Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Guest Blogger

I'm over here today, guest blogger at Weavings.

I've been invited to preach at Inlet Community Church for the month of November, so much of my writing time has been devoted to sermon preparation.  It's been eight years since I have preached.  I had forgotten how deeply I love crafting sermons.  It has been a delight.  And this even before stepping into the pulpit.  If you are so inclined, I would appreciate your prayers

I have a couple pieces in the works that have grown out of a recent backpacking trip.  They are rough hewn for now.  I hope to sand them smooth over the next few days and post them soon.  Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Worshipping Scarecrows

"Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good” 
Jeremiah 10:5 NIV.

Impotent Scarecrows

Try to think of the last time you saw a scarecrow in a field? Not on a front porch with hay bales and pumpkins, but in a field, scaring crows. It seems scarecrows have been largely reassigned as seasonal d├ęcor, transferred from the front lines of the crop war to the front porches of suburban homes. The demotion is a direct result of poor performance. 

A scarecrow is like a surrogate farmer, erected in a field to guard the crop when the farmer is away. Deceptively similar in appearance to its flesh and bone counterpart, it is intended as a deterrent for dim-witted pests. The crows (and other critters) will be scared away by the protective guardian. 

But crows are highly intelligent. They can make and use simple tools to get food. They can quickly adapt to new challenges. They can learn from one another. This innate intelligence hinders the long-term effectiveness of lifeless scarecrows. They may work initially, but with time crows will test the scarecrow, gradually coming closer and closer to assess the danger. This inspection will reveal that the scarecrow is harmless. Soon they will resume pillaging crops, undeterred by the impotent protector. Other garden eaters will notice the crow’s brazen disregard of the humanlike figure and sense the lack of danger.  Before long, it becomes a free-for-all. The stiff outstretched arms become a perch from which to launch their aerial plundering.

The crow is able to reveal the true nature of the impotent protector. Its limbs hang lifeless and its mouth is silent. It is dependent on a pole to keep it erect. Its work amounts to idle passivity. It is an illusion of substance. In truth it can do no harm…or good. It can do nothing but hang limp from a stand. 

Impotent Idols
Such are the idols Israel’s neighbors.  Jeremiah warns them not to mimic these nations. But the rebuke carries across the generations into our own day. It's a suitable depiction of the contemporary idols that we trust in place of God. They are surrogates that may, for a time, hold pests at bay.

You may, for example, place your confidence in a steady paycheck because it offers a feeling of security, at least on the surface. You trust in that weekly deposit to meet your needs for food, clothing, and shelter. But your misplaced confidence is shaken by an unexpected expense, a down turn in the economy, a round of layoffs at your company. What you thought to be of substance turns out to be full of hay.

Or maybe it is a relational idol, depending on a marriage, a family, or a friendship to bear the load of personal worth. Your value is determined by your role as husband, mother, or friend. All these relationships bear the image of their creator, a relationally triune God who would sacrifice all to restore relationship with his beloved bride. But these relationships buckle under the weight. Hay stuffed arms are not designed to bear this burden. You are demanding too much of these reflections. Only one relationship can hold up under that weight.

Instead of a surrogate, you are invited to trust the true farmer, whose work is not idle passivity, but mighty protection. He will feed you like the birds and clothe you like the flowers. He will cultivate your life toward fruitfulness. Let him reveal the idols of your heart. Let him help you to renounce them. Allow him to be your true farmer, cultivating your soul.

I recently had an article accepted for publication by Weavings.  They've invited me to guest blog and asked if they could use some of my old blog posts on their blog.  The first one was posted this past week here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Les Miserables and Les Work Schedule

I had to work last Sunday.  Working in retail, I don’t get many weekends off, but I do split the misery with my senior manager - I work Saturdays and she works Sundays.  But the staffing chart is currently threadbare.  I knew the college students would be returning to their distant dormitories and labor laws would limit how much I could use the high school students when school started.  I did not anticipate the simultaneous purging of underachievers from my staff. We have been reduced to a skeleton crew, a boney bunch stretched to fill the necessary shifts. 

Lately as I write the schedule, I stare at the computer screen, puzzling out how to fill in the gaps in my staffing. Last Sunday’s there was no other option.  I would have to work on my day off.  It’s not my preference, but I’ll do it when I have to.

“Won’t you get in trouble for skipping church?”

I stared back in silent bewilderment.  Head cocked and eyes slightly squinted.  The thought had never crossed my mind.

My cashier repeated the question with an underlying note of assertion  “Won’t you get in trouble for skipping church?”

She is not a churchgoer.  But she knows of my faithful attendance.  This was a window into the perspective of an outsider trying to make sense of why those who attend church faithfully would bother.  With a weekend reduced to one day, why would I waste a chunk of it in church?

Her assumption was that church attendance must be mandatory for the religious.  We go because we must.  It is an obligation, like a debt.  Missing a Sunday is like skipping a payment. Too lax and the repo man will be pounding on my door.  Already, God must be scratching out a first draft of my eviction even as I post the schedule.  Foreclosure is imminent. Won’t I get in trouble for skipping church?

To her, Christianity is built on obligation.  This was so self evident that it didn’t require any explanation. The only uncertainty was how I found a loophole to dodge the sure disapproval and the probable retribution from a divine enforcer?

Recently, I have been listening to an audio drama of Les Miserables by Focus on the Family Radio Theatre.  A free copy was provided for me by the Tyndale Bloggers network.  It is the familiar story of Jean Valjean first told in Victor Hugo’s epic novel, then adapted for Broadway in the Tony award winning musical. Most recently, the musical made its way from Broadway to Hollywood, with a critically acclaimed film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway.  

This particular three hour audio production is solid.  The scoring is fitting, musical interludes carrying the action from scene to scene and setting the tone within the scene. Sound effects add to the drama.  The voice acting is strong with the tone matching the character, from the stone-cold Javert, to the devious Thenardier, to the tender Marius. The limitations of audio drama are on display, everything having to be explained verbally causing the dialogue to feel stilted and unnatural at times. In some cases, too much is explained. But the action progresses at a steady pace and the drama is delightful to listen to.  Most importantly, the story of redemption shines through as law and grace are set in tension.

Valjean is the model of grace.  The embittered ex con, having been turned away for lodging again and again because his passport identifies him as a convict, is welcomed by a priest.  He warns the priest that his paperwork identifies him as a dangerous man.  The priest replies that we are all dangerous men.  The convict and the priest alike, in need of grace. 

When Valjean is caught stealing the silverware, the priest covers for him, contending that these were a gift, refusing to press charges, and insisting that he take the silver candlesticks as well.  This undeserved act of kindness is a turning point for Valjean, a motivation to lead an upright life. Valjean is transformed into a generous man, risking his life to rescue others, spending his fortune to help the poor, exposing his identity to spare a falsely accused man, and charting his life to honor a promise in caring for the daughter of a dying woman. 

Inspector Javert, on the other hand, is rigidly devoted to the letter of the law.  For Javert, Valjean’s broken parole must be prosecuted, even if this man has become a model citizen.  The law is equivalent to justice.  Repeat offenders, like Valjean, should be put away for life.  He doggedly pursues Valjean, refusing to believe that a criminal can ever truly change.

Javert is no hypocrite.  When he begins to suspect a wealthy factory owner and town mayor could be Valjean, he denouncing him without proof.  When he is sure he was mistaken he insists on being fired.  He is unworthy of the post and must pay the price for his own unsavory behavior.  Justice is justice, whether your hand is on the trigger or your frame is in the scope.  When he is captured be the rebels, he fully expects to be executed, the rightful punishment for a spy.  He is dumbstruck when Valjean, his executioner, helps him escape. 

Which brings me back to the question.  Won’t I get in trouble for not going to church?  The question rises out of a view of Christianity that is Javertian (if I may invent a word). But this is not the gospel.  In the gospel, grace triumphs over law, salvation is a gift given and not a wage earned.  The “ought” of obligation is overtaken by the “bought” of redemption.  This is Valjean, a man fueled by gratitude, transformed at his core.

In the end Javert commits suicide.  The edifice of his worldview cannot bear the weight of Valjean’s transformation.  He dies a tormented man.  Valjean, on the other hand, dies in peace, declaring God’s goodness and saying that “to die is nothing, but it is terrible not to live.”

So won’t I get in trouble for skipping church.  Of course not.  God isn’t busy keeping score, marking attendance on vast spreadsheets.  His focus is on transformation.  He is molding my character.  His goal is not to make me a church goer.  His intent is to transform me into the image of Christ.  “And we all…are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV).

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Words Like Honey

As a hobbyist bee keeper, I was recruited by a friend to remove a hive from the side of a barn this last spring.  We were both novices; book smart, but never having extracted an unwanted hive. We hoped to transfer the colony into a new hive box.  One man’s nuisance is another man’s resource.  If all went well, we would have another honey producing hive.  We figured it would take us a couple hours and we arranged to meet mid-morning so we would be done by lunchtime. 

As we peeled back a portion of the siding, the hive was exposed - the core of the hive in the center with the queen and her attendants; the storehouses on either side, large swathes of wax cells laden with sweet honey.   This was more than we anticipated.   Spring is when hives are at their weakest, on the rebound from a punishing winter.  But this hive was flourishing.  Large portions of honeycomb would have to be removed along with a vast horde of bees.  This would take longer than we had anticipated.

We began the delicate process of cutting the comb from the walls of this barn.  Those with larva we placed in frames that would become the core of a transplanted hive.  Those with honey we piled in bins for later extracting.   The day wore on and the lunch hour passed.  We were hungry in the heat and tired from the work.  Early in the afternoon we took a break in the shade and munched on the snack at hand – abundant, fresh honeycomb.  Almost immediately, we were re-energized.
It turns out that honey is like nature’s energy food.  Most sweets provide a spike in blood sugar levels followed by a crash, but honey has been found to provide a steady surge of energy.  Glucose in the honey is absorbed quickly, easily assimilated into the bloodstream, giving an immediate energy boost. Fructose in the honey is absorbed more slowly providing sustained energy.  This combination makes honey a well balanced energy booster. 

Solomns relies on the well-known healing property of honey to serve as a metaphor for the power of what we utter.  “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).  They are a sweet elixir of healing, a punch of vigor for the downhearted.  They have the power to encourage, inspire, and motivate.  A kind word lingers long in the memory, becoming a source of sustenance and energy. 

Surely you have experienced this.  A kind word that has lifted your spirit.  A commendation that has motivated you to press on, an encouragement that has given you hope. 

I had plans for yesterday.  I called my wife on my break to fill her in.  Stillness on the phone betrayed reluctance.  Slowly she explained her hesitancy.  She was uncomfortable with my plan.  Together we came up with a solution that was more agreeable. 

I was working late and arrived home to the stillness of sleep.  In the quiet, I saw a scrap of yellow paper on the table by my seat. “Phil – I love you.  Thank you so much for changing your plans.  That speaks volumes.”  

The volumes spoken by my accommodation matched by the volumes spoken in a quick scribble.  A taste of honey on my tongue. Appreciation for my sensitivity.  Affirmation for my flexibility. A small inconvenience more than compensated for by my wife's gratitude.  The power of words, like healing honey.  

And to think, your words could unleash that same power.  Today.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Back to the Blog

The kids are back in school and I am back at my writing desk; the unstructured rhythm of summer giving way to the order of fall. 

Here, in Central New York, we experience all four seasons, but not in balance.  The scale is calibrated in favor of winter.  The snow begins somewhere around Thanksgiving and doesn’t let up until late March or early April.  I love winter and still delight in snowfall and sweaters, hearty soup and hot tea, heavy blankets and blazing hearths.  But five months of this presses me to my limit.  In a region known for its snowfall, the warmer months of summer are a gift; the reward for having persevered through the cold, dark months of winter. 

In May I unwrapped the gift, feeling the tug outdoors.  There was much that demanded my attention. 

There were chores to attend to.  I rebuilt the front stoop, re-laid part of our brick walkway, rehung the gutters in the front of our house, scrubbed the moss growth off the roof, and sealed the driveway.  One by one I scratched items off my to-do list. 

There were beehives to manage.  In the end, I settled into two hives, though for portions of the summer I had four.  Some friends and I received some valuable experience extracting two hives from a barn.  One of the hives survived, while the other died.  We learned more from what we did wrong than what we did right.  We’ll get third chance next spring.  Another hive has taken up residence in the same barn.  But for now it looks like there will be no honey harvest this season.  Both hives are still building up their honey stores for the winter. 

There were trails to be run.  I cut back on my running regimen from previous summers, choosing to forgo any marathon or half marathon training.  I ran for fun, 3-4 miles, 2-3 times a week.  Mostly I ran the trails that wiggle their way through our neighborhood, but I also forayed into the Wildlife management area about a half-mile from my house and discovered some new trails. 

There was plenty of relaxing.  I lounged in sunny poolside chairs and in a shaded backyard hammock.  I read books, though often reading gave way to resting, the warmth of the sun or the cool of the shade lulling me to sleep.

And there were kids.  Four of them at home for the duration.  No school to break up the monotony.  Stunted creativity leading to boredom.  The quite house that cultivates my writing was replaced with a noisy brood, sometimes joyful, sometimes angry, sometimes whiny, sometimes goofy.  But most always noisy. 

So I haven’t written much in the last few months and the blog has been neglected.  That season is over and I am anxious to see what God will teach me. When I am writing, I am more attentive.  My eyes are open, my ears are tuned to see and hear what God is up to.  Writing begins with having something to say. That will depend on having first heard something from God.  So I listen more carefully.  In hindsight, I regret that I have let that wane over the summer.

I hope to write weekly.  That may stretch to bi-weekly.  Mostly this will still be the greenhouse, where ideas can germinate and grow into seedlings.  Some will pruned and nurtured and eventually grow into published articles. Others will wither and die, never strong enough to survive outside the climate-controlled environment of this conservatory. 

So the school year begins and I am back at my writing desk.  But not for long.  Not today.  Summer is lingering into September and today is a glorious day.  I should be outside.