What Makes For a Good Public Funeral?

With the funerals of James Foley and Michael Brown being held this week, I have been thinking about the purpose of public funerals and how we who are called upon to lead them can help both the family and the wider community through liturgy and proclamation.

Is there any benefit to broadcasting the funerals of James Foley, who was executed by a terrorist, and Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer in an incident that sparked both peaceful protests and violent riots over the past two weeks?

I believe there is a great benefit to broadcasting them when they are done well.

From a family systems perspective, we can watch or participate in these public rituals with a wide-angle lens rather than the sharp focus of our own theology. I cringe at many of the thoughtless platitudes of pop theology I hear bandied about at some funerals I have attended, such as “it was God’s will,” (do you really believe in a God who said, “I’m in the mood for a good beheading?”) or “God never gives us more than we have strength enough to handle” (would you really tell James Foley’s mother that if her faith were not so strong, God would not have allowed her son to be killed?)

In a public funeral, however, on the occasion of a death that sends ripples, if not shock waves, around the world, there are larger and more important questions than whether the theology articulated in the service meets my own personal standards as a mainline Presbyterian.

The more important issue is whether the theology articulated in the service clearly states the deepest beliefs about life and death of the community to whom the deceased belonged. There is nothing like a shocking death such as that of these two men to open the minds and hearts of people to hear a voice of hope in the middle of despair.

James Foley was a Roman Catholic. The extent to which the public service reflected his Catholic faith provided a clarity to the occasion. It said, “This is who he was, this is what he believed in the depths of his heart, and when his unbelief got the better of him, this is what we have believed on his behalf, and this is what we proclaim about the future.”

Even to those who do not share his Catholic faith, the proclamation has the effect of promoting theological or philosophical thought instead of reptilian reactivity.

Funerals are rites of passage for families and communities.

While many family members look at funerals as something ceremonial that we just have to buck up and get through, we who look at life through a family systems lens see them as opportunities for families and communities to self-define. Self-defining, telling ourselves and the world who we are and what we believe, also tells the world that we will not allow our loved ones to be defined by the manner of their death alone, and we who remain will not be defined by the tidal wave of media coverage.

When that is done clearly, calmly, and courageously, it can stimulate others to think rather than react. In the midst of the emotionally reactive cacophony of blame and revenge, it can give voice to a religious tradition refined by the deep thought of generations of the faithful.

To a people cut off from history and tradition, it can connect us to the intellectual and spiritual voices of generations of wisdom-development.

I have seen that remembering and celebrating the life and gifts of the deceased has a healing effect on most survivors. Even more important, however, is whether the leader(s) of the service can articulate a future that is different, that is better, because of the life this person lived.

We need to know that these horrific events cannot disappear into the footnotes of history without changing how we do things from this point forward. Will the death of James Foley lead us toward the cessation of violent conflict between the West and the radical Islamic militants?

Will the death of Michael Brown lead us to resolve this nation’s divisions between black and white, rich and poor, between law enforcement services and the communities they have been called to protect?

If their deaths will lead to a better future, we will not see it this week, next month, or next year.

It will be a long time coming.

In the age of the quick fix, we need to hear leaders of faith articulate a future that will be worth the energy, courage, and patience it will take to bring it about.

Neill Morgan is a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister, an aging triathlete, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Bible Is My Crazy Uncle. He writes a weekly newsletter on theology and endurance training at neillmorgan.com.

“Abide With Me” by Elizabeth Strout

This is the Austin Seminary Goodreads book for March, 2014, and I just finished it last night.  It’s a fine novel, especially if you enjoyed Gilead or Home by Marilynn Robinson.  No car chases or gun fights, but a lot of secrets, emotional violence, and just a little bit of murder in the context of a small town church.  The genogram in the previous post (a family diagram of Tyler Caskey, the main character) will make sense once you have read the book.

What If Jesus Really Meant It When He Said Turn the Other Cheek?


In this series on the historical backdrop of the Bible, we have looked at two events so far: Babylonian Exile and the United monarchy. Today, we look at the conquest of Alexander the Great from 336  B.C. to his death in 323, just before his 33rd birthday.

Alexander’s conquest failed in its political goal; it did not create a common allegiance among the city-states conquered. It did not form a united nation under the “divine” leadership of Alexander as prince or king.

Culturally, however, Alexander spread Greek influence across the whole area you see in the maps at the back of your Study Bible. It’s not that everyone gave up their own culture or deities or local customs; but, they found a veneer of Greek culture spreading across the empire. That veneer penetrated more deeply among the aristocracy and splattered more thinly at the edges of society, but one thing changed for everyone: Greek became the common language of people all over the known world.

Greek thought, in particular the philosophies of Plato and Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, spread with the language.  Religion, sculpture, theater, and athletics took their form from Hellenistic culture.

What does this have to do with the Bible?  A few things stand out:

Language: After Alexander’s conquest, scholars translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. Many Jewish members of the synagogue and Gentile adherents could read the scriptures only in Greek. We might compare the younger Jewish generation in Palestine to young Native Americans who understand some of the Navajo, Choctaw, or Chickasaw of their grandparents, but they don’t speak it or read it themselves. The earliest New Testament texts we have were written in Greek. The Old Testament in English translation leans as heavily on the Greek translations from Hebrew as it does on the oldest Hebrew manuscripts available. Why? Because the Greek translations we have used Hebrew texts that are older than any Hebrew texts we now have available to us.

Biblical imagery: In the epistle to the Hebrews, 12:1, we find the image of the naked athlete: “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Here (1 Corinthians 9:24-25) is one of many examples of Paul using Greek athletics as a metaphor for spiritual struggle: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

Power:  The military conquest of Alexander the Great, followed by the Roman conquest and military presence in Palestine provided the backdrop for the words “Messiah” and “Savior.” Even for those Jews (and there were many) who rejected the Zealot resistance because they believed that violence did not reflect God’s intention for the world, the idea of a Messiah or Savior who could defeat the power of evil without military might seemed impractical. Whether or not one adopted the view that the emperor was divine, one’s view of a Savior or Messiah was deeply influenced by the story of Alexander the Great.

Choose your question, political, linguistic, or philosophical/theological:

1. Jesus taught non-violent resistance against the Romans (Matthew 5:39) “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” In a culture formed by military conquest, this would have sounded absurd and impractical. Does it sound any more practical to those of us who live under the threat of terrorism? Or, for our parents or grandparents who fought against Naziism? I’m not exactly a pacifist, so I struggle with this—what if Jesus really meant it?

2. To what extent, if any, has learning a new language affected your ability to think in different ways? To empathize with people from different backgrounds? To understand the ideas of people very different from yourself?

3. In Paul’s most familiar passage, 1 Corinthians 13, in what ways do you find Paul using Platonic or Aristotelian thought in his argument? In what ways do you find him pushing against Hellenistic philosophy with more Jewish concerns, idolatry in particular?

When the churches were full, the budgets rose each year, and the youth choir sang in perfect harmony


Back In My Day . . .

The Bible records two distinct attitudes toward Israel’s monarchy.  On the one hand, the kingdom of David stands as the pinnacle of Israel’s history, the touchstone against which all other generations must be measured, and a period for which prophets and people wax nostalgic.  When Isaiah describes how Israel will recover from Babylonian exile, he says,

“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, [King David’s father]
and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” Isaiah 11:1

A few verses later, he envisions a time when the north and the south, Ephraim and Judah, will come back together as they were in the time of David’s reign:

“The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart,
the hostility of Judah shall be cut off;
Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah,
and Judah shall not be hostile towards Ephraim.” Isaiah 11:13

This passage from Isaiah represents a line of thought that we can trace from Old Testament to New, from the heroic tale of David’s defeat of Goliath to the accolades given to Jesus as he approached Jericho (“Son of David!”) Luke 18:38.  We find a nostalgia for that brief period from Saul to David to Solomon, ~1000 to 922 B.C., about 78 years, as if those few decades represent the way God intended the world to be.  The Kingdom of God and the kingdom of David become interwoven in the first century Jewish and Christian mind.

On the other hand, a strand of thought runs through much of the Old Testament that considers the monarchy a flawed institution, a sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness and susceptibility to idolatry.  In the story of Saul’s anointing by the prophet Samuel, the people demand a king “so that we also may be like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:20). In the context of the Old Testament, becoming like other nations sounds like our cliché of children who say to their parents, “Please let me jump off of a cliff–all the other kids in the neighborhood are doing it!”

This line of thought, with a sardonic and satirical tone regarding mortal kings, continues through the David and Bathsheba story and into the ironic tone of John’s Gospel.  By that time, the Jews had been ruled by Jewish puppets of Rome, such as Herod.  When Pilate writes “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” on Jesus’ cross, and the chief priests tell Pilate, “Do not write, ‘King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews,’” and Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written,” we hear John’s devastating indictment of the monarchy.

Here are some questions this raises for us today:  To what extent does the contemporary church indulge in nostalgia for days gone by, such as the nineteen fifties and sixties when, in our memory, or the memory of our parents, the churches were full, the budgets rose each year, and the youth choir sang in perfect harmony? To what extent, if any, do African Americans and other people of color share that nostalgia for the nineteen fifties? What does nostalgia indicate about our theology? If the mainline church continues to lose influence, does that mean that God will be diminished?

Coming Up . . .

The drama of the Bible, from the Exodus to the Resurrection to the spread of the Gospel to Rome, moves across a stage against historical backdrops.  This series of blog posts lifts up six of those backdrops as a way of helping us see more clearly the meaning of the events portrayed center stage.

In the last two posts, we looked at Babylonian exile, from ~605 B.C. to 538 B.C. It ended when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and liberated the exiles, giving them the right of return.

Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at:

  • the conquest of Alexander the Great (336-323) that brought Greek language and culture to Palestine;
  • Roman conquest (200–63 B.C.) that brought “peace to the empire but not peace of mind to its peoples” (Howard Clark Kee) through emperors and puppet kings such as Herod;
  • the destruction of Herod’s temple (70 A.D.) when Jerusalem was sacked;
  • the separation of church and synagogue (late first century).

Today, we reviewed the importance of the rise of the monarchy  between ~990 to ~1033 over a united kingdom that included north and south, Israel and Judah.


Feeding Unruly Boys to the Bears: The Bible’s sick sense of humor.

twobearsIn our continuing discussion of the Exile’s importance in reading the Bible in historical context, I came across this example.  My friend Robert Quiring posted a question from one of his parishioners regarding 2 Kings 2:23-24:

Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” 24 When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

His parishioner, for some reason, asked “What in the world do I do with this passage?”

Here’s one possibility.

The clear meaning of the text is that we have been too easy on our children.  If we want to be biblically faithful parents, we need to train some she-bears to come when we call them and apply the discipline needed:  mauling, or as another translation says, tearing the forty-two boys to bits.  Another thing we need to work on, if we would practice biblically faithful parenting, is to encourage our children to stand around and wait for the punishment they have coming instead of running away.  Obviously, if two bears are going to maul forty-two boys, the boys did not run away when the bears went after the first two; they waited their turn. It’s time we raise our boys to suppress their survival instincts and take their punishment like men.

Or, maybe we could consider that the Bible contains many different genres of stories, including gallows-humor folk tales.  Perhaps our contemporary culture’s assumption of historical accuracy in the Bible would make no sense at all to the original readers of this story. We could even read the story in its context and discern a very playful editor and writers behind this important narrative about the succession of Elijah by Elisha. They dare to be playful about a deeply important question:  When times are hard, does that mean that God has abandoned us?  Or, to put it in the specific context of the exile, the time at which most of the Old Testament was compiled, edited, transformed from oral tradition to written word, and shaped into a theological document:  When the people of God feel lost, alone, displaced, and caught in the drama of political instability, is there still a prophet in Israel?

Here’s a radical thought:  it appears that some biblical writers had a sick sense of humor.

Getting Kicked Out of Your Home

You are sitting in a worship service trying to shed the feeling of discomfort you have carried all week: a relationship gone wrong; a job you have grown to hate, some sense that this is not the life I want. I belong somewhere else.

3589329865_79936367f1You hear Scripture read. They are just words, words you have heard before without feeling anything. But today, in your sense of displacement, the ancient story or psalm resonates. Deep calls to deep and you feel as if the person who wrote those words more than 2,000 years ago had read your mind and your text messages.

If you have ever experienced that profound sense of connection with the Scripture during your own time of emotional turmoil, there is good reason. Almost all of Scripture emerged from the experience of a displaced people.

I will go so far as to say that without a clear understanding of the emotional and faith crisis that crashed down on the people of Israel with their exile to Babylon, we cannot understand the Bible at all. This brief 67 year period, from 605 B.C. to 538 B.C., generated the process of thinking, writing, gathering, and editing the lion’s share of the Old Testament. Almost every word of Jewish and Christian Scripture, Old Testament and New, tells its story on a stage with the exile in Babylon as a backdrop. Even the parts of the Bible that originated before the exile where shaped and edited during, or shortly after, the Babylonian exile.

The Babylonian exile permeates the text of the entire Old Testament. In Psalm 137, we find one of the explicit descriptions of the exile, or captivity in Babylon:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

This psalm reflects the emotional experience of Babylonian captivity, and in the next line  the psalmist poses an important theological question:

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? 

Keeping in mind the exile experience while reading the Old Testament helps us understand a struggle that may seem quite foreign to contemporary Christians. In the theology of the ancient world, different gods ruled over different lands. The nation of Israel tied itself to the land they believed God had promised them. While Israel grew into the confession that there is one God only, one Creator of everything, the more primitive view of specific gods for different plots of land still clings to the biblical text. Consider, for instance, the story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5). After the prophet Elisha makes it clear to Naaman that his healing of a skin disease has come from the God of Israel, Naaman says,

please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt-offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.

Naaman has been converted, but he still does not quite get the concept of a God who can be worshiped without kneeling on the mule-load of earth he would transport everywhere he went in order to take God with him.

Questions:   In your own life, do you have an exile story, i.e., a story of displacement and restoration, whether geographic or emotional?  If so, in what way, if any, does the Bible inform your own exile experience?

Next post:  Exile, continued . . .

Cheaper Than A Seminary Education! Faster Than A Masters’ Degree!

Trisha, a high school teacher who had been honored, recognized, and praised for her prowess as a teacher of American history, agreed to lead a small group of adults who wanted to read the entire Bible over the course of three years.  Trisha had grown up in the church.  She had heard and read the Bible since she was very young.  She knew where to find particular stories and could recite by heart several psalms and a large portion of the sermon on the mount and other sayings of Jesus.

“What I cannot do,” she told me, “is figure out the context of much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament.  When I assign a document for my students to read in American history, such as the Declaration of Independence, I can describe to them the events and conflicts that led up to the writing of that document.  I can describe to them the colonial culture and the literary style Jefferson adopted.”  She held up her well-worn Bible and said.  “I know what this says, but I often have no idea why it says what it does.”

I led Trisha down the hall to the church library where we have shelves and shelves of commentaries on each book of the Bible.  “Almost everything you want to know about the Bible, you can find here in one of these commentaries.”

IMG_2912Trisha frowned.  “If I start reading now, given the pace that biblical commentaries are being published, I’ll only be three years behind after my first week.”

I allowed as to how she was right.

“What I need,” Trisha said, “Is a concise book on context.  I want a list and a brief description of the major historical events, the major cultural differences, and the literary genres of the Bible.  That would give me something to grab hold of when I stumble across some obscure passage of Scripture we have never understood before.”

While I could find excellent commentaries on particular books of the Bible, several books on history, a few on culture, and books on particular genres of the Bible (the parables of Jesus, the Psalms, and the epistles of Paul, for instance) I could find no concise guide to biblical context for small group Bible study leaders.


So, here it is.

Over the next nine or ten weeks, I will post 18 (give or take a few) blog entries on the basic historical, cultural, and literary elements of biblical context.  Many of you know more about it than I do, so feel free to chime in and correct my errors, add missing essential information, or tell a story that is apropos to the subject.

I’m a pastor, not an academic, so I’m not likely to use academic jargon; if I do, call me on it.  I am writing for small group Bible study leaders, both lay and clergy, who need an easy-to-understand handbook.  I value your thoughtful comments and they will shape the content of the final product.  At the end of our 18 weeks, I will post an e-book, (free to you, dear readers) with a clear and simple description of the basic contextual elements that seminary-trained clergy use in preparing to teach or preach the Bible.  And, it is much cheaper than a seminary education.  Like I said, it will be free to you.

There are, of course, many more than six elements in each category; but, with my purpose being to create a concise handbook, I have somewhat arbitrarily grouped historical events, cultural differences, and literary genres into broader categories and left out some that would be added in a more detailed study.

Whether you are a leader of a small group Bible study, or you want to read the Bible on your own with deeper understanding, I hope this blog will provide you with contextual landmarks to help you find your way.

Next post: Six essential historical events behind the Bible’s formation–the Most Important One–What would you pick?  My choice is Babylonian Exile; the floor is open for your nominations!

A Christmas Story: “Leftover Pieces” Merry Christmas, Dear Readers

Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.  –Luke 2:19

o-INVISIBLE-CASUALTIES-facebookThe Reverend Dr. Luke Harris and his wife Sarah knew what the two men who came to their door would tell them that Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve of 1967.

 Sarah had seen them first.

“Here they come.”  Her voice, calm and even, surprised her.

Luke opened his mouth to reply, but his chin shook, so he clamped it shut.

Sarah had sat in silence in the living room all afternoon with a book in her lap, but she had lost her place hours before.  The room had darkened as evening fell, but neither she nor her husband had turned on a light.

Sarah was not sure how long she had been staring out the window when the men arrived.  Walking in step between the snow banks on each side of the walkway, wearing dark uniforms with medals on their chests, they marched up the steps onto the porch.  They halted at the door.  They could not see her in the darkened room, but she saw them standing at the door in the glow of the porch light.  One of the men, a corporal, probably not yet twenty, looked as if he had never yet needed to shave.  He looked at the other one, the chaplain, and Sarah wondered, when she saw the way he looked to the chaplain for guidance, if maybe this was his first time.  When the chaplain nodded, the boy raised his white-gloved fist to knock, then held it in position for a second.  So quickly one might have missed it, the boy crossed himself; not a full forehead to umbilicus, shoulder to shoulder; just two fingers, up and down, side to side, like a prayer mouthed but unspoken, not even whispered.

Sarah, as Protestant as any, nevertheless joined him in silent prayer, her eyes wet, but open.

The boy knocked.  Neither Luke nor Sarah moved.

Until I hear them say the words, David still lives, Sarah told herself.  She and Luke sat in the darkness and kept their son, their only son, alive for just a moment longer until the corporal knocked again.  Luke answered the door and their lives changed forever.

“Regret to inform you, . . . killed in action, . . . . sorrow for your loss . . . grateful nation,” the memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After they left, Luke exhaled.  “Well,” he said, “That is that.”  He donned his overcoat and gloves.  He looked at his wife who had not moved from her chair. “Will you worship tonight?” he asked.

Sarah wiped her tears and looked up at him. “Yes, of course,” she said.

Luke preached the Christmas Eve sermon he had prepared in the days before the visit of the two men.  The words he had written did not sound familiar, even as he spoke them.  He knew then that his life would be divided in two:  life before David’s death, and life ever after.

At the communion table, he broke the bread, poured the wine, and inhaled deeply the aroma of the elements before he spoke the liturgy.  “broken . . . take, eat . . .poured out . . . drink ye all….”  The memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After he had spoken the benediction and extinguished all the candles, he did not wait at the door to exchange Christmas greetings with his congregation.  He did not want to put them in that position of saying two such incongruous things:  “Merry Christmas, sorry for your loss.”  He did not think he could bear it.

He hung his robe in the closet of the church study, closed the closet door, turned and looked around at the spacious room; the shelves of books, the oak desk and chair, and a cushioned chair where parishioners in need of comfort had, for a dozen years, found refuge in his counsel.  He sat in the parishioners’ chair and could not remember if he had ever sat in it before.  It was lumpy, not at all as comfortable as he had expected.

People would refer in the future to this moment as “his decision.”  It was not a decision.  It was a revelation. It was as if an angel appeared before him, but stood in silence, as if it had forgotten its opening line, “Fear not.”

Luke was sore afraid in the darkness of this revelation. When the curtain pulled back, he saw the place where his faith had lived, and it was cavernous and dark and hollow, like a sanctuary after a wedding, emptied of life after everyone has left for the reception.

It took him all of Christmas Day to pack his books.

He loaded the black Underwood typewriter into the car with the boxes of books.  He returned to the study one last time and sifted through the drawers of the oak desk for anything that might be important.  He found a plastic bag with some small black screws left over from the last time he had cleaned the typewriter, but he threw them away.  He always seemed to have pieces left over.


By the end of January, he found a job teaching undergraduate Hebrew and Greek in a liberal arts college far from their upstate New York roots.  Luke and Sarah settled in to a small town in the Texas Hill Country, not far from San Antonio.  They began a new life together, the life Luke called, though only to Sarah, “the life after death.”

Sarah found a church, but Luke rarely attended.  He spent his Sundays gardening when the weather allowed, and reading when it did not.  The wheel barrow he bought at the hardware store shortly after they arrived in Texas came in a box.  After assembling it, he wheeled it around to the back porch where Sarah was reading in the sun.  “Only two pieces left over,” he said, unable to hide the pride in his voice.

The wheel wobbled, but Luke did not mind.  “That’ll have to do,” he said, and for eight years it did.

It came to pass that on Christmas Eve of 1975, Luke had two things he was required to assemble:

One of them was a sermon, and the other was a bicycle.

Why he had agreed to preach on Christmas Eve, he could not fathom; but, he had begun to suspect that it was a conspiracy between his wife and his friend.  His friend Ian, who taught biblical studies, had set him up.

“Immanuel is a small congregation between pastors,” Ian had said.  “I would preach there myself if I hadn’t already committed to Kerrville.”

“I don’t preach anymore,” Luke said.  “I don’t even know what I believe anymore.”

“For God’s sake, Luke,” Ian said.  “You know you don’t preach your own faith.  You preach Christ’s faith.  Just read the story. Tell them what it says.  Throw in a Greek word here and there, it will impress them.”

“I just don’t think . . .” he objected, “that I would be up to it.  Especially on that night.”

Ian interrupted him, “Pull out an old sermon.  Touch it up, if you want.  This congregation is a handful of saints so solid in their faith you can’t do them any harm.  Just tell them the Christmas story, light the candles, celebrate Communion, and sing Silent Night.  They have it all memorized by now, they just want to hear it again.”

Luke opened his mouth to object again, but Ian stopped him.  “I would be eternally grateful,” Ian said.

Whatever Luke did or did not believe by then, he did believe in doing things for a friend, especially a friend who had done so much for him; who had warmly welcomed Sarah and him, even with their Yankee accents and Northern reserve.

He had only one more objection.  “I don’t have a robe anymore,” he said. Luke had left his black Geneva gown in the church closet back in New York.

Ian waved his hand as if brushing away a bit of dust.  “I have one you can borrow.”

And so, Luke sat in his home study at his old Underwood typewriter on Christmas Eve morning and stared at a blank sheet of paper.  By the time Sarah brought him lunch, the paper had begun to stare back at him, blankly.

At two in the afternoon, he opened his Bible to the Gospel According to Luke and began to type.  “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . .” He hit the return handle on the typewriter and the carriage flew off of the typewriter across the room and landed on the floor.

He stared at the carriage lying in the corner, then looked back at the remains of the typewriter in front of him, and the black inky ribbon that floated to the carpet between one and the other.  Had it been red or green, he thought, it would have been festive.

A memory emerged, like a dream that returns in the middle of the day:  a little plastic bag with two small black screws.  The leftover pieces had caught up with him, even as he knew they would.

Luke opened his file cabinet and found an old Christmas Eve sermon manuscript.  He folded it up and stuck it between the pages of his black leather Bible.

“It’ll have to do,” he said, because he still had to go back to his office and pick up the robe Ian had left for him.

And, since it was Christmas Eve, he had to go downtown and buy a Christmas present for Sarah.  It was not that he had procrastinated; no, it was part of his plan.  She wanted a bicycle, she had pointed to a bicycle in the window of Treadwell’s hardware shop, and that is exactly what he planned to buy for her–not a boxed up bicycle from the back that he would have to assemble, but the very bicycle in the window.

When he arrived at Treadwell’s it was nearly four o’clock on Christmas Eve, so he delivered the pitch he had prepared:  “I’ll give you $20 extra for the bicycle in the window already put together.”  The young sales clerk, a girl named Maria who lived down the street from Luke and Sarah, said, “I don’t really have the authority to do that.”

She called Mr. Treadwell at home.  He stood firm.  “That’s a man’s bike in the display.  Luke needs a woman’s model for Sarah.”

So, instead of a bicycle, Luke bought a big box full of bicycle parts.

“Don’t worry,” Maria said.  “I put together the bicycle in the window.  It only takes a couple of hours.”

Luke sighed with a prayer too deep for words as he loaded the box into the trunk of the Monte Carlo and headed for his office.  He found there the robe Ian had left for him; Ian’s extra robe; his white robe.  And, Luke had not thought about the fact that Ian was over six feet tall and Luke was not.  Their students exaggerated, but only a bit, when they called Ian and Luke “Goliath and Zacchaeus” whenever they walked across the campus together.  The robe would swallow him, but when he tried it on and looked in the mirror, he sighed, “It’ll have to do.”

Luke arrived home just in time to change clothes so Sarah could drive them across town at six o’clock for the seven o’clock service.  Luke went through his mental list:  Bible, old sermon manuscript, church address, robe. He plowed through that nagging feeling that he had forgotten something, and got in the car.

Sarah drove as night fell and a light fog settled over everything.  On their way, he remembered.  “I was supposed to bring communion bread,” he said.  “That’s what I forgot.”

Sarah sighed.  “I’ll go get some bread.  You go sit down in the church and get focused.  Go pray until the service starts.  I’ll be back soon. Something is bound to be open.”

Luke stepped out of the car at the corner and watched the taillights of the Monte Carlo fade into the foggy night.  He did not wait until he was sitting in the church to begin praying because when he looked up, he saw the choir already gathered outside the front door.  He heard organ music.  He prayed, “God help me, I thought it started at seven!” and ran across the church yard, pulling on his long white robe at the same time.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, as he pushed through the choir and took his place at the front of the procession.  The choir broke into “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the procession moved into the church and the man next to Luke, eyes wide, asked, “Who are you?”

Luke began to introduce himself, to say, “I’m the preacher tonight,” but when he looked at the man next to him at the front of the procession and saw that he wore a robe and an intricately embroidered stole, his words caught in his throat.  He looked up at the front of the church and saw a statue of the virgin Mary.

This, he realized, is not a Presbyterian Church.

The question still hung in the air, “Who are you?”

That was when the first miracle of the night arrived.  His sense of humor, long buried in a fog of grief, returned.

“I am an angel of the Lord,” he told the astonished priest, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  By this time, they had reached the chancel and Luke spotted the side exit.  As he glided toward it, hoisting his flowing white robe to keep from tripping over it, he turned and called to the priest, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.”  With that, he dashed out into the night. He crossed the street where the plain white prairie gothic church stood waiting. The sign in front announced candlelight and communion at 7:00 pm.

Stepping inside, he caught his breath and greeted the puzzled man who handed him a worship bulletin and a candle.  The man stared at him from windblown hair to white robe that dragged on the floor, and back up to the sleeves that covered his hands.

“Merry Christmas,” they said to one another in unison.

When the service began, Sarah had not yet returned.  Luke preached with an eye on the communion table which had a chalice and pitcher, but no bread, and an eye on the door at the back, where, any minute, he knew, he hoped, he prayed, Sarah would walk through with the communion bread.

He spoke slowly and drew out each dramatic pause to give her more time.

When he reached the end of the sermon, the congregation sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  As the last chorus began, Sarah stepped in, carrying a basket of bread, and came, faithfully, down the aisle and up to the communion table where Luke took from her the basket with bread wrapped in a white napkin.

As the congregation sang, “O come, let us adore him,” and Luke placed the bread on the table, Sarah mouthed something to Luke.  What was she saying?  “Took the bus?”  He wondered if the Monte Carlo had broken down and she had to take a bus and that was why she had taken so long.

When he lifted the cloth from the bread, it came to him.  She had not said “took the bus.”  There were no busses running on Christmas Eve.  There were, in their little town, no grocery stores open after 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve.  She had gone all the way back to their house and found the only bread they had, far back in the freezer, left over from summer.  She had said, “hot dog buns.”

Though she had cut them into neat little cubes, she left one of them sitting on the top, unbroken.  The second miracle of the night arrived when he looked out over the congregation and recited the invitation to the table, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God.” Something fell into place; something fell back into place that had been missing since the two men had visited that Christmas Eve eight years before.  It began with an overwhelming sense of gratitude when he looked at Sarah with her mischievous smile; it grew into his own barely stifled laughter when he looked at the neatly cubed hot dog buns on the communion table and thought about the befuddled priest across the street.

All the absurd pieces of his life, and his son’s death, came together for just a moment when he broke the bread and poured the wine and he knew, deep in his bones, that this story was for him.  God had become flesh and blood.  And though Luke had long ago memorized the liturgy of the table, it did not feel rote.  The words did not run together, but instead they soared around the sanctuary and landed somewhere deep within him.

For a moment, the space thinned between heaven and earth.  That vast emptiness between this broken war-torn world where death reigns and God’s new creation where love conquers all, filled with hope, and peace and joy.


That night, after Sarah fell asleep, Luke rose quietly from bed, padded out to the garage, pulled the box of bicycle parts from the trunk of the car and went to work assembling Sarah’s present by the light of the Christmas tree.

Maria of the hardware store had not been far off.  After four hours, Luke had assembled a bicycle.

With only two parts left over.

One of the parts looked like a heavy-duty bobby pin and the other resembled a thick paper clip. Luke considered his old mantra, “That’ll have to do,” but the vision of his typewriter in pieces haunted him.

It was two o’clock Christmas morning when the third miracle of the night arrived: Luke read the directions, all forty-two steps.

He found that he had put everything together just as the directions described.  At the very end, after step forty-two, Luke read, “When the bicycle is fully assembled, you will have the two parts pictured, a cotter key and a chain clip, in duplicate.  Place them in a safe place where you can find them when the original pieces wear out.”

Luke sat by the Christmas tree with the leftover pieces in his hand, and remembered the story he had repeated that night in church.  He remembered how the words of the shepherds amazed all those who had gathered around the newborn baby Jesus.  Nobody, including Mary, knew quite what to make of the words of angels and shepherds that night in Bethlehem.

But Mary kept all these things, these absurdities, these puzzles, these leftover pieces, and treasured them, pondered them in her heart.


The Gospel According to Banksy

He does have a way of provoking conversation, doesn’t he?


Attributed to Banksy in 2005, the original painting belongs to British rock musician Robbie Williams.

Let me say this first:  I am in favor of the existence of a safe and secure State of Israel.  That said, I have a lot of appreciation for Banksy’s Christmas card, even if I don’t agree with every agenda item of If Americans Knew, the organization that is selling the cards this year with this image. 

Plenty of comments on blogs that display a reproduction of this picture point out that since Mary and Joseph were Jewish, they would have been free to travel through the checkpoint at the wall.  I can understand the resentment of those who object to the artist appropriating the role of Christians’ favorite Jewish family to illustrate the plight of contemporary Palestinians.

I invite you to think of this painting from another slant.

It reminds us that the story Luke and Matthew tell of Jesus’ birth is not some sentimental fairy tale separated from our world.  Jesus was born into a dark and messed up world.  He was born as a member of a community divided and oppressed because of race and religion.  Bethlehem was not some idyllic utopia of deep and dreamless sleep where all the shepherds were virgins and all the sheep were above average.  It was a place under occupation; a place where military power had been used to confiscate the land of people who had owned it for generations.

Luke’s account of the Bethlehem birth tells us of an emperor who requires people to travel in order to count them so they can be more efficiently taxed.  The taxes will pay for the soldiers who, by the time Luke wrote, had burned the temple to the ground.

The Prince of Peace grew up to oppose this occupation through non-violent confrontation, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, walking out of court naked (Matthew 5:39-41) Disciples came to recognize the cross as an expression of God’s way of reconciling the world; not through destruction, as in the story of Noah, or through confusion and division, as in the story of the tower of Babel, but through an act of submission.  Strength through weakness does not come naturally to human beings.  Taking on human flesh in the form of a baby, then refusing to resist the violence of crucifixion–it did not appear to be a winning strategy.  Jerusalem fell.

The reign of God among us preached by Jesus, where peace and justice reign, seems to have taken a hit.  Nations still rage.  Violence, terrorism, and brute force remain the weapons of choice by oppressors and liberators alike.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. stand as notable exceptions in the 20th century.  Mandela achieved liberation for his people by declining to renounce violence until the government that imprisoned him also renounced violence.  Malcolm X famously advocated liberation using Sartre’s phrase, “by any means necessary.”

It is so easy for me to advocate non-violence.  I live in relative safety and security.  Would I practice the non-violence of Jesus if somebody threatened my family, my children, my grandchildren? I have to admit to some cognitive dissonance.

The question:  do you think that non-violent confrontation in the style of Jesus’ sermon on the mount or MLK Jr.’s civil rights campaign, could change things in the Israel/Palestine conflict?  Who should adopt it first?  Does it matter?