Monthly Archives: November 2009

Advent is Coming

Frankfurt am Main city hall and Christmas market at night.

Tomorrow marks a new beginning. It’s the beginning of Advent and the start of a new church year. For my liturgically challenged friends, here’s a little Advent primer. Advent is the season prior to Christmas when many Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus. “Advent” derives from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.” It looks backward to the Incarnation and forward to the Second Coming—twin Christological certainties separated by the here and now, the in-between-ness, when things are far less sure.

Growing up we always had an Advent calendar to countdown the days until Christmas. Not just any advent calendar but an antique, box-shaped calendar made for a candle in the middle. Its four cardboard sides resembled the step-gabled facade of the medieval town hall, called the Römer, in my mother’s hometown of Frankfurt, Germany. It was a connection to the old country, to our family’s heritage, and to a much older land where shepherds watched their flocks by night and Magi searched the starry heavens for signs.

Each day of Advent we opened a new window, revealing a Bible verse printed in Gothic script on tissue paper backlit by the flickering candlelight. My mother still has that Advent calendar, fragile and worn with years of use. It’s stored away for safekeeping. She has a newer one just like it, sturdier and brighter, which she uses now. She’ll be setting it up today. The older one reminds me of Advents past when my faith was simple and unquestioning. The newer one preserves the family traditions in the present while pointing to the promise of the future return of Christ—“the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). Looking back and looking ahead. Comfort and hope. Certainty and expectation. That’s what Advent is all about.

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Founding Fiction

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Ferris (1863-1930)

Everyone knows the story of the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims, who were fleeing religious persecution in England and cultural assimilation in Holland, landed at Plymouth Rock in order to found a colony where they could experience religious freedom. Although half their number died that first winter, friendly Indians like Squanto and Massasoit brought them food and taught them how to grow corn and catch fish. A year after they arrived, the Pilgrims hosted a thanksgiving celebration with Indians and Englishmen feasting and frolicking together. And so goes one of our most popular founding myths.

There are many details of the story that have been added or deleted. The Pilgrims first landed at Cape Cod, not Plymouth. It took them a month to find the site of their permanent settlement, and early accounts never mention setting foot on Plymouth Rock. Their first encounter with Indians was hostile, not friendly. And although they were fleeing religious persecution in England, the Pilgrims themselves were hardly poster children for religious toleration. Squanto was named after a Native American spirit the English later identified with the devil, so you have the irony that the Christian Pilgrims survived with the help of an Indian named Satan. And the saints were not always so saintly. William Bradford and his wife Dorothy left their young son back in the Netherlands, and she died in an apparent suicide shortly after arriving in the New World. Plymouth was never the kind of godly community Pastor John Robinson and others had envisioned. And from the first there were always so-called “strangers” among them—people who did not share the Pilgrims’ beliefs.

More than factual errors, however, the Pilgrim story represents mythmaking on a larger scale. One contemporary definition of history is “stories well tell ourselves about ourselves.” By focusing on the story of the founding of Plymouth Colony, Americans in the 19th and 20th century were saying something important about how they saw themselves: Americans are white, Anglo, hardworking, family-oriented, and Christian—that is, Protestant Christian—people. And there is certainly some truth to this image. However, there is much that this myth ignores.

For the past generation or so, historians have become more aware of the “constructedness” of history and the crucial role the historian plays in the process. As educational opportunities have expanded for women and minorities, the story of America’s founding has been changing—not because the facts have changed, but because historians have changed. A more recent generation of historians has decided to focus on different facts and tell other stories—ones that had been previously downplayed, neglected, or ignored altogether.

In his book American Colonies, Alan Taylor explains this trend:

Indians have come back into the story as central and persistent protagonists. Instead of dismissing slavery as peripheral, recent historians have restored its centrality to the economy, culture, and political thought of the colonists. And new scholarship illuminates the essential role of women in building colonial societies. With the expanded cast has come a broader stage that includes attention to New France, New Spain, and New Netherlands.

Growing up in Florida, I was often confused about how the Pilgrim story related to the one about of Ponce de Leon and the founding of St. Augustine, which came a full century earlier. Who founded America anyway? Was it the English Separatists we call Pilgrims or Spanish Catholics—or was it the Indians? The answer is (d)—all of the above . . . and then some. In colonial times there came Spanish, French, Dutch, Scandinavian, and African people to these shores, where they met dozens of Native American groups, some fearsome and hostile, others friendly and docile.

America was then, and remains today, a multicultural land of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity—though that was hardly what anyone saw as ideal at the time and tensions among competing groups occasionally erupted in violence. Like the Pilgrims, we never live up to our own ideals, and we all practice mythmaking with ourselves.

We are never quite the people we tell others we are. Sometimes we’re not even the people we think we are. Growing up, I always thought of myself as a “true American.” By this I meant a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Christian. And there’s some truth to this image. My father’s family arrived from England in the 17th century. They were both white and Protestant. Yet my mother is a German immigrant and my first cousins are half German, half Filipino Catholics. Neither of their parents was born in North America. And neither my aunt nor my uncle spoke English growing up. Yet the diversity of my own family is more authentically American that the stereotype I had in my mind as a child.

The Apostle Paul says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11).

As America grows more mature, many of her citizens have become more aware of what we were really like during our county’s infancy. As we grow older, we too can recognize the folly of our childhood self-image: whether we thought we were going to be president one day or believed that we were losers who could do nothing right. As we mature, we become more self-aware. We were never quite as good, or as bad, as brave, or as cowardly as we once saw ourselves.

As the Plymouth Colony grew into its adolescence in the 1640s, a revolution was taking place back in England. Parliamentarians defeated the Royalists and executed King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England—a Puritan king of sorts who had more power than the monarch he replaced. Although he was a religious fanatic, and some would say a tyrant, one thing he was not was vain. He had unsightly warts on his face. Once an artist painted a flattering portrait of him. When he showed it to Cromwell, the Lord Protector was not pleased. He told the artist that he would not pay a farthing for the likeness unless it portrayed him faithfully—warts and all.

Are we willing to see ourselves, our families, and our country warts and all? That’s exactly how God sees us. And that’s how He loves us—warts and all.

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Apocalypse How?

The-Last-Judgement-(detail-of-a-man-being-eaten-by-a-monster)-c.1504-large

The Last Judgement (detail) c. 1504 by Hieronymous Bosch

The temple in Jerusalem was part of Jesus’ life from the beginning. Forty days after his birth Mary and Joseph came to purchase his redemption according to the law of Moses, redeeming the redeemer of the world. Every year they made the trek back to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. On one occasion the twelve-year-old Jesus stayed behind without his parents’ knowledge or permission. When the frantic couple came looking for him, they found him in the temple courts, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. During his ministry Jesus made frequent visits to the temple. It was here Satan brought him and tempted him to throw himself down, trusting his life to the guardian angels. Jesus later drove out the moneychangers who did business there, literally turning the tables on them.

Despite all of his contact with Israel’s most holy place, Jesus taught and lived out a faith that had less to do with temple ritual and more to do with right relationships. Love God and love your neighbor was the heart of his message. Jesus was to the Jewish temple what Mother Teresa was to the Vatican; only he was even more of a troublemaker than the nun of Calcutta.

One day Jesus and his disciples left the temple and made their way up the Mount of Olives. Looking back they could see the majestic structure, its white limestone gleaming in the midday the sun. It must have been an impressive sight. One of the disciples said, “Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!” (Mark 13:1). I’m sure it was a shock when Jesus replied: “Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone left upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (2).

Jesus was good at doing that—shocking people. He appears so serene in the kitsch images that hang on Sunday School walls, but looks can be deceiving. There’s no pinning the biblical Jesus down. He doesn’t fit into the neat, little boxes we build for him. Make Jesus your healer and he refuses to heal on demand. Make Jesus your ethical teacher and he tells you not to defend yourself. Make Jesus your rabbi and he says it’s okay to break the Sabbath. Make Jesus your Savior and he tells you in order to save your life you must lose it. Make Jesus your God and he dies.

Peter, Andrew, James, and John—the inner circle of disciples—took Jesus aside and asked him two questions: “When shall these things be? And what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?” (4). Answering, Jesus gave what’s called his “Olivet Discourse,” a frightening apocalyptic glimpse of the future that makes end times preachers salivate and leaves the rest of us scratching our heads. It seems more like something out the book of Daniel or Revelation or my last nightmare than a gospel text.

As to when these things will happen, Jesus says, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be done” (30). It’s true that many of the things Jesus prophesied took place in 70 CE when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, but not everything happened then. The stars didn’t fall from heaven and the Son of man didn’t “come in the clouds with great power and glory” (26). Did Jesus believe his return would take place within the lifetime of those standing around, as Albert Schweitzer claimed? Jesus said he didn’t know the timing of his return (32). Or did he simply mean he would return within a generation of something still to come, something he predicted for the future? It isn’t at all clear.

Jesus said many things about the coming of the end. He painted a troubling picture of a future full of woes and tribulation. The Greek word apocalypsis means “revelation.” We get the English words “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic” from it. It is ironic that most apocalyptic literature, Mark 13 included, obscures more than it reveals. I don’t know what of this highly symbolic passage to take literally. I’m also unsure whether Jesus’ words are predictions of what must come to pass or warnings, like Jonah’s to Nineveh, of what may come to pass if mankind doesn’t shape up.

What are we to do with a passage like this? There’s one lesson I think we can safely draw. History is moving toward a divinely directed culmination. Despite all of the uncertainty and tragedy of life, God is still in control. He is not responsible for everything that happens, but like a chess master he’s got an endgame strategy and he’s moving the world toward it. We’re not told to figure out all of the symbolism in minute detail and with elaborate diagrams. Our response is to watch and pray (33-37). That we can do. That we must do.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

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Veterans Day

Old Sailor (iStock)

Years ago a British soldier penciled a bitter verse on a sentry box:

God and the soldier all men adore / In times of trouble, but no more, / For when war is ended and all things righted, / God is neglected, the old soldier slighted.

The purpose of Veterans Day is to make sure that never happens in America.

This day is no longer called Armistice Day, but it began as a memorial of the armistice which stopped World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.  That armistice ended one of the bloodiest wars in the history of the world. Now our nation finds herself in another conflict. Our military men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan are defending our freedom and promoting the cause of justice, for the thankful and the thankless alike. Many have paid the ultimate price fighting for our country.

General George S. Patton said, “I do not mourn our fallen dead, but rather,  thank God that such men lived.”

Today a grateful nation opens her heart. All of us—every man and woman in this country—owe the 28 million veterans still living, and the many who have passed on, a lasting debt of gratitude.

More than a million made the ultimate sacrifice. They died in service, most of them young. In the words of one soldier-poet: “They tasted death in their youth so that liberty might grow old.”

To all those who serve in uniform or have served, thank you.

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Truth vs. Unity

Disunity is the original sin of Protestant Christianity. We divide endlessly, because there’s no mechanism within the movement for resolving theological disputes. There’s no pope, no Magisterium, no ecumenical church council that serves as the supreme court of our faith. As a result, our denominations sometimes seem like defective calculators that only divide, but never add or multiply.

It’s not only because we lack an effective mechanism for conflict resolution that we divide. Most Protestants care deeply about the truth, doctrinal truth, even though we don’t always agree on what it is. In our quest to get it right, we have sometimes sacrificed unity on the altar of ideology. Theology becomes everything. It becomes a great wall separation to keep some people out, others in. I’m not suggesting we throw the theological baby out with the separatist bath water. Doctrine can be true and helpful and beautiful, especially when it is used like a road map to point us to God and not like a club to beat people with and to keep them in line.

In some groups unity is reduced to conformity. We can have unity, they contend, only when we agree theologically. The prophet Amos asked, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). Some answer no and follow it to the logical conclusion. Unity requires rigid conformity to a long and very specific list of doctrinal statements, not to mention overly strict behavioral norms. The payoff for churches with rigid theology and strict conformity is a sense of safety and comfort. We prefer to be around those who are most like us. When we attend church with those who believe exactly as we do, it affirms us and makes us feel we’re not alone. For many people, having their beliefs challenged is unsettling and frightening.

But it’s not only conservatives who separate from other Christians. Mainline Protestants are sometimes ecumenical more in word than in deed. Episcopalians fellowship mostly with Episcopalians, Presbyterians with other Presbyterians, Methodists with Methodists, Congregationalists with Congregationalists. Denominational distinctives divide us despite high-minded statements about the importance of unity.

Sometimes it seems the truth-versus-unity challenge is a zero-sum game. Like a seesaw, when one side goes up the other comes down. How can we preserve unity without sacrificing truth? And how can we uphold truth without damaging our spiritual oneness?

I’m reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. It’s a memoir about the author’s struggle with parish ministry and how she made the painful decision to exchange her pulpit for a college lectern. Not only is it beautifully written but it is also thought provoking. Here’s what Taylor says about truth: “My faith is far more relational than doctrinal. Although I am guilty of reading scripture as selectively as anyone, my reading persuades me that God is found in right relationships, not in right ideas, and that a great deal of Christian theology began as a stammering response to something that had actually happened in the world” (107-8). I think she’s onto something. If truth is more relational than rational, then the tension between truth and unity disappears.

Those are some of my thoughts about truth and unity. What are yours?

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Jesus is my Jackpot

lighthousechurchofallnations-alsipil-500-chgotribzbigniewbzdak

Yesterday I brought home from work the booklet for the annual Combined Federal Campaign, which encourages government employees to give to charitable organizations through payroll deduction. I already use this method to give to Samaritan’s Purse and Habitat for Humanity, but I was thinking about adding another. There are a lot of worthy organizations but also some odd choices like “Christian Bowhunters of America.” And just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised by what quirky things Christians do, I opened The Daily Office to read the morning prayer and was taken aback by the picture (above) and caption:

“Here’s a pastor who grows his church with giveaways: Lighthouse Church of All Nations in Alsip, Illinois has seen a big jump in attendance since it started $1000 jackpots every Sunday to lucky parishioners. They also hear sermons on paying their bills and living debt-free. Would you trust your soul to this man? Is Jesus just another cheesy TV ad? (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)”

Sometimes there are no words.

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True Religion

We live in a religious society. Houses of worship dot the landscape. Televangelists fill the airwaves. Preachers’ books make the bestseller lists. How can we keep from drowning in this sea of spirituality? How do we discern the difference between what’s healthy and unhealthy?

Jesus gives examples of true and false religion in Mark 12:38-44. On the one hand there’s the scribes—showy and self-seeking religious professionals who oppressed the poor. In the quaint language of the King James Bible they “devour widows’ houses,” cheating them out of house and home. Such hypocrites, Jesus says, “shall receive greater damnation” (40).

Contrast those strutting like peacocks and wearing religion on their sleeves with the poor widow woman. They were rich, male, and socially well connected, yet they rapaciously took from those who had little. The opposite is a poor, marginalized and vulnerable female, who, despite her poverty, gave extravagantly to the point of giving away everything she had.

It’s easy to wag a finger at the scribes. It’s harder to follow the widow’s example. I stumble over that last bit: she gave all that she had. That’s what the Rich Young Ruler was unwilling to do to inherit eternal life (Luke 18:18-23). I could easily excuse myself by saying, “Jesus never told me to give away all I have.” I might rationalize that it would be unloving and unjust to do so, because I have a family to support. But I can’t get away from Jesus’ teaching that the best barometer of genuine religion is what we do with our money and possessions. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also” (Matt. 6:21). By this measure my Grinch-like heart is two sizes too small.

And what about my church? Is our religion showy and hypocritical or humble and genuine? We don’t devour widows’ houses like Wall Street bankers but what do we do with our money and possessions?

When my children were small I once asked them, “What happens to your money when you put it in the offering plate at church?” They said, “The men collect it and give it to God.” “That’s right!” I said, beaming with paternal pride. Then I asked a follow-up question: “And what does God do with the money?” In unison they replied, “He gives it to the poor people.” That response hit me like a splash of cold water in the face, because I knew only a miniscule portion of the offerings went to help the poor. “God have mercy on us,” I thought to myself.

What would happen if a church took Jesus literally and sold everything it had and gave it away to the poor? We’ll probably never know.

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