Remembering Bethlehem

December 24, 2012

I blushed, then smiled, to have stumbled onto Christmas in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I had entered merely as a Sunday tourist when I heard the Roman Catholic congregation in the left chapel celebrating the twelfth day of Christmas. In the worship space straight ahead, the little Armenian Orthodox congregation was observing their Christmas Day. Clumsy tourism aside, I was moved to arrive on this day where Christians have celebrated Christmas in a church on this site for 1700 years.

What I discovered down in the Grotto of the Nativity, the stable-cave below the church, at first rattled my Quaker sensibilities. But take away the abundant candles, the lamps, the decorative hangings, and the marble floor with its 14-point silver star marking the very spot of Jesus’ birth, the cave seemed pretty plain. As a German family knelt a few steps away at the Chapel of the Manger and sang “Stille Nacht,” I thought, “If not here, probably like here.” Hidden, barren. Who would even notice? It’s hard to imagine still that shepherds would hurry to this place and beam with hopes of peace and joy when they discovered a newborn baby.

Cards and songs aside, the Bethlehem they hurried to was not serene and still. It was bustling and bursting at the seams, full of visitors grumbling at the census and Caesar’s taxes. The soldiers guaranteeing the “peace of Rome” controlled the crowds and counted heads. They had compelled many Josephs and maybe other too-pregnant Marys to return to their ancestral home to get on the tax rolls, whether or not they knew a cousin with a sleeper sofa.

Occupiers and rebels have often fought over this place. Bethlehem’s first Church of the Nativity was burned down in a rebellion after 200 years, and the one now standing has an odd, centuries-old entrance first designed to keep Ottoman horsemen out of the church. Even today concrete walls, fences, and trenches surround and squeeze this little town whose “peace” the occupying armies guarantee with tanks, F-16 fighter jets, and Apache helicopters.

Yet it is in bloody, troubled, turbulent Bethlehem that God acts, that God announces joy and peace. Bethlehem native and local Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb writes:

“Christians have to take Christmas in Bethlehem seriously, because on that holy night and in this very place, God chose to be very concrete, to take flesh, and to take our world very seriously. We Christians [in Bethlehem] are unafraid to face the brutal reality around us because we believe in a power mightier than walls and put our faith in a peace that exceeds all human understanding.” (Bethlehem Besieged, pp. 144-145)

Since I know that our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem steadily suffer violence and oppression, Raheb’s bold words encourage me. So do George Fox’ words to Friends enduring harassment and imprisonment: “Sing and rejoice, ye children of the Day and of the Light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt. … the Lamb shall have victory over them all.” (Epistle 227)

Yet some days it’s hard to sustain hope when the rising tide of evil crashes in and is even blessed in God’s name. People of faith have long, and rightly, struggled over this. In such times the Bible’s complaint psalms give us voice: “Why? How long? When will you do something, God?” But these psalms, too, even in the darkest times, remind us that God does act, that God will prevail.

In Bethlehem, with its obscurity and with its cast of unlikely heroes, God acted decisively. It surprised the shepherds; it scared Herod. It brings us hope, a hope in which to anchor, a hope in which to act. As Raheb points out, it is not enough to be “joyful peace talkers rather than blessed peacemakers.” The baby born in Bethlehem calls us all to live joyfully and boldly in the power of the Lord that is over all.

[This essay was first published in Quaker Life magazine and is now collected in Stepping in the Light: Life in Joy and Power, available at Friends United Press.]


Hubbub and Incarnation

December 18, 2012

Surrounded by the hubbub of Christmas, one friend worried that all this busy noise would overshadow the importance of Easter and the Resurrection. “Christmas doesn’t have much to do with anything,” he grumbled, “except the Incarnation …if you stretch it a little.”

I want to assume he giggled a little as he grumbled. After all, the Incarnation, the Eternal Word becoming human, is a big deal, even if we don’t know exactly how to talk about it. Early on in seminary, Alan Richardson’s book Creeds in the Making taught me that there are lots of ways to get it wrong, and that Christians in the early centuries of the Church discovered most of them. Whatever confused thoughts we have now are usually just re-runs, though they can still stir up mischief.

Some folks focus mostly on Easter and even at Christmas sing that Jesus came to die. But the Incarnation also means that Jesus came to live, to move into the neighborhood, to show us what God is like, and to show us what being human is like. We struggle to find ways to say that Jesus entered fully into our human condition and was the most extraordinary human we’ve ever known.

Many portray Jesus mostly as a man of sorrows, one who entered into and shared our grief. As Cal Samra points out, most Christian art historically, and even now, shows Jesus as sad, burdened, morose, or, at best, with flat affect. So it’s hard for many to picture Jesus also as a man of joy, a person whose deep love and healing power takes root in joy and embodies the announcement of “good news of great joy.”

The film “Matthew,” featuring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, captures this joy better than most movies about Jesus that I know. Having read Sherwood Wirt’s stirring book Jesus, Man of Joy, Marchiano describes what he discovered in reading the Bible to prepare for his acting:

“…it became so blatantly obvious I couldn’t believe I’d never caught it before. Suddenly it was everywhere, screaming from the pages of Scripture: joy!

“Jesus began jumping off the page at me as well – His realness and strength, the sparkle in His eyes, the spring in His gait, the heartiness in His laugh, the genuineness of His touch; His passion, playfulness, excitement, and vitality: His JOY!

“Yes, Jesus smiled; yes, Jesus laughed. Jesus smiled bigger and laughed heartier than any human being who’s ever walked the planet. It’s been revelation to a lot of people both in and out of the church, their eyes opening wide after lifetimes of misunderstanding the Lord to be an aloof, pious, and sanctimonious figure. “ (Marchiano’s, In the Footsteps of Jesus, 77)

Most of the Amazon reviews of the movie are positive, though some felt that it lacked gravitas, that Jesus smiled and laughed too much, and that this certainly would not be faithful to the Bible, even though the movie uses only the NIV text. Some reviews sounded like this:

“The actor didn’t seem at all like Jesus is portrayed in the Bible. Instead of Jesus as the Alpha and Omega, the Good Shepherd, the Lord of Lords, Emmanuel, the Messiah, the King of Kings, etc. it was like this portrayal of Jesus was designed to bring Him down to our human level.”

Without stretching it even a little, the point of the Incarnation is that Jesus did live fully down at our human level. It is at once the most ordinary and most extraordinary human life we can imagine. Jesus’ life among us was the most fully authentic human we’ve ever seen, full of love, integrity, joy, grace, and truth. It shows us that Jesus has shared our common life, and it shows what it possible for human life. It gives us reason, in the midst of Christmas hubbub, loudly and often to belt out “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” and to “repeat the sounding joy.”


The Heavens Are Falling

December 15, 2012

As James Thurber recounts it, there was once a little red hen who, having felt something fall on her head, ran about the barnyard shouting, “The heavens are falling down!” much to the amusement of the other creatures. Yet even as they laughed and lampooned, “Suddenly with an awful roar great chunks of crystallized cloud and huge blocks of ice blue sky began to drop on everybody from above, and everybody was killed … for the heavens actually were falling down. Thurber’s moral? “It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they did.” (Fables for Our Time, p. 71)

We’re not short on warnings ourselves. Whether it’s Ms. Hen and Associates or pronouncements from the Department of Dire Warnings (DDW), lots of folks are glad to tell us the sky is falling: professional fear-mongers, neighbors and friends, talk show hosts, advertisers, the Heavens-Falling Division of DDW.

Sometimes the heavens actually are falling. Relationships fall apart, finances go south, good health disappears, leaders speak power to truth, and trusted social structures seem to go to the nether regions in a hand-basket. And we sit, dazed and devastated, surrounded by chunks of sky, or in Martin Luther’s hymn paraphrase, by a “flood of mortal ills.”

The poets of Psalm 46 sing at the prospect of precisely such a disaster: “Though the earth give way, and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” (v. 2) From a Hebrew point of view, “The heavens are falling.” The world is in chaos and enemies are at the gate. Yet they sing, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear …” (vv. 1-2, NIV)

Why not? Delusional fears are one thing, but real calamity is quite another. Fear makes sense, unless we know what the psalmists know. God is ever-present (or “ever-ready”) to help in the face of trouble. The singers call on two powerful images from Israel’s faith, both of which point to God’s great power and loving purposes.

The first image pictures the great fortress city that is God’s dwelling place, the seat of God’s universal reign. At the center of the world and above all other mountains (see Isaiah 2), its Eden-like waters flow to give security against siege warfare, but also to give life to all that it touches. (We see this river again in Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22, where abundance springs up constantly by its banks.) And the God who dwells in this city can melt creation with a shout as easily as establish it with a word.

The second image thrills to the marvel of God ending wars all over the world and piling their weapons on a bonfire. Certainly not all wars then or now have ended, yet God does end wars. Even more, God shares with us our longing for life and wholeness, shalom at its fullest, and God has the will and the power to carry it out. For this reason, we can know that no disaster can overmatch God’s power, no calamity can outstrip God’s love. George Fox knew this, too, in his confidence that “the power of the Lord is over all” and that “an infinite ocean of light and love flow[s] over the ocean of darkness and death.”

So when our worlds are falling apart, in the face of puzzlement and pain, the psalmists urge, “Be still.” (Psalm 46:10 NIV) Pause a while. Step back. Take a deep breath. Don’t panic. Don’t conjure up frantic contingency plans. Don’t alarm the whole barnyard. Remember who you’re dealing with. Let God be God, “a bulwark never failing.” Trust that the God over all is with us among the icy chunks. Lean into God. Be still.

[This has been a hard week for me and many of my friends. Though it’s not about humor, it seems right to share this piece I wrote some years ago for Quaker Life magazine, hoping that it might help. It is now collected in the book Stepping in the Light: Life in Joy and Power (Friends United Press).]


New Folks, New Jokes

December 11, 2012

Joining the Friendsview Retirement Community brought fun surprises. It’s a great place, but that’s no surprise, since my folks had lived here happily. But I get to hang out more often with some amazing older people, many of them mentors and friends whom I admired growing up. And I have been reunited with college friends and other peers, though frankly I don’t remember them as being so old.

Abundant humor surprised me as well. People joke all the time about creaky joints, balky parts, fuzzy eyes and straining ears, senior moments, and other losses that later life brings. Having walked in the shadows of memory gaps (“Over the Hill? I don’t remember any hill.”), they seem to laugh most of the time at jokes (or the same old joke) about always meeting new people and hearing new jokes.

I recently read a cranky review of a book on humor, objecting sharply to the author’s recommending jokes about aging and sickness. When you go through these experiences, the reviewer chided, it’s not funny, but painful. Yes, it’s often painful. But humor can help us deal with pain and loss.

As he grew older, my dad would often say, “Getting old is not for sissies.” He said it with a smile or a chuckle, but a smile that embraced the reality of loss, change, and even fear. Dad loved to tell jokes, even in his waning years. His repertoire of stories shrank as time went on, and he often didn’t know how many times he had told the same story to the same people. (They did.) Eventually he came to having only one story to tell, and he had it written in the back of his pocket calendar so he could read it aloud. It was a good story, one he loved, about how two friends who had just arrived in heaven were so thrilled with its beauty and wonders that they ribbed each other, “We could have been here sooner if we hadn’t eaten all that oats and bran.”

Occasionally I watch reruns of good television shows I never had time to enjoy when I was teaching. The advertising, though, rattles me a bit. The ads promote hearing aids, breathing machines, jumbo button phones, motorized scooters, comfy catheters, pills to make me an “Ageless Male” (the man I “used to be,” though I don’t much recognize him), walk-in bathtubs, and much more. They offer an enticing blend of help and denial. Sometimes they annoy me; sometimes I laugh.

Laughing is healthier. It gives us courage to embrace the reality of our lives. Telling stories and making jokes helps us support one another as we laugh together about shared experiences, the humor of “You, too? Yup. Been there, done that.” Facing pain and loss with a smile, rather than denying them, shapes perspective and helps us discover new paths to joyful living.


The Humorless Gospel

December 4, 2012

The author was doing great identifying humor in the Bible – in Genesis, Judges, Esther, Jonah, in Jesus’ life and teaching, in Acts, and more – when he made a sourpuss call that stopped me in my tracks. He called the Gospel of John “the humorless gospel.” He said that it is “a definitively unlikely source” for humor and that it had a “dedicated anti-humor crusade” even though “there’s humor everywhere else in the New Testament.” How odd, I thought! “Good News (Gospel)” and “anti-humor” don’t go together at all.

So I started looking more closely. I noticed first of all that the author himself uses examples of humor from the Gospel of John. He thinks that the story of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well might be “humor-tinged.” (John 4) Maybe there’s some humor, too, in the account of the woman caught in adultery. (John 8) I suspect he’s right, of course, but it’s set me to exploring humor in this gospel more carefully.

Of course, I remember having laughed often at some of the stories in John, but I tested that with my New Testament colleague Paul Anderson, who knows John inside out and backwards, to make sure I wasn’t just being perverse. Well, he thinks I’m perverse, I’m sure, but he also agrees that John has good humor. One story we both find funny is how Jesus healed the man born blind. (John 9) The conversations between the man and the people, the Pharisees, his parents, and Jesus have great banter and twists and turns. It’s a great read-aloud story (slow down and see the give-and-take between the characters), particularly in a translation or paraphrase that uses contemporary language (for example, the New Living Translation or The Message).

Serious conversation often includes playful banter, and several interpreters I have read see them working together in Jesus’ conversation with the woman who comes to the well in Samaria. (John 4) Here and elsewhere, I find it helpful to remember the guide, “Imagine Jesus smiling.” Others also notice the humor in Jesus’ first “sign” when he turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. (John 2) I’ll keep re-reading John to think more carefully about other texts, including the report of the disciples dragging in a net “full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them.” It makes me smile to see fishermen remembering fish stories. (John 21:1-14)

At Paul’s suggestion I’m also reading a classic book about irony (not wrinkly) in the Gospel of John. (Specifically, Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel.) Defining “irony” is like catching a greased pig, or, as Duke more elegantly puts it, grabbing a handful of mist. But with its subtleties of double-meanings, understatement, of things being more than they appear, and of reversals and shifts, irony is one of the common devices of humor. Like satire, not all irony is funny. But it often is. In the Gospel of John, Paul Duke identifies “local irony” in particular sentences or phrases and irony extended though narratives, such as Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9. I’m looking forward to learning more from his book.

I’m reporting here the beginning of a journey, and I invite you to join me. Eventually I’ll identify the author who spoke of John as the “humorless gospel” because I actually wrote a hearty recommendation for his book. But in the meantime, I’ll be reading in John and about John, not only to identify humor, but also to see how humor might deepen our understanding. When you have good ideas, too, please share them with us all here at “Laughing Pilgrims.”


Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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