“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed.

With the Christmas story from Luke in mind, Cappeau began to imagine actually being in Bethlehem and watching the events of that night unfold, and he soon completed the poem, which he entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church and became part of the socialist movement, and French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” (Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress.)

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,

And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin, and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

(The above material taken from “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins, Copyright (c) 2001, Andrew Collins. Published by Zondervan.)

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

One of my favorite versions of this hymn is by Point of Grace. I hope you enjoy it.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.

Hello, I Must Be Going

A little over two years ago, my family and I moved into a beautiful, spacious home on Abilene’s far north side, to continue doing the work of meeting neighbors, building relationships, and serving the community. It has been a very enjoyable time, we love this house, and we have made some wonderful friends among our neighbors in the North Park neighborhood.

npfh-sw-1And we’re leaving.

About a year ago, my colleagues and I at CCC began asking some very hard questions about ourselves and the work we are doing in Abilene neighborhoods; the result of those conversations was to decide that as an organization, we were not being as effective as we would like to be. The work of building relationships is great work, but relationships in and of themselves will not bring about the kind of community renewal that we all want to see. Creating the social capital of bringing neighbors together is great, but you have to then “invest” that social capital in ways that make sense.

npfh-se-2Part of the way CCC had been doing things was to have several community coordinators – that’s my “official” job title – and place each coordinator in a separate neighborhood. Some of those neighborhoods were small; some were enormous. Some coordinators enjoyed focusing on kids and families; some were more interested in working on “bigger picture” issues. All of us wanted to bring about the “safe, caring, whole community” our mission statement envisions – we just weren’t sure that the strategy we were following was going to get us there.

We talked with a lot of people. We read books from numerous experts in this field. We sought input and approval from our board. And at the end of that process, we decided that what was needed was for all the coordinators to live in the same neighborhood, so that we could more effectively work together – to share the load and to take advantage of our various gifts and talents, and also to support each other, so that one individual was not having to be responsible for an entire neighborhood by himself or herself.

From there, we naturally began to ask, “Which neighborhood?” And again, following a lot of discussion, we settled on College Heights as being the most logical choice. The irony, of course, is that College Heights is the neighborhood where my family and I lived for over six years, in the old Friendship House there, before we moved to North Park. For a lot of reasons, though, College Heights makes the most sense as the place to refocus our team efforts. We talked with our partners; we talked with our funders.

Then I had to confirm to my family that we were, indeed, going to have to leave this beautiful house.

There have been a lot of logistics in all this. Buy or rent? New or old? How large? Which section of the neighborhood? We searched for over eight months, until we finally found a small house in the southeastern part of College Heights that we think will work for us. It’s currently being re-habbed, and we should be able to start moving sometime by mid-October.

To be honest, we’re not sure what will be happening with the North Park Friendship House. It could become CCC’s administrative offices, and continue to serve as a venue for neighborhood events; there are other options as well. Certainly, we want to carry on the wonderful relationship we have had with Hardin-Simmons University, and CCC is definitely planning to have an ongoing presence in the North Park neighborhood.

This move will be an adjustment for our family, to be sure. Like many older homes, our new house has precious little storage space, so we’re having to downsize and get rid of a bunch of stuff. It’s a two bedroom home with a living room and dining room, but less than half of the square footage of our current home, and certainly without the large community room for hosting events. It will take some getting used to, but it will be fine, and I’m looking forward to renewing friendships with some of the neighbors in that immediate area, and to making new friends, too.

I’m especially looking forward to continuing to partner with my CCC colleagues, to loving neighbors in Jesus’ name, and to helping build a stronger, safer, better community by building relationships one neighbor, one home, one block at a time.

So, farewell, North Park. You have blessed us and welcomed us into your lives, and we’ve enjoyed being your neighbors for the last couple of years.  We look forward to continuing as friends. And hello again, College Heights. It’s good to be back.

Here we go.

 

 

 

God Helps

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately studying the parables, in connection with the Bible class I’m teaching on Sunday mornings. Last week, we looked at the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible – I’ll wait. Or click here to open another window with that text.)

One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people, since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other known parable.

I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name, and doesn’t have to mean anything other than a good storyteller giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.

One thing that I’ve learned in my recent study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.

That’s especially true with this text. To one writer, this story is the perfect opportunity to preach that the actions we take in this life have permanent, eternal consequences. Another guy used it to talk about the reality of a literal heaven and a literal hell. Others had even more far-fetched interpretations. Now, some of what these guys say is undoubtedly true, but in my opinion, they miss the point Jesus is trying to make.

To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself, but failing to become “rich toward God.”

Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.

His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?

It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves “off the hook.” But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? Who is the neighbor living in unwanted isolation, hoping for a knock on the door? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.

Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?

Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.

Thoughts on Juneteenth, 2015

On this date in 1865, black slaves in Texas learned they were free. The date has been celebrated as “Juneteenth” in Texas and elsewhere ever since. And now that same week, in another part of the Old South, a young man gives expression to his hatred and murders nine innocent people. Really? A hundred and fifty years later, this is where we still are as a nation?

What happened in South Carolina is not primarily an attack on Christianity; neither is it primarily about gun violence, although that’s the direction the politicians on the right and left are trying to spin it.

What happened is about race. It is about hate. And all Americans have to acknowledge it, and in humility ask if we are part of the problem, or part of the solution.

Some white Americans have got to stop pretending that institutional racism doesn’t exist, and admit that black people in this country have a long way to go, just to level the playing field. To quote Ann Richards, some folks are born on third base, and think they hit a triple.

Meanwhile, some black Americans have got to stop blaming white folks for every problem, and take some responsibility for their actions.

But I’m white, so let me speak to that side of things. Getting some whites to acknowledge the level of racism that still exists in this country is next to impossible. Want a very subtle example?

I see commercials all the time for prominent churches here in town, and all the folks are smiling, and seem genuinely warm and friendly. But when I look closer, I notice that all the people are white. And kids are overwhelmingly blonde. And judging by the way they’re dressed, they’re all comfortably middle-class. The unspoken, subliminal message is pretty clear – “You can come to church here, if you look like us and know how to act.”

I can feel some of you getting defensive. You might say, “We would welcome those people if they would come.”

We are all “those people.” Jesus came to find us. And He sent us to do the same. We’ve got to be intentional about building bridges and making friends, and quit waiting on other folks to make the first move. I’m pretty sure the Great Commission didn’t say, “Go into all the world and build pretty buildings, and welcome anyone who shows up.”
I remember as a young man when integrating schools and “forced busing to achieve racial desegregation” were the issues. And I remember the marches, and the race riots of the 1960s, and “We Shall Overcome.” And I remember a restroom marked “Whites Only.”Fifty years later, things are different. Sort of. As a white guy, it seems to me that things are better in some ways, and worse in others.I wish I knew what the answer was. I certainly realize that we won’t solve this until Jesus returns and brings the Kingdom in its fullness. But I don’t think that means we can sit around on our Blessed Assurance and do nothing until then. I don’t know what that answer is, but I know that it will take people of good character on both sides who are willing to talk. And listen.We need to be intentional about making friends with people who are not like us. We’re going to be in heaven with one another for an awfully long time. Maybe we ought to start getting to know one another before then.Let it begin with me.

Lessons from St. Patrick

One of my favorite days of the year, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – is almost here. It’s one of my favorites not because I especially love wearing green, but because there really was a man named Patrick who deserves to be remembered.

Patrick was not Irish by birth, but was actually born in England or Wales in the late 300s. By his own account, he was NOT a Christian as a young man. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he stayed for six years. He spent much of that time tending sheep, and he also became a believer. Eventually he managed to escape his captors and return to Britain, but after studying for the priesthood, he had a vision of the people of Ireland begging him to return to their island and bring them the gospel.

Ireland at the time was a coarse, pagan land – tribal chieftains competing for power, constant battles, the people worshiping various pagan gods and goddesses, widespread kidnapping and slavery. Patrick brought his faith, and in one generation, Ireland was at peace and slavery had been abolished.

How he brought about such a great social change is too long a story to relate here, but part of it involved Patrick selecting a group of young disciples and pouring himself into them. He would spend about three years, teaching them and showing them how to walk out their faith – then he would send them on their way to put their Christianity into practice. Some of them would become farmers, some shepherds, some craftsmen – and some would become pastors and begin gathering followers of their own. Meanwhile, he would gather up another group of a dozen or so, and start over.Green_Celtic_Cross_by_dashinvaine

Their influence spread, and it changed the entire culture. For Patrick and his students, Christianity was not a set of doctrines to be studied – it was a way of life to be followed. The message of the gospel wasn’t just about saving people’s souls – it was about making a real difference, improving people’s lives in the here and now. Celtic Christianity wasn’t about going to church to find God – it was about recognizing that God shows Himself in every sunrise and sunset, every blade of grass and mountain stream, and we can see Him through His creation, if we will just look.

There are many legends about Patrick; one says that he used the three-leafed shamrock (already a sacred plant in Irish life) to teach the people the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If that’s true, it certainly fits with what we know of Patrick’s teaching that we should never worship creation, but that the creation points us to the Creator, and we do worship Him.

If you want to learn more about Patrick, I suggest How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I think it’s one of the most entertaining history books ever written.

So Happy St. Patrick’s Day. And Erin Go Bragh!

Grayburg Memories

(Dear Readers – I’m taking a few days off, so with your kind permission, I’m re-running a blog post from 2013. Thanks and God bless.)

Grayburg.  That was the little community where his grandparents lived, and he loved going to visit.

His grandparents lived in a small white house on two lots, with two gigantic sycamore trees in the front yard.  He loved everything about the place, and he especially loved that during the summer, he could come and stay for a week, and have his grandparents all to himself.

His grandmother’s name was Sallie, and when the boy was little, he had a hard time knowing what to call her.  His other grandmother was “Grandma,” so he tried calling her by the name he heard other people calling her.  But she wouldn’t allow him to call her “Sallie.”  So somehow, “Sallie” became “Sa Sa.”

There was lots to love about going to Grayburg.  The boy loved walking down to see Sa Sa’s sister, Aunt Bib.  Her name was Vivian, but everyone called her Bib.  Aunt Bib was cool.  She taught him how to play dominoes, and how to do leathercraft.  And she had a BB gun he could shoot!  She also had bee hives, and always had lots of fresh honey, whipped into a creamy spread for morning toast.  And when he spent the night, she would let him get up in her bed, and they would put the covers up over their heads, and hold flashlights, and she would tell great stories.  Her version of “Three Little Pigs” was the best.

There was another sister, too – Aunt Hazel.  So Grayburg had lots of family connections.

Walking from Sa-Sa’s to Aunt Bib’s house was an adventure.  The streets were paved with old-timey blacktop, and in the summer, the sun’s heat would soften them to the point that the boy could push down into the pavement and made little dents with his feet.  He thought that was really cool.

Sa-Sa was a great cook, and his favorite was her chicken and dumplings.  The dumplings weren’t the lumps of dough that most people made – hers were more like thick, wide strips of chewy deliciousness.  She would take a hen, and put it in a pressure cooker for hours to tenderize the meat.  And she had another secret – when she was making the dough for the dumplings, instead of adding water to the flour, she would add chicken stock.  The flavor was amazing.  As was the smell going through the entire house.  And the hissing and clattering of the pressure cooker as the steam vented and did its thing.

There was a lady who came and helped Sa-Sa with her cooking and cleaning, an old black lady somewhere between the ages of 60 and 200.  Her name was Daisy, and she was wrinkled and thin with wiry gray hair, but she had a smile that could light up a room.  Daisy had been Sa-Sa’s friend and helper as far back as the boy could remember.  Farther than that – his mother said that Daisy had been a fixture in their home for almost as long as SHE could remember.

One of the boy’s earliest memories was going with his mother Sa-Sa and driving WAY back in the Piney Woods of East Texas, to an old shack where Daisy’s mother lived.  It was important to the boy’s mother, for reasons he didn’t understand.

Of course, one of his favorite parts about Grayburg was the trains.  Sa-Sa’s house was only a block or so away from the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and Beaumont, and on to New Orleans.  So there were lots of trains.  There was a long siding there, where trains would stop and pass each other, and a small yard where pulpwood was loaded onto flat cars, to be taken to sawmills.  And there was a small station there.  It was a sort of creamy yellow-beige color, with dark brown trim.  There was a freight deck on one side, and the station had a bay window where the agent could look down and see trains without having to leave his desk.

Inside, the station was painted in a tired ivory color, that might have been pretty at some point, but now was just dull and sad.  There was a potbellied stove for the occasional cold days, and a ticket window with an iron grill where you could buy passage to all points.  And there was a single small restroom in the corner.  Over the restroom door was a small metal sign.

Whites Only.

One time, the boy asked his dad about it.  “But, if Daisy were here and needed to go, where would she go?” he asked in all childhood innocence.

As it turns out, there was an outhouse out in the weeds and mud at the edge of the railyard.  His dad pointed out to the old privy and said, “I guess she would have to go there.”

The boy just looked at his dad.  He didn’t say anything else.  But all he could think about was how unfair that was.

EPILOGUE: This story takes place in about 1961 or 62.  And it’s a true story, because I was that little boy.  And what I remember was how many people seemed content with things as they were, and seemed not to notice unfairness.

And I guess my point is this – Jim Crow segregation laws are long since a thing of the past, thank God.  But unfairness and prejudice are still with us.  In society.  In our churches.  And in our hearts.  Jesus told us to pray for God’s Kingdom to come.  Surely the first place it must come is to our own hearts and our own lives.  And that means being willing to notice unfairness wherever it is.  And to work to change it.

No matter how uncomfortable it might make us.

Remembering Dr. King

MLKDr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a personal hero of mine. I think there was so much to admire about him. He consistently stood for justice, for peace, and for non-violence. He believed in the Kingdom of God, and he believed that Christians, regardless of color, ought to do all they can to create outposts and colonies of God’s Kingdom here on earth – to create what he called “beloved community.”

When I was in grad school, I did a project on Dr. King’s rhetorical skills, looking at the way he was able to take traditional black preaching styles – with its use of storytelling, rhythmic phrasing, and uplifting hopefulness – and combine that with the logic and power of traditional white sermon styles. (And thanks to my lifetime friend from college, Kurt Stallings, for giving me the idea!) In the process, I read just about everything that Dr. King ever said or wrote. I was absolutely blown away by the body of his thoughts.

Many of us are familiar only with his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, and obviously, that’s wonderful. But there is much more, so on this day set aside to honor him, I will let him speak for himself.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’

 

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.

 

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

 

The time is always right to do what is right.

 

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

 

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

 

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.

 

The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.

 

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus and extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

 

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

 

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

 

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey Gad rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment… By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club.

 

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

Just My Two Cents Worth

Let me say from the start, that I know a lot of people – including many of my friends – will be upset with what I am going to say here. Some because they will think I have gone too far. Others, because they will think I have not gone far enough.

I want to tell you a story about a neighbor; let’s call him Jose. That’s not his name, but that’s what we’ll call him. Jose is in his early 40s, a good husband and loving father. He is a roofer, pays his taxes, and works hard for a living, frequently putting in very long days on brutally hot roofs.

And Jose is in this country illegally.

When he was a baby, his parents brought him and his siblings across the border – illegally. Eventually, his parents and his brother and sisters were able to get their status changed and become American citizens. Unfortunately (I think because of some paperwork errors), their new status did not apply to him, and so he remained illegal.

Jose eventually learned English, got married, got a good job, and began raising his family. Then he was caught in a surprise raid at a job site, and deported. He found out that even though he was technically a Mexican citizen, because he had been taken out of that country while still a baby, there was no record of him being born there, or ever living in Mexico, and so he couldn’t get any kind of paperwork from that government, and had no legal status there. As far as that country was concerned, he did not exist.

He came back to America, determined to get through whatever bureaucracy he had to in order to become a legalized citizen. But before he could make that happen, he got caught again. And deported again.

So now, because he has been deported twice, he is permanently ineligible for citizenship.

I have lost track of Jose. The last I heard, he had gotten back across the border, and was back with his family. But I don’t know any more than that.

I don’t know if the rule changes announced last week will apply to him or not. I hope they do. I do know that a family has been torn apart, and a good man caught in a political mess, mostly through no fault of his own.

So there’s a lot I don’t know. I’ll tell you what I DO know, and what I do think.

I know that we must have better security on the border. We obviously have to be vigilant against terrorists coming across. We cannot have open borders, and I know we cannot have programs that promise citizenship to anyone who can find their way across.

On the other hand, I know we must not allow ourselves to be swallowed up in the “climate of unreasoning fear” which now seems to grip our country. We must not be so anti-immigrant that we forget that very few of those of us now living here now, had families who were here when the Pilgrims landed.

I think we need to remember that the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants are NOT like the headline-grabbers who make the news and are taking benefits they are not entitled to. In my experience, the illegals I have known pay their taxes, don’t take any benefits, get taken advantage of by their bosses and landlords. They mind their own business, and live in constant fear of being caught and deported.

I agree with President Reagan, who said in 1984, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots here and have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

I know that over and over again, God urges His people to care for the alien, the widow, the orphan – to plead the case of the defenseless, to care for those in distress. I know that those scriptures still apply.

And I’ll tell what else I think. I think if it was a bunch of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Canadians sneaking across the border into Montana or North Dakota, we’d be having a different conversation.

Seeking Shalom

One of the most fascinating Hebrew words in that language’s vocabulary is the word for “peace:” shalom. It can be used as a greeting, both at the meeting of friends, as well as leaving; when someone wants to ask, “How are you?”, the question is literally phrased, “How is your peace?” And a typical blessing would be, “Shalom aleikhem” – “Peace be unto you.”

Far more than just the absence of conflict, “shalom” can mean wholeness, health, or even prosperity, depending on its context. It refers to a sense of completeness and well-being in every phase of one’s life, but especially in terms of one’s relationships with others.

That’s why it’s so interesting to me that when God was warning the Israelites about the impending Babylonian captivity, God told them, “Seek the peace (shalom) of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7). In other words, God is telling them not to act like a bunch of strangers, but to settle down, live their lives, know their neighbors, and make a difference in the city there.

It seems to me that’s a message we need to hear today.

So many times people seem to not care about what’s happening in the lives of neighbors around them. Their attitude seems to be that they will go to work, go to church, care for their families, mow their yards, and they go about their business with a sort of, “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone” attitude. Unfortunately, that’s not what God asked of them.

Even many Christians seem to approach life by saying, “This world stinks, life is not fair, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Heaven will be better, so let’s not worry about doing anything now, and God will make everything right in the sweet, by and by.” But when Jesus commanded His followers to pray to God, “Thy Kingdom come,” He meant NOW, not someday.

What things are going on around me that don’t look like the Kingdom of God? Is there any injustice? How can I speak up against it? Are there businesses that take advantage of people? Am I willing to spend more somewhere else, in order to work for justice?

What about loneliness? There will be no loneliness in the Kingdom of God. So who of my neighbors is lonely, and how can I be a better friend?

There are other examples, but you get the picture.

Of course, I certainly understand from the Christian point of view, that the Kingdom of God will not come in its full glory and power until Jesus returns. But that doesn’t let me off the hook for doing what I can, in the here and now, to work to bring it about, wherever and however I can.

The word “seek” implies action, activity and effort. Diligence and persistence. When you’re seeking something, you’re not going to be easily distracted or discouraged, and you don’t plan to give up until you get it. So if God tells us to seek shalom – peace – then that means we keep working, we keep striving, we keep dreaming, of a society where we enjoy peace and wholeness, health and well-being, in every phase of our lives.

The Bible calls Jesus the “Prince of Peace (Shalom),” and He has called His followers to be “peacemakers.” God promised that it was in seeking the peace and well-being of the city around us, that we would find peace and well-being in our own lives.

Shalom. st_francis_prayer_2

God in the ‘Hood

Ask most people what Bible passages they think about in connection with Christmas, and they will often point to the well-known story of Mary & Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, from Luke 2. Some people will throw in Matthew 2, and the story of the Wise Men, and the Christmas Star, the wicked King Herod and the murder of the innocents. Those are certainly great stories, and they for sure give us the details of Jesus’ birth.

But that’s not my favorite Christmas Bible verse.

The scripture verse I like best at this time of year is John 1:14. Most translations will say something like, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory – glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” But I especially like the way that the Bible paraphrase “The Message” puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty good way of expressing exactly what Jesus did when he came to earth. Here’s what I mean.

Moving into a neighborhood reflects a choice. It’s possible to accidentally pass through a given area or section of town, but you don’t MOVE IN unless you mean to do so. Moving into a neighborhood means you chose it – and you probably chose it for a reason. There may be many different reasons why someone would pick a given neighborhood, but obviously, it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to do some planning, some preparation, and spend some time and effort in the process.

The Bible says that God sent Jesus “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). In other words, it wasn’t some kind of last-minute, half-hearted effort. It was a deliberate choice that the Father and the Son made to enter into our humanity, to provide the example of how we ought to live and the atonement for when we could not. Jesus chose to become like us, so that we could become like him.

Every neighborhood has its own blessings – and challenges. We all recognize that there’s no such thing as a perfect neighborhood; we also know that every neighborhood has its own unique advantages. If all we do is complain about problems, we will miss the good gifts around us.

When Jesus became human, he willingly accepted the limitations of his humanity. He couldn’t be everywhere at once any more. He accepted the frailties of a physical body. He voluntarily limited himself so that he could fully experience the human condition. But he also received the blessing of feeling wonder at the beauty and marvel that is creation, and could understand from personal experience the love of the Father for his children.

Neighborhoods invite relationships. When we live close to others, we build relationships. Not every neighbor becomes a best friend, but we understand the value of good neighbors and looking out for each other.

As a “neighbor,” Jesus has entered into our lives, and he invites us to enter into a relationship with him. Really, that’s what Christianity is – not going to church, not keeping a bunch of rules, but being in a relationship with Jesus, sharing life together. As the commercial says, it’s not complicated.

Jesus said that one of the two most important commandments was to love our neighbors as ourselves. He demonstrated that truth by becoming a neighbor to us, and inviting us to become his neighbor and friend, both now and into eternity.

Jesus in the manger. God in the neighborhood. Merry Christmas.