Friday, December 30, 2011

Have you taken down your tree yet?

I am often accused, about December 1st, of being a grinch.

Usually it's my younger daughter, for whom any day after Thanksgiving should be filled with Christmas carols and decorations. Not surprisingly, the biggest conflict on this score centers around putting up the Christmas tree.

If I had my way, we would put up the tree around December 20th. Maybe as early as the 15th. But never sooner. However, recognizing that compromise is an important skill to learn as well as to teach, we usually put up our tree around the first weekend in December. And I'm okay with that.

My biggest gripe, however, my biggest frustration (besides the fact that by December 1st I am incredibly SICK of Paul McCartney singing that he is "simply having a wonderful Christmastime" which seems to invade not only the all-Christmas-all-the-time stations, but also every shopping mall (which I avoid), dentist's office, and restaurant soundtrack. Where was I? Oh, yeah, my biggest frustration. It's that during December, all the radio stations, all the stores, all the media outlets focus on Christmas. From at a minimum Thanksgiving weekend (and sometimes much earlier, but that's not my point) onward, everything is Christmas.

Then December 25th turns inexorably to December 26th, and the tidal wave stops. Just like that.

In fact, and here's one of the points of this rant, we've come to believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on December 12th as a countdown to Christmas Eve. Originally December 25th was the first day of Christmas, and the season lasted twelve days until it ended on January 6th, or Epiphany. Decorations went up on Christmas Eve, and remained up until January 5th or so. (That's why the Norwegian hymn, "I am so glad each Christmas Eve" includes a verse that begins, "When Mother trims the Christmas tree ...")

Today, according to this way of thinking, is the Sixth Day of Christmas. I would love to be able to turn on a radio and hear Christmas carols, but you can't find them anymore. They stopped on the 26th. We've moved on.

Why have we made this switch? One simple reason. Retail. Christmas has become the mighty engine by which retailers make a large percentage of their annual profit. You can't very well hype the Christmas shopping season after the holiday now, can you?

If, however, the Christmas season is really about Jesus, then it is appropriate to have a season of preparation (Advent) during early December, then to celebrate the anniversary of his birth, then to have a couple weeks to reflect on what it means that he has come. Parents of newborns understand this rhythm. Preparation, birth, and reflection. Then on Epiphany we celebrate the coming of the Magi, or Wise Men, (see Matthew 2), when Jesus is revealed as King of kings, when he receives our gifts and our homage.

The world doesn't celebrate Epiphany.

So, if you can, leave your tree up for a few days yet. Take time to bask in the glow of the decorations and reflect on what it means for you that Jesus is born. Celebrate the Christmas season. Come into the New Year reflecting not on your waistline, but on the Word become flesh (see John 1) for us.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas wars

In the aftermath of Christmas, I encourage you to read this article by Jim Wallis, posted on my friend Curt's blog. Whatever your political leanings, Wallis touches something deep and true about the tension between our culture's vision of Christmas and the Bible's witness to the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 26, 2011

New blog

Just read this amazing blog post. Wow. It's written by my daughter Erica, so I'm now both incredibly proud and incredibly convicted at the same time. But I'll take it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Deep breath

I am taking a few moments in the middle of a pastor's Christmas Eve schedule. We've done two services tailored to children already this afternoon; currently a colleague is leading the 5 pm worship service, and at 7:30 another colleague will lead worship. I'll be back at 11 pm for my favorite Christmas worship time, complete with communion and candlelight and "Silent Night." I love it, and afterward I will be exhausted.

But for the moment, I'm caught in that little island of peace you can find sometimes -- just a few moments' worth. I've greeted some dear, dear friends and many strangers today; I've stood outside in sandals and a shepherd's costume holding the door for people and wishing them a hearty "Merry Christmas!" while they, and I, marvel at the fact that it's 40 degrees in Minnesota on December 24. Something wrong with this, but it feels pretty good.

In a few minutes I'll leave for my in-laws' place, a huge, boisterous family gathering and gift exchange and food and food and food.

In the quiet, I am a little overwhelmed taking stock of the richness of my life. I am so blessed with my church, my colleagues, my family, and most of all the Lord who took on flesh in the form of a tiny baby one night in a backwater town in Judea.

So much to be joyful about. May you have as merry a Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The one who started Christmas

This is one of those apocryphal stories that run around on the internet. An oldie but a goodie in these days:

Who Started This Christmas Stuff?

A woman was out Christmas shopping with her two children. After many hours of looking at row after row of toys and everything else imaginable; and after hours of hearing both her children asking for everything they saw on those many shelves, she finally made it the elevator with her two kids.

She was feeling what so many feel during the holiday season time of the year - overwhelming pressure to go to every party, every housewarming, taste all the holiday food and treats, getting that perfect gift for every single person on our shopping list, making sure we don't forget anyone on our card list, and the pressure of making sure we respond to everyone who sent us a card.

Finally the elevator doors opened, and there was already a crowd in the car. She pushed her way into the car and dragged her two kids in with her and all the bags of stuff. When the doors closed, she couldn't take it anymore and she stated, "Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be found, strung up and shot."

From the back of the car, everyone heard a quiet, calm voice respond, "Don't worry, we already crucified Him."

For the rest of the trip down in the elevator, it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. This year, don't forget to keep "the One who started this whole Christmas thing" in your every thought, deed and words. If we all did it, just think of how different this whole world would be.

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son; that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What is your role in the kingdom of God?

I've been thinking lately about Mary, the mother of Jesus. When Mary was growing up, her people anticipated the coming of the kingdom of God. They might have been more comfortable with the Old Testament prophets' language of the "day of the Lord," but they had a sense God was going to show up and do something amazing, radical, important, earth-shattering.

Lots of Mary's people had a pretty clear sense that they just needed to wait and pray. (Some, of course, ignored the possibility that God would do anything -- they just lived their lives and missed it when God eventually showed up. Sad.) They knew God would do his work. These faithful ones anticipated, waited, watched, and hoped.

Others believed they could make God's kingdom happen by force. They were the Zealots who took up arms to throw off the Roman usurpers and set up an earthly kingdom for God to rule through their power. They looked back to the Maccabean revolt against the Jews almost two hundred years earlier, when the military revolt of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers bought a window of partial freedom for his people and created the Hasmonean dynasty among the Jews, until the Romans came in and took over a century later.

Still others believed that if they moved out into the desert, purified their lives and distanced themselves from the pollution of this ugly world, God would come to them and rescue them. They believed that if they could just get away from sin and corruption, they could pave the way for the Messiah. These were the Essenes, living out along the Dead Sea.

Another group decided that they were really more interested in their own rule and authority because they saw themselves as the heirs of God's kingdom, whatever it meant. They had power and they meant to keep it. These were the Sadducees who ruled the Temple and the sacrificial system, who had the endorsement of the Roman authorities and lived well on the religious taxes they levied on their people.

What about Mary? We don't know a whole lot about her before Gabriel showed up to tell her she was going to carry the Messiah inside her body for nine months. We know, however, that when the angel showed up Mary heard what he had to say. And when he'd said his piece, she responded with willingness to be a part of God's plan. "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

Do we have ears to hear when God invites us into his plans? Or do we simply go our own ways and assume that's just more of the noise that fills our minds and hearts this time of year? The church invites us into a class or a program. A neighbor wants to sit and visit. A friend needs a caring ear or a helping hand. The Salvation Army is looking for bell ringers. The food bank needs donations. Which of these is the voice of God and which is just background noise? Do you even care?

If we are seeking to know God's voice, he'll help us discern when he is speaking. Mary must have known him to some extent before Gabriel showed up. Jesus said many years later, "My sheep hear my voice."

What happens next? Mary responds, willing to be a part of God's work. Then she is mostly passive. The baby grows within her whether she focuses on it or not. Gestation and birth don't require Mary's consent. So often we think that our participation in God's work is about what we do, about what we accomplish, about how we help God out. Instead, more often God builds his kingdom in and through us when we are willing -- not through our hard work, most often, but through our willingness to let him do his work in us. Most of the best ministry I've done in my life I've felt more like a spectator on the fifty yard line watching God get his hands dirty, rather than like a quarterback throwing brilliant passes. The privilege of professional ministry for me has been that I have really good seats to watch the kingdom of God happen, and sometimes I even get to be in the game for a while.

What Mary does, more than anything, is to reflect on God's work. She ponders. She contemplates. She's a good example for us these Advent days when the world seems dark and we know we need God to come and make his kingdom a reality among us.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

One more Faaberg pic

This is a wider view of the sanctuary at Faaberg Lutheran Church where I grew up. Recently we had Dr. Skip Sundberg from Luther Seminary speak at Central, and he talked (among many other things) about these old churches that have the semicircle altar rail where you kneel for communion. The theology behind it is more than providing a convenient way for people to receive communion, of course. The circle is designed to be completed on the other side of the wall, in the church cemetery. As we kneel for communion, the whole communion of saints -- those living and those who have died and are with Christ -- are united. The older I get, the more people I love are buried outside in that church cemetery, and of course in other places as well. It becomes increasingly meaningful to me that Jesus transcends the barriers that seem so fixed, so firm, to us -- even the barrier of death.

This season of Advent is largely about anticipating the return of Christ, when he will erase that barrier of death forever. I find myself wondering what other boundaries, what other lines in the sand that seem so important to us here and now, will be erased on that day.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Meditations for Christmas

In a dozen days, the wrapping paper will be in the trash and very likely some of the presents will be broken already. But if you read one of these reflections each day, you will be richer in your own understanding of Christmas -- from a variety of perspectives! These are some Christmas reflections I wrote in December of 2009. If it's easier for you to access, they're posted in a link on the right hand side of this page.

Monday, December 12, 2011


My mother-in-law is part of a study of the New Testament book of Hebrews and recently asked me a question that got me going. Here's part of my answer, which a few of you history buffs and biblical enthusiasts may find interesting:

Okay. Let me see if I can do this question justice. First of all, it's important to note that there are lots of different understandings among Christians about how to view Judaism -- for example, is modern day Israel still included in the Old Testament prophecies, or do those now apply to Christianity? Or, are Jews saved through Jesus or are they subject to the first covenant outside of Jesus as Messiah and Savior?

I'm not going to settle any of those things.

But it is also important to say that Judaism has gone through many, many different changes. In fact, it wouldn't be accurate to even call the Old Testament religion "Judaism" or refer to them as "Jews" until the very last parts of the Old Testament after they come back from Babylon. Prior to the exile (587 b.c.) most religious scholars refer to "ancient Israelite religion". Prior to 587 b.c. the religion centered mostly on the priesthood and the prophets. The written scriptures they did have were not yet considered authoritative. After the return from Babylon (approx. 515 b.c.) Judaism gradually took shape. It centered in a few new elements that had developed during the exile in Babylon -- the written Torah became very important, gathering in synagogues became the primary social gathering (instead of the Temple), the rabbi rose in importance (overtaking the priests in influence) and so on. So what is commonly called "Second Temple Judaism" -- from about 515 b.c. to 70 a.d. -- was a both / and religion that focused on both the temple and the synagogue, both on the sacrificial system and the written Torah. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., the Temple was no longer available so the sacrifices ceased. Judaism came to emphasize only the synagogues, only the rabbis, only the written Torah.

Here's where it gets interesting. Some branches of Judaism grew to think that maybe God allowed the destruction of the Temple in order to get Jews to focus on scripture and prayer instead of (as one Jewish rabbi told me), "all those terrible bloody sacrifices." More liberal Jews -- what are usually known as "reformed" Jews -- take this approach, though they are still tremendously concerned about Israel because it is the homeland of the Jewish people and they see it as protection from anything like the Holocaust being repeated. The more conservative Jews, especially the "hasidic" or "orthodox" Jews, see things differently. Some of them, at least, believe that they cannot be truly reconciled to God without the sacrificial system, so they are looking forward to a day when the Jews possess ALL of Jerusalem and can tear down the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Temple. (Some evangelical Christians also believe that this is necessary before Jesus can return, so the "Left Behind" books and others make a big deal out of this.)

Hebrews was probably written (according to most scholars) before 70 a.d. The book seems to speak about Temple rituals as if they are still continuing at the time of the book's writing. If we suppose a date for the writing of Hebrews around, say, 60 a.d., the author (whoever it is) writes to an audience of Christians who are a mix of Jews and Gentiles, all of whom have put their trust in Jesus. The author, though, seems to be speaking primarily to Jews (see Hebrews 1:1). At the time of this writing, then, the animal sacrifices, the grain offerings and all the festivals are still being practiced. So when the author of Hebrews speaks to these things, he refers to them as currently in practice. That state of affairs didn't last long -- maybe another decade until Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.

Today, the Jews still practice the festivals, including the Day of Atonement (it's referred to as "Yom Kippur" on most calendars, which is just the same name in Hebrew). These festivals and the way they're observed has changed from the Old Testament prescriptions, though, since there's no place to bring animals or grain or oil to offer. Instead, these have become rituals to be practiced in the home and in they synagogue. (Probably the Passover, or "Pesach" is the most familiar of these since many Christians have experienced a Seder meal, a Christianized version of the traditional Passover meal observed by Jews.) Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and other Jewish festivals are listed on many calendars and are still practiced by observant Jews today. For some of these Jews, it's just a cultural thing like Norwegians observing Syttende Mai. For others, these are deeply significant religious holidays. You see the same cultural / religious division among Christians when it comes to Christmas and Easter.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A different take on the Magnificat

If you're looking for something to jar you into Advent, try reading this. I tend to think the author is pretty close to right on.

Faaberg Altar 6 -- The stained glass windows

To see the altar this post is talking about, click here.

Let's face it, the altar itself is pretty grim. Jesus in his dying agony, the women grieving, the sun hidden by dark clouds, the land barely visible for the darkness ... it's not much to cheer you up. Make you focus, yes. Make you ponder the death of Christ, yes. Make you aware of the seriousness of the faith, yes. But there is little joy in the central pieces of the altar.

That's why it is so important to include the stained glass. On either flank of the altar itself, the stained glass stands in brilliant tension. The resurrection is proclaimed every Sunday morning as the light shines through symbols of victory.

By the way, I remember as a child how intimidating it was to me to attend evening worship services. During Advent or Lent when we had midweek services the whole feel of the sanctuary was much darker, much more grim, and in large part this was because those stained glass windows were dark, and the crucifixion stood alone, without the resurrection. I remember many of those evenings sitting with a sense of grim foreboding.

Sunday mornings the greens and yellows breaking through the windows, the palm branches on the left and the cross and the crown on the right created a counterpoint of joy and promise. Christians always have to hold the cross and the empty tomb in tension. We need both the crucifixion and the resurrection. So often we get too much into the cross and our faith becomes grim and we see ourselves as worthless worms. Other times we get too exclusively into the resurrection and we think this faith is all about our victory and our power, without any reality check about suffering and sin.

I think having the stained glass windows and the crucifixion painting together at the front of the sanctuary all those years placed that both / and deep in my theological understanding. I've never been swept away by those, for example, like Marcus Borg or John Shelby Spong who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus in favor of some spiritualized hope.

The cross was so real, so vivid, so historical to me growing up, and the resurrection was right there with it. It was two sides of the same event, two halves of a whole, two pieces of something that in its entirety saved me and redeemed all creation.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Faaberg Altar 5 -- the background

To see the picture this post is talking about, click here.

Lots of times when you look at a work of art, the background just fades away. It's easy in this painting to focus on Jesus, the cross, the women. But having spent over three hundred hours looking at this painting, I had lots of time to consider the background.

First of all, it's dim. It's hard to see the hills of Judea, the rocks Jesus said would cry out in praise if the children were silent. These are the same hills that watched Abraham nearly kill his son Isaac on the hilltop just to the east. These same ravines sheltered David and his soldiers when they put Jerusalem under siege. These are the same rocks that Solomon considered as his workmen built the temple. There's a deep history to this landscape.

Look at the sky. It's gruesome. The sun peeks out of a tear in the clouds, red as blood. The very cosmos is engaged in what's happening on this cross. The New Testament tells us that this is in fact the case -- that all creation, not just human beings, was involved in this sacrifice. From this moment, from Jesus' sacrifice, comes not only our redemption but the redemption of all creation. Jesus is not only our Lord, but also Lord of the earth, of the heavens, of the rocks and the hills and the trees and the ravines.

Romans 8 tells us that all creation waits in eager expectation for the church -- those who have been adopted into God's family through Jesus -- to be revealed. This is precisely because through the church God is unfolding his plan for that creation. He uses his church to give creation a foretaste of what it will be like to be made new.

It should not surprise us that the sun was darkened and that an earthquake shook the ground when Jesus died. We so often minimize Jesus by making his life, his death, and his resurrection primarily about us. It has a huge impact on us, yes, but God was redeeming not just us but all of his creation, which had become infected by sin. Sin's impact goes far beyond what we usually understand. We think of sin as "something I've done wrong." Rather, sin is a power that is opposed to God's rule, not just in our lives but throughout creation.

The painter has captured the cosmic nature of Jesus' death. Take some time to consider Colossians 1:15-23 and ponder what the Bible says about these things!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Faaberg Altar 4 -- the inscription

To see the altar this post refers to, click here.

Underneath the painting is an inscription in large gold letters on a dark background. It is mostly hidden by candles, a chalice and paten, and most of all a large hymnal on a stand, all in front of it on the altar table. It reads, "Se det Guds Lam". It's Norwegian, which is no surprise on the altar of Faaberg Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, as it was originally known. (The Swedes, not numerous in this particular community, had their own church a few hundred yards to the southeast. The story goes that when my great grandfather was cast out of the Norwegian church for working on the Sabbath, he caused a minor scandal by attending the Swedish one. I have relatives in both cemeteries.)

The inscription is a quote from John the Baptist in John 1 -- "Behold the Lamb of God!" The full quote is, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." John the Baptist says this to two of his disciples when he is pointing out Jesus as the Messiah. This becomes a sort of bookend to the gospel of John, an idea that John develops throughout his gospel to help the reader understand what it means that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the one who is sacrificed for the sins of the world. In John 6 Jesus goes on at length about his followers needing to eat his flesh (like the Passover lamb) and drink his blood (unthinkable under Jewish law even for the blood of animals) in order to have life. In John 12 Caiaphas, the high priest, points out to the rest of the Jewish rulers (the Sanhedrin) that it is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.

The timing of the sacrifice when Jesus goes to the cross coincides with the Passover festival when the lambs are killed to remember God's great act of deliverance, freeing the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. In the temple while Jesus was dying, preparations were under way for the people to reenact the Passover once again. Jesus goes to the cross as our Passover lamb, the one whose blood is shed (like the lamb's blood was smeared on the doorposts) to save us from death.

On Sunday mornings as a child I didn't notice the inscription much. I remember, though, as a teenager how we would break into the church (for a few years it was kept locked and we had to figure out how to jimmy the side entrance door) to play ping pong, to hang out in the basement and talk. A few times we went up into the sanctuary and even went inside the altar rail. I suppose at the time we were pretty casual about being in that space, but somehow there was always a sense of something holy about it.

I suppose I was thirteen or fourteen when I spent some time pondering that inscription. "Guds lam" was not hard to figure out, and I had a pretty good sense what the words meant. I had two equal and distinct reactions to the words.

First, as in the biblical summary above, I pondered why the artist chose those particular words to sum up the painting. I spent time thinking about the Passover stories, pondering how Jesus was like and unlike the Passover lamb. This pondering added biblical and theological depth to an idea I had heard preached and sung for years -- that Jesus' death was not just some cosmic atonement (more about that in the next post), but it was personal, that it was for me and for the family, household, and community to which I belonged. I had a very clear sense that the words were for us, for my natural family and for my Christian family. The artist was imploring us to reflect on the painting, to "behold the Lamb of God" as we worshipped.

Second, I thought about the fact that though I didn't speak more than a word or two of Norwegian, the inscription was in the language of my grandfather and my great-grandfather and the old country from which they came. Granted, this inscription was one of a thousand tiny ingredients of my childhood that tied me to an ethnic enclave of Norwegians. But the centrality of these words carried a significant weight. This altar, this painting, this inscription was the focal point of the sanctuary, which was the focal point of the community's life and of my family's faith. The fact that these words were in Norwegian rooted me to a particular tradition of a particular history and a particular kind of Christianity. In later years when I learned about King Olaf ("Saint Olaf") and how he Christianized Norway, and closer to my own upbringing about Hans Nilsen Hauge and his lay-led revival, I had a deep sense that this is my heritage, these are my people, this is my past.

Following Jesus is both being tied to him, to the history and the specifics of first century Palestine, and also being tied to these people, the ones right here and the generation immediately preceding that have passed on this faith to me, to us. We cannot neglect either one. All Christians hold Jesus and his particular history in common, but we each have unique stories of the ethnic, cultural, and personal contexts in which we have been brought to trust in Jesus. This is a gift.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Faaberg Altar 3 - The women

To see the painting this post talks about, click here.

Grief is real.

I looked at the two women many, many times as a child, pondering something I didn't very much understand. They were hanging around at the base of the cross, watching one they obviously loved die an excruciating (literally, "from the cross") death. Why did they stay?

Love and grief are two sides of a coin in the face of death. I didn't understand that then.

Watching a woman stay by the bedside of her cancer-ridden husband, watching a man throw himself on the coffin of his dead wife, standing in the hospital corridor after the vital signs have stopped, waiting with the family for the funeral home to come and collect the beloved body, I have observed the grief of others. Sitting hunched over in the hospital waiting room aching with pain and fear for someone I love, I have known the aching abyss of my own grief. More times than I can count I have stood in front of a room full of people whose lives have been shattered by loss, who sit in a pool of terrible grief, stomachs churning, hearts empty, tears running, minds numb, aching to turn back the clock and change something, anything, to prevent this loss. I have wrestled to be able to speak a word that pierces through the heart of grief and brings hope.

Grief is probably the most personal emotional process we go through. It wracks our bodies and beats our spirits into the ground. We will do nearly anything to numb the pain, to get away from the dull knife that pierces our hearts, the constant bleeding of the minutes and the hours without the one we have lost.

These women lived in a brutal time. Death was no stranger. Violence was all too common. Disease was a familiar foe. This was not the first time they sat with the dying. They waited faithfully, holding vigil and keeping their own pain at bay so that Jesus would not die utterly abandoned, so that after his death his body would not be simply thrown on the trash heap and eaten by stray dogs. I remember a sense of disappointment and shame that there were no men at the foot of Jesus' cross. I grew up among strong women who were often more able to handle the hard emotions, the difficult situations, than the men. Men buried themselves in work and ducked away from grief if they could. As I grew older I saw these strong women -- my mother, my aunts, and many others -- broken by grief, picking themselves up and doing the necessary things to arrange the funeral, to serve the coffee, to arrange the lunch, to hold each other while they wept, to make it possible for life to begin again.

So there are two women kneeling at the foot of the cross. They waited to wash Jesus' body and wrap him for burial. They waited to hear any words that might escape his lips in these last horrible moments. They waited because grief is part of love, at least this side of God's new creation.

I noticed many times as a child that these women, especially the one on the left, don't look very Jewish. Her pale reddish hair looks much more Scandinavian than Semitic. We do this -- we paint ourselves into the picture, whether by portraying Jesus in our own racial image or by putting ourselves into the scene. In a sense we do this because we, too, wait at the foot of the cross. We live between realities -- Jesus has come, and by his death has defeated death. Yet we live with the presence of death all around us, believing and trusting in a future resurrection for ourselves and for those we love. Grief is still a reality.

Someday, the Bible promises, it will not be so. Death will be no more, and God will live with his people, and he will wipe every tear from their eyes. The women at the foot of the cross remind us of the now / not yet nature of our faith, and of strength in the face of our pain.