Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, December 31, 2012

Top Books I Read in 2012

In no particular order:

Life Together: A discussion of Christian fellowshipDietrich Bonhoeffer

In The Time Of The Butterflies Julia Alvarez

Theirs Is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America - Robert D. Lupton

The Flight of Gemma Hardy Margot Livesey

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story - Susan Freinkel

Spiritual Writings - Leo Tolstoy

The Next Christians - Gabe Lyons

The Language of Flowers - Vanessa Diffenbaugh 

Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine - Peter Rollins

Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God Christian Scharen

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Gospel According to Charles Dickens

My husband is reading a book about Christmas traditions, and he told me that our modern concept of Christmas celebrations date back to around the time of Charles Dickens and his Christmas Carol. It seems like every year someone is putting it on as a play or a new movie version is coming out. But my all-time favorite Christmas movie has to be The Muppet Christmas Carol. It's just classic. It follows the book fairly accurately and the dialogue is just great. But as we were watching it this Christmas (the first time in a while since I've seen it), I was struck by how deeply Christian A Christmas Carol actually is. Let me show you (and so I get to take on the role of Omniscient Narrator!).

I think that A Christmas Carol is actually a modern retelling of the story of Zacchaeus of "wee little man" fame from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19. According to the song, poor vertically challenged Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus and solves his problem by climbing a tree. Jesus surprises him by inviting himself over to Z's house. What the song doesn't tell you is that our friend Z here is a tax collector. Tax collectors were hated at that time because not only did they collect taxes from the oppressed people of Israel to go in the coffers of the oppressing Romans, but tax collectors made their living by collecting extra. They got rich from charging their own people an exorbitant "handler's fee." That's why "tax collectors and sinners" usually went together in the mind of people at the time.

Luke tells us that Z was RICH. (Hmmmm, sound a little familiar?) What the song also doesn't say is what happened next:

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:7-10)

Remember for a moment Pre-Ghost Scrouge and his attitude toward the poor and needy in a nutshell: 

“If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” 

Now note his actions toward the needy Cratchet family Post-Ghost: 

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

In the Muppet version, Scrooge (a rich and powerful man in London) is seen giving a generous donation to a fund for the homeless, giving gifts at a nursing home, and giving his long-suffering assistant a generous raise while providing his family (and it looks like the entire community) a sumptuous Christmas feast. Hmmm, sound familiar? 

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, 
to Abraham and to his descendants forever." (Luke 1:46-55)

Scrooge clearly experienced a salvific conversion event, (like Zacchaeus) and he will never be the same. He is using the wealth that he had greedily squeezed out of everyone he could take advantage of, and using it to repay the damage it had done. He was a person in power but began to use that power to help people. Salvation came to the house of Scrooge that day, and in the process he gained the family that he might have had but lost. The message that I take away from this tale is that no one is beyond redemption. And that is the power of a good story. 

So the next time you roll your eyes at yet another adaptation or a corny reference to this Christmas classic (it's so tempting I know!) think on this wise but oft overlooked Christmas sermon by Tiny Tim, as retold by Mr. Cratchet:

"[Tiny Tim] told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

God the Peace Warrior

A preface: It's the reality of preaching that sometimes what you have prepared during the week just isn't going to fit come Sunday, especially when something major happens, either in the life of the community or the outer world. What I had already prepared just didn't seem to fit with what I was feeling this last weekend, and I know that there were people who needed to hear some words of hope about the death of those kids. So this is my "Saturday afternoon special."

During Sunday morning worship it felt like everything we did, every song we sang and word we spoke as a congregation had taken on a special meaning. Everything we did had taken on this weightiness, a deepness that felt like what we were doing was a matter of life and death (which it is, really). And in the end, it was deeply cathartic and healing, like something evil had been flushed from the air and we could now lift up our heads without fearing what we would see. 

Anyway, here is what God used me to say: 

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Today it’s hard to feel like celebrating. The Christmas lights are still going up, the cheerful holiday music is still playing, and the malls are still as packed as ever at this time of year. And yet, open any newspaper or log-in to any social media site and you cannot escape the horrible details of what happened two days ago in that school in Connecticut.  The festive holiday carols seem to turn bitter in our mouths as we think about the families for whom this Christmas will be unthinkably heartbreaking.

Every death is tragic and a cause for sadness by family and friends. The death of a child is especially agonizing.  But the death of children as victims of a senseless and violent act is nearly incomprehensible.

This tragedy rattles us to the very marrow of our trust in God; it penetrates to the very core of who we believe our God to be. It causes us to ask ourselves, how could a truly good God allow such a thing to happen to the most innocent and helpless among us?

There are no easy answers to be found. For countless centuries, we have been hurting and killing one another even as we have tried to understand why. And for just as long we have wondered why God doesn’t just get completely fed up with us and either turn us into do-gooder robots or completely leave us alone to destroy one another. Apparently God refuses to do either, and our best guesses can never adequately explain why.

But there is one thing we do know, one thing that we profess even in the midst of intense suffering and even despair - we cling to the hope that the Lord is near and is in our midst. And this is how we can rejoice even in the midst of tragedy. This is why we can still light our third candle, the joy candle, in our Advent wreath today.

In less than two weeks’ time, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, our Lord and savior. On Christmas Eve we will be singing “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” and “joy to the world.” Truth be told, though, the world that Jesus was born into was not very joyful at all. The moments of calmness and brightness were few and far between. By this time the people of Israel had been under the subjugation of one empire or another for hundreds of years. Israel’s latest oppressors, the Roman Empire, enforced peace by their military might, and generally treated them as second-class citizens in their own country. Any other child born the same night as Jesus had a short and harsh life to look forward to, and that’s only if they succeeded in keeping their head down and doing what they were told. If they didn't, the punishment was brutal and fatal.

Things had not improved much by the time Jesus had grown up. The people still prayed that their messiah would come and deliver them from their bitter existence, to mightily kick the Romans out of their land and establish a great kingdom of their own. But I imagine that they were getting very tired of waiting by now. God had seemed to be silent for so long, they must have begun to wonder if God had indeed forgotten them. Then enter John the Baptist, stage right.

It’s not hard to see why the people began to think that John the Baptist might be their man, with his booming voice and fearless truth-telling. I would probably never be brave enough to begin a sermon: “You children of snakes!” But John had no fear. He was not afraid to call out the religious authorities on their hypocrisy. He was also not afraid to call out the immorality of those in power – and it is his critique of King Herod that lands him in prison and leads to his beheading later on.

John was not afraid because he knew that the Lord was near, and was in their very midst. When the people began to hope that John was the Messiah they had been hoping for, he immediately set them straight. John told them – you think what I’M doing is radical and life-changing? Just you wait! I’m only the warm-up act. The one coming after me is the main event, and because of him, EVERYTHING is going to change!

Fast forward two thousand years, and how much has really changed? For all of our modern marvels of technology, our breakthroughs in science, our fast travel and even faster means of communication, are we better off now? In many ways, yes, our lives have vastly improved compared to those in the past. But instead of being a slave to Caesar, we find ourselves slaves to consumerism. Instead of short lives of hardship, we are slowing dying of excess.  Instead of physical isolation and separation, we now hide from ourselves and others inside our computers. And with all our technological prowess, we have also found more efficient and elaborate ways to hurt one another. In all this time, we have not really changed.

But in all this time, God has not changed either. And that’s a good thing. The faithfulness, the love, and the goodness of the Lord toward God’s people have remained the same, today, tomorrow, and always. The Lord is always near to us, and our God is always in our midst, even in the midst of pain and suffering. ESPECIALLY in the midst of pain and suffering.

 God has always been in the thick of it with us. No amount of misery, no amount of self-destructive tendencies, no amount of violence could ever make God turn away from us. No life is too broken, no sorrow is too deep, no death is too tragic for God to be near.  

To cut a young life short in such a violent way is a wrong beyond imagining. It is upsetting and infuriating. Be angry. Yes, even be angry at God. Shake your fists at the heavens and yell, even. “God, how could this happen?” But cling even tighter to the hope in the nearness of God, even if you are barely holding on by your fingertips. And hope even more boldly that violence cannot and will not triumph forever.

In the words of the prophet Zephaniah, our Lord is a warrior, but not one who wins victory for himself alone. Our Lord is a warrior, but one who saves the lame and gathers the outcast and makes them part of the community. Our Lord is a warrior who takes away shame, and restores, and renews. Our Lord is a warrior who does not use weapons or force, but instead reveals himself to us in the form of a helpless baby to show us that oppression and violence are unacceptable. Our Lord is a warrior of peace.

And this indeed is cause for rejoicing.

Though songs of praise may stick in our throats today, Zephaniah says that God sings for us even when find we cannot. Disasters can and will still come, but we do not need to fear them. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

At this time and in all times, I pray that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Another mediation on the F word

So I finally watched the documentary "Miss Representation." It took my far, far too long to watch this, though I am grateful that it is now on Netflix, because there are rarely screenings nearby. There is way too much to talk about as a whole, other than to say it was pretty life-changing. Take a look at clips on youtube, order it from Nexflix, or go to a screening and see it for yourself. Like the title implies, it is about how women in media are being misrepresented. When shows, movies, and ads show women as beautiful objects to be desired with no depth of character or agency of her own, this is harmful to how women are viewed in society at large and whether or not she will be take seriously. This is nothing new, but the detail in this documentary is just staggering. 

But this documentary hit home for me the other day in a way that on the surface may seem really trivial. Basically, I wanted to go see a movie. Now, not just any movie. I didn't want to see shoot-em-up, action-adventure, explosion filled movie, though I easily could have. There are about 5 playing at the local AMC right now. I wanted to see Anna Karenina, the new movie with those famous people in it, based on the book by Leo Tolstoy (who wrote some really great Christian essays, did you know that?). Seems pretty easy to just waltz down to my local AMC three minutes away and get some tickets, right?

Wrong. (Warning: rant ahead, if you couldn't already tell.)

Anna Karenina is a "special" movie. It's a movie with a woman in it. Not just any woman, but a strong woman. A woman who makes choices (even bad ones). A woman who's a mom. A woman with conflicting feelings. A woman who is the MAIN CHARACTER. (Notice the title?)

So this "special" movie is in "limited release." That means that you'll have to drive out of your way or into the next state to see it, because your local AMC theater does not carry it. Because they don't think it will make much money. Because of, as "Miss Representation" revealed, a deep-held belief in Hollywood that women will see movies of stories about men, but men will not see movies with stories about women, and therefore there is little money to be made.

To them, I would say, have you SEEN how much "Twilight" has raked in?

And even though there are two very famous actors in Anna K, I have a feeling that it is in limited release because it is a "women's movie." Even though it is supposedly "Oscar material." And so, AMC will miss out on my $10 because I will be seeing it at a theater that WILL play it. But really, everybody loses when this kind of thing happens.

It may seem silly, but is it really so wrong to want access to stories about people like me? I don't think so. It's also making me seriously consider wearing my collar more, when I'm out doing things after being at the office, like shopping at Target. Because "You can't be what you can't see." Or, at least, it is much harder. And who knows? There may be a little girl out there who later in life feels called to ministry, who may or may not remember seeing a woman with a collar in a Target in some NJ suburb.