Archives For Amazing World

As 2017 draws to a close, I want to thank each of you for the openness of your heart to God’s abiding concern for all of Creation. I pray that you will be moved to do what you can in your personal life and in your public life to protect and restore God’s earth. May you do so as part of your whole commitment to being a disciple of Jesus.

I pray, too, that you know your gifts and the meaning your life has in your particular circumstances. Tap those gifts! Pursue your meaning and your mission. I would welcome hearing from you what your meaning and mission are and how you are using your gifts.

And how does your personal meaning and mission intersect with God’s earth? Remember – the good news that God offers through Jesus is good news for the whole earth.

Finally, I hope the photo below brings a smile. Earlier this year, which has been a challenging one, our family adopted two kittens – Gus and Maui – from a local shelter. These siblings had been rescued from the house of a hoarder where they were neglected. As a result, they’ve had some ongoing intestinal issues. I’m happy to say, however, that thanks to my wife’s attentive care, they seem to be getting better. (Who knew that pumpkin puree was so healthy for animals and that they would enjoy eating it?)

Both cats have revealed a talent for climbing. Maui in particular has had a habit of climbing up our Christmas tree through the interior. She has then played with ornaments or just observed life in the house. In this photo you see Maui enjoying a nativity moment. Perhaps she hears heaven and nature singing?

I pray that you will both be blessed and be a blessing in 2018.

Black cat perched in Christmas tree with nativity scene ornament in the foreground.

Have you ever eaten a pawpaw?

I just tasted one for the first time. It brought to mind the phrase from Psalm 34:8 – “O taste and see that the LORD is good…”

Linda Wiens, pictured here, is in the middle of this story. A former staff member and current volunteer for the non-profit organization for which I work, Linda organized the planting of a small demonstration orchard near our office a number of years ago. Among the American quinces, apples, pears, persimmons, cherries, plums, and other fruit trees she had planted, there were two pawpaw trees.

Linda Wiens holds the leaves of a pawpaw tree aside so the fruit on the tree can be seen.

Linda Wiens, a long-time member of a local Mennonite congregation, shows the fruit of a pawpaw tree that she had planted with many other kinds of fruit trees in a small orchard.

This fall, one of the pawpaws bore fruit for the first time.

As way of background, here’s the first paragraph of the first chapter of Andrew Moore’s excellent book – Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit:

Throughout the years it’s gone by a lot of names – frost banana, Indiana banana, fetid-bush, bandango, custard apple, prairie banana, poor man’s banana – but most of the time it’s just been called pawpaw. At first glance, both the fruit and the tree seem out of place in North America. A cluster of young pawpaws hanging from its branch resembles a miniature hand of bananas. And those clusters are tucked behind the tree’s lush foliage, shaded by leaves often a foot in length, larger and broader than those of avocado and mango. Wild pawpaws often appear kidney-shaped, two to six inches long, and one to three inches wide; they typically weigh from just a few ounces to half a pound. But under cultivation – and yes, there are pawpaw breeders and growers – fruits that weigh more than a pound and half are not uncommon.

This native American fruit can be found in 26 states. The heart of its range runs from the far eastern side of Kansas all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The line formed by the northern borders of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas roughly forms the range’s east-west backbone. Check out the map (you’ll need to scroll down a bit) in this good online growing guide.

Speaking of geography, if someone tells you they’re from a town called Paw Paw, you’ll need to ask them which one. Six states – Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and West Virginia – have a town called Paw Paw. And there would be seven if you counted Paw Paw Island in Louisiana.

George Washington planted pawpaws at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson sent pawpaw seeds to Europe. It was even a big part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s diet in the last week of their trip back to Saint Louis.

It’s a part of American history that we had forgotten. And it’s now being rediscovered.

But wait, you say, what does it taste like? How do you eat it?

A plate with cross sections of pawpaws on display as well as two uncut pawpaws.

You can slice pawpaws up in cross-sections (after peeling off the skin) or cut them in half length-wise and spoon out the flesh of the fruit.

A close up of cut-up cross-sections of a pawpaw which have had the skins removed.

You will likely never find a fresh pawpaw in your local grocery store. It has a very short shelf life, and it will not ripen if picked prematurely. To paraphrase the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, there is a time to eat pawpaws and there is a time to wait for the next pawpaw season.

I found the taste something like a mix of banana, mango, and custard. The consistency reminded me of a well-ripened avocado.

And I liked it! Despite having to work around the large black seeds, I liked the flavor.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I cut up more cross-sections for our Friday staff meeting in early October. Some of my colleagues appreciated the novel taste. Others did not.)

There are many culinary options for this American fruit. We know that the Iroquois, for example, dried pawpaws and then used them in sauces and also cooked them into corn cakes. This worked well nutritionally.  Corn is very low in niacin while pawpaw is rich in it. Native Americans found the tree and its fruit so useful that they spread the tree west of the Mississippi and north into the area around Ontario.

At the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Athens County, Ohio, you can taste a wide variety of foods in which people are using pawpaws.

Salsas. Curries. Puddings. Mousse. Crepes. Ice Cream. All with pawpaws.

And that’s not even mentioning the many micro-brews. Like the Pawpaw Sour Ale from Upland Brewing Company and Putnam’s Pawpaw Ale from Marietta Brewing. There is also the Paw Paw Wheat from Jackie O’s Brewery in Athens, Ohio.

I could go on for a long time about this fascinating plant and its lore. I’d like to tell you more about the fact that zebra swallowtail butterflies can only persist as long as there are pawpaws. Or that pawpaw trees contain complex chemical compounds that fight cancer.

But I want to end with a question.

How does the pawpaw fit into your understanding of God’s world?

Are theology, prayer, and worship in a church building the only ways to know and connect with God? Or is God also with us and pleased with us when we immerse ourselves in this complex world and understand, appreciate, savor, and mend it?

I’d vote for the latter. And I’d say pawpaws are a good place to start.

 

I urge Christians and churches to plant native species of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers in their landscapes. If you’re in the home range of pawpaws and have the right conditions, why not plant a few of them? I planted two last  year on the east side of our house where it’s not too windy and the soil rarely dries out completely. (By the way, you need to plant two or more pawpaws relatively close to each other for the trees to have a chance to bear fruit). According to this article from Indianapolis, at least one church and a synagogue have planted pawpaws. If you’ve heard of others, please let me know!

 

Five or six years ago, I planted two New Jersey Tea shrubs in two separate areas of our yard devoted to indigenous prairie, savanna, and woodland plants. By adding New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) I hoped to add even more diversity to the plantings we already had.

New Jersey Tea isn’t one of the more well recognized native plants of the Midwest today. Early settlers knew it, however, and knew that its leaves could be used for making tea. This tea was particulary popular during the Revolutionary War as an alternative to those teas being imported into the colonies.

The challenge in using this relatively low-growing shrub in the home landscape is that rabbits love to eat it. “Love” is an understatement. One of the two disappeared within a year of being planted and was never seen again, presumably lost to the horde of hares in our neighborhood.

After a year in which it had bloomed, the remaining New Jersey Tea appeared to have met the same fate as the first as I couldn’t find it the following spring. When it reappeared last year in the midst of the other native flowers and grasses, I protected it with wire mesh fencing. But when I couldn’t find it this spring in a cursory look, I came to the conclusion that, despite my efforts, it had not survived. The temptation to devise elaborate and deadly schemes for dealing once and for all with the rabbits of the area was very strong.

But lo and behold, this past weekend as I did some weeding in the area I noticed unusual flowers and decided to look closer. Sure enough – the New Jersey Tea was blooming modestly as you can see in the photo below. (Lest you think I was completely daft in not being able to see such an obvious plant before, I should mention that I took this photo very close up. The leaves and blooms are actually fairly small and unobtrusive.)

The resilient New Jersey Tea shrub in our garden just after a rain.

Have you considered replacing portions of the lawn of your yard or your church’s land with indigenous plants? There are many options in how you do so, from creating carefully designed beds to more natural sections of habitat.

It’s worth the effort. Doing so honors our Creator God. It is a life-affirming action that says something authentically and counterculturally Christian about your values and your church’s values.

Having native plants around your home and church also offer the chance to observe the varied and complex relationships between different elements of Creation. New Jersey Tea, for example, is not just a delectable source of sustenance for rabbits. It fixes life-giving nitrogen in the soil, and its small, white, fragrant flowers are of value to butterflies and a variety of other small pollinators. And where you have small creatures you tend to have the occasional larger creature that feeds on them. In this case, the “larger” creature is the hummingbird.

Yes, those tiny and graceful ornithological wonders we typically see sipping on the nectar of flowers and the sweetened water of feeders are also completely ready to scarf up protein packages in the form of tiny bees, wasps, flies, and beetles.

I’m looking forward to the day when my family and I will see a hummingbird doing just that. If only the hummingbirds could do something about the rabbits…

 

To see better photos of more mature New Jersey Tea shrubs and to learn more about this beautiful plant, especially the many pollinators that draw sustenance from it, check this useful website out.

We have more to learn from Robert Marchand than just about the power of will and the importance of exercise to a long life.

Frenchman Robert Marchand, as you can read in this article, recently set the a world record for his age class – 105-plus years – by riding 14.010 miles in one hour. Ironically, as the video below also relates, a coach had told him many decades ago that “he should give up cycling because he would never achieve anything on a bike.”

 

The story within the story that caught my attention is a quote from his physiologist, Veronique Billat. She said, according to the article, “He could have been faster but he made a big mistake. He has stopped eating meat over the past month after being shocked by recent reports on how animals are subjected to cruel treatment.”

For the physiologist, the mistake was that Marchand had forfeited the chance to achieve even better performance by listening to his conscience. Without intending to do so, Billat has provided us with a metaphor for the myopic way of thinking and living that characterizes many of us today.

What matters most, she is asserting, is our personal performance. Or, taken more broadly, our personal benefit. Performance. Profit. Convenience. Power. Information. Pleasure. What we want and desire is primary. The other beyond ourselves does not matter and has no ethical standing.

Billat is not some French aberration to humanity. She is actually just a mouthpiece for what the dominant values and culture of our world, even of too many Christian circles, have long been. The possibility, for example, that there might be a moral dimension to how animals are raised for our consumption clearly doesn’t enter her mind. What matters is whether our needs are being met and whether we are achieving glory.

By contrast, Robert Marchand is remarkable for the condition of his heart.

Of course, I don’t mean just his physical heart that enabled him to put on another inspiring bicycle performance at an advanced age. I also use “heart” in the way the Bible often does – the center from which our will, emotions, desires, and thoughts are generated.

As we grow older, layers of rationalizations and justifications tend to build up on our hearts like barnacles on a ship. In the process, we lose the ability to respond to people and life around us out of simple love and kindness that is, in God’s original framework, what life is all about.

At 105 years, Marchand is still able to respond with a pure heart to new information about the impact of his choices on life around him. We don’t know how he learned about how farm animals are being routinely treated. But we do know that once the information entered his mind, his heart would not let him ignore the ethical implications. He changed a habit of his long life to maintain the integrity of his values.

What is interesting, too, is how Marchand’s character is both strong in its matter-of-fact compassion and its matter-of-fact determination to do great things with fearless tenacity and pluck. We see that in his performance, which clearly came out of a commitment to daily habits of exercise, good diet, and sleep. We also hear it when he says, “I’m now waiting for a rival.”

We tend to assume that a good-hearted, whole-hearted person will be a gentle, never-hurt-a-fly wallflower. This isn’t necessarily so. Vigor, sense of purpose, and energy are part and parcel of hearts that are fully alive.

We are meant to have strength-filled love and love-filled strength.

Robert Marchand gives us a sense of what that looks like. May we, with God’s help, come to have hearts like that, too.

 

The title of this blog is, admittedly, a shameless attempt to grab your attention and, perhaps, cause you to smile at a time when the country’s mood is in turmoil. I believe there are lessons to be gained from the Cubs’ first World Series championship in 108 years that bear on our effort to live out a whole Christian faith as communities of believers. You’ll find ten below.

A vision and a plan are needed: The Cubs’ World Series victory did not happen by accident. Theo Epstein was hired as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs in 2011. In 2012, the Cubs lost 101 games out of 162. In 2013, they were barely better as they lost 96 while winning just 66. But Epstein had a plan for getting the Cubs to the championship level just as he had taken the Boston Red Sox to two World Series victories. It unfolded over time. It involved change in almost every aspect of the Cubs’ organization. And it worked. What vision and plan are you part of for God’s desires for this world? Do you know what your gifts are? Have you figured out how to use them for maximum impact?

Recognize needs and seize opportunities: Plans can only go so far. There are times when you must adapt, recognize critical moments, and act decisively to pursue opportunities you didn’t expect. Recognizing their need for better relief pitching in middle of this season, the Cubs acquired pitcher Mike Montgomery (and another pitcher) from Seattle on July 20 this year. Five days later the Cubs traded four good prospects to the Yankees for the hardest throwing pitcher in baseball – relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman. Both Montgomery and Chapman played key roles in their regular season and playoff success. In fact, Montgomery secured the final out in Game 7. God gives us agency and free will to make smart choices and to adjust to changes in life. We should be on our toes and not on autopilot with the assumption that God will take care of everything.

Work collaboratively and joyfully: Epstein is brilliant. But he hired people into the organization who were also smart and good at their particular functions, whether that be scouting or marketing. And from all accounts, he let them do their jobs, working with them in collaborative ways. One of the reasons the Cubs were so fun to watch, too, was the genuine fun and friendly bonds the players seemed to enjoy together. Maddon encouraged them to keep loose. You and I need each other and other Christians in whatever circumstances we’re in to be most effective for God. These should be relationships of mutual respect and cooperation. And there should be some lightness and joy.

Expect a crooked path to success: The Cubs didn’t go 162-0 in the regular season this year. At one point in the season, they actually began to sputter. During the National League Championship Series, they fell behind the Dodgers. They were down 3-1 in the World Series to the Indians. They lost their 6-3 lead in Game 7 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Their spirits were nearly crushed. Some players were even crying during the rain delay before the 10th inning bregan. Life dishes out pain and exposes one’s failings. Expect it. Persevere through it.

Failure both teaches and must be forgotten: By the time Cubs’ second baseman Javier Baez came up in the 5th inning of Game 7, my son and I were sure he was going to make another out swinging at pitches miles from the strike zone. He had been 4-for-26 at that point and was, uncharacteristically, making errors in the field. He was facing Corey Kluber, the Indians’ best pitcher. What did he do? He rocked a pitch to center field for a home run. Kluber was then removed from the game. From what the broadcasters said, Cubs coaches had been working with Baez on hitting technique and encouraging him to not try to pull every pitch. It worked. Baez evidently listened. And he had the strength of mind to put his failures behind him, stay composed, and perform at the peak of his abilities in the moment he was in.

Use strengths, work around weaknesses: From about 2012, John Lester, the Cubs’ premier starting pitcher, for some psychological reason, began to lose all ability to throw the ball to any of the bases whether to hold a runner on or to throw a runner out on a ground ball or bunt. This is a fundamental part of being a pitcher, much less a baseball player, and yet he couldn’t do it. Jason Heyward was signed to a huge $184 million, eight-year contract with the expectation that he would be a foundational, complete player for the Cubs. But during the regular season, he ended up batting an anemic .230. And when crunch time came in the World Series he managed only a miserable .150. Yet, both Lester and Heyward made huge impacts as the Cubs found ways to use them. Lester pitched crucial innings. Heyward played great defense in the outfield and gave a talk during the rain delay after the ninth inning that calmed his teammates and helped them come out and win in the seventh game in the 10th inning under tremendous pressure. People around you don’t have to be perfect to be valuable in their role. Neither do you.

Leaders will make mistakes: By the seventh game of the World Series, Joe Maddon’s calm demeanor and relaxed approach to his leadership that we had seen throughout the season had frayed. You could see him grimacing when players made mistakes. He made some pitching moves that were questioned at the time they were made and proved to be bad ones. But in baseball and in the life of a church, even the best of leaders are not perfect. And we shouldn’t expect them to be.

Money helps: According to Spotrac, the Cubs had the fifth highest payroll in Major League Baseball at just over $186 million. Cleveland was at 21st with almost $115 million. Adequate and even generous funding of a church or ministry by people or organizations which have been blessed financially is, similarly, very important.

Cherish shared bonds over time: A friend of mine passed away far too early in his life a few years ago. He was a huge Cubs fan, even when he moved to New Mexico. I remember us having heated (but friendly) arguments about the relative strengths of the Cubs versus the White Sox when we were kids on the sidewalk of our Chicago neighborhood sidewalk on summer days. I found myself thinking often of him during the World Series. I know his family cried upon the Cubs’ victory in large part because they wished they could have shared it with him. I heard of a Cubs’ fan listening to Game 7 at the side of his father’s grave to honor their common connection to the Cubs. All of this is a small taste of what bonds between Christian family members and even between just members should be and can be. Does your church have that shared bond? Do you and others you know have that shared excitement and passion around your mission that is in continuity with past centuries of disciples?

Being lovable isn’t the point: For decades there was an aura of security and comfort around the Cubs. Wrigley Field was a great place to go and enjoy the sunshine and the company of friends. The baseball being played was like background music and was, to many, of no real consequence. People still showed up. There was even a certain comfort in their perennial problems. But playing baseball, like any sport, is ultimately about striving to win. Only if you’re doing everything possible to do so are you really playing the game. Likewise, a Christian life shouldn’t be defined only by being lovable and comforting and looking forward to peace and heaven when we die. Our eternal lives are already under way. The way of life we are part of is about taking on challenges in this world. There is a call to action inherent in being a follower of Jesus. Like the Cubs of 2016, we should be a goodhearted group of people who also are committed down to our very bones to win at the game we’re in. For Christians that means using our energy and abilities to live out God’s goodness and to struggle against evil in this world.