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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Good and Evil in the Garden

Maybe our gardens will save us during this Caronavirus crisis.  Most of us are going crazy trying to “shelter in place.”  We are bored, lonely, sometimes irritable with those we love most who share our confined space.  But the garden offers a welcome release.  There is something therapeutic about digging in the dirt, sifting the soil with our fingers, planting seeds and seedlings that flourish in the sun,

When I lived in Minnesota, I always had a garden.  I guess it was “our” garden, my daughter and mine. She was seven when we moved to Minnesota. 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.  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.

But, the same conditions that cultivate vegetables also stimulate 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.  It dominates the news and grabs the headlines. But hiding among the weeds are the vegetables, 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).

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Persistence During Covid

Some of you will remember that we adopted Buddy, a tri-color corgi, 11 years ago after he was found starving on the streets of Fort Worth.  I wrote his story for my grandkids, “just the way Buddy told it to me”: how Barney the Blood Hound helped him survive on the streets until they were picked up by the dog police. I named the story, Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi because his left ear flopped when we first met.

Like other dogs and pets, Buddy is doing his best to get me through Covid-19. He follows me from room to room and sits patiently near my chair on our back deck.  I am always learning something from Buddy. 

During these difficult days of “sheltering in place” he is teaching me persistence. “Persistence” isn’t a word we use much.  But we all know what it means: never quitting, never giving up and never becoming discouraged. Like most humans, I am not very good at it, but Buddy is a natural. He communicates most by “persistence.”

If he wants to go outside, he goes over to the door and sits there looking out the glass pane.  He never moves.  He just sits there until I notice and obligingly open the door and let him out.  He does the same thing about coming back inside. If I am eating he locks his eyes on the food and stares, again refusing to move.  I can scold him, tell him he isn’t getting anything from me, act as callous and cold as possible, but it doesn’t faze him. He just sits there staring with those big brown corgi eyes until I finally give in. He wins his arguments with persistence.

I need to learn more of that. We humans are always looking for shortcuts to get what we want.  We resort to tantrums, tears, weeping and wailing, pouting and protests. We get angry and argue.  But it seldom achieves our goals.  We need to learn from Buddy.  Persistence and peaceful perseverance is irresistible.

This must have been what Jesus was getting at when He said, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children [e]and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’”

I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.  So I say to you,ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.” (Luke 11:5-10). 

Be persistent.  Be patient. Don’t get upset. Don’t give up.  A better day is coming.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Howling Encouragement

A few nights ago, on a beautiful evening in Colorado, we opened our windows to a refreshing breeze of mountain air.  We listened to the stillness, interrupted by the distinct sounds of howling.  We stepped outside.  It is not entirely unusual for coyotes to howl in the open spaces of the Front Range that sweep up to the foothills and the towering snow-capped mountains.  But these howls were coming from the wrong direction. They were echoing from the streets of our neighborhood.

What we were hearing was a phenomenon sweeping across our nation.  People are emerging from their “stay at home” shelters at 8 PM in the evening and howling!  For some it is perhaps a protest, a way to “let off steam” from being cooped up and shut in. But for most it is a way of connecting with strangers and shouting support for those who continue on the “front lines” of the coronavirus crisis. 

The next day this message appeared in our neighborhood blog: “I work in the Emergency Department for UC Health.  … Some days you feel like you have made a difference and other day are, like last night when I came home exhausted and praying that individuals we put on ventilators that day would still be alive.  When wearing protective gear for 12-15 hours it is uncomfortably hot, and it is a challenge to remember to drink enough water because of being masked up all day.  At the end of our shifts we shower and put on fresh clean clothes carefully bagging up our uniforms from that day which will be laundered as soon as we walk in the door of our homes – all before driving home to our loved ones hoping we have done enough to protect our families from our day’s work. 

Last night as I parked in our garage, I heard a riot of howls from around our neighborhood … I want each of you howlers to know that your support helped lift the tired heart and soul of someone who somedays wonders if what I did was enough.  Last night it brought a tear to my eyes and a big lump in my throat.   I is a pleasure to be your neighbor, and an honor to help support our community.” 

This morning I spoke to my neighbor across the street as he left for his job as a firefighter.  I wished him well and told him I would be praying for him.  The day before we pulled into a space at our local grocery, popped our trunk and waited while one of the workers cheerfully loaded our car with our order for the week.  We gave her a tip and thanked her. She had been working since midnight, stocking the store and filling orders.

We may not be able to do much in the current crisis. But the one thing we all can do is encourage each other, whether by personal greetings, well-wishes and prayers or by howling in the street at 8 PM.

More than ever we need to heed the instruction of Scripture: “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11).  “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5).

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Empty Churches and An Empty Tomb

The U.S. Surgeon General predicted that this would be the hardest and saddest week we have faced since COVID-19 reached our shores.  At the beginning of this week the death toll surpassed 10,000 and continued to climb.  Every death has a story, a life with family and friends suddenly snuffed out in a matter of days.  In Florida a couple who had been married 51 years and were in good health contracted COVID-19. Within 3 weeks the husband and wife died within 6 minutes of each other.  In Colorado a 41 year old Sheriff’s deputy picked up the virus.  He died of COVID-19 on April 1.

In New York funeral homes were struggling to process the bodies.  Morgues, cemeteries and chapels are closed.  Loved ones were being cremated and buried without funerals.  Families are left to mourn alone without the comforting presence of clergy and friends. 

In 1997 I attended a conference in Boston and stayed at the historic Omni Parker House Hotel.  With a bit of free time on my hands, I ventured outside, crossed Tremont Street and wandered into the Granary Burial Grounds, the third oldest cemetery in Boston established in 1660.  Some of America’s founding fathers are buried here: Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and five victims of the Boston massacre along with Benjamin Franklin’s parents.

As I wandered among the grave markers I was struck by the contrast.  Those gravestones that were erected in the late 1600s bore images of skulls and cross bones. They appeared stark and painful.  But in the early 1700s something changed. The images were replaced with angels and cherubim along with Scripture quotations. They radiated hope and expectations for heaven.

I wondered what happened to cause the change.  Why were those buried in the late 1600s interred beneath morbid markers while those who died in the 1730s and later had gravestones symbolizing hope of heaven?  The only explanation seemed to be the Great Awakening.

The earliest beginnings of the Great Awakening can be traced to Gilbert Tennent who founded a “Log College” In Pennsylvania in 1727 to train Presbyterian preachers.  The “Log College” was later named “Princeton.”  But it took wings in the 1730s on the preaching of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, and George Whitefield, whose sermons were widely published by his friend, Benjamin Franklin. The Great Awakening changed the spiritual fabric of the Colonies and transformed the way people viewed death.  Death released its grim grip of despair and was replace by the hope of heaven through faith in Jesus Christ.

It is more than interesting, perhaps providential, that our generation is engaged in its greatest struggle with death at the precise moment when the world remembers the resurrection!  But this Easter will be different.  Churches will be empty. Perhaps our vacant churches will serve as a powerful reminder of another empty room where the body of Jesus was entombed 2,000 years ago.  “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. … O death where is our victory?  O death where is your sting?  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 55-57).  The churches may be empty but the message prevails and Jesus’ resurrection will be proclaimed this Easter more widely than ever.