“Do not withhold wages from your workers”

We were squeezed into the back of my friend Steve’s car, on the way to deliver a letter to a tobacco grower’s home in Garrard County, Kentucky, in support of seven of his laborers. The grower was illegally exploiting them, and they had made the courageous decision to join FLOC (the Farm Labor Organizing Committee) and go on strike in protest. One of them, Adolfo, had just shown me a picture of his 2-month-old daughter, at home with his wife in Hidalgo, Mexico, whom he had yet to hold in his arms. He is here in Kentucky on an H2A visa for six months of work to provide for his family. This was his third year to work on this particular farm, and he and six of his fellow laborers had had enough.

The H2A program links farmers with laborers from outside the U.S.A. and provides a legal contract: so many hours work a week, for so many weeks, at a fixed hourly rate. In Kentucky, that rate is $10.92 (which may sound like a lot, but only six states offer a lower rate). The farmer reimburses the travel expenses of the laborers: the laborers have to pay for the visa application process. The farmer provides accommodation, and the tools for the work. Or, at least, they are supposed to. But many do not abide by the contract, and that is why my daughter Maggie and I, along with about 20 other allies from Lexington, Louisville and Berea made our way towards Paint Lick this past Sunday, to stand in solidarity with these seven young men.

We crowded into their basic cement block accommodation, and began by sharing a simple meal of beans, rice and chicken chimis, sent by La Casita Center in Louisville. Then we listened for an hour as the men told their story, Felix Garza from the National Farm Worker Ministry translating for those of us who didn’t speak Spanish. The first year they worked for this grower, he had only paid them $7 an hour, instead of the contracted $10.92. The previous year he had paid them $8 an hour. This year, he had changed their wages from hourly to piece work – 15 cents per stick of six plants. If they worked as fast as possible they could make about $7-$8 an hour, but at that speed, accidents happen, and they could all show us scars on their arms from an errant blade, or from the sharp metal spike atop the sticks. Whenever they complained to the grower about the reduced hourly rate, they told us his consistent response was, “If you don’t like what I’m paying you, go back to Mexico.”

But reducing their wages is not the only way he exploits them. He doesn’t give them enough hours of work. Some weeks they may only go out for a few hours every other day. Or he may decide he needs them to work 12 hours a day for two days, then nothing for three. At the end of the week, he sits down with them individually to endorse the back of their pay check – which he has left blank, so they do not know how much he actually draws from the bank for them. They just see the cash he gives them when he returns. This may be so the bank records show he has paid them the $10.92 an hour as per the contract, and then he pockets the difference. He also made them bring their tools with them, and provides no safety wear for this difficult and sometimes dangerous work. If they handle tobacco for 10-12 hours a day, the amount of nicotine they absorb through their skin prevents them from sleeping.

Besides seeing the photo of Adolfo’s beautiful baby daughter, the moment that will remain with me from the three hours we spent with these exploited young men was after we had signed the letter to deliver to the grower. We were ready to drive to his home when Adolfo said, “He won’t be there yet. He’s still at church.”

“He’s still at church.”

I wonder what kind of church he attends. One of the “bible churches” liberally scattered across rural Kentucky perhaps? If so, I wonder how he has managed to avoid the dozens of passages throughout the bible that address treating your workers well. Because the bible was written in an agrarian culture, and between the two horizons of the text and this grower’s situation, agricultural laborers have remained some of the most vulnerable people for millennia. In Torah, it is written, “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deuteronomy 24.15) James writes, “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” (James 5.4) Well, these exploited laborers had cried out to their church-going employer, and he had refused to listen to them. So they cried out to the Union, and the Union responded.

We are hoping that with pressure from the Union and one of the companies that buys this grower’s tobacco, he will decide to act justly and give these seven men the backpay he owes them, as well as provide enough work for them moving forward. Ultimately that they will win a Union contract with this grower. They are afraid he may report them as “bad workers”  which could prevent them from gaining a visa next year – the Union will provide protection from that kind of retaliation.

After this situation is resolved, I’d like to believe that the grower will sit in his regular pew one Sunday and ponder his actions. Or perhaps that he’ll be reading his bible during his regular quiet time, and stumble across one of these passages, and ask questions of himself. Or that his pastor will, from time to time, preach to the farmers in his congregation about treating your workers with respect.

I’d like to believe that.

(These young men are running out of money to buy food and basic living supplies. If you’d like to support them during this time, you may do so by contributing to FLOC here)

Photo credit: Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus

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The Naked Man – pt. 50

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

Simon held Yiftach’s gaze for a long moment. Several emotions played fleetingly across his face before the anger lines and tension eased from his expression, replaced by something that Yiftach thought might have been sadness. But as Simon pushed off from the tree and got to his feet, his face hardened once more as he looked down at Yiftach.

“It sounds like you’ve made your choice then. Which means you won’t be needing that.” He pointed at the sword lying beside Yiftach. Yiftach’s hand leapt reflexively to the hilt, but then it dropped back to his side. He offered no resistance as Simon leaned down and picked up the weapon. “I will find someone whose allegiance lies with his people to give this to. Someone who understands the meaning of fidelity and friendship. Someone I trust, as I once trusted you. Farewell Yiftach.” He turned, and walked away without looking back.

 

As Yiftach approached the gateway into the courtyard where the ecclesia was gathering, he felt hot tears splash on his cheeks, and he turned aside to wipe them away. Had he really made his choice? Or had Yiftach just made it for him? Was he truly going to turn aside from the path to liberation he had walked for so many years to now join the Way? Was he really turning his back on the band of brothers with whom he had shed blood to align himself with this – he had to admit – vilified sect? Did he believe – as they did – that this Yeshua was the Messiah? In that moment he didn’t know what was true of himself. But then his stomach rumbled, and a wry smile broke out on his face. One thing is true, he thought. I’m hungry as usual. And he stepped into the courtyard.

As Mark observed Yiftach from across the courtyard, he noticed that his young friend looked troubled. He seemed to eat the food before him without tasting it, and was not engaged with the conversation that flowed around him. He didn’t even seem to be giving Rachel the attention Mark had noticed over the past few evenings. When Yiftach looked up and caught Mark looking at him with concern, he quickly looked down and studiously avoided making eye contact again. As Mark got to his feet, he made a mental note to try and catch Yiftach before he left.

“My friends,” Mark began, “I’d like to pick up the story where I left off last night. Peter told me that after Jesus fed the crowds, he immediately made his disciples get into a boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the lake, to Bethsaida, while he himself was sending the crowd away.” Rachel spoke up. “Why would Jesus do that? If he wants people to understand that he is the Messiah he could have made sure everyone there understood what had just happened. I mean, there must have been some excitement in the crowd after he fed them all, surely? Why wouldn’t he encourage that – if only for his disciples’ sake?”

“I don’t know, Rachel,” Mark responded. “Peter indicated that there were some in the crowd who were ready to march on Jerusalem there and then and make him Messiah by force, which was never Jesus’ intent. Word was already getting around about Jesus as we heard a few nights ago, and if what Herod had done to John the Baptizer was anything to go by, Jesus certainly didn’t want that kind of attention. Whatever the reason, after bidding them farewell, he left for the mountain to pray.”

“When it was evening, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and Jesus was alone on the land. He saw them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them. At about the fourth watch of the night, in the darkness before the dawn, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea; and he intended to pass them by.” Yiftach had been listening somewhat distractedly to Mark’s words, but now he sat bolt upright and called out, “What? Now you’re telling us Jesus could walk on water?!” He looked at his neighbors, spluttering, “And you all believe this latest tale? On top of feeding thousands of people with a few hunks of bread and some dried fish?” He sat back, his arms folded rigidly across his chest, his face a fury. The woman sitting to his right leaned away slightly. Mark held Yiftach’s gaze, understanding that something lay beneath his fierce response besides sheer disbelief, but not yet knowing what it was…

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Eat more veggies

If we’re friends on Facebook or elsewhere, then you know our family devotes a lot of yard space to growing food. We have perennial berry bushes, fruit and nut trees, herb beds, chickens for eggs, and several raised and in-ground beds for annual vegetables. Diet – what we eat – is the foundation of health, and all of us are always either building a solid or poor base for our health based on what we put in our bodies. Our kids, Maggie and Seth, have grown up eating all kinds of veggies, and for the most part enjoy everything we put in front of them. They’ll wander the yard and eat things right off the plant, and love getting their friends to eat things they’ve never tried (or seen) before. Right now it’s a fresh fig, ripe from the tree in our front yard.

But what if you didn’t grow up eating lots of veggies, and only have a few you like? What if your kids won’t eat them, and you don’t have the energy or patience to persuade them otherwise? My wife Rebecca is always coming up with ways to incorporate more vegetables into the meals we eat, and I thought I’d start an occasional series sharing some of the recipes she and I create – often because of what is growing in the yard at any given time –  so we can eat more veggies. So, the inaugural dish is Sunday brunch frittata.

I don’t know when I first made this dish, but it has become a staple feature of our Sunday mornings. I crank up my Sunday morning playlist, and get to work. As with many dishes we make, the first step is gently caramelizing onions. I make the frittata in a cast iron skillet, as it ends up under the broiler. While you’re thinly slicing the onion(s), add your favourite fat – I usually use lard or bacon grease – to the skillet on a medium-low burner. Add the onions, and stir occasionally as they slowly turn into caramelized goodness.

While that’s happening, dice a sweet bell pepper or two, and when the onion is softened, add the diced peppers and stir.

 

 

 

While that’s all gently sauteing together, use a large-hole grater to grate a couple of large carrots and beets. Yes, beets. Purple veggies are good for you! Once the onions and peppers are beginning to turn golden brown, add the grated carrots and beets, and stir together. Turn the burner to medium. Check your fat/oil – add more if needed.

Next, gently whisk your eggs. We use a dozen of our hens’ eggs, which may sound like a lot, but we typically only eat half the frittata and save the rest for a morning when we need a quick and easy breakfast. Add whatever seasonings you enjoy, and any fresh herbs you may have. We have perennial oregano and thyme in our garden, and plenty of basil, so those get chopped and added to the eggs.

Next, rough chop some greens – kale, swiss chard, collards, or whatever else you may have growing or to hand. Once the carrots and beets have softened and their sweetness is starting to come forth, throw in the greens and stir all together. While they’re cooking, dice some tomatoes, and grate some of your favourite cheese.

Time for another fat/oil check, as we don’t want any of that goodness sticking to the pan. Pull half the skillet’s contents to one side, and pour in enough of the egg mix to cover the empty side. Then pull the contents over to the side with the egg, and pour egg into the now vacant half to cover. Then gently spread out the mixture, and pour the rest of the egg over the veggies.

Sprinkle the diced tomatoes and cheese over the top. When the edges of the frittata turn brown and start to pull away slightly from the skillet, turn your broiler on to high, with a shelf in the highest position. Place the skillet under the broiler, and cook the frittata until the egg is completely set.

Remove skillet with a hotpad, and serve with a side salad, or steamed beans,  or whatever sounds good to you. The last time I made this we served it with steamed garden beans and plantain waffles. My kids love this dish, and it is chock-full of good veggies that have kept most of their nutrients. It takes about an hour to make.

Veggie Frittata
Serves 4
60 minutes

12 eggs
1 large yellow onion
1-2 bell peppers
2 large carrots
1-2 beets
1 packed cup of rough cut kale/chard leaves
Fresh herbs & seasoning to taste
1 large tomato, diced, or a cup of halved cherry tomatoes
Grated cheese

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A Canaanite woman and Charlottesville, Virginia: a reflection on Matthew 15

I imagine the range of sermons preached this weekend in the U.S. from the Gospel reading assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary will vary widely. A challenging passage at the best of times, given the national mood following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman we find in Matthew 15 feels positively explosive. Why would Jesus say to this desperate foreigner, pleading for the liberation of her demon-oppressed child, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs”? Especially knowing that “dog” is an ethnically-charged epithet used by his fellow countrymen against their gentile neighbours? Is Jesus joining the chorus of “Israel First”? And how do we read this story alongside the stories being told about events in Charlottesville this past weekend?

You can find this story in Matthew 15.21-28, but the RCL gives us the option of beginning at 15.10, which I think is helpful for understanding what follows. It all begins with some Pharisees and their lawyers coming up from the seat of power, Jerusalem, to confront Jesus about his disciples’ lack of respect for what they teach. Specifically, that his disciples do not perform ritual hand cleansing before eating. Now, that’s a long journey to make for what seems like a minor religious faux pas. But what’s at stake here is not hygiene: it’s Jesus’ authority. As a fellow teacher of Torah, the Pharisees are concerned that Jesus’ disciples should be observant in every way, just as theirs are. But his disciples aren’t, and Jesus’ popularity among the disenfranchised multitudes is such that it’s time to bring this rogue teacher to heel, in case this disrespect for the tradition of the Pharisees spreads.

Jesus will have none of it, however. Instead, he bluntly points out their hypocrisy, for teaching in such a way that their tradition, in fact, refutes what Torah itself teaches. Jesus then calls the crowds to himself, to address the issue of eating and what makes someone ritually unclean. And it’s not whether you wash your hands before supper or not. He says, “Listen, and understand. It’s not what you put in your mouth that defiles you: it’s what comes out of your mouth.”

The disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “Uh, you do realize that you offended the Pharisees when you said that, right?” To which Jesus says, “Leave them be – they’re just the blind leading the blind. They’ll all end up in a ditch.” I picture the disciples elbowing each other, whispering, “You ask him.” “No, you ask him.” And as usual it’s Peter who finally blurts out, “We don’t get what you’re saying.” To which Jesus responds, “How can you still not understand this?” And that question, I believe, is the key to understanding the story that follows.

Jesus explains to them that what we eat – what we put in our mouths – ends up in the stomach, and eventually is excreted. It’s a natural process. Duh. But the things that come out of the mouth don’t originate in the stomach, they originate in the heart, and they reveal who we are. And often what they reveal about us is ugly. He lists some of those things and then says, “It’s those things that defile a person – what comes out of our hearts – not whether we put things in our mouth with unwashed hands. Get it?” And again, I picture Jesus looking at each of his disciples and hoping to see some indication that they do, in fact, get it. That they understand what he is continually trying to teach them. The encounter they have with this woman will reveal whether they have or not.

Jesus withdraws, heading north into gentile territory – Tyre and Sidon, on the coast of Syro-Phoenicia. As they’re walking, a Canaanite woman approaches them, and begins to cry out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly, demonically oppressed.” I find it interesting that Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite, and not as, say, a Syro-Phoenician, or a gentile (as Mark does, in his Gospel). I don’t know if being a Canaanite was still even a thing in the first century, but for Matthew’s audience, identifying this woman in that way would tap into a centuries-old narrative of conquest of those who are entirely “other.” People who were to be destroyed, their evil not to be tolerated. People who were utterly irredeemable. Those people.

But this is a new age, a new kingdom: we don’t get to hold onto old animosities and prejudices anymore, right? Jesus has been teaching them about loving your enemies, not judging others, about treating others as you would want to be treated yourself – his summary of the whole of Torah and the Prophets. So, with this gentile woman he has a chance to model for his disciples what he’s always teaching.

But he doesn’t. Matthew tells us, “But Jesus did not say a word in response to her plea.” And as he keeps walking along ignoring her, she keeps calling out, until the disciples apparently feel so uncomfortable with the spectacle she’s making of herself (and them), that they tell Jesus to send her away.

How we read what happens next determines how we see this story unfolding. Matthew tells us that “Jesus answered and said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” “Israel first!” perhaps. But who is he answering? The woman? Or the disciples? Most of the sermons I’ve heard and read indicate that Jesus says this to the woman. After all, she is a gentile – a Canaanite – and so, he can’t help her, even if he wanted to. “Sorry.” Or maybe not sorry.

Except. Except that Jesus has already cast demons out of people just like this woman. And healed them of disease and pain and paralysis. At the very beginning of his public life, when he’s healing people from every kind of illness up in Galilee, people from Syria come down when they hear about it, and he healed them (Matthew 4.24). Maybe even people from this woman’s village. And at least four of the disciples, including Peter, were there when that went down. So, what if Jesus isn’t saying “Israel first!” to this woman: what if he’s saying this to his disciples, to see how they’ll respond? What if he’s waiting for one of them to say, “Uh, Jesus, didn’t you already cast demons out of Syro-Phoenicians before? Didn’t you heal that Roman centurion’s servant down in Capernaum? What about that demon-possessed guy on the other side of the tracks, I mean, lake? Have you changed your mind since then?”

But they don’t. Maybe because when Jesus sent them out preaching a while back he told them not to go to any gentile or Samaritan cities, but to go only to the lost sheep of Israel. So maybe Jesus had forgotten all that when he healed those gentiles before, but is now back with the “Israel First!” program. And so it is then Jesus’ own prejudice that needs to be confronted by this Canaanite woman. I’ve heard people I respect preach that version of events, and perhaps that is what was happening as their walk up the coast was interrupted.

But I’m not convinced it is. When the woman cries out to Jesus, she addresses him in a very specific way: “Lord, Son of David.” An odd thing to find on the lips of a gentile: a title for the long-awaited Jewish messiah, and the very way Matthew identifies Jesus at the beginning of his Gospel. I wonder if Jesus was waiting to see if his disciples would pick up on what she was saying and stop in amazement. Certainly very few of their countrymen had made such a declaration. But they didn’t: instead they told him to send her away. That’s why when Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” I think he’s talking to the disciples, and not her, and waiting for one of them – please God, even just one! – to say, “but she thinks you’re the Messiah – maybe you should help her? Even if she’s not one of us? Like you did before, remember?” But they don’t.

Or maybe Jesus is talking to them all. Addressing the disciples, but in the hearing of this brave woman who refuses to be ignored , and who even now humiliates herself, bowing down before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” In response to which Jesus answers her with that offensive statement, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.” Is Jesus truly employing an ethnic epithet in his response? Is his prejudice coming to the surface? Is the ugliness of his heart coming out of his mouth?

And how does this unnamed gentile woman respond to this demeaning statement? “Sure, Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” To which Jesus replies, “O woman, your faith is great! What you request has been done.” And somewhere in Syro-Phoenicia, a young girl’s oppression and torment ends immediately.

To me, everything about this story gets to the heart of why Matthew wrote his Gospel: so that his audience would come to the same conclusion as this woman had, that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel, and that the kingdom he brought has room enough for all. An exclusive, “Israel first!” posture could never receive the message that Jesus embodied. And apparently the disciples were still all too slow on the uptake. They failed to understand the parable that Jesus had just told them: it is what is in the heart that defiles us, and causes all manner of evil to come out of our mouths.

Evil such as that found on the lips of the white supremacists in Charlottesville last weekend. “Blood and soil.” “Jews will not replace us.” Racist and homophobic epithets. Evil found in the hearts of many of us perhaps, evil which never quite reaches our lips because we’re too polite, or afraid of what people might think, or because even though we know it’s evil, it still somehow rises in us anyway. The evil of staying silent when hate speech and racist and ethnic epithets are spoken in our presence, and we let them go unchallenged. Perhaps as the disciples did when they heard what Jesus said. Perhaps.

But note this. Jesus praises her faith. He says she has great faith. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, those who are praised for their faith are not the bible experts or the religious elite: it is those who are marginalized in Israel: a Roman centurion, a woman with a continual haemorrhage, and two blind men. Those critiqued for having little faith? That would be the disciples. What if Jesus wants his disciples to see what he is doing and who he is, just  like these marginalized people do? What if he’s trying to provoke a response from his disciples in this story, and not, in fact, revealing his own prejudice? What if he’s inviting them to say, “Wait a minute. You just said what comes out of our mouths reveals what’s in our hearts. Did you really just call her a dog? After she called you Messiah? What’s up with that?” But they don’t. They’re silent, and just look on at this brief interchange.

(There’s an interesting element to the Greek text of this interchange which (literally) gets lost in translation. The word translated “bowed down” is a form of the verb, proskuneo, while the word translated “dog” is kunapios. Proskuneo carries the literal meaning of, “to kiss, like a dog licks the hand of its master.” Is Matthew inviting his audience to see a witty interchange between this woman and Jesus right in front of his uncomprehending disciples? Perhaps. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into that. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.)

As I have read and discussed this story this week in anticipation of gathering with my community this weekend, what rang out loud and clear to me was this: silence in the face of prejudiced speech of any kind is unacceptable. Regardless of whether this woman confronts Jesus’ own prejudices or Jesus is testing his disciples, what is clear to me is this: When I hear people using racist or hate speech of any kind, I must confront and denounce it immediately. Even if it’s someone I know and love dearly. Perhaps especially then. Maybe the disciples didn’t confront Jesus for using such derogatory, exclusionary language because they kind of believed it was OK to do so. Or maybe they didn’t confront him because, well, “he’s Jesus, and so it must be OK?” Silence in the face of hate speech contributes to the violence that all too often follows it. When I hear such speech from now on – whether with my ears, or on my screen – I know I will picture Jesus looking over his shoulder at me and saying, “Well, you got anything to say about that?” And I hope I do.

May it be so.

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Summer book group anyone?

IMG_0505

Recovering from a staph infection that required hospitalization has forced me to slow down considerably. My energy levels are low, and my ability to focus has been drastically reduced. I am definitely on the upswing, but recovery is going to be a long, slow process.

I have been beginning each day sitting in the back garden with a cup of tea, enjoying the beauty of spring crops flourishing, garlic plants growing scapes, and raspberry canes slowly loading with fruit. And I’ve read a single chapter of a book, while I drink my tea. Last week, I picked up a copy of my second book, “TEN”, as it’s been a while since I’ve read it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed re-acquainting myself with the characters who meet weekly to drink coffee and discuss important questions and issues concerning our shared life in community.

Each morning as I read the next chapter, I find myself thinking, “This really is good stuff. I wish more people could read this.” Not just because I’m the author (or for that annual royalties cheque): it’s because I believe this book has something important to offer at a time when public – and personal – discourse is so polarized and divisive. In the book I try to model respectful conversation between people with very different views on important issues: not as a product of my imagination, but based on my experience in an amazing community I had the privilege of co-pastoring for 7 years: Mercy Street, in Houston, Texas.

Mercy Street is the most socio-economically and politically diverse community I’ve ever been part of. The characters the book contains are inspired by friends and church members who made themselves vulnerable as they told the (often painful) truth of their lives in a weekly mid-week group in which we wrestled with the hard questions of life. What enabled such respectful and meaningful conversation week after week between such different and, quite often, highly opinionated people? I think it came down to being willing to hear each others’ stories, and along the way coming to understand why we might think/believe as we do. That is what unfolds in the book, and I believe it will be listening to others’ stories that will prove essential if we are to find any hope of reversing the cultural trend of polarization and division that is tearing us apart as a society.

For many of us the summer opens up some time we don’t have while school is in. There are more chances to share meals with friends and neighbors; to sit on the porch/deck and catch up while the sun sets; perhaps to enjoy a neighborhood beer garden. Here’s a proposal for how to spend some of that time this summer: invite a few people to read “TEN” together with you. Read one chapter a week ahead of time, and then get together to discuss it over dinner, or on your deck, at the park, or down the pub. Consider inviting people you’d like to get to know better, or who you know think differently than you do about certain issues. Perhaps invite 3-5 people, and ask each person to invite someone else, to mix things up a little.

“TEN” is an exploration of the Ten Commandments as they interact with our lives, as well as an attempt to re-frame them in a more helpful way than many of us have experienced them. You can read more about the book, and some of its endorsements on my publisher’s website. Here are two I particularly appreciate:

“I have read TEN with great interest. Two things in particular struck me. First, the way Sean shows how the ‘rules’ are in the service of a relationship. And, second, the way Sean weaves the commandments into real life situations with real people. The latter is a special pastoral gift.”
~ Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary

“I have read TEN three times now. It is lovely. I feel like I really know all those people, and can picture them having a chat each week.”
~ Dagma Jermy, a friend of my parents

Amazon.com is the easiest place to find TEN, but please buy books where you want to see them sold. Obviously, I am more than happy to sell you copies, especially if I know they’re for a reading group. Finally, if you need a little incentive to take me up on my proposal, perhaps this will help: if you buy 5 or more copies from me, I would be more than happy to Skype/FaceTime in with your group for 30 minutes during one of your sessions and join in the conversation. If you’d like to do that, please email me at sean.gladding@gmail.com.

I hope you’ll consider my proposal, and create an opportunity to experience for yourself the kind of conversations we so desperately need to be having as friends, neighbors and fellow members of society.

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The Naked Man – pt. 49

Second Temple Jerusalem - cropped

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

Yiftach, lost in thought, made his way to Upper Jerusalem, his feet finding their own way on what was fast becoming a familiar route through this unfamiliar city. As the streets grew wider, and the houses larger, the resentment and anger such conspicuous wealth and privilege normally provoked was dulled, his mind and heart still reeling from the confrontation from which he had just walked away.

Ever since Simon bar Giora had led his force of 15,000 men into Jerusalem at the request of the Council, Yiftach had seen little of his leader and – he had dared to believe – friend. Simon spent his days making endless plans with members of the Council, plans for the defense of Jerusalem, which may well depend on their ability to form some kind of alliance with John of Gischala and the Zealots, who still controlled the Temple area. Yiftach understood the pressure Simon was under, and the tension they all felt whenever their attention drifted to the ranks of tents beyond the walls of the city, to the Legions that were just waiting for word from Rome to begin their siege of this troublesome city.

So it was to his great surprise and delight when Simon had sought him out earlier that day. Passing a wine skin back and forth and making small talk evoked memories of all those years in the hills of Galilee, when it had just been fifty of them. As they told stories of those early days, laughing at one particular incident, Yiftach saw the lines of weariness and anxiety around Simon’s eyes soften. And realized that this was probably why Simon had come looking for him: for a moment’s respite from the pressure, and – perhaps – from a longing for simpler days, when “the enemy” was more-clearly defined. As they laughed and held each other’s gaze for a moment, Yiftach’s heart once more filled with love for this man.

But as Simon leaned forward to pass the wine skin back, Yiftach saw the lines around his eyes return, his lips draw back into a grim line. Instead of leaning back, relaxed, Simon’s posture became rigid, and Yiftach felt the moment of camaraderie pass as swiftly as it had come. “So,” Simon said, his tone flat, “I hear you’ve become a regular dining companion in the home of Council member Benyamin’s mother.” Startled by this statement, Yiftach said nothing for a long moment. He heard an edge in Simon’s tone as he continued. “I am curious as to why one such as you, who has dreamed of liberation from the power of Rome for so long, and shed blood in its pursuit, would abandon that dream in the very moment when we have a chance to realize it.” He leaned closer, so close that Yiftach could feel Simon’s breath on his cheek as he spoke. “This sect, so Benyamin tells me, preaches forgiveness of enemies. Encourages such nonsense as non-violence – “the beating of swords into plowshares,” as the prophets said. Let me tell you, Yiftach, there will be time enough for farming when we have driven the Romans from our land. You left your father’s plowshare to take up the sword with me: why would you turn your back on us – on me – when the hour of our deliverance is at hand?”

Simon leaned back against the tree, his arms crossed, waiting for an answer. Yiftach felt bands of fear tighten around his chest, but held Simon’s unwavering gaze as he began to respond. “In truth, I do not fully understand why I return there night after night. As I listen to what Yohannan Marcus – Benyamin’s brother – has to say, I find myself questioning much of what he says. Which,” he paused, a wry grin spreading across his face, “he encourages. I confess there is much I find hard to understand, let alone believe. But…” His voice tailed off. “But?” Simon echoed, a hint of menace in his voice now.

Yiftach was suddenly aware in himself that he wanted – needed – Simon to understand what he himself had just realized. “But there is something about the gathering itself that I find compelling. Simon.” He leaned forward, animated. “Do you remember all those nights sitting around the campfire, up in the hills, dreaming of what life would be like after Messiah came and drove the Romans from our land, and restored the glory of Israel?” “Of course I do,” huffed Simon. It’s what has kept me going through all we’ve endured to get us to this point. What of it?” “Well,” continued Yiftach, “we talked of what our life together would be like then. That Messiah would establish justice and peace when he came. That our people would no longer know hunger, or the burden of over-taxation. That all would share in the wealth of our people – that there would be an end to the grinding poverty you and I grew up with. That we would enjoy the fruit of our own labor and not have to give the majority to the wealthy landlords who live up there.” Yiftach pointed to the Upper City.

“Yes,” responded Simon. “I remember. What of it?” Yiftach hesitated before plunging forward. “That is what I experience at the gathering. Rich and poor, master and servant, men and women, all sharing a meal at the same table. No special food and the finest wine for the host and her peers, while the rest of us get bread and the cheap stuff. But all enjoying the meal provided – each contributing as they are able. When I break bread with them, Simon, I taste the future we dreamed of in the hills. Right now. With the Romans camped outside the walls. That’s why I go back, night after night.” He sat back, and waited for Simon’s reaction…

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50 trees for 50 years

FIGS photo - croppedMy friend and neighbor Luella and I celebrate a milestone birthday this weekend – we were born on the same day 50 years ago. I’ve never really been one for celebrating my own birthday, but 50 feels significant, and so I wanted to mark the occasion with more than just the usual special birthday dessert (our family tradition – I’m leaning towards some kind of raspberry/chocolate/cookie ice cream affair this year).

A couple of weeks ago Rebecca asked me how I wanted to celebrate this birthday, and without thinking I blurted out, “I want to plant 50 fig trees in our neighborhood.” This was not as random as it may seem. We love figs. We have a fig tree in our front yard, Chicago Hardy variety, and we enjoyed the sweetest fruit from it over a couple of months last year. I particularly enjoyed the reactions of the middle school kids walking up our street after school who were brave enough to try one. I realize it is a rare treat to eat a fig right off the tree, and one we have only enjoyed ourselves for the last couple of years.

After blurting out my idea, we began to wonder at the possibility. What if there were 50 more fig trees planted in front yards and public places in our neighborhood for people to enjoy as they walked home from school, or work, or the store? We have put roots down here, and the thought of walking past fig trees twenty years from now that we helped plant with our neighbors fills me with happiness. We talked to Luella about our idea, and she loved it. So we’re going to do it!

But there’s more! Something else Luella and I share is a small gathering in her and her husband Steve’s home every Saturday, which we’ve now been doing for about a year. We share a potluck meal and the Eucharist together with some other friends and neighbors, we sing, pray and read scripture together. We have felt an invitation to formalize what we’re doing, and when you do that, it helps to have a name. So, the name we have chosen is the Fig Tree Collective, and you can read why here.

Planting 50 fig trees feels like a good way to celebrate our 50th birthdays and the beginning of the Fig Tree Collective. If you’d like to join us in that celebration, click here to help buy a tree or two, and – if you’re a neighbor – suggest a place or two to plant them! 

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