Thursday, April 29, 2010


When you return to the Lord your God, then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you. Deuteronomy 30:2-3

Jesus said to the healed woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well;
go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Mark 5:34

I have an antique trestle-style library table. No, let me rephrase that. I have the pieces of an antique trestle-style table. Some are splintered, all are dusty, and they are stacked in the corner of my garage.

Once belonging to my Uncle Fritz and Aunt Margie, the skinny table used to decorate the back wall of their vintage Midwest farmhouse living room. Throughout my entire childhood and youth, the table was most often topped with a doily, a lamp, and a filled candy dish. At holiday time, it boosted their 4 foot tall artificial Christmas tree to a grand height and held their tissue-paper wrapped gifts.

Especially in its current state, the table is of no particular worth. Made of inexpensive pine varnished into a sticky blackness, its only value is sentimental. And yet, I’ve carried that small woodpile with me on several cross country moves always with the hope and expectation that someday—when I have time—I will restore the heap into a serviceable item of furniture.

Restoration, of course, means to return something to its earlier condition. But it also means to take it a step further—to refurbish something to a better condition.

Both Old and New Testament verses in today’s Daily Text speak of restoration. In one example we hear about someone being restored to the community following a time of exile and isolation. In the other, we learn of someone’s health and wholeness being restored. In both cases, these acts of restoration are life-affirming and positive. The people effected end up being better than ever because they have come to know God’s compassion.

Struggles in this life are the gritty sandpaper, the grinder that scrapes against the surface and scratches off the old finish. Without the grit, the stain wouldn’t adhere, and without the stain, the beauty of the grain would not be revealed—even better than the first time.

Someday I’ll get to work on that table. In the meantime, I invite God to keep working on me.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Warmth of God's Blessing

The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
Numbers 6:25

Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” John 20:21

I went to a high school track meet yesterday to cheer on my son and his teammates, but only the fact that Dan was scheduled to run in the finale event kept me anchored to my chilled aluminum bleacher seat through the whole contest. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy watching the competitive sprints, the aerial pole vaulting, or the punishing 3200 meter run. All of the kids’ achievements were worthy of ovation.

No, the tough thing about being out there last evening was the raucous wind pummeling the already cool air and taking it down my degrees. By perching high enough up in the stands to get a good look at the finish line, I also set myself up to be pierced by the icy blasts that persisted even though the sun never gave up shining. With gloves on, coat zipped, and hood up, still my teeth chattered.

But then, for about four and a half minutes—only the amount of time it took for one speedy runner to complete one lap of the oval—the wind ceased. The wind ceased and the persistent sunshine immediately heated me to the point where I had to shed the outerwear and tilt my head back to receive the glorious warmth.

Is this what it feels like in the soul when God’s face is shining, when God is being gracious? Is this what it feels like in the spirit when God is offering a blessing? Could be. Could be.

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face shine upon you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Take a Knee

Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, “In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.” Isaiah 45:23-24

Therefore God also highly exalted him, so that at the name of Jesus every knee would bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:9-11

I find no difficulty, no hesitation in saying out loud, “Jesus is Lord.” The hard part comes with the knee-bending. Whether done physically or metaphorically, kneeling in Christ’s presence is an act of submission, a demonstration of my willingness to yield control to an authority outside of myself. But I’m a control freak, so capitulating never comes easily. I have to work at it.

This evening, I had the opportunity to learn a new skill. I was with my church hand bell choir for our regular Monday night rehearsal when the director asked me to move from my usual position and learn a different part. Now, I have a modicum of hand bell experience, and I’ve mastered the basics along the way. I can read music, I can manage a different bell in each hand, I know how to create the special effects that come with thumb damping and plucking and shaking the bells. I’m proficient.

Or I thought I was proficient until I was asked to ring 4 bells simultaneously. Yes, there is a way to overlap the bells’ strappy handles so that each hand can accommodate 2 bells, and yes, there is a way to strike them independently of each other. Several practiced musicians tried to show me the proper technique that would allow me to accomplish this feat. I would go so far as to say these musicians were experts. They were authorities. Had I simply submitted to their expertise, had I acquiesced to their experience and surrendered to their teaching, it would have been an evening of lovely, full-bodied music pealing through the church.

But of course, I barreled ahead on my own, disregarding their knowledge and wisdom in exchange for my own clumsy clanking and banging. A train wreck would have been a happier sound than the ones I was creating by ignoring good advice and doing things my way. (The director sent us home early tonight. I think it’s because I gave her a headache.)

I have a tendency to charge into life in the same stubborn way, believing I can figure things out for myself. Sometimes I can, but it’s never without a lot of false starts and dissonance. I’m sure I must give God a headache. I know I give myself one. If I could just manage to take a knee sometimes and simply acknowledge that Jesus is in control—and I’m not—there would be a lot fewer headaches to contend with.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Holy Spirit Promises

The Lord will not cast away his people,for his great name’s sake.
I Samuel 12:22

The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him. Acts 2:39

My china cabinet is filled with stories my male teenage children do not want to hear—like how the antique flat champagne glasses we use for dessert on special occasions were originally wedding presents belonging to their great grandparents, two German immigrants who met and fell in love in Chicago; or how, when she was a little girl, my mom would actually use the Shirley Temple milk pitcher and matching cobalt blue cereal bowl when she would join her father in the kitchen for “a little lunch before bedtime.” I’ve tried to pass along family lore in the snippets and vignettes the dishes bring to mind, but any such telling brings on glazed eyes and slumped shoulders.

When I was a child, I adored staring at the gold rimmed porcelain plates and the silver inlaid Venetian glass decanter with matching cordial glasses. Their origins fascinated me not only because of their beauty, but because they put me closer to understanding my lineage, my ancestry. My peeps!

Though referenced often enough in our household, these cultural indicators do not resonate with my kids. In fact, when my youngest son was in third grade, he came home from school one day and said, “My teacher asked me what my family’s heritage was, and I told her we didn’t have one.” It’s moments like these that I slap my hand to my own forehead in mortified disbelief. I wonder how it is that I have failed so completely at connecting my own child to his own history, his own legacy?

It’s bad enough that I have not stirred my children’s imagination when it comes to tales of their forebears. But what might even be worse is if I’ve failed to stir their longing for something magnificent not in the past, but in the present and future. Have I shared my faith in meaningful, memorable, powerful ways, and have I helped them to understand that the promise of the Holy Spirit’s power and presence is right there for them if only they take an interest, if only they claim it?

It was awfully generous of Peter to tell his Pentecost audience that the full blown energy of God’s Spirit would be available not only to them, but also to their children and even to people at a distance (in other words, you need not be present to win). What is implied in Peter’s speech, however, is that it would become a parental responsibility to convey to the next generation just how a wildly outrageous encounter with God’s Spirit is transformational.

Yes, the promise is for our children. Yes, God’s Spirit works in crazy, unexpected ways. But it is also our joyful obligation to help our kids make the connections that will light up their souls.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Being Earthy

For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your descendants and your name remain. Isaiah 66:22

Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life. Revelation 2:10

Tomorrow is Earth Day, and as I look around the room I’m sitting in right now, all the components I’ve been assembling for “A Spirited Gathering Honoring God and Creation” at beautiful Tuscora Park are right in front of me. There’s a stack of song sheets printed on recycled paper (30% post-consumer fiber), packets of flower and vegetable seeds we’ll be planting in little pots made from an accumulated pile of old newspapers, a poster featuring that iconic photo of the earth taken from Apollo 17 back in 1972, and an amazingly clear and detailed version of the globe reproduced on a beach ball.

The focus of Earth Day has been upon environmental awareness and activism since it was established in 1970 under the leadership of Senator Gaylord Nelson from my home state of Wisconsin. I was six years old and coming close to the end of first grade on that first Earth Day. I remember making a collage from wildlife pictures torn from Ranger Rick Magazine. My class may have planted a tree.

Forty years later, I’m pleased that Earth Day is still around, and that there is a strong emphasis on environmental responsibility in our society right now. I don’t have to harp on you to recycle, to “go green” or to work on reducing your carbon footprint because it’s all the rage. The message is everywhere!

But while bringing renewal to our planet is a current trend and popular cause, the invitation for human beings to do the right thing by the environment is hardly a new crusade or a passing fad. Stewardship of the earth has been a priority of God-honoring people since. . . well, since Genesis was first spoken aloud and passed from one generation to the next. As the story goes, God conversed with Adam when the world was fresh and new, telling him that it was his responsibility to tend it, guard it, keep it.

Isaiah 65 and 66 speak longingly and dreamily of a time when there will be a new heaven, a new earth. But those passages don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the original Earth. The problem, per usual, is that the people living on the planet are sometimes rotten. Isaiah looks forward to a time when people finally pay attention to God’s intentions, when they live in harmony without trying to get ahead by exploiting anything or anyone. When that happens, it will be LIKE having a whole new earth because it will be so wonderful.

Earth IS wonderful. Let’s keep it that way, not only because there’s a governmental proclamation instructing us to do so, but because we are inspired by God’s phenomenal project called Creation.

P.S. If you're anywhere near New Philadelphia, Ohio tomorrow, April 22, please join us for "A Spirited Gathering Honoring God and Creation" at Tuscora Park beginning at 6:00PM. Contact me if you need directions or more information. It will be wonderful, and I'll let you play with the really cool Earth beach ball.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Israel, you are my servant, I have chosen you
and not cast you off. Isaiah 41:9

You did not choose me but I chose you.
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit. John 15:16

To audition for the part and be cast in the role. To try out for the team and make the cut. To apply for the position and get the job. To be chosen. With it comes a rush of elation—a breathlessly ticklish pleasure in the gut and a swelling sense of accomplishment. It feels like the good part of a roller coaster ride—not the buildup of terror or the wide-eyed frenzy that comes with knowing there’s no turning back, but rather the fleetingly delightful part when you can’t help but laugh with pure joy. Is there any better sensation available in the range of human emotion?

Maybe one. How about the tingly warmth that spreads like honey when you’re chosen not for what you’ve done, but for who you are? The sensation that comes with recognizing you are loved wholly and completely by another human being is what we crave, and what we cherish once we’ve known it.

If being chosen for something or by someone brings so much happiness and fulfillment, then contemplate on the bliss that comes with being chosen by God.

This will be my mantra for today: God chose ME. God CHOSE me. GOD chose me.

That is a pretty fine thought for a Monday.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed. Isaiah 1:17

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2

My favorite grocery store in the area has a unique and most efficient system for helping customers get their purchases from the checkout line to their cars. Someone bags the groceries, slips the bags into coded plastic tubs, and plops the tubs on a conveyor belt that travels outdoors to a wide portico. Shoppers receive a placard that matches the code on each of their grocery tubs. They drive their vehicles right up to the sheltered conveyor belt and hand over their identifying placards to polite employees who load all of the purchases into the trunk. Voila!

The trade-off for having this marvelous service is that the store’s management does not allow grocery shopping carts to be taken outside of the building. (This certainly solves one of the challenges raised in my “Walmart” post from earlier this week.) The only downside to this policy is that, if a shopper has a medium-sized order of groceries that she would just as soon schlep to the car herself, she has to be able to carry them in her hands.

Now, any intelligent and unassuming person would simply say, “Yes. Please send my purchases out on the conveyor belt,” when asked by the pleasant checkout clerk. But being a dim and prideful person, I have a ridiculous tendency to say, “No. That’s okay. I’ll carry them myself.” I inevitably regret the decision as soon as I remember how heavy a gallon of milk actually is, especially when its matched with a five pound bag of potatoes, a three pound bag of apples, and a couple of bottles of Gatorade.

It’s so silly, this inclination I have toward total self-sufficiency. I HATE asking for help with anything, whether it be something small like carrying groceries, or something big like making decisions in a crisis.

Of course, I’m always happy to offer help to someone else. I love doing good, seeking justice and rescuing the oppressed! I’m just lousy at accepting the same.

Today’s mandate to “bear one another’s burdens” isn’t a mere reminder to me that I should assist others in carrying their heavy loads, but that in order to have Christ-honoring relationships, I have to be willing to allow others to assist me.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Growing in Understanding

You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 4:2

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
John 14:26

The first time I ever encountered Mark Twain’s literary classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I was nine years old. It was summertime, and my parents had adopted some kind of cultural enrichment policy in which we’d all gather ‘round while Dad read a chapter aloud each evening. It was fantastic, laughing with my family and adventuring with the boy Huck and his acquaintance Jim down the Mississippi River on a raft in my mind.

In high school, I was reintroduced to the book. This time it wasn’t the travelogue or the comedy that intrigued me. At the age of 14 or 15, the concepts of slavery, injustice and racism were hitting me for the first time. Where I found joy in my childhood hearing of Huckleberry Finn, as an adolescent, the book stirred up far more complex feelings in me. I found myself thinking angrily about prejudice and intolerance and how messed up the world can become.

As a college English major, I studied Huckleberry Finn once again in a semester-long seminar on Mark Twain. Because so many of Twain’s writings were set on and around the Mighty Mississippi, we spent a lot of time discussing the symbolism of the river itself. Twain used the river, time and again, as a metaphor for freedom—freedom from actual slavery, yes, but also freedom from all that binds and stifles human beings from reaching their full potential. Or something like that.

The versions of Huckleberry Finn I read in 1972 and 1977 and 1985 did not differ in substance from what Twain originally penned in 1884. You could say that nothing was added to it or taken away, and yet each time I approached the book, it meant something different to me. Of course, it wasn’t the content that changed over time, but my own development. My concrete thinking, my abstract reasoning, my empathy, my experiences, my values. . . so much about me changed from the time I was 9 until the time I was 21, just like so much about me has changed from the time I was 21 until now.

Deuteronomy 4:2 reminds us that God’s Word is not to be altered. Specifically, in this verse, The Commandments are not to be changed up. But does that mean how we understand God’s intentions for us remains static? Absolutely not!

Every time we approach God’s Word, we need to put our whole (current) selves into comprehending what it means. How we understand a Bible text today should probably be different from how we understood it when we were in elementary school. How we understand God’s Word today should be informed by God’s Holy Spirit living within us, teaching us, as John 14:26 promises.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Inside the Mind of a Tax Man

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those
who did not seek me. Isaiah 65:1

Jesus saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and he said to him,
“Follow me.” Mark 2:14

Somebody at the headquarters for the Moravian Daily Texts must have a sense of humor. To include a verse about a tax collector on April 15th? I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.

In light of it being Tax Day in the United States, in light of the fact that a lot of people are grumpy because they stayed up late last night filling out absurd piles of forms or because they have to write and mail a big ol’ check to the United States Treasury, maybe today is the perfect day to consider Jesus’ interaction with Levi.

You surely understand that Levi was not a popular guy.

If you think that the way we go about collecting and using taxes in our land is in any way inequitable, imagine this. The tax dollars confiscated from the residents of Judea did not go to fund public schools or immunization programs or fire departments or national parks or Social Security or any myriad of services that bring obvious benefits to citizens. No, their tax dollars were used for the privilege of being occupied by a foreign army carrying out the will of a foreign emperor. (To be fair, the Romans were good at building roads and aqueducts, and, of course, there’s the Pax Romana to be considered—but that “peace” was achieved through the perpetuation of violence and fear. So there’s that.)

The method employed by the Roman Empire to rake in those tax dollars was to hire entrepreneurial gangsters who worked strictly on the basis of commission. The emperor could set the tax level at any percentage he felt like, and the tax collectors could add as many “fees” as they wanted to on top of what had to be handed over to Caesar. A man who earned a living by collecting taxes had to have been a thug. A greedy, no good, self-serving bully.

Or maybe just someone desperate to make a living in a tough economic climate.

Did Levi like his line of work? Was he content to shake down his neighbors and pocket a profit, or did he have qualms about it? Did he live the high life, or did he have trouble sleeping at night? Was he proud of his own industriousness, or was he ashamed? Was he looking for a way out? Did he conscientiously even realize he might be looking for a way out?

Did Jesus rescue Levi when he said, “Follow me?” Did Jesus change Levi because Levi was ripe to be changed? Did Jesus select Levi to be a follower to prove to the watching world that if Levi could become a new person, anyone who chose to follow Christ could do the same?

Ah, Tax Day. Who knew there could be so many questions beyond what’s on Form 1040?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Go Ye Into the Walmart

You are my witnesses, says the Lord. Isaiah 43:10

Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.
Mark 16:15

When I first began paying attention to God’s call for me, I had some conditions for God. I outlined my stipulations in prayers that went something like: “Okay. I’ll serve you, God. But don’t expect me to just pack my bags and jump on a plane to Africa or Asia. THAT is not my deal.” I’m sure God had a good chuckle when I put my contractual requirements on the table.

But while God has not put it before me to go any of the places I once argued against, that doesn’t mean God has not sent me into the world, into places where Good News needs to be delivered. God asks, “You don’t want to visit magnificent, exotic lands? Fine, I’ll send you into Walmart.”

That’s right. Walmart.

Have you ever shopped in a big box discount store when you HAVEN’T encountered someone in need of compassion or assistance or just plain human kindness? It seems as though there is always someone in a motorized scooter who cannot reach the Honey Bunches of Oats on the top shelf. There is always a frazzled mom trying to manage too many toddlers through a potty expedition. There is always a checkout cashier on the verge of a nervous breakdown. There is always an irate driver in the parking lot fuming because someone let an empty shopping cart roam freely.

Too often I’ve found myself in too much of a hurry or a huff to be especially compassionate or helpful or kind. Sometimes, though, I get it right. I remember what it means to “Go into the Walmart and proclaim the Good News. . . .” I remember to engage people in mindful ways, saying, “May I reach that item for you,” or “How about if I hold the diaper bag while you help the kids wash their hands?” Maybe I empathize with the clerk for a moment, maybe I round up a couple of loose carts in the parking lot while smiling an enormous smile to the sourpuss in the SUV. They may be small gestures, but they have the capacity to be good news for the person who is just looking for a break.

Go into the world and be faithful to your calling, even if that world is just around the corner.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name. Psalm 86:9

Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! I Corinthians 9:16

Around this time each of the 4 years I was in college, my campus would come under siege as Brother Jed and Sister Cindy set up their annual Spring Hatemongering Tour of Midwestern Learning Institutions on the steps of the student union. (They also conducted an annual Fall Hatemongering Tour.) From that superb location, the two self-proclaimed “confrontational evangelists” would berate us with vicious tirades—ugly words meant to provoke the expanding crowd of students who would gather for the entertainment value of the harangues. The two would engage in a kind of tag team ritual where they would take turns shrieking at us, calling us names I don’t like to repeat, labeling us with stereotypes I don’t like to promote, and unwaveringly condemning us to Hell. (If you want specifics, see the Wikipedia entry called “Brother Jed.”) The performance always horrified me.

These days I’m a preacher myself--and a writer as well--who seeks earnestly to be faithful to God’s leading as I’ve come to know it by following Jesus Christ. I think I have a good sense of what Paul means when he speaks of being compelled to preach the gospel. It’s just not possible to take this calling lightly. And yet I find myself wondering about Brother Jed and Sister Cindy and others who bear strong messages. Are they not also compelled to deliver what it is they deliver?

Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! But woe to me as well if I ever mutilate its message when I do! Even if we are both compelled—somehow—by the same Lord, I would be mortified if anyone ever mistook my approach to faith with Brother Jed’s!

What is essentially different about our approaches? It has to do with how we follow the instruction to not just preach, but to preach the gospel. Gospel means good news. Hopeful news. Buoyant, expectant, promising news. Gospel good news is about eradicating fear, not stirring it into a frenzy. Gospel good news teaches that the love of God as we come to understand it through Jesus is welcoming and hospitable and enormous and without fail.

There are a lot of voices out there in our noisy, chattering world. From what I hear, Brother Jed still runs a roadshow, but there are plenty of others who command negative attention as well. Some call themselves various types of evangelists. Some just call themselves broadcasters these days. As such voices are raised in ways that contradict Jesus’ message of selfless love in exchange for some kind of selfish gain, I will be compelled to preach and write and in all ways convey an opposite understanding.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Power in the Blood

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Jeremiah 31:31

Jesus took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
I Corinthians 11:25

As long as it stays contained where it’s supposed to be, as long as it flows elegantly but powerfully through its intended piping, as long as it’s not trickling in magenta ribbons or pooling in crimson puddles, I don’t get squeamish about blood.

As long as I turn my head and stare at the calendar art on the wall, as long as I strike up an inane conversation with the phlebotomist, as long as I concentrate on the orange juice and cookie I’m going to get after making a donation, I don’t get squeamish about blood.

But put that blood in a clear plastic bag and hang it from an IV pole within my field of vision and smelling salts will soon be necessary. I have been known to faint dead away and fall hard. With such a track record, you’ll forgive me if blood is not one of my favorite themes.

And yet, recently, when the quality and components of my own blood became a concern to my health care providers, blood became a topic I obsessed over. Don’t be alarmed—I’m fine now. But for a time, my unfortunate body was so lacking in iron that my bone marrow blood factory could produce virtually no hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is like a fleet of delivery trucks transporting oxygen throughout the body. So, as I understand it, no iron meant no hemoglobin, which meant no oxygen, which meant no energy, no power, no oomph. No life force.

The good news is that, with a dietary regimen of spinach, liverwurst and iron-fortified Cream of Wheat accompanied by fistfuls of vitamins, iron was able to be replenished. For that, I’m most grateful.

This whole bloody chapter of my life, though, has caused me to think about the blood of Christ’s covenant in expanded ways. Of course the cup that Jesus shared at his holy supper reminds us of his sacrifice. It calls us to remember his willingness to give up his own life to cover us in true love. It fills us with his presence when we come to the Communion Table. It means a hundred nuanced but important things to any hundred different people. Here’s one more.

The fact that oxygen travels through our bloodstreams calls to mind that the very Breath of God is reproduced in each red blood cell. The Breath of God flowed continuously through Jesus’ blood, and the Breath of God pumps energy, power and oomph right through our veins. The Breath of God puts the life force directly into our arteries. When we remember Jesus’ blood, the blood of the New Covenant, we can think not only on the implications of what it means when blood is spilled, but on the vitality that surges through us when we are restored.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Twirling on the Mountain

Ascribe greatness to our God! Deuteronomy 32:3

Sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:19-20

Some young people who are close to my heart have been singing and dancing their way through a high school production of The Sound of Music all this weekend, and whether they were cast as nuns or Nazis, they have expressed themselves with tremendous exuberance. But who wouldn’t be exuberant performing the timelessly uplifting music of Rogers and Hammerstein to tell the timelessly uplifting story of the Family von Trapp? Smiles all around.

I’m guessing that you’ve probably seen the 1965 movie version of The Sound of Music. (In fact, if you’re anything like me, you’ve seen it 20 or 30 times.) I’m guessing that you can conjure a vivid mental image of the exquisite opening scene. Remember? There’s a helicopter shot from high above the Austrian Alps, and as the camera sweeps by a shimmering mountain lake and a pristine stand of pines, it eventually zeroes in on a plush, flowered meadow. Of course, that’s where Julie Andrews is twirling in circles, her dirndl skirt fanning out around her. She breaks into the title song as though she cannot keep the notes of her heart to herself any longer.

And maybe she couldn’t.

I once had the splendid chance to run and skip and gallop through such a delightful meadow. I don’t know for sure, but perhaps it was the same exact one. I was on a day hike on a well-traveled Alpine trail above the lovely city of Salzburg, and the open expanse of brilliant green ground dotted with blooming accents of purple and yellow and surrounded by a distant border of snow-laced mountain caps stunned me, moved me. The view compelled me to frolic and vocalize. I could not contain myself. I spun myself in dizzying circles not because I had seen Julie Andrews do it so many times, but because the Creator’s magnificence had to be celebrated.

On a day like that, in a setting like that, it is a thoroughly organic development to ascribe greatness to God. Glory be to God! Thanks be to God!

P.S. As they take the stage this afternoon for one last performance, I offer congratulations to the theatrical folks at Freedom High School in
Bethlehem, PA.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Travel Clockwise and Turn Right

I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought your precepts.
Psalm 119:45

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:31-32

I recently did a stint as an employee for the U.S. Census Bureau, and one of the first things I learned through my job training sessions is that there are a lot of precepts to be obeyed when working for The Government. There’s a particular method for completing each particular task, and that includes the way a census worker canvases a block of homes. The rule is to always move methodically in a clockwise direction, making only right hand turns, covering every building in order and never doubling back or crossing the road until returning to the starting point. The supervisor emphasized this repeatedly even though, at the onset, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal.

Thinking they could increase efficiency, some of my co-workers chose to abandon the instructions and instead designed alternate maneuvers. I’m all for creativity, and so I didn’t fuss about the practice. That is, I didn’t fuss about it until the record keeping became so fouled up that it impaired the work of the whole team and we faced daunting consequences because of it. As it turned out, the parameters were there for a reason.

Actually, the parameters were there for more than one reason, and they did save me one day. As I moved from surveying houses in town to surveying houses in the thinly populated backcountry on the fringes of Appalachia, the concept of a block changed drastically. Instead of traversing around neatly paved streets matched up as though they had been plotted on graph paper, I now found myself on washed out dirt surfaces that meandered next to muddy creeks and up into shale foothills. The harsh environment was softened only by flooding that rushed across the roads leaving them the consistency of quicksand and with the capability to swallow my car. “Where am I,” I wondered, the beginning symptoms of panic setting in when I realized that cell phone service did not extend to this part of the world. I pressed forward, driving ever deeper into the middle-of-nowhere.

And then there it was. A hint of a road. Off to my right. It didn’t look like the road back to town any more than it looked like the road to salvation, but I remembered the precepts I’d been taught: move methodically in a clockwise direction, making only right hand turns. . . . I made one. And another. And another. I found myself back to my starting point and, more importantly, back to security.

While God’s precepts are a bit broader than those of the Census Bureau, they are also in place to help me find my way. God’s precepts instruct me to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength. God’s precepts teach me to love my neighbors as myself. How I relate to God and how I relate to others—these are the ways I navigate. And how much more does God care about the direction I take than does the Regional Census Bureau Supervisor!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Daily Gratitude for Daily Bread

These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. Psalm 104:27-28

Give us this day our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

There’s a loaf of bread on my kitchen counter. It came from the store, neatly packaged in a plastic bag to lock in freshness. It is made from 100% whole wheat flour, and every slice contains 3 grams of dietary fiber which, according to the FDA, accounts for about 12% of my minimum daily requirement for that nutritional element. It’s low in fat and cholesterol, and it’s a little bit higher in sodium than it should be, but it’s filling, and it tastes pretty good as far as these healthful kind of products go.

Am I grateful for this loaf of bread just as it is—wholesome and unadorned? Ask me after I slather it with sweet cream butter and a layer of homemade strawberry jam. Ask me after I smear it with mayo and turkey and Provolone and consume it with a side of chips and a pickle.

Food is only scarce in my house when I’ve been too busy to go shopping, or too lazy to prepare what’s already overflowing in the refrigerator. When my kids open the cupboard doors and whine, “There’s nothing to eat,” it usually means that we’re down to only three boxes of cereal, or that the frosted Poptarts are gone, leaving only the unfrosted kind. We are more than blessed, but we are not always mindful, much less grateful.

But here’s something that poked me in the gut regarding my daily bread. A few weeks ago, the teens at church participated in a hunger awareness program in which they went on a retreat and fasted for 30 hours. During that time, among other activities, the youth went about stringing beads onto lengths of filament and then tying the lengths together. With the retreat concluding on Sunday morning, the young people walked into the sanctuary for morning worship and went about circling the congregation with the epic string of beads. At first everyone smiled with appreciation for the teens, and with a nod to the monumental craft project. The beads wound up and down the aisles and seemed to go on forever.

And then we in the congregation learned what the beads symbolized: that each of the beads stood for one child who had died of hunger during just the preceding 30 hours alone.

I was not the only one who wept.

Am I grateful for daily bread? Not nearly enough. But I’m trying to be.