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Monday, April 25, 2016

Good and Evil in the Garden

When I lived in Minnesota, I always had a garden.  I guess it was “our” garden, our children and mine. Every spring we would pick out what we would plant and, after I spaded up the earth, we would plant our garden together:  cilantro, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cabbage.  One year we grew a pumpkin two feet in diameter (as I remember it).  We tried okra, but apparently it needs the searing heat of Texas.   Rhubarb didn’t require planting, it just volunteered itself every year.

I wasn’t a very good gardener. After the ground was turned and the garden planted, we pretty well left it alone, and it grew. That is what things do in Minnesota.  Long days of sunlight, pleasant summers and occasional rain. Things just grow. They can’t help it.

But, the same conditions that stimulate vegetables also cultivate weeds.  By harvest we had a wonderful crop of both.  Our whole family would visit the garden like children on an Easter egg hunt.   Searching among the weeds we celebrated the discovery of tomatoes, squash, cabbages and a “great pumpkin,” hiding among the weeds. 

Jesus used a similar image to help us understand the mystery of good and evil in the world: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.  When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field?  Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.  The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered ‘because while you are pulling the weeds you may uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest.  At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into the barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-29).

The world is kind of like our garden in Minnesota. Evil flourishes in the world, like the weeds in our garden.  It dominates the news and grabs the headlines. But hiding among the weeds is the wheat, those things that are good, righteous, wholesome and healthy.  In every situation where it appears that evil will triumph, we find, hidden beneath the headlines, acts that are heroic and sacrificial, acts of forgiveness, kindness, goodness and faith.

Someday the harvest will come.  When John introduced Jesus, he said, “One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the straps on His sandals; ... His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  (Luke 3:16-17).

Monday, April 18, 2016

Getting Beyond the Noise

Our world is filled with noise: the whine of tires on the interstate, the roar of eighteen-wheelers;  the constant chatter of televisions in the background, talk show hosts over-talking each other, voices escalating in pitch and volume; politicians screaming insults and accusations at each other.  

Even the sanctuary of my car has been invaded by a talking GPS system.  “Recalculating,” she says, followed by “Make a U turn!”  Once, when my grandkids were riding with me, I switched her language settings from English to German, Russian, Spanish and Arabic just so we could hear what it is like to be corrected in different languages. The grandkids loved it.

Libraries are still pretty quiet. No one wants to mess with a stern librarian. Beaches and parks are quiet, unless someone pulls up nearby with a boom box.  

Silence can make us nervous.  We like to surround ourselves with sound.  It somehow comforts us, relieves us from thinking our own thoughts or, worst of all, being alone. But maybe we are missing something.  Maybe there is something in the silence of solitude that we have lost in our streaming, screaming and crowded world.

Before Jesus launched his public ministry he spent 40 days in the wilderness.  There were no radios, televisions, iPods or iPhones.  He was completely alone in the silence.  I have been there, stood on the edge of the wilderness where he wandered alone for 40 days. It is a stark and silent place.  It prepared Him for the days when He would be buried by the crush of the crowd with little time to eat or sleep.

When John preached near the Jordan River, thousands came to hear him.  The hillsides were covered with people listening to his messages.  People lined up to be baptized for repentance.  But before his remarkable public preaching, John spent years in the wilderness listening to God. 

Our lack of silence and solitude threatens to make us shallow, only able to repeat the slogans and jingles of the latest commercials.  Our minds repeat the lyrics of the latest pop songs.  If we would have depth of character, if we would think new thoughts, if we would hear the voice of God, we need time alone, time away from all the noise.  Time to think new thoughts and time to pray.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” 

The Bible says, “Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”  (Isaiah 40:30-31). “’Come now, and let us reason together.’ Says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18).

David said, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside quiet waters.” (Psalm 23:2)  “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me.”  (Psalm 131:2)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Surprised by Glory - The Child Within

They are everywhere. They are found on every continent in every culture. Without them the human race would be doomed to extinction in a few short decades.  They fill the air with laughter, like the sound of water gurgling in a happy brook. Their capacity for imagination and happiness is almost boundless.  They find treasure in the common things in common places. They are the children.

Children rip away the paper from brightly wrapped presents, discard the expensive gift and spend hours playing with the box. At the playground, they make friends of complete strangers.  In a matter of minutes they are playmates making up imaginary games. They are as happy and excited to kick a half-deflated soccer ball in a back alley as any player in a World Cup stadium. They see the world with wide-eyed wonder, and they are blind to color, race or social standing.

We are born reflecting the eternal light that enlightens every man. (John 1:9).  But, somewhere along the way, the light dims. The carefree joy of childhood is lost. 

Too often, and too soon the children will learn the lessons of prejudice, self centeredness and competition. They learn it from watching the grown ups around them. They learn it from pressure to perform in sports on the field, pressures to live up to the expectation of adults who too often measure life by fame, fortune and winning at all costs.

Jesus treasured the innocence of childhood.  He once took a child and stood her in the midst of his grown-up disciples who were arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest.  Holding the child in his gentle hands, he said to them, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2).

We all were children once, full of hopes and dreams with boundless imagination.  We are prone to lose the magic, exchanging laughter for worry, innocence for anger, expectation for resentment.  But somewhere, down deep inside, is the child we once were.

I have known adults living into their eighties whose eyes still twinkle with the joy of a child, whose faces are wrinkled with lines of laughter, who seem to wake up each morning with a child-like excitement for the next day’s adventure. We need not surrender to the bitterness of disappointment.  The wisdom of experience can serve as seasoning for the joy of childhood.

Regardless of our circumstances; in spite of our difficulties, set-backs and disappointments; Jesus invites us to enter the Kingdom as a little child, to be filled with a faith that expects to be surprised by glory. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Spring Planting

There is something about digging in the earth, sowing seed and burying plants in the freshly turned soil.  It is an act of faith, of hope and expectation. It is an ancient ritual of believing. It is a way of interacting with life’s mysterious miracle. When I was in Minnesota, I wrote a poem about the experience.

I have bedded them,
laid them down to sleep,
dug shallow graves
and buried them
beneath soft soil,
dark, moist, rich dirt,
gently padded and patted.

They have been accepted
by the earth,
their burial signified by stick-markers
on which are written their names,
not in remembrance but in expectation,
waiting for them to wake,
to spring from dormant death into full flower:
pink and red and lavender,
yellow and white
the funeral-ritual of spring.

Cemeteries are like gardens, the name markers signifying the faith and hope with which the bodies of those who have gone on before were laid to rest. What is buried appears to be dead and lifeless. But is it?

A few years ago I visited a cemetery in old Boston where the tombstones date back to some of the earliest residents of The Colonies.  Those grave markers erected before 1730 bore skulls and cross bones.  They were the picture of death and despair. The markers erected after 1740 bore the images of angels and cherubim and were often inscribed with verses about heaven.  The only event that could have made such a difference in the Boston markers is the Great Awakening that swept the Colonies in the 1730s.  Benjamin Franklin wrote of the Awakening that there was a “wonderful change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. … so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."

Paul had this image in mind when he wrote, “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.  But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.  … So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

      "I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ … thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:37-54).