The Word

Warning:  this article from CNN will probably raise your blood pressure.  It reports on the Westboro Baptist Church’s announcement that it will picket the funeral of Christina Green, the 9-year-old who was among six people killed during Saturday’s attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

By now, it shouldn’t surprise us that Fred Phelps’ notorious group would insert itself into this most terrible tragedy.  They’ve already made their mark at countless funerals for military officers and people who died from AIDS.  As always, they claim that these losses of life are a punishment from God for our country’s “tolerance of homosexuality.”  In their statement re: the Arizona shootings, they proclaim, “God sent the shooter! Praise God for ALL his works, and BE YE THANKFUL!”

I do think that God’s Spirit is at work in Westboro Baptist Church—but not even remotely in the way they assume.  God’s Spirit manifests in the outraged but non-violent response that almost always greets them—for communities rarely abide their presence.  From Angel Action to Hell’s Angels biker gangs, many concerned citizens show up to contain and peacefully overwhelm Westboro’s hateful message.  And I am indeed thankful.

There has been a lot of talk lately around the vitriolic political discourse in this country.  Do words have consequences?  Yes.  One need only consider the actions of the Westboro church, and virtually everyone’s profound disgust with them.  Words are so very powerful.  And when words are used hatefully, it’s like a terrible perversion of the  prologue of John’s Gospel, which celebrates the Word made flesh.

I pray that our country finds a way to embody the word of peace.

Angel Action in action in Laramie, WY.

Daily Advent Reflection for Dec. 23

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born

I can’t think of this old African-American spiritual without also thinking of James Baldwin’s classic autobiographical novel of the same name.  Go Tell it on the Mountain is a coming-of-age story that ties together themes of race, family, and Judeo-Christian tradition.  The Church is characterized as both a source of strength/inspiration and oppression/hypocrisy.

Baldwin’s prose beautifully incorporates the language of the King James Bible.  I see it as an example of how one can deeply love a tradition while thinking critically or artfully about it at the same time.  I left the novel thinking that it is no simple thing to proclaim that “Jesus Christ is born.”

What does that proclamation mean to you, in your context?


Daily Advent Reflection for Dec. 22

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

This jaunty tune got stuck in my head recently.  It’s a traditional English carol.  I remember, as a child, not understanding the term “wassail” and just sort of mumbling through that part.  According to Readers’ Digest (via Wikipedia),

wassailing refers to singing carols door to door wishing good health… the Christmas spirit often made the rich a little more generous than usual, and bands of beggars and orphans used to dance their way through the snowy streets of England, offering to sing good cheer and to tell good fortune if the householder would give them a drink from his wassail bowl or a penny or a pork pie or, let them stand for a few minutes beside the warmth of his hearth. The wassail bowl itself was a hearty combination of hot ale or beer and spices and mead, just alcoholic enough to warm tingling toes and fingers of the singers.

How interesting!  How things have changed!  Today, we often think of caroling as an act of generosity on the part of the carolers.  Groups often go caroling in places like nursing homes and hospital wards, bringing the “spirit of the season” to people who might feel cut off.   But the wassailers of old were the ones in need of charity and good will.

Here are some verses I don’t remember ever hearing:

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.

Good master and good mistress,
While you’re sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.














I appreciate these reminders of the complexity of our traditions, and the ways that Christmas is about the experience of deep need.  To read the Christmas lessons, you feel that the whole earth longed for the birth of Jesus.  And we are longing still.

Daily Advent Reflection for Dec. 21

“Ah dearest Jesus, Holy Child/Make Thee a bed soft, undefiled /within my heart that it may be/a quiet chamber kept for thee” (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come)

Martin Luther wrote this hymn for his son.  Above I quote the third verse from the old Pilgrim Hymnal version.

First Church, like many contemporary UCC churches, now uses the New Century Hymnal (NCH).  Its version of the third verse of this hymn goes like this:  “O dearest Jesus, Holy Child/Prepare a bed soft, undefiled,/a holy shrine within my heart/that you and I need never part.”

The tone of these two translations is so different.  My guess is that the second translation made an effort to “update” the archaic language.

But the first has such a poetic formality and dignity.  The word “Ah” carries a sense of sighing and poignancy (to my ears, anyway).  It’s a prayer, released like a breath, that one’s heart may be a fit place for this precious child.  May my heart be such that you, Jesus, can make a bed in it. There’s something about that image that is real, concrete, so compelling.  Preparing a bed is homey, soft, and relatable.  It is not the same as preparing a shrine!

Once again, my commitment to inclusive language is complicated by the exquisite poetry of old language!


Daily Advent Reflection for Dec. 20


There are at least a few of these going around… videos that imagine the Christmas story playing out over today’s social media.  It’s an interesting commentary, of course, on how many of us currently experience and interpet our world through the lens of technology and public performance.  I must say, however, one part of what I find so beautiful about the original Christmas story is its scale–it was all so quiet, so small.  There was no mass communication or instant messaging (unless you count those angels who keep appearing).  All the people involved had to act with a great deal of faith, trust, and courage–with very little information to go on.  Although I’m a fan of technology in many ways, I do wonder if we lack some essential sense of  mystery in our lives.

Daily Advent Reflection for Dec. 19

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…”

Today in worship we celebrated the Festival of Lessons and Carols.  The choir, directed by Cynthia, and seven readers carried us through the story of Jesus’ birth.  It was lovely.  I feel as if those scripture lessons are written on my heart.  The story of Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and wise men… and the babe lying in a manger.

Our first congregational hymn was the Advent classic “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  I love hearing that melody in the minor key.  It’s beautiful.  It’s moody.  It’s also a bit anxious.  As Jane discussed regarding the Longest Night service, Advent and Christmas can be very loaded times.  It can feel countercultural to focus on the darkness in a season filled with so much light and “joy.”  But we must remember that those darker themes are part of the original story.  Herod isn’t a cartoon character–he’s a very scary ruler who is threatened by this little baby.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.”  What’s holding you captive this season?  What liberation do you seek in your life?

Daily Advent Reflection for Sat, Dec 18

Who would think that what was needed to transform and save the earth might not be a plan or army, proud in purpose proved in worth?  Who would think, despite derision, that a child should lead the way?  God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.  (Who Would Think That What Was Needed, verse 1, written by the Iona Community in Scotland)

This morning, a newspaper article about Sudan caught my eye.  In January, a referendum will determine whether or not Southern and Northern Sudan will become separate countries.    The piece described the feelings of Sudanese Minnesotans, who are eligible to vote in the election, provided they can reach a polling place.  Those who still wish to vote must reach Chicago within the next few days.

This vote is an element of the 2005 peace agreement, reached after twenty years of war and genocide in Sudan.   Ladu Gubek lives in Bloomington, MN and is chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Task Force in America.  Gubek reflects, “For me it’s a special moment, because although the majority of my adult life was spent in war and uncertainty, I want to determine this destiny for the children of my children’s children.”  (Twin Cities section of the Dec 18, 2010 Star Tribune)

The world was full of violence and warfare at the time of Jesus birth, just as much as it is today.  A little-discussed chapter of the Christmas story reports that the birth of Jesus triggered a genocide.  When Herod learned of the existence of this”Prince of Peace”, he viewed him as a threat to his own power.  He ordered his soldiers to kill all the baby boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem.  Mary, Joseph and Jesus escaped the sword by fleeing to Egypt.   While the historicity of this account is uncertain, there is no reason to doubt the truth it tells us about the ways of our world.

I am moved by Gubek’s comments, because, despite decades of watching armies slaughter innocents, he holds fast to hope for a peaceful Sudan, a country in which the children of his children’s children would lead the way.   What of us?  Are we prepared to rejoice when God surprises earth with heaven?

Daily Advent Devotion for Wed, Dec 15

Hail the h eav’n-born Prince of Peace!  Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings.  Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise the ones of earth, born to give them second birth.  Hark! The herald angels sing”Glory to the newborn King!”

(Hark the Herald Angels Sing, verse 3, by Charles Wesley)

I first encountered a service of healing at Holden Village, a retreat center in the remote Cascade Mountains of Washington State.  The language and the ritual of that service have stayed with me.  I recall hearing that healing is a process, not a one time event; that healing can come even without a cure; and finally, that sometimes bodily death is a form of healing.  I remember the worshipers kneeling in prayer around lit candles, while others placed hands on their shoulders and prayed with them and for them.  This new experience of the wide embrace of God’s healing power made a lasting impression on me.  It shaped who I am as a leader in the church.

Healing prayer and anointing with oil is a practice of faith that we are reclaiming at First Church.  On Thursday (12/16), at 7 pm, we will offer a service of healing called “The Longest Night”.   This time of worship acknowledges the grief that many feel especially during this holiday time, and embraces us under the “healing wings” of God-with-us.  This service seeks to probe into the deeper meanings of Advent itself.  Advent is not a time of cheer; it is a season of joy, the deep, full, complex joy of God’s birth amid our pain.  The hopeful peace of Advent emerges only as we tend to all that is not yet right in our lives and in the world.

Daily Advent Reflection for Tues Dec 14

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And we, amid our wars, hear not the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye ones of strife and hear the angels sing.

(It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, verse 3, by Edmund Sears, edited for inclusive language)

One family I know tells of a  Christmas eve in church when the kids were small.    Amid the beauty of choral singing, the soft candlelight and beloved scriptures, the parents struggled to keep the children’s noise and wriggling to a minimum.  At one quiet point, Mom desperately whispered: “Shh… the baby Jesus is sleeping!”   From that point forward, this phrase became a refrain in their family, uttered half reverently and half jokingly, whenever someone make too much commotion.

Preparing for our Advent/ Christmas season, I came across the little-known verse of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” printed above.   This verse reminds me that amid the reality of loud hatred and cruel warfare, there is another reality.  There is a love-song that the angels of God sing to humanity. There is the nearly imperceptible rasp of an infant’s breathing. How amazing the claim of Christmas: that these delicate melodies, these gentle, fragile sounds, are the ones that matter the most, that tell us the most about who God is, and about and who we are.

Daily Advent Devotion for Mon, Dec 13

Twas in the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had fled, that mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel  choirs instead; Before their light the stars grew dim, and wondering hunters heard the hymn: Jesus Emmanuel, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found; a ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round; But as the hunter braves drew nigh, the angel song rang loud and high: Jesus Emmanuel, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

(‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, verses 1-2, by Jean de Brebeuf, trans. Jesse Middleton)

The winter moon shines vibrantly on the snow, these cold, clear winter nights and mornings, reminding me of this hymn.  The “Huron carol” was written by a Jesuit priest who started a mission among the Huron people in Canada in the 17th century.  It makes me wonder …. What does it mean that a European would try to tell the Christmas story through the language and symbols of a native people?    My suspicious side says it is yet another attempt to force cultural assimilation and drain meaning from native religions.  My hopeful side says that the story of Jesus also brings a critical perspective to every culture, and particularly those cultures that have enjoyed a dominant place economically, socially, and politically.  The birth of God-with-us clashed with the Roman Empire, and it even now it critiques and challenges the powers of our day.