Free eBook (for a limited time!)

Just a reminder– Sister Fox and the Dark Closet, a children’s book, will be offered for free in the Kindle format on for 5 days — October 24 through October 28 (that is Thursday all the way through Monday, in case you forget to download it over the weekend).

It is fun, and it is FREE for a limited time!

Sister Fox and the Dark Closet

You can find it on the Amazon author page. Just click here:

You don’t even have to own a Kindle to read it. You can download the book to a Kindle reader, or on any computer or tablet using the free Kindle reader software or app from Amazon. If you need to add the Kindle app to your device, here’s all the information you need:

Did I mention that it is FREE this weekend?? Thanks!

Small Things Matter

FlowersA shrewd and dishonest business man, someone who would be at home among the most conniving traders of Wall Street, is caught in his thievery, and he turns and manages to steal yet more goods in order to cast them like bread upon the waters. The story is two thousand years old: it is the first parable in Luke 16.

In a baffling twist, the man is praised for his shrewdness by his own master and by Jesus. Of course, Jesus is also indulging in some biting sarcasm by verse 9: use your dishonest wealth to gain eternal security. We might safely assume he was being at least as sarcastic in the praise of this thieving manager.

Yet, there is the pointed observation that the “children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.” This, I believe we must agree, is straightforward enough.

Consider the observation, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” We, and the passage itself, refer to this man as the ‘dishonest manager’, but how many of us possess this level of self-honesty? He is not deceiving himself as to his own nature, and he has a very clear understanding of the nature of the people around him. None of the debtors refuses to take the note and to write in a lesser figure; the manager knows they will not refuse. He is even clever enough to get them to make the changes themselves, perhaps to preserve some level of deniability.

That honest self appraisal is the first useful thing we can take from this passage. Taking the lead from Popeye (who took his from Moses’ interview with the Almighty), let us work on being what we are, or at least knowing what we are.

We’re talking self-awareness, not self-centeredness and not self-judgment.

Most of us, like the Pharisees who were one of Jesus’ intended audiences here, are suffering from the onion syndrome. We are layer upon layer wrapped around not much. We need to focus on the center, and the layers will fall away on their own.

It only works if we are shrewd enough to understand our own hearts. What is at the center controls everything.

Perhaps that is the second concept we can hold up from this scripture passage. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…”

Small things matter.

Years ago, the economist and writer E F Schumacher wrote a book titled Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. The title itself is helpful. He wrote, “The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty, and chaotic.”

Let’s pull off the layers like winter coats and take a look at who we are, what we really think, good or bad – we can’t change it until we know it.

Finally, let’s remember some words from Fred Craddock in his commentary Luke in the Interpretation series:

Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”

Small things matter. Amen.

Who God Is, What God Is Doing, Our Relationship to God

You know the passage from Genesis 22:1-18. This is the story of Abraham and Isaac, with Abraham taking Isaac up on the mountain to sacrifice him to God.

I really would rather talk about something else, but this passage kept coming back, Abraham up on that mountain with Isaac. It bothers me.


Now I might say that the Lord led me to share this passage with you, and I would be standing in the mainstream of a long religious experience to use that form of expression. You know the approach I mean, as in ‘I felt the Lord led me to share this’ or ‘I felt the Lord leading me to say that we need blue carpet’ or some variation. We make claims on an awful lot of power when we use this language, though we cloak it in apparent humility. It might be a speaker opening with the public prayer of ‘Lord, speak through me.’ In private, that is a very fine prayer; in private, it means what it says. In public, it means, ‘I speak for God, and if you disagree with me, you disagree with God.’

When God is, in fact, at work in something or someone, if we believe that God is at work in each person, then those who have the Spirit of God at work in their lives will recognize it. No trumpets needed.

The thing is, I don’t know whether the Lord led me to this passage from Genesis or not. It could be just my own fascination. I don’t know whether God would have me share anything with you about it. I am sure that God can find something useful in it, with or without my dialogue.

There are two main things I’d like to offer. One is how this passage might help us to get our minds around the development of the Old Testament. The other is how we might carry away something of the only three things that the Bible talks about: who God is, what God is doing, and our relationship to God.†

First, this passage concerns the life and times of Abraham, aka Abram, pivotal in the story of the chosen people.

The stories of Abraham mark the beginning of historical narratives in Genesis, emerging from a more vague pre-history background. We find details, something more concrete in the stories, something more clearly anchored in what we label the first half of the second millennium BC–perhaps 2000 BC to 1500 BC. It is virtually impossible to date the Abraham stories more precisely.

Thus emerges our first problem in grappling with the text. We think we are reading history. Alternately, from place to place in scripture and from reader to reader, we act as though we are reading a science text, a legal brief, a collection of poetry.  In fact we are reading theology–who God is, what God is doing, and our relationship to God.

So there was an event, the life and times of Abraham. Then there were stories about the life and times of Abraham. The stories were collected, joined, preserved, all in later times. The preserved stories were edited again, again at a later time, and finally some time a few centuries after Christ arrived in the form we find the stories today.

It is a layer cake. Layer one, Abram aka Abraham walks around. Layer two, people went about telling stories of when Abraham walked around. Layer three, people wrote the stories down. Layer four (plus some), the stories are edited, preserved, recorded in the form we know. Overall, the process took a couple of thousand years to get to what we recognize as the book of Genesis.

What we end up with sounds like history. It is actually theology.

That leads us to the second thing, how we might understand something of the theology we’ve just read in Genesis. Those of you who have heard me blather on for some time are accustomed to the fact that I often report to you from the minority view of theology. We know the mainstream view of Abraham taking Isaac up on that mountain, preparing an altar, and then preparing to sacrifice his son to appease the demand of God. An ocean of sermons have been preached on the obedience of Abraham, and there are many good points to be taken from them.

I have a problem with it–the focus on obedience, that is. Insisting on that focus means that God really did ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac just to see if Abraham would do it. I have a problem with believing God would have an interest in human sacrifice, and I have a problem with God putting blind obedience above love.

I just do not believe that God works that way. If it were just me, you could safely ignore me. As it happens, I’ve got a pretty good authority to rely on. Jesus said that the

most important commandments were loving God and loving one another. Nothing in there about blind obedience that conflicts with love. And how about the prophets asserting that God wants steadfast love and not sacrifice?

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

But wait, you say, here I am delving into later Old Testament theology and later New Testament teaching to explain Abraham and Isaac–surely that is not well done, is it? That is quite a trajectory, after all, to get from Abraham on the mountain with a knife poised to kill his son all the way to Jesus teaching the people about love.

Quite a trajectory, and that is one of the best words to use to describe the Old Testament–it follows a trajectory.

I believe that God starts with us where we are. (It may be that even God can start nowhere else.) Abraham, roaming the ancient near east, was surrounded by fierce peoples and primitive religious practices. Human sacrifice, child sacrifice, was not that uncommon in his day, particularly in the worship of deities viewed as very powerful. Nobody had to explain the concept to Abraham, draw him a picture. He knew the practice long before his God-experience led him up that mountain.

I don’t think God was testing Abraham’s obedience. There is something in that understanding that makes God petty and monstrous, even if God did stop the sacrifice at the last moment.

I think God was teaching. God was teaching Abraham, teaching Isaac, teaching all their descendants, teaching us.

God was teaching Abraham who God is, what God is doing, and our relationship to God.

Against that backdrop of violent people and dark and bloody pagan ritual, God was teaching that above all God is love. Abraham would never again consider sacrificing Isaac, nor would any of their descendants in faith, including us.

I’m not going to tell a child that God wanted to see if Abraham was willing to kill Isaac, to see whether Abraham would be obedient or whether Abraham loved God more than Isaac. To be honest, I’m not sure what that teaches a child about the nature of God, but it frightens me.

I’m going to tell a child that God was making sure that Abraham knew that God did not want Abraham to kill Isaac, and sometimes the only way we can teach people something important is to show them.

God is love.

† I am not sure where I first found this summary of what the Bible is about: who God is, what God is doing, our relationship to God. It is possible that I thought it up, but I doubt it. Most good ideas have been thought before. I’ve tried searching on Google, the electronic fount of knowledge, but I haven’t found the source. If you know it, please let me know, and thanks!

The Things We Have Lost

There is a familiar passage in Luke 15:1-10, the usual characters gathered to listen, tax collectors and sinners, scribes and Pharisees, with Jesus jabbing a pointed story at all of them.

We hear that the sinners were listening, and the righteous people were grumbling about it. We hear a parable, perhaps two, of things lost and sought after, one sheep of a hundred, one silver coin of ten. Each are missed, each are sought, each are found, each are brought home. The finding of each thing becomes an occasion for communal rejoicing – friends, neighbors, angels.

Killdeer EggsIn each case, finding what was lost brings more joy than all of the other things that had remained.

Of course, Jesus is speaking of searching for the sinner, demonstrating God’s love and persistent interest in all who have gone astray. We get that. And if someone asks for an explanation of Jesus’ stories, the persistence of God’s love and of God’s pursuit of those who have wandered is certainly the right answer.

Somehow, I suspect we are leaving something valuable behind if we stop there. I think we have lost something.

There is, of course, the old story of never missing a drink of water until the well runs dry. Perhaps we should think of that, but in these stories there is still plenty of water left in the well, ninety-nine sheep and nine silver coins. We don’t hear of any rejoicing for these well placed and well kept majorities.

It is true that we spend a great deal of energy on the things we have lost. Money poorly spent. Twenty minutes gone in a checkout line. Twenty years that go missing while we consider what to do next. We lose our teeth, our hair, our keys, our minds, our senses of humor, our balance, our hearing, our train of thought (if it ever left the station). Our youth, opportunities, our ideals, our morals, our way, sometimes our faith, all of these things go missing. Those things we do not manage to find become our regrets.

Regret may be a good teacher, but it is a bad companion.

No one in these parables walks along keeping up with regrets. These are stories of empty space filled. Beyond taking comfort in the idea of God’s pursuit of us, should we wander off, let’s apply the parables to how we live.

The first thing is to realize what we’ve lost. It may sound obvious, but until you reach for your wallet you don’t know it isn’t there. So stop every once in a while and take stock, count heads, look around. Life may be busy, but being busy isn’t life.

The second thing is to go after what we’ve lost, whatever that may be, so long as it has real value. (If you just lost twenty pounds of fat, don’t go after a McDonald’s QuarterPounder.) If we’ve lost our sense of wonder, our sense of purpose, or our sense of joy, we need to go after it. Maybe that means taking a walk, if we can make the time, or taking a nap, or spending more time with people we love and less time simply around them.

If taking a walk to regain something of ourselves or hugging a child to regain our sense of what’s important don’t seem like especially faithful activities, then we’ve lost our sense of what is genuinely holy.

It is worth remembering that Jesus appeared to approve more of the people he found in fishing boats than of the people he found in the temple.

Finally, we may benefit from remembering the part about calling people together to rejoice. Each parable ends with communal rejoicing, a party, called by the person doing the finding. Being connected matters.

It is pretty simple, then.

From time to time, we need to pause, to take stock, count up, see what we’re missing. Sometimes we lose things better off lost: bad habits, bad company, poor judgment, ill temperaments, spandex clothing. Sometimes, we lose things that matter.

Once we know what matters and what we’ve lost, we need to go find it. The faith, hope and love we find may not look like the things we lost. We may end up with something battered, or rusty, or secondhand. There is a chance we may not find anything at all. We may look foolish or impractical. But if we spend our lives looking for the things that matter, we can reach the end of our journey without regret.

And the angels will meet us rejoicing.

Silver and Sandals

Mountains and Sky

Amos was a prophet in the 8th century BC. We don’t know much about him so far as biography is concerned. The Old Testament tells us that he was a herdsman, and that he tended sycamore trees:

I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees….(Amos 7:14, NRSV)

 Honestly, I have no idea how one earned a living from tending sycamore trees. I don’t even understand why they needed that much tending.

As to Amos’ other work, which despite his own denial turned out to be prophecy, he was not a purveyor of happy thoughts. Rather, he warned of the death, the end, of Israel. He turned out to be right. Later in the 8th century BC, in about 722, the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians.

There is no Exodus here, no deliverance out of trouble, no promise of resurrection.

In recent times, Amos has become a voice of social conscience:

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24, NRSV)

Sound familiar?

We become calloused and hardened against the indictments of the prophets. In Amos 7:21 we hear the voice of God speaking to Israel through the prophet—I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your assemblies—and I wonder whether God has seen our festivals and our assemblies.

The words of Amos 8:6 have remained in my mind for years, accusing the wicked—…buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals… Somehow the imagery snagged my imagination and my conscience. I am writing these words on a machine that I love; the price of it would feed a poor child for many days. Do you suppose that my small donations to Compassion International balance the scale? I doubt it.

Where is the line between social conscience and morbid guilt? How far does God expect us to reach out to the needs of others?

I do not know the answer. I do know that in the words of Amos we hear God asking.