Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Greetings

In the 2006 comedy Talladega Nights,Will Farrel, playing race car driver Ricky Bobby, begins his family table grace with, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” When his wife questions why he's praying to a baby, Ricky replies that he prefers the Baby Jesus to the Grown Up Jesus. It's meant to be silly, but, in a way, I can see the character's point. There's something so beautiful about the story of Baby Jesus, and the story has a certain power over our imaginations. When we think of an innocent infant, part of us goes soft, warm, and gooey inside.

Some time ago I published a post with the title “Is the Church Irrelevant?” I re-read it recently, and I realized I'd left out the most important argument for refuting any doubt about the importance of the church. Yes, I reminded the reader that public worship and fellowship are necessary forms of human reconnection in this electronic media age. I extolled the virtues of our tradition's ancient wisdom, and I made the point that collectively we can accomplish so much more good than we can do on our own. These are all practical points, but they miss the main point which distinguishes our Christian faith.

I forgot to mention Jesus.

Now, far be it for me to put down the belief systems of other faiths—especially since I am so woefully ignorant about them. Nevertheless, I can't see myself being moved by a victorious and virtuous Mohammed, a wise Confucius, or a transcendental and spiritual Buddha. But I know what I feel when I think of the infant Jesus in the manger—a helpless child, homeless and in poverty. I've never had a baby of my own ( I've never even diapered one!), but the older I get the dearer babies seem to me . When I hold a child over the font for baptism, I'm just amazed by the power an infant has to calm me and bring a smile to my face.

Our Christmas story never ceases to have power over us because we all need to feel that sense of joy, wonder, fear, and hope which is the mystical strength of the infant. As much as we need to be loved in this world, so we need to give love. There's just something about the child's helplessness which draws out or better selves. And this is the power of God at work.

And yet there's even more: This particular little baby has so much hold over us because we know how his life will end—suspended on the pain of the cross. He will lose everything: friends, dignity, peace, and life itself because he is the one sent to love us. He will enter completely into our loss, our emotional hurt, our despair, our guilt. Even as we smile at the cooing infant, our hearts are touched by the love which will suffer for the brokenness of this messy planet.

The Christmas story is a gift which keeps on giving, because, as we, age, we learn to treasure sweetness and innocence and to feel empathy for suffering. And every time we see this tiny newborn in the filthy cattle trough, we have the opportunity to enlarge our hearts.

There are many things to love about Christmas. There are family reunions, lights, carols, gift-giving, and parties. But at the end of it all there is nothing as transformative or as humanizing as the love of God found in Jesus.

May God's love enlighten your hearts this season in peace, joy, and the wonder of the Christ Child.

A blessed Christmas to you all, and my deepest thanks for your support.
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Hey! Why not give the Christmas gift which keeps giving the whole year 'round? A UNIFIED Christian Church. Sound like a good idea? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, please support my petition for full  altar fellowship between our denominations. Let Pope Francis know we're ready to love our neighbors as ourselves in spite of our differences. Just click here.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It's a Wonderful Life on Advent Four

Okay. I'll admit it. It's still my favorite Christmas movie of all time—It's a Wonderful Life.
I finally saw it all the way through on a Christmas morning in 1982 when I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin. I was living in a 10 x 20 foot room in a cinder block apartment building in Madison and I didn't have enough money to go home to see my folks. So I ate my Christmas breakfast on a TV tray and watched this old flick on the local PBS station.

And I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end when Clarence got his wings.

One of the things I really dig about It's a Wonderful Life is it's lack of saccharine sweetness. Okay. It's corny and mushy at the end, but the picture is actually pretty honest about the darker underbelly of the Builder Generation. There are key plot points involving the Great Influenza Epidemic, the Great Depression, and—of course—the Second World War. Plus, the movie deals pretty honestly with economic oppression, greed, family tragedy, substance abuse, and thwarted ambition.

But what really strikes me about this old chestnut—and I don't know if Frank Capra ever really gave this a thought—is the excellent theology in the plot line. I mean, here's good ol' George Bailey, the nicest, most ethical guy in the world. Yet all of his good intentions don't keep him off the suicide bridge at the end of the movie. He needs some divine intervention.

I think Capra's Christmas movie follows a similar story line with the gospel for Advent Four. Here's good ol' Joseph. A real nice guy. He's gotten himself engaged to this girl, and she turns out to be pregnant before they get married—and not by him. What does he do? By Levitical law he could denounce her and have her stoned to death. But he's too nice a guy for that. He resolves to “dismiss her quietly” (Matt. 1:19) so she won't be disgraced.

Pretty darn decent of him, I'd say.

But God has an even better plan which Joseph—nice guy that he is—would never have thought of on his own. God sends an angel with a message. Joseph will marry the girl anyway and raise the child as his own. Granted, this is a pretty tall request for a dude whose culture so highly values progeny of one's own issue. But the angel lets Joe know that this is God's child, and God's ways of righteousness are not society's ways.

The beautiful thing about this story is that Joseph has the faith to say “yes” to God's plan.

So here's a shout-out to all the step-dads and awkward, blended families out there. It isn't easy.

(At least that's what they tell me. I'm fortunate that the woman whom I call my daughter was already a grownup when I started dating her mom, and the two of us hit it off pretty well. But that's not always the case in families.)

Family life doesn't come with an instruction book, and on our own we could never figure it out. In fact, on our own, we would never figure anything out. That's rather the point. We don't come to God, but God comes to us. Our sinful, selfish nature so often keeps us from seeing the blessings which our loving Lord is constantly setting before us. Martin Luther put it like this:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in true faith...” (Small Catechism)

Just as George Bailey needed Clarence and Saint Joseph needed the angel in his dream, so we all need the gospel to point us to the beauty of this wonderful life. Faith doesn't come from understanding. Understanding comes from faith. With God's help we too are able to say “yes” to the wonders God provides.

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Christmas is a time for family get-togethers. So lets get the whole Christian family together, shall we? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, why not sign my Change.org petition asking Pope Francis to allow our two communions to share the Holy Eucharist together again? C'mon. It's been almost 500 years. Let's kiss under the mistletoe! Just click here.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Did I Do Right? (Reflections on Advent 3)

File:Juan Fernández de Navarrete - St John the Baptist in the Prison - WGA16467.jpg

So was it worth it? Did I get it right? Did it all matter?

I'm guessing these are the questions going through John the Baptist's mind as he sits in his jail cell and waits to be executed. He's done what he thought God wanted him to do—he's pointed the way to Jesus the Messiah. But now, at the end of his life with death inches away, he's starting to have his doubts.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'” (Matthew 11:2)

Back in chapter 3 of Matthew's gospel John seemed pretty cock-sure Jesus was the one. He even offered to have Jesus baptize him. (Matt. 3:13-15). But as his life is coming to a close he needs a little more assurance.

Don't we all.

Have you ever asked yourself if it's been worth it? I know I do from time to time. I guess you can't help it once you've hit middle age and you know that there's probably more road behind you than in front of you. It's rather like that scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan (Spoiler Alert if you haven't seen it!) where this old guy, an American World War II vet, staggers among the crosses of a European cemetery where his battle buddies lie buried. Surrounded by his aging wife, kids and grandkids, he surveys the graves of those who didn't survive the war and tearfully asks, “Have I been a good man?”

What I love about this pericope is how pastoral Jesus is. He sends John's disciples back with instructions to testify to the condemned man. Go tell your boss what you've seen, Jesus tells them. Haven't you seen God's mighty works? The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise, and the poor hear the good news. Tell John that. He'll figure it out.

Then Jesus addresses the crowd and praises John. Why did you guys come out to the Jordan to hear John? He wasn't a reed blowing in the wind. No. This dude had substance. He gave it to you straight and he didn't mince words. And he wasn't some coiffed and rhinestoned TV preacher selling you a feel-good gospel. He spoke real words about sin, repentance, society, and hope for what God can do when you open your heart to Him. He was a real prophet. In fact, he was probably the best prophet in the whole darn prophetic line.

And you know what?

None of that matters. Not really.

You see God doesn't love us for of our human achievements. God's grace is deeper and wider than any of the values by which we puny people evaluate our earthly existence. As great as John may have been, the least in the Kingdom is greater than that. And that means you and me.

I mean, haven't you seen it? I have.

For whatever choices I may have made in my life—right or wrong—God has still shown me mighty acts of mercy. I've still been able to love and be loved. I've seen sunrises and sunsets. I've made children laugh. I've worked hard and enjoyed leisure. And I've seen God at work—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed, loving the outcasts.

If we're ever going to take time to sum up our lives, we should do it in the knowledge of God's unrelenting goodness. We should do it with an eye to the beauty in our brokenness. A failed ambition was still an ambition. A failed love was still a love. A failed relationship was still a relationship. A failed life was still a life.

No doubts. No regrets. Just God.

I hope you're enjoying the Season, my friends. Drop me a comment to let me know you've been here!

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Hey! Want to get your Old Religious Guy a nice Christmas present? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic please sign my Change.org petition and ask Pope Francis to consider a full communion between our churches. It's the gift which keeps on giving! Just click here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Get Your Act Together (Reflections on Advent 2)

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,   make his paths straight.”'
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Matthew 3:1-12)

I was walking back to church from the home of some parishioners last night and I had a chance to admire the holiday preparations in the neighborhood. I don't know what Christmas is like where you are, but in Northeast Philly we do it up right. The blocks of row homes around my church are decorated with more lights than the Las Vegas Strip. You'd half expect to see Siegfried and Roy coming down the sidewalk. If it doesn't move, we put Christmas lights on it.

But the beautiful season of Advent asks us to make preparations which don't require electricity. The preparation for the coming of Christ according to that radical John the Baptist has nothing to do with lights, shopping, or making cookies. It's all about repentance.

Repent!” the Baptist tells us. Change your mind. Change your ways. Get your act together and start doing things which seem to be worthy of God's rule.

Don't you just love this guy? With his organic wardrobe and low-cal diet? He's just so beautifully counter-cultural, and he seems pretty pissed off with the power structure. In John's day, there wasn't a whole lot of emphasis placed on individualism. When he calls for repentance, he's calling for the whole society to do a U-turn.

I wish we had a freaky prophet like John attracting crowds now, because our society could sure use a little change. We need an adjustment in our attitudes about poverty and wealth, healthcare, sexual orientation, war, equal opportunity, public education, the environment, and so on. I could be on my annoyingly liberal soap box forever...

BUT: Societies are made up of individuals, and you, my friend, aren't interested in polemical diatribes, are you? You're reading this because you want some kind of insight for yourself and your life, right?

Well, I can't speak for you, but I realize that I sure enough can use a little repentance. As I look back over this past year, I know I have a lot for which I can be thankful. But I also have a lot that needs a tune-up.

I've been a pretty negligent husband at times. I make my wife feel like I value my ministry and my parish more than I value her.

I've also been a crappy brother and friend—faithless in keeping up with siblings and friends who live at a distance. I've not taken the time to contact people I really love and care about.

I've wasted too much time futzing around in my office and missed opportunities to visit with parishioners and hear their stories.

I've talked way more than I've listened.

I've underestimated my congregation.

I've underestimated God.

I've wasted opportunities to learn, and I haven't cracked open the Bible as much as I promised myself I would.

I've taken lots of stuff for granted.

I've eaten way too much junk food.

There's probably tons of other dumb things I just can't remember. And I don't know if I can really pull my head out and make this repentance stuff stick in the coming year.

So thank you, God, because my own efforts to bear fruit have been pretty feeble at times. I just really need your Grace.

Maybe John's metaphor about burning the chaff (v. 12) is actually grace in disguise. Maybe it's not about sending nasty people to Hell, but about what God wants to do. After all, the chaff is still part of the plant. It's just not a part that has any nutritional value. So, God, I'm asking you to burn up my “chaff.” Take all that “me” stuff out of my heart so I have more room for the sweet baby boy in the manger--and all the other beautiful people You've put in my life.  Get me ready to be what You want me to be. I can't do it without you.

And as for you, Dear Reader, I hope your Advent preparations are bringing you peace, comfort, and the knowledge of God's love. Thanks so much for stopping by.

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As always, if you're a Lutheran or a Roman Catholic,I invite you to sign my Change.org petition and ask Pope Francis to consider an open communion between our two churches. I think that would be a swell way to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It's time we kissed and made up, don't you think? Just click here.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Saint of the Month: Dr. Barbara Rossing

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming...' (Matthew 24: 36-42)

I really have an issue with the First Sunday in Advent in Year A. This apocalyptic jazz always reminds me of the early 1970's when my big sister was into the “Jesus Freak” movement (And, yeah, that's really what they called young Christians then—Jesus Freaks. Personally, I like the sound of that because it has a certain counter-cultural ring to it. But I digress.) and occasionally dragged me with her to one of the churches she frequented.

Every time I read the above passage I'm reminded of a cramped store-front church, filled with long-haired groovy people who were waiting for The Rapture.

If you're not familiar, The Rapture was a doctrine that was pretty popular back then and, unfortunately, has not yet seemed to vanish off of the American religious scene entirely to this day. It is a belief taken from a mish-mash of biblical sources—Revelation, Daniel, some of Paul's writings, and the above quote from Matthew's gospel—which asserts that the end of the world is coming, but, before the final catastrophic unpleasantness is unleashed upon humankind, God will suddenly snatch up all believers bodily into the clouds and protect them from the day of tribulation.

As I suggest, this belief is based on some pretty sketchy biblical scholarship. Thus, (and I just love to use the word “thus”), I'd like to take this opportunity to celebrate a wonderful saint who is doing her best to put the misguided straight on this issue, The Reverend Doctor Barbara Rossing.
Barbara Rossing

Dr. Rossing is a professor of New Testament Studies at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and she seems to be pretty darn smart if you ask me. She holds a Master's of Divinity from Yale and a Doctor of Theology from Harvard. In 2005 she published a wonderful book called The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. In this volume she explains how this bizarre doctrine originated and points out two fundamentally dangerous ramifications of this belief:

First, those who espouse the Rapture doctrine are looking expectantly for the end of the world. Personally, I'd like old Mother Earth to stick around a little bit longer. However, for those who think Jesus is coming back to claim His flock any day now, the wellness of our planet is not of much concern. In a world beset with accelerated climate change, such disregard for environmental issues is dangerously negligent.

Secondly, the Rapture proponents believe that the Day of the Lord will come once the Jewish people re-take the Holy Land. This belief, Dr. Rossing maintains, has consequences in U.S. foreign policy. Rapture believers promote a blind support of Israel at the expense of the rights of Palestinians. Such dogged loyalty can only lead to more enmity between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds.

Dr. Rossing has done her best through her scholarship, teaching, writing, and lecturing to put American Christians on the path of a sound understanding of the Bible—particularly that most cryptic of documents, The Book of Revelation. She is rescuing this book from those who see it a as vision of horror and reclaiming it as a document of hope.

As Lutherans, we understand that the Bible—however much we love it—is not God. It's best described as the manager which holds the Christ. We interpret the parts of these ancient writings which we don't understand in light of the parts which we do. All of Christian scripture points to this chief belief which takes precedence over all others: Jesus Christ entered into our broken world to abide with us and save us from our sins. We will never go anywhere in our earthly journey—be it in sickness, loneliness, shame, fear, temptation, sorrow, or pain—where Jesus has not already been. He died to save us and lives that we might live.

When John of Patmos wrote that confounding and confusing vision all those centuries ago, he made one thing glaringly clear: Our God reigns. And God reigns in love and promise. For all the mystifying symbolism in this book—some of which we'll probably never understand—John's message of Christ's triumph over powers of sin and death remains unambiguous. God's will is to reshape us into a holy people. No Doomsday theology is necessary. Nor is it helpful. I would rather live in the here and now and know that my Lord holds the promise of eternity.

I really hope I get the chance to meet Dr. Rossing some day. I know she often lectures at other seminaries and sometimes at synod assemblies so there's a chance she'll pass through Philadelphia some time. It's rumored that she has a wicked sense of humor, and I know I'd enjoy that.

In the meantime, there's always YouTube. If you're interested in the Book of Revelation, click on Barbara's name and catch one of her talks.

I hope you're having a most blessed Season of Advent. Slow down. Light the candles. Know that Emanuel is with you.

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Some time before the cataclysmic end of the world, I'd really like to share Holy Communion with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. I know it's a long shot, but don't long shots pay off the best? Help me strike blow for Christian unity, won't you?Sign my letter to the Pope asking for full communion to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What have you got to lose? C'mon! You know you want to. Just click here.