The Earth Is the Lord's

From Jes Kast-Keat

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    the world, and those who live in it. Psalm 24:1


Last week, like many others this autumn, I went to an apple orchard to pick apples. I was so happy to walk on dirt and not concrete that I went to the pumpkin patch and just laid on the ground watching the clouds in the sky. As I laid there I thought of a class I took in seminary called "The Earth is the Lord's" which Dr. Carol Bechtel taught. One of the texts for that class was written by Ellen Davis and it was called Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. The idea of the book was to help us read Scripture with the land as one of the main characters. I pay much more attention to how often the land is mentioned in Scripture now due to this class. I often find myself asking questions like: How is the land referenced in this passage? Who is talking about the land and in what way are they talking about the land? What is distinct about this land? What is God's relationship with the land in this passage? 



From Jeff Munroe

At different points in the D-Day movie The Longest Day, both a German officer and an American officer say, “It sure is hard to tell what side God is on.” I’ve been feeling that way this past week. 

I’ll start with baseball.  Although the essence of baseball is failure, I’ve always disliked those faux poet sportswriters who sit at word processors and type out odes to the old ball game as the key to unlocking the meaning of life.  And yet . . . as daylight fades and nature prepares for its winter’s sleep, we’re in the midst of the baseball playoffs and if your heart was set on Clayton Kershaw or Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera or Oakland or Washington or Detroit or Los Angeles (Dodgers and Angels) or Pittsburgh your heart has been broken.   My heart was set on Detroit, which, history shows again and again, is a lousy place to set your heart. 

Why isn’t Lent in the fall?  We are moving steadily into darkness and watching my beloved Tigers fail has turned out to be the least painful of all the bad news around me.  I guess Lent isn’t in the fall because Easter is at the end of it and the way I feel today is like everything is marching into failure, fear or death with no rebirth in sight. We’re heading into Good Friday and Easter feels a long way off.


A Crucifix in a bar, and the surprising good news of the Cross

On one episode of the irreverent sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Charlie, Frank, Mac, and Dennis are having a "managerial meeting" at Paddy's, their fictional Philly bar. As they haggle through items on their list, they come to "having a crucifix in the bar." Mac, surprised, wonders, "why wouldn't we have a crucifix in the bar?" Charlie, equally surprised, deadpans, ”Because we're a bar." Mac, in return, makes his case: "Yeah, but we're an Irish bar!” Arguments then ensue over size of the proposed crucifix, whether there should be blood, and its placement in the bar. They eventually compromise, and reach an agreement that there can be a crucifix in the bar, but only in the back, and only if it's "a tasteful crucifix."

The cross of Jesus of Nazareth is the most universally familiar symbol in the world, and is largely seen as a tasteful decoration in the 21st century: crosses decorate buildings, hang from necklaces, feature in oil paintings, and are tattooed into the collegiate flesh of spring breakers.  

This is deeply ironic, for the cross was also a universally-known symbol in the world of the 1st century—but not no one thought of crosses as tasteful, or thought anything religiously devout or uplifting. In the world of Jesus and his first followers, the cross was the Roman Empire’s most brutal kind of capital punishment. Everyone knew the sights, sounds, and smells of crucifixion. The Romans reserved crucifixion for the worst kind of criminals, and for insurrectionists, slaves, and enemies of the state. As they put it, a crucified person was “damnatio ad bestias”—damned to the death of a beast. In a word, the cross was obscene.   

Strangely, there was a fast-growing movement which sprung up in the 1st century which actually proclaimed that a degraded, condemned, crucified Person was the true King of the world, and in some way to be identified with God himself.  

All of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the New Testament, and 20 centuries of Christian tradition all insist with one voice that one cannot understand Jesus without the cross.  So, what do we see when we stand in the back of the angry mob on Skull Hill, and stomach a look at Jesus’ Cross?

First, we see what we are like. The accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion show humanity—us!—at our very worst: cruel mockery, faces twisted with hatred, hateful religious and political corruption. Jesus draws out, and pulls onto himself, everything in humanity that is dark, wrong, wicked.  

Now, this is a hard pill to swallow for many 21st-century Western people. Many today are unable to stomach Christianity precisely for this talk about human wrong and wickedness. And yet, an honest look in the mirror consistently reveals that the same base instincts let loose in the Golgotha mob live in us.   

Several years ago, I attended a Sufjan Stevens performance at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. Most of the concert was psychedelic, goofy, playful. But when Stevens came back for an encore, he returned alone, with only an acoustic guitar. To close his show, he performed a rendition of his song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr,” a haunting meditation on the Illinois serial killer infamous for burying his victims in the crawlspace of his home. On the final verse, which he sang in an acapella near-whisper, he admitted,

“And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid.”

All of us, if we’re honest, have some secrets under our floorboards. Christians insist that God takes them seriously, not because God is serious about shame, but because God is serious about redemption.

As we look at Jesus, naked, bleeding, and nailed up to the rough wood of a Roman cross, Christians also tell us that this is what God is like. Down through the centuries, Christians have attempted to find words for the mystery of what God is doing to rescue us in various ways—the Nicene Creed simply and profoundly says that the Cross is “for us and for our salvation.”  

The earliest creedal articulation of Jesus’ cross unfolds that he “was crucified, died, and was buried,” and that Jesus “descended to hell.” Christians have also understood this in various ways, and I find myself taken with the wonderings of the Heidelberg Catechism, John Calvin, and 20th-century Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who all assert that it’s on the cross that Jesus is experiencing the essence of hell—ultimate, complete alienation from God. Jesus shows us a God who goes to hell and back to have us back.

In Puritan John Bunyan’s allegorical account of the Christian spiritual journey, Pilgrim’s Progress, his main character, Christian, is weighed down heavily in life. Upon seeing Jesus’ cross, we’re told that “it was very surprising to him, that the sight of the cross should ease him of his burden.”

Twenty centuries of people have looked at this obscene symbol and been surprised by the same.  

Jared Ayers is the founding and preaching pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, and is currently finishing an M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary’s Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 10 years, and love calling Philadelphia home. They’ve been graced with two sons (Brennan and Kuyper) and a daughter (Rae Ann).


Always Remember!

From James Bratt

My mother died the night before last. It was the end of six months or so of steady decline from an already diminished state of mind and body. Mom suffered a stroke almost nine years ago that left her in a memory-loss unit for the duration. Much of that time she was able—and eager—to talk about things from her youth and childhood, and she always expressed such joy to see us come in the room. If damage to her short-term memory prevented her from remembering what she had for lunch, well, frankly, that wasn’t all bad. Her left peripheral vision was shot too, but that, we joked, simply confirmed her congenital Republicanism. Grade-school teacher that she had been, Mom tried to help the staff take care of residents who “needed a little boost.” As it happened, one of them was the woman under whom she had done her student teaching seventy years before. “Serve as you have been served.” "Lots of give and take."

As the quotes above indicate, my mom, like many, was a great one for proverbs and pithy sayings. The one I remember best was “there’s an easy way and a right way.” (Think about it.) Then too, “comfort before style” put a certain limit on our wardrobe possibilities. “Duty before pleasure”—a formula for infinite postponement it seemed to this teenaged son. Old Deist Ben’s “waste not, want not” came out like pistol shots, those final t’s bearing a clipped edge born of her Sheboygan, Wisconsin childhood.

The phrase with which our mom left us, though, was unusual. “Always remember!” she intoned, rising a bit off her pillow to emphasize the point. This after she hadn’t moved much at all for a week. Her arm came up too, with the index finger raised: “Always remember!” 


Yik Yaking

From Jason Lief

So have you heard of this app? Yik Yak? It's like an anonymous Twitter--post anything you want without anyone else knowing who you are. I came to know of this glorious innovation from a colleauge who showed me post after post of students upset about this or that. Lectures, professors, assignments, sporting events--anything and everything came under relentless attack. I found out that our small Christian college is under attack by liberals and feminists. That's funny really... there are conversatives at Dordt who are more liberal than the liberals, but I'm getting off track. Honestly, I'm not exaclty sure what to make of it. I mean, I remember complaining about professors and assignments and forced my dorm room with my fellow belly achers. But we didn't have the tehcnology to broadcast it. The real question: Would we have done so if we could have? I'm also reluctant to complain about practices that give young people a voice--often a subversive voice--in a world that is overly structured and crammed down their throat. Could Yik Yak serve an important cultural function by giving voice to ideas that might never be heard? Maybe.