breaking the bread of happiness

The story of this Easter Day that we read this morning, from the gospel of John, is actually one of four accounts, in the Bible, that tell the story. Each account tells a slightly different version of the story–not unlike La Mision, where everyone has their own twist on the chisme of the day!

Part of what I love about this story is that, in it, Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest companions, upon encountering him, doesn’t even know who he is. She thinks he is the gardener, of all things! I love it. Was he wearing his cut offs and black rubber boots? Is that why she thought he was the gardener?

Granted, to her credit, she did not expect to see Jesus walking around. She was looking for a dead guy, who was supposed to be in that garden tomb, behind a big rock. So, we can cut her a little slack that she didn’t, right off the bat, realize that it was Jesus that she was talking to.

In fact, even when he spoke to her, she still didn’t recognize him. He wasn’t what she was expecting.

“Woman, why are you crying?” he asked her. She heard his voice. But it was not until he called her by name, “Mary,” that her eyes were opened and that she could see that somehow, miraculously, it was actually Jesus standing there before her.

Last week I came back from Thailand. It was a long flight. I flew through Tokyo, on Al Nippon airlines. It just so happened that one of the movies that was playing was a Japanese film called Bread of Happiness.

Bread of Happiness is a story of a husband and wife who move from the big city of Tokyo to a remote rural area, really nowhere in particular, not necessarily a destination itself, but somewhere with a bus stop–a place that is more on the way to somewhere else than a place to head for its own sake.

The wife, Rie, has always dreamed of her soulmate–the perfect companion with whom to share her life, her dreams, her hopes for the future. But, instead, she’s got her husband, Sang. It is not that they are unhappy–but it is just not the dream that Rie had been imagining. It wasn’t the life she was expecting.

There, somewhat in the middle of nowhere, they open a cafe–a cafe in which, each day, each season, Sang bakes bread–a different type of bread, based on the season. As the two begin to carve out this life together, people seem to find their way to the cafe–a woman who has been dumped by her boyfriend, an elderly couple who plan to go there to die, a young girl who has lost her mom–and in the midst of the sharing of bread together, and the hospitality of Rie and Sang, the bread that is broken together begins to heal the brokenness of their lives.

Toward the end of the movie–and it was a long flight, I should have been sleeping, and was sort of on the verge of it–all of a sudden I had to rewind it, as a phrase (in the subtitles, of course–I’m not yet fluent in Japanese) caught my attention.

It was almost said in passing between the characters, but it struck me by its simple depth–companion, as it turns out, literally in the origin of the word, means those who share bread together. Really? I had never heard that. I had no idea that is what the word meant. Companion. Those who share bread together.

For, though Rie did not find her ‘soulmate,’ what she did find, in the kneading of their lives together, in the sharing of the bread, was that Sang had become her companion.

Today is Easter. It’s a big day. One of the two biggest days, in the Christian calendar. It’s a holiday. A big celebration. And that is fantastic, something to be celebrated and enjoyed.

But I began to think, as I pondered the Bread of Happiness and Mary thinking Jesus was the gardener, if resurrection, new life, is not also played out in the unexpectedly ordinary–in the day to day, sharing of bread with one another, in a place that is really here nor there, but somewhere along the journey? Being companions to one another, breaking bread together, and in the midst of that breaking, finding that our own brokenness is being kneaded together as well?

Recently I saw an article posted on facebook. It was called ‘The Brain on Love,’ from the NY Times. A line from it caused me to pause:

In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.

What we pay the most attention to, defines us, literally transforms us.

So, on this Easter Sunday, let us celebrate the big moments of new life, rebirth, and resurrection. But let us also go into the world, into the ordinary moments, as companions, those who break bread with one another, and share that bread with the world.

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on cracks, edge, and light

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

When I decided to quit my corporate job to attend seminary I also decided to spend the summer before I started school working in the Dominican Republic. I worked with an organization that was just getting started in the small mountain town of Jarabacoa.

It was a wonderful experience—and definitely a crash course in immersion for my up to that point classroom only Spanish knowledge.

Jarabacoa is a small town, with dirt roads, not unlike La Mision. As I got to know my way around I began to, each afternoon after work, go for a jog throughout the town.

Suffice it to say that this was not standard behavior amongst the local Dominicans, but after a few weeks of odd looks, I began to get invited, in the midst of my run, for coffee. I tried to politely explain that no, I couldn’t really stop, I had to keep running. Coffee in the DR is more like a shot of espresso with about a cup of sugar, so it may have helped the running, actually.

One afternoon I happened to be running past a primary school as it let out for the day. The children came flooding out onto the dirt road as I was running past. Some of them joined in with me, running along side me, huge smiles on their faces. It was beautiful, really.

It could have been a picture-perfect photo shoot for some sort of ‘save the children’ type organization, with Sally Struthers narrating as the camera rolled, me running, flanked by children, all of us smiling.

And that is when I saw it. The finger.

One of the boys, running along side me, with a huge smile on his face, was also, I realized, holding up his hand, giving me the finger.

So much for the photo shoot.

There is never a dull moment, living in another culture, is there? There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Recently I was reading a daily meditation by one of my favorite authors, catholic priest Richard Rohr. To be honest, I continue to be amazed at the abundant openness in his teachings, and how he continues to take the walls of doctrine and belief and push them out further, and further, and further, until there is this expansive spaciousness in the lessons that he shares. It is a good reminder to me that this welcoming inclusiveness has a place, even in the midst of the most organized of religion.

In this daily meditation Father Rohr quoted the Leonard Cohen song, ‘anthem.’ You may know it. The refrain goes like this:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Richard Rohr goes on to say that “there is simply a crack in everything and so we should not be surprised when it shows itself in us or in everything else.

But it can be so easy to want to fix the crack, can’t it? To get out the glue, or the duct tape, and patch it up as quickly as possible, before it cracks any further. Or, better yet, avoid the cracks altogether, keeping life safe, out of harm’s way, far from the danger of that which might threaten it.

Working in the garden hardly seems like it would be a dangerous activity, but yesterday a run-in with a fairly thick, coiled, unknown snake has made me start to wonder. To be honest, I didn’t really want to get close enough to identify tail or head markings.

One of the things I love about working in the yard is the constant learning—though I’d prefer it to be about vegetables than reptiles.

Amongst a certain contingent of somewhat geeky gardeners there is a term that is growing in recognition. It’s called permaculture. Permaculture, is a way of looking at the system as a whole, rather than each individual part. Within permaculture there is a concept called edge.

Edge is where two systems meet. So, for instance, here along the shoreline we are in a place of edge, where the sea and the beach meet. Edge might be where a forest touches a field. Edge is where the energy is in a system. If you want to increase the vitality and fertility, increasing edge is one way of doing that.

For example, if you were to have a pond in your garden, rather than create the pond as a circle, if you were to make its shoreline all squiggly, that, in turn, increases edge, which, in turn, increases the amount of life that can thrive and benefit from that pond.

So, if you, as a gardener, want to increase the yield of your garden, you might want to figure out ways to increase the amount of edge. Edge is where the action is. Edge, according to wikipedia, is a place with an intense area of productivity and useful connections.

Edge is a space of encounter. A space of engagement.

We are, at this time of year, in just such a season of edge—the edge between the winter and summer that is spring. With the time change last night we have a tangible sense of the lengthening of the days. In the Christian calendar the name given to this season is Lent. Not lint that you find in your pocket, but Lent. The word literally means spring, and having to do with the lengthening of the days.

Lent is the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter, often seen as a time of giving up something—whether chocolate or beer or cake or thin mint girl scout cookies.

Because of the focus on abstaining, Lent, and thus those who practice it, can be seen as a rather killjoy of a time—especially coming from the craziness of Carnival or Fat Tuesday, the night before the time of ‘fasting’ begins.

But, in a sense, Lent can also be seen as a time of creating space, an allowing of some emptiness, of making room for that from which the new life of spring will blossom.

The season of Lent is, itself, an edge, between the now and the not yet.

The thing is, we all who are here, we are also living, in a sense, in a place of edge. Living in a country that is not our own, but one that we have chosen. Living physically in a place where multiple cultures have the opportunity to encounter one another.

Sure, it can be a place of challenge—navigating the language, assumptions, and the way things are done. Who hasn’t been thrown off by the nuance between ahora, now, and ahorita, a now that is, how do we put it, a bit less punctual than we might be likely to assume.

At times life here can be like running along that dirt road side by side with those Dominican children, smiling, basking in the beauty and the joy of it all. And, I think, if we are honest, at times it can be a bit like turning and seeing that one boy, middle finger held all in the air.

That is part of the territory, in life along the edge. It’s part of the risk. It is precisely this encounter with differentness, with otherness, that brings the challenge and the risk, but also gives the vitality, and the life.

We are, most of us, much too familiar with the fear such living in the midst of edge can bring.

Just last weekend, in talking with the wonderful surgeon who operated on Jimmy’s heart to save his life, I was asked again, ‘But is Baja safe?’

This surgeon had visited Baja many times when he was younger, to surf, explore the tidepools near the bufadora, and eat lobster at puerto nuevo. He had a first hand knowledge of this place. But because of what he’s heard in the news, he wondered, is it safe?

We’ve all heard it, been asked it, haven’t we? That ubiquitous ‘is it safe?’

And, to be honest, normally I try to do my best to assure people that, of course it is, that it is just the media sensationalizing, not making distinctions on particular locations as if Chicago’s crime would make you not want to go to Portland.

I try to explain to them, as I’m guessing many of us do, that this fear is actually having a direct impact on the life and well being of so many of us, including our own friends, and ourselves, who depend on the income of tourism for renting horses or renting houses.

But it’s also got me thinking about a line from the children’s book, and movie, The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe. In this book four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy enter through a wardrobe into the magical world of Narnia. When they arrive they meet a couple of beavers—Mr. And Mrs. Beaver, who begin to tell them about the great king of Narnia, Aslan, the Lion. Talk of a lion starts to make the children somewhat uncomfortable. Finally one of them asks, “Um, Mr. Beaver, this lion, Aslan, is he, is he quite safe?” To which Mr. Beaver responds, ‘Safe?! Who said anything about safe? Of course he’s not safe. But he is good.”

Is living in this place safe? I’ve begun to wonder if my answer shouldn’t be “of course it isn’t safe.”

Who knows how you will be transformed?
Who knows how you will be changed?
Who knows what food you will begin to eat, what friends you will make, what decisions you will begin to make differently?

We who are living during this season of edge, in this place of edge, live and move and have our very being at the intersection of something far greater than ourselves.

Of course it isn’t safe—if you let it, it might just turn your whole world upside down.

Of course it isn’t safe. But it is good.

So go on,

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

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the heart of the matter

In the summer of 2002 I worked as a hospital chaplain. It was not by choice, but a required internship as part of my seminary training and preparation to become a Presbyterian minister. In fact, I had put off the internship from the summer before, deciding instead to take an intensive Greek course. Greek. As in, ‘it’s all Greek to me.’ That’s how excited I was to do the chaplain thing.

It’s not that I don’t have compassion for sick people, and not that I have a fear of hospitals in general. It was the death part that terrified me. Not even the dying part, so much as the dead part. I had heard stories of chaplains having to go to the morgue, to be with the family as they confirmed that their loved one was, in fact, the deceased. It terrified me.

Okay, it was the dying part too. I had never, at that point in my life, been with anyone as they died. I had no idea what to do. How to act. What to say. I had a friend who’s father had died a few years prior, and I vividly remember being with the family in the hospital as they awaited the inevitable. Their pastor was not available for some reason, so a rookie, stand-in pastor came to the hospital to console the family. All I remembered was how incredibly awkward and how, well, how inadequate he seemed to the task.

It was the fear of being that guy that I brought with me to Mission Hospital in the summer of 2002. But what I hadn’t counted on was that it would be life, more than death, that would end up disturbing me to my very core.

The story I’m about to read you, of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, is a disturbing one–perhaps one of the most troubling stories told about Jesus in the Bible. It’s not typically a go-to story if you’re on PR for team Jesus.

Mark 7:24-30

From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of  Syrophenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

I warned you–it’s kind of a random story, isn’t it? Sure, there’s the whole demon possession thing–that’s gonna have to be the subject for another Not Church. Or not.

So, this woman comes to Jesus, pleading on behalf not of herself, but of her daughter, who is in need of healing. Scholars who study the Bible suggest that there must not have been a father in the picture, or else he would have been the one to come and talk to Jesus–it was a man’s role, not a woman’s. So the woman comes to Jesus, alone, to plead for the welfare of her child.

And when she found Jesus, he too was alone. He had retreated to the region of Tyre–which is Gentile, not Jewish country–and, it appears, was hoping to avoid notice. The way Mark tells it, Jesus had been on the go–immediately this and then immediately that–so it would make sense that he’d need a bit of a breather. Can you blame the guy if he just needed a little siesta on that afternoon?

And then in barges this woman–(how did she get in? whose house was he in? why was he alone? how did this woman know where to find him? how did no one else know? ).

Not only a woman, but a Gentile woman. Not only a Gentile woman, but a Gentile woman whose daughter, being demon possessed, made her, by association, unclean. Not exactly the kind of person that an up and coming rabbi needed to be hanging out with, alone in the house. What would the neighbors think?

She begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus, the great physician. Jesus, the wise teacher who lived a life that we are often told to emulate. Jesus, who, in what can easily be described as rudeness, compared the woman to a dog. And we’re not talking Tigger or Chulito here…. Wait a second. That doesn’t seem like how the story is supposed to go.

On that particular summer day in my role as a chaplain I was actually obeying my assignment to visit two particular areas of the hospital, knocking on doors, announcing myself as the chaplain, and asking if the patient wanted to talk.

I hated it. Cold calling people for God? Not only that, but cold calling when they had nowhere to go, no way to hide or pretend they weren’t home when I came knocking on their door? What was worse was that some folks, when they heard that the chaplain was at the door, freaked out, assuming that it meant their imminent demise.

But on that day I knocked, announced myself, and was invited into the room. An older African American woman was lying in the bed. This was noteworthy as Mission Hospital is in Mission Viejo, south Orange County, not exactly the most ethnically diverse spot on the map.

She invited me in and asked me to pray for her. I did, praying some sort of bland prayer generally about healing and well being, and asking God to be with her–I didn’t want to get her hopes up, after all, since she was, as it were, in the hospital. I chatted with her for a few more minutes and then left to continue on my rounds.

“Why give the dogs what is meant for the children,” Jesus says to the woman, with an attitude that seems to say, now would you let me continue on with my day–I’m trying to get away here, have a bit of peace, before the crowds show up again.

But her response is as sharp as it is quick–even the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs from under the table.

And with that Jesus tells her that, for her words, her daughter has been healed. She went home and found the girl, lying in bed, healed.

The thing is, the book of Mark is full of Jesus talking in these sort of stories, these parables–I was joking not long ago with Ron that I had posted something on facebook about dealing with a lot of rocky ground.

There is a story in the bible where Jesus talks about a seed falling on different types of ground, including rocky. All of my pastor-type friends commented about the rocky ground, assuming that I was using it as a metaphor. I had to clarify that no, I was, in fact, really talking about rocky ground–it had made my carrots grow all bent as they searched for a way through.

But the point being, in the book of Mark, Jesus is all about these parables. He rarely says anything plainly, obviously. It is almost always with a sort of play on words. And the disciples–not Peter Paul and Mary, but Peter, James, John and the other nine, the disciples don’t get it.

They are always asking Jesus, um, what did you mean when you were talking about rocky ground…? The disciples should have gotten it. They were hanging out with Jesus all the time. They were Jewish, like him. They were men, like him. They were the right kind of people. Not like this woman. A foreigner.

Even the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs from under the table.

She got it. She spoke his language. In all of the stories of the parables, in the stories of the gospels, she is the only one not just to get it, but then to speak back to Jesus, using a parable herself.

She spoke up and the unbelievable happened– her daughter was healed.

As I went on my hospital rounds the following day, knocking on doors, cold calling on innocent and trapped patients, I heard a familiar voice say come in. I hadn’t really paid attention enough to realize that I was back at the woman’s room, the woman who had asked me to pray for her the day before.

I’m healed, she said.
You’re what? I sputtered. Great job, chaplain.
I’m healed. You prayed for me, and God healed me. The doctors told me this morning. Thank you so much.

She was healed.

It was only mid afternoon, still hours from the 5pm dismissal time, but I told my supervisor that I had to leave. As I sat out in my car in the parking garage I was overwhelmed. I was in seminary studying to be a pastor, working as a chaplain–one would think that an answered prayer would not be so faith shaking.

The thing is, I had prepared myself, or had at least tried to, for the death element of the hospital work. But what I hadn’t prepared myself for was the life.

A few months ago I was at a birthday party for Becky, the daughter of the pastor of the church in the colonia. The party was at her parents’ house, at the church, and many of her Mexican and American friends were there.

It was that night when I first met Dr. Sarah, who many of you know as well. She happened to mention a local man, Jimmy, who had a serious heart condition. As she spoke I realized that it was, in fact, the same person who Audi, last spring, had told many of us about and for whom we had raised some money to help pay for the tests he had to undergo. Many of us know from his work at La Fonda, or as one of Don Lucio’s son’s, brother of Betto on the baseball team.

Sarah explained to me that his condition was very serious and that it looked as if there was really no hope, short of a miracle. The severity of the problem, it seemed, was beyond the capacity of the resources at the General Hospital in Tijuana.

As we chatted, it occurred to me that the CEO of Hoag Memorial Hospital, Presbyterian, in Newport Beach, just so happens to be a member of the church where I grew up, where many of you came to my ordination service. “I don’t know him, but I have friends who do–I can at least ask,” I said to Sarah.

To be honest, I don’t think neither Sarah nor I thought there was much likelihood of anything coming of it. But, just in case, she got me his chart info, which I mailed to another doctor in Newport Beach, also a church member, who promised to get it to the right people to review it. That was back in October.

I found myself thinking, there’s no way this prestigious, wealthy hospital in Newport Beach, of all places, is going to take on the case of a Mexican guy–the son of a farmer, one of something like fifteen kids–from La Mision–a case that not only requires getting an emergency visa for him to even enter the US, but is also quite risky, extremely expensive, and with no guarantees that he will even live through the surgery itself.

This week we got the news.

Hoag has agreed to perform the surgery. Hoag, a  state of the art facility with rooms that maximize the view of Newport Harbor–has agreed to incur all of the expense for a potentially life-saving, but also life-threatening surgery for Jimmy, son of Don Lucio, who lives along the river road in La Mision.

As Sarah told me the good news, she gave me a hug, as tears came to my eyes.

Who knows how long it took that Syrophoenician woman to get home that day. I wonder what she was thinking as she must have hurried back to her daughter. But I’m guessing, as she entered the house, and found her daughter well, that with tears in her eyes she picked her up, embracing her with love.

Love. We often, especially this time of year, express it with a heart. The word heart has many meanings, many interpretations. This close to Valentine’s Day we are of course reminded of its association with romance, with candies, and cards.

But the word heart can also mean at the center, the core, the very nature of something–the heart of the matter, for instance.

It seem to me that the heart of the matter is this:

That force which pulses thru the very heart, beating love, bringing life, knows no boundaries–in spite of a reluctant chaplain, a tired Jesus, or an unlikely surgery.

And the bread, it seems, is for all.

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samuel and summer tomatoes

Good morning. How crazy it is to see you all here. But how fun.

Many of you know that we are gathered here today at the prompting of Anna, on behalf of Doug’s mom Jenny, who, on her last visit to Baja from Pennsylvania, missed her Presbyterian church.  Conveniently enough, we just happen to have a Presbyterian minister in town.

Anna brought this up to a few of us, and asked if perhaps we could gather for some sort of church, and asked if I would be willing to lead us in this. “So wait, it has got to feel enough like church for Jenny to feel ‘at home’ but not so much like church that the rest of everyone would take off running in the other direction…” It seemed like a fun challenge.  I am, of course, a bit crazy.

So, this is a bit of an experiment. It’s a bit of a fine line to be walking, trying to use language that is open to all and doesn’t unnecessarily offend or exclude. That is our intent—please forgive us, forgive me, if it is not completely successful and know that the intention is to give us all space to gather together as a community and connect with that which is more. Some people call it God. Some chafe at the word. Some prefer Spirit or Life Force, Essence or Energy.  All language is limited, isn’t it? How can we possibly describe something of which we can only see glimpses? For me, rather than making me want to give up the whole endeavor, that tasting of a piece, but not the whole, encourages me to want to go deeper. So, take from today what you will. For all of this is simply the finger pointing toward the moon, but not the moon itself.

Most of you know that I love to work in the garden. In fact, you might be sick of hearing about the garden by now. Sorry. When I say ‘work in the garden’ it’s not so much the vision of a victorian woman in her bonnet with a basket, trimming flowers to put in a vase. When I say work in the garden it is more like a pick ax, a lot of rocky ground, and filthy cut off jeans shorts. I love working in the garden. In fact, that’s probably where I will be this afternoon—and I’ve got a lot of arugula, if you want to come pick some you are welcome to.

I haven’t always been a gardener. In fact, I can fairly accurately pinpoint the beginnings of my green thumb. It was the summer of 2004. I had just moved back from Scotland, to be near my parents for the summer, as my dad was in the last months of his struggle with cancer. As it happened, he had planted tomatoes that spring. One evening, as we sat down to lovely summer dinner on the patio, my mom brought out a plate of freshly sliced tomatoes, that she had only just picked from the garden. I took a bite and I was both amazed and angry.

I was amazed at the flavor. It was so rich, so juicy, so…so tomato-y, but in a good way, not like a jar of tomato sauce way. I had never tasted anything like it. I was hooked.

My dad passed away that fall, but the next spring a piece of him lived on as I took on the role of planting the tomatoes in the garden.

It was about six months later, sometime around January of that following year, that the anger set in. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, only that I was eating a salad with vegetables that had come from the local super market. One of those vegetables was apparently called a tomato. But as I took a bite into the hard, flavorless and only slightly red item in my salad my taste buds rose up in protest. This is not a tomato! This tastes nothing like that one in July, fresh from the garden. I remember telling a friend, “They should have a different name for this—it should not be allowed to be called a tomato, it is so different in flavor.” Perhaps a bit extreme, but nonetheless, also somewhat true.  It felt a bit like a rip off, being sold this impostor, when I knew, when I had tasted, something so much better.

The story I read for you comes from the Bible, what’s often called the Old Testament, but what many prefer to call the Hebrew Scriptures, so as not to give the impression that something ‘old’ has been replaced by something ‘new.’

It is a story of a young man, Samuel, and an old priest, Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-10). Priest, in this case, is not catholic priest—this was way before there was any catholic church, and way before the story of Jesus.

This young man, Samuel, had been living in the temple his entire life. His mom, Hannah, had been barren and had prayed feverishly for a son. Her husband’s other wife—be careful when people tell you the Bible is all about good family values—had many sons, and made fun of Hannah for being barren. So Hannah went to the temple, and prayed. And this same priest, Eli, blessed her and told her she would receive what she had asked for. Sure enough, she had a son, named him Samuel, and in her thanks, dedicated him to the service of God.

So, Samuel, the son who had come from barrenness, grew up in the temple, like a son to Eli, the priest. Eli’s own sons, as it happened, were fairly corrupt, taking mordida, bribes, from the people and manipulating them to their own benefit.

Why in the world do you care about this? Just stay with me here…

So, as the story goes, Samuel is sleeping in the temple of the Lord, near the Ark of God—the very place that God was thought to dwell. But, also as the story goes, in those days messages from the Lord were very rare. Visions were quite uncommon. So it’s not really Samuel’s fault that, when he gets one such message, he has no idea what or who it is.

Three times God calls to Samuel and three times Samuel hears it, assumes it is the priest Eli, and goes to ask Eli what’s going on. But Eli, the representative, if you will, of organized religion, almost blind himself (ponder that one a bit) does not immediately realize it is God speaking either.

Finally, the third time it happens, Eli realizes what’s going on, realizes that it is God calling to the boy and tells him what to do. “When it happens again, here is how to answer: speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

And the Lord called to Samuel again as before and Samuel said Speak, your servant is listening.”

The thing is, the problem isn’t really the tomatoes. It’s just that tomatoes aren’t really meant to be eaten in January—at least in much of the northern hemisphere. They’re not in season.

But thanks to the wonders of globalization and industrialized agriculture, you can get that tomato for your salad in January almost as easily as July. The catch is, that January tomato has to come, more often than not, from far far away. So, not only is it picked while still green, but it has also been bred to withstand the long journey from the warmer climes to that kitchen table in Detroit, for instance. That breeding, for durability, means that the tomato can travel well without getting bruised and looking ugly in the grocery store.

The cost? Because there is quite a significant price to pay for that durability—that which allows a tomato to become bruised, the water and sugar content, is also what precisely what gives a tomato its flavor.

The answer, as far as tomatoes go, is not to give them up entirely—though some, after biting into that flavorless January version may be tempted to—understandably. If all I had ever eaten were the January tomatoes, I’d give them up too. The answer, it seems to me, is to eat them in season.

Now, that can be more involved than simply going to the grocery store on a whim—it means waiting until the warmer months return. If one is to attempt to grow tomatoes at home, it means cultivating the soil, creating the conditions in which the tomato plant can thrive. It means planting the seed, or the seedling, and nurturing it so that it can take root, watering it so that it can bear fruit. For me all it took was that one bite of the July tomato to make the extra effort worthwhile.

It seems to me that a lot of what has happened to ‘organized religion’ is that it has, over the centuries, been bred for durability often at the cost of flavor. Unfortunately a lot of what passes for religion is a lot like that January tomato—bland, flavorless, and not all that nutritious either.

It’s what had happened in the days of Eli and Samuel. As the story goes, even when God did speak, Eli, though devoted, was almost blind and didn’t seem able to hear. The young Samuel was hearing God, but didn’t know how to make sense of what he was hearing—he assumed it was coming from Eli—where else would a voice have been coming from in the middle of the night? Eli, though slow, to his credit finally did realize that it was God speaking. “Ah, right, that’s what’s going on…so, next time it happens, here is how to respond, speak, for your servant is listening.”

In other words, be present, be open, listen, pay attention, wake up to that which is calling you. Be in season, for the time is ripe.

Many of us here, myself included, have tasted enough January tomatoes to want nothing to do with them. So let’s be done with them.

July is just around the corner and there’s a garden to be tended…

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