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.

Love like Francis…just like the sisters

Mt St Francis Love like FrancisBeyond this, there is a desire for immediacy sustained by consumerism (and reinforced by aspects of information technology) that tends to encourage a memory-less culture without a sense of historical identity. – Philip F. Sheldrake (The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, chapter 26, page 461, edited by Arthur Holder, Blackwell Publishing, 2005)

In preparation for the journey ahead into the Masters of Arts in Ministry program at Creighton University which begins next week, I am reading some materials assigned by a professor to get ready to dive into the study of Christian spirituality through ancient writings of monks and martyrs. The quote above struck me as I thought back on a quick trip to Dubuque, Iowa, last week to visit my Aunt Carolyn, a 60-year member of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Holy Family.

Mt St Francis Xaveria TermehrJana and I spent two nights and three meals with the sisters of this order. As opposed to an environment of the “immediacy sustained by consumerism,” we found ourselves in a place of a long vision forward sustained by faith. We met so many of these living saints now retired – if that is a word that can be associated with those whose calling is eternal – in the motherhouse of this order founded in the 1870s in Germany. Foundress Sister Xaveria Termehr is interred in the same cemetery as my grandmother Bea Thirtle, under a plain headstone and surrounded by others like it of her daughter-sisters who followed her into this order and lived their lives in service to God’s kingdom.

It is not an ancient order like those whose words I will read in my theology class, but as I learned in my short visit with heart open to their story, it is a servant group of women who have been called into it. Aunt Carolyn gave me her histories so I could read up on them in the days to come.

Mt St Francis mission statementThey are a Franciscan order after Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. The images of these two are everywhere in the house and also in the close-by Shalom Spirituality Center which was the original Mount Saint Francis motherhouse. When I was a little girl and first visited my aunt as she was then known, Sr. Mary Edith Ann, they wore brown habits like Francis. Their mission statement was framed on the wall: Rooted in the Gospel and in the spirit of Francis and Clare, the Sisters of St. Francis live in right relationship with all creation. The culture of their patron saint is a living witness to those walking today.

They have founded schools and hospitals and elderly homes. They have served the immigrant in a new land both in Germany where they started and here where they have been planted since crossing the sea. They build wells in Africa. They have had a presence in China and the east. And in all those places and to this day, these sisters in Christ have served tirelessly and selflessly those in need of healing and resting and learning. Those with gifts of administration have led the institutions they built.

Mt St Francis b&w of SAC GRandma and Mom Mt St Francis photo redone with us

We went to a now-closed church in Dubuque, Saint Mary’s, which once had an active school, a convent for the sisters and of course, the church. In hand I carried an old black and white photo taken in 1962. There is Aunt Carolyn in her pre-Vatican II habit, my mom Jeanne (holding the hand of an unseen sibling that I believe is Susan) and their mom Bea, my grandmother. They are standing on the playground between the convent and the church. We decided to recreate the photo in the same spot (no more fence or playground equipment) with the same house in the background as the 1962 picture. As we were trying to figure out how to take it, a young woman came up to see what we were doing. It turns out she is a resident in the old convent, now known as Maria House. The building that once housed the sisters like my aunt, is now a home for women coming out of the prison of addiction. This woman was eager to tell us her story. Caught in the cycle of alcoholism by parents of brokenness, she has not had custody of her children for years. But with the help of this project of the Franciscans, she is clean and sober and about to get her children on a five-day-per-week basis. And then she will transition into the new apartments next door: the former school where Aunt Carolyn spent her early years teaching.

We saw how resourceful this group of nuns has been in the years since they began these ministries. A hospital built in the 1940s is now an apartment building. Saint Mary’s Church is being turned into a neighborhood center for small offices and gatherings. The school will be a longer-term residence for those women being freed from the bondage of addiction. These women who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, have lived into those vows by pouring into the lives of others.

We couldn’t go anywhere in Dubuque without someone coming up to Aunt Carolyn to say hello. Either she taught them as children in school or preschool or daycare, or had cared for their aging parents at the Stonehill facility where they lived or rehabbed. They all knew her. And I imagine that other sisters are known in the community in the same way.

Mt St Francis last supperWe closed our visit with a short trip to the Clare House dining room of Mount Saint Francis. In this new long-term residence for the elderly and infirm sisters, there is a beautiful depiction of the last supper done in intarsia by a very talented sister-artist. In this three-dimensional picture of the table of community we find Jesus and his apostles. Not just the ones you know were there like John and Peter, but others whose lives speak to the history and tradition of Francis and Clare, those who served and advocated for the poor and unheard. There is Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. There is Oscar Romero. And there is Mother Xaveria Termehr. She is seated at the table with Jesus, and even this evening her daughters will be gathered to pray before they share their common table. A tradition that continues under the eyes of a community and communion of saints.

I claim as my own now their sense of historical identity, even as their order now diminishes in size. Through my Aunt Carolyn I will carry the stories she shared with us in those precious hours. As I read the history books she left with me and read the stories of the saints in my theology class, I will be sustained and encouraged by the culture of this way of life. The religious orders may not look in the future like they looked in the past, but as long as I – we – remember, their traditions will carry on.

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

Encountering the other

Many of the members of the consultation in Lebanon meet with the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon in dialogue about the situation in Syria.

Many of the members of the consultation in Lebanon meet with the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon in dialogue about the situation in Syria.

Our last full day at the consultation of global partners was a full day that once again began with worship and reflection. Elias Jabbour of Aleppo led us through the music of a Taize service and voices were raised in English, Latin and Arabic. Najla Kassab, who not only runs this conference center but is also in charge of Christian education in NESSL, offered a meditation on 2 Cor. 5:16-21. This portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth is about reconciliation and offers that since we now know Jesus, it is through those lenses that we should look as we seek to reconcile one to the other. We need to look “beyond the flesh” and get beyond those prejudices and hatreds that hinder reconciliation. It is not a process that takes three days or months. This is April 13, the 41st anniversary of the start of the civil war in Lebanon that last for fifteen years. The process of reconciliation is ongoing here, and that was the message that Najla wanted us to hear. Reconciliation is a long journey, but we must do it from a perspective that is beyond the flesh.

Our speakers today had the task of reflecting biblically, theologically and personally on encounters with the other, and in the context we are in here in Lebanon/Syria, those encounters are of the interfaith variety: Christian to Muslim, Muslim to Christian. Rev. Agnete Holm of Denmark and Rev. Hadi Ghantous of Minyara, Lebanon, friends of long standing, carried us through several biblical passages – Old and New Testament – where these encounters take place. And Hadi offered this thought to us about how we read and understand the Bible. The Bible is about encounter. From the beginning God created someone to have an encounter with. Not only does it show us what we are meant to be, but what we really are…what we should NOT be! It is a mirror. The bible is not telling us to do that, but to learn from that.

Agnete reminded us that interfaith dialogue is about building loving relationships, but there are always ups and downs. We fall out, disagree, hate, debate. It is not about agreeing or reaching consensus, or creating harmony. It is about maintaining relationships no matter the fallings out or the comings together. That is long-term vision, not built up in three days, but three decades, the slowest type of ministry you can engage in and the easiest to destroy.

And from there we moved into an actual interfaith dialogue as Dr. Ibrahim Shamseddin, a Shi’ite Muslim, deeply religious man and friend of the Synod, came to the podium. His first words to us were that he had come with a prepared, written presentation, but as he listened to Najla’s reflection and those of Agnete and Hadi, he offered this: “We change our text when we dialogue.” He talked of the diversity of God’s creation: this is his will and should remain this way until he calls us home. If he had wanted merely clones, he would have made us this way. “Interfaith dialogue is about making relationship with others. We see ourselves in the other. Christ is a part of me as well.” And he finished with this thought, which is a good place to leave the formal part of this day: This is an earthly experiment, to live peacefully with each other. I can be with you fully without fitting into your doctrine or dogma. We do not need to clone each other. Diversity is salt, is wanted, and will remain a part of creation.

Rev. Tim McCalmont from California offers Christ's body, broken for us all.

Rev. Tim McCalmont from California offers Christ’s body, broken for us all.

And should you one day make the journey to this part of the world, you would be blessed to come to the end of a conference or consultation where the body of Christ is invited to his table. Lebanese, Syrian, American, Danish, French, Swedish and German followers share the peace of Christ and remember his sacrifice in broken bread and shared cup, for this is the encounter that changes us all.

Light in the dark places

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Caper′na-um, do here also in your own country.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Eli′jah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Eli′jah was sent to none of them but only to Zar′ephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Eli′sha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na′aman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city… Luke 4:16-29a NRSV

P1080389This passage came back to me this week as I have been reading Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. It took me back to a staff retreat day in March, 2010, where I first met my friend and mentor Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation, a day that changed my life. She used this passage of the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry to launch into her topic which was the church in dark places.

This week as I read Dr Bailey’s chapter on this passage, I was struck anew as to just how radical Jesus was with his message of loving God and loving our neighbors. Dr. Bailey writes that Jesus took a very familiar passage from the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, verses 1-7, and edited it as he read to bring a new message to these people. These folks knew this passage as a prophecy which would put them in charge and their oppressors underneath them, to be dealt with as they had done. And Jesus turned it on its head. He uses sermon examples of Gentiles being open to faith in Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, not of conquering Hebrew heroes like David or Solomon. And where they had thought his sermon started out well, in the end they just wanted to kill him.

The points that Bailey makes that strike me are these:

  • Salvation comes from beyond the community; it is not community generated.
  • Ministry involves proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion. Compassion is meant to inform both witness and advocacy.
  • And lastly, “Jesus refuses to endorse the narrow nationalism of his own community. Instead he stands in prophetic judgment over it.”

It’s not really a text for Advent, and yet that is when I am taking this all in, and recent news stories cause me to stop and think about it.

I wonder what Jesus would think coming to the U.S. as many of us light the candles of Advent leading up to Christmas?

Watching the news yesterday morning I heard a story about one of the most popular Christmas gifts this year: a new gun. The store owner interviewed even stated that “best way you can show love to your loved ones this year is “to give them a gun.” For the ladies they even had thigh holsters covered in bling.

We have had the president of a Christian university declare to the student body that if more of them had concealed-carry permits, “we could end those Muslims.”

We have presidential candidates talk about shutting doors to Muslims, carpet bombing Syria until the desert sands glow, hating the media (“But I wouldn’t kill them,” added as an afterthought), and insulting every ethnic/gender/faith group except the one that looks like them.

We have people saying, “Merry Christmas!” like it is a threat instead of an invitation or salutation.

We get up in arms because a huge chain of coffee shops has a red “holiday” cup instead of a “Christmas” cup, but pay $7 for the coffee anyway.

But where are we when the only cup that really matters is lifted humbly with a plate of bread? The cup poured out for all that we might have life. The cup of the one for whom we light those candles each week.

I am grateful for that day back in March, 2010, when Marilyn introduced me to the church in dark places, for I have been gifted to walk with them in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq. They remind me that Jesus is not an American, not a pandering politician, not a guy peddling $7 coffee in a red cup, not a guy carrying a gun with a concealed-carry permit, not a it’s-Merry-Christmas-not-happy-holidays! season’s greeter yelling back at the customer service rep.

He is the Christian woman declaring on a bus stopped by Syrian rebels that the young Alawite man next to her is her son, and they may not take him.

Basrah crossHe is in the Shi’ite neighbors guarding the church in Basrah, saying that rebels will not bomb this church.

He is in the evangelical school in Tripoli, in Sidon, in Kirkuk, in Baghdad, in Aleppo, in Homs, educating Christian and Muslim together in the ethics of reconciliation.

He is in the woman of the Bekaa Valley who ministers to the refugees of the war next door, knowing that her own family is in danger.

He has come from outside of every community, in judgment over our selfishness, our hatred, our greed, our twisting of the meaning of his birth.

He offers us the compassion of his lifeblood poured out for us and invites us to the table of grace.

He is the mighty God, prince of peace, wonderful counselor. He is Immanuel, God with us.

He is the light of the world.

Let us light the candles for this one.

(References from Dr. Bailey’s book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, are found in chapter 12, The Inauguration of Jesus’ Ministry.)

Memory loss

Mark Mueller, Elmarie Parker, Rob Weingartner, Elder Zuhair, Marshall Zieman, Tom Boone and Larry Richards offer communion at the Evangelical Church of Basrah, November, 2012.

Mark Mueller, Elmarie Parker, Rob Weingartner, Elder Zuhair, Marshall Zieman, Tom Boone and Larry Richards offer communion at the Evangelical Church of Basrah, November, 2012.

Today was communion Sunday at our church and the familiar words were spoken as we began the celebration of the Lord’s supper:

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19

It’s a ritual I first took part in when I received my first communion in second grade at Christ the King Catholic Church here in Omaha, fifty years ago. I wrote about it in my blog last October:

https://jpburgess.me/2014/10/10/remembering/

And every time I receive the elements, the bread and the cup, I remember back to that night.

I remember the communion in Basrah, Iraq, that I witnessed in 2011 as the Presbyterian church there was able to celebrate it because our group brought four pastors with us.

I remember that communion repeated in Basrah in 2012 as we returned with six pastors.

And I remember communion in that same church in March, 2014, as we returned to celebrate communion with them as they now had their own pastor to lead it.

Memories. I collect them like others collect stamps or baseball cards. It’s what makes me Julie, or at least contributes to the essence of me.

Remembering in communion, remembering the sacrifice made for us out of great love, is the center of our Christian worship, its holy essence in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Jana and I just came back from seeing the movie, “Still Alice.” It stars Julianne Moore in the role of a brilliant linguist and college professor, wife and mother of three, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Bit by bit, she loses the words she is a master of. She gets lost on the campus in her familiar daily run. She forgets where the bathroom is in her home. She forgets the names of those most familiar to her.

And even though her family grieves her loss as she disappears day by day, they love her and care for her and know that she is, after all, still Alice. But in the end, she really is not the Alice that we saw in the beginning. She has been robbed of her essence.

I have seen it happen to others I know as well, real people, not characters in a movie. It is very hard to watch and a feeling of helplessness in the situation is overwhelming.

This movie struck a bitter, minor chord in my heart today because of the recent news of what is happening in Iraq and Syria: the destruction of ancient works of art and ancient manuscripts in Mosul and other places as ISIS deems them idols of the apostate. “These things didn’t exist at the time of the Prophet. They have been invented and must be destroyed,” or something like that.

It’s a bitter chord because it is like a deliberate attack on the essence of who we are as humans and how we developed the languages to tell our story, the grand story of our creation by a loving God. The same creativity he exhibited by speaking us into being and breathing his very breath into us to give us life, has been left behind by those who wrote it down on parchment manuscripts, who sculpted it into winged creatures of bigger-than-life size, who painted it onto canvas or stone walls.

And it is systematically being destroyed, erased, even as the words that Alice knew intimately were wiped one by one from her brain.

I am reading a book right now called High Tea in Mosul by Lynne O’Donnell. She was one of the first journalists to reach this ancient city after the war ended (it never really did, did it?) after the invasion in 2003. I haven’t finished it yet, but in reading it this week I came to a part that just made me want to cry out.

Mosul is the ancient Ninevah of the Bible. The Ninevah that God sent the reluctant prophet Jonah to in order to preach his word of repentance. There is – I mean was – a temple there where Jonah was said to be buried. Lynne talks about it standing there still as testament to the power of the human spirit to hang on even in the hardest and darkest of times.

The book was written in 2007. In 2014, this temple of Jonah was destroyed.

As Alice’s family learns early on after her diagnosis, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s.

I don’t know the cure for the scourge of evil that is ISIS. And bit by bit, this disease is robbing our human family of its collective memories, the ancient artifacts that tell our story.

And so I cry out with my brothers and sisters who live there and who watch it happen and are helpless to do anything,

How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Habakkuk 1:2

And then I remember the bread and the cup of sacrifice. And I say thank you for the gift of memory. And I write it down and look at the pictures I have taken of men and women and children.

And I pray.