Monday, December 25, 2006

The Promise of Christmas

"Peace on earth, and good

will upon those whom God's

favor rests."

Please, God, let it be, and soon.

Happy Christmas - and

"God bless us, everyone."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Swaddling and Sore

The biblical scholar in me knows better.

The King James Version of our sacred canon is rife with problems, too many to count really.

In fact, I wasn't even raised on it too much. The Revised Standard Version was the text my father used with great zeal, not unlike how I have sought to champion the newer translations of our time.

But there are some texts that, while my head knows and can exegete them one way, my heart knows them another.

One is Psalm 23. It is a remarkably pastoral psalm, and I can teach it from the NRSV perspective with great confidence (thanks to Walter Harrelson, my Hebrew Bible professor, otherwise lovingly and fearfully known as "Yahweh"), but when my heart is broken, or in need of care, or, when I'm with those who are unsure if they will even have a tomorrow, there is only one version emerging from the heart -

Psalm 23
1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The same can be said of the Christmas Story found in Luke 2. Yes, I know the textual problems. But what my heart learned as a boy, and what the text says in the more contemporary settings are too divergent.

For this particular Advent, and, as it transitions into Christmas, my heart leans toward ancient words. And, even if problematic, I get it. I understand the problems, but that does not negate the overall truth.

The NRSV reading of Luke 2.7-9 says:

Luke 2.7-9
7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

The King James -

7And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

Whatever it is you think or feel about these texts, I wonder what being "sore afraid" in the presence of God looks like anymore. See, the Good News of Jesus birth was good news only for those who longed to be set free - from oppression, from their sin, from the principalities and powers that marginalized.

But the Gospel is bad news for everyone else.

The time from reckoning has come. The Realm of God is begun, and it has in all things, a helpless child born to a young, unmarried woman, in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem? Are you kidding me? Can anything good come from there?

One of the great problems we have with Christmas is that we've lost our capacity to be "sore afraid," as were the shepherds, until - the first Christmas greeting was offered by the angelic hosts, "Do not be afraid."

The collision of the Divine with the world should make us quake in our boots still.

Does it for you?

Does the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes still make you sore afraid?

The day it doesn't anymore, I'm in trouble.

Friday, December 15, 2006

War Games

The following is an email exchange between Sarah and me.

I'm a big fan of hers.

She's a PK, like me, and when she was in Memphis she occupied a seat in the very back of the sanctuary. I could always count on a word from her, via email, to encourage and challenge me. I've always had a sense that she and I are resonant spirits.

Now that she's moved, our contact is only through email, and she still challenges me. We have a continuing e-dialogue on matters of physical health and spiritual health.

It is with her permission that I share our most recent exchange.

Hi Johnny!

This is totally off-topic, but I’m in a county in South Carolina that prepares the few, the proud, the Marines and my neighbor is a Marine fighter pilot and I’m a life-long Doonesbury fan and I’ve gotten sucked into the blogs in the Sandbox, which are somehow attached to Doonesbury.

Some things stand out from these blogs – we have absolutely no idea what they are doing every day.

This war is unlike any other. It is more like inner city gang warfare than an occupying country rebuilding another country. And the news does not paint the story. The president (of course) does not paint the story.

These blogs – written by some very eloquent and talented writers – make the war close and real in a way CNN and even the split second news of the internet does not. I am shaken to my core by the things they say.

Another thing that seems to recur in their blogs is complaints about the inadequacy of their uniforms – never would have thought about it. But they must wear uniforms at all times – but that leaves them freezing sometimes. One guy purchases his own Under Armour underwear because it protects him from the fires he has to work in – but they constantly get stolen in the laundry. Things I never would have thought of –

The biggest thing that has changed for me is that these writers could be me – they seem liberal, they are educated, they are thoughtful, they are whimsical. They aren’t the redneck or thug, uneducated, super right-wing, NRA we love George W crew I thought they were.

And the President is going to enjoy Christmas before he makes any new plans for Iraq? How is that possible? These are real people he’s leaving over there – without access to a good beer for Christmas, a tacky holiday sweatshirt, or even a Silent Night for reflection – and he’s going to get through the holidays before he does anything? How is that possible?


Hey Sarah,

Per usual, you prick the stuff of my soul.

This one is easy.
It's either one of three things.

One, W. believes he is the equivalent to the Old Testmament kings - that is, to be hand picked by God (which might actually be so since I'm fairly sure the voters didn't elect him, especially in 2000, and from what I've seen on the HBO documentary, "Hacking Democracy," he lost in '04, too), and that he need not have the mandate of the populus. Rather, he lives under the delusion that he has a Divine Mandate.

Two, this is the equivalent of a little boy playing with his army men (something I quite enjoyed as a boy, myself). But he's not playing with plastic army men, it's real, and he doesn't know how t
o end the game - except that he's too darned stubborn to quit.

Or Three, he's playing Stratego in re
al life, and stinks at it.

In an interview with ABC news, he's been quoted as stating that he "sleeps better than most people assume."
Nothing could communicate the disconnect of a Commander in Chief out of touch with the real life issues on the ground more than that.

God help us all.


On his ranch-throne, where he sleeps well, and will prepare to celebrate Christmas, I wonder if his well-protected motorcade will pass any day laborers and think of the day laborers lured to the car bomb or how close that bomb was to one of our stations where American men and women were getting ready to start their day? This war is so real and he is so disconnected from the reality of the majority of the world. He has never known anything but privilege. He never fought war, he never worked hard to get advancement, get into school, make the grade, etc. He never had to work himself out of his own messes. And I think that is why he is able to continue to play with plastic army men – we are all disposable for him, just like everything else in his life has been. So he can restrict what the soldiers wear, what they eat and drink, and let chance and zealots determine how many more of them will die, and tuck himself into bed at night able to believe that they’re all proud to be serving their president. We’ve let our military fall into a position that will be virtually impossible to come out of cleanly. I think it’s a combination of all three – he’s pre-ordained to be the president, proudly leading the country through this troubling time and this fight against terror, but he doesn’t know a thing about strategy, the American soldier, or the American people. His disconnect is so severe he doesn’t even recognize the hand melting the little plastic army men is his own.

Do you also get the feeling that some of the problems we’re having in Iraq stem from W. trying to prove to Senior that he can do what his daddy couldn’t? And now that Senior’s understanding of the fine line he walked in 1991 has been proven true, do you think W is being a stubborn teenager who refuses to admit that he was wrong? I read something recently about the Bush clan’s need for loyalty – but how W. broke from daddy in bringing Rumsfeld along for the ride and in going back to Iraq. Could his inability to change course be a grossly over-blown example of my dad and brother stubbornly arguing over the proper way to (fill in the blank)?

He makes my stomach hurt.



Mine too, girl - Mine too.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"Course Correction" Advent 2

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See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Malachi 3.1-4

My 5-year old, Jack, has a fascination, if not infatuation with GPS systems. His GG and Papa have these navigation systems in their vehicles and whenever he rides with them the first thing he asks is if "he can hear the lady give them directions."

Cute. Sure.

And when he rides in my car, which does not have a GPS, no problem, he becomes one himself.

"Daddy, I'm going to tell you about the miles," which means he's my GPS. And in the same voice inflection as "the lady," he tells me, if not orders me, to "proceed on the current road for .9 of a miles and then veer right."

Just what I need - one more voice telling me where to go!

This is what the prophetic messengers of Advent do - like spiritual GPS systems, they offer navigational guidance from where we are, to where we seek to go, and what we need to do to get there.

Like Malachi and the other prophetic voices of the Hebrew Scriptures, and, John the Baptist himself whose "voice cries out from the wilderness" - for us to "prepare the way of the Lord, make straight a highway for our God," Advent announces the perpetual truth of Christ's coming, but lest we be already made perfect, we, each of us, must enact a course correction to meet the Promised One of God.

And I'm talking about more than a simple veering to the right - The prophets tell us to do more than that - repentance, quite literally, means "turn around."

In the Christian Bible, Malachi is the last of the 12 great prophets, even the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures. The messenger's call for a course correction is one that, while necessary, is not easy.

Using terms like refiners fire and fullers' soap - we can't make the course corrections we need until we've come clean with those things that have perpetuated the life we've been living, and the road we've been traveling.

Do you remember crucibles in high school chemistry?

Under intense heat the moisture is evaporated away and you're left with the essential "stuff" of the substance.

In the crucible, and under the refiners fire - there is no fluff, there is no spin, there is no equivocation, there is no place to hide - all that is left is what it is. No more and no less.

The crucible holds truth, uncorrupted and pure.

It is from this place that course corrections can begin.

So, for this Advent, where are course corrections needed?

  • In our world and at our time, course corrections are not always embraced, because to change course means that we have to admit the one we were on wasn't the right one. Just ask the Iraq Study Group. Would the prophets of old have anything to say about this conflict that has now lasted longer than the whole of our engagement in World War II - something of note as we passed another "date which shall live in infamy" only last Thursday.
  • What could some time over the refiners fire do for this mess as our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and neighbors, volunteer to serve with honor and distinction while the "decider" who orders them into battle bows to the gods of pride, ego and Halliburton.
  • On this day when we think of "Peace," what course corrections need to be made in this conflict to reach it? What needs to happen in Darfur? What needs to happen in the land into which Jesus was born and violence reigns still between Palestinians and Israelis.
  • The Evangelical Right Wing is throwing a full blown conniption fit because Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, Democrat from Minnesota, and a Muslim, wants to place his hand on the Koran when he takes the oath of office. What's the problem? He's Muslim. This sacred text is the expression of his faith and the tool through which he lives with integrity. When is freedom of religion not freedom of religion. Look carefully folks, it's all over the place.
  • In the paper this past week, there appeared an article reporting that 2% of adults in the world possess 51% of the world's assets. Let's put the gods of the marketplace and capitalism in the crucible for the refiners fire and see what's left. I'm guessing you'll find some greed, insecurity, and lust for power still in the crucible when all's said and done.
  • In Virginia this past week, it was reported that the Vice-President's daughter and her partner are expecting a child. And because the Commonwealth will not acknowledge, much less, honor their covenantal relationship, her partner will not have any legal claim to the child she will help raise. And what of those of our sisters and brothers called of God to do extraordinary things but find that the Church will not credential and endorse their work because of their sexual identity. Let's put those over the refiners fire and see if there's anything left but fear and bigotry.

This Advent, let's put our own lives in the crucible and see what's left.

Over the refiners fire, we find not only what we're made of, but what impurities need to be burned away.

  • Fear
  • Selfishness
  • Addiction
  • Insecurity
  • Abuse (physical, mental, sexual)
  • Ego
  • Pride
  • Lust for Power

Advent calls us to come clean - and once clean - now we begin - the course correction is now possible, and not one moment before.

So, as I'm pulling onto my street with my human GPS in back seat, I hear "you have reached your destination."

I wonder if the little prophet in the family recognizes how right he is.

When we come clean, we can change our course, and when we change our course, this Advent, we can embrace the One who is come to set us free.

Even so, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.