Being Bethlehem…

Last night I sat in sacred space in Independence, Missouri (USA) and through the miracle of technology shared in an Advent worship with friends in

  • Oregon, USA
  • Australia
  • Zambia
  • Honduras
  • Germany
  • Philippines
  • French Polynesia
  • Canada
  • Dominican Republic

I heard prayers, music, and scripture read and sung in

  • English
  • Bembe
  • French
  • Spanish
  • German

And I was challenged with the questions of “How far is it to Bethlehem for me this Advent season?” and “How will I–and the place(s) I worship–be Bethlehem, the birthplace of Messiah, this Advent season?”

“Bethlehem” translates as “place of bread” or “place of meat”…a place where one is fed and nourished. If I choose to be Bethlehem this Advent season, that calls me to be a place where individuals can be fed and nourished–not just physically (although that is important), but also to feed their souls and spirits.

To be Bethlehem calls me to recognize the worth of those who look different from me…who worship in ways that are not necessarily my way…to see them as brothers and sisters.

It is not always easy. In fact, most of the time it is difficult. But if–as in last night–I can share in worship with others in different cultures through the miracle of technology, then I can also use that miracle to learn more about them…to find the ways in which we are alike…and to work with them to create a world that can be Bethlehem–a place of bread or meat–for all people.

Peace on earth…?

As Christians celebrate Advent–the time of preparation for Christmas–I am reminded of the song that the angels sang to the shepherds…”Peace on earth…”

Whose peace?

What do I mean by that?

Peace has a number of different definitions: (1) the absence of war, (2) calmness, (3) tranquility, (4) a state of security provided by law, (5) a treaty to end hostilities… It’s often a passive word–it happens to us; we don’t do much to cause it.

But I don’t think that’s the kind of peace the angels meant.

I think they were talking about shalom, which is much more than the definitions above. It’s broader…and active. It encompasses wholeness…soundness…right relationships…an overflowing sense of tranquility and health that causes one to pass it on or to repay.

It’s God’s peace–and that is so very different from our limited understanding!

We cannot bring about that kind of peace on our own. Yes, we can do our part to help bring about the cessation of conflict, but for the world to experience the kind of peace the angels sang about, we have to be willing to surrender. Surrender our own demands for “right,”…our thirst for “more and more”…our conviction that we know exactly what the Divine wants for everyone…

We have to be willing to listen…to look with new eyes…to travel new roads where we may not see more than a step or two ahead…to walk with new companions we might not be completely comfortable with.

Only then will the song be complete…”Peace on earth…shalom…”

angelappearingtoshepherds

Santa…it’s not just a job…

Santa and Mrs ClausI know a wonderful man who has been a mall Santa Claus for the last 15 years. That’s a lot of time–and a lot of people!

Occasionally someone derides what he does or–worse–complains that by doing so, he’s ruining the spirit of Christmas. They don’t really know what happens…

Yes, for some folks, being Santa is just a job. But others find ways for it to be a ministry as well. Not a ministry of conversion…but a ministry of caring. Charlie’s had a number of those experiences.

He  encouraged a young teenage boy who was going to be going to court for something (Santa didn’t ask–didn’t need to know). He was concerned that he had really messed up–but Santa told him he believed in him…that he could turn his life around. And when he left the Santa set, his heart was lighter and he had confidence in himself.

He has given hope to children whose parents were not with them–either in prison or overseas in the military.

He has brought smiles to the faces of sick children in hospital.

He has shared Santa joy with senior citizens who have never had a chance to visit Santa before.

He has had pictures taken with parents bringing their new babies home and wanting something to commemorate that joy.

And this year, he had a young boy ask him to pray for someone with leg injuries the boy had seen at another store.

Those experiences don’t happen every day–nor do they happen with every Santa. But the best ones–in my opinion–provide a ministry that expresses the joy and hope of the season.

Thanks – giving

Many of us in the United States will gather with friends and family this weekend to celebrate and give thanks. There is much good in doing that.

But I also wonder…

What about those who do not have friends and family to celebrate with? They might be estranged for a number of reasons…

What about those who cannot be home because they are working…as first responders… as military personnel who are trying to keep people and countries safe…as medical (and other) personnel who are working to bring healing to people in hospitals…?

What about those who are mourning the death of a loved one?

Or those who wonder where their next meal will come from?

What about those who still suffer from the effects of the racism and colonization that underlaid the first “Thanksgiving” celebration on this continent? This is not a weekend of celebration for many of them.

We do need to find times and ways to give thanks…to count blessings…to rejoice in friends and family (whether that is family of origin or family of choice).

But we also need to be sensitive to those for whom this weekend is a difficult time.

So while I will give thanks this weekend, I will also acknowledge that there is much work to do to bring reconciliation and healing so that all may find a way and time to give thanks.

Love your neighbor…as you love yourself

Today’s title comes from a question asked of Jesus: “What is the greatest commandment?” His response: “Love God with all your being…and the second is like it. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

I sometimes wonder if the last four words in the title of today’s post are at the root of many of our problems.

If we truly loved ourselves…believed that we are “good enough”…that we are somebody of worth and value…would that change how we see others?

If we truly saw ourselves as people made in the image of the Divine…in the image of Love…would that change how we see others?

Would we see them as of worth and value? Would we see the image of the Divine…of Love…in them?

But if we don’t love ourselves, we will always be measuring ourselves against someone or something else–and we will never be good enough. And we will always be trying to find ways to “prove” that we are better than someone else.

Love is the only answer. I don’t mean what often passes for love today. The love I’m referring to is identified this way in I Corinthians 13 (God’s Word translation):

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love isn’t jealous. It doesn’t sing its own praises. It isn’t arrogant. It isn’t rude. It doesn’t think about itself. It isn’t irritable. It doesn’t keep track of wrongs. It isn’t happy when injustice is done, but it is happy with the truth. Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up.

If–when–we truly love ourselves, then we will find the ability to love others, even if we don’t understand or agree with them. And if we can do that, that will change the world.

They’re not just pieces of material…

Warning: The pictures included with this post are graphic and disturbing.

Several times recently I’ve seen posts saying that individuals who post pictures with the Confederate or Nazi flags aren’t necessarily racist. Sometimes the rationale has been that it’s “just a hick thing” or that those flags are just pieces of material…so why are people getting so bent out of shape?

Well, they’re not just pieces of material.

They represent very real ideologies that see a specific group of people as “subhuman” or “less than.” They are stark reminders of genocide…not centuries ago, but recent.

There are people alive today whose grandparents were slaves. There are people alive today who remember lynchings (lynchings were still taking place in 1981!). These are not abstract events; they are part of families’ histories…and the Confederate flag reminds them of this:

 

See the source image

A slave showing the scars of beatings on his back

Crowd Surrounds the Smoking Corpse of a Lynching Victim : Nachrichtenfoto

Jesse Washington, 17 years old, burned alive while an enthusiastic crowd looked on

Laura Nelson, lynched after being raped by numerous men, her body (along with her 14-year-old son’s) hung from a bridge and a postcard made of her lynching

There are people alive today who survived Nazi concentration camps–and who lost most (if not all) of their families in the camps. And the Nazi flag reminds us of this:

Boy In The Warsaw Ghetto

Nazi soldiers capturing Jews in the Warsaw ghetto

Mass Grave

A mass grave at Bergen-Belsen

Four emaciated survivors sit outside in the newly liberated Ebensee concentration camp.

The original Signal Corps caption reads, 
"EBENSEE CONCENTRATION CAMP.
In the Austrian Alps at Ebensee, Austria, units of the 80th Div, of the Third U...  found one of the largest and most brutal German concentration camps shortly bef...  of the war in Europe.  The camp contained about 60,000 prisoners of 25 different ... all in various stages of starvation.   The camp reputedly was used for scientifi... on the prisoners, who were used as live guinea pigs.  Conditions for the living ... bably brutal and filthy.  The men were forced to sleep four to a narrow bunk in ... barracs.  They died at the rate of 2000 a week, and their bodies were disposed o... ready for the crematory.  The Germans had fled before they had time to burn them.  ... living are being given care and nourishing food.  When they are strong enough to ... they will be returned to their homes.
These photos were taken May 7 and 8, 1945.

PNA                                                            EA 66316
THIS PHOTO SHOWS: These living skeletons are young boys.  
U.S. Signal Corps Photo ETO-HQ-45-46147
SERVICED BY LONDON OWI (INNER FULL)
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY SHAEF CENSOR.

Concentration camp survivors

Whether you like it or not, when you fly either of these flags (or give the Nazi salute), you are giving tacit support to those ideologies. They cannot be separated from those flags.

And so they are not just pieces of material. Your use of them and your reaction to them sends a significant message about who you are and what you believe.

The worth of all persons…

One of the Enduring Principles of my faith tradition is expressed this way: Worth of All Persons. These points help expand on its meaning…

  • God views all people as having inestimable and equal worth.
  • God wants all people to experience wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and relationships.
  • We seek to uphold and restore the worth of all people individually and in community, challenging unjust systems that diminish human worth.
  • We join with Jesus Christ in bringing good news to the poor, sick, captive, and oppressed.

That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Easy to say…but maybe not as easy to live out.

If I truly believe that all persons are of worth, that includes

  • People I disagree with politically.
  • People who are of a different culture or religion.
  • People who have hurt me.
  • People I am afraid of.
  • People of a different color.
  • People I love.

It means ALL.

That also means

  • I cannot support separating children from their parents with no plans on how to reunite them–simply because their families are seeking a safe place and a hopeful future.
  • The homeless person I see on the corner is deserving of my willingness to make eye contact with them…and to put aside my judgmental attitude.
  • I need to support help and shelter for the mentally ill and those unable to take care of themselves.
  • I am called to uphold in prayer even those I have major disagreements with.
  • When I see injustice, I need to call people and policies to accountability–even if that is uncomfortable or unpopular.
  • I need to learn more about other cultures, countries’ histories, and faith traditions in order to understand today’s world.

If I truly believe that, it will change how I interact with others…with how I live…with policies I support. And I have to decide to make that a priority in my life.

But if I am truly going to follow the One whose name I claim, I cannot do anything else.