Saturday, December 31, 2005

MOST OUTSTANDING NEWS STORY OF 2005

I happened to tune into National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" on the afternoon of November 16 as Howard Dully was beginning what has become for me the most unforgettable piece of journalism I've ever witnessed. In a story titled simply "My Lobotomy," Dully talks with family members of numerous people who underwent transorbital lobotomies--just like he did in 1960--at the hands of psychiatrist Walter Freeman.

SAVIOR OR MONSTER? Dr. Freeman was convinced the procedure, performed with an ice pick stuck through the eye sockets of his patients, was a miracle cure for many mental disabilities and behavioral problems. He lobotomized over 2,500 people in 23 states before he was stopped. While some praise Freeman's procedure, most in Dully's interviews think of the psychiatrist as an out-of-control monster. Dully, who survived the procedure with few overtly debilitating physiological impacts, has, nonetheless, has lived his life feeling damaged and scarred by the act. Dully finds his own Freeman file and weeps as he reads it aloud. He confronts his own father, who consented to the procedure to please his wife (young Howard Dully's now deceased step-mother), in a taped interview in the audio story. I have never been more unnerved and yet grateful for a story in my adult life. Listen to the story.

ANOTHER LOBOTOMY. While scrolling through a list of notable deaths in 2005, I noted the death of Rosemary Kennedy, age 86. Kennedy, sister of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, underwent such a lobotomy at age 23. She was lobotomized at the command of her father, Joseph, because he was afraid her mild mental retardation might in some way damage the family's reputation as she grew older. Rosemary spent the rest of her life in a mental institution. Ironically, she outlived most of her siblings. Her sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, later helped found the Special Olympics movement in honor of Rosemary.
THE GIFT OF READING

I received several new books for Christmas. In addition, family and friends purchased gift cards for two leading national booksellers that I have yet to redeem. Among the books I was gifted with is Jimmy Carter's new book, Our Endangered Values. I just started this one. Carter defines a set of endangered personal, cultural, and national values differently than the set of values articulated and expressed by the right wing of the Republican party. It is the values of divisiveness on the right and left that Carter seems to want to see curbed.

GOOD POEMS. Another gift book, which I requested, is Good Poems for Hard Times selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor. I assume these are poems which Keillor has shared on his daily public radio segment "Writer's Almanac," which I listen to routinely (the local NPR affiliate is WFYI and it is typically on in my VW. I will add Keillor's volume to the poems I read as I retire each night.

BRYSON ON HISTORY. My neice and her husband gave me Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. I haven't cracked this one open yet, but I have enjoyed other books by Bryson.

INDIA IMMERSION. With one of my gift cards, I purchased the DVD movie City of Joy, the 1992 movie featuring Patrick Swayze set in Calcutta, India. On the one hand it's an inspiring story of overcoming caste, poverty, and personal burn-out, on the other hand it is one bit of info on Indian culture that I am immersing in as I prepare for a visit to India at the end of January 2006 and the 2000-mile fundraising bike ride in January-February 2007. I've been checking books and videos out of the public library as part of this preparation. I'm also reading some of the books by missionaries Wesley Duewel and E. Stanley Jones. I'm open to "must read" books on India. Suggestions, anyone?
DARE WE MAKE A NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION?

While the Gregorian calendar is as relative--perhaps even as arbitrary--as any other culture's marking of the year, it is this culture's measure of time and history. And while some want to minimize the significance of a New Year's celebration for making new beginnings ("I don't believe in making New Year's resolutions," they quip dismissively), I say why not take it as an opportunity to comprehend the power of grace to reshape our lives--in a moment, in a day, or from one point in time ever after?

WE BELIEVE IN FRESH STARTS. If any persons, communities or cultures believe in new beginnings, Christians do. In terms those of you who have read or viewed "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" would understand, we believe in Christmas. But we believe that newness and fresh starts are not so much a matter of will power (or, as Richard Foster puts it, "will worship") as they are a willful yielding to the grace of God to reshape our lives from the inside out and from the personal to the relational to the structural.

READY, SET... So, in this vein, go ahead, make a resolution. Dig deep for something significant. Dare to let go of failures. Release resentments. Forgive hurts. Dry up petty hatreds and prejudices. Recalibrate your attitude. Reset your values. Rework your schedule. Gather your courage. Welcome the New Year. And then make room in your heart and life to depend on God in this overcoming challenge.
SEVEN SWANS A SWIMMING
A reflection for the seventh day of Christmas

Go ahead, open the seventh gift. What is it? Oh, it is a gift! What is inside that gift? Oh, another gift! And what is inside THAT gift? Hey, another gift! And another. And another. And another. And still another. You get the feeling that you could keep opening boxes inside of boxes, gift upon gift. Such is the multiplicity and diversity of spiritual gifts given by God.

GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT. The specific gifts recalled on the seventh day of Christmas since the sixteenth century are those listed in Romans 12: Prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, compassion. Many more could be named. But whatever the gift, it is vital to know this: spiritual gifts are given for the sake of empowering people of faith to join God in sharing Good News, bearing grace, and making real the anticipated Reign of God.

FOR COMMUNITY BUILDING. The spiritual gifts described in Romans 12, as well as in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere throughout the Epistles, are essential gifts for forming, sustaining, and extending community. Spiritual gifts are about community. Not about personal advancement. Not about possessing. A spiritual gift is not a spiritual gift unless it is selflessly shared. A community will be a thriving and vital community when graciously given gifts are freely and strategically shared. What better follow-up to Christmas than for gifts, great and small, to be turned toward serving and building up the community?

DIVERSE AND USEFUL. It has become an inadvertent tradition in our household to keep a few opened gifts on the skirt around our Christmas tree for days after the 25th. Big gifts get whisked away, played with, put on, plugged in. But to this day a few small ones remain under the tree: a box of fireplace matches, a bottle of cologne, a bag of potpourri, a couple of games, a basket of crafts, a book, a flashlight, a quote a day calendar. Not the most expensive or desirable gifts, but useful ones just the same. They remind me of the diversity and usefulness of spiritual gifts, particularly less desirable ones.

ENTIRELY RELATIONAL. Like the faith, hope, and love received on the third day of Christmas, the gifts we receive today are spiritually perceived, inwardly apprehended, and entirely relational. Perhaps we will never know our gifts, or what impact on a relationship, neighborhood, church, or community we can have until we start to serve, to give, to lead, to show mercy, to teach, to encourage, to declare what is burning in our hearts. Why not start today?

Friday, December 30, 2005

SIX GEESE A LAYING
A reflection for the sixth day of Christmas

We have arrived near the end of the earth’s 2005th cycle around the sun since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. These are the shortest, darkest days of the year in the northern hemisphere. Plant life is latent in frozen land and water. Many animals hibernate or have migrated to warmer climes. In Indiana, we are living the carol: "In the bleak midwinter, Frosty wind made moan, Earth stood cold as iron, Water like a stone." What a time to receive our True Love’s sixth round of Christmas gifts: Six days of creation.

THE MIRACLE OF LIFE. Today’s gifts are as mysterious and wonderful as a goose laying an egg and a live gosling hatching from it. Who can fathom the miracle of life? Four times I have assisted and watched our children be delivered and draw their first breaths. Four times all that is rational and scientific and explainable has been tearfully eclipsed by wonder and mystery and sacredness. I sing with Michael Card: "Give up on your pondering and fall down on your knees."

DON'T ARGUE, REVERENCE LIFE. If you want to argue for or against evolution or scientific creationism, you’ve lost my interest. If you need to try to reduce the incomprehensible and grand process of the formation of life into an argument for six literal days, you’ve missed the point. If you need to try to prove that what we know as life just happened by chance, my heart goes out to you. The invitation today is not about proving or arguing or convincing or taking sides. The invitation today is to receive all life as sacred, to dare to perceive the world as God’s, to look unto Jesus as the Apostle John looked unto him: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim."

"AND IT WAS GOOD." Light. Sky and atmosphere. Land and seas, plants and trees. Sun by day and moon by night. Living creatures in the seas and sky. Living creatures on the land and humans in the image of God. The summation of each day or epoch of creation is this: "And God saw that it was good." Whether Genesis 1 is poetry or a pattern of life’s progress, above these it roots us all in an infinitely creative, life-giving, beauty-loving, relation-building, grace-bearing God. Creation speaks both of God’s infinite greatness and God’s intimate interest in the smallest detail. And like God, in God’s image, we are created to be.

IN OUR GENERATION. The Gospel writers and Apostles did not miss the connection between creation and Christ. Paul describes Jesus as the "firstborn over all creation" and that "by him all things were created." John writes: "That which was from the beginning…our hands have touched." Michael Card captures something of this mystery: "A mother made by her own child!" In receiving the six days of creation as Christmas gifts, and embracing creation as a mysterious grace, we join with Jesus Christ in bearing life and grace in our world in our generation.

Print credit: Patricia Luke

Thursday, December 29, 2005

FIVE GOLD RINGS
A reflection for the fifth day of Christmas

FIVE DAYS INTO CHRISTMAS. The reality around our house is that, without this extended focus on the twelve days, Christmas would be receding into distant memory by now. But here it is the fifth day of Christmas and we are anticipating yet another gift on the journey to Epiphany. Granted this way of observing Christmas does not have hyped anticipation. Instead, there is a gentle, persistent remembrance and insight into the Word become flesh that is inviting and instructive.

EXTENDING GIFT GIVING. I've noticed that giving and receiving gift cards plays into this tradition. Redeeming gift cards at a store at least keeps us thinking about the giver, about the graciousness of the gift, and about the meaning of the season for a little while longer. What if an individual or household chose to wait to give gifts until after the "big day?" One might choose to give one gift per day to various people. Perhaps these gifts would be more unexpected and meaningful than the many opened on Christmas day.

SPIRITUAL & SOCIAL SKELETAL STRUCTURE. Open the gifts given to you today by your True Love: Five gold rings -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Pentateuch is the backbone and skeletal structure of the Biblical community of faith. It is the plumb line in an idolatrous and crooked world. It is the narrative and standard for much of what has held Western civilization together for millennia.

FOUNDATIONS OF FAITH. Genesis traces the roots of a chosen and faith-formed people. Exodus walks us through slavery in Egypt, miraculous deliverance, and the formation of the Sinai covenant. Leviticus outlines the terms of the covenant, establishing everything from the calendar to minutia regarding food preparation. Numbers takes great pains to name every tribe and family; it creates a sense of community, belonging, and relationship. Deuteronomy renews the Sinai covenant as the nation prepares to enter Canaan after forty years of wandering in the desert.

BEYOND THIS FOUNDATION. How the people of Israel live in light of Torah is the subject of much of the rest of the Old and New Testaments. The historical narratives (Joshua through Esther) tell of the rising and falling of Israel based on adherence to or apostasy from the Law. The prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) are essentially passionate pleas for Israel to voluntarily return to live within the terms of the covenant, within which there would be joy and shalom. The New Testament is about rescuing the Law from legalism and vain traditions and of the fulfillment of Torah in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul declares, “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).

PENTATEUCH TODAY. So much of what it means to live by faith is learned from the Pentateuch. Abraham took God at God’s word and it was credited to him as righteousness. Joseph first survived then thrived by faith. Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt singularly by faith in the promise and leadership of God. The invitation made to these ancient people was extended to Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph. And the invitation to “fear not” and to dare to believe that “nothing is impossible for God” extends to us today.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

FOUR CALLING BIRDS
A reflection for the fourth day of Christmas

Open the gifts for the fourth day of Christmas: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Calling birds, indeed! It's a story, told from four different perspectives, that is above all other stories. It's a story, a meta-narrative, in which we can find ourselves and through which we can live our own stories authentically.

BEYOND BIRTH NARRATIVES. What Christmas implies and promises, the Gospels write large by walking us through the life of Jesus with heart-opening lucidity. The Gospels document and detail the evidence that the hopes and fears of all the years were, indeed, met in Jesus Christ. The “birth narratives” in Matthew and Luke conspicuously hint at the broad, troubling, and grace-bearing impact Jesus would have. And John’s eloquent introduction sets the stage for a story in which the Word “came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. But to as many as received him, to those who believed on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.”

DIVERSE DOCUMENTS, COMMON THREADS. The four Gospels make no attempt to reconcile differences in details or to paint a seamless, air-brushed picture of Jesus. Each is written from a different perspective for a different audience at a different time and from a different place. The fact that they are individually so raw and make no pretense at orchestrating events so as to present a united front adds to their authenticity. Though incredibly diverse, the common threads and penetrating message of the Gospels witnesses to something that has forever changed the world.

STILL BEING APPREHENDED. I grew up saturated with stories from the Gospels. It was a gift unappreciated and taken for granted. I didn’t awaken to the radical nature of the Gospel message and its claims upon my life and the community of faith until I was well into my twenties. I am still waking up to this gift, still being converted by the challenging invitation, still being apprehended by the call. I am still realizing this is, indeed, Good News for all humanity, for every person, even for me.

FINDING OURSELVES IN THE GOSPEL. The Gospels are Good News on their own terms, not mine. Only as I let go of my flimsy excuses, shallow attachments, grandiose notions, self-serving interpretations, and less than certain certitudes, does the Gospel find me and I find my home in the Gospel. Our own stories are significant when they find their place in the Story. Every person takes his or her place in the Gospels; we must to decide, however, how the Gospels tell our stories.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

NO WAY

Does our President think he can diminish citizen disgust and worldwide angst over the debacle in Iraq by finally admitting some mistakes were made and by trying to let it suffice that he "takes full responsibility?" No way.

PRESSURED FACTS, SKEWED REALITIES. The reason "mistakes were made" is because the Bush Administration was anxious to go to war against Saddam Hussein. They set up an environment that pressured facts and skewed realities and tried to fabricate a sense of the truth built on the most shadowy fact-bearers. They believed there to be weapons of mass destruction. They believed there to a link between 9/11 terror and Saddam Hussein's regime. They believed these unsubstantiated "truths" evangelically and promoted them evangelistically.

RUSH TO WAR. They rushed to war with immature bravado and arrogance, certain of overwhelming victory. They took "no" from no one at home or abroad. They used American goodwill and power to bully allies and pressure emerging democracies. And now we are expected to accept, "Oh well, we were wrong?" And we are expected to continue to give credence and confidence to this leadership? No way.

CONFIDENCE DEFICIT. Our President says he had "political capital" that he intended to use. Guess what? It's gone. In its place, America is in deficit on a number of fronts. And a "we made mistakes" is all we get in return? No way.

DIVERTING ATTENTION. Does our President hope, by benignly admitting that "mistakes were made," divert attention and keep his minions from indictment, prosecution and/or culpability when full investigations are finally permitted after months and years of Republican blocking tactics? No way.

WHAT AMERICANS DESERVE. Americans deserve better than "mistakes were made." America's credibility deserves a full accounting. America's lost integrity deserves to be restored by the only means a free democracy has legitimately at its disposal--justice. America's patriots and those willing to lay down their lives to defend America's freedoms deserve something far beyond what this Presidential Administration is giving it.
THREE FRENCH HENS
A reflection for the third day of Christmas


It's the third day of Christmas. Let's open today’s gifts sent to us by our True Love: "three French hens"--faith, hope, and love.

WHAT'S ESSENTIAL, BASIC? The Apostle Paul distills these three gifts, or graces, as the most essential of all Spirit-given gifts. Strip away everything else that seems so necessary, all those “must-have” gifts, the ones so desirable to possess, the ones that make us feel good about ourselves and others feel good about us, the ones that make us feel needed or rewarded. What’s at the heart of this Christian journey? What is irreducible for discipleship? Faith. Hope. Love.

EMBRACE THESE GIFTS. All who observed Advent know that faith, hope, and love, together with joy, are at the center of the Christmas story – HOPE for a Messiah sustained longingly over many generations; the FAITH of Zechariah, of Mary and Joseph; the LOVE of God for the world expressed in Jesus; the response of JOY by all who drew near to “see this thing that has come to pass.” We learned about these gifts. But now receive the faith of Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph. Now receive hope for the in-between times (which is most of the time!). Now receive love enough to eclipse all hurts, forgive all sins, and forge the deepest commitments.

FROM "TALKING ABOUT" TO ENACTING. What would it mean for us to move from teaching our children or loved ones about faith to offering them the gift of faith? How do we move from talking about hope to living and modeling hope? Why not quit trying to teach love; let yourself be loved and express unequivocal and unqualified regard? The reality of these core gifts is that we will never realize them unless we exercise them. Faith is not faith until you’ve trusted. Hope is not hope until I’ve lived from here to there in unflagging anticipation that what was promised shall be. Love is not love until we’ve opened our heart to risk forgiving or extending ourselves when reciprocity is not guaranteed.

WHEN BELIEVING IS RECEIVING. And it isn’t until we dare to move these gifts from being nouns to verbs that we realize that faith itself is more grace than effort, that hope is more grace than will, that love is more grace than feeling. In the decision to act in faith, we receive it afresh. In the decision to hope instead of live down to lowered expectations, hope is born anew in us. In the decision to love, the love of God is unleashed in us all over again. No wonder these “French hens” are so valuable, so prized as gifts.

Monday, December 26, 2005

TWO TURTLE DOVES

"On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me two turtle doves..."

Explore this gift with my Scripture readings and reflections for living the twelve days of Christmas.
CHRISTMAS TAILWIND

We had a white Christmas. "Where the treetops glisten..." Eat you hearts out, those of you who have to suffer in Florida, southern California and Texas. We had snow two weeks ago, but it warmed up toward the end of last week, too warm for snow. Then, surprisingly, on the afternoon of Christmas, rain turned to a beautiful snowfall. It was enough to cover the ground but not enough to make driving dangerous. Those who made it home for the holidays around here had a special treat. "...and may all your Christmases be white."

WINTER GRACE. Like a good tailwind, Christmas eases us gracefully into winter. It is the grace we need. Think of it: excluding our Florida and southern California neighbors, we are heading straight into at least two months of freezing temperatures, gray overcast skies, occasional snowstorms, colds and flu. And here we are frolicking in the snow, singing holiday songs, dressing up our homes, being festive and cheerful. On January 2nd, we will wake up to a long haul. But the memory and momentum of these holy, hearty days will propel us forward. Daylight will eventually lengthen. Our destiny is resurrection. Spring will come. Life will be renewed.

DIGGING IN. The Christian calendar helps us live a story and take a journey from Advent to Christmas, from Christmas to Epiphany, from Epiphany to Lent, from Lent to Holy Week and Easter, and from Easter to Pentecost. I recommend that you find a devotional guide (like A Guide to Prayer by Jobs and Shawchuck) that helps you walk a historic daily path during these months. Winter is a season for digging new wells, plowing fallow ground, and challenging spiritual lethargy. Dig in, not to brace yourself against the cold, but to embrace the grace that goes before you to bring new hope, new perspective, new life.

SAINTS DON'T COAST. Incidentally, I know of no one who has mastered prayer. I know of no one who has so studied or meditated so well that today is not all the challenge their souls can bear. I know of no one for whom daily grace is optional; no one who no longer needs to be bathed in Scripture, vigilant in self-discipline, or persistent in Christian fellowship and hospitality. Saints don't coast. With a mind and heart ever open through the various means of grace, they keep moving with the cutting edge of faith. Yesterday's grace is memorable and cause for gratitude; today challenges every fiber of our being, and for it grace will be sufficient. Only let us diligently tune our hearts to see and hear its otherwise imperceptible dramas.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A PARTRIDGE IN A PEAR TREE
A reflection for the first day of Christmas

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…a partridge in a pear tree.”

LET THE GIFTING BEGIN! This is the official day for gift giving and receiving. After the anticipation of Advent and the “I can hardly wait” eagerness of children (and some of us adults, too), Christmas arrives. What gift will you – or did you – open first? And note your feelings after the last gift has been opened.

ONE ABOVE ALL. Of all the gifts our loved ones give us, there is a gift that is before and after them. It is the very occasion of every other gift. It is a gift that is the more-than-gifts-can-express heart-felt intent behind every gift. Our “true love,” who is none other than God, gives us the Gift – Jesus Christ.

WHAT CHILD IS THIS? The Incarnation – the “Word made flesh,” “God with us” – is at once a strange mystery and compelling attraction. If we really stop to think about it, if we step back a bit from our cultural conditioning and foregone conclusions and our all-but-imperceptible worldview, Incarnation is a strange mystery. As the 4 Him song muses: “This is such a strange way to save the world.” Poets have tried to put the Word-made-flesh into words: “What child is this who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?” And: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come for to die for poor ornery sinners like you and like I?”

MYSTERY & WONDERMENT. Do you ever wonder about such things? It is so beyond us that we can’t rationally fathom it. We will be exploring it for a lifetime; we get to live these questions, to enter into the mystery. But for now, for this day, at least, can we accept the Good News told by angels? Can we just revel in it, wonder, ponder?

COMPELLING ATTRACTION. If it is a strange mystery, the Incarnation is also a compelling attraction. Those who get the chance to hear the story – stark as angels appearing in the sky to shepherds – are drawn to the child in the manger. Hearing, we, too, can decide to hasten near to the manger…to adore. Adore--half giddy cooing like a grandparent over an infant; half prostrate--falling worship in the presence of sheer Power, sheer Love.

WHY A PARTRIDGE. Today’s gift is a “partridge in a pear tree.” The image is of a mother partridge feigning death in the presence of an intruder in order to draw attention away from her vulnerable chicks. The Gift in the manger would one day lay down his life for “poor ornery people like you and like I.” That, too, is part of the strange mystery and the compelling attraction.

BRIEFLY BREAK AWAY. This is a busy day, to be sure. But not too busy to take a few moments to step outside, away from the wonderful noises and traditions. Break away briefly. Wander out under the sky. Quiet yourself. Wonder about the Incarnation. You don’t have to have answers for all the questions. Asking about them is itself entering into the mystery. And, before you head back in, find a way to offer simple thanks for it...for the Gift.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

WHAT CHRISTMAS MAY HELP US SEE

"Without the perspective of the poor, we see nothing, not even an angel. When we approach the poor, our values and goals change. The child appears in many other children. Mary also seeks sanctuary among us. Because the angels sing, the shepherds rise, leave their fears behind, and set out for Bethlehem, wherever it is situated these days."

-- Dorothy Soelle

(Image is of a 1923 painting by William Roberts titled "The Poor Family")
EMPIRE OPPRESSION & CHRISTMAS LIBERATION

To begin to understand the joy of shepherds (Luke 2) we must begin to grapple with impact of the tyranny of imperial Rome on the households and lives of folks living in such far-flung provinces as Galilee. Reading this may disrupt one's serene American sense of Christmas tradition, but it may also recover something of its original intent...and rescue it from the dregs of unreality. Dorothy Soelle (quoted from an article republished Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent & Lent) writes:

THE REAL CONTEXT OF THE NATIVITY. "Political oppression, legal degradation, economic plunder, and religious neutrality in the scope of the religio lictia ('permitted religion') were realities that the writer Luke kept in view in his story, which is so sublime and yet so focused on the center of all conceivable power. At last I saw the imperium from the perspective of those dominated by it. I recognized torturers and informers behind the coercive measure, 'All went…to be registered' (v. 3). Finally I comprehended the peace of the angels 'on earth' and not only in the souls of individual people. I understood for the first time the propaganda terms of the Roman writers who spoke of pax and jus when they really meant grain prices and militarization of the earth known at that time. (All this can be confirmed by research today.)"

Contextualization, rooting the story of the Gospel in its realtime milieu, brings the power of its light into focus. More from Soelle's essay:

FREE PEOPLE'S STIFLED LONGING. "Whoever wants to proclaim something about this light has to free the stifled longing of people. An interpretation of the Bible that takes seriously concrete, everyday human cares and does not make light of the dying of children from hunger and neglect is helpful in this regard. By showing up the incomparable power of violence in our world today, it deepens our yearning for true peace."

ORGANIZING AROUND THE GOOD NEWS. "Our text refers to the praxis of transmission and proclamation. The frightened shepherds become God’s messengers. They organize, make haste, find others, and speak with them. Do we not all want to become shepherds and catch sight of the angel? I think so."

PERSPECTIVE OF THE POOR. "Without the perspective of the poor, we see nothing, not even an angel. When we approach the poor, our values and goals change. The child appears in many other children. Mary also seeks sanctuary among us. Because the angels sing, the shepherds rise, leave their fears behind, and set out for Bethlehem, wherever it is situated these days."

Kinda changes the context of "Merry Christmas," doesn't it?

Friday, December 23, 2005

THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS - A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY

Care to join with me on a 12-day journey over the "Twelve Days of Christmas?" I have prepared and updated readings and reflections for each day from Christmas to Epiphany, concluding on January 6. Instead of meandering after "the big day," why not keep watch through these weeks that lead us from festive days into the heart of winter? Here is the link to access each day's readings and reflections online: "Living the Twelve Days of Christmas."

AN ALTERNATIVE, BUT OLDER TRADITION. I must tell you that observing the "Twelve Days of Christmas" is relatively new to me. I attempted to observe Christmas this way for the first time a few years ago. But the more I am learning about the tradition, the more I appreciate this way of celebrating Christmas. Why not try to enter into this long-standing tradition as a spiritual exercise? Use my "Living the Twelve Days of Christmas" pages to bring Christmas alive in your heart.
THE FINEST LINE

The line between supporting American military troops engaged in the Iraq War and supporting the Iraq War itself is a fine but critical line. It is one of the most important and distinctive lines to be drawn in any legitimate and sensitive conversation regarding this Bush Administration-instigated conflict. Young people in the congregation I serve are engaged as military reservists in this war; I correspond with them, pray for them, and support them. I do not, however, believe this war is necessary, support its suppositions, believe the case has been made for its justness, or give my consent to its manner of conduct. This is the fine line I walk; this a tension worth contemplating.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

COUNTDOWN TO INDIA

I am now a year and a week away from "Bicycle India 2007," a 2,000-mile bicycle ride through central India to raise funds to rebuild Umri Christian Hospital. I plan to join four other riders to make up an international team that will cycle from the southern tip of India (Nagercoil) to New Delhi.

REBUILDING A HOSPITAL. With the six-week tour we hope not only to challenge ourselves personally, but to raise over $400,000 to rebuild this aging hospital that is the only source of primary health care for thousands of rural and low-income residents. I have developed a website/blogsite for our team - http://bicycleindia2007.blogspot.com. Please bookmark our Bicycle India 2007 sote, share the link, and engage this journey with us.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

NATIONAL HOMELESS MEMORIAL DAY

I attended the 11:00 am Homeless Memorial Service at Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle today. I can't recall how many of these I have participated in on the first day of winter in recent years, probably 10 or 12. Sadly, the names of 37 homeless neighbors who died while homeless or from the impact of homelessness were read, a higher number than usual. I recognized the names of several with whom I worked while directing Horizon House. The church bell tolled 38 times--37 times for known neighbors and one time for those known only to God. This is from the service guide:
"We gather together to mourn those who were homeless and have met premature and oftentimes preventable deaths in our city. Let us pause to reflect on the gift of each of our lives: our own life, the lives of our family members and friends, and especially the lives of strangers. Let us honor all life.

"We gather together to bring attention to the shame of homelessness and how it robs our neighbors of their hope and their lives. Let us commemorate those who are no longer with us by working together to help prevent and end further homelessness. We can recast these senseless deaths with some greater purpose if they serve to spur us to help others.

"We gather here to reflect on our own lives and the choices we have made. What have we done, and more importantly, what will we choose to do that may give our own lives greater purpose and meaning? How will we be helped in choosing to act with hope, compassion, and courage? Let each of us find the courage and means to offer hope tho those who have so little and need it so dearly. Let each of us find a way to work together to offer our homeless neighbors the opporunity for better and longer lives and an end to their homelessness."
Learn more about what is being done in Indianapolis to address and end homelessness through the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) and the National Coalition for the Homeless. Photo is by Rick Posson

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

THE ANCIENT PARADOX

“It is in the old Christmas carols, hymns, and traditions--those which date from the Middle Ages--that we find not only what makes Christmas poetic and soothing and stately, but first and foremost what makes Christmas exciting. The exciting quality of Christmas rests on an ancient and admitted paradox. It rests upon the paradox that the power and center of the whole universe may be found in some seemingly small matter, that the stars in their courses may move like a moving wheel around the neglected outhouse of an inn.” — G. K. Chesterton

Monday, December 19, 2005

DID YOU EVER CRY ON CHRISTMAS?

I am fascinated with what poets write as they approach Christmas. Contemplation of the Incarnation spawns considerable inspiration. You can feel pain and healing in this piece by Carol Prejean Zippert. Carol, born in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, lives in Green County, Alabama, one of the poorest in the country. It is from her collection I Don't Want to be Rich, Just Able, published in 1997 by Black Belt Press of Montgomery, Alabama.

Did you ever cry
on Christmas
Can you remember
what made you so sad
What hid your sunshine
that you would cry
on Christmas

Did you ever cry
on Christmas
What did you do
with those feelings
that emptiness
that hole in your soul
so heavy
that you would cry
on Christmas

Did you ever cry
on Christmas
and did you store
those emotions in gift boxes
wrapped in flaming ribbons
Or did you hide those hurts
amidst the bright bulbs and tinsels
of the trimmed tree

Did you ever cry
on Christmas
Can you remember
what made you so sad
What crushed your hope
denied your peace
robbed you of all smiles
that you could only cry
on Christmas

Did you ever cry
just 'til Christmas
Can you remember
what gave you that hope
what raised your sunshine
and filled your soul
that you would not cry again
on Christmas

Then give yourself
Christmas
over and over
again
and hold on to its faith

Sunday, December 18, 2005

DOMESTIC SURVEILLANCE

The President's assumption of power to give the NSA power to wiretap American citizens without legal warrant or court supervision is quite alarming. It is, to me, unacceptable. While the President will pull out of the hat every possible fearmongering justification for his actions and unprecedented flaunting of his powers, it is clear that he has crossed a line--once again--that does not represent the collective good will and majority desire of the people. The most basic civil liberties precedents at stake. I am calling upon all my elected government representatives to speak and act strongly in opposition to the President's presumptions and misuse of power. This Administration cannot be trusted with the powers it has demanded. Our Congressional leaders have conceded enough and this President has usurped enough to move America closer to authoritarian rule than ever before. This is reason enough to end the Presidential privileges imbedded in the Patriot Act.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

DAY'S-END INPUT. I've started walking away from the TV and logging off the Internet as typical day's-end activities. Instead of falling asleep to commercials and prime-time programming, I've taken to reading poetry. Instead of surfing for the latest world news and news perspectives, I've been perusing the perceptions and reflections of the likes of William Blake, Robert Frost, and Wendell Berry. I read the poems outloud, trying to gather the poet's intent and meaning. This is, to me, much more enjoyable than the usual TV cynicism and disappointing Internet applications.

Friday, December 16, 2005

NO MORAL HIGH GROUND FOR THIS ADMINISTRATION

NATIONAL DISGRACE. I find the celebrated "breakthrough" on a unified Congressional and White House policy banning all forms of torture by American military and intelligence quite baffling. The very fact that our President resisted for so long the clear, simple, forthright terms for banning all forms of torture in the John McCain statement indicates that actions are being hidden, personnel being protected, evidence being cleaned up, detainees being transferred, commands being reversed. American secret detention and torture of detainees--abuse and mistreatment of any kind--is a disgrace to the American people and to every soldier who has sacrificed to defend democracy. Our so-called "moral" leader has taken American integrity to new lows in international eyes.

CUTTING DEALS. I also think Congressional leaders need to look for what might be behind this "breakthrough." Why did the Bush Administration finally concede? What did they promise? What were they promised? No further investigations? No pursuit of punitive action for those who are implicated? John McCain has been cutting deals with this Administration for years. McCain needs to come clean on what he and his Republican cohorts have exchanged this time.

VERIFY INDEPENDENTLY. So, with this agreed statement to clearly ban torture, it is said America can now claim a "moral high ground." Whoa Nellie! Not yet. Not until it is independently verifiable that such actions are not taking place--anywhere by anybody--and that all American torture that has occurred is exposed and all who engaged in the actions (or who ordered them or consented for them to be done) are brought to justice. "Moral high ground" is not something this Administration can claim. They forfeited this distinction when they chose to set aside the Geneva Conventions when dealing with suspected terrorists. It's been a downhill slide ever since. They forfeited "moral high ground" when they, oops, got caught at Abu Graihb. They forfeited "moral high ground" when they hesitated to immediately ban all forms of torture.

REPENTANCE? NOT LIKELY. There is only one way for this Administration to begin to move toward "moral high ground." That is to publicly confess and repent of all instances and practices of torture. And then to "produce fruit in keeping with repentance." This is not likely to occur. Instead, expect more insincere antics, more coy word games like those played by Condoleeza Rice in Europe last week, empty Presidential posturing aimed at placating critics or bolstering popularity in the polls, and efforts to cover up or forestall investigations into American misbehavior. But if it's "moral high ground" you want, confession and repentance is the way.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

THE DYING SEASON

Wendell Berry writes eloquently of winter as a season of dying. As a contemplative farmer having watched and respected, even revered, the turning of each season, Berry accepts more readily what many of us struggle with--the acceptance of death as natural, as part of a given cycle, as a necessary yielding under a sun that taketh away as well as giveth. Berry's words ring forthrightly true enough. Winter is the season in which things that started dying in Autumn are killed by frost and freezing before Winter officially begins.

DORMANT, DEAD, OR SEEDED FOR LIFE? Some of these plants are merely dormant, true enough. Other organisms, apparently dead, have a life that seems to betray rationality. Still others truly die, but leave seeds behind, seeds that await warmth and light in order to spring forth. And behind the dead and dropped leaf, is a covered, protected bud.

A PASTOR'S PERSPECTIVE ON DEATH. As an urban pastor, not a rural farmer, I haltingly acknowledge winter's power of death. It has apparently taken an elderly parishioner and today I will preside over her funeral. "Pneumonia is the old man's friend," the adage goes. I do not like that adage. I do not like any words or philosophies or musings that excuse death, that cater to it, that pay it homage, that bless or deify it.

NOT THE LAST WORD. If I must acknowledge death, then acknowledge with me the power and promise of life, of rebirth, of resurrection, and of the eventual triumph of life over death. Acknowledge with me that "the last enemy to be destroyed is death." Let us not revere death. Let us acknowledge its temporary claim, all the while looking it straight in its hollow eyes and declare that Life shall require from it all it has unjustly claimed, that the only death that shall ultimately last will be its own. Hallelujah. Amen.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

BRUDERHOF GOES OFFLINE

LAST DAILY DIG. I received my last "Daily Dig" from the folks at Bruderhof on Friday. Apparently this vibrant community of faith that lives the cloistered life in Anabaptist tradition has decided to "unplug." You can see all that's currently left of their web presence at www.bruderhof.com. The last "Daily Dig" quotes were:

"The work is more important than the talking and the writing about the work." - Dorothy Day

"There have been enough words, enough sermons and books. What matters now is deeds." - Emmy Arnold

MIXED RESPONSES. Part of me laments the decision of their elders to pull the plug on their Internet presence. It was a leavening influence--salt and light in an electronic sea of grime, violence, and greed. Their ability to perceive and address current issues with depth and faithfulness to an alternative Kingdom perspective has been striking. I hope they will reconsider their decision. But part of me respects their decision to unplug. If they feel like this medium is inconsistent with their message or that it has somehow been polluting or diminishing them, or pulling them off their primary mission, then their decision is respected.

"THANKS" AND "WE'LL MISS YOU." I think I speak for numerous others when I say "thanks" for your influence and witness. And "we will miss you" as those of us who seek to be a leavening presence of grace and Kingdom hope through this medium continue to see, hear, reflect, and engage in the world in redemptive action.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

THE UNIVERSAL INCARNATION

E. Stanley Jones served as a Methodist missionary in India during Gandhi's era. Prolific in writing and in his efforts to help American Christians understand evangelical Christianity on the world stage, I always read Jones with rapt attention. Jones helps me to move beyond being merely a subculture Christian. I've been rereading his daily devotional book The Word Became Flesh. Here is a brief excerpt:

HE SUFFERS IN ALL SUFFERING. Jesus "is Incarnate on a Universal scale--every man's hunger is His hunger, every person's sickness is His sickness..." Jesus "does not merely have a body that suffers as our bodies suffer--He is suffering in every man's body, hungry in every person's hunger, bound in every imprisonment. To suffer in one body--His own--is one thing; to suffer in every person's body is another--and different and breathtaking. It is beyond imagination."

IN HIS PARTICULAR BODY. "But we could never have known this universal Incarnation if Jesus had not shown it in a particular Incarnation in a particular body. If it had been written in a book that God suffers in every person's suffering...we would have shrugged our shoulders in incredulity. But having seen it in the Word become flesh, we do not shrug our shoulders--we bend the knee. And we mention it in awe and adoration. It is beyond us, but it grips us and we say to ourselves: The God we see in Jesus would do just that."

Monday, December 12, 2005

A FEW BITS ABOUT THE WAR IN IRAQ

STILL NO DRAFT. A year ago, I predicted that a military draft would be instituted within twelve months. Given the diminishing number of recruits for all branches of the military, the desperate antics of recruiters, and the over-extended tours of duty called-up troops continue to undergo, it seemed--and seems--plausible for President Bush to call for the draft. But it has not yet occurred. To institute the draft at this point in this increasingly unpopular--and unjust and misguided--war would be politically untenable. But that doesn't seem to be the kind of prospect that has yet deterred this President.

"30,000" OR SO. When asked today how many Iraqi's had been killed in the war, the President said he guessed 30,000 or so. He guessed. And he answered rather casually and cavalierly. No sorrow. No regrets. No signals of the slightest grief. It's another credibility gap for this President. 30,000 is the number that the Iraq Body Count project (www.iraqbodycount.org) is estimating, since the U.S. military has publicly declared it doesn't do body counts. Throw in 2,100+ U.S. military casualties, Iraqi military casualties, and "insurgents" killed in battle and in interrogation prisons and camps, and one U.S. General estimates 500,000 souls have been lost in this unnecessary and misguided debacle.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

CHRISTMAS IS NOT THEIR BUSINESS

"Holiday trees?" Come on! There is part of me that gets irked that most stores and businesses are too weak-hearted to use the terms "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukah." But there's another part of me that says it's not their place to promote or define or even use what belongs distinctly to the Christian community.

DISPENSING WITH THE SACRED. "Happy Holidays" is what happens when the religious--Jewish or Christian--yield sacred things to the marketplace: sacred words and meanings are used to make money for those out for profit, who then turn holy things into something unrecognizable. Finally, they dispense with the sacred meaning altogether, having created their own self-defined sense of importance for these days.

THE SOONER THE BETTER. Instead of bemoaning the fact that stores and businesses are raking in money on religious holiday cheer and yet refusing to give credit to whom credit is due, I think it’s reasonable for them to not use our holy words or meanings outright. In fact, I say the sooner the secular marketplace quits using and abusing Christianity and Judaism, the better. Quite literally, it's none of their business!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

"'TIS THE SEASON..."

"...to be jolly." That would be the Christmas season, technically. And that season has not yet arrived. Technically, we're in the season of Advent for two more weeks--right up through Christmas Eve. We're carefully preparing our hearts, making room for the "arrival." That's if you care to observe ancient church tradition. Commercially, however, it's "Christmastime in the city." In the stores. In the ads. On the radio airwaves...

TWO RHYTHMS OF CHRISTMAS. There are two primary rhythms for celebrating Christmas. The one most of us know is the Christmas season that begins with Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and finishes on Christmas Day. The rhythm fewer know--and still few observe--begins with four weeks of soul-searching preparation in Advent, highlights with Christmas Day communion (the Mass of Christ, i.e., Christ-mas), and extends through Epiphany on January 6th (celebrating the arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem). This rhythm gives us the tradition of giving a gift on each of the 12 days of Christmas.

CHRISTMAS RUSH. Most of us who know of the more ancient tradition but accommodate the more secular/commercial Christmas do so with mixed feelings. We cross this border daily during the weeks of December. We try to live in the rhythm of Advent, attempting to hold off untimely outbursts of "Joy to the World" until Christmas Eve, only to find ourselves indulging the crowd that can't wait for Santa Claus to come to town.

IN HOPES OF BEING WAYLAID. Advent observers risk coming off sounding like little Ebenezer Scrooges when we chide: "It's not yet Christmas. You're rushing things!" But we eat Christmas cookies and relish the taste of eggnog like all those premature revelers! Still, in our hearts we are trying to lay low, to make room, to wait in anticipation...in hopes of being once again waylaid by that fantastic news: God has come in love as a babe to save us all! Hallelujah!

Friday, December 9, 2005

SKIING THE WOODS

THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE. The ski tracks were well-worn by the time I got to Eagle Creek Park. I passed only one other cross-country skier, however, while I was there this afternoon. The quietness was palpable. This is one of the unique joys of cross-country skiing. When I ride my bike, the wind is whistling past my ears or the traffic and bustle of the city is noisy. In other sports people are talking, motors are screaming, fans are yelling--all fine and appropriate (mostly). But take to the woods on cross-country skis and the only sounds you'll hear besides the "shush" of your skis and your own breathing are the subtle sounds of the forest. Birds call. Branches crack. The wind rustles trees. It's a sparse symphony.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

FIRST BIG SNOW OF THE SEASON

At 1:00 pm there was no snow falling. By 4:30 pm enough snow had fallen heavily enough to put four inches of powder on the ground. It took me two hours to drive from downtown to our home on the westside. Forecasters say we could have eight inches of snow before the storm ends around midnight. Needless to say, I will try to head up to Eagle Creek Park to cross-country ski in the morning. We've got a winter wonderland working here...and it's not yet officially winter.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

MUGGERIDGE ON THE INCARNATION

My father-in-law recently passed along his mother's personal copy of Jesus: The Man Who Lives by Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge is insightful and witty, but I've never really given him much time because he seems to engage in more conservative polemic than I think a good Christian writer should. Muggeridge is to the right of fellow English Christian writers C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. Nevertheless, I've been thumbing through this volume and appreciating some of his musings. Here are a few snippets regarding the Incarnation:

WHERE TO LOOK. "The story of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels is true to the degree that it can be, and is, believed; its truth must be looked for in the hearts of believers rather than in history, or in archeological dust or anthropological bones."

FEARFUL SYMMETRY? "Looking for Jesus in history is as futile as trying to invent a yardstick that will measure infinity, or a clock that will tick through eternity. God moulds history to His purposes, revealing in it the Fearful Symmetry which is His language in conversing with men; but history is no more than the clay in which He works."

TOWARD GODLINESS. "In the case of Jesus alone the belief has persisted that when he came into the world God deigned to take on the likeness of a man in order that thenceforth men might be encouraged to aspire after the likeness of God; reaching out from the mortality to His immortality, from their imperfection to His perfection."

A WINDOW IN THE EGO. "He set a window in the tiny dark dungeon of the ego in which we all languish, letting in a light, providing a vista, and offering a way of release from the servitude of the flesh and the fury of the will into what St. Paul called the glorious liberty of the children of God."

TRUTH AND HISTORY. “Truth belongs essentially to a spiritual order where the categories of time and space, without which history cannot exist, are inapplicable. History is too fragile and indeterminate a structure to contain Jesus; like…the old wineskins. How shabby, how patched and repatched, how threadbare and faded this fabric of history is, compared with the ever-renewed, gleaming and glistening garment of truth!”

GOD AND MAN. “The perfection of Jesus’ divinity was expressed in his humanity, and vice versa. He was God because he was so sublimely a man, and Man because, in all his sayings and doings, in the grace of his person and words, in the love and compassion that shone out of him, he walked so closely with God. As Man alone, Jesus could not have saved us; as God alone, he would not; Incarnate, he could and did.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

THE ACCEPTABLE TIME

Did the Incarnation make time stand still? Scientifically, surely not. Philosophically, it's debatable. But from the perspective of faith, I like to imagine the universe itself sighing in unison at the moment of Jesus’ birth (Greg Martin's artwork seems to depict something more fantastic occurring!). But at the very least, the advent of Jesus opened a new dimension of time.

CHRONOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE. In the march of historic events and markings of day upon day, age upon age, the birth of one Jesus of Nazareth is notable in annals measuring chronological significance to humanity. Chronologically, the Incarnation is considered significant enough to divide time for much of humanity. Ever after, events would be considered as occurring so many years “before Christ” or “anno domini” (“in the year of our Lord”). But this is not the most significant impact of the Incarnation upon time.

A NEW DIMENSION IN TIME. The new dimension in time opened in the Incarnation is not measured in days or years or centuries. It is measured in depth, in quality, in opportunity; it is marked in terms of hope, love, faith…in terms of grace. In the Incarnation, eternity is present. In Christ, the present moment is eternity accessible. In the Word made flesh an aperture is opened wide to mercy and divine love. Within linear time (chronos) is implanted holy opportunity (kairos) which makes possible a change in the quality of every moment, every day, every century, every age that follows.

IN EVERY MOMENT, HOLY OPPORTUNITY. Time may not stand still in the Incarnation, but now every moment is holy opportunity, is eternal promise, is divine invitation, is sustained beckon, is possibility for redemption, for restoration to original intent, and for unmitigated fulfillment of being and creation. Time marches on, but with grace going before it, opening the possibility for forgiveness and reconciliation and newness at every tick of the clock or step toward the horizon.

THE POSSIBILITY OF CHANGE. Stepping into time (chronos), the Word (logos) has opened opportunity for grace-full living to all. We move in time, but instead of being predictably whisked along a rutted path passively headed toward a foregone conclusion, we are offered possibility for change. We are given the option to forgive and be forgiven, to act in faith instead of succumbing to prevailing doubt, to love instead of hating or numbing out into apathy, to seek peace instead of returning violence. Instead of repeating the past, the Incarnation opens a way to redeem it. Instead of compromising the future, the Incarnation brings its possibilities into present reality.

To me, the most remarkable phrase in the Bible is this line in Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches: “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son…to redeem…” It is mystery, to be sure. But at the least we are to understand that something so significant has happened as to not only radicalize chronological history, but to make all subsequent time full of possibility for transformation. If we can begin to comprehend this, if we can begin to lay hold of this, we will experience the sense that in the Incarnation time, indeed, stands still.

Monday, December 5, 2005

TRIMMING THE CHRISTMAS TREE

We set up our Christmas tree this evening. This is our first artificial tree in many years (thanks, Lillie!). So, it's a guarantee that I will not be having to return a dry, bare tree and a bag full of needles to Lowe's in a few weeks! The tree looks great in our family room. I'm a bit sentimental, however, so I miss even the hassles of a real, if imperfect, Christmas tree. We had fun placing the ornaments with the kids. This is a tradition that spans generations. More on that later.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

HIDDEN HOLINESS

“By examining as closely and as candidly as I could the life that had come to seem to me in many ways a kind of trap or dead-end street, I discovered that it really wasn't that at all. I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited and limiting life as the one I was living on Rupert Mountain opened up onto extraordinary vistas..."

"Taking your children to school and kissing your wife good-bye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day's work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly..."

"Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” -- Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Friday, December 2, 2005

PRAYING--AND SINGING HYMNS--IN PUBLIC

The following is the content of a letter I sent to the editor of the Indianapolis Star yesterday [update: the letter was published in its entirety on December 6th]:

PERSONAL SENSITIVITIES. Both Lynette Herold’s letter to the Editor (December 1) regarding Garrison Keillor’s generous use of hymns at a recent ISO event and Judge David Hamilton's ruling to ban the naming of a specific deity, specifically “Jesus Christ,” in prayers offered in the state legislature speak more to our offended personal sensitivities and less to our rational public sensibilities.

PUBLIC SENSIBILITIES. At a personal level, I may be as offended at the prospect of not being legally permitted to name “Jesus Christ” in a prayer before the state legislature as Ms. Herold is at Christian hymns being led by Keillor at ISO. But at a public level, rational sensibility helps me participate congenially in public prayers that do not name specific deity or in occasional public singing that names a deity in whom I do not personally believe or identify with.

WE KNOW BETTER. For the most part, clergy know better than to use our privileged positions in the public arena as petty bully pulpits. And if we do not know better, it is time and past time to learn and discipline ourselves. For Christian clergy, it is worth noting that prayers offered which intentionally or unintentionally exclude some, divide people, or trump others’ faith are not in any sense Christian to begin with.

TWO EXAMPLES. Some may find public prayer to an unnamed deity perfunctory and empty, but it need not be so. Read the U.S. Senate Chaplain prayers of Peter Marshall or Lloyd John Ogilvie (both conservative Protestant ministers). Neither of these respected ministers found it necessary to rub the noses of non-Christians in the salutations of their heart-felt and influential prayers.

SPIRIT AND PRESENCE. It seems to me to be less important when I pray publicly to name a specific name than to reflect an unmistakable spirit and presence that can transcend the divisions and pettiness that seem to pervade present politics.

SOMEBODY PRAY! Of course prayer in and for our state legislature--and for all who serve in the name of the public good--is desirable. Please--somebody keep praying! Pray for wisdom. Pray for fairness. Pray for insight and compassion for the plight of our most vulnerable residents. Pray for conciliation among decision-makers. Pray for forgiveness. Pray for peace on earth and goodwill to all!

Thursday, December 1, 2005

HANGING THE CHRISTMAS GREENS

I don't ever recall a "Hanging the Christmas Greens" service/event from my childhood. I remember that, at some point in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the church building got decorated. Wreaths were hung, a tree or two went up in the foyers and there was a nativity creche. Sometimes this went hand-in-hand with preparations for the the annual Christmas pageant, which seemed to be the focal point of our church Christmas events. That and a big pitch-in dinner party. I recall one year our church put together a "living" nativity event. But the concept of Advent was not on the landscape of our holiday preparations or practice of worship. We did not use an Advent wreath or paraments (I did not learn what paraments were until late into my seminary experience). No significance or meaning was attached to Christmas trees or evergreen wreaths or any other symbol of the season. Still, we celebrated Christmas with vigor.

TRIMMING THE CHRISTMAS TREE. It was more of an event to bring in and trim the Christmas tree in our home. It was an evening, an occasion, an event, complete with dad taking movies with the bright lamp shining in our eyes. The transformation of a basic, dull scotch pine into a sparkling Christmas tree that would grace our bay window for weeks was rather dramatic. It also seemed that whatever conflicts within our family or church, whatever the busy schedules--it all was set aside for that evening. That was part of the magic of trimming the Christmas tree. It was as if we could live more caringly, more purely, more hopefully from that evening on.

A FAITH FAMILY MOMENT. I hope for something like this when our church hosts our annual Hanging the Christmas Greens event, as we did last evening. A brief service intersperses well-known carols with the stories of the Christian meanings of evergreens, the Christmas tree, the poinsettia, the nativity, Christmas gifts, the Advent candles, the paraments, etc. Afterward, children, youth, and adults deck the halls and enjoy cookies and hot chocolate. It is intended to be a "faith family" moment, in which it is less important that each decoration is perfectly placed and more important that we share together, build relationships, and begin a journey of weeks together through this time of Advent.