Archive for the 'Shalom' Category

The Unfinished Work of Christmas

On Christmas Day, a colleague in ministry said on Facebook, “I’ve just finished my first Christmas Eve worship marathon.” She’s in her first year on the staff of a mid-sized church. I replied that sharing the Christmas story with all those people in all those different ways reminds us clergy that “it’s not about us”. We’re privileged to open ourselves as instruments to share “…good news of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)

I didn’t run this year’s marathon. I’ve run a few dozen, including during my Lutheran interim pastorate the past two years. In mid-December, our UM pastor asked for volunteers to help with the 9 and 11 PM Christmas Eve services. My wife started to sign us up. But I said not this year. We’d already planned to share the 5 PM Family service with our family, sing with the choir at the 7 PM service, and then go to our daughter’s home for supper. No Christmas marathon for me this year. I’m retired!

The next day (Christmas Eve) Rufus the Wonder Dog took me for our early morning walk. We hadn’t gone far when we heard sirens. Sirens are a daily occurrence in our neighborhood. We live about a mile from a hospital and not far from major streets. I said a prayer for the people those sirens were racing to help.

Later that morning Dianna and I set out to pick up the tamales we’d ordered for Christmas Eve supper. We stopped for lunch along the way. From our table by the window I watched “Henry” talk to some pedestrians. They appeared to be having a pretty intense discussion. Finally those folks gave him some money and moved on. Henry moved out of my view. A little later we saw “Alice” walk by on the sidewalk. She appeared to be intensely engaged in a spirited conversation with–herself. “Alice” was neatly dressed–down to her ankles. She wore serviceable socks, but no shoes. How long, we wondered, would “Alice” be able to function before some crisis overwhelmed her? How would “Alice” spend this Christmas?

While we ate our lunch, “Henry” moved to the parking lot. We met him when we went outside. “Henry” said he’d been arrested recently on a minor misdemeanor, spent a night in jail, and then released to make room for higher-priority offenders. His papers appeared to confirm his story. He sought enough money to take the bus to his minimum-wage job in a distant part of town. I found his story sufficiently believable. I violated my rule of not giving money to folks who ask for cash. If Henry was being honest, I  wouldn’t let a few dollars keep him from getting to his job on time. If not, it was on him. My wife gave him her leftovers, as she often does with obviously hungry folks. I wonder how “Henry” spent Christmas.

“The Work of Christmas”–Howard Thurman

Around 4 PM we set out for the church and the first of those two Christmas Eve services. When we stopped at a traffic light, we saw a woman we’d noticed before at that corner. On this particular (50-degree) day “Sharon” wore a thin top, shorts–and nothing on her feet. She too appeared to be carrying on an animated conversation with an invisible partner. We wondered about her as we had about “Alice”. How long before some crisis (pneumonia?) overwhelmed her?

Those three “street people” helped me rethink my choice not to “work” this Christmas Eve! Howard Thurman’s prophetic vision of “The Work of Christmas” came alive in those Christmas Eve encounters. “Henry”, “Alice”, and “Sharon”–and those sirens–call us to the true “work of Christmas”. Charity is huge in December. We do toy drives. We organize Christmas dinners for the poor, the homeless, and the lonely. We sing carols in hospitals and nursing homes. We support numerous good causes–and some not-so-good ones.

Much seasonal charity is band-aid work at best. Granted, band-aids may help stop the bleeding and begin the healing. But seasonal charity rarely leads to lasting change. The givers feel good about meeting an apparent immediate need for food, shelter, or companionship. But the new year dawns with the recipients’ situations unchanged. The homeless are still outside in the cold, the poor are still desperately destitute, and the broken are still wounded and vulnerable.

Centuries before Christ the prophet Micah defined the work of Christmas: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) The work of Christmas calls us beyond charity to justice–and far more. “The Work of Christmas” means doing all in our power to help the ancient prophetic vision of Shalom come true for all of God’s precious children within our reach. Most Christians most of the time the time oversimplify the Hebrew word’s meaning to “peace”. But “shalom” is far richer and deeper. God’s Shalom loose in the world is transformative and revolutionary.

In his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin”, Dr. Cornelius Plantinga described the Old Testament concept of shalom: “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

“The Work of Christmas” does whatever it takes to let this Good News loose into every nook and cranny of life, and every dark corner of Creation. In Luke’s gospel, Mary and Zechariah sing of Shalom as they anticipate Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:46-55; Luke 1:67-79):

“Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 MSG)

The Work of Christmas is 24/7/365 life-changing, world-changing work, by all who follow Jesus and welcome God’s New Day of Shalom, on behalf of our neighbors and the whole Creation. On our Christian calendar, the Twelve Days of Christmas are almost over. But the Work of Christmas continues. Let’s get to work!

 

 

 

 

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RESPONSE TO ROSEBURG–PEACE-FULL ACTION

Last Thursday shock and horror at 2015’s forty-fifth school shooting shook our nation. That’s a horrific pace of more than one a week. “Prayers for Oregon” memes flooded Facebook. A visibly shaken and angry President Obama spoke to the press and the nation about our collective failure to take meaningful action to stop this deadly trend. Self-interested parties on all sides immediately restated their long-held polarized positions. Mr. Obama’s sentiments echoed the many spiritual leaders who called challenged us to move beyond prayer to action. Sixteen years after Columbine, ten years after Red Lake, eight years after Virginia Tech, the millions of words we’ve thrown at the issue as we’ve talked around and past each other have failed to prevent 142 school shootings since Sandy Hook.          blessed-are-the-peacemakers_t_nv

Yes, for God’s sake and the sake of potential future shooting victims, let’s move beyond prayer to action. “Beyond prayer” doesn’t mean not praying. For me it means maximizing the synergy of active prayer and prayerful action. Prayer informs, shapes, and fuels our action. Action drives us deeper into prayer as we seek God’s will while we are active in many different ways and settings. A colleague of mine shared this prayer on her Facebook page: God of love, you give us minds to think, hearts to love, and a soul which longs to know you. Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen. (Rev. Sharon Ragland, 10/3/15) 

Beyond prayer to action—what action? Let us who claim to follow the Prince of Peace covenant together to return to our roots as a peace-full people. Let us take seriously Jesus’ call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), to love our enemies, (Matthew 5:44-45), to choose reconciliation and restoration over retribution (Matthew 5:17-48). Let us grow together into a peace-full people marked by peace-full words, deeds, thoughts, and prayer. We talk constantly about personal “peace with God” and “peace of mind”. But we haven’t learned (been willing to learn? been taught?) a robust biblical understanding of Shalom that embraces all human activity and indeed the whole creation. Peace-full people refuse to isolate personal “peace with God” from God’s continuing mission to bring peace and wholeness to all Creation. As long as any of God’s precious children are caught up in chaos and violence, my personal peace as a follower of Jesus, a peace-maker, is disturbed.

The Hebrew word “Shalom” is frequently translated as “peace”. But the word’s complex meanings include “peace”, “soundness”, prosperity”, “wholeness”, and more. Eirene” is the predominant Greek word for “peace” in the New Testament. It carries Shalom’s richness and enriches it further with insights like this: “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” (Ephesians 2:14-16 CEB) Yes, the passage speaks about the Christian community. But that process of reconciling a broken human family is God’s mission for the Church and God’s dream for all humankind (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

Peace-full action by a peace-full people involves (re)discovering and (re)committing to peacemaking and “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What a stark (and welcome) contrast to “…the violence which permeates our culture…”! United Methodist Bishop Robert Hoshibata wrote to members of our Desert Southwest Annual Conference shortly after the Roseburg shooting. One of his suggested steps “beyond prayer” was Bible Study. He lifted up a three-session study, “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities”. Of course three sessions are just enough to start the conversation. But no journey begins without that first step. Let us also rediscover the peacemaking tradition in Christianity. It includes early Christians who found service in the Roman army incompatible with their faith; historic peace churches like the Mennonites and Quakers, and more contemporary advocates of nonviolence including Thomas Merton. Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and many more. Let us reclaim our fundamental identity as peacemakers and reconcilers in the Spirit of Jesus. We will experience invaluable “on-the-job training” as we share deeply-held convictions, seek common ground and shared truth, and struggle to understand and love brothers and sisters with whom we disagree passionately.

Our beginning conversations about how we follow Jesus as peacemakers in this society will lead us into deeper dialog regarding our attitudes toward war and the military; the depiction of guns and violence in contemporary culture; about whether allowing our children playing video games (or watching us play) where the object is to kill a human being (even a cartoon) is compatible with becoming peace-full people; about capital punishment and prison reform; about how we live peacefully in our congregations with diverse and sometimes polarized opinions; and much more.

Bishop Hoshibata’s letter quoted the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory:

“Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control;

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul…”

Bishop Bob (as he invites us to call him) stopped there, but I’m sure he’d support adding the final verse:

“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for thy salvation be our glory evermore.

 Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore,

Serving thee whom we adore.”

May Harry Emerson Fosdick’s words open us to “…listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

 

 


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