Taking On July

July is a battlefield. At least it was in my youth. I would wake in the morning only to wonder what was out there. What could be found in the woods today? Is anything hiding in that rock pile? What will be down at the creek? I wonder if the berries are ripe?

A child knows that something it out there. There is always something out there. Every day is something new to explore. Adults go soft, sitting in cushioned chairs in air-conditioned rooms. But a child knows, there is a lot going on. Someone has to find out what it is.

Still, it is a battlefield out there. Crawling under barbed wire. Falling from a tree or onto rocks. Thorns stand between you and the berries. Sunburn, bruising, and blood are all part of the experience. There are poisons everywhere; ivy, oak, and sumac. Coming home with a rash is normal. Bees will sting, so will yellow jackets, and hornets. Ants will bite, so will deerflies, spiders, and snakes.

Leeches and ticks  are looking to suck your blood. Chiggers will cause you some miserable nights. Mosquitoes will nibble on you all summer long. July is a danger zone. It is a war out there. I still have scars from some of those battles. And I would do it all over again.

A Handbook about Being a Spy

Virginia Stem Owens has written an interesting little volume And the Trees Clap Their Hands. The subtitle is Faith, Perception, and the New Physics. These things are discussed but this book reads more like a confession, Stem Owens reveals she is a spy. She is busy ransacking the world for secrets. She stuffs them in her pockets while going about her business undetected. It could have been titled A Handbook about Being a Spy. In this book it is her intention to pull the reader into a spy story.

She has been verified in the last census. The house she lives in, the clothes she wears, the food she eats, the cars she drives do not distinguish her from others. She disguises as an ordinary citizen, making her contribution of children, taxes, and casseroles while all the while she is up to something different. Stem Owens strikes a trail and sticks to it. She spreads her senses wide and pulls them back in to see what she may have snared in the wind. She is on a stake out, waiting in unlikely places “ready to pounce on reality should it choose to reveal itself.” She stalks and ambushes, wrestles and gouges whatever meaning she is able, “You must be ready when it comes flying at you.” Readiness is in contrast to self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is fatal for spies. “To ring bells and go barefoot is self-indulgent, and would only call attention to yourself.”

There is danger in this vocation. The greatest is not to be discovered or even to be tortured. The greatest danger for the spy is to forget the mission. The worst thing that can happen is to forget who you serve or to begin thinking that Babylon is all there is. The danger is real. She knows this because she is surrounded by many who have already defected. She is surrounded by others who have forgotten or even renounced the mission. The danger is real. The spy spends so much time and effort learning the language, adopting the customs, and practicing the habits of this land that gradually she becomes her cover. It is easy to forget what one is about.

She knows her way around. She does not need a map for where she lives, but one is necessary for what she hopes for “It is buried treasure that needs a map.” So she slinks out the gate with map in hand. She is disguised not by her own skills or cunning but by the blindness of those around her. She understands the constant danger. But if she winds up like John the Baptist with her head on a platter, she will not blame Herod or the headsman. They are only issuing the known penalty for those who commit such treason.

An Adventurous People

The church is a risky group to spend time with. And a dangerous people to travel with. Not least because of the God we follow. We are wanderers called from the known into the unknown. We are slaves who have escaped by a miracle. We are warriors sent to battle with strange and unlikely weapons. We are exiles singing our songs in a foreign land. We are treasure hunters selling everything to purchase a field. Yes, to travel with this group is more risky and adventurous than any of us might imagine.

Mud Pies and Treasure

Richard Louv is a journalist who writes about nature. He can be rather convincing about getting outside. He explores the dangers of a sedentary indoor lifestyle. He takes readers into territory they may not think about on their own. Many have read Louv’s books. I suspect many have agreed with what he says about schedules and fresh air and things we take for granted. Yet I suspect many of them have not changed their lifestyles.

Michael Pollan writes about food. He discusses health of both body and the land. He can be rather convincing about eating differently. He explores the dangers of poor eating habits. He takes readers into territory that many do not think about on their own. Many have read Pollan’s books. I suspect many have agreed with much of what he says about food and nutrition. Yet I suspect many of them have not changed their ways with food.

I suspect this type of thing occurs all the time. Agreeing that health is important does not make one take steps to become healthy. Agreeing that practice makes perfect does not make one practice. Agreement does not always result in action. Thinking something is right does not cause us to behave differently. As convincing as Louv’s suggestions about changing lifestyle are, it is possible to love our current lifestyle of convenience more than his suggestions. As convincing as Pollan is about food, it is possible to love processed fatty foods more.

My interest is not really whether we watch television or eat sodium filled foods. I am more interested that many of us read the bible. I suspect many agree with what the bible has to say. I suspect we agree with loving God and loving our neighbor. I suspect many are pulled into the poetry and narratives and teaching we find there. I suspect many agree with the ideas about grace, forgiveness, generosity and sacrifice that are abundant. I suspect we are glad the bible takes us into territory to explore things we would never have thought about on our own. Yet I suspect that many have not changed their ways.

The danger is that we love our current appetites and lifestyle more than we love what God wants to give us. C.S. Lewis, in a sermon preached at Oxford one day, said this, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The danger is that we love these things more than we love God.

The problem is we have already been discipled. Everyone is in the discipleship business and some are very good at it. The democrats, the republicans, Wall Street, and Madison Avenue are all after your allegiance. The fact is, every commercial is an attempt to make you a disciple. Advertisers do not give information about the products they sell; they spend their resources to appeal to our loves. There is no getting around it – the world wants your soul. Our allegiance says a lot about us. We are disciples of what we love. This is what Jesus meant when he said “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Discipleship is all about being attentive to and being intentional about what we love.

We sometimes try to make discipleship a cognitive exercise. We convince ourselves that enough knowledge will help us become who we ought to be. However, we are simply not a sum of what we know. We are not driven by information; we are driven by what we treasure. We like to tell ourselves we love the right things. We like to think we are immune to becoming disciples of the world. Perhaps we should check our closets and garages for evidence. We cannot avoid the idea we are driven by treasure. Acknowledging this is but the first step of beginning to change our lives and not just our ideas. Because to be a disciple of Jesus is to learn to love the right things.

Wardrobes, RabbitHoles, and Zip Codes

One July day a fire started in Rome.  The Emperor accused the Christians and punished them by using Christians as living torches to light the nighttime games at the Circus Maximus.  This is the story that we enter when we read I Timothy.  We are introduced to a dangerous world where we are in danger of losing everything.  I Timothy encourages you to not allow anyone to deny your role in this story.

One April day a baby boy was born.  When his grandfather first saw him he remarked “that boy looks like Johnny Yuma… he is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.”  I did not choose to enter the world like this; it is just the way it happened.  I wish that I, or any one, could tell you all the good things that I have done and all the mistakes I have made since then and you would respond by doing the good things, avoiding the bad things, and life would be good.  But we all know that life gets more complicated than that.

Lucy Pevensie stepped into a wardrobe one rainy day during a game of hide and seek with her brothers and sister and became an important part of a great adventure.  Yet another day a girl named Alice went into a rabbit hole after a white rabbit with a waist coat and pocket watch and experienced an adventure she never imagined.  Another day Sam asks Frodo, “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”  We would do well to be asking ourselves that question.

I mention these stories because the characters were not looking for an adventure, they just found themselves in one.  I propose that life is like this.  We all find ourselves in a story that is not of our choosing.  We do not go out seeking such cosmic drama.  We do not know how we get tangled into the story that carries meaning for eternity.  We just find ourselves in it.

My story has never taken me to a place where I had to battle the White Witch or a Jabberwocky.  The emperor has never threatened to light me on fire so that his audience would have light for night-time entertainment.  Yet, I propose that it is still a very dangerous story.  The world wants you.  It will lure you.  It will not stop until it has your soul.  There is a story in II Timothy about a guy named Demas.  He has already been introduced in the letters we know as Colossians and Philemon.  In II Timothy, Paul shares the unfortunate news that “Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me.”

We are here on the border of what is holy and what is not.  This isn’t an easy place.  This world is enemy occupied territory.  This world wants your soul.  Demas “loved this world.”  What does this love look like?  What luxuries and excesses does the world offer to lure us?  We might wish that the text were clear about this, but it does not give details.  It just leaves readers to wrestle with the implications.  One thing the text does tell is that even while in the company of apostles and evangelists one chooses the world over the good news.  The voices of this world keep trying to convince us to believe its version of the story.  How will we respond?  Would we have been a reflection of God in front of the emperor?  Are we a reflection of God on our street and in our zip code?

This is the story you have fallen into.  You are part of an adventure that is not of your own choosing.  Wardrobes, rabbitholes, and zip codes are all places where we find stories that are demanding, daring, and dangerous.  The story we are now living has eternal implications.  Do not let anyone deny you your role in the story.

Greater than Danger

I have been reading Psalm 23 and cannot help but notice the confidence that the gifts of God are greater than the dangers of life.  We enter this psalm with the name of the Lord.  The phrase following the initial naming of the Lord sets the tone for the remainder of the psalm “I shall not want.”  The Lord is the satisfaction of all needs.  Nothing else is necessary.  The psalm suggests that this is not only a spiritual satisfaction.  With the later reference to cup and table comes the implication that the Lord is the satisfaction for all needs.

The psalm then proceeds to talk about God.  “He” makes, leads, restores, and guides.  Then in the center of the psalm we find a more direct address with the strong pronoun “Thou.”  Perhaps this part of the psalm is more immediate or is stated with more emotion.  The psalmist speaks directly to this “Thou” while walking through a deep dark valley and while in the presence of enemies.  The psalmist does not fear impending danger because of the presence of this “Thou.”

Another interesting observation in the psalm is the pronoun ”I.”  This is no self-centered “I”, but one full of gratitude and thanksgiving.  One that acknowledges that the presence and actions of this “Thou” are enough.  This “I” is trusting that life, no matter how dangerous, no matter how evil, is in the hands of this “Thou.”

The psalm knows about threatening situations.  The psalm knows that evil is real.  That danger exists.  But it also knows that the Lord is greater than the threat.  The presence of the Lord is enough.  No matter the situation.  It does not mean that there are no deep dark valleys.  It does not mean that there is no evil.  It does not mean that there are no enemies.  It does mean that He might prepare a table for you right in the presence of your enemies.  The presence of the Lord is enough even in (perhaps specifically in) situations where danger is the greatest.

As in the beginning, the psalm ends with the name of the Lord.  This may be noteworthy and suggest that life is lived in the presence of the One with this name.  The One who walks the deep dark valley with me also leads me beside quiet waters. The Lord is with us.  The psalm knows that danger is real, but it also knows that the Lord is greater than danger.

Surrounded by Danger

I look across a small field and notice a cat in a small tree.  I suppose that cat enjoyed hunting in that field.  I suppose that cat had been successful in that field before and was hoping to find success again.  Cats are hunters, predators, carnivores.  But on this day, at the base of the tree looking up at the cat was a red fox.  This picture demonstrated where these two were on the food chain.  Roy Bedichek suggests that “the body odor of his prey excites the predator so that his mouth waters and every fiber of his being becomes taut and every sense alerted.”  I suspect that the cat felt as if he used one of his nine lives.

We are not exempt from this feeling.  We may strut around as finely evolved creatures driving our fancy cars in our designer clothes or walking about with our expensive tools and toys.  We may feel as if we are the top of the food chain, but, as Diane Ackerman points out, “our adrenaline still rushes when we encounter real or imaginary predators.”  The fact is, sometimes we are the fox.  But, other times we feel like the cat.

Most of us are intelligent enough to stay away from big predators.  We do not swim with sharks.  We do not challenge bears.  We do not reach into the mouths of big cats.  We can acquire a weapon to protect ourselves.  Our houses are able to keep the obvious predators out.  Most of us feel safe in our surroundings.

Most predators are of little concern to us.  Lady bugs are carnivores.  Diving beetles eat spring peepers.  A praying mantis has been known to take a garter snake, mouse or hummingbird.  But why do we talk about carnivorous insects when they have their own worries?  We have a local plant called a sundew  that eats the insects.  The sundew is covered with a series of short hairs or tentacles that are covered in a sticky gel that makes it look as if it has morning dew on it all day long, especially when it glistens in the sun.  Insects are attracted to this glistening nectar, become stuck, and the tentacles close around the victim.

How alert should we be?  Is it safe to swim in a farm pond or the local lake?  To dip our toe in water where largemouth bass and bullfrogs live?  Fact is, the largemouth bass is a fierce predator.  Small ducks have been known to become bass food.  It is aggressive enough that if one grew big enough, it would consider you to be food.  Same with a bullfrog.  Of course, neither  worry us while wading in their waters.  But if either thinks it could fit you in its mouth, it will try to eat you.  Some things are at the top where they sit or swim, as long as no one more fierce shows up.

Is it safe to come out of the water?  Driving along the Susquehanna recently, I watched a big bird with deliberate wing beats fly gracefully over the river.  It had a white head and white tail feathers that contrasted with its otherwise dark body.  We are just beginning to see Bald Eagles around here and although I rather enjoy it, the residents of the river probably do not.  Still, the fact is that raptors have been watching us for a long while.  These birds with keen eyesight and strong beaks and great talons perch on fence posts and telephone poles and in trees along highways.  Perhaps to watch for small mammals, perhaps to keep an eye on those of us driving by.  The Great Horned Owl possesses talons that are capable of crushing the skull and severing the spine of its prey.  They are covered with soft feathers that provide insulation but also permit them to fly gracefully yet silently while in pursuit.  Like flying ninjas with built-in weapons.  They sing their songs at night to announce that this is their territory.

Are things any safer indoors?  Richard Louv tells us that the Environmental Protection Agency claims that indoor air pollution is the number one environmental threat to health.  “A child indoors is more susceptible to spores of toxic molds growing under that plush carpet; or bacteria or allergens carried by household vermin; or carbon monoxide, radon, and lead dust.”  He goes on to say that some link indoor play to obesity.  “So, where is the greatest danger?  Outdoors, in the woods and fields?  Or on the couch in front of the TV?”

What most of us are probably unaware of is the invasion of endoparasites.  Invaders from the inside.  Gordon Grice says that parasitic worms attack humans as often as mosquitoes do.  “At this moment, more than one billion human beings carry within their bodies a nematode worm called Ascaris lumbricoides.  About one in every thirty humans is under attack from the fluke that causes schistosomiases; one in six hosts the hookworm.  Even in the well-medicated United States, 40 million people are afflicted with pinworms.  The results of these diverse infections will vary from no noticeable reaction to excruciating death.”

Of the parasites Annie Dillard asks “how can this be understood?  Certainly we give our infants the wrong idea about their fellow creatures in the world.  Teddy bears should come with tiny stuffed bear-lice; ten percent of all baby bibs and rattles sold should be adorned with colorful blowflies, maggots, and screw-worms.  What kind of devil’s tithe do we pay?”  She goes on to ask if “we live in a world in which half the creatures are running from – or limping from – the other half?”  She later concludes, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along.  I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too.”

I think about the Copperhead hiding in the spring forest.  The Black Bear that walked across the stream where I fished for Brook Trout.  The long-legged heron that stalked the field along Conodoguinet Creek.  That biting bug who was trapped between my clothes and skin in the garden.  The mosquitoes that have nibbled on me all summer long.  The ticks who feasted on my blood.  The dust mites that hide in my pillow.  The endoparasites that attack from inside our bodies.  The bass that eats ducks for dinner.  That diving beetle who was eating the spring peeper.  The sundew plant that will lure the insects in for lunch.  The Red Tailed Hawks that stand watch over fields and highways.  The fox that chased the cat up a tree.

Is anything safe around here?  Is anyone?  What should we make of this backward food chain?  One where plants eat insects.  Insects eat amphibians.  Amphibians eat fish.  Fish eat birds.  Birds eat mammals.  And parasites eat us all?

I think of these creatures and wonder why we are not always looking over our shoulder.  It is time to be attentive with every fiber of our being.  Every sense on alert.  Paying attention with every step.  There are predators among us.  It is safe to say that not all predators are monsters of cruelty.  But sometimes, when humans share territory with creatures, the result is something bad.  Of these creatures, Grice claims to “celebrate their beauty, even the dark side of it.”