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Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Extravagance of God's Love

“Tell me, suppose a man had a hundred sheep
and one of them went astray…” –Matthew 18:12


 Matthew 18 contains that brief and strange parable about the shepherd who walks away from his 99 sheep in search of a single stray.  I have heard preachers preach about this parable in multiple ways.  Often trying to tie it to actual shepherding practices. But it has never made sense to me (at least not an economic or mathematical sense).  Why would a shepherd abandon (and leave vulnerable) an entire flock, in order to go search for a single lost sheep. How would you explain it to the owner if something happened to the others? What if a wolf came along while you were gone and ate the rest of them?  But, of course, Jesus isn’t probably intending to teach a lesson about shepherding here. Looking at the context, the totality of chapter 18 --a chapter filled with images of extravagance-- it is pretty obvious that the ridiculousness of the shepherd leaving the 99 to go in search of the one is supposed to show us something. Probably something about the extravagance of God's love. And recently, I had an experience that  opened my eyes to the lesson of this parable in a way I hadn't expected. 

 During the recent flooding rains our backyard became a swamp.  Water standing ankle deep in places; even in the path were we have the concrete pavers, as I stood on the steps water covered my shoes. But, when I went out in the early morning to cover part of the turtle’s pen with a tarp, I didn’t pay any attention to the standing water inside their pen.  I assured myself that they were used to this kind of thing—heck, their turtles!  And—if I am honest-- I didn’t want to be bothered with trying to collect them in boxes or finding the dog kennel and setting it up as a turtle sanctuary.  I guess you could say, I wasn’t really committed to their care. I was willing to make a little effort—to go to just enough discomfort so that I wouldn’t feel badly. I could justify myself by saying: I tried.  At least I got out the tarp!  But, clearly there was no extravagance in my efforts.  At best, it was somewhat reserved. 

 But when Lucia awoke and saw the yard filling with water, everything changed.  Immediately, sans umbrella or shoes, she was out in the rain and the ankle-deep water with a Sterlite container, reaching into the mud and leaves, turning over bricks and bits of nature, gathering her beloved turtles.  Of course –out of guilt—I quickly got my wet shoes back on and rushed out to help her (and Lynne—who was already out there).  The three of us becoming a turtle transport, carrying plastic bins of curious creatures into the garage where the kennel was already set up to receive them.

What seemed remarkable to me was that Lucia knew each of them by name, and after a couple of trips, knew that one was missing. It was one who often gets into trouble, gets into awkward situations: trapped under a rock, or flipped on its back in the middle of the water dish and unable to right itself.  She was aware of its habits and rightly worried for its safety. Because she knew it. And she loved it—with a love that seems beyond reason to me. An extravagant love.

Immediately, she was back out there, and we were back with her; she was turning over rocks and lifting up anything a turtle might hide under until finally she found it.  The joy in her voice, the excitement, reminded me of someone-- a shepherd who lost a sheep…a single sheep.

On top of finding her one lost sheep, she also found three or four new babies. They are now living with the other babies in what used to be our “office.” I had dreams of writing several novels and crafting my Nobel Prize refusal speech from that room.  But instead it is a turtle nursery (or neo-natal unit) and I am writing from the dinner table (or the front porch). 

 As I write this morning –windows open, sunlight streaming in-- the rains have subsided, the yard is drying out and Houston has been graced with a week or so of lovely weather (according to channel 13).  The grown-up turtles are back in their pen, happily wandering about, hiding under rocks and flipping themselves over. 

This may sound frivolous, but I am sitting here contemplating the love of God, the weirdly, wonderfully extravagant love of God, and I am thinking –yes!  I get it now.  It is like the love of a young woman for her turtles—especially for that one awkward turtle who tends to get lost. Like a wandering sheep.   

 And I am glad for that. 

 And I hope the next time it rains, I will have a little bit of that extravagance, too. 

        God open my eyes, that I may read Your Word,
    Open my ears, that I may hear Your message in it,
        And open my heart that I will always be filled
            with the Love that is found there


Monday, September 7, 2020

Anyone who has—Some thoughts on Matthew 13

 “Anyone who has will be given more

and will have more than enough; but

anyone who has not will be deprived

of even what he has.”  --Matthew 13:12



What on earth is Jesus talking about? And why would He say something that sounds so unfair?  The Gospel message is supposed to be a message of sharing and compassion. If someone is in need, we are supposed to go to them and share what we have with them.  I thought!


But here is Mr. Nice-guy-Turn-the-other-cheek-Do-unto-others, saying something that sounds a lot like: Tough luck!


This verse is a stumbling block for me. It is something that has always troubled me.  I am one of those Christians who desperately want everything to be “fair” and gentle; I want a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light!  And this doesn’t fit into that vision of Jesus the love-child and erstwhile hippy/peacenik, sandal wearing vegetarian, commune living carpenter.  My childhood vision of Jesus was probably as much shaped by Super-friends and The Archies as it was by church, scripture & random episodes of Davey and Goliath; more Godspell  than Gospel, if you know what I mean.  I come from a spiritual school of simplicity and the obvious.  Guitar masses, tambourines and agape feasts with broken baguettes passed from person to person at the end of a teen-life retreat. Lots of Cat Stevens music intermingled with our hymns.


And so, the idea of Jesus ever saying anything that sounds unfair just feels wrong; un-Christian, even.  And yet, there it is, right there in the Gospel. And not just in Matthew but also Mark (4:25) & Luke (8:18).  So, what on earth is Jesus telling us?


One of the first things I think we need to do when a teaching makes us uncomfortable is look to our discomfort.  Why does this teaching trouble us? Where is it challenging us? What is it asking of us that we are hesitant to give?  What are we holding back?


For me, this teaching stings particularly when it talks of taking away even “what little they have.”  Too often I can find myself thinking like this; pondering what little I have left. What little time left –I’m 60 now—what little energy, years left to me: to finish my novel, deliver an address to the UN, win the Pulitzer prize and/or a MacArthur Grant… Or even to finish streaming Midsomer Murders! (How many darned seasons are there?)  Sometimes, when I feel this way, disheartened and self-pitying, I find myself growing resentful, my heart hardening as I ponder all I have sacrificed or given up or never experienced. The many dishes I have washed, and floors I have swept, the diapers I changed, the date nights when I got the kids to bed, the house quieted, lit a candle, poured some wine and prepared a little plate of brie and crackers, only to find my wife asleep on the couch.  In my disappointment, I see not her exhaustion, the work she has done, the burden she has borne and the rest she so desperately needs, only my own wants and needs not being met, the resentful embittering sense of what little I have growing inside me.

And I want to scream out—like a little child—Not fair! I want to cry out to God: This isn’t fair! You can’t do this.


And I think that is the problem, my problem with this reading, this teaching. I am looking for the wrong thing.  I am looking for fairness.  And God is offering me abundance. 


Pondering this reading for a few days now, it occurs to me that it may actually be a teaching about attitude. How do you look at the world? How do you see life? And a phrase occurred to me: imaginative abundance.  Do you have an imagination of abundance or of meagerness? Do you look at the world, at your life, and see the abundance of gifts you have received? Or do you look at the world see only what you lack, where you have been slighted or ignored, what little you have received?  This ability (or willingness) to see all that you have been given: life, family, friends, sunshine, rain, abilities or talents, laughter and tears, as gift, as grace it brings comfort and it consoles us.  It is itself a sense of abundance. Of more… and in some way it multiplies everything we have. It gives us more. 

And the other way of looking at the world, the lens of meagerness, of not enough, leaves us always feeling like we have not received what we needed, what we wanted, what we deserve.  It leaves us always watching what the other one has, what the other person has received and measuring our share against theirs. We stand there like a small child who has been given half of a popsicle; and instead of enjoying it, we look at ours and compare it to the other half and we cry out: Her half is bigger! That’s not fair! She got more than me!  


And aren’t we all that child at times?  I know I am.  This is the attitude that says there is never really enough.  That when you get more, by default I get less and that’s not fair.


And yet…  fairness isn’t what Jesus came for.  He came to give Himself, and to give Himself completely. He came for grace and grace overflows. It is at the heart of abundance.  A heart that isn’t constantly measuring and checking its pockets to see how much it has, and comparing that to what others seem to have.  That kind of heart, that kind of thinking, that kind of imagination of lack, of meagerness, blinds us to the truth of grace and God’s abundance, God’s mercy, God’s love.


Open your eyes to the abundance around you? An abundance that overflows. Let your imagination open to it, to the grace of it, the gift of it, and feel it washing over you, the joy of it washing over you like that first cleansing wave as you walk out into the surf on the beach. Think about the last time you went to Galveston. You take off your shoes and begin walking toward the waves. Feel it. It can be a little scary at first. You don’t know what to expect. Seaweed and crabs and fish and shells and the foam clinging to your ankles… it’s all a bit overwhelming at first… but then you realize. Yes. This is why I came. For all of this; for the strange enveloping wonder of it. For the amazing abundance of it. I was made for this.


And speaking of abundance, there’s more. When it comes to scripture, there is always more. In the very next chapter we catch a glimpse of this abundance in action. There is a wonderful little story about a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. And a few thousand hungry people.


Open your eyes. The abundance isn’t imaginary. It is so real it can feed thousands… and still overflow with plenty for more.



Sunday, August 23, 2020

“Do not be afraid…” Some thoughts on fear and the security of the law


 “…do not be afraid…” Matthew 1:20


How many times have I read this section of Matthew, these first two chapters that are so familiar from Christmas readings and church services?  They are so familiar that I hardly pay attention to them anymore. If I am reading the Bible, I tend to skim over them. Who needs another list of begats and begottens? We all know what happens. Mary gets pregnant. Jesus is born. The shepherds and the Wise Guys notice.  And then Herod gets mad and bad stuff happens. 

 Some things, some stories, some truths, some people, seem so familiar that we hardly notice them.  We begin to take them for granted. They can’t surprise us anymore (we think).  We put a label on them and file them away and stop paying attention. He’s my sports friend.  She likes to read. Math is hard. Cats are evil. (And so is okra.)  It makes life easier (we think). 

Or do we?

And so here I am once again reading the Nativity story and thinking: Yada Yada Yada… Yeah. I know. Let’s get to the good part.  But then suddenly I hear a voice in my head saying:  Isn’t it interesting that this version (Matthew’s) focuses on Joseph more than Mary[1]?  Hmmm.  That’s right.  I wonder if I ever noticed that before? 

 And then I saw those words:

… the angel of the Lord appeared to him and
said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid
to take Mary home as your wife…’

 And I wondered, why did the angel say that? Why tell him not to be afraid?  If we look at the context—something I always remind my students to do—we see that Joseph was about to divorce Mary.  My translation says, “Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally.”(Mt 1:19)

 Basically, Joseph was following the law. He was being compassionate and merciful about it; he could have had her taken outside of the town and stoned to death. But, instead he was going to quietly and without public display abandon her.  It was the right thing to do.  Yes, it would spare her disgrace, but what about him? It would also spare him the disgrace of becoming a cuckold; married to an adulteress and raising another man’s child.  What would that do to his public standing? What would that do to his reputation? His carpentry business? That was too much! He couldn’t risk it.

 And perhaps that is why the angel says: Don’t be afraid.

 Fear not. Don’t be afraid.  That is a constant refrain in scripture.  God is constantly reminding us not to be afraid.

 Not because bad things won’t happen. Not because Faith makes us immune to sorrows and hardships. But, because regardless of what happens—God is with us. And truly, that is all that matters!

So, even when the hurricane comes (or two of them at the same time), even when the flood waters rise, even when your fiancĂ© suddenly shows up pregnant—don’t be afraid.  Be secure in God’s love.

 Joseph isn’t doing anything wrong. In fact, he is going above and beyond the call of duty by intending to divorce Mary quietly. So, why is he sent this message: Do not be afraid?

 Is it because too often when we turn to the law or rules to defend our position, we are searching for something that isn’t there: stability, safety, security.  We are acting not out of love, not out of faith, but out of fear? 

 Even if we are trying to do the right thing, are we holding back? Are we hiding behind the law to avoid doing the harder thing? Protecting ourselves by hiding behind the law? Protecting ourselves from gossip? From scandal? From discomfort or hardship?

 But, like Joseph, are we actually only protecting ourselves from God’s grace? From letting ourselves fall completely into His hands?  From giving ourselves fully to His beautiful, mysterious, loving plan?   

And is the real problem here simply that we think we know how this story goes? So we don’t bother to pay attention to the truth.   That God is in charge.  What are we afraid of?

 Open your eyes. Pay attention to the voice that whispers in your ear: Be not afraid. God is calling you, and His plans are much bigger and much better than anything you could imagine.

 Do not be afraid.  



[1] The Nativity of Luke focuses almost completely on Mary (annunciation, visitation, presentation, storing things up in her heart), while the Nativity of Matthew focuses almost solely on Joseph (and his dreams).  I don’t know why, but—there you go.

Friday, July 24, 2020

My wife's birthday and the love of God

“Such is my love…”
--Song of Songs 5:16b

It is my wife’s birthday tomorrow and recently I found myself thinking about our first “date.”  We went out to breakfast at Butera’s on Montrose and she had oatmeal with currents and cream. I think I had the same—but with brown sugar and a bagel and cream cheese and maybe a fried egg and some grits and fresh squeezed orange juice and lots and lots of coffee. And we spent that entire day together. We drove around talking and seeing things, stopping places. We may have gone to the art museum. That part I can’t remember, but I remember the oatmeal.  And I remember how for hours we were just together, talking and sharing everything we loved and everything we hoped; favorite movies, favorite books, favorite songs. Driving around Houston in my beat-up old Honda Civic wagon, with the windows down. Bob Dylan or Merle Haggard blaring from the cassette player. I loved that car. It was white with plenty of rust and no a/c.  I called it Moby Honda!  We Hermans have to stick together on these things.  

And she seemed to love it too.

At some point during the day, I took her over to meet some friends—the Broadheads. I wanted them to meet her. I wanted her to meet them. I wanted to share them all.  I hadn’t said anything to her yet, but I already knew I was in love. And I wanted everyone else to know it too.  “Such is my love…”

I think we stayed and had dinner with the Broadheads and then I took her home.  I think I held her hand on the way home.  In my memory, I nervously took my hand from the stick shift and reached over and rested my hand on hers. Whether I remember it accurately or not, it is a day I will never forget!  We spent that entire day together giddily eagerly sharing everything we had. There was never a lull in the conversation. Our talk overflowed, the way people in love do. Starting and stopping sentences as ideas and words popped into our heads, eagerly agreeing and offering glimpses of the lives we had lived and the people we hoped to be. Pointing out places we remembered, places we loved, places and memories we wanted to give to one another.  I am almost positive there was a stop at a bookstore somewhere in that magical day (maybe Brentano's or Books, Inc. or Brazos), that wonderful never ending date.  Sure there may have been mistakes and momentary lapses of harmony but we were so ready to forgive because we were so ready to love.  I’ve been thinking about that, too. 

As I read my way through the prophets, I find myself again and again coming upon images of God’s love, His passionate love, His endless ever renewing love for His people!  And I think, perhaps such is my love for Lynne, my beautiful wife of 31 years.  And perhaps that memory of that first never-ending date, is a kind of icon of God’s overflowing boundless love for us.  “Such is my love…”   God’s love for us is like that feeling you had on that first date, the first time you held hands with the person you love most in the world, the first time you shared a coke, or offered her your last onion ring, or the last bite of your bagel. That first time when you knew you were in love.  The look in your eyes as you gazed into hers… Is it possible, that is how God looks at us? Is it possible that creation, is God’s way of sharing everything He can with us, everything He loves, all His favorites?  (That could explain Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize…)

Anyway, take a moment and see what you can remember about that first date, that never-ending first date. Maybe you want to make time to sit down with your beloved and remember it together with a root beer float and two straws. Holding hands, side by side.  Or go for a drive and listen to a favorite album: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Louis Armstrong, Loretta Lynne...   And when you are done, thank the Lord for your love, because it too is a gift. A gift you were given to share. A reflection of His own... His overflowing love for all of us.  And I am so grateful it is. 
Happy Birthday Linus.