Thursday, January 31, 2013

Considerate Witnessing

This past week a post from Reddit has gone viral. Someone self-identified as a pastor wrote a snarky comment on a restaurant receipt. The large group had been charged a 18% gratuity---not an uncommon restaurant practice----and the person commented that God only gets 10%, why should the waitperson get 18%? The person intentionally wrote “pastor” upon the receipt.

I did find the other side of the story: Reading these, I think of the times I've felt annoyed at a restaurant and came close to being rude in return. But the incident made me think about the general idea of sharing our faith with people---the way we communicate ourselves as Christians to others.

I think that witnessing to your faith is a genuine way---that is not scolding but rather humble and uplifting---can be extremely tricky. I've known plenty of pastors who made snooty comments, who were pious but in a chiding way. I know that I've made unintentionally snarky comments when I didn't mean it that way, or when I was low and "not myself." All my life, I've been concerned about sharing my faith in an unintentionally off-putting way; I’d rather keep quiet and let people see what I’m about, “to be there” for them and to be kind, to allow faith matters to come up naturally in conversation.

My first efforts at witnessing as a teenager were pitiful. It wasn't that I was haughty; in fact, I was (and still am) insecure and eager to be liked. But I didn't have a gift of evangelistic eloquence comparable to a friend who declared about some acquaintances of his, “I led him and his family to Christ, right there in their living room!” I read Paul Little’s How to Give Away Your Faith but had trouble applying the advice to myself.

I recall talking to a friend about faith, but I really didn’t know the best way to approach the subject. I had the right idea: to share how wonderful is Christ’s presence in one’s life, rather than to scold the person. But our conversation was like a bad blind date with long awkward silences. Later, I tried a different approach; I invited another friend to Sunday school. I got a defensive reaction, as if I’d made a value judgment upon the person’s character, but I’d meant no such thing. But here again, the trickiness: I was sharing with the person that I’m a member of something that my friend should join but hadn’t yet, and that my friend should. Of course, that would seem offputting if not communicated well. It would've been better had I waited for a more natural and unforced opportunity.

When you do share your faith, you’re implying that you’re plugged into something that the other person doesn’t have, and to share that without implying that YOU’RE wonderful, rather than God, isn’t always easy. Plus, the person may have a genuine faith already, it just isn't expressed in the same way as yours, so to imply the person has no or deficient faith is insulting. Not surprisingly, the disciples in, for instance, Acts, not only talked about their faith but did things to demonstrate God's love.

When you’re religious, you’re held to high standards in people’s perceptions. (That pastor is already dealing with unpleasant feedback.) But on the other hand, your faith is not about you, and, in fact, you want to guide people beyond your piety and achievements and failings to the God who does for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, which is to redeem and transform us, with a divine love that shows no partiality. Being a Christian is always a balance between being a sincere, fallible, and yes, very sinful and sometimes insensitive person, and simultaneously being transparent to God’s grace and a blessing for others, a clay jar filled with enriching treasure (2 Cor. 4:7).

After I posted this, I noticed another blog post that discussed the problem of Christians being our own worst enemies in presenting our faith to others.

Monday, January 21, 2013

"Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Here's a link to Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" from 1963. We discussed a little of the letter in one of my Philosophy classes last Friday, and we'll return to it again at the semester's end when we tackle the theme of Justice. Always worth studying and considering.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Along US 45

I purchased this wonderful highway sign this past fall. Most of the sign is embossed, as were pre-World War II signs of this kind, but the number is not. Post-WWII signs were not embossed at all. Then in the 1960s, these cut-out shields were replaced by the 2' x 2' black and white signs.

Every once in a while on this blog, I reminisce about favorite roads. According to the website,, US 45 is 440 miles long in Illinois (from Wisconsin to Kentucky) and thus is Illinois' longest highway. The whole route connects Lake Superior with the Gulf, passing through Milwaukee, the Chicago area (including Chicago O'Hare Airport), Paducah, KY, Tupelo, MS, and other communities.

My first memories of US 45 was in 1963-1966, when I was in first, second, and third grades. I had severe allergies back then. The recommended allergy clinic was in Mattoon, IL, which was a half-hour east then a half-hour north of my hometown. Interstates were still under constitution---I-70 was open at my hometown in 1965---and I recall my dad driving us on the interstate as far as Effingham, IL, then we took US 45 at least part of the way to Mattoon because (if I remember correctly) nearby I-57 was not yet completed. Once at the clinic, I’d go through the batteries of tests to determine what allergies I had, mostly milk and corn, which until I outgrew the symptoms prevented me from enjoying most breakfast cereals with milk. A horrible experiment was eating a wheat cereal with grape juice instead of milk---barf.

My parents always liked Effingham, which is over twice as big as our hometown Vandalia and has a nice downtown with a wonderful office supply store, which Mom favored. I remember purchasing large ring binders for my genealogy project at that store. Not far from the downtown, US 45 and US 40 intersect, and a bit south of town on 45 is a decent shopping mall (Village Square) that my folks also liked to visit. So both 40 and 45 in Effingham connects in my mind to my younger-days shopping trips with my parents, who are both gone now. When we were dating, Beth and I drove over to Effingham on occasion; I feel nostalgic about the time she I went bowling there, because we so seldom take the time these days.

For a while, I lived and worked in southeastern Illinois, in the vicinity of Paducah, KY. US 45 is a major route through Paducah and that area, so the black-and-white 45 shields along the highway were common sights. Some days I liked to just explore the region, which placed me on 45 among other roads. Most of my grocery shopping was in Vienna, IL, in one of two grocery stories along 45. I also liked sometimes to eat at a very good local restaurant, named the Jolly Red Pig (

For major shopping I drove to either Paducah or Harrisburg, IL. Stopping by a roadside used book shop on US 45 between Harrisburg and Eldorado one day, I discovered that rather than being a junky place, it had a fantastic selection of books and LPs. I remember picking up a John Cheever book and a John Updike novel and also a Verdi LP on the old Everest label and Flotow's "Martha." Listening to that music connects me in memory to that two-lane stretch of highway outside a small town.

If you look at a map of southern Illinois and find Norris City, you’ll see that Route 45 approaches the town straight from the north, and Illinois State Route 1 approaches from the northeast. You notice that the two routes “switch.” Route 1 takes over the straight-south path toward Cave-in-Rock, while 45 continues on the southwesterly path. That’s because IL 1 (dating from 1918) originally did continue on that road between Norris City and Brookport, IL. When 45 was designated in 1926, that portion was appropriated from Route 1.

Your map will show you that that whole stretch of 45 is a long curve, so that 45 could pass through the various villages and towns like Eldorado, Harrisburg, Stonefort, Vienna, Belknap, and eventually Metropolis. I liked to follow the somewhat winding way of 45 through Metropolis before it proceeded east and then south to Brookport and its wonderful Ohio River bridge over to Paducah. I think that's the stretch of road where I first heard on the radio, Prince's hit "1999."

Another nice US 45 memory (in a different way) is the fact that the pastor who married Beth and me was from Eldorado (which, I haven’t yet said, is pronounced with a long A). He died in his late 40s of cancer and is buried there, with his wife who also died of cancer. One of these days I’ll drive down that way again and put flowers on their graves.

My wife Beth has childhood memories of the family taking US 45 south from their suburban Chicago home and down east-central Illinois, where eventually the family would’ve worked their way over to US 41 that led to her grandparents’ place near Chattanooga. So for her, US 45 functions as US 40 does for me: part of the journey to the family farm.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"The CIvil War and American Art"

Late last fall, I listened to the Diane Rehm radio show as I drove to the supermarket, and her guest that day was Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Harvey discussed her upcoming book, “The Civil War and American Art" (Smithsonian American Art Museum and Yale University Press, 2012), resulting in turn from the museum’s exhibition.

I pre-ordered the book once I got home and it arrived in time to be enjoyable Christmas holiday study. Harvey writes, “Surprisingly few American painters engaged directly with the war as it was being fought. There was little market for depictions of Americans killing one another, and artists found it difficult to immediately identify heroes and pivotal battles. Without the luxury of time and reflection, these artists approached the Civil War in a more elliptical matter” (p. 1).

That elliptical manner and use of metaphors are among the things so fascinating about the paintings depicted and discussed in this book. For instance, George Caleb Bingham painted Order No. 11 (1865-1870), depicting a forced evacuation of homesteaders from western Missouri, but Bingham protests the evacuation by invoking 15th century paintings Expulsion from Paradise by Masaccio and The Lamentation by Petrus Christus (p. 12-13). The depiction of Arctic ice in Frederic Edwin Church’s beautiful The Icebergs (1861) calls attention to a contemporary image, in Washington DC and elsewhere, that slavery’s end was as inevitable as icebergs melting tropical water (pp. 31-32).

Harvey writes, “During the first half of the nineteenth century, landscape painting was a simulacrum of American Life and values. Landscape metaphors and imagery permeated the American consciousness” (p. 19). Opposite that quotation is the example of Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849), one of my own favorite paintings. But a common metaphor for the war was ominous weather, and landscape paintings began to look darker, like Martin Johnson Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm from 1859 and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s A Coming Storm from 1863 (p. 64). A haunting painting is the enigmatic The Girl I Left Behind Me from circa 1872, by Eastman Johnson, depicting a young woman standing in a strong wind (p. 230). Also haunting are a pair of paintings by John Frederick Kensett, Sunrise Among the Rocks of Paradise, Newport (1859) and Paradise Rocks, Newport (circa 1865), the very same scene, but the second painting is so much darker and more somber (pp. 68-69).

There were also battlefield paintings, such as Frederic Edwin Church's Our Banner in the Sky (1861, p. 38, the one I inserted above), James Hopes’ Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862 and Bloody Lane (p. 7), Winslow Homer’s Sharpshooter (1863, p. 150), his Skirmish in the Wilderness (1864, pp. 158-159), and Gifford’s The Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Frederick, Maryland (1863, p. 126). I'm putting together a future college course about religion during the Civil War, and one painting reflecting that experience is Gifford's Preaching to the Troops, or Sunday Morning at Camp Cameron near Washington, May 1861 (pp. 116-117).

Artists also movingly depicted the lives of free blacks and recently freed slaves, like Thomas Waterman Wood’s A Bit of War History: The Contraband, The Recruit, and The Veteran (1866, p. 209), Edwin White’s Thoughts of Liberia, Emancipation (p. 210, reflecting the controversial idea of sending blacks back to Africa), Eastman Johnson’s The Lord is My Shepherd (1863), his A Ride for Liberty---The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862 (1862, p. 201), and Homer’s A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876, p. 219), reflecting “the dismay felt by an overwhelming majority of former slaveholders that their slaves did not in fact love them or wish to be enslaved” (p. 218).

Harvey also examines wartime photography, since the Civil War was the first war in which photography (and the often gruesome images of battlefield casualities) was important.

I love Hudson River School paintings and mentioned a book about the school in my 7/2/12 post. Harvey's book depicts how the “primal experience of nature” depicted in those earlier paintings carried over into paintings of the 1850s and after---but became more stark and reflective of the national tragedy (pp. 17, 19). It is also an excellent source for those of us who love studying the Civil War, and she quotes many writers and politicians of the time as she discusses the pre-war years, the war itself, Reconstruction, and Reconstruction’s collapse. Of course the photographs and paintings are interesting to appreciate as you leaf through the pages, but the chapters are very informative and interesting.

"Stepping Over Our Wounds"

A couple weeks ago, a college classmate posted on his Facebook wall a reflection from the Roman Catholic writer Henri Nouwen:

Stepping Over Our Wounds
'Sometimes we have to “step over” our anger, our jealousy, or our feelings of rejection and move on. The temptation is to get stuck in our negative emotions, poking around in them as if we belong there. Then we become the “offended one,” “the forgotten one,” or the “discarded one.” Yes, we can get attached to these negative identities and even take morbid pleasure in them. It might be good to have a look at these dark feelings and explore where they come from, but there comes a moment to step over them, leave them behind and travel on.'

The post, quoted from, elicited over 50 “likes” and several comments from people about how badly they needed those words that day, and how Nouwen’s thoughts resonated. It’s wonderful when we’re able to share common struggles and support one another.

To my friend’s Facebook wall, I added a comment that life is unfair for all of us but in different ways, and so one way we develop these bad feelings is to compare ourselves with someone else whose life has been more fair than ours, but in one or two particular ways. I do that kind of thing a lot---and yet other friends tell me they envy certain aspects of my life. So I realize for the billionth time that I need to prevent my emotions from making me lose the big picture.

That phrase “negative identity” is powerful. It’s one thing to be disappointed and offended, neglected and discarded. We’ve all been there. But it’s another thing to let those events and hurts fill our thoughts----like an undertow beneath the calmer surface of the water. This, too, I’ve done a lot over the years.

One way to tell if you’re feeling the basic sad emotions, vs. creating a negative identity, is to think whether you could relinquish those things if you could----for instance, could you share them with someone with the aim of feeling better about yourself? You might realize that those feelings have become so intertwined with your sense of self that you can’t NOT ruminate them over and over. It's as if you need to have a kind of power over another person, or over an event, by feeling negatively (resentful, jealous, etc.) forever. That's obviously a warped and counterproductive way to think and feel---but it's definitely a trap into which we could fall. If so, we’ve allowed our sense of self to be defined by that letdown, unfair event, mean words from someone, failure compared to someone else's success, and other kinds of things. But God loves us specially and uses us, fully aware of our humanness and struggles.

I don’t mean to try to improve on Henri Nouwen’s words. He was a genius at spiritually encouraging people amid our exasperating humanness. Check out that website or purchase some of his books.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Baptism of Our Lord

I’m thinking about the Baptism of the Lord, which in some churches is celebrated on the Sunday following Epiphany. Of course, Jesus approached John to be baptized, and according to the scriptures the Spirit appeared like a dove and proclaimed the blessedness of Jesus, who came to John not to be served but as a servant.

When I was a kid, my relatives who belonged to a denomination that practices only adult-baptism by submersion saw in this story proof of the correctness of that rite. Jesus came up out of the water; John didn’t sprinkle him!

Also, my relatives cited this verse in Colossians:

…when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (2:12).

When we’re buried, we’re not buried with a little dirt on our heads. We’re buried all the way under!

I disliked that argument but didn’t know why. I was relieved when a United Methodist pastor pointed out that the thief on the cross was not baptized by any mode and yet was promised salvation. Eventually, I read a little further in Colossians:

[W]hy do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed the appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (2:20b-23).

While I wouldn’t call baptism a “human command,” the author worries (in this and the whole section 2:8-23) that we need to be careful not to substitute the living Christ for rituals and practices---not to substitute the goal for the means to the goal, so to speak (see also Gal. 5:16-26, 6:14-15).

But my older relatives are long passed away. I’m not sure I could’ve argued doctrine with them anyway, for they were quite set in their views, and I’m not really a debater.

One of my great-aunts expressed mild horror when we joined the United Methodist Church---a “sprinkling” denomination! I wonder what they’d think if they knew I was enjoying an Orthodox Christian prayer book this feast day.

A former Honors College student who is now a Byzantine Catholic nun commented on Facebook about the beauty of prayers in the Eastern tradition. Unfamiliar with that aspect of the tradition, I asked her for a recommendation of a prayer book and she recommended The Festal Menaion. This edition is translated by Mother Mary of the Orthodox Monastery of the Veil of the Mother of God, Bussy-en-Othe, France, and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware of the University of Oxford: South Canaan, PA, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998. For the past few days I've loved exploring this beautiful book with its Orthodox liturgical texts, and praying some of the prayers during personal quiet times.

My most recent post had to do with the symbolism of water and sea, a coincidental serendipity. In Benjamin Britten's operas, returning to the sea becomes symbolic of the cycles of life, the redemption of returning to waters, the vast unknown into which we’re ultimately cast. As I delved into this prayer book, I thought more about water---the reality of God's power over water, God's presence in the power of water itself, the scriptural connections of water with salvation, and water's significance in the rites of churches----as I encountered several readings and tones for the Eastern feast of The Holy Theophany (January 6). These scriptures give me much to reflect upon in the overall context of Christ's baptism:

*  The power of the sea over the Egyptians, who perished once the split sea returned to natural course (pp. 339-340).

*  The day the Jordan River split, allowing dry ground to form as the Israelites with Joshua crossed over into the land, and they “were passed clean” (Joshua 3:7-8, 15-17: p. 341).

*  The power of Elijah’s mantle that also split the Jordan, allowing him and Elisha to pass on dry ground (2 Kings 2:6-14: pp. 341-342).

*  The story of Naaman, the captain of the Assyrian armies, who through the miraculous power of God evoked by Elisha, could bath in the Jordan and become clean from his leprosy (2 Kings 5:9-14: pp. 341-343.).

*  The saving waters of the Nile that carried the ark containing baby Moses to safety (Ex. 2:5-10: 344-345).

*  The dew that appeared on Gideon’s fleece, signifying God’s favor (Judges 6:36-40: p. 345).

*  The story of Elijah soaking the altar and its trench with abundant water, which would not quench the heavenly fire (1 Kings 18:30-39: pp. 345-346).

*  The healing of the waters by Elisha at Jereicho (2 Kings 2:19-21: pp. 346-347).

*  The blessing of water in the post-exilic prophesies of Isaiah (55:1-13: pp. 349-350).

*  Paul’s connection of the waters of the rock at Meribah in Exodus 17, and Christ the Rock with his spiritual drink (1 Cor. 10:1-14: pp. 350).

After thinking about these readings, I loved this prayer for The Holy Theophany by Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem (pp. 353-355). Here is a portion:

“O Trinity supreme in being, in goodness, and in Godhead, almighty, who watchest over all, invisible, incomprehensible, Maker of spiritual beings and rational natures, innate Goodness, Light that none can approach and that lightens every [one] that comes into the world: Shine upon me Thine unworthy servant….

“Today the glittering stars make the inhabited earth fair with the radiance of their shining. Today the clouds drop down upon making the dew of righteousness from on high. Today the Uncreated of His own will accepts the laying on of hands from His own creature. Today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Master, but stands before Him with trembling, seeing the condescension of God towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the coming of the Lord. Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the transgressions …. are washed away by the waters of the Jordan. Today Paradise has been opened …. and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us. Today the bitter water, as once with Moses and the people of Israel, is changed to sweetness by the coming of the Lord…..

"Today earth and sea share the joy of the world, and the world is filled with gladness. The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid. The Jordan turned back, seeing the fire of the Godhead descending bodily and entering its stream. The Jordan turned back, beholding the Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove and flying about Thee. The Jordan turned back, seeing the Invisible made visible, The Creator made flesh, the Master in the form of a servant. The Jordan turned back and the mountains skipped, looking upon God in the flesh; and the Light of Light, true God of true God. For today in the Jordan they saw the Triumph of the Master; they saw Him drown in the Jordan the death of disobedience, the sting of error, and the chains of hell, and bestow upon the world the baptism of salvation….” (pp. 353-355).

Friday, January 11, 2013

Britten's "Peter Grimes"

Late last summer, I was driving a certain distance when the Met Opera channel on my Sirius XM radio played Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. It’s pleasant when I’m driving to listen to an opera in its entirety, something I seldom take the time to do at home.

I knew of Britten before I found the LP set of Peter Grimes in a favorite used record store in Carbondale, IL thirty years ago. During that same time period I collected most of the opera sets conducted by Britten and produced by Decca/London. Peter Grimes, which premiered in 1945, was a landmark opera both in English music and the music world. Its bleak story---a rough local fisherman, despised by the good Christian people of the village but who wants success and respect, is exonerated from causing the death of one of his apprentices but unintentionally causes the death of another, leading to his madness and suicide as the townsfolk search for him---is set against the musically depicted natural elements, a storm, a sunny day, and the sea. The “Four Interludes” from the opera are often recorded separately as orchestral portrayals of sea and weather.

I’ve listened to the opera several times over the years, but somehow this time the elemental qualities of the music stood out, perhaps because I was driving through scenery (though not seaside scenery) that I love. The sea seems to be “going on” throughout the story, as of course it would be in a coastal village.

Musicologist Christopher Palmer comments that Grimes’ journey---born by the sea and then claimed by it---was probably reflective of Britten’s own unconscious feelings, since Britten himself resolved to live beside the sea, and began and ended his career with operas (Grimes and Death in Venice) in which disappearing into the sea was a kind of redemption.(1) The sea figures strongly in Peter Grimes, Death in Venice and Billy Budd, as a “symbol of the nothingness which is everythingness... that simultaneous longing for the sense’ fulfillment and their extinction,” comments Palmer, drawing parallels between Britten and Wagner in this regard.(2).

“[B]eing submerged and swept away by a torrent of water is an image also of rebirth; if Peter is to be redeemed he has to return... to the unconscious waters, whence---well, who knows? Man is nothing, nature alone endures; perhaps in the last analysis, the truest lesson Grimes has to teach us is that of the vanity of all human endeavor. Grimes is a quintessentially Hardyesque work. As Peter Garvie puts it, ‘The passing bell is tugged by human hands to signify the end of human time for each of us; but the bell-buoy sounds forever to the movement of the tides.’”(3)

Inside the book from which I read these essays, I've tucked a postcard from Sir Peter Pears, Britten's partner who created so many of Britten's operatic roles, including Grimes, Aschenbach in Death in Venice, and Vere in Billy Budd. I had written Pears an appreciative letter in 1985, to which he responded with a sweet thank-you note, presumably from the seaside house he and Britten (who died in 1976) had shared. Pears commented that his health was failing (he died a year later) and had had to cancel a planned visit to the U.S.


1.  Christopher Palmer, Palmer, “Chaos and Cosmos in Peter Grimes,” Palmer, ed., The Britten Companion, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 118-119.

2.  Palmer, “Towards a Genealogy of Death in Venice,” ibid., 255.

3.  Palmer, “Chaos and Cosmos in Peter Grimes,” ibid., 119.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Lord's Concerto for Group and Orchestra

At Barnes & Noble the other day, I picked up a copy of the November 2012 International Record Review for an article about the composer Thomas Adès. But I noticed a CD review for a new recording: “Concerto for Group and Orchestra” by Jon Lord.

I still have my LP of the premier of this piece, at Royal Albert Hall in 1969. The group was Deep Purple, for which Lord (on the far left in this picture) was the keyboard performer and leader for many years, and the orchestra was the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Malcolm Arnold, whose name I didn’t know when I bought the record in ’72 but who I now know was a distinguished composer and symphonist. I also didn’t realize at the time that this was the first Deep Purple LP with the group's famous “Mark II” lineup. I’d already purchased their albums “In Rock” and “Machine Head,” as well as their first album with the original lineup, “Shades of Deep Purple,” on their struggling first label, Tetragrammaton. Also, singer Ian Gillan, with his strong voice and ability to scream on pitch, was Jesus
Rare first issue on the Tetragrammaton label
on the “Jesus Christ Superstar” concept album. All in all, Deep Purple was certainly a group that I loved and played a lot during my teenage years.

Lord composed numerous classical pieces over the years, and as the reviewer notes, his death this past summer (at the age of 71) lends a sad “full circle” quality to this new release, since the Concerto was an early effort of this kind. The reviewer writes, “The success of the Concerto rests on Lord’s highly effective use of a simple dialectic: group and orchestra opposing each other in the first movement, complementing each other in the second then achieving a new and indissoluble union in the finale...” The work “blazed a trail which neither changing fashion nor the exigencies of fate should have denied its rightful place in post-war British music” (p. 42).

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Epiphany is the commemoration in the Western church of the coming of the Wise Men. So this morning I want to think about their role in our Lord's birth stories, and about the ways they "preach" to us today.

Do you know how many Wise Men there were? That's a trick question, because the Bible doesn't actually say, nor does the Bible give their names. An old joke goes that if the wise men had been wise women, they would've asked for directions, helped deliver the baby, and brought more practical gifts! The Wise Men weren't "kings," as the old hymn names them, but they were probably of a Persian or Babylonian priestly class of astrologers and dream-interpreters.

It's interesting that only two Gospels give us the Christmas stories, and that key elements of the stories are found in each. Luke focuses upon Mary and her relatives. We get the stories of John the Baptist's birth and the response of his parents. Then we learn the story of Mary, the angel's visitation to her, and her trip to see her relative Elizabeth.

Next, Luke gives us the story of Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem to comply with the census. We learn the familiar details: the fact that "there was no room at the inn," the manger, and the shepherds. Afterward, we have the stories of Jesus' naming and circumcision at the Temple, including the stories of righteous Simeon and Anna (2:21-40).

Matthew’s gospel focuses on Joseph. We learn Joseph's genealogy (1:2-17), then Joseph’s obedience response to Mary's situation (1:18-25). Next we learn of Herod’s worried summons of the wise men to find out about the newborn king of the Jews. They follow the star, not to a manger but to a house, and bring Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they leave secretly (2:1-12). Subsequently Joseph himself is warned in a dream not to linger in Bethlehem, so the family travels to Egypt. An enraged Herod authorizes the slaughter of small children around Bethlehem. After Herod dies, the family settles in Nazareth because it is too risky to live in Bethlehem (2:13-23).

It's interesting to think: what if we only had Matthew's gospel? Matthew has the star of Bethlehem, Herod, the wise men, and the slaughter of the innocents, about which Scott preached last week: Matthew doesn't give us the census, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, and the shepherds! As wonderful as are the stories of the wise men and the star, we miss the other elements!

Scholars note that these stories reflect the theology of each Gospel. Luke's birth narrative are consistent with the purpose of Luke's gospel, which is to show how the God of the Jews has fulfilled the history of Israel in Jesus and now has opened up the Jewish good news for the whole gentile world.

Theologically, Matthew’s stories show how Jesus fulfilled scripture. Jesus is Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14: Matthew 2:5). He is the Messiah from Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-3; Matthew 2:5). The very pattern of Jesus’ first years is similar to that of the people of Israel as they migrate from Canaan to Egypt and then return. In the case of the Wise Men, Matthew (like Luke) recognizes that Jesus is fulfillment of prophecy that the Gentiles--often called "the nations" in the Old Testament--would honor and worship the God of the Hebrews.

The Wise Men were the first Gentiles to pay homage to Jesus. We miss the significance of God's blessing of the Gentiles because we're all Gentiles and we already know that the God of the Hebrews has touched our lives. But if you read Acts and Paul's letters, you can feel a palpable joy at the blessing and generosity of God in showing his love and help for all people.

The story of the Wise Men has given us some very important traditions and theological elements to the church. Let me just highlight four.

The first aspect of the Wise Men: thanks to them, one of the most significant Christmas traditions, coming from Matthew's story, is gift giving. The wise men brought Jesus fine gifts (Matthew 2:11). Thanks to the Wise Men, the church has always had a very strong Christmastime tradition of sharing gifts with those less fortunate. Boxing Day, which is the first weekday after Christmas, is celebrated in some countries: for instance, public workers like mail deliverers received appreciative gifts and workers received food and supplies from employers.

The second aspect is that the nature of their gifts gives us a subtle unifier of what Jesus was about. The Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay notes that gold is the gift of a King, which Jesus certainly is. Frankincense is the gift of a priest. We don't always appreciate the "priestly" role of Jesus, but read Hebrews 4:14-16: "Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Finally the gift of myrrh implies death, because that substance was valued for its fragrance but was also used in embalming. Without realizing the symbolic significance of their gifts, the Wise Men "preached Christ" as king, priest, and crucified savior.

In my 2009 Advent study book, I remarked that we tend to separate in our imaginations the birth of Jesus from the death and resurrection of Jesus, and I wondered if perhaps we should display both poinsettias and Easter lilies together in our churches. I doubt that will ever be done, but we do well to keep other both Christmas and Easter in our minds. Jesus was born for our salvation, which was eventually achieved by his atoning work on the cross and his resurrection from the death. These aspects of Jesus belong together, because they are all part of God's work of salvation.

The third aspect of the Wise Men is how they highlight God's way of doing things. Matthew and Luke's gospels give a place of honor to the lowly. Luke's gospel in particular continues the strong Old Testament theme that the poor and needy must be provided for, and that God takes the side of the poor. In telling the story of Jesus, Matthew echoes the story of Moses' birth (the threatened ruler, the killing of children, the secret rescue of the child, the location of Egypt) in order to proclaim Jesus as a liberator for his distressed. The modest circumstances of Jesus' birth shows him to be a different kind of king than Caesar or anyone else holding political power. God chose to be born in circumstances mirroring the unfairness, oppression and injustice that we see in the world.

The fourth aspect---this is my last point---is related to the third. Pastor Richard Fairchild on the Spirit Network website notes that the Wiese Men were open to and recognized King Jesus in spite of the modesty of his circumstances. They came to visit a king, but Jesus lived in a carpenter's simple home. The Wise Men could've assumed they were in the wrong place and kept looking, or given up. Fairchild writes, "So many of us have a hard time accepting what God has given in the form that he gives it. Because we are waiting for a gift from God - we look for great miracles, instant healings, signs and wonders, trumpet calls and 21 gun salutes. We may pray to God for a special blessing - and then turn away at our door a pan-handler who is looking for a meal, or a neighbor who is dropping by unannounced, or a client who shows up just when we are preparing to leave work for the day."

That last point is a good one for us to keep in mind as we prepare for a new calendar year. If you're like me, you hope to grow spiritually and are keenly aware of ways that we fall short. At the same time, we often don't give God credit for doing things differently than our expectations. The great thing is that God is always way ahead of us and seeks to help and guide us along our own journeys. One of the ways in which we grow spiritually is in discernment of God's works in the world. Some of them we miss, because God does things contrary to our expectations. Some of them we see, however. The Wise Men provided wonderful traditions for us, but the example of wisdom about God's purposes is a particularly fine tradition as we look to the Lord for guidance and help for the upcoming year.

Let us pray:
O God, by a star you manifested your only Son to the Wise Men. We give you thanks for our time together this morning. Strengthen each of us to be a blessing to one another and to all people, glorifying you in everything we do and say. Strengthen us also as a congregation, that we may enjoy you together and seek your glory in our lives together. Give us the course to praise you and declare you to those around us during the coming year. Bless us and protect us in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

(A sermon from 2011)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

George Washington Makes a Disturbing Bobble Head

After Sixty Years

"The next time I get married, I want a man
Who talks to me!" she declared. He smiled,
Rocked, and winked at me, as if
In secret knowledge of who manipulated whom.
Their years together seemed as tangible
As the dusty yellow portraits of their babies,
Now themselves gray-haired, as an ancient
China cabinet filled with precious things,
As the water stains on the oyster ceiling
And the wallpaper's faded bouquet pattern.
Their years remaining were fewer now
Than the number of their great-grandchildren.
And in all that time of growing in devoted love
And fervent love of God, was it remarkable
That this still peeved her, and he sits
Smiling, not giving an inch, as if God,
The source and measure of all perfection,
Brings us as far as God wills but leaves us
Just sufficient human fight to make
Our freedom something else that ages in time
With our dying bodies, living hearts, and familiar
Fond surroundings? She loves to talk,
And pauses now to wheeze. "I work all day,"
She says again, "For a man who's quiet as a mouse!"
He smiles and rocks, and looks at her, and looks at me,
And when she died he said to me,
With the same little ornery smile, "I loved to gripe her,
But I loved still more to hear her talk."

Friday, January 4, 2013

Extinct Sounds

I read an article that described sounds that are extinct,
Like the swoosh, pause, click-click-click of the rotary phone dial,
And the blp-sssss of the coffee maker as it percolated,
And the clackclackclackclackclack, ping, zzzzzzzzp of the manual typewriter,

The bzzzzzz of the TV as it warmed up, the clunk clunk clunk
As you turned the dial for a channel you liked,
The FFFFFFFFFFF of blank stations, the EEEEEEEEEE of stations
That had gone off for the night.

There was the plonk when your record dropped onto the turntable,
The scrtch of the needle on vinyl, preceding even the loftiest of music,
And of course the record skipping crck the record skipping crck
The record skipping crck…..

And how I remember the clck-clck of the flash cube
On Dad’s new Instamatic camera, that allowed you to take
Four photographs without changing the bulb!   So much better
Than installing a fresh bulb---flck, it went, coming out—for each photo.

Such nostalgia!  I remembered all the article’s sounds, reminders
Of my childhood, with its own extinct sounds, Mom making coffee
In the morning and saying to me Good Morning, sweetie,
the soft squeak of the chair as she settled in later for her soaps,
Dad burning his fingers on a spent flash bulb and hissing sonofabitch. 

Inspired by an article by Kara Kovalchick, “11 Sounds That Your Kids Have Probably Never Heard,” Mental Floss, Nov. 11, 2011,

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Then will the heart be suffused with all joy"

Barocci's "Nativity" 
January 1 is the octave (eighth day) of Christmas and is liturgically devoted to Mary, the Mother of God.

A book that I’ve had forever---over thirty years, anyway---is “The Martin Luther Christmas Book,” translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton, whom I met while at student at Yale Divinity School. Luther writes of Mary:

“In the village of Nazareth she appeared as a mere servant, tending the cattle and the house, and no more esteemed than a maid among us who does her appointed chores. Her age was probably between thirteen and fifteen years. And yet this was the one whom God chose….Quite possibly Mary was doing the housework when the Angel Gabriel came to her. Angels prefer to come to people as they are fulfilling their calling and discharging their office. The angel appeared to the shepherds as they were watching their flocks, to Gideon as he was threshing the grin, to Samson’s mother as she sat in the field. Possibly, however, the Virgin Mary, who was very religion, was in a corner praying for the redemption of Israel. During prayer, also, the angels are wont to appear.

"The angel greeted Mary and said, ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace.’ That is the Latin rendering, which unhappily has been taken over literally into German. Tell me, is this good German? Would any German say you are full of grace?....I have translated it, ‘Thou gracious one,’ but if I were really to write German, I would say, ‘God bless you, dear Mary---liebe Maria,’ for any German knows that this word liebe comes right from the heart…

"We must both read and meditate upon the Nativity. If the meditation does not reach the heart, we shall sense no sweetness, nor shall we know what solace for humankind lies in this contemplation. The heart will not laugh nor be merry….There is such richness and goodness in this Nativity that if we should see and deeply understand, we should be dissolved in perpetual joy. Wherefore Saint Bernard declared there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this Child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her. The last is not the least of the three….

"Had she not believed, she could not have conceived. She held fast to the word of the angel because she had become a new creature. Even so must we be transformed and renewed in heart from day to day. Otherwise, Christ is born in vain. …This must be our daily exercise: to be transformed into Christ, being nourished by this food. Then will the heart be suffused with all the joy and will be strong and confident against every assault” (pp. 21-23).