Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Wailing Wall

The day before Christmas I bought myself a copy of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees for fifty cents in a Hospice Thrift Store. It was so good I couldn’t put it down, and it’s now one of my favorite books. (It's been adapted into a major motion picture, which I haven’t seen and probably never will.) I don’t read many novels, but this one caught my eye because I used to be a hobbyist beekeeper. (Bet you didn’t know that about me.) Here’s a blurb about the book from the author’s website (www.suemonkkidd.com):

In this New York Times bestseller, a young girl's search for the truth about her mother leads her to three beekeeping sisters who take her into their mesmerizing world of bees and honey and of a mysterious Black Madonna. A novel about mothers and daughters and the women in our lives who become our true mothers. A story about the divine power of women and the transforming power of love.

One of the beekeeping sisters, an emotionally unstable woman named May, took on others’ emotional pain so much she was easily overwhelmed by it. When something was troubling her, she’d write it on a piece of paper and put it in a crack in her personal “wailing wall” in her backyard. It was the only thing that seemed to help her cope.

If I had my own personal wailing wall, I’d write “Brent Davidson” on a scrap of paper and tuck it in to a crevice. Brent was a six-year-old boy who was brutally murdered after getting off the school bus one day while his older brother and other school children looked on. (Where was God?) Brent’s father was a sergeant in my  battalion—it’s been a dozen years ago now—and I did the memorial service. There are lots of other things I would write on scraps of paper—most of them too personal and painful to mention here. What would you write if you had a wailing wall?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Surprise Christmas Gift

I've been thinking about things we sometimes inherit that we couldn't otherwise afford. A few years ago I inherited my grandmother's fine china from Germany. My mother never really liked the pattern, or so she says. Amelia and I couldn't afford china, not really. We bought some cheap china at a discount dinnerware store in St. Augustine, FL just before we wed. My wife's philosophy was cheap china is better than no china; mine, the opposite. She won.

This Christmas my parents surprised us again when they gave us the silverware my mom got from her parents for their wedding in 1959. I'm not talking about cheap stainless steel or silver-platted flatware, but real sterling silverware, service for twelve. My mother claims she never really like it. (She and her mother had "issues," not just different tastes.) 

I could make a spiritual application about how we inherit blessings and salvation from God, but I won't. I'll just say thank you mom and dad for your generous gift.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Every Christmas Eve my family and I try, whenever possible, to listen to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England. As the name implies, the service uses Scripture readings and hymns to present the sweep of salvation history from the fall in the Garden of Eden through the incarnation. It’s a beautiful and biblical presentation of the Good News that God has come in the flesh to save sinners.

Each year a new carol is commissioned for the occasion, and this year’s offering was a piece by British composer Dominic Muldowney, who chose for his hymn’s lyrics a poem about the Virgin Mary by the Nobel Prize-winning German playwright Berthold Brecht (1898-1956). It’s a gritty poem written from a very human perspective. Here’s an English translation of “Mary”:

The night when she first gave birth
Had been cold. But in later years
She quite forgot
The frost in the dingy beams and the smoking stove
And the spasms of the afterbirth at dawn.
But above all she forgot the bitter shame
Common among the poor
Of having no privacy.
That was why in later years it became a holiday for all.

The shepherds’ coarse chatter fell silent.
Later they became the Kings of the story.
The wind, which was icy cold,
Turned into the song of angels.
Of the hole in the roof that let in the frost nothing was left
But the star that peeped through it.
All this was due to the vision of her son, who was very
Fond of singing.
He lived with the poor
And was in the habit of mixing with kings

And of seeing a star above his head at night-time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

St. Nick

Santa Claus as we know him is a fictitious character who has nothing to do with the holiday we celebrate on December 25th. But his historical antecedent, St. Nicholas of Myra (died Dec. 6, 345 or 352)—I’ll just call him Nick—is one of the inspiring heroes of the early Christian past. Nick lived in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey (just ask me if I’ve been there), and he’s the patron saint, meaning spiritual protector, for some of the most unsavory people: sailors, fishermen, pawnbrokers, and prostitutes. (There are some neat stories about another famous guy who hung out with fishermen and prostitutes, but I’ll save his story for another time.)

In one popular story about Nick, he fished a sailor out of a stormy sea, saving his life. In another he punched a heretical preacher in the nose for teaching heresy about Jesus at the Council of Nicea in AD 325. And then there’s the famous story about his generosity. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a poor man who had three daughters. He didn’t have enough money for a dowry, which meant the girls would not be able to marry and likely wind up prostitutes. Nick knew that the penurious man was too proud to accept charity, so he tied up gold coins in a sack and threw it in the man’s window just before the oldest daughter reached marriageable age—in the nick of time, you might say. (Sorry about that.) The next night he did the same for the second daughter. The father, determined to learn the identity of his wealthy patron, decided to lay in wait the third night to catch the man as he strolled by to toss in a bag for his youngest daughter. But Nick outsmarted him. He threw the last bag of gold down the chimney instead. It happened to land in a stocking the daughter was drying on the hearth. To this day the symbol of pawnbrokers is three gold balls, symbolizing Nick’s three sacks of gold. (I’m tempted to say, “And now you know the rest of the story,” but I’ll refrain.)

You may doubt the veracity of these stories. Most scholars do too. It sounds like a bunch of holy hooey, right? Well, maybe. But if you find these legends hard to believe, have you heard the one about the virgin who gave birth to God?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Goodness Gracious!

The economy is shedding jobs like a golden retriever in the Sahara Desert and many people are facing a scary, uncertain future because of it. A man in my Sunday School class broke down in tears last Sunday, because he’s a Bush appointee who’s going to be unemployed on January 20th— in exactly one month—unless something close to miraculous happens. It's an awful time to have to look for work. I felt ashamed because I worry about my future employment, and I have a great job with the U.S. Navy (at least until September 30th next year).

As far as my pessimism goes, I’m usually somewhere between a Marsh-wiggle and Chicken Little. Yet despite my glass-half-full outlook I’m often surprised when the fig tree actually does blossom, when there’s fruit on the vine, when the fields yield produce, when the flocks are not cut off from the fold, and when the herd remains in the stall (Hab. 3:17). Time and again, I have experienced unexpected good things. Why?

Well, the answer might just be in the very first Bible passage I ever committed to memory as a child. Do you remember the first Scripture you ever memorized? For me it was the 23rd Psalm, which begins “The Lord is my Shepherd. . . .” You probably know it by heart too. Remember the part that says “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”(v. 6)? That word “follow” (Heb. yirdephuni from the root word radaph) actually means to pursue, chase, or hunt down.(1) The goodness of God is not trudging behind us at a leisurely pace while we wait for it to catch up. It’s hot on our heels like a cheetah after a sick antelope!

(1) I was recently reminded of this meaning by R. Wayne Stacy in his sermon “The Hound of Heaven,” in The Search: The Soul’s Secret Signature (Nashville: Fields, 2000), 43-48.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Which Pocket, Lord?

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshis'cha (1765-1827) said that everyone should have two pockets: one to contain, “I am but dust and ashes,” [Gen. 18:27] and the other to contain, “The world was created for my sake.” [Sanhedrin 37a] At certain times, we must reach into one pocket; at other times, into the other. The secret of correct living comes from knowing when to reach into which.

I keep such “pockets” on my computer where I have both an “I-love-me file” and a “humility file.” (I refuse to call it an I-hate-me file.) In the former are all the things I’m proudest of, starting with my Fulbright Grant. In the latter I put all the disappointments, including grants I didn’t get and other rejections that still sting. When I’m feeling down I look at my I-love-me file for a little encouragement. When I’m feeling a bit too smug I peek, very quickly, at my humility file.

Which pocket today, Lord?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Love Actually?

Chick flicks are one of my guilty pleasures. (My wife Amelia, on the other hand, likes action adventure. Go figure.) One of my favorites is the British romantic comedy Love Actually. (Who could forget Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love)” or Rowan Atkinson as a goofy, gift-wrapping jewelry salesman?) Set in the days leading up to Christmas, the film follows multiple storylines about love and romance. One story focuses on a trio: Juliet (Keira Knightley), Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Mark (Andrew Lincoln), Peter’s best friend. Mark is both best man and amateur videographer at Juliet and Peter’s wedding. When the professionally made video turns out disappointing, Juliet shows up on Mark’s doorstep unannounced to get a copy of the footage he shot of the nuptials. Much to Juliet’s surprise and Mark’s embarrassment, the video is nothing but close-ups of her, revealing Mark’s secret love for his best friend’s girl. “But you never talk to me. You always talk to Peter,” Juliet protests, “You don’t like me!” How could Juliet have been so close to someone who loved her so much and not even realize it?

I sometimes doubt that God loves me. Do you do that too? Intellectually I know that’s not right, but I do it anyway. I never doubt that God loves my kids or my friends or people in deepest, darkest Africa. But me? Really? You love ME, God? I wonder sometimes. You never talk to me the way you talk to others (at least the way they describe it). Look at all of the stuff you’ve put me through, God. You don’t even like me! At least that’s the way I feel at times. And why should you? My loyalty to you is fickle, my love cold. I’m not the kind of Christian I should be. I’m not very loveable.

Maybe the problem is the word love itself. It’s slippery and hard to define. We use it to describe how we feel about everything from our closest family members (“loved ones”) to sports (“I love the Gators!”) to food and drink (“I love coffee.” Really, I do.) to deity (“I love God.”). I’ve heard all of the sermons about “agape”—unconditional, godlike love. But from reading the Bible, I’d say it appears God does put some conditions on his love. Although he “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” he also damns people to hell. OK, it’s their fault. I get that. But it’s still hard for me to reconcile the idea of “unconditional” love with eternal punishment. It seems to me that either his love is conditional (or unconditional only for a select, arbitrarily chosen few as Calvinists contend) or he shouldn’t damn people to an eternity of outer darkness. Can you love someone unconditionally and still send them to eternity in hell, even if that’s what they deserve? (I realize some of my fundamentalist friends have just written me off as a liberal for even asking the question.)

Karl Barth, one the most famous and sophisticated theologians of the twentieth century, once summed up his theology with these surprisingly simple and familiar words, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” My response: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

I wonder if when I get to heaven God’s going to sit me down and show me a video with all close-ups of me.

Six Flags Over Jesus

Last night I went to the dress rehearsal for the Living Christmas Tree at the church we’ve been attending here in Northern Virignia. I didn’t want to go, but three of my kids (Nadine-13, Maddy-11, and Mark-9) are singing in the children’s choir, so it was my parental duty to attend at least one night of the big show. And what a big show it was! A hundred singers were arranged like ornaments in a 25-foot tree with over 20,000 synchronized lights.

Those of you who know me know that I like traditional worship with a liturgical bent. I’d rather sing the doxology than praise choruses, and I consider Fanny Crosby contemporary Christian music. (OK, I'm exaggerating slightly, but you get the idea.) I was dreading going to this evangelistic extravaganza with its over-the-top glitz and sappy Gospel drama set in Marge’s Beauty Shop. As the performance began, the lights in the sanctuary went down and a spotlight shone on the pastor, wearing a tuxedo and looking more like an emcee than a minister.

Hundreds of hours and I don’t want know how many thousands of dollars went into the production. I wouldn’t want to disparage the good intentions and hard work of all those involved, including my children. However, as I was groping to find a way to describe this event that seemed more suitable for Branson, Missouri than a First Church of one of the most sophisticated cities in America, a colleague suggested just the right descriptive: Six Flags Over Jesus.

All of my high-church, liturgical friends are getting a good laugh at this point, but some of you, including my wife and kids, are probably thinking, “But I like Six Flags!” Lots of people do. And many see no problem with a little razzle-dazzle in church. Worship style is a matter of preference to most people (Is it really?), and I’m probably sounding like a sanctified snob right now. But there was something that deeply impressed me about this evening.

The church opened its doors free of charge to hundreds of special needs children, adults, and their families. Before the Living Christmas Tree all were treated to a pizza dinner in the fellowship hall, which was decked out with enough Christmas cheer to set tiny tots eyes aglow, including a giant candy cane made out of red and white helium balloons that stretched across the ceiling. Singers sang Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, and even (gasp!) Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, and one of the pastors went around in a Christmas novelty hat that wiggled, and flashed, and made music. I cracked a smile in spite of myself. But what melted my Grinch-like heart was not the Christmas decorations, music, or festive atmosphere. It was the compassion I saw the church members show these “special friends” and their families—bringing them food and drinks, taking them to the rest rooms, talking and laughing with them. Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

If someone asks me where I’ve seen the presence of God lately, I’m going to say with a smile, “At Six Flags Over Jesus!”

Mythmaking (Thanksgiving)

Everyone knows the story of the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims, who were fleeing religious persecution in England and cultural assimilation in Holland, landed at Plymouth Rock in order to found a colony where they could experience religious freedom. Although half their number died that first winter, friendly Indians like Squanto and Massasoit brought them food and taught them how to grow corn and catch fish. A year after they arrived, the Pilgrims hosted a thanksgiving celebration with Indians and Englishmen feasting and frolicking together. And so goes one of our most popular founding myths.

There are many details of the story that have been added or deleted. The Pilgrims first landed at Cape Cod, not at Plymouth. It took them a month to find the site of their permanent settlement, and early accounts never mention setting foot on Plymouth Rock. Their first encounter with Indians was hostile, not friendly. And, although they were fleeing religious persecution in England, the Pilgrims were hardly “poster children” for religious toleration. Squanto was named after a Native American spirit the English later identified with the devil, so you have the irony that the Christian Pilgrims survived with the help of an Indian named Satan. And the saints were not always so saintly. William Bradford and his wife Dorothy left their young son back in the Netherlands, and she died in an apparent suicide shortly after arriving in the New World. Plymouth was never the kind of godly community Pastor John Robinson and others had envisioned. And, from the first, there were always so-called “strangers” among them—people who did not share the Pilgrims’ beliefs.

More than factual errors, however, the Pilgrim story represents mythmaking on a larger scale. One modern definition of history is “stories well tell ourselves about ourselves.” By focusing on the story of the founding of Plymouth Colony, Americans in the 19th and 20th century were saying something important about how they saw themselves: Americans are white, Anglo, hardworking, family-oriented, and Christian—that is, Protestant Christian—people. And there is certainly some truth to this image. However, there is much that this myth ignores.

For the past generation or so, historians have become more aware of the “constructedness” of history and the crucial role the historian plays in the process. As educational opportunities have expanded for women and minorities, the story of America’s founding has been changing—not because the facts have changed, but because historians have changed. A more recent generation of historians has decided to focus on different facts and tell other stories—ones that had been previously downplayed, neglected, or ignored altogether.

In his book American Colonies, Alan Taylor explains this trend:

Indians have come back into the story as central and persistent protagonists. Instead of dismissing slavery as peripheral, recent historians have restored its centrality to the economy, culture, and political thought of the colonists. And new scholarship illuminates the essential role of women in building colonial societies. With the expanded cast has come a broader stage that includes attention to New France, New Spain, and New Netherlands.

Growing up in Florida, I was often confused about how the Pilgrim story related to the one about of Ponce de Leon and the founding of St. Augustine, which came a full century earlier. Who founded America anyway? Was it the English Separatists we call Pilgrims or Spanish Catholics—or was it the Indians? The answer is (d)—all of the above . . . and more. In colonial times there came Spanish, French, Dutch, Scandinavian, and African people to these shores, where they met dozens of Native American groups, some fearsome and hostile, others friendly and docile.

America was then, and remains today, a multi-cultural land of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity—though that was hardly what anyone saw as ideal at the time and tensions among competing groups occasionally erupted in violence. Like the Pilgrims, we never live up to our own ideals, and we all practice mythmaking with ourselves.

We are never quite the people we tell others that we are. Sometimes we’re not even the people we think we are. Growing up, I always thought of myself as a “true American”—and by this I meant a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Christian. And there’s some truth to this image. My father’s family arrived from England in the 17th century. They were both white and Protestant. Yet my mother is a German immigrant and my first cousins are half German, half Filipino Catholics and neither my uncle nor my aunt was born in North America. And neither spoke English growing up. Yet the diversity of my own family is more authentically American that the stereotype I had in my mind as a child.

The Apostle Paul says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11).

As America grows more mature, we, her citizens, have become more aware of what we were really like during our county’s infancy. As we grow older, we too can recognize the folly of our childhood self-image: whether we thought we were going to be president one day or believed that we were losers, who could do nothing right. As we mature, we become more self-aware. We were never quite as good, or as bad, as brave, or as cowardly as we once saw ourselves.

As the Plymouth Colony grew into its adolescence in the 1640s, a revolution took place back in England. Parliamentarians defeated the Royalists and executed King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England—a Puritan king of sorts, who had more power than the Stuart monarch he replaced. Although he was a religious fanatic, and some would say a tyrant, one thing he was not was vain. He had unsightly warts on his face. Once an artist painted a flattering portrait of him. When he showed it to Cromwell, the Lord Protector was not pleased. He told the artist that he would not pay a farthing for the likeness unless it portrayed him faithfully—warts and all.

Are we willing to see ourselves, our families, and our country warts and all? That’s exactly how God sees us. And that’s how He loves us—warts and all.