Thursday, August 17, 2017

Defiling Words and Annoying Faith (Reflections on Pentecost 11, Year A)

Juan de Flandes, Spanish 16th Century

“…it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:11b)

This past week I enjoyed one of the singular delights of the summer season—I had my annual reunion with my buddy and seminary classmate, Pastor Jack. Each year Jack and I meet on Long Beach Island at the Jersey Shore to stuff our faces at the Dockside Diner and indulge in a colloquy on our respective ministries, the state of Lutheranism in America, and life in general. I have to say that my friend is one of the wittiest and most erudite individuals I’ve ever met, and quite possibly the living embodiment of Martin Luther. When we get together, the verbiage always flies in a rhapsody of picturesque expressions which, as pastors, we don’t often get the chance to use around our pious parishioners.

Unfortunately, some of our expressiveness might have been a bit too picturesque for the gentle ears of beach-going youngsters seated close to us at the diner. By mutual consent, we attempted to keep our voices low and not detonate “F bombs” or pronounce epithets which might corrupt the young. After all, as Jesus warns us in the gospel lesson for Pentecost 11, Year A in the RCL (Matthew 15:10-28), what comes out of the mouth defiles.

Which brings me to this point: There was an awful lot of defilement being spewed out of the mouths of so-called “Alt Right” marchers last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. Another friend of mine suggested that, perhaps, the proper response to a demonstration of white nationalists puking hate in the public square would be to ignore them completely, not cover them in the media, and deny them the opportunity to challenge with words or fists any opposition to their sinful and disgusting rantings.
But what comes out of the mouth can defile.

The counter-protestors in Charlottesville and those who have taken to the streets since understand that such defilement cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. It is not enough to ignore the ranting of Satan. We must counter with the words of Jesus. What we say and what we allow to be said matters, and what comes out of our mouths has power to corrupt and degrade or to uplift and liberate. We cannot ignore the words of hate, and we cannot neglect the words of God’s grace.

The main part of our gospel lesson concerns a Canaanite woman who comes begging Jesus for help. She really needs it because her daughter is demonically possessed (Don’t you hate it when that happens..?) and she’s somehow got wind of the idea that Jesus can help her out. Unfortunately, she’s a foreigner. She’s not of the right nationality or religion to rate public assistance from a Hebrew rabbi. Her cries initially go unnoticed. Faithful disciples of Jesus just want her to go away and stop annoying them (v.23). Even Jesus himself tells her she doesn’t signify.

But this lady isn’t going away. Why? Because her need isn’t going away, and she’s not about to be ignored any longer. Her life and the life of her child matter.

Pastor Jack shared with me an issue he’s having with his congregation in New York. The previous pastor was extremely reluctant to allow the local community use of space in the church building. Although 12-step groups had requested to meet at the church, the pastor feared that such meetings would bring in “the wrong element.” I guess this pastor didn’t want to give what belonged to the children to the dogs. Even good Lutherans can be as blind as the Pharisees at times.

(BTW: Jack is very proud to report that his congregation seems much more willing to embrace the outsider than was their previous shepherd!)

Jesus praises the faith of the Canaanite woman. I wonder if he’s impressed by the fact she really believes if she tries long enough and loud enough and just keeps on trying—annoying as she is to the mainstream—she’ll eventually get the mercy she needs. If there’s enough love and mercy for animals, surely there’s enough for suffering human beings.

I see a whole bunch of take-aways in this story. First, Jesus once again goes counter to the culture and crosses the divide that separates “us” from “them.” In Jesus, there is only “us.” Every life matters, and it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak, or of the “haves” to care for the “have nots.”

Secondly, there’s the matter of the faithful persistence of the Canaanite mom. She’s reminding us to believe in the just outcome, and to keep on keeping on—in our prayer life, in our social activism, in our forgiveness, in our relationships, and in the work God has called us to do. Ask and it shall be given. And if it isn’t, keep on asking until it is.

Keep the faith, my dears. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

High Winds and Slot Machines (Reflections on Pentecost 10, Year A)

Image result for Jesus walks on water
I had dinner this past week with M (No, I’m not trying to hide her real name. She just likes to go by “M,” so that’s what everybody calls her.). She’s getting baptized at my church this Sunday along with her eight-year-old son. She was telling me about her job, and about how hard it is for her to see God in her surroundings.

M works at the local racetrack and casino which is a few miles to the northwest of us in Bensalem, PA. Originally, when the racetrack was built in the mid-1960’s, it sat directly across the street from our church. The first pastor of Faith Lutheran fought the Philadelphia zoning board tooth and nail to keep that sucker from going up. Not only would its location eat up land that could be used to build homes for potential Lutheran parishioners, but the pastor realized that if you build a gambling facility in a working-class neighborhood, working-class people will gamble. Which means, of course, that people who can ill afford to waste money will risk losing it on stupid games of chance.

Today the site of that original racetrack has become a retail outlet mall, but the track and its accompanying slot machines and green felted tables are still sucking money out of the pockets of local roofers, plumbers, and other hard-working stiffs just a few miles down the road. M tells me that she sees the same faces there day after day. They are people motivated by greed or desperation or by the addiction of gambling. And the corporation which runs the place doesn’t give a rat’s ass about who is playing and losing so long as they keep making a profit. I told M that it must be hard for her, a person of character and moral conviction, to be surrounded by a swirling sea of avarice and compulsive behavior. The neon lights and the jaunty slot machine bells can’t disguise the atmosphere of corruption.

Two of the lessons assigned in the RCL for Pentecost 10 (1 Kings 19:9-19 and Matthew 14:22-33) are stories of God’s people in chaotic environments. At least that’s the way I see them. Elijah in the Hebrew scripture reading and the disciples in Matthew’s gospel seem to be caught in situations they can’t control and are feeling very far from God. I bet we’ve all felt that way ourselves. We’re just trying to make a living and stuff happens and crazy people are all around us and nothing is going right. We’re trapped in a little boat in a big storm and we didn’t do anything to deserve this.

The story in 1 Kings may not be familiar to you if it’s been a long time since you were in Sunday School. Elijah, the rock star of prophets, has done some pretty cool prophesying. He’s told Ahab, the king of Israel, that God isn’t happy with the apostasy into which the kingdom has fallen—especially since wimpy Ahab’s nasty wife, Jezebel, has got everyone worshiping a Canaanite weather and fertility god called Baal. God punishes Israel with a severe drought, and Elijah challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to a contest to see whose god is the real deal. Elijah wins the contest and has the 450 false prophets put to death. God ends the drought, but Jezebel decides to have Elijah killed anyway. When we meet him in this lesson, he’s alone, running for his life, and feeling like nothing he’s done right has mattered. It’s all turned to crap anyway.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks. Elijah whines about his problems, so God tells him to go outside because he’s about to pass by. Then follows a hurricane, an earthquake, and a forest fire. But it’s only when all the chaos has subsided and Elijah is alone in the deathly quiet that he realizes he is truly in God’s presence. Just him and God. And it freaks him out. It’s in that still, quiet moment that God lets Elijah know that all isn’t lost, that he’s not alone, and that there are other people out there who are part of his community. Thousands of people, in fact.

The disciples in the gospel lesson are also feeling a bit lost and alone. They’re out in a boat in the middle of the sea and the wind is kicking up. Jesus comes to them, but they’re even frightened of him. Impulsive Peter wants to conquer his fears by doing a pretty stupid thing. He wants to test Jesus’ presence by walking on the water himself. I guess it isn’t enough for him that Christ has come to give aid and comfort. His fear makes him act irrationally. For a while he seems to be doing okay, but he looks around and gets scared by the wind.

Now, if I were Peter out on a small boat in a heavy sea, it would actually be the water that would make me nervous. After all, you can’t really drown in wind. But remember that in the Greek the word for wind is the same as the word for spirit. Perhaps it’s the spirit of the times, the mood of the place, the attitude of those around us, or the prevailing angst which is overcoming us. It’s not the actual threat, but rather the fear of that threat that causes us to sink.

I’m sure a lot of us—like M—identify with Elijah or with Peter. The world around us seems chaotic and uncontrollable and depressing in spite of all of our best efforts to stay afloat. That’s why we need each other. We need to know we’re not alone. And we need to take those quiet moments to be alone with God and get our heads on straight. We need to check our impulsivity and get in touch with our faith. That’s why we need the Church

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Healing and Feeding or How Jesus Rolls (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year A)

Jesus Feeds the 5000
“…he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)

It seems that every time we look at a familiar story in the Bible it tends to morph into something new. The last time the story of the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 14:13-21) rolled around in the Revised Common Lectionary, I was really struck by the fact that Jesus gave himself to the care of the crowd even though he’d just learned that his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, had had his head sliced off by Herod Antipas.

Verse 13 tells us: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Can you blame the guy..? Jesus was probably grieving for his cousin and needed some alone time, or he was making a strategic withdrawal before Herod got any ideas about coming after him. Whatever his motivation to scram out of Dodge might’ve been, Jesus was still willing to give up his time and be compassionate to the people when they needed him. This is kind of a pre-Calvary example of Jesus' willingness to sacrifice.

When I look at this story again today, I’m asking: What's up with Jesus? What's he DOING here? If you look a few paragraphs earlier, before all the John the Baptist stuff that starts chapter 14, you’ll see one of Jesus’ great teaching discourses about the Kingdom of Heaven (That was the gospel lesson for last week in the RCL). If you were to remove the detour about John, the Jesus narrative shows him as teacher, healer, and provider of food. So what I pick up on is Jesus’ compassion and desire to see the sick be healthy is more important than his need for privacy. Then he tells the disciples (who really do seem concerned that the crowd gets something to eat) to feed the folks out of their own supply and not make those five thousand fend for themselves.

What is Jesus providing? Education, healthcare, and nutrition. Out of compassion.

“Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” (v.16)

I suspect there may be a lot of well-meaning American Christians who are perfectly delighted to see Jesus dispense education, healthcare, and nutrition, but they just don’t want to see the federal government doing it. I write this post as we’ve been listening to weeks of debate from our leaders in Washington, D.C. about the merits of affordable healthcare, public education, and entitlement programs. But I notice that Jesus doesn’t stop and ask the sick if they can afford a premium or if they have a pre-existing condition. Neither does he blame the multitude for coming out to meet him without bringing their picnic baskets. He doesn’t send the poor away empty. He tells his disciples to feed them.

My take-away from this is that Jesus wants us to be educated, healthy, and fed. When the resources exist to care for a population, that population deserves to enjoy them. The story of the feeding of the 5000 also impresses me with the miracle of God’s providence. We may think we don’t have enough to share, but God uses what we have and shows us it’s always more than enough. And Jesus puts the responsibility on us—his disciples—to see that all are served. 

It would be pretty swell (wouldn't it?) if we the people could create a society in which all needs were met and in which people were educated, cared for, and fed as a right not as a privilege. But, as our government seems pretty deadlocked as to how to go about this (or even if they want to attempt it), the burden falls back on us Christians to do the work of Jesus.

He was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. Are we?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Saints of the Month of August

There aren’t any major festivals of the Christian Church in August, so that leaves me kind of stuck for ideas to write about this month. Fortunately, there are a whole bunch of minor commemoratives on our Lutheran calendar, and, since I love the stories of the saints, I thought I’d share some of these with you:
August 8: Saint Dominic (d. 1221) This thirteenth century Spanish priest really loved to talk about Jesus. He also worried that it was the institutional church which turned people off from following Jesus. He denounced the wealth of the clergy, refused to accept the office of bishop, and spoke out against burning heretics at the stake. He advocated kindness and the need to be non-judgmental when confronting people of different religious beliefs.
August 10: Saint Lawrence (d. 258) This early deacon served the church by being head of the Finance Committee in ancient Rome. He did his best to see that the church lived up to Jesus’ command to charity for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. When the Roman Emperor Valerian demanded that Lawrence surrender the treasures of the church, Lawrence presented a group of lepers, blind and lame people, and orphans and said, “Here is the treasure of the church.” Valerian took a dim view of this and sentenced the deacon to death, making Lawrence one of the first celebrated martyrs of our faith.
August 11: Saint Clare (d. 1253) Clare was inspired to a life of poverty and charity by Francis of Assisi. She established her own religious order along the lines of her friend, St. Francis, and was one of the most spiritually inspirational women of her day.
August 13: Florence Nightengale (d. 1910) and Clara Maas (d. 1901) These two Christian women revolutionized the role of nurses. Florence was an Englishwoman who learned skilled nursing from Lutheran deaconesses in Germany. She returned to England to reform nursing in hospitals and recruited women to serve with her in nursing wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War. Clara was an American battlefield nurse who served during the Spanish-American war. She was instrumental in the research of yellow fever, a disease from which she died.
August 14: Maximilian Kolbe (d. 1941) and Kaj Munk (d. 1944) Both of these pastors were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Kolbe was a Catholic priest in Poland who aided the escape of Jewish refugees. He was imprisoned by the Nazis and volunteered to be executed in the place of a younger man with a family. Munk was a Lutheran pastor and playwright from Denmark. The occupying Germans arrested him because his Christian plays and critical sermons encouraged the underground resistance movement. He was executed by the Gestapo.
August 20: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) This Cistercian abbot was one of the most influential spiritual writers of his day and is still referenced now, almost 900 years later. He had a deep love of the mystery of God and despised the riches of the world. His simplicity and kindness attracted the poor to him, and he is said to have made many converts to the monastic life. He wrote poems and songs, some of which survive today as hymns such as “Jesus, the Very Thought of You.”
August 24: Saint Bartholomew (d. 1st Century) We don’t know much about Bartholomew, but it’s generally believed that he’s the same as “Nathaniel” mentioned in John’s gospel and the one whom Jesus called “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” (John 1:47) It is believed that he, along with “Doubting” Thomas was one of the first Christians to preach the gospel in India. He is said to have been crucified, flayed alive, or beheaded (or all three) somewhere near Armenia.
August 28: Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) Augustine was a bishop in North Africa who got off to a pretty rocky start as a party boy before settling down and becoming one of the most influential Christian theologians in history. Augustine clarified the doctrine of original sin and the need of all of us for God’s unconditional love. Martin Luther’s theology closely resembles that of Augustine.
August 28; Saint Moses the Black (d. around 400) Moses was an Ethiopian slave who had been brought to Egypt but was released by his master for being too thuggish to handle. He turned to a life of crime, leading a gang of marauders in the Egyptian desert. Somehow, he was converted to Christianity and became a gentle monk and, later, an ordained priest. Ironically, he was killed by a gang of thieves whom he refused to resist by violence.
And, last but not least…
August 15: Mary, the Mother of Our Lord (d. ?) I don’t have to tell you anything about Jesus’ mom, but Luther really loved her and admired her willingness to be the bearer of Christ. That is, of course, what we’re all expected to be, isn’t it?
You can learn more about all of these interesting folks and their faith from Wikipedia. I hope you find some inspiration in these little festivals during these hot summer months. Remember: a saint is nothing more than a sinner saved by grace. You can be an inspiration, too!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Wheat and the Weeds (Reflections on Pentecost 7, Year A)

If you’ve been watching the news in the greater Philadelphia area these past few weeks you’ll certainly have heard of the disappearance and murder of four young men in their teens and early twenties. The victims were all white and from the Philly suburbs of Bucks County (Vastly less has been said on the TV news about the routine slayings of African American and Hispanic youth in the city, but—hey!—that’s our media for you.). I was asked earlier this week to preside at the funeral of one of the victims, a nineteen-year-old named Dean. A few days later, Dean’s family told the funeral home they’d prefer to find their own clergy for Dean’s memorial service, so I was let off the hook. This was a relief to me as the funeral was scheduled a little too close time-wise to a wedding I was already committed to performing.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t cower from painful and tragic situations. In two decades of urban ministry I’ve been called on to preach at the graveside of murder victims, tragic accidents, suicides, those who have died untimely young, and—recently—a veritable host of drug overdoses. I take a certain professional pride in ministering in situations which are so soul-shatteringly painful because I want to make sure that those who grieve are given the opportunity to grieve and not made to sit mutely through prayers blandly read from a book or made to listen to an altar call disguised as a tribute to their deceased loved-one. I feel that healing only comes through honesty.

Even though I won’t have to preach at Dean’s memorial, I’ve been thinking a lot about this young man in the last few days. The gospel lesson assigned for Pentecost 7 Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) speaks to me of the dichotomy of this young life which was ended by violence. It’s Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds. You know it. It’s the story of the man who plants good seed in his field, but an enemy comes along and sows weeds among his good crops. The man warns his hired hands not to try to pull up the weeds, because they might uproot the wheat along with them and the crop will be ruined. The farm-workers are counselled to let the bad grow with the good and wait until the harvest to sort it all out.

Not everything I learned about young Dean was good. He wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout. He’d been in trouble with the law. He was also lured to his death on the pretext that he’d be buying a certain quantity of marijuana. The kid had to know that this was illegal. Still, everyone who spoke to the press about Dean remembers him as a nice young guy. He had a job at a local ice cream shop. His co-workers liked him. They found him to be funny and warm and treated him like a family member. Everyone remembers his smile. He loved his family, and his interest and ambitions seemed to be mostly wholesome.

So was he a good kid who made some mistakes, or a dope-smoking little punk who should’ve known better, given the advantages he had, than to get involved with the wrong kind of people? Both descriptions are probably true. Dean was like the field sown with wheat and weeds, both wonderfully loving and selfless, yet still prone to temptation and folly. The same contradictions have been applied to Dean’s twenty-year-old killer. According to a Washington Post article, neighbors remember that boy, Cosmo Dinardo, as “a good kid who went out of his way to help others—such as volunteering to shovel them out during snowstorms and refusing payment.” Was Dinardo a “good kid” with serious mental problems or a sociopath? Both?

All of us, I think, are a combination of weeds and wheat. Which means, of course, that we should be very careful about how we judge people. Punish wrongdoing, yes. But who are any of us to say who is “evil” and who is “good?” In choosing to be wrathfully judgmental, we are fertilizing our own weeds. And if the weeds get enough of our emotional “Miracle Grow,” they’ll choke the goodness out of us—no matter how righteous we think we are.

I certainly have to keep an eye on this myself. The same week as the quadruple murder I’ve referenced was reported, a local Philadelphia funeral director, a guy named Harry, was attacked in the garage of his funeral establishment. Some guy came in off the street while Harry was working alone on a project using a circular saw. The attacker struck Harry with the saw, cut his face to ribbons, broke four of his ribs, and left him with a serious head injury. He stole Harry’s wallet, cash, credit cards, and cell phone, and left the funeral director unconscious and bleeding. I know Harry. He’s a real nice guy, a Viet Nam veteran, and has conscientiously cared for families in my congregation. I want the s.o.b. who hurt him caught and punished.

What I don’t want is to think of the afore-mentioned s.o.b. as a human being. I don’t want to have to consider that he might be a junkie so crazed by his addictions that he’s not in control of his own actions. I don’t want to think that he might be suffering, or that he has a family that loves him, or that he was once his mother’s pride and joy. I don’t want to see the wheat in him. He’s just a weed to me.

This kind of absolutism seems to be rampant today in our public discourse. No wonder our congress can’t get anything done—all they seem to be able to do is vilify the opposition. But no one is wholly bad or good. We are, as Martin Luther said, at once justified and sinner. I certainly pray that violence will be restrained, that guilt should be punished, and that laws should be obeyed even if the threat of force must be used. But I pray that I may not hate the guilty. I pray that I can learn to be merciful in my assumptions, because I am certainly in need of mercy myself. I pray that I can leave God’s work up to God.

Dear Jesus my Lord, you who were the victim of violence, please watch over the families that have been wounded by violent acts. Be present with the mourners of victims, and with the families of those who suffer because their loved ones have done violence. Let your Holy Spirit move into the hearts of those who have committed crimes and bring them to repentance. Remove hate, vengeance, arrogance, and all that separates us from your love from our hearts. Help us to see a shared humanity as you see it. For this and for all you see we need, we ask in your holy name. Amen.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My Prophecy: Things Will Suck (Reflection on Pentecost 4, Year A)

Happy Independence Day Weekend!

Gotta hand it to those Founding Fathers. They were some pretty smart dudes (Especially if you compare them to the myopic Lilliputians in our current government!). Now granted, Jefferson and Hamilton and Jay and Madison and all the rest of those powdered wig cats weren’t exactly Trinitarian Christians*. Nevertheless, they had a vision for a republic which can only be described as divinely inspired. If nothing else, they imagined a system with checks and balances, which means, for whatever their personal theologies might have been, they had a functioning concept of sin and the possibilities of corruption.

The FF’s started from the basic idea that all people are created by God to be of equal worth (although they were more than a little fuzzy on this concept where their African slaves were concerned!), and they believed in basic human rights. That is to say that everyone in the society—if that society is to make any claim to civilization at all—is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To me, this means that qualified legal representation, education, and healthcare are not commodities to be purchased only by those who can afford them, but rights the society must provide for all. Whether you agree with my interpretation or not, you have to admit that, as jacked-up as our government may be, we are all pretty freakin’ lucky to be living in America. So Happy Birthday, USA, and hats off to those eighteenth century guys who kept their heads in the midst of crisis and laid the groundwork for our republic.

In the First Lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 4 Year A (Jeremiah 28:5-9) we learn about some folks who didn’t keep their heads in a time of crisis. The backstory on this passage goes like this: the nation of Babylon had become the overlord of Judah. After a pretty unsuccessful attempt at revolution, the Judeans got the crap kicked out of them. The Babylonians looted their temple and kidnapped their king, their royal court, and all of their military officers and administrators. The prophet Jeremiah—who had a flair for the theatrical—put a wooden slave’s yoke on his shoulders and announced to King Zedekiah and the rest of the puppet government that they were all slaves of Babylon, that further resistance would be suicidal at the present time, and that they’d better figure out how to deal with the situation. Oh, and by the way, God says so.

A rival prophet, a guy named Hananiah, claimed that God told him everything would be peachy because God likes Judeans better than Babylonians, and Judean exceptionalism meant that everything would magically turn out okay. He then ripped the yoke off Jeremiah’s shoulders and smashed it.
Image result for jeremiah and the wooden yoke

King Zedekiah, of course, believed what he wanted to believe—that God was on his side. The poor slob should have listened to Jeremiah, because the result was that Jerusalem was utterly destroyed by the Babylonians and Zedekiah and his family were caught while trying to escape. The Babylonians killed Zed’s sons in front of him and then put his eyes out. The Jewish exiles remained captives to Babylon for another seventy years.

Zedekiah and Hananiah are like a lot of us. We want to believe what we want to believe. That makes us easy marks for a lot of false prophecy in both government and the church. I think we’ve recently been given a lot of simple answers to complex questions. Our politicians are telling us just to blame it on someone else. Just break the yoke of taxation, roll back the regulations, and increase military spending. Then everything will be swell. Forget income inequality, racial tension, global climate change, and the international community. God likes us best, so everything will work out.

We also have some TV preachers who promise we’ll receive the desires of our hearts because God wants to bless us. If we just stay faithful we will be rewarded with riches. Forget the crucifixion, just shoot straight for the Heavenly glory.

My own personal prophecy is this: Things will suck. They will continue to suck with a pernicious suckiness as long as we are citizens of this sinful world. Anyone who tells you that things will get better without all of us embracing a sense of sacrificial discipleship is selling you snake oil.

There’s a fine line between pessimism and realism. Realism tells us that we, like Jeremiah, are called to take a long and painful look at how things are and where they’re headed, and then seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We’re called to speak truth to power (just as America’s Founding Fathers intended we should) and call for solutions which might end up costing us our personal time and resources. We are called to be patient and faithful participants, not just wishful thinkers.

But here’s the good news from our gospel lesson (Matthew 10:40-42): what we do matters. When we find the welcome in our hearts for the stranger, the poor, the forgotten, or the under-represented, we push the Kingdom of God forward. When my congregation makes room in the church basement to house homeless families, we are pushing back against the darkness, offering that cup of cool water to the “little ones” in the name of discipleship, claiming the reward of the righteous. Our small actions may not look like much, but many small actions can turn into one big action. Our reward may not be in worldly recognition or in wealth, but it will be in finding peace with God and peace with ourselves.

Thanks for dropping by, my friends. Enjoy your Fourth of July Weekend!

*For a really good look at what the Founding Fathers believed, I recommend you read Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes (Oxford University Press, 2006). 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Why Dogs Go to Heaven

I wrote the following article for my church's newsletter. I wrote the following poem just for fun. I hope my fellow dog lovers will enjoy them both.

Related image
Luc-Olivier Merson (1840-1920) "The Wolf of Agubbio" (1877) Note the wolf wears a halo!

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31a)

I’ve been thinking a lot about dogs lately. As many of you know, Marilyn and I recently lost our beloved pet of almost fourteen years, our shih tzu dog, Greta. A dear Christian friend offered us some comfort, but reminded us that dogs were not made in the image of God. Of course I am always grateful for any expression of kindness and sympathy at a time like this, but I have to wonder if, perhaps, my friend isn’t putting too strict an interpretation on Genesis. After all, doesn’t the Bible say God’s spirit moved over the chaos? Isn’t the breath of God the source of all life, not just human life?

When I was a little kid in Sunday School, I was told that only human beings have souls. Animals don’t have souls according to the dictates of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod of the 1960’s. But as a long-time pet owner, and as one who has found himself in relationship with non-human life, I have to marvel at the interconnectedness and the sharing of personalities which I see in God’s “lesser” creatures.

There’s a great story about St. Francis of Assisi. You’ll remember that Francis was said to preach to the birds of the air and called the sun his “brother” and the moon his “sister.” He felt a great connectedness to God in all of the created world. Once, a legend goes, the Umbrian town of Gubbio was being ravaged by a vicious wolf. The wolf killed all of the livestock outside the city walls and menaced the human beings who lived within. Francis, in the spirit of forgiveness, is said to have bravely gone outside the walls of Gubbio, found the offending wolf in its lair, and talked it out of attacking the good people of the town. Subsequently, the townspeople adopted the wolf as their pet, feeding it from their doors, and gave it a Christian burial when it died. This legend dates from the thirteenth century, but when the church of Gubbio was renovated in the nineteenth century, the skeletal remains of an enormous wolf were discovered buried beneath a slab near the church’s wall. The church members re-buried the skeleton inside the church as a holy relic and symbol of God’s love for all creation.

I can’t say for theological certainty that we’ll see our pets in Heaven—although I certainly hope we will. I can marvel, however, that God was good enough to give us such wonderful companions and examples of divine love and obedience here on earth. For centuries dogs have helped humans hunt, retrieved our kill, and protected out homes and our livestock. They have rid our homes and farms of vermin. They have found lost travelers, pursued fleeing criminals, and alerted us when rescue was needed. They have pulled sleds and carts. They have kept us warm in the winter. They have turned spits in ancient kitchens. They’ve herded sheep and pigs and other livestock. They have been eyes for the blind, ears for the deaf, and hands for the disabled. They have warned us of the approach of cancer, stroke, seizures, and heart attacks (For real! One of my neighbors was able to call 911 when his Yorkie jumped on his chest, revived him by licking his face, and saved his life just before he passed out and coded). They have sniffed out drugs, bombs, and illegal firearms and protected our police and military. They have been companions for those suffering from post-traumatic stress, and they have reawakened the spirits of dementia patients. They have been our friends in loneliness and despair. They have made us smile with their antics, and helped us get our needed exercise by insisting we walk them and play with them. They have loved and protected our children, rejoiced in our joy, and cheered us in our sorrow.

The late journalist and TV commentator Andy Rooney once said, “I think we can all agree: Dogs are nice. In fact, most dogs are nicer people than most people.” What a blessing our Lord gave us in our companionship with these creatures! If we are to understand God’s unconditional love and devotion to the human race, we can find no better example than our family dog. We might do well to let our canine friends teach us the simple joys found in wind and sunshine, and the pleasure to be had in obedience to our Master.


In Celebration of Greta
October 4, 2003 – June 13, 2017

Shih tzus come from China, so I guess they’re Oriental.
They don’t serve any function, they’re rather ornamental;
Yet when I think of MY OWN dog, I get quite sentimental.

She was eleven pounds of love wrapped in fur of black and white
With a little Teddy Bear black nose and a friendly underbite.
Oh! If you’d ever seen her, she’d fill you with delight.

She had a way about her that just turned your heart to jelly
When she leapt into your lap and made you rub her belly.
(And, by the way, she was awful clean and very rarely smelly!)

Sometimes she’d bark at strangers, but that was just her way.
She’d jump and paw their trousers. I think she tried to say,
“Hello, friend! I’m Greta. Would you like to play?”

Greta learned a little game she’d play with Marilyn and me.
We’d throw a chew toy in the air and count off “One, two, three!”
Then Greta caught it in her mouth—an impressive sight to see.

Our little doggie slept each night on a pad beside our bed
And woke at six as if to say, “Hey, Dad! It’s time I’m fed!”
But first we’d have to cuddle and I’d scratch her ears and head.

Then I’d pour her out a bowl of her favorite kibble
Which with relish she’d attack and daintily she’d nibble,
Then do her morning ‘business’ (I’d wipe her lest she dribble).

Should I come home in a bad mood, feeling somewhat pissed,
Greta always made me smile. You see, she would insist
I notice how she wagged her tail to tell me I was missed.

Greta only misbehaved when I took her to be groomed.
She’d whine and poop and carry on and acted as if doomed,
But she’d come home so beautifully clipped, bathed, and perfumed.

The groomers always understood—they had marvelous tact.
They’d say, “She’s faking all this angst. She’s putting on an act.
She NEVER gives US trouble, and that’s the honest fact.”

And, if I do say so myself, the groomers’ praise was true.
She really was the sweetest girl who’d never bite or chew.
I challenge anyone to find a worthier shih tzu.

Her antics were so whimsical. She was NEVER boring,
And when she snuggled up to you, you couldn’t help adoring.
Though it seems odd for me to say, she was even cute when snoring!

We loved her little smooshed-in face, it gave us so much joy.
We loved the way she’d wag her tail for her new squeaky toy—
Or the way that she’d play tug-o-war: she growled just like a boy!

But now that she’s in Heaven I just miss her company:
The way she’d nestle at my feet and gaze lovingly at me.
We wished she’d live forever, but that is not to be.

We think of her each morning: how we’d cuddle and we’d kiss her.
Perhaps she wasn’t perfect, but now we’d never “dis” her.
She was part of the family and—OMG!—we miss her.

See: if you love your doggie, you’ll never feel regret.
She’s one member of your tribe who’ll give more than she’ll get.
If you think money can’t buy love, you’ve not bought a puppy yet.

Most dogs are nicer people than some people you might know.
They’re loving, loyal, forgiving, and affection they will show.
Perhaps dogs are the noblest of all creatures here below.