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.]


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).]


Thanks to all (at least more than both) my readers

December 18, 2011

Thanks to all of you who noticed that I neglected this blog for a long time and who were patient about it. The next post will give you a clue about that. Thanks also to newcomers who have discovered “Laughing Pilgrims” even in the dead-air time. I’m back with lots of ideas and high hopes to post once or twice a week. So welcome, keep coming back, tell friends, make a comment now and again.


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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