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Wendell Berry is a farmer and the “mayor” of Fort William, KY. But his true gift is his ability to capture words and then turn them loose again in ways that make us see differently. He is a seer. By that, I mean he sees things and then writes about them and before you know it a tree a bird or darkness have become windows to see grace or grief or joy.

I am fortunate that Keightley gave me a copy of Berry’s New Collected Poems for Christmas. It is the kind of book to pick up when words become stale or thoughts hit a dead end or for just about any other reason. Berry has a knack of seeing things from multiple angles and this helps the reader to see things more clearly as well. Here are two poems I enjoy, one prior to dinner and the other afterward.

For the Hog Killing

“Let them stand still for the bullet, and stare the shooter in the eye,

Let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air, let them die as they fall,

let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife, let its freshet be full,

let this day begin again the change of hogs into people, not the other way around,

for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding with the world,

for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.”

and

Prayer After Eating

“I have taken in the light

That quickened eye and leaf.

May my brain be bright with praise

Of what I eat, in the brief blaze

Of motion and of thought.

May I be worthy of my meat.”

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We have been gathering on Wednesdays to read the Old Testament book of Daniel. Together, we are asking questions of the text, engaging the text, and trying to discern what the text means for a church in the twenty-first century. Surprisingly, Daniel does not encourage a particular diet or give tips on dream interpretation. Here are some things that Daniel does seem interested in;

1, the state wants us to become good citizens of the state, the state is uninterested in making disciples for Jesus.

2, it is not only a Babylonian notion to acknowledge God as a prop for the state.

3, exile continues to be a good metaphor for where we live and how we are to live today.

4, catering to a culture of power, control, and unrealistic perspectives of self can drive one to insanity.

5, it is possible to live in a pagan culture without becoming tainted by it.

6, we should care about rulers and pray for them. We should appeal to their humanness, not their sinfulness.

7, rulers and governments will continue to come and go – only God remains eternal.

8, God is ruler over kings, nations, and history.

9, the wisdom of God is superior to human wisdom, even the best Babylon has to offer.

10, God has always been a delivering, saving God.

I recently watched the movie Secretariat. (I am aware it is eight years old). But, it had my attention from the opening scene. It begins “More than three thousand years ago a man named Job complained to God about all his troubles and the Bible tells us that God answered. Do you give the horse its strength or clothe its neck with a flowing mane? Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength and charges into the fray. He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing, he does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles against his side, along with the flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground. He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.” Did you know God had so much to say about a horse?

The story is carried by characters that are easy to like or not like and the tensions of loyalty vs. economics. But this story is interesting because of a horse. Not just any horse, Secretariat is likely the greatest race horse of all time. Indeed, if race times mean anything, Secretariat still holds the records for all three Triple Crown races (45 years later). Indeed, Secretariat was voted one of the top 50 athletes of the twentieth century.

The storyline includes a daughter’s love for her father and the things her father loved. It includes a coin flip to determine who gets what horse. By the way, the “loser” gets Secretariat. (Sign me up to lose my next coin flip). It includes Penny Chenery’s (played by Diane Lane) savvy at acquiring a trainer and a jockey. It includes some great lines like this one from trainer Lucien Laurin, “He lays against the back of that starting gate like he’s in a hammock in the Caribbean. And when he finally does get out of the gate, it takes him forever to find his stride.” It includes a rivalry with Pancho Martin, who worked with a pretty good horse as well. Sham was likely one of the fastest ever but spent his career chasing Secretariat. It includes a horse who loved to come out of the gate last but cross the finish line first.

Even though we know how the story goes, the movie keeps a hold on us. The Kentucky Derby followed the script. Secretariat came out of the gate slow but went on to win the race in the fastest time ever. One of my favorite characters in the movie, Eddie Sweat (played by Nelson Ellis) provided one of my favorite scenes the morning of the race. Secretariat had been struggling with a mouth abscess that kept him from eating. But the morning of the race Sweat comes out and announces “Hey Kentucky! Big old Red done ate his breakfast this morning! And you about to see something that you ain’t never even seen before!” At the end of the movie we learn that Sweat spent more time with Secretariat than any other human. Just saying, if I ever own a horse, I want Sweat to be nearby.

We cheer for Secretariat during the Preakness in the family living room as a reminder of the sacrifice and unexpected celebrity that came with owning this particular horse. But, let’s face it; this movie is always leading up to the Belmont. This is a race that is played up as being too long for Secretariat. In this race Secretariat didn’t come out of the gate last but first. Throughout this race, even loyal fans (including owner and trainer) were giving up because of the race speed. But in this race, Secretariat started fast and got faster. He averaged over 37 miles an hour for a mile and a half.

But to my favorite part, who am I kidding, probably everyone’s favorite part. The movie goes silent as we watch an empty track at the final turn. Until Diane Lane’s voice can be heard reading again words from the book of Job. “He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing, he does not shy away from the sword… He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.” This is followed by the hoof beats of a solo horse and the appearance of Secretariat who goes on to win by 31 lengths. I love when Sweat adds to the scene “There you go Red!”

Critics and staunch history buffs may not like the way some events are portrayed or that Riva Ridge, a horse owned by Chenery, trained by Lucien Laurin, and who won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes just a year earlier was not even mentioned. So if you want a movie that sticks close to history, this may not be it. If you like underdogs, this may not be your movie either. Secretariat is so fast it sometimes doesn’t seem fair. But if you want to be reminded of greatness, in fact one of the greatest athletes in American history – this might be the movie for you.

When I Am Weak

When I think about strength, I think about weight rooms and Olympic level athletes. I think about activities like pushups and pull ups. I think about my high school friend Tom who could bench press a Pinto. I think about Belgian horses and elephants and truck pulls. I think about that reporter who works down at The Daily Planet. I could go on but the letter we call II Corinthians proposes something entirely different. Paul, the letter writer, says that strength is found in weakness. In fact, he says strength is made perfect in weakness.

In chapter 12 of that letter, he talks about a “thorn in the flesh.” Some think this is a physical limitation or ailment. Whatever it is, we can relate to such “thorns” and we can relate to calling them a weakness. Less natural is calling weakness strength. Paul claims he pleaded three times to be rid of this “thorn in the flesh” and the Lord replied “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Therefore, Paul feels he has no choice but to boast in weakness, saying “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” In fact, boasting is something he does a lot of in this letter. In chapter 11, he boasts that he had to work harder, was in prison more often, has received more severe floggings, has received more lashes, has been exposed to death more often, has been beaten with more rods, has experienced more shipwreck, has had more threats from bandits, and has suffered more from cold and nakedness… I am beginning to wonder if Paul understands the idea behind boasting.

This is not one of those arguments that causes people to line up and ask “where can I sign up for some of that?” It is more likely that people would be saying “please leave us before you bring us some of your bad luck.” Paul follows this up with “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” He later adds “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Just saying, what Paul calls “delight” I want to call “No thank you.” We do not tend to boast naturally about weakness. Read that list again out loud and ask “did he just call that stuff delightful?” We don’t tend to find delight in insult, hardship or persecution. Does anyone else want to introduce Paul to sunshine, a good night’s rest, an iced tea, a blackberry cobbler?

But Paul is hammering home a point. He is insisting that we understand that real strength is not when we feel strong, not when our confidence is high, not when our natural abilities are clicking on all cylinders. Real strength is in Jesus… His grace is sufficient.

II Corinthians is concerned because some are preaching a different Jesus. In another letter to the Corinthians Paul “preached Christ crucified.” We know what this looks like – it looks like weakness. Rome had a popular definition of strength. The strong take hold of the weak. And they interrogate and sentence and nail the weak to the cross. To preach Jesus crucified looks like weakness to many. But what earth sees as weakness heaven accepts as strength. Ironically, the highest official in the land pronounced the crucified Jesus as king. That gives a new perspective to “they know not what they do.”

The Corinthian letters invite this Jesus to confront our definition of strength. They invite us to challenge Rome’s definition. They invite us to the cross where weakness leads to strength. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Did you hear the one about the Jewish feminist, the Methodist evangelical, and the first century gospel writer? It resulted in a great gift for the church. The Gospel of Luke by Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III is the first commentary of its kind. Amy-Jill provides a Jewish voice and Ben a Christian voice as they engage in a stimulating discussion with the Gospel. I like the way they say it “Ours is not a debating commentary; ours is a ‘come let us reason together and talk’ commentary.”

I have not yet read it in its entirety. But what I have read I find fascinating. The approach is novel. It is helpful for a critical reading of the text but not only that, this approach is helpful as a way of living. While it is important to express conflicting views rather than pretend they do not exist, they are able to maintain some sense of sensibility. The authors prefer to dialogue with respect for the text, for those who listen to the text, and for one another. Although they differ often, they exhibit a working friendship with peacemaking as a goal. I love the way they say this “Biblical studies should not be a contact sport, with its own sections of cheerleaders.” For me, it comes across as (apologies to Amy-Jill) a very Christian effort.

Amy-Jill and Ben refer to the author as “Luke” without making a serious attempt to identify this “Luke.” They agree that “Luke” writes sometime during the second or third generation of Jesus followers. They agree that the Gospel is written to an ideal audience known as “Theophilus.” This recipient has insider information and already knows something about Jesus. Theophilus is a gentile who is familiar with Jewish scripture and has sympathy for the Roman presence.

Just as they make no strong effort to identify who “Luke” or “Theophilus” are, they do not discuss at length potential sources or synoptic relationships. Instead, they emphasize the text, which they would both encourage to be read out loud. Finally, both Amy-Jill and Ben agree that Luke writes with an agenda. And that is “to show how Jesus of Nazareth is the world’s preeminent teacher, healer, and savior who should be heeded, imitated, and finally worshipped.”

Perhaps what both authors want most is for readers to feel as if they are invited into the conversation.

God, Thank you for the way you fellowship as Father, Son, and Spirit. Thank you for your desire to pull us into your fellowship. Help us be open to your invitation. Give us the desire to become more connected to you that we may grow to know the fullness of your joy… Amen

The World Cup final is this weekend. For the record, I stand by my initial prediction that France will win. However, I want to talk about Croatia.

A country of less than four and a half million citizens, but more importantly, they have 23 pretty good soccer players.

Croatia has won three matches in a row coming from behind. Each of them in extra time. Two of them in penalty kicks. It is as if they have played an entire match in overtime.

But the thing I hope every young player saw is how Ivan Perisic, with his back to the goal, did exactly what your coach wants you to do – head the ball into space where opportunity can be created. And then, Mario Mandzukic followed (again, your coach wants you to do this) and hit it with his left foot past the keeper.

Croatia should be pleased. Most of us love underdogs. But whether you will be cheering for Croatia or France- we have all spent the past several weeks cheering for the Wild Boars. All 12 players and coach are now safe, thanks to assists from the Thai Navy Seals and cave diving specialists from around the world. We can all affirm Paul Pogba’s statement to the young boys. The day France won the semi-final he wrote “This victory goes to the heroes of the day, well done boys, you are so strong.”

So while watching the final – put on your Wild Boars jersey while you cheer for your side to win!