Monday, March 18, 2013

American Idyll

In the small apartment building where my wife and I lived in Yalova, Turkey from 1971-73, there was a crack in the plaster above one doorway. The cracked plaster had appeared after a small earth tremor in this very seismically active area. Early one summer morning as we were awakening, the bed shook a bit. We looked up to see the ceiling light fixtures, suspended only by their cords, swinging gently. After several seconds they stopped. Thankfully. We are alive today because that gentle tremor was just that, not the huge shock that destroyed the entire town in 1999.

How we wept when the day came in 1973 to leave this small apartment that had been the only home we had ever known as a young married couple. I would not trade our humble beginnings there for anything. For all around us was a seaside town that supplied everything we needed for life. There were little corner stores and neighborhood bread bakeries on nearly every block. Fresh fruits and vegetables. Hardware stores. Paint stores. Lumber dealers. Flower shop. Butcher shops. Car repair. Ceramic tile manufacturing. Restaurants. Appliances, housewares. All there. Women wore head scarves and more traditional attire--OR current fashion with their hair down and skirts above the knee. Even blue jeans. And five times a day the call to prayer.

Best thing of all was what people did on summer evenings before television changed even this part of the world: whole families went out for evening strolls. Mom, Dad and the kids--children walking holding their hands, infants and toddlers in strollers. Talking, greeting neighbors. Eye contact. Fresh air, exercise. Family. Music at outdoor cafes and restaurants along the sea wall. Doors to apartments not only unlocked but even left wide open when people went out to shop or stroll.

Nobody looking at glowing displays in their hands. 40 years ago but within living memory. Food, clothing, shelter, basic health care and work that provides these things, or community that does. None of the other "stuff" is really of value unless there is community. Too much stuff, which isn't really all that much, comes at a very high price: our souls.

It wasn't America, yet it was far more like the America that we were--but no longer are--than we might care to admit.

What else do we have in common with the rest of the world that we seem to have lost in pursuit of American exceptionalism?  Has the thought ever occurred to us?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Farming With Jesus

Ever since Tabitha Schulke's story ran in Thursday's Oregonian, 

 I've been thinking about her and the questions posed by today's text from Luke 13. In Jesus' own day, the default questions were:

1) Why did this happen?

2) Who is to blame?

3) What is this all for?

4) When will the bad people finally get what's coming to 'em?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

But that's really a stupid question. Why do bad things happen at all? To anyone? But then, we can ask those questions 'til we are blue in the face. And I can ask another "w" question: Where do all of those other questions get us in the first place? Nowhere. Wrong questions. Wrong letter of the alpahbet.

Instead of "w" for why, I like "h" for how. Now that life is this way, whatever way it is, HOW do we live with this, whatever "it" is? Tabitha Schulke and her mother could certainly waste their entire lives asking why this gorgeous, loving, 18-year-old got some lethal infection that took her legs in order to save her live. But because there is something else in Tabitha's heart and soul, I predict they don't. I predict they ask the question, "How do we live with this?" And then they proceed to do so: live with it.

After questions about human disasters and loss of life, Jesus told a story in Luke 13 about a barren fig tree. And a vineyard owner who wants the barren tree taken out. Now. But there's a hopelessly optimistic gardener who has some sort of miracle grow fertilizer: manure.

Until this week, I've heard that story putting God in the place of the landowner. And Jesus in the place of the gardener... Which means that Jesus' whole purpose is protecting us from the God who wants us out of the picture--and who could fire the gardener at any time and finally carry out three-strikes justice. So much for Jesus' revealing the heart of steadfast love... Or...

Maybe the story works better if the "vineyard owner" equals the way much of the world works: Three strikes, you're out. You've had your chance. Time's up. No hope, no forgiveness, no future. Buzz off!

So maybe we could see God as the crafty gardener who has a sly smile on his face and says, "I got a plan. I got this miracle-grow stuff. I don't need three years, just one. I'll bet the whole farm, the entire future on my "fertilizer", because I know that all it needs is just one chance to work. Just one."

Interesting. Cause that makes Jesus Messiah the manure, doesn't it? The natural, organic, life-giving substance that the gardener (God) has been willing to stake everything on, you and me included.

"For He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin:  that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him."   2 Cor. 5:21 KJV. 

That's some high quality manure. Gotta love that divine nitrogen cycle. 

Back up to Luke 13.  After the fig tree parable, Jesus is met by a woman who has been beset by a crippling condition that has kept her hunched over and contorted for 18 years, same span as Tabitha Schulke's entire life to date.   Then, instead of going down every rat and rabbit hole with questions of why and who's to blame, who's at fault, Jesus does something with that fertilizer of steadfast love and compassion.

"Woman, you are set free from your ailment,"  Jesus says according to Luke 13.  Nice.  She straightens up.  Fixed.  Cured.  Fairytale world of the Bible. 

But that was then and this is now...  Does that kind of miracle ever happen today?  I think so...

Tabitha Schulke will never wake up some morning and find her amputated legs and feet restored. But she, like the woman Jesus healed on the Sabbath, has been freed of her ailment. She is not stuck in the death spiral of asking why. She and her Mom are busy answering the question "how". The fertilizer of Christ has been spread on their hearts.

My friend Karen whose father was KIA in Vietnam in 1966 when she was nine will never look across the room and see her father standing there alive.  Not until the next life, anyway.  Karen, along with her sibs, has lived with the "ailment" of his death nearly all of her life.  In pain, denial, anguish and confusion to be sure, her life has taken turns and been transformed into a life of compassion, understanding, healing, comfort and hope for so many people who have also suffered great loss.  Gold star wives, parents, children, siblings.  Communities and households shattered by the horrible death of battered children.  Parents who lost loved ones in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Countless readers around the globe.    

There's a common ingredient here:  the miracle growing stuff of the parable.  Tabitha's life and story are yet to be written, mostly.  Yet I predict that her loss becomes a source of life and grace according to a script none of us could have written.  A miraculous product exists:  grace around the roots of our barren fig trees.    

A wily gardener knew what he was doing back when.  Still does.   

Jesus called on his hearers to repent, to turn around to see the kingdom of God right before them, right beside them, right behind them.  He calls them to see life where others see only death; to see a way forward where others see only dead ends.

Can you smell the fresh fragrance? Life, I tell ya. Life. Happy farming with Jesus!

There is a way to live with this, whatever "it" is. Fertilizer's guaranteed. Amen.

Pastor Roger