Sunday, December 16, 2012

The tragedy in Newtown

The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut is a grim reminder of how vulnerable the most vulnerable among us are. We don't often think about it until something like this happens. We try hard to minimize risk in life. Children are the most at risk and trust adults to do the best for them. Sometimes the risks in life are all too clear and disturbing. Like this week. Before the tragedy this week I had been reading of other tragedies in other places in the world. Places we don't usually hear about. Or if we do we don't hear about the worst things that are going on there. China is much in the news and we can't buy anything it seems without the made in China brand on it. China's official one child policy makes China's children much at risk especially girls. In India it is much the same. The kidnapping of children and the selling of children into the international sex tourism trade operates mostly under our radar but it is growing exponentially. Even in our own American cities. Children in poor countries like Haiti are seriously underfed, uncared for, and many are without anything that resembles what we think of as family life. Children in war torn areas of the Middle East are being raised in a culture of terror and violence. We have heard of the Taliban's war on children.

It is not easy being a child in our world today. This week we are in the third week of Advent in which we celebrate the coming to earth of a child, God's son. He was born at a risky time to poor, young parents. He took a long dangerous journey while he was still in his mother's womb. He was forced to flee to a foreign country with his parents to save his life when he was a toddler.  Much of his early life was lived at risk. Maybe that is why he showed such love and concern for children when he was an adult. In his world, like in many places in ours, children were not valued. They were overlooked, used by others and abused by the adult world. Unwanted children were left by the road to die. More than most Jesus understood the vulnerability of children. Jesus took them into his arms and blessed them. I saw one of those facebook posts this week with a picture of Jesus carrying a child. He carries many children in his heart today and every day. He weeps for the children who are victimized every day. He shares his tears with us so we can pray and so in some small ways we can bless the children within our reach today.

The Hobbit

I saw The Hobbit twice this weekend. I would recommend seeing it more than once. The first time I was mesmerized by the characters ( the opening scene with the dwarves dropping in on Bilbo unannounced is terrific) and the special effects. The meticulous recreation of the Goblin kingdom is a delight to watch. ( I cannot believe A.O. Scott, film critic in the NY Times did not select The Hobbit as one of the years best movies- not even in his top 25! - well who said film critics know what they are talking about. He also wrote a review that said it was too long and boring. Well, this critic loved every minute of it, twice.) I haven't seen Lincoln yet, or Les Mis but The Hobbit will be on my list of best films for the year, for certain. One of my favorite characters, of course, is Bilbo, brilliantly played by Martin Freeman. No one can figure out why Gandalf,  when he was putting together his team for this adventure, chose a Hobbit. Hobbits are homebodies. They like warm homes, good food, and reading books in a comfortable armchair. But, Gandalf had a reason. Toward the end of this first film of three and after Bilbo has saved the life of the dwarf King Thorin, Thorin's perception of Bilbo changes. He had thought it a mistake to bring Bilbo on this journey but now he tells Bilbo he was never more mistaken about anything in his life. I understand completely, Bilbo says, I wouldn't have wanted to take me either. I am no hero, he confesses. And he is not faking sincerity. He believes it. That is way Gandalf chose him. At one point in the film Gandalf says that an ordinary person doing small acts of ordinary goodness can turn back the darkness more than all the power in the world. Bilbo is that ordinary person. In today's action movies the hero looks like he has been working out in a gym at least 8 hours a day for the past three years. Bilbo looks like he avoids the gym at all costs. He is an easily overlooked action hero. No surprise. Small acts of ordinary goodness often are. By the way, if you have seen The Hobbit go see it again then get the book out and re-read it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I've been thinking about humility this Christmas. It seems as I read the gospel story about the birth of Christ a lot of the human characters were humble persons. Think of Mary,  who said to the angel when he told her she was going to be the mother of Jesus, "who me?" and then "may it be to me as you have said." Even though we call her the virgin Mary and venerate her as the mother of Jesus, she did not think of herself as anyone especially deserving of this honor. Think of Zechariah, the priest, and father of John who was the forerunner of Jesus. He was just doing his priestly duties when the angel told him what Gods plans were for him and his family. Far from thinking he was someone special he couldn't even believe it! Think of John, his son, when people thought he was the Messiah he said, "I'm not even worthy to take off his sandals!" How's that for humility. Then, there were Simeon and Anna, the prophets who were waiting for a sign that the Messiah had come. They spent their days watching and waiting basically putting their lives on hold until they were sure God was coming. Think of Joseph, Mary's husband, taking a backseat to all that God had said to her. That gets at the meaning of humility, too.

Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking says true humility doesn't mean to think ill of yourself but not to think of yourself much differently from the way you'd be apt to think of anybody else. It's been pointed out that it's hard to be humble because just when you think you are humble you are proud of it. Being humble seems to be more like not thinking about yourself at all. Read Philippians 2:1-18. It may be the best commentary on humility in the Bible.

God's Call

We have been watching the video series Ed's Story in Sunday School. Ed is Ed Dobson who was the pastor of a fairly good sized church in Michigan until he found out he had ALS (known as Lou Gehrig's disease) about 12 years ago. He got it in the prime of his life and ministry at 51. He was forced to resign from his church and was told he had 3 - 5 years to live. He has lived longer but today his body is virtually useless. His last book was written with the aid of a voice activated computer. I was thinking about Ed and other pastors/church leaders/theologians I have known who became disabled or even died in the prime of their ministries. It seems like such a waste. I remember one guy who worked with Inter Varsity and traveled speaking about the intersection of Christ, the Church and culture. I was in my first ministry assignment when I heard him speak and read one of his books. He was a brilliant writer and captivating speaker. Then another friend of mine called to tell me he had been speaking at some meetings and gone outside to jog and died of a heart attack. He was not yet 40. What a waste I remember thinking. Why, God, did that happen? He was such a good one. The Church needed him. Obviously, I don't why. But, it does get me thinking we tend to invest ourselves with much more importance than seems appropriate for the terms of our condition. As a pastor, I am used to another idea we hear in the Church a lot. The word is "call", as in he or she was called to this church. I have heard something like this: we are so glad God called you here. Your calling was an answer to prayer. It can make you feel pretty special to think you were singled out from many others and chosen by God for this particular job. Of course, it can work the other way too as in we were mistaken. We see now you were not the one God called to this place! You're fired!

"Calling" is a strange idea. Is the pastor the only one called to a particular church? What about the youth leader or one of the deacons or the person who heads up the music every week? What about the person who stands at the door and greets or who sees to it the bathrooms are clean every week? Does God call us for certain periods of time and then we are no longer called. What happens when the one called gets sick, or gets ALS or dies or decides its time to retire. Do you even get to retire if you are called. How do you know when your call is up?

I tend to think God calls us to faith in Christ and then there are all sorts of ways to work out that calling. Every one called is spiritually gifted for ministry. Calls are different but no one is higher or better than any other. When I was young we heard the phrase used, "he was called into full time Christian service", but is there any other kind of Christian service?

Ed Dobson was still called to full time Christian ministry even when he got ALS. His new ministry didn't look much like what it had before but his calling never changed. That's the way it makes sense to me; we are called to be followers of Christ and the way that gets worked out is different for each of us. It's not up to us and what's important is that we get to be part of what God is doing in our part of His kingdom.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Best Books of the year (my list)

This is the time of the year that those Best Books of the Year lists start turning up. So for what it's worth,  here is my list of the Best Books I have read this year.

Fiction: Our son Mark is teaching an Asian/ African unit in his literature class so he put me onto some authors I had not heard of before. One of those was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her novel is Half of a Yellow Sun. The setting is the Nigerian/Biafran civil war in the 60s. The main characters are educated in England and are part of a rising middle class. They are of the Igbo tribe who largely make up the new nation of Biafra and while they are hopeful about the birth of their new nation everything goes horribly wrong while the world stands by and does nothing.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Carter. This is the year of Lincoln with Spielberg's movie just released and Lincoln and vampires out on dvd. Carter's book supposes that Lincoln did not die from Booth's bullet and lived on to fight a congress that was bent on impeaching him for his disregard of the constitution during the civil war. Good Lincoln study and a good mystery, too.

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke. This is the author's second novel. Her first one is pretty good, too. This one is set in Louisiana on an old plantation that has been restored as a tourist attraction complete with slaves quarters. A cast of Black and White are on hand to re-enact early plantation life. The director/manager of the modern plantation/resort grew up on it when it was a working plantation and her mother was the cook. Interesting intersection of race and culture and a good mystery, too.

We love Ann Patchett's novels. State of Wonder was one of my all time favorites. Run (technically not a new book this year but it is my list) is about race and politics and family in Boston and equally as good.

The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is, well, unlikely. It is full of quirky characters surrounding Harold on a late life journey that gives him purpose.

The Long Halftime Walk of Billy Lynn by Ben Fountain takes place during halftime of a Dallas Cowboys Game. The whole novel! Billy Lynn is with a group of soldiers being honored at halftime. It is an amazing collision of American life and values as these soldiers try to make sense out the society they are risking their lives for.

Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger and The Quality of Mercy. Unsworth's historical fiction follows the building of a slave ship, its maiden voyage, the mutiny of the crew, the wreckage of the ship and subsequent founding of an interracial community in Florida and the slave ship builders son's journey of revenge - it's quite a story.

Non - Fiction

My favorite book of the year was Faith of Cranes by Hank Rentorf.  It is set in Alaska and it's about faith, family and love of place.

God's Hotel was a close second. Dr. Vi Sweet writes about medical care;  the way it was, the way it is no more but the way it should be.

And my other favorite book.... was Katherine Boo's haunting tale of day to day life and the people who live that life - in the slums of Mumbai, India. 

Zeitoun was my first David Eggars book but it will not be my last. It takes place in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and is chilling in its implications for a modern state where security and surveillance take precedence over everything else.

Empire of the Summer Moon by SC Wynne and Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Tim Egan go together. They are Native American history books, cover some of the same ground, and it's historical ground most of us know nothing about - and need to.

Peter Brown, the Princeton historian of late antiquity, has written a classic on wealth, the fall of Rome and the making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Thats the subtitle of the book. It is massive and while some of it is only of interest to a small group of academics, most of it is fascinating and surprisingly relevant. The Church has always needed money to operate and the challenges of finding that money and using it well have really never changed all that much.

Of course, every year when spring training opens there has to be a baseball book. This year it was written by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the NY Mets who just won the Cy Young. How does a knuckleballer win the Cy Young? Its a great story even if you can't hit a knuckleball or don't even know what one is.

There. So many good books and so little time to read them.