Before Thoughts and Prayers First Comes Confession – How Liberal Christians Have Helped Create the Climate that Spawned the Pittsburgh Massacre

The latest mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue rightly revolts us all.  It was a hideous act, as were the shootings at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston – and too many others.  To be sure, the President and his minions and MAGA-hatted sycophants (whom he has given permission and encouragement to be vicious and vile) bear a large responsibility for the climate where we may be shocked but not surprised that an avowed anti-Semite would appear to delight in slaughtering Jewish folks.

But this latest shooting also possesses a special kind of hideousness for those of us who are liberal mainline Christians.  Reading the vile rants of the alleged shooter ought to give those of us in those traditions a queasy moment.  Anti-Judaism is the “original sin” of Christianity, and too often its modern-day form has been aided and abetted by too many sermons from too many pulpits that uncritically take the sometimes awful words in the Gospels about “the Jews” literally, without any attempt to interpret how the gospel of John, particularly, is the record of a “family fight” where things are said (as in most family fights) that simply aren’t true – then or now.    What’s more, those of us who claim liberal mainline Protestantism as our theological home also bear some responsibility for creating such a climate in other ways too.  When churches and pastors do not annually observe Yom HaShoah but do regularly and uncritically offer passion plays and Good Friday observances and their ilk which uncritically repeat these hideous lies about our ancestors in the faith, then we err on the side of historical fatuousness and theological ingratitude – and we make it just a little more possible for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and anti-Jewish violence to flourish.  We also need to remember that as a nation we are also culpable in actions that sent the clear message that Jews are simply not to be valued as much as Christians.  When we fail to confess that part of the reason for today’s situation is the United States’ and other nations’ refusal to take in Jewish refugees in World War II and the refusal to bomb the railways that made the “Final Solution’s” camps possible, we tacitly deny that such actions (or lack of actions!) are the historical but very real progenitors of today’s increasing anti-Jewish violence and vandalism; they give an historical imprimatur to what is happening now.

Thoughts and prayers?  Always.  But they are not enough without the confession that we who call ourselves liberal Protestant Christians have too often exacerbated by our own words and pronouncements and practices and sermons and Bible studies the anti-Judaism that is increasing in our country.   Those who preach, particularly from the Gospel of John, need to always make sure that they have studied works like Clark Williamson’s and Ron Allen’s Preaching the Gospel Without Blaming the Jews before stepping into the pulpit.  We can and should publicly repudiate the odious right-wing fundamentalist view of Israel (and its own anti-Jewish ideology) without also repudiating that Israel, theologically, bears a special place in our affections as the homeland of the people onto whom we Christians were graciously grafted by God.  Likewise, we can honor our Muslim brothers and sisters and cousins in the overarching Abrahamic family of faith without necessarily execrating our Jewish extended family members.

It is possible to do both.  But it will take confession.  And it will take nuance – a virtue seemingly disallowed in our current civic discourse.  And it will take all sides abjuring theological triumphalism that inevitably demonizes and objectifies certain folks and leads too frequently to despicable expressions of hatred in too many places — and now in Pittsburgh.

I hope we want to try.  For the sake of ALL those whom God loves and expects justice for, I hope we want to try.

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“Much Mo’ Bettah” – A World Communion Sunday Meditation

In the church where I served as pastor in Hawaii, on “first Sundays” people came forward for communion, tearing a piece of bread off of a loaf lovingly made most Sundays by a man by the name Larry Sumida, and dipping it in a cup of juice.

I don’t know who it was who one Sunday filled the communion chalice with Mogen David wine – wine that had begun to “turn” more than a little. THAT was a memorable communion service! I have never seen so many startled faces as when those little wine-soaked morsels hit people’s tongues! After worship, one of the long-time members said to me, using local slang, “That sure opened my eyes! I think I can now see much mo’ bettah!”

As we gather on World Communion Sunday with folks in every land in clime, speaking a multiplicity of tongues, in grand cathedrals and lowly lean-to’s, using bread or crackers or tortillas, whether with juice or with wine, may indeed our eyes also be opened “much mo’ bettah!”

  • May they be opened to the fact that when any of God’s children hurt we are called to hurt with them, that we might seek to help.
  • May they be opened to those gestures and those voices that hurt, that diminish, that say that some people are second-class and are to be feared because of their race or orientation or economic status.
  • May they be opened when vulnerable people are mocked and attacked.

And as we see and hear more clearly, “much mo’ bettah,” may we also know that this meal is, as one of the ancient Church Fathers put it, the “bread of courage.” At this Table, may we indeed therefore find the courage

  • to speak up at injustice,
  • to speak up when the vulnerable are mocked,
  • to speak up when any of God’s children are slurred against,
  • to speak up when words are used as weapons rather than as bearers of grace.

May our eyes indeed be opened and our courage unleashed, as we too see and do “much mo’ bettah” indeed!

From a communion meditation offered at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Tacoma, Washington, October 7, 2018.  My thanks to Sr. Pastor Barbara Blaisdell for the invitation to preside at the Table.

Or The Honor of the Action is Lost….

Sixteen years ago, when Barbara and I were on vacation in Hawaii, Honolulu Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna published a piece (August 2, 2002) that has stayed with me to this day.  Entitled “No Name, No Blame, No Shame,” it is powerfully written (even if I might have chosen a less pugilistic image) and her point is true for both churchly and civic life.  (I used to use this article when, as Regional Minister, I would orient Pastoral Relations Committees, reminding them of the damage that anonymous complaints do to pastor and congregation and to be firm in a policy that anonymous complaints would neither be tolerated nor responded to).  Consider Cataluna’s words:

The pen is mightier than the sword. There is much good that can be accomplished by a thoughtfully composed letter. It can be the beginning of positive social change, the wake‑up call somebody needed, the whistle calling a foul.

But there is an important caveat: You have to sign your name. If not, the honor of the action is lost.

There’s a reason why the written word is compared to a sword, the weapon of gallantry, the weapon of skill and precision, the choice of a brave warrior. When you fight with a sword, you must look your opponent in the eye. You must let yourself be revealed, vulnerabilities and all. You must be willing to subject yourself to counter‑attack by your foe. It is a noble way of doing battle.

Writing that is anonymous is more like a sniper hiding in the bushes, more like a bomb hidden under a parked car, more like terrorism. It is cowardly, no matter the original intent, no matter the validity of the letter’s content.

People who send unsigned complaint letters, hate mail, critiques or exposés often include a line that says, “I don’t want to sign my name for fear of retribution.” They’re willing to lob a grenade into someone else’s life, be it righteous or malicious or vengeful, but they want to drive off into the night unseen and unaffected. If you aren’t willing to stand by your accusations, come what may, then don’t make them.

I thought of Ms. Cataluna’s column upon reading the NY Times anonymous op-ed piece concerning the situation in the White House.  My reaction was two-fold:  First, there was not a thing in that essay that surprised me; everything in it is consistent with everything we know about the President and his malicious, mendacious ways.  But second, I was dismayed that a “Senior White House Official” would use this means of promulgating his or her views.  It cheapens the national conversation.  Moreover, it sidetracks discussion of the real and scary issues, as those who bear responsibility for the immoral and reprehensible policies and practices of this administration can instead fulminate and speculate about the writer.

Ms. Cataluna is right: there is no honor in it.  It hurts the cause of those working to thwart this administration’s immorality.  It takes the spotlight away from the sham Supreme Court hearings and the fecklessness of those Republican senators who are willing to occasionally sound “tough” but, as James Fallows eloquently points out,  who will DO nothing to stop this depredation about the be visited on the Court.

In the church, anonymous complaints always hurt the Body of Christ and the mission Christ has for the congregation of sharing grace in a culture of joyless jingoistic judgmentalism.  And in the body politic, anonymous screeds further contaminate the soil that is needed for democracy and for “the better angels of our nature” to nourish the American dream of equity and justice for all.  Too much of that soil has already been polluted by an administration with too much evil on its hands.  It is ironic, un-helpful, and disturbing when a putative ally uses a means that further spreads such pollution instead of halting it.

And, after all, if you are a grownup then you really do need to take responsibility for your actions; you need to “sign” your name.  If that means you will no longer have a job, so be it.  Maybe yours will be the righteous resignation that finally, finally emboldens one of the Senatorial “feckless fifty” to actually do their jobs in the face of a President who is not simply a national and world embarrassment but a continuing and growing threat to the very premises of the American experiment.

But, as Ms. Cataluna says, you have to sign your name.  It’s the honorable thing.

No Pottage

Genesis 25:29‑34 from NKJV.   Jacob cooked pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage…. And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.  And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?  And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

(Updated July 4, 2019)

Twenty  years ago, my wife Barbara, our youngest daughter, and I found ourselves on July 4 in Ely, Nevada.  If you’ve been to Ely, you know it is a hard‑scrabble place, set amidst an awesomely desolate landscape, hours from the next real town.  That night we found ourselves at the country fairgrounds, sitting on the hood of our car, parked there with hundreds of others to watch the fireworks light up the desert sky.  On one side of us was parked a young Hispanic American mother and her three small children.  As the fireworks burst over our heads, those children with excitement and glee waved the tiny American flags they had clutched in their hands and shouted ¡”Mira! ¡Mira!”  “Look! Look!”  Parked on the other side of us was a family of Hmong refugees who were sharing a meal of hotdogs and French fries and who also were captivated with the incandescent tribute to freedom bursting over our heads.  In front of us was a family of Japanese‑American folks, whose grandparents, we learned had been interned by their country not that far from where we all sat that night, and they too shouted with excitement at each enormous explosion. A couple of cars over, two young men stood watching the aerial splendor while sly holding hands and smiling at one another.  And parked behind us was a Muslim American family, outfitted in beautiful robes and whose children had little American flag stickers on their chests.

And we – Scots‑Irish and German descendants, one of us raised in Texas and the other in Zimbabwe – got lumps in our throats, and I remembered why I care so much for this country:  because when we are at our best, we do indeed say “no” to the pottage of hatred that gets placed before us and we do instead seek to make even more real, even more true, our commitment to welcome everyone, “with malice toward none, with charity towards all,” in Lincoln’s words, seeking to live out the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty about welcoming all those who yearn to be free.

Have we always lived up to that ideal?  Far from it.  From the slave auction blocks to the Trail of Tears to the decimation of the native Hawai`ian people to internment camps for loyal American issei and nisei to blood-stained lunch counters and bus stations to odious caging of children and separation of families  – too often we as a people have allowed (or even encouraged, to our shame) our government to rule from fear and hatred instead of from the ideals of Lincoln and the words of welcome etched on the Statue of Liberty, thereby trading, as did Esau, the best of our birthright for a mess of pottage.

But today, on this 4th of July,  we have the opportunity to re-commit ourselves to the best of who we have wanted to be, the best of the ideals that can continue to shape us and prod us if we let them, the best of a country whose borders can once again be a sign and beacon of hope instead of a symbol of fearfulness, xenophobia, and the sundering of families one from another.  Today we have the opportunity to re-commit ourselves to a flag that really and truly stands – despite the depredations and mendacities of those who would befoul it with hatred – for liberty and justice for all.

All.  Whatever color, whatever faith, whatever orientation or gender identity.

All.  Including those whose conscience demands that they take a knee in honor of those deprived of liberty and justice.

All.  Including those whose “crime” is wanting to keep their children from brutality and violence, who expected to be met with kindness instead of cages.

All.

And isn’t that so much better than a mess of pottage?

naturalization

I am grateful to the Rev. Barbara Blaisdell for her most-helpful suggestions.

 

What If They Forget?

1 Corinthians 11:27-29 The Message “Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of ‘remembrance’ you want to be part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.  If you give no thought (or worse, don’t care) about the broken body of the Master when you eat and drink, you’re running the risk of serious consequences.”

When Barbara’s and my children were small, we would sometimes treat them to lunch at a restaurant whose gimmick was that you were put inside “jail cells” in which you would order and receive your food.  I am now appalled and ashamed that my white privilege was such that it never occurred to me that treating a jail as a recreational venue was only possible because I had never had to fear being thrown into a real jail for no reason other than the color of my skin, or because I had sought refuge from horrific violence in my home.

cage

I remembered those long ago lunches for some reason this week when I looked at the pictures of those children in cages, in jails, holding out their hands for something to eat or seeking a toy taken from them,  holding out their hands for a sign of compassion from a government supposedly dedicated to freedom, holding out their hands to reach for a parent’s hand from which theirs had been cruelly ripped.  And I remembered at one of those lunches in one of those restaurant’s faux jail cells that one of our children said, “What if they forget about us?”

The awful and awe-filled import of Paul’s words come out fully in Peterson’s paraphrase:  So long as those who would act in our name and on our behalf imprison brown-skinned children whose “crime” is believing America’s claims to be a “city on a hill” and a welcoming haven for the brutalized, we cannot come to Christ’s table unaffected and unmoved.  For to do so is indeed to join those who jeered and spit on Him.  Those little bodies in those cages – with the odiously Orwellian name “Tender Age Shelters” – and those parents forcibly separated from those little ones in scenes that recall Auschwitz and Dachau are indeed “the broken body of the Master.”

Does that mean we should not come to the Lord’s table.  No.  Far from it.  But Paul’s words laid alongside of this shameful repugnant thing means that we cannot rest easy until no child, no parent, no person, ever is treated in such a way again and those responsible are stripped of their ability to govern on our behalf for they have already morally abdicated that right.

The next time you come to Christ’s table, then, to receive this amazing gift of grace, do not forget that your brothers and sisters are yet in cages, and that they are asking, as did our own child in that long ago restaurant, “What if they forget….?”  And then go from that table to do something, do something.

For, indeed, “what if they forget?”

On #MeToo – Confession & Intention

A few miles from one of our denomination’s church campgrounds is a rather rough-and-tumble bar.  It’s not someplace you’d likely ordinarily choose to stop.  But sometimes bodily urgencies don’t give you a choice.  In that bar, on the way to the restroom, is a large sign, intricately carved in wood, that says, “Sexual Harassment Will Not Be Reported But It Will Be Graded.”

I’m mortified and ashamed that I ever thought there was anything humorous about that sign.

But I did.

And so in my own way I contributed to the untold decades of sexual intimidation and harassment that millions of women are now reporting on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere with the oh-so-poignant and oh-so-horrifyingly simple hashtag #MeToo.

And I realize things that I should have realized and somehow acted on long ago:

  • That I have the luxury of not ever having to think about the daily possibility of being sexually objectified, catcalled, and subject to the very real chance of being assaulted.  But my wife and my daughters and my mother and every woman has had to do so.  And that is simply wrong, and my silence has helped make it possible.
  • That such harassment is only different in degree, not kind, from the daily diminutions and degradations that women deal with:
    • the car salesman who addresses only the husband,
    • the bank whose “policy” puts the man’s name on the mortgage ahead of the woman’s even if she is the one with the larger income and who has done all the work to get to that point,
    • the church folks who don’t “approve” of women pastors or who compliment men’s sermons but tell women ministers they enjoyed their “little talk” and feel free to ask women ministerial candidates offensive questions they would never ask men.
  • That a too-often-ignored fact about our culture’s obsession with guns and our unwillingness to treat it as a public health crisis has meant that simply living in a state with a high rate of firearm ownership increases a woman’s risk of being fatally shot in a domestic violence incident (a woman is fatally shot by her partner every sixteen hours), and the presence of firearms often increases the lethality of attacks.
  • That the unconscionable pay gap percentage between women and men (true of every race and ethnicity and horrifyingly true for women of color) is in its own way an assault.

The realization of these things – and so many more – has convicted me, even if I should have been convicted and should have been speaking out more long ago.

So let me say:  I apologize for my obtuseness and sometimes (honest shame would compel me to say) even willful blindness.  I apologize that I have ever thought jokes objectifying or slandering women were ever funny.  I apologize that I have not highlighted how our major social problems too often disproportionately hurt women (like the opioid crisis).

But apologies without actions are not enough.  Apologies must pave the way for new futures.

So here is my commitment:

  • I will seek to truly listen more carefully and with greater sensitivity when women tell of their experiences.
  • I will call out my acquaintances when they slander, objectify, and verbally assault women.
  • I will not downplay or allow to get lost the distinctive ways that social problems and social policies continue to diminish women and even make them more vulnerable to assault and harassment.
  • I will seek to purge my language of words and phrases whose only use is to degrade women and which have no analogue as applied to men: “shrew” (look up its etymology) or “bitchiness” or “shrill.”
  • I will intentionally teach the boys who may come into my care for an hour or a lifetime that respect for women is not simply “nice,” but is the fundamental way that decent people treat human beings.

There’s more, but perhaps that’s enough to start.   The power and poignancy of #MeToo ought to be paralleled by men who recognize where they have been and done less than they could have and who in tangible ways from now on #WillBeYourAlly.

Weary, Weary, Weary. A Pastoral Letter on the Occasion of the Las Vegas Shootings

I am weary of writing pastoral letters in response to mass shootings.  Bone- and soul-weary. And I suspect that you, too, are weary of receiving such letters.

Over the years, I’ve written such letters in response to the Blacksburg college shootings, the massacre of first-graders at Newtown, and the vile executions of those enjoying a night on the town at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub.

I am weary.  Bone- and soul-weary.  But not as weary as I would have been if I had written such letters after every one of the 273 mass shootings so far this year, or the 483 mass shootings in 2016, or the 372 mass shootings in 2015, and on and on and on.  Linger on those numbers for a moment — even if they are almost literally unimaginable.  Except they’re not, are they?

I am weary.  Bone- and soul-weary.  And you are likely just as weary.  But none of us are as weary, as devastated, as bereaved as the literally thousands of victims of those shootings and their friends and families, not as weary, as devastated, as bereaved as a child murdered in a crib or a mother taken from her children or a man who will never walk again because we as a nation, as a people, will not confess that we have failed in the most basic test that Jesus offered: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  We have not protected that grieving mother, that bereft spouse, that dead toddler in the way that we would want those whom we love protected and safe from the depredations of our unwillingness as a people to face and rationally deal with the greatest public health crisis of our day.

I am weary. Bone- and soul-weary of the easy availability of assault weaponry — that has no place outside of war — which kills our police officers and make their jobs infinitely more difficult, of a sick surfeit of the kind of guns that have no legitimate civilian use, of it being harder to get a building permit to erect a fence or get a driver’s license or than it is to purchase a weapon of mass destruction.

Please understand: I am not “anti-gun.”  Most of the hunters I have known feed their families on the meat that they obtain through hunting and respect the enormous privilege they have of carrying a deadly weapon.  I have fond memories of bonding with my father when he first showed me how to fire a shotgun when I was a teenager and we were visiting a friend’s ranch, or when my brothers and my dad and I spent long-ago afternoons plinking at soda cans with an air rifle, or when my brother-in-law took me skeet shooting.  I like to shoot and though it has been awhile since I have done so, I would happily do so again sometime with someone who could re-teach me what I need to know about gun safety.

But in none of those cases was a semi-automatic weapon necessary.  Nor was a high-capacity clip.  Nor was ammunition that was designed solely to shred the human body or punch through brick and mortar.  Now, please hear me:  I am not advocating, as the slur so often goes, “taking your guns away.”  Frankly, there are very few people that take that position and those who would inflame you to think so are offering damnable lies.  My own theological understanding is that we live in an imperfect world and, short of the Kingdom that is promised, we will sometimes have to use instruments of violence to protect the innocent.  But that reality is never, ever a justification for not doing everything that we can to make sure that how and to whom the instruments of violence are available honors what we know about what will keep the most people safe.

Because that, my friends, is precisely what the issue is: safety.  We are in the midst, as I say, of a public health crisis.  The good news is that Americans have typically been very good at addressing and ameliorating public health crises — polio no longer threatens with each new summer and AIDS is not an immediate death sentence.  My plea is simply this:  that we would use our knowledge and experience to address this crisis as a public health emergency, for I am convinced that we would have far fewer such shootings when reasonable precautions are put in place for the kinds of weaponry and ammunition that are available.  We know how to do this.  We do.  What we have lacked is the will and the respect for our fellow countrymen and -women to make it happen.

And as Christians, my plea is that we follow Jesus’ example of always, always seeking to protect the vulnerable.  After all, He is the One who said it was better to be dropped into the sea tied to a millstone than to harm a child.  There is far, far too much harm afoot these days, harm that could be avoided even if short of the Kingdom there will still be evil that occurs.  But we can do better.  There are those that say if someone’s heart and intent is evil, he or she will find a way to act on that intent and will find a weapon to do so.  That is likely true.  But let us not lose nuance here: had the Las Vegas gunman been armed with throwing knives instead of — as the police are now reporting — both semi- and fully automatic weapons, a huge portion of those 500+ dead and injured would still be alive and well.

I’m weary, bone- and soul-weary.  Our Lord and Savior invites me and all to “Come, all you are weary.”  But then, then, He says go back into the world to love, to care, to protect the vulnerable.

We can do that so much better than we have done.  We can.

We must.

Already and Not Yet: A Reflection for Juneteenth

by Chuck and Barbara Blaisdell

It is commonly (and correctly) observed that Christians are to live between “the already” and “the not yet.”  That is, in Christ we have been shown that God is a God of unconditional love for each and all and that that love cannot and will not be defeated even by death. But that Good News is also “not yet,” for too many people still do not know of that God but only the lesser gods of jugmentalism and self-justification.   Likewise, too many people are also denied the justice that is also God’s expectation for each and every creature God has made.  If all we knew was “the already” then that would be a license for complacency and smugness.  If all we knew was “the not yet,” then it would be hard not to despair in a world where too much evil is perpetrated upon the innocent, where women can be assaulted and then re-assaulted in the courtroom and the press while their attackers go unpunished, where terrified children suffer and die on the shores of distant oceans and nearby sidewalks because of mean-spirited fears.

Today is Juneteenth.  In some ways it is the American civic analogue of the theology of “already/not yet.”  Too many white Americans may not yet know the story: on June 19, 1865, a military commander announced to the people of Galveston and the state of Texas that those who had been enslaved were free.  Just as with too many who don’t yet know a God of love for all people, the word of emancipation came late; Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had been effected on January 1, 1863.  But then, as too often nowadays too, Texas was a latecomer to to “God’s truth is marching on.”

Juneteenth, then, is the celebration of what has been done – that in the eyes of the United States of America there is to be no caste by race, no subjugation of one color to another, no human being ever to own another human being again.  That has been accomplished. But, of course, Juneteenth is also “not yet” — the great historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., points out in detail that is heartening and painful just how the message of Juneteenth both spread and was resisted by both overt racists and those who think that racism is a thing of the past.  Every American should learn more of the meaning of Juneteenth and give thanks for “the already” and be spurred to make “the not yet” an ever-nearer reality.

The message of Juneteenth is also a powerful portent, promise, and prod to Americans to make its “not yet” ever more a reality for every religion, race, class, and orientation. America still has too far to go in living out that promise as we mourn today a child murdered virtually in sight of the Capitol simply for being a Muslim. We hear voices of Muslim American children who have learned and cherish the American dream in a way that ought both inspire and shame us.

The prophet Isaiah, himself announcing “the not yet,” foresaw a day when “a little child will lead them.” May that day be now, as the voices of those Muslim children remind us of who we are called to be and as the celebration of Juneteenth reminds us that we are called to be one people, under God, with liberty and justice for all, for all.

For ALL.

May it be so, sooner than later.

Happy New Year! Musings on Traveling and Tree Trunks

 

Every country and culture have their own distinctive ways of celebrating the new year.  In parts of South America, people walk around inside their homes carrying empty suitcases.  They do so hoping that the upcoming year will provide them ample opportunities to travel. It is believed that the faster one walks, the farther he or she will travel.  In parts of Siberia, it is the custom on New Year’s Day to jump into a frozen lake while holding a tree trunk.  Both of these got me to thinking:   I too am carrying around a suitcase, but this one is not empty.  It’s full, even over-full, and too often I find that I am carrying around with me old regrets, past mistakes, what-if’s that I keep re-playing in my mind, words I wish I hadn’t said, opportunities I regret not taking advantage of, the good that I could have done but failed to do.  Too often that over-laden suitcase then indeed seems to morph into a heavy tree trunk which I seem destined to hang on to as I plunge into a chilly new year.

But I’m hoping not to hang on to it, and I hope you aren’t either.  For while there are no New Year’s messages to be found in the Bible, there is the grand and glorious good news that has been born to us in this season:  that the coming of Christ can make all things new, that you can be freed from the guilt and shame of past mistakes, that new life, new hope, and new ways of living are indeed possible — that you can unpack your suitcase and look to load it up instead in the new year with acts of love, acts of hope, acts of courage, acts of joy.  You can see your life, as I said in a sermon a couple of weeks ago, “as a gift to be un-wrapped and not a burden to be borne.”

So, dive in – but empty that suitcase, put that heavy tree trunk down.  For as the hymn we sang on Christmas morning says: “Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings…. Born that we no more may die… Born to give us second birth.”  May you indeed know the joy and possibility of new birth in the coming year, luggage lightened, burdens given over to God.  Happy New Year!

 

And We Are Numbered Too: On Not Sanitizing the Story – A Christmas Reflection

In the first decades of the first century, Christianity did not spread as fast as it might have because to those Greco-Roman folks outside of Palestine, the idea that God would have come to earth as a baby to a no-name couple who didn’t have the money to find more seemly transportation and who were so poor they couldn’t even book the Bethlehem Motel 6 seemed ludicrous. The Apostle Paul talks about “the scandal of the cross” – that God’s own Son would die such an undignified death – but it is also accurate to say there was also the “scandal” of God down in the dirt in the muck and messiness of life, the “scandal” of a God choosing to be made manifest in the pain and sweat of childbirth.

For you see the mythological “gods” of the Greeks and Romans were aloof. They had little to do with human beings unless it was to occasionally come to earth to torment some poor soul. And their birth stories are downright bizarre and anything but human: The goddess Athena was born from Zeus’ head. Zeus seduced the goddess Hera by disguising himself as a cuckoo bird (although I’m not sure why that was seductive!). He gave birth to Dionysus from his thigh. These “gods” weren’t very nice folks, either: Cronus swallowed his children when they were born; Zeus escaped but family systems theory apparently rings true even in the Greek pantheon for he not only swallowed his children but also his pregnant wife. One wonders why followers of such so-called “gods” would see the Christian nativity narrative as unseemly (!) but they did, and they mocked early Christians for worshiping such a low-class God who would suffer such self-debasement as to come into this world in the guise of a squalling infant.

But in the face of such mockery, let us say this: Thanks be to God that that is how it happened! The birth story of Jesus reminds us ever and always that God is indeed not aloof from creation, not un-caring, but so loved this world that God became one of us. And that is always, always our reminder that we should never seek to go too far in sanitizing the story, in making Jesus so transcendently winsome that He does not know what it is like to live as a human. For as a professor of mine long ago said, “If God is only transcendent, such a god doesn’t really care for us; but if God is only human like the rest of us, such a God is unable to save us.” But the Christmas story as Luke tells it is indeed the story of a God who is both all-encompassing unconditional love and a human life that is born and lives in the way that all humans get themselves born and live. It is the story of both the magnificent transcendence of stars and angels, and the down-to-earth realities of grubby shepherds and smelly animal stalls.

And again let us say: thank God for that. The very human Jesus – born to parents under the dominion of an oppressive empire, soon to be refugees fleeing government-sponsored terror – reminds us that the children of Aleppo, and the children who go to bed hungry in this community, and the scores of teenagers in this city forced into the streets by their parents when they reveal their sexual orientation, and the millions of children who die each year around the world for lack of clean water are our brothers and sisters too. And we dare not so sanitize and “transcendentalize” and pretty up the story that we love Jesus but not these other ones as well. For the unconditional love of God for each and all and God’s demand for justice to each and all did indeed come to earth to save us and to challenge us to share that love and help enact that justice.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were headed to Bethlehem in response to what he called the “first census” ordered by the governor. But, my friends, it is not the last census. For Christmas comes to us as a wondrous gift, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” as the carol puts it. It comes to us as amazing and unstinting grace, whereby you and I have been grafted on to God’s people who also knew that grace from the summit of Mt. Sinai. But it also comes to us, as it were, as a new census; for you see, we too are invited to joyfully and gratefully number ourselves among those who will continue the work of that Babe of Bethlehem.

Shall we?

From a sermon preached on Christmas Eve at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Colorado Springs, Colorado