Scott’s Mountain Joy

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Scott's Mountain

During mid-September, broadwing hawks are streaming south in the eastern United States. It’s thus a fitting time to share this poem which I wrote in 2015 as a tribute to Henry Kielblock and the counters crew at Scott’s Mountain Hawk Watch. This watch site is located next to the Merrill Creek Reservoir in Harmony Township, New Jersey. 

Listen to our happy story
of the birds at Merrill Creek;
we think you’ll be pleased to hear of
many raptors that we seek.
From September through November
we are in the parking lot
armed with cameras, scopes, and optics
checking out each distant dot.

Sitting in our chairs or standing,
bi-nocs raised up to our eyes;
patient waiting for what’s coming
soon to dot the sunny skies.
Winds a-swirling from the northeast
make Mount Scott a broadwing beast;
kettle forming after kettle
is for us a visual feast.

On Scott’s Mountain we find great joy
in each bird that we see fly,
and we celebrate each person
who takes time to stop on by.
So please come and visit with us,
we would like your company;
join us at this place of welcome,
add to our camaraderie.

Falcon Tornado

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North Lookout Owl

When I reached North Lookout of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary on September 6, 2016, Rudy Keller told me that earlier five kestrels had been diving at the owl pole. He said, “You could hear the sound of their wings ‘whoosh.'” Another hawk watcher referred to it as a “tornado of kestrels.” That evening, the Sanctuary’s daily report included this note: “Several American kestrels and merlins spent 30 minutes diving at the Owl Pole and then chased each other.” These observations inspired me to write the poem “Falcon Tornado,” in which the owl is speaking. 

 I am the Owl at Lookout North.

Early one morning five kestrels danced round,
From each feathered wing came a whistling sound;
Like swimmers in sync, they swiped at my side
In a vain attempt to force me to hide.

Then a fast falcon, a merlin by name,
Dove and chased kestrels away from their game.
And this bold merlin, preferring me dead,
Targeted talons aimed straight at my head.

Throughout the twirling falcon tornado
I twitched neither eye, nor ear, nor a toe,
But sat in silence — serenely still —
Calmly assure they could do me no ill.

I am the Owl at Lookout North.

Controversy in the Church

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Controversy in the church
(This is an adaptation of a sermon I first preached in 1999. This version was preached September 10, 2017, at Zion Lutheran Church, Brodheadsville, PA.)

In 1999, I was pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, in the village of Saint Johns, a few miles north of Hazleton. For the congregation’s 200th anniversary, member Joyce Steinman researched and wrote a history of the congregation. In a section called “Controversy in the Church,” she said the following.
        “There has never been a moment of controversy at St. John’s. We are that rare congregation that agrees about everything; totally and unequivocally!”
   “Sure,” she continues, “believe that and we’ll tell you there are no sinners in our church either! Actually, we’re like every other Christian congregation. We are comprised of very human men, women, and children and often, among us, differences of opinion arise. Through the years, these differing opinions have ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime.
“We have disagreed about hymnals, liturgy, music, something someone said, something someone didn’t say, appropriate and inappropriate attire for church, what color to the paint the chancel, to remodel or not to remodel, to carpet or tile, to use a worship folder or not to use a worship folder. Many years ago we had one of our most heated disagreements about whether to speak only German at our worship services or to speak English and modernize the church.
        As Joyce noted, there was a lot of disagreement in the congregation’s history. Sometimes that disagreement led to harsh words, angry thoughts, and hurt feelings. At such occasions, I’ve sometimes heard it said, “Why can’t we be like the first Christians? If only we could get along like they did.
        You see, there’s this idea that floats around that everything was hunky-dory in the first century church.
But it wasn’t so. There was conflict and disagreement and hurt feelings among the earliest believers. Evidence for that is seen in today’s gospel.
        In that reading we heard Jesus say to the disciples, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
        Words like that are not needed among a community which lives in perfect harmony. Such instruction is needed for those among whom things sometimes go wrong.
        Because things can go wrong, the model constitution for congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America includes a section on disciplining of members. It outlines a procedure to be followed, noting that “prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation and repentance will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17. Those are the verses we heard in today’s gospel. They teach us that sin in the church is to be handled in the Spirit of Jesus. This is a Spirit that does not rush to judgment. It does not seek to blame. It does not seek to separate. The Spirit of Jesus seeks reconciliation and forgiveness.
        To live the Spirit of Jesus is to begin in prayer. If you feel you have been wronged, the first thing to do is pray. Pray along these lines.

         “Lord, another member of the Church has done me wrong. But before I do or say anything in response, help me think clearly. Save me from feelings of revenge. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.

         “Protect me from the temptation of religious superiority. Remind me that through Baptism all in the Church, including the one with whom I am angry, are brothers and sisters in Christ. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.

        “Teach me anew that your Son died not only for me, but for the one who has done me wrong. Focus my attention on the mercy I have so graciously received from you. Help me to show that same mercy to my offender. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”

         “Show me the good in the one with whom I am angry. Make me aware of my own failings. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.

         “Lord, hear my prayer.

        When we are feel we have been wronged, before doing anything else, begin with prayer. Such is the Spirit of Jesus.

        Then seek out one or two of your closest friends, friends who will hold what you say in confidence. There are two reasons why it is important that you talk with them. First, you need to vent your emotion. It’s not good to keep anger bottled up inside. Second, you need their wisdom. They may see things in a different light that you do. They may help you sort things out, and perhaps discover that you have imagined a hurt that isn’t really there.
        Pray and seek out people you trust. Such is the Spirit of Jesus.
        Then if you are still bothered, go alone to your offender. (But let me add an exception to that suggestion. If there is a chance of physical abuse, do not put yourself in danger. Those who have been abused are under no obligation to see the offender alone.)
But in a case that does not involve abuse, go and speak to the other person. Talk it out. and explain the problem as you understand it, always doing so with respect and dignity. Speak to him or her face to face, just the two of you.
At times when I myself have been unwilling to do that, I’ve realized it’s time to drop the whole thing. If I’m unwilling to talk face to face with one in whom I perceive fault, it is better just to be quiet, and not gossip and spread stories which may be false. 

          The Lutheran magazine once had a column called “Since You Asked.” Readers wrote in with questions about life and faith. One writer said, “Last Monday, a dear congregation member had a stroke. During the week, we were surprised, then angry, that the pastor had not visited her. On Sunday, the congregation was livid when she was not mentioned in the prayers.”
Imagine the phone calls being made in the congregation that week. Angry words were spoken. Accusations were made. Charges of incompetence and laziness were flying around. The pastor’s character and commitment to Christ were called into question. Finally, someone went to the pastor to express their rage. Guess what they found out?
The pastor didn’t know about the stroke. Throughout the whole week, people had been getting more and more upset. All that anger. All that rage. All those accusations and unkind words. It could have been averted by a single one-on-one conversation.

         Too often, we hesitate to hold such talks. We find it easier to talk about people than to talk with them.

         It’s easier to be on the sidelines gossiping than to be on the front lines communicating.

         It’s easier to jump to conclusions than to check out facts.

         Easier perhaps. But not better. That’s one of the reasons Jesus tells us to meet one-on-one with an offender. Because there may be no offense at all.
        Pray, and seek out people you trust, and speak to the person you believe has wronged you. Such is the Spirit of Jesus.

         We do these things because of all that Christ has done for us. He gave his earthly life so that we might have heavenly life. He forgives us, so that we might forgive one another. Amen.

Mountain Pilgrimage

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IMG_0855 Hawk Mountain sign

When August comes with sun so hot,
And land is blessed with flowing  crop;
When butterfly skips round and round,
And dragonfly is also found;
When northwest wind picks up its pace,
And hearts begin to stir and race:
Many set out on pilgrimage
To visit rocks of ancient age.

Drawn by wonder of creation
And the magic of migration,
Some will come as they have before,
Ten, twenty, thirty years or more.
In their minds are memories kept
Of wondrous days of birds wind-swept,
Of sunlight gleaming on the land,
And good friends standing near at hand.

Others arrive for the first time,
Including some from distant clime:
One in zeal for conservation,
Varied in their tongue and nation,
These young trainees from many lands
Eagerly offer helping hands;
And through their smiles and what they do
They help to keep the old hill new.

Together all share this wonder:
Eagle first seen at a number–
Then dipping into woods below,
At Hunter’s popping up to show
Its head ablaze like fiery crown.
Then flying along field of brown,
The raptor climbs to horizon,
And over steeple continues on
Its journey of migration flight,
Headed toward day’s final light.

 

In–or Out?

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I think of the Bible as a conversation among the people of God about the things of God—and sometimes those voices do not agree; thus, we need to think carefully about where we stand today. It is through such a lens that I interpret the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It is a timely story in that it deals with issues of race and ethnicity. The sermon below, which I preached August 19/20, 2017, at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Johnsonville, PA, is an adaptation of one I preached a few years ago at St. Paul’s, Orwigsburg, and includes a few quotes from a hymn I wrote about the story.

        Today’s gospel is timely. It shows Jesus wrestling with issues of race and ethnicity. Let’s listen in, and hear what’s going on.

        Jesus is met by a woman who shouts over and over, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

         Jesus makes no response. He is silent, giving no answer. In trying to imagine the scene, I found myself writing, “He gave her quite a silent stare, with doubt upon his face.”

         Doubt? About what? About whether or not to help her. For she is a Canaanite, not Jew. She is not of Jesus’ people. And as Jesus says a bit later in the story, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

         And so, she is outside the grace that Jesus has come to give. Or is she?  Is she in—or is she out? Perhaps Jesus is silent because he is pondering that question.
        The disciples, though, leave no doubt as to where they stand. They said to Jesus, “Send her far away. She’s loud, annoying, bothersome throughout the whole long day.”

       In other words, get rid of this foreign woman. She’s not one of us, and all she is doing is causing trouble. 

      Is the Canaanite woman in—or is she out?

      Were the prophet Jonah to have a say, there’s no doubt where he would stand:  She’s outside God’s mercy.

         In brief, the story of Jonah goes something like this. God wanted Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, and speak God’s message. Jonah wanted nothing to do with that. It wasn’t that he was afraid to do God’s work. It’s that he didn’t feel the Ninevites deserved mercy. They weren’t his people, so why should he help them? So he tried to flee from God. That didn’t work out very well, and Jonah eventually does what God wanted. But when Jonah’s words led the Ninevites to turn to God, Jonah started sulking. He told God, “This is why I didn’t want to come here. I was afraid you would show mercy. These people are not like us. They don’t deserve mercy.”

         Is the Canaanite woman inside or outside the grace of God? The disciples and Jonah want her out. Other voices would agree. Like Ezra and Nehemiah.

         The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are told in the Old Testament books that bear their names. They led the re-building of Jerusalem after its destruction, and the long period of Exile. They were not only putting up buildings, but were renewing the Jewish nation. And they wanted it purely Jewish. They commanded Jewish men married to non-Jewish women to divorce their wives, and send them away.

        So Ezra and Nehemiah have no doubt. They stand with the disciples and Jonah, and say, “Get rid of that Canaanite woman!

        But there are other Biblical voices to be heard. The book of Ruth, for example. Here’s a quick summary of Ruth.

       Ruth was a Moabite, who married into a Jewish family living in the land of Moab. After the deaths of their husbands, Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi went to live in Bethlehem. Ruth met and married a man named Boaz. They had a son named Obed. Obed had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David: the David who became Israel’s greatest king. So David’s great-grandmother was a non-Jew. The story of Ruth is remembered to argue that non-Jews are in the circle of God’s grace.

        A similar voice is heard in the latter chapters of the prophet Isaiah. The prophet speaks the word of the Lord saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)

         And in the words of Psalm 67, “Let your way be known upon earth, you’re saving health among all nations.” (Psalm 67:2

        Ruth, Isaiah, Psalm 67 take the stand: “God’s grace is for the Canaanite woman. She’s in!”

         In the Scriptures, we see a tension about who is in, and who is out. I wonder if that is why Jesus was silent when the Canaanite woman made her request. Is he running through the Scriptures, trying to figure it all out what God wants him to do?

        In his silence, the woman kept pleading. She knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

         But he replied, “It’s just not fair that dogs eat children’s bread.” In other words, “God’s grace is meant for Israel. That’s what I was sent to do. How can I take it away from my own people and give it to you?

        This feisty woman did not give up when Jesus was silent. She was not put off by the scorn of the disciples. And she won’t quit now. She said right back to Jesus, “You’re right; no doubt about that. But even dogs get crumbs that fall from where their masters sat.

        These words took Jesus’ breath away. He now knows where he stands in the great Biblical debate about who is in and who is out. He stands with Ruth and Isaiah and Psalm 67. For he has seen this woman’s trust in God; a trust that says, “Just give a little; it will be enough; it’s all I need.”  Jesus recognizes this is the greatest of trust in God, and so he said to her, “God’s love is yours today. Your faith, my sister, shows to me God’s grace has come your way.

        For Jesus, the question of who is in and who is out was resolved that day. The grace of God, the healing of God, and the dignity of God are for all people. No one is to be excluded. All are to be respected, honored, and treated as children of God. That is what Jesus came to believe, and he was faithful to that belief, even to death on a cross.

        Unfortunately, not all people have followed his lead, and so from time to time the sin of racism raises its ugly head.

       I was once pastor of St. John’s Church, located in Butler Township, just north of Hazleton. During the 20 years I lived there, I came to know a bit of the history of that place.      

       I learned, for example, that in the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan was active there.  The purpose of that Klan chapter was to intimidate Roman Catholics and eastern Europeans. The Klan wanted to keep the township “pure,” which meant white Protestant of western European descent.

       Sometime in the 1960s, a Job Corps Center opened in the township; those who came to the Center were of a variety of races. This didn’t sit well with all residents, as is illustrated by a story told me by the local police chief. Shortly after the Center opened, a group of black youth from the center went for a walk down a country road. A resident called the chief, telling him he had to do something about them. “Why?” asked the chief, “what are they doing?” The caller replied, “They’re walking down the road! Do something about it!” “Are they doing anything wrong?” asked the chief. The caller replied, “No, but you have to do something about them!” Of course, the chief did nothing. They were simply walking: and if they had been white, no one would have noticed nor cared.

       I would like to believe that the attitudes represented by the Klan and the phone caller are in our distant past. But as we have seen from the events in Charlottesville, they are not. Some continue to believe that only their kind counts, and that their kind is entitled to special privilege, and that their kind is superior, and other kinds are inferior.

       Because such beliefs continue to be held, we who follow Christ must clearly and often say: “The beliefs and actions of racial supremacy are contrary to the will of God. Such words and deeds are sin against God and against humanity.

       Among the chants of white supremacists last weekend was, “Jew will not replace us.” As believers in Christ, we respond by saying, “A Jew has already taken our place, and we are thankful he did. His name is Jesus, and he died for our sins. Through him, we are set right with God, and are called to love our neighbor, building relationships that transcend creed, nationality, and ethnicity.

       We have been saved by the Jew Jesus. Saved not only for life with God. Saved not only for life after death. But also saved in the here and now so that we love our neighbor, whatever our race.

     May God give us the strength, the conviction, and the courage to make it so. Amen.

Aves and Ave

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IMG_0877 August 15

 

Time may be measured in many ways, including the migration of birds and the calendar of the church. August 15 is significant in both. The date begins the annual fall raptor count at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and is also the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord.

This poem celebrates the delightful coincidence of the two events falling on the same date.

 

Over water dark and churning,
God’s mind brooded with deep yearning
For companions with whom to share
A good world made with loving care.
And so God spoke; life was begun
With light, the moon, the stars, the sun.
Creation started in God’s name,
And on the fifth day God proclaimed:
“Flying creatures now fill the sky;
Increase, fly free, and multiply.”
And so Aves procreation
Partners with God in creation.

Time sped by, and over the land
Dark shadow lay its heavy hand.
God’s mind again  brooded and thought
Of a new way that might be wrought
To give the earth fresh beginning,
Saving it from death and sinning.
So angel Gabriel went out
To greet young girl with joyful shout:
“Ave! Mary the Nazarene!
In you God’s mercy shall be seen!”
Thus was foretold a coming birth
Of joyous news for all the earth.

Aves and ave meet with cheer
August Fifteen of ev’ry year,
Coming together on this day,
Each observed in a special way.
Up wooded hill the birders mount
To start the yearly raptor count.
And those who follow Mary’s Son
Hold feast to praise what God has done.

Aves! Ave! Signs of Power:
Renewing the earth hour by hour.
Aves! Ave! Tokens of love:
Pouring forth from heaven above.
Aves! Ave! Gifts of delight:
Lifting spirits high into flight.
Birds of the air! Blessed Mary!
In you we rejoice on this day.

Alleluia! Grace Appearing!

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IMG_0850 Alleluia Grace Appearing

I wrote this hymn text in 2012 as a celebration of resurrection hope for all creation. It was dedicated “in honor of Roy Gulliford, and in appreciation of his calling to proclaim Christ and to care for creation.” (An ordained pastor, Roy was the founding director of Bear Creek Camp, an outdoors ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.) Sung to the tune “In Babilone,” it was first used in public worship on Easter Sunday, 2012, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Orwigsburg, PA


Alleluia! Grace appearing! All creation moved to say:
“Praise to God and all the wonder for the glory of this day!”
Alleluia! Light is streaming! Sun and sky join in the praise.
Hope arises, new life granted, day breaks out in beaming rays.

Alleluia! Death defeated! Phoenix and the butterfly
Witness to the resurrection, freely given from on high.
Alleluia! Laughter takes hold! Frog, hyena, blue jay, too,
Sounding joy of Easter story, sharing God’s good news with you.

Alleluia! Joyful tears flow! Ground and plants receive new life.
Oceans cleansed and rivers made pure, all released from fear and strife.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Fish, and bird, and ev’ry tree
Lift their voice in endless singing to the One who sets us free.