I was in New Orleans a few months back and saw a man literally standing on his soapbox preaching loudly into a microphone to a largely uninterested stream of pedestrians. Bourbon Street has no shortage of street performers vying for the attention of the crowds, and this guy was definitely losing the competition. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity or question his motives in what he was doing. Like telemarketing, it must achieve the desired effect sometimes or people wouldn't do it. About a block away a group of around fifteen young musicians was serenading a packed crowd with a fabulous blending all kinds of instruments. Their skill and dedication were admirable, and much appreciated by those of us who stopped and listened. I couldn't help but wonder which performance was more pleasing to God. The Bible tells us that life is made up of things that are clean, things that are unclean, and things that are holy. I think it is possible that offering up a gift of talent that has been honed into its highest expression might just fall into the holy category. Screaming judgment at strangers doesn’t strike me as quite so appealing.
C. S. Lewis describes humans as amphibians – half spirit and half animal. As spirits we belong to the eternal world and as animals we inhabit time. It’s a creative structure that requires us to be in a constant state of rebalancing. Fortunately, God made it pleasant for us to tend to our physical needs. It feels good to eat when we’re hungry or sleep when we’re tired. Of course when these basic functions get out of balance, the result is misery – just ask anyone with eating issues or insomnia. Being out of balance spiritually can cause even more distress. In Romans 5, we read that our spiritual condition is a trait of our human condition and that God solved the problem of humanity with humanity --- through the Incarnation. Our free will affects our spiritual state and physical state in much the same way, but God offers rescue. We are not so much cowering before a harsh judge as receiving a father’s warm welcome into restoration and balance. Grace. It really is amazing.
No, not the Atlanta one. This Fulton County is "the top of Ohio" as the tee shirts proudly display and the trip was a birthday gift for my 50th last November from my friend Lin Veasey. Even I think it's a bit odd that someone would give this gift without ever hearing the recipient mention an interest in such an event, but in fact, some of my fondest childhood memories are of attending the Alabama State Fair with my grandfather. I've been looking forward to the trip for months and it exceeded all my high hopes of reliving a time long gone. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Pa taking a pass from heaven to join me in the adventure.
Where to start? Of course there is the food. I set aside my generally healthy eating habits and seized the fried moment. For the record, fried cheese curd is surprisingly delicious. I spent hours happily browsing the judged exhibits of canned goods, quilts, artwork, flowers, and livestock. In case you didn't know, baby goats are just about the cutest thing going. From the grandstand I watched harness racing and farm boys driving tractors really fast. It seems that everyone in town had a volunteer role in making the fair a success.
The most memorable event, though, was something I had never seen before at a fair. Each year, every couple in the county that has been married for at least 50 years is honored at a reception. The longest married couple is seated in the place of honor up front, and they actually get crowns! This year the prize marriage had been in place since 1943. The tent was packed with golden anniversary couples including Lin's delightful parents, John and Eunice. This wasn't John's only recognition as he also took home the top division horseshoes championship trophy for the 4th consecutive year.
It was refreshing to be reminded of how much can be accomplished by a community that works together. While attending St. James Lutheran Church with Lin's family, I listened to the epistle reading which included a familiar passage from Romans 13, "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law...You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love expressed through friendship is truly one of the great blessings of life.
I saw him in the Dallas airport while waiting to board my flight to Portland, OR. He looked like one of my college students with his somewhat rumpled, thoughtfully mismatched clothes and his baseball cap on backwards. I filed him under "too much energy" and returned to Caleb's Crossing, a book about a missionary working with Native Americans in Massachusetts. He was the last person to board the plane where he took his assigned seat right next to me. He cheerfully introduced himself as "Christian" and thus began a three hour church service in the air. He had just graduated from college with a degree in psychology and had taken a job with no salary working as a missionary to Native Americans in Oklahoma. I commented on the appropriateness of his name, and he said that when he was young he hated it and refused to answer to anything but "Opie." We shared our experiences of faith and the questions and ideas that we have about God. At one point he spontaneously broke into a prayer over me. Before we disembarked he gave me two CDs. One contained a sermon delivered by Heidi Baker, a pentecostal missionary to Africa and the other was a collection of rap music with Christian lyrics. I can honestly say that it's unlikely that I would have ever come across either of those things without a chance encounter with a Christian on a journey. I was captivated by Mrs. Baker's account of God's miracles among the orphans that she cares for in Mozambique. As for the rap, well, I'm still learning to appreciate that.
We all know that there are no atheists in foxholes. I was on vacation when I saw the church sign with the updated ruling. Maybe it's just that wars don't seem to involve foxholes anymore, or maybe this church felt the original version was too subtle so they decided to amp it up a bit. Oddly enough, the sign actually could be read as an advertisement for atheism. Think about it. It's like saying, "There are no boys in my club" or "There are no seeds in that watermelon." If one is a boy or a seed, then there's no need to worry about finding oneself in the aforementioned club or watermelon since the rule forbids them being there. So, if I want to say out of Hell, and who doesn't, then I should be an atheist since there are none of them in Hell. Right? Of course, this church meant no such thing, but I made a note of the sign to use in class the next time I teach existential and universal quantifiers. (Sorry, I fell out of church lady mode into math professor mode there for a minute. I was about to draw a Venn diagram!)
Actually, this church has an attitude that is very similar to that of an atheist. The church boldly assumes the role of God in pronouncing its verdict. The atheist boldly proclaims the certainty that God does not exist. The church should know better.
The Bible is very clear about where judgement and vengence belong. It also describes the temperament we should have in approaching God, and the mindset we should adopt in our relations with others. I would run from a church with such blatant disregard for these central teachings. Maybe I'm overreacting and the church just thought it was an attention getter. Maybe they didn't know if "foxholes" was one word or two. But I think the Christianity that we reflect is noticed, and we should humble ourselves before God as a preface to any announcement that we decide to proclaim to the world.
There are two things that all Christians have in common in some form or another – baptism and communion. Baptism gets you into the church, and communion reminds you of why you’re there. My faith tradition refers to communion as The Lord’s Supper. The original church word for it is eucharistia or Thanksgiving.
In the South, we know a thing or two about showing love with food, so it’s a bit of a surprise that someone hasn’t done something to improve on those dry wafers and grape juice that we serve the congregation. I’ve been to churches that use fresh baked bread and wine, but another part of my tradition is a strong professed aversion to alcohol in any form. (Insert your favorite Baptist drinking joke here.) In any case, it’s a lovely thought that communion and Thanksgiving are celebrated by the sharing of both physical and spiritual nourishment.
I’ve always thought that The Lord’s Supper should be observed often and Thanksgiving should be celebrated in July. Songs about amber waves of grain and bringing in the sheaves do not fit anything in my experience. However, anyone with a vegetable garden in Alabama is presently experiencing an explosive reaping of green beans, peas, okra, tomatoes, and whatever else was planted on Good Friday. We’re running out of recipes for zucchini and honestly, how much eggplant can one household consume?
While visiting my 93 year old aunt Eva Lois recently, her preparation of the dinner feast she was putting on the table for the family was interrupted by two of my cousins.
First it was Chip.
“I have three boxes of yellow squash. How much do you want?”
“Just a few. Sure did enjoy the butterbeans you brought by. Do you have any cucumbers?” she asked.
“Yes, but the mayor came by this morning and got most of them to make pickles for OctoberFest at the Methodist Church.”
Soon after it was Luke knocking.
“I have two five gallon buckets of sweet corn. How much do you want?”
“I’ll take one of them,” she said.
You might have had a similar experience recently. I certainly hope so. There is nothing in our daily lives that reflects the hospitality and love advocated in scripture better than the sharing of food and fellowship. And with summer’s bounty, it’s a supper the Lord would be proud of. Happy Thanksgiving.