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Archive for January, 2014

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!'”

Matthew 25: 23

Pete Seeger's banjo.

Pete Seeger’s banjo.

Pete Seeger lived 94 years of a life lived to the hilt, but even into his nineties he was the ultimate “angry young man.”

That’s to say that he was “angry” and stayed angry in the best sense, in the sense that Jesus was angry, and MLK Jr. was angry, and Gandhi and other prophets of love, peace and justice stayed angry.

By all accounts Seeger was gentle and pleasant company. He could be a playful and joy-filled entertainer and a childishly creative man, which made him and his music so appealing to children as well as his elderly peers.

But he stayed angry, in the best sense, for 94 years, in that he refused to accept social injustice, or the sort of Foxy patriotism that is the last refuge of scoundrels, or Christian sentimentalism.

Jesus himself has to be happy to have this gifted and high-minded prophet back Home. But it saddens me to no end that an American original of such rare integrity and high-minded Christian ethics is no longer here to do what prophets do–to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

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God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”

— Genesis 1: 31

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The Keel-billed Toucan, known as the “bill bird” locally, is the national bird of Belize. It’s a beautiful creature known for its outsized bill, which comes in bright shades of yellow, orange, red and green, with some black thrown in.

The other day I was relaxing in the yard of my dear friends Jamie and Barb, a couple of Canadian expats who have a terribly relaxing bed-and-breakfast inn overlooking Belize’s big and beautiful Mopan River. Suddenly Barb pointed skyward and shouted, “A toucan!” The three of us grew as giddy as children as the colorful bird came casually gliding right over our heads.

Thomas Aquinas said that beauty arrests motion. The sight of something as common as a bird on a limb or a bird in flight, even if it’s not as colorfully exotic as the toucan that “arrested” us, has the power to captivate us and calm us down–to release us from the tension of all our herky-jerky motion.

The trick in discovering miracles and beauties and wonders on God’s green earth doesn’t require any magic wand. The trick is in simply waking up to all the magical gifts of God’s grace that are budding, buzzing, flying and simply existing all around us.

In his 1922 book Spiritual Energies in Daily Life, the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones noted that beauty breaks through almost everywhere, suggesting “a Spirit that enjoys beauty for its own sake.”

    “Even the minutest things reveal [beauty] as well as do the sublimest things,” Jones wrote. “Whatever one sees through the microscope, a bit of mould, for example, is charged with beauty. Everything from a dew drop to Mountain Shasta is the bearer of beauty. And yet beauty has no function, no utility. . . . It greases no wheels, it bakes no puddings. It is a gift of sheer grace, a gratuitous largess.”

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Driving up the mountain passes of the scenic Hummingbird Highway of Belize sometimes reminds me of the time I vacationed driving through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, except for Tennessee's considerable lack of palm and coconut trees. Still, I have these Belizean moments when I feel like I'm back in some place like Tennesseee, or Arkansas, or Georgia (come see Mountain Pine Ridge and you'll understand what I mean, Georgians), or even the holy ground where I grew up around Grimes and Washington Counties in Texas with their rolling, pastoral pastures and hills. As terribly foreign as Belize can start to feel to me sometimes--I have these occasional moments of deja vu where I feel I've been taken back to some beautiful part of America I passed through once on some summer vacation or going mobile in a rental car on some newspaper assignment.

Driving up the mountain passes of the scenic Hummingbird Highway of Belize sometimes reminds me of the time I vacationed driving through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, except for Tennessee’s considerable lack of palm and coconut trees. Still, I have these Belizean moments when I feel like I’m back in some place like Tennesseee, or Arkansas, or Georgia (come see Mountain Pine Ridge and you’ll understand what I mean, Georgians), or even the holy ground where I grew up around Grimes and Washington Counties in Texas with their rolling, pastoral pastures and hills. As terribly foreign as Belize can start to feel to me sometimes–I have these occasional moments of deja vu where I feel I’ve been taken back to some beautiful part of America I passed through once on some summer vacation or going mobile in a rental car on some newspaper assignment.

The Hummingbird Highay, one of the more scenic and smooth rides in all of mainland Belize.

The Hummingbird Highay, one of the more scenic and smooth rides in all of mainland Belize.

Way more than just hummingbird birds up in the bush off the Hummingbird; take a pair of binoculars and your camera early in the morning or just as the sun sets and you'll cross a lot of birds off your bird-watching list.

Way more than just hummingbird birds up in the bush off the Hummingbird; take a pair of binoculars and your camera early in the morning or just as the sun sets and you’ll cross a lot of birds off your bird-watching list.

Another of the many little pink houses on the Hummingbird trail

Another of the many little pink houses on the Hummingbird trail

The Hummingbird dead-ends in the coastal town of Dangriga, where the horse is as common a mode of transportation as a four-wheel or two-wheel vehicle.

The Hummingbird dead-ends in the coastal town of Dangriga, where the horse is as common a mode of transportation as a four-wheel or two-wheel vehicle.

When in Dangriga call a horse cab

When in Dangriga call a horse cab

Or judging from those wheels, DON'T call for a horse cab.

Or judging from those wheels, DON’T call for a horse cab.

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The Adoration of the Shepherds, Charles LeBrun

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Charles LeBrun

Born outdoors, Jesus was the ultimate outsider, God’s rabble-rouser.

He never had any interest in being an “insider” with the powers-that-were. And he certainly had no interest in being the kind of king who lorded over his empire while his servants sat at his feet giving him pedicures and fetching his fine wine and cheese.

Imagine what the three magi, bearing their lavish gifts, must have thought when they finally reached what they expected to be a royal palace. They must have wondered what kind of strange king-to-be the baby in the manger was.

What are we to make of the strange fact that the only crown the new-born king was ever to wear was a crown of thorns?

That’s how God, whose ways are not our ways, works.

Go figure.

My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.”

— Isaiah 55: 8, New Living Translation Bible

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Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.”

— Moses, Deuteronomy 9:6

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“My cup runneth over.”

— From Psalm 23

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

This is another in an ongoing series of frequent postings about poverty, both material and spiritual, as it’s addressed in the Bible.

The “prosperity gospel,” or the health and wealth gospel as it’s sometimes called, teaches that God desires the material, spiritual, and physical prosperity of us all.

The theology of the “wealth gospel” has it that in order to receive–in order to not only keep up with the Joneses but move out of their neighborhood to higher material ground–you only have to believe, and strive to be good and nice, and act upon God’s promises.

A prayer life is part of the prosperity gospel deal, for sure. In fact, if you stick an occasional prayer into the divine vending machine, you’ll get a nice house and job promotions and boxes of Cracker Jacks that come complete with the sweetness of good health.

Whatever you want or need, just name it; God’s operators are standing by to take your calls.

Born in the poverty of a barnyard, not in a palace.

Born in the poverty of a barnyard, not in a palace.

If the prosperity gospel had any validity whatsoever (and please pay attention here, you the many who buy into every word of Joel Osteen’s happy, happy, happy prosperity gospel), Paul and the Apostles and all those intensely faithful and obedient Christians in the first three-hundred years of the Christian faith tradition would have retired to Mediterranean beaches rather than breaking their backs in service to others, only to have their heads cut off or to get tossed to hungry lions.

If the “wealth-and-health gospel” was the valid gospel, the richly blessed and prosperous Job would never have had so much as a bad hair day.

If the “wealth-and-health gospel” was the valid gospel, the richly blessed and prosperous Job would never have had so much as a bad hair day and King David–the mighty king who had it all–would never have had such family issues with his beloved sons.

Remember this: When Jesus and Pilate stood toe to toe, Pilate was the prosperous one; Jesus was the vulnerable and truly blessed one, a spiritual ruler born of a vulnerable and humble but blessed young girl.

If anything, we should be striving in our faith not for prosperity, but rather to be more poor. For what we might call “the poverty gospel” teaches that it’s only in spiritual poverty–in the emptying of desire for riches and medals and power and control–that God fills our cup with true inner riches, inner blessings and inner peace that money can’t buy and new cars can’t provide.

A good “poverty gospel” prayer is not the sort you stick into a vending machine for a reward or the favor of God. It’s more like the “Covenant Prayer” that the Methodist Movement founder John Wesley prayed to ring in New Years in his covenant worship services:

    Lord,

    I am no longer my own, but yours.

    Put met to what you will,
    rank me with whom you will;

    put me to doing,
    put me to suffering.

    Let me be employed by you or laid aside by you,
    enabled for you or brought low by you.

    Let me be full,
    let me be empty.

    Let me have all things,
    let me have nothing.

    I freely and heartily yield all things
    to your pleasure and disposal.

    And now, O glorious and blessed God,
    Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
    you are mine, and I am yours.

    So be it.

    And the covenant which I have made on earth,
    let it be ratified in heaven.
    Amen.

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“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

2 Corinthians 5: 16-17

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