Category Archives: Musings

#GreaterLoveAnnapolis

268FA8B7-F952-49BB-B0CB-2EC1AE6C4608A week ago today, a man armed with a shotgun walked into the office of the Capital-Gazette newspaper, opened fire and murdered 5 people, wounding two others. This kind of atrocity is unthinkable for a warm, charming town like Annapolis. Annapolis is my hometown and the place where I now serve as a pastor. Violence like this quite literally- emotionally, spiritually- hits home deep within me.

And it got me to do some soul searching.

For far too long, most people would chalk up our societal challenges as cultural or political struggles. In a way they are. However, on a much deeper level, our problems are spiritual problems. I’ve always known that, but in the last week, I’ve relearned that powerful truth.

Spirituality centers around four main questions: Who are we? Whose are we? What is our purpose? What’s our destination?

To simplify things even more, I believe that spirituality centers on our ability or inability to love and our ability or inability to do good and avoid evil. Increasingly more of us are at a loss for how to do these things. We see our shortcomings, not just in the physical violence some people commit, but in the verbal violence, self-centeredness, and apathy many more of us struggle with.

The answer to our dilemma, quite simply, is love.

Also running in the soundtrack of my thoughts has been a deep desire to connect with people to talk about deep things and to do meaningful life together, but so often barriers like religion (I’m a Christian and a pastor) get in the way. Cultural and political differences throw their weight around, too.

While we cannot whitewash those differences or pretend they don’t exist— they most certainly do!— could there be a common ethic which could form new community for the purpose of inner- and interpersonal change and transformation? Could we learn to recognize and treasure our differences and diversity, all the while sharing in the greatest yearnings of our common humanity?

I firmly believe that the answer is yes– a resounding YES. That yes is the basis of Greater Love Annapolis.

With Greater Love Annapolis, I envision the establishment of a network of neighbors committed to something I call “the ethic of Greater Love”. That ethic is centered on four main principles:

  1. Unconditional Love
  • Living by the Golden Rule: loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and expressing that love in thoughtful, intentional, practical, and ongoing ways
  • Seeking to build relationships of cooperation and friendship with all of our neighbors, regardless of culture, race, nation of origin, sexuality, economic status, religious or political affiliation
  • Offering our neighbors the gift of deep listening for the purpose of understanding and empathy
  • Striving for forgiveness and reconciliation wherever there are broken relationships
  • Operating out of a profound respect for the dignity and worth of every neighbor, recognizing in them our shared humanity
  1. Personal Integrity
  • Safeguarding ourselves from self-harming behaviors and addictions while actively seeking healing from any of these personal defects
  • Nurturing a spiritual life that leads to personal growth, wisdom, and greater integrity of character
  • Honest dealings with ourselves and others, both publicly and privately
  • Making our lives fully accountable to a network of trusted friends
  1. Humility
  • Considering the dreams, aspirations and welfare of others before ourselves
  • Speaking only that which builds up all of our neighbors, refraining from language that tears down and belittles them
  1. Solidarity with Our Most Vulnerable Neighbors
  • Raising awareness of the attitudes, systems and powers that marginalize and prey upon the most vulnerable members of our community and all those whose voices are not heard.
  • Peaceful, loving, and persistent confrontation of those attitudes, systems, and powers.
  • Establishing new community and systems that protect and empower our most vulnerable neighbors

From here, I anticipate conversations and discussions about what our network would look like and do. I see an organized effort to create community Greater Love Annapolis groups for the purpose of hanging out, conversation, learning, accountability, and planning for advocacy/community organizing. I see a movement of transformed and transforming people of mercy and justice, lived not in tribalism and self-righteous anger, but with loving passion and fearless strength for greater equality, dignity and opportunity for all people.

I see an Annapolis community with a deeply spiritual, shared conscious.

I see awakening and revival, rooted in love.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
‭‭John‬ ‭15:13‬

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The Flurry and Fun of Baptizing a Toddler

Toddlerhood. I think it is the most magical time of childhood. I use the word “magical” quite intentionally. For figuratively speaking, magic can result in amazement and wonder, laughter and joy, or wholesale destruction, all at a moment’s notice and with nary a hint of warning.

Toddlers, fueled by wellsprings of energy have the wide-eyed curiosity of a thousand cats, empowered for the first time by upright mobility, the beginnings of fine-motor dexterity, language and their first inkling of independence. They’re unpredictable, moody, perpetually playful, and offer us adults the gift of re-experiencing the world with fresh wonder. (I’ve often said that toddlers and teenagers are strikingly similar, but that’s a subject for another post.)

So imagine centering a toddler within the sacramental rite of baptism. Baptism is an orderly, highly scripted, predictable ritual. For babies, youth and adults- no problem. For toddlers? Well…

AAA2CAA4-D249-4E6C-9139-47FABF1BE536When some parents from my church approached me with a bit of cautious trepidation about baptizing their almost two-year-old son Graham, I told them, “You know, we’ll make it all work somehow.” Inwardly, however, I was nervously wondering how adaptable and flexible the parents, congregation and the ritual would be to the temperament of a toddler. That was the big question.

Yesterday, Sunday morning, came, and the parents arrived with their son Graham, their pre-school daughter (who was insistent that her little brother should not be getting wet for this whole baptism thing), and a whole gaggle of family and friends. Graham was the epitome of cuteness- a white dress shirt, tan-colored vest and slacks, a tie and black shoes. He seemed to know something big was afoot, so he was extra primed with nervous, curious energy, toddler-style, of course.

I’m not always the most conscientious pre-planner, but something told me to make a few strategic adjustments. So first I switched out the cold, room temperature water in the baptismal font with warm tap water. Granted, that wouldn’t make Graham’s big sister any happier, but perhaps warm water would soothe his nerves a bit more. And then I gave Graham’s parents the baptism certificate before the service began. That way, if a quick getaway was needed after the baptism ritual, his parents wouldn’t leave empty-handed.

Well, the moment we had all anticipated arrived. Right on cue, as soon as we had gotten underway with the baptism ritual, the game of “Pass the Fidgety Child” commenced between the boy’s mom and dad. That game quickly lost its charm, and then Graham’s impatient chattering and complaining ramped up, quickly accelerating towards a 5-alarm nuclear meltdown.

Now I’m pretty calm in a storm, and that includes being in the presence of crying or screaming children. In a worship setting, I just carry on as if nothing is happening, trusting that the child and parents will work things out. My operational value in all this is let children with families be themselves. But when Graham’s protests were clearly distressing his parents while my congregation stirred with uneasy laughter, clearly it was time for a tactical change on my part.

My paternal instincts kicked in, and in a split moment I asked myself, “What would Pope Francis do?” He’s an amazing example of allowing children to be children, and in unprecedented and impromptu moments of grace, he unflinchingly finds ways for children to be included in his leadership of highly ritualistic Roman Catholic liturgy. So, in Pope Francis style, I improvised.

I found myself stepping closer to the father who by then had broken out into a visible sweat and was hoisting his son at the waist in one arm. Graham was facing out kicking and protesting. I showed Graham my hymnal and the words of the liturgy I was reading, and instantly, he stopped fussing, followed my finger in the text and went back and forth between looking at me and looking at the words of his own baptism liturgy.

I then adjusted my voice a bit from my normal boomy “this is the Word of the Lord” public speaking voice to a quieter, side-by-side reading inflection. I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about (or maybe he understood more than I give him credit for, especially the all important non-verbal stuff of communication.) At any rate, for the first time in that service, I think Graham felt included in what was going on, and during the next several minutes of liturgy, he was as well-behaved as any watching adult.

It’s ironic. This was the church’s and his rite of baptism, and yet we were about to unwittingly leave this highly aware toddler completely unengaged in it. Why shouldn’t things be such that a child like Graham could fully involve himself and have his own sense of ownership of this tremendous gift of God’s grace that he was being given?

Then the time came for the administration of the water. By then, it seems I wasn’t a threat, so Graham came willingly into my arms and enjoyed the gift of his baptismal waters. It was truly one of those authentic, natural moments of grace for Graham, his family and his new congregation of brothers and sisters in Christ.

35BBEE0F-33CC-4C5F-B07C-F7D2E1CCDBF9While I suppose there are many lessons to be learned from an instance like this, one stands out for me. Be fully present in the moment. Being fully present allows for maximum connection with those around us and the greatest opportunity within our connection for God to show up and do things that clearly demonstrate God’s power, God’s grace, and God’s amazing love. And yes, as we all learned, that can even include a toddler.

 

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What Happened to the War on Christmas??

It just occurred to me that with the advent of Christmas, something has been conspicuously missing.

img_1131This year there are no angry warning blasts about the conspiratorial War on Christmas! Barely a peep. Every year we hear rants and laments about how our godless culture is removing any religious semblance of Christmas out of the mainstream, to the point that we can’t even mention the word “Christmas” anymore. We’re appalled at retail chains for their “holiday” sales and their “Happy Holidays” banners. We’ve been urged to boycott these stores. Schools and public places are taking down their nativity scenes and silencing Christmas songs, replacing them with paltry “Winter Holidays” political correctness. Christ has been Xed out with “Merry Xmas”. Santa has pushed Jesus aside, too.Heck, Starbucks doesn’t even mention holidays or snowflakes on their coffee cups! Poor Jesus.

What is the world coming to??

But this year, all those familiar gloom and doom refrains have been MIA. Why?

I’ve got a theory: there are weightier issues to fret about. The Middle East is edging towards the brink of explosion with Syria being the fuse. We’re on the other side of the most negative, bitterly divisive Presidential election we’ve ever faced in our lifetimes, leaving many people angry and scared. The EU is close to collapse. More of the world is opting for a nativist, nationalistic populism. Our economy is nowhere near stable. We’ve battled over marriage and bathrooms and sitting out the National Anthem.

When it comes down do it, we are so easily distractable. We talk, post, and tweet about whatever storm, real or fabricated, that happens to be raging in the news and social media. Meanwhile yesterday’s storm is long forgotten. (Ask someone now if the dress is blue or gold and watch how many confused responses you get!) Today, all it takes is a few prominent voices to broadcast a storm warning, i.e. “There’s a War on Christmas,” to get the masses debating the issue.

But this year other storms have taken center stage in our public debate, and no one has taken up the War on Christmas cause.

All in all, our distracted silence demonstrates what a silly issue the War on Christmas has been, and how ridiculously shrill the demonstrators have sounded.

Look, here are some basic facts:

  • I can politely wish someone a Merry Christmas and not worry about being condemned, arrested, or assaulted. If I’m extra polite, I can avoid doing that with folks I know don’t observe Christmas. (After all, who has ever come to Jesus after being plastered with “Merry Christmas” greetings?)
  • I can set up my Christmas tree and nativity scene, put lights on my house, and even set up Christmas stuff on my lawn without fear of the government charging me for religious expression.
  • I can freely go to church and celebrate Advent and Christ’s birth and Epiphany, knowing that my government protects my right to worship as I choose.
  • If it so offends me, I can choose not patronize stores or restaurants that refuse to acknowledge the word “Christmas”.
  • I can write any number of blog posts, columns, editorials and books, and organize demonstrations to end any War on Christmas. However, I cannot stop anyone from calling me an idiot. That’s their right, too.

Frankly, I’m relieved there’s no War on Christmas storm warning this year. That has given many of us tremendous freedom to simply tell and live the good news of Jesus’ birth without having to compete for bandwidth with the doomsdayers. Many of my fellow Christians undervalue the compelling message of Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ, especially when it’s shared humbly, passionately, and in a way that connects with our lives as they are:

God is faithful to keep his promises. God loves us and comes to us just as we are. God was birthed right in the middle of our broken messes to bring us love, grace, forgiveness, and a renewed relationship with him. The greatest gift we’ll ever know is the friend, Savior, and Lord we can have in Jesus. The birth of Jesus is more powerful than any one religion because anyone, anywhere, of any race, culture, or belief can discover him.

Isn’t that awesome? Why rant about a so-called War on Christmas when we’ve got a living treasure that has captivated human hearts for nearly 2000 years?

So… next year, can we make it two years in a row that we don’t bemoan the death of Christmas? Please? Instead, let’s learn and relearn how to tell the glad tidings of good news for a world longing for any kind of good news.

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Live Report: St. Paul Delivers a Speech at General Conference Addressing the LGBTQI Debate

Paul of TarsusFrom the back corner door in a tense, crowded convention hall, a short, modestly dressed middle-aged man appears. He wears a beige shirt and pants with street-worn brown shoes. His face bears jagged, careworn lines from an arduous life of work and great sacrifice, and yet there is an otherworldly serenity about the way he carries himself. His eyes have a sharp intensity to them- critical, sad, and yet longing. He has olive-colored skin, a balding head with sparsely greying dark hair, and a thin beard. He doesn’t have a Conference delegate badge, and yet he confidently walks into the room as if he had always been there. Hardly anyone notices his arrival at first, but in a matter of moments, all of that is about to change.

It is late-afternoon on May 18, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The delegates of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church are once again embroiled in an emotionally passionate debate that has eventually taken center stage of every General Conference since 1972. It’s the debate over Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. What should the church think about them? Is the practice of homosexuality and transgender people compatible or incompatible with Christian teaching? Is it right or wrong to host and celebrate their marriages? Can LGBT persons be ordained as clergy?

One can glance around the room at the delegates and feel the immense weight of everything they must consider and vote into church law. Whatever they decide could determine the fate of the United Methodist Church as we know it.

Emerging from a back corner of the convention hall, the visitor slowly makes his way up an aisle and to the desk of the presiding bishop. With a hand cupping the microphone, she quizzically engages this stranger. At first the bishop seems annoyed but then suddenly freezes as the color drains from her face. She gazes up at the stranger for a few moments longer and then slowly stands. Her eyes never leave him.

Speaking into the microphone, the visibly shaken bishop says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, our General Conference has voted on parliamentary rules which I am required as your Presiding Bishop to uphold, but I am making an extraordinary decision. I am unilaterally suspending these rules in light of the person I am about to introduce. Brothers and sisters, I yield the floor to none other… than the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.”

Stunned silence overtakes the room followed by a rash of whispering. “Is she crazy?” “Who orchestrated this?” “She doesn’t have the authority to do that!” “Who did she say he is?”

Amidst the clamor, Paul begins to talk in a clear, calm voice. He adds no hint of polish or flourish to his words, and yet he speaks with a methodical, earnest passion:

“My dear brothers and sisters, yes, it is I, your brother Paul of Tarsus, an apostle sent not from any person but rather from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have watched your proceedings with great interest over these last 44 years, and at the bidding of Christ Jesus, I have come to bring you a word from the Lord. May the Holy Spirit enlighten the eyes of your heart to my gospel, which I faithfully preached throughout the world. I now proclaim this same gospel to you.

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to embrace any form of legal marriage, but another embraces only heterosexual marriage. The one who embraces both same-sex and heterosexual marriage equally must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not embrace same-sex marriage must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

“One person considers one form of marriage more sacred than another; another considers both same-sex and heterosexual marriages alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards only one form of marriage as sanctified does so to the Lord. Whoever regards same-sex marriage equally sanctified with heterosexual marriage does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever does not, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

‘”As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.'”

“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that all monogamous, covenanted marriages are right and holy. But if anyone regards something as not holy, then for that person it is not holy. If your brother or sister is distressed because of your convictions, you are no longer acting in love. Do not let your advocacy for what you deem to be just and holy destroy someone for whom Christ died. Do not let what you know is good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of sex and marriage, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of sex and marriage. All legal marriages are good, but it is wrong for a person to advocate for what they deem to be just and holy in a way that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to self-righteously or angrily advocate for your beliefs and convictions or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

“So whatever you believe about these things, keep yourselves humble and open, as if this matter was between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they force themselves to go along with something they believe to be wrong, because their acquiescence is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

At that, Paul bowed his head, backed away from the microphone and quietly exited the hall.

Everyone was subdued into stunned silence. No one shouted “amen.” No one protested. No one flinched. Then after a few minutes, an elderly statesman of the church stood up from his seat and said, “Bishop, for the sake of our whole church, conservative and progressive, gay and straight, of any gender, and of any conviction thereof, I rise to offer this motion…”

(The main body of Paul’s speech is a hermeneutical application of Romans 14:1-15:7. This is an edit of a previous post.)

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I Want More Carol Burnett Comedy

This past Friday night Blairlee and I had the rare gift (thanks to a very kindly aunt) of seeing Carol Burnett in person at the Strathmore Music Center. We had center-stage second row seats, too! I don’t think I’ve ever had concert seats like that.

Carol Burnett Live on April 15, 2016

Carol Burnett Live on April 15, 2016

When Carol took the stage, she electrified and captivated the entire audience for a full hour-and-a-half. Not bad for an 82-year-old comedienne. And Carol did something which only a seasoned, veteran entertainer would ever do. She took the stage with no script. Only a handful of video clips anchored her show. Everything else was live Q&A with her audience. Audience members could ask anything they wanted, and she called on people from all over the theater. As a public speaker, believe me, that takes guts… and a wealth of talent.

I can’t remember going to a show and laughing so hard. In all the years I’ve known Blairlee, I’ve never heard her laugh that hard, either. From the moment Carol took the stage until her final bow, we were both non-stop smiles.

A friend of mine commented that Carol Burnett is a comedic genius. That she is. I think it’s a combination of her charm, her wit, the way she uses her body and face, her timing, voice inflection, and this uncanny sense that she’s the everyday woman next door. You can relate to her and deeply appreciate her, too.

And then another thing struck me. Carol Burnett put on a full show without using one vulgarity or profane word. It never occurred to me while she was performing. It was so natural. But once I realized how “clean” her show was, it left me longing for more comedians and comediennes like Carol Burnett- women and men who can make us laugh without dragging us through the basest part of our nature. She could wink at it while not taking us all the way there, and to me, that made it all the more funny. It was like telling a clever joke without having to explain it.

For example, Carol told a story about a skit she performed on The Carol Burnett Show which featured her as a character who lived in a nudist colony. That concept could go in a number of directions! Carol’s character was being interviewed while standing behind a fence, and the interviewer asked her what she and her fellow colonists do for evening entertainment. (The eyebrows just got a little higher.)

Without missing a beat, Carol’s character said, “We go dancing.” [Lots of laughter.] The interviewer then asked how a bunch of nudists dance. Carol’s original line said, “Very carefully.”

Well, that line got scrutinized by the TV execs. So at the last minute she changed it to, “We like to dance cheek to cheek.” Apparently, the TV execs were fine with that. Now that’s hilarious!

And notice: no profanity, no vulgar descriptions. Either you got the joke, or you didn’t.

I’m not one to long for the good ol’ days or to wish we could go back to the happier times. Longing for the past is always through rose-colored glasses. We tend to over-inflate the pleasant things while sanitizing or forgetting the less pleasant things. For example, while television was freer from profanity, violence, and nudity, there was certainly lots more racism and sexism. Smoking was widespread and socially acceptable. Would we want to go back to all of that?

You could convincingly argue that Carol Burnett’s humor was shaped and controlled by much stronger censorship and different viewer sensibilities. Very true. Without those restrictions, maybe her humor would have been quite different. Perhaps. But Carol and her co-actors managed to be hilariously funny in that (controlled) environment. In 2016, it’s still just as funny.

Carol Burnett demonstrated that masterfully last Friday night.

Carol Burnett proves that we don’t have to gaze in the rear-view mirror to find and create good comedy. She and her kind of humor still have a place in American entertainment. Her comedy uses wit, physicality, charm, and off-the-wall antics to make people laugh. Much has changed in the nearly 50 years since her show took the airwaves. But some forms of comedy, like Carol Burnett’s, are timeless.

I’d like a lot more of that. I’m not asking for her kind of humor to supplant and replace what’s out there now. I don’t want to see Carol Burnett-style humor attempt to prove a point or stake a moral high ground. That’s simply not funny. True humor has a selfless simplicity to it that doesn’t preach or demean. It just brings joy.

Yet there is a sizable audience including people like me who would thoroughly enjoy humor that isn’t demeaning, overtly profane, violent, or pornographic. For me, it’s not moral snobbery. I laugh at all kinds of things. Funny is funny. At the same time, there’s something refreshing and fun about Carol’s humor that would offer alternatives to some of the other modes of comedy out there.

And while comedy is never culturally universal, Carol Burnett’s brand of comedy can unite multiple generations and multiple moral sensibilities to laugh together. Very few things in life can bring people together like laughter. Thank you, Carol, for 50 years of laughter. May others follow in your stead to bring us joy, happiness… and Tarzan yells.

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Christmas Midrash

Merry 11th Day of Christmas! Yes, even though December 26 brought an abrupt end to Christmas music on the radio stations and the stores quickly cleared away Christmas trees for Valentines hearts, it’s still Christmas for another two days.

christmas-greeting-card-nativity-scene-by-dona-gelsingerSo in celebration, I thought it would be fun to recall the Christmas story one last time. It’s a paraphrase. Now here’s the catch: read it carefully to see if anything strange catches your eye.

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Mary and her husband Joseph who were traveling to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. By that time Mary was very pregnant, so she made the long journey to Bethlehem on a donkey while Joseph walked them along.

Once they made it to the city of Bethlehem, they found the town extremely crowded from all the people trying to register. Then Mary began to go into labor. Desperately Joseph looked in every available inn, but no room was to be found. Finally an innkeeper let Joseph and Mary stay in his stable overnight.

It was a cold, wintery night on December 25 when Jesus was born. So Mary wrapped Jesus in a swaddling cloth and laid him in the warm straw of a manger. Thankfully the other animals in the stable granted them space and their own special provisions. Overhead, the Christmas star was shining brightly.

Out in the countryside, shepherds were guarding their sheep by night. Suddenly a great host of angels appeared to the shepherds and sang about the good news of Jesus’ birth. Excitedly they ran with their sheep to Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the stable.

Later that evening, three kings from the east arrived to visit the baby Jesus. They followed his natal star which shone right above the manger stall where Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds were. There they offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

At some point during the night a little drummer boy showed up to play his drum as a gift to the Christ child. Jesus opened his eyes and smiled at the boy.

The end.

Every year we see and hear the Christmas story told in songs, hymns, pageantry, paintings, and pictures. The question is, what is authentic and what is not? What comes from the Bible, specifically Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, and what is extra?

This Christmas I’ve been reminded how much tradition has modified the Christmas story beyond Matthew and Luke’s birth stories. These things have been so ingrained in our telling of the story that we hardly question their presence.

My Jewish older cousins of the faith have a word for all the extra stuff. They call it Midrash. Midrash is a collection of stories and interpretations from Judaism’s long oral history that seeks to fill in the gaps of the biblical story. The purpose is to create understanding, meaning and application of the scriptures.

For example, there is a famous Midrash from the Noah story. According to some Midrash the reason why the ark was enormous and took 52 years to build was so that the rest of humankind would look at it, ask Noah about its meaning, hear his preaching and repent of their sins. Of course, they were so sinful that they didn’t even bother to ask. That fascinating story is not in the Bible, but it provides some helpful inference and interpretation of the story’s meaning.

When it comes to the Christmas story, we don’t call the non-biblical modification to the story Midrash per se, but that’s exactly what it is. Here is some of the “midrash” from the Christmas storyline I put together:

  • Mary riding to Bethlehem on a donkey– That’s a popular depiction in art and speaks to Mary’s pregnancy during the journey, but there’s no record in Luke’s gospel of Mary’s mode of transportation to Bethlehem
  • The city of Bethlehem was overly crowded– Nothing is mentioned in the Bible about the population of Bethlehem. Things are presumed to be extra busy because of the census and Luke’s note that there’s “no room” for Mary and Joseph. Also, Bethlehem was no city or town. Historically, it was probably a village which Luke figuratively calls the “City of David”.
  • The innkeeper (and his wife)– There was none. He and sometimes Mrs. Innkeeper seem to appear in virtually every Christmas pageant, but not in the Bible.
  • Jesus was born in a stable– Again, no mention of that- only a manger. With the presence of a manger, we might infer a stable for livestock. But there’s also a tradition that the site for the manger was in a cave.
  • Jesus was born on December 25– Though technically not “midrash”, Christmas Day on December 25  was probably set by 4th century Christians as a day to commemorate the birth of Christ. Many scholars agree that Christmas was set right around the winter solstice to compete with pagan rituals. But in reality, we really do not know what time of year Jesus was born, and the gospel accounts offer no clues. All of the winter references in Christmas carols are simply a cultural appropriation.
  • Friendly animals– A beautiful Christmas tradition but not biblical.
  • The Christmas star– Yes, in Matthew’s gospel there was a star that led the Magi to Jerusalem and eventually to Jesus in Bethlehem, but there’s no mention of it appearing on the date of his birth.
  • Angels singing to the shepherds– In Luke’s gospel, an angel appears followed by a host of angels who said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” There’s absolutely no mention of singing. Contrary to Charles Wesley’s “herald angels singing”, Luke mentions no angelic music to harken our attention. Still, given the hymn-like words of the angels, we have traditionally inferred that they were singing.
  • Three Magi came to visit baby Jesus– This is probably the most elaborated upon story in the infancy narratives of Jesus. Matthew does not say how many Magi there were. Three is given as the traditional number because of the three gifts. However, in some ancient eastern Christian traditions, there were twelve Magi who represented the gentile (non-Jew) equivalent to the twelve tribes of Israel.
  • They were kings– There’s no mention of them being kings. They were Magi- a kind of soothsayer. Many scholars think they were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, but Matthew is silent on that detail, too. Chances are the king inference comes from Psalm 72:11, “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.”
  • The Magi were present at the place of Jesus’ birth– The magi wouldn’t show up until much later. This blurring of Matthew and Luke’s story comes from nativity scenes… and the opening scenes of Ben Hur. Matthew records that the Magi came to the house where the Holy Family was living in Bethlehem.
  • The little drummer boy– A popular song from the 1940s, I’m always amazed at the number of nativity scenes with a drummer boy present!

Is all this Christmas “midrash” bad? Not at all. They’re not biblical, but they add an interpretive lens to round out the story into this rich tradition. And they reflect how Christians through the centuries have chosen to approach the birth of Jesus.

At the same time, we must make a conscious distinction between the Bible and extra-biblical traditions. Matthew and Luke have essential stories to tell that proclaim the meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth. They are very different stories which offer two different portraits of the nativity. Let’s get those stories right even while we enjoy the traditions that have developed through the centuries to honor the birth of our Lord and Savior.

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I’ve Decided I’m an Atheist

No GodSomething has been brewing within me for several years now that I have been too ashamed, too embarrassed, and very afraid to admit.

I’m an atheist.

After a long journey of thoughtful introspection through a continuous strain of disillusionments, disappointments, but also eye-opening clarity, I’ve concluded that there can’t possibly be a supernatural deity who somehow controls and influences things.

Interestingly enough, I learned this lesson in the church through my work as an ordained pastor.

On Sunday mornings, I have preached wonderful sermons about God and Jesus. I learned that I could tell all these stories with great conviction without really having to anchor my life to any of it. I tried this, just for kicks- preaching powerful, passionate sermons about things I had struggled to believe. I found I could put on a great show. The people would walk away inspired. “That was a beautiful sermon, Pastor!” But then nothing changes. Everyone goes back to life as usual. I did this for weeks on end and realized that I didn’t need a god to do any of it. Great, emotional shows. Happy people. Same people. Week after week. Where is the divine in that?

Then I noticed that there was no need for deity in any of the church’s activities. People talked about God. I talked about God. We said nice little prayers to God. But I looked around and realized that it was just decent religious people doing good people things. This went on for month after month, and then I concluded that if there really was a deity, there should be more than this- a lot more. But there isn’t. I could have started a wonderful charity group or a recreational club, made no mention of deity and have done the exact same things.

I looked at the way we learn. I have taught lots of Bible studies. I do love to teach, and for many years, I walked away stimulated by the deep discussions we were having. People get jazzed about discussing things, often in painstaking detail, bringing history and the writings of scholars into our learning. We eat it up! People walk out thanking me for a thought-provoking, powerful study. Those same people would come back, week after week, but I began to notice over time that nothing would change. We’d end up talking about the same things. The same kinds of speculative questions would be asked. It was all superficial. People spoke in generalities about God, people and the world. Still, nothing new happened. I didn’t see any real changes of heart that led to improved behavior or priorities.  There were no grand ideas generated that would lead to anything positive or constructive. Thus, there was no deity needed or involved in any of it! Once again- no god doing anything supernatural.

And then I looked at they way we pray. Prayer time in worship is more of a support group and story-telling time than what I would imagine prayer to be– getting on our faces before God in submission, fully relying on the strength, power, mercy, and love of God. No, we turn in prayer cards for this hurt, that surgery, this and that struggle, and say nice little prayers with tears, hugs, and tissues to go around. And there is never any evidence of supernatural intervention, other than what a doctor could do. After a while, I thought our time might be better spent creating a doctor and patient support group for mutual encouragement. Meanwhile, there was no real evidence of a god or deity; anything people described as “God’s intervention” I could find a natural cause for. I could see that! Why couldn’t these people see it?? No god, no deity… just religion wrapped up in emotion and speculation.

But what really led me to conclude that there is no god is the suffering of the poor all around us. We read and study in our Bibles that Jesus loves the poor and fills their mouths with good things. But there is not a smidgen of evidence for that anywhere. I looked at the priorities of my church and other churches in our neighborhood. Sure, we all do canned food drives, fill poor kids’ backpacks once a year, and maybe even serve a meal in a homeless shelter. But anyone can see– an atheist like me can see!– that these are token gestures. Lives aren’t changed. No one is removed from poverty and suffering because of a canned food drive. I had always heard that love, relational love, changes lives. I had heard that communities bound together in a common cause for the kingdom of God changes lives. That would take no less than the work of a deity through people who claim this deity as their god. But it doesn’t happen. The poor still suffer while we religious people sit in our church buildings. Why say we believe in a god and carry on about religion when our neighbors still go without a home, without good food and water, struggling in addictions, alienated, and alone. If there is indeed a god whom people claim works through them, then this “god” has failed.

So, it’s very simple. If I can be a Christian and have no real need for God other than self-help– and I can get a therapist or read a good book for that– then there is no need to bother with the notion of a sky-god who controls and influences things. Leave that to nice ancient story books like the Bible.

Oh by the way, Bible discussion group will be held after Sunday morning story time and mutual support group… A creative, able-minded, talented atheist like me can lead all of that!

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April Fools! But… my point is far from a joke.

 

 

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