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Showing posts from December, 2019

Jose and Maria in Lenoir

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For the final day of Advent, I would like to repost a retelling of Luke's account of Jesus's birth. Our small town Walmart is known as one of the places where people park who sleep in their cars.

In those days an executive order went out from President Trump that all undocumented people should be deported. This was the first round of deportations and was done while Roy Cooper was governor of North Carolina. Everyone fled their homes for fear of being picked up by ICE. Jose went from the city of Charlotte up to Watauga county, to Boone, because he had a cousin who was a big player in Samaritan's Purse there. He went for help from his cousin, because Maria, to whom he was engaged, was expecting a child. Before they got there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in rags, and laid him in the straw in the bed of their old pickup, because they were afraid to give their credit card number at the Red Carpet Inn; and …

Advent Reflection Day 23

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Luke's account of Jesus' birth , with the manger, and the shepherds and angels, is the one that many of us may be most familiar with. Starting with verse 8, this is what Linus recites in the Charlie Brown Christmas show.


In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shep…

Advent Reflection, Day 22

These anxious days of Advent 2019, many of us have turned our attention to the global centers of power to see how the latest news might better or worsen our lives. Will Trump be impeached? Will the House and Senate pass a budget? Will trade relations with China stabilize? Will there be a Tory government in London? Will Brexit finally take place? Will the Ukrainians be able to hold the line against Russia? Are we so focused on the centers of power, that we lose sight on the broken people on the margins? Do we forget about the people in small towns, the unknown corners of the world, whose lives are dramatically influenced by the decisions of potentates far away who will never know them, or care to understand their plights?

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazaret…

Advent Friendship Reflection, Day 21

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What kinds of communities form as a result of practicing friendship the way that Jesus and the New Testament writers imagined? Paul claims that the basis of community is, as he says in Philippians, having the "same mind" as Christ Jesus, who, 

though he was in the form of God,did not regard equality with Godas something to be exploited,but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,being born in human likeness. (Phil 2:6-7). But what is the form of humanity that Christ takes on, as he is born into this world? For the Greeks and Romans, the ideal human form was to be prized for godlike perfection and beauty. the form of the free aristocratic male, who had time and leisure to exercise, go to the baths, and basically pamper and perfect his body. But as Paul describes it here, when Christ takes on the human form, it is not one of divine perfection, but of the empty and broken slave.

Jean Vanier, who passed earlier this year, may be one of the great theological thinkers and pract…

Advent Friendship Reflection, Day 19

In these daily Advent devotions, I have been reflecting on friendship, and the special kind of friendship that Jesus and the earliest believers participated in. Yesterday, I thought about Paul's understanding of Christian friendship in light of unity, having the "same mind" as Christ Jesus, who, as Paul elegantly explains,
though he was in the form of God,did not regard equality with Godas something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,being born in human likeness. (Phil 2:6-7). Who is this Christ child that comes to us in the form of a slave? What children are born into human trafficking today, or held in cages, or born in circumstances beyond their control? What does the experience of enslavement reveal about humanity? What does it mean that the divine form takes on the form of a slave? How is this an expression of friendship to us? If we take on this "same mind," what kind of self-emptying may be required of us? We are reminded that …

Being of the Same Mind, Impeachment, an Advent Reflection

"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others" (Phil 2:1-4).

As I write these words, I am watching the Impeachment debate prior to the historic vote to impeach Donald Trump as president. I know many of my friends on the left are convinced that this is the right thing to do. I also know that many Christians on the right solemnly believe this impeachment is a travesty of justice. As I watch the proceedings I am struck by how each side is simply making the same points over and over again, speaking to their respective constituencies, but not speaking to one another. Regardless of what happens tonight, over the next we…

Advent Friendship Reflection, Day 17

For some of us, especially those who have experienced loss, stress, or trauma, the holidays can trigger lots of emotions. Some of us may be aware of our triggers. A few of us may even have diagnosed PTSD. When Jesus talks about the bonds in his community as among friends who are willing to lay down their lives for another, I hear him speaking in terms that those who have experienced trauma can understand. Whether they be veterans, victims of violence, or survivors of recent tragedies, there are those among us who may be able to translate what a bond like this actually means, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

As you prepare for the holiday season, are you aware of those around you who are grieving, or have experienced profound loss? Are you aware of your own anxieties and those triggers, especially when you come together in sometimes fraught family settings? As you celebrate the holidays, do you remember bonds with friends and loved ones who have sacrificed, perhaps giving ever…

Advent Friendship Reflection, Day 16

Scholars of the Fourth Gospel often point to the dualism that is expressed in it. In John, we find a stark contrast between children of the light, and those of the world who reject the light. Throughout the narrative, we find stories that emphasize that you either get it, and accept Jesus, or, for whatever reasons, reject Jesus. As the Gospel comes to a close, Jesus gathers his closest disciples and offers a long testimony that is directed not only at them, but likely also at the author's community, and many generations of those that follow. With the dualistic motifs of light/darkness, acceptance/rejection, God/world, etc. the Fourth Gospel presents a clear delineation between the in group of those who understand and accept Jesus as the Incarnate Word, and out group of those who will continue to misunderstand and reject him. The language of friendship, as we discussed yesterday, creates very much an in group. Unfortunately for the intended audience of the Fourth Gospel, this clear…

Advent Friendship Reflection, Day 15

In John (15:13) Jesus claims that there is no greater display of friendship than when one lays down one's life for another. This too is not a phrase unique to Jesus. We find similar friendship sayings in Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, and elsewhere among Greco-Roman thinkers. Generally, the kind of friendship that called upon a person to die for another was considered to be part of the experience of war. Soldiers and veterans knew that sacrificing one's life for another was the bravest and most powerful expression of friendship. Another variation on the theme is sharing the "same struggle," a phrase we find in a cluster of friendship idioms at the end of the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians (1:30).

As you think beyond your family and tight social networks, is there anyone you would be willing to die for? Is there anyone who would gladly die for you? What kinds of shared experiences bond people so tightly that they would be willing to engage in this ki…

Advent Friendship Reflection, Day 14

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True reconciliation is hard. The past few days I have been talking about Jesus' friendship notions as illustrated by his parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the possibilities I have touched on is that engaging in friendships may be one of the ways in which we bring healing and reconciliation to our racially divided communities. Peter Slade, in his book, Open Friendship in a Closed Society, studies how the work of Mission Mississippi (see yesterday's Advent reflection) encourages racial reconciliation through the formation of friendships in twice weekly prayer breakfasts. He uses the concept of the embrace, developed by the theologian, Miroslav Volf. If you look at the painting of the Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh, you can see the Samaritan helping the wounded wayfarer onto his pack animal. If you look more closely, you can see the wayfarer embracing the Samaritan. In this painting we see an illustration of Volf's concept of the embrace.

Reconciliation is hard becau…

Friendship Advent Reflection, Day 13

I have found it depressing these past weeks to watch the House impeachment hearings. Neither side seems to listen to the other. Some of the lawmakers ask questions, but they don't seriously expect the other side to answer. And then there's all that shouting, and mansplaining, the tone deaf lecturing. It has been exhausting and sad to watch.

Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) in response to just such a challenge, a rhetorical question from a lawyer who asks, without any real desire to listen to the answer, "who is my neighbor?" The popular interpretation of this parable usually sets up the Samaritan as the moral exemplar. He is the one, even though he was the one looked down upon by Jewish society, who helped the stranger in need, when religious authorities from the traveler's own tribe went out of their way to avoid him. Pastors often exhort us to embrace the kind of boundary crossing generosity of the Samaritan--and that's fine. B…

Friendship Advent Reflection, Day 12

I live in Albemarle, North Carolina, a small mill town that has lost most of its manufacturing base, has an aging population, with one of the largest opiod addiction problems in the state. It is probably one of the most racially divided places I have ever lived. Can Jesus' friendship notions address issues of racial division in the contemporary North American context? One of Jesus' most famous parables is that of the Good Samaritan, a story in which the Samaritan comes to the aid of a man who has been wounded and left for dead by robbers on a lonely wilderness road (Luke 10:25-37). The man was not aided by a Levite, or by a priest, who both pass him by. The text is typically interpreted to accentuate the virtue of the Samaritan who helped his neighbor, even though Samaritans were not generally friendly to the Jews. I have a different take about the meaning of the parable, but more about that on a later date...

What would it take for us to befriend people who are different than…

Friendship Advent Reflection, Day 11

Advent time can also be a time of stories. Growing up, my dad read Advent devotions with the family every evening. As we sat around the table, he would read a story or two, usually translated from the German devotional book he was using, and then we would light the number of candles for the appropriate week. As I reflect back on this practice, I like to think that we were using our narrative imaginations, as we placed ourselves in the shoes of the characters, and thought about how we would react to the events unfolding in the story.
As the early church made sense of Jesus' message and practices, it too reflected about his story, their stories, and God's story with the world. In Acts, we learn that the church "shared all things in common" and were "one soul," typical phrases from the Greek world that described the practice of friendship. They understood that one way of being the kinds of friends Jesus would have them be was to give up all their possessions, …

Advent Friendship Reflection, Day 10

After the resurrection, when Jesus' movement spread beyond Palestine to the urban centers of the Roman empire, it appears to have caught on first among people who were surprisingly mobile: traders, soldiers, missionaries, and other itinerants. The earliest communities were made up of these folks, who visited and traveled back and forth between large households in the urban centers, where the faith was taking hold among slaves, women, and other lower status folks. So from the earliest days, the Christian movement had considerable "bridging" social capital, comprising a network of believers who were internationally connected, a network that crossed ethnic, social status, wealth, guild, and other lines. Jesus' message of being a "friend to sinners and tax-collectors," must have appealed deeply to the misfits social isolates of the Roman world.

As we continue to reflect on and celebrate the Advent season with our families and friends, are there also ways we can…

Advent Friendship Reflection, Day 9

Just this morning, in a Facebook astronomy group I joined recently, I witnessed a huge flair up over political issues. What had been a nice place for folks to post their pictures, and share tips and tricks about the hobby had suddenly become a minefield of accusations, offenses, and some very bullying and deeply offensive posts and memes. I left the group. I imagine, if you have been on social media for any amount of time, you have seen lots of similar things. When Jesus gets accused of being a glutton and drunkard, and a friend to tax collectors and sinners, it is because some have become uncomfortable with his actions. Biblical scholars who use Sociology as a lens to understand the Palestinian Jesus Movement describe Jesus and his group emerging in a "high group, high grid" culture. In other words, most folks in 1st Century Palestine shared the same thoughts and ideas about religion, proper behavior, and worldview. That's "high group." We might say there was …

Advent Friendship Reflection, Day 8

After college, I served a little over two years with the Church of the Brethren's volunteer program. As volunteers, we had to agree to serve wherever they would place us, and in turn they would provide us housing, board, transportation to project sites (and back home again), and a stipend of something like $50.00 per month for extras. The first placement they sent me to was to work on Capital Hill in Northeast Washington DC in their soup kitchen. I think it is fair to say that the experiences there, and later in my European project shaped my theology and my outlook to this day. One person I remember from DC was a gentleman, whom I will leave unnamed for this story, who slept nightly on the doorsteps of the basement entryway of the church's commercial kitchen. Each morning, when we came to open up the kitchen and get started preparing soup and lunch for an average of 200 or so persons, he would greet us, often with breakfast. You see, he and some of the other guys who worked wi…

Friendship Advent Reflection, Day 7

Have you ever had a friend who was a little creepy? When my students read Plutarch's "How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend," they tell me that his description of the flatterer really does creep them out. Plutarch describes the kind of friend who always says nice things, tells you what you want to hear, and is constantly grooming you for favors. Plutarch is offering his advice especially for those who are powerful or influential, the kind of people who may attract a number of false-friends, hangers on, and groupies who are simply out to manipulate them. Throughout his essay, he constantly is describing how to tell the difference between a flatterer and a friend. One way that you know you have a true friend is when they tell you a truth you may not want to hear, but may need to hear. Friends manage to tell you those things gently but firmly, not putting you down, but building you up. Do you have any flatterers in your life? Can you have also friends who tell you what you …

Friendship Advent Reflection, December 6

When Facebook first started, I resisted joining. That lasted for several years. I didn't want a computer network to control my sense of relationships and sense of self. Like so many others, I finally joined. Some days, especially when I get trolled or in a political fight with someone, I just want to quit. Other times I find it a blessing to see pictures of family and friends. Sometimes it just makes me lonely or jealous of others' great lives. Recently, in the last few months, I reached a milestone, over 1000 friends! No offense intended to any of you who may be reading this (actually there's only about a dozen of you, according to my blog records), but I don't think that all 1000 of my Facebook "friends" are actually my friends. It is a social network. However, the questions of size of friendship networks have been puzzling philosophers throughout the ages.

Plutarch wrote a treatise about the subject, "On Having Many Friends." Building on the foun…

Friendship Advent Reflection, December 5

Advent can be a time of great stress and anxiety. One of the most anxiety producing events for many of us can be the office or work party. I have often experienced an awkward tension between wanting to relax with colleagues we like and the need to maintain a professional front for those who have something out for us. At the core, it is a tension between pleasure and utility. Aristotle says there are three types of friendships: those of utility, pleasure, and virtue. Friendships of utility may be akin to some we may have at work. Both parties partake in such friendship as long as each is giving and receiving something that is good or useful. You can think of the colleague, business partner, or client/provider with whom one is friends as long as there is something worthwhile to exchange. You can think of these as "quid pro quo" friendships. Friendships of pleasure are also easy enough to understand. We have friends we just enjoy being around, going out for drinks, watching mov…

Friendship Advent Reflection, December 4

As we continue with some of the ancient Greek thinkers who thought about friendship, we turn next to Aristotle. Aristotle covers friendship as part of his discussion of the ethical life. For the Greek philosophers, ethics was a means of achieving, experiencing, and maintaining a flourishing life. For Aristotle, friendship was the highest virtue one could cultivate. Have you ever thought about friendship as a virtue? For Aristotle a virtue was a kind of habit that you practiced over a lifetime, making it suitable to you, your personality and your status. How many of us actually view our friendships as good habits that we try to get better at over a lifetime? In youth, friendships seem to come easily for some of us. However, over time, as we get busy with our lives, our jobs, and families, are we truly taking the time to cultivate and practice our friendships? As you approach this Advent season, I invite you to think about friends who are dear to you, near and far. Do you think you migh…

Friendship Advent Reflection, December 3

Today is my final day talking about friendship in Plato. Towards the end of the Lysis dialogue, Socrates comes up with his final definition of friendship, "that which is neither good nor bad is friends with the good." He arrives at this definition through logic. It is clear that those who are bad cannot be friends with one another. There is no honor or loyalty among thieves, as we say. Those who are truly good, according to his logic, are already self-sufficient, and have no need of friends or friendship. So the truly good folks don't really need friends. The ones who need friendship are therefore neither bad, nor entirely good. As a teacher, I really like this concept. Those who are forming their identities, forming their sense of self, and their characters, are the ones who seek out mentoring. So in a way, mentoring activity can be described as a kind of friendship. As we move towards advent, who do you think could benefit from your friendship, from your mentoring pres…

Friendship Advent Reflection, December 2

For my Advent reflection today, I want to continue thinking about friendship in Plato. In the Lysis dialogue, Socrates continues his discussion with the boys by asking whether we actually might seek out friends who are different from us. There is a certain pleasure in having a friend whose tastes, ideas, strengths, and weaknesses are different and complimentary to your own. This notion of friendship can apply directly to our contemporary world. When we seek out friends, I wonder whether we shouldn't be more mindful of diversity. There are more than a billion active people on Facebook. If we wanted to, we could use social media to befriend people who come from radically different cultures, nationalities, ethnicities, religions, etc. not to mention political ideas, ages, tastes, you name it. If you are anything like me (and sadly I know you are because I can scroll through my friends list), most of your friends on social media share at least something, if not many things in common w…

Friendship Advent Reflection, December 1.

For this advent, I will be reflecting a little on Friendship.

Typically the first week of advent focuses on the prophets. Since I didn't write about the prophets in my book, I figured I'd share a thought each day from one of the Greco-Roman thinkers I discuss in my book.

I'll start with Plato. In his "Lysis" dialogue, Plato portrays Socrates musing with a group of young wrestlers after their practice about the nature of friendship. He runs through numerous definitions. One of the first he considers is that friends are "like to the like." What do you think about that? Do you seek out friends who are like you in your tastes, character, political ideas, ethnicity, gender, etc? What do we gain from solidarity with those who are like us? Our social media algorithms often show us posts from friends with whom we agree. So there must be some value in seeking out people who are similar to us. But do we miss anything, if our friends are only always like us? As yo…