Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Christmas Gospel

I was watching one of those holiday movies that depict the events around the birth of Christ. There have been lots of cheesy ones but this one was pretty good. It seemed to be based on some solid study of the Bible and sound historical research. Herod was portrayed as the villain which he was. He didn't think twice about killing members of his family who he deemed threats to his throne. In the opening scenes Herod threatens another one of his sons if he does not put down a rival to his throne. In particular, he is concerned about rumors he has heard about a prophecy telling of a Jewish Messiah. The film begins with the Herod ordered massacre of children under the age of two in Bethlehem - just to make sure there were no young Messiahs. Herod always had in the back of his mind that Somewhere, Someone was out to take his throne from him.

After the opening scene of the chilling Bethlehem massacre, the action shifts to Nazareth where Joseph and Mary lived. They are very young. Mary is sowing seed in a field with some other girls and boys. They take off on a run throwing seed at each other. Mary's mother yells at her to keep her mind focused on her work. Her family can ill afford such play when times are so hard. Joseph is seen doing some very rough carpentry without a shop or proper tools. These are poor, simple folk. Then some Roman soldiers come riding into the village interrupting the daily chores. Some one shouts: they have come to collect taxes. The Romans are big, well armored, with swords and spears. They talk loudly and most of the people scurry out of the way, obviously frightened by this display of power. It's clear the villagers have seen this before and know what is coming next. The men line up to pay their taxes; the women shield their daughters from the soldiers leering eyes. A few of the men pay their taxes; some cannot. One man begs a soldier for more time. He laughs and takes control of another third of his land for Herod in lieu of tax payment. Another man who cannot pay all his tax has his donkey confiscated by the soldiers. And a third man watches as his daughter is snatched out of his wife's arms to work on one of Herod's building projects that demands a large slave labor force.

The scene abruptly shifts to a massive building project at Masada in the south of Palestine. Here Herod's winter palace is under construction. Israeli slaves are hauling huge blocks of stone up the steep slopes to the mountain top where the palace - fortress will be.

So, Messiah was much on people's minds and hearts. When Messiah comes, he will deliver us. When Messiah comes, we will have our revenge on these hated oppressors. When Messiah comes there will be justice and prosperity again.

Passionate times. Feelings ran hot; anger, sorrow, anxiety and fear were daily companions of these believing Jews. We often miss those feelings at our church Christmas celebrations. We are thinking more of the wonder surrounding the birth of Christ and in our warm, well lit, beautifully decorated sanctuaries we are literally and figuratively far removed from the daily grind of most people at the time Jesus was born. Sometimes, our thoughts are overwhelmed by the commercialization of the season so uppermost on our minds is the gift giving and partying that mark the holidays.

Dorothee Soelle had a hard time with Christmas. She was familiar with the poor and oppressed of the world because of her work as an advocate for homeless people and others living on the edges of society. She said the birth story of Jesus in the Bible seemed like a museum piece to her. She could not see what it had to say to people today, especially those who lived marginal existences. Christmas seemed to be for the well off who could afford to give gifts and go to parties. Then, she had a breakthrough; she began to read the Christmas story in its historical and political context. She began to wonder about the conditions in which the people of Galilee lived; and she wondered why she had never realized before how many sick people appear in the gospels. And she wondered what made them sick and why they could not be treated. She began to understand the political oppression, economic plunder and legal degradation - she said - that was implicit in the gospel stories. Luke tells us "everyone had to go .. to be registered", so he is telling us about the coercive measures of the Romans. These Jewish peasants had no choice but to go to be counted. She understood that the "peace on earth" the angels heralded and Jesus ushered in was in direct opposition to the Pax Romana - the so-called peace of Rome - which was no peace at all for most non- Romans. I understood for the first time the propaganda terms of pax (peace) and jus ( justice) that the Roman writers used were a cover for the manipulation of grain prices and militarization of the earth - she wrote. When she saw the boot of the empire crushing everything in its path from Bethlehem to Golgotha - she could understand how the words of the gospel spoke to the poor and oppressed she worked with today. " In Paul, these causes of misery are called the reign of sin... " "Into this darkness, the light of Christmas shines... " "The frightened shepherds become God's messengers. They organize, make haste, find others, and speak with them. Do we not all want to become shepherds and catch sight of the angel? I think so. Without the perspective of the poor, we see nothing, not even an angel. When we approach the poor, our values and goals change. The child appears in many other children. Mary also seeks sanctuary among us. Because the angels sing, the shepherds rise, leave their fears behind, and set out for Bethlehem, wherever it is situated these days." (from an entry by Dorothee Soelle in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Community

Pauline was a member of the church I pastored. I don't know if she ever officially joined but she was as much a member as anyone else. This church was her family and she loved us. She would tell us that almost every Sunday. She lived right next door to the church in a room of a house with other social misfits. Pauline was not "normal" and neither were her housemates. There was a Down Syndrome young man and assorted other persons who did not readily fit in anywhere else. It was a good place to live. A woman who came to our church was the director. Her husband was paralyzed himself after several strokes, one while driving his car. He was hard to understand and I couldn't always make sense of what he was saying but he liked baseball and sometimes we watched the Yankees together in the summer. Later, she and her husband adopted two special needs children from India. They were adopted by the church family, too.

Pauline was institutionalized until she was about 70. Her parents had abandoned her to the institution when she was a child believing she was retarded. She told us her father was a rabbi in New York City. Pauline was not retarded but being institutionalized for so long retarded her social skills. She didn't have any. When she was younger she had frequent seizures during which she fell flat on her face. Most of the bones in her face had been broken and then had healed on their own. Her nose was squished in, her mouth was askew and opened widely, showing a toothless grin and showering you with spit as she talked. After church, you were likely to be the recipient of a huge, slobbery kiss along with an enthusiastic bear hug. I love you, she would shout. She was not shy in the least. She always stood up at the church's prayer time with a testimony or a need for prayer. During the service from her front row seat, she could be heard chomping on her gums (not gum, but gums). She liked to wear dresses and dance around like a little girl. We were her family. Most of the people in town knew her and she would run errands for businesses to earn a little spending money.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving the church put on a turkey dinner with all the trimmings for the people who lived next door. At that time, we would each take a name of a person who had listed what they wanted for Christmas. The usual items were things like kleenex, writing paper, a pen, toothbrush and maybe slippers or cologne. The young man with Down Syndrome loved matchbox cars so that was on his list year after year. On the Sunday before Christmas the people of the home next door to the church would invite us over for Christmas punch, and cookies; we would sing some carols together and then we would hand out the gifts. It was a time filled with laughter and much joy.

In a few years, the home was sold to another company that manages those kinds of homes. The director was let go and a new supervisor was brought in. Policies were reviewed and new ones put in place. The home was brought up to state standards which meant our informal gatherings with the home came to an end. Pauline and a couple other residents still attended the church until she died a few years later.

I thought of Pauline today as I read a book about the L'Arche communities for the mentally and physically disabled, and the work of Jean Vanier who said "a fundamental text for L'Arche is I Corinthians 12, which is about the body of Christ, the church, and Paul says that those parts of the body that are the weakest and least presentable are the most necessary to the body and should be honored. Often the parts that are weakest and least presentable are the ones we hide away in institutions or try to get rid of (Vanier says that in France where he lives within a few years there will be no more children with Down Syndrome because they will all have been aborted.)

Pauline could become jealous and angry if she did not get her own way. She was like a child in many ways. But she was a child of God's, deeply loved and valued by her heavenly Father, and a member of the body of Christ, who reminded all of us we were too.

The Advent Conspiracy

There's a group called the Advent Conspiracy. It was started by a few pastors in the Portland, OR area who were sick of Christmas - I mean all the commercialization of said holiday. You know, it is not politically correct to say Merry Christmas, according to Walmart, anyway ( I understand Focus on the Family has a list of Christmas friendly stores so you can shop at places where Merry Christmas is still heard). Bill O'Reilly of Fox News is a big fan of Christmas. He said that every company in America ought to get down on their knees and thank Jesus for coming to earth because they would be far less profitable if he had not!. Well, uh.... Someone is missing the point here. Would Christmas be better if the Walmart greeter said Merry Christmas to you?

One of the Advent Conspiracy founding pastors said Christmas is our story so why should we be upset if Walmart can't tell it? Or something like that. But that is exactly right. We have allowed the culture to pretty much co-opt Christmas. And we in the church, playing catch up, try to get our two cents in when we can. The Advent Conspiracy does not challenge us to opt out of Christmas altogether but it does challenge us to ramp it down a bit. Less money spent, fewer gifts, more attention to justice and world poverty issues - in a few words, keep our Christmas celebrations more in line with the Spirit of the season.

Few would argue that Christmas is out of control. There is barely a hint anymore of the "real meaning of Christmas" in our cultural celebrations. This year the focus is on spending ourselves out of the recession. That is our Christmas hope. The top ten countdown of Christmas songs at our local school is this week and Christmas carols are on the banned list. But, Christmas is our story so why should we expect the school to tell it. Not their job.

Question is how are we telling it? How are we living it? How are our Christmas celebrations any different from those we see in our culture. If you are tired of the Christmas Rush; if you are looking for some suggestions to keep the real Jesus in Christmas and celebrate it more in keeping with his way of life, check out

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Good Reading, 2009

2009 was a good year for reading. In spite of the global recession now in its second year, and the predictions of the end of the publishing industry as we have known it, there were lots of books published. Some of them pretty good although most of my reading for the year was not in new books. I am still trying to catch up with years of neglected reading. C. S. Lewis, and more recently, Eugene Peterson have convinced me to read old books, which because they are old, and still in print, are called classics. I did not read many old books in the sense they are talking about but I read older books, and one or two that I would put on my personal classics list. Book lists are obviously personal. What I might like, you might not. In fact, one of the difficulties in reading good books, is finding them. Especially older ones that are worth your time. Eugene Peterson has a good book of book lists arranged by topic, entitled, Take and Read. I have taken many of them and read them and found him to be a very good guide. On the other hand, I often read book reviews in the New York Times and have not found the Times to be a particularly good guide. Early in 2009 I came across a book recommendation page for pastors that Calvin Theological Seminary published. Given the name you might think it would be heavy on theological books, especially Calvin's. But, you won't find many theology books on the list and none by Calvin! Calvin Seminary believes pastors should read widely in many genres, including, fiction and poetry. I know some pastors who think reading fiction is a waste of precious time. I don't agree. I think fiction can be very good theology as it shows us how doctrines like those of sin, grace, salvation are worked out in daily life. I find myself reading more fiction, less theology as I get older. So, once I discovered this list of good recommended fiction (not just for pastors, but especially for pastors) I dug in with enthusiasm. And I read a lot of fiction this year.

One of my favorite works of fiction is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and I read a book this year that I liked every bit as much. It was The Miracle of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. Set in Arizona, Edgar begins life with much adversity but he finds his purpose and pursues it with determination. Great story. On my classics list.

Another book I would add to my classics list was by E.P. Jones who wrote a story of historical fiction set in Virginia just before the civil war. It is called, The Known World, and its a powerful story about Black slaves and Black slaveowners who are making their way in an unknown White world where power shifts precariously, and suddenly. Jones is a wonderful writer.

I happened on David James Duncan this year. I was put onto it by my son Mark who was in a group at college where it was read and discussed. Later on in the year he would read (and so would I) Duncan's earlier book, The River Why. It really was a Duncan year. After I mentioned Duncan's book, Brothers K, in a sermon, a man at church told me I had to read, The River Why, which he said was better than Brothers K. After I read The River Why, I could see why he said that. He is a fisherman and that's the setting of The River Why. I loved Brothers K. It is a great bouillabaisse of a book (a phrase I heard first used by Eugene Peterson describing The Brothers Karamazov which Duncan models his book after). It's about baseball, family, Christianity, the Viet Nam war - its about life and making one's way through it. On my classics list, as well.

Two books were more personal because they dealt in very thoughtful ways with pastors and their lives. Come Sunday by Isla Marley is about a pastor's wife who loses and then regains her faith after a family tragedy. Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout is about a pastor who loses his wife, retains his faith through a church community that, while unsure of him at first, grew to love him.

There was more fiction but I read other things, as well. Two history books by Tim Egan were winners. One was The Worst Hard Time which told the story of the dustbowl years in the West. Egan tells the story from the point of view of people who were there. Makes our own hard times look pretty easy in comparison. In The Big Burn he tells the story of Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and the beginnings of the US Forest Service. It took a terrible fire burning through Washington, Idaho and Montana to get people to catch Roosevelt's and Pinchot's vision. Great first person stories. Good insights into Roosevelt and Pinchot, too.

Two books that should be read together were Mark Noll's The New Shape of World Christianity and Soong - Chan Rah's The New Evangelicalism. In case you haven't looked the face of Global Christianity is changing. It is looking much more Asian, Hispanic and Black. The fantastic growth of Global Christianity is having a profound impact on the US. Most of the growing churches in the US today are non-white.

I read some sports books: a Yankee fan who is morphing into a Mariners fan after living ten years in the West, I read Joe Torre's book and the book on A-Rod by Selena Roberts. Nuff said.

N.T. Wright continues to put out some very important books for Christians who value the study of God's word. Surprised by Hope, about our glorious hope of resurrection - and Justification which is about the foundation of our relationship with God through the life and death of Christ, are both important books to study and discuss.

Eugene Peterson is working on his five volume spiritual theology. This year I read volume four, Tell It Slant. Peterson feeds my soul.

A final book I would mention is Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I had not been a Miller fan. My college aged friends and family members love this guy. Blue Like Jazz was a best seller among young Christians. I thought I was too old to get it. Then, I picked up this latest book and I got it. Here's a quote: " We get robbed of the glory of life because we aren't capable of remembering how we got here. When you are born, you wake up slowly to everything. Your brain doesn't stop growing until you turn twenty six, so from birth to twenty six God is slowly turning the lights on, and you are groggy, and pointing at things saying, circle, and blue, and car, and then sex, and job, health care. The experience is so slow you could easily come to believe life isn't that big of a deal, that life isn't staggering. What I am saying is I think life is staggering and we are just used to it. We are all like spoiled children no longer impressed with the gifts we're given - it's just another sunset, just another rainstorm moving in over the mountains, just another child being born, just another funeral" Miller's book will awaken in you a profound gratitude for the Story you are in.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Blindside is a new movie out now and selling a lot of tickets. It's second to the vampire movie that is part of a series that is wildly popular for some reason I don't think I would ever understand. I do understand football and The Blind Side by Michael Lewis was a good football read before it was a movie. I have not seen the movie but I am almost finished with the book. Not only is Blindside a good football book, it is a good story about a current NFL football player, Michael Oher(pronounced Oar) who plays offensive line for the Baltimore Ravens. Before that he starred at Ole Miss and was a first round draft pick. Before that, well, that's the story told in the book. Michael's future would have been very different if his life path had not crossed that of the Tuohy family of Memphis, TN. That is the white, rich, Christian, Tuohy family. Sean Tuohy was an outstanding athlete at Ole Miss and owns a lot of Taco Bells in the Memphis area. The Tuohy kids go to Briercrest Christian School outside Memphis, a school that was founded when school integration came to Memphis in the early 70s. When that happened parents yanked 7,000 kids out of the Memphis public schools and a whole new private school system sprung up overnight. Briercrest became one of the biggest and best. It certainly was one of the most well funded. For instance, the Briercrest football team meets in a million dollar field house. The head coach has a paid staff of six assistant coaches as well as several volunteers. He could charter a jet for away game travel but doesn't because it might look like the football program was too rich. They were good; Briercrest has won five Tennessee state championships in the 2000s. Briercrest and one other large Memphis area Christian school were perennial state powers.

Back to the story. Michael is an almost homeless black kid from the poorest part of Memphis. He is being raised by Big Tony. His mother is living but she is an alcoholic. His father is non-existent. The public school is just passing him along. He has learned nothing by the time he is in high school and meets the Tuohys. They take him in. They supply all his needs and wants just like he was one of their own kids. They advocate for him. He is a huge, athletic kid who has the college football powers drooling over him. He gets scholarship offers from every major Division 1 college. He can go anywhere he wants on a full ride. He is taken in by the Tuohy family. They genuinely treat him as part of their family. He feels loved as if he was born into their family. Like I said, it's a great story. Michael Lewis is a great sportswriter.

Christianity is part of the story, too. The Tuohys are Christians. Briercrest is a Christian school. You have to take Bible courses there. In it's early days it was called Briercrest Baptist School and met in a number of Baptist Churches. If you were not a Christian reading this book, here is what you would learn about Christians: they are white, rich, anti-gay, and take their football very seriously. It is very important that they are the top school academically and athletically. Christians are winners.

Christian schools are so big in Tennessee that when Briercrest met Evangelical Christian school for the state championship it was called the Jesus Bowl and Lewis comments that "Jesus was keeping his distance". There was profanity, and fighting and all the "kick butt" attitudes you would expect at any big time football game.

Lewis was not writing a "Christian" book; he was telling a good story. I was thinking, however, about that comment. Our Christianity can become so enmeshed in our cultural preferences that Jesus does keep his distance. How much of what we profess to be "Christian" is really not at all. It is just people doing what they want to do, and because they are "Christian" they believe God is blessing what they do, and Jesus is in it.

When Jesus came into our world, there were no bright lights except for one star and the "glory of the Lord shining all around" when the angels showed up. The audience was some miserably poor losers who worked the fields as shepherds. Jesus took his first breath in a smelly stable. His parents could not afford better accommodations. His followers have come a long way since then, haven't they? But, is that what he wanted?

A couple other thoughts: The Blind Side is about the side of the quarter back that is vulnerable because he is facing the other way. For a right handed QB that is his left side. NFL pass rushers are so big, fast and vicious that one hit from the blind side can put a QB away for the season. So, the big powerful man who plays left tackle and is responsible for protecting his QB's blind side is pretty important and gets paid big bucks. Often, he is the highest paid player on the team! So colleges with big time football programs as well as NFL teams are looking for big, quick, and tough offensive linemen. Sometimes, these prime players only stay in college a couple of years before they enter the Pro draft. Isn't it time we recognize big time college football programs for what they are: the minor leagues of the NFL. Colleges are making big money off these talented kids and paying them nothing ( a full scholarship is far, far below their worth to these schools). Many big time college football programs graduate 50% or less of their football players. They are not there for their education. Football generates enormous income for these schools. How else could the University of Florida pay their football coach 4 million a year! It's about time these colleges paid their big time performers to play instead of using their talents to make other people rich.

Michael Oher's story is inspiring. The Tuohy family deserves a lot of credit for all they did for him. But, as Lewis points out, Michael wondered if they would have done it if they found him in a ditch and his only future prospects were flipping hamburgs at McDonalds. The NCAA investigated the Tuohy family for that reason. Why were they giving Michael so much? Was it so he would go to Ole Miss which was their alma mater and of which they were big boosters. It happens. The world of sports brings out the best and worst in people. Oher's high school coach used Michael to get himself an assistant coaching job at Ole Miss. Michael nicknamed him "the snake".

Michael needed so much. He was so far behind after spending nine years in the Memphis public schools. He was basically homeless. How many other Michaels are there? And who is going to advocate for them especially if they do not hold the promising athletic future Michael did?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Give Like Scrooge

With Christmas on the way, all kinds of local holiday treats are planned. Scrooge, the play, will be held at the school auditorium the next two weekends. The new Disney movie starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge will be playing at the theater around Christmas, too. Charles Dicken's story of Scrooge is a holiday classic. But did he write it to embrace a Victorian era Christmas or as a piece of social criticism?

Dicken's London world of the 1840s was a harsh and brutal world. Especially for children. London was a literal cesspool with human and animal filth running down the streets. It was the poor who cleaned it up and were covered with it as the carriages of the richer class sped by. London's society was rigidly separated by class. Most of the people were poor, divided into the working poor and "undeserving" poor. There were poor laws that created poor houses that no poor person wanted to go to. There was a law that permitted the bodies of the poor who died in poor houses to be dissected in the local medical schools ( the Anatomy Act). The richer class escaped dreary London with its coal - smoke filled air by living in the country and coming into the city when they needed to do business.

About three quarters of the people in the city made up the working class. Every member of an extended family was needed to work to make a living wage. And even then, good jobs were few and rents were high. There were no child labor protections and this was one of Dicken's reasons for writing Scrooge. Children were on the street selling flowers and matches. Dickens worked as a child to support his own family while his parents were stuck in a debtor's prison.

Dicken's main character, Ebenezeer Scrooge, is a member of this isolated aristocracy who is unaware of the suffering of the poor. Even among his own employees. His awakening comes when the third ghost visits him on Christmas eve. When he is taken to his own grave, he realizes his future death is coming without hope of redemption. When he wakes up on Christmas day, he knows he still has a chance to live - and he embraces life with a passion to live differently, and rightly. First, he delivers a Christmas meal to his employee and family, Bob Cratchit. It is a hopeful scene as at least one member of London's rich aristocracy has had his conscience aroused to the needs of the poor around him.

Today, our world seems like it has come a long way from London in the 1840s. However, we still see stories about brutal child labor practices throughout the world. We read about how children are exploited for profit. We read about the sexual trafficking of the young. Even, in our country, and in our community, a recent news report highlighted startling statistics about the growing number of children living below the poverty line, and eligible for food stamps. However, the report also mentioned that only about 2/3 of those eligible ever apply. We hear about food banks being depleted, and shelters full. We know there are clothing drives and food drives. We know people out of work whose family's are struggling.

The first Christmas card was designed in 1843, the same year Scrooge was published, and it reminded those who were materially blessed to give so that those who were not could be clothed and fed. This Christmas, as we watch Scrooge, it can do the work Dickens meant it to - if it reminds us of the needs of so many children in our community and around the world - and if it prompts us to remember those children, especially, in our gift giving. The bulletin board at church offers some concrete and practical ways to "give like Scrooge" eventually learned how to give.
(this blog is based on an article in Christianity Today online called The Darker Side of A Christmas Carol by Lisa Toland)