Solstice Celebration or Christmas?

It seems like every year I write something on the history of Christmas.  The first year that I gave a talk on “When was Jesus really born?”, I could see the disbelieving faces betraying their certainty that I had become a heretic.  One year I wrote a column for the local paper on the origins of popular Christmas customs that got me more than a few nasty responses.   So here we are again trying to get Christ back into Christmas with little recognition that we Christians tried to take over a well established Roman solstice celebration somewhere around the fourth century, and then kept on trying to do it in the other northern cultures we encountered, each with their own solstice celebrations.  Never had much success, but we’re still trying.

I think we should give up, relax, enjoy the pagan rituals that surround us and that are not offensive to our faith, and get on with parallel celebration of our Christ’s Mass without trying to merge the two.  It’s a battle we lost centuries ago and continue to lose each year.  As for me and my household, we will observe Advent and the Christian Christmas, but we will also enjoy gifts, wreaths, trees, lights, parties, etc.  Besides, it’s one of the two times in the year when marginal and non-Christians will show up in church, and we should make the most of it with boldly inviting proclamations of the Good News of God in Christ.


Public opinion polling came into its own in the late ‘30s and ‘40s as a way to inform public and private decision makers about what the public, in its manifold forms, was thinking or how it might react to some new decision.  To the extent that polling still does that, it’s a useful tool.
But consider polling as a form of entertainment or faux news reporting.  Then it becomes a tool more intended to tell the public what to think or decide: ignorance informing ignorance.  What I mean is that the daily cascade of news is filled with reports of what the polls say.  Is the economy getting better?  Should we pull out of Afghanistan?  Are 40,000 additional troops going to be enough to win?  Was bailing out Wall Street a good idea?  Should Boise State get a bowl bid?  The questions aren’t bad, but the answers are because they are broadcast not so much as indicators of what Americans think but as pointers to what Americans should be thinking.  There is an implied assumption that somehow those polled have some reasonable expertise about the economy, conditions in Afghanistan, military planning, Wall Street, the BCS bowl game process, or whatever else the polls are about.
If a majority of those polled think thus and such they must know something I don’t know and I’d better go along with them to be on the safe side. It gets even worse with various television call-in polls, such as those featured on CNN’s Cafferty File segments, in which viewers are asked to call in their votes, aye or nay, on complex issues of the day with the results posted in very short order.  As entertainment, it’s a lot of fun.  But to imply that it’s any more than a form of entertainment is misleading, and that is exactly what is done on television news shows.
It’s not that I think polling results should be kept secret.  I just don’t think that polls should be used in a frivolous manner, particularly when that frivolity is deliberately intended to lead the uninformed by the uninformed on complex issues of importance to the welfare of the world in which we live.  In the remote event that some news producer reads this and objects that such would never have been their intent, my response would be that he/she is either lying or is dumb as a rock.  Let’s face it, it’s a pretty good marketing gimmick that spices up 24-hour news programming a bit.

Who Needs A King?

Our problem with Christ the King Sunday is manifold. Americans just don’t like the idea of monarchs. The vaunted myth of American individualism rebels against it. Maybe that’s why we birthed so many denominations over the years. Every little group wanted its own democratically elected God or Jesus enfolded in its own democratically elected way of worship. Maybe that’s why we tend to put so much emphasis on having a personal savior. We are quick to claim that we have given our lives to Christ, but often as not that would be hard to prove by our words and deeds. It may be “good to be king” but if a king has any power at all, his subjects are likely to suffer. Yep, no kings for us.

From another perspective, no matter how often or in what way Jesus tried to explain the presence of the kingdom of God that was at hand, it never really got through. Still doesn’t. The fact that God’s kingdom can infect this world only through the lives of faithful men and women bringing the light of Christ into it seems to have eluded most of us, most of the time. The Jews of Jesus’ day wanted a Messiah who would ride at the head of an army to reestablish the Davidic kingdom. A good many Christians want the same thing through a theology that sees the cross, grave and resurrection as an incomplete start to what will be finished when Jesus returns, this time getting it right, at the head of his angelic army. Isn’t that what it promises in the Revelation to John?

Speaking for myself, I don’t know what to make of the word king, although I’m helped at least a little by Deirdre Good’s book “Jesus the Meek King” in which her emphasis is on the word meek. What I am persuaded by is this passage from Isaiah:

Is. 55:6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

I don’t have to understand king any more than Pilate did. I only have to trust that God is God, and that in following Jesus I am following where God leads. My confession is that I follow him like a little boy. I try never to completely lose sight of him, and intend to be diligent in following, but I get easily distracted along the way and am prone to wander off down side roads now and then. I never count myself among the lost, just, on occasion, a wee bit disoriented. I always find him again because he always seems to know where I am even if I’m not sure where he is.

Word Study and Author’s Intent

One of the joys of scripture study is engaging with the interpretations of various commentators. I’m grateful for their deep knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, a gift that I do not have. But I have a question. How significant is it to endlessly parse noun endings and verb tenses according to the various ways in which a word might be understood in order to more precisely tease out the author’s meaning?

After all, we don’t have an original text. The writers of the gospels were known to be a bit rough in their use of Greek. Moreover, they had to translate into Greek a story whose origins were in Aramaic. I thought of that as I considered some of my own writing. How eager would I be to have some linguistic expert try to explain the real meaning of what I wrote based on a close examination of my choice of certain words? Not much! I’m not that good a writer. I write fast. I make mistakes in verb tenses and sentence structure. Even after I do my best to edit things I find stupid little errors. I write something so clearly that even a five year old could understand it, and my wife tosses it back as unintelligible.

It all reminds me of the Paul of my imagination. Pacing to and fro, I see him rapidly dictating his letters, sometimes veering off into half finished ideas before returning to his main theme. I imagine his secretary(ies?) doing the best he can to keep up, throwing in an extra word here and there, failing to catch another, and scrambling to get the essence of what Paul was saying even if he couldn’t capture each syllable. He didn’t have spell check, white-out, or even a decent pencil with a good eraser.

I wonder how accountable we can hold Mark, Matthew, Luke or John for writing ‘has come’ instead of ‘came’ or whether a given word should be closely interpreted as ‘hence’ instead of ‘because’?

One easy way out is to assert the God inspired inerrancy of Holy Scripture, which works pretty well as long as you have only one copy of one text and treat it as the original. A local pastor does that with the 1611 edition of the King James Bible that he holds to be the last, final and perfect version of scripture. Frankly, I love reading commentators who delve into word study. It helps me to hear the words, as we have them, in new ways. But I am highly suspicious of ascribing too much to the author’s intent. It’s more about our intent: the commentator’s and my own listening to new meanings.

First Maccabees and Afghanistan????

This is a question. Consider the first few chapters of First Maccabees and and tell me if you think that they have anything to say about our adventures in Afghanistan. What do you think? All other things aside, do you think the tribal leaders and Taliban in Afghanistan have anything in common with the Maccabeans? Do we have anything in common with the Seleucid army presence? The first thing I would object to is comparing the Taliban or Opium war lords to righteous Jews desiring to follow the laws of the only true God, and I would be unhappy being compared to the arrogant, pagan and cruelly violent Hellenists. How about bracketing all of that? Then what? What might the Maccabeans teach us about America and Afghanistan?

I Have Not Accepted Jesus as My Personal Savior? Have You?

I attended a day long evangelism workshop yesterday and learned quite a bit. One person was bold enough to give her testimony about when and how she accepted Jesus as her personal savior. That’s a bit unusual for us non-evangelically minded Episcopalians. I’ve known this woman for years and know her faith to be real and deeply held, and her intentions without guile. But I also know that, for many people, accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior has become a formula for the one correct way to become a Christian. Case in point; I got an e-mail just recently from an occasional reader who knows that I am an Episcopal priest and wanted to know the story of how I came to accept Jesus as my personal savior. I doubt if it occurred to her that there was any other question to ask of a Christian. I have some problems with that.

For one thing, I’m uncomfortable with the individuality of the language: it’s just me and Jesus. Don’t need anyone else. For another, I dislike the implication of ownership: “my personal savior,” as if Jesus belonged to me as something I own. Finally, the idea of accepting Jesus as my personal savior seems, at least to me, to put the burden of my salvation on my back, and I’ve got enough to carry without adding that.

When my occasional reader asked for the story of how I came to accept Jesus as my personal savior I wrote back, “I didn’t.” I was brought up in the Church. I cannot remember a time when God in Christ was not a part of my life. There was never a question of whether I accepted him as my personal savior. It’s a question that didn’t even make sense. But there were plenty of questions about whether, and to what extent, I was willing to be a part of his community of followers. Maybe that sounds like splitting hairs, but if so, I think they are hairs worthy of being split. It’s one thing to have a personal savior. It’s another to become a member of a community of disciples who faithfully trust that this Jewish carpenter is so uniquely the presence of God among us that he really is the way, the truth and the light, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. Becoming a follower of Jesus must always put us into the company of other followers. Moreover, following implies a journey. Being on that journey brings to my mind the multitude of conversations that have to be taking place among all the others walking with us. I’m in conversation with you the reader right now, but at another time I might be deep in conversation Erasmus or Augustine or some guy named Ralph. We can (but maybe are not required to) each have a very personal, even intimate, relationship with Jesus, but it can never be singular, nor can it involve any form possessiveness that might imply our ownership of that intimacy.

That leaves plenty of room for Jesus to be the one in charge of what avenues of access to God are open or closed, acceptable or unacceptable, and I don’t recall that Jesus ever asked our advice on the matter. One can most certainly be very authentic in one’s testimony about how Jesus became their personal savior. I may have my own problems with that statement, but I won’t deny it as a genuine statement of faith. What I will object to is any claim that it is the only acceptable statement of faith, the only and necessary entrance ticket required by some heavenly gate usher.

P.S. If you ever get a chance to hear Victoria Heard, Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, speak on evangelism, do it. Her workshop, “How to Share your Faith without Spooking your Friends” is excellent.

A Response to David Rose

David Rose, professor of economics at the University of Missouri, writing in today’s Christian Science Monitor, wants to chuck the entire health care system as we know it or have proposed it to be. He would replace it with a simple system in which every citizen would receive a health care voucher which would be used to buy what? He doesn’t say. It’s what I call a cute idea. It’s cute because it is both attractive and naïve.

I agree that the current non-system is needlessly complex and inefficient, and that the bills currently before congress offer only marginal improvement. But his proposal is a little like the various tax simplification schemes that come up now and then. The legislative process, by its very nature, is incapable of producing a simple product. That’s not because legislators are incompetent. It’s because public and private interest groups will always lobby to tweak a simple idea to provide for some special advantage of value to them. It’s crazy to rail against the “special interests” because you and I are part of those interests in one way or another by virtue of our age, sex, occupation, location, or particular interests. That’s life in a democracy. If you want simplicity move to a dictatorship.

Rose’s objection to the current legislation is based on his understanding of the fallacy of composition in which an advantageous change in one part of a system does not equate to an equal advantageous change in the whole system. He gives two examples, one good and one bad. The good one has to do with baseball team batting averages. If one team improves its overall average it will likely win more games, but if every team does likewise there is no advantage and any change in winning will have to be due to something else. The bad one has to do with a pencil manufacturer, and it is this example he uses with regard to the health care debate. He writes:

Suppose, for example, that a pencilmaker sells one pencil per month to 10 separate buyers. Each pencil costs $1 to make and overhead is $10. The pencilmaker needs at least $20 in revenue per month to stay in business, so the average price per pencil must be at least $2.

Now suppose some buyers form a cooperative and use their newfound market power to negotiate a price below $2. To continue generating $20 in revenue, the pencilmaker must now charge the remaining buyers more than $2 because overhead has to be paid by someone.

If the remaining buyers also form a cooperative they may to able to negotiate the pencil price back down to $2, but only if pencil buyers in the first cooperative experience a price increase. Once everyone is large, the advantage of being large disappears.

That, he says, is why the co-op and public option health care schemes will not work. The problem is that his example assumes that the pencil company is both efficient and honest, and that there are no other pencil companies. My take is that the current non-system is neither efficient nor honest, and that a “robust” public option, or perhaps co-ops, would go a long way toward changing that. Detractors assume that nothing the government does or sponsors can be efficient or honest, and, therefore, why go down that road. It’s the old Peggy Noonan line that government is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem. My logical and fact based response: Fiddlesticks!

Veterans’ Day

It’s Veterans Day. I am not a veteran so I’m not one of those being honored this day, but I am among those who desire to express my appreciation for their service. How to do that? Things have changed a lot over the years. Today used to be Armistice Day, and we celebrated the end of the war to end all wars making the world safe for democracy. It did not end all wars, but it did set into motion events that would, by the mid-twentieth century, prove the futility of wars for worldwide dominance. The cost of that enlightenment was enormous. The dead in the tens of millions whose humanity has been reduced to numbers that can only be estimated was accompanied by many more millions of lives challenged with physical and emotional wounds that never really healed. The veterans of those wars have more than earned the honor due them from a grateful nation.

Sadly, that did not end worldwide warring. War just took on new forms in new places. For America, our reasons for entering into armed conflict have become less and less clear. Politicians send troops into harm’s way for purposes that do not appear to have any clear connection to the standard shibboleths of keeping America safe or defending our freedom. Unfortunately, the ensuing national debate often ends up demonizing those who serve rather than the political leaders who engineer military engagements.

Another change has been in the nature of our armed forces themselves. The big wars of first half of the twentieth century, including Korea, were fought by draftees who did not choose to serve, and by enlistees who were often motivated by a patriotic morality. Now we are served by a professional military who have chosen to join as a career, to have a job, to get an education, for adventure, or to avoid getting into trouble.

None of that detracts from the steadfast courage of those who have served in our armed forces. Whatever their reasons, they have done their duty in the service of their nation, and for too many the cost has been high. What is the right way to say thanks? Airport greetings and welcome home dinners are nice, but often just decorations on a cardboard cake. How about if get really serious about a fully functional and efficient VA? How about if we get serious about job placement initiatives that lead to something other than stocking shelves at Wal-Mart? How about well staffed veterans’ centers on every public university campus? How about if we just learn to listen to them?


Interdependence is a word that has been tossed around so much that it can lose its meaning. That happens. Just the same I started thinking about interdependence from three different perspectives emanating from three different events. One has been the incarcation of a young friend who has got mixed up in drugs and the crimes that go along with that. Another was a talk I heard yesterday on economic conditions. The third was memory flashes of an old BBC show narrated by James Burke called “Connections.”

My young friend’s drug use has tagged him with a well earned criminal record and engaged him with destructive forces of society that are rampant in places such as Mexico, Columbia and Afghanistan, as well as Portland, Seattle and Walla Walla. Distant murderous crime syndicates, corrupt governments, and local warlords are financed by mostly impoverished drug users all over the world. He is my friend and I care very much about him, so I also am engaged. It’s an insideous web of connections with no obvious place for intervention.

The speaker on economic conditions observed that Europe was financing its social welfare system on the American market place, and when we stopped buying their products it put their economies in jeopardy. The implication was that they were dependent on us, in a profligate way, because we are the very center of the world economy in such a way that everyone else depends on us. I don’t think that’s what he really meant, it’s just the way it came out. And coming out that way, it ignored our dependence on oil from other parts of the world, on China to supply both manufactured products and cash to finance our borrowing, on Europe as both a market and supplier, and on the cheap labor of lesser developed countries to grow our winter fruits and veggies. Voices calling for a renewed self dependence in all areas simply fail to understand the complexity of these relationships that lead to the mutual well being or destruction of all. That goes for those who want to secure our borders with walls and gun towers, satiate our lust for oil by sucking it out at any environmental cost, and limit our food intake to locally grown produce.

That’s what James Burke tried to describe back in the late 1970s with his ten part series “Connections.” The interconnectedness of all lives and things in every place is enormously complex, and following even the simplest strand becomes hopelessly confusing. How are we to keep our focus under these condtions? The psalmist, writing as the voice of God, had something to say to those of us who perceive ourselves to be the gods of our day:

Psa. 82

1 God has taken his place in the divine council;

in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

2 “How long will you judge unjustly

and show partiality to the wicked?

3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;

maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

4 Rescue the weak and the needy;

deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

That doesn’t answer every question, but it does point us in the right direction – God’s direction.

Here We Are Again: Hearing, Reading, Marking, Learning and Digesting

Mine is a liturgical tradition with all the ceremony that goes with it. Our services begin with song, and prayers that our hearts may be readied for worship, as well as a particular thematic prayer for each Sunday of the year. This next Sunday brings us to my favorite of all preparatory prayers, one that I treasure on this Sunday and use often during the year.

Blessed Lord, who Caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.

It’s hard to know exactly what went through the minds of those who first used it as found in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, but it appeals to me in this way. It affirms my understanding that God caused all holy Scripture to be written, but that in no way implies that God dictated it, or that it is intended to be read literally, or that it is inerrant. To hear, read, mark and learn (be instructed by) holy Scripture affirms what I’ve called the practice of wallowing in the bible, or what more sophisticated folk call Lectio Divina. Maybe wallowing is not such a good metaphor since it is often associated with pigs rolling in mud. My personal image is of being washed chest deep in the warm waters of Hawaii, letting the waves lift me up, set me down, move me about, cause my feet to be buried in the sand, banged up against rocks, dodging coral and being investigated by creatures of the sea. Holy Scripture is like that: it lifts and sets, moves, washes over, hits and probes. It is alive, comforting, threatening, enfolding, dangerous and alluring.

To inwardly digest it is to think, analyze, reflect and probe back. To inwardly digest brings into conversation with Scripture all that one has learned from every source and all of tradition, as well as one’s own prejudices and assumptions. It also means to directly engage God in conversation, both to talk and to listen. But digestion also has another aspect, and that is elimination. Some things have to go. The sign on the UCC church down the street boldly proclaims that “God is Still Speaking.” I agree. God is still speaking in new ways, and never more powerfully than through the written words in this ancient text. Sometimes God, through these old and familiar words, simply shakes us to the core and demands that the old be sifted out to make room for the new.

There are a lot of mission statements in the Church and for the Church. I can’t think of a better one for youth and adult bible study than this 460 year old prayer.