Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Wandering "Okies" today

I recently finished The Grapes of Wrath, one of the most difficult-to-read novels I've picked up in a long time. For me, it was a difficult book, not due to the grammar, although the way Steinbeck quotes the "English" spoken in that time is very hard to comprehend, but because I had a very personal connection with the story. In many ways the difficult journey of the Joads' was also my grandparent’s story.

With fear that my High School English teacher will see this, I admit that this was the first time I had read this classic novel. And as I read about the Dust Bowl from Steinbeck's perspective I was shocked by the amount of total devastation in that region; as well as the ways the sharecropping farmers were kicked off their land to make way for "progress." The description of the automobile drive west and the family’s hopes of a new and blessed life in California was painful to read. The terrible treatment of the "Okies" by the Californians was also appalling.

But why was it painful for me? I've read hard luck stories before; this time it was different. This time this was ‘my’ story. My mother’s family moved out from Oklahoma in the '30's, not due to the Dust Bowl but due to my grandpa's ill health. He had tuberculosis and needed to move to a drier climate. Unfortunately they picked a terrible time to move, when the ‘Joads’ and others were also on the road and seeking work in California.

As a result of reading this novel, I now have an image of my sweet, tiny grandma picking fruit, cotton, and working long hours in a cannery or the walnut house. I discovered my grandparents lived with their seven children in a two-room "house," which was actually a converted chicken coop, for nine years! My mom was the only one of the kids born in California.

Their dreams in migrating were for a better life. As I think about my family, for many of us the dream has come true. All of us are better off than my grandparents.

The dream was fulfilled, just not for the first generation.

Stories of refugees are common in our world today. Numerous people are moving from their homes to try and find a better life someplace else. Like the Joads, though, people don’t just move unless they are forced to by dire circumstances. Last June I was in Turkey about 20 miles from Aleppo, a city on the front pages of the news at the moment. While there, the group of students I was leading was able to meet with a number of Syrian refugees living in that region. We were treated to immense hospitality by these people who had fled their homes due to fighting; none of them wanted to leave, but were forced to due to outside circumstances. As I read how the Joads' maintained their humanity, even in the face of extreme dehumanization from the Californians, I was reminded of the beautiful Syrians we met in June.

As I write this, the city of Aleppo has been retaken by government forces. At the same time, a 7 year old girl in Aleppo has been tweeting her story- Bana Alabed escapes East Aleppo

Although not connected with the rebels, her home has been destroyed by government forces. Like the Joads', will her family make the move to a neighboring country to find a better life? (The link above shares how this family has been relocated to Turkey)

We’re currently in the season of Christmas, a time when Christians reflect on the birth narrative of Jesus. One of the interesting parts of Jesus story is the flight to Egypt shortly after the Magi leave. Jesus was a refugee. What if Egypt had closed their borders to immigrants and migrants? If Mary and Joseph had returned, would Jesus have been killed?

13 After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, 15 and they stayed there until Herod’s death.

Knowing my families story makes me much more sympathetic to the plight of those who experience loss and hardship right now. Knowing Syrian people who have fled, hearing their stories and their desire to return home, and knowing Jesus and his family experienced the same trauma and hardships makes me long for a world where peace is seen. What can I do? How do I keep from becoming one of the oppressors? If we stop to think about it for just a few minutes, the story of migration is the story of almost all Americans. At some point our ancestors were in the same circumstances as the fictitious Joads and the very real Syrians like Bana.

I invite you to join me in one way to respond, by giving to the Mennonite relief agency MCC: https://mcc.org/learn/more/syria-iraq-crisis-response

Friday, December 16, 2016

The sad death of Christmas Cards

Here we are in an old Christmas card photo

Has the giving of Christmas cards died a quick and sad death?

I awoke with the song “White Christmas” playing in my head the other morning. One line kept repeating over and over, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, with every Christmas card I write.” As this line kept looping I thought about how far from reality this seems. I admit that my wife and I no longer send Christmas cards and the majority of our friends don’t either.

I’ve also had a question rattling around in my thoughts, “How can I find ways to fully live the hope and expectation of the season of Advent, rather than stress and ‘Christmas’ for 30 days prior to the actual Christmas day.

These two random thoughts collided and I was left with a bigger question, “In previous generations, were writing and addressing Christmas cards one of the spiritual acts of Advent?”

As I understand it, Advent is a season of preparation, of spiritual and moral self-reflection in anticipation of entering the Christmas event. Christmas day is the culmination of that self-reflection capped off by the 12 days of Christmas. It seems to me this has completely flip-flopped. Christmas begins at the end of October and the entire season is a race up to the finish line- Chrismas day. I wonder if in the past taking the time to write and address a stack of cards helped slow down the pace and provide an opportunity to reflect on the season, rather than race through it.

Growing up, I remember receiving cards from family and friends and as a child I remember especially loving the ones that came with a photo of the senders family. Most of the time I knew the people in the image and sometimes I’d ask my parents who the people were. Other times the cards would have beautiful scenes and encouraging words on them. If we were lucky, they even had a check or a dollar or two for us kids.

Fast forward a bit to when my children were small, Christmas cards still were sent and received. As a family we added a “twist,” we place all the cards we got in a basket on the dining table and would  pray for the family from one card each night.

Nowadays, we only receive a handful of cards each year. More and more of my friends post a Christmas photo on their Facebook page and wish their followers Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Facebook has killed Christmas cards. Time to write an obituary I suppose.

Thinking about how Facebook has replaced Christmas cards gave me an idea of a spiritual practice to recapture the slowness and mindfulness of addressing numerous cards. I decided to go through my Facebook “friends” list  and pray a prayer of blessing over each one. I sat last Saturday morning with this list and if you’re one of my friends I prayed for you.

Here’s what I prayed:
Numbers 6:24-26
24 The Lord bless you
   and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face shine on you
   and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord turn his face toward you
   and give you peace.

May you experience peace and blessing this Christmas season. And if you’re not sending cards, I invite you to the practice of passing on the prayer and blessing to your Facebook, and wider, friends.

Here’s the version of “White Christmas” I had playing in my head that day. I had this album on cassette back in the 90’s and wore it out playing it in the minivan with my kids.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Need a suggestion for a Christmas Gift? Pick up the Bad Habits of Jesus by Leonard Sweet

The first time I heard the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” I was around 10 years old. I was in my local library looking for adventure books; the librarian wanted me to read a certain novel and I didn’t like how the front cover looked. She gave me a stern lecture on how book covers are chosen and why it is unhelpful to evaluate a book solely on how it looks. I’ve tried to follow her advice ever since.

Judging by the image above, I can imagine some people seeing the cover of “the Bad Habits of Jesus” by Leonard Sweet and refusing to read it either because of the title or the “biker” image on the front. However in the words of my childhood librarian, save the judgement until after reading.

The Bad Habits of Jesus starts with a premise that is sure to raise a question or two. Bad habits? How could Jesus have any bad habits? He’s Jesus after all. Son of God, sinless, perfect, healed people, great teacher; the thought that he did anything untoward goes against all that is taught in Sunday school. And yet, when Sweet put out a request on his Facebook page as a way of crowdsourcing his followers to list any bad habits they thought Jesus had, the page was flooded with comments. Apparently, when people think about it, there are a number of things that Jesus said or did that were outside the cultural norm of 1st Century Judaism, or ‘bad habits’. Among the many who had something to say were Sweet’s current Tabor College Ministry Entrepreneurship and Innovation students. A few of their “bad habit” observations made it into the book.

In the 2000+ years since Jesus left this earth, many ideas have sprung up about who he was and what he did. Over the centuries the Church has often removed the radical, scandalous nature of Jesus of Nazareth, especially as the institution became more and more connected with the powerful and elite in society. Christian faith was reduced to a ticket to heaven, and the life and teachings of Jesus relegated to a backstory for what was ‘really’ important: Jesus’ death and resurrection. What I love about Leonard Sweet, and this book specifically, is that the author reminds his readers that who Jesus was and what he did matters, and for those who claim to carry his name, ‘Christian’, there is an expectation that his life be taken seriously.

In the Apostles Creed there is a significant comma. In the second stanza the creed states,

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Did you see it?

The comma after ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ and before ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate.’ What goes in this space? The entire life and teachings of Jesus; unfortunately, this comma removes the entire life of Jesus and renders it irrelevant.

Throughout history, Christians have been so caught up in proving the significance of the death of Jesus, or his Divinity, that His humanity has been removed. What Sweet’s book attempts is to remind readers that Jesus was human as well as divine and that his life and teachings matter a great deal to his followers today. In this way, as Sweet points out on page 191, this is a book about the Incarnation. While Jesus walked this earth, what were some of these bad habits? Here’s a list of some of the chapters: Jesus Spit, Jesus Appeared Wasteful, Jesus was Constantly Disappearing, Jesus Hung out with Bad People, and others.

My favorite was Chapter 10: Jesus Spent Too Much Time with Children. As someone who has worked with children and youth for 30+ years, I found much in this chapter to rejoice over. This quote stood out particularly, “Jesus treated children as if their relationship with God was an important as any adult relationships. Jesus constantly sacrificed his rabbinic dignity to reduce the distance between himself and a child. Jesus preached to the children, hoping the adults would get it. That’s one reason he told stories.” (pg. 116-117) As I get older and more “dignified”, I need to continually remind myself that Jesus sacrificed his rabbinic dignity to bless children.

My devotional reading this week has focused on Luke 6:46-49. In verse 46 Jesus states, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I say?” Notice the focus is on doing, not believing, trusting, or holding onto a golden ticket, but doing what Jesus says. What I loved about The Bad Habits of Jesus was the reintroduction of how truly radical and life changing putting Jesus words into practice really is as a follower.

I read this book and highly recommend it. If you’re still thinking of a gift for someone on your Christmas list, this would be an excellent choice.

Friday, December 02, 2016

"Behold" = time to pay attention

Luke 2:10:
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;

I’ve always loved the part of the Christmas story where the vast host of angels show up. There’s something about the way a calm and “normal” night was disrupted by the heavenly visitors that intrigues me. I imagine what it would have been like for the poor shepherds, minding their own business when the sky lit up. Talk about shocking. If it were me, I would have run.

Even more specific than the appearance of the angels, I’ve been drawn in this story to the angel of the LORD’s initial greeting, “Do not be afraid; for behold...” In more modern translations the word “behold” is not included. However, I believe this word is key to the story.

I have a friend named Dave. When we were younger, we both were volunteers in the same youth ministry. One year we were running a fall carnival with games, bounce houses and a wagon ride complete with hay bales to sit on. Dave, in an attempt at humor, stood by the hay ride all night shouting to any passerby, “HEY!” When they looked at him, he would point to the hay bale and laugh. Like Dave, Luke is drawing the reader and  grabbing his or her attention. “Behold” means “look” or “hey!” and there is a sense of urgency behind this word. The person speaking wants his or her hearers to pay attention.

And in this use in Luke’s gospel what was there to ‘behold?’ For the shepherds, the announcement is a sign of good news, of joy, a baby and messiah come to earth.

I was curious, were there other instances in the Bible where the word “behold” is used referring to the Messiah? I found two places which I believe serve as bookends for Jesus’ story. If this ‘behold’ in Luke is the central proclamation, the other two are no less significant.

The first is in Isaiah 42:1-4:
“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold;
My chosen one in whom My soul delights.
I have put My Spirit upon Him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 “He will not cry out or raise His voice,
Nor make His voice heard in the street.
3 “A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 “He will not be disheartened or crushed
Until He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.”

The first thing that hits me about this “Behold” is the picture of a Servant who looks a lot like Jesus: delighted in by God, full of the Spirit, and gentle in word and deed. His primary mission is bringing justice, a word used three times in this passage. We sometimes read this word through a North American legal lens, but the Hebrew perspective of justice is producing honorable relationships, bringing peace - shalom- to individuals and the nations. Most scholars would equate this Servant with Jesus.

The other bookend “behold” comes at the end of Jesus’ life from the mouth of Pontius Pilate in John 19:5: “Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold, the Man!’”

In each instance, the voice inviting the hearers to “behold” is not the person himself, but rather someone else inviting people to pay attention. Unlike the other two instances, here the “behold” points to a prisoner, and yet this is not dissimilar from the servant seen in Isaiah. Behold- here is one who came to sacrifice all to generate justice to the nations.

As we enter into the Christmas season and hear or see the word “Behold” in readings, carols, or greeting cards, may we pay attention and see the bigger picture:
A Servant bringing justice
A Savior and messiah

A Sacrifice for the nations

Monday, November 21, 2016

Remembering Memory

In mid October I had the privilege of participating in a United Methodist national youth leadership conference in Malawi. I was there to teach on entrepreneurship as one component of the program.

While there, one of the young men I met was named Memory. He was a part of the hosting church and was helping out with the sound system. I was amazed by his “MacGyver” nature, he was always fixing things or making the technology work with minimal resources. He's in the photo with me above.

Over the duration of the event I was able to get to know Memory and his older brother Ezekiel and to hear a bit of their story. Both were active members of the host church and had experienced the sadness and loss of their father.

Memory has a dream, to go to University and complete a business degree. In a larger sense, I learned from numerous conversations, higher education is a dream for nearly every young person I met; Malawians see schooling as a path out of the extreme poverty they live under. In fact, I heard two primary requests while I was there, “please help me continue my education” and “can you help me get an internet phone?” The interesting thing was, these were not random youth I was meeting on the street, these were young people who have been called into leadership by their local churches. What was sad to learn is a student can attend University for about $50 per month and that’s still an amount that is out of reach.

A jarring observation for me was a lack of older adults in our interactions. Due to AIDS and  other illnesses, 67% of the country is under twenty-four years old. This reality brings a lot of promise, but also a lot of challenges. If education is out of reach for so many, the future is not promising.

As a ONE member I support the bi-partisan Education for All Act and I encourage you to support it too. This act will be one more link in the chain to help young people like Memory have access to schools. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out a way to support students like Memory and the other young leaders in Malawi who are hoping and dreaming for a pathway to attend school. For more information and to join me in using our voices to seek change check the ONE.org site: Education for All

So I remember Memory today. And pray and act to see he is able to complete his business degree.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Cultural Hooks

The Acura NSX ad hit my Twitter feed this week. In the commercial a car is crafted to the soundtrack of David Lee Roth shouting and screaming, music building with percussion, and finally Eddie Van Halen’s signature guitar. It’s the intro to Running with the Devil, a big hit from the late 70’s.

The curious twist is when the song is really kicking off, the words “What he said” appear on the screen. No lyrics are every sung. The message is clear (at least for me), if you buy this car you’re running with the devil too. It’s a brilliant piece of marketing. At least for a child of the 80’s who grew up on Van Halen and what is now called, “Classic Rock.” And with a price tag of $150,000, people my age are probably exactly the kind of people Acura is targeting.

Or are they? I watched the commercial with my 18 year old daughter who loves cars. I’m not sure where in our family this comes from, but she could be classified as a motorhead. She loved the ad, the way it played up the car, the streamlined body, the powerful engine, but when I asked her after we watched it, “What do you think ‘what he said’ meant?” She thought it had to do with the screaming; the fact this car is so awesome you too will want to scream (and maybe that’s correct). But she missed the cultural hook.

This commercial got me thinking about the Bible. Not in the, “how can I stop running with the devil” way, but rather the many times the characters or writers of the New Testament quote the Hebrew scriptures with one tiny fragment when they might have intended it to be a cultural hook.

One needs to understand that people in Jesus’ day had basically memorized the entire Old Testament. Since there were very few copies of the texts, students (which was pretty much all of Jewish society), would spend time memorizing the entire set of 39 books. When a religious leader wanted to make a point, he would quote one part of the passage and expect his listeners to fill in the rest.

For example, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he quoted Psalm 22, verse 1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) And a reader can easily stop there. However, if a person reads on (or has memorized) the entire Psalm, some very rich insights emerge. I encourage the reader to do this.

In addition, the writer of the book of Hebrews does something similar in numerous places in the book. For example, in Hebrews 2:12 the author also quotes Psalm 22:22 which again points to the entire Psalm and the work of Jesus.

There is more to be written on this topic, but I’ll stop for now. My commitment this week is to be more mindful of how I use cultural hooks as well as to identify where cultural hooks are being used all around me. I also want to check more closely when I find these hooks in literature, poetry, or my reading of the Bible. And I’ll especially be on the lookout for them when I watch the advertisements during Super Bowl 50 tomorrow.