Monday, October 26, 2015

Reformation Play for Kids

Last Sunday was Reformation Sunday. My Lutheran Church wanted to do a skit involving the children. We found this one but it is for high school kids and a bit long for our purpose. So, with apologies to the original author, I rewrote it. Feel free to use it.

SETTING: TV Studio. 4 TV HOSTs and LUTHER sit at a desk.

TV HOST 1: We interrupt this church service to bring you this special report on Reformation Sunday. This is WELC Action News.

TV HOST 2: We have in our studio the key figure in the Reformation, Dr. Martin Luther King.

LUTHER: No, just Dr. Martin Luther. I'm not a king, just a monk. Well, a former monk.

TV HOST 3: Sorry about that mistake. You were a monk?

LUTHER: Well, originally I was a law student. One day I was riding home in a lightning storm.

TV HOST 4: Roll the storm footage, Al.

KIDS: (Make lightning and rain noise, using a sheet of metal for thunder. Continue while Luther is talking.)

LUTHER: (Loudly, over the noise) A bolt of lightning hit a nearby tree and I made a vow to become a monk if I was spared.

KIDS: (Make the sounds louder and louder)


KIDS: (Stop making noise)

LUTHER: We had the same special effects in the 1500s.

TV HOST 2: Back to your story. So you switch from studying law to becoming a monk? Don't lawyers make a lot more than monks?

LUTHER: Yes. Especially because monks take a vow of poverty. My father wasn't too happy about that.

TV HOST 3: But were you happier as a monk?

LUTHER: No. I was as terrified of God as I was of the lightning. I was all too aware of how sinful I was. I was afraid of God's righteous anger. I used to spend hours confessing every little sin I could think of to the priest. He finally got so upset with me he told me to go out and commit some sins worth confessing!

TV HOST 4: Really?

LUTHER: Really! I was trying to be righteous in God's eyes. But he is perfect and as hard as I tried, I couldn't follow God's laws perfectly.

TV HOST 1: That's quite a problem.

LUTHER: It's the problem we all have when it comes to trying to reconcile with a perfect God. But my mentor at the monastery put me to work teaching the Bible, specifically the books of Romans and Galatians. And in Romans 1:17 I read “The righteous shall live by faith.”

TV HOST 2: What does that mean?

LUTHER: We have to put our faith in God. We can't earn his forgiveness. We simply have to accept it. By faith we receive that wonderful gift free!

TV HOST 3: And just by faith? Just by trusting God? Don't we have to obey God's law to be righteous?

LUTHER: As it says in my beloved Galatians, chapter 5: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the Law; for 'he who through faith is righteous shall live.'” These verses were the turning point in my life! We are justified by our faith in Christ!

TV HOST 4: Why didn't anybody else know this? Didn't others read the Bible?

LUTHER: In my day, no one but priests had access to the Bible. And it was in Latin, a language most people couldn't read. One of the first things I did when I was excommunicated from the church was translate the Bible from the original languages into my native German so the average people could read it.

TV HOST 1: Wait a minute! We are getting ahead of the story. What got you excommunicated?

LUTHER: It started with a guy named Tetzel. He was another monk but he selling indulgences for the Pope.

TV HOST 2: What is an indulgence?

LUTHER: A piece of paper that said the Pope dismissed all punishment for your sins.

TV HOST 3: We have some footage of Tetzel doing his sales pitch. Roll it, Al!

TETZEL: Hurry, hurry, step right up! Folks, this life is hard. You try to be good but if you die with unconfessed sins you won't go right to heaven. So unless you get run over by a wagon right after you step out of the confession booth, you'll go to purgatory, Hell's little brother, where you will suffer until all your sins are paid for! And what about your mom, or dad, or granny? They could be suffering in purgatory right now! What are you going to do to save them, to save yourself from hundreds of years of suffering?

I'll tell you what you're going to do. You are going to buy one of these indulgences I have right here! These indulgences are signed by the Pope himself and they will dismiss any punishment in the next life! Depending on how much you can give me, I've got indulgences that will take off 2 years, 5 years or–I've got just the ticket for you big time sinners—for the right price, you can get off the hook with God for eternity!

What are you waiting for? You can get granny out today! Because as soon as the coin in coffer rings, (he throws a coin in a metal container) another soul from purgatory springs!

TV HOST 4: Wow! He is a good salesman!

TV HOST 1: But the Bible says we can't earn God's forgiveness. We just have to trust in his...uh...

LUTHER: Grace. That's the word you are looking for. Grace is God's totally undeserved goodness toward us. It is a free gift which we only have to accept on faith. So, no, you can't earn it and you certainly can't buy it! And you don't need a Pope or a priest to give it to you. In fact, even if the Pope did have that kind of power, why wouldn't he just release all those suffering souls from purgatory for free?

TV HOST 2: You sound angry about this!

LUTHER: I was angry. Tetzel and the Pope were going against everything I had learned from reading the Bible. They were running a money-making scheme to rebuild St. Peter's, the Pope's church in Rome, and to help an archbishop pay off the debts he had for buying his position in the church. But more importantly they were perverting the gospel, the good news about God offering us grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and they were leading the common people astray.

TV HOST 3: What did you do?

LUTHER: I wrote up 95 theses.

TV HOST 4: Theses?

LUTHER: Points that I wanted to debate about the whole practice of selling indulgences. I sent them to my bishop and, as was customary when requesting a debate, I nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the town where I taught the Bible and theology. I wanted the truth to get out.

TV HOST 1: And everyone read what you put on the door.

LUTHER: Not at first. Those scholars and clergy who could read Latin, the language in which things were debated, did. But then someone translated them into German so that soon everyone knew what I objected to.

TV HOST 2: What happened?

LUTHER: The church tried to get me to take them back. I refused. The whole thing came to a head at the Diet of Worms.

All TV HOSTs: They made you eat a diet of worms!?!

LUTHER: No, in this case, “diet” means a council with the emperor. And the German city we met in was named Worms. There was also a man there, Johann Eck, who was opposed to everything I wrote. He stated the case the church had against my teachings.

TV HOST 3: So you finally got your debate?

LUTHER: Not really. They didn't let me tell my side. They simply put all my writings on a table and then asked me only 2 questions. Did I write them and would I take back what I wrote?

TV HOST 4: What did you say?

LUTHER: (moves from the desk to stand) I wrote them. And unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.

TV HOST 1: (after a dramatic pause. Excited) Then what happened?

LUTHER: (sitting down again) I was excommunicated and declared an outlaw. No one was to give me food or shelter and no one would be punished if they killed me.

TV HOST 3: Wow! How did you survive?

LUTHER: My local prince, Duke Frederick, was a supporter of mine. He arranged to have me “kidnapped” as I left the Diet. He hid me in a castle while I decided what to do.

TV HOST 4: Which was?

LUTHER: Well, if I couldn't reform the Roman Catholic Church I would have to start another church where the gospel could be clearly preached and heard. The first step was to translate the Bible into the language of the people. And because not everyone could read back then, especially children, I wrote the Small Catechism so parents could teach their children the basics of the faith. I wrote the Large Catechism for pastors to use in their teaching.

TV HOST 1: So you started the Lutheran church?

LUTHER: Actually, I didn't want it named after me. I preferred the word Evangelical, because it comes from the Greek word for “gospel.” But you don't always get your way.

TV HOST 2: Besides the Diet of Worms, what other time did you not get your way?

LUTHER: When I tried to find a suitable husband for a certain stubborn nun!

KATE: And it's a good thing for you that you didn't get your way! And I did get a suitable husband!

TV HOST 1: I believe Dr. Luther's wife has just entered the studio.

LUTHER: Katie, do you want to tell the story of how we got married?

KATE: Yes, because you never remember things correctly. I was sent to a convent as a teenager because my parents couldn't afford to keep me at home. When I and the other nuns read what Martin wrote, we believed the gospel and wanted to leave. But it was dangerous to follow his teachings. So we wrote him for help in escaping the convent.

LUTHER: So I arranged for a certain herring merchant to make a nighttime delivery to the convent on Easter Eve.

KATE: So all 12 of us hid among the barrels of stinking fish as we were smuggled to Wittenberg in a covered wagon.

LUTHER: And I arranged to find husbands or positions for all the women. All but one. Kate turned down everyone I suggested.

KATE: I had a counter-proposal for Martin.

LUTHER: I thought it was better to stay unmarried. I had a lot of work to do and my life was in danger. But my friends thought I should marry.

KATE: And so we did. We were married for 21 years and had 6 children.

LUTHER: As well as 11 orphaned nephews and nieces which you raised.

KATE: Not to mention, the 12 students of yours who lodged with us and the constant stream of visitors.

LUTHER: Katie, my rib, you were a blessing to me and the family. When money was tight, you planted gardens and raised pigs and you even converted a space into a brewery. You made excellent beer.

KATE: And I still found time to read my Bible.

LUTHER: I think it helped that I promised you 50 coins if you completed the whole Bible by Easter.

KATE: It helped me when we suffered trials, such as when we lost our daughter Magdalena. (LUTHER nods sadly) And I was always worried about your health. But we had happy times, too. Like when you played your lute after dinner.

LUTHER: Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise! When I grew up there wasn't a lot of singing in church. So I wrote hymns for the new church God had brought about. Sometimes I would borrow tunes from drinking songs and add words from the Bible so people could sing the gospel as well as read it. I wonder if they still sing them?

TV HOST 3: That sounds like a good place to end our coverage of Reformation Sunday. We thank our guests Dr. Martin and Kate Luther.

TV HOST 4: And that's it for WELC Action News. We now return to your regularly schedule worship service.


The scriptures referred to are Mark 12:29-31, Matthew 22:37-40.

One of the rare pleasures I had on my recent “vacation,” besides officiating at the marriage of my nephew, was going to a bookstore with my daughter as a sort of birthday present to us. It was Carmichael's in Louisville, Kentucky, a small independent bookstore, which is the best kind. You can find all the bestsellers at a big box store or on Amazon. What is nice about small independent bookstores, a dying breed, is the odd little book that you didn't know existed but which you now must have. One of my finds was part of a series of introductions to great thinkers and ideas. Introducing Ethics; A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson and Chris Garratt is a breezy but well researched look at this issue. And it reinforced several impressions I got from my philosophy course in college.

First, the thing that philosophers are best at is poking holes and finding flaws in the works of previous philosophers. The thing that philosophers are second best at is making observations or sharing insights on a subject. The thing philosophers are worst at is taking those few insights and observations and building a whole philosophy based on them. Philosophy reminds me very much of the Buddhist parable of the blind monks encountering an elephant for the first time. They are good at describing the part of the elephant they are touching (ie, the tree-like legs, the snake-like trunk, the wall-like sides, the leaf-like ear) but no one can be bothered to try to put together a complete picture of the elephant using all of these observations and treating them as true but not exhaustive. Thus for Socrates ethics is all about knowing oneself; for Aristotle it is knowing one's purpose; for Hobbes it is the social contract that wicked people make to keep from killing and robbing each other; for Rousseau it is preserving or recovering our original and primitive goodness; for Marx it is exchanging the false consciousness that accepts things as they are for class consciousness that sees everything as a class struggle; for Utilitarians it is working out a formula for providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people; for Deontologists like Kant, it is all about duty and asking oneself what would happen if everyone did what you were thinking of doing. It seems that one size fits all when it comes to philosophers; they don't seem to do much building on the work of previous philosophers except to start with the questions raised by the deficiencies of their predecessors.

While I really like the book and the refresher course it provided me, it too has some deficiencies. Religion and Morality get just 2 pages. Christianity by itself only merits 3, which means the book leapfrogs over about 1700 years of ethical thinking by Christians, touching very lightly on Augustine and Aquinas. The book is about secular ethics alone.

It is astounding because not just the Bible but a great many Christian thinkers have a lot to say about living a moral life. These are rooted in Jesus' teachings but the ethics book only mentions the Golden Rule, which is the least of Jesus' contributions to ethical thought. Nearly every religion has some version of the law of reciprocity, of not treating people as you would not like to be treated. Jesus basically just restated this positively, saying you must treat others as you would like to be treated, though that is a significant difference. If I merely refrain from doing to you what I would not want done to me, I could pat myself on the back for not kicking you while you are down. Jesus' positive version means I have to help you get up and stay up. It obligates me to exercise more than benign neglect.

Jesus raises the bar higher when he states the two great commandments out of the 613 in the Torah, the books of Moses. We are to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love is a lot different than just treating people the same way you prefer to be treated. Love is proactive. It can be seen as intrusive, as any parent knows when trying to give aid or advice to a teenager. As Anne Lamott points out, God loves us as we are but he loves us too much to leave us that way. Love wants what's best for the beloved. If the person you love is having trouble, you try to help. If they are self-destructive you try to get help for them. Love can't just stand by while someone is harming others or themselves and say, “Well, if that's what you want, dear, that's fine.”

The other thing that the two great commandments do is bring together all three concerned parties in an ethical discussion: God, others and oneself. Ethics is ultimately about relationships—one's relationship with others, of course, but also one's relationship with God and one's relationship with oneself. You have to work to make or keep all three relationships healthy to be ethically sound. C.S. Lewis illustrated the 3 parts of a holistic moral system by comparing the process to an orchestra or a convoy of ships. In an orchestra one has to take care of one's own instrument to make sure it is in tune. Your fingering or bowing technique won't do much good if your violin is too sharp or flat or sounds like a dying cat. One also has to be in harmony and in sync with all the other musicians in the orchestra. If people are coming in at any old time or holding different notes, the performance will be excruciating rather than exhilarating. And finally, you have to all be playing what the conductor chose. If he's conducting Beethoven and you're all playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” it will be a bad concert experience for all concerned. In the same way, for a convoy to work, the boats have to be seaworthy; they have to sail in formation and not crash into each other; and you need to arrive at the right port. A functional ethical system must include a personal moral regimen to keep one morally healthy, a code of conduct to make interactions with others just and harmonious, and a unified goal that is noble which you are working towards.

For Christians the personal component has to do with recognizing that you were created in the image of God and so have intrinsic worth and value. This is what enables us to love ourselves and thus know how to love our neighbor. Our personal ethics also include an acknowledgment that we nevertheless engage in thoughts, words and deeds that betray our original status, mar that image in us and severely impede our living up to our intended purpose to care for this world and those in it. We recognize our need to be fixed and saved from our self-destructive ways and turn to Jesus Christ, God incarnate, whose death and resurrection clears the way for us to live as he did through the power of his Spirit. Christian ethics differ from all other ethical systems in that the moral rules we follow do not save us or the world. That is what Jesus did. We can only follow them if we are already saved, the way a person can only walk properly after the surgeon has replaced his broken hip. Our personal moral code is rather like the sheet the physical therapist gives you listing exercises you need to do to get your strength back and techniques for learning to walk again.

The part of morality that people tend to agree on the most is social ethics. Every society has prohibitions against murder, theft and other things that disrupt the community in major ways. We are all held responsible for engaging in honest business practices and for doing our civic duties. Even then we differ on various issues. Where we tend to disagree are on the specifics and to what extent a person must curtail or surrender certain freedoms for the good of society and to what extent society should accommodate the individual. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Here again Christian ethics are different. While we agree on the sort of things all societies have in their law codes, like not murdering, not being a lying witness, and not stealing, Christians are also not to covet or wish to possess anything belonging to our neighbor. In a legal system you can't outlaw or prescribe feelings toward one's neighbor, just actions and, in the case of threats or slander, certain forms of verbal aggression. But God is also interested in the roots of such harmful words and actions. Our thoughts and attitudes are supposed to be those of love. We are supposed to love our neighbor and even, and here Jesus departs from every other ethical system, our enemy. That means we are to want the best for them and in fact to speak and act towards that end. This is of course impossible...without the constant aid of the Holy Spirit in the form of shaping and renewing of our minds. Only by becoming new people can we desire, much less achieve these things.

If we agree broadly on social ethics and only somewhat on personal ethics, we humans really disagree when it comes to how to maintain our relationship with God. For a lot of people this is the stuff of superstition and ritual. They don't see how this is useful, or that it even makes sense. As Captain Kirk once asked one of the many deity-like entities he encountered, “Why would God need a spaceship?” Or, to paraphrase, “What can we possibly do for a God who can do absolutely anything at all?”

There is a reason why, of all the metaphorical titles we use for God, Father is the most common. When a parent is working with a small child on something like making a meal or putting together a toy and asks the child to do something or hand the parent something, it is not usually because the parent actually needs the child for the task. It is because they are including the child in the activity out of love and to teach the child how to do it or simply how to cooperate with another person. And the child usually complies out of love and the desire to be like the parent. A lot of what God requires of us is like that. Why did God put us on this earth in the first place? To care for it, according to Genesis 1 & 2. But not because God couldn't do that without us. He was including us out of love and so that we would learn and grow to be like him, in whose image we were created. 

(In fact, one could argue that the prohibition in the Garden of Eden story wasn't necessarily a permanent one. Perhaps it was like telling small children that they can't have a cell phone or a car or touch the stove. They aren't ready for those yet. When the day comes that they are, the prohibition will be lifted and they will be guided through it.)

So what exactly does God require of us in our relationship with him? Four things according to the Ten Commandments: that we acknowledge his uniqueness as creator and redeemer of his people, that we not diminish him by reducing him to a mere symbol or treat him as a lifeless image, that respect him and not invoke his name in ways that go against his character and that we devote one day to him. Is that too much for God to ask? Are those not reasonable ways to act towards our heavenly Father? 

Yes, there are a lot of other rules in the Old Testament. But even God is not interested in them if they are done in a rote fashion, without any real faith or repentance. As he says in Isaiah 1:11-17, “'What need have I of all your sacrifices?' says the Lord. 'I am sated with burnt offering of rams, and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me—who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more; bringing oblations is futile, incense is offensive to Me. New moon and sabbath, proclaiming of solemnities, assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands, I turn my eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime—wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from my sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.'”

Do you notice something in that passage? What makes the offerings and rituals and worship useless are social sins. We cannot love God if we do not love those created in his image. Back in Genesis 9 when God makes his covenant with Noah and prohibits murder, the reason he gives is that human beings are made in God's image. The prophets over and over link idolatry and faithless worship of God with injustice against other people. And when Jesus is asked for the greatest commandment he gives two, because loving one's neighbor should follow logically from loving God.

If you love me, I expect you to treat my children fairly as well. God expects no less from us. But Jesus raises the bar again. On the night he was betrayed he said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” No longer is it adequate to treat others as we wish to be treated, or to love them as we do ourselves. We are to love others as Jesus loves us. And he died for us! We are to love each other with a self-sacrificial love. And our enemies, too, for as Paul points out, Christ died for us while we were still sinners and therefore enemies of God. (Romans 5:8) Loving others with no payback or even if it provokes a negative reaction is what we are called to do. And as the ethics book says to its credit, “This is why real Christianity is a hard act to follow.”

Getting what we deserve is justice. Not getting all we deserve is mercy. But getting what we don't deserve, what we could never deserve is grace. God is a gracious God and he wants us to be gracious in our following him and in how we treat others. And that is what really sets Christian ethics apart. In other ethical systems if you treat others as you would like to be treated, and they don't reciprocate, you can usually treat them the way they actually treated you or at least punish them in some way. But Christians are not to repay evil with evil but to respond to evil with good. (Rom 12:17-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 1 Peter 3:9; Matthew 5:44) That's what Jesus did; that's what we are to do.

The question “What would Jesus do?” does not miraculously solve all ethical dilemmas but it is a good starting place. Sometimes, when it is obvious that Jesus would do something for which we lack the gift, like heal someone or multiply food, the question can be restated “What would Jesus want me to do?” We have to consider our assets, which includes others. Enlisting others to help someone whose needs are beyond your ability or resources is one way the church can use its bonds of love to make things better.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that, unlike the philosophers, Christians have the simple, one-size-fits-all solution to all ethical problems. Sometimes two ethical principles clash, as when Christians in Nazi-occupied Europe had to weigh the commands to obey authorities and not to lie against the command to love their neighbors, the Jews. To save those the state wanted to kill entailed not only disobedience of the authorities but often elaborate deceptions involving forgery, false identities, and clandestine activities that go against the Christian commitment to truth. But those who did so remembered how Jesus was not afraid to break the Sabbath rules to heal and save others. 

To quote a paraphrase of H.L. Mencken I once saw on a poster, “for every complex problem there is a simple solution...and it's wrong.” But when Jesus stated the two great commandments, he added that none of the other commandments are greater; indeed they depend on those two, or as N.T. Wright put it, all the others are footnotes. They are examples of how the two commandments have been applied to various situations. And we are to study them so we can apply them to all situations, old or new, that we encounter. If I may add one more helpful ethical idea, again paraphrased from a poster: when in doubt, do the most loving thing. It's what Jesus would do.   

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

All Wrong

The scriptures referred to are Mark 10:35-45.

When I was a child, superhero comics were made for children. There were no gritty versions of Batman, Superman or Green Lantern. In fact, some of the things that happened in the comic books were absurd. There was, for instance, a comically negative version of Superman called Bizarro. He had chalky white skin crisscrossed with cracks; he spoke fractured English and everything he did was the opposite of the way Superman did things. Instead of Superman's heat vision, Bizarro had freeze vision; instead of having X-ray vision that allowed him to see through everything but lead, he could only see through lead. Eventually the comics introduced a Bizarro world where people hung their curtains on the outside of their windows and where they hate beauty and perfection and love ugliness and what is imperfect. More importantly, the Bizarro version of Superman stands for evil rather than good.

Bizarro world is built on the premise that Earth is good, an understandable conceit in the 1950's and 60's when these comics came out. Knowing what we know today of the world, that it is the home of great evil as well as good, then a world where things were done in the opposite way would not necessarily be a worse world. If the homeless were given housing rather than jailed or run off, if the internet were used to encourage people who were different rather than bully them, if countries had huge military-like organizations whose mission was to save and enhance millions lives of others rather than to kill and subjugate other people, if politicians were more interested in actually governing and making people's lives better rather than in exploiting issues merely to score political points and in winning the next election for their side, it might even be a better world.

A lot of what Jesus says about the kingdom of God seems topsy-turvy when compared to the way our world presently operates. In the kingdom of God, the smallest thing can be the most powerful, the merciful are rewarded rather than the ruthless, riches don't get you preferential treatment, your neighbor is a person you never met before, the person obeying God's commandment to love others could be a heretic half-breed, the person who screwed up big but realized it is welcomed with bigger fanfare than the person who always followed the rules, the person who takes chances with what his master gives him is rewarded over the person who played it safe and the person who prepares to die will live while the person who does everything to save his life will lose it. To the powerful in both in Jesus' day and today, God's kingdom sounds like Bizarro world.

And Jesus is at it again in today's gospel. For that matter so are the disciples. Apparently not learning the lesson Jesus tried to give them about being like a child, they are trying to be the number 1 disciple. Seeing that disciple means student, it doesn't sound so bad. Everyone should strive to be the top student. But if Jesus is the Messiah, being his principle disciple is very much like being his prime minister or his right hand man. James and John literally want to sit to the right and to left of Jesus' throne. They seem very sure they can pull this off. And business leaders and career counselors would applaud them for their self-promotion.

There are three problems with this. First, as Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus is of course talking about his death. This is the cup that he later asked his Father to let pass by him when he is in agony in Gethsemane. Ultimately Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but yours be done.” But if it was hard even for Jesus to take, his disciples at this point have no clue of what is in store for them if they accept this.

But, ever the model of eager, up and coming executive material, James and John say, “Yeah. No sweat. We can handle this.” And Jesus concedes that indeed James and John will face martyrdom. In fact, James does achieve a first: he is the first of the Twelve to die for his faith. He is beheaded by Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, as recorded in Acts 12. Of the manner of John's death, we are less sure. He lived a long life, prompting the rumor that he would live until Jesus returned. (John 21:20-23) But he supposedly died around 98 AD, either of old age or at the hand of Jewish opponents. There is a tradition that the Emperor Domitian had him boiled in oil but he was unharmed.

The second problem is that it is not for Jesus to appoint those who will sit by him in the kingdom. Not even martyrdom determined that, for most of the Twelve would also be executed for their faith. Peter was famously crucified upside down, requesting that because he felt unworthy of dying as Christ did. James, the son of Alphaeus, was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple and then stoned. There are various accounts of the deaths of the rest, including Mathias, the replacement for Judas, and they make up a gruesome catalog of the worst ways to die. Besides those who were crucified, the others were either stoned, beheaded, burned, flayed alive, stabbed by a spear or sawn in half. When Jesus said that those who follow him must pick up their cross, he wasn't kidding.

But the third problem with James and John's request was its flawed understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God. They, and apparently the other disciples, thought that it worked like any other kingdom or organization: that you get ahead by promoting yourself as the best candidate for the position. They came off like politicians or job applicants. The name of the game then as now is sell yourself.

The film Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy about a dysfunctional family that comes together when the little sister unexpectedly wins one of those pageants for little girls and must get to the finals, though her winning that is highly unlikely. Along the way her sullen older brother learns that he will never achieve his dream of being a commercial air pilot and his uncle, who is himself recovering from a major setback, tries to encourage him. And as they talk, they realize that much of life is a beauty contest. Attractiveness and popularity and other superficial qualities often determine who “wins” in terms of careers and love and success. Society does not always work as a meritocracy.

There is a lot of truth to that. Movie and TV stars usually look like supermodels but looks don't necessarily go hand in hand with the ability to move an audience. A moment's thought will call to mind actors who are pretty or handsome but who are widely acknowledged not to be able to act. Why don't more music stars look like Mama Cass or Janis Joplin or like opera singers? The quality of your voice has nothing to do with your looks or your weight but you'd never know that from looking at the nominees at the Grammys. When they decided to make a film out of one of the greatest musicals of all time, Man of La Mancha, they did not use the Tony award-winning star Richard Kiley or any of Broadway cast but used Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren and other Hollywood actors not known for their singing voices. Realizing this, they resorted to dubbing the songs using people who were, inexplicably, not even good singers. The result was so bad that the film version is not even mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the musical.

We see the same thing in politics. Studies have shown that people are more likely to vote for candidates that seem like people they would like to have a beer with over candidates whose positions they actually agree with. And our election coverage tends to focus more on the “horse race” aspect of who's ahead and who's behind, rather than the qualifications of the candidates and the soundness of their positions. We are supposed to be electing people who are wise, knowledgeable and good at governing but it really works more like a popularity contest. The same qualities that will get you elected class president will apparently get you elected president of the United States. Oh, and it really helps if you and your friends have tons of money to get your face on TV a lot.

The kingdom of God doesn't work that way. It is not looks or popularity or wealth or connections with powerful people that count with God. And being first in the kingdom doesn't give your privileges over others. In the topsy-turvy way Jesus operates, the person at the top is the one who looks to all the world like they are on the bottom of the heap. The one who wants to be first must be the slave to all. Jesus picks the word “slave” very carefully because they were on the lowest rung of society. They often did the least glamorous, least desirable jobs in society. In God's kingdom, the janitor rates higher than the CEO.

And Jesus isn't excluding himself. He wasn't made Messiah so he could be the proverbial Eastern potentate, with riches and concubines and a beautiful palace. He was a man who worked with his hands, who only owned one good tunic and who, despite loving children, gave up having a family life in order to walk from one end of the country to the other, preaching and healing. Jesus came not to be served but to serve.

And most kings gain or keep their kingdoms by having others to lay their lives on the line, while they give commands from the safety of command headquarters or their council chambers back at the palace. Jesus' kingdom was founded on his blood and his alone. He willingly gave his life after first making sure his captors let his disciples go. Again this is topsy-turvy because without the leader movements tend to fall apart. There have been a lot of would-be messiahs in history but unless you do your research you probably have never heard of them. As N.T. Wright says, those followers of messiahs who were not executed by authorities, either quietly went back to their old lives or went after the next messiah wannabe.

Only Jesus' disciples stayed together and spread his teachings throughout the known world. And historians are at loss to explain this, especially in view of the horrible deaths that awaited them. Unless death had lost all power over them. And how could that happen unless they were absolutely convinced that what they proclaimed was the truth: that Jesus had triumphed over death.

Take death off the table and it is amazing what people can do. A handful of fishermen and tax collectors can go up against an empire armed only with a message. People can stay in plague-ridden areas and nurse the sick and dying. The seemingly powerless can speak unpopular truths to power. Missionaries can bring good news to hostile tribes who have never heard it. Preachers can champion the oppressed and exposed injustice despite those who would silence them by imprisonment or assassination or execution. People can work with the poor in poverty themselves because they know that the riches that last will not be taken from them. They will have no need for earthly honors or popularity or power or position or the other things that are important in this brief life.

Because in the topsy-turvy kingdom of God, death does not have the last word. Jesus, the one who traveled to that undiscovered country and returned, the one who entered the jaws of death and came back out again, turning death inside out, the one whose death broke death and its power, has the last word. And it is “I am the resurrection and the life; Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, shall live.” 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Swords and Sympathy

The scriptures referred to are Hebrews 4:12-16 and Mark 10:17-31.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message.” In other words, how content is presented to us has as much effect as the actual content of the message. Look at it this way. The phrase “Can we talk?” has a somewhat different vibe if it is said to you in normal conversation, whispered in your ear, given to you in a handwritten note with a heart dotting the eye, texted to you, displayed on the Jumbotron at the Superbowl or delivered by mail on White House stationary. I won't go so far as to say the medium is more important than the message but certainly you would be foolish to simply pay attention to the message and to ignore how it is conveyed.

We have a similar puzzle in today's reading from Hebrews. The writer is speaking of the Word of God being living, active, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Is he referring to the written Word of God? Or is he referring to what we call the living Word of God, in other words, Jesus? Most commentaries I've read come down on the side of the first option, that the author is speaking of the scriptures, which at the time of the writing meant the Old Testament, since the New Testament was in the process of being composed. The New Bible Commentary says, “There is no ground in the context for identifying this with the personal word of God...” But for the commentator to assert this means that you have to skip over the immediately preceding discussion of the Sabbath and go back to verse 2 and then make the main subject, not the message, but the medium, the Bible, which is the source of the verses used to bolster his argument about the Sabbath. And I can see that.

It does mean that all of this talk about the Bible being active and living and able to judge is really a poetic way of describing the internal effects of the Scriptures on the reader. And, yes, often when we read some pertinent passage in the Bible it speaks to us and can even convict us of sin. It is hard to read our scriptures and not feel that some of the passages seem to be targeting us specifically and speaking to our personal situation. One of the reasons people read the Bible today is the fact that this 2000 year old collection of books still speaks to the human condition and does so in a personal way.

But I can't go along with the idea that there is nothing in this passage that would justify thinking that it refers to Christ, the Word of God incarnate. And the thing that first jumped out at me was verse 13: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (Italics mine) That verse is obviously not talking about any written word but about God himself. As a matter of fact, since Christ will be our judge, the writer is speaking of Jesus.

Either the writer of Hebrews is abruptly switching subjects in the space of a sentence or he is talking about the same subject all along. And as evidence that he is doing precisely that, I want to draw your attention to the pronouns.

In translating from one language to another, you have to make concessions. Different languages have not only different words but different grammar, word order and even verb tenses. Sometimes you have to supply words that the original doesn't have in order to, in this case, translate the Bible into good English. The King James Version does this. Every time you see an italicized word in the Authorized Version, it means that the word was inserted to make the passage readable.

The fact is that in verse 12, all of the pronouns have to be supplied. And the pronoun the translators inserted is “it.” To wit: “Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Those pronouns don't exist in the original Greek. Obviously they inserted “it” because they thought the author was speaking of the written Word of God. But in verse 13, we suddenly have a “him” which is in fact in the Greek text. So there are no pronouns in the original text for verse 12 but there is a personal masculine pronoun in verse 13. If we replace the two instances of “it” that were supplied by the translators in verse 12 with pronouns that harmonize with the “him” found in verse 13 in the Greek, the whole passage reads this way: “Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until he divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; he is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

That also makes the transition to verses 14 through 16 and indeed all of chapter 5 smoother and more logical. So rather than having a passage that concerns two different things, we have a passage that is about two of the roles that Jesus plays in our lives.

The Bible, as I said, is a collection of books. There are 66 works in it, written by at least 40 authors, over a period of thousands of years. It includes history, poetry, essays, epistles, biography, sermons, politics, prophesy, songs and apocalyptic literature. It can be daunting to understand if you don't have some kind of unifying principle. For us Christians, Jesus Christ, the personal expression of who God is, is what pulls it all together. That doesn't mean there aren't a plethora of other themes to be found. But the lens through which we see everything in scripture is Jesus. Sometimes it is pretty obvious, as when one reads Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 and without even trying, hears very specific foreshadowing of Jesus' death. Other times it may be more difficult to discern as in the Song of Songs. But the whole book of Hebrews is about finding Christ in the Scriptures. So I do have grounds for interpreting this passage as being about Jesus.

If the first part of today's passage is about Jesus as the Word of God, that means that when the author calls the Word living and active he is not being metaphorical. We put our trust in the risen Christ, who is alive and active in the world, working through the body of Christ, the worldwide communion of all who follow Jesus. It is a mistake to think of Jesus as merely someone who lived way back then and has no role in today's world. I admire Plato but not only does he have little influence today but I cannot ask him anything and expect an answer. I can with Christ. I have seen him heal people, felt him healing myself in response to my prayers, seen circumstances change and lives be transformed through him. Jesus is alive and not just in a metaphorical sense.

The next phrase does seem odd when applied to Jesus. How is he sharper than a two-edged sword? While most of the more than 400 references to the sword in scripture are literal, it is also a symbol, usually of war and violence, but sometimes of words or the tongue. And twice in Proverbs (5:4; 25:18) people are likened to a sword. In Revelation 1:16 Jesus is pictured as having a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth and later in that book he is explicitly called the Word of God (Rev 19:13). And this is not a passive sword hanging in the armory. It is a sword being wielded, piercing and dividing joints from bone marrow. It is a sword held to the exposed neck of the person who must give an account of himself, for that's what the Greek means by “laid bare.” The Word of God is not an inanimate object.

Jesus' words certainly were piercing and exposed what people really thought. In today's gospel he rightly discerns that the man before him, while good in other respects, puts his money before God. Perhaps the man's clothes made it obvious that he was rich. Jesus looks at him in love, Mark says, and tells him something Jesus never tells anyone else in the Bible: to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor and only then follow him. As I said a few weeks ago, anything can become an idol if we put it before God. When the rich man leaves, crestfallen, Jesus makes the clearest statement of the need for God's grace that he ever gave. In his day, the rich were thought to be blessed by God and the poor cursed. That's why when Jesus says a camel could go through the eye of a sewing needle easier than a rich man could enter God's kingdom, the disciples are shocked. That's why they ask, “Then who can be saved?” To which Jesus replies, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Rich or poor, we cannot save ourselves. We all need God's grace.

Jesus cut through the nonsense and secondary issues to get to the heart of the matter. He easily parried the verbal attacks made by his adversaries and critics. And, as with the rich man, Jesus was able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. He knew that the man's possessions, not God, had the final word in his decisions. And he does it in this instance without quoting the Bible. Jesus is the Word of God and his words are the Word of God.

But a sword is scary. Usually people tend to picture Jesus as just a big teddy bear. But why would anyone crucify someone as inoffensive as a teddy bear? Jesus was closer to Aslan in the Narnia chronicles, the lion who is the rightful king of Narnia, who gives his life to save a traitor and whose death reverses the spell of death. Aslan is described as not tame but good. People's first reaction to him is to be nervous and even a little frightened. C.S. Lewis knew what he was doing when he decided to retell the gospel in the manner of a fairy tale. And he did not soften the fact that Jesus is our judge and king as well as our savior and friend.

The author of Hebrews also shows both sides of Jesus. Besides the Word of God who stands in judgment of our sins, Jesus is also our great high priest, the one who puts away our sins. Now there are a lot of directions the author could have gone with this but he says this, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” There are 3 great truths in this verse.

First, Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. The Son of God, “who has passed through the heavens,” understands our problems. This means when we go to him in prayer we are not to see the process as us futilely recounting our little personal problems to a vast indifferent transcendent force. He can sympathize with our plight. In fact, the Greek word used is the one from which we get the word “sympathize.” It means “have compassion for” but also has overtones of “commiserate with.” Jesus can commiserate with us in our pain and suffering. He can be touched by our feelings. But how is that possible? How can God the Son know what our lives are like and how badly some of our experiences hurt?

Because of the second great truth in verse 15: he has been tested in every respect as we are. The Greek word here can also mean “tempted” and comes from a word that means “pressured” or even “pierced.” Think about the implications of that. Every test, every temptation, every stress that we have felt, Jesus has too. That means Jesus was under constant assault by the things that try us. He lived a very hard life. His birth was questionable because his mother was pregnant out of wedlock. His small town would never forget that. His parents were poor, which we know from the offering they made at the temple for his birth. He and his family fled violence and were refugees in Egypt until Herod the Great died. When they returned to Nazareth, he was the “new” kid, perhaps even having an odd accent from spending the years when he was learning to talk in a foreign land. He was the smart kid who was probably resented by the local rabbi for his questions and observations when being taught the Torah. His father figure, Joseph, probably died when he was a kid because he is never mentioned during Jesus' adult years, unlike his mother and siblings. Which meant at an early age he had to become the man of the house and support his mother, brothers and sisters. He was self-employed and worked a physically demanding job and probably dealt with difficult clients.

During his ministry, his brothers thought he was crazy and mocked him. He was so mobbed by people seeking healing that he rarely had time to eat or rest. He was continually harassed by other religious leaders, who were seeking a reason to kill him. His students were slow on the uptake. His best friend, Lazarus, died and his sisters Mary and Martha blamed Jesus for that. He was betrayed by a friend and denied before his enemies by another. He was unjustly arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, abused, hauled before 3 leaders who could have acquitted him but didn't because of hostility, indifference and political cowardice. A crowd of his countrymen screamed for his blood. He was whipped and beaten, had his head pierced with thorns, had a heavy beam of wood laid on his torn shoulders and tied to his arms, was frogmarched through the streets of the holy city, fell a number of times on the way, was so weak that his guards had to force a stranger to support him, was marched up a hill, was stripped, had his arms held down and spikes pounded through his wrists, was raised by those pinioned wrists to the upright of the cross and dropped into place, and then hung there while his enemies jeered and his mother cried along with only a few of his followers. He felt the presence of God withdraw from him. He suffered blood loss, dehydration, exhaustion, and trouble breathing until his heart gave out. Truly he was a man of sorrows.

There is nothing that we can bring to him that Jesus cannot empathize with because he has seen and felt it all. We can talk to him as a fellow sufferer and know that he has been there, too, and knows from firsthand experience what we are going through.

And yet the third truth is that he endured all that, without sinning, without succumbing to the natural tendency to lash out, to envy those better off, to become bitter, to hate, to give up on others, to withdraw, to despair, or to indulge in forbidden pleasures as consolation for mistreatment or as reward for being good so long. Which means that by being united to Christ, by allowing his Spirit to work with us and in us, we too can triumph over our troubles and disadvantages and self-destructive urges and habits. If Jesus was able to overcome all that, we can too—with his help.

And so, as the author of Hebrews encourages us, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We need not fear the sword of the living Word of the Lord because he too has been pierced to his joints and had the sword laid on his bare neck and been judged and condemned, all for our sake. He knows every pain and sorrow we do and yet managed to rise above it. And so his throne is called grace and we can go boldly to him and ask for and receive mercy. He will give us the strength we need to meet our daily challenges.

The medium is the message. The medium by which God chose to send us his message of love is his Son in a human body, with a human life and human concerns. That alone tells us more about God than all the words ever written. When we look for the face of God we see it in Jesus, a face that has known pain and holds the promise of triumph and joy.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

For the Beauty of the Earth

The scriptures referred to are Genesis 2:18-24.

I love to watch science documentaries about the beginnings of the universe. Each time I watch one I learn something new. Because even though by now I know the broad outlines of the history, each retelling gives new details that the previous ones didn't. It may be because science has uncovered things the makers of the past documentaries didn't know. But sometimes it is a matter of what they want to focus on. By putting emphasis on, say, black holes and dark matter and galaxies they may overlook details necessary to understand how life on earth became possible. Focus on the steps needed to prepare for life and they will skip over other things not strictly necessary to tell that story. I recently saw a documentary that actually got the story of creation off to a galloping start with the Big Bang and covered the first important thresholds that led to the universe we have and then rewound the events to look at some of them in greater detail in order to focus on the elements important to the story of our earth.

Genesis does the same thing. The first chapter covers the grand story of the creation of everything on earth. The second chapter rewinds and gives us previously skipped details on the creation of humanity. Genesis 1 is the outline of the whole process; Genesis 2 takes a closer look at what the author thought was the part pertinent to the overall theme of the Bible: the relationship between God and human beings.

This is emphatically not a scientific account. Science, as we know it, did not exist as a discipline at the time of its writing. In fact science is a very recent thing. Until you have universal standards of measurement and the formulation of the scientific method and the ability to replicate the experiments of others, all you have is little more than the accumulation of observations by amateur enthusiasts. So you can't fault the Bible for not having everything written in modern scientific terms anymore than you can fault ancient peoples for not recording the exact time of the day down to the minute that major events happened. Before the invention of the clock, how could they? And before the invention of biology and geology and astrophysics, how could the writers of the Torah give us a scientific account of creation?

Besides, the Bible is interested, not in the exact mechanism by which things were created, but their significance and purpose. If you want to know what a person is physically made of, ask a chemist. What the Bible is concerned with is establishing that we were created in the image of God. It is the moral and spiritual dimension of human beings that is the focus of the scriptures.

That said, Genesis 2 shows God doing something very odd. God creates the man and then, realizing that man needs a helper and partner, God brings all the previously created animals to the man. The man names them but they are do not exactly correspond to him. They are not of his species. So God causes Adam to fall asleep, takes a rib, closes up the flesh and makes Eve. (Which, for those of you who simply must see science in Genesis, means God is pro-anesthesia, pro-organ donation, pro-surgery and pro-genetic manipulation.)

The woman is the man's suitable helper, or, as Richard Eliot Freeman translates the Hebrew here, “a corresponding strength.” The woman is, in other words, fully the equal of the man. Any other interpretation makes nonsense of the narrative purpose. The animals are not equal to man; the woman is. Subordination of women is the result of sin, the Bible says, not God's intention. That's why when we are restored in Christ, there is, as Paul says, “no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) (Again for those of you framing things in modern terms, God is pro-equality of the sexes.)

But the reason I wanted to look at this passage is because this is the feast day of St. Francis when we focus on nature and animals, things that concerned the little friar. And there is a point lost here. No, none of the animals are the equal of a human being. But why would God even present them to the man? Because, as those with pets know, they can be good companions nevertheless. And the message is that we should not regard our fellow creatures as mere things to be mistreated. In fact Proverbs 12:10 says, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal...” Lots of rules concerning the welfare of animals are found in the Bible. If you see a donkey lying on the road under its burden, even if it belongs to your enemy, you must set it free. (Exodus 23:5) You are not to muzzle an ox while it is treading the grain so it can eat. (Deuteronomy 25:4) God's attitude towards animals is seen in the fact that one of the reasons he doesn't want to destroy Nineveh is that there are many animals there. (Jonah 4:11)

Some people don't see this in the Bible because of language in Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.'” The note for this verse in the NET Bible points out that the Hebrew word translated “subdue” can mean in other contexts “enslave” or “conquer.” In one passage in Esther it is used of Haman, the villain of that book, to mean “sexually assault!” (Esther 7:8) But the same note says that obviously God is not saying that man should be in an adversarial relationship with the earth (especially since he has pronounced everything good). The verb means “to bring under one's control for one's advantage” and could be paraphrased as “to harness its potential and use its resources for your benefit.” And some people say the Bible is therefore saying it is OK to exploit and despoil the world and its creatures in any way we want.

But they forget a few facts. First God made us in his image. And even if all we had to understand this concept was the first chapter of Genesis, we must conclude that God is at the very least creative and life-giving and takes delight in what he has made. So that would mean that humans, made in his image, should rule over the earth in that same spirit. A wise ruler doesn't destroy his kingdom or his subjects.

Also in Genesis 2:5, the prologue to the creation of humans, says, “Now no shrub of the field had yet grown on earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground.” So God goes ahead and plants an orchard in Eden. In other words it looks as if man is meant to be the gardener of the earth, again in imitation of God. And a gardener doesn't ruin his garden. He weeds it and does everything he can for the benefit of the garden.

Nor are we to rule the earth and its creatures with unlimited authority. God is our king. We humans were to rule as vice-regents, not absolute monarchs. We are answerable to God for what we do. The world and its creatures belong to God. We are to be stewards of the earth. And in fact, after the moral fall of humanity, it says in Genesis 6:11, “The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence.” This is given as the justification for the flood. We have misused the power granted us to subdue the earth and rule it. We have been bad rulers, bad gardeners, and bad stewards of the earth God has given us to take care of for him. So God decides to start afresh.

There is another reason why we cannot do whatever we want with the earth and for this I must thank Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid's Tale. I was listening to q, a Canadian talk show from the CBC, and she was talking about the connection between the environment and the command to love one's neighbor. She pointed out that loving one's neighbor meant being concerned about the air he breathed and the water he drank and the food he ate. In other words, we can't very well say we love our neighbor and then let him breathe polluted air or drink polluted (or flammable) water or eat polluted or poisonous food. You wouldn't want to be subjected to that yourself and Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as we do ourselves. Loving our neighbor means we must keep habitable the environment in which he (and we) must live.

There are, of course, entirely pragmatic reasons for being good stewards of this earth. We now understand how interconnected everything is. Should bee colonies continue to collapse, it will affect as much as one third of the crops in the US, including “almonds, peaches, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and strawberries” which are pollinated by bees. (source here)  If the glaciers, polar ice caps and sea ice continue to melt, we will see increased erosion of our coasts, higher storm surge flooding, changes in the quality of surface and groundwater, and loss of coastal property. If each year keeps getting hotter than the last, we will see more fires, more droughts, decreasing crop yields and more food insecurity.

You know that problem they are having in Europe because of Syrian refugees? That, and the Syrian civil war, started in part because of the worst drought ever recorded in Syria which “resulted in a widespread crop failure, increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.” (source here) This helped fuel the already present political problems of the country and encouraged other groups from outside Syria to try to start a revolution along the lines of the Arab Spring movement. As history shows, people will put up with decades of political oppression. But threaten their ability to feed themselves and their children and they will revolt. It doesn't take a Nostradamus to see that increasingly hotter years and more widespread and longer droughts, and fires like we are seeing in drought-stricken California, where much of our food is grown, are going to lead to political instability, more refugees and more chaos.

I remember being taught in school about the balance of nature. Say the population of wolves in an area keeps increasing. Eventually the number of their prey, let's say deer in this instance, will decrease because the wolves are eating too many of them. At some point there aren't enough deer to feed all the wolves and they start starving. When the wolf population gets down far enough that they aren't killing most of the deer, the population of deer will begin to rise again. My point is that we are smarter than either wolves or deer. We know about the balance of nature and can work out the carrying capacity this earth has for our species. If we don't achieve the balance by peaceful and rational means, the impact on the environment of an estimated 9 billion people by mid-century will do it for us. Decreasing land mass due to rising sea levels, widespread food insecurity due to droughts and fires, dust bowls as we saw in this country in the 1930s, mass movement of refugees and the political unrest and wars that result from all this will start culling the herd of human beings. These are the easily foreseeable consequences if we don't get serious about these problems and start putting real solutions into action.

Of course it would be better if we did these things not merely out of self-protection but out of love for our neighbor, our fellow creatures and this marvelous earth God gave us. And in that spirit I would like to end with the Canticle of the Creatures composed by God's troubadour, St. Francis of Assisi.

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day and through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears a likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air
and clouds and storms, and every kind of weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful and humble and precious and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and cheerful and robust and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colorful flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure infirmities and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Happy are they whom she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord and give thanks
and serve Him with great humility.