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When I learned to drive I had to be very intentional about every move and decision. But nowadays I drive miles without thinking about what to do next. When I go for a walk I do not think about each step. I enjoy the benefits of breathing without deliberating about how it happens. I sit down and stand up without much thought. These things just happen. They have become a natural part of my life. This is the way James K. A. Smith talks about discipleship. This requires a regular enactment of what we want to occur, so that it spills out naturally into our everyday lives. That is a primary reason we keep gathering for worship. We hope that our worship activity might spillover into our weekdays.

I have little interest in a rule of life that adds to my schedule unnecessarily. It is important that a rule of life not become restrictive, but something that encourages discipleship to occur more naturally. What if gratitude became the natural response to a new day? What if grace became the natural response to wrongdoing? What if peace became the natural response to aggression? What if love became my natural response to enemies? I want things Jesus considers important to spill over into the situations I regularly find myself in.

I cannot help but notice that culture encourages something different. Traditional authorities like politics, science, education, even religion are suspect and being criticized. Core assumptions are up for grabs. The media has unleashed a surge of new authorities. Perhaps more accurately, due to social media, everyone has become an authority. Whatever our thoughts about the direction of culture, we can all agree that things are changing. Everything is coming at us with greater ease, convenience, speed and efficiency. While this is not necessarily bad, it does bring with it tendencies to crowd spirituality. Society values progress and achievement to such a degree that even one’s spiritual life can become reduced to convenience and efficiency. Perhaps that makes now the perfect time to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus.

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Last week I was stuck in traffic on route 581 and wondering if people have simply forgotten how to use an exit ramp. Out of nowhere came the bouncy flight pattern of a bright yellow bird. Who would have expected to see a goldfinch right here and right now? I should have got out of the car and cheered.

A monarch flies by. I have been seeing a lot of them lately. I follow it to a milkweed patch where I find a future monarch full of colorful black, white, and yellow stripes. This is where monarchs, future and present, go for dinner. I am not much interested in joining them for dinner, but I think it would be fun to join them for an adventure to the Sierra Madres. This is what the fifth generation of monarchs do for a good time.

I watch a cormorant swimming on the surface of the lake when suddenly he is gone. Only to appear again about thirty yards further ahead. Cormorants are excellent divers and capable swimmers. They also appear to have quite an appetite. I also like the orange color of his chin. Not too far away I find a Wood Duck blooming into his fall colors.

While near the water, I can’t help but notice the number of Whitetails. They are in front of me, behind me, and on both sides. They fly by and hover close as if they are trying to figure out what I might be. Of course, I am referring to a black and white dragonfly called the Common Whitetail.

Not far into the forest I find a spider web. At first I don’t even notice, but on the way by when the sun hits it just right, I am greeted with an incredible work of art. How did she know I would be passing by this way? I wonder if she finished it just for me? Is she looking for applause?

I was walking a trail when I spotted a peregrine falcon. This is undoubtedly the fastest creature on earth. As soon as I get close enough for a look, she flies off. Surprisingly, not too far ahead I catch up to her and again when I get close she flies away. Unbelievably, I find her again further up the trail. I begin to think of how the tortoise became so famous when he beat the hare. What are people gonna think of me when they find out I am keeping pace with a peregrine?

A loud crack gets my attention and I quickly look to where the noise came from. I expect to find something large looking my way. Instead I watch as a tree topples over. (So if I weren’t here to hear it  – would it have made a sound)?

I am astonished at the colors I find on the forest floor. I am talking about the fungus. I have found golden yellow (and it was shaped like a butterfly). Glowing oranges and burnt oranges and bright whites. Strange shades of purples and reds, some of them spotted. Crayola should take a field trip into the forest and take notes.

Early one morning I find a snake on a rock and turtles sunning on a log. They don’t move as I pass but I wonder if they are cheering as I walk by. Like I cheer the finch, the web, and the falling tree. And the whole time the August sounds of cicadas by day and katydids at night are like a band playing for all our comings and goings.

It is as if creation is on parade. Sometimes we walk right past it, other times it marches on by. We watch and we are being watched as the band plays. We join August on parade. And we wonder, did we walk through August? Or did it pass us by?

I am a simple guy. That includes my beverage of choice. I am a tea drinker and all I require is black tea brewed properly and poured over ice. It seems so simple. Yet, I have had to suffer through some nasty tea. Some of my friends would call me a tea snob. They are probably right. If I am served nasty tea someplace, it is highly likely I will not be going back.

Joe Dongell is also a tea drinker. Much more sophisticated than I, he drinks specialty teas from exotic places. He would claim the secret is to make sure it “steeps” properly. Good tea cannot be rushed. On that, I agree. I agree with Dongell on an even more important matter as well. He claims we tend to be scavengers with the biblical text. We often abuse it, reading it just to get what we need from it.

His recommendation – we need to “steep” with the text. We need to sit with it and listen to it. We need to explore it, asking questions without pressure to find answers. “Who, what, when, and why” open up possibilities. Of course, we are interested in the content of the text. But we also want to be attentive to the process and movement.

This sounds like a recipe for a good morning. Exploring text while sipping iced tea. I should put that on my schedule.

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.”

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.”