Thursday, December 29, 2016

Jesus the Refugee - Lectionary Reflection (Matthew 2) for Christmas 1A

Matthew 2:13-23 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

                If you are a follower of Jesus, living in the United States, what do you make of this story from Matthew? What it does say to you about how we as a nation should respond to the plight of refugees, especially those who have fled from the carnage that is Syria? How much vetting is enough?

                Matthew tells us that sometime after Jesus’ birth, the Holy Family was warned by an angel to flee to Egypt, and find refuge there, because a tyrant named Herod, who would brook no rival, aimed to kill them. This occurred after Herod learned from the magi that a new king of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem. Hearing this word, they did flee. Thomas Troeger writes of their status:
According to Matthew then, Jesus starts his childhood as a refugee: fleeing from Judea to Egypt, then briefly from Egypt to Judea, and finally from Judea to Galilee. Jesus’s early childhood gives witness to the truth that Matthew will later have Jesus summarize in his own words: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have their nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20). The infant Jesus has nowhere to lay his head from the day he is born. The Holy Family is a refugee family. [Feasting on the Word, p. 167].

The Holy Family was fortunate to get out of town in time. They found refuge. Unfortunately, not everyone living in Bethlehem was as fortunate. As is so often true in times of war and crisis, not everyone escapes. So, for the children living in Bethlehem who could escape, they faced the sword of Herod’s soldiers, and Rachel wept for her children. Yes, Jesus was spared for the moment. His time had not yet come. In the meantime, the innocents were slaughtered.

                We have watched, indeed, we have watched with disinterest, as the innocents have been slaughtered. We have watched as people have fled their homes, hoping to escape the slaughter. Too often they have found that the doors of welcome have been shut. What would have happened had the Egyptians turned Mary and Joseph and their child away, as our nation is turning away refugees?

                I don’t know if you will hear this passage read on Sunday, at least not in its entirety. It’s not a pleasant passage to start a new year, but perhaps it is a word we need to hear, and if we skip over the hard part, the slaughter of the innocents, will we miss something important? I’m not preaching Sunday, so I don’t have to deal with the passage. But in the end, we do have to deal with its message. 

                What do you make of the story of the refugee status of the Holy Family? What message does it have for us as followers of Jesus? 

Picture Attribution: He, Qi. Escape to Egypt, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved December 28, 2016]. Original source:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Reading John for Dear Life (Jaime Clark-Soles) -- A Review

READING JOHN FOR DEAR LIFE: ASpiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel. By Jaime Clark-Soles. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xi + 173 pages.

            Perhaps it’s because of the three-year cycle of the lectionary, which centers on the Synoptic Gospels, or the feverishly pursued quest for the historical Jesus, but John's Gospel is often set aside as theologically intriguing but historically irrelevant. When scholars attempt to put together the life of the historical Jesus, they don’t find much room for John’s portrayal of Jesus. It is true that John’s portrayal of Jesus differs significantly from that of the Synoptics, but perhaps we miss out on something important if we neglect the fourth gospel, especially in terms of our preaching.  

            We are fortunate that there are scholars willing to invest their life and work in John’s Gospel. One of those scholars is Jaime Clark-Soles, Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. I had the opportunity to meet Jaime and hear her speak on John’s Gospel, with a focus on the 21st chapter of the gospel this past October (Rochester College’s Streaming conference). She spoke of her forthcoming book, and I’ve been privileged to read and explore John with her in person and in this book. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Reviving Old Scratch (Richard Beck) -- Again

As we close 2016 and brace ourselves for what 2017 will bring, I thought it might be fruitful to reshare my review of Richard Beck's book on spiritual warfare -- Reviving Old Scratch -- not only is it one of the best books I read this past year, I believe Beck has something important to share with us, especially we who consider ourselves progressive, social justice, types of Christians.  Lest we fall into the trap of dehumanizing those whom we believe would lead us in the wrong direction, looking at things from a spiritual point of view may prove valuable. So, please, read Beck's book. While I might receive a bonus from Amazon for suggesting this, if you click on the in the image to the left to order a copy on Amazon so you can prepare spiritually for the year to come. Let us not be afraid. Let us be prepared!  


REVIVING OLD SCRATCH:  Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. By Richard Beck. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016. Xviii + 192 pages.

                Do you believe in the devil? Most progressive Christians living in the West likely will find that question to be rather odd. As heirs of the Enlightenment we live in a largely disenchanted world where angels, demons, and other spiritual beings are not part of our scientific worldview.  And yet, without rejecting science, could it be that we’re missing something?  

                Richard Beck believes we are, and thus he has written a book targeting those of us who are doubters and embrace this disenchanted world view. Indeed, he has written a book inviting us to engage in spiritual warfare. It is an invitation to do battle with the Devil. The problem is, as Beck writes in his introduction, “the Devil has fallen on hard times.” A majority of Christians reject the idea of the Devil or Satan. Talking about demons and such sounds rather crazy, or at least the realm of a more fundamentalist version of the faith. There are good reasons to stay clear of the kind of demonology that was popularized by a series of Frank Peritti novels published back in the 80s and 90s. Nonetheless there may be good reason to revisit this oft neglected topic (at least in the kind of circles I frequent).

Monday, December 26, 2016

Celebrating God’s Faithfulness - Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1A (Isaiah)

God's Hand - Carl Milles

Isaiah 63:7-9 Common English Bible (CEB)

I will recount the Lord’s faithful acts;
    I will sing the Lord’s praises,
    because of all the Lord did for us,
    for God’s great favor toward the house of Israel.
    God treated them compassionately
    and with deep affection.
God said, “Truly, they are my people,
    children who won’t do what is wrong.”
    God became their savior.
During all their distress, God also was distressed,
    so a messenger who served him saved them.
In love and mercy God redeemed them,
    lifting and carrying them throughout earlier times.


                        I realize the consumer world has moved on from Christmas. The sales are over and the Valentine’s Day merchandise has already replaced Christmas. Since Christmas seems to begin earlier every year, by the time we get to Christmas Day we may have moved on as well. It’s sort of anti-climactic, which may be why people want to dispense with Advent and start singing Christmas carols as soon as Thanksgiving is over (normally the first Sunday of Advent). Once Christmas Eve has come, all the candles on the wreath have been lit, the worship committee will want to get busy undecorating the church (especially if the committee members have the week after Christmas Day off). Liturgically, however, Christmas isn’t over. Indeed, the magi have yet to come, in spite of our nativity displays (that would be Epiphany). Between Christmas Day and Epiphany comes the First Sunday after Christmas.  

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Light Shines in the Darkness - Homily for Christmas Eve 2016

We all have our favorite Christmas shows. It might be the Christmas Carol or the Grinch – two of my favorites – or maybe White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life. As a preacher, I have a Christmas Eve tradition of drawing an image or two from these cultural icons as part of my Christmas Eve meditation. My family always asks whether it will be Scrooge, the Grinch, or Charlie Brown. This year, as you’‘ll see, I decided to go with a different Christmas story.

This year I’m looking to the reading from Isaiah for guidance, and the opening line of the passage caught my eye: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." So, can you guess which Christmas show features an image of light shining in the darkness? Let me give you a hint. There’s a red nose involved!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Eucharist and Discipleship

I've started reading Michael Buckley's What Do You Seek?  The heart of the book, which I will review at a later date, concerns the questions that Jesus asks of us. As we make our final step toward Christmas, what questions is Jesus asking. The book's title speaks to our moment -- What or whom do you seek?  As a Jesuit, Buckley is rooted in the Ignatian tradition that asks adherents to examine themselves. 

Being that I'm focused (our congregation as well) on the missional aspects of the Eucharist, I found a paragraph from the book helpful. The chapter reflects on the question Jesus asks his disciples as he washed their feet in John 13. "Do you know what I have done for you?" (vs. 12). That is a good question for us to contemplate as we enter Christmas. What has Jesus done for us? How might we respond?  The Eucharist, Holy Communion, is an expression of gratitude. Many will gather on Saturday or Sunday for worship and come to the Table, and receive bread and cup. We might do this with a variety of attitudes. That is between us and God, but could this be a moment of gratitude that leads deeper into discipleship. "What I have done for you?" Jesus asks.  Thus, Buckley writes:

This appropriation through the Spirit of what Christ has done and is doing in our lives issues in gratitude -- a life of thanksgiving and of Eucharist: "And from the many gifts You  have given us, we offer to You, God of Glory and Majesty, this holy and perfect sacrifice, the bread of life, the cup of eternal salvation." This makes the Eucharist the soul of all following of Christ, of all discipleship and ministry. This is true, not just in the sense that these are all realized in the Eucharist, but that the prevenient grace and gratitude embodied in the Eucharist are the root experience that makes our response possible. All this in some way lies behind Jesus's question to his disciples and to us: "Do you know what I have done to you?" [What Do You Seek?, p. 31]  
I realize that we're living in turbulent times. The recent election and the transition to a new government is creating deep angst, and need to be vigilant lest injustice prevail. But, if we are to engage the world, as Christians (if we're Christians), our engagement needs to be rooted in what Jesus has done for us. It needs to be rooted in the meal of thanksgiving, which calls upon us to recognize who has touched us and empowered us to engage the world. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

God's Word Made Visible

In the Beginning - Mike Chapman

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
                I have long been fascinated by the Prologue to John. I’ve posted a portion of the prologue for our reflection as we move toward the coming of Christmas, and with it the celebration of the incarnation. I realize that the idea that God might take on human flesh and dwell (tabernacle) with us sounds odd, at least to the modern mind. It is true that in the ancient world the idea that gods took human shape was commonplace. In Jewish circles the mediators involved angels (immortal, but not divine beings), but Yahweh wasn’t expected to take human form. But here we are, with the idea that God might dwell amongst us in the person of Jesus, a child born (according to the Gospels) in Bethlehem.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Altars Where We Worship, (Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, et al) -- A Review

THE ALTARS WHERE WE WORSHIP: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture. By Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, and Mark G. Toulouse. Foreword by Martin E. Marty. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xviii + 230 pages.

                We have heard a great deal about secularizing trends in our culture. It is true that religious communities have observed a decline in membership and participation in the last half-century. It’s well documented by scholars, and experienced with a bit of chagrin by religious leaders. While it is true that organized/institutionalized religion is struggling, is the religious impulse really in decline? Or, is it shifting elsewhere, finding its sustenance in popular culture? When we look at sports and entertainment, business and politics, we do see signs of religious activity. Go to any stadium or ballpark in America, and you will find great numbers of devoted worshippers. We make pilgrimages to stadiums and Halls of Fame. I myself finally made it to Cooperstown (not to be enshrined, but to visit), and I can attest to have a sacred moment as I stood before monuments to my heroes. It is this religious element present in popular culture that is explored with care and insight in The Altars Where We Worship.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Go Tell It On the Mountains - Lectionary Reflection for Christmas (Isaiah 52)

Isaiah 52:7-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
    together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.
                “Go tell it on the Mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” So goes one of our beloved Christmas carols, this one emerging out of the African-American tradition. In another song, emerging from a different moment, the prophet we know as Second Isaiah sings of a people set free from captivity in Babylon. How beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim the good news that God reigns, and with that brings peace (well-being) and salvation to Zion (and to us all). The good news goes to a captive people who have been redeemed and set free so that they can return to Zion (Jerusalem), which has lain in ruins. This all occurs due to the reign of God, which returns to Zion.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Child is Born - A Lectionary Reflection For Christmas (Isaiah 9)

Isaiah 9:2-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

               The day we have anticipated has arrived. Whether one hears this reading from Isaiah on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, it is a much-celebrated reading, if for no other reason than it forms one of Handel’s vibrant choruses in The Messiah. If you know The Messiah, you might find yourself easily joining in singing “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” As a bass, this is one of those choruses that I enjoyed immensely, because the bass part boldly leads out the chorus. Of course, there’s much more to Isaiah 9 than just the verse from which Handel drew that beloved chorus.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Behold the Sign -- Sermon for Advent 4A

Nativity with the Prophets Ezekiel & Isaiah

Isaiah 7:10-17

When I was younger, we would occasionally drive to Portland, which was a 300-mile drive from Klamath Falls. On a good day the trip took about five hours. Of course, if you’re a child that’s a long time, and you can get antsy. So my brother and I would pepper our parents with questions about when we would arrive. Over time, we learned to watch for certain signs that signaled that we were getting close. One sure sign was the big Farmers Insurance building that sat alongside Interstate 5. When we saw it, we knew that Portland was just around the corner!

The season of Advent offers signs that Christmas is close at hand. Each week we’ve lit candles that help us prepare to receive the promise of Christmas.  Since we lit the fourth candle this morning, which is the candle of love, we can be quite certain that the next candle we light will be the Christ Candle, marking the coming of Christmas. So, be on the alert, the time of celebration is at hand!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Conceived by the Holy Spirit . . . A Reflection

The Gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent is Matthew 1:18-25. Here we read of the angel's appearance to Joseph, letting him know that the child Mary, his betrothed, is carrying, is of the Holy Spirit. This fulfills the word of Isaiah the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,    and they shall name him Emmanuel." The promise fulfilled by this child comes from Isaiah 7:14. If you read Isaiah 7 in the NRSV or the CEB, you will see "young woman." Why the discrepancy? Because Matthew was reading Isaiah in the Greek, which used the word for virgin, even if the Hebrew in Isaiah 7 is better translated simply as young woman.  That's an issue of biblical interpretation. But what about theological confession?

Friday, December 16, 2016

"We Don't Have Enough Proof": Pizzagate as Epistemological Panic -- Sightings (Spencer Dew)

What is real news and fake news? We've become so saturated by competing voices that the traditional press is getting crowded out. We don't really know what is true and what is not. This past election has revealed our predilection to believe what want to be believe is true, whether it is or not. This is, according to Spencer Dew, a Religious Studies professor, an epistemological crisis. Not only that, the professorial elite, including the Religious Studies community, may be contributing to the problem because of a desire not to judge what is true or not, letting voice speak equally.  Anyway, using the recent "Pizzagate" event as his starting point, Dew writes in this edition of Sightings about the crisis at hand. For our own sake and that of the world we had better do something quick!

"We Don't Have Enough Proof": Pizzagate as
Epistemological Panic
By SPENCER DEW   December 15, 2016
Community messages in front of Comet Ping Pong following a shooting related to the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory. | Photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid / Wikimedia Commons (cc)
A man with a rifle enters a pizza place, not for the purposes of mass murder or terrorism but on a quest for epistemological certainty. Twenty-eight-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch had heard a theory, and he wanted to know if it was true. He had encountered certain pieces of evidence—circumstantial, to be sure, but, in accumulation, unsettling—and he had heard others, likewise troubled, call for a thorough investigation.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World (Deanna Thompson) -- Review

THE VIRTUAL BODY OF CHRIST IN A SUFFERING WORLD. By Deanna A. Thompson. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016. x + 131 pages.

                We live in a digital age where smart phones, tablets, and computers seem omnipresent. I heard that on average we check our phones 19,000 times each year. There is this need, perhaps addiction, to know what is happening on Facebook and Twitter (among other sites). We don’t want to miss anything. There are benefits to the digital age, but there are also challenges. Both benefits and challenges have been the subject of numerous conversations within religious circles. Some reject and some jump in with both feet, while others of us are more cautious in our engagement. There is great concern in some quarters, that the digital revolution can do irreparable harm to our social fabric. There may be dangers here, but it doesn’t look as if we can retreat to a predigital age.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Religiocification of Hate -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Alas, 2016 is drawing to a close. It's been a difficult and disturbing year. There have been good moments, but a lot of really bad ones. In this issue of Sightings, Martin Marty, takes a look at what he calls the "religiocification of hate." His point is that this year has seen a significant uptick of hate that is connected to religion. He notes that the biggest target has been Muslims, and it has emerged out of religious sentiments. When it comes to hate and religion, it is wise to look inside and consider how we might be different in the coming year. I invite you to read and reflect and respond accordingly, with the hope that 2017 is different!  

The Religiocification of Hate
By MARTIN E. MARTY   December 12, 2016
A woman holds a sign reading "respect not hate" at a November 19 community rally against racism and hate held in response to racist literature distributed near the campus of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. | Photo credit: Paul Weaver / Flickr (cc)
Sightings was born as an endeavor to discover and comment on the traces of “religion” which supposedly survive in a “secular” society. However, instead of sighting only such presumed distant, obscure, or minuscule traces, our authors have often had to deal with the blinding flashes which many forms of religion cast in our societies. Not that these thunder and blaze only within religious institutions. We find them barnacled to events, causes, and appeals that show up in the 2016 worlds of politics, entertainment, and commerce. We once heard of a preacher who talked about “religiocification.” So…

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Signs of Divine Presence - Lectionary reflection for Advent 4A

Isaiah 7:10-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?   14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”
                As a follower of Jesus, I am called to live by faith. After all, I serve the invisible God. There may be signs of divine presence and activity, but it’s not always easy to offer proof. Now, I live by faith, but I try to live a rational and reasonable life. I’m not given to conspiracy theories and fake news. When it comes to such things, I’m a pretty big skeptic. But my claims to be a reasonable person might note pass muster with some who don’t share my faith. A good example of such a view is to be found in a recently published book that was sent to me for review by Yale University Press. I’m not exactly sure why I received this rather large book that carries the title: Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. In a book that stands at well over a thousand pages, Anthony Kronman offers what he believes is a third way between atheism and the God of the Abrahamic religions. I’ve only read the introduction, so I can’t say too much about the book, but the author does believe that the God of Abraham and the Prophets is “an obstacle to reason.” I hope he’s wrong, but I do know that sometimes faith requires us to move beyond the rational. I hope Kronman’s search for God is successful, but as for me I’m going to stay with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, Sarah, and Mary.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Mom, I'm Gay (Susan Cottrell) - Review

MOM, I’M GAY: Loving Your LBGTQ Child and Strengthening Your Faith. Revised Edition. By Susan Cottrell. Foreword by Justin Lee.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xvii + 178 pages.

                It's been a few years since my brother came out as a gay man. That decision some fifteen years in the past opened my eyes to realities I had previously ignored. What was once an academic discussion, became personal. As a family, we embraced my brother. What I have learned over the years is that such revelations not only affect the person coming out, but the family as well. Not every family is equally equipped to deal with this reality. That's one reason why LGBTQ children often find it difficult to come out to family, especially parents. You don't want to risk being rejected by those closest to you. So how do we change the equation?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Day of Everlasting Joy - A sermon for Advent 3A

Isaiah 35:1-10

Advent is a season of expectation and anticipation. Signs of Christmas are all around us, but it hasn’t arrived. We’re still waiting to join together in celebrating the coming of the promised one, the one born in Bethlehem who will inaugurate the realm of God.  

On this third Sunday of Advent, we look forward with great anticipation to the coming of the day of everlasting joy. We recognize that this day hasn’t been revealed, but we find hope in the promise that a day will come when we “shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) - A Review

A CHRISTMAS CAROL. By Charles Dickens. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2016. 125 pages.

                Charles Dickens was a famed nineteenth English author known for his portrayals of English social life, especially the darker and seedier sides. One of his best known and I would most beloved stories A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843. In this story, Dickens tells of the reclamation of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser who visited misery on himself and on his neighbors. The central character in the story, Ebenezer Scrooge, became the byword for selfishness and greed. Even if you’ve never read the story, simply hearing the name Scrooge will set you back.

                Every Christmas season my family and I will watch several versions of the Christmas Carol. I first encountered this story as a child with the Mr. Magoo version. Then, I discovered the Alister Sims version, in all its black and white glory. Over the years, I’ve discovered several other versions, including those with Patrick Stewart, George C. Scott, and Albert Finney. The last is a musical version. Each has a different take. Some stick more closely to the Dickens original, but they all take certain liberties. But these efforts are undertaken in interpretive fashion.  That’s what makes watching them so intriguing. How will the producers, directors, actors, interpret this story of a man alienated from everyone and everything?

                   Most will know the basic story. Scrooge is essentially a money-lender. He does quite well for himself, but he doesn’t spend the money. He simply collects it. He could increase the salary of his clerk, but chooses not to. So, Bob Cratchit and his family eke out a life, though they seem able to overcome their challenges (though hopes for their youngest are not high).  In the course of a night, after an initial visitation and warning from his former partner, Jacob Marley, he is visited by three ghosts, each of whom takes Scrooge on a journey that opens his eyes to the situation of his neighbors, and opens his heart so he might be transformed. It is said, that no one kept Christmas like him in all of London! The story has a happy ending, which might off some who don't believe such things are possible. But I say humbug to that spirit!  There is in fact a strong social justice message to be found here.

                There are several published versions out there. Having the opportunity to receive a review copy of a paperback edition published by Paraclete Press, to took up the offer. If nothing else, it gave me an excuse to read once again one of the most influential and powerful Christmas stories. I will admit that my understanding of the story is highly influenced by the film versions, but reading it opens your eyes to differing dimensions. It allows the reader to engage in one’s own interpretive work.

                This particular edition of the story is published as a paperback. It’s inexpensive ($9.99 retail). The print is good. It’s very readable. As a highlight, it is printed with the original 1843 etchings. This gives the book a certain connection to the original.  If you love Christmas and want to catch the spirit of the season, there are no better options than A Christmas Carol. I realize that I’m biased – it’s my favorite Christmas story and film. So, if you want to catch the spirit of the season, then this is a good edition to get a hold of! Take and read (and watch as well, but read, you’ll engage the story as never before).  Oh, and Merry Christmas and God bless us one and all!

Friday, December 09, 2016

Traveling Home To Happiness -- A Reflection.

I spend a great deal of time reading. I enjoy reading deep theological works. My bookshelves feature Bonhoeffer, Barth, Tillich, Moltmann, Elizaabeth Johnson, just to name a few. They all offer profound wisdom, that have influenced my life and worldview.  

Perhaps its just a moment in life when what I need to hear is a word of simple wisdom,  Sometimes we make life more complicated than it needs to be. We lose sight of what's really important in life. We let things that are big and complicated but outside our immediate control to have power over us. We lose sight of those relationships that bring empowerment.

Yesterday I received a Facebook friend request. It was from a childhood friend with whom I've probably not spoken since high school, and believe me that was some time ago. But in many ways it's been longer since we really were connected, What I most remember of Julie comes from elementary school.  Julie lived on the same street. We went to the same school (Theodore Roosevelt Elementary), and we were in the same classes.    I remember her as the cute blonde girl in a girl scout uniform. She remembers me as the freckled faced boy in black frame glasses (with rocket ships at the temples). 

As we reconnected, I discovered that Julie was a writer, something we share in common. I then learned that the words she wished to share emerged out of a deep loss in her life. Two years in the past her beloved husband, whom I've never met, died a plane crash. She entered a time of deep grief, but out of that, she discovered a sense of love and happiness that revealed a new calling -- to share a word of love and truth and happiness. She wrote a little book. It's titled Traveling Home to Happiness.  It's sort of a children's book, but like many children's books it has a message that speaks to the heart of adults. It's a simple message. I don't plan on ditching Barth and Bonhoeffer, but I am thankful for Julie Whitlatch's words of love and truth (she has a website and a YouTube channel as well, where she offers words of wisdom, which might speak to you as well). 

I'm thankful to for what another friend, a more recent friend, has called the "virtual body of Christ." In her book The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World, Deanna Thompson, a writer of profound theology, speaks of the power of virtual connections. Deanna writes out of her experience with metastatic breast cancer. She found strength support in the virtual body of Christ, and shares her wisdom.

My re-connection with Julie is an expression, I think, of what Deanna is speaking about. Out of tragedy, Julie has discovered a way to bring a simple word about the importance of love and truth. These are qualities that seem in short supply right now. But, fortunately we're blessed. I am blessed with friends old and new, like Julie and Deanna, who bring words of hope to our world.  

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Infallibility and Heresy -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

As a somewhat left of center Protestant, I've been accused on occasion of heretical views. I was even fired from teaching post for being too liberal for the school. I'm not averse to occasionally suggesting that certain theological perspectives, while not heretical, are bad theology. As a Protestant, who has come to admire the current holder of Peter's episcopal seat, I find interesting that some of his own flock find the Pope to be heretical. Martin Marty takes note of some of this discussion, helping us make sense of such words as infallibility, dogma, and doctrine. I invite you to read and consider Marty's incisive commentary. Offer up some of your own.

Infallibility and Heresy
By MARTIN E. MARTY   December 5, 2016
Not since certain American Protestants were publicly anti-Catholic, as older readers may remember them having been, have we read as many headlines with words like “infallibility,” “heresy,” papal “plots,” “schism,” etc., as we do these days. My late colleague, patristic scholar Robert M. Grant, told of a scene at the Vatican when he and a circle of other clerically dressed scholars were being introduced to Pope Paul VI. When the Pontiff, greeting Grant, was told that his guest was Anglican, he commented,“You are awfully tall for an Englishman!” As Grant recalled, “I am an American, so the Pope confused some terms. I thought: And he’s supposed to be infallible?”

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Remembering Pearl Harbor -- 75 Years

It was 75 years ago today that a force of Japanese naval bombers hit Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II. Thousands died that day, and many thousands more in the years to come. Franklin Roosevelt called it a "Day that shall live in Infamy." Unfortunately it was not and will not be the only day of infamy to strike our world. War is something that has as yet not been overcome. We have yet to turn our swords into plowshares. 

I have been to Pearl Harbor twice, both times we visited the Arizona Memorial. The second time around, we also visited the U.S.S. Missouri, the battleship upon which the Japanese surrender was signed. In the picture above you  can see the Arizona Memorial from the deck of the Missouri. To the right you will find the names of those who died that day, those entombed in the waters below the memorial.  Below is what remains of one of the stacks. 

During my ministry in Lompoc, I had a parisioner who was a survivor of the Arizona. I heard his story. He was fortunate that day, but many of his shipmates were not. A few years later, my father would serve in the Navy, at the conclusion of this war. 

When you go out to the memorial you may get, as I did, especially the first time I visited, this eerie sense. If you pay attention, and keep quiet, you will sense that this is a sacred place. It is a call to remember those who died, much like the Vietnam Memorial Wall. 

I share a few pictures that I took in 2002, so that you might join me in remembering those who died that day. I would ask that you also pray that we would learn how to keep from repeating the past, so that peace might be made known. 

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Marching to Zion with Song - Lectionary Reflection (Isaiah) for Advent 3A

By Thomas [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Isaiah 35:1-10  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

35 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

               On the third Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy. Even a casual reading of Isaiah 35 suggests that joy is a central theme of Isaiah 35. That is because the “ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” Isaiah 35 has an eschatological tone to it, at least as we read it today in the context of Advent. Looking at the text more broadly, this word of joy is part of prophetic promise on the part of Yahweh to deliver the people from captivity. The word begins in Isaiah 34, which offers a word of judgment on Judah’s neighbor, Edom.  There is a reason why we read Isaiah 35 and not Isaiah 34 in the season of Advent. Chapter 34 offers a rather bloody picture of God’s judgment. There’s no joy present in that chapter, but it is present in chapter 35.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Moments with Martin Luther (Donald McKim) - Review

MOMENTS WITH MARTIN LUTHER: 95 Daily Devotions. By Donald K. McKim. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xvi + 105 pages.

                On October 31, 2017, we will observe the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation. That is, if we assume as is traditionally done, that the Reformation began when a German Augustinian monk and professor of Bible nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of Wittenberg Castle. In the statements posted to the castle door on October 31, 1517, Luther laid his grievances regarding the doctrine and conduct of the Western Church, the church we now call the Roman Catholic Church. Numerous other reformers would emerge in the coming years, but Luther boldly set out a new path for Christians, aided to a great degree by the German princes who embraced his vision (or at least hoped to make use of his effort to gain control of church lands). Whatever your view of Luther, he left a significant legacy to all who followed.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Prayer for Wisdom on Peace Sunday (Advent 2A) - Psalm 72

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
    and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
    give deliverance to the needy,
    and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
    and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
    like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
    and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
18 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
19 Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

I am not preaching today. The choir is sharing the message in music (I'm narrating the cantata). Since I've already written a reflection on Isaiah 11, the first reading from scripture, I thought I would share this reading from Psalm 72, which is the appropriate Psalm for the Second Sunday of Advent.  Considering everything going on in this nation, it seems like an appropriate reading. The Psalmist prays that the king would receive God's justice, so that he might judge the people, especially the poor, with justice. By judgment we don't mean something akin to the American justice system, where the poor often receive the short end of the law. The request is that the ruler will deal with those on the margins in such a way as to lift them up. Indeed, the prayer is that the ruler will deliver the needy and crush the oppressor.

I'm not very confident that the "rulers" of America, especially those coming into power, will respond positively to this calling. However, I must put my trust in God, praying that the vision of justice outlined here might come to fruition. We also need to remember that prayer isn't just something we do in the closet or in the church. Prayer puts us in a position receive God's wisdom and call to justice. So, let us give thanks to God that God has chosen to be present with God's creation. That is, God's glory will "fill the whole earth." That is a vision worthy of Peace Sunday!

Friday, December 02, 2016

CCCU Tries to Thread the Needle - Sightings (Kathryn Lee)

This week's Thursday edition of Sightings hits close to home. The essay focuses on a recent decision by the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities to require of members that they officially affirm a "traditional" understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman. Such a requirement is new to the Council. Why it hits close to home is that the college I graduated from and even served as adjunct faculty many years ago was an original member of the CCCU, and continues its membership. I don't know where the college stands on the issue at this point, nor do I know what kinds of conversations are underway. I do know that many alumni would disagree with the CCCU policy, and I expect that a number of current faculty would oppose it as well. That college, Northwest Christian University, is broadly affiliated with the churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination that has in its General manifestation affirmed the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in church and society. I don't know how this growing understanding of sexual orientation is influencing conversations there, but as Kathryn Lee, who teaches at another mainline Protestant affiliated university, this is problematic for us. So I share this as one who has come to be fully affirming of LGBTQ persons, and hope and pray that my college will be a safe place for LGBTQ persons and their allies to live and learn and grow in faith.

CCCU Tries to Thread the Needle
By KATHRYN LEE   December 1, 2016
Eastern Mennonite University | Photo credit: Dyoder / Wikimedia Commons (cc)
Issues of human sexuality continue to challenge evangelical Christian higher education organizations. As Martin E. Marty discussed in the October 17, 2016, issue of Sightings, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship recently announced a new policy to let go of staff who support same-sex marriage. Now the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) is implementing a new membership policy which requires full-voting members to affirm that marriage is only to be between a man and a woman. Other “core commitments that guide [the CCCU’s] advocacy” are “sustainability and the preservation of the Earth,” “the well-being of the underserved and marginalized,” “the preservation and advancement of religious freedoms,” and a commitment to “humble and courageous action that honors the unity of the human race, values ethnic and cultural diversity, and addresses the injustices of racism.”