young people who will join us for the first time at this Feast. And we pray that as we break this bread together and lift this cup of promise, that we are all strengthened to live as one, and to love one another as you have loved us. May that love we share bring healing to those you have given us to care for, including all those we mention before you now, aloud and in our hearts….

Hear us O God,

Your mercy is great.

Ash Wednesday Petitions

Creator God,  we who stand before you are dust,    and to dust we shall return. But you have breathed into our lips your Holy Breath, so we are also … yours. Help us this Lent to come alive to your Spirit within us. Break down the walls around our souls with which we shut out your forgiveness. As we look at ourselves in the mirror this day, give us eyes to see ashes – but ashes in the shape of the cross.

Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.

Loving Father, break down our own lack of faith in ourselves as your people, that shuts out your forgiveness. Break down that wall through the power of the cross we now wear upon us. Help us know that when you look at us, you see Christ and his righteousness. Free us from the shackles of our past shortcomings, to be excited and inspired by your love–that we may speak those little words and share those gentle touches that heal one neighbor at a time,   and so heal the world.

Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.

Faithful Lord, heal us of those things that keep us from accepting your forgiveness and feeling your healing. Shine your light and clear out those dark and damp places in our own hearts where we have stuffed down old grudges and hurt feelings–where we have kept track of those debts owed by others–where we cherish and chew on our resentments, and where we keep track of those we give ourselves permission to blame. Help us to forgive those who have trespassed against US so that we may fully be forgiven OUR trespasses. When we speak to those we love who are suffering, may Christ be in the ears of all who hear us–may they hear reconciliation. May they hear the Good News of your love and be healed.

Lord in your mercy… hear our prayer.

 

 

Say "No" to Fear

Remember those, “No Fear,” decals that young, tough men used to put on their pick-ups? Let’s bring them back and retool them to read, “No to fear.”

Talking with friends lately it is obvious that there is a great sadness enveloping us. We are sad because there are so many people who seem to be driven to do irrational things because of their fear.

One man approached two young Indian engineers in a Kansas bar. Asked what papers they had. Yelled at them to get out of his country. Then he shot them. He later bragged that he shot two Middle Eastern men. No, he shot two men who were helping make America great.

Citizens all over are happily eager to see Mexicans being deported; but then they are shocked when that means some of their most generous neighbors and most productive employees are being rounded up. They are shocked to see people who work hard to make this nation great are being thrown away.

As a nation we have put a team in the White House because they have made absolutely vague promises to solve all our problems at no cost to anyone but our enemies. And they have claimed the right to define who our enemies are for us. They have said that the “media” are our enemies when the freedom of the press is one of the most powerful things that has made America great.

We have done all these things because we have been told to be afraid–to be very afraid. Afraid of the “carnage,” afraid of the outsiders, afraid of the insiders, afraid of everyone in the “media” who does not agree that we should be very afraid.

 

At Heatherhope Farm we train dogs to herd sheep. We have good dogs who come with a herding instinct built right in. But we can destroy all that good instinct and really mess up our dogs minds with just one thing: runaway emotion. If we get angry or anxious when we are training or handling our dogs, the dogs get confused and go wrong.

So there is a “golden rule” in training and handling. If you find your emotions getting the best of you, stop. Take a break. As long as it takes to breathe deeply and quit letting your gut overrule your good sense. Do it, and calm down, and fix things.

 

It is a terribly sad thing to look around and see so many of our neighbors and family members and fellow citizens making deals with the devil, all out of fear. When we accept empty promises, and “alternative facts,” and bullying tactics, and infantile whining and blaming, and just plain bad character, all in the hope of getting some of our power and privilege back, we are indeed gambling away many of the things that made this nation great. We are sowing the wind and will surely reap the whirlwind.

As a Christian I know I have a loving God who owns and runs this world. That’s why I don’t have to fear any enemy that hasn’t already been conquered. Death and the devil are done with. So I can look at my fellow man and woman of any skin color, any heritage and any religion as my brother and sister. I can be a strong human being. I can be a strong citizen of this nation that has always been great because of these people. I can control my emotions–even my fear.

It’s time for us all to remember how great and good our God really is.  It’s time to remember how precious all our neighbors are that God gave to us. It’s time to follow our better angels and reclaim our best values as a nation.

It’s time to say “No to fear!”

Refugees, Trump and the Light of the World

Several months ago a team of people went into my heart and fixed it. They, in fact, probed with wires right up through both an artery and a vein in both of my upper thighs, right up into my heart, and burned a number of clusters of cells that were giving off electric signals that caused premature contractions and irregular heartbeats.

The team was large. I believe there were more than 15 or 20 people involved altogether, and they were a true United Nations of a team. I was in Loyola University Hospital near Chicago, but the members of my team were from all over the planet. The drugs they gave me smoothed out my memory quite a bit, but I do remember that the Philippines, South Korea, Brazil, India, and Belarus, and many other nations were represented.

I was amazed, and terribly grateful. Immigrants are no threat to me. They are a great blessing.

We are often tempted to think that people want to come to the United States for the things that glitter: for Hollywood or a nice car or plush carpet. But there is ample evidence that it not for glitter, but for a steady light. People testify all of the time that they long to come here because it is a land where they have the basic freedom to be who they are. They will not be hunted down or punished or killed for their race or their religion or their political ideas.

And many who come, and who want to come, are those who indeed have been beaten down and are desperate. They know there is, in our busiest port, a lady holding high a torch, and an inscription that reads,

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

 

This Sunday, many Christian congregations around the world, listened to an appointed reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 which included this charge of Jesus to his followers: “You are the light of the world.”

It is popular among many white, evangelical Christians, who are busy rationalizing their support for President Donald Trump, to say the values Jesus proclaimed are personal and not political. They come close to echoing atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought Christian values terribly weak, and who favored the virtue of a raw will to power. But surely it goes to the heart of our Lord’s message that his followers must be converted so that they would begin to see the invisible and love the unlovable all around them. Jesus certainly treasured the people Lady Liberty invites: the wretched refuse, the homeless, the tempest tossed.

If Jesus touched them, ate meals with them, and invited them to enjoy a front-row seat at God’s Great Party, then, at very least, Christians should not be shutting them out ourselves, or applauding our President when he does it in our name.

Martin Luther commented on this passage from Matthew by pointing out that Jesus was charging his apostles with an essential ministry. Luther notes that the purpose of this ministry is to “instruct souls and guide them to eternal life.” He says that

All the people in the world—kings, princes, lords, learned men, wise men, holy men—have to sit down while the apostles stand up, have to let themselves be accused and condemned in their wisdom and sanctity as men who know neither doctrine nor life nor the right relation to God.

I don’t believe for a moment that real people can be neatly categorized, but, for the sake of argument here, let’s say that those who believe strongly in social improvement through good government, need to consider that good government can only be sustained by people with good hearts. So Jesus’ “You are the light of the world,” means that Christian spokesmen have to not only talk social change, but also shine the light of the gospel. They need to call people to a relation to the God whose love is powerful and whose love is for all people–especially the “wretched.”

Again, for the sake of argument, those who believe government should get off our backs, need to admit that all life is bound up with politics. We are constantly involved with decisions about who gets to sit at the table and who shares power. And if we begin to say that Jesus was instructing us in personal values that have nothing to do with politics, and have nothing to do with good government, then we are pushing Jesus out of our lives completely. This sort of dishonesty turns us into hypocrites–into people who use God to get what they want. Or it turns us into enablers of the bullies of this world. It turns us into people who can denounce Donald Trump one month for his womanizing, greed and vulgarity; and then turn around, when he is about to come into power, and declare that he is heaven sent to be our savior.

 

That is, true Christians must acknowledge that the only way we can take up our cross and follow Christ, is to care for the powerless. And the only way to care for the powerless is to share in power. We cannot preach the coming kingdom of God without noting who will be first in that kingdom. They are not the ones who build walls to keep the refugees of the world out because of a vague fear. The foreigners, prostitutes, sinners, tax collectors, etc. will be at the table in God’s kingdom. Not the ones who have closed their hearts and closed their worlds to these people.

What Jesus did not exactly say, but what history has surely proven to be true, is that these wretched, when they come to our welcoming land, go on to make our universities, our hospitals, our society the very best in the world. Praise the Lord.

Jesus did point to a coming kingdom. But he also said it is at hand. He even said it is now. He urged us and urges us still through the proclamation of the gospel, to practice the politics of this rule of God right now as we ready ourselves for God’s future. Practice it now, with every breath and every step we take.

Jesus said the world needs apostles who join Lady Liberty in holding this torch up high. For the sake of our nation, our values and our faith, never put it under a bushel.

There Are Two Kinds of People

“There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who divide everyone into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

I put this in quotes because I’m sure I heard it somewhere before. I Googled it and found lots of funny and not so funny ways of playing around with this common, very human tendency of ours to put people into categories.

One problem is, we don’t quite fit in those boxes, do we?

A bigger problem is, it is very destructive. In fact, I believe it is the first victory of the devil in every spiritual battle, to convince us that this is the way the world is: People like us and people like “those people.” You know the kind.

Life on the farm never ever falls into the proper categories. I’m tempted often to go out and shoot sparrows and starlings because they are the two kinds of bad birds and the jays, woodpeckers, cardinals, chickadees, and others are definitely the good ones. Just then they amuse me with their chirping and their tenaciousness. I still hate them, but I can’t write them off.

I remember my badger-faced North Country Cheviot sheep. I had a few of them; and I couldn’t register them, because they had strips of color on their faces that disqualified them. I thought they looked more like Groucho Marx than badgers; but the thing that really impressed me was that they were always the very last ones to be caught when it came to vaccinations, and they fought like crazy at foot trimming time.

And the dogs. Oh, the dogs. I grew up with one dog at a time in the house. My experience was so limited I thought dogs were dogs. When I started talking to stock dog handlers they said all dogs were different, and I thought, “How different can they be?” The answer is, VERY different. Dogs from the very same litter, in my experience, are as varied as they can be.

And it seems to me the inexperience of stock dog handlers can be predicted by how confidently they pigeon-hole dogs: “This dog is hard and that one soft. This one is strong-eyed and this one loose-eyed.” The wiser they get the more trainers and handlers see all this as hooey. Dogs are really on an infinite continuum. And, just as humans can be neat in one aspect of their lives and messy in others, so dogs are full of surprises. And soft dogs can suddenly show a great ability to take pressure. And weaker dogs can get surprisingly strong if their trainer can just put them in the right situations.

Our Floss was so careful with sheep, and with keeping sheep marching in straight lines, that it appeared she was weak. But she was an absolute guided missile when it came to going in tight corners to muscle out stubborn ewes. And my youngest dog, Zac, appears so awfully tentative when working with my own mentor, Gordon Watt, but working with me he is way too abrupt, bold and pushy.

There is one DNA test that has been developed to show when a dog has a defect called Collie Eye Anomaly. It can tell us with 100% accuracy if the dog is affected by the defect, if the dog isn’t affected, but carries the gene to pass it on if it is mated with another carrier, and if the dog is completely clear of the gene. Breeders are, naturally thrilled that this marker can show the presence of this single genetic mutation. But there is no test to tell you if the dog is a good dog or a bad one. That depends on so many combinations of genes that we will never know. And that also depends on something absolutely mysterious. Indeed, I’ve seen one dog, completely blind, competing quite well with the best dogs in the world. I’ve seen a three-legged dog doing outstanding work. And I know for a fact that dogs that make their handlers pull out their hairs in frustration, go home and do miraculous work on the home place, lower their owner’s blood pressure, and make the oxytocin flow with fantastic snuggles in the barn or on the couch.

What a chaotic mess this world is. All the animals, all the people, all the things seem to defy our efforts to smugly categorize and polarize. It’s a messy world indeed, and that’s at the heart of its beauty.