Thursday, December 19, 2013

Promised Land

Israel fascinates us as Christians. It is the land where Jesus lived. It is the "Holy Land". Many Christians sign up for tours of the land of the Bible every year and talk about how the Word became alive for them when they were there. More than that, Israel is our nation's only trusted ally in the Middle East. Then, there is apocalyptic Israel for many Christians believe the last great battle of the world will be fought, or begun, there. But, how much do we know about modern Israel? About how it came to be. And what challenges it faces? And how it sees itself now that it is almost 100 years old (nationhood in 1948, but Zionists began settling years earlier). I visited Israel in 1982 and the tour I was on went to all the traditional sites Christians want to see. I remember our Arab Christian tour guide tried to discourage a few of us from electing a trip to Yad Vashem ( Museum of the Holocaust) which was the most moving part of the trip for me. He also asked me why so many Christians in the West have forgotten about the plight of Christian Palestinians. It may come as a surprise to many Christians (it did me) to discover that 35% of the school children in Jerusalem are Arab and that Israel's population is projected to be majority Arab by 2040.

Modern Israel is a complicated and conflicted place. Ari Shavit gives us a picture of that complicated and conflicted place, his homeland, in his new book, My Promised Land. Shavit, a journalist, has not written an academic work of history, he says, but a story of his personal journey through contemporary and historic Israel. Shavit is a story teller and he tells Israel's story by telling the stories of individuals who settled there and made Israel what it is today. Shavit was on a personal journey of discovery: what is the meaning of Israel? How to understand it? And, most importantly, what is it's future? He writes as an Israeli and as he celebrates the accomplishments of his people he is not blind to their flaws. He is constantly mindful that Israel is the only modern nation that occupies another and lives daily with the thought of it's own annihilation. Israel is a threatened land. From within, Israel today is a very different place from the land of kibbutzes and a fierce will to survive. Israel is an affluent, consumerist nation of six million people who are divided about their identity and what it takes to survive this new century. At the same time, they are surrounded by a billion Arabs most of whom want nothing less than for Israel to disappear. They see their Western allies in decline and their influence weakened in the region. They see a resurgent Iran who has out waited and perhaps outwitted the West and Israel into believing they do not have a nuclear weapon yet. They have not had the moral and political will to end the settlements of the occupied territories which are a drain on the energies of Israeli society.

Israel has always been between a rock and a hard place. The whole world had turned it's back on them, it seemed. There was no where else to go so they heard the call of the Zionists to come to this new, yet   what was their old, homeland. It was in their DNA and they had to have some place to make a stand and try to make a life. Somehow, they withstood the Arab attack in 1948, and grew stronger to face the wars to come. They thrived together in the new land. First, the Jews who survived the holocaust came. Then, the Jews fleeing the Arab world where they had lived in communities for centuries. Then, the Russian immigrants. It was like a huge refugee camp but they made a nation. But the land they came to was not empty, of course. For a long time, no one seemed to notice the Palestinians. With growth, and world war, tensions arose between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel took Palestinian land and villages and homes and livelihoods and the Palestinians became refugees. Now, it seemed no one in the world wanted them. Israel exists on the horns of this dilemma: an occupying nation that lives with the existential threat of annihilation.

Shavit writes with understanding and passion. He deeply cares about his homeland and as Christians we should, too. This book is a helpful guide to fill in the gaps between our knowledge of the "Holy Land" and the reality that is modern day Israel.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Advent: God with us

This is the fourth Sunday of Advent. Finally, we get to the Christmas story in Matthew 1:18-25. Joseph is told by the angel about the birth of his son and what he is to be named. Jesus. Then, the prophecy from Isaiah is quoted and there it is said that the son will be called, Emmanuel which means "God with us". So, Matthew is saying a theological mouthful. Jesus is God with us. The gospel of Christmas. God came to be, for people. He came to be with us. In all manner of circumstances, God is with us. That's what Christmas means. Simple and clear. We can botch that message up badly, can't we.  The perception is, sometimes, that Christians get to decide who God is with and who he isn't. We can make it sound as if God came to be with only, certain, people. People like us or people who we think are ok. There are certain people who need to get their acts together before God will be with them.

I was thinking about this gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent as I was checking out the NY Times today. There was an Op-Ed piece entitled, "A Transgender Volunteer for the Salvation Army. Good, I thought, maybe some good news for this Christian organization that has done so much good over the years. In recent days, the Salvation Army has been slammed for some of it's statements about gay, lesbian and transgendered people. This is sad because the Salvation Army is an organization that has helped many needy and struggling people. Their ringing bells outside many stores are reminders that Christmas is about helping others. That God is with us. It's also sad because they are us, they are Christians, so here is another instance where Christians seem to be insensitive to other people.

The essay was written by a transgendered person who teaches at Colby College in Maine. She wanted to do something to help others at Christmas a few years ago so she became a Salvation Army bell ringer. Apparently, she did not know what the Salvation Army had said about people like her and they did not know who she was. When a friend pointed out to her some of their "anti-gay" statements, she dropped her bell. There is no indication in her essay that she was asked to quit bell ringing and I have no idea if they would have asked her to quit. She still believes in the work they do but not in their statements about people like her. Recently, she says, the Salvation Army has tried to clarify their position. Essentially, she comes off being more charitable than the Salvation Army. Perhaps, that was her point, I don't know.

I do know that sometimes our statements make it hard for people to hear what Matthew said.

Smaug wakes up

I wondered as I was watching The Hobbit #2 or The Desolation of Smaug as it is called what Tolkien would make of it. I guess we will never know but I suspect not much. It was a good film compared to what else is out there but it could have been so much more. Or less. Before the film began there were the obligatory previews of coming attractions, all of which assaulted the senses with visual displays of things blowing up, and the hero fighting unbelievable battles against insurmountable odds, and, of course, prevailing - without a scratch. Unfortunately, when the film began, after some slow moments, the same display of very loud, very visually overwhelming displays of our heroes overcoming terrible obstacles commenced again. There were too many decapitated Orcs and the scenes of Smaug arising from his slumber and causing mayhem were overly long. My complaint is that so many films today seem like they follow the same formula: Keep the viewer entertained with over the top action sequences. There are so many fighting scenes (against huge spiders, and Orcs, and Smaug, etc)  in The Hobbit #2 that the characters get overlooked. Bilbo is an afterthought, I thought. I am not saying I did not enjoy the movie. I did, but I was disappointed. The critics I read liked Hobbit #2 better than Hobbit #1because it had more action.  I didn't. There was no humor in this second Hobbit film. None. Tolkien would not have approved. There is a new female hero  who was not in Tolkien's book. She is a good addition to the story but was a romantic angle necessary? The plot hardly seems to move in this second film. I wondered if there was a need other than economic to drag out the story over three films. This was almost three hours long (much too long for some people to sit through and hold one's attention - especially after 30 minutes of mindless previews). Yet, I would encourage people to go see the film. I did not see it in 3D or Imax although they are available. I doubt they add much to the effect of the movie.

Now for what I did like. The creation of the background scenes are highly enjoyable: the elvish kingdom in the dark woods, Smaug's lair under the mountain, and the impoverished city of the humans are well done. Peter Jackson has brought out some of the Christian symbolism (which Tolkien claimed was not there but some readers find anyway) especially in the battle between Gandalf and Sauron - one of the best scenes in the film. Look for Gandalf on the cross. In this dark film there are brilliant reminders of the LIGHT. Gandalf's scenes are one of them as is the healing scene with Tauriel.

The fault of this movie is that it tries too hard to be like most of today's action movies but the story it tells of the Hobbit is a great one. One of the greatest of all time and it is interesting to see how Jackson puts it on film.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Best books of 2013

Best books of 2013 are not all 2013 releases. They are my favorites of the year in reading.

Fiction: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, Benediction by Kent Haruf, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Thurston

Boston, mystery and suspense: Dennis Lehane's Live by Night, Any Given Day and A Drink Before War

Other mystery: One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

Non-fiction: Farewell, Fred Voodoo by Amy Wilentz, Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario, Devil in the Grove:Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America, The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming by Rod Dreher

Baseball: Francona by Francona and Shaughnessy

Biography/Autobiography: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas and Summoned from the Margins by Lamin Sanneh

Theology: Playing God by Andy Crouch

Spiritual formation: Godric by Frederick Buechner

Bible: Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther by John Goldingay and The Gospel of John by F.D.Bruner

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Third sunday of Advent: the war on Christmas

I was going to write about the war on Christmas but others beat me to it.  Sarah Palin's newest book, timed for Christmas shopping, names those in our culture today who have taken aim at Christmas, according to a couple reviews I have seen. It should do well. For some reason, some Christians are always looking for a fight. If there is a war on Christmas, maybe we should stay out of places like Best Buy and Walmart to keep from getting shot. Most people like Christmas though; Palin's point is that some of "them" want to get Christ out of Christmas. They don't want us to be able to say, Merry Christmas. This is like persecution, or something. I confess to not getting it. Where we live there are nativity scenes in front of nearly every church, and many houses, as well. Some houses have big inflatable Santas and nativity scenes. Take your pick. Mostly, it's take both: Jesus is the reason for the season but that doesn't mean we can't have our Christmas fun, too. No one is firing any shots over our heads. The local school says grace before passing out the Christmas goodies.

 The third week of Advent is coming up on us quickly. The gospel text is from Matthew 11, again it's John the Baptist. Here, he is in prison where he has plenty of time to think. He's thinking about his role as preparer of the way for the Messiah and he has some doubts about the one he prepared the way for. Where is the fire and brimstone? Where is the judgment he predicted was coming? So, far there has been mostly sermons, a couple miracles, a bunch of pretty ordinary followers, and this Jesus has shown a tendency to hang out with the wrong crowd. Is this the Christ of Christmas? John wonders. So he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus that question. Are you the one or did I get it wrong and we are all still waiting for the Christ?

That's the question, isn't it? John's question, Who is this Jesus? Who is this Jesus of Christmas we are worried the secularists are plotting against?  If we believe he is the Christ, the Messiah, then how do we celebrate his birth? If there are battle lines then they are here. We come to honor the one who was humbly born and lived simply and loved greatly and gave his life for us. We honor his day as we follow him and live as he did.

The struggle we have is to know how shopping, decorating a tree, putting up lights and baking cookies honor His birth? It's easy to get caught up in the means so we forget the end. But, most of the Christians I know find their way through this spiritual dilemma. They bake or take food to others; they give meaningful gifts to friends, family and others in need. They share their time and themselves with those who are lonely this time of year. The war at Christmas is not much different from the fight we have the rest of the year. The fight with our selves. Who are living for? What is Christmas for?

Jesus said to John's disciples: Go and let John know what is going on; the blind, they see; the lame, they walk; the lepers, they are clean; the deaf, they hear; the dead, they are raised; and the poor are getting the good news brought to them. Then, he says something that sounds odd at first: Blessed are those who take no offense at me. I take that to mean that we are blessed when we let Jesus be Jesus and not try to fit him into our ideas of who Christ is supposed to be. There are so many good ways to serve Christ this Christmas. Make peace not war.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Church in the Glen

It's called St Peter's in the Glen and it is a small church in the woods. They left their church building, their denomination and the city seven years ago. Since then they have been meeting in a house and building this new church building. It sits on the grounds of the oldest plant nursery in Florida. So, it is surrounded by forest and flowers and it is no problem to come up with fresh green wreaths for Christmas. The dedication service was this past Sunday. Several Anglican clergy from across the state were there and the Bishop led the service and preached. His text was from St Peter. In his first letter, Peter wrote about the church as living stones. The Bishop reflected on the stones of the Temple in Jerusalem that were probably on Peter's mind as he wrote. They were huge, weighing many tons. When I read this second chapter of First Peter before I thought of little stones, like bricks. We, as church members, were little stones but the Bishop pointed out we are BIG Stones. Each of us has a really important part to play in the church of Christ. And, of course, we are living stones because of our faith in the Cornerstone, who is the Living Lord, Jesus Christ. The Anglican service of dedication was tightly scripted so it was a welcome and joyful interruption in the service liturgy to worship with the choir from a local black church who had come to join the celebration. They were not scripted and their wholehearted, soulful, singing moved the congregation, and got them moving. After the dismissal, we adjourned to the house where the church used to be and sat down to a delicious Southern bar-b-que. It was enjoyed on the porch on a warm night under white lights. Food and conversation both were abundant and you could sense the blessing.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Christmas parade

The main downtown street had been closed to traffic all day. This was no small matter since it is a major East - West route in this part of NE Florida. Walmart trucks rumble through all day from the distribution center East of town. Local vendors selling everything from turkey legs to "bullet bling", ammo in the colors of the season for those looking to accessorize their weaponry. Everyone was waiting for the big event of the day which was the Christmas parade set to begin at 6 pm. Florida was spared the deep freeze that had seized the rest of the country although the evening temperatures were down from the daytime high of 84. We wore jeans and sweatshirts not for the chill but in case of mosquitos. The sky was clear but there was still the smell of bar-b-que smoke in the air from the afternoon grilling. The nice weather had brought out a record crowd that sat and stood ten deep along the curbs. Soon we heard the loud blare of fire engines and the parade began. After every piece of fire fighting equipment the county owned passed by, we settled in to watch the floats. First, however, were the beauty pageant queens. We had never seen so many beauty pageant honorees in one parade. There was even a tiny princess who could barely sit up by herself on the back of the new convertible she rode in. Once, when my wife asked one of her classes in the elementary school to name the sports they liked the best, one little girl said, beauty pageants. Down here it is considered a sport and we watched all the winners pass by. Then, there were the church floats. Not much subtlety there. One local church proclaiming The Perfect Gift on the side of the truck pulling the float, had a teenage Christ on a cross. I'm pretty sure he had his feet on the ground because the two other teens guarding him with their makeshift swords were as tall as he was. He had on a sheet spattered with red paint and looked more uncomfortable than in agony. Another church had what looked like a train that was heaven bound with Jesus as the conductor. It was pulling a car load of people who had signs indicating what their previous state of sin was, i.e. I was a liar, etc. When they turned around the back of the shirt let us know that they had found the mercy of God.  Church members, handing out candy and tracts, had on similar t-shirts identifying their particular sin which was overcome by the grace of God, too.  I noticed onboard the train was an open space labeled, You Could Be Here. I wondered if they had a shirt big enough to list all my sins, and I knew I didn't want to wear it in a parade, if they did. Next, came the big trucks. I mean, these monsters were three stories high. They were mud boggers and truck crushers, of the kinds of trucks most of us drive. The passengers  looked like they were having the most fun of anyone in the parade. Then, came the Sons of the Confederacy. They shot their guns into the air every couple hundred yards. When they were in front of us I remembered to remove my NY Yankee cap quickly before they mistook me for a Union sympathizer. Then, there was the high school band followed by lots of people riding horses and it was a good thing they were in that order. If it had been the other way  around there would have been some high stepping for sure. Finally, the two hour parade was winding down or at least the parade goers were winding down and the crowd thinned out. They picked up their chairs and drove off in their golf carts even as the main event came into view. I guess they knew what was coming. There was Santa perched high atop one more fire engine, waving and shouting, Merry Christmas to all.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Second Sunday of Advent

Driving the interstate this week and seeing a car with a big bumper sticker that proclaimed: Jesus said: REPENT! made me think of the Scripture reading for this second week of Advent. It is from Matthew 3 and is about the preparatory ministry of John the Baptizer who came to announce the advent of Jesus. It is John not Jesus who proclaims REPENT. This same car I was following down I-10 this week had another bumper sticker (I mean they were all over this car!) which noted what happens if you don't repent and then if that was your choice, it wished you GOOD LUCK! The meaning taken was not really Good Luck but Bad Luck because you made the wrong choice and somehow I got the feeling that the driver was glad that your luck was bad if you made that choice NOT TO REPENT. You were going to get yours.

The sermon on the car made it seem like the whole point of Jesus coming was to get us to repent. And I assume that driver like many of us had a list of sins in mind we need to repent of. I have nothing against repentance; it's a good and necessary thing. I doubt it means what this driver and many Christian users of the word think it means. Jesus did say: Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand which is pretty much what John and a whole lot of other prophets in the Bible said before him. In fact, without repentance there can be no salvation. But, repentance does not mean saying your sorry for a few sins and then trying to stop doing them again. If we have repented of (fill in the blank), then we are good to go. Then, we are saved.

Repentence is a way of life. It means turning from the false gods we have set up to serve - and the biggest god is our selves - and turning to Christ for mercy and grace. Repentence is getting ourselves out of the way so Christ can have his way in us. Our biggest problem is the pride that keeps wanting to take credit for what God has done. That, somehow, we (Christians) really are better than other people because we have repented and are Saved. So, if those others don't do what we did, well then, Good Luck! Which is really not meant as good luck as much as "see you will get what is coming because you had the chance to listen to us and you didn't.

I am struck this second Sunday of Advent by the fact that John is calling us to a major change not just a tune up, or a heads up, or wake up call. It is a humbling realization that if we don't repent we miss out on the real God. Who came for us, loves us, and wants to include us in His plan for life. Repent is just the beginning -which is symbolized by baptism - an acknowledgment by us that this is as far as we can go - and it is not far at all, on our own, not far enough by a long shot, and it misses out, totally, on what is really important in LIFE. On Life itself.

In a review of the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the reviewer in the NY Times today wrote: (one of the lessons in this film is that), "we are, as a species, ridiculous: vain, ugly, selfish and self - deluding. But, somehow, some of our attempts to take stock of this condition…manage to be beautiful, even sublime." That "taking stock" is repentance, and only then are we open to receive the grace and mercy of God, the beautiful and the sublime.

Monday, December 2, 2013

First Sunday of Advent

The thing about the Christmas story as told in the gospels is that it is unpredictable. We could not have come up with this. The thing about the Christmas story as it is told in our cultural celebrations of Christmas and even in our churches is that it is predictable and we take it for granted. So much so that our focus is on the trappings of Christmas and not on the real story (we know how it comes out).

Bernard of Clairvaux, in one of his Advent meditations, spoke of the three comings of Jesus. The first, of course, is the one we celebrate at Christmas when God became flesh. Bernard reminds us how that turned out. Not well, as we know. Jesus ended up on a cross rejected by all. Even his closest friends on earth had abandoned him because they were so confused by what had happened and scared for their own skins. God came to earth and no one got it. This might suggest to us that we have a hard time recognizing God when he is in our midst and, even if we do, we have other things on our minds. In Matthew 3, which is the New Testament reading for Advent Sunday 2, John the Baptist uses the word, Repent, to describe what we need to do. Here, in Matthew 24:36-44, the reading for Advent Sunday 1, the key words are "Keep Alert". Those words may not be on our Christmas lists unless it is to remind us of the deadlines we have for mailing packages, or shopping sales, or baking cookies. Jesus was talking about the time he will come again. Keep Alert for that coming. That is the third coming Bernard said. The second coming is now, how Jesus comes to us now. He comes to us as we Keep Alert for the third coming. This "keeping alert" Bible scholars point out is literally, "be always on alert". It is what we do. "It is the obedience that takes shape as hope, future expectation, specifically the future expectation of Jesus coming at any time for his judgment on life." (F.D. Bruner)  It is the obedience of everyday life. It is a shout out to make sure our own faith is real. A double check on where we see our life coming from and why we are doing what we are doing. Where are we seeing Jesus in his second coming? And are we following him there? Later on in Matthew's gospel, he will ask us if we see Him in the "least of these"? So, in these days of Advent, what are we doing to Keep Alert?

Here are a couple ideas: Read through Matthew this advent season to sharpen your skills of observation. Include in your Christmas giving a couple checks to those organizations who work with the "least of these". Get the children's book by Eve Bunting entitled, We Were There: A Nativity Story and read and discuss it with some children, and adults, of course.