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Pastors Blog

The Hawk

The white-breasted hawk, alone, was watching from a misshapen, leaning tree in a scrap of woods – collateral damage from the construction of highway 172.  Above the hawk’s black watchtower tree, truck tires howled at the purple twilight.  The hawk, alone, hungry, hunting, was scanning the snow with eyes capable of perception at the infrared end of the light spectrum.  I saw the hawk for a second while I was speeding by in a warm car on the way to a meal of my own.

In winter, hawks are apparently more solitary than in spring, when it’s time to hunt up one’s lifetime mate and enjoy their annual, acrobatic mating, when it’s time for them to repair the family nest and defend the eggs, when it’s time to take turns feeding the children and protect them on their first few flights.

I’ve never seen hawks hunting as a team, though apparently they occasionally do.  Just after Christmas in a walk through the Navarino Wildlife Refuge, I did see the limbs of a rabbit hanging in the arms of trees, though I’m not sure if they were generously left to be gleaned or if they were like items squirreled away in the workplace refrigerator.

Cooperative and territorial instincts do drive parts of a hawk’s life:  so I imagine they’re also a part of a hawk’s hunting strategy.  Hawks return to the same nest each year; they must have certain hunting venues in mind as well, switching venues based on … what?  A regular rotation?  A recollection of success in a certain spot at a certain time of day?  One wonders how hawks order their hours.

In the city, in the birches and cedars behind Grace’s dumpsters, in the dumpsters, on the walnut-strewn lawn, five or six squirrels romp year round in a land of plenty.  They’re lucky a hawk hasn’t spied them and stalked them.  Yet.  Once in Madison, I did see a hawk snatch a squirrel who’d been enjoying crumbs tossed to him by diners at a sidewalk café serving strictly vegetarian fare.  The clientele who had vowed to refrain from violence in their own eating regimen were shocked and appalled.  Their misplaced largess in feeding the squirrel led perhaps to his unwariness and untimely public devouring.

In the woods, it’s a different matter.  In the wild, I’ve seen a million rabbit and rodent tracks to each actual animal. I’ve seen tiny tracks of mice across a snowy trail and the tiny holes of tunnels into the banks of snow on either side.  So a hawk must sit, dressed in down, and wait and watch.  For hours.  What patience.  I thought patience was a characteristic only of love.

Maybe at twilight or even at night, hawks can see with their infrared vision the glow of warm-blooded creatures creeping through their tunnels of snow, creeping toward the mouths of the tunnels, where hawks snatch them away, bearing them away toward the heavens, their bodies given and blood spattered for a hungry species that naturally cooperates only intermittently, and only primarily for the survival of their own.

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Monday, February 12, 2018

The Traitor

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a 19 million acre wilderness in northeastern Alaska.  It includes several different ecosystems: coastal islands and marshes, tundra, mountains, and forest.  Many animals and birds migrate to and through the refuge for food and for breeding.  Arctic ecosystems are extremely fragile for lots of reasons:  the soil is often poor because there are few creatures there to return dead plants and animals to the soil to nourish the soil.  The poor soil and short growing season also means the kinds of plants that grow in the Arctic are small and slow to regrow in areas where they have been damaged.  There are fewer species in Arctic ecosystems than in other kinds of ecosystems because of the harsh conditions, which means that each species has an extremely important role to play in maintaining the delicate balance in the ecosystem. 

This is a tiny summary of what I learned in a fascinating book I read several years ago: Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams.  That I remember these details from a book I read so long ago indicates the impression it made upon me. 

In the recent tax bill, Congress and the President approved the sale of two leases in the next decade for oil drilling in the ANWR, a decision I wasn’t aware was buried in the tax bill, a decision for the reasons cited above (and others) I disagree with, a decision that, as a good citizen, I should be vigorously protesting by writing to my congressional representatives … though I have not done so, yet.

Something our President said in a speech in Ohio yesterday indicates his true feelings on voicing our disagreements: he complained that Democrats didn’t applaud during his State of the Union address and concluded that they must not love America and that they, therefore, must be traitors.

Since I disagree with almost everything the President has said and done as a candidate and as President for the last two years, I must also be a traitor.

So be it.

·         I don’t think, as is being considered, that the Government should authorize tips earned by servers to be taken away from them and redistributed to other people.

·         I don’t think a plan for DACA recipients should be tied to a plan to have our tax dollars pay for “a wall” that the President promised that the Mexican Government would pay for.  If a plan for DACA recipients is a good thing, it should simply be done.

·         I don’t think that it’s just that the recent tax plan benefits wealthiest Americans more than poor and middle income Americans.

·         I don’t think that it’s just that the recent tax plan takes away the small tax benefit teachers used to have for buying supplies for their work.  

·         I don’t think it’s wise to encourage fossil fuel industries to drill for more oil anywhere, because I think scientists are correct that the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to climate change that is melting the polar ice cap and glaciers all around the world and that is melting the permafrost in Arctic regions.  Polar bears rely on the polar ice cap for their migratory feeding behaviors. Urban populations rely on water from glaciers.  Adding fresh water to the oceans is killing reefs.  Melting permafrost will increase the amount of carbon dioxide and methane (!) in our atmosphere.

I think it’s absolutely fine to debate and disagree on these issues.  It’s a free country.  I hope that when I do figure out how to find time to write more letters to my Congressional representatives, that my disagreements are considered and welcomed and do not lead to worse things than being called Little Lying Larry the Traitor.

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Vermillion Flycatcher

"Did you see the Vermillion Flycatcher?"

The question flew out of one of the white pickups patrolling the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge (west of our conference center in Florida) that pulled up beside me as I was leaving the refuge.  I peered into the truck to check out my interlocutors: two seventy-something Rangers smartly uniformed in Boy Scout khakis.  They were pretty giddy about this flycatcher and seemed disappointed in me that I didn't immediately make an about face and head back to see this celebrity flycatcher.  I was a little disappointed, too, but I did need to get back to the conference center in time for dinner.  It sounded like I was missing a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Which, as it turns out, I wasn't.  Vermillion Flycatchers, though decreasing in numbers, are not an endangered species nor are they even threatened.  They're just uncommonly pretty, the males especially are colored like Scarlet Tanagers: scarlet bodies, black wings.

As I thought about it driving back to dinner, I probably did see the Vermillion Flycatchers: a photographer was rooted to a spot near a tree-full of tiny flittering birds at the intersection of trails to which the Rangers had directed me.

In vain.

The reason I had run out of time was that I had been watching a small, more mundane drama not far from the famous flycatchers. In retrospect, it was a more compelling story to see than catching sight of a male bird's typically brighter feathers.  I saw the two young birds first, dark gray fluffy chicks, standing together on a tuft of grass in a swampy ditch.  I saw their mom seconds later and was quite sure immediately that I'd never seen a bird like her before: she reminded me of a sandpiper or a plover, though her beak was a bit longer and curved.  Though she was adorned in various shades of brown as female birds often are, she sported yellow speckles on her back.  She was so busy I had trouble tracking her with the camera and at times she'd disappear almost entirely, diving butt up down into the reedy swamp.  I finally caught a glimpse of her quarry: a snail which she quickly brought over to one of her children.  Near the kids she seemed to be cracking the snail against the ground though, since there really was no solid ground, she was likely just cracking the snail with her strong beak.  Then she was gently, persistently dipping her beak into the mouths of her children.  To feed them.  

Which didn't take long.  In less than a minute she was off again, hopping, half-flying through the swamp surrounding her children, coming up with another four snails for them in the fifteen minutes or so that I tried to capture a portrait of this intimate family moment as a photograph.

Which I didn't.

So I came away that day having seen the celebrities at a distance and having seen a family meal up close (I was about six feet from the chicks), but not having been able to get a single decent picture of either of them.  Except this picture in words.  Which seems destined to remain as inaccessible as what I saw.  There were only about eight other people visiting the refuge during that time.  Plus the two Rangers.  The marvelous life of God's creatures goes on without our noticing it at all.  Exasperating was the last part of my walk that afternoon ... through a small cypress swamp.  I stopped many times to scan the trees for the two or three birds in different parts of the woods conversing with each other.  Constantly, they called back and forth to each other as if mocking my feeble powers to observe their world.  Oh well: let them mock! Though I could hear them as if they were no more than thirty feet away, I never saw them.

Not sure, finally, if that's such a great thing.  "Out of sight, out of mind," so the saying goes.  Except to a couple ancient Rangers gushing about Vermillion Flycatchers like a couple of teens in love.  Except for the solitary photographer.  And the failing one.  When it comes to defunding or draining or developing or mining or otherwise destroying large tracts of wilderness like the Loxahatchee Refuge, there's not many of us to stand in the way.  Like many wildlife refuges, they seem to be vast wastelands inhabited by a few elusive creatures whose lives seem to be in no way notable.  They have no Facebook friends and they are, in fact, quite reticent to allow us to see their faces at all. "Out of sight, out of mind."  Like "the poor" or "the homeless" ... though different in one crucial respect.  

"The poor" and "the homeless" know there are a few places they can go and get help ... even if it's only enough help to keep them from starving or freezing ... and poor and the homeless people seek out that help.  But God's creatures: they're afraid of us, rightly so; they shy away from us, helping some make the case that there's no reason to preserve wilderness.  

Jesus spent some time in the wilderness.  Once there, he was even tempted by the devil.  On the occasion, the Gospel of Mark tells us Jesus was out there with the wild beasts.  Mark says no more about what Jesus and the wild beasts were doing together out there.  I like to think it was a fulfillment of the hope for the time of the reign of the Messiah as Isaiah saw it, a time when:

The wolf shall live with the lamb;

The leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.  Isaiah 11:6-9

As knowledge of the Lord grows, so will grow our true "communion with nature:" a meal for all creatures and humans alike at the table of Creation.

Pastor Larry 

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Red Mangrove Tree

One of the most powerful storms spawned in the warm Atlantic, Irma tore through the Bahama and Virgin Island chains, slashed the northern coasts of Puerto Rico and Cuba, and roared through the Florida Keys before storming up the Gulf Coast of Florida into the southern Appalachians.  Just before our continuing education time with Jim Ladoux, we spent two days in the Keys and saw some of what Irma accomplished last September.  Most of the evidence of Irma's presence has been plowed up into 10 to 20 foot high piles along the sides of the one highway that connects Florida's southern tip to the towns situated on a hundred-plus-mile string of islands scattered into the Gulf of Mexico.  The piles included a most incongruous collection of things: shredded boats, big balls of roots of downed trees, chunks of concrete, plastic chairs, mattresses.  These were all embedded in piles of light gray beach sand, waiting to be scooped up and added to the Monroe County landfill ... the only thing resembling a hill anywhere in the Keys.  We saw where all the concrete and sand had been blasted up out of the windward waters bending three-inch steel fence posts like soda straws.  A sign labeling Annie's Beach stood at the edge of the road, aquamarine shallows lapping at its foot.  Irma blew a lot of land away.

Working together, red mangrove trees are stronger than the concrete and steel structures we construct on the shifting sands of the Keys.  Red mangrove trees, like other tropical trees, sprout roots from their branches, sending them down through the air to breath the air, but also, ultimately to root themselves in the swamp or soil at the base of the tree.  Called "prop roots" they do indeed prop these trees up and attach them to the ground, even when the trees are standing in salt water.  They also help filter the salt out of the water the tree needs to drink.

More and more prop roots grow and swell so the tree begins to look like it has many trunks.  Or, making the trees look like they have many legs which is why they are often called "Walking Trees."  

This complex of roots begins to trap sediments from tides and storms like Irma and when thousands of these trees work together, they create land.  "Let dry land appear," was one of the Lord God's first commands to the waters under the newly formed firmament.  Though there were no red mangrove trees around then, they're carrying out God's command still.

More coastal barriers created by trees like red mangroves do, of course, protect human settlements.  From what I've learned over the years they are particularly important for preserving coastal lands of Louisiana, though I have also learned over the years that sustaining the high level of shipping traffic in the Gulf destroys the work that the mangroves do and leaves swamps (like the Everglades) and human settlement alike vulnerable to storms like Irma.  Some Native Americans, I think, have lost almost all of their reservation due to the impact of storms on lands unprotected by hard-working red mangrove trees.

The red mangrove's tiny yellow flowers become seeds which become miniature trees while still hanging from the branches.  When the seed-trees drop into the land, they become another tree; when they drop into the water, they float along until their roots touch sand or even some fallen foliage, and yes, another tree is born.  The shade, the organic matter collecting at the foot of the trees work together to become new land and support and shelter life:  crabs, birds, and lots of creatures lower on the food chain.  

How busy God is creating life still!

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Difference (Dr. King Made)

The following explanation of the story of the Good Samaritan comes from a speech made by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike of the local sanitation workers. 

The strike was about low pay and dangerous working conditions.  The strike was about not being allowed to join a union.  After two workers were crushed to death in defective garbage compactors, over 700 of the 1300 African-American sanitation workers met on Sunday, February 11, 1968, and agreed to strike. 

On April 3 with the strike still on, Dr. King made a speech to explain and support the idea of strikes, boycotts, and non-violent civil disobedience to try to bring attention to the plight of the sanitation workers … people who worked full time and couldn’t afford decent housing, decent meals, health care, or retirement.  Sound familiar?

A few weeks before, some strikers had broken some windows.  In his speech Dr. King warned the strikers that the news media would report these kinds of stories to distract people from the real story: the story of poor wages and working conditions, the story about how a police officer shot an unarmed 16 year old boy suspected of looting.  Sound familiar?

Dr. King’s explanation of the story of the Good Samaritan lifted up Jesus’ message about what to do when the world is a mess:

“It's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked -- the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

That's the question before you tonight.

Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?"

The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.”

The speech addresses the self-less sacrifice involved in non-violent struggle for hope and simple decency for God’s children, for justice.  Here’s how Dr. King concluded his speech:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!  And so I'm happy, tonight.  I'm not worried about anything.  I'm not fearing any man!  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

The next day, Dr. King was assassinated. 

Angry riots broke out across the country which would have grieved Dr. King deeply.  It’s certainly tragic that Dr. King’s words and work were ignored by those who participated in the riots.  That Dr. King’s words and work were ignored by those rioters doesn’t mean Dr. King’s life was in vain.  Some of the positive social change he and his supporters accomplished lives on.  That some of the ways people struggled 50 years ago sound familiar to us today, however, means we need to keep Dr. King’s words and work alive. 

February is observed as African American History Month.  Sharon Harper, a member of Divine Temple Church of God in Christ, a wonderful servant of the Lord, is sharing her exhibit on African American History at Divine Temple (425 Cherry Street) on

February 1, 2018, from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.

Parking is tough to find near Divine Temple … I’m not sure how long it’s metered, so bring some spare change.  Sharon made a great point at the service honoring Dr. King at Divine Temple yesterday.  I paraphrase. 

We can’t wait for the people in Washington to solve all our problems.  Dr. King didn’t.  He started in his church, in his neighborhood, in his city, getting people together “at the grassroots level.”  We all want the same thing … a better society for us and for our children and grandchildren.  We can make changes like Dr. King did by just starting to get to know each other, to pray together, to sing praises to God together, and to work together in our churches, in our neighborhoods, and in our city.

Sharon, the people of Divine Temple, the interfaith community that is Gathered in Faith Together … we are all inviting more and more people together to remember Dr. King’s words and work and to be blessed by the tremendous difference for good he made.  See you at Divine Temple in February!

Pastor Larry





Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Odd Bird

I’ve always wondered about the practice of counting birds.

I’ve read or seen news stories about it.

I think both private and government groups participate in this practice.

I understand the importance of the practice for monitoring the health of the creatures God has made and loves.

Jesus said God has some kind of ongoing count of birds, and that God knows when each one dies.

I know some folks at Grace who have counted birds.

I didn’t go walking yesterday afternoon through the 15,000 acre Navarino Wildlife Area to count birds.

But I did anyway.

Here was my afternoon’s work:

·        1 Chickadee (I heard two others.  Does that count?)

·        1 Junco

·        1 Crow 

Some creature left rabbit fur hanging in the branches of a sapling.  I imagine that a bird of prey had done that.  I have never seen that practice before. 

I also saw

·        1 squirrel

·        1 cross-country skier

·        2 trails to tunnels in the snow made by rodents

I’m pretty sure real bird counters are assigned specific locations and time slots. That way, I imagine, bird counts can be compared, “apples to apples,” from year to year.  There are, in fact, markers for some kind of bird counting at Navarino.  So maybe I’d have more success counting birds if I just hunkered down somewhere and waited.  A bit counterintuitive, since you’d think covering more ground would offer more opportunities to see birds.  Or not.

And I was hoping to see birds.  The first time I visited Navarino, it was 5 degrees.  The only place my daughter Katie and I saw birds was at the Nature Center building bird feeders.  There were dozens of birds of all kinds there.  I have heard that feeding birds is a good thing to do for birds, though I wonder if it suppresses their natural instinct to be on the move looking for food.  Though I haven’t much experience with it, birds, I think, do move through populated areas from feeder to feeder.  There are other factors which also keep them moving.  Predators.  Someone forgot to fill the feeder.  Etcetera.

Yesterday made me wonder more than usual where all those birds would be if there were no bird feeders out at Navarino.  There are, of course, 15,000 acres of impassable grasses and thickets at Navarino capable of sheltering thousands of birds.  As I noticed in November, it’s easy to imagine juncos moving in groups, seeking safe places to forage together.  A strong, mild wind from the south persisted yesterday which may have discouraged travel.  The only birds out yesterday were alone. 

Like humans, many birds are created to be social creatures.  A sign at Navarino impressed me with the story of the migratory patterns for eight different species of birds.  Most of those birds breed in various parts of Canada and then migrate to the southern United States or Mexico for the winter.  Under God’s rule, such freedom to migrate is necessary and natural and not managed in such a way as to break up families.

Though birds are social creatures, I learned yesterday that they do apparently venture out on their own.  I know why I did.  Why do they?  Are they exploring for new food sources?  Are they ill and have been cast out?  Have they lost their group?  Or are they just more hungry?  I imagine someone has studied this.  And God, of course, is keeping track of the odd birds.  I would love to know these kinds of things.  Which I suppose makes me an odd bird myself.

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Force (be with you)

‘Tis the season for a new Star Wars movie.

Which I saw.

Among the changes to "the brand" was one that refined a concept from the first six movies. 

That concept being “the Force.”

The Force has always been described as energy that pervades and connects all things.  In the first six movies only certain people (certain families?) were capable of learning to harness this energy source to lift spaceships out of swamps, to throw enemies across the room, to block bursts of blaster fire with a light saber.  Cool stuff.  In the new movie, the Force is recognized by and accessible to more people.

In addition, in the first six movies, the Force seemed to have the ability to consciously choose to exert itself in certain people or situations to accomplish a particular plan.  Chief among these plans was to return “balance” to the Force.  Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, for example, believed that finding Anakin was “the will of the Force,” because Anakin was the one who would “bring balance to the Force.” 

It’s to this concept of balance in the Force that the newest movie tries to bring some clarity.  When Jedi Master Luke Skywalker is teaching Jedi novice Rey about the Force, he demotes the Force from Divine Actor to merely energy forces underlying creation.  I don’t remember every illustration Luke used, but the gist is this: with the Force, you’ve got your destructive storms and your sprouting flowers.  Balance. Among human beings, you have some who use the Force for good and some who use it for evil.  Balance. 

The old idea of the Force as some kind of Divine Actor constantly struggling to stop people from using the Divine power of the Force for evil purposes is hardly an inspiring depiction of what the Divine could be up to in the world.  The Divine allows human beings to use Divine power for evil?  The Divine only wants balance?  The Divine only wants equal amounts of good and evil in the world?  That’s it?  Why wouldn’t the Force be trying to eliminate all evil?  I guess if that happened, that would be the end of the Star Wars Golden Calf.

A Divine power that is trying to eliminate all evil is more like the Judeo-Christian idea of God.  Our God doesn’t just want a balance between good and evil in our world, our God wants only good in our world. Now certainly our God could be criticized for wanting too much for humanity and delivering too little, but I’d rather have a God who was shooting for “the renewal of all things” (Matthew 19:28) than one who was happy with as many bank-robbers as food pantry volunteers.  When there’s a tie in Congress, after all, the Vice-President gets to break it.  Yes, God is slow about the renewal of all things, but as Martin Luther King has said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  That’s my God.

So I like it that Rian Johnson, the new Master of the Star Wars brand, has, at least for now, appeared to have removed any Divine pretensions from the idea of the Force and made the Force a creative power that more than just a few people can recognize and tap.  That only a few people can recognize or use the power of the Force was as depressing an idea as the idea of a Divine power that was okay with as many bad guys as good guys.  The course of history depends on a light saber duel between two guys?  What contribution do the rest of us make?  What of the value of collaborative, cooperative effort?  History doesn’t support the concept of one person changing the world at all.  As big a negative difference in the world that Hitler made, it took the cooperative, collaborative effort of probably a billion citizens to defeat him.  Not just one guy with a light saber.  The old Star Wars brand was a “rugged individualism,” Lone Ranger, it’s-all-about-me narcissism on steroids.  George Lucas, the old Master of the Star Wars brand, had explicitly claimed to have created his moral universe for the purpose of the moral formation of the young people of his generation.  I believe that our religious tradition has better resources for understanding our own place in “the arc of the moral universe”:  “To each [of us] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (First Corinthians 12:7).

And the ticket to every show is free:

·         paid for by the Creator himself, who showed up on earth in our Master, Jesus

·         against whom the prevailing powers of government and religion alike conspired,

·         but who rose from the dead,

·         unleashing the Spirit, so all people might believe in him and have a power for the common good.

May the Spirit be with you.

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Gulls

The Gulls

On the first truly cold and blustery day this winter, the gulls were swimming together in a huge flotilla near the railroad bridge over the Fox River.  Of all places to be on that day: bobbing in a river exposed to blasts of wind ripping spray off whitecaps.  How could that be the warmest and driest place a gull could think of on the first miserable day of winter?  Maybe gulls don’t think.  Maybe gulls don't need to be warm and dry.  Maybe they're warm, even if they're not dry.  Maybe they don’t get wet.  Maybe it was unsafe to fly.  There wasn’t a discernable source of warm water spewing out of the paper mill.  But maybe that was it.  I couldn't find any information about gulls that would explain this strange sight.

Not many days later the gulls were back near that place, but high up in the sky flying and gliding in a fairly tight circle as if dozens of them were caught in the eye of a hurricane.  I did read something about gulls flying in circles around fishing boats waiting to snatch whatever part of the catch the fishers didn’t want.  Maybe there was a food source in both instances I just couldn't see.  On neither occasion did I have time to stop and observe more.

I was thinking about gulls yesterday before I left on a walk, but I had no expectation that I'd see them.  Just south of the 172 bridge on the Fox River Trail, the shore bulges out a bit into the river away from the trail.  I like to follow animal trails through the red-branched thickets there.  The sun, the size of the moon when the moon reaches a bit above the tallest trees, shone weakly and with a moon’s warmth through thinning gray clouds.  A few gulls flew across the face of the sun.  Then a few more joined them, sweeping by them into a circle.  More joined the circle – maybe as many as thirty – and a smaller whirlwind of gulls than I had seen before had suddenly formed.  The whirlwind drifted further east from the river and unwound itself just as suddenly as it had appeared.  At its peak, I heard the calls of only a few gulls.

As I walked home, pairs or trios of gulls or single gulls, all silent, flew north above the trail with what appeared to be urgent determination, as if they were late for a meeting.  They’d meet a gull or two headed south, but none of the southbound gulls turned to spin into a spiral of gulls as they had before.  There were no greeting cries, just silent gulls, white ones and an occasional dark gray one disappearing into the gray haze of the oncoming snow shower.  As if they were all intent upon their own business.

Gulls do meet, often at the same place every year, to mate and raise a new brood, the males dedicated to feeding the females, so the females can form the new generation in their wombs.  Gulls often mate for life.  Mother and father gulls stake out a territory around their nests and take turns raising their young and finding food for the family.  Maybe that’s what the wheeling spirals of gulls in the sky are all about … a sign in the heavens that there’s food below for all. 

It’s easy to wax poetic about the cooperative social tendencies of gulls: mating for life, fathers as invested in the raising of children as mothers, working together to provide food for all. 

The London Evening Standard tells another story.  In 2002, an 80 year old man washing gull poop off their nesting area was attacked by gulls and fell off the concrete wall he was standing on and died.  That year the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals received 1700 angry phone calls about gulls attacking people.  With animals and birds, as Scar in The Lion King says, it does all end in violence when it comes to defending one’s social order.  It’s us or them.  Humans, I believe, were created to establish cooperative social orders as admirable as gulls, but created in the image of God, we can do better, as well.

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Small Forest of Allouez

Between Oakwood Avenue and Brenner Place in Allouez is a small forest.  The backyards of homes on Brenner and Oakwood run into this forest which climbs the hill rising from Brenner.  Though I long to explore it, I have never been in this forest.  I think I can see a trailhead at the end of Brenner, but the owner of the home lets two nasty sounding dogs run loose in the yard.  If I had grown up near that forest, I would have gone wandering in it.  Now, as an adult, I worry about who owns the forest and who owns the trailhead and whether some suspicious homeowner would call the police.  And I wouldn’t blame someone for calling the police for seeing a strange man lurking in the woods behind their home.  If I could settle the question of who owns that forest, I might even approach the owner for permission to enter it.


For some people, the ownership of any part of Creation was something quite incomprehensible:

“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?  The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?” 

These questions about the ownership of land are found in a letter written by Chief Sealth (Seattle) to President Franklin Pierce in 1854 in response to Pierce’s offer to buy two million acres of land from Chief Seattle’s tribe.  Chief Seattle was pretty sure “ownership” wasn’t a concept to be applied to Creation.  Chief Seattle believed that the Creator had made a home specifically suitable for him and his people to enjoy together freely.  How could you sell a gift from God?  How could you sell a home built specifically for you by God?  Especially if you had no other home to go to, no other home you loved so gratefully.  The confusion, frustration, and anger that European Americans caused among Native Americans with their attempts to buy their land obviously ended badly.

Chief Seattle might have liked this passage from the scriptures: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24).  To be sure, the people of Israel believed a portion of the land of Canaan had been promised and entrusted to them by God for their use, despite the fact that other people were already living there.  But the scriptures also reminded the people of Israel that the land they lived in was a gift from God to be shared equally by all the people of Israel and that God had certain expectations for the people of Israel about how to treat each other (i.e. the “Ten Commandments”) and “resident aliens”:


“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 19:34

God even wanted the land (Leviticus 25) and domesticated animals (Exodus 20) to enjoy a Sabbath.  The scripture witnesses to God’s anger that his people failed in their management of the land he had given them; Isaiah believed God had “delivered them into the hand of their iniquity” (Isaiah 64:7) and allowed them to become refugees for a time in the land of Babylon.


All of which is to say that according to the bible continued “land ownership” depends upon the “owners” living according to the will of God that defines relationships between people, between people and animals, and between people and Creation.

There is, however, a growing movement to return the management of Creation to the same kinds of people who poured PCBs into the Fox River and lit Lake Erie on fire.  And loving “resident aliens” among us as much as we love ourselves is hardly the law of our land.   And neither the government nor the captains of industry are doing anything for citizens these days that can be described as “equitable.”  The ownership of everything is falling into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

I don’t know what will happen to the Small Forest of Allouez.  I’m not sure who owns it.  If there is a single owner, maybe he or she will “subdivide it” and have its oaks sold and sawn into boards and “developed.”  Or maybe all the property owners around it own a little piece of it which prevents any one of them from destroying the whole thing.   That’s close to the principle that Chief Seattle had in mind.  And maybe the children living around the forest are free to go a wandering in it for that reason.  

So as much as I’d like to get to know the Small Forest of Allouez, I’ll stay out of it.  I’ll continue to enjoy other parts of Creation which, as national parks or county forests, it’s clear that we all own, hoping that that principle continues to be remembered and respected.

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Red Oak among the White Pines

Deep in the Oconto County Forest, a middle-aged red oak grows alone in a stand of orderly rows of white pines.  Having been planted about 30 - 35 years ago, the part of the Oconto County Forest through which I have been walking for the last month or so is in various stages of use.  Some of the forest has been clear cut in the last five years or so.  Some of it has been clear cut about 25 years ago: a mix of first growth species … birches, poplars, pines … of all the same relative age (I counted rings) attest to that harvest a quarter of a century ago.  Some of the forest, down deep in the canyon carved by a once powerful glacial drainage river, some white pines at least a century old tower over a crowd of swamp-seeking cedars.  And some of the forest belies its human engineering:  rows and rows of pines, red or white, march up slopes and along trails and ridges, the forest floor in these places thick with tan needles, a beech rising up here and there, reaching out to snatch any ray of sun the pines allow down.  In one of these sections of the forest, a middle-aged oak grows.  It’s a bit older than its fellows, its trunk a bit thicker, its gnarled black arms making it stand out as if it were a menacing creature lurking among the perfectly straight, reddish-brown trunks of the white pines.  I hadn’t noticed it on my previous trips.  Once I saw it today, I became aware of a few other oaks growing in the same circumstances, and I noticed that in this particular forest, it has been a practice to leave oaks standing where all the pines had been cleared away.  At first I thought the squirrel had planted it at the same time the humans had planted their forest, and maybe the squirrel had planted it, but I’m pretty sure it was the humans who had spared it.  Not sure why.  Maybe to kill it one day when it’s older and more valuable.  For now it grows among its pine friends.  The red oak the forest managers left behind is one of the few good things the humans have left behind in the forest.  Along the trail on a ridge above the Brehmer Creek “canyon,” people have abandoned a series of piles of garbage.  Today, I had planned to pick up the trash, and I packed out about 30 pounds of recyclables and refuse.  One black dress shoe.  One camo glove.  One blue terry towel.  Dozens of empty water bottles, their covers meticulously screwed on.  Fewer empty soda cans and only a few beer cans.  Black plastic trays from McDonald’s meals.  A stack of red party cups.  Nine disposable razors.  Several empty cans of soup partly filled with forest loam.  These piles of trash looked more like the kinds of things a homeless person or a runaway teen would have left behind more than it looked like they were evidence of under-age drinking parties.  Runaway teens or homeless people in the middle of a county forest?  Could be.  I find a lot of unwanted things there.  A mound of carpet.  A TV set, its screen smashed.  Smashed pumpkins.  A cooler in the creek.  Carcasses of a couple deer.  Harvested illegally and left?  Bloody rib cages, white with fat.  Thin legs hacked off, fur and hooves.  No heads.  No sign of scavengers.  No turkey vultures, crows, eagles, bears, coyotes … no one had disturbed any of the humans had left behind.   As if these kinds of animals wanted me to see the desecration my species had perpetrated on their home.  They’re preaching to the choir.  I’ll make another trip to get the rest of the trash.  The corpses I cannot carry alone.

Pastor Larry


Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, November 28, 2017