Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Turtles Are Still Singing

The grackles, like Presbyterians, are fly-fishing. Well, that’s not true. They’re eating the flies, not tying them. My cottage is on a rocky shore, and this morning there is a hatch of damselflies. They appear on the surface like sudden memories. If they can keep still, they have a chance. If they flutter too much, the fish are watching, and suddenly it’s over. Some of them get off the water and make it to shore. But the grackles have more experience than damselflies. One has just landed in the grass. A grackle watched it, and leisurely goes over to get it.

On my cottage windows are the proof that some of them survive. I am not up on what they will do now — how they mate, how long they live. They sit on my windows like sages. They take it all in, this exposure to the air and sun, and they try to make sense of the world. They have faint intimations of prior incarnations as larvae under the rocks. They think how beautiful is life, and how short. They wonder at the meaning of it all. One day is a thousand to a damselfly.

Meanwhile the turtles have taken their stations just offshore. For hours they tread water and gaze up at my property. I suppose it has do with the eggs they’ve laid in the road behind my kitchen. Are they calling to their children, telepathically? Singing an ancient song of where the water is? I heard the turtles singing each to each. Is it a song of comfort and grief? At night the raccoons come and dig up the eggs. The raccoons are nothing if not thorough. I am amazed we still have turtles. Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, "How long?"

What would turtles tell the damselflies? The lives of turtles are as long as damselflies’ are short. Flight in any form they do not understand. But for all their armor and protection their reproduction is tragically vulnerable. Turtles are conservative, they have been doing it this way since the Triassic, before there were raccoons, and mammalian innovations will not make them change. How stubborn they are. Or maybe how little they expect from life, and how content.

The fortunes of damselflies and turtles are opposite. The damselflies’ lives are mostly spent as nymphs, in relative safety under the rocks beneath the lake, while their adult lives are nasty, cold, brutish, and short. The turtles live long as adults, sort of carrying their rocks on their backs, and their vulnerability is in their youth. Maybe that’s why they are so conservative. They are convinced that youth is dangerous.

The damselflies on my windows never learn to sing but they can understand the turtles’ songs, if not the words, then at least the tunes. We are born to trouble, as bugs fly upward. Life is fragile, no matter how hard you are or how long you live. We have our different strategies for managing risk, but we cannot escape danger, we can only shift it around. We bear up. The turtles’ favorite book in the Bible is Ecclesiastes. All the damselflies know is the Jesus Prayer.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Club Loco at Seventh Heaven

Who are these young people in the lower picture? Why are they hanging out at Old First Reformed Church?

I love this picture, because it tells us what Club Loco has accomplished. (Thanks for the photo, Hugh Crawford.)

The kids on the steps are not church members or from our church families. But they have come to think of Old First as a place for them. The band is “Cool and Unusual Punishment,” one of the bands that plays at Club Loco, the hang-out place that Old First hosts for neighborhood young people on Saturday nights. All we want to give them is Sanctuary.

The band is playing out into the street, which is crowded with a hundred people. It’s taking place on Sunday afternoon, during the Seventh Heaven Street Fair. For a full report, scroll down the page at
This is just one of the Club Loco bands. Others played as well. We had music on our steps all afternoon, whether a vocal chorus, a dance group, a woodwind quintet, or a folk singer. We had church people at tables with our stuff: Handcrafting Justice, Chocolate Chip Chamber Festival, Julia’s cartoons, and info about the church.

Thousands of people walk pass the church during this street fair. And I’m happy to say that this year we were able to make Old First one of the chief locations of the fair. Our volunteers worked hard. And that included volunteers from the community who are not church members.
What I like about the upper photo is that it shows how this great ark of a building, for all of its burden, is the center of our community.

What I like about the lower photo is that shows how Club Loco expresses both our Third and Fourth Missions: “To offer sanctuary” and “To offer hospitality.”

Oh Canada

I'm off to Canada on Tuesday, June 19, for nine days. It's a study and writing week. Thank you Old First for giving me this privilege.

No internet, no cell phone, no email, no blog. No Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, no Brooklyn Jews, no Tugster, no Gibbsville Transformers.

No use checking this blog, the average-of-29-per-day who do so, there will be no entries for a while.

The lake, my white pines, white oak, white ash, loons, eagles, the odd beaver, turtles laying eggs in the afternoon for raccoons to eat at night.

An old dial telephone, CBC on the radio, digestives, mosquitos at night, Nabob coffee in the morning and porridge if it's cold. Orville on his dock and on my deck.

Prayer on the rocks at dawn. The Anglican daily office. (Not "The Office!") The laptop and eight new talks (lectures?) for the fall on "Why Be a Christian."

Don't wish me luck. Calvinists don't like luck, and are embarrassed by good luck when they get it. Wish me Godspeed.

Schrijf niet even spoedig terug.

Sidewalk Trees of Park Slope

My favorites are the great Red Oak on President Street, down by the Berkeley Carroll pool, and the American Elms on Third Street. There's one across the street from my friend Jerry's house, just up from Seventh Avenue. There's another great one almost at PPW, on the inside of the sidewalk. My wife Melody calls it an eight-story elm.

Third Street is especially wonderful for sidewalk trees.

I grew up in a part of Brooklyn that had no sidewalk trees. Herkimer Street, the eastern end of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Our streets were hot, hot, hot in the summer. Of course we didn't care, we were too busy running around and having fun. I can remember the pavement kind of soft beneath our Skelly game. The only coolness we got was from opening the hydrants, till the cops came around.

But my dad was a preacher, so we had a parsonage and the only big yard on the street, and inside our spiked iron fence we had apple trees in the back and a maple tree on the side. The apple trees were thick with branches and great for just sitting in (you could even read the Hardy Boys up there). And our friends used to gather in our yard, mostly for the trees.

The maple tree was the only big tree on our block. It reached out over the sidewalk and part of Dewey Place. It had a long branch just high enough that you could climb up our fence and swing up to it and then, if you had guts, jump down to the ground. (I think I was nine before I finally jumped.) We found scraps of wood and old nails and pounded ladders up the trunk and built a fort, of course.

It was a Norway Maple. Now it's considered a weed tree, but that tree inspired my love of trees. I think it's why as a child I liked maples best, thought now it's white pines that I love.

Compared to the R.O.B. (the rest of Brooklyn) we have so many sidewalk trees in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace. We're spoiled. What they add to the quality of life is incalculable.

I never see any kids climbing these trees. Insurance? Health? Safety? I never see kids building ladders up their trunks. Maybe it's illegal now. Maybe they do it in their backyards. Of course, the trunks of those sidewalk elms and oaks are lofty and daunting; I'd have been afraid of them myself. But I think the sycamores would have drawn our crowd of kids to enter them.

Blecchh. Too much nostalgia here. There's a big ailanthus right outside my window as I write. It judges me. I have always hated them. (In Bed-Stuy dialect we called them "shumac".) Its species did not ask to be imported to America, but once it was brought here, its genes decided to flourish. Its genes are generous to a fault, and tolerant, and tough. They judge me. I repent beneath its coolness, greenth, and shade.

I wonder how far up it I could get.

Sermon for June 17, Eminent Domain

Proper 6 C, 1 Kings 21:1-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

The Old Testament lesson comes from the time after Solomon, when Israel was split between the kingdom of Judah in the south, under the House of David, and the kingdom of Israel in the north, with a succession of violent dynasties.

The most effective of the northern kings was Ahab, who was strong enough to marry a foreign princess, Jezebel. King Ahab worked to make Israel behave like other kingdoms, and stop being such a peculiar nation. He imported the more typical gods and goddesses, who seemed both more sensible and more effective than the God of Moses. He ignored the laws of Moses, which tended to stifle the use of power and restrict development. He was contested by the prophet Elijah, the conscience of Israel.

The laws of Moses gave every family in Israel a permanent piece of ground. Private property was sacred as a gift from God. The kings had no right of eminent domain. If you had to sell your property to make ends meet, every forty-nine years it would return to your family, for free.

This gave poor people economic security. What if even the poorest people in Brooklyn owned their apartments, and on one could take them from them. You can imagine this was a disincentive to development. It kept capitalism small. It wasn’t socialism, because all property was private, but it tended to equalize the wealth. And it kept the kingdom decentralized and weak compared to other nations around them, and to survive against their armies they had to trust in the God of Moses. Which King Ahab thought was unrealistic.

Naboth was a casualty. If King Ahab could not get his plot of ground by eminent domain, he would find some other way to get it. And he got it. God did not prevent it. We kind of wish God would, right? But God does not prevent us from doing what we do. What God does is judge us; God does not send punishments, but lets us suffer the misery we bring upon ourselves.

The Bible limits the power of government. This depresses Ahab, and so Jezebel tells him that if he can’t act like a normal king, she’ll do it for him. And so she does a back room deal to manipulate the process, and justice is perverted, and eventually they get their way.

This is what governments tend to do, they gather power and they use that power to gather capital and give it to themselves and their friends. But the message of the prophets throughout the Old Testament was consistent: the role of the king is to follow and enforce the laws of God, especially the laws to defend the poor, the orphan, and the widow.

That meant not charity, but justice, and specifically their rights of property. While the glories of the other nations might be their monuments and pyramids and temples and empires, the glory of Israel would be every little family with a piece of ground to call its own, a sacred right and privilege from God.

The application to the Atlantic Yards is inescapable to me. I know that the laws of this land are not the laws of Moses, but we can still infer the values of the laws of God. The laws of Moses do not have legal currency in America, but I hope they have ethical currency.

It’s not a matter of chiseling the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall, it’s the community learning from these laws, especially the less familiar ones which are less familiar because they are more challenging. Like hospitality to foreigners. Respect for the soil. Not cutting down trees. Limitations on armies. Relief of debt. Regular cancellation of indebtedness, especially among the poor. We think of as secular what the Bible treats as religious. "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

The Biblical bias in development is always small of scale, and close to the ground. It prefers to see what small property owners do with their own resources. Its bias for the creation of wealth is the sharing of capital, not the amassing of it. And what’s the bottom line? Not money. Love. The laws of Moses are the pragmatic applications of the law of love into the areas of economics, security, and development. It’s our job as Jews and Christians to represent this to government.

Now let me bring it closer to home. We can hardly be witness to the government if we do not practice it ourselves. And that’s what the gospel lesson addresses. It’s what Simon the Pharisee found difficult. He was a good man. He was trying to be righteous. He was trying to practice the laws of God.

The Pharisees were one of the movements in Israel in Jesus’ day. They opposed the government of Rome as being like Ahab’s. They wanted to reinstate the kingdom of God in all its former purity. And their strategy was to be very strict—if they kept the laws of God in strict and scrupulous purity, then God would forgive the sins of Israel and God would come back, and kick out the Romans, and give them the Kingdom of God again. But what kept this from happening was these sinners. Like this woman. Simon believed that as long as the Jewish people kept on sinning, God would not forgive them and not come back.

And Jesus was not helping. The Pharisees thought he was giving exactly the wrong message. This tolerance of impurity, this cavorting with sinners. And Jesus’ loud criticism of their movement. Yet Simon was a good man, and personally generous, and he invites him to dinner.

Jesus is reclining on a dinner couch. He reclines on his side, his feet out behind, away from the table. The servants and women are waiting on the men. The doors of the house are open, and some of the poor have come in for a handout, because Simon is a good man.

But Jesus is notortiously unkosher, so Simon has to keep from touching him. Simon cannot give the signs of hospitality, like kissing the rabbi’s hand, or washing his feet, or showing him honor by anointing his head with oil. Jesus could take offense at this, but he’s being a good guest, and he accepts it graciously.

A woman of the street is grieved at this patronizing hospitality. How dare they treat Jesus like this? This rabbi does not look down on her, he does not make her feel like dirt. Like all prostitutes she hates her life, she is ashamed enough of her condition, and this man of God has compassion on her. He deserves to have his feet washed. Her tears will have to do. For a towel she has her hair. And she can’t reach his head, so she anoints his feet.

All of a sudden it’s sexual. Letting down her hair and kissing his feet are the tools of her trade. Simon takes offense at this within his house, but a good host never openly criticizes his guest. And a good guest ever openly criticize his host. So it’s not polite of Jesus to mention what Simon has failed to do for him.

But Jesus wants Simon to know that it’s not just the woman he’s forgiving; all along he’s been forgiving Simon too, just by accepting his patronizing hospitality. Jesus accepts the woman’s love, despite the impure way that she expresses it. Jesus accepts the Pharisee’s hospitality, despite his condescension. "Simon, Simon, the kingdom of God is already here. Here I am. I already am forgiving sins." The law of God is already here, it already is the law of the land, despite the presence of the Romans. The constitution of the kingdom of God is love.

The eminent domain of God is love. All the laws of Moses are summarized in love. Love of God above all, and love of neighbor as yourself. Of course it is impossible to impose the laws of Moses in our context today. Those laws were designed for a strictly agricultural situation and a specific time and place. Not even orthodox Jews want to apply them to America. But we can study and learn and represent the spirit and ethic of those laws. And we can use them as the conscience of our nation and a challenge to ourselves.

If you are wealthy, like Simon the Pharisee, then you can love the poor around you not as charity but as you love yourself. If you have power like king Ahab, then you can love your neighbor Naboth as yourself, and rejoice that he has what you desire. If you are righteous and good then you can love the dirty people as part of you.

You can do this if you acknowledge in humility how much God has forgiven you. You admit how much you are in debt yourself, in debt to the love of God, and having received such mercy, every day, how can you not love God most of all. Isn’t this what you want? Isn’t this what you want for the world?

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Gibbsville Transformers

What a wonderful week it was at Old First. We hosted the Transformers, a young adults group from the Gibbsville (Wisconsin) Reformed Church. They refurbished our main chandelier, and did eight other projects too.

There are 108 light bulbs in that chandelier, but God's love shone through 63 young adults from Wisconsin this week, filling our old church building with light and life and love. And music. And laughter. And scripture. And joy.

Let me recommend you to their blogs. Go to, and check out their two links. The first is the running journal, by Chris Wensink. The second is their photo record. You can also check out the comments in Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, by Louise Crawford.
I loved having these folks here this week. I love their leader and pastor, the Rev. Luke Schouten. Thank you. And God bless you.
I should add what else they did. They built a new staircase to the tower room. They cleaned out the steeple and put wire mesh on the louvers. They painted the steeple stairwell. They built a new inner door for our handicap entrance. They redid the floor of our handicap washroom. They cleaned and graded and gravelled our back alleyway. They repaired the front steps. They witnessed to people in NYC. They praised God and studied scripture and talked to our neighbors, passersby, and visitors.
That was the week that was.