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Pastors Blog

The Juncos

The juncos are back.

Because our garage is now gone, I’ve been able to see our entire backyard without going outside, and last week there were the juncos out there, hopping around, looking for something to eat in a place that no bird has been for … like … all fall and summer!  I don’t know what they were finding, but they seemed very happy, very intent.  They eat bugs of all kinds, but also berries and seeds.  I haven’t seen them since, so maybe they ate everything in sight.  Or maybe they just ate their daily bread as part of a trip further south.

I know more juncos will show up.  They always do.  Maybe it will be a different flock.  Or maybe it will be the same flock doing the rounds in my neighborhood.  It would be interesting to know which.  How little we know of their lives.  Why is that?

Where were the juncos all summer?

Up north, way up north, according to Audubon.org, some flying all the way up to Hudson Bay to breed in the summer.  Apparently the juncos grow up fast, fast enough that, in their first year, they’re able to fly from Hudson Bay all the way back to the USA.   I wonder how many trips they make like that in their lives?  How little we know of their lives.  Why is that?

Juncos are part of a family called New World Sparrows.  So they’re sparrows of some kind.  Which, despite how common sparrows are, makes them very special since Jesus talked about them. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”

According to Jesus, God knows all about every junco … where each of them flies for the summer, how far each of them migrates south in the winter, whether the ones who were hopping around in my yard last week are here to stay or are just on their way, how long they live.  And our Father in heaven doesn’t just know about juncos.  God knows about every sparrow, every robin, every owl, every marmot, every elephant, every tiger. 

That’s a lot to keep track of.  “Even the hairs of your head are all counted!” Jesus says.  His point?  Our Father in heaven is keeping track of us all … all creatures and all human beings.  God knows all our good thoughts and all the good things we do.  And yes, God knows all the rest.   But it’s not for the purpose of our embarrassment that God knows everything about us and all creatures.  It’s not to scare the hell out of us.  According to Jesus, God uses his amazing omniscience for the purpose of his amazing grace, not to inspire our fear, but to calm it.  “So do not be afraid,” says Jesus, “because you are of more value than many sparrows.”  God sees everyone, knows everyone, every human being and every creature, because he loves us all.  Those whom God loves – every human being and every creature – are they not also worthy of our own love?

Pastor Larry Lange

Posted by Larry Lange on Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The (Luther) Rose

The Turkish Sultan was threatening to invade Europe.  The “Holy Roman Emperor” was trying to make peace between Lutherans and Catholics, so together they could make war on the invaders.  Martin Luther was officially “banned” by the Emperor and could not attend the discussions between the Lutherans and Catholics being held in Augsburg in 1530.  The little world of Europe was in an uproar because of Luther’s Reformation.

While Luther was staying with John Frederick of Saxony, John commissioned an official seal for Luther, a version of which was presented to Luther for his review.  Luther wrote a letter (quoted below) to the artist, Lazarus Spengler, to explain what he had in mind.  The result was a design upon which many versions of the Luther Rose is based.  Luther’s plan for the Rose was to help remind people of the basic ideas of the Reformation.

“The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so I’m reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us.  Although it’s a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. The cross does not corrupt nature; it does not kill but keeps alive.”

Luther says some weird stuff about the cross, that it “mortifies” and should “cause us pain.”  How should the cross “mortify” or “cause us pain?”  By reminding us of what Jesus had to go through to establish the Kingdom of the Gospel?  I think so.  Does the cross do that for you?  Are you grateful for Jesus’ life?  If not, why not?

This mortification and pain should not become obsessive: I think that’s what Luther meant that the cross should not “corrupt” our nature or “kill.”  In Luther’s day, people were scared to death of God by their sins; they were pretty sure they were going to purgatory for a long time after they died to be tortured for their sins.  In his younger years, Luther himself had been obsessed with his own failings and tried everything to shape himself up.  In vain.  We can’t shape our Selves up.  We’re already loved by God.  This is the Gospel of the Kingdom.  When Luther finally understood the Gospel, he was freed from his fear of sin and death and began living believing that he was already loved by God, even if he had failed and wasn’t quite perfect yet.  He lived grateful to God, relying on the grace of God.  Hence the black cross, but in a healthy, happy red heart!

“Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives.”

When you believe you’re part of the Gospel Kingdom of God, it’s like you’ve been invited to live inside a beautiful, fragrant white rose.  Which, in case you have trouble imagining what it would be like to live inside a flower, is apparently a happy place.  The little world of Europe in Luther’s day was not a happy place.  Still, Luther had a happy place.  He lived in the White Rose.  Not sure what you think happiness is or what you’re trying to do to achieve it.  For Luther, happiness is given to us as a gift; happiness is born of God’s love for us.  Does God’s love for you make you happy?  Why or why not?

 

“Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed.”

You’re already saved.  That’s done.  If Jesus forgave those who actually crucified him, certainly he can forgive us when we abandon him in other ways.  Our trust and hope in that love of God expressed by Jesus on the cross can stir up a joy in us that begins now, not just in heaven.  “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:26) Jesus isn’t just up in heaven.  He’s with us here until the end of all the ages.  He’s with us whenever two or three of us are gathered in his name.  He’s with us at his table.  I hope you have and tell some stories about your time with Jesus.  People need to know how Jesus and his salvation is real.

“And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal.”

The “one ring to rule them all” is the blessedness of the everlasting life that is the gift from the Gospel Kingdom of God that begins now and never ends. Each simple part of the (Luther) Rose reminds us of these joyful truths.

Pastor Larry Lange

 

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Sunflower

The Sunflower

On the corner of Chicago and Monroe in downtown Green Bay, Showy Sunflowers are beginning to take over the City.

When the City re-paved Monroe Street, the corner sidewalk and curbing was replaced there and at several other intersections.  In the tiny gap between the new curb and the sidewalk, a line of four Showy Sunflowers sprouted and grew to about three feet, each of them exploding with several stems of sunflowers.  On the other side of the new sidewalk where the electrical equipment for the new stoplights and streetlights is housed, another curb rises up to protect the electronics, but the Showy Sunflowers have burst up out of the gravel in front of the electrical housings as well, a curving four foot high hedge of six or eight sunflowers, each sporting four or five flowers as big as tea saucers.  Behind the electronic equipment, a jungle of sunflowers is burgeoning out of in the narrow strip of dirt surrounding the house there –  a lovely, green and gold wall of them.  They all wave in unison, buffeted by the rushing traffic. 

In Jesus’ story about the weeds and the wheat, the slaves ask the Master where all the weeds among the wheat came from.  The Master replies with inscrutable certainty, “An enemy has done this.”

Who has sown seeds in the seams between the gleaming cement of the City’s new sidewalks and curbs prompting this unseemly riot of flowers?

I’m tempted to say, “A squirrel has done this.”

And squirrels and rodents may have indeed played a part.  But it’s also about the birds and the bees.  Since the amorous activities of flowers, unlike that of cicadas and crickets, is not aroused by singing, flowers must depend upon the wiles of their gorgeous blossoms which, I noticed as I walked by, were beds for many a bee who flew drunkenly with ecstasy from lover to lover, profligately pollenating the flowers, filling the flower heads with seeds.  Seeds impregnated the Earth for this year’s profusion of flowers. 

But unless there were sunflowers nearby, birds may have lent a wing.  They are known to transport seeds in their beaks to store them.  Whoever was responsible for the Showy Sunflowers on Chicago and Monroe, it may have taken only one seed, because of a secret procreative power of the Showy Sunflower.

When a Showy Sunflower takes root, its roots called rhizomes spread in the Earth, under the gravel, under the cement, launching shoot after shoot which soar to the surface seeking the sun, seeking to establish another sunflower and another root system with rhizomes to run some more. 

So it may have been only one seed that accounts for the uprising of sunflowers that are causing this wanton destruction of public property, that are taking over this corner of the City!   The Showy Sunflower seed may not be the smallest of seeds and may not grow into the largest of shrubs, but its rhizomes ensure that, left unattended, the entire corner of Chicago and Monroe would be overrun by sunflowers and other wonderful weeds and birds and bees and squirrels who would plant trees whose roots would heave and cleave those sidewalks to cracks and crumbles.

Oh, I suppose it’s nice to have sound streets and safe sidewalks and lovely lighting.  (Though for some perverse and absurd reason our State wants to pay for roads by heaping more taxes on people who buy environmentally responsible cars.)  But I can’t help but cheer on the Showy Sunflowers as soldiers in God’s struggle against our ugly war on his planet: planting 20 million square foot factories without regard for wetlands, smothering the face of the Earth with brimstone parking lots, manure, pesticides, fungicides, and phosphorus rich fertilizers which end up growing toxic sludge in our water.  Oh yes, all these chemicals are signs of industry which create jobs.  And we need to create jobs so desperately that we make deals with foreign firms that include billions of dollars of tax breaks and subsidies.

Except employers in our State are clamoring for employees to fill jobs that are already open.

So maybe we should be investing instead in an educational and health care system that helps children who can’t grow up out of tiny cracks between sidewalks and curbs, but who need more nourishment, more care than a sunflower.   Which can grow even on a City street corner.

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Cricket

I was putting some porcelain bowls away the other day and happened to clink two of them together, making an almost ringing “bing.”  I’d been thinking for weeks about crickets who, like the cicadas, have been singing persistently most evenings.  I’d been thinking of a way to describe the song of the crickets and had found it distressingly difficult.  Until I clinked the porcelain bowls together. 

The male cricket makes his bright, chirping sound by scraping his wing covers together; there’s apparently a toothed ridge on the underside of his wing covers that causes the cricket song’s drawn-out, ringing chirp … kind of like the sound of dragging your fingernail down the teeth of a hard plastic, or better, metal comb.  Though I’ve never touched the underside of a cricket’s wing covers, I know the cricket’s exoskeleton and legs have the consistency of over-baked chicken, but more fragile.  Which is why I can’t imagine how cricket flesh has the resonant qualities of kiln-fired clay.  And such a loud, ringing sound, too.  Like it’s amplified, the singing exploding with electricity.

About ten years ago, a fellow recorded cricketsong over a recording of crickets whose singing was slowed down electronically.  The result of this artificial manipulation of cricketsong?  The crickets sound like an electronic keyboard turned to the “choir” setting.  It’s an interesting sound; it apparently caused quite a cyber stir; people have gushed about how it sounds like the voice of angels, the voice even of God.

How these hysterical commentators know what angel choirs sound like is potentially far more interesting than the fact that someone has managed to make cricketsong sound like a choir.  I imagine you can manipulate a lot of sounds and get interesting affects.  Whatever.  I want to know how someone managed to catch the angels at song! 

Sorry.  I think someone imagined what angels sound like when they sing, then trumpeted it as a “fact” by assigning it to the slowed down sound of cricketsong.  Real fake news, as it were. 

Crickets are not angels.  The mystery is how scraping over-baked chicken flesh rings as loud and bright as it does on a lovely summer night.  This mystery, this miracle almost, is appropriately mated with the true purpose of cricketsong: like the cicadas, crickets sing for sex.  Which is not a vile temptation of our evil flesh.  Which can be, in the context of life-long love, a joy, a mystery, a miracle of another kind.

Angels?  Their song is probably sublime.  God created them to sing for him, after all.  So they’re probably pretty good.  Soli Deo Gloria!  I read somewhere that God created angels without sexual features and functions.  For true mysteries and miracles?  They’re right here on earth.  Just listen to the cricket.

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Monday, September 25, 2017

The Ginkgo Tree

Ginkgo trees can live for 3000 years.

They grow in a variety of soils and conditions, though they’re not fans of hot and dry climates.  Their versatility and hardiness may have made them ideal candidates for planting in cities like downtown Green Bay, on Moravian Street.

Walking along Moravian Street one day last week, I was surprised to see a fairly large scattering of the ginkgo’s fan-shaped leaves in the grass.  The leaves were green and freshly dropped.  When I see fresh leaves trees on the ground I wonder if a tree is fighting an illness.  I looked up.  As I examined the tree, I was reminded of its unusual foliage pattern: there seems like a very limited number of fairly straight main branches, spaced orderly.  Rather than a tangle of twigs, the main branches seem to sprout clusters of leaves and leaves even grow right out of the main branches.

The leaves are not marred by wilt or galls or blotches or bites.  The tree appears to be in perfect health.

As I head to church I notice each of the ginkgo trees along Moravian Street has scatterings of fresh leaves at its base, and then, over the fitful breeze, I hear a rustle in one of the trees. 

Creatures who visit trees do so partly, I think, because they’re able to conceal themselves while they sing or search for food.  I’ve walked many an hour in the woods, and I have stopped to try to catch a glimpse of a singing bird, but I don’t think I ever have.  Oh, if some noisy blue jays are chasing from tree to tree, they’re easy to see.  Or crows.  Crows are fun to watch when they’re in a gathering mood.  In fall, bare trees once crowned with living leaves can be alive with calling crows.  I’ve never had the time to stop in the woods to see, at the end of the day, for what purpose crows gather in such numbers.  But never a song bird have I seen singing from a tree.  Nor have I seen a tree frog or a cicada singing.  So much goes on in the leaves of trees, it’s like a parallel universe, as much a community as the web of social media chatter running invisibly inside fiber optical cables or wires or through the air.  We pay attention to the chatter of social media because, of course, some of it pertains to us.  Some people enjoy the friendly banter.  Some are anxious for it to feed some inner lacking or longing.

I soon discovered the rustle in the ginkgo tree was a scrambling squirrel.  As the squirrel steadily climbed to the top tip of the tree, he grasped at the leaves growing even out of the trunk and, in his haste, he tore them off, and down they dropped.  When he had reached the top, he stopped and looked down, as if he wanted to chuck a nut down at me.  Then he started down to where each of the main branches began, and climbed back up each of the main branches, tearing away at the leaves growing out of the branches, so that more green leaves plummeted to the ground.  I was amazed at how methodical the squirrel was. He didn’t miss a branch.  I was also amazed at how ignorant he apparently was, because, for all that effort, I don’t think he found a thing to eat in the ginkgo tree.

Or maybe he wasn’t ignorant.  Maybe the squirrel

1)      Knew there was nothing to eat in the tree, but he was just messing with my mind.  (Not too difficult a feat, after all.)

2)      Had five minutes before his next scheduled meeting and was out taking a walk up a tree.

3)      Checks every single tree he comes to every day no matter what kind of tree it is, no matter whether he’d been up that tree the day before or even the hour before.   Kind of like the sower sowing seeds everywhere … in rocks and brambles, even along the path.

Squirrels are obviously a natural selection success story.  They’re practically as ubiquitous as God, so it’s hard to argue with their methods. Or their lack thereof.   And we know so little about what goes on up in trees.  We walk by without giving them a thought.

Though we couldn’t breathe without them.

Pastor Larry

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Squirrel

Grace has a lovely black walnut tree in its Monroe Street green space.  Walnut trees are late bloomers; their leaves form late in spring, so trees nearby get a head start every year … a head start that might be part of the reason it’s difficult for walnut trees to compete with other trees. They do recover quickly if their competitors age and fall, but they need to tower over others in order to flourish. 

Because the forest is a competitive place, and because they’re not great competitors, walnut trees have developed a couple secret weapons.  Exuded by their leaves are chemicals called polyphenols which are an excellent defense against insect pests.  The chemical known as juglone is, at the same time, exuded by the roots of walnut trees and by the husks of walnuts … juglone is a chemical that discourages most kinds of plant growth around the tree.  If you’re a gardener, and you have a black walnut tree near your garden, you probably already know this.

Though it’s hard to say what the squirrel knows about all of this inter-vegetative conflict, the squirrel is ultimately quite happy when walnut trees win.  Walnuts are one of their favorite foods.  Last week, I saw a squirrel scampering across the parking lot with two walnuts in his mouth!  At this time of year the squirrel is tremendously busy gathering walnuts, eating them, and geo-caching them for future consumption.

Though I’ve always suspected that this was an arboreal myth, I could find no evidence that it’s not true.  Gray squirrels at least do bury nuts to retrieve later.  Despite the fact that the ground maybe frozen impenetrable later.  Or despite the fact that later in the spring, when the squirrels are desperately hungry, the walnuts may have already sprouted, apparently rendering them inedible.  Or despite the fact that squirrels may never find the walnuts they buried again. 

Maybe this burying of treasure is primarily a long-term benefit to the squirrel; maybe the squirrel is like the two servants in Jesus’ story whose wisely invested talents yielded five and two more talents.  God only knows how many nuts a squirrel buries in a lifetime.  Were it only one nut a year that became a tree, just imagine how many annual harvests of bounty one single squirrel would make possible … more certainly than even the greatly lauded servants in Jesus’ story.  If Jesus had been thinking about squirrels, he might have had the Master in the story dismiss all the servants as pretenders.  “What?” said the Master. “Just five more talents?  Only two?  In just one year, the squirrel plants at least one tree, each tree bestowing upon creation a hundred years of branches resplendent with nuts!  Well done good and trustworthy squirrel.  Enter the joy of your Master!”

To think that many web sites about squirrels identify them as them pests!  Not by any means!  They’re servants of the Lord of the highest degree! Oh to even dare to match the squirrel in providing untold generations of blessings!

Pastor Larry Lange

 

 

 

Posted by Ann Zehms on Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Cicada

The cicada sings for sex.

Among the most common cicada species in Wisconsin, as far as I can tell, the cicada’s song brings cicadas together for one lovely liaison before the season of killing frosts descends. After their romantic rendezvous, the female slices open the soft flesh of a small tree branch, lays the fertilized eggs in it, and waits for the cold to kill her and her mate.

What a limited life! 

Yet that fleeting fling is totally dedicated to the perpetuation of the species,

so that the cicadas’ sexy song isn’t really about them; it’s not about selfish, insatiable desires as songs about sex sung by popular singers often are.

That the cicada’s song helps establish life for future generations … isn’t that a song superior to one only about selfish, insatiable desire?  Establishing life for future generations … wouldn’t that be a better way of doing business than the approach increasingly taken by governments and industries alike of dismantling the protection of the environment for future generations in favor of short-term lust for profit?  Establishing life for future generations … those are the kinds of sustainable agriculture practices you support when you buy fairly-traded coffee, tea, and chocolate at Grace.  “Treat the earth well,” a Native American proverb reminds us, “We do not inherit it from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

So the cicada’s song is the foundation of a future for their children.

Song has other noble potential.  In the October issue of the ELCA magazine “Gather,” contemporary hymn writer and composer Susan Palo Cherwien cites recent brain research indicating that “thinking compassionate thoughts” as we pray and sing actually multiplies brain cells associated with empathy and compassion.  We become, at least partly, what we sing. 

It works the other way as well.  Selves possessed with an insatiable desire to belittle, dominate, and harm others destroys these kinds of brain cells and can begin to limit one’s ability for compassion and empathy.  Bitterness can beget bitterness.  A tragic trap limiting one’s way of life.

Now the cicadas’ song sounds almost inspired, even though it heralds the approaching grim winter reap of such ephemeral creatures.  But shouldn’t surprise us that there’s more to the cicadas’ song than meets the ear: God’s the one who set them singing, after all!  And so the cicadas’ eggs hatch; cicada nymphs fall from the trees and bury themselves in the earth, where, for a year or two, they suckle at the roots of trees.  The mid-summer they’re well-satisfied, they crawl up out of their graves, leaving their thin, crisp, grave clothes behind (shaped exactly as their old selves), and they can rise up into the trees to sing their song of everlasting life again.

Pastor Larry Lange

Posted by Larry Lange on Thursday, September 7, 2017