Seeing Christmas Anew

Happy New Year, Young Harris College.

What? Happy New Year! Wasn’t Thanksgiving just last week?

This greeting might seem oddly timed. After all, our Thanksgiving leftovers are still crowding our refrigerators and holiday decorations are just being drug out from their boxes and hung on doors and lampposts and eves. It cannot possibly be the New Year already! Don’t we still have a month of merry-making ahead of us; several weeks of last lectures, term papers, and final exams; and certainly much work and shopping and present wrapping to accomplish before such a seasonal salutation like “Happy New Year” is fitting?

Well, yes and no.

The answer just depends on the calendar we are following. If we are following the Gregorian civic calendar, then we still have just over a month of the year remaining. However, if we are following the church’s liturgical calendar, then, yesterday, with the first Sunday of Advent, we marked the first day of the New Year. Therefore, in one respect, we are a bit premature in saying “Happy New Year.” In another, we are just on time.

How can this be? Isn’t there just one calendar, one way to mark the passage of time? How can we concurrently be both still in the old year yet already in the new? The answer is rather simple: we do it all the time. Consciously or unconsciously, this sort of dual or parallel existence is something we manage.

A calendar is merely a way of tracking the passage of time, allowing us corporately to arrange our lives, activities, and obligations. Within our day-to-day lives, we regularly follow many calendars simultaneously, e.g., academic calendars, civic calendars, fiscal calendars, etc. Each calendar speaks to some part of us. Each calendar seeks to conform our lives to its rhythms, its practices, its deadlines, its celebrations, its peculiarities. These rhythms, practices, deadlines, celebrations, and peculiarities shape who we are and how we see the world. (To experience the tangible reality of how our different calendars shape us and how we see the world, try calling my uncle—who is a CPA—for a casual chat the first few weeks of April. The tax calendar not only shapes what he does, what he talks about, how he sees the world, but, also, when he eats, when he sleeps, and his general wellbeing.)

Calendars are powerful, meaning making, and life shaping.

The liturgical calendar, like other calendars, is a calendar intending to track the passage of time according to a certain rhythm with its accompanying practices and celebrations. This rhythm derives from the salvation narrative retold by the people called church with practices and celebrations meant to incarnate that story in our lives and our lives in it. As such, the story is made present in the world and our lives, ever so slowly, conform to the shape and character of that story through our regular performance of the narrative.

Most significantly, like any good story, this salvation narrative and its scheduled performance draw us out of ourselves and our own stories into a larger, transcendent story. At this time of the year with all that there is to distract and consume us, being reminded that our lives are part of a larger story is essential to getting us beyond ourselves.

While in college, I remember well the sense that all the anticipation and celebrations connected to the Christmas season could not possibly begin (or at least enjoyed) until after all my final exams and papers were completed. The academic calendar dominated everything about my life. I planned trips, scheduled work, and generally organized my life according to when classes took place, papers were due, and semesters ended. Everything outside that schedule was secondary. At the end of the fall term, I could hardly even listen to Christmas music on the radio for fear that the songs would inappropriately transport me to thoughts of carolers and hot drinks and family gatherings and Christmas trees and midnight services.

Yet, I did not realize that exactly what my life needed was transporting. I was consumed by my studies. I did not consume them. And, in the fury to accomplish all that was required, I missed the chance to reflect on much beyond my own life and work and studies. Such a life, I would discover, is wrapped far too tightly upon itself.

The very transcendent character of the liturgical calendar enables us to recognize that our lives are more than simply our own. The liturgical calendar reminds us that our lives are a gift, and, as a gift, they are meant to be given. Transcendence—this moving beyond ourselves, our parochial concerns, our immediate desires and wants—is one of the most precious presents offered during this season of celebration. Reminding us that our lives, through regular performance, are written into a larger, eternal, infinite narrative forces us beyond our own interests and toward the needs of others. That is no small feat, and it is no accident that generous giving is a natural outgrowth of such a transforming, transcending narrative.

This week at the college’s chapel service, we will celebrate the beginning of another year, marking the start of Advent, the imminence of Christmas, and the luminance of this season through the lighting of the college’s Christmas tree. In the midst of papers and lectures and exams and reports and meetings and everything else that consumes us this time of the year, I invite the entire campus to pause together on Wednesday evening at 7pm in the chapel to reflect on a story larger than ourselves, (through our participation in that story) to become a living part of the story, and (in sharing in that story’s transcendence) to transition our thoughts to those in need, those in war, those far from home, those without a home, those requiring love and life and light. For them and in some small, personal way, may we become this story of new life with its boundless new possibilities in this New Year.

See you in chapel on Wednesday and Happy New Year.

For the Fruit of All Creation

For the Fruit of All Creation
by Fred Pratt Green

For the fruit of all creation,
thanks be to God.
gifts bestowed on every nation,
thanks be to God.
For the plowing, sowing, reaping,
silent growth while we are sleeping,
future needs in earth’s safekeeping,
thanks be to God.

In the just reward of labor,
God’s will is done.
In the help we give our neighbor,
God’s will is done.
In our worldwide task of caring
for the hungry and despairing,
in the harvests we are sharing,
God’s will is done.

For the harvests of the Spirit,
thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit,
thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
for the truths that still confound us,
most of all that love has found us,
thanks be to God.

Have a wonderful, blessed, and safe Thanksgiving.

Peace,

Tim

Seeing Other Nations Anew

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)

This story from the book of Genesis recounts the tale of the world’s people building a giant tower, hoping to ascend to God, making themselves equal to God. The story ends with the people, who were one, being scattered into many people, living in many places, speaking many languages. Biblical scholars classify this as an etiological story. An etiological story is a story of origin. The story is not meant to convey historical events but is one crafted by a people trying to explain a phenomenon they readily recognized, i.e., that there are many people in many places who speak many languages. Why is this plurality a problem? Understanding the reason for this story’s advent as an answer to this problem of plurality is essential to establishing this story’s significance and purpose in the overarching salvation narrative.

First, it is interesting to note where the Tower story falls within the Genesis narrative. It is no accident that the Tower story falls immediately between the stories of the flood and the call of Abram and Sari. With the ending of the flood story, we have an accounting of prehistory that assumes a single collection of people, a small remnant descendent from Noah’s children. The tellers of the Noah story were well aware that their audience would recognize that there were many nations and languages all around them. This caused a significant problem: How could they have just heard a story about one family surviving a flood yet regularly observe a diversity of people and languages? The solution was the Tower story. The Tower story helps to explain both how it happened, i.e., the proliferation of nations and languages, and why it happened, i.e., simple hubris.

Second, it is important to see that the story rests not just after the flood narrative but, also, before the call of Abram and Sari. The story of Abram and Sari begins with their living in Ur and responding to a call from God that leads to their forming a great nation, one people in covenant with God. Yet, that people’s existence is not solely to be in communion with God. Rather, Israel exists for a larger purpose. We find that purpose in Genesis 12:1-3. That passage reads: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

Interestingly, the text says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In other words, through the people called Israel, God is seeking not to bless just Israel but to bless everyone through an illustrative people who demonstrate that contact with God is not done out of hubris but out of humility, not out of assuming God’s place at the center but as God’s invited companions at this divine center. In this way, the Tower of Babel story acts as the fulcrum, balancing the flood story with the Abram and Sari story. Without the Tower story, we have both a logical hole in the narrative and a dissonance between what is told in the flood narrative with what is observed every day.

The entirety of the story of salvation is repeated in this observed rhythm of divine oneness, divine replacement, divine scattering, and divine return. Think of the Garden of Eden story. In that story, we are made in communion with God, we seek to replace God as the arbiters of good and evil, we are cast out of the garden, and, yet, God makes us clothes to care for us. The repetition of this rhythm in the flood-tower-call trilogy is important because it sets the stage for the whole salvation narrative being played-out across the remaining pages of the Old Testament and into the New.

If the pattern is oneness, followed by replacement, followed by scattering, and culminating in return, then the call of Abram and Sari begins a long-drawn-out account of our return from the many to the one: one with God and one with each other. If the creation story is bookended by God making, first, the heavens and the earth and, then, the clothes for Adam and Eve, then the story of salvation finds its bookends upon a tower and in an upper room.

If the Tower of Babel story begins with one, washed-over people that are blown to the ends of the earth, then the Pentecost story concludes the narrative with many people blown in from the ends of the earth, becoming one, spirit-washed people. Consider the inverted parallels of the stories:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. . . .
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2, selected verses)

In the Tower story, it begins with the receding of water. In the Pentecost story, it begins with the arrival of fire. In the Tower story, the people are one. In the Pentecost story, the people are many. In the Tower story, the people speak one language. In the Pentecost story, the people speak many languages. In the Tower story, the people ascend the tower out of pride and hubris. In the Pentecost story, the people ascend to the upper room out of cowardice and uncertainty. In the Tower story, floodwater is replaced by judgmental fire, as God descends out of wrath. In the Pentecost story, fire is replaced by water, as God descends out of mercy and covers them with the waters of baptism.

This reversal of the division at Babel is central to the story of salvation because it dramatically reminds us that God’s desire is our unity both with God and with each other and that we are to act out of inspired service not arrogant self-service. It seems no accident that the Pentecost narrative ends as it does with the members of this new community holding all things in common, selling what they have, and distributing the proceeds to the poor. The outgrowth of communion with God, the story intimates, is communion with each other and with our neighbors, especially our neighbors in need.

This week’s chapel service is about seeing other nations anew. As this protracted story of salvation—begun at Babel and concluding at Pentecost—reminds us, we are all God’s children, woven together in a single garment of human destiny. Those in need are not just those poor souls over there but brothers and sisters of our family, requiring our care, our love, and our mercy. And, we love them not because we hope that they come to believe or think or act like we do. That would not be love. That would be deception and manipulation. Rather, we love them and long to care for them because they require our love and our care as we require theirs in return, if we are to be the one people we are created to be. This week, please remember to bring your boxes for Operation Christmas Child to the chapel service. May we, like those early disciples, wash away our divisions and take what we have to care for those in need. May we become not just hearers but doers of the word, not just the audience but actors in the drama of salvation.

See you in chapel.

Seeing War Anew

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, cannons fell silent in the War to End All Wars. This epithet crafted to describe the First World War, at first glance, seems a claim of arrogance. It might appear a pompous prognostication by those who imagined it, as if they were able to fight such an effective confrontation that no additional wars would be necessary. Such a conclusion—both that the epithet is the product of arrogance and that the war ended all wars—prove false. The claim was not a claim out of arrogance but out of hope. Those who experienced the perditory horrors of trench warfare, who saw the gruesome aftermath precipitating from the reign of mustard clouds, who trudged through impromptu wintered-graveyards of countless frozen soldiers on the Eastern Front were not claiming that they had ended all war but crying in desperate hope that no one would take up arms in anger ever again.
Last year, I lived in the United Kingdom. Living in the UK, the tragedy of war lingers everywhere. At some prominent corner or central gathering point of most every town, tall war memorials punctuate countryside, town, and city. Acting as cautionary exclamation points, names of the fallen are engraved on these monuments, reminders in stone of their past sacrifice and a call to the future for peace.

In the UK, what we call Veterans Day they call Armistice Day. The Sunday immediately before Armistice Day is known as Remembrance Sunday. Last Remembrance Sunday, each congregation in the town where I served participated in a silent march to the town’s war memorial. As we did every Sunday, our service started at 10:30am. At 11am, members from the congregation silently left their seats, filing into the noiseless column passing our front door. Methodists stood next to Baptists who stood next to Catholics and Anglicans and Jews and Muslims and agnostics and atheists and anyone wanting to share in this solemn moment. At the Mortimer, Berkshire war memorial, wreaths were laid, prayers were offered, and the Laurence Binyon poem—cited above—was shared, collectively, from memory.

This event was not a moment for a community, for a kingdom to celebrate victory. It was not a moment of honor. Rather, it was a moment for a kingdom to recall a disaster. For a people where more than 6% of the population was a casualty of the First World War (a number equivalent to 18 million Americans, today), such an event serves as both remembrance and warning. These markers and the events of that Sunday offer the community the chance to share in the joint sacrifice of soldiers on the field, civilians caught in the middle, and families at home and to remind us all that we must resist all reactionary, presumptive returns to war. The decision to wage war, as a retired military speaker reminded us that Sunday, must never be taken lightly. While we might commemorate war’s sacrifice, we must not celebrate it. Whenever the first shot fires, he commented, both sides have already lost. That Sunday and his words will remain with me for a very long time, especially at a time nearly one hundred years removed from that first Armistice Day, after knowing of the millions more sacrificed to war since that first Armistice Day, and in a country currently engaged in two wars.

As we gather this week for chapel on November 11, Veterans Day, we welcome Reverend David Hamlyn. David is an elder in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference and a former military pilot. David will speak to us out of his own experience as both military officer and officiant in the church. He will challenge us. He will encourage us. He will compel us to faithful action. Please join us, and welcome him. Have a wonderful, reflective week.

What Is Expected of Me?

This time last year, I was an American living in the United Kingdom, watching from the outside as the American public cast ballots for a new president. Living in another country provided a unique perspective from which to view both the unfolding of that election and another culture’s reception and interpretation of those events. In fact, the election and that culture’s reaction to it was so striking that it became a central topic to a Southampton District seminar that I was co-directing a week after the election. That seminar, planned months before, was organized to address how the church might faithfully and effectively engage with the larger culture. Quickly, it became apparent to both John Ogden—my fellow seminar convener—and me that we needed to retool part of our conversation to take into account that culture’s obsession with the election that was increasingly framed within the language and narrative of the faith. Through this narrative framing, something seismic was happening and that activity had created a crack that we hoped to walk through. As an outgrowth of the conversations from that day, the participants in the seminar asked me to write a summary.

A year on, I am revisiting the events from the election, that day’s seminar, and the piece I wrote, reflecting, again, on how a people of faith might faithfully respond. I share a portion of that reflection piece below, prompting our own considerations on a possible way forward that requires our direct, positive action.

Here is that piece:

Rosa sat so Martin could walk,
Martin walked so Obama could run,
Obama ran so our children can fly!

This viral text message began circulating, first, around the United States and, then, around the whole world the morning following Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States. The text message captures a sentiment, an emotion, a hope defining Obama’s election. His election has taken on mythic qualities. Images of long lines of young and old, rich and poor, black and white, the frequent voter and the first-time balloter were everywhere. Something different had taken place. Whether conservative or liberal, American or not, we all can recognize the significance of that vote. Obama’s election tapped into something deeply felt, patiently yearned for, thought lost yet waiting to be found.

On one day, it was as if an entire society awoke from a forty-year slumber to be reminded that freedom is not just a dream to be hoped for but a life to be lived. Such a life does not happen by accident but through intentional, direct action. Sometimes that action is in the form of dramatic stands taken despite the threat of social discomfort, familial rejection, police dogs, and assassin’s bullets. Sometimes that action is a very visible, public spectacle.

Yet, with this election, we were reminded that sometimes that action is less dramatic, less public. It might seem to be less profound. It takes place with a door knocked, a phone call made, a conversation had, an email sent. It takes place in the solitude of a voting booth. It begins with one pen marking a ballot, one finger on a touch screen, one hand on a lever. . . .

. . . Obama’s election marks forty years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice fell silent, reminding us that dreams of liberation do not always come right away. But, for the church, we shouldn’t be surprised by this story. We have heard it one before.

When Moses went to confront the Pharaoh to demand God’s people’s liberation, liberation did not come easily. It took plagues. It took persuasion. It took determination. It took time. Then, after a change of heart, Pharaoh consented and let God’s people go. Yet, after Moses secured the liberation of God’s people from the bonds of slavery in Egypt, he realized that while their bodies were free their souls were not ready. They might be walking towards the Promised Land but their hearts remained captive to the land of the past not equipped for the promised future. It would take time. So Israel marched.

They marched from forty years: forty years of prayer, forty years of preparation, forty years of wandering, forty years of waiting, waiting for their moment and the next generation to lead them into the Promised Land.

Along came Joshua. Joshua offered a new hope. The hope was not just the future hope of a liberation that might come one day but the promise of liberation delivered, today. Sand became salvation as wilderness became water—the waters of the Jordan River. By wading through the Jordan, Israel moved from the shadow of their past into the dawn of a new day, a present future. In those waters, Israel washed away the old, making way for the new.

Forty years had passed. Forty years used to make a people ready for liberation.

With this U.S. election, the church finds itself in an interesting position. For the first time in years, people are publicly expressing transcendent exaltation. They are speaking about the real, tangible call for hope’s manifestation in identifiable ways. Average, non-churched people are speaking our language; they are speaking the church’s language. They are crying not just for the possibility of new hope but the material signs of it. That is where we come in.

If the church is anything, we are the purveyors of a story of hope, a hope in the liberation that comes through the life and death of Jesus Christ. This hope is not just some ethereal, dreamy, distant state. It is a real, physical, difference-making story. It is the story of a God that is not satisfied with the status quo, a God who is not happy with how things have been, a God who demands a radical change in our politics, in our economies, in our families, in societies, in us. It is the story about liberation of the heart, soul, and body. It is the story of liberation demanding in real-time for the real world that “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Our story—the Christ story—is a story about a world-changing, people-liberating, hope-incarnating God. It is the story that just might be the very story for which the world has been waiting and needing to hear. It is the story we are all ready to hear.

The events of this November’s election in the U.S. are a concrete reminder that people are not interested in uncertain timeframes of possible future promises but in present arrivals at the shores of change. Such change will not happen by accident, neither will the church’s poignant narrative of liberation be heard if it is not offered and intentionally woven together with cries from the waving fabric of humanity ready for change.

What appropriate, timely viral text message might the church have to offer in response to Obama’s election and the world’s hopeful cries? This one might do.

Moses spoke to the power of Pharaoh.
Martin spoke to the Powers that Be.
Joshua led from wandering to winning.
Barack leads from winning to wondering.
Wondering: What does the Promise expect of me?

A year later, what have we learned; what have we done; what must we do faithfully to fulfill our calling, our position, and our promise? I ask, again, what does the Promise expect of me? What does the Promise of liberation and transformation expect from each of us, from our communities, our college, our country, our world? What must we do? More importantly, who must we be?

What we must be is a community that acts together.

Regardless of our political affiliations, ideologies, or leanings, we all can agree that our dreams are more potent when transferred from imaginings to actions and that our actions are more efficacious when our individual efforts unite in communal works. One common work we might share that offers positive, direct change is Operation Christmas Child. This program provides children in developing countries with necessity items and toys. Our campus regularly participates in this program. Starting today and ending at our November 18 chapel service, the Dorcus service organization and the Inter-religious Council encourage everyone to work together on filling as many of these boxes-of-hope. Collecting boxes for children might not be as dramatic as healthcare reform, curbing climate change, or pursuing world peace, but, for the child who receives the gift, the transfer of hope from possibility to reality is more dramatic and tangible—in that moment—than any grand gesture. For him or her, it is world-changing event. Over the next few weeks, let us share in this incarnation of hope, fulfilling in a small way part of what the Promise expects of us all.