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Thursday, January 31, 2013

On the Corner of the Roof

The peaked and shingled roof, despite a lovely view of the backyard, 
was not the best place to sleep, but he’d found all that he needed
 in the garage:  a blue plastic tarpaulin, aluminum poles, rope, a sleeping bag.
A ladder.

Curious neighbors may have peered out their windows and
clucked their tongues in blank bewilderment, but
the corner of the roof was his new perch.

Now, in Palestine, where the roofs are flat, and
the winters not so blisteringly cold
this makes more sense:

Better to live on the corner of the roof
than in a house with an irritable woman.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Strong. Dark. Silence.

Strong. Dark. Silence. from jeff carter on Vimeo.

We toyed with the idea of encouraging people to watch for the "hidden codes"within the video and promising some sort of reward to those who discovered it.  But.  No.  It's really just random stuff.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Mystery of the Universe, the Mystery of Christ- Ephesians 3: 1 – 12

During Epiphany we consider the magi and the worship they brought to the newborn Jesus.  And like the Magi, I begin today with the stars.

The universe is a great big place.
It’s really huge.  And then some…

Light, we have discovered, travels at the stupefying speed of 186,282 miles per second.  Let me say that again: 186,282 miles every second.  Travelling at that speed it takes light a full eight minutes to travel from the sun to the earth.  If you’re quick with the math you could multiply that out the sun is 89.3 million miles from the earth.

Distances across the universe are so vast that they are measured in light years – the distance light travels in a year - approximately 5.9 trillion miles. 

Our own Milky Way galaxy is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter (100,000 times 6 trillion miles…) And the closest galaxy to ours is the Andromeda galaxy at 2.2 million light years away (2.2 million times 6 trillion miles…)

And that’s just a step into the incomprehensible distances of the universe.  It’s difficult to look out into the stars without feeling small, dwarfed into insignificance.

I look up at your heavens, shaped by your fingers,
at the moon and the stars you set firm,
what are human beings that you spare a thought for them
or the child of Adam that you care for him?

Psalm 8: 3 – 4

And yet…
It’s the mystery of the universe…
Why is there something instead of nothing?  And why is it such a stupefyingly enormous something?

The universe seems to be tailored to fit us; everything about the universe seems designed for life – intelligent life – to exist.   For example:  there is just the right amount of the chemical elements necessary for life and these chemicals posses the right properties for life to exist.  Physicist Richard Morris writes, “How is it that common elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen happened to have just the right kind of atomic structure that they needed to combine to make the molecules on which life depends?  It is almost as though the universe had been consciously designed…”

And again:

The strength of the four fundamental forces  - the forces that hold and bind the universe together – gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear (not pronounced "nuc-u-ler") are set for the existence of life.  If the strength of any one of these forces were adjusted stronger or weaker, the universe as we know it could not exist.  The universe (if it existed at all) would be all hydrogen or all helium, or the stars would be unable to burn, or there would be no atoms at all.

And this is a very incomplete list.  There are many specific parameters in the universe set just right for us to be here marveling about the specific nature of these parameters.  The name given to this is the “Anthropic Principle.” 

The Anthropic Principle makes man the measure of the universe.  It measures everything in terms of us… and is probably very incomplete. What could we know of God’s mind in creation?   And yet… it seems that he has revealed himself to be a concerned deity – who provides for his creation, and not as a disinterested divinity who spun creation off to take care of itself.

And even more I wonder with the Psalmist…
I look up at your heavens, shaped by your fingers,
at the moon and the stars you set firm,
what are human beings that you spare a thought for them
or the child of Adam that you care for him?

It’s the mystery of the universe. Why does God take an interest in me?

All that we know or can know about God comes to us by revelation.  The Stars and the moon and the galaxies that we observe as we stare out into the sky without our increasingly powerful telescopes, all of this is Natural Revelation.  God has revealed himself to us in the marvels of his creation. He has revealed his concern for us in the many detailed specifics that exist in the universe that allow us to exist.

Yet there is more to God’s revelation than the natural. There is a supernatural revelation in the scriptures.  The books of the old and new testaments are not just another set of books… not just another bestseller.  How ever they were written, and edited and compiled, however they have come to us, we believe that the reveal something more than other books.  We believe that God has revealed himself to us through the words of scripture.

In this book we read about how humans were created to exist in community with God.  That our first parents were created innocent and pure and in that they lived in communion with God.  Man lived in and with God. 

But something happened.  Something broke that community.  Something broke the fellowship.  Something brought death.  It was sin; the willing violation of God’s standard, and it brought death and separation from God.

But this book also reveals that God wasn’t willing to allow that separation and death to keep us from him, and so he put into effect a plan that he had made even before creation.

Over thousands of years this plan unfolded, beginning slowly with one man, Abraham, who set out in faith for something he didn’t know and couldn’t understand… it grew and grew until it was a nation embracing a covenant with God.  This nation accepted the law of God’s character and promised to obey. They were to be a light to a dark world, drawing all nations close so that they might also know God.

They were marked and set apart from the other races and tribes and nations in order to reveal God’s character and God’s love.

But the plan wasn’t done.  The plan wasn’t just to create a nation.  The plan wasn’t to create a people of God that excluded anyone who couldn’t trace their heritage back to Abraham.

And so God went further and revealed himself through the incarnation.  Not a deity content to watch his creation spin out into chaos and death, he abandoned the glory of heaven to be born in that squalid cow stall.  He became one of us so that death and separation could be destroyed and the living fellowship and communion with God could be restored.  He became as we are so that we might become as he is.

And it was this that the magi saw when they knelt in that home in Bethlehem. And they were welcomed by God. 

Now, the thing is, by the time of Jesus the idea had settled among the Jews, that God’s plan included only them; that they were THE CHOSEN PEOPLE.  They were God’s specially selected people, and that as such they enjoyed special promises from God and a special relationship with God.   And it’s true; they did. 

But it wasn’t for them alone.

The magi who came to worship Christ in Bethlehem would not have been welcomed.  They were foreigners.  They were gentiles.  They were unclean. They were dogs.  They would have been sent away.  The magi who came to worship Christ in..Bethlehem.. would have been excluded from worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians during his imprisonment in Rome on charges stemming from the allegation that he had brought gentiles into the Temple.

It was a big deal, this division between Jew and Gentile. 
But Christ undid it.  And Paul preached it.

Paul unapologetically preached it everywhere he went – that in Christ all are welcome.  This is the mystery of Christ.

the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God's grace which was given to me according to the working of His power.

And that’s good news for us here, for the way to God that has been opened to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is not restricted to one race.  The good news for us is that we have a share in the promises made to Abraham and his descendents.  Though I hate to sing it, the children’s chorus “Father Abraham” gets it right. Father Abraham had many sons and I am one of them, so let’s just praise the Lord.

This is the mystery of Christ; that all are welcome.  His Kingdom, his Church is universal.  Membership in the Israel of God is not a matter of national identity or genetic descent.  All are welcome.

This is the mystery of Christ, unknown in ages past, that we, that everyone can have boldness and confidence to approach God through Jesus, that we are restored and reunited to the fellowship and communion that was broken, that we can be resurrected from our state of death into the eternal life of God. 

Boldness to approach the throne?  I felt small looking out into the immensity of the universe, now I am undone.  That God would plan – in the darkness and stillness before creation – to make a way for me to come to him, come to him with boldness and confidence… what could I do to deserve this?

Nothing at all.
I am undone.

Paul considered himself the least of the apostles, the chief of sinners… PAUL the APOSTLE… who wrote the bulk of the New Testament… and I am, well I am, as I said


And yet…

The mystery of Christ is that I am welcome.  In spite of all I was before.  In spite of my sin. My death has been swallowed up, and I am emboldened. I am given grace to be bold before God. 

This is too much for me to understand.  But understanding isn’t necessary.  This is mystery, after all. The mystery of Christ.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Sermon on the Mount – Americanized Version

You have heard it said, “Do not resist an evil person,” but I tell you “shoot first,” it’s your second amendment duty to shoot bad guys.    If anyone slaps you on the right cheek don’t wait for the police, take charge of the situation yourself and put a bullet in them.  And if anyone wants to take away your firearms, sue them.  Never give away your rights. 

You have heard, “Love your neighbor as well as your enemy,” but I tell you that that is a totally ridiculous idea.  When has praying for your enemy ever worked?    If you love your enemies, what reward will you get?  Shot in your own home, most likely because it’s not like the police are going to get there in time. 

You have head that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,” but I tell you that it’s not murder if it’s done in self defense.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Constitution or the Bill of Rights; I have not come to abolish them, but to protect their original intent.  Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these amendments will be called least in the kingdom. 

Wow and Flutter - A Freesound Dare

They're already obsolete and pretty much gone the way of the dodo.  The younger generation has no memory, no concept of the audio "tape". (Even so, the reports of the death of the audio cassette are greatly exaggerated ...)

So the theme of the most recent Dare at the Freesound Project was to create an original piece of music from various tape recordings - we're talking actual magnetically coated plastic tape winding from reel to reel.  Samples came in from long forgotten audio cassettes found in the back of the attic, VHS tapes, even  old computer programs recorded to magnetic tape...

And these recordings came with all the flaws and idiosyncrasies common to cassette recordings -  all the hiss, warbles,clicks and pops you remember.

For this dare, I partnered with César, a friend from the Freesound Project.  We talked about how cassette tapes were often used multiple times and how sometimes the various layers of recordings would bleed through each other. We wanted to include some of that in our piece, so between the two of us and the 31 sound samples we chose to use, we created the following song: Wow and Flutter

One of the demands of this particular Dare was that each entry had to include at least one sound sample from everyone who contributed their cassette recordings - and there were many contributors.

A Warning

The midnight parliament of large-eyed owls
assembles in the barren desert night.
Settled deftly between thorn and nettles
they speak with idiotic hooting and maniacal screeching.

So too arrive murderous crows and
grave-robbing hyenas reeking of carrion feasts.
Hairy legged priapismic satyrs
dance drunkenly to cacophonous music through the night.

Bounded by chaos and measured with desolation
they rule the deserted places forever outside the city.
Come and see the bloated unburied corpses.
Come and see the blood soaked sand,
the burning sulfur, blazing pitch, and endless smoke.

(Isaiah 34)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - 2013 - Week 6

Here it is again, another new Powerpoint (or similar presentation program) background image.  I make these pictures each week and share them here on my blog.  You are free to use them in your own projects at home, work, school, or church - or wherever you like.  I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.

week 6 photo week6_zps0e3c92b1.jpg

Friday, January 25, 2013

I am Awake, Alone like a Sparrow

I wrote about birds yesterday, thought I might share a bird photo today.

 photo AloneLikeaSparrow_zps37332ad4.jpg

I am awake, alone like a sparrow... Psalm 102: 7

He Didn't Say It - But Would He Have Said It? And Would He Have Meant It?

A friend of mine recently circulated on Facebook a picture of George Washington with the following quotation:

“A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.”

Like many recent discussions concerning the second amendment, this quotation immediately brings up the specter of a tyrannical government as a rational for unfettered gun ownership, leaps immediately to the idea that we need high powered assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns in order to overthrow an evil government.  

My first response, however, was not to wonder about what I might need in order to fight off the invading army of a tyrannical king, but to wonder if our revered and ennobled Founding Father might have allowed any of the three hundred slaves he owned to say such things.  Would he have encouraged the men and women he owned as property to arm themselves with guns and ammunition to protect (or to demand) their freedom and to protect themselves from their abuser?

Though George Washington was one of only seven Founding Fathers to liberate his slaves (something he did not do during his lifetime but only after his death and after the death of his wife, Martha)  and though he may have during his lifetime written and spoken privately to friends in support of a gradual abolition of slavery, his public words and actions were consistently in  defense of slavery and in support of slave owners. Whether he was internally conflicted about the morality of slave ownership, concerned about the fiscal consequences of freeing his slaves, or worried about the effect abolition would have on the fledgling country, Washington kept his personal misgivings separate from his public presidency. 

In 1793, President Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act which gave slave owners the right to capture fugitive slaves in any U.S. State, even in any those "safe harbors" or slave sanctuaries.

In the years 1793-1794 President Washington authorized $400,000 and 1,000 weapons to be given to the slave owners of the French colony of  Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) as emergency relief  in order to put down a slave rebellion. (see Alfred Hunt, Haiti's Influence on Antebellum America, p. 31). Were these weapons to be used to protect and defend personal freedom?  Hardly.

Would President George Washington have wanted free black men armed and supplied so they could protect and defend their freedom?  Would he have encouraged them to have weapons and ammunition in order to protect themselves from those who would abuse them? Even from their masters and owners?

But, it turns out, my ponderings on this issue were unnecessary; the quote is bogus.  It's like Jesus of Nazareth said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internets.”

What President Washington actually said in his first annual message to Congress on Friday January 8, 1790 was this: “"A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies."

So, he didn't say what some are saying he said.  But would he have said it?  Would he have meant it?  I can imagine that he might have something like this bogus quote, but he wouldn't have meant it, not for everyone.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Psalm 83: An End Times Paranoia

A Song.  A Psalm of A sap.

The War is coming. 
The signs are there for us to see.

O God, do not be silent,
be neither deaf nor dumb
See how my enemies…er…
                                …your enemies…
see how your enemies are rising up,
can you hear their arrogant intifada?

They have forged a secret alliance against us!
They have said that they will destroy us!
And they have formed an alliance against you
(and by “you” I mean “me”).

This alignment of nations, this spring time confederacy
includes the Iraqis, Syrians, and Arabs,
camel riding Ishmaelites, and  socialist Egyptians.
It includes the Palestinians coming from their tents on the West-Bank
and the Assyrians, rising from the dust and ashes of history
to make war against us once more.
We’ll be right back with more of Psalm 83: An End Times Paranoia, but first these words from our sponsor:

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And now back to Psalm 83: An End Times Paranoia

O God! Put a tent peg through their heads, just like you did to Sisera.
Smear them into the ground, like those who became
dung for the ground at the battle of En-dor.
Make them like Oreeb or Zeeb or however you pronounce their stupid names.

And let us seize for ourselves these pasturelands of God!

Blow them away like dust
pursue them with storms, burn their mountains with fire
so that they’ll remember that we are the Superpower in this world.

Like a Bird…

I am like a pelican in the wilderness
vomiting undigested shellfish
 into lonely desert sand.

I am the raven of the empty house,
the owl of the wasted place.
A forbidden kestrel that flies by your wisdom,
I turn my wings for the far distant south.

I am awake, a bird on the roof,
terrified like the sparrow that flies away,

I slip. I fall from the wire
like a quail dropped through the door of heaven
to feed the miserable mob.

I am like a peacock with goodly wings
eating ashes in the evening shadows,
like an ostrich with forgotten eggs.

I am like the kite and her kinds,
like the stork, the heron, the hoopoe,
teeming with life but unfit to eat.

(See Psalm 102, Job 39, and Deuteronomy 14)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Warning to Young Fundamentalists Preparing to Go to University

Can you see how the learned expositor
finds it necessary to exhume the remains
of his historic faith
            … the historic faith as we’ve defined it…
in order to produce the anti-plague serum
that will release him from his higher criticism?

Watch how he walks these darkened streets
with his academic head held in place
by a column of Frankenstein staples
poking out above the collar of his womanly robes.

Do you see the special urgency
of his so-called evolution?
Call Drs. Rieux and Benway
but his infection is spreading.

Only a return to our accepted truths can help him now.
If he won’t accept the answers we’ve found in Genesis,
or bind himself with religion the way our fathers taught us
there can be nothing left;

nothing except the stink of fisheries.
He must not want to be saved.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Good News to the Poor - A New Hymn

I don't know if it's audacious of me to do this - but I have challenged myself to write new hymns (or at least new words for old hymn tunes.)  I worry that someone might think I'm putting myself up there with Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby (who wrote close to 9,000 hymns! Good Gravy!).

Nevertheless, I am doing it. And enjoying it.
This week, I thank my friend Timothy McPherson for pointing me toward the hymn tune Theodoric - also known as Personent Hodie. )  It is a tune that is in our denominational tune book (The Salvation Army) but isn't listed with any words.

So.  I have written some - based on this week's lectionary reading from Luke 4:14 - 21 (which in turn, is drawn from passages in the writings of the prophet Isaiah.)

I have written this hymn as a sort of call and response hymn (is that done?  I don't know.) The normal text is for the song leader, the italicized portions are the congregational response.

Good News to the Poor

I am filled with the pow’r
of the Spirit of God,
anointed to proclaim;
good news to the poor and
good news to the lowly.

                  Today this scripture
                  has been fulfilled in
                  your hearing and it is
                  good news for us all.

He has sent me to tell
captives they’ve been released,
to restore blinded eyes;
good news to the poor and
good news to the lowly.

The oppressed shall go free
the broken shall be bound
and the lost shall be found;
good news to the poor and
good news to the lowly.

We go out to the world
with the strength of the Lord
to proclaim the good news;
good news to the poor and
good news to the lowly.

The arrangement I've posted below includes once through the melody as an introduction and then 4 verse/chorus.  

If you'd like to download it (I've placed this arrangement into the public domain) click here:

Les Miserables as written by the NRA


Jean Valjean listened.  Not a sound.
He pushed the door.

He pushed it lightly with the tip of his finger, with a cat’s stealthy, timorous care.  The door yielded to the pressure with a slight, imperceptible movement widening the opening slightly.
He waited a moment, then pushed the door again more firmly.  This time a poorly oiled hinge suddenly let out a harsh and prolonged creak into the darkness.

Jean Valjean trembled.  The noise sounded in his ears as clear and terrible as the last trumpet on the Judgment Day.  In the fantastic exaggeration of this instant, he knew that the hinge had become animate and suddenly endowed with a terrible life, that it was barking like a dog to waken all sleepers.

The old man, the bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu rose.  The old women screamed.  Jean Valjean turned to flee, but his way was blocked by the Bishop who held a musket.

“Monsieur,” said the Bishop, “You have entered this house of God with the intent to steal and to rob.  But, Nisi gladiis tutatur domum, qui custodiant eam vigilate in frustra.[i]  He fired the musket and the shot rang out in the darkened house.  Smoke and the screams of the old nuns filled the room as Jean Valjean sagged to the floor and died.

The End.

[i] NOTE: Author’s footnotes are indicated by the initials NRA, all other footnotes are the translators.  – Unless swords protect a house, they who guard it watch in vain. (NRA)

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Letter to President Barack Obama on Inauguration Day 2013

Mr. President,

I am one of the millions of Americans praying for you as you begin your second term as President of these United States.  I am encouraged by your vision and hopeful for the days, and weeks, and months and years to come as we work together as citizens all across this country to make the world, and not just our country alone, a better place. 

But, Mr. President, it is not enough to declare that a “decade of war is now ending,” as you did in your inaugural address this morning.  Not while we continue to launch unmanned attack drones against our enemies.  Not while we continue to detain and torture ‘enemy combatants’ in secret prisons.  Not while we continue to maintain the world’s largest standing army.  Not while we continue to outspend the rest of the world combined on weapons of war and high powered killing machines.

We have squandered the great wealth our country in protracted and bloody conflicts around the globe that have not brought any improved measure of security or goodwill to our country or the world.  We have sacrificed the lives of too many men and woman and children – those of our nation and in those countries where we have stationed our soldiers – and not gained anything from their sacrifice.

I know that you must be aware of the irony of your inauguration day coming on the celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.– who declared that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom. “   How can we honor him and his great work and still continue to pour our vast resources into the bottomless abyss of continued militarism? 

We cannot fix the broken things by breaking them even more.  We will not make peace in the world by killing our enemies.  This has never worked and never will.  There is no redemption in violence.  Mr. President, it is not enough to declare that a decade of war is ending if we continue to operate in the same manner.  We must begin to do things differently.

The voters of our country, and myself among them, have chosen to give you another four years as the President of our country.  Do right in them.  Make good upon the words you spoke this morning.  Honor and continue the work of Martin Luther King Jr.  Bring the militarism and warring of the United States to an end.  Bring our soldiers home, close the military bases around the world, close the torture prisons, discontinue the use of unmanned attack drones, and turn the resources and the energy and the vitality our nation toward those programs of social uplift that will bring about a more just and equitable society.


Jeff Carter

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - 2013 - Week 5

So I've been doing this for a little over a year now - creating and sharing a new powerpoint (or similar presentation program) background image.  These images are free for you to use in your own projects at home, work, school, or church.  Use them how you will. I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.

And, if you're in a really crazy mood and would like to download all of last year's images in one 131 MB .zip file, just click through.  I should warn you, though, that while several of them are really great, some are mediocre and some are downright poor.  Just delete the ones you don't like.  It won't hurt my feelings.

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Shoot to Disable? Shoot to Kill?

Deliver Accurate Hits photo DeliverAccurateHits_zpsa10c8bec.jpg I recently posted a short critique of the mantra: We need guns to defend ourselves.  In that post I wrote that: “If I am willing to shoot and to kill someone -even someone intent on breaking into my home - it means that I value my life (and my property!) more than another human being.” 

But a friend on Facebook challenged me today saying: “That's a well crafted question, and a trendy one at that. Many gun law activists refuse to believe guns can be used to disable criminals in the act, and insist they are used purely for murder. So rephrasing the question to read 'would protecting your property/family be worth disabling a criminal?' would be more practical, it wouldn't carry quite the subliminal punch intended to demonize gun owners.”

His argument is that firearms can be used to disable – rather than kill – attackers and intruders – thus using a gun in self defense isn't about shooting to kill someone. And this would seem like a decent argument except that handgun self defense classes don’t teach “shoot to disable.”  They teach “shoot to kill.”  For example: 

This article on SelfDefense Pistol 101 from the American Rifleman, encourages handgun users to practice “head” and “torso shots.”

This guide from Keepand Bear Arms.Com  encourages gun owners to load their weapons with hollowpoint bullets in order to inflict maximum damage to your attacker.

This article advocates putting “well-placed hits on as many vital organs, in the shortest span of time possible.”

(These articles were among the first returns in a Google search for “handgun self defense instruction.”)

Why, if handguns for self defense are to disable rather than kill, do target practice silhouettes put the highest value on head and chest shots instead of arm or leg shots?

No. I do not believe that the primary use of firearm in self-defense is to “disable.”  They are designed for killing and responsible gun owners are taught to shoot to kill.

But even if the argument could be made that using handguns in self defense is about disabling rather than killing the hypothetical burglar breaking into my house to steal my property, I do not believe that my response – as a Christian – involves disabling him.  Indeed, we are instructed to give away our possessions and to not demand them back (Luke 6:30) and certainly not instructed to shoot someone over them.

The Blessing of His Steadfast Love

When it feels like you’re all alone, 
when it feels like no one's there,
when you've been left, ignored, forgotten
may you know that God is with you.

May God give you the comfort of his presence,
the hope and joy of his peace
when all seems low;
may you know that he is with you.

Know that he delights in you.
Know that he is close to you.
Know that his faithful love
is a fountain of life
and a river of delight
that never will run dry.

May God bless you,
and keep you
always in his steadfast love.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

If This is What My Friends Think of Me…

According to many of my friends, I am:

A dolt.
An idiot.
A moron.
A Nazi.
A libturd.
A hypocrite.
An Obamatard.
A sheep.
Not living in the real world.
A special kind of stupid.

These were collected from my friends Facebook posts and status updates.
Some of them were directed at me specifically. Some were sweeping generalizations about "liberals".

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Salvation Army and Pirating Music

My denomination, The Salvation Army, has a long history of pirating – er… borrowing songs.  Our founder, William Booth, is quoted as saying, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?”  Early Salvation Army musicians would take the popular tunes heard in taverns and music halls and on the docks and would compose new, spiritual verses for them.  

An example is the song Champagne Charlie:

Champagne Charlie is my name
Champagne drinking is my game
There’s nothing like its fizz fizz fizz
I’ll drink every drop there is is is
All ‘round town it is the same
by pop pop pop I rose to fame
I’m the idol of the bar maids
and Champagne Charlie is my name.

Which The Salvation Army took and turned into Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free:

Bless his name, he sets me free
bless his name, he sets me free
And O, the blood – the precious blood
I am trusting in the precious flood
Bless his name, he sets me free
bless his name, he sets me free
I know my sins are washed away
And now in Jesus I am free.

But now, I’ve discovered, there is at least one example of the reverse happening – a Salvation Army song appropriated by those outside the church. The Salvation Amy chorus:   We’ll Roll the Old Chariot Along

And we’ll roll the old chariot along,
and we’ll roll the old chariot along,
and we’ll roll the old chariot along,
and we won’t drag on behind.

If a sinner’s in the way then we’ll stop and take him in,
If a sinner’s in the way then we’ll stop and take him in,
if a sinner’s in the way then we’ll stop and take him in,
and we won’t drag on behind.

Subsequent verses would replace “sinner” with “drunkard” or “harlot” or “gambler” etc.The final verse was:

If the devil’s in the way then we’ll roll it over him.
If the devil’s in the way then we’ll roll it over him.
If the devil’s in the way then we’ll roll it over him.
and we won’t drag on behind.

Sailors, hearing the song, replaced the list of those being hauled up into the chariot with a list of thing that “wouldn’t do us any harm…”

Well a drop of Nelson’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm
Oh, a plate of Irish stew wouldn’t do us any harm
Oh a night with the gals wouldn’t do us any harm
and we’ll all hang on behind.

Mistaking a Marginal Jew

I have, in the past several days, been reading John P. Meier’s book A Marginal Jew: the Roots of the Problem and the Person. This is one of the books that I bought with my Christmas gift card.  Great stuff.  This is the first of four volumes by Meier in this series.  Last year I read Volume Three: Companions and Competitors.  I realize that I'm reading them out of order.  It doesn't bother me all that much.

PhotobucketI have only recently become interested in reading about “the historical Jesus” but I have for years seen references to Meier’s work in other books that I’ve read.  And, not knowing the book, I misunderstood the title. My mistake wasn't as extreme as the illustration to the right might suggest, but was a powerful mistake none-the-less.  In those days of ignorance I thought “historical Jesus” books were all trying to disprove the fact of and faith in Jesus.  And I thought the title “A Marginal Jew” was an attempt to denigrate Jesus in some way.

Ignorance is a terrible thing.

Meier intends his description of the historical Jesus as a “marginal Jew” to be an invitation to discussion and inquiry.  It’s meant to be a bit ambiguous and a bit of a riddle.  But it is not (as I wrongly assumed) intended to marginalize Jesus.

From the historian’s vantage point, Jesus was marginal.  He lived in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, he didn’t travel outside of his homeland, he didn’t found a school, and he left behind no writings.  And, outside of the New Testament authors, he is hardly mentioned among writers of the time.  He was not a world leader.  He held no position of prestige or honor. He abandoned his career as a carpenter to become a homeless, itinerant preacher, and was condemned and executed as a common criminal.  In these ways, and many more, Jesus was only a “marginal” Jewish figure.

And yet the mystery and wonder is that this marginal figure has become the central figure of much of world history since. 

Meier’s book attempts to answer the question: What can we know about the historical Jesus?  Can we prove that he existed? Can we know something (anything) about his life and teaching?  The gospels, written in the afterglow of the resurrection, are documents of faith, not historical, objective fact.  But does that mean we must reject them completely as sources of historical information?  And though there was precious little written about him outside of the New Testament, do these extra-canonical sources help us to know him any better?

Anyone interested in better knowing the person of Jesus should read these books.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Poor Balaam – The Unrelenting Denigration of the Prophet from Pethor

Balaam, the prophet from Pethor, has not fared well in the remembrance of God’s people.  Even though he described himself as an obedient follower of Yahweh, his God (Numbers 22:18), and even though the only narrative we have in the collected books of holy scripture (Numbers 22 – 24) portrays him in a positive light, Balaam has come down to us as a greedy and wicked man, a false and dangerous prophet who enticed the faithful to worship foreign gods. 

Poor Balaam.  He deserves better.

We first meet Balaam, the son of Be’or, in the book of Numbers.  The Israelite people are on the march and about to enter into the land of Canaan and this makes Balak, King of Moab, very nervous. He’s afraid of their great numbers and unwilling to commit his troops to battle against them without some sort of advantage.  To this end he sends messengers, with money, to Balaam, inviting him to come and to curse the Israelites, “since they are too mighty for me; perhaps [if you curse them] I shall be able to defeat them… for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:6).”

But Balaam isn’t willing to commit his blessing or cursing powers without first consulting the one who’s given him this power.  He defers the messengers overnight and consults with God, who tells him that, no, he’s not to curse the Israelites.  The next morning Balaam relays the word to the messengers who go home to King Balak.

Balak sends messengers to plead with Balaam again.  And the prophet of Pethor told them, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond what the command of Yahweh my God, to do less or more(22: 18).”  He checks with God again, and God says ‘Go with them, but only say what I tell you to say.’ 

So the next morning he saddles up and heads out.  And this is where the story gets a little disjointed – we read that “God’s anger was kindled because he went (22: 22)” and an angel of Yahweh was dispatched to kill him.    Balaam was only spared because his ass was able to see the angel and spoke with a human voice to tell him so.

Because of the sudden contradiction in this verse, and the repetition in verses before and after this interlude with a talking ass many scholars believe that the story of Balaam in Numbers 22 -24 is a composite story, built from two different traditions that were joined together into this one account.

But however the story has come to us, Balaam is told – twice – by God to go with these men, and to speak only the words that Yahweh gives to him.   And this he does – to King Balak’s extreme displeasure.  Three times Balak set up seven alters with burnt offerings and asked for Balaam to pronounce the curse.  And each time Balaam consulted with God – I can only say what he gives me – and each time Balaam pronounced a blessing, rather than a curse, on the Israelites.  And then Balaam gave a fourth oracle – though he wasn’t asked, which was eventually taken by the Jewish people as an expectation of the Messiah and the star that would herald him.

Frustrated, King Balak sent Balaam away.  And that’s the last we actually hear from the prophet from Pethor.  We’re told that Balaam was eventually killed by the Israelites along with the Midianite princes (Numbers 31: 8, Joshua 13:22). 

 But that’s not the last thing that others in scripture had to say about him.  Later in the book of Numbers (31: 16) he’s blamed for what happened to the Israelites at Peor.  That story follows Balaam’s in Numbers 25 – 26 – but Balaam is not mentioned – not once.  And when the story of Peor is mentioned in other parts of scripture, it’s without reference to Balaam (Deuteronomy 4:3, Joshua 22: 17, Hosea 9:10, Psalm 106: 28 – 31).

In Deuteronomy 31: 3 – 6, Joshua 24: 9 – 10, and Nehemiah 13: 1 – 2  Balaam is described as trying to curse the people of Israel, but that Yahweh refused to listen to him.   But we should keep in mind that these three passages are situated in context of fear of foreigners and the moral pollution they bring.

The final mention of Balaam in the Old Testament is in the prophet Micah:  Remember what Balak devised and what Balaam answered. (Micah 6:5) which is, ambiguous, but certainly not defamatory.

In the New Testament it gets worse for Balaam.  By that time he’d become a figure of pure evil – a lover of gain from wickedness, filled with madness,  lumped in with the murderer Cain, and described as a promulgator of idolatry.  (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, and Revelation 2:14)

A foreigner, a madman, a false prophet, an idolater, a teacher of idolatry, greedy and wicked – we’ve come a far distance from that prophet of Pethor who said, Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond what the command of Yahweh my God, to do less or more.

Poor Balaam.  He deserves better.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The People That God Loves - A New Hymn

This is something that I'm trying to do this year - I'm trying to write new hymns - or at least new words for old hymn tunes.  This week I've adapted the words of Isaiah 62: 1 - 5 to be sung to the traditional song, Oh Shenandoah.  

For Zion’s sake I’ll not keep silent, 
and for Jerusalem
I will not rest nor will I slumber
until her righteousness
shines like the golden dawn.

The entire world will see your glory
and kings will see your goodness,
then you’ll be called by a new name
a name the Lord himself will give
to you, his treasure.

You will be like a royal crown
and like a diadem.
You’ll not be called, “Lost” or “Forgotten,”
but, “The People That God Loves,
My Delight Is In Her.”

And you will be the bride of God
for he delights in you;
as a young man marries a woman,
so the Lord will rejoice
over you, his people.

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - Week 4 - 2013

I've been doing this for a while now - creating each week a new background image for use in Powerpoint (or similar presentation programs).  I make them for use at my church and make them available here on my blog to share with you.  You are free to download these images and to use them in your own projects at home, work, school, church, or wherever. Use them however you will; I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.  Thanks.

week 4

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Mantra of Guns for Self Defense

It has become mantra of many in America in recent weeks: We need guns to defend ourselves. 

And I use the word mantra to express more than the idea that they say it over and over and over again.  A mantra, in eastern religions, is a syllable, or word, or a series of words thought to be capable of creating change.  By repeating this phrase: We need guns to defend ourselves. We need guns to defend ourselves. We need guns to defend ourselves gun advocates demonstrate that they believe this to be a phrase of great power.

But despite their ceaseless repetition (We need guns to defend ourselves. We need guns to defend ourselves. We need guns to defend ourselves.) I am not convinced.   

We need guns to defend ourselves – means that we are afraid of others.  Whether they are the imagined  “drug crazed maniacs” or “rapists” breaking into our homes or the hypothetical tyrannical kings threatening to makes us his subjects , discussions about gun control invariably bring up these boogiemen.  It would be foolish to pretend that assaults and home invasions and rapes do not and will not continue to occur.  But to say we need guns to defend ourselves is to live in perpetual fear; it is to view those around us as threats, and enemies, and dangers, rather than friends and neighbors.  I choose to not live in fear of others.

We need guns to defend ourselves – means that we value our lives (and the lives of our families and our property) more than the lives of others.  If I am willing to shoot and to kill someone -even someone intent on breaking into my home - it means that I value my life (and my property!) more than another human being. I cannot live like that, not if I take the Apostle Paul’s admonition seriously, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  (Philippians 2: 3 English Standard Version)  I choose to value others –to love them – as I value and love myself. (Matthew 22: 39)

We need guns to defend ourselves – means that we believe that the best (or the only) way to deal with violence (or the threat of violence) is with a return of more violence.  Using a gun in self defense is returning evil for evil – something Christians are told not to do (1 Peter 3:9).  Using a gun in self defense means that we don’t take seriously Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek.  “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39 English Standard Version).  This is not a guarantee that we won’t be attacked.  This is not a promise that we will never be harmed. It is, instead, an instruction to not attack and harm in return.   I choose to forgo revenge and to feed and clothe and bless those who would hurt me. (Romans 12: 19 – 20)

We need guns to defend ourselves- means that we are unwilling to trust God.  If God is our shield and protection (Psalm 28:7) and if we trust him, we do not need guns for self protection.  God will protect.  But what about those imagined drug fiends breaking in to steal my stuff or deranged rapists assaulting my wife?  Evil is real and evil individuals do terrible things but, if we take our faith seriously, we will trust God to protect us.  And like the three young men thrown into the furnace in Babylon we say “Even if he doesn’t…” (Daniel 3:18) we will not be pulled into the world‘s fear and hate.  I choose to trust God for the protection of my life – even if he doesn’t.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Notebook Doodle - A Man with Large Glasses


I haven't posted any of my notebook doodles in quite a while.  So... here is a man with large glasses.

The text in my nearly illegible penmanship to the left were the beginnings of a blog post that I never got around to writing.  The notes have nothing to do with the doodle.

"i was critical of President George W. Bush and his administration. Yes, I disagreed with many of the policies he initiated, and I protested the wars he launched in Afghanistan and Iraq.I was critical, yes, but i also tried to be kind. Though I could not readily comprehend the way his Christianity informed his decisions.  I allowed that  he was, as he said, a Christian in some sense of the word. His understanding of xianity is not very much like mine.  His practice is altogether different, but i tried to keep in mind that he claimed Jesus Christ as his lord and savior..."

What I’m Reading: A Wrinkle in Time

I first read Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time when I was in 5th grade.  I loved it then – even if I didn’t understand it all.  It was wonderful to read of lonely misfit kids like myself. They were nerdy and unpopular, like me. And I loved them.  It was perfect. It was wonderful.  I have, in the years since, read, and re-read Wrinkle and the following books in the series.  In fact I have read everything of hers that I could get my hands on.  Reading and re-reading them over and over and over again.   I say this without embarrassment – I love Madeline L’Engle.  And I have ever since I picked up that battered paperback in the school library.

There was an adaption of the book made for television a few years ago – but I refused to watch it.  (It was Disney after all!)  When asked in an interview if the film met her expectations, Madeline L’Engle responded, “Yes.  I expected it to be bad, and it was.” [i]  In her book Bright Evening Star L’Engle writes about reading the screenplay for this televised version of her book, and knowing immediately that it was going to be bad.  On the cover page was the title A Wrinkle in Time followed by the tagline “Love is Power.”  That’s when she knew that the screenplay author had failed to understand her book.

Because Love (capital L Love) is not power. Love is giving away power.

And though I am older and have read, and re-read this book many times over, this still baffles me.  I am still learning how to give myself away.

I have children now.  Two of them, one of each kind.  And they both love to read.  But, and I cannot understand this, they have thus far refused to read A Wrinkle in Time and the rest of the books concerning the Murry and O’Keefe families.  I am flummoxed. I am bewildered. How can they not want to read this book?  I want them to read it and to love it as much as I have.  I bought my daughter her very own copy of the book so she wouldn’t have to feel weird about reading my copy…  I’ve suggested it to them both. I’ve encouraged them.  I’ve even considered bribing them to read it.

But I think that this may not be right.  If they are to love it (capital L love it) then it cannot be forced upon them.  They will have to come to its wonder and its mystery of their own.

And even though I have refused to watch (or to even acknowledge the Disneyfied movie, I would like to see this opera based on the book:

The Film About The Opera About The Book: A Wrinkle in Time from Mark Birnbaum Productions on Vimeo.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Blessing for Passing through the Depths

As you pass through the deep waters of life,
through the fathomless depths of cold and dark
may God bless and stand by you.

As you pass through the fires and the flames,
through the trials and the heat of living
may the Lord bless and stand by you.

May he call you by name,
by his name – holy and pure.
May he restore to you what has been lost
and return what has been stolen.
May he shine upon you
the glory for which you have been created.

May the Three-in-One bless you,
Father, Spirit, Son.  Amen.

These Crazy Kids that I Love


This is my son, and in him I am well pleased.  He amuses me with his humor.  He astounds me with his ability to remember quotes from movies and obscure bits of trivia.  He often sits at the piano at church to pick out the melodies of movie and television themes.  He is becoming a great cornet player.  He reads - almost as much as his father.  He is affectionate towards all dogs.


This is my daughter and in her I am well pleased, even if she all but refuses to let me take her picture.  She is intelligent and bright.  She, too, reads almost as much as her father.  And though I wish she'd move on from Harry Potter, I'm pleased that she enjoys the series so much.  She is becoming a wonderful young woman - and it terrifies me that she'll be driving soon.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What I’m Reading: Unholy Night

Most of my reading in recent months has been focused on the “historical Jesus,” books that attempt to peel away the accreted layers of myth, legend, and theology.  Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith is anything but. 

In Unholy Night Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer turns his revisionist lens toward the birth of Jesus and, as with his earlier novels, fills it with terror and violence and monsters. Though, to be fair, much of that terror and violence was already there to begin with.

It would be easy to point out the historical and geographical errors in the book (he’s bungled the layout of Jerusalem, misplaced the city of Emmaus, brought Pontius Pilate to Israel about 30 years too early, etc…) but to do so would be to miss the point.

Some might worry that this revisionist telling of Jesus’ birth as a horror / adventure story would be in some way blasphemous – Seth Grahame-Smith, after all,  has overturned the iconic characters of  the “three wise men” and made into convicted and escaped criminals, and has set King Herod, Pontius Pilate and a sorcerous, dark magi chasing after the holy family…  But again, to perceive Unholy Night as blasphemous or in any way “unholy” is to miss the point.

It’s not scripture and it’s not history.  It’s a story.  It’s a savage and rollicking and frightening story – but then again, so is much of what we call scripture and nearly all of history.    Read it for fun and let it add to your celebration of the mystery and wonder (and horror) of the Christmas stories.

**I purchased both of Seth Grahame-Smith's previous books and, after reading them, loaned them to friends who have not yet returned them.  If you'd like to borrow my copy of Unholy Night let me know. I'm not expecting it back, apparently.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

...And Your Journey toward the Dark Side Will Be Complete

Journey Toward the Dark Side

Thanks to my friend Chris DiMaso for the idea.

A Hymn for the Lord of the Storm - A New Hymn

Every so often I take it upon myself to write a new hymn - or at least new words for old hymn tunes.  And that is what I have done for this week's scripture readings.  Here is A Hymn for the Lord of the Storm

Over the seas his voice is heard
the glorious God thunders,
the Lord is over mighty waves
his echoing voice is strong.

O children of the Lord,
give glory and give strength,
give to the Lord the glory due;
bow down in his splendor.

We hear the sound of crashing storms
and still we will not fear
the storm winds blow with lightning flash
but we remain secure.

And if we pass through burning flames
we trust in his great name
the fire will not consume our lives
the Holy One is sure.

The scripture readings on which this hymn is based are: Psalm 29 and Isaiah 43: 1 - 7
The tune is Lord, Fill My Craving Heart

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - Week 3- 2013

This is something I do every week - I create a new background image for Powerpoint (or similar presentation programs).  I make them for Sunday services at my church and share them here on my blog.  You are free to use them in your own projects at home, work, school, or church.  You are free to use them however you like. I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.

week 3

Click here if you'd like to download all of last year's images in a single .zip file.

Monday, January 7, 2013

She Had to Know...

My wife is usually very reluctant to have her picture taken - but I managed to snap this one without her notice.  I took it while she was distracted by something outside.

She had to know that if she gave me a new camera for Christmas that I'd want to take pictures of her, right?


What I'm Reading: The Burial of Jesus

I have already written once this year about how I can accept that the gospel nativity stories in Matthew and Luke are exegetical fictions – that is, that they are theological stories about the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Because the details of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s story cannot be harmonized with the details in Luke’s we cannot be certain which of the two is more accurate, more historical – in fact we cannot determine if either of the gospel nativities is historical.

And I can accept that. I can accept that these are theological stories and not biographical accounts. 

In fact the gospels themselves, though grounded in the historical reality of Jesus – are in many ways adapted and even fictionalized.  Some scenes have been created. Some dialogue has been supplied. Some characters have been combined.  Some events have been rearranged in order to tell the theological stories intended by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (whoever they might have been…)

I can accept this.  It took me a long time and some careful consideration, but it has not damaged my faith in Jesus.  I even thought well of myself (pride… nothing but pride) for being able to go beyond the baby steps of my faith.

However, I have not been quite as willing to concede that the same sort of exegetical adaptation and fictionalization occurred in the stories of Jesus’ passion – his arrest, trial, and execution – or in the accounts his resurrection.   

Yet I am being forced to reconsider my inconsistency. 

A few days ago I finished reading John Domminc Crossan’s book Who Killed Jesus? in which Crossan argued that the passion narratives in the gospel accounts are complete (or nearly complete) fabrications – that the gospel writers built the stories of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution and the stories of his resurrection from the writings of various Old Testament texts; that they were not in any way historical accounts. 

I do not agree with Crossan on this point.  I believe – still believe – that the passion narratives are grounded in historical realities. I do not believe that they were created whole cloth from the gospel writers’ imaginations, but I can allow that the details have been shaped by reflection on these Old Testament passages.   

Now I am reading my friend James McGrath’s short little book The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith.  (It was one of the books I bought with my Christmas gift card...) And he is causing me to reconsider the question: what if, like the stories of his birth, the various details of Jesus’ burial and resurrection can’t be completely harmonized either?   

First- I like that this little book (and I do mean little) is focused on the burial of Jesus.  Many books focus on the crucifixion.  Many books focus on the resurrection.  But few focus on that crucial event in-between. 

It is McGrath’s argument that the various details concerning the burial of Jesus were fabricated by early Christians who wanted to give to their leader (whom they believed to be the Messiah and to have been resurrected) the honorable burial that he deserved – but did not receive.

From the historian’s perspective it seems likely that Jesus was crucified and then given a burial in a common grave for criminals by the Jewish authorities – that none of Jesus’ followers were present or responsible for his burial.  And that is as far as the historian can go.  The historical Jesus lived and died and was buried. But we do not, and cannot know what did or didn't happen to his body after that.  The stories we have of that first Resurrection Sunday are as much theological stories as the stories of that first Christmas morning.   

But does that mean that there was no resurrection? Does that mean that Jesus’ followers didn't seem him alive after his death?  The historian cannot answer those questions.  The historian cannot prove or disprove the resurrection.  And even if we accept the argument that the burial stories and resurrection accounts are exegetical and theological stories rather than historical accounts, this does not mean that we are left without faith.  As McGrath points out, asking ‘what happened to Jesus’ body?’ is not the same as asking ‘Did God raise him from the dead.’

We should pay attention to the fact that in the gospel accounts of the resurrection there were no witnesses.  No one saw Jesus in the tomb dead one moment and alive the next.  No one saw it happen.  Even in the canonical gospel stories all we have is an empty tomb.  Whether it was an unmarked mass grave reserved for criminals or a borrowed tomb intended for a wealthy dignitary – no one saw the resurrection event.  And even in the gospel accounts, finding the empty tomb wasn't enough to convince Jesus’ followers of his resurrection.  It took something more for them to believe. 

To this point I am willing to agree with my friend. He’s challenged me.  He’s made me uncomfortable –but I’m willing to try taking those bigger steps.

But I do have at least one question to send back his way:

The earliest followers of the Resurrected Jesus were willing and even eager to declare their faith in this paradoxical and oxymoronic idea of a crucified and resurrected God /man– an idea that was foolishness to the Greeks and Romans  and blasphemy to the Jews.  It is usually argued by apologists that the disciples were unlikely to create such an embarrassing, oxymoronic story.  But if they were unlikely to create an embarrassing story of his dishonorable death – why would they feel it necessary to create stories to cover over the (assumed) embarrassment of his dishonorable burial?

James McGrath has responded to my question and an interesting discussion has begun in the comment section at his blog - Exploring Our Matrix.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Our Gift of Myrrh - A Sermon for Epiphany

Epiphany properly begins in darkness.
 Arise, shine; for your light has come; and the glory of Yahweh has risen on you.
For see, darkness covers the earth, and blackness the people,
            but Yahweh rises upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Nations will walk to your light, and kings to your rising brightness.
 (Isaiah 60: 1-2)

And the darkness began about 600 years before the birth of Jesus

The people of Israel had sinned.  They had displeased and disappointed Yahweh God, the Lord of heaven.  They had failed to keep their covenant with him. The holy people of God – his treasured possession – had become a kingdom of violence and bloodshed, of murder and exploitation.  So in the year 586 B.C. the Babylonian Empire led by King Nebuchadnezzar became the hammer of God and was used by God to smash the nation of Israel. What wasn't destroyed was carried away into captivity and slavery. 

A generation lived and died in captivity, but a remnant remained.  A remnant was preserved to return to Israel.  They were allowed to leave the land of their captivity and to make the journey back to the land promised to their fathers.  It should have been a time of rejoicing.

But it wasn't all celebration and dancing.  Though they had returned to their homeland, they discovered that you really can’t go home again.  It was all gone.  All that they remembered was gone.  They remembered the glory and honor of King Saul, and King David, and King Solomon, but now there was no king; there was only a puppet who answered to rule of the now dominant Persian Empire.  They remembered the marvelous temple built by King Solomon.  They remembered its splendor.  But now there was no Temple.  It had been pulled down by the Babylonian invaders.  And when the people of Israel had rebuilt the temple, the oldest among them wept at the sight of it because it was so inferior to the temple of their memories.

They were poor.  They were friendless.  They were broken and in despair. Their expectations had been shattered and they had no hope for the future. This was their darkness.  This is the situation of the people to which the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said:  “Arise, shine; your light has come.”  The prophet was speaking words of hope to a destitute people whose expectations had been shattered.  He was giving them a sign that the light would not be swallowed up by eternal darkness.

In addition to having a connection with the idea of light and darkness, this passage from Isaiah is associated with Christmas and with Epiphany because of the reference to the Kings of the east who come bearing gifts:

…the wealth of the nations [will] come to you; camels in throngs will fill your streets, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; everyone in Saba will come, bringing gold and frankincenseand proclaiming Yahweh’s praises.  (6)
There they are, right, the gifts of the magi?  Gold, Frankincense and …. Oh, wait.  Isaiah doesn't mention a third gift.  Isaiah doesn't mention Myrrh.

Gold, we know.  We recognize the value of Gold.  We understand what it symbolizes: it is wealth and royalty. It was a gift for Jesus our king.  Frankincense was the incense used by the priests in the temple, and symbolized the name of God.  It was a gift for Jesus our High Priest.  But what of myrrh?  
Myrrh – that third gift mentioned by Matthew – is an aromatic gum, the sap of a tree that grows in Arabia and Eastern Africa. The trees are cut with a knife; the sap oozes out and hardens into “tears” that are collected.  The tears of myrrh were sometimes crushed into powder and worn by women as an aromatic sachet.  Or the myrrh powder could be mixed with wine – this custom is, apparently a newly re-discovered fad in some up-scale clubs.  Wine mixed with myrrh was used as a palliative or pain killer – and was offered to Jesus as he was dying on the cross.

And this leads us to the main association of myrrh – death.  Myrrh, though quite expensive (at times valued more than its weight in gold) was commonly used in the embalming of corpses and burned to mask the stench of death.  Myrrh is a symbol of death and dying.

This is hardly a sign of hope.  And what kind of birthday gift is myrrh?  It was hardly appropriate.   Would you bring a pre-paid funeral package as a gift to a new-born?   And would this register to you as a symbol of Hope and Light and Glory? 

No.  The word “myrrh” itself is derived from the Hebrew word “marror” which is “bitterness.”  The hardened pieces of sap are referred to as “tears.”  This doesn't sound like Hope and Light and Glory.

Isaiah 60 is not strictly a prediction of Jesus’ birth, though the prophecy is associated by Matthew and the coming of the kings of the east with their gifts.  It is a message of hope, of dawning light into a world of darkness.  It is a promise that the people of God would not be left destitute and alone.  It is a promise that the glory of God would again dwell within the people of Zion

It is the promise of peace – peace both from external aggression and from internal sin and lawlessness.  It is the promise of security.  It is the promise of blessing; the blessing that comes from dwelling in the presence of God.

It is the promise of gold and frankincense… and though it isn't mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecy, it is the promise of myrrh.  God’s plan for his people was to bless them and give them the glorious light of his presence, but that promise included something difficult – the myrrh, symbol of death and bitterness and tears.

But why?  Why is there suffering?  Why is there pain?  Why did God send the blessing of his son, the glory of his presence knowing full well that Jesus would be arrested, tortured, and assassinated?  Couldn't we just have the promise as spoken by Isaiah, of eternal shalom?

No more will the sun give you daylight, nor the moonlight shine on you,But Yahweh will be your everlasting light,your God will be your splendor.Your sun will set no more, nor will your moon wane,for Yahweh will be your everlasting lightand your days of mourning will be over. (19 – 20)

Your days of mourning will be over? Really?  Can we read the story of the Magi’s arrival and their gifts and just leave off the myrrh?  Can we leave it out?   Can we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and leave off the desperate flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the murderous wrath of King Herod, or the slaughter of innocent children?  Can we just leave out the “bad” bits?  No, that wouldn't be true. 

Well then, maybe we should say, as some do, that our light hasn't come yet, that these promises of light and glory, and salvation, and peace are still held in some distant future.  Someday, they say, all will be well and all will be well.  Someday, Jesus will come again and then everything will be put to right. We just have to put up with the darkness until then…

But, again, I say, no.  That’s not true either.  The Light has come. The glory of Yahweh has risen upon us. (60:1) The kingdom of light, and life, and glory, and peace – God’s kingdom – is here, now, made visible in the person of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and to whom the magi brought gifts of gold, and frankincense, and… myrrh.

Somehow we have to reconcile that God’s peace, God’s shalom, God’s glory involves pain. We have to accept that the splendor of the heavenly Jerusalem involves pain.  The plan for our salvation came at great pain to God himself.  The suffering and torture and despair that Jesus felt, was felt by God.  God suffered.  God suffered for us.  God suffered with us.  The myrrh that Jesus received from the magi was for our death; for our embalming.  Our pain, our death, our despair, is taken up while his glory, his grace, his love, his peace is brought down to us through his death and resurrection.
 The prophet Isaiah, speaking to the disheartened Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon, described the glory and splendor of Jerusalem.  He said to them:

Arise, shine out, for your light has come,
and the glory of Yahweh has risen on you.Look!  Though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples,on you Yahweh is risingand over you his glory can be seen.
Though night still covers the earth, even though darkness still lays thick over the people who don’t know God, on you Yahweh is rising. His glory is shining on you and in you.

In the New Testament, John also received a vision of the glory and splendor of Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem.  He described what he saw when he wrote:

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride dressed for her husband.  Then I heard a loud call from the throne, “Look, here God lives among human beings.  He will make his home among them; they will be his people. And he will be their God, God-with-them.  He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain.  The world of the past has gone.
Then the One sitting on the throne spoke, “Look, I am making the whole of creation new.  Write this, “What I am saying is trustworthy and will come true.”’ Then he said to me, “It has already happened…”
  (Revelation 21: 2 – 6)

It has already happened?  What?  The Heavenly Jerusalem is here?  Within us?  Now?  What about the fact that we still hurt? What about the fact that we still cry?  Why are there still tears?  Doesn’t it say that God will wipe away all our tears?

Myrrh… tears….

I love that it says that God will wipe away all our tears.  It’s a special promise, not one to be discounted or overlooked.  But it’s not a promise for some far off distant future.  It’s a promise that is for us now.  The promise that he will wipe our tears away isn't a one time deal; once done and then no more.

When I hurt, when I am crushed, when I cry, God is there. Or, rather, God is here – with me – holding me, crying with me, and wiping away my tears. He is receiving them as a gift, just as he received the gold and the frankincense.  He is receiving my tears – my myrrh as a gift, and is giving me his grace, and love, and peace, and glory.

We exchange gifts at Christmas, and during Epiphany we remember the gifts that the magi gave to the infant Jesus: Gold – a symbol of his royalty, Frankincense – a symbol of his Divinity, and Myrrh – a symbol of his death, and our death. 

We've exchanged gifts with each other for Christmas.  Now, during Epiphany, let’s exchange gifts with Jesus.  Give him your myrrh.  Give him your hurt and your despair; your sadness and pain.  Give him your death – the result of sin.  And receive from him the splendor of Jerusalem – the Light of his presence, the glory of his kingdom, the peace of his love. 

Arise, shine, for the light has come..... 
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