Monday, October 29, 2012

C. S. Lewis says: Give

I have a C. S. Lewis Bible.

Yes, like the Young Mother's Bible or the Golfer's Bible or the Wesley Study Bible... well hopefully more like the Wesley Study Bible.

Throughout the C. S. Lewis Bible are selections from Lewis's writing that are meant to compliment the scripture passages, so that he can serve as your "companion" as you read and spur on some reflection on what you're reading. Sometimes the Lewis excerpts are duds; sometimes they dazzle like fireworks and ignite your imagination.

As I was reading 2 Corinthians recently, I stumbled onto a nice selection from Mere Christianity that I wanted to pass along. It is meant to accompany 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, where we hear the familiar words, "God loves a cheerful giver." Read the passage, and then let Mr. Lewis challenge you and stimulate your own reflections.

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them. I am speaking not of "charities" in the common way. Particular cases of distress among your own relatives, friends, neighbours, or employees, which God, as it were, forces upon your notice, may demand much more: even to the crippling and endangering of your own position. For many of us, the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear--fear of insecurity. This must often be recognised as a temptation. Sometimes our pride also hinders our charity; we are tempted to spend more than we ought on the showy forms of generosity (tipping, hospitality) and less than we ought on those who really need our help.

Mere Christianity, book 3, chapter 3

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why are we talking about animals?

I thought it might be helpful to follow up last week's post on "eating mercifully" with a straightforward explanation of why I'm dedicating so much time on the blog and in the church right now to animals. After all, this isn't something that many Christians talk about--in fact, this probably isn't even on the radar for most of the serious, dedicated believers I know. Why, then, am I placing such an emphasis on the issue on the wardrobe and in the ministries at Grace UMC?
I've gone into these questions before, but this time I hope to be a little more direct and clearer than I have been up to now.

One of the best places to start thinking about all of this, in my mind, is with Isaiah, particularly his descriptions of the culmination of all God's saving work in the coming restoration of Israel (Isa 11) and the new heavens and new earth (Isa 65). According to the prophet, God's final victory doesn't just concern humanity but the animals as well. The point is illustrated clearly in 65:25, but 11:6-8 offers the most striking picture. In this coming kingdom:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

I remember the first time I taught a Bible study on this passage with a group of Southern Baptist students at LSU:  everyone was more or less dumbfounded. When all you're told growing up is that human souls will go to heaven or hell after death, depending on how they responded to the gospel of Jesus in this life--and this is the fundamental message of the Christian faith--the sudden suggestion that God desires to redeem the animals too seems... well, strange. Yet this is the picture Isaiah paints so vividly. The animals have been reconciled to one another, with predator and prey living together in peace. And there is reconciliation between these creatures and their human neighbors--even the enmity between humanity and the serpent that has existed ever since the Fall (Gen 3:14-15) has been healed. God's plan is to end the fear and violence that drive creaturely co-existence in our world, to heal all of the broken relationships between all of his creatures. That's Isaiah's vision.

Moving to the New Testament, another important passage to consider in all of this is Colossians 1:15-20. At the close of this hymn on Christ, Paul declares, "through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross." God has acted to reconcile all things to himself, it says. Some Christians believe that this is talking about universalism--that this means God is going to save every man, woman, and child who ever lived. "All." I can't go that far, because that idea seems to contradict a lot of other things in the Bible, but the universalists are right about one thing: this has to mean something, and we need to take Paul's words seriously. In light of Isaiah, I think at very least we need to acknowledge that 'all things in heaven or on earth' surely includes the animals. Paul captures Isaiah's grand vision in a phrase; animals have a place in God's saving and reconciling plan. As the psalmist writes, "you save man and beast alike, O Lord" (Ps 36:6).
Paul's discussion of the groaning of creation in Romans 8:18-25 is another clear indicator of God's plan for his other creatures, but I'll leave that one for you to explore on your own. Even without looking at that (or the talk about God's other creatures in the Psalms, or the role of animals in the book of Jonah, or Jesus' teachings on animals--I could go on), it's clear from scripture that God has a plan for the animals--there is more to them than you might be tempted to think. Animals are important to God.

And they ought to be important to us too.

I don't just mean our pets or the critters at the local shelter we can try and help. I mean any and all animals: beasts of burden (Proverbs 12:10), the creatures living in your yard, the pets we take into our homes, the animals who die so you can have meat for dinner. Christians need to learn to living in the world with these animals in ways that reflect God's plan and God's love for them. Wherever animals are abused or cruelly treated, Christians must be ready to act, whether that's in our own living room or in the factory 'farms' that produce our steaks. The gospel calls us to faithfulness here, no less than in the areas we're used to hearing about, like helping our neighbors in need, honoring our parents, speaking the truth, or resisting violence.

It would be easier to just overlook the implications of all this for our eating habits. Taking the animals you eat into consideration, thinking about how they lived, how they were treated, requires a lot of research and intentionality. And it takes money--milk from happy cows costs a lot more than your average gallon of milk. Yet we cannot simply ignore the issue. As theologian Norman Wirzba writes:
If the scope of God's reconciling work extends to the whole creation, then it becomes evident that eating, understood as our most intimate joining with the bodies of creation, must be a primary site and means through which this reconciliation becomes visible. In our eating we are not simply to be reconciled to fellow human eaters. We must also be reconciled to what we eat. How we prepare to eat, as well as the character of the eating itself, demonstrates whether or not we appreciate the wide scope of God's reconciling ways with the world.

Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 175 (italics added)

Every action you take in life can either be an expression of your faith... or not. What you eat can say a lot about what you believe. So how are we going to live? What are we going to eat? Will our lives testify to the gospel of the God who is reconciling all things to himself? These are questions we must ask ourselves. Because our Lord is calling, and however surprising it might be, all of this is a part of that call to follow Christ. God cares about the animals, and we should too.

For another nice piece on faithful treatment of the Earth's animals, check out Scott Higgins's "How We Treat Animals Matters."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Eating Mercifully in practice

A few months back I wrote a post about eating--more specifically about the creatures that provide us with meat, how they are treated, and why we should care. I think it's safe to say the average American consumer today is totally disconnected from the process that brings him food: we simply go to the store and bring home some meat. In this system, animals are really nothing more than a commodity, there to meet our demand for 99¢ hamburgers or discount chicken. The problem with this is that animals are not a commodity; they're creatures, just like we are (Job 40:15). They were fashioned by the Creator who called them "good" (Gen 1:20-25) and whom they worship in their own ways (Ps 96:11-13; 98:7; 148:7-12). Christians ought to acknowledge and reflect this truth in the way we relate to animals, especially the animals we eat. This isn't an issue of animal rights; they have none, and so it is entirely up to us to exercise our power over them in appropriate, merciful ways.

[The video from the Humane Society of the United States that inspired the first post, "Eating Mercifully," can be viewed in full on their website here.]

But how do we 'eat mercifully'? How can we practice being more gracious and grateful eaters--doing right by these fellow creatures that sacrifice their lives to sustain us?
These are questions I hoped you might come away from the first post considering. Now I want to offer a few suggestions. Emily and I are still new to all of this ourselves. But, we have learned a few things in the months since we started thinking seriously about what kind of food products we wanted to consume, and what follows are four of the most basic and most important things that we've learned along the way.

1) Go to the farmer's market. Almost every community has one, and this is a fantastic way to making sweeping changes to your patterns of consumption. At farmer's markets you get to support local farmers, you have access to meat from animals that lived in more natural settings--away from the oppressive mechanization, apathy, and terror of the factory farming system--and you can learn about your food, how the animals lived and were treated, straight from the people who raised these creatures and cared for them. The advantages are enormous. You can also find eggs and dairy products at the farmer's market, again, with knowledge of the source, instead of the milk that comes from who-knows-where and only God knows what animals that we find in stores.
Make no mistake: the food will be more expensive. Sometimes the difference won't be as much as you expected; sometimes it will be substantial. That's unavoidable if you want to get meat or eggs from chickens that don't live short and painful lives in a space too cramped for moving, standing (if they can stand at all) on trembling legs that were not designed to hold the growth-hormone fueled bulk of their bodies. That's the reality for most chickens we eat. The extra expense is unavoidable if you want to be a more gracious consumer and avoid these kinds of situations.

2) But you don't always have to go to the farmer's market to get more conscientious meat or dairy products. Certain chain stores will also carry some local products. The most obvious example is Whole Foods, though not every community has access to a Whole Foods. That's fine. The local Kroger in Durham, NC carried glass bottles of milk from local dairy farms, the same stuff you get from Whole Foods (not to mention the local strawberries, honey, and all sorts of other things). Check your normal grocercy stores; find out what they have. You may have more choices than you realize.
And local is hardly your only option! There are all sorts of meat companies that are concerned about their animals' well-being and can be found at stores around the country. Dakota Beef is available at Targets and Harris Teeter stores in several states. One of the gems that has turned up at our local Walmart in Natchez, MS is Promised Land milk, that comes from free-ranging Jersey cows. Again, this stuff is more expensive--the milk will usually cost twice as much as the Walmart brand--but that just comes with the territory.

3) A number of meat companies have begun to provide convenient information on the sources of their products. Dakota Beef is a good example: their website has information on the standards for their cattle and the ranches they live on. Other companies go further. Applegate Farms features "Barn Codes" on their meat products which you can enter online and will take you to a video about the source of the meat you purchased. (And you can order Applegate products directly from the company online!)
Opportunities for informed shopping are becoming more and more common. Take advantage of them!

4) The most important practice for eating more graciously that we have learned is also the simplest: reduce the amount of meat that you're eating. Americans eat more meat than we need. On average, we each eat 75 additional pounds of meat a year now compared to 40 years ago--that's about an extra pound and a half a week. It's just unnecessary.
Reducing the amount of meat you're consuming will also help off-set the price of buying the more expensive, more conscientiously produced meat and dairy products. Of course you'll still end up spending more every week on groceries, buying whatever it is that will replace the excess meat you're consuming now, but no one said eating mercifully would mean eating cheaply. Not that these changes have to be expensive! You can get a complete protein from eating beans and rice, and these are two of the cheapest things you can get at the store. And I speak from experience when I say that, with some extra seasoning, red beans and rice is none the worse without sausage.

These four points are only a handful of the things we have learned in the last few months. But rather than going on and on about our own discoveries, I thought I'd leave you with an article from the Huffington Post Emily and I have found extremely helpful: "Avoiding Factory Farm Food: An Eater's Guide." It's a couple of years old now, but this piece is still chock-full of tips, wisdom, and good information. Check it out!

Monday, October 08, 2012

blessing the animals

Sunday at Grace Church in Natchez we held our annual Blessing of the Animals service, where we celebrate all the creatures God has made, and folks are invited to bring their pets to receive a blessing.
I know these services, which seem to be popping up all over the place, can be a little puzzling to a lot of Christians. 'Blessing the animals'? What is that all about? What has that got to do with the gospel or the great commission?
Well, I happen to believe it actually has a lot to do with the gospel--and the great commission!

The gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord, and that one day he will return to heal the world, right all wrongs, make all things new, and sit enthroned as Lord over his creation forever. On the cross and in the resurrection Jesus broke the power of the two great enemies of his reign, sin and death, which have worked throughout history to poison the creatures God made.
One of the ways sin and death have marred the world is in the violence and conflict that has developed between humanity and God's other creatures, especially the animals. According to the book of Genesis, humanity's relation to the animals was meant to be one of peaceful co-existence and interaction (Gen 2:18-20), but after sin entered the world this relationship was eventually destroyed (Gen 3:15; 9:1-3).
As with all the other effects of sin, the gospel teaches us that Jesus came to undo this damage, to repair this relationship. Just as the Old Testament prophets taught (Isaiah 11:1-9; 65:17-25; Hosea 2:18), through Jesus God ultimately intends to restore humanity's relationship to the beasts, to change it from a relationship of strife to one of blessing, like it was between Adam and the other creatures in the beginning. No more conflict or bloodshed, but peace, and companionship.

Like I said in worship Sunday morning, I think that the popular story of Christian the Lion is a beautiful picture of God's intention to heal our relationship with the animals. If you've never heard this tale, see the YouTube video below--it's well worth your time.

Maybe this kind of peace and reconciliation between creatures so often at war with each other--just consider this CNN article from last week--is what Jesus had in mind in Mark 16:15. This is Mark's rendition of the Great Commission, but instead of the "all nations" we're familiar with in Matthew 28, here Jesus tell his disciples to "go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." This is news for all of God's creatures!
Does this mean we should literally preach the gospel to birds, like St. Francis is supposed to have done? I don't know about that... but I do believe that the Blessing of the Animals service (usually held, appropriately, on the feast of St. Francis) is one way that Christians can cling to the gospel promise of a coming healing for all of God's creatures and one way that we can share this good news with the animals, fulfilling the commission in Mark.
The healing work God has in store is still ahead. We can't expect to simply start living differently with wild animals--even heart-warming stories like Christian's are more complicated than they seem--but praying God's blessing over the animals is one thing we can do now, in the midst of this broken relationship, to show our faith in, and dedication to, God's plan.

So this weekend at Grace, in keeping with the scope of God's redeeming work and with Christ's commission to bring good news to all creatures, we did this Blessing of the Animals. And we're doing some more things throughout the month of October! Here on the blog, I'll be offering posts that go along with all of that. I hope that the next few weeks will give the folks at Grace Church a chance to really get their hands dirty with the work of living alongside God's other creatures in a way that is faithful, and these few weeks will give everyone reading the wardrobe an opportunity to think long and hard about what God is up to in the world--because the gospel is bigger than we sometimes think.

Monday, October 01, 2012

God's standard for the political leader

Justin Fung has written a tremendous article for God's Politics on how Christians ought to live during election season. It's a powerful call to grace, humility, civility, careful reflection, and prayer--I encourage everyone to check it out: "6 Suggestions for Christians for Engaging in Politics."

In it, while discussing the relation of politics and the Bible, Justin points to Jeremiah 22, where the prophet delivers a word from the Lord to the king of Judah. There is one, unambiguous imperative for the king: "Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place" (22:3). This is the call of Yhwh that the entire fate of the dynasty rests on--this is the standard for God's kings. If you want to assess a government, you need to look at the foreigners, orphans, and widows in the land, and you need to consider if the poor are oppressed or the weak harmed. That's the measure of a nation's leaders.
Justin suggests that against this standard neither of our major presidential candidates measures up particularly well. You'll have to judge that for yourself... but the point is, you will have to judge that before November. Whatever else you think of the candidates, their visions for caring for the needy and vulnerable in America, their track records in this regard, this is what our God is concerned with above all else, and it ought to be our concern as well.

I'm also grateful that this article brought a new documentary to my attention, The Line, a short film from Sojourners, World Vision, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, and the Christian Community Development Association. The Line seeks to show us that poverty in America is real, and it might look very different than you expect. The movie tells the stories of some normal Americans, folks who could live next door to you, or could be friends of yours, who live at or below the poverty line--and not because they won't take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

You can watch the trailer below, and the full film is online at

As the media milks the upcoming election for all that it's worth and reports on whatever issues it chooses, Christians have a responsibility to consider first of all how their votes will effect the poorest in our country. The issues are complicated and there are a lot of different ways people will try to address them, so take time to read up, listen to different positions, and prayerfully consider your options. To say this is important would be an understatement. This is the Christian life.

And, again, you can check out Justin Fung's great little piece here.