Monday, December 28, 2015

No End to Herod (Reflections on Epiphany)

According to my Manuel on the Liturgy, the Feast of the Epiphany rates as one of the principal festivals of the Christian faith. It used to be the time when the earliest Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus, but old Emperor Constantine decided sometime in the middle of the fourth century to make Christmas December 25th since all the pagans were partying at that time anyway. January 6 then became the celebration of Christ’s baptism and the start of the season in which people began to recognize the divine in Jesus.  Hence the twelve days of Christmas (which most of us don’t celebrate in our culture because, with Christmas commercialism starting in September, we’re all pretty sick of Christmas by this time!).

Nevertheless, the Church still finds lots of meaning in the story in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2:1-20) of the Wise Men, King Herod, the escape of the Holy Family into Egypt, and the death of the Holy Innocents. I’d go so far as to say that this story is even more poignant in our world today than it ever has been. The Wise Men (or Three Kings as they are known—even though the Bible neither specifies their number nor gives any indication of their royalty besides the fact that they can afford some pretty high-priced presents!) have come to symbolize the universality of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Christian art has depicted them as a young man, a middle-aged fellow, and an old codger to symbolize Jesus belonging to all the ages. They are also often represented as a European, a Middle-Easterner, and a black African to symbolize Jesus came for all nations and races. Pretty cool, huh?

But to me, it’s Herod who is speaking the loudest. Historically, we know that Herod was not Jewish, but was a foreigner with no authentic claim to rule over Israel except the Roman power which propped him up. He is known to have murdered his own family members in order to secure his position on the throne. How threatened he must have been when informed that a child with legitimate ties to King David had been born!

 Throughout history, this murderous tyrant has been remembered as the epitome of evil. Yet the nightly TV news continues to bring Herod to life. Bashar al-Assad, a modern-day Herod, is completely willing to let innocent children suffer so he can remain in power.  ISIS seeks to establish an Islamic state through terror and intimidation. Joseph Kony turns children into soldiers to establish his thuggish so-called Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Mass gun violence in the US is ignored for political purposes. Twenty centuries after the time in which Matthew wrote, and we still live in a world where violence is the tool of power.

So what lesson do we take from the Epiphany story? For me, it’s the reminder that Herod’s plot, for all of its brutality, still failed. Violence and ruthlessness never achieve permanent ends. There is, you see, no true king but God, and nothing will blot out God’s Word in Jesus Christ. I also like the fact that it’s the foreigners who are the first real evangelists. So maybe those immigrants have something of value to give us, don't you think? Joseph brings the Messiah safely out of—of all places—Egypt, that once-hated land, reminding us that we never know from where God’s grace and blessings will come.

Happy Epiphany, my friends. Thanks for checking out my blog.

PS-A little “Herod trivia:” The role of the murdering king was popular in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages. The hammiest actors usually got the role of Herod, and enjoyed portraying him with fiendish glee during the twelve days of Christmas. Shakespeare makes oblique reference to this in the second act of Hamlet, when Hamlet warns the players about over acting. (“…it out-herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it…”). My favorite hammy Herods are Claude Raines in The Greatest Story Ever Told and Sir Peter Ustinov in Jesus of Nazareth. Click on Sir Peter’s name to see this wonderful actor (and fellow Lutheran) chew the scenery in the 1977 made-for-TV epic.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Baby in the Manger

 Image result for holy nativity images

“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

Twenty-eight-year-old Father Chris Heanue, a newly ordained Catholic priest, had a great idea for the Christmas crèche at Holy Child Jesus Catholic Church in Queens, New York. He planned to follow the liturgical tradition of setting the nativity scene up at the beginning of Advent, but waiting until Christmas Eve to place the figure of the infant Savior in the manger. To make the four-week wait of Advent meaningful to his parishioners, Father Chris planned to fill the manger with dozens of paper tags on which were written gift ideas. Parishioners, many of whom are Latino and Asian immigrants, would be asked to take a tag from the “Crib of Love” and purchase the suggested gift for a poor child or family.

On the Monday morning following the feast of Christ the King, sixty-year-old sexton Jose Antonio Moran began assembling the nativity scene in the front of the church’s nave. Jose had assembled the “stable” portion and figured that adding the figures and scattering the straw could wait until after his daily noon lunch break.

When he returned to the worship space around 1 PM, Jose heard the sound of a baby crying. This was not an uncommon sound at Holy Child Jesus Church, but what startled Jose was the fact that the crying was coming from the crèche. To his total astonishment, Jose (whose name translates as “Joseph” in English), beheld a newborn baby boy, wrapped in a blue towel and lying in the manger. The sexton immediately ran to get Father Chris. The priest called the rescue squad, and the newborn—who was judged to be about five hours old and with his umbilical cord still attached—was taken to the local hospital. He was, apparently, a very healthy newcomer to our planet.

Authorities would later find and identify the baby’s mother. Although no details about her have been released, it is obvious that she gave birth at home. Feeling that she could not care for her child, she left the little one at the church in accordance with New York’s “Safe Haven” law which permits women to surrender newborns for whom they cannot give adequate care to area hospitals, churches, police, or fire stations—no questions asked. I have to wonder about this woman: was she young? Afraid? Too poor to go to the hospital? Overwhelmed by the ordeal? How painful was it for her to part with her child?

We know that she came back to the church the following day to make sure her baby was safe. I, for one, wouldn’t judge her. I feel certain she did what she thought was right. I wonder if, when the angel Gabriel came to give her the startling news, the Mother of Our Lord—young and unmarried—didn’t feel many of the pangs which this mother felt?

When the story of the Baby in the Manger broke, a tidal wave of love flowed from the parishioners of Holy Child Jesus. Father Chris’ phone rang with calls from families wishing to adopt the infant. He would later tell the New York Post, “They felt he was left in the parish and should stay in the parish.” Many of these parishioners are poor like the shepherds to whom the angels heralded the birth of Christ. Many are foreigners like the Magi from the East who came to marvel at Christ. Many are elderly and faithful like Simeon and Anna who longed to see Christ. And, perhaps, in this little orphaned child they actually saw Christ—Christ in compassion and mercy, the very reasons for which he was sent to our suffering world.

There has been much discussion around Holy Child Church as to what to name the little one. Emanuel, “God With Us,” has been a popular suggestion. Father Chris has favored John, after John the Baptist who makes his appearance in the lectionary which precedes Christmas. Some have suggested Jose in honor of the sexton who found the child. Of course, the most obvious name for the baby in the manger might simply be Jesus (pronounced hay-SOOS, of course).

Again, I have to wonder about a child named Jesus who was found in a manger during Advent. What will this little boy think as he grows up and hears the story of his birth? What will he come to believe about himself and the community which has embraced him? Will he feel a certain desire to live up to the image of the gentle healer and Prince of Peace whose nativity so closely resembled his own? I hope so.

But maybe the more important question is what will our response be to this child and all the children born to us today? Will we find that tender compassion for the weak and helpless, and commit ourselves to making a world in which they can grow and live and feel and know the tender embrace of God?

A blessed Christmas to you all. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Have Yourself a Merry Little Advent Four, Year C

“…He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant.” (Luke 1:48)

At this festive time of year one turns on the radio to hear the sounds of the season. After two solid weeks of “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and Sir Paul McCartney’s abysmally monotonous “Wonderful Christmastime,” one might be ready to toss one’s lunch about now.

Still, there are not a few secular Christmas tunes which your Old Religious Guy actually likes to hear. I have a weak spot for Karen Carpenter singing “Merry Christmas, Darling,” and Nat ‘King’ Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song.” But I really get all sentimental and mushy over “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Granted, it’s not the most sophisticated piece of music ever composed, but it bears a sweet message which veers dangerously close to the Gospel accounts of Our Lord’s birth.

In case you didn’t know, the song was composed for the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis. In the flick, Judy Garland sings this tune to cheer up her younger sister played by child star Margaret O’Brien. The child has learned that her family will be leaving St. Louis to move to New York, and she is hurt and saddened by the loss of her beloved home and friends, as well as disappointed at missing the anticipated World’s Fair. Judy’s character sings this song as tears pour down the little girl’s face.

I like this song because it reminds me that not everything is ever just merry and bright this time of year. I was on the phone the other day with a parishioner who has lost both her mother and husband recently and is facing her first Christmas without them. The pressure to be joyful at the Yule is so often an unspeakable burden to us, and so many people feel lonely, lost, and depressed.

When “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was recorded as a pop tune, a poignant line was changed. I personally like the original version which went, “…until then, we all will muddle through somehow.” Because that’s what we do in this world—especially at this season—muddle through.

The story of Christ’s birth in the Gospels is not all sweetness and light, and we often forget this in the pressure of the season and our American expectations of what Christmas should be. The Gospel lesson for Advent 4 Year C (Luke 1:39-55) makes beautiful Christmas cards, but it has a painful side to it. Poor Elizabeth, in her culture, would be despised and considered cursed by God because she couldn’t get pregnant (see Luke 1:25). Mary, would be equally despised and possibly stoned to death for conceiving out of wedlock. Both are second-class citizens by virtue of being women. Both are peasants.

And yet, it is their very femininity—their shared knowledge of the mysteries of childbirth—which allows Elizabeth to speak as a prophet and Mary to be the bearer of God. I guess what I so love about this passage is the defiant jubilation these women share. Mary rejoices that the lowly have been lifted up (v. 52), a joy one can only know once one acknowledges that one has been lowly. Neither woman suddenly hits the lottery nor has her life made any easier than it has been. They just know that God loves them and has not forsaken them. They do not forget their hardship, but they sure know how to access joy in the midst of it.

Hey. If I were to tell you that leading a good and virtuous life would bring you only good and virtuous things, I’d be lying to you. Thinking you can influence God (and haven’t I said this before..?) isn’t religion. It’s superstition. The truth is that sometimes things just plain suck. But that doesn’t stop God from choosing us to be the bearers of good news.

So okay. Miss your loved ones. Worry about ISIS and global warming and your job and your whacky kids. Feel a little guilty that you can’t afford to give the gifts or make the charitable donations you really want to. Be lonely and afraid. But remember that God has chosen YOU to carry the Good News.

And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

PS - If you'd like to see the scene From Meet Me in St. Louis in which Judy Garland sings this unforgettable tune, click here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Rejoice, You Sloppy Christians! (Reflections on Advent 3, Year C)

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:7-8a)

What’s up with this?

Image result for gaudete sundayThe Third Sunday of Advent has been known since the ninth century as Guadete Sunday. That’s when the Church decided to shorten the period of Advent from forty days, as it had been since the fifth century, to a mere four weeks. But, they still kept this little “party day” in the middle of the season so waiting and fasting wouldn’t be too much of a downer. Guadete is Latin for “Rejoice,” and it was the first word spoken in the liturgy for this festival Sunday (See the epistle lesson from Philippians 4). We symbolize the up-beat nature of the day by lighting a pink candle on the Advent wreath and singing something happy and Christmassy like “Joy to the World.”

The problem, however, is trying to celebrate a “Rejoice Sunday” when the words of John the Baptist in the Gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-18) sound more like “Kick-Butts-and-Take-Names Sunday.” I mean, John just doesn’t sound like a happy camper. I don’t know of anybody who’d feel particularly joyful to have John call them a snake and threaten them with being thrown into the fire. Yet this tongue-lashing from the Baptist is necessary. Sitting around waiting for God to come and fix our lives, our churches, or our world just won’t get the job done. We are called to repentance, to actively embrace social justice, rigorous honesty, and a commitment to the Gospel. And John tells us we better start bearing some fruit.

Can we be honest? I love my little parish in Philadelphia, but at times I’m worried about her health. In the time I’ve served here I’ve seen Lutheran churches in my synod and conference fold up like beer cans hit by Mac trucks. The ax is lying at the root of the tree. Good doctrine and liturgy don’t seem to be enough to save us. After all, God is able to raise up Lutherans from rocks if he wants to. But can Lutherans rise to the challenge of bearing fruit? What should we do?

I’d say it’s pretty obvious. We need to rediscover discipline. Discipline in prayer. Discipline in worship attendance. Discipline in worship itself (Yeah. I’ve got to talk to folks about bringing their Dunkin Donuts coffee into the worship space during mass!). Discipline in Bible study. Discipline to serve as examples for our children. Discipline in fellowship and care for each other. Discipline in volunteering. Discipline in giving.

Those first century Christians were willing to die for their faith. We don't seem to be willing to be inconvenienced for ours. Is it any wonder what's happening?

I’ve heard it said that the signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency. I like to think I’m a pretty nice guy, and I hate to get on anyone’s case. Forgiveness and forbearance are my business. But: I am witnessing a lack of consistency in my congregation which I can only understand as a lack of commitment and a lack of respect. I hate to say it, but there it is and I have to put it in words. This is why the Church, in her wisdom, has punctuated the season of Advent with the admonitions of John the Baptist. We need to be told while we are still in the pre-Christmas party mode that faith is made real in actions, and that a true trust in God will only manifest itself to the world if we who are in the Church are willing to get off our lazy butts and do the work of God.

But here’s the good news. We serve a gracious and loving God who wants to come into our hearts. If we’re willing to let him in, he’ll burn away the chaff of indifference, apathy, and fear. The change in our lives will be phenomenal—and that will be cause for rejoicing.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Saint of the Month: Ralph Gladstone

You wouldn’t know the name Ralph Gladstone unless you’re really into classic Greek drama. His 1955 translation of Euripides’ The Heracleidae (or The Children of Herecles if you prefer) is still in print in the first volume of Euripides’ works in The Complete Greek Tragedies published by the University of Chicago Press. By Ralph’s own account, this is but a modest contribution to world literature; nevertheless, I like to think that as long as professors of classics are requiring students to read Euripides, there will be a little bit of Gladstone wit alive in the world.

I had the honor of making this erudite octogenarian’s acquaintance over three years ago on my rounds as a volunteer chaplain at the Delaware Valley Veterans’ Home in Philadelphia. One of the Lutheran residents told me about this fabulous gentleman who was an Ivy League graduate. “He’d probably like to meet you,” my co-religionist explained. “I don’t think he gets any visitors, and he’d appreciate a conversation with someone intelligent.”

On that recommendation, I went in search of Ralph Gladstone. I discovered an affable, animated gent in his late eighties sitting in a wheelchair in a room which looked like the used book stalls of a flea market. Volumes of every size and description were piled almost floor to ceiling in the half of the room which Ralph occupied. His bed was littered with books and newspapers, and I wondered how he managed to clear enough space on it in which to sleep.

I introduced myself. The old gentleman’s thin frame seemed to vibrate with nervous energy. His eyes were pale blue like a weimaraner’s, and he smiled and laughed easily. I never knew him not to have some kind of stain on his T-shirt, and I had the impression that he’d long since stopped giving a crap about his personal appearance. I opened the conversation by asking him if it were true he was an Ivy Leaguer. From that point on the conversation began and didn’t stop. We had found each other—two overly talkative eggheads who relished the art of conversation.

I spent more time with Ralph than with any of the other residents. This might seem a bit odd if you consider that Ralph was actually Jewish. He had no interest in the religion of his ancestors, however, and frequently enjoyed the German service at the near-by Lutheran church which gave him opportunity to practice his German language skill. His linguistic skills were not inconsiderable either. He spoke German and French fluently, and kept in practice by watching DVD’s of foreign films which he ordered over the internet. He was a great film buff and we spent hours discussing classic movies. He’d often lend me a DVD and ask my opinion of it when I returned it.

Our chats veered into the subjects of politics, history, and literature. In addition to his translations and teaching, he had found joy for many years as a volunteer docent at the Edgar Allan Poe house on Spring Garden Street where he’d made many friends over the years. We rarely touched on religion, although Ralph said he liked reading my blog. Our relationship was no Tuesdays with Morrie. I simply enjoyed his company and loved hearing about his life. He had been a student at Columbia University in the early 1940’s but was drafted into the Army during World War II. “I was no hero,” Ralph would say. His first task as an army private was at Ft. Dix, reading and writing letters home for illiterate servicemen. He was then transferred to Ft. Benning, GA where he spent the duration peeling spuds and longing to return to Columbia.

After the war, Ralph headed back to college in New York City in time to witness the Beat Generation organizing their anarchic movement. He was present during the sensational Carr/Kammerer murder case. “I knew Lucien Carr,” Ralph told me. “He was very charismatic. I wasn’t impressed.” Ralph also crossed paths with Allen Ginsberg and had a similar reaction to the Beat poet.

After Columbia, Gladstone made his way to Paris where he taught and translated. Once I gave him a used copy of Stanley Karnow’s Paris in the Fifties which he enjoyed immensely. “He mentioned some of the people I knew,” he told me excitedly. So pleased was he with the Karnow volume that he gave me David McCullough’s wonderful book of Americans in Paris, The Greater Journey. I think I got the better of the swop.

I asked Ralph about Paris often. He never revealed much more than the fact that he’d enjoyed living there, and among his acquaintances was the Oscar-winning actress Louise Rainer. When I asked him if he’d ever married, his response was, “No, but I came close a few times.”

I would often find Ralph in the second floor library of the Veterans’ home. He was a solitary figure, preferring the company of books to fellow veterans with whom he had little in common. He could be ferociously witty in describing those who irritated him, yet I never knew him to be openly hostile or bitter or mean-spirited. His books and movies and internet surfing gave him satisfaction, and he was determined to keep his mind as lively and active as he could. Indeed, I was impressed with his use of technology, and always amused by his ability to jump from subject to subject with the mental energy of a five-year-old.

In this last year I saw less of Ralph as diabetic neuropathy claimed his right foot and then the entire leg up to his hip. He spent more time away in the hospital. I reproach myself for not hunting him down in the rehab facility. The last time I saw him he was being wheeled back into his room to be changed. He had a forlorn expression on his face and whispered, “I can barely talk.” I gave him a kiss on the forehead and told him that I’d see him the next time I was at the home. I knew, however, that I never would. A few days later I was informed of his death.

Was Ralph a saint? Certainly not in the sense with which we usually employ the word. But his friendship did more for this Lutheran pastor than I probably did for him. His life-long intellectual curiosity inspires me, and makes me fear old age a little less. His guileless acceptance of age and illness and his lack of bitterness I will always admire. And I will be inspired to enjoy life while it lasts, and give thanks for those who love language.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Hello From the Wilderness (Reflections on Advent 2, Year C)

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So I’m sitting in my office last night, sipping my tea, reading some C.S. Lewis, and killing time before the 7:30 PM Praise Team rehearsal. The Alcoholics Anonymous folks are setting up their meeting room right outside my door, and I hear them discussing the latest instance of human insanity—the shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California which left fourteen dead and seventeen wounded.

“Do you think it was ISIS?” someone asks.

“They had Muslim-sounding names,” another replies.

“I think we should just line ‘em all up against a wall and shoot ‘em!” opines another voice.

And I’m sitting in my safe little office thinking this is one crazy-assed world. Where is John the Baptist when we need him? Because we are most assuredly in the wilderness, and we need a voice telling us to get our act together.

The Hebrew word which our Bible translates as “wilderness” is midbar. It literally means “that which is beyond.” The wilderness is not a charming forest which would inspire John Muir with its beauty. It’s a place beyond civilization, beyond control, and filled with savagery in the form of wild beasts and murderous nomads. Kind of describes our world, don’t you think? In this spherical lunatic asylum—awash in chaos and voices crying for violent revenge—we could sure use a word of hope. The trouble is, of course, that hope is useless without repentance.

 And what is repentance, except saying “yes” to things being different? We're going to have to get used to Muslims being our neighbors (For my parish in Philadelphia that will be soon, because an Islamic youth center is opening next month around the corner!). We will have to decide that some of what we consider to be individual freedoms might need to be sacrificed to the public good. We will have to decide that ecumenism is necessary, and our worship spaces will have to be shared with those of other traditions if they are going to stay open at all. Or, we might discover that the future of the church in this nation lies in electronic media and peoples’ living rooms, not in grand institutional buildings.

We will also have to rethink the way we look at the church in general. We might be saying “bye-bye” to full-time professional clergy, and demanding a greater level of discipleship from lay people. We will have to start considering church to be about local and global mission to the poor and suffering and lost, and not about providing us with individual spiritual comfort. And we’ll have to stop looking at Jesus like we look at Santa Claus (to whom we’ve done a similar disservice in our popular culture). That is, we’ll want to embrace Christ’s spirit of sacrificial love which opens us up to the world, rather than just wanting to be alone in the garden with him making us feel good.

The prophet Isaiah, quoted in this week’s Gospel (Luke 3:1-6) tells us that preparing the way for our deliverance means changing things in a radical way—and a way that will be visible, public, and obvious to everyone. Are we ready for this? I hope so. Hope is impossible without repentance, but there is no point in repenting without hope.

Happy Advent, my repentant friends. To be continued...

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Yes, It IS the End (Reflections on Advent 1, Year C)

Have I mentioned how much I hate the Gospel lessons for the First Sunday in Advent? Okay. Maybe I have. It’s just that I remember those thrilling days of the early 1970’s and the publication of Hal Lindsay’s magnum opus The Late Great Planet Earth, and every time we get these Second-Coming-End-of-the World-Eschatological lessons appointed for our Gospel reading I think of a bunch of long-haired hippies sitting around in storefront churches waiting for The Rapture. I think of that awful movie Thief in the Night and the attempt to frighten everybody into a personal relationship with Jesus—as if that were possible—and I start to feel a bit queasy. I just don’t like Doomsday narratives. I don’t even like the current taste for dystopian stories in our popular culture. (No. I haven’t seen The Hunger Games, and I don’t plan to, either—fond as I am of Jennifer Lawrence!).

But I have to admit, if I were into End-Times Biblical prophecy, these days do look pretty much like the end of the world. In ISIS we face a new and insidious form of Islamic extremism, a mysterious global entity of terror which rivals anything Ian Fleming could’ve made up. Global climate change is causing “hundred year” storms to break out annually. There are wars and rumors of wars—saber-rattling in Russia and China. There is economic inequality and racial tension here in America. Today a third-grader has greater command of modern technology than I do, but has vastly weaker verbal and written communication skills—a fact ignored by those who espouse a tax policy which is perfectly content to see that third-grader languish in a public school system already reeking of rigormortis.

So are these the signs of the end of the world?

I’d have to say, “Yup! It’s the end of something, alright!”

In this week’s Gospel lesson (Luke 21:25-36), Jesus warns us that things are going to look pretty bad. There are going to be freaky signs and portents which will cause people to faint with fear and foreboding (verse 26). But yet he maintains that these changes are signs of God’s coming kingdom. Do I personally believe that these are signs of the end of all time? No. Not really. But I do believe that the things which are familiar and comfortable are going to be rocked off their foundations and we’re not going to be able to escape that. The Gospel lesson even has Jesus tell us that every generation will face change and loss and uncertainty. No generation will pass away without it.

But here’s the good news:

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (v.33)

Our spiritual walk is never about what happens—it’s about how we choose to embrace it. It’s not for us to figure out God’s intentions about the end of our little planet. It is for us to lift our heads and be open to what God is teaching us. It’s also for us, as Christians, to be excited about the new thing God is doing—even if we find it scary and uncomfortable. Old worlds pass away so that new worlds can begin. Bill Moore, a Baptist pastor from North Philly, always used to say, “Man’s desperation is God’s opportunity.” As people of faith we trust in the ongoing truth of the Word of God, and in the Holy Spirit’s ability to work through us and bring resolutions to the problems which confront this age. These resolutions will not bring us back to our past comfort zones. Rather, they will lead us forward to new and different experiences of God’s goodness.

Martin Luther’s world was also confronted with Islamic extremism as Turkish forces threatened Christian Europe. Plagues and wars destroyed populations. Social chaos (some of which was caused by Luther himself!) tore at the fabric of society. Peoples’ very cosmology was upended by the new discoveries of astronomers and explorers. Yet out of all of this craziness came the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Last Sunday I attended a retirement party for one of my colleagues. Claire Burkat, my bishop, was present. In her usually optimistic way she told me how excited she was about the new crop of young pastors and seminarians who are chomping at the proverbial bit to serve our Church. They are already adapting through the use of social media. They don’t mind being bi-vocational—taking secular jobs so as not to be dependent on congregational giving for their salaries. They want to encourage lay leaders and train volunteers for the Gospel. They have a radical vision of what Church could be which might seem odd to someone of my generation. Some old traditions may be going by the wayside, but something new is coming.

So stay awake, folks! Instead of preparing for Christmas this year, let’s all prepare for Christ. I have a feeling he’s up to something.

Happy Advent. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Some Random Thoughts as the Season Begins


“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Hebrews 1:1-2a.

I don’t really care what anybody says. My Christmas is not going to be ruined by not seeing tree ornaments and reindeer printed on the cup of my tall dark roast at Starbuck’s. I still love coffee and I still love Christmas and, since neither of them are illegal in this country (Christmas is, in fact, an official national holiday), I plan to go right on enjoying both without any feelings of persecution. 80% of Americans will still be celebrating Christmas whether or not retail chains call it by its Christian name or just make a vague reference to “the holidays.” When 80% of us are still going to parties, blowing up inflatable “Santas” on our front lawns, stringing lights, and spending money like the Apocalypse is upon us, we can’t claim the status of victims. So all of you who think there’s a “war on Christmas” need to get over yourselves and concentrate on something else—like, maybe, global poverty or climate change or our increasing number of wounded combat veterans.

And, for the record, I don’t really mind the excessive secular images for Christmas either. Unlike the Puritans who wanted to outlaw Christmas because of its pagan origins, I still have a fondness for ol’ Santa. He is, after, all evolved from an authentic Christian saint (Nicholas of Myra, d. 350) who was known for sneaking into peoples’ houses and leaving lavish gifts in order to help them out. I think that’s a pretty nifty symbol for what the church of Jesus Christ should be about—selflessness, compassion, and humility.

Okay, so maybe I do get a bit weary of the over-commercialization of the holiday, but that doesn’t preclude the delight I get from my own personal traditions. Marilyn decorates our home tastefully and elegantly every year (and I just finished putting 400 colored lights on a baby Norwegian spruce in our side yard), and we look forward to getting the tree up, visiting with friends, seeing a performance of The Nutcracker, and watching our favorite Christmas movie, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

But what I really appreciate is the historic tradition of Advent as a prelude to Christmas. The idea that we are living in a dark world yet we yearn for the light seems to make more sense to me the older I get. In the gospel lessons of this season we hear Jesus speak of the End Times—which are actually the Beginning Times for God’s reign. Old things will perish, new things will happen. We will feel fear, but Jesus will tell us to hold up our heads and await God’s Kingdom. John the Baptist will exhort us to repent—to see things in a different way. The Virgin Mary will tell us that she, an unwed, pregnant teenager, is actually blessed among women because God favors the weak and the helpless. In all the rush and chaos of this world, Christians will still light the candles in the darkness and believe that God is in control and creating something which we might not recognize at first as God’s work, but which will be beautiful and glorious all the same.

Who could believe that a baby born in poverty, who grew up to be executed as a criminal, could actually be the Savior of the world? But that’s how God rolls—God takes outcasts and oddballs like Jacob and Joseph, Rahab and Bathsheba, Elijah and Jeremiah and John the Baptist, and uses them to proclaim his glory and love. So don’t be alarmed about the weird cultural shifts in America. Enjoy with defiant delight your Advent traditions. Keep lighting the candles, and keep believing in hope. O come, Emanuel! Come, God With Us!