By Francisco Herrera
There's really something pretty unbelievable about the fact that you can stick a couple of seeds in the ground, and after a few weeks the seeds turn into food. It truly is an under-appreciated miracle that some trees in this world have little balls of nutrient, brightly-colored sweetness hanging from them, sweetness that is only as far away as a gentle tug and a greedy bite. Flowers, leaves and vines, water and soil - it's no wonder that the writers of Genesis pattern their image of Heaven after a lush garden.
But as we know, the instant you put one up you know there's work to follow. You have to weed and till the soil, make sure that your plants have enough water, spend time in the sun sweating and getting bit by little beasties. Any and every Garden ultimately thrives as much by human as nature's whim, and the way a gardener wrangles these two forces together is what makes such an endeavor so meaningful - of course to say nothing of the way God's grace is so vividly demonstrated in the earth's bounty. And looking upon a lush, fragrant garden, I think you can catch something of the sweet perfume in God's nose as they looked upon the Earth on the seventh day.
But Genesis teaches us a sinister lesson, too: lush and fragrant gardens are as much a magnet for evil and death as they are for innocence and life. This is something that particularly stuck in my mind as I strolled through the Bohanan Park on my way to the Lind Community garden two weeks ago – thinking about the way that evil had invaded this quiet space, as well. Because when a man running from police drives his vehicle through a swing-set seriously wounding three young children in the process, you can’t help to think the entire space – all of its stories, all of its laughter and fun – is somehow tainted. And though the man who did this thing was quickly apprehended and is awaiting trial, the community still mourns, still grieves.
And parents who once were thankful for the park, now are fearful of having their children come to it.
But say what you like about a park, or a garden - there is always a special kind of spirit that moves some person or some group to make all that effort and shed all of that sweat to create them, gardens and parks, because that Spirit moved a group of people to struggle hard to make a little bit of peace and health in the middle of a wilderness. And by doing so every park and garden does more than provide food, flowers, swings and friendship – they are also curiously stubborn bulwarks against any and every kind of instability and fear. Gardens give life. Parks attract activity. And both provide health and movement and purpose. And most importantly, planting a garden or building a park anywhere makes it plain that you plan on sticking around. And the same magic that inspires the creation of such places, that moves people to do an intimate dance between humanity and Mother Nature, this same magic is also a potent warning to the forces of evil.
Life is here. People are here. We have come to stay. God has come to stay, and the devil has to go to outrageous lengths in order to do anything about it.
And yes, it is a truly terrifying thing to see the forces of evil dig into public spaces like this.
Sabotaging agriculture is one of the soundest ways to humiliate any enemy (what's the point of fighting if you have no food to feed your family?). That's why ancient armies mastered such techniques as sowing salt in grain fields to permanently impede any future plant growth. Since time out of mind corrupt leaders will regularly terrify poor masses of folk by haranguing farm workers or flat out torching fields and orchards ready for harvest – filling both empty wallets and empty stomachs with dread.
Parks, too, are often under evil’s eye. The often times they’re used as an easy open space for criminal activity – a place to catch a victim unawares, a place to sell illegal wears. Oppressive governments, too, also love keeping parks under surveillance. It is dangerous whenever too many people come together some place, some place just to enjoy being outside, to laugh and remind themselves of their humanity: the uprising in Tahrir Square that brought down Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak, the Anderplatz Demonstrations that heralded the fall of European Communism and the reunification of Germany.
But despite even the thickest pressure and fear, people invariably return to parks and gardens - out of sheer need as much as hopeful defiance - and thus the spirit of God marches on. God planting and tending, the people reaping and enjoying, playing and dance, Satan sowing weeds and salt every chance he can – even murdering the workers who make such vineyards of life and abundance possible.
But I take comfort, forever, that the Devil gets a serious spook out of a flower, giggling children, a peach pit, grown-ups whispering jokes over a beer, a summer tomato. It shows just how fragile and pathetic he is – how fragile and pathetic any tyrant is. And what’s more? These living, sprouting, earth-born, ripening tools of evil’s destruction are sweet to the taste – to God as much as us.
And may the people say amen.
By Minister Judy Stack
What are you afraid of?
On our last Prayer Walk, there was a point where we passed a yard in which there was a puppy tied up in a fenced yard. It was noon, the sun was beating down, there was no shade, and puppy—though ecstatic to see us—was panting heavily and seemed to have no water available. One of our women found an empty container in the gutter, went into the yard, and filled the container with water from her bottle for the grateful puppy.
Another in our group expressed fear. What would happen if the owner was angry that she had gone into the yard? The water-giver was calm—fearlessly full of peace—about what she felt called to do to care for this creature of God’s.
I was reminded of the verse from Paul’s letter to Timothy: “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and a disciplined mind” (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
The gift that Paul is talking about specifically in that passage is the gift of the Spirit that allows Timothy (and us) to be led into what God is calling us to. This is a gift. But when God’s Spirit calls us into a way of serving and obedience to God, there is always the potential for fear.
It is in those times that we need to remember what kind of Spirit God has given us!
First of all….One that loves! The woman who gave water to the puppy was moved by love. When we are moved by genuine, loving, compassionate concern for others and God’s world, we are being moved by God’s Spirit!
Second, it is a Spirit that has power! When God calls us, God also enables us. God, through the Spirit empowers our work. We don’t depend on ourselves, but on God’s power at work within us.
Third, it is a Spirit that has a “disciplined mind.” Why do we need a disciplined mind?
Because whenever God’s Spirit moves us to act in love and power, there will be the temptation to become fearful. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of injury or pain or loss if we do what we know God’s Spirit is prompting us to do. We have to discipline our minds to say no to fear and yes to God’s ability to work through us.
I think about the story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:23-33). Peter at first is full of faith and begins walking out to Jesus on the water. But “when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and began to sink.” Peter began well, but he did not discipline his mind, and let fear creep in. But he did the right thing: he cried out “Jesus save me!” When fear comes at us—fear of the future, fear of suffering, fear of loneliness, fear of death—we cry out for God to fill us again with the power and love of the Holy Spirit!
1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” None of us are yet completely perfect in love, but the more we are filled with love, the less room there is for fear. Love pushes fear out! And then God’s Spirit moves powerfully.
So what are you afraid of today?
“Cast all your anxiety on him, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). And what will be the result? “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
By Francisco Herrera
The best part about engaging in random, public Bible reading sessions is that it is impossible to guess how the patrons will react - like the night that I dared to take my butt and my Book into the happy haunts of the Camden Tavern (4601 Lyndale Ave. N, 55412) to savor some of their excellent chicken wings.
Here are some responses:
"You're not going to be preaching the Gospel in here tonight, are you?"
This question was particularly memorable. Admittedly, though, the bouncer who asked it did so not because he didn't want me to talk about Jesus that night, rather out of his fear that I was a preacher coming to his establishment to get drunk.
"Don't you think it's sacrilegious to bring the Holy Book into such a place as this?" - said to me by a particularly insistent bar patron, convinced that I wouldn't make the Rapture, who then went on to show himself to be an utter ass to the staff and a creep to the women as the evening wore on.
Towards the end of that night, I'd gotten a surprise phone call from a deeply missed friend, and it taking it ran into the parking lot outside, leaving everything on the bar counter - including my cash and driver's license. Another patron soon rushed out seeking me, a pastor herself. "You can't be doing things like that around here, brother. Your Book will be fine, folks here don't care about the Bible, but these things?" she playfully rebuked, instantly a new friend, handing me back my Bible with all the sensitive items tucked inside.
We then paused over a cigarette and laughter and shared our love for Jesus and our sometimes frustrations with those among whom Jesus has called us to serve.
I first got into this practice when I lived in Geneva Switzerland, back in the early 2000s. My best friend of those years, Markus, was a hard man to pin down, so I usually visit him at one of his bar gigs around the city. But since he was quite popular with patrons - half-Sierra Leonese half-German and so beautiful it made you cry, an exciting conversationalist, tall, svelte, locked, and with a full-body tattoo - I would bring a large study Bible to occupy myself with God's Word while he occupied himself with pouring libations and spinning the gold of his charisma into rent money.
And some of those first reactions my Bible evoked in the barflies...!
"F-k you and f-k that book and f-k your religion - you're trying to enforce yourself on everyone here!"
The French guy who said this did so in French and it sounded prettier in the original than in my translation. So there was that.
"But no! No, Francisco - not YOU!!" - from my acquaintance Mariama, from Bulgaria, whose feelings towards US Christians were forever marred by post-9/11 US foreign policy and George W. Bush (and to be honest, could you blame her?).
"Yeah. The Holy Book. No thanks (this woman, also an acquaintance, had emigrated to Europe from black America some years before). Too many of my people back home think that prayer and supplication will cure everything. Can't go back to that. Nope. Almost killed me."
Yet, invariably, these critical voices - even angry voices - would come and sit and chat with me - posing questions about whether or not something they'd heard or been taught was really in the Bible, unpacking powerful memories and feelings evoked by the stories of the ten plagues or the birth of Jesus, the bitter draft of their suspicion hinting at earlier days of awe and wonder. These were the first times that I would witness Scripture's eternal, inescapable gravity - reeling in any and all who came near it, be they friend or foe or fickle - and navigating this mix of human and holy outpourings was my first school in evangelism.
Luther believed that this 'pull' exerted by the Bible was a consequence of it being God's "living Word" - not only a description of Jesus Christ himself (as per John 1) but also as a way to describe the ever-surprising way that reading and wrestling with the Bible's many stories directly invokes the Holy Spirit to interrupt our lives. And when she does - illuminating us, guiding us, inspiring our minds and our spirits - our Bible studies not only increase our practical knowledge of what the Bible says but also bring us into more intimate and more powerful relationship with God's self.
And Luther wasn't kidding. It was heartening to see the way these people's eyes would light up - how scowls would gradually become thoughtful frowns, even grins - as the Spirit and the text enwrapped their souls in a delicate dance.
So why am I writing about all of this? Simple.
Because I think you should try it.
Try taking your Bible to work with you one day and crack it open while on your lunch break.
If you're in transit at an airport, bus station, or train station - let alone on a plane, bus, or train - open it to the Book of Acts and see if God might use you in your travels as they used Paul.
Some of the general public’s responses to you and your Book may be a bit rough, as many of those I listed above, but trust me: there will be happy responses, too.
Like the first Bible study I organized with my now-friend Steven, who was at first a bit reluctant to chat that because he hadn't read the text (and was a little afraid of getting it "wrong"), but how his eyes lit up as soon as we started reading Philemon and talking about it.
"He told Philemon to call an escaped slave his brother? Dude! That's heavy!"
You will also find people like my Swiss friend, Claire, who stumbled upon me during one of my normal bar-Bible-study moments, "O mon dieu - I can't tell you how good it makes me feel to see somewhere here reading a Bible. I'm often ashamed of letting people know I'm a Christian because so many think it's stupid."
Sometimes folks will even see the Book and come at you singing - hoping to kindle a memory or a feeling through yet another round of an old hymn, or talking about their days at Bible camp, vacation Bible school, or the like.
But most importantly, the magnetism that the Spirit gives to the Bible itself, just SHOWING others that you have one of the best ice breakers you can ever imagine. It always attracts attention, always poses and inspires questions. When inquiring God about how they might move in a community, this simple act of carrying a Bible with you in public and opening it whenever you sit down will help you figure out those things VERY quickly.
And to tap into this power, this excitement - all you have to do is start carrying the Good Book with you and pull it out from time-to-time. That's it. And then just sit back and let the Spirit do the work.
It really is that easy. Can I get an amen for that?
By Minister Judy Stack
Have you ever dreamed of something? Have you ever imagined something very dear, and then thought about what it would be like if it was actually coming true for you? Maybe it’s a job you always wanted. Perhaps you hoped for many years to have children. Or dreamed about the time when you could retire or be able travel or be free to pursue some things you love.
What if it actually happened!?! What if your dreams came true?
We often talk about how difficult it is to deal with disappointment, but have you ever had to face the prospect of God blessing you in a way you barely hoped to dream of? How would this overturn your world? Have you ever thought, “God, I know this is what I wanted, but now that it’s here, I’m terrified!”
Beyond that even: What if God, in fact, wanted to give us MORE than we were asking for?
On Sunday, Pastor Jeff preached about the story from John where Jesus said to those he had recently miraculously fed, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill” (6:26). As Pastor noted, what’s going on here is not that people want something too miraculous from Jesus but actually that they want too little. They want only enough Jesus to meet their obvious physical needs. Just enough to get by. They don’t want to be disturbed or confronted or challenged. They want an easy Jesus. They don’t want to be swept up into the whirlwind of the coming of the kingdom of God that Jesus’ signs herald.
This made me think of what Paul says to the early Christian community in Ephesus. He is telling them about what he prays for them. He makes some bold requests of God! He prays four things:
But then he goes on to say, “Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to do exceeding abundantly above all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations” (Eph. 3:20-21). While we may think Paul’s expecting a lot, Paul is saying, “Even my vision is too small! God’s vision for you is even bigger than what I just prayed! It is beyond what we could ask or imagine.”
This is what Jesus was saying too. God wants to do more in you and through you, by the power of God’s spirit, than you are prepared for. More even than you may think you want! Because change is scary; it takes courage—whether it is a dream coming true or those places in us and through us where God’s spirit starts to work and the Kingdom starts to come. And we are “filled with all the fullness of God.”
Jesus and Paul invite us to dream and pray and ask and imagine bigger! Big enough to scare us. Because God is able and wants to do “exceeding abundantly above all we can ask or imagine.” And in that we will experience “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
By Francisco Herrera, GLC Theologian-in-Residence
In 1981 my mom moved my family to a neighborhood in a Metropolitan Kansas City called Roeland Park. With the our house sold, custody hearings (over me) still raging, and the lives of her children utterly shattered, she drove us (me six ears old, and my brother Nicholas and sister Patricia, 15 and 16 respectively) across the state line from Missouri into Kansas to seek little bit of peace and distance, as well as live in a county with one of the best public school systems in the nation. Similarly, as a solid middle-class and working-class area of Kansas City, it had quite a bit of affordable housing - certainly affordable enough that a single mother with inconsistent child support payments, a part-time job at 7/11, and three children could rent a three-bedroom house in the 1980's. And so in this neighborhood I remained from the age of six to about two weeks after my eleventh birthday.
And during my first walk down Lyndale Avenue, in search of hot cakes and new friends at the local McDonald's, is when that ‘Roeland Park’ feeling first came back.
I saw the apartment buildings and houses, some a little worse for wear, some near-perfect. As I passed out event fliers the next day, I spent time talking with people passing the summer afternoon sitting on apartment building steps, or relaxing in lawn chairs on their front porches. With each of these strolls I saw something that I only see in communities like this - communities that are often misunderstood, communities where people sometimes have a hard time making regular mortgage and utility payments, neighborhoods where people have to rely on each other for child care or hot meals because some folks just can't afford to take off of work.
What was that thing that I saw? Dignity. Simple dignity. Something real and unpretentious and true as a summer sunset. Dignity - along almost every step of the 15-minute walk from Gethsemane to McDonald's, and along every step of my not-as-direct walks home.
I have never been fond of any kind of talk about "God's Plan" - as if the Almighty had layed out a malicious game of Twister wherein human souls had to contort themselves every-which-way in order to win salvation, the slightest false move tumbling them through the spotted mat and into The Pit. If there's one thing scripture makes clear is that humanity has been upsetting God's plans from the very beginning - the Garden of Eden, the Covenant with Abraham, the Kings of Israel, and the list goes on and on - but that despite this, God has never failed us, even after our almost spiteful insistence to stray far from what They teach us. And when we come back, like the father of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), God comes running - tears in their eyes, joy in their heart, and so overcome with relief and love as to appear almost dotty.
And this is the God that I know is at work among people of such dignity, of such life, and resilience. Violence happens in the community, and though they may grieve, it doesn't keep them from inviting their friends over to their backyard for some barbecue and a couple of beers. Concern for the future may dampen the mood of an entire family, even their ability to hope, but a good neighbor or two is never so far away that they won't receive reminder that good times are still possible. And just as many who live in this part of Minneapolis have long learned to walk side-by-side, so too does Christ walk side-by-side with them, and it is my great joy to be doing the same with the members of this community these next two months.
And so for this, I will be naming this blog series "All Along Lyndale." Hope you enjoy it.