Lent 2 B: Drawn Near by Our Pain

The Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent are…

Old Testament      Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16

Psalm                    Psalm 22:23–31

New Testament     Romans 4:13–25

Gospel                   Mark 8:31–38 or Mark 9:2–9

Early morning, the spring before last, I looked out to the shade of the big maple tree in the pasture. There was Bilbo, our Great Pyrenees guard dog, lying up against our very sickly ram lamb.

That lamb was star-crossed from its first night in the lambing pen. It was so tiny that it was able to crawl out between the railings of the pen, and was barely alive when I found it. The following week we did our best to get it to suck from its mother to get the all important colostrum, tube fed it, and medicated it with everything my friend, Chauncey, and I could think of.

We thought that the best chance for it would be with the mother in the field. The weather was warm and dry and the mother was standing for it. But there, that morning, the lamb lay, soiled with its own feces, and most pathetic looking.

The beautiful thing was Bilbo. Lying as close as he could get. Licking the lamb. Staying by him as I tried my best to do something.

The scene brought to mind a conversation I had with a neighboring pastor’s wife many years ago. She was a freshly minted first grade teacher. At dinner she did mention a couple of the things she was excited about in her new career. But then she said one thing she absolutely could not stand was a child with a runny nose.

I went away from that dinner certain that she would not make it far in teaching. Children have runny noses all the time. Sure they are sweet and lovely when they are well, but much of their lives they are pathetically needy.

Psalm 22 starts with that famous first line, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Typical of the most common of all the psalm types in the Bible, it is a lament. The entire first half of the psalm is all misery, and that haunting question, “Why? Why have you abandoned me to my fate?”

But just a verse and a half before this Sunday’s reading begins, the voice of the psalmist makes a turn: “I will tell others how great you are! You who fear the LORD praise him, because he did not despise or abhor affliction…he did not hide his face from me.”

Jesus prays aloud the first verse from the cross. What the evangelist knows is that Jesus has the last part in his heart—affirmed to the sound of the earthquake and opening of the tomb and rising from the dead.

But the laments of the psalms remind us that there are two parts of any and all afflictions that are far worse than physical pain. When the nurse asks us how our pain is, a one or a ten, a smiley face or a grimace, we might well ask, “Is there no 100 I can point to? Is there no shrieking face cartoon? It’s more than mere pain I am plagued by. It is far deeper.”

The first thing worse than the pain is the way others recoil from us, or the way they avoid making eye-contact. If you are a child in school whose teacher can’t bear the sight of your nose, you just want to disappear. If your friends stop naming the loved one you lost, or stop phoning  because they can’t stand to hear of your battles with sickness—the one thing that defines you now and fills your days—you fall into a virtual solitary confinement.

The second thing worse than pain is feeling God also despises you and hides his face from you. What makes illness and injury so much worse is feeling cursed.

We will hear a few lament psalms during Lent, with a great crescendo on Good Friday. But keep in mind that picture of Bilbo lying close to little lamb. Drawn to him. Licking him. It was Bilbo’s reason for living, to care for the lambs in is charge. And that is God’s job and reason for being. It’s God’s nature.

The great good news is that the LORD is not repulsed by our misery. God looks straight into our faces. God hears when we cry out. God always draws close.

God IS love. And even out of our misery we can share that truth with the world.

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Lent 1 B 2024:  God Wants It All

The Readings for the First Sunday of Lent are

Old Testament      Genesis 9:8–17

Psalm                    Psalm 25:1–10

New Testament     1 Peter 3:18–22

Gospel                   Mark 1:9–15

God wants it all. Sick religion leaves us reducing the good news to “God and me. My prayers, my self, me and God, me and eternity.”

Sick religion makes us defensive of our place, and closed to others. Sick religion sees others who want to share our place in the world as “poisoning our blood.” And, indeed, there are places in Scripture where zeal for our side, zeal for our kind, and hatred of “God’s enemies” seems just the recipe for being approved by God.

But these readings for today are just a few samples of how the Bible blows the whistle on sick religion. They are good antidotes for counterfeit Christianity.

We are beginning our Lenten journey of giving up and adding. Fasting is a good reminder to give up our ways of reducing God’s love to love for us. The disciplines of Lent also are about adding things; and these readings help us make sure all our spiritual discipline adds to our range of love.

Genesis 9 is all about that very first covenant. It’s not with Israel, and it’s not with white people, and not with Christians. It’s with “every living creature.” Before God bound himself to Israel, God covenanted with the universe that God made. Before God spoke to Moses, she spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, those proto-Palestinians. And the very first words God spoke to each was that they were chosen not to bottle up God’s love, but to make sure it flowed out to all families, all nations. God wants it all.

The first phrase of Psalm 25 is “To you O LORD, I lift up my soul.” But the Hebrew word nephesh doesn’t mean soul, as in some ethereal fraction of me that I can ignore when I plan my life and pay my bills, and begrudingly give a glancing thought to when I’m sitting in a pew. No. God wants it all. And nephesh is the word for neck. We “lift up” to praise God, but we lift up our necks to make ourselves vulnerable—to devote total trust to the God who gives life. God wants all of our attention, all of our trust, all of our lives.

1 Peter tells us that all the work of Christ was not just for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. Christ suffered for them all. He died for them all. And after death, working spiritually, he even went to the prison of those unrighteous spirits (we might call it hell itself) to preach to them. Why would he do that if God didn’t want all of them? And God uses that universal earth-element of water in baptism the same as he did in the days of Noah, not to wash us superficially, but to wash our conscience and subconscious so that all our struggles with others in this life may be waged with love and care in our hearts, not with the defensiveness and resentments that only close us off to others. God wants us all!

Finally the Gospel of Mark. Again, that water which gives life to all things on earth flows over Jesus, and he has the realization that God wants heaven and earth to be together as one. Heaven is torn, the Spirit descends. God wants it all. God doesn’t want us to believe so that we can escape this earth and go to the “better place,” but so that we can help make earth what God intends. God wants us to live, and we can only live when we know ourselves to belong to the Circle of all living things, and to the Circle of all our neighbors, the righteous and the unrighteous alike.

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Nell Now Herding for God

“If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

Whether or not Will Rogers said that, it’s certainly a nugget of holy truth. Our Nell, who we put down this past week, is proof.

Faithful Nell at her place of ready. Photo by John

Nell, like all dogs, was a miracle…but in our bias, we think she was even a little more so.

She was the great granddaughter of Stuart Davidson’s 2002 International Supreme Champion, Star; granddaughter of Davidson’s 2008 Scottish National Champion, Rob; and daughter of Peter Hetherington’s Lynmar Hemp, who ran fourth in the 2008 Scottish National and 7th in that year’s World Trial Qualifying round.

Sitting in the quiet and dimly lit room that our veterinary hospital kindly uses for families who are having pets put to sleep, Connie and I had plenty of time for tearful memories of Nell’s nearly 16 years of life.

I thought of Peter and Molly Hetherington, who perfectly hosted me for the 2011 Scottish Nursery Finals. Peter ran Nell; and when the sheep approached the out-drive panels the sheep stopped and turned and would not move, so Peter had to retire her for that trial. But judge Kevin Evans made sure to tell Peter that up to that point Nell’s run was absolutely perfect: not a single deduction from her outrun, lift, or fetch. I thought of the many years I had run Nell in trials, and how amazingly sharp she was in obeying my whistles, and marching the sheep through the gates and into the pen—and how she would come through the smallest gap to shed the sheep. But Gordon Watt also explained that she had a “hard face” that could sometimes stop the sheep in their tracks, and make it hard to get started again. She had plenty of power almost all of the time—but rarely she could freeze the sheep in their tracks as well.

I persuaded Peter to sell Nell to me, and he demonstrated her mastery in gathering, driving, and shedding. As we were standing there I wanted to see how she would respond to me, and I snapped my fingers. Since I was standing next to a fence, Nell thought I meant to jump it; so from a standstill she sprang over the four foot barrier with ease.

I remembered fondly one of the several trials that Nell won with me. I had, by that time, noticed that, while Nell had a great talent for holding a line driving the sheep, she could also get sort of mesmerized and not hear or respond to my whistle to shift direction just a bit when needed.  Gordon Watt had advised me to simply and sharply shout her name to snap her out of it, and then carry on. Well, in that particular trial I did this sort of sharp but quiet voice command perfectly. And when we walked off, the judge said to me, “That was beautiful.” That was the only time in all my dog trial life, that I heard such a fulsome compliment. And sitting there waiting for the two shots that would put Nell to sleep, I wept.

I thought of all the demonstrations Nell and Connie and I put on for visitors to our farm, or for people at parks in Northern Illinois. I thought of the ways Nell could run and run and run, even on hot days, and then run and run some more. She was stoic. She was serious—not one for silly games or tail wagging. Just business—just getting jobs done and then returning to her place to be ready for more.

I remembered how her place was as my faithful shadow. Peter had trained her to walk at heel, but it was so built into her that I never had to say “heel.” When she wasn’t actively herding the sheep, she was always there, at my side, but a step behind. So, often I would turn to look for her and have to spin almost in a circle to see her, finally to remember that she was always my shadow—always just to my side, but that step behind.

Almost all of my tears flow before I put a dog down—not so much after. And it was certainly this way with Nell. They say the average life expectancy for a Border Collie is 13.1 years, but Nell was going strong well into her 15th year. But then Connie and I had the pain of seeing her progressively fail. Her hearing went first, then her eyesight, clouded by heavy cataracts. Then she slowed from effortless gallops to walks and then to wobble. Her rear legs went at odd angles. She was slow, but always back there trying to catch up to be the shadow she had always been on walks. Finally she could not hold her bowel movements and became erratic in her eating. And when it looked like she was confused about how to even get out of her bed, I thought the end had come—a few short months from her 16th birthday.

The greatest pain for me was watching the decline in her health and choosing the right time for euthanasia. I needed assurance. Nell was feeble. She was confused. She was failing, but she could still stand and walk a bit. Should I end the life of this girl who gave us so much of herself? We took her to the veterinarian and asked for that assurance. Was it time? Dr. Brown said we were right to have her put down. She had lost too much muscle. The arthritis, weakness, and blindness were robbing her of any pleasure in life.

Nell went to sleep quietly on my arms and with the loving strokes from Connie and me. She impressed the technicians and the doc. She impressed us one more time.

Almost all my tears flow before and not after. But it is now a week after, and as I write this tribute, the tears flow again.

These are tears that tell me I want to go where Nell has gone. Connie and I  believe in a God who, in infinite wisdom and love created a beast like this, with such faithfulness, passion to please, speed, stamina, and power to impress. Could this miracle just evaporate? Could this creature now be anywhere other than herding the flock of the Great Good Shepherd? I don’t know what this place is called, but I agree with Will Rogers. If it’s not heaven, then when I die I will loudly rejoice if I can go where our Nell has gone, and walk with her again as my faithful shadow.

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Let Us Urge an Immediate End to Gaza Slaughter

Today I sent the follow letter to the editor to my local newspaper and representatives in congress.

To the Editor:

Israel and U.S. Must Stop the Slaughter in Gaza

Israel is not fighting a war in Gaza. It is perpetrating ethnic cleansing, which is both morally deplorable and strategically self-defeating.

What is going on is an ethnic cleansing slaughter by virtue of being absolutely asymmetrical. While dozens of Hamas terrorists killed about 1,200 and kidnapped about 250 on a single day of atrocity, Israel has now retaliated by killing nearly 30,000 and counting—25 times as many people—while reducing millions of Palestinians to an animal like existence. Hamas has tunnels and some feeble rockets. Israel has an air force, bombs, and detonation experts that are reducing a whole people to ruin in the hope that they will magically go somewhere else.

Recently, over 800 of the US and European experts in the political dynamics of the Middle East have signed a letter complaining that the top US and European government officials are ignoring  their best advice, and not only not doing enough to stop this slaughter, but are making themselves complicit in war crimes.  https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/02/us/politics/protest-letter-israel-gaza.html

Israel’s government wants to assure the world that they simply want to destroy Hamas. But surely they are only fueling what will be a powerful and long lasting thirst for revenge on the part of Moslems around the world. Tragically, in a nation that has been a bulwark of democracy and social justice, the emotional climate has now made it so that any empathy with the Palestinian people is treated as tantamount to treason. So Israel is rapidly depleting to near zero any moral capital it possesses—a capital that has long bolstered its standing in the community of nations.

As a Christian I am indebted to Judaism for its spiritual and moral wisdom; and I owe special respect to Jews for the ways they have endured centuries of oppression, most often at the hands of people who pretend to follow Christ. I believe I am of the same spiritual family with Jews. But I also learned in my time doing archaeology in the Holy Land, that Palestinians, as a people, are a mirror image to Jews. They too have an ancient tie to Palestine. They too have been subjected to oppression. They too have lived for generations as a powerless people. But for over a century now their suffering has come at the hands of Jews.

What I treasure most of all is a belief in a moral and just God that I share with Jews and Moslems. So, it is out of this wisdom that I hope all people like me will urge most vigorously Israel and our own government to put a stop to the abhorrent ethnic cleansing going on in Gaza.

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Weathering Winter Prayerfully on Heatherhope

Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany. A holy time. A time of light, amazement, and a time to celebrate God’s gift of the New Age.

How then do I shake off all my un-holy thoughts and afflictions?

Our oldest Border Collie, Nell, who came to us fresh off her performance at the Scottish Nursery Finals, is now almost 16 years of age. That is ancient for a sheepdog. And I am full of worry for her, skeptical that she will be able to survive this winter. Arthritis weakens her legs and keeps her from raising her head. When I open her kennel door she stands and stares at the floor. She poops in her bed. And when it is raining, or snowing, or especially windy and dark, she meanders in the garage and refuses to come out with the other dogs for a walk—something she rejoiced at doing just months ago.

At almost 16 years old Nell has the prerogative of not coming out when it rains or snows. But we worry about the 17 inches of snow predicted for next week. Photo by John

We have had an exceptionally warm, strong El Nino, late fall and early winter. It was close to sixty degrees on Christmas. But this day there is an inch of new snow on the ground and around 17 inches expected this coming week—along with high winds and nighttime temperatures down below zero. That means Nell will certainly balk at coming out of her shelter at all, and the dog-running trails around the farm will be piled with huge drifts that the ATV will be no match for.

So what will happen to Nell?

And what will happen to Connie and me? For eight months now Connie has been trying to get her farm legs back in order after ankle surgery and other foot problems. She has graduated from cast and wheelchair but still relies on her rollator and cane. She is always desperate to do chores to relieve me; but how can she be safe after 17 inches of snow?

And then there is me. I am thankful that I am able to walk and lift and do those chores; but lately getting a healthy night’s sleep has been a frustrating ordeal. My history of shoulder surgeries have confined me to a recliner; and coping with sleep apnea confines me to a C-Pap machine. But it is come-and-go head congestion that keeps me up or interrupts my sleep so that a third to half of my nights I toss and turn and adjust the recliner and blow my nose and adjust the covers, and spray and spray, just to get a few hours sleep.

So I am not looking forward to this winter at all, and all of the holiness and light and amazement of this Epiphany season is hard for me to appreciate.

Now, I suppose what haunts me this time of my life and this time of my year is the apparent shortening of the day—the feeling that time itself is working against us all. And as I languish in the dark of the night, unable to sleep, I fret: “Am I running out of time? Am I sliding downhill fast, along with Nell and the other dogs—only one of five of them able to run and jump as Border Collies are meant?”

But there is still part of me that will not allow myself to dissolve into self pity and regret. I still have time as a gift, but how have I been using it? And there is a verse from Psalm 51 that looms large in my psyche:

            Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and sustain in me a willing spirit.

That word, “willing” (naDEEV in Hebrew), can also be translated as “generous.” It is associated with those who are enthusiastic about worship and sacrifice, and, indeed with those whose nobility and wealth make it easy for them to give to others. They know they have lots to give, and they give of it.

So, the confluence of all these things means one thing: I must fight a spiritual battle. My ability to work and serve and run and jump and enjoy life came not simply from having a young and ailment free body; but also from spiritual discipline, and the way I use my time. My vigor came, and always comes, from prayer—not just prayer at meals and bedtime, but at waking and at stoplights and rest-time. It came from a constant habit of prayer.

Psalm 51 is a winner. Not just for Ash Wednesday when we say it liturgically, but for winter as well. For the sake of life on the farm with Nell and arthritic Hector, and the other dogs, and Connie and myself, I must be do the spiritual work of prayer that the psalmist did as she sang,

      Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right(enduring) spirit within me.

   Do not cast me away from your presence,

and do not take your holy spirit from me.

And if prayer is anything, it is conversation. It’s not just telling God what we want. It’s listening to God most of all. And listening means listening both to Scripture and to the world around us—what we have come to know as the “natural world,” or the “untouched by human hands” world–but also the vibrant part of Creation that is human as well.

I once canoed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness by myself. It was probably a bit foolish, because anything can happen; and without a companion lots can go wrong. Well on my last day it did go wrong. It was October, which was marginal weather-time in the BWCAW. The winds kicked up, and soloing in a canoe built for two made the craft lighter and higher in the water where it caught the wind easily. I was making it, but had to round the tip of an island where the wind was blowing big time, wanting to kick me into the rocks. I paddled hard, and at the same time, with each urgent J-stroke, chanted, “The wind is my friend! The wind is my friend!”

I made it. The ill wind was my friend. The spray from the water was my friend. The Creator of it all and the challenge, and the work we did together, were all my friends. The conversation I had with God and the elements was salutary to the soul. And I lived another day.

Of course, prayerful conversation is also listening to God speaking through other people. We speculate as to whether there are angel/messengers among us, but, in fact, each set of eyes and each voice is part of God’s creation and potentially part of God’s speaking to us. For my life to be full of life–for my time to be full of eternity–I must listen for the words of God in the most contrary voices I hear around me. Truly an antidote to the poison of polarization that darkens days more than winter can ever.

I resolve to do the spiritual work I need to welcome the joy of salvation. It is a joy we need for long, snowbound, dark winters, and for aging with vigor and a willing and generous spirit tuned to the New Age given us in Christ…here and now and every day.

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Christ-child Fire in the Sky

Miracles when we need them: Christ-child fire in the sky. Photo by John.

I am hungry for light.

Lately life has been swallowed up by death as there have been far too many very ill people to visit, and, as it happens, the people I love and I have been growing old together. Something is pursuing us, and closing in.

So we are all haunted by the soft steps of aching, and all-around weakness, and the loss of those we dearly love.

Now a very dear one has entered the short last chapter of her life titled “hospice,” and subtitled “palliative.”

She is at peace. That emergent Spirit-miracle that God gives unexpectedly has welled up inside her, and she is at peace. The doctors have stopped their pretending and extending, and have finally agreed that her time has come.

But none who know her are ready for this. I know I am not. There is a stone in my stomach now. There is weariness. There is staring at one spot as I wonder how much more we can stand to lose.

I am not ready for any more talk about cancer. I’m not fit to bring up any more news on my phone. I’m sickened to death by the body counts from Gaza and mass shootings in schools and on the streets.

I’m hungry for light. So, on my way to weep with my fellow pastor writing her last chapter I listen to Handel’s Messiah, and I ache in a great good way when those deep voices assure me that the glory is coming, “For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

And after the dogs run with me and quietly down their dinner, I step outside. The night is closing in, but is seems that darkness is being swallowed by light. There is the gift of the glory of the Christ-child fire in the sky.

Thank you Lord.

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Pentecost 23 A: Arming Ourselves for Peace

The second lesson for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost is 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Bob and Marsha (names changed to protect the saints and sinners) had both decided it was time to fight it out.

Marsha had married right out of high school and never had a life on her own. She was teaching school, but knew she had the talent to be much more. What it was she had no clue, but a writer, an artist, a scientist perhaps—she was always good at math. But married to Bob she was stuck following him in his job, and she was getting nowhere.

Marsha knew it was time to think of her own needs. She was through compromising. So she armed herself for battle with a good lawyer, and surrounded herself with girlfriends who all knew what she was going through and were on her side.

Bob was finishing up college when he married Marsha. He had always wanted a big family and was disappointed that Marsha didn’t. Now he felt cheated because he had scrimped and saved and stayed away from parties and big vacations that his friends were having to focus on family; but Marsha only grew more and more dissatisfied. What was the use? Why had he sacrificed so long. Surely if he wasn’t married he could find a woman who would love him more. Surely he could make more of his computer skills, maybe move to Silicon Valley, start his own business, and go on those ski trips with his friends.

Bob too armed himself with a good lawyer, with a few self-help books about the joys of bachelorhood – and with friends that knew just what he was going through and who agreed – it was time for a divorce.

Bob and Marsha had been married for 15 years and had three kids, so they knew they should make a show of it and go to the pastor for counseling. But the first thing the pastor said was, “If either of you have hope there is hope. But if both of you have given up, then I’m afraid it looks dark.

At the end of that very first session Bob and Marsha knew what time it was in their lives. Neither had hope for life together. It was time to arm themselves. It was time to make a stand. It was time to fight.

Last week, two very frightening things happened. One was that the tsunami of hatred came rushing in from Gaza and flooded American life from college campuses to city streets, to the Republican Presidential debate.

The second scary thing that happened was in that debate. All the prospective Presidents had obviously considered now was the time to talk tough. Now is the time to back up Israel so it can wipe out Hamas, threaten China with nukes, strike in Iran, and so forth. Diplomacy is weakness and we need to finish things off with war to end all wars. Even the one woman on stage said she wears high heels not as a fashion statement but as ammunition!

I am comparing these debaters, Netanyahu and Hamas, and many of the people taking to the streets, to Bob and Marsha, because all of them have decided, “We have seen the future, we know what time it is. It’s time to fight. It’s time to arm ourselves for battle.”

To believe this we have to believe we have seen the writing on the wall. In other words, we must imagined there can be a better future only by triumphing over enemies, when we can think only of our own needs and wishes – a rosy future. A season of bliss.

Saint Paul, in our epistle reading for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, starts out talking about times and seasons. This distinction between kronos and kairos in the Greek basically means the difference between kronos as duration of time and kairos as a specific moment. But Paul here stresses something different:  Kronos is time that we CAN easily predict and adapt to. We know it’s spring – time to plant. We know it’s November, time to get the corn in. We know we are pregnant, so a child is on the way.

Kairos, on the other hand is time far off – time that is hard for us to understand, but time that is in God’s hands.  So, the day of the Lord will come as a surprise

But the point Paul stresses is that now is the time to arm ourselves for peace, not battle. He proclaims, “you and I – we have seen what Jesus Christ has done about the far off time—the time that defines the season we live in. Jesus has defeated the Great Enemy – the only enemy we really need to worry about is death and the constant battle that leads to it.”

And Paul says, there is no reason to remain in darkness about the far off kairos that is surely coming. We know it will be ruled by faith, hope, and love, so let’s prepare for it by living in that light now: ruled by Christ and his love.

You, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

What does such a life look like? Not getting drunk—not letting ourselves be intoxicated by the hatred being poured into our cups—the dwelling on atrocity and grievances that spawns broken families, hopelessness, bitterness, and war. Yes Senator, appeasement can lead to war, but war certainly has a perfect track record in leading to more grievances and more war.

To be children of light, we think of others. We are filled with faith that is trust in God – love that comes from God — and hope that is hope in the future guaranteed by God.

We have witnessed the waves of hostility from the other side of the world reach us and stir up problems in colleges, the election, and on our streets.   But waves also bounce back. What can that wave look like? If we, in our families, churches, workplaces, put on the armor of faith, hope and love, and fight not for more war, strife, resentment and hostility – but for more understanding and compromise and cooperation–what would it look like?

Paul says we are children of light. We live like that. We don’t give up on marriages so easily. We don’t give up on diplomacy so easily. We don’t give up even on our enemies, but love them, strive to understand their pain, and pray for them.

We don’t make war like giants and peace like pygmies, but the opposite!

And in that way we prepare ourselves in the season/kairos to come by living toward it in the present time/kronos. The season of light has already dawned, so we live as the children of light.  Even when the wave of discouragement, fear and hostility threatens to swallow us up, we keep on doing what Christians do best. We encourage one another and build one another up.

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Pentecost 20 A: The Death of Death.

Isaiah 25  O Lord, you are my God;

I will exalt you, I will praise your name;

for you have done wonderful things,

plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

2     For you have made the city a heap,

the fortified city a ruin;

the palace of aliens is a city no more,

it will never be rebuilt.

3     Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;

cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

4     For you have been a refuge to the poor,

a refuge to the needy in their distress,

a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,

5        the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,

you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;

the song of the ruthless was stilled.

6     On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

7     And he will destroy on this mountain

the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

the sheet that is spread over all nations;

8        he will swallow up death forever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,

and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,

for the Lord has spoken.

9     It will be said on that day,

Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.

This is the Lord for whom we have waited;

let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Sadly, all of the news swirling around us about what is going on in Israel and Gaza makes it all too easy to feel the emotional charge of the first six verses Isaiah 25—appointed for the Old Testament reading for October 15, 2023, in which  the prophet rejoices that the Lord has crushed Judah’s enemies.

I will exalt you for wonderful things.

For you have made the fortified city a heap of ruins.

You have crushed those ruthless aliens.

You have stilled their song.

We can well imagine the Jews of Israel today ready to revel in these verses. A young Israeli who survived the massacre of hundreds at a rock festival, and saw his friends being shot in the head or dragged away, was just about to be mobilized by the Israeli army and was asked what he was going to feel. “I can think of nothing but revenge,” he said.

Hamas murdered and raped and took hostages of helpless civilians, all while shouting “Allah is great” and laughing. We know Israeli Jews have been thinking, “They were not human, they were animals.”

Ah, but at the same time, it should not be difficult to imagine Hamas militants, and many of the Palestinian civilians of Gaza now running for their lives, having the same thoughts.

They have wished too to shoot their rockets and instill fear in the Israelis.

“If Allah would only give us revenge!”

“Israel has put us under a long blockade that has now become a siege with food, medicine and electricity nowhere to be found.”

“Hundreds of thousands of us are now homeless and with nowhere to run for our lives.”

“Oh Allah, if you would destroy those filthy animals – those Jews, we would glorify your name forever.”

“Palestinians are not humans, they are animals. For they have committed atrocities.” shout the Jews of Israel and their Christian, evangelical Zionist friends in the US.

“Jews are not humans, they are filth.  They have committed atrocities,” shout the Muslims of Hamas and Gaza.

Those first 6 verses of Isaiah 25 speak from the gut of a person who has been hit hard by countless atrocities. Revenge is on the prophet’s mind. “Lord, it would be wonderful to see the palaces of the wicked – and the cities of those animals, blasted into ruins.”

But do you recognize those last four verses of the reading for October 15?

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make a feast. He will destroy the shroud cast over all peoples. He will swallow up death forever, and wipe away the tears from all faces.”

If these verses are familiar and even dear to you, it is because they are used at so many funerals. “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.”

Why are they the perfect funeral or graveside reading? For two powerful reasons: Because of what is hoped for: Not the defeat  a people—not of our hated enemies out there—but the hope of death itself. And because of that little word, “All.”

God will set a  feast for ALL people.

The Lord will remove the shroud of death from ALL people.

God will swallow up death itself, and wipe away the tears from the faces of ALL.

Here’s an interesting note:  It might surprise you to know that the prophet Isaiah borrowed this idea of God swallowing up death forever from the people Israel hates the most in all of its ancient stories: the Canaanites. Joshua, it is said, was ordered by God to make room for Israel by ethnically cleansing the land of people like the Canaanites.

But the Canaanites had this story of their god of rain and storms, Baal, swallowing up the god of death, Mot. And Isaiah thought, “That is a wonderful hope!  That’s what we all hope for, isn’t it?”

Now, we believe death is no god.

And we believe the world isn’t run by a squabbling bunch of gods, but One Loving God.  

And we believe death is no match for that loving, almighty God.  

But, YES, we can see that God will swallow up death forever, and that’s what we hope for.

Not the death of other whole peoples—our enemies–but the death of the One Great Enemy: Death itself.

So, isn’t it ironic that wedged within Isaiah’s rant against hated neighboring enemies, he picks up on an idea straight from the hated Canaanites?  “Those enemies had something to teach us.”

And it’s all doubling ironic to learn that modern DNA studies have shown that Jews and the people of Israel actually are one people with the Canaanites of old. They share the same DNA.

Now, you might ask, “Were the prophets of the Bible really anti-war activists? Were they a perfectly peaceful people ? Or were they understandably human – thirsting like Israel’s government of today for some juicy, oh so satisfying revenge?” 

Someone—either the prophets or their editors afterwards—certainly did have that revengeful side. They had that patriotic side that says, “My people – my side–at all costs and by all means necessary.” They had that all too human side.

But the prophets  also were inspired to imagine Zion as a mountain where something greater than human would happen, “where death will die, and where all people–even our enemies–will come and be saved.

Perhaps the single prophet named Isaiah had both revenge and the death of death and the end of the cycle of revenge in mind, and wrote them both into this chapter. (The chapter even follows these verses about the death of death itself and the salvation of all peoples with a very ugly wish that neighbors in Moab would somehow drown in a pit of manure!) Perhaps Isaiah himself is wrestling with the sentiment that calls him out of a thirst only for revenge to a nobler, more divine vision.

Or perhaps what we have in the Bible is a weaving together of different ideas from different times in Israel’s history. In either case both sentiments are there, and we today must struggle with all victims of war of all times in balancing them in our hearts.

But the bottom line is that, to this day, the Jews have been witnesses for peace, mercy, democracy, and even inclusion. At their best they have been agents against war and the culture of death.

So too for Christians. At our funerals, and at our best, we are not suckers for the drum beaters. We see past their false hope and the lies about “them against us,” and the talk about the animals and the truly human. We read history and we know that each unconditional surrender and each war to end all wars, really and truly just set the stage for the next war. And that’s why we cling so tightly to these next four verses of Isaiah 25 that speak to this.

We read them at our funerals. We celebrate them every Sunday.

We cling to the hope of a mountain where the shroud of death will be removed not by war, but by the gospel of love. We see that mountain of hope in Calvary and the Cross.

So we, as Christians in a time of war, must ultimately renounce the thirst for revenge. We must learn from history, and we must learn from Jesus who overcame hate by love, on the cross. We must witness today and always to a way out of the addiction to war that shouts, “Kill those animals and it will fix everything.”  We must amplify our Lord’s command, “Put up your sword. They who live by the sword will die by the sword. You be peacemakers.”  

We must hope for and proclaim not the death of people, but the death of death.

We must hope for and proclaim not peace and justice for us alone, but peace and justice for all. Peace will come to us only when it comes for all.

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Sunshine, Alfalfa, and Max

Hooray for sun, alfalfa, and Max.

Today was a day of somber thoughts for our family of faith at St. Luke Lutheran Church. I’m back helping to give pastoral care, preaching, and worship leadership after a dozen years retirement. It is a great honor to serve such a wonderful part of the Body of Christ, yet there is concern and grief in the air with news of several people with serious medical issues, and all of us in grief over loss of a key member, and a most beloved relative and friend of the congregation. On top of it all we all feel the burden of witnessing to Christ as Prince of Peace in a time of horrible warfare in Israel/Gaza and Ukraine.

So it was a blessing from God yesterday that we could come home through blazing sunshine and color of changing trees. Our months-long prayers for more rain were answered with the gift of four days and over two inches of much needed rain.

On the trail around Heatherhope with the dogs we could rejoice at the good start our newly planted alfalfa and grass are enjoying. And, of course, the sunsets here are always spectacular. And for an extra dose of life-force energy, there is Max who is just as obsessed at fetching a tennis ball as he is at herding sheep.

Sun, sky, good and glorious green. All gifts from God to help us cope with life’s stress.

Autumn twilight at Heatherhope. Photo by John
While the other Border Collies explore on each run around the hay field, Max plays fetch with the tennis ball. We know it’s not best to encourage this, but we are old, Max is young, and none of us can help it. Photo by John

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Betty Back from the Brink

Life with many animals on a livestock farm is full of emotional highs and lows. Loving life is no guarantee of happy times, but loving life means life is thick with feeling. Thick with a joy that is more nuanced than mere happiness. It may be what one could call “abundant life.”

Betty showing off her herding skills at Peck Farm several years ago. Photo by John.

We did put our livestock guardian dog, Bilbo down. We could have been purely “pro-life,” and kept him going even under the shadow of certain degeneration–of impending immobility and incontinence. We could have, but we didn’t. And we said our goodbyes to a faithful friend.

But with Betty it was different. We rejoice that she is back from the brink.

We had seen her failing quite quickly; but it was after a prolonged heat cycle that had us worried. We should have had her neutered long ago, but we kept putting it off, and now regretted it.

We took her to the veterinarian’s office first because of a sore on her leg, but we were also concerned her reduced appetite was a sign of pyometra or infected uterus. But the vet saw no discharge–no pyometra–and thought the sore could be easily treated.

Back home she went off her food completely. Then she ran a fever of 106. I took her to an emergency vet, then back to my regular vet. Several trips, several exams, x-rays, ultrasounds, blood tests, all mounting up to over a thousand dollars, and no diagnosis. No thickening of the uterus, no sign of pyometra. No idea what was keeping her from eating so that I had to force food down her throat with a syringe, and cram pills with butter down her throat.

Finally I insisted on an operation. Open Betty up and see what was happening. And when I left her off for the surgery I said to put her down if there was no chance of recovery, and I leaked tears all over the floor, thinking I might never see her again.

Low and behold her uterus was infected, and indeed had ruptured. But with lots of antibiotics, the surgeon said the prognosis was good.

I did fret for days afterward, however. She still would not eat. Forced food and very forced pills ensued for several days. But then…but finally she ate a bit of meat as long as it was from my hands, then from the bowl, and finally-finally the sparkle came back into those beautiful eyes. Days of agony and more than $2,000 in bills.

Lots of moments of decision were involved. Life or death. Betty is eleven, going on twelve. But her mother, Abbie, had survived pyometra and had several more years. So it was all worth it, we thought. We decided.

Worth it. And reason to rejoice now that she is back to the old Betty. She is much slower than in her prime, but still is “a helpful bitch,” as they say in the UK. Not bad for a 12 year old girl who survived such serious surgery.

We cry some. We laugh some. We are responsible for many lives, and we are high one moment and low another. But it is life placed in our hands by God and we try to honor it and see it’s glory. We feel so much because we love so much. It is abundant life.

The sparkle in Betty’s eyes. Photo by John.

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