Old Man Lazarus (A Poem) John 11:1-45

Old Man Lazarus,
frail these recent days,
bordering on the apocalyptic,
a thinning darkness clamped down,
more sensitive in his mind,
his place in the cosmos unsound,
assured that he’s dying,
again at the completed end,
of his second time around,
his first tomb eagerly awaits,
present tense to be past case,
death certainly doth portend,
now with Jesus long gone,
for whom might he send?
Mary and Martha,
personalities known,
by the arbitrary sound,
of English words,
paired forever,
with the nature of their being,
to listen and serve,
a common sense theology,
can never be proved,
but invented and seen,
between the counterpoints,
of life and death,
pleasure and joy,
major and minor,
yet never falling prey,
to the cult of empty significance,
and forgotten resurrections.

–Richard Bryant

I Shall Not Want (Psalm 23:1)

What makes you happy?  What brings you a sense of true joy and contentment?  For many of us it may be opening our eyes, going outside, taking a deep breath, and looking around on a day like today.  Others locate their happiness in relationships; perhaps among their family and friends.  Those are the places we are supposed to find happiness.  When push comes to shove, at the end of the day, when nothing else is available and resources are scant; happiness is available to us in immeasurable units.  In the back of our minds, that’s we’ve be taught and led to believe.  I’m not sure we believe it.  Most of us, on our best days, despite countless protestations to the contrary, live as if happiness is measured in things you can actually count.   We would deny it until we’re blue in the face but our actions run to the contrary.  Despite all we’ve read about simplicity and materialism, we still believe that “stuff” makes us happy.

I need to tell you the truth here.  I’m pointing the finger at myself.  I’m a stuff junkie.  I’ve tried to break the habit on numerous occasions but it’s hard.  The stuff I can’t get rid of isn’t the good stuff; the things with emotional resonance and sentimental value.  It’s the clutter, albeit clutter that I can justify in one way or another.  For example, fancy writing instruments.  How many pens does a grown man need?  The thing is, each one has a story.  I know where I bought the pen.   I even know how long I had to save to buy several of them.  There are a couple of them I wouldn’t dare write with.  I just look at them and thank God I get to be the custodian of something attached to American history.  Despite the value of these pens, I’ll be the first to admit, they’re stuff, clutter moved from multiple houses and across the ocean.  My happiness, though it is, shouldn’t be tied in up in pieces of plastic, I never use.  There are things like my pens in all of our lives.  They appear to make me happy.  But my happiness, as it has been reshaped by the world (and we’ve allowed this to happen), is both flawed and false.  In truth, none of us knows what makes us happy.  We have so many things competing for the limited amount of time we’ve reserved for joy in our lives.  Maybe it’s time we open up more space on our schedules for happiness.

When you step back from the sheep and shepherd metaphor, the 23rd Psalm opens with a powerful statement about the relationship between happiness, need, and want.  It’s hard for modern readers to grasp the work of shepherds or the difficulties of raising sheep.  I lived in Irish sheep country for two years.  The shepherds I knew were unsentimental, hard scrabble men with little time for the romanticized version of their work presented in scripture.  Like their 1st century peers, modern day shepherds are invested in the survival and protection of their flocks.

For the shepherd in the 23rd Psalm, handling sheep is more than a job.  I don’t feel comfortable saying God’s calling is to be a shepherd.  Calling a God a shepherd is a way, for us as humans, to try to grasp and understand, in a limited way, what God does and who God is.  When you start talking about whom God is and God’s job description, that’s when I wait for the Indiana Jones moment, for the floor to drop out from under me and boulder to start rolling from the ceiling.  That’s very dicey ground on which to stand.   God is too big for me to put into one vocational box.

So we say that God’s sort of a shepherd.  It’s like saying, “the best thing we can come up with in order to describe how God looks after the universe is to compare it to the work of a shepherd.”  God isn’t a shepherd but the best way we know how to describe it is to use that word.  If we talk about it this way, we may see something we’ve missed.

The second half of the first verse contains four words:  “I shall not want”.  When it comes to any understanding of happiness, generosity, joy or contentment; those four words answer questions and statements we are afraid to ask.

Why am I unhappy? I shall not want.

What happens when Mama gets sick? I shall not want.

What happens when there is no money for the light bill?  I shall not want.

When I cannot see God? I shall not want.

I am afraid.  I shall not want.

I will never have enough. I shall not want.

Despite the presence of death, I shall not want.

Those words are both a promise and an ultimatum.  The world will come this far and no further.  We do not want what the world has to offer.

Here’s what those four words ultimately mean:  we shall not want for life in the face of death.  So let me give you a huge spoiler alert:  the tomb will be empty.  Death loses!

This is the difference that Christ makes.  When we place Christ at the center, want (or happiness) is never about what we possess.  It’s the opposite.  It’s about letting go of everything.  Christ, though he was God, did not make a big deal about the fact he was God, divested himself of all power, so that now he’s basically a slave in a human body, and that slave in a human body died on a Roman cross so we might be free from what the world calls want.

That’s when all the pieces fall into place and this single verse makes more sense than all the imagery about green pastures and still waters combined.  Christ changes our perspective on happiness and want.  Why shall we not want?  Because we know who’s let everything go and why he did it.

One of the questions Jesus was regularly asked (and the disciples after the resurrection) by the religious authorities was “by whose power do you do these things?”  Whether it was a healing, preaching, or teaching, they wanted to know who gave them the authority to stand, in public, in God’s name, and act accordingly.  That’s just another way of asking, “How are you so happy and content?”  “How do you have the nerve to be so without want?”  “What do you know that we don’t?

We know this:  whether we’re asking ourselves in the bathroom mirror or someone poses it to us we have the opportunity to proclaim the resurrection in four simple words:  I shall not want.

It’s OK To Be Afraid

I don’t know what will make me feel better, safe, or more secure.  I do know that hashtags encouraging me to pray for London, watching candlelight vigils, or holding my hands in the shape of heart do nothing for my soul.  These actions leave me cold and numb.  The global Kum-Ba-Yah crowd has again assembled to tell the world how we are not afraid of bearded, knife, wielding, erratically driving men knocking us off in groups of 10 or less in the name of Allah.   It’s my hunch, these services and songs leave the terrorists (would be and active) pleased with what they see.  Other than statements of non-fear is anyone on the same page at these gatherings?

We must be a little afraid, or we wouldn’t be pretending so hard that we’re not afraid.  Resistance to terror has now become daily living.  We stand up to terror by being afraid and still going to work, crossing, bridges, and going shopping; at least that’s what we’re told.  Let me tell you a secret, even on a good day, when I know a terrorist isn’t trying to run me over, I’m a little scared to cross the street.  I know people drive like drunken idiots.  I’m scared and afraid, just a little, on the sunniest and happiest days of my life.  When I lived in Northern Ireland, I lived with a little bit of fear that I might be blown up because some radical faction of the IRA who never signed on to the peace process had a problem with the police and I would die at the wrong place at the wrong time.  This fear stayed with me when I went to the grocery store, to the university, and to pick up our children from school.  I lived with fear and my “normal” life.  The fear wasn’t in my head.  The bomb threats were real.  The car searches occurred.  My life didn’t stop.  However, the fear was always present.

So I’m kind of frustrated when civic leaders and religious figures  tell us it’s not OK to be afraid.  We will not cower to the terrorists.  No, I don’t believe in cowering but I do believe in admitting when I’m scared.  Scripture is full of examples, in fact, of people doing both.  Asking me to deny my fear in the face of tragedy is telling me to deny my humanity.  If I deny my humanity, the terrorists win automatically.  I think fear is an appropriate response to people being killed in the street.  If we weren’t a little scared, we’d all be insane.  We need appropriate amounts of fear to survive.  Fear shouldn’t control our lives but we can’t ignore the realities we face by pretending danger doesn’t exist.

Fight the Power (Re-Reading Psalm 23)

How would you describe your relationship with God?  In what terms would you characterize how you and God exist together, with each other, in the world?  I’m not a betting man but if I were, I’d bet it wouldn’t be this:  “you know I’m like a dirty, filthy, wool bearing bovine and God’s like the hand to mouth living shepherd who beats my dumb ass into submission with a stick when I stray off course.”  I may be wrong, but I’m guessing I’m not wrong.  Despite this obvious and ongoing incongruity, the imagery surrounding the 23rd Psalm remains popular with countless Christians, devotional writers, and others who know nothing about sheep.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time around sheep would never talk about their relationship with God in terms of a sheep to shepherd.  As agricultural metaphors go, it’s perfectly designed for our sanitized culture.  We view nature and food at a distance, through the lenses of shrink wrap packaging and cute memes shared on Facebook.  The reality of feces, mud, and the sheer brutality of raising sheep on the steep hills of Wales, Ireland, Scotland or Palestine is lost on modern day readers.  When most Christians encounter the 23rd Psalm, we have it presented to us as kind of non-violent bedtime story that Jesus might have read to Mahatma Gandhi.

So what is this Psalm about?  Like any good passage, I see something new each time I encounter the Psalmist’s words.  One of my greatest fears in reading the Bible is to encounter reruns.  Reruns are fine for television, not for the Bible.  I like to read a passage I’ve read hundreds of times, know by heart, and still find something I’ve missed.  What are we missing from this Psalm we think we know like the back of our hand?   There are things we are missing in parts of the Bible we have grown too comfortable quoting, hearing, and repeating to others.

Psalm 23 is about power.  Who has the power and who is powerless?  How is power used?  What does it mean to be weak?  In a relationship of complete submission, where power is total, is there any such thing as freedom?

Power, as the Psalm indicates, is both creative and destructive.  The corrective rod and protective staff are ever before the sheep.  Continual affirmation while also maintaining the imminent possibility of destruction dominates the collective life of the sheep community.  This transcendental tension mirrors the individual engagement between sheep.  In our pastures, sheep do not exist in splendid isolation, unaware of the world or other sheep.  We create our own power relationships between each other, despite the shepherd’s powerful promise of provision.  Where all submit to the shepherd, some now submit to each other.

The sheep are allowed, through the shepherd’s power, to sleep, drink, live, eat, and bathe.  Power, as both Saint Paul and Michel Foucault noted, is the key to freedom.  If I am allowed to sleep, drink, live, and eat, what freedom do I hold?  The freedom I lack is defined by the power I do not possess.  I find no humanity, no freedom, and little hope in the words of the 23rd Psalm.  Yes, you may live in the Lord’s house, but at what cost?

The Christ-event is defined by weakness and powerlessness.  The 23rd Psalm stands in stark opposition to the events of Good Friday.  On that day, Psalm 23 wasn’t a feel good prayer to boost Jesus’ dying spirit as he hung from a Roman cross.  (Remember, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross.) Psalm 23 contained empty phrases which reflected the all too human preoccupation with power and control.  The Psalmist told a story of a God who should be not a God who is.  God wasn’t a shepherd catering a meal by a river.  Jesus wasn’t willing to pay Psalm 23’s price.  He was dying a miserable death and not because the Shepherd demanded it.  He was on the cross because the sheep insisted he be killed.  Freedom, when it came, was bloody and it hurt.  Yet, without the loss of Psalm 23’s idea of control, salvation still would be given out at feeding time, when the shepherd felt like it, because he has the power.

It’s time to re-read power, whether divine or secular.  Jesus did.

 

The Decolonization of Sin (John 9:1-41)

Do you see the blind guy?  He wasn’t always blind.  Can you imagine every conversation, for the rest of your life, being preceded by questions and statements of that nature?  And those questions must be accompanied by the inevitable explanations.   Here’s how the story of my disability transpired, he would say.  There was probably a long version and a short version.  What you heard might have depended on the day of the week or hour of the night.  Who knows?

It’s hard to tell the story of someone with a disability of without it being exploitative.  Because the blind, deaf, or challenged person isn’t the one who is usually telling the story; a person with a perspective not available to the central character retells the events, actions, and emotions.  Everything is going to sound and look different when a person without a disability tells their story.  A blind or deaf person, even someone who regains those abilities after years of darkness or silence, will have a completely different sensory experience.

My question is, when we read John 9, whose story are we reading?  Are we reading the one we impose from above or one that is told from within?  There is the story of the man who is healed, the story Jesus wants confirmed, the account of the parents of the blind man, and the Pharisees version of events.  In the melee that follows, does the blind man’s story matter to anyone, or is he a pawn in the larger religious battle between Jesus and the Pharisees?  What is the political and social value of a miracle when your culture’s social blindness is more important than your literal blindness?

The disciples believe, like some people in our churches today, than sin is passed from parents to children.  If a child is troubled, it’s because mother and father were cursed.  Of course we don’t come right out and say it in so many words, but we do say it, in fewer words and backwards glances.   Will gossip confirm what theology is unwilling to say, is this man blind because his mother or father were low down, rotten, dirty, no good sinners?  Look at the theology, the religion underlying the disciple’s question:  those children who are pure, healthy, and alive must come from parents who are free from sin and spiritual impurity.  That’s the first exploitative implication in this passage.  If we are blessed, it must be because God made us so.  If we let this belief become the dominant view in our religious life, anyone who is weak, sick, or disabled is viewed as sinful, less than, and inferior before God and man.   For Jesus to be zeroing in, time after time, on the weak, sick, and disabled, this must be a tremendous problem in 1st century Palestine.  What is the problem:  telling God’s story from your one sided; I’m loved because I’m blessed perspective.  The problem is denying that God blesses the weak, sick, and the disabled.  The problem is identifying sin as something we pass on through our chromosomes.  The problem is seeing God’s love as something which gives people power over another.

Where is he from?  The Pharisees are big on “origins”.  They claim to be Moses’ disciples.  Incredulous that a sinner from unknown origins could perform such a miracle, they lose their tempers with the man’s parents.  “We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man is from.”  Power needs a location.  The British needed to tell the Indians and Africans, the Queen resided in London.  From there, armies of white men would come to rule the subcontinent.  From a place, even a faraway place, power could rule and subjugate many people.

Locations matter to those using exploitative stories.  If you’re going to build your power around a narrative of lies, it must be centered on a locus of control.  The Pharisees controlled Moses’ history, the texts, the story, the places of worship, and all the elements of Israel’s past.  They made myth into reality.  Like Nelson at Trafalgar or David and Goliath, the story of empire became intertwined with the one approved version of God’s interaction with human history.  God had a definitive location, on Sinai, with Moses.  The Pharisees had a roster of all in attendance.  Jesus wasn’t there.

Jesus decolonized the very idea of sin.  He broke the imperial, exploitative hold the religious authorities maintained on God’s location.  If no one knew where God was from, no one group of people could make moral claims on God’s behalf.  God was no longer a distant colonial power making decisions for subjugated peoples through religious administrators.  Now, God was from everywhere, lived in each village, spoke all the languages, and addressed the spiritual and physical needs of all people.  Contrary to prior religious practice, Jesus gave gifts (i.e. sight) instead requiring gifts be offered to the distant God (i.e. religious/spiritual taxation).  Jesus’ actions subverted the colonial model at every turn.  As the psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is obviously, a program of complete disorder.”  Jesus brought complete disorder to the established colonial order centered in Rome and the religious (colonial) order based at the Temple.

“You were born completely in sin,” the Pharisees say.  No matter what he’s done or how he’s lived his life, his lack of sight has marked him as being “completely in sin”.  Even as the blind man is healed, filled with the ability to see, distinguish colors, and perceive depth, the old presuppositions will not let go.  We will not grant you independence or cede to you the possibility of God’s love because our stereotypes about sin are more powerful than the realities we are witnessing.  If we, as the Pharisees, admit we are wrong, our power over the lives of others vanishes.  This is not about being wrong.  It’s about losing control.   We won’t know who we are if we can’t name and shame sinners.  Labeling people as wrong, especially across generations, has become our stock and trade.  How will we survive without the power to condemn others in the name of God?

Blindness is a two way street.  Blindness is both physical and spiritual.  One of the Pharisees asks the best question of all, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”  Surely, we’re not missing the point, are we?  Surely, we’re not caught up in judicial council decisions, are we?  Surely we’re not rearranging Methodism’s deck chairs while the planet Earth self destructs, are we?  Not us.   We’re way too self-aware to fall into this trap.

She Is Not a Whore or Harlot: Talking with the Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42)

Can you feel it?  I can hear it in the wind; blowing just beneath the blizzards, sleet, and rain.  What am I listening to?  Hint:  it’s not Mahler.  No, it is the growing chorus of preachers who are preparing sermons about the whore, prostitute, harlot, adulteress, and divorcee known as the Samaritan woman at the well.  The time-tested trope, the original Pretty Woman plot line and the mythology of the fallen female will be preached from pulpits all across the fruited plain.  Twisted new tales will be invented and older ones rehashed about why this woman is alone at high noon gathering water.  I hear Foghorn Leghorn’s voice in the back of my head, “I say, I say, boy, there’s something wrong with a single Samaritan woman getting water at mid day.  It’s not right, I tell you.”  They will all be wrong.  When it comes to this passage, no one seems to remember Occam’s razor:  the simplest explanation is always the best.

Could this be a chance encounter?  Might she be thirsty?  Yes and yes.  However, preachers love salacious gossip, especially when given the ability to cloak that gossip in the garments of preaching and worship.  We also like to condemn people in two thousand year old stories who can’t speak for themselves.   Is she who we’ve been led to believe?  No, she’s not.  It’s time to back up.  If we’ve been so wrong about this story from the first verse, maybe we’re wrong about the whole passage.  One step, in the wrong direction, at the very beginning may take us miles of course.

Jesus is travelling through the Samaritan countryside.  The Samaritans were theological renegades.  The mainstream Jewish community considered them unclean heretics.  They were outsiders in a way that’s difficult for us to imagine.  Most people hated the Samaritans.  It wasn’t a, “my religious practice is better than your religious practice” hatred.  It was what we would call racism.  Some People thought the Samaritans were less than human, inferior, and wrong.

Samaria was between Galilee and Judea.  The quickest way to go from Capernaum to Jerusalem was to go through Samaria.  Going along the coast roads was time consuming.  Jesus had no problem with Samaritan roads or people.  Our churches and Christians have stopped taking the Samaritan path altogether.  Not only do we judge this woman for no reason, our churches wouldn’t be caught dead spending time or traveling to modern day Samarias.    The long way is full of people who look, talk, and sound like us.  There is little risk in going via the Galilean road.  That is, until, we realize we are talking to ourselves.

Like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in “High Noon”, the Samaritan woman appears at high noon.  Who is she?  She is a Samaritan woman.  It is revealed she’s had five husbands.  John makes no assumptions, assertions, or statements about her character, lifestyle, or personal history. We do that.  If she is alone, it must be for a reason.  We invent rules which did not exist:  divorced adulteresses and prostitutes were required to go the well at noon.  Anybody with five husbands must be cheap, right?  No, not right.

We create an image of a woman who has failed at marriage and life because we need Jesus to show up and save our immoral lives.  Doesn’t Christianity really come to down personal morality?  Don’t I preach this passage because it’s my job to tell people who they love, who they can have sex with, and who they can marry? No and no.

People died young in the 1st century.  It wouldn’t have been uncommon or out of the ordinary for a woman to outlive her husband, even five times.  Between the death of one husband, a brother marrying this woman, another death or divorce; this woman’s story isn’t “Fifty Shades of Grey”.   It’s called living.  Churches and preachers screw up when we make moral judgments about good people simply trying to survive.

Why should we give the hard realities of 1st century living credit when preachers can infer that a woman is a whore?  It’s much easier to play the “she’s a tramp” card.   Talking about grief, loneliness, and the death of five husbands; that’s hard.

What’s missing from this story is “sin”.  Jesus never talks about sin or repentance.  Neither the author nor Jesus identifies the woman as a sinner.  Why?  Sin isn’t the issue.  The woman’s no more a sinner than any other person.  Unlike most people Jesus meets, the Samaritan woman gets “it”.

This woman recognizes Jesus, not from a lineup, a newspaper article, or because a friend invited her to church.  She “sees” Jesus.  In John, sight means belief.  The people who see are those who understand what’s going on with Jesus and his message.  Listen to her, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.”  Right there, she’s sees Jesus.  He performed no miracles or pronounced judgment on her past.   They talked about water.  A conversation brought Jesus’ identity to light.  Churches and Christians have lost the ability to have conversations with and about Jesus that are not tinged to moralizing, judgments, or personal attacks.

Jesus sees the Samaritan woman.  He tells her that God (the Father) is looking for women and men who worship in spirit and truth.  God is looking for people like her.  She acknowledges the limits.  “But you and your people say it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”  We know all about limits.  Can’t you hear her now?  You and your people say it’s necessary to go to a church with vibrant contemporary worship, a divorced singles groups, and who believe I’m an adulterer.   There is no place for me in the religious world you’ve created.

Jesus, says, “Not me”.  Jesus is about erasing limits and boundaries; such as the ones we created to shape our understanding of this passage. Within this brief encounter, we see a glimpse of the coming Kingdom of God.  This new belief which John’s readers have accepted is to be built upon the fundamental importance of people in community.  Jesus brings her into a new communion, a new community.  A relationship with one person should reflect our relationships with each other and ultimately God.  Jesus’ conversation this woman reveals these simple ideas:  our morality is shaped in a community, inequality based on exclusion disconnects people from God, and those who claim to know what’s right for everyone else’s life are usually wrong.

Jesus sees her for who she is because she’s not afraid to name the problem.  He sees an honest woman who is willing to reflect on the realities of faithful living.  Living water is more than a cute spiritual metaphor.  It’s stuff of life.  The water is at hand.  Jesus uses what is available, what makes sense, and what connects to our lives.  Jesus uses the water to create a framework.   The well is a lens.  Now she can see what she already knows to be true; Christ is coming and he will teach us new things.

It’s hard to learn new things when we keep preaching the same party line.  We’ll be less likely to see Jesus if we start down the path of misogyny and condemnation.  Sure, we can talk about repentance and leaving it all at the altar all we want.  The Samaritan woman can be the stand-in seductress she’s always been for centuries.  Or, we can take a cue from Jesus, who didn’t care about her marital status, relationship history, or call her a Samaritan sinner.  He brought her to faith without having to break her down.

Jesus sees people, we see issues.  Jesus sees life, we see gossip.  Jesus sees a future, we see today.  Jesus knows our lives; we pretend to know each other.   Jesus sees reality, we create myths.  And when we see Orthodoxy, are Methodists seeing Jesus?  No.

Abram the Raccoon (A Story Adapted from Genesis 12:1-4)

Abram was a raccoon who lived with his raccoon family near the corner of Back Road and Highway 12.  Sarah, his wife, was originally from the lower end of the island, across the creek.  Her family first came to Ocracoke when the raccoons and possums on Portsmouth Island started following the dumpsters across the sound.  Abram’s people were long time residents of Ocracoke, referred to locally as “raccooners”.  After they were married, Abram found a nice home in the small patch of woods across from the Pirate’s Chest.  It was right in the middle of the island.  They were close enough to visit her relatives on Lighthouse Road and see his cousins who occasionally took the ferry from Cape Hatteras.   Life was good.

raccoon-01

Abram’s Nephew Lot

Then there was Lot.  Abram could never forget Lot.  Lot was his nephew.  Lot was hard to live with some days.  Yes, it took a lot of love to love Lot. Raccoons are prone to rabies because of some of their lifestyle choices (eating dead things and living outside) but Abram and Sarah stayed relatively healthy.  Lot, on the other hand, always kept a case of the rabies.  Abram would ask, “Lot, do you want to go with me and hit the dumpster by Blackbeard’s Lodge?”  “No,” said Lot.  “You know I still got the rabies.”  Rabies kept Lot out of community college, prevented him from working on the ferry, and finding his own tree.  What could Abram do?  Family was family.  He was stuck with Lot.

Abram did his best work at night.  The roads around the island were quieter.  Sure, there were the occasional drunks on golf carts and kids on bikes.  But for the most part, his corner, within sight of the Pony Island Motel and around the corner from the big dumpsters on Back Road, was the perfect place to be.  Find the food, look for the best burnt, fowl (Abram loved chicken) tasting garbage on offer; then bring it back home to Sarah’s crock pot.  There was nothing better than seeing her black circled eyes light up when he managed to bring home seafood scraps.

Last Thursday night, Abram left as he usually did, around 6:30. Just before dusk was prime trash picking time.  Besides, it was important to be in place before the humans got home.  Humans made him nervous.  Lot never took Abram’s advice to stay away from humans.  He liked to play pool at one of the local bars and had been known to drink too much.  Last summer, surveillance cameras at the campground caught Lot fighting with a mouse and an Osprey from Vermont.  He was still on probation.

Jay was a squirrel who lived behind the Pirate’s Chest.  His corner, trees, and family were right across from Abram’s patch.  You might say they were neighbors; in a feral rodent way.  Jay and his family of squirrel children had just returned from a week-long vacation to El Salvador.  “Hola,” said Jay, trying to impress Abram with his newly learned Spanish.  “Hello,” waved Abram.  Jay wasn’t finished.  Rule number one, never get sucked into a conversation with a squirrel.  They can’t shut up.

Don day es tah too en caint ador a es poza Sarah?”  Did he really want to know where Sarah was?  “Sounds like you made quite a bit a progress on your Spanish,” said Abram.

“Yeah, you know me,” said Jay.  “I’ve got the gift, those people down there just looked at me like I’d been speaking it all my life.  Y’all ought to go some time. The native rodents couldn’t have been friendlier.”

“I’ll run that by Sarah.  I better get going.”  If he didn’t leave now he’d end up hearing stories El Salvadoran flying squirrels all night long.  “Come back soon,” we’ll show you the video we took with a nice mouse family we met from Belize.

Abram wasn’t going anywhere.  He liked the corner of Back Road and Highway 12.  This was his home.  He lived here and his raccoon parents had lived here.  Abram and Sarah had done well for themselves.  Nothing was going to move Abram the Raccoon to a new forest, a new tree, or a new corner.  Squirrels and cats traveled.  Abram J. Raccoon did not.  Or so he thought.

The lights came from around the corner.  Most people took the curve too fast, that’s why he stayed well off the shoulder.  These lights were bigger than many the human cars on the island.  Trucks have hundreds of lights or so Abram thought.  Cars might have two, three or four.  To be honest, he never bothered to count.  If he got too close to the light, he was probably, already, most certainly dead.

The lights stopped about four and a half raccoons in front of him.  He knew no other was to measure distance.  At first they were big, like the human cars; then they became smaller and distant, as if they were stars.  Which were they, lights, stars, or both?  This was not a regular occurrence in raccoon world.

Abram, like most of his raccoon friends, had learned to stand absolutely still when caught by a light.  Light never revealed his good side.  Motionless in the high beams of an F-150 or a minivan, he was usually found to be eating something.  Abram froze with crumbs in hand.   He hoped his innate cuteness, black eye circles, and brown fur might make him suddenly invisible.

It didn’t work.  The light, becoming distant again, began to speak.

“Abram, this is God.  I am God of the humans, your annoying neighbor Jay, and even raccoons.”

Abram didn’t know there was a raccoon God.  He and his family practiced what religious sociologists called moralistic therapeutic deism.  (To be honest, Abram didn’t know that term either, but it’s what they were doing.)  Basically, this is what he believed:

God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

Good raccoons go to heaven when they die.

Was he about to die and go to raccoon heaven?  He really didn’t think much about God unless Lot was having a rabies attack, one of the neighbors died, or he had a problem-like the time his fur started falling out and the doctors had no answer.  It turned out to be stress.  Being a seventy five year old raccoon on an island in the Atlantic Ocean is pretty stressful.

Abram came to know the raccoon God as he waited for more words to emerge from the fading darkness. God may not have been a raccoon but God knew Abram’s name.  On a good day, Abram was about a one raccoon tall.  That’s nearly a foot in human terms.  With all the strength he could muster, he stood up straight, and tried for an extra inch.  “Tell me God of raccoons and humans, what do you have to say?”

“Go from your land, your precious little spot on Back Road by the corner of Highway 12 to a new place I will show you. I will make you a great raccoon nation.  I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.”

“I’m going to be a blessing!” exclaimed Abram.  He looked around to the left, then to the right, and realized no one was there.  Then he said it again.

God spoke raccoon.  Abram didn’t know where he learned it but his accent was flawless.  God knew raccoon.  This amazed Abram!  “God speaks my language!”  Wait till he told Sarah.

Wait till he told her about moving.  She was not going to like this.  Talk about being settled, she didn’t want to go anywhere, especially at her age.  And Lot, we will have to bring his no good, rabid behind with us.

“God,” asked Abram, “are you sure about this?”  Abram loved the idea of being a blessing, particularly in his own little bubble of woodland comfort.  He knew Baron the Osprey, Jay the Squirrel, and two new possums had moved to Middle Road.  They had friends here.   Moving was expensive and he had no idea where or how far God wanted them to go.

“Listen, Abram,” God said, “I know this is a lot for a raccoon to digest.  But I need you to go and be a blessing to other raccoons, squirrels, cats, dogs, and even a few humans.  Do you see my lights?  You are going to be a light.  Better yet, you are going to reflect my light.”

Abram did reflect light very well.  His shiny coat and fur, with hints of brown, white, and black could be seen in most headlights.  Sarah was just as reflective as he was.  When people saw Abram and Sarah, they stopped in their tracks.

“It’s not just about me being there when you’ve got a problem, no food, someone dies, or Jay the Squirrel talks on and on about the lack of nuts,” God told Abram.  “I ought to factor to into your life, like a friendship, not a crutch.”  Abram had seen humans on crutches leaving the doctor’s office.

“So where are we doing?” asked Abram.

“You’re going to take everything you have and move to School Road, over by the Methodist Church.”

“But that’s like a whole other country,” Abram exclaimed.

“I know, it’s the place where I want you to go and be a light.  Go and be a blessing in the most unexpected corners of people’s lives.  Abram, you’re a raccoon, you live for garbage.  Help bless people’s garbage, junk, and the things they can no longer carry.  People need help with their garbage.”

This was going to be a hard sell to Sarah.  She had spoken recently of getting a cat for their tree.  Abram hadn’t said anything, but he didn’t think it was appropriate for raccoons to keep cats.  Who knows, he’d tell her, maybe they would have cats needing to be blessed over by the Methodist Church.

Be Blessed

*I’ve used the conventional spelling of Sarah, not Sarai.  This was intentional.