Cherry Bream, Flickr, under Share-Alike License


I See God

Two weeks ago we met JJ TenClay, Reformed Church in America missionary and social worker. “JJ will work in the region of Naples, Italy, as a social action worker, developing partnerships with medical, mental health/substance abuse, governmental, and social service entities as well as ministries focused on meeting the physical, spiritual, and socioeconomic needs of the over 500,000 migrants in the area, most of whom are from Africa and the Middle East.” She and her family—her husband and two children—have relatively recently relocated to Naples and are immersed in learning the local culture and language as they engage in ministry. They are partnering with the Waldensian Church in Italy. Today we are reintroduced to her husband, the Rev. Tim TenClay, who has written a month of Sunday postings here at the Twelve some time back. Tim is serving as pastor to two local Waldensian congregations.

A few weeks ago, my Italian professor taught me a phrase he’d memorized as a schoolboy, a phrase beautifully set to music by Giovanni Paisiello in an aria from his oratorio La passione di Gesù Cristo:

“Dovunque il guardo giro immenso Dio ti vedo”

[Wherever I look around – O immense God – I see you.]

This isn’t the first time I’ve moved to a new country; it isn’t the first time I’ve lived in a new culture and been surrounded by a new language. My own history has taught me that I’m the kind of person who easily sees the “good” in newness. “New” is almost always exciting to me.

I love dreaming of new things and planning new projects. I love starting new activities and meeting new people. It’s easy for me to look at our new life here and reverently whisper “O immense God, I see you here….”

There is also a certain temptation to imagine that this may be uniquely true of Italy. After all, God is a big deal here. There are polycentenial churches on nearly every corner (and often chapels in between). Priests and nuns scurry around everywhere. I’m equally as likely to grab a seat on a bus next to a brown-robed friar as a heavily-pierced teen. Religion is taught in the public schools; my youngest daughter is instructed to pray before eating her school lunch, and even the most irreverent soul occasionally seems to utter “Dio benedica.”

God is a big deal here.

It’s easy to see God… or more precisely, it’s easy to see the things of God.

As it turns out, there is a certain dark comedy at play. Sometimes the things of God are so attractive that I’m tempted to let them be enough. After all, why bother with God, when the things of God are so magnificent?

God, ironically, can be a bit less inspirational.

Yeah, I actually wrote what you thought you read: God, ironically, can be a bit less inspirational.

There’s nothing inspirational about the stench that emanated from a lumpy pile of humanity I saw this morning hiding from the rain under a broken umbrella and a filthy coat… but could it be that God was there?

There’s nothing inspirational about the terrified, floor-gazing young man I stood next to on the bus yesterday who – for reasons I can only guess – desperately didn’t want anyone to speak to him… but could it be that God was there?

There’s nothing inspirational about the elderly men shuddering from late-stage Parkinsons parked on chairs outside stores or coffee shops (there are at least four of them I see regularly) who seem to be doing little more than waiting for the morning they don’t wake up… but could it be that God is there?

There’s nothing inspirational about the “game” I’ve watched street vendors and police play around one of the local piazzas – vendors setting up their wares… police shooing them away… vendors moving and setting up their wares somewhere else… police shooing them away – repeat all day long… but could it be that God is there?

I have the growing suspicion that many of the places God presence is most clearly revealed would turn out to be places we would seldom modify with the adjective “inspirational.” Yet, it seems they are places where the word is most needed.

The big question is whether or not I (you/we) will even notice amidst all of the “godly things” we have filling up our lives.

Then, I suppose, the question is whether or not we’ll do anything about it.


Conscience Demands

Let me introduce you to JJ TenClay, one of the Reformed Church in America’s newest missionary partners. As her official bio shares: “JJ will work in the region of Naples, Italy, as a social action worker, developing partnerships with medical, mental health/substance abuse, governmental, and social service entities as well as ministries focused on meeting the physical, spiritual, and socioeconomic needs of the over 500,000 migrants in the area, most of whom are from Africa and the Middle East.” She and her family—her husband and two children—have relatively recently relocated to Naples and are immersed in learning the local culture and language as they engage in ministry. They are partnering with the Waldensian Church in Italy.

"The changes in our life must come from the impossibility to live otherwise than according to the demands of our conscience not from our mental resolution to try a new form of life." –Leo Tolstoy

One year ago this month my life changed forever.

There have been previous times when I felt the “demands” of my conscience had led to life-altering decisions. A couple of examples that jump to mind are becoming a foster parent and marrying a seminary student preparing for a life of vocational ministry. Not that I regret any of the major, life changing decisions, but knowing that most of them have not been easy decisions, and that they have come with their own hardships and pain mixed in with the joy, I have—in moments—wondered if I made those decisions because my conscience demanded them, because they were preordained by God, or because I wanted to try “a new form of life.”

So, I must admit I was a little apprehensive when I felt my conscience going into overdrive on October 3, 2013. It was the day I pulled up BBC news on my computer and saw a headline reporting hundreds of migrants from Africa were feared dead after a boat carrying them to Europe sank about a mile off the coast of Italy. You can review the article here. I knew this wasn’t a new issue, as my husband—Tim—had been in Italy in January 2013 for a conference and had heard about it. Thousands of migrants (many asylum seekers fleeing their countries due to war, genocide, religious, racial & ethnic persecution, famine, corrupt governments, etc.) from Africa and the Middle East have been attempting this trek to Europe for years, with many dying in the process. This was not a new issue—but October 3rd was a catalyst for bringing the issue into the international spotlight, and I felt ashamed that I was not more aware of it nonetheless. One of the most haunting articles about the boat sinking I have read can be found here. I felt immediate tears well up in my eyes as I thought about the approximate 500 people who were aboard the boat (approximate, of course, because the human traffickers who put them on the boat didn’t keep meticulous records). I prayed for the dead, the missing, the survivors, those aiding in the rescue (as well as search and recovery for bodies), and loved ones. I got angry at those who “allowed this tragedy to happen,” but quickly found myself feeling convicted that we must all take some responsibility for tragedies like this that occur. And I knew my conscience would not allow me to turn away from this issue.

It was later in October I discovered the Reformed Church in America had posted a new position for a social action missionary to be appointed and partner with the Waldensian Methodist church in Italy to provide social services for migrants arriving in Italy. This partnership would take place in Naples, Italy, where over 500,000 migrants live (which is currently approximately 1/8 of the population of the Naples area). I knew I felt called to apply for this position, felt my conscience leading towards this position, but it was a bit terrifying when I was offered the position. This would be the biggest life change my conscience has demanded, and it would be a monumental change for my spouse and two young children as well.

We spent the first half of 2014 preparing for our journey and boarded a plane for Italy in September. Any doubts I had about our journey leading us to Italy were quickly washed away the first time I stood in Piazza Garibaldi and watched hundreds of migrants meeting together on the crowded and narrow side streets at midday, trying to sell various goods as street vendors to make a living wage or attempting to find some shade from the sweltering Neopolitan heat. They were washed away when I met Lorna (a resident of the U.K. who currently lives in Berlin) in my Italian language school. Lorna has spent the last few years working with migrants who have—in the twists and turns of their own lives—made their way from their home countries to Europe via Italy, then to Germany, where many of them are squatting in abandoned buildings they have claimed as their own, attempting to build safe communities inside of an unsafe and uncertain environment. The few stories she has shared with me about the lives of some of the migrants are horrifying, and I expect I will hear many more that are equally so. It solidifies—in my heart and mind—that this is the place for my family and me to share the love and compassion of our Triune God with a lost and broken world.

I have now shared what my conscience is demanding of me….what is your conscience demanding of you?

As I write this post there is another aspect of the immigration issue in Europe that is weighing on my conscience. After the October 3, 2013 boat disaster, the Italian government began a program called Mare Nostrum, which patrols the Mediterranean Sea with the main objective of rescuing migrants in distress. This op-ed piece from the New York times explain Mare Nostrum further and reports that 139,000 people have been saved by Mare Nostrum since last October. The European Union has decided to stop assisting Italy with Mare Nostrum, and as of November 1st, will instead be funding the Frontex joint operation Triton, which has the primary purpose of protecting European borders. With funding cut from the EU, Italy will most likely need to cease operation of Mare Nostrum, risking another spike in immigrant deaths. Please join me in praying and advocating for life saving solutions.


What a Waste...

The Girls (whom I have written about before) as they are commonly referred to around here, Ila and Lisa, are five and one-half years old, which in chicken years is pretty up there. On average the typical laying hen lives one to three years before she is culled. For commercial/economic reasons they usually have one to two good seasons of egg laying before they are retired. In comparison to contemporary chickens bred and raised for meat who on average are slaughtered at six to eight weeks, one to three years is long. How long an average lifespan a chicken would have if it did not become dinner depends upon its breed and type and obviously overall health but they have been known to live into their mid to late teens. Nevertheless, nearing the six year mark, the Girls are certainly on the upper age range of the average chicken.

Many folks who have not had much contact with live poultry will often ask how many eggs they lay a day. Again this depends on breed and type but for the most part a hen in the prime of her laying years—one to two seasons—will often lay one egg a day which can add up quickly enough to nearly 300 eggs a year. As she ages she will continue to lay but will produce fewer eggs each season. For the Girls, Ila even as a five-year-old hen was laying an egg just about every other day since early February with only recently entering a molting stage or resting period where her energy is redirected and she replaces her old feathers with new ones. Not bad for an older bird. (Incidentally, Lisa has some reproductive health issue and is no longer laying but she does well with providing Ila company so she certainly earns her keep.)

The reason I share about my chickens in this post however is not simply because I’m a weird urban dweller who raises chickens, but rather because the Girls have made me appreciative of the work they do, for what they provide, and makes me sensitive—even extra-sensitive—to the value of something seemingly simple yet incredibly complex as an egg, the significant investment that is put into it, and in the cases when one has been inadvertently broken, the great loss. It takes considerable work to produce an egg.

A recent National Geographic article recently reported and was entitled: One-Third of Food Is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done. Perhaps we should take a moment and let that statistic sink in. One-third of food is lost or wasted! This is a global phenomena in both the developed and developing world. In the US alone this includes 28% of eggs by weight is lost or wasted. That’s a lot of hens doing a lot of work that is seemingly going unappreciated. But of course it’s a lot more than just eggs, and for that matter chicken too. In the US 133 billion pounds of food is wasted. This includes everything from fruit and vegetables, meat and milk, grains, nuts, and oil. More than 30 percent of our food isn’t eaten and most of it is because it is wasted. That fruit at the farmers’ market that looked so appetizing when you bought it got stuck in the back of the refrigerator until it went moldy, wasted. Going out to dinner with friends the other night when you weren’t able to finish your plate, half of it got dumped, wasted. The box of whatever-it-was in your pantry that had a used by date that has already passed, you through out concerned it’d gone bad, wasted. For these reasons and many more, food is wasted.

But it’s not only at personal level. Stores throw out enormous amounts of food annually. The British retailer Tesco threw out 110 million pounds of food in the UK stores last year. A particular solid waste authority in California’s Salinas Valley receives between four and eight million pounds of vegetables directly from the fields. Waste happens at all levels. In the US this waste means $162 billion is wasted annually. $162 billion dollars is thrown away.

Food waste also takes place in the developing world, however there significant amounts of food is lost due to infrastructure and food chain issues.

This is taking place when globally 805 million people are going hungry with 49 million people in the USA are considered “food insecure,” which is defined as “not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

Alongside the tremendous waste and loss of resources—food and money—and the reality of the huge numbers of hungry people are the environmental implications of the waste: the waste in land use, diminishment in biodiversity, and climate damage especially when our food waste is landfilled and releases methane that escapes into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas roughly 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than CO2.

Waste has never been a biblical value. But it goes well beyond simply an issue of waste. Somehow, in the abundance that many of us do experience we have lost focus on the complexity of our actions and how they are interrelated with others—from the environment, hunger, climate, etc. As well as the people and animals that connect it all.

Therefore I share about the Girls because somehow they serve as a reminder, daily and visible, as well as tastefully providing their eggs.


Oktoberfest Beer and God's Love

As the warmth of September gives way to the cool of October, doubtless do palates begin to change and many begin to crave the offerings which this season brings, for example freshly picked apples from a trip to a local orchard or the pumpkin-spiced flavoured almost anything that “food” marketers promote. But for some this season harkens to something else: Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest is the sixteen-day festival that begins in late September and runs until the first Sunday in October. Thus, we are in the midst of it and it concludes this coming Sunday. Officially itself, Oktoberfest, one of the world’s largest festivals, happens in Munich, Germany, the capital and largest city of the German state of Bavaria. It’s historical roots began in 1810 when Crown Prince Ludwig—who would eventually became King Ludwig of Bavaria from 1825 to 1848—married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on the 12th of October. A marriage celebration was held for the subjects of the Kingdom of Bavaria which included horse races outside of the city of Munich. These races continued in the following years, as well as an agricultural fair, and eventually a parade, a commemoration of sorts that eventually became named Oktoberfest. This festival continues to this day drawing over 6 million people to it annually. Not only has it remained a local celebration in Munich, but it has been replicated both around Germany and around the world with similar Oktoberfest festivals.

As with many festivals, and especially to those who celebrate the fullness of Oktoberfest now, it is about the tastes of Oktoberfest. The various food cravings this season and celebration harken to are the very traditional German foods of the Bavarian region: pretzels and potato pancakes, wurst (sausages)—especially Weisswurst (white sausage), sauerkraut, red cabbage, and one of my favourites—cheese noodles or Käsespätzle. But the food that is most associated with Oktoberfest is obviously beer.

Beer however is facing many challenges these days. From climate change to contaminated water, humanity is affecting beer with adverse results. As we have known for sometime but may only occasionally be reminded of, where your food comes from, the source of your ingredients, and especially the environment that supports it, affects its taste and nutrition profile. This is called terroir. And it’s not just about wine and cheese. Beer is significantly affected by the water from which it comes, not only by basic sanitary necessity, but also by pH levels and its mineral profile. As a posting on NPR’s The Salt blog reported:

For instance, consider the famed "Burton snatch" — a term for the sulfurous quality of certain beers, especially those made in Burton-on-Trent, England. As [Garrett] Oliver wrote in his Oxford Companion to Beer, "high levels of sulfate in Burton waters (up to 800 ppm) bring a hard dry mineral edge... and this makes the water ideal for the production of pale ales." Its unique water turned Burton into a brewing boomtown back in the 19th century, building such a solid reputation that just a few years ago, it was called "the world's most important beer town."

As craft beer makers have been expanding and replicating their breweries into new and different locations, much effort has been taken to mimic the waters of their original sources.

But what happens when that very water source is changed, fouled, or polluted? Much has been the coverage that the US west coast is facing, especially California. But less coverage has been directed at what that drought means for the craft beer industry. This summer one of the largest craft brewers in the country have contemplated on changing from their original water source, water from northern California’s Russian River, to ground water. The ground water in that area has a heavy mineral profile that would drastically change the taste. The change of waters sources though would be in reaction to the severe drought and water shortage of Russian River water and restrictions.

More bad news, a recent scientific analysis of beers discovered “stuff” in the liquid that one simply doesn’t want in there:

Researchers lab-tested samples of 24 varieties of German beers, including 10 of the nation’s most popular brands. Through their superpowers of microscopic analysis, the team discovered plastic microfibers in 100 percent of the tested beer samples.

Pieces of plastic in all the beers tested! That is not a good thing. This research was done in Germany with German beers, but if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere!

Admittedly, beer may not be the most reformed of subjects to contemplate, but as John Calvin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!” Actually, I have no proof Calvin said that. It is most often misattributed to Benjamin Franklin who most likely never said it either. Still, I think Calvin could have said it. For sure God does love us. Happiness may not be one of God’s highest objectives…but anyway. Calvin would indeed uphold the goodness of God’s creation and of our place and role in it. I’m pretty sure Calvin would care about the standards of the water that goes into our beer or whatever. I’m quite sure God cares, especially when creation groans.

Which is why during this changing of the season, as late summer of September becomes the early autumn of October, and the chill in the air brings one’s senses to think of apples or pumpkin-spice or Oktoberfest beer, we need to have gratitude for all God’s good gifts, but also responsibility to see the connections and to work for wholeness and healing. Even of the waters in our beer.


Remembered in an Instant

Recently late one Friday night I was returning from having visited a parishioner at a local hospital. Walking in the upper east side of New York City heading west towards the Lexington Avenue subway I past a fruit vendor, a very common urban scenario. It was a rather large street stand on a corner and was accompanied by a refrigerated produce truck whose trailer door was open. There was a combination of COLD fruit and vegetable smells—not the same as a fresh farm market—rather the scent of refrigerated cold itself, perhaps refrigerant, and maybe even a little whiff of perspiration from the vendor himself. Continuing along, prompted by the overall "aroma," my mind was instantly transported to the Bloomfield Sale Barn and Auction.

The Bloomfield Sale Barn and Auction was a quintessentially rural phenomena that brought together the fullness of business capitalism and social meeting grounds, a market and a place to gather. Thirty, forty years ago, such sale barns and auctions dotted the landscape of northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania serving the agricultural community of small farms. Now with fewer small farms and greater suburban encroachment, many of the sale barns have had to adapt or go out of business; there is less livestock sold, there are more flea markets instead.

But as a little kid on so many occasion while at the livestock auction my family would also walk through the market stands where Amish and English shopped and sold alongside one another: by the meat counter, the cheese section, and the produce. Those were good times. Those are good memories. It’s funny how a particular smell on a Manhattan street corner could instantly—at least in my mind—return me to that place and time.

This occurred a few days before the anniversary of 9/11. As such it made me mindful of the various places we go, people we meet, experiences we experience, and overall just how mysteriously we carry them all. I'm reminded that one can be transported in an instant, by a smell, a sight, a song, a place, and even a day on the calendar. These things can transport us to another time and place, to a significant joy, a lingering sorrow, a real trauma. Or sometimes just to a great heaviness that presents itself seemingly out of the blue.

I reckon this a fact of life. But am I often aware of it as a pastor? Are we readily cognizant of it in the church? And by wondering, not only in the people we function with, but in our own selves as well?

It seems to me however, this dynamic being what it is and the strength of memory itself, this is in part why the scripture as narrative is so powerful. As we encounter our stories and memories we need also see them in the light of the sacred story. I say this not in the sense of immediate healing, be it from trauma or whatever. Nor do I intend here a simple easy answer, that it all ends well at the end. It’s more complicated than that. Rather there is something here about holding the both/and. There is something about association and experience. There is power in remembering. It helps us to know who we are.

“A wandering Aramean was my father…” or “remember when you were slaves in Egypt” are not just quaint biblical story points, but are themselves various memories in our own narratives. And because memories happen in different ways—not only in the words we hear—the sacraments serve also to reinforce our memories, serving to connect us across that time and space.

We begin our Sunday morning worship together with a congregant pouring the water into the baptismal so as to reinforce the notion, “Remember your baptism!” as it relates to our identity as Christ’s disciples. But it also serves to remind us of God’s greater story, of exodus and fleeing, of salvation and redemption through the waters. And then all waters begin to remind us, or at least in part all waters carry with them a memory. The doughiness of the bread or the pungency of the wine recall not only what Jesus did the night that he was betrayed but recalls the Passover story in part, and the table of the Lord in part, and then every table carries that association, that memory. Importantly, I don’t think it’s about changing our memories or replacing them, but about remembering better.

If we are hard-wired as it seems we are, to carry memories recalled in an instant with us, how can we in our worship and formation do it better?