upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Children's Play - Sun, Moon, Star by Kurt Vonnegut

You know you pastor a cool church when the Christmas play is "Sun, Moon, Star" by Kurt Vonnegut. There are many Christmas pageants and plays for purchase. Many of them are very clever and funny. Most of them have nothing to do with Christmas. They are gimmicks contrived to "do something new with an old story." More precisely, they are gimmicks used to get churches to buy yet one more thing. Perhaps this reveals why I don't work in theater, but I think that the Christmas story is pretty interesting just as is. Angels, shepherds, birth, animals, stars, songs, love, danger, political intrigue, poverty, and riches - it seems to me that the original story has everything in it that a major blockbuster movie needs to be successful. Yet, I'm not beyond finding new ways to bring this most wonderful story to both children and adults.

Some authors who have found new and profound and even silly ways to tell Christ's birth include Madeleine l'Engle's "Sky Full of Children," which is all about creation, stars, and wonder. In it she asks, "Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for you?" Sky Full of Children is a chapter within her book on the Incarnation called "Bright Evening Star."

Leo Tolstoy also writes about the meaning of Christmas in Papa Panov's Special Day.

Frances Tyrrell took the old Canadian/Native American Christmas song "The Huron Carol" and turned it into an illustrated children's book, which is pretty outstanding.

Author Mark Francisco Bozzuti-Jones and illustrator Shelly Hehenberger offer us a tale that rests on John 1 in their book "Jesus, the Word."

These are not plays, per se, but they are tales that may help people enter the Christmas story afresh. I have seen all of these turned into plays in one way or another.

Of course, I am a pastor, and I think the best Christmas story is found in the Bible. To be specific, I am most moved by Luke's story (sorry Matthew).

Here's Kurt narrating his own story.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas and START - Dreaming of Peace

The New Start Treaty is making progress toward a vote in the Senate, despite maneuverings among Republican leadership to grind the process to a stop. This treaty is necessary to maintain oversight over Russian and US nuclear arsenals. It steps in and takes over where the old Start treaty left off when it expired. And, it calls for reduction of nuclear warheads by both countries.

I remember as a child sitting in elementary school classes when we had bomb drills. I remember living in a town with a Strategic Air Command air base and listening to the regular sounding of the siren that would, perhaps, warn us of incoming missiles. These memories are part of me. In our world of increased terrorist threats and decreased personal liberty, I find the idea of the New Start Treaty very reassuring. In a country deeply divided by partisan politics, I find something uplifting that nine Republican senators have broken ranks with their leadership to advance this treaty.

This week I am frantically finishing Christmas Eve bulletins. Our Advent theme at Woodland Park United Methodist Church has been on "peacemaking." We have hung photos of peacemakers from around the world in our sanctuary. We handed out peace cranes to people so they would be reminded of peace every day. We have sung of peace, preached about peace, and prayed for peace. We hosted conversations with leaders from other cultures and faiths to discuss peace in their philosophical traditions and to dialogue about the obstacles their communities face regarding peace. Peace is on my mind, and, fortunately, has burrowed itself in my heart this Advent.

The New Start Treaty, as flawed as it may be, is about peace. It is a tangible work by two governments to advance the idea of peace. This is a rare thing. I hope those senators who understand themselves to be Christian will think about the connection among peace, Christmas, and this treaty. This week the Senate can do something quite sacred. It can make real in the world, if only in an incomplete and finite way, this peace for which we all yearn. They can make their faith real by voting to reduce the threat of nuclear war. I hope they will. I don't want the generations that follow us to have the same kinds of memories that I have of bomb drills and fear of strangers. I dream of a better world. I believe in the Prince of Peace. And, I hope my fellow Christians who are senators do as well.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Republicans, Christmas, Partisanship, and Governance

It may not surprise anyone who reads this blog where my political leanings lay. However, I try to keep this blog from being a divisive place. On the whole, people pretty much want the same things: meaning, safety, a sense of home, belonging, and peace. People - rich and poor, Democratic and Republican, people of all colors and hues - yearn for wholeness and completeness, and they dream of a world that is better than the one in which we currently live. We may not all agree on how to get there or exactly how that dream looks, but in the main, I don't think people are as far apart as we are generally portrayed.

Given that paragraph on unity, I now move into dangerous territory - political territory - a partisan landscape that is fraught with ideological land mines, presumptions, coded language, and suspicion. Yet, as I labor to prepare the people in the church I serve to welcome the Christ-child, Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace, my heart is heavy and my soul wearied by the theatrics that are taking place in Washington, D.C.

Both parties play childish games, hold up processes necessary for governing our nation, and resort to name calling. It is disgust of both parties that compels many people to identify as "Independents." The childish maneuverings of people who should otherwise know better push the potential voter into a malaise from which it is difficult to be shaken or moved. Many potential voters in our political process stay home rather than choose between two evils on election day.

Yet, the Republicans have taken a no holds barred approach lately - an approach that I feel compelled to denounce because they have now invoked my faith, my religion, my Savior, and my holy festivals in their political high jinks.

When the Republicans won the House and made gains in the Senate, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made this statement to the National Journal, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." While he appeared to ease back from that statement in an interview on FOX News, it seems that his party has not backed off it at all. They have been playing the obstructionist role with great verve. First, they would not allow any legislation to progress until passing a tax bill that includes an extension of the Bush tax cut for those making over $250,000. Once they won this battle, they did not step aside and allow other legislation fair hearing. Up next in their sights were the Health Care bill, DADT, the START Treaty, the Dream Act, and the omnibus bill. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint went so far as to demand a reading on the floor of the Start Treaty, something that has been available for review for eight months. Senators John Thune (R-SD) and John Cornyn (R-TX) called a press conference to decry the wasteful spending and pork in the omnibus bill -pork they themselves put in - and when pressed by reporters why they were making hay out of a bill they helped draft and over earmarks which they requested, they fled the podium. Their basic defense: Yes, we put those in, but we're going to vote against this bill because it's full of pork. Even in an interview on Republican-friendly FOX News, Senator Cornyn did not give a cogent reason for requesting earmarks and then voting against them. But none of this is what drove me to write this post. What drove me to this post was the Republican invocation of Christmas as a reason to cease the work for which they have been elected.

Vice President Joe Biden has some feisty words for Republicans hiding behind Christmas (below). In Senators Thune and Cornyn's press conference regarding the omnibus bill, Senator Cornyn cried foul at the Democratic leadership jamming and cramming this bill down the necks of the newly elected at a time when they would like to be "shopping" and spending time with families. He seemed unconcerned with the families affected should the government grind to a halt. He seemed utterly distant from the realities of what occurs when the government is not fully funded and cannot operate even for the sake of national security. He seemed ignorant of the irony in allowing people to go unpaid and vital programs unfunded so that he can go home and celebrate the birth of Jesus, a poor child who would grow into the one whom Christians profess as Savior - healer and redeemer - of the earth. Moreover, he seemed completely ill-informed that Christmas doesn't begin until December 25 - not before. Christmas begins December 25 and lasts for twelve days. It does not begin in October or at Thanksgiving or a week before - it begins on December 25. That gives him plenty of time to do the work for which he was elected. Moreover, at the prospect of a post-Christmas Day session, Senator Jim DeMint rebelled against Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), saying that such a session would be "sacrilegious...deeply offensive to me and millions of working Americans across this country." And Senator Jon Kyl complained that coming back after Christmas would be "disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate."

As a working American and as a professed Christian, it is deeply offensive to me that people elected to be stewards and leaders of this nation and all that is in it are playing games with people's lives and with our security - and using the Prince of Peace as the one to hide behind. It is offensive to me when we cannot make steps toward peace by ratifying the START Treaty because it may give President Obama political leverage and because it may interrupt shopping. It is disrespectful of their office, of our nation, and to this Christian when people "use" the name Jesus to further their own self-interested partisanship to the detriment of the least, the last, the weakest, and the most vulnerable - the very ones to whom Jesus comes.

When Mary discovers that she is pregnant, she offers one of the most poetic proclamations of biblical faith when she gives God glory in singing what has come to be known by Christians as The Magnificat. She says:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on
the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all
generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done
great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who
fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with
his arm;
he has scattered the proud in
the imaginations of their hearts.
He has brought down the
powerful from their
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with
good things,
and sent the rich empty away.
(Luke 1:46b-53)
If the Republican Christians in the Senate need to read something on the floor, I ask them to let the atheists, Muslims, and Jews head home and for them to stay and read Mary's song. Perhaps it will instruct them on who they are to be as Christians, and then perhaps they could spend some time in reflection before defaming the name of Jesus the Christ in the course of their political reindeer games.

I close my rant with a re-rendering of the Old Testament Reading from Advent 3A (December 19). The prophet Isaiah is speaking to King Ahaz, who does not trust God and who will not do as God says.
Isaiah: Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?
Katie: Hear then, O party of Reagan! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Conversations in Peace - Interfaith Advent Gatherings

This Advent my church has taken advantage of growing relationships with other faith communities by inviting representatives from other faiths to come and facilitate conversations on/in peace. For three of the four weeks in Advent, a representative from a mosque, a Buddhist monastery, and a synagogue came to the church that I serve to lead a conversation about the basics of their tradition, the nature and character of peace within their tradition, and then each discussed challenges their communities face in attaining peace.

It has been holy time. We began with a representative from Islam, who spoke about salaam and its centrality within Islam. He discussed what jihad is and how its meaning has shifted through time. He talked about gender, politics, and the historical relationships between Islam and Judaism as well as current realities of being a Muslim in America today. The following week a person representing Tibetan Buddhism came and talked about the Four Immeasurables, what it means to belong to a religion in which there is no god, what deities are, and the function and role of prayer. He talked about the causes of suffering as well as what karma and merit are. Last, a representative from a Conservative synagogue came to discuss Judaism, shalom, shalem, prayer, ritual, the Sh'ma, commandments, chosenness, and the challenges that confront both Jews and Palestinians.

As a pastor, it has been my intention for these talks to achieve a number of things. First, as Christians prepare their hearts and minds for the birth of the Prince of Peace as well as preparing ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ, we have to ask ourselves what peace is and how it manifests in the world. Peace is not an abstract idea, which we sing about in sweet carols about a sweet baby who lives in a sweet family surrounded by sweet animals and sweet shepherds. Peace is concrete. The power of the Prince of Peace is that Christians profess that peace is coming into this world embodied in the poor, born in squalor, proclaimed by the destitute; it struggles into life. Peace does not just "happen." It is birthed - painful and real, embodied and messy. It is perhaps one of Christianity's greatest gift to the world to profess that peace is real, it comes to us, and it is messy and embodied and it has ramifications for all of creation. So, this Advent, as our nation struggles with divisive politics, as North and South Korea rattle swords, as personal liberties in our own country continue to dwindle, as peace in Jerusalem seems further and further away, I thought it important to take a long look at peace - within Christianity and around the world.

I also wanted us to "make" a little peace this Advent. One of the most powerful and efficient ways to make peace is to look upon another not as a stranger but as a friend. Through these conversations, people did not discuss "Muslims," "Buddhists," and "Jews." Rather, people heard about life stories from real people who live real lives and who share in the same human drama as do all people. Strangers became friends through the sharing of stories, through laughter, through questions asked and answered, and through the lifting up of hopes and dreams. People named the challenges they see to achieving peace, and we sat there together fully aware that we could not make peace come to all humankind, but we could experience the common humanity of those in the room. Just by sharing space with someone who looks, dresses, acts, prays, sings, eats, and lives quite differently, a little peace was made this year. I think the Prince of Peace would like that.

Last, Christians - especially mainline Christians - often struggle to name who they are as Christians - to know what it means to live guided by the Prince of Peace. As similar as many of the religions represented are, there are significant differences between Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians. I hoped that these conversations would help Christian participants better know themselves and our own traditions. All three of the presenters, when asked what Christians should do to be peacemakers, replied, "Know your story (book) (roots)." All three people from other faiths encouraged Christians to better know our scriptures, our traditions, our rituals, and our histories. It was heartening to see a Muslim tell Christians that we would be better followers of Christ if we read our Bibles and became instructed in it. It was wonderful to see a Buddhist tell Christians that he thought we would find ourselves enriched if we learned our own traditions well. It was important to see a Jew help Christians see that Jesus was a faithful Jew, and that to be his followers, we need to know what Jesus' Jewishness meant/means.

As we close out the third week of Advent and enter the fourth week and welcome Christmas into our hearts, congregations, homes, and world, what are we doing? For what do we gather? For whom do we wait? What is meant for us in the singing of the Magnificat and the Benedictus? What are the implications of God's holy peace for how we live our lives, how we see the world, and how we greet the stranger? As the candles are lighted during Silent Night, do we wait for that mystical moment when God's holy vision is fully realized and all the earth is completed in grace and love? That is peace. That is shalom. That is salaam.

May the peace of Christ be with you this and every day.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Phyllis Tickle - Spiritual Disciplines Video

Advent is wholly concerned with time - the beginning of new time and the ending of old time. Throughout Advent, Christians prepare their hearts for the coming of the Christ-child and for the second coming of Christ the judge, who comes to right the injustices of this world and to redeem the brokenhearted and downtrodden. This season is often confusing for many lay people. When the apocalyptic stories from both the Old and New Testaments are read, people are left wondering why such strange stories are being told during this season of waiting for "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." Yet, to be a faithful Christian is to learn to live in a different time - time that ushers in an end to the pain and injustice of this world in order to make way for the fullness of time lived completely in God. So, while there is much joy in Advent and Christmas, much hope, much light, and much to sing about, there is little "sweet" about these seasons that bear witness to God's light of peace piercing the darkness of our world. One only need read the Magnificat or the Benedictus to learn the core meaning of this most precious season.

Christians - faithful Christians - discipline their lives for living in different time. From prayer to special holy days to rituals that bind us to the past while making room for the future, it is our holy and sacred duty to continually place ourselves in a receptive posture to receive the gift of God's holy time.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Phyllis Tickle, in which she talks about the power of spiritual disciplines to bring us into God's time. I hope you enjoy. As I continue to work on my doctoral project about Sabbath, I will post more and more videos from those who have gifted me with their wisdom. I thank Phyllis more than she can ever know for spending this day with me and for sharing in laughter, in story, and in life. From one Southerner to another, I can say honestly that "she's good people." Thank you, Phyllis.

The question I ask tonight is, "How is Advent helping you reshape time?" Or, perhaps, "How is the time of Advent reshaping you?"

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Advent Candle - 2A

Advent Candle Prayer

Holy are you and blessed is your name, Lord God, creator of the universe.
This day we seek your kingdom - where the wolf and the lamb shall live together and
all of creation will live in harmony.
We find this kingdom by following a child who will lead us in the way of peace.
Bless us as we light the candles on this wreath.
that we may see your light of peace shining in the darkness.

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