Thursday, December 29, 2016

Reflections on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus

"Circumcision of Christ" by Albrecht Durer
“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2: 21)

So what’s in a name? I really like my name—Owen. It’s a sign of my Welsh identity. I guess my dad wanted to preserve his ethnic heritage in me and gave me a specifically Welsh name. “Owen” means “Young Warrior.” Although I’ve never been a warrior and can no longer officially qualify as “young,” I’m proud of it all the same. I share it with a legendary Welsh rebel hero Owen Glendower (immortalized as a character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1) and with the mythical Welsh hero Sir Owen, Knight of the Round Table. When my father hung this moniker on me it was the 404th most popular boy’s name in the U.S. At the time, I was the only Owen I knew. Today, however, the name has risen in popularity even among the non-Welsh and is the 21st most popular boy’s name in the U.S.

In the U.K. they’d say that Owen is my Christian name. That title for what we Yanks call a first or given name comes from the tradition of officially naming a child at baptism or christening.

(BTW, here in Philadelphia, the term “christening” is often used synonymously with baptism. Technically, the two are not the same. Baptism is the sacrament of washing with water which officially makes one a Christian. Christening is the anointing with oil which is often done at baptism but is not, strictly speaking, a necessary part of the sacrament. I just thought you should know that!).

I suspect that the high infant mortality rate throughout much of human history is what prompted the postponement of naming until a child was officially introduced to the community. You wouldn’t want to bring a newborn (with a brand new immune system) out into the world until he or she had at least a week to get used to being born. In the world of our gospel text for this feast (Luke 2:15-21), a week had to elapse to make sure the child was strong enough to survive before parents would risk embracing the child’s identity. A baby like Jesus would be nameless until the eighth day when his vitality seemed a little more certain and he could be ritually received as a child of Abraham. So, too, we Christians used to wait until baptism before conferring a name on a child. This also explains our Western calendar. Jesus’ birthday might be celebrated on December 25th, but the Year of Our Lord couldn’t begin until the child had a name and an identity.

And what is that identity? Our Lord’s name is a contraction of a Hebrew name roughly transliterated as Yehoshu’a, which is usually translated to mean “Yahweh Saves,” or “Yahweh Delivers,” or “Yahweh Rescues.” It’s a variation on the name which we pronounce “Joshua,” too.

So what’s in a name?  What does the name of Jesus mean to you? I know I have so often used this sacred name in vain, and for lots of Americans it might be nothing more than a swear word. But what can speaking those sacred syllables do for us? We’re told that prayers are answered if prayed in the name of Jesus. So what is it about that name?

I think it might be a good idea for us to contemplate the name of Jesus from time to time. If Jesus’ identity is linked to his name—which scripture tells us it is (See Matthew 1:21)—how does that identity speak to you? Jesus is our Savior, but from what or for what are we saved or rescued? Traditional Church orthodoxy says that we are rescued by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross from taking our own eternal punishment after death. Okay. That’s cool, but what does it mean for you now?

It’s really a bizarre thought to look at the figure of a man being tortured to death by being impaled on a cross of wood and associating that horrific image with being rescued. But that very image carries with it some powerful truths which my heart needs to embrace. The first is that suffering is real and unavoidable, and to speak the name of Jesus is to be reminded of one who suffers. Perhaps that is to move me to compassion and the knowledge of shared humanity. But then, speaking that name reminds me of God’s love in embracing our human suffering, participating in it, and enduring it without complaint or bitterness. Then the name of Jesus reminds me that suffering and death were not final. That name which his enemies hoped would die with him on the cross became, within a single generation, the name above all names. The crucified criminal’s name became the prayer on the lips of the Roman world.

When we say the name of Jesus we say that God rescues us. We are rescued from insular selfishness, from abandonment and worthlessness, and from the great evils of complacency and despair. How beautiful is the name of Jesus when we say it in faith and confidence!

Thanks for reading, my friends. May you all have a blessed, safe, and happy 2017 in the name of Jesus!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Word Became Flesh (Reflections for Christmas Morning)

"Nativity" by Sandro Boticelli 1445-1510

And the Word became flesh and lived among us…(John 1:14a)

We all love the story of Christmas Eve—of the night when Jesus was born in a stable and the angel told the shepherds about the birth of the Messiah. But do you ever wonder what happened that next morning? I would think that after all of the excitement of the previous evening, what with a bunch of shepherds running through town glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, that our Holy Family would be pretty exhausted. I like to believe that all of the attention given to this new little baby would’ve prompted someone in town to offer the family a room in their home in which to stay until they completed their census duty in Bethlehem. Maybe news reached a distant member of Joseph’s family, and the mother and infant were taken in and given a proper bed or at least a clean mat on the floor.

I fancy that Joseph, early on this morning after being assured that his wife and new baby were safe and warm, headed out into town to do his civic duty and be registered. As with all bureaucratic activities, he probably had to stand in line somewhere while the officials shuffled papers and counted beans.

Maybe there was a guy in line next to him who struck up a conversation. “So you live here in Bethlehem or is your family from here?”

“My family. My wife and I live in Nazareth,” says Joseph.

“Nazareth, huh? That’s a long trip just to satisfy these Roman s.o.b.’s. Say! Did you hear those drunken shepherds last night? A whole bunch of these guys came runnin’ through town screamin’ and yellin’ and claimin’ that an angel told ‘em the Messiah had been born. You know anything about that?”

Joseph is silent for a moment. “Yes,” he says. “I think I heard something about that.”

“You couldn’t miss it,” the guy says. “Those clowns were sure makin’ a racket. It’d be nice if the Messiah really was born, though. We could sure use some help, times bein’ what they are. So you got any kids?”

“My wife just had a baby last night. That’s why she’s not with me.”

“No kiddin’? Last night? Hey! Maybe your kid’s the Messiah! Wouldn’t that be a hoot?!”

Joseph and the man chuckle. Joseph’s turn in line comes, he answers the Roman official’s questions, pays his registration tax, and goes home to check on Mary and the baby. Life in Bethlehem goes on as if nothing has happened.

And so life goes on for us, Christmas comes and goes, and we forget about the miracle that the Word became flesh and lives among us.

Somehow, the word “flesh” got a bad rap in our lexicon. We so often hear of “the desires of the flesh,” referring to sexual lust or some other kind of immorality. Lots of ancient philosophers acquainted “flesh” with impure, earthly matter as opposed to “spirit,” which was pure thought. We even repeat the old saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And we’ve developed a certain loathing for our own flesh. It’s never quite smooth or small or pretty or young enough, is it? We try to punish our flesh with dieting or alter our flesh with cosmetic surgery.

And yet, the very Word of God chose to become flesh and live among us.

The youngest person I’ve ever met was only fifteen minutes old—a tiny bundle of pink flesh, utterly helpless and small enough to fit into her father’s one hand like a football. But what power that small piece of mortality had! Her very weakness compelled all around her to gentleness, to compassion, and to the awe of human life. And there, in the wonder of a newborn, is the totality of God’s love. The Word becomes flesh so we can see it and know it and love it and recognize ourselves in it. God’s love is so vast. The Immortal put on mortality so we could know we are part of God. God is with us in all of our frailty. God loves us in our mortal flesh so much that he came to clothe himself in flesh and endure its weakness and pain.

The pageantry and hurry of the season will pass. The radio will stop playing Christmas songs by the stroke of midnight on the 26th of December. We’ll put the tree out on the curb and take down the lights. But the mystery of the Word becoming flesh must linger with us. In our moments of self-doubt and fear and worry we can know that God loves our weakness enough to share it with us. We are adored in the flesh. As the beloved carol says:

“Long lay the world in sin and sorrow pining ‘til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

A blessed Christmas to you all!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

So Here's a Christmas Miracle (Reflections for Christmas Eve)

Do you believe in Christmas miracles? I guess I do. I remember the year my dad passed away right before Christmas and it actually snowed in Los Angeles! I like to think that was my Old Man telling God to cheer me up with a white Christmas. A few months ago I was listening to NPR and I heard the story of a man who found his entire life transformed in a church on Christmas Eve.

This guy's name is William Kitt. William is in his sixties now, and he's had a pretty darn interesting life. He's a black guy who was brought up in South Carolina and he started getting in trouble when he was a little kid. He figured out that if you hit or tipped a vending machine in just the right way you could knock some of the change out of it. So he started ripping off vending machines and auto-mats and got himself a juvenile arrest record by the time he was eleven years old.

For some misguided reason, William's mom moved with him to New York City. Maybe she thought a change of environment might keep the boy out of mischief. Who knows? Unfortunately for William, she decided  to abandon him as soon as he turned eighteen. He came home to find the apartment deserted and himself with no skills for paying bills or managing as an adult. Now you might think that an eighteen-year-old with a juvenile record might come to no good if left alone on the mean streets of New York.

And you'd be right.

After a brief stint in a homeless shelter, William took to the dirty streets like a lion takes to the Serengeti. He had an instinctive, native cunning about survival. All told, William would spend thirty-four years of his life as a street person. To his credit, he adopted one moral scruple--he would never steal from an individual. Instead, he would rip off institutions. One of his favorite cons was to steal bottles and cans from the city recycling center and then sell his loot back to the same center for cash. Of course, the biggest institution William could rob was the federal government. He made a brisk business out of forging identities. At one point he was conning Uncle Sam out of $2,000 a week in welfare checks. This con could, at the very least, put a roof over William's head had he not by this time developed a rather pricey addiction to heroine, cocaine, crack, and just about any drug he could lay his hands on.

Over time, the drug habit began to exact payment--both financially and emotionally. William began to hear voices--auditory hallucinations which robbed him of his sanity. He described the noises in his head as the voices of demons, goading him with foul and sinister thoughts, urging him to steal and filling his mind with scenes of violence. His very existence became one unimaginable nightmare.

And then came Christmas Eve 2003. For some inexplicable reason, the homeless junkie and conman took shelter inside a church. William says that sitting under the great arched ceiling gave him a feeling he'd never remembered having. Nothing if not a covetous man, William looked around at the faces of the worshipers as they sang the familiar hymns to celebrate the birth of the Christ child. "I wanted to have what they had," he said.

Shortly thereafter, having heard on  the street that a housing project was opening in Harlem with preferential treatment for the mentally ill, William approached a social worker and applied for an apartment at the Broadway Housing Communities. Always the conman, William declared himself to be schizophrenic. "I had to act crazy," he said. He put on a show for the psychiatrist, exaggerating the severity of the audio hallucinations he actually heard and was soon granted residency.

For the first several months William rarely stirred from his new home. He did not attend the community functions, nor did he seek rehabilitation or counseling for his drug addiction. Rather--miraculously--he just stopped taking drugs. And gradually, the demonic voices in his head grew silent.

Today William Kitt still lives in Broadway Housing in the same apartment he's had for thirteen years. He spends his time creating exquisite works of art, drawing scenes from around Manhattan which he renders in vivid pastel crayons. His works are vibrant and beautiful. He still claims, however, that he hears one particular voice, but says that it's the voice of an angel who inspires his artwork.

Does an angel really speak to William Kitt, or is it just the residue from his years of substance abuse? I don't know, but I like to think that if an angel would speak to a peasant carpenter, a teen-aged girl, or  group of dirty shepherds, one would certainly not disdain talking to a former homeless drug addict.

William is alive and healthy today because of a Christmas miracle. What drew him to that church thirteen Christmases ago? What drives any of us to church on this holy night? Only our soul's hunger to behold the Christ child and receive the peace this child has to give.

God bless you, my friends, and a Merry Christmas to you all.
William Kitt's portraits are based on his observations of the vibrant street life of Manhattan.
Some of William Kitt's art.
PS: You can read more about William Kitt by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What Dad is This? (Reflections on Advent Four, Year A)

Saint Joseph’s Advent Angel and the Gift of Faith
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20b)

So who is this guy Joseph? There’s not a whole heck of a lot the Bible tells us about him, but Matthew’s gospel for Advent Four (Matthew 1:18-25) calls him a “righteous man.” He discovered that his fiancĂ© was pregnant—and not by him! In the world of the text, this wasn’t very good news. If Joseph was really observant of Jewish law (see Leviticus 20:10), he’d be perfectly within his rights to drop the dime on Mary and have her stoned to death for fooling around with another dude. If he was really so “righteous,” wouldn’t he respect the law and rat her out for adultery? I mean, the law is the law, right?

Yet old Joe doesn’t do this. He chooses, instead, to let her get away with what he believes to be her crime and shows her mercy. This speaks pretty loudly to me. It suggests to me that when the New Testament talks about righteousness, it means something far greater than just observance of the law. True righteousness has to be about mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and love. It also has to be about acceptance, as Joseph is moved by his angelic visitor to accept a child who is not his own flesh and blood. His righteousness even extends to consideration of his wife’s physical needs since he respectfully abstains from newlywed nookie until after her baby is born (verse 25).

You have to admire the guy. Granted, as I said above, there’s not much we know about him. Scripture says he was a carpenter, and he was certainly a good dad as he protected Jesus from Herod in Matthew’s gospel and took him to Jerusalem for Passover in Luke’s account. After the Passover trip, however, he disappears from the story. Church tradition has sometimes held that Joseph was older than Mary and so left her widowed pretty early on. By the time Jesus starts his public ministry, there’s no mention of Joseph. It’s also been speculated that Jesus’ siblings were really Joseph’s kids from a previous marriage, and that Joseph never had any children (or even sex!) with Mary. That’s if you’re into the “perpetual virginity” doctrine about our Lord’s mom. I’m not sure the Bible really suggests this, but, hey! If it floats your boat, go with it.

What I really respect about Joseph—and certainly resonate with—is that he’s one terrific step-dad. Fatherhood, even if the kids are your own issue, has got to be hard enough. Choosing to love a child and assuming everything that comes with that child takes a truly righteous ability to love.

I never mind when someone in the community addresses me with the title of “Father.” Granted, Lutheran clergy haven’t used this title for a long time, but I think it’s one of the most respectful offices to which any man can aspire. Pastors and priests have something in common with male parents—we all have complete responsibility for something over which we ultimately have no control. And who’s to say that we don’t actually become family to the children in our charge?

My stepdaughter was all grown up by the time we came into each other’s’ lives. My Godchildren, nieces, and nephews grew up way across the country from where I live. I knew them as infants, but they’ve become adults in a shockingly short period of time without much—if any—interaction with their Uncle Owen. But for eighteen years I’ve watched the children of my parish grow, learn, graduate, get jobs, marry, have kids of their own, etc., etc. I’ve learned that there are lots of different ways to be “family.”

Like Joseph, we are all called upon to adopt strangers as our own. I’d be willing to bet that all of us have more than one father or mother. We’ve had teachers, coaches, scout masters, uncles and aunts, neighbors, and various non-blood relations who have grappled us to their bosoms with steel hoops of love and understanding.

This beautiful pre-Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel reminds us of the interconnectedness of our human family. All children are our children. All are children of God and members of the family. Lately, our public discourse here in the good ol’ US of A has emphasized the “otherness” of some of the children of this planet. I think this is a good time to remember that real righteousness goes beyond nationality or even blood ties. The children of immigrants, the children of Aleppo, the children of South Sudan and Flint Michigan are ours, too. In Christ, there is no “us” or “them.” There is only “us.”

Thanks for reading, my friends. And here’s a shout-out to all the other step-dads out there. God bless you in your parenting, and may the Lord make you a teacher and example of righteousness.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

John's In Trouble (Reflections on Advent 3, Year A)

John the Baptist is really screwed. In this week’s lesson (Matthew 11:2-11) we find him in prison. As you can guess from last Sunday’s pericope, he’s pissed off some really important people. If we skip ahead to Matthew 14:1-12, we learn that John got arrested for calling out King Herod for sexual immorality. You have to admire the Baptist’s pluck. He knows that if the hub is rotten it won’t matter how strong the spokes are. If the guy who is supposed to be the head of state is corrupt and self-indulgent, then the whole society is up the creek without a paddle—and John’s not afraid to say so out loud.

Jesus really admires John, too. He tells folks that John has been his advance man. John’s been the guy who shakes things up, who speaks truth to power, who convicts people of their sin and need for repentance, and who has pointed the way to the loving redemption Jesus has to offer. No other prophet has been as crucial to God’s plan for humanity as has John.

But this isn’t helping poor John. He’s in the slammer, and when you’re in the joint in First Century Judea, the chances of getting out with all of your body parts intact are pretty darn slim. He’s probably underground, hungry, straining for a glimpse of sunlight, and wondering when the guard is going to come and take him to his death. He’s in trouble, alright. Dreading that his life is at an end—that this dirty, dark dungeon will be the last thing he’ll ever see—he’s probably wondering if it was all worthwhile. Did he get it right?

Can you blame the guy? If you suddenly found yourself with a diagnosis which gave you only months to live, wouldn’t you start to wonder if this world has been better for your having lived in it? Has your life’s work made a difference at all? Have you spent your allotted time on earth wisely? Did you point to the true Messiah? Has it mattered that you are a Christian?

Jesus’ answer? Look around. What do you see?

I pastor a very small congregation in Northeast Philadelphia. We have an average worship attendance of about 80 people. What difference does it make that we worship Jesus Christ?

·         Our partnership with Interfaith Hospitality Network has found permanent housing for thirteen homeless families.
·         We’ve delivered over a ton of food this year to hungry people on food assistance.
·         We provide Christmas toys to abandoned and abused children, therapeutic riding lessons to kids with special needs, and thousands of dollars every year to international hunger causes.
·         We’ve welcomed people disenfranchised from society, told scores of children about Jesus, awarded scholarships to college-bound teens, and created summer programs for neighborhood children at no cost.
·         We’ve provided space to seven 12-step groups every week, free, handicap-accessible fellowship space to senior citizens, and a support group for family members of drug addicts.
·         We’ve given clothing to indigent and homeless individuals and ready-to-eat meals to shut-in senior citizens.
·         We’ve created a community where people can become family and love, help, grieve, and rejoice with one another.

Does it matter? Have we chosen the right Messiah? I’d say that we have. Even as the world continues to look dark, God is still at work through God’s Church.

So this Sunday we’ll do a little premature celebrating. We’ll light that pink candle on the Advent wreath and we’ll rejoice that God is still on the throne. Just look around. God’s light is shining through us, and each of us, in our own little way, is, like John, pointing the way to the Kingdom of God.

Keep up the good work, my friends. Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Who Can Be John the Baptist Today? (Reflections on Advent 2, Year A)

Related image
"John the Baptist" Bartolome Estaban Murillo (1660)

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 3:2)

I so dig John the Baptist. You have to admit, he’s a pretty funky guy—right up there with Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the list of prophets who were way far out in left field away from the mainstream, speaking uncomfortable truth to complacent power. To say the very least, John is an eccentric character. Just look at his primitive clothing and organic diet! But sometimes we need someone who is very different in order to get our attention.

John’s a pretty important guy, too. We could, I suppose, ask why God didn’t just send Jesus to us with all of his love and healing. Wouldn’t the Savior be enough? Why did Jesus need an advance man? I find the answer to that question every time I go outside my office into the church Fellowship Room where the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held. There’s a six-foot poster on one of the storage closet doors displaying the AA 12 Steps in big black letters. Step 5 says, “(We) admitted to God, ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” This is followed by Step 6 which reads, “(We) were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character.”

“Entirely ready.”

Yup. That sums us up. We aren’t going to change or accept the possibility of change until we’re entirely ready. My guess is that if Jesus just showed up doing his own thing, many people would never give him a second thought. They wouldn’t be ready to be healed, or to have their sins forgiven, or to begin loving their neighbors as themselves. They had to acknowledge their need for Jesus first. They had to know that their way wasn’t getting them the peace they were starving for. They had to be entirely ready to say “bye-bye” to their old assumptions.

So along comes John. He’s not the guy with the temperament to give the peace which passes understanding. He is, however, the guy who has the loud voice and is willing to wake folks up to the corruption of their world, the errors of their thinking, and the truth that God has prepared a way for them if they’re only willing to see it.

Who can play the role of John the Baptist today? Personally, I like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Old Uncle Bern—you’ve got to admit—is as unconventional a hero as they come, yet he was able to get millions of America’s young people mobilized against income inequality. Sen. Warren has joined her voice to Sanders’ in waking us up to the dangers of money in politics and the “financialization” of America—that is, the concentration of capital into one sector of the economy while ignoring the needs of millions.

Of course, this is just me being partisan again. I sometimes imagine a modern-day John the Baptist to be like Howard Beals, the fictional news anchor in the 1976 film classic Network. In Paddy Chayefsky’s satire of the television industry, an aging newsman goes berserk on camera and calls for Americans to open their windows and scream “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The character of Beals goads his viewers out of their torpor of avoidance and demands that they feel something about the state of the world. Unfortunately, raw passion alone—without the proper direction—soon reverts back into complacency. We can be ready to change, but the change has to be towards Jesus.
Image result for network 1976 film
Peter Finch as Howard Beals in "Network" (1976)

So where is our passion today? Do you think we’re really ready to receive Jesus? Or are we stuck in finding Black Friday bargains, closing our borders and our minds, or just shutting off the news and pretending that sin in our world just doesn’t exist?

How will people be ready to receive the Good News Jesus has to deliver? Who will be the advance man?

Do you think it could be YOU?

God’s peace, my friends. Thanks again for reading.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Reflections on Advent

You also must be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44)

The above passage from Matthew’s gospel, the line which ends the first gospel lesson for Advent One in Lectionary Year A, is a pretty ominous verse. Jesus is coming, and we don’t know when. He might just catch us by surprise. I mean, what if you’re in the shower or gambling in Vegas or doing something you might be ashamed of? What if you’re busy having a feud with your in-laws or yelling at your kids when Jesus suddenly shows up and says, “Time’s up!” How would you feel? Or maybe you’re busy doing something really fun? Maybe you’re at your kid’s soccer game when the End of the World comes. How would you know who won?

I’m not really sure that most of us give much thought to Jesus’ return. And yet, every year at Advent we begin the Prayer of the Day with the words “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” Maybe we’re just having too much fun without the Second Coming. Still, the older I get, the more I understand how our lives are always about waiting for something wonderful to happen.

Think about it. When you’re a kid, you just can’t wait for Christmas (although, I suspect we are waiting more in the spirit of greed for toys and goodies than we are waiting to hear about Baby Jesus!). As we get older, we just can’t wait for adulthood—for our driver’s license, our high school graduation, or our journey to college when we’ll be free at last of our pesky parents—never suspecting that they’ve been waiting to be free of us for a little while, too.

As adults, we still find ourselves standing in the line of time and circumstances. We’re waiting to find that special someone who will give our lives joy and purpose. We wait to get married and we long for the moment when we say “I do.” Of course, sometimes waiting for a wedding is mixed with both excited longing and intense anxiety depending on how much of a perfectionist the bride—or her mother--is. In that case, we just can’t wait to get it over with!

Then we’ll wait for a better job, for our children to be born, for a special vacation, a raise, a new house, or retirement. We wait for that magical season when our favorite local sports team wins the championship (some wait longer than others!). Sometimes the waiting is much more special than the actual event. When I graduated from seminary, I waited excitedly for my ordination. When the event finally arrived, I was so stressed out by the arrangements I’d made I realized I wasn’t even paying attention to the service.

Sometimes, we find ourselves with our loved ones gathered around a bedside, waiting for someone we love to leave this world. Those times feel like the waiting goes on forever.
Sometimes we wait, as the song says, for the world to change.

Do we ever, I wonder, really wait for Jesus? If you do, what does that mean to you? It seems like everything else for which we wait passes into memory after it occurs, and we go on waiting for something new. Yet nothing seems to satisfy us enough for us to say, “My waiting is over. I just want to be in this moment forever.”

When Advent comes, I always try to take some time to ponder what it means to wait upon the Lord. Like everyone else, I look forward to those candlelight liturgies, to singing the Christmas carols, to giving gifts, and having Christmas Day dinner with my family. And yet I know that these annual rituals are just the foretaste of the feast to come which will put an end to all waiting. And I long for that. The little baby, child of an unwed teenager, born homeless in a stall for animals, lovingly ogled and cooed at by dirty sheep-herding peasants, came to remind us all that the day will come which will put an end to waiting. We will have peace. We will know we are loved. We will want no more and hunger no more. We will sin no more, hate no more, hurt no more. Wait no more.

In the meanwhile, believing that God’s promise is true, we wait in confidence, and the waiting is both bearable and lovely.

A blessed Advent and Christmas to you all.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Saint of the Month: President Obama

Image result for president obama
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to explain this to members of my parish: No. The President of the United States is not a Muslim. It is true that his father, grandfather, and step-father were Muslims. It is also true that he went to school as a little boy in Indonesia, and the Catholic nuns listed his religion as “Muslim.” But, in that country in those circumstances, they listed every child’s religion as Muslim unless the child was specifically a Roman Catholic.

The truth is, Barack Obama is a Christian. Specifically, he is a member of the very progressive United Church of Christ. In his wonderful memoir, Dreams From My Father, the future forty-fourth president described his days as a community organizer in Chicago. While working with local religious leaders in an attempt to create coalitions to aid some of America’s poorest citizens, Obama encountered the dynamic—if somewhat controversial—pastor of Trinity UCC, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Wright explained to the young social worker that he’d have a better shot at working with local churches if he actually attended one. In moving detail, Obama explained how a worship experience at Trinity led him to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Obama would later be married at Trinity and would have his children baptized there.

As President Obama prepares to leave office, I’m sure the TV, newspaper, and internet pundits will begin to dissect his presidency. The historians will get out their measuring tapes and will expound on where this administration ranks in terms of historical importance. To me, the Obama administration—for all its tortured trek through the fecund jungle of adversity—reflected the Christian values of its Commander in Chief.

Early in the administration President Obama showed a willingness to address past foreign policy mistakes in an open and courageous manner. I think he recognized that part of a great nation’s greatness is seen in its ability to admit error and work for redress. His Affordable Care Act reflected the moral value that no nation can claim to be civilized if it denies medical care to people simply because they are unable to pay for it. The president’s stand on climate change expressed his concern for the creation God has made and his compassion for future generations. His stand against the use of torture was a triumph of virtue over fear. He has expressed a heart for the refugees of this world, vast empathy for the victims of violence in places like Sandy Hook, a heart for immigrant families, and has constantly stressed that “we are our brothers’ keeper.”

President Obama is the first president in my lifetime who is younger than I am, and I don’t think I’ve ever prayed for a leader as much as I’ve prayed for this man. He came into office in a time of great turmoil. He steered the nation through an economic catastrophe and endured the taunts and insults of those who felt he wasn’t repairing the damage fast enough. As an African American he spoke about race in a way which showed he understood the feelings of a white majority which no longer enjoys perfect privilege or cultural hegemony. At the same time, he was an honest voice for racial justice, speaking truth without rancor or bitterness.

What impresses me now as this president prepares to leave office is the basic decency of the man. There were no sexual or financial scandals connected to this administration. No dirty political tricks. “No Drama Obama” never displayed unseemly ire or unbecoming vindictiveness. One would think it went without saying that gentlemanly behavior would be the minimum requirement for a person in government service, but, given the bad taste of the recent election, I think it’s important to hold up the example of a man who led with dignity and respect. Here was a calm presence, an obviously loving husband, and a conscientious father who modeled behavior we would want for ourselves and our children.

I write this post before the Feast of Christ the King, a Christian festival inaugurated after the horror of World War I to remind us all that earthly leaders are fallible and only Christ can be our true ruler. I would not liken Barack Obama or any earthly leader to Christ, but I do believe that this man was led by the moral convictions of faith in the One who died for our sins. During the last eight years he has made me even prouder to be an American.

Pray for our country, my friends. May our leaders look to the Lord.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sometimes We Lose (Reflections on Pentecost Twenty-six, Year C)

Whatever happened to Country Music? I turn on the radio to my local country station and I don’t understand what I’m hearing. It’s lots of Southern Rock with loud guitars and heavy instrumental mixes. Where are the love ballads I remember? Whatever happened to Johnny Cash? Or Waylon Jennings? Where’s George Jones and Tammy Wynette?

And will somebody please explain to me why church attendance has been so crappy lately..?! I remember a time when people came out regularly and jammed the pews and made church a priority. What the hell happened?

Things changed.

That’s a pretty nasty pill to gulp down—change. I think Mr. Trump figured that out when he launched his campaign for the presidency. He figured out that there’s a whole lot of hurt in America that’s tied into grief for the way stuff used to be but isn’t anymore. Change means loss, and loss hurts.

But what about those folks who were looking for change? What about those Americans who were excited over an environmentally sound government agenda or the first woman president? Things seemed to be moving in one direction, but now they’ve changed. And that hurts.

The sad, painful truth about being a human being living on this planet under God’s sky is that things will always be changing and we will always be losing something we cherished or something we hoped for. Customs, tastes, industries, generations, places we’ve known, people we love—they will all disappear. Even the dreams we have and our expectations will be thwarted or forced to swim with the current of time.

Jesus delivers this painful news to the disciples in our Gospel lesson for this Sunday (Luke 21:5-19). The guys are in Jerusalem where they marvel at the gorgeous carved stones of the temple. They must have been pretty impressed with this edifice. It was definitely bigger, grander, and more elaborate than anything they had back home. I guess they figured that this building would last forever as a symbol of how great their nation was and how close their people were to the Creator God.

But Jesus reminds them that the glory of the world is temporary. Even this awesome temple can be reduced to a pile of crushed rocks. As you can imagine, this intelligence doesn’t sit well with the boys. If the symbol of their national might and exceptionalism is destroyed, they think, wouldn’t that mean the end of the world? So they start asking Jesus for some prophetic advanced warning as to when this cataclysmic event is to take place. But Jesus isn’t really trying to warn them about the end of time. He’s trying to get them to focus on things which will endure.

Jesus warns them that whenever some huge change takes place—whenever there is a shift which causes loss and confusion and demands a reevaluation of the way we see the world—there’s going to be some loudmouth false prophet or phony messiah who is going to try to sell us a load of crap and explain it away as God’s plan or try to blame it on some group or sell you something which will insure you against all possible doom. Don’t be taken in. It won’t be the end of the world. There will always be wars and violence. There will always be natural disasters. There will be famines and economic reversals at times. But it’s not going to be about what happens. It will be about how we embrace it.

There are a lot of folks out there, I’ll bet—good, Christian folks—who see all the change around us and interpret it as signs that we’re in the End Times. Well, maybe we are. Or maybe we’re not. Would knowing it really make that much of a difference to how you live your life?

When it all hits the fan is the time we have the opportunity to testify. It’s not about the inevitability of loss, but how we go on in the face of it. Didn’t our Lord lose his earthly father? His friend Lazarus? Didn’t he face rejection by his own people? Wasn’t he hailed as a king and then crucified as a criminal? When nailed to the cross, hadn’t he lost his freedom? His dignity? His friends? His life? And yet from that very cross he proclaimed pardon and forgiveness. His very suffering was a testimony to the love of God.

It seems that as human beings we are in an almost constant state of mourning. Everything changes—politics, culture, attitudes about religion, even country music (darn it!). But the word of God endures forever. We are not guaranteed a free pass from hard times. We are guaranteed that the steadfast love of God will inspire us when we feel lost. When our man-made temples fall we will be a testimony to the strength of our convictions and truth of our faith.

Things change. God doesn’t. So hang in there, and thanks again for stopping by!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

An Open Letter to a Grumpy Lutheran (Reflections on the Election of 2016)

An "I voted" sticker given to Boston voters in 2016.

I voted this morning. It wasn’t easy. Some less-than-courteous fellow citizen had parked his SUV over the line in the already full parking lot, but I managed—with great automotive dexterity—to squeeze my Toyota into the tiny sliver of a parking space, and, with only about twelve inches of door clearance, I slithered out like a mollusk.

I’ve never seen a crowd like this at my polling place. In spite of the large turnout, everyone seemed curiously sedate this morning. There was a solemnity in the air that felt like church. People recognized the importance of participating in democracy. It was strangely sacred, and it felt good to be an American.

For weeks now, one of my parishioners has been filling my in-box with his political opinions. His emails have railed against both presidential candidates, but he has leaned in a certain direction and written derisively against those in the opposing camp. His comments are disdainful (and, upon occasion, somewhat racist), and one of the more recent emails referred to members of the party to which I belong as “idiots.” I think today, on Election Day, I will reply to him in an attempt to make known that I have given considerable thought to the opinions I hold.

Dear Friend,

First, let me tell you that I love you. Not just as your pastor, but as a fellow human being. You are a good man with many fine qualities, and I am extremely grateful for the faithfulness you have shown to me and to your congregation. If we disagree on a few issues, it should never be understood that I don’t value you and esteem you highly. We are brothers in Christ, and that is more important than anything.

I’d like to explain to you my political philosophy. As Luther teaches in his explanation to the eighth commandment, we are to explain the actions of others in the kindest possible light. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt—even in politics—and I don’t believe any of our elected officials or candidates get up each morning thinking, “What can I do to screw up America today?” I think it’s fair to judge someone’s ideas and policies, but not fair to try and judge their motives. Let’s start by believing that we all want the best for our country and world. We just differ on how to achieve it.

Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary spelled out our Savior’s priorities (See Luke 6:20-31). Jesus loves the poor and the outcast. He teaches compassion, patience, forgiveness, and generosity. We should, as Christians, embrace these values, too. Martin Luther was also a great advocate for the peasantry. My Christianity believes that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak. This doesn’t just mean against crime and violence. It means to protect them against discrimination, poverty, illness, and ignorance. The early Christians understood this, and pooled their resources in order to care for the less fortunate (See Acts 4: 32-34).

I cannot personally reconcile the theory of supply-side economics with the teaching of Scripture. This policy leaves the greatest wealth in the hands of those who are already wealthy. When tried, it has proven to be a failure at getting capital to circulate throughout the economy. It increases the federal deficit and calls for our leaders to make drastic cuts in discretionary spending—cuts which almost invariably impact the poorest and most vulnerable of society. Schools, nutrition programs, and clinics all lose out, and so do the poorest Americans.

I am also greatly concerned about America’s foreign policy, and I look to Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel for guidance here as well. I know it’s a dangerous world, and laws must be enforced for the protection of the weak—even if they are enforced at the point of a gun. Still, hatred and violence are never the answer. We will not kill our way out of the problem of terrorism and radical extremism. At some point, we are going to have to listen to those who hate us and try to understand them. As Abraham Lincoln pointed out, we will destroy our enemy when we make him our friend.

Another concern of mine which influences my stance on public policy is concern for the earth God made. God gave us this planet and told us to take care of it (Genesis 1:28). I feel it is simply poor stewardship—as well as bad economics—for America to double down on energy technologies which poison the planet, cause health problems for those who work in supplying them, and will ultimately become obsolete. To me, wisdom dictates that we pool our resources to find alternatives which will be environmentally friendly and economically sustainable.

There are many other issues which have surfaced in this campaign and upon which I hold strong convictions. I’m sharing these with you now in order that you might have a little better insight into how I think, and, perhaps, you won’t judge me so harshly. I’ll end by saying that I have great confidence in American democracy and our constitutional government. However this election turns out tonight, we can endure. Still, what will matter most will not be tonight’s election results, but how we as human beings and people of faith attempt to reconcile them tomorrow.

Love in Christ,

Pastor Owen

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Blessed Are the Average (Reflections on All Saints Sunday)

Image result for images of cemeteries
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

Dry, yellow leaves were blowing in the cool autumn wind on a blue-grey afternoon. The tiny circle of people gathered around a small grave at Our Lady of Grace Cemetery in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County to say a last “good-bye” to Aunt Louise. The eighty-eight-year-old’s cremated remains were placed atop a family member’s tombstone.

“She always remembered everyone’s birthday,” said one of the mourners. “We always got a card from her. She never missed.”

“I never heard her say a mean word about anyone,” another said.

“She taught me how to pray the ‘Our Father.’ I’m sure going to miss her.”

And so I read the prayers over Aunt Louise’ ashes. She had lived as a widow for years after her husband was shot to death by a hold-up man who tried to rob the tavern he and Louise ran. She was never, bitter, however, and the family always admired her courage.

Joe was courageous, too. A dedicated Philadelphia Eagles fanatic, he was laid to rest wearing his Eagles jersey, and his funeral ended with the singing of “Fly, Eagles, Fly!” It must’ve been so undignified for this hard-working, blue collar guy to succumb to the indignities of ALS and spend his last days in a wheelchair, dependent upon others for his care. He was such a care-giver himself. He married a single girl with children, yet he loved the step-children like his own issue and cared for them as a father should—just like the righteous Joseph who married Our Lord’s mother.

Bill was a humble man. Quiet. Pious. He fought for his country as a Marine in the Korean War. Before deployment, he and a battle buddy tore a dollar bill in half, promising they’d reunite the halves of the bill when the war was over and buy a couple of beers to celebrate their survival. The torn dollar was never taped back together. Bill carried his half in his wallet for the rest of his life, remembering his friend and all of the other boys who would never come home again. He was a survivor. He survived a war, a broken marriage, a lost job, a battle with depression, and came through it to marry the love of his life who sat at his bedside when he rejoined his fallen comrades.

Millie was a doll. I called her “Aunt Millie,” because she was the aunt of three of my parishioners. I’d known two of her sisters. They were thin, elegant, fragile-looking little ladies with delightful smiles and delicate features. They were part of the vanishing generation that experienced the Great Influenza, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. I felt for Aunt Millie, as all of her siblings had gone before her. No one was left who remembered her parents or the way the old neighborhood used to be. No one to recall skate keys or Fibber McGee or that first dance to a Glen Miller tune. And yet, she always made me smile whenever she came to the church’s Wednesday afternoon senior citizen bingo games. She glided on to the end of her journey with gratitude and dignity and the charm only the elderly can possess.

The world continues to turn after Joe and Louise and Millie and Bill are laid to rest. Their passing did not make the nightly news. Nevertheless, these lives mattered. They touched other lives, and they planted a small seed of their own convictions in the consciousness of the ones who learned to love them during the blink in God’s eye that is a human life on this planet.

Have you ever wondered what your own funeral will be like? How many people do you suppose will come? Who will miss you, and why will your loss affect them? What of you will linger when your body is no more?

In the gospel lesson appointed for All Saints Sunday Year C (Luke 6:20-31) Jesus tells us that even the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the despised are blessed. The world’s estimation of greatness is not God’s estimation. Every life can be blessed in the eyes of God, and every life has the potential to bless other lives. The riches of God are available to all of us, and these riches, the Lord tells us in the scriptures, are forgiveness, compassion, forbearance, generosity, charity, and empathy. As our souls live on forever in God’s kingdom, so our virtues—should we chose to cultivate them—live on with those we` encounter in the here and now.

O Lord, help me to walk in your way. Teach me those precious qualities found in your Son, so that my life may be a blessing to all those about me, and that I may be welcomed with joy into the company of all the saints. Amen.

God bless you, saints of God. Thanks for reading.

PS – Another great average saint who has gone to be with the Lord this past year was Howard Brooks. Check out the “Featured Post” column to find out more about this extraordinary Christian.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Jeremiah, Martin Luther, and Us (Reflections on Reformation Sunday)

Image result for Images of the Prophet Jeremiah
The Prophet Jeremiah as painted by Marc Chagall

As Hebrew prophets go, I have a warm spot for Jeremiah. I dig Hosea and Ezekiel, too. All three of these boys had pretty wacky ways of getting their messages across, but Jeremiah takes center stage in the Hebrew scripture lesson for Reformation Sunday (Jeremiah 31:31-34). I thought it might be a good idea to give a little historical background on the old fellow.

Jeremiah comes on the scene as a prophet around the seventh century B.C. He’s pretty mainstream when he starts out, but later he does some wild stunts—the weirdest of which (Jeremiah 13:1-11) is walking around in dirty underwear as a graphic demonstration of the depravity of the people who have fallen away from God and justly deserve a family-sized dose of shame. He’s kind of a tragic guy in that he has the dirty job of telling people who are in power stuff they don’t want to hear. Chiefly, he has to tell King  Zedekiah that God isn’t going to protect the chosen people—no matter how fond of them God is—from the consequences of their own stupidity. The rulers of Judah think just because they are God’s chosen that they won’t get their butts whooped by the Babylonians. Jeremiah counsels negotiation with the enemy, but Zedekiah’s minions, in their arrogance, don’t want to hear that. They chuck Jeremiah in the slammer and advise Zedekiah to face off with Babylon. The result? The Jews get the crap kicked out of them. Zedekiah’s kids are murdered in front of his eyes, and then Zedekiah has his eyes poked out. The elite of Judah are carried off into exile in Babylon, and Jeremiah lives the rest of his life in obscurity in Egypt (See 2 Kings 25).

In today’s lesson, however, we get the kinder, gentler side of Jeremiah. Here he prophesies that God doesn’t abandon God’s people, and that a new covenant will be made that will be different from the old Law of Moses. The old law had a lot of “thou shalt nots” in it, and I speculate that the people must’ve felt that if they didn’t explicitly do any of the forbidden things then they’d be okay. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty complacent spirituality. God doesn’t want to coerce us with a rule book. God wants us to live the love and compassion which is implicit in the Law. God wants the Law to come from within us.

Fast forward over two thousand years and meet another outrageous prophet—Martin Luther. Luther is also dealing with folks who are hung up on the rule book but are missing the point. He’s part of a church which equates rightness with God with going to church, multiplying prayers, paying to have masses said for dead relatives, and buying yourself a little forgiveness through the purchase of indulgences. The church bosses keep control and line their pockets by keeping folks in fear and ignorance, saying, in essence, “Do what we tell you to do and pay your share or you’ll burn in hell!”

Both Luther and Jeremiah saw societies that needed to be shaken up. Whether the people were trapped by a societal arrogance or by superstitious fear, they were trapped all the same. In the appointed Gospel lesson for Reformation Sunday (John 8:31-36), Jesus exhorts that a real, genuine, and free relationship with God comes only through continuing in his Word. This isn’t about obeying rules, but, rather about letting the love of Jesus live in us—believing that the Son has set us free.

Now, five hundred years after Luther and twenty-five hundred years after Jeremiah, I sometimes think we are in need of some more shaking up. I worry that we’ve dumbed-down American Christianity to the point that we see it as assent to doctrine, and, like the folks in Jeremiah’s time, we assume that because we’ve signed on to the right confessions we are exempt from any further discipleship. Or, we might be like the folks of Luther’s day who are wrapped-up in following the rules and judge righteousness by a litmus test of moral “purity” (usually involving same-gender relationships and reproductive rights!). Of course, it’s not for me to claim that such people aren’t “saved.” Who am I to stand in God’s place of judgment? But I do see a need for a constant reformation—for a call to, as Jeremiah says, “Know the Lord.”

I sometimes think we could use another Jeremiah or another Luther right about now.

Why? I see the Christian Church shrinking in America, and I have to guess it’s because complacent reliance on correct doctrine or judgmental legalism just aren’t speaking to this generation. What will and does speak, however, is looking to the man on the cross, and recognizing the depth of the love that led him to give himself up to all of that suffering. Realizing that such love is meant for us has to touch our hearts. That’s when we know the Lord and truly know ourselves.