Raffi the Raccoon

One Saturday morning, a few years ago, Linda and I found a raccoon in our front yard, lying in the myrtle at the edge of our property. It was asleep. Not knowing what to do, we called the sheriff’s office. They told us raccoons are nocturnal animals, and in the daytime they can lose their bearings and become disoriented. “Let it be, and see if it goes away later.”

By evening the raccoon awoke. It was unstable on its little legs and couldn’t move far. We gave it water and a few bananas, which it ate with gusto. We also gave her a gender and a name, Raffi. (With discussion later on the proper spelling.)

I put on a coat and went outside periodically through the evening to check on Raffi. Her breathing grew labored, and she couldn’t move at all. It looked like she was in the last hours of life. During the night, Raffi breathed her last. We found her lying dead the next morning, which was Palm Sunday that year. Her little body had slid down the myrtle to the sidewalk.

Raffi’s death put a sad spirit in me during Palm Sunday festivities. I thought about her as children paraded around the sanctuary waving palm branches. Later I remembered a scene from M*A*S*H where Major Houlihan cries over a little dog who died. And a strange thought came to mind: before Jesus’ death was memorialized, ritualized and theologized endlessly, it was once simply a death that made someone sad. Death comes to humans, to horses, and to little creatures that wander unexpectedly into our lives for a few hours. At least Raffi had someone to care for her as she died. It comforts me to believe that if God knows when mountain goats give birth (Job 39.1), God must also know when raccoons die.

The resurrection of Jesus assures us of life beyond death. The promise is for us, for our loved ones, and, I believe, for the animals precious to us; they, no less than we, are in God’s care.

A few days after Raffi died, my wife dreamed about our little raccoon. “I dreamed she was playing in our front yard. That must mean she’s okay.” I smile to think of her now, somewhere in God’s new creation, lying in myrtle and munching on bananas.

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Romans Again

getchell library

During Lent this year, the daily lectionary has us reading Romans. I remember studying it first in 1984 while taking an intensive summer class in Thermodynamics at the University of Nevada, Reno. I did homework typically in a carrel at Getchell Library (above). Each day I also read a passage from Romans and answered questions in a study guide. The class in Thermodynamics took five weeks to finish; it took six weeks that summer to work through Romans. 

Whenever I read Romans, I always see something new. This time these verses caught my attention. 

First, 3:19. “Whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (NRSV) By law, Paul meant the Law of Moses which laid out the basic beliefs and framework of the Jewish religion. The point of his argument in this early part is that true religion, rather than give me a license to point out other people’s sins, should bring me to silence over my own sins. There are pockets of silence in religion now, but for the most part it’s rare. 

Next, 8:33. “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them.” (CEB) The gospel says that even though we are all caught up in the guilt of humanity, through Christ’s sacrifice a ransom is paid on our behalf and we are declared not guilty. God acquits us of wrongdoing and sets us free from its final consequences. We are given, in Christ, a gift of righteousness (or justice, the Greek word means either.) In spite of all the charges people level at one another, in God’s court of law all charges have been dropped.

God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood. (‭3‬:‭22-25‬ CEB)

In the ancient world, when a person wanted to make peace with the gods (or God) they made an offering on an altar: a lamb from the flock or grain from the harvest. In the gospel, though, the act of offering is turned around — God makes an offering, his only Son, in order make peace with us.

Lastly, 10:3. “They don’t submit to God’s righteousness because they don’t understand his righteousness, and they try to establish their own righteousness.” (‭CEB) The root is not what I do at all but my receptivity to what God does for me. In humble faith I receive God’s righteousness as a gift, instead of trying to establish righteousness through my own efforts. I do not need to justify myself since God has justified me in Christ. This is ‘justification by grace through faith,’ a classic doctrine. It may seem abstract, but to anyone who struggles with guilt or an overly sensitive conscience, this teaching is life-giving medicine. (The laws of thermodynamics are abstract, but heat itself is essential to life.) 

The Roman orator Cicero wrote 900 letters, many with an eye to publication, but his letters have had less impact on the world than a half dozen written by an obscure Jew named Paul of Tarsus. Romans, his longest letter, has had a strong influence on Protestant theology, from Luther to Wesley to Barth. Romans has a particular significance for me too since reading it reminds me of those summer days in Getchell Library 31 years ago.

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The Apple Sermon

The Apple Sermon
(preached to confirmation students)

When I was a boy, my Dad and I would go out for a drive in a red Peugeot 504. Dad loved Peugeots. He also loved green Granny Smith apples. He’d eat an apple, roll down the window, and throw the core out on the ground. This shocked me at first since there were large signs along the road that said, “NO LITTERING. $500 FINE.” When I reminded him of this, he’d turn to me and say, “Don’t worry. It’s biodegradable.”

Things that come from plants are biodegradable. Apple cores, banana peels, and so on. They decompose and dissolve into the soil, with their molecules becoming part of other living things in the earth. Bodies are biodegradable too — animal bodies, human bodies. If a body dies and you bury it directly in the soil, it will decompose like an apple. The bones and teeth will take longer than the fleshy parts, but eventually they will disappear too. The soil scientist Francis Hole said it well, “We are disposable, biodegradable containers for spirit.” The body part of us disappears in time, but the spirit part of us continues on.

All of which is to say, we have a shelf life. You and I only have a limited amount of time. Our shelf life as human beings is longer than an apple’s, but it is still finite. You may live 100 years, or 50 years, or 20 years. Then the biodegradable container that is your body will be disposed of, and your spirit will continue on the next stage in its pilgrimage. Use your time well then in this life since it is limited.

You have two choices in how to live: the way of power and the way of love. In the way of power, in whatever situation, I impose my will on people around me. I must win. It happens on a large scale when one nation imposes its will on another, and it happens on a small scale when one person imposes their will on a family or group. In the way of power, it seems as though you are gaining, but on the inside you are losing. Jesus phrased it in a haunting question: “What does it profit you to gain the whole world but lose your soul?” Following the way of power exclusively destroys your soul in the end. Your spirit shrivels.

In the way of love I do not try to impose my will on others. Instead, I put myself in their place and ask, “What would I want if I were them?” Then I do that thing I would want if I were them. (This is called the Golden Rule.) I treat others as I would want to be treated in their place. Often this involves self-sacrifice, pouring oneself out for others. It doesn’t mean you never take care of yourself and never take time for yourself; of course you must practice self-care at times. (This is one aspect of keeping Sabbath.) But on the whole, the focus of your life is on putting the needs of others ahead of your own. This is the way of love, the way of the cross, and the way of Christ. In walking this path, outwardly you may seem to be losing, perhaps even appear a failure in the eyes of the world, but inwardly you will be renewed and strengthened, your own spirit infused with the life of God.

In the early 1990s an awful war was raging in Bosnia, in southeastern Europe. Serbs, Croats, and Muslims were fighting one another. Many thousands died. There was a family among the Serbs named Sorak. Their son was arrested by the Muslim police and never seen again. His wife was pregnant, though, and a few months later she gave birth to a baby girl. For some reason, she was unable to nurse the child. With the scarcity of food in a war zone, the Soraks had nothing to feed this infant. They gave the baby tea for a few days, but they could tell it wasn’t going to survive. Many babies were dying during the war.

On the fifth day after the baby was born, there was a knock on the door. It was a man named Fadil from a neighboring village. He was a Muslim. His people were supposed to be at war with the Soraks, but he apparently didn’t get the news about that. He heard about their baby. He stood on their porch and offered them a half liter of milk. He had a cow, one of the few left in the area. They took the milk and fed it to the baby. He came the next day in muddy rubber boots, again carrying a half liter of milk. Every day from then on he came, in rain, snow, sleet, always with a half liter of milk for the baby. He did this without fail for 441 days, until the Soraks finally gathered together enough money to leave the area. All told, he brought them 220 liters of milk, even though they were supposed to be his enemies. They always remembered their friend Fadil. He is a perfect picture of what the way of love looks like in practical daily living.

Let me close with this, on this day you are confirmed. Jesus only asks two things of you. We make religion a lot more complicated than it needs to be. Only two things. Jesus wants you to put your faith in him, and he wants you to live a life of love. Faith and love — that’s all.

You have declared your faith in Jesus today before this congregation. You will spend the rest of your days discovering what that faith looks like. I suspect it will look differently at different points in your life. But now I am focused on the second thing Jesus asks, that you live a life of love. Make the way of love your way of life. Follow in the way of love, the way of self-sacrifice, the way of the cross, where Jesus poured out his life for us all.

Do this, and you will live. As you practice the way of love, the life of God will take root in you and strengthen your spirit from within. You will find life, unimaginable, unending life. When the biodegradable part of you disappears one day, this life alone will continue.

I am going to give each of you a Granny Smith apple. Eat it, today, tomorrow, or the next day. Then throw the core on the ground. And if someone complains that you are littering, just say, “It’s okay. It’s biodegradable.”

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From a brief essay on the importance of doubt:

Doubt about one’s most cherished beliefs is, of course, central to science: the physicist Richard Feynman stressed that the easiest person to fool is oneself. But doubt is also important to non-scientists. It’s good to be skeptical, especially about ideas you learn from perceived authority figures. Recent studies even suggest that being taught to doubt at a young age could make people better lifelong learners. That, in turn, means that doubters—people who base their views on evidence, rather than faith—are likely to be better citizens…

One thing is certain: if our educational system does not honestly and explicitly promote the central tenet of science—that nothing is sacred—then we encourage myth and prejudice to endure.

The author assigns doubt to science and faith to religion, but faith he conflates with credulity. I’m inclined to say faith and doubt are two sides of the same human dynamic process, and doubt/faith is active in both science and religion.

I had not heard before that the ‘central tenet of science [is] that nothing is sacred.’ (Tenet is a word borrowed from religion, by the way.) Religion has taught me the opposite: that everything is sacred. Everything is sacred because all created things are infused with the presence of their Creator. Everything is sacramental is another way of saying the same thing.

Nothing is sacred and everything is sacred. I would hold these two truths in tension.

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Grave Digger

A funeral this morning, then a memorial meal, and later an 85 mile drive up to Dewitt for an interment. Because I went with the funeral director, I stayed at the grave till the grave digger closed it with a load of dirt. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This time of year they use a heater to warm the earth; even so the man said the frost was three feet deep. I took a handful of dirt from the backhoe and dropped it in the grave. 

I have dug graves too — the small kind for an interment of ashes — and filled in the hole afterward with a little pile of dirt. No backhoe needed, only a shovel and post hole digger. 

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This is our cat Cleo, using an app called Waterlogue. 

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How Do We Know Our Religion Is the Real One?

In confirmation class a student asked, “How do we know our religion is the real one?” I stumbled through an unsatisfying answer. I imagined a Hindu child or Muslim child somewhere in the world asking the same question and wondered what answer they got. 

It’s an old quandary: how do we know what we know is the truth? Everything can be doubted, except the knowledge that everything can be doubted. It’s like the little diner where the only thing on the menu that doesn’t come with toast is toast. Doubt is the toast that comes with everything. Dubito, ergo sum. I doubt, therefore I am. Truth is, I doubt everything now. 

St Paul said it didn’t matter if someone formally belonged to his religion or not since their quality of life showed whether the Spirit of God was present in them. (See Romans 2) I’m sure this startling assertion stunned the faithful. 

Faith is essential. Paul affirmed faith, and Christ commands it. “Believe in God; believe also in me.” We teach confirmation students so they will make a public profession of faith in Christ. Along with their confession, we hope their lives will bear fruit from the Spirit of Christ in them. 

At the same time, I am touched and instructed by fruit in the lives of people who have not made a profession of faith in Christ. The Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh comes to mind. His life reminds me not to restrict where the Spirit of Christ may go. “The wind blows where it wishes.” 

How do we know our religion is the real one? In an epistemological sense, we cannot know with certainty. There will always be toast on our plate. But in a practical sense we know our religion is the real one if it produces right living, kindness, humility, and love. 

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