Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Be Not Afraid"--Seriously?

meme from the internet
As we stand at the beginning of a new calendar year, what would you change about yourself if you could?

In my case, I would love to stop having such anxious reactions to certain things. I can go into fearful, “what if” kind of thinking so easily and spin in my mind the most hopeless scenarios. Generally speaking, I’m a decent problem-solver, I can be very adventurous, and I’m not afraid of change and readapting to circumstances. As a teacher, I'm happy and quick-thinking, hard to "rattle." But when something kick-starts my anxiety, I can’t think very clearly. And if someone is looking to me as an example of faith and trust, I can display pretty good "head" faith but my heart is often filled with care.

My first memory of a panic attack is from first grade, so this trait is likely rooted in events I can’t remember. I was the only child of sometimes unhappy parents, who looked to me even at a young age to bring happiness to their lives, but even at a young age I knew my parents’ unhappiness was far beyond my personal ability to solve. It’s easy for my emotional meter to go into “what if” mode or a self-critical mode.

If your emotional traits are too deep to “let go” definitively, whether by therapy or will power, at least you can know yourself. In my case, I know not to mistake anxiety for a definite danger signal. “Don’t believe everything you think,” is a meme that was going around social media this past year. Just because I’m feeling distressed doesn’t mean that the situation is dire. Plus, none of the fearful “what if” scenarios I’ve emotionally concocted over the years have ever come true, nor has worry ever solved a problem. The most difficult situations are those that came out of left field (and then worried-about, LOL).

My mom was a worrier, and unfortunately she eventually gave up on certain things that gave her pleasure, like reading and travel. “It just makes me too nervous,” she’d say. On the other hand, she met life's challenges with remarkable perseverance and courage, adapting to difficult circumstances in spite of her struggles with anxiety. I hope and pray I’m always inspired never to give up. A few years ago I spent our UK-Ireland vacation period in a mood of very high anxiety, but it was because I was driving a British car for the first time. That’s typical of me: jump in and try things, help get things done, live with few regrets, but worry worry worry all the while.

I would love to be a person who meets all challenges with an upbeat optimism, which are qualities of my wife and daughter. I’ll keep working on it, just as I hope you (who is reading this) will work on your inner “stuff” during this upcoming new year. Some resolutions are things that we'll work on year after year, with God's help.

On one of my other online sites, I compiled Bible verses that have always helped me. Just as a child needs demonstrations of love from a parent, or as a lover requires reminders from the beloved, so we need expressions of God's love, like these words originally addressed to God's people, which we may now read for God’s assurance:

When you pass through the waters I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you. (Isa. 43:2)

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? (Matt. 7:9-10).

Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7)

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).

For if we have been united within him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom. 6:5).

For the Lord will not

reject forever.

Although he causes grief, he will have compassion

according to the abundance of his steadfast love;

for he does not willingly afflict

or grieve anyone (Lam. 3:31-33).

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast 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 tempted 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 (Heb. 4:14-16: also Heb. 5:2).

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind (Phil. 3:12-15a).

I’m often amazed at how many times the scriptures tell us not to be afraid. In Luke 2:10, the angels tell the shepherds, Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of a great joy… In Matthew 28:10, Jesus tells the disciples, Do not be afraid… In Luke 24:38-39, Jesus tells the disciples, Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, see that it is I myself … In John 20:19 and 26, Jesus declares, Peace be with you… Earlier in John, Jesus says, Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:27). I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (John 15:11).

Nothing in there about panicking and freaking out….

Monday, December 29, 2014

"Be Blessed by Your Past"

I was chatting on Facebook with three different people, all of us in a kind of post-Advent slump.

Traditionally viewed, Advent is a time of longing for Christ. We symbolically anticipate his birth but look toward his second coming. Then at Christmastide, we celebrate and honor his birth as well as the revelation of his divinity (Epiphany, or Theophany in the eastern churches).

But in actuality, we expend our celebratory energies during Advent, culminating in the multiple Christmas Eve services. Afterward, many of us begin to take down and box up our holiday decorations, and many pastors (at least in my own circles) take well-deserved time-off during some portion of Christmastide. Right in the middle of Christmastide are New Years Eve/Day, a pair of secular holidays mixing festivities with resolutions for self-improvement.

Rather than feeling guilty about not keeping Christmastide more festive, I wonder if we should simply recognize that our holidays have evolved to this point. Advent and Christmas are, already, a complex assortment of traditions: Christian, non-Christian religious, and secular/economic. The Christian liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent with the anticipation of a big, festive season, and then we can move into our new year with a fresh sense of Christ, even if we're a little tired  and let-down for a while. 


Yesterday's post had to do with the grief and tragedy evoked on Holy Innocents' Day. Looking through some of my books for blog ideas, I found some good thoughts in a favorite text, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser (New York: Doubleday, 1999). In one section, Rolheiser talks about the grief of recognizing life's unfairness. 

We know that life is unfair, but sometimes we have to "process" that fact. We had dreams but they didn't work out, we're disappointed, we don't feel as valued as we'd like (p. 163). The prodigal son's older brother is an example. His circumstance is not dire like the younger son's. The older brother's life seems pretty good! Yet he feels bitter, let-down, and left out. He feels no joy (p. 163). 

How many of us can sympathize with the older brother! Life is unfair, but it is unfair in different ways for different people. We wish things were different in the way life has been unfair for us, while someone else may wish he/she had our lives!    

Rolheiser suggests that we go ahead and grieve, because grieving helps us eventually to let the old things go. He calls this "letting the old give us its blessing" (p. 164). "We face many deaths within our lives and the choice is ours as to whether those deaths will be terminal (sniffing out life and spirit) or whether they will be paschal (opening us to new life and new spirit). Grieving is the key to the latter" (p. 164). 

In John's gospel, when Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus, Jesus tells her not to cling to her. Rolheiser suggests that Mary is trying to cling to what she has known and loved about Jesus--to cling the past. When she can grieve the Jesus she has known and open herself to the new circumstance, then she can receive a new spirit (pp. 164-165). (My own thought: you can see similarities of these ideas with the Buddhist teachings about attachment and non-attachment.) 

I'm a very slow griever, unfortunately. But letting the past bless us, even the painful and/or abusive experiences, is to recognize that what has happened has happened, to accept the unfairness, to grieve, and then, hopefully, "to "attain the joy and delights that are in fact possible for us" (p. 164). Good things to think about, as we consider our goals for the upcoming year.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Rachel and Holy Innocents Day

Twenty years after the Srebrenica Children Massacre, two years after Sandy Hook, two weeks after the massacre at the school in Peshawar…. although the historicity of the massacre of the innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) has been disputed, we're sadly able to know that such a thing could happen. And how many millions of Jewish children perished in the Holocaust?

"When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’"

Holy Innocents' Day is December 27 in the Marionite Church, December 29 in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and December 28 in the Church of England, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

The story in Matthew parallels yet another persecution: Exodus 1:15-22, where Hebrew children were targeted by Pharaoh. Studying the Matthew scripture for a writing project, I wondered about the role of Rachel in this passage. She was Jacob's beloved wife among the four women with whom he had children. Rachel was mother of the youngest, Joseph and Benjamin, but she died giving birth to Benjamin. So I wanted to dig deeper into Jeremiah's passage.

I got online and found the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia. There, Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes, “Rachel, who died young, becomes an image of tragic womanhood. Her tomb remained as a landmark (see 1 Sam 10:2) and a testimony to her. She and Leah were remembered as the two ‘who together built up the house of Israel’ (Ruth 4:11). Rachel was the ancestress of the Northern Kingdom, which was called Ephraim after Joseph’s son. After Ephraim and Benjamin were exiled by the Assyrians, Rachel was remembered as the classic mother who mourns and intercedes for her children. More than a hundred years after the exile of the North, Jeremiah had a vision of Rachel still mourning, still grieving for her lost children. Moreover, he realized that her mourning served as an effective intercession, for God promised to reward her efforts and return her children (Jer 31:15–21). After the biblical period, 'Mother Rachel' continued to be celebrated as a powerful intercessor for the people of Israel.”(1)

I found another article that reflects upon Rachel, and the fact that she was buried along the road to Bethlehem. Please read this article by Simon Jacobson, which is a heartfelt piece about human dignity and Rachel's concern for sufferers, very apropos for this day.


1. Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Rachel: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 14, 2014) <>.

2. Jacobson, Simon, "A Mother’s Tears: Rachel weeps for her children." The Jewish Woman: (Viewed on December 28, 2014)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Jesus Off-Road?

Very random connections, ending with a sweet wish by a little child. As Emily and I drove down to her dentist the other day, we passed Annunciation Church. Outside was a small sign, “Catholic Radio, AM 1410” or whatever the number was.

“Catholic Radio,” I thought…

Since I'm a fan of 80s music, the term make me think of the song “Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo. The tune stuck in my mind for a moment…

Then, as we drove along, I thought of Radio Free Europe and Cold War-era TV commercials that urged Americans to support it. When I was a very small child (worried even then about the Soviet threat), I got Radio Free Europe mixed in my mind with the Iron Curtain. So I pictured the latter as a big metal wall with a section that contained radio dials--and that was the only radio station available in Eastern Europe, I thought, because otherwise the countries were “radio-free.”

Then, this scrambled thinking reminded me of a relative’s comments on Facebook--another, sweeter example of young children's thought-processes. My relative's young niece had engaged her in this conversation:

“Did the Wise Men bring Baby Jesus gifts?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Did they give him a rattle?”
“I’m not sure…”
“Did they give him a dirt bike?”

Poor Jesus didn't get a dirt bike for his birthday! Wouldn't it have been sweet, though, if the children who gathered around Jesus (Luke 18) had asked him about his birthday.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Birthday of Life

"Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.

"No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no person free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he received the offer of forgiveness. Let the pagan take courage as he is summoned to life.

"In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God's wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which he had overthrown humankind.

"And so at the birth of our Lord the angels sing in joy: Glory to God in the highest, and they proclaim peace to his people on earth as they see the heavenly Jerusalem being built from all the nations of the world. When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvelous work of God's goodness, what joy should it not bring to lowly hearts?

"Beloved, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, because in his great love for us he took pity on us, and when we were dead in our sins he brought us to life with Christ, so that in him we might be a new creation. Let us throw off our old nature and all its ways and, as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh... Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom."

(From a sermon by Pope Leo the Great, quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, I, Advent Season and Christmas Season, pp. 404-405. I made the language inclusive in three places.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dealing with Holiday Blues

Catholic book store window,
reflecting holiday traffic
Every Advent is hectic and, in some sense, filled with care. Finishing a very busy semester, which included sometimes emotional discussions in our classes concerning the events in Ferguson and the nation, plus the work I'm doing on a manuscript with a 5/1/15 deadline, have made me neglect this blog compared to previous years, when I had a little more mental space for Advent blogging.

On the other hand, my wife Beth and I feel like we have been successfully "processing" the deaths of our mothers. Her mom passed away in November 2013 and my mom died in September 2012. The emptiness and grief that filled the past two Christmases have lessened a bit.  

But helping people with sad holiday feelings has always been a concern for me. A couple years ago I looked online for resources on grief and loss during the holidays. Sure enough, there are many. This piece has several ideas for acknowledging your loss and helping yourself during this time.

This piece also concerns ways to deal with grief and loss over the holidays.

This piece was interesting because it concerns congregations that have “Blue Christmas services”  This piece is from two years ago, and I've noticed more church services in my immediate area of this kind. It’s good to work on grief within a religious context, but when you’re down, a very upbeat church service can feel hurtful and exhausting. An intentional effort of congregations to address the needs of the grieving, as these congregations are doing, can be so helpful.

A helpful resource recognizes that grief is a response not only to death but to breakups and divorce.

Another resource helps us not only deal with grief and loss but also how to be a good supporter for something going through a difficult time. This year, I plan to make an effort again to call some friends, if not on Christmas Day itself perhaps the day or second day afterward.

What are some things that help you when you're feeling grief, especially over the holidays?

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Sacrament of Snow

I always resented the song “White Christmas,” just a little bit. It’s a lovely song, vastly popular. But I thought it set up the yearly, often disappointed expectation of snow on Christmas day. (The seldom-heard introduction refers to the usually snow-free Beverly Hills which elicits nostalgia for snowy holidays past.) What does it matter if snow falls on Christmas or not?

But I realized there is much more to the expectation of a snowy Christmas! The Christmas 2012 issue of BBC Music magazine has an interesting article, “A Christmas Carol” (pp. 27-34) by David Owen Norris. The author writes that, in pre-Victorian England, harvest season was poised to be a more beloved time of year than Christmas; harvest time rather than Christmas had an appealing narrative of well-being, plenty, and human relationships, while Christmas was just a cold winter holiday that elicited painful longing. However, Norris states that Christmas carols began to make a comeback during the early Victorian period, eclipsing harvest-related hymns. Consequently, Christmas grew in popularity during the 1800s, partly on the basis of this musical appeal.

The real innovation, though, came from Rev. John Mason Neale (1818-1866). He and a colleague produced hymn books for churches. A 16th century Finnish song concerning spring and flowers inspired Neale to write new lyrics, which became “Good King Wenceslas.” What was so innovative about Neale’s song, is that it is the first time a Christmas song links the holiday with snow (p. 31)!  You would think someone would have associated snow and Christmas, but according to Norris, other songwriters (even Scandinavians) had made reference to Christmas cold weather (“The First Noel” is an example) but not to Christmas snow.

Neale's association of snow and Christmas was brilliant and influential. From the publication of “Good King Wenceslas” in 1853, other poets and songwriters found inspiration in the image of Christmas snow, notably Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” but also many others (pp. 31, 33).

The religion-science debates of the era provided a different kind of inspiration for the theme of Christmas snow. The Darwinian debates that threatened to erode religious belief necessitated new metaphors for spiritual truth. Snow---peaceful, beautifying, and descended from above---became a perfect metaphor; as Norris writes (p. 34), “If science was concerned with facts, religion with miracles, then the Victorians found a snowy bridge between them.”

Furthermore, that affirmation of miracles was better expressed through song than prose. Norris continues: “Only song could convey these new meanings of Christmas snow... The familiar yet fundamentally irrational human act of singing together was the perfect medium. (Irrationality is important to us in matters of the spirit: look at the idea of carols by candlelight, which could only become truly symbolic once electricity had made the candles pointless.)....

“The very mirage of a white Christmas... became a new way of thinking about miracles, allowing snow to become the outward sign of an inward grace---a secular sacrament. Snow imagined, snow longed for, makes space for a Christmas miracle” (p. 34).

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmases Long, Long Ago

On my bookshelves, I’ve this toy that’s over fifty years old. Two other examples on Ebay (the toy inside the original box) had asking prices of $400 and $950. Those look to be in better shape than this one. I doubt that mine runs, but I’ve not tried it.

This was a toy Dad purchased for me for Christmas when I was four or five years old, that is, the early 1960s when The Flintstones were first on television. I loved the show. I even remember the end credits of the first season (1960-1961), where the camera panned out to show other houses in the Bedrock neighborhood, as Fred banged on his own door to be let in.

For some reason, however, I hated this toy. Something about the dino-crane frightened me. I must’ve felt okay about the box, which has my crayon marks on it. Dad’s feelings were hurt; though not in a mean way, my parents tended to attach love with gifts and appreciation of gifts, and they also tended to hang onto hurts and slights for a very long time. The toy was something Dad mentioned, maybe once every five or ten years or so. “Paul didn’t like that toy,” he’d say. But it had been stored in the attic with many other belongings of theirs, seemingly beyond the ken of man.

When Mom’s house was eventually cleaned out, though, the toy reappeared amid all the things that had been in the attic. A “D” battery, now very corroded, was still in the dino-crane. I’ve kept the toy and box on display in my own home, not as a reminder of a childhood misunderstanding but of my (now deceased) parents' generosity and our Christmases together.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Twelve Thirteen Fourteen

Today is 12-13-14, on the Gregorian calendar (although elsewhere in the world the date would be rendered 13-12-14).

These kinds of sequences happen occasionally. I worked at my hometown library during college, and one day, as I typed something at the counter, I realized the day was 5-6-78. Woo hoo! The last such sequence was 11-12-13, but The Today Show reported just now that this won't happen again until 1-2-34.

Why do such dates give us satisfaction? They aren't serendipitous or providential, like the way I hear unexpectedly from a good friend when I'm struggling with something. But they're still a pleasing example of found order. No one says, "Oh, hey, two plus two is four." That's no surprise. But you can feel a small sense of peace when you realize, "How fun, it's twelve, thirteen, fourteen."

Cutting Down the Salt

I had a good medical checkup the other day, except for my blood pressure which is high again. I've not been careful lately about my salt intake. So I stopped by the local grocery store and bought some fruit and low-sodium snacks.

I've a longtime love of salty snacks, however. When I was just a few years old, I wanted pretzels, but I said it "pet wows," and my grandmother who was babysitting me didn't know what I wanted, and I became more and more upset. A caregiver's nightmare!

Grandma would've been proud that I came interested in Bible study. I looked up "salt" on the online Jewish Encyclopedia. (All of the following references are from that site). Salt was abundant in the land, with the proximity to the Dead Sea (Gen. 14:3, Josh. 3:16; I've a stone from the Sea in my office), and the salt pits of the area (Zeph. 2:9, I Macc. 2:35). Newborns were rubbed with salt (Ezek. 16:4). Salt was necessary at the sacrifices (Lev. 21:22, Ezra 6:9, 7:22), and covenant ceremonies (Num. 18:19, 2 Chron. 13:5). Salt was also necessary to remove blood from meat, to fulfill the kosher requirement.

The article's author goes on to write: "Salt is considered as the most necessary condiment, and therefore the Rabbis likened the Torah to it; for as the world could not do without salt, neither could it do without the Torah (Soferim xv. 8). A meal without salt is considered no meal (Ber. 44a). Still, salt is one of the three things which must not be used in excess (ib. 55a)." So true!

Unfortunately, there is a holiday bag of chocolate covered pretzels that calls out, maybe as a treat after a low-sodium meal. Nothing in excess!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

(Re)Turning to the Center

I forget when Advent became a particularly meaningful time to me. With the purple vestments symbolizing solemnity, Advent calls us to repentance at the beginning of the church's liturgical year. But at the same time, the candles and the joy of the season brighten the late autumn, during the frantic (though still enjoyable) lead-up to Christmas.

In my book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), I wrote: “The word “repentance” (in Hebrew teshuvah) means to turn around or to return. Repentance is a synonym for regret and restitution. But [repentance can also have] a more positive meaning: of aligning one’s priorities in order to remain true to one’s values. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes that, “The beginning place, as with any return, is of having a place from which we start, a home base, a point of origin, a beginning.” But Rabbi Artson also notes that turning/returning includes “finding our essence…our core.” He asks, “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered? This kind of turning is not a turning to get back to some earlier time; it is a turning to remain true.” (1)

These quotations from Rabbi Artson has always inspired me. How might we think of Advent repentance in the way that Rabbi Artson writes: not just sorrow for sin but a rediscovery of our true nature? One way might be to reassess the “truth” of who we are and where we are in our lives. Are we involved in activities that give us a sense of satisfaction and service? Are we engaged in unhelpful activities (gossip, maneuvering for position, etc.) that bespeak a core of unhappiness and selfishness? Do the words we speak sound like the person we want to do--or like some angry, dispirited person?

Rabbi Artson’s questions inform a meaningful Advent time of reflection: “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered?”

1. Bradley Shavit Artson, “Turning,” in Tikkun, Sept.-Oct. 2002, pp. 66-67 (quotation from p. 66).

(Thoughts adapted from a previous post.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Feast Day of St. Nicholas

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. I’ve been thinking of him, because my wife Beth recently traveled to Belgrade and purchased for me a beautiful Orthodox icon of Nicholas, which now hangs in our home. (Actually she was going to purchase it but her host there paid for it for her.)

I started to do a little research on Nicholas but discovered a site that gives comprehensive information about the beloved saint, specially associated with the protection of children. He’s the patron saint of many different persons and occupations, including pawn brokers, whose symbol evokes Nicholas.

This same site also explains why he’s a good saint and reminder for Advent. Although Advent is a time of longing and reflection rather than fulfillment, Nicholas bids us to show God’s love in tangible ways and to stay happy. “Celebrating St. Nicholas on his day in Advent brings a bit of fun and festivity into homes, churches, and schools. His small treats and surprises help keep the spirit of good St. Nicholas, especially when stories of his goodness and kind deeds are told and ways to express his care for those in need are sought. Saint Nicholas helps us remember Christmas is a feast of love, hope, kindness and generosity” (