Hope’s Path

Hope’s Path

Eleven-year-old Hope flew down the brownstone stairs and bounced outside, the formidable wooden front doors slamming closed behind her like the resounding retort of a canon. The crashing of the doors echoed off the graffiti-and-ivy covered walls of her little Roosevelt Park neighborhood. A few tourists ducked. Locals didn’t flinch. They were used to this many-times-daily occurrence, the thunder of a closing door that meant Hope was on her way.

She took the weight of her name very seriously. “It isn’t a coincidence, you know—my name, Mom,” Hope once remarked. “Of course it isn’t, sweetheart! We named you after your great-grandmother.” Hope smiled, but her mom didn’t understand. Hope was more than just a name, a deterministic label like “rock” or “puddle.” Hope wasn’t just her name. It was her calling. Hope had a duty, and she knew that from the first moment she realized she could know anything.

Cheerily, Hope said, “Good morning, Mrs. Ferguson,” as she raced past her next-door neighbor’s porch. Mrs. Ferguson, weathered but merry after a lifetime of battles large and small, waved and struggled to get out of her chair. “You don’t need to get up,” Hope said. “I’m late for school! I’ll come visit this afternoon!” And she zoomed on. Mrs. Ferguson chuckled and gently sat back down, Hope’s boundless energy filling her with memories of the days when she too bounced off the fences, trees, phone booths and bus benches that lined their streets.

Hope stopped sprinting just long enough to grab her homemade bag lunch from the counter at Maxie’s Corner market. “Thanks, Maxie! I’ll be back later!” Hope yelled as she streaked in a blur of light through another door. Maxie was an old friend of the family. When Hope’s dad died last year, Maxie and his family took care of Hope every day while her mom worked. Maxie was a funny little man, the fourth generation of a family of Jewish immigrants who had always lived in this neighborhood. Maxie laughed and shouted, “Watch where you’re going, Hope! You’re going to run someone over!”

As she tore a light-speed path toward school, Hope greeted the rest of her neighbors, making her morning rounds like a doctor visiting patients. She smiled and shouted, “Hello, Mr. Oberlin! Good Morning, Ms. Stitch! What’s up, Bill? I’ll be back to visit later!” Her friends laughed as they watched Hope blaze by.

She made it to school just as the bell started ringing. With one last burst of energy, she whooshed through the classroom doors and slid into her seat. “Nice to see you, Hope!” Mrs. Sanchez joked. “Good to see you too, Mrs. Sanchez!” Hope replied. “I got a late start today.”

Mrs. Sanchez knew that I got a late start meant Hope’s mom was falling into depression again. She was probably home in bed; the covers pulled over her head, the blinds shut tightly in an attempt to hide (and hide from) the universe. Mrs. Sanchez feigned cheerfulness. “That’s okay, Hope, you made it!” Hope smiled with an honest cheer that lit Mrs. Sanchez’s heart. Hope was just being herself. It was remarkable to witness.

As the children settled into their lessons, Hope’s mind began to wander. She was troubled by her mother’s profound grief. Try as she might, when her mom got like this, there was no breaking her free from the sharp talons of an attacking raptor of melancholy. If Hope wasn’t careful, the bird would consume her, too. It was during these bouts of darkness that Hope felt least like her name. A tear rolled down her cheek. “Mrs. Sanchez?” she asked, “may I go to the bathroom, please? I’ll be back in a minute.”

Hope wiped her eyes with a wad of toilet paper and sat cross-legged style on the toilet seat—not so much to hide, as to not be bothered. She’d been on the brink here before and knew she needed to work through this or risk becoming lost. Despair was like Hope’s evil twin. She came out when Hope was overwhelmed—when she couldn’t say one more cheerful hello; when she didn’t feel like promising to be right back; when she just wanted to crawl under the blanket with her mother and shut the world off.

Hope worked hard not to become Despair. She was pretty good at staying light, but there were times when she felt empty. Not just out of gas, but thoroughly depleted,  a void in the universe. Maybe she took her name too seriously. Then she wondered whether her survival was even possible with a different name, like Betty or Jane. Plain Jane, she thought. That would be a nice name. Plain Jane. Instead of always being chipper, she could just be plain. Hope didn’t think “Plain Jane” was insulting at all. Plain meant regular, maybe even normal. Her life hadn’t been even close to normal since—well, since ever. And I’m only 11! She thought.

After a couple of moments, Hope took a deep breath and went back to class. She sat at her desk and focused on the day’s work. After school, she’d likely entertain Despair some more, but her twin would have to wait for now.

Sure enough, Despair joined Hope for her walk home. “Are you really going to stop to see everyone on the way home?” Despair chided. “They probably don’t want you to come by anyway, you know. You think everyone has time for your little visits? Ignore them. Come home to your Mother and me. We’re waiting for you, Hope! Hope? Are you paying attention to me?”

Hope heard what Despair was saying and did her best to ignore it. Hope knew that if she remained focused on Despair, she’d be sucked into the same black hole as her mother. And one of them needed to keep it together. If she wanted to rescue her mom from the darkness, Hope had to remain true to her name, her calling. She did this by remembering something Despair had helped her figure out years ago: people never lose hope. They’ll do everything they can to get rid of Despair, but even in her asphyxiating grip, people never wholly lose hope. That’s why every day on her way to school, Hope always said hello to Maxie, Mrs. Ferguson, Stitch and Bill, and everyone else in the neighborhood. That’s why she stopped for lemonade with Mrs. Ferguson on her way home; why she helped Maxie stock the shelves after school, why she listened to Bill’s tall tales. Being surrounded by her community lifted her spirits and gave her the energy to lift theirs in return. Hope is an eternal cycle of giving.

Energized by this realization, Hope sprinted the rest of the way home and bounded up the stairs into the brownstone; it’s massive doors once again booming shut behind her, alerting the neighborhood to Hope’s presence. She zoomed into her mother’s room, jumped into bed with her, hugged her tightly and said, “Hey mom, I’m home! It’s time to wake up!”


Sinners and Saints

Sinners and Saints

Saints and Sinners by Claudio Delgado.

Sinners and Saints

In practically any dictionary of The Bible, a saint is defined as someone “distinct because of their relationship with God.” In the ancient Jewish tradition (in Psalms 31.23 and 148.14, e.g.) the word “saint,” like so many ancient Hebrew words, has more than one meaning. For Jesus’ ancestors, a saint was someone who had an intimate, covenantal relationship with God and was also specially chosen for and dedicated to God’s service.

People were considered saints during their lifetimes—the way most of us found Mother Theresa a saint during hers. In our era, we tend to think of saints as these perfect, flawless, selfless characters, just like Jesus. But that imagery is, while not wrong, at least incomplete. Jesus never refers to himself as perfect. He never even refers to himself as God. Jesus is always “the son of man” (Mark 2.28, Mark 14,62, Acts 7.56, Luke 19.1, et al.). Furthermore, Jesus loses his temper, just like us. He gets frightened about his calling, just like us. He frets about whether or not he’s good enough for God’s love, just like us. If we think of Jesus as a saint and ourselves as unworthy sinners, we miss one of Jesus’ most important teachings: we’re not perfect, and that’s okay.

In the Second Testament, Paul uses the term “saints” to refer to the body of Christian believers set apart from the rest of the world (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6.2). He does this intentionally, recalling his beloved stories in Exodus when God makes the people Israel “God’s people.”

By referring to all the people in his church as saints, Paul brings the Gentiles into God’s covenant, something he thinks is his duty to Jesus Christ. By the definition of his Jewish heritage, Paul is a saint—set apart by his intimate relationship with the Christ to serve the people of God. Paul believes he is called to accomplish this by convincing everyone to follow Jesus, whether they’re Jew or Gentile, free or slave, male or female, rich or poor.

But Paul was not always this beacon of light and love, this sanctified saver of souls. In fact, Paul’s exploits as Saul are famously recounted in Acts, and in Paul’s own letters, where he confesses that he committed atrocities against his Jewish brothers and sisters simply because they were followers of Jesus.

In The Bible, we read that Paul was “zealous” for the blood of Jesus’ followers early on, until his epiphany on the road from Damascus. He has a “conversion experience.” Conversion in this instance is not a change from one religion to another—Paul always stays a faithful Jew—but a transformation from one state of being (purely human) to another (one inspired by a more intimate relationship with God).

The same is true for St. Augustine, the founder of modern Catholicism. By his own account, in his autobiographical Confessions, he was a debauched, lecherous, gambling, whoring, thieving human being. He was also a brilliant scholar and orator who had an incredible breadth of knowledge about the world religions of his time. Eventually, through his relationship with Ambrose, eventual bishop of Milan and Catholic Saint himself, Augustine was led to his own conversion experience. Late one evening, Augustine hears a child’s voice, which he takes as a sign from God. The voice tells Augustine to read Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13:13-14:

Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

Paul’s sentiment hit the hard-partying Augustine hard. In his Confessions, Augustine recounted that after reading this passage, he had a mystical experience that changed the way he acted on this Earth, here and now. Augustine went from sinner to saint, one could say. He waxes eloquently about his conversion:

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,
Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee.
Thou was with me when I was not with Thee.
Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.
Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispell my blindness.
Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.
For Thyself Thou hast made us,
And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease.
Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.

It’s a beautiful account of a changed heart, mind, and soul. Unfortunately, it led Augustine to horrifically misinterpret much of the Bible and conclude that all people are born sinners (the Doctrine of Original Sin begins with Augustine).

And here’s where the trouble distinguishing between “saint” and “sinner” begins as well: we are all neither and both saint and sinner. Like so many of our faith struggles, the ultimate answer to whether or not we’re sinners or saints is “both/and.” When we talk about the kingdom of God, it is “both/and”—already here yet always coming. It’s the same with Jesus, who we consider already in our hearts yet also always breaking into the world.

I think it’s interesting that two of the greatest Christian thinkers were both self-proclaimed “sinners” before discovering the Oneness with God that Jesus teaches is our birthright. It begs the question, is sin inevitable for us to recognize a change in our lives? And if we answer positively, then why do we think sin is such a bad thing? So bad, in fact, that sin can damn us to hell for all eternity?

It’s an unfortunate byproduct of Augustine’s theology that the majority of Christians for most of Christian history, have worried more about their reward in heaven than acting like Jesus in the here and now. Consequently, in order to guarantee a spot in “The Good Place” (because nobody wants to go “down there to The Bad Place”!), we run through all sorts of psychological machinations. We sometimes pay massive sums of money, we say prayers, we ask forgiveness, we confess, just like Augustine and Paul. And I promise you they were both much crueler in their lifetimes than most of us could even imagine! Still, here we are today, calling both of them saints. God’s transformative power in action.

In honor of these two pioneers of Christian thought, I have a confession of my own: I am a human being. I’m not perfect; I’m just striving to do my best. On this point I agree with Paul: we who believe Jesus shows a more divinely humane way to be human are all saints because we are striving to live more authentically our God connectedness here and now. Our most ancient definition of sainthood as one who is both intimately connected to God, and compelled to live that connection here on earth, turns out to be valuable ancient wisdom.

I am in the camp of theologians who believe that it’s all good. We may be saints or sinners on this planet for this brief period in a universe that’s billions and billions of years old. Ultimately, though, we all end up back in God’s loving embrace, part and parcel of the very being of God, who is never separated from us, whether we’re gambling at the craps table or preaching on a Sunday morning. And I’ve done both. I actually have a craps game running in the back room right now.

Just kidding.

But being human means accepting we’re flawed and knowing that God is okay with that.

There’s a terrific series on NBC called “The Good Place,” in which Kristen Bell ends up in Heaven even though she’s been a pretty terrible person. A cover-up of sorts ensues, in which she tries to change so she doesn’t get sent to “The Bad Place.” It’s funny, but it’s also a brilliantly conceived device that helps us get over our preconceived notions about sinners and saints. Sure, good people go to Heaven. That’s all fine and good. But what makes God genuinely amazing, truly worthy of loving and following, is that even those we incorrectly perceive as “bad” people end up in “The Good Place”. And I know that’s difficult for humans to understand, and I know some of you are thinking about Hitler right now. So again, I emphasize that it’s God’s embrace of even the worst of us that makes God, God, and the fact we have a difficult time wrapping our minds around that idea which makes us human.

Ultimately, I believe that’s all that’s asked of us: to be human; to embrace our humanity by understanding that we are created from and in the divine cosmic consciousness. And there is absolutely no sin in that.

Intersect 8-30-17

Intersect 8-30-17

Quantum Entanglement
I’m fascinated by the intersection of quantum mechanics (the study of subatomic systems) and faith. I’ve written about string theory before, and the implication that everything that exists—every steak on the grill we smell and every soul-penetrating song we hear—is a vibration of God. The physical world is an emanation of the God frequency. God is the sound that started the universe. God is our infinite song of sustenance.

Quantum mechanics helps me integrate faith and science. Science is biblical for me. I believe that by revealing the mysteries of the universe, science also reveals something of the nature of God. Understanding science as more than just the laws of nature helps people of faith maintain a healthy, contemporary, and relevant image of God and God’s activity in the world.

In the quantum world, I have discovered interesting ways to imagine not only the nature of God, but also God’s infrastructure, if you will—how God is active in our world without being manipulative.  For me, if God is going to be an active force in the world, then the way God acts has to make sense with our current understanding of the natural world.

For example, we know God doesn’t “cause” floods or create diseasem because we understand natural weather patterns, the existence of bacteria and viruses, the properties of electromagnetics, gravity and the time-space continuum. For a great majority of us, God can no longer be the super-being of our ancestors (and unfortunately, many of our contemporaries) floating somewhere in outer space, manipulating and micromanaging every little detail of our lives.

But most of us who believe in God also believe God is personal. Certainly, Jesus’ message was of an intimate God, a God of unconditional love nearer than our own breath. If that is so, then how does God work? If I accept and understand scientific ideas about the workings of the universe, then where is God if God isn’t literally pulling our strings and pushing our buttons?

This is where the idea of quantum entanglement provides some good spiritual insight. Entanglement is how I think God works in the universe—not on this large-scale level, pointing “his” finger and creating floods when God is pissed, or crying out rainbows when God is happy. No, God “works” on a sub-molecular, subatomic, extremely tiny but entirely pervasive level. God is personal because God is every one of the trillions and trillions of atoms that together form an individual. We are entangled with the very substance of God, because every molecule in our physical body is connected to God in a way we are only just beginning to discover.

We are connected to God on a quantum level. We are entangled with God—physically, spiritually, mentally.

We all know what being entangled means, correct? Like the braids of a rope, all twisted together, or if you’re me, every time you try to untie a shoelace, it’s so entangled that it might be easier to torch it than untie it.

In the quantum world, there is a bizarre activity known as “quantum entanglement.” Scientists have discovered that pairs—or even groups—of particles form into connected (entangled) systems. That means the state of one of the particles—the way it’s spinning and its polarity, for example, cannot be determined unless the entire group is figured out. And if one particle in the group changes, the others automatically update to maintain their connection.

For example, if there are two entangled particles, one will always spin up and the other will always spin down. It’s balance. So, if we mess with these particles by, say, changing the spin of one, then the other will automatically adjust to maintain the connection.

Now, here’s the really cool thing, the phenomenon that causes me to believe this is God in action: Experiments have proven that this connectivity—this entanglement between molecules, occurs even if the particles are separated by thousands of miles!

Do you get that?  Two particles that are entangled REMAIN entangled even when separated by great distances. Let’s say I have a spin-up particle in Florida and its entangled spin-down particle is in Oregon. If I change the spin of the Florida particle, the particle in Oregon will immediately adjust.

Here’s another mind-blower—there’s no delay in the adjustment. It’s as if the information between the two particles is traveling faster than light. It’s instantaneous information transmission.

Quantum entanglement. To me, it implies a much deeper human connection than we’ve imagined. The molecules that make us who we are also connect us to each other, via the fundamental of God. We are entangled at a subatomic level through God, to all creation.

Need proof? Pray. If you’ve ever prayed for anyone, or received prayer from others, you have experienced quantum entanglement. Think about the way you’ve felt when being prayed for. There is an obvious and palpable energy flow—even if the people praying for you are thousands of miles away. Prayer works because we are entangled beings—entangled at the most basic level of matter, sub-atomically.

Let me tell you how that translates into the real world for me, and why I think quantum entanglement has implications for prayer.

While I was away in sabbatical, I felt your prayers. I didn’t just know you were praying for me, there were moments—many of them, that I was brought to tears because I was so overwhelmed by love. Love I KNEW came from you all and everyone praying for me before my double hip-replacement surgery.

I know many of you have had similar prayer experiences. Whether praying for someone or receiving prayer, you’ve felt the energy exchange. Doesn’t that feel like God to you, God connecting us, working through us, at the very core of our being?

So, how does that happen? How can I be comforted while thousands of miles away? How can we not only sense but actually feel with every fibre of our being, this healing, loving, comforting energy being sent from thousands of miles away?

Quantum entanglement.

At our most basic level of being, where atoms are working together to form human beings, we are entangled with God energy, and that God energy connects us with every other thing on the planet—not just with other humans, by the way, but with everything.

If we open our minds and allow our senses to be filled with the unexpected, we will sense God pulsing through all of creation, from the tiniest speck of sand on the beach to the most majestic Elephants of India; through you and me; through friend and foe. It is a feeling that reveals the lunacy of seeing foes and the lightness of being.

We are entangled not only as a congregation, or groups of friends, but at a molecular level with everything that exists in the universe, everything seen and unseen, everything known and yet to be discovered. All those bazillions of particles that make us the individuals we are? Those particles are entangled. They’re communicating with each other on a level we might never fully understand, but can comprehend as God talk.

Maybe we people of faith should call the quantum world “The God Level.” There’s communication going on between us—between all things, truly. We receive it all the time, but only perceive it when we’re paying attention, or are so overwhelmed by the loving energy sent by a group of people keeping us in their prayers that we can’t help but understand it as God in action.

Prayer is powerful because it’s the way we communicate on the God Level. Prayer takes advantage of our entanglement and keeps us all in sync, spinning in the direction of God, which harmonizes the universe.

I know we’re all feeling the stress of the world right now, and I know we’re praying to God to make things better. I offer the idea of God as molecular energy in the hope that your prayer life will become even more focused and deeply connected to the loving energy of the universe, and that thinking of God as the smallest of the small will bring you peace, joy, and comfort, even as you transmit peace, joy, and comfort to the rest of the world.

Your thoughts make a difference, because we are an entangled species.


Jesus in Detention

Jesus in Detention

Jesus in Detention
The Jews solemnly lined the streets of Jerusalem as they once again watched invaders march triumphantly through their “Jewel on the Hill”. This time, it was the great Roman general Pompey. He had taken advantage of a family squabble between the formerly ruling Hasmoneans, which left Jerusalem vulnerable. The Romans had been on a tear through the area for years, consolidating power as they incorporated Syria into their ever-expanding empire.

Much to the Jewish peoples’ surprise, Pompey was friendly and respectful. He and Caesar both had trusted Jewish advisors and were familiar with the people and their customs. It was also characteristic of the Romans to allow conquered people to continue their traditions, if respect and money were paid to Rome on a regular basis. When Pompey marched into Jerusalem, he saw himself as emancipator rather than conqueror.

Unfortunately, Pompey was a general, not a bureaucrat. The Romans installed a new governor in Jerusalem, Antipater. He followed Rome’s lead and set about rebuilding Jerusalem’s pock marked and disintegrating walls and buildings. For decades, Jerusalem had been caught in the crossfire of the Hasmonean’s civil war. The city, like the people inhabiting it, were tired and falling apart. Antipater did his best to rebuild both.

A few years later, Antipater named his sons Phasael and Herod governors of Jerusalem and Galilee. A last-ditch effort by the Hasmoneans to gain control of the city resulted in Phasael’s death, leaving rule of the entire area to Herod.

Herod was ambitious, cunning, and ruthless. He went to Rome seeking control of the entire territory. The Senate named him King of the Jews and provided him all the military might he needed to reconquer what was left of the former Hasmonean territories.

For the next decade, Herod completely changed the face of Jerusalem by rebuilding it in the classical Roman form. He adapted old fortresses and dedicated them as temples to Roman Gods. He rebuilt three massive citadels to shore up the city’s defenses. He improved the water supply, renovated and expanded the entire Temple complex, built hippodromes, a theater, and an enormous palace. All in all, Herod was a good king and his Jewish subjects respected his efforts to improve the quality of life for all citizens. Herod’s beautifications also made the city appealing to pilgrims, who now came in the tens of thousands for special holidays such as Passover.

But Herod also had a very dark side. He was a paranoid maniac who would do anything to protect his position of power. Early in his reign, he had 45 of the city’s most influential aristocrats murdered. Since he was not of priestly lineage, he needed to appoint a high priest to the Temple. At his mother-in-law’s urging, he selected his sixteen-year-old son Aristobulus. As Aristobulus gained popularity, however, Herod had him drowned. Over time, Herod had all the remaining members of his family killed, including his mother and his wife. Nobody would threaten his claim to the Jewish throne.

About the same time Herod finished consolidating his power by murdering his entire family, an aristocratic carpenter and his fiancée lived in Bethlehem, about 10 kilometers away. The young couple was expecting a child, and the birth was shrouded in scandal because they were having a baby out of wedlock. Further compromising Joseph’s position in town was the fact the child was not his. There were rumors about Roman abuse and even divine intervention, but whatever the reason for the baby, Joseph understood it his duty to stay at Mary’s side. He loved her and would raise the child as his own, no matter what.

Joseph entered their house with a cheery, “I’m home, my love, and I’ve brought you a special treat!” Mary sat up in her bed and smiled at Joseph. For a moment, he thought she was glowing, a golden halo embracing her head. He shook off the hallucination and showed her the package of goat meat. “Ooh!” she squealed with delight. “How wonderful! How did you know I was craving goat tonight?”

“You just relax and I’ll fix us dinner,” Joseph said.

Mary laid down and closed her eyes. As the smell of roasting goat and boiling vegetables filled the room, Mary began to dream. She saw an Angel who told her not to worry, that everything would be alright. “You are truly blessed! The Lord is with you!” The Angel continued, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is pleased with you, and you will have a son you are to call Jesus. He will be a great king, as his ancestor David was. He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

Just then, Mary was startled awake by Joseph gently rocking her shoulder. “Honey, honey!” he called. “Dinner is ready, you need to eat. Are you okay? It seemed like you were having a bad dream.”

“It wasn’t bad,” Mary replied, “it was just strange. An Angel of God came to me and told me to name our baby Jesus, and that our son would be the king of our people! It all seemed so real it startled me!”

“I suppose every parent wants their child to become a great leader,” Joseph said. “But you know Herod as well as me. That lunatic will never give up the throne. He’ll find a way to rule even after he dies, which can’t be soon enough in my book.”

“Don’t you talk like that!” Mary scolded Joseph. “If one of these Romans overheard you they would… they would… I can’t even think about how they’d torture…” Mary’s voice trailed away and she began sobbing uncontrollably. Joseph took her in his arms and did his best to calm her. “I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t mean to upset you. Please, have some dinner and try to get some rest. I won’t cause trouble. Herod can’t hurt us here. He doesn’t care about people like us, anyway. Please… Rest.”

A short time later, Mary gave birth to their child. Remembering the dream, she and Joseph named the baby Jesus. He was healthy and active, and the entire village embraced him. For the next three years, life was splendid. There was plenty of work in the new town Herod was building just outside Bethlehem, and Jesus was healthy and happy. Mary delighted in watching their child grow and play with the other kids in the village. Jesus giggled with delight chasing a chicken around in circles, and Mary imagined that life couldn’t get any better.

That evening, as the family put out the oil lamps and prepared for bed, Mary took Joseph’s hand, tenderly kissed him, and said “Thank you.”

“For what?” Joseph asked. “For being wonderful and bringing joy to our family. I love you.” Joseph took Mary in his arms, held her tightly and said, “I am but a reflection of the joy you and Jesus bring to me, my love.” They laid down to sleep, imagining there were no two happier people in the world.

As Joseph closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, he had a dream about an Angel. “Get up! Hurry and take the child and his mother to Egypt! Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is looking for the child and wants to kill him,” the Angel said. Joseph awoke with a start, covered and sweat and short of breath. “What is it, my love?” Mary asked with concern and fear. “What’s wrong? You’re drenched! Did you have a bad dream?”

Joseph caught his breath, looked at Mary and said, “We have to leave. Right now.”

In Jerusalem, three ambassadors from different lands visited King Herod. “We bring you greetings of peace and offerings of respect form our Lords,” they said. “We have seen a sign in the sky and traveled for three years to see the infant, the new King of the Jews! Where is he?”

This was shocking news to Herod. A new king of the Jews? Over his dead body! Better yet, Herod thought, over this kid’s dead body. I won’t let even an infant usurp my power. I’ve murdered my entire family to stay on the throne, I won’t hesitate to kill someone else’s.

But Herod hadn’t maintained power all these years by giving his true intentions away. He shrewdly said, “A new king of the Jews, you say? How wonderful! I am getting old, and I have no heirs. It would be wonderful to have someone I could call my son to take the throne when I die. Unfortunately, this is the first I’ve heard about this! Do you know where the child is?”

One of the ambassadors from the Far East said, “I am sorry, sire, we do not. That is why we are here. Perhaps you could ask your priests if they know?” At that, Herod summoned the high priest, who explained the ancient prophecy: that a child would be born in Bethlehem, in the lineage of the great King David, and that the child was destined to be the King of the Jews. “From David’s line!” Herod exclaimed. “This is wonderful news, indeed!”

He told the ambassadors what he had learned, and sent them to Bethlehem to find the child, bring him gifts, and return him to Herod to be raised a prince. The ambassadors were thrilled and excited, and hurried on their way.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus were hiding in the back of a tin trader’s wagon. Their only chance for safety was in Egypt, but Egypt was under Roman rule, and Caesar Augustus had recently restricted immigration from Israel.

When Herod realized the ambassadors had no intention of bringing the prophesied child king to him, he ordered the wholesale slaughter of every child under three in and around Bethlehem. This caused a mass exodus of Jews looking to protect their children in what was essentially a different Roman province. Rome, however, had its hands full with other issues in Egypt, and was unconcerned about what they considered one of Herod’s paranoid quirks. If Herod wanted to slaughter thousands of Jewish children, it was of little concern to Rome.

However, Augustus succeeded in creating the great Roman Empire in part by showing mercy and respect to conquered provinces. Rome almost always improved the lands they conquered, bringing advanced irrigation and sewage engineering techniques, roads and education with them. Since the Empire was at the beginning of these massive public works projects in Egypt, they were unprepared for this sudden influx of refugees. Not wanting to get involved in what he saw as a Jewish squabble, but also recognizing that thousands of discontented Jews could mount a serious rebellion, Augustus ordered the Egyptians to hastily prepare a series of detention camps.
Fleeing Israelites were herded into the camps like cattle. While their children were safe from Herod, the camps themselves were as dangerous as the streets of Jerusalem late at night. Pickpockets, thieves, mercenaries, and other unsavory characters looking to make a quick drachma made the camps extremely volatile.

The Egyptian border was now heavily patrolled. All transports were subject to search and seizure. Foot traffic was delayed at the border for hours, sometimes days at a time. Joseph hoped that by hiding under a pile of tin in the trader’s wagon, they might pass through to Egypt, avoiding the detention camps. Once past the border, Jews who had lived in Egypt for many years could safely guide them to synagogues, where they could remain hidden and safe for several years, if necessary.

It was a good plan, but once at the border, Joseph heard the guards rummaging through the tin cups, pots, shields and weapons of their merchant savior. The baby Jesus started to whimper, afraid of what the sound heralded. Mary tried to comfort him, but his fear overcame him and he began to bellow, loud shouts of anguish shaking the tin in sympathy.

“What do you have there, merchant?” The border guard shouted angrily. “Tell me or I’ll slit your throat and kill everyone I find in your cart!” The merchant stammered, “I.. I… I was only trying to help these poor people.”

“We have a system for Israeli refugees. Open up,” the guard said.

The merchant reluctantly revealed the trap door under a mountain of fake tin pots. The guard threw it open and found Joseph, Mary, and their baby Jesus staring up at him, abject misery and heartbreak emanating from their souls.

“Get up,” the guard said, and the family did as they were told. There was no point resisting now, they would go to a detention camp, and that would be that. At least Jesus would be safe until they could return home to Bethlehem, Joseph thought.

He quickly changed his mind when they arrived at the detention center. They were brutally shoved from one processing station to another. “Names,” a processing agent said emotionlessly. “Joseph, Mary, and Jesus of Bethlehem, sir,” Joseph meekly proclaimed.

“Purpose for visiting Egypt?” Visiting, Joseph thought. Does this guy know what’s happening, why all these people are here? The processing agent repeated the question again, louder and slowly: “PURPOSE. FOR. VISITNG. EGYPT.” Joseph didn’t want to say the words. He knew their fate if he told the truth. They were refugees, fleeing a maniac king who had no legitimate right to the Jerusalem throne. But Herod was a vassal of Rome, Joseph couldn’t insult him. So, he sighed dejectedly and simply said, “We want to settle in Egypt, land of our forefathers.” The processing agent seemed satisfied with this answer. He sealed a piece of paper with his ring and a small amount of wax, handed it to Joseph and gestured to the next line.

Joseph shuffled to another processing line. Jesus, tired, hungry and confused, began to cry and whimper. Mary held him close and whispered, “Don’t worry, little one, it will all be alright. God told me so.”

World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day

There are millions of people around the world who have been displaced and seek refuge in a friendly land. Nearly 4 million South Sudanese face a nation with no future unless food and medical care can be restored. In total, more than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. 65 million! My friends, that is an appalling number for a global society that claims to be the most civilized ever on planet Earth.

Let’s take some time to pray and educate ourselves today. Please visit the UN Refugee Agency website at http://www.unhcr.org/ to learn more about opportunities to help and events in the U.S. today (and ongoing). The number of refugees around the world is jaw-dropping and disheartening. Our only civilized response (not to mention Christian response) is to assist, whether that means educating ourselves and our friends; donating time, supplies and money; and/or praying for love to eradicate fear.

One of the most important programs for our denomination, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is our Refugee and Immigration Ministry. We encourage our churches to participate in refugee services, we’re lobbying against stricter regulations, and we offer aid to asylum seekers and migrants. For more information, please visit Disciples Home Missions at https://www.discipleshomemissions.org/missions-advocacy/refugee-immigration-ministries/

In our own Naples congregation, we are blessed with the presence of Renee Gifford, an activist and philanthropist focused on refugee and immigrant services. Renee is working with refugees throughout Southwest Florida. We hope to soon communicate with (and perhaps visit) a refugee neighborhood in Miami. Renee recently reminded me that migrant and refugee families need more than cash (although cash certainly helps). They also need English tutoring, job mentoring, transportation assistance, food, clothing, furniture, housewares, and of course, prayer. In future church services and events, we’ll discuss how God is calling us to serve people displaced in much the same way as Jesus and his family when they were being hunted by King Herod.

Let us never forget that we live in this country because our ancestors were immigrants (unless we are Native Americans). Many of us were brought here forcibly. We call ourselves Americans, but we still have a tremendous amount of work to do before everyone in this country feels like part of the same family.

More information can be found at these links:
UN World Refugee Day: http://www.un.org/en/events/refugeeday/

Stand With Refugees Movement: http://www.standwithrefugees.us

A great sermon from an Australian minister, as pertinent today as it was in 2001:

From NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/11/19/456577699/evangelical-groups-tell-political-leaders-jesus-was-a-refugee

Meditation: God of justice and compassion, make me the instrument of your peace.

Monday Meditation

click to play video

Holy God,
answer to all mysteries,
restore our curiosity and wonder.
We have lost our imaginations
both individually and collectively.
Once we wrote with poetic flourish;
created abstract art
open to interpretation;
and built structures that represented
our inventive ability.
Now we approach the world
with cold, conformist,
formulaic practicality.
Need a new building?
Here’s a glass rectangle.
Producing a new movie?
Here’s another sequel.
Writing a new novel?
I hope the main character is Harry Potter.

With this forfeit of imagination
we have conceded our ability
to consider that
the universe is more than
what we can perceive.
Our senses are limited,
but our minds are not.
Why do we continue
to let our physical nature
define who we are
and of what we are capable?

We need more Einstein and Tesla,
more Marx and Heidegger,
more Musk and Jobs,
more Tubman and Sojourner Truth;
people willing to think differently
despite being told
“This will never work.”
We should insist on
more original thought
and fewer people screaming at us
to stop thinking differently,
or worse,
to stop thinking at all.

I push ever forward, my Loving, creative energy,
by imagining you as the innovative spark of the universe.
Is there proof?
No, and who cares?
I cannot define what you are
or how you work,
but I can imagine
something underlying all things.
Smaller than a boson,
yet larger than all the multiverse combined,
I imagine God.

I do not envision a petty God
who judges and rewards,
but a God whose sole interest is creation,
constant and in ways
we can only imagine,
if we would simply
once again
allow ourselves to imagine.

I am tired of a cold war worldview
where someone wins, and the rest of us lose.
Humanity obviously needs inspiration
to achieve greatness, justice, love, and peace.
From where does inspiration come,
if not from you,
our Eternal Creator and Sustainer?

Inspire us once again
to think more broadly
and demand greater of ourselves.

Encourage us to work together
to create astounding public works
that withstand time;
to reach for the stars together,
seeking out other lifeforms
who have hopefully already solved
their own economic and social issues,
so that they might also teach us
how to be one with each other,
by first realizing we are one with you,
the completeness of this
and all realities.

We pray these things
with hope for a better today,
in every name we,
the people of Earth, call you,
and in all the names
we have yet to dream for you.

The United States is Not a Christian Nation. Thank God.

Among the many utterly unacceptable and uneducated statements I’ve heard since the disaster that is the Trump Presidency began, the most heinous is the claim that Herr Donald is somehow making America a “Christian” nation again (although I suspect that the people I hear that from are using “Christian” as a secret code word meaning “White”).

America is not, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation—well, at least not with respect to state religion. Perhaps we were a nation with genuine Christian values once upon a time, when we still warmly welcomed refugees and immigrants, believing what is etched on the Statue of Liberty; when we provided affordable, quality health care; took care of our elderly; worked hard to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty; put people to work on infrastructure projects and… well, you get the idea. Those are Christian values. Caring for the other—especially the stranger—is core to Christ’s teachings. A nation with Christian values does not build walls. It tears them down, just like Jesus did.

As a nation, we gleefully discarded our Christian values long ago, when we shackled other humans and forced them to leave their homes to be beaten into subjugation. We stopped following Jesus again recently when we started treating corporations better than the people working in them. Either way, it’s not Jesus’ teachings of self-sacrifice for the common good that Trump’s soon-to-be-brown-shirted goons are celebrating (because they are Christian in name only, after all). Rather, the ultra-right imagines Christianity as the state religion, as they believe it was in the beginning and should be for all time. ‘Murka! Sieg Heil!

The mistake the ultra-right makes, of course, is that America has never had a state religion (thank God). The founders intentionally created a secular nation. They did this for a multitude of reasons. They knew first-hand the prejudice and terror caused by state religions—that’s why they were in the colonies, after all. The founders were primarily Protestants (only two of them were Catholic), but Protestants have wildly different ideas about what it means to be Christian. To ensure no one of them could foist their brand of Christianity on the entire nation, the founders wisely separated church and state. But, there’s an even more interesting reason the founders avoided creating a single state religion: out of respect for the thousands of Muslims living here in 1776.[1]

That’s right. Even as the Constitution was being drafted, the colonies were filled with hard-working non-Christians that included Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and a very large population of Muslims. Muslims who had been forcibly brought here as slaves. Think keeping slaves is Christian? Neither did Thomas Jefferson. Nor Jesus.

I don’t want America to be a Christian nation. In my opinion, secular government is the ideal. What I would like is for the Christians in America to start acting more like Jesus and a lot less like President Trump. For that to happen, we need to remember some extremely basic ground rules:

1) Christians welcome ALL PEOPLE into their country, regardless of race, creed, or religion and without tests. REMINDER: Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew. In Trump’s America, Jesus would be turned away at the border. Because Jesus was also a refugee—from the Middle East. [2]

2) Christians love God with all our hearts, souls, strength and mind; we love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10.27).

3) Christians sacrifice the needs of the few (or the One) for the needs of the many. What do we think the crucifixion story is all about, anyway?

4) Christians gladly redistribute our wealth. We never hoard for ourselves like the 1% of Americans who control 90% of all the money. Jesus’ first followers brought everything they had to the community—talent, time, gold, food—whatever they could offer, and they gave it freely to sustain the community.

5) Christians love diversity! The first followers of Christ were Jews, after all. Eventually, Gentiles joined the fold. The mix of Gentiles and Jewish followers of Jesus caused confusion in the First Century, CE synagogues. That’s when “Christians” splintered off and planted the roots of a new religion.

Early worshipping groups were exceptionally diverse. Disciples (a fancy word for students) were rich, poor, male, female, slave and free. They all worshiped, studied, and ate together. Women were in positions of leadership and financed churches. The first Christians were what we would today call socialists. They were doing exactly what Jesus had taught them. Yes, you read that correctly: Jesus was a socialist, not a capitalist and certainly not a political hard-liner.

This country has some soul-searching to do, and we who claim to be Christian must begin to reclaim the faith and remind people what it means to live like Jesus, not just pay him lip service. Most importantly, though, we need do the one, simple thing Jesus most demands of us: Be decent human beings.

Meditation: I am a disciple of Jesus. I am selfless, not self-righteous. 

[2] Deuteronomy 23.15-16 (NIV):  If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them. 

Monday Meditation

Monday Meditation
God who is our fountain of light and truth,
restock our arid hearts and souls
like the rains filling parched desert lakebeds.

Open the eyes
of those who cannot see,
or worse,
choose to ignore
the pain and suffering
of a planet in the throes
of self-inflicted wounds.

Open the hearts
of those who would deny
the most basic human dignities
to any brother or sister
subjugated to terror and slavery;
in need of medicine and doctors;
looking for shelter and a kind word.

Inherently, we understand
that we all deserve shelter, medicine, and kindness.
We know that those of us who have much
are obligated to give to those who lack.
Remind us of our obligation
to be your hands and feet in this word
by motivating us to serve each other
more compassionately
and completely.

Open the wallets of the greedy few
who hoard all the money
and refuse to share it
with even those whose backs they have broken
on their way to the top.
There are too many broken backs,
and too few open wallets.

Perhaps more than anything else, Lord,
I pray for you to enlighten people:
to return intelligence to conversation and debate,
to return honesty to the public forum,
to remove from office all those who lie and cheat,
to give those of us who love you
with all our hearts, minds, and souls
a chance to rebuild this world
in your more tolerant image.

Fill us
with unconditional acceptance for all people,
regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or skin color.
Create through us
a world where children of all races
can play together in their neighborhoods,
without fear of being gunned down by criminals
both with and without badges.

Fill us with compassion.
Remove our lust for power.
Motivate us to eliminate walls and borders,
and continue to transform humanity
into the loving, peaceful,
intellectual, artistic, creative beings
we once were
and might be once more.

In your infinite names and images,
we pray for an end to the heartbreaking madness.