Celebrating Christmas

Another question from my final exam in Theology 331, Jesus Christ, Liberator, asked us how we might celebrate the birth of the Christ child differently this year after being in this class. Here was my answer.

As a family of people who profess to follow Jesus – Christians – we act in faith and hope and love. These virtues are the highest exercise of our humanity, and in them we participate in the very life of God. But what does this look like for us as we look ahead to Christmas? Do we just believe that Jesus was incarnated so we could have a new television? Is that all we hope for on December 25? Is that how we show our love for each other as husband and wife? Is it so small? This Christmas we need to seek more deeply what it means to be human persons beloved by God so much that he would share this human life.

It begins in prayer. Not the prayer that says, “Bless us Father with all good gifts, especially the 55” one,” but the one that draws us to the foot of the cross and centers us in this reminder of how much he poured out his love for us. Let us pray that our lives would be poured out for each other and for the sister we share this home with. In the light of a candle burning, let us look around at each other’s faces and see the gift of each one and our need for each other. We cannot do this alone, but only together.

As we come together at the supper table, we can break the bread and drink the cup in communion as we remember what Jesus taught here: in the broken bread and poured out cup, he is there, and we share it together. In this sacrament of meal, our lives are joined in a dance of humanity and divinity. The only cookies we make this year shall not be a sugarfest of over-consumption, but a reason to walk the neighborhood and share this gift of love in the form of food with those around us.

martha-stewart-treeTo counter the culture that says BUY! BUY! BUY!, that is what makes for a good solid marketing dream of Christmas, we shall expend our resources in ways to benefit the poor and outcast in our community. The opportunities to provide for the homeless and helpless are the messages we will look to. Instead of presents under a tree in the living room, we will mark each ornament as a gift we have made to someone in the name of love. Here is the one for Wendi who needed a ride to Bible study. Here is the one for Verda Leigh who needed a weekly phone call to remind her that God loves her. Here is one for the gift to Bread for the World, to remind ourselves that advocating for the voiceless is a joy to participate in. Here is one for Amariah, in the hope that she is back with her family in California after a long bus ride from Omaha.

And we will mark the eve of Christmas in worship as we share in song and word with those who have shared our lives, who have mourned with us and rejoiced with us and listened to us unburden our hearts for people living in war in Syria and Iraq.

Dona nobis pacem

Paper cranes in vitroI have very faint memories of the Roman Catholic mass being said in Latin from when I was very young. I remember mouthing what I thought were actual words, although they meant nothing to me, and thinking that I was an active participant in the mass like my sisters and brothers and parents, next to me in the pew. When I investigate now when the change from Latin to English happened, it began in 1964, right before I turned six. Mostly I just remember mass in English.

So my Latin was non-existent through most of my life, if I had ever even known any!

At Girl Scout camp in 1970, I learned this beautiful song sung as a round. It went like this:

Dona…nobis…pacem, pacem. Dona…nobis…pacem.

I didn’t know it was Latin; I only knew when four groups of girls’ voices sang it in offsetting phrases to make the round, it sounded like angels.

Years later when Jana and I attended one of our annual Lobby Day gatherings with Bread for the World, a wonderful singer named Beth Nielsen Chapman sang the blessing at a large banquet. Fascinated with the song she sang, There’s a Light, when I returned home I bought her CD called simply Hymns. There were great songs from my RC childhood that we sang in church. And there was this:

Dona…nobis…pacem, pacem.

She laid down all the tracks, so the round was recreated with her beautiful voice filling out the angel chorus. As it went straight to my heart and triggered that memory of camp and singing and angel choirs, it made me want to know more.

So all those years later, I finally looked up what those Latin words mean.

Dona nobis pacem…grant us peace.

Grant us peace.

Paper cranesAnd that has been my prayer ever since in the midst of family upheavals and tragedies, in the midst of transitions at church, and of course, in my journeys into the deep waters of a relationship with God in the Middle East.

Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.

And as I have delved into this old Latin phrase from my childhood, I have reconnected it to the beginning of that part of the mass:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Not only does this prayer in an ancient language remind me of the generations of people who prayed it in community before I was conceived and born, but it reminds me to whom I am asking this request. It is a prayer to the Jesus who knows suffering because he experienced it. Because of his great mercy, he redeems us and wipes our slates clean. And we know this, and I know this. And so we come to his feet and ask him: have mercy on us. Grant us peace.

And he can. And he will. And he does.

And I know this because I have seen it in Lebanon and in Syria and in Iraq. I have witnessed those living this suffering even now as they are put upon by forces and evil that would wipe them out.

And they stay. And they pray in ancient languages: in Syriac, in Latin, in Arabic.

Grant us peace.

Dona nobis pacem.

Their prayers take flight and arise heavenward to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

And mine join with theirs in this upward trajectory.

Prayers, like birds on the wing, flying to the throne room of the Lamb of God.

Paper cranes Shaheen TomehAnd because the Clifton Strength Finders tells me that one of my top five strengths is connectivity, I have connected my journeys with the faithful of the Middle East to my prayers of peace for them to this visible expression of those prayers in origami cranes.

The legend of the one thousand paper cranes comes from Japan, and is especially poignant when you read of a young girl who was poisoned with radiation from the bombing of Hiroshima. Folding one thousand paper cranes is supposed to bring you luck or a wish granted. She was hoping for healing of her cancer, which didn’t come to her. She was not healed, but maybe one day her wish will be granted in another way: maybe nuclear weapons will be eliminated so the threat of cancers and destruction caused by them will be wiped out. Maybe. Maybe there will be peace.

Paper cranes prayers ascendingI have folded 96 so far on my journey to one thousand. On each one is written the name of a person, or a place, or a piece of scripture, or the words of a hymn, or simply the word peace in any language I can find. As I fold each one my simple prayer of peace is attached to each one in the motions of making the crane.

The prayers are repeated and joined as I string them on nylon thread, separated by beads. It reminds me of the act of praying the rosary.

The prayers are repeated again as I hang the strings of cranes in my office near my map of the world – God’s creation – where this peace is so needed.

Every day as I enter my office, I have this visual reminder and expression of those silent prayers. And it gets larger every day with another crane, ten more cranes; another string; five more strings. And one day it will reach one thousand.

My wish – my prayer! – in folding these cranes is simply this:

Dona nobis pacem…grant us peace.

Grant peace to the people of Syria, whose war has dragged on for over four years.

Dona nobis pacem.

Paper cranes Micah 6 8Grant peace to the people of Iraq, whose troubles and war run on unabated since our country’s terrible decision to invade in 2003.

Dona nobis pacem.

Grant peace to the people of Lebanon, a country that becomes a proxy and pawn for the evil ideas of others; a small country that has borne a heavy burden from these other two wars as they are overrun with refugees.

Dona nobis pacem.

Grant peace to the pastors and churches and their congregations who stay and serve and minister in the midst of extremist attacks and destruction and death.

Dona nobis pacem.

Grant peace to those who have lost everything and are searching for new homes.

Dona nobis pacem.

Grant peace to your world, Lamb of God. Let us know your peace which surpasses all understanding.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Dona nobis pacem.

Amen.

 

Loaves and fishes

Amish friendship breadThe check-in question at staff bible study this week was “When have you been used by God in a way that you didn’t expect?” It’s the kind of question you search your memory banks to find an answer for. I couldn’t jog my memory in that way so instead came up with a story of how God used someone for me in an unexpected way. That was the subject of my blog entitled, “So Jesus walked into church today,” but that is not the subject of this blog!

My co-worker Kelley told the story of her 8-year-old son coming home from school and reporting that his friend only had a sandwich in his lunch and couldn’t they do something about it? As Kelley thought about who this friend was she remembered that he was the tenth child of a mother who had died while pregnant with what would have been her eleventh child. This mom was diagnosed with cancer and opted not to have chemo or radiation so she wouldn’t harm her still enwombed child. The sad ending of this story is that both died; dad and the other ten children are the remainder of this family.

That dad and mom were special in our community because of how they lived out God’s call to love our neighbors as explained in Matthew chapter 25. They created what is now the largest provider of food to families in our community who know what the term “food insecurity” means, Mission For All Nations, now known as Heartland Hope Mission. They feed thousands every month in Omaha, Nebraska.

The irony of the story (as I saw it) was that this little boy whose mother has been gone for five years, does not have enough to eat. But the good news of this story that Kelley shared is that she just stepped into that gap and not only sent her son with lunch to school, but packed an extra one for his friend. Then she discovered that a number of people at this school have stepped up to help all of the siblings who attend this school. The community – the family of God – is sharing their loaves and fishes so that there is enough for all.

The passage we studied that day in staff prayer was John 6:1-14, which is John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000, the only story that all four gospel writers recorded other than the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Two stories so amazing, that all four of these storytellers remembered and retold them.

It is such a familiar story to me and others that we can hardly expect to see something new there, and yet on Tuesday I did, prompted by Kelley’s story and pondering something I have imagined about how it happened that Jesus could feed all those multitudes with five loaves and two fish.

Verse 5: Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”

And then in verse 6 is this part that struck me in a new way:

He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.

He himself knew what he would do…

Of course he knew. He is God after all. 🙂

But we spend a lot of time looking at this miracle and imagining Jesus just taking those loaves and fishes and using his magical miraculous powers to keep a basket of bread and fish from running out as the disciples pass it around to the 5,000 men seated there, and then collecting up the twelve baskets of leftovers. Haven’t you done a lectio divina study of this passage, closed your eyes as it was being read for the third time and pictured the basket with a level of bread that just doesn’t go down? I have. So maybe I’m the only one…

It is a memorable miracle recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which we read – again – on Tuesday.

But right before we read it, Kelley shared that story…

And then Jake, who was leading our study, said that God uses what he has right there in front of him to meet the need – their need, our need – while we are worrying about where we are going to get the food to feed all these people.

“Here, Lord, this little boy has his lunch with him. A couple of small loaves with some fish. Looks like the makings of a sandwich for one. That’s one. You will have to take care of the other 4,999.”

And Jesus looks out there – he himself knew what he would do – and sees…

…his creation. A community of people. 5,000 men (so the account says). What it doesn’t say is (but we always mention it because it makes the miracle that much BIGGER) is that there are women and children, too, maybe 10,000 or 15,000 total. We know there are more than just men because, hey!, there is that one little boy with his sack lunch that Andrew has just offered to Jesus. (We don’t even know if Andrew asked the little boy if he could take it!)

And this is the miracle that I think happened, and go ahead and disagree with me if you want. You can close your eyes and see the story however the Holy Spirit puts it in your mind, but this is my version.

Jesus looks out there and knows what he will do. He sees a community of people, including boys with lunches their mothers packed, and most likely their mothers, too. Mothers who do what needs to be done when their sons go to school with well-packed lunches and their friends have less. Mothers get together to meet the need. And surely if there is one little boy with a well-packed lunch in that crowd of people learning from the master teacher, the Lord of creation, there are hundreds of little boys and little girls and their mothers who know they need to eat so they can learn and work and live.

Jesus – God – uses what he has right there in front of him. He knows what’s there because he made it: US! He gave us what we need: FOOD! He created us to be a community: LIKE WHAT HE GATHERED AROUND HIM.

You’re right. It doesn’t say that in John 6 or Matthew 14 or Mark 6 or Luke 9. It doesn’t indicate how Jesus fed all those people. But like Jake said, he uses what is there to make his kingdom come.

I just love this story. Jana and I have been advocating on hunger and poverty issues for years with Bread for the World and will do so again in June when we head up with hundreds of others on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. We will be mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers asking our government – our WE the PEOPLE – to use what God gave us to feed the hungry multitudes in our midst, in our cities, in our country, in the world.

“My friend has a very small lunch,” said Kelley’s son when he came home from school. The tenth child of the man who created the biggest supplier of food for hungry people in our community, is hungry himself. And God looked out there and saw Kelley and used her and the lunch she made for her son that day when he went to school. And just like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, she told us the story so that we would know.

God uses what is right there in front of him. You and me and our lunches, because it is more than enough for all.

St. John and the sloppy joes

Bubbling tomato jamWe have a marvelous once-a-month ministry at our church that Jana and I have participated in for many years. We make four pounds of sloppy joes and bring them along with two packages of hamburger buns to the church and add them to the other four-pound bags in the freezer. Once a month they are delivered to the Siena Francis House, a shelter for the homeless in the north downtown district of Omaha.

The ministry began out of a need recognized by a member of our congregation after watching the news back in the 1980s. It seems that many of our homeless folks in Omaha were gathering at a downtown park because the city had moved the Open Door Mission out of the area to make way for a new office for the Chamber of Commerce. How politic. Let’s hide the less-than-photogenic denizens of our city to whitewash the problems and paint the real nice Chamber of Commerce picture for the outside to see.

I am sure it has happened in other places, but I live here. It was hurtful.

Not only did they move the mission away from where these citizens lived (under bridges, in alleys) and ate, they moved it out by the airport, which is fine if you have a means of conveyance to get there. Being as they were homeless, they didn’t have garages either. Or what we generally put there: vehicles.

So they gathered at the park and Shirley (our member) and other church ladies just like her started a sandwich ministry. They would make sandwiches and take them down to the park in downtown Omaha, across the street from the Chamber of Commerce, and feed the hungry as Jesus tells us to. Until someone put a halt to this by providing a bus for the mission to transport people there for meals, this was a weekly occurrence.

Later on, the ministry evolved to the sandwich ministry that our church took part in once a month, as we shared the opportunity to serve with other churches. Our sloppy joes – for that is the sandwich we made – went to the Dorothy Day House until it closed, and now we take them to the Siena Francis House.

Jana and I have been doing this for at least twenty years. I can’t remember when we started, but I know why we started. Participating in a cause like Bread for the World, working toward policies in our country and others that will end hunger in our lifetime is heady and time-consuming, long-term work. Doing the practical work of feeding actual people is much more immediate, and making sloppy joes was our way of participating. Jana used to be able to make the sloppy joes by herself while I was the vehicle for transporting them to the church. Now I do the whole thing.

But Jana is still my reminder! “Julie, can we get the stuff to make sloppy joes this week?” And we do, on the Saturday before the third Thursday of every month.

Except for this week. We were at church Friday night and all day Saturday for the women’s retreat. It was a good respite and filled with good teaching and fellowship. But it was also the Saturday when we should have gotten the sloppy joe stuff. I forgot to tell Steve to pick it up at the grocery store. And Jana forgot too…

…until today.

I got this email from her earlier this morning:

could you manage to buy some ready-made sloppy joes and get the buns…?

She knew it was too late to make them, because we are at church tonight and they need to be here frozen in the morning. But could I buy some ready made? I responded, “I will do my best,” not knowing how this would be possible. But I said I would, so I had to. Really, I had to. Jana had done her part, after all…

So I just got back from the grocery store. They have no ready made sloppy joes in the deli, in the little restaurant section, not even in the frozen aisle where you can buy ready made gourmet pizza and bacon wrapped shrimp, along with every conceivable flavor of chicken wings. They’ve got Swedish meatballs and Italian meatballs and even premade hamburgers and cheeseburgers. But they do not have frozen sloppy joes. Rats. Where is convenience when you really need it?!

And so I started to wander back over to the deli to see if I could order four pounds of sloppy joes to be picked up later when we left church after 8:00 p.m. and I ran into…St. John.

I kid you not, St. John was in the grocery store, just like Jesus walks into church sometimes. In this case it was my property coordinator here at West Hills Church, whose actual name is John Good. (I really think his middle name is “the”: John the Good, because he is so GOOD!)

He greeted me like he always does here at church, “Hello boss lady.” He thought I was following him as his supervisor to see what he was up to. He is always up to good; there is no reason to follow him and confirm what I already know.

“What are you doing here, boss lady? Following me?” I assured him that was not the case. I was feebly trying to accomplish the one thing my sister wanted this week: to feed the hungry. We had forgotten the sloppy joes until this morning and I was on my way to the deli to see if I could order some.

“I can make them for you, ” he said.

I said, “You can?!”

He is married now but his answer to me at that question was, “You learn a thing or two when you’ve been a single dad for as long as I was.”

There it is again. Humble service. It’s the hallmark of what St. John the Good does every day for the people who come into our church, whether he knows them or not. It is constant. It is freely offered. It is saintly. Now there is a picture that the Chamber of Commerce would be proud of.

And I expect that the sloppy joes will taste better this month at the Siena Francis House because they will be anointed by St. John the Good.

Oh yes, they will be good.

Bread Rising

bread risingSteve, Jana and I had dinner last night with two of Jana’s great admirers, Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, and Mike Troutman, our regional organizer for Bread.

Jana’s relationship with Bread for the World goes back to her time as the assistant camp director for Highlands Presbyterian Camp in Allenspark, Colorado. One of her main duties was running the kitchen and feeding the hundreds of campers who came through in the summer and throughout the year. She turned the food program into an educational program for the campers so they could learn about hunger issues in the world.

Bread for the World is a Christian advocacy group, lobbying our Congress on behalf of poor and hungry people in this country and around the world. For forty years they have proclaimed: Have faith. End hunger. Why?

Moved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we reach out to our neighbors, whether they live in the next house, the next state, or the next continent.

Jana heard this message and responded by using what she learned by reading scripture to teach others. And she led me in this way also.

One of the main things Bread does is advocate; they lobby Congress on behalf of others who have no voice or whose voices have been marginalized. After Jana’s accident in 1983, she lost the ability to communicate clearly by speaking. When God sent her to Washington, D.C., in 1994 to be a voice for the voiceless, she needed an Aaron. Moses’s excuse to God for not leading the people out of Egypt was that he was no public speaker. So God provided his brother, Aaron, to be his voice.

So I assumed the identity of Aaron, the public speaker.

Being the shy, introverted type, (I’m not joking here. That is who I am. I have had to learn to be otherwise.) this was not an easy task for me. But together, Jana and I lobbied our then Senators Kerry and Exon, and Peter Hoagland, the second district rep in 1994 on the campaign, “Many Neighbors, One Earth.” It was all about sustainable development. We walked the halls of Congress and even got to ride the train underneath the capitol that whisks people back and forth among the congressional buildings.

It was the most amazing experience I ever had. And for the first time as a citizen of the United States, I understood more about our government and my role in it than I ever gained from A.P. U.S. history in high school. I was hooked!

We have been back many times, raising our voices. And though we were not often successful with our legislators, Bread has had a huge impact on these issues in their forty years of work.

How big an impact?

Since 1990, hunger and extreme poverty have been cut in half worldwide. As they put it in a recent publication: “We see this as God moving in our history – a great exodus from hunger in our own time.”

And the ultimate goal? Ending hunger by 2030, sixteen years from now. Possible? Impossible? In the book of Luke, chapter 18, verse 27, Jesus says, “What is impossible for man is possible with God.”

And these men are admirers of my sister Jana because her life is the proof of that statement. God called Jana into place that was impossible for her to go. But walking with him, everything has been possible for Jana. She has put her time and her treasure and her heart into these issues for over thirty years. She can’t walk the halls anymore as her body is so weak. But her fingers are still strong! She is still writing letters and emails, explaining why effecting good policy will change things for the better for everybody.

She is yeast in the dough. Bread rising.

Last night gave me a chance to share about that line in the Lord’s Prayer that is so familiar to all of us:

Give us this day our daily bread.

I shared that while in Basrah, Iraq, this past March, one of my teammates gave me a translation of this line from the original Aramaic:

Give us this day the bread that doesn’t run out.

And that is the mission of Bread for the World. Working together in the act of loving God by loving our neighbor, we can make sure that everyone gets this bread.

We can end hunger by 2030.

Bread rising.

Read more at http://www.bread.org