Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Eat More Dirt?

Dear Friends,

I was a pretty dirty kid and if you’re a member of my generation, you probably were too. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and our first house had a large dirt back yard that was my personal playground. There was also a huge two acre lot on our street that was our baseball field in summer, the great frontier where we played “cowboys and indians,” and when it was half-filled with rain, it became our swamp where we built our Huckleberry Finn raft and caught pollywogs. When I was nine, we moved to West Hollywood where we again had a very large backyard. During the hot, lazy days of summer when school was out, I’d lie out in the dirt under the lemon tree just to smell the scent of the lemons in the sun. I’d dig a large hole until I was tired of digging it. I’d fill it back in and go to another part of the yard and dig another large hole. My dad teased me and called me his “gopher” and my mom kept the washing machine busy in a futile effort to keep me clean. 

Too many kids today live in “asphalt jungles” where the dirt on their concrete play area is the black dust from our car’s asbestos-containing brake pads. It’s clear that today’s children are facing an unprecedented physical and mental health crisis in our Nation. The increase of autism alone in America’s children is very disturbing. Surveys in the 60's showed the presence of autism was in one out of 2,500 children. According to the CDC, twenty years ago it was one in 150 but today it’s one in every 44 children that has autism disorder. Something has changed. We are raising a generation of obese children who have arthritic conditions in their hands from playing video games that used to be seen only in senior citizens. Many kids now struggle with diabetes and heart disease which was almost unheard of in children until the past decade. It’s a statistical fact that children were much healthier back in the 50's & 60's when we spent our days outdoors playing in the God-created dirt.

Dr Kevin Bonham is a medical scientist in the microbiology and immunobiology department at Harvard Medical School. He says, “While there is no doubt that sanitation and hygiene are critical in reducing the spread of infectious disease, it’s possible that we’ve gone too far in trying to live a sterile life.” In an article published in Scientific American, Dr Bonham explains that microbes living in dirt are actually healthy for us to ingest and he advocates buying organically-grown vegetables and just rinsing them with tap water before cooking them. We thoroughly scrub our vegetables squeaky clean and even buy special sanitizing produce sprays to kill all organic matter on our veggies and yet medical science has determined that these soil-based organisms clinging to our carrots and potatoes support gut health, reduce inflammation and increase immune response. Scientists have even discovered that these soil microbes have an effect on the brain similar to the antidepressant medication Prozac, but without the side effects! There is also increased evidence that soil microbes even affect our cognitive well-being. Perhaps our new health mantra should be: “EAT MORE DIRT !”

We may not want to drink a mud smoothie or bake a batch of dirt cookies, but it’s never too late in life for us to go outside and get a little dirty. We improve our overall health when we do what God created us to do – go outdoors and plant and grow things. I have a friend who has a backyard filled with greenhouses and she’s never happier than when she’s working in the potting sheds as a volunteer at the Huntington Library Gardens. She’s in her late seventies and is happier, healthier and more active than many who are decades younger than she. Is that because nearly every day she plays in the dirt? Gardeners inhale the organic microbes from dirt, ingest it through their mouth and get it into their bloodstream if they have a cut on their hands.

Your body is about 65% water and if it was completely dried out, what would be left is mostly six elements that are abundant in the natural environment that is God’s Creation. According to both medical science and the Word of God, you are essentially “water and dirt.” Our God is the potter and we are His “clay.” Isaiah 64:8 He first created a world of waters and the “firmament (dirt) in the midst of the waters.” Genesis 1:6 And then God sent some rain and went to play in the dirt. He took up a handful of moist soil and breathed life into this handful of dirt and it became man. Genesis 2:6-7 Then, “The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.” Genesis 2:8 God created man out of a handful of dirt to live in a garden but the closest most of us get to a vegetable garden today is when we go to the grocery store and buy that plastic bag of spinach greens that’s been triple-washed and sanitized with a chlorine rinse for our protection.

This Friday, April 22, is Earth Day. In years past, California politicians used it to focus on banning detachable water bottle caps and criminalizing the use of plastic drinking straws. This year it’s banning all single use plastic from all restaurants including takeout and food trucks. Will cardboard forks work as well as those paper straws did? This week, school children will be lectured on the dangers of plastic forks and spoons and be using their crayons to color trees and plants before being sent to play on the school’s asphalt playground. I've been reading about some schools tearing out the asphalt that gets blistering hot on a summer day and returning their playgrounds to dirt and grass. That's good news! According to medical science, it'll be much healthier for the students to be out playing in the dirt. And let’s you and I also go outside and plant some seeds by using our hands to dig into God’s earth. Go ahead. Get dirty. It’ll be good for what ails you!

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Stations Of Our Life...

Dear Friends,

In Jerusalem they call it the via Delorosa (The Way of Sorrows), and in the 16th century, the church established devotional stations at various points to depict the events in the last hours of Jesus’ life as He carried the cross to the hill at Calvary. For those unable to travel to the Holy Land, churches later created what they call the Stations of the Cross using paintings, plaques and sculptures. Nearly all Catholic churches have the Stations of the Cross and many of our California Missions have gardens where the Stations are depicted. But every Lent I walk the Stations at Saint Andrews Abbey. 

Here in the high desert, the fourteen Stations are not artistically arranged along a garden path but are scattered up a steep, rocky hill. There are no carefully tended flower beds. Wild sage and scrub brush dot the hillside. The sculptures are not carved by artists but are handmade and hammered together by the monks. Most Stations of the Cross in church and mission gardens have comfortable benches on which to sit, pray and meditate. In front of the Stations at the monastery, there is a flat rock to kneel on. On this steep rocky slope it can be snowy and bitter cold, windy or suffocatingly hot. It is always still. Always silent.

My Protestant problem with the fourteen Stations is that only seven of them are biblical and the other seven are based on the tradition of the Catholic Church. It's difficult for me to know what to do with the Station where “Veronica Wipes The Face Of Jesus” when I know that's not mentioned in any scripture. As I walk the Stations, I typically hurry past that one, the ones showing Jesus falling and those others that are church tradition but have no biblical foundation.

But something different is happening this Lent. The Stations are intended to foster thoughts, prayers and meditations as the images evoke a visceral connection with the suffering of our Lord. But today I'm experiencing a different response to these images. My thoughts are drawn to my own life experiences. And now I find that even the non-biblical “traditional” Stations have meaning for me.

Veronica’s compassion reminds me of the year when my family fell apart, my father died and God sent someone to take my hand and walk with me through life. The three Stations that depict Jesus falling remind me of all the times that I've stumbled and "fallen" in my life and God would once again reach down and set me on my feet. These memories are my own “stations.” Our life stations are the snapshots of our past and, merged together, paint a portrait of our life and God's mercy and grace. No matter what the worst of our stations look like, God was there.

What are the stations of your life? Do your images depict the loss of a spouse or a child? A betrayal by a friend or loved one? Is there a station where God sent a “Veronica” to dry your tears in a time of hardship or grief? Was there a time when the burden was so heavy you couldn't bear to take another step with it and a “Simon” showed up unexpectedly to shoulder your “cross?”

My eyes have been opened and the suffering of Jesus Christ now transcends theology and has become more real to me than ever before. And, now I'm at the Station where Jesus is nailed to the cross. I’m overwhelmed with the realization that the worst things I have suffered in my life are nothing compared with the suffering that Jesus willingly took on for my sake. It was not the whip that caused my Lord and Savior the most pain. It was my sins.

I've been moving from Station to Station deep in reflective thought. Today, the trail seems so much narrower and steeper than it's been before. My feet slide and twist in the loose rocks. Sharp thorns from the Mesquite tear at my skin as I pass by. The desert environment is harsh and challenging, and I find that as I struggle along this steep rocky trail, it becomes the perfect metaphor for my life. And then I look up. At the highest point on this rocky hill – so much like the hill at Calvary – I see the broken body of Jesus hanging on the cross. 

Our journeys are different. Our life “stations” are different. But at some point, each one of us must raise our eyes from our own sorrows and look up. To see Jesus. Up there on the cross. For you.

Watch Video of Saint Andrews Abbey

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The Stations of the Cross

On Good Friday in 1991, Pope John Paul II displeased some Catholics and delighted many Protestants by initiating a new biblically-based Stations of the Cross. While nearly all churches retain the beloved traditional version, Pope Benedict approved the new Biblical version for meditation and public celebration by Catholics in 2007. 

As Protestant believers, we might consider now taking, what has been a Catholic-only tradition, and incorporating the Biblical version of the Stations of the Cross into our own Good Friday devotions.

Pastor John
Traditional VersionBiblical Version
1. Jesus on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39-46)
2. Jesus, betrayed by Judas, is arrested (Luke 22:47-48)
3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71)
4. Peter denies Jesus (Luke 22:54-62)
1. Jesus is condemned to death5. Jesus is judged by Pilate (Luke 23:13-25)
6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns (Luke 22:63-65; John 19:2-3)
2. Jesus takes up his cross7. Jesus takes up the cross (Mark 15:20)
3. Jesus falls for the first time
4. Jesus meets his mother
5. Jesus is helped by Simon the Cyrene to carry his cross8. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry his cross (Luke 23:26)
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
7. Jesus falls for the second time
8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-31)
9. Jesus falls for the third time
10. Jesus is stripped of his garments
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross10. Jesus is crucified (Luke 23:33, 47)
11. Jesus promises his Kingdom to the good thief (Luke 23:33-34, 39-43)
12. Jesus on the cross, his mother and his disciple (John 19:25-27)
12. Jesus dies on the cross13. Jesus dies on the cross (Luke 23:44-46)
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross and given to his mother
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb14. Jesus is placed in the tomb (Luke 23:50-54)

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Sure Glad I'm Not A Sinner Like Will Smith!

Dear Friends,

You didn’t have to watch this year’s Academy Award show to know what happened. We’ve seen the shocking video, the photo and heard about it now for over a week. Unless you’ve given up all media for Lent, you know that one of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities, Will Smith, stormed the stage during the live broadcast and slugged another celebrity with his open hand after a joke about Smith’s wife. 

Comments and criticisms from celebrities and the media came quickly. Some justified and excused Smith saying that the violence was a normal, natural response from a Black man defending his wife’s honor. An African American reverend who is the founder of the highly liberal New Democracy Coalition told a television news reporter that he hoped the attack, “..will become a teachable moment where we can highlight the reality of black-on-black crime.” A handful of well-known White and Black pastors gave their opinions on Will Smith and his faith and the Christian media highlighted an interview that Smith gave last year. He said that he was a man of faith who loves the Lord and said that his success in life was the result of his faith. He said, “You can’t get where I get if you don’t love the Lord; you don’t get to sit how I sit; move how I move if you don’t love the Lord.” He went on to talk about the power of faith that had been instilled in him by his religious grandmother. 

After the Academy Award attack, Smith received a Best Actor award and his first words were, “I am overwhelmed by what God is calling me to do and be in this world.” He talked about how the character he played had protected his family and how God is calling him to do the same. He said that he wants to be a “vessel for love” and to be “an ambassador of that kind of love and care and concern.”

My initial thoughts were that Smith’s inferring that his uncontrolled moment of violent rage was justified because of God’s calling for him to be a protector, and then characterizing himself as a vessel and ambassador of love, care and concern right after assaulting another person was perhaps not the best witness of our Christian faith to 10.5 million viewers. But to be honest, it’s pretty easy for me to be judgmental about the faith and behavior of others. That brings us right around to the problem of Lent. A time of humble, self-reflection and a close look at our own walk with the Lord. A time of inspecting the “fruit” of our own lives. An honest, perhaps even painful, examen of our faith.

So many of us obsess about our outward appearance and so few look inside to see our gracelessness and sin. We all can instantly spot the most minor of blemishes in another person’s walk with the Lord and have such a difficulty seeing and acknowledging the spiritual deformities in our own disordered life. Digging in to uncover one’s own sin – one’s own hypocrisy – is just too painful. So much easier to make Lent about giving up candy, preparing for a visitation from the Easter Bunny and planning the Easter Sunday family dinner.

The reason that Lent is a long forty days is that the journey through truth and awareness is not a stroll on the beach, but a struggle through the brambles and thorns of the wilderness. Yet, as we stumble along, we find that the Holy Spirit is helping us navigate this difficult journey and then, as it suddenly comes to an end on Good Friday, we find ourselves looking up at the cross where we find redemption and salvation. Lent would be a liturgical farce if we were not the sinful creatures that we are – that’s why we need it. We are in constant need of rescuing, repentance and redemption. As Paul so famously said, “I don’t do the good I want to do and the evil that I don’t want to do is what I do.” Romans 7:19 

I can’t cast stones of judgement at Will Smith because I’ve spent so many decades as a Christian “slapping” people whom God has brought into my life. I’ve never physically slapped anyone but there are so many ways we slap down others and never lift a hand. We hit out in anger, frustration or impatience with sharp, unkind words or actions that may cause an even deeper injury than a physical slap. 

I once counseled a woman at church that I’ll never forget. She was in an extremely abusive relationship and told me one time that she’d rather her husband beat her than for her to hear the hurtful things he say. Surprised at this, I asked why that was and she said that the bruises and broken bones that he had given her had always healed, but the names he called her and the cruel things he said to her, were the permanent injuries that never healed.

When we self-reflect, the hard truth seldom brings joy and comfort. But the very purpose of Lent is to create a healthy hatred of our own sins and a passion for repentance. We then drop to our knees and thank God for His forgiveness. Here’s how it works. We self-reflect and God opens our eyes to see our sins. We feel a sense of conviction of our wrongdoing and that brings repentance, confession and God’s forgiveness. Our hearts are filled with gratitude to God for His grace which then transforms us into a Christian ambassador of God’s love, caring and concern for others. 

I’d suspect that Will Smith has figured out by now that God did not have a call on his life to deliver a celebrity smack-down in honor of his wife, but to show others a Christ-like love. Lent prepares us to be a true Christian ambassador that ushers others into His Kingdom and helps them to grow in the Lord. You, me, Will Smith. We all need Lent...