Saturday, December 31, 2011

Flying Money

            A few years ago I was surprised to receive a thank-you letter, and amazed to find a check for $50 in the envelope. I pondered the possibilities this little windfall offered:  Lunch at a restaurant with my girlfriends, a guilt-free visit to the book section at Ollie’s, or a new wardrobe from the thrift store.
            Then I recalled that my friends Lucy and Dan, Bible translators in Mali, Africa, had mentioned a fund to buy grain for nationals affected by drought and famine. Their letter said that $15 would feed an African family for a month. Remembering “God loves a cheerful giver,” (2 Corinthians 9:7) I decided I could cheerfully give $30, and still have $20 left to spend on something fun for myself. I quickly sent a check, since the need was immediate.
            And what did I do with the remaining $20? I have no idea what happened to that cash, as I experienced the truth of Proverbs 23:5:  “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” My fun money sprouted wings and flew away in one dollar increments. It saddened me to realize I missed the opportunity to invest more in my Father’s business.
            This December, I again witnessed the phenomenon of winged ones (and fives and tens and twenties). Unexpected dough arrived from three different sources, making Christmas shopping easier, and funding a much needed gad-about day with my good friend Robin. But too much of the money flew away while I thought only of my family, my friends, and myself. I forgot to bless those outside my little circle.
            I’ve often contemplated the relationship between guilt, gratitude, and giving. I’d like to figure it out and write about it. Maybe there’s a New Year’s resolution in there somewhere.
            In the meantime, maybe you’d like to join me in this prayer:
            Dear Father, Cultivate in your children a spirit that responds generously to those who hurt and need, and give us wisdom to use all the gifts you give us to the glory of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Eight Nights of Hanukkah

            The frenzy of Christmas is behind us—unless you count making returns, spending gift cards, and stocking up on wrap and cards for next year’s frenzy. Yesterday in Manhattan I witnessed the removal of the “Believe” banners that had been fluttering above the sidewalk outside Macy’s. Sad.
            However, Hanukkah continues one more night. So for my Jewish ancestors, relatives, and friends, and my Gentile students who have lit the menorah and eaten the latkes (but sadly not sufganiyot, maybe next year), I present my Yiddishized version of the Twelve Days of Christmas. (It’s a word if I say it’s a word.)
            When I shared this with my friend Israel Cohen, he said it had been done before, and even pointed me to some You Tube renditions. After watching them, I replied, “But not as well.”
            So please enjoy the best lyrics (mine) to the Eight Nights of Hanukkah. Please tell me when they appear on You Tube.

On the first night of Hanukkah my bubbe gave to me
A menorah from Eretz Yisrael.

On the second night of Hanukkah my bubbe gave to me
Two spinning dreidels
And a menorah from Eretz Yisrael.

On the third night of Hanukkah my bubbe gave to me
Three patriarchs
Two spinning dreidels
And a menorah from Eretz Yisrael.

On the fourth night of Hanukkah my bubbe gave to me
Four fighting Macabees
Three patriarchs
Two spinning dreidels
And a menorah from Eretz Yisrael.

On the fifth night of Hanukkah my bubbe gave to me
Five pieces of gelt
Four fighting Macabees
Three patriarchs
Two spinning dreidels
And a menorah from Eretz Yisrael.

On the sixth night of Hanukkah my bubbe gave to me
Six potato latkes
Five pieces of gelt
Four fighting Macabees
Three patriarchs
Two spinning dreidels
And a menorah from Eretz Yisrael.

On the seventh night of Hanukkah my bubbe gave to me
Seven sufganiyot
Six potato latkes
Five pieces of gelt
Four fighting Macabees
Three patriarchs
Two spinning dreidels
And a menorah from Eretz Yisrael.

On the eighth night of Hanukkah my bubbe gave to me
Eight glowing candles
Seven sufganiyot
Six potato latkes
Five pieces of gelt
Four fighting Macabees
Three patriarchs
Two spinning dreidels
And a menorah from Eretz Yisrael.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Journeys of Christmas 5

Christmas Day
            Thank you for traveling through Advent with me and the participants in the first Noel, none of whom were home for Christmas. I have one more traveler to write about as we reach Christmas Day. Of all the journeys made that long ago year, none spanned a greater distance than the one made by the Messiah himself. 

            He departed eternity and entered time, trading the expansive light of the universe for the small darkness of his mother’s womb.
            He departed an existence of equality with his father God, and entered a life limited by his new human flesh.
            He departed sovereignty and entered servanthood.

            His journey did not end in a rustic stable in Bethlehem or even on Galilee’s seashore decades later. His journey took him to a skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem and a rough wooden cross…but it did not end there.
            His journey continued into a chill, soundless tomb…but it did not end there.
            His journey culminated in a rebirth into resurrection life and a return to the place of highest honor at his father’s side.

            Because Jesus made such a journey, we are invited to come home for Christmas, home to God’s family.
            Several years ago, I brought a poem to my writers critique group, where a gifted poet gently suggested I should stick to prose. I ignored her, because some poems need to be shared, even if they rhyme.

The Teacher told a tale one day
about a son who runs away.
Sick of home and family rules,
he exits town and hangs with fools,
wastes his cash, then tends a pen
slopping hogs, till one day when
sense returns, he quits the dust,
and pencils a sign, Dad’s House or Bust.

Now here’s the part that really shocked:
The boy gets home, the door’s unlocked,
and Dad comes sprinting down the street,
his errant son to kiss and greet.

Likewise at my Father’s home,
the porch light glows for all to come
and feast on grace and hope and cheer,
because it’s always Christmas here.

Thank you, Jesus, for leaving your father’s home so that we could come home to your father.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Baby's First Christmas

            Carefully unwrapping cherished ornaments, I uncover Baby’s First Christmas 1979. The phrase suggests the family’s newest addition, who may be aged anywhere from infant-in-arms, like my firstborn son Kyle, a month old that year, to toddler-batting-Christmas-balls.
            But some of us come to Christmas much later. For me, Baby’s First Christmas occurred my thirteenth year.
            My family’s unusual religious heritage included a Jewish mother and a father who was a Jehovah’s Witness, not a recipe for a merry Christmas. After Christmas vacation, my schoolteacher allowed time for each child to tell a gift he or she had received. Already suffering the daily embarrassment of not saluting the American flag—Witnesses don’t—I just couldn’t announce, “We don’t celebrate Christmas.” Instead I lamely lied, “A doll.”
Around my eighth birthday, my family moved, we stopped attending the Kingdom Hall, and Daddy began to soften. Already a softie, Mommy would use any excuse to shower her five children with gifts.
            They first flirted with Christmas by taking us the day after to a huge discount store and allowing us to choose toys. The next year we opened presents on Christmas Day. Before long we added a tree, then outside lights and a huge wreath in our picture window. Finally, our friends stood wide-eyed in our huge living room, absorbing the spectacle of packages spreading out from the tree to the walls.
            Years of fasting had made us Yuletide gluttons.
            In my eleventh year, Mom ironed and neatly packed all of Dad’s shirts, then suggested he go live with his current girlfriend. As divorce negotiations proceeded, money was scarce, and Mom looked for a source of income that wouldn’t involve leaving my five-year-old brother with a sitter. She began working in the nursery of a little church, taking Timmy with her.
            After the Baptists learned about her family, they persistently asked, “When are we going to meet your other children, Doris?” She finally succumbed, and one wintry Sunday evening my siblings and I attended our first pot-luck supper, followed by a missionary slide show.
Mr. Roberts had visited Nicaragua with a work team, and now he bribed the skinny seventh-grade visitor, “If you come to my Sunday School class, I’ll give you a Nicaraguan quarter.” By the time he remembered to bring my quarter, I faithfully attended his class on Sunday mornings and Baptist Youth Fellowship on Sunday evenings.
That Easter Mr. Roberts arrived before dawn to transport the Tucker kids to their first sunrise service, followed by breakfast at the pancake house. Driving us to church and youth activities added many miles to the odometer of his green Plymouth, while snacks on the way home subtracted from his wallet.
Later that spring the Plymouth took us to see The Restless Ones, a film produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. After the film, Taffy, David, and I responded to the invitation. Counselors helped us find the words to pray as we asked Jesus to be our Savior and forgive our sins. A few weeks later Brett could no longer stand being left out, and also prayed to receive Jesus.
The following December, for the first time I looked beyond the holiday and saw the Holy One born in Bethlehem.
On Christmas Eve, Mom and my siblings gathered around the Gulbransen spinet organ (Model G) and sang carols, which I played from my Pointer System book. We read from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, then listened attentively while seventeen-year-old David preached his first sermon to his small congregation of younger brothers and sisters.
More than four decades have passed. Our parents are both gone, as is Mr. Roberts. My siblings and I share Christmas with our own spouses, kids, and grandkids, in five states from New Jersey to California.
Although there’s no commemorative ornament to hang on the tree, in my heart I cherish the forty-fifth anniversary of Baby’s First Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advertise the Miracle

            It’s the first night of Hanukkah, and I’m resting with my feet up after spending two and a half hours this evening (before and after a basketball game) making potato latkes from scratch. I made them for my students so that I can celebrate Hanukkah with four different Bible classes tomorrow at school.
            The first student who says they taste like hash browns is getting smacked.
            My five menorahs are candle-filled and waiting. Actually, we burned a set of candles in each last week when the judges for the decorating contest visited. (We won.) Little wooden dreidls wait, too; the kids have been playing with them since I put them out a few weeks ago. I have more in my closet, and everyone can take one home.
            Hanukkah matters to me for a couple of reasons. One is my Jewish heritage. My ancestors on my mom’s side probably observed the holiday for two millennia. (Thatsalotta heritage.) And the other is my Christian heritage. I believe that without Hanukkah, Christmas may not have happened. If the Maccabees had not stopped Antiochus, would Mary and Joseph have been raised as godly Jews, available and worthy to be chosen by God?
            I wrote the following thoughts a few years ago. I hope they bless you, even if you don’t have a Jewish bubbe.
Advertise the Miracle
            The window may be in a hovel in a village or a condo in a high-rise, a brownstone on a tree-lined city street or a split-level on a landscaped suburban lot. In the window, candle flames dance in an eight-branched candelabra. The illuminated menorah invites curiosity or inspires respect; it initiates ridicule or ignites persecution. Defying consequences, the ancient teaching stands that “the candelabrum should be kindled in a prominently visible place ‘to advertise the miracle’”1 of Hanukkah.
            While the event commemorated in the Hebrew month Kislev occurred in 164 BCE, Hanukkah originated more than a millennium earlier in the fire and smoke of the holy mountain, Sinai. There Moses heard God’s command to construct a traveling house of worship, the Tabernacle, and its furnishings, including a hammered gold lampstand—in Hebrew, menorah. Using pure olive oil, the seven flames of the lampstand were to burn perpetually before Yahweh, who had first spoken to Moses from a burning desert bush.
            Nearly 500 years later, King Solomon replaced the humble Tabernacle with a majestic Temple built in Jerusalem on a threshing floor purchased by his father, the shepherd-king, David. In this grand edifice Solomon placed not one, but ten golden lampstands to flame unceasingly before the Lord.
            All too soon, mighty empires conquered the Hebrew people. First the Assyrians ravaged their northern kingdom, then the Babylonians crushed their southern kingdom, desolating Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. Later the monarchs of the Persian Empire allowed the Temple to be rebuilt, and the menorah burned in Jerusalem again.
            When Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire, he acquired the tiny Hebrew nation, and granted the Jews freedom to worship Yahweh and practice their religious laws and traditions. One hundred fifty years later, Antiochus IV was not so kind. Called Epiphanes—the gods’ beloved—he was better known as Epimanes—the Madman.
            Antiochus outlawed Judaism in the Jewish homeland, forbidding Torah study, circumcision, and Sabbath observance. He erected altars to Greek gods in Jerusalem’s streets, placed a statue of Zeus in the temple, and slaughtered a pig on the altar.
            Five brothers, sons of a priest, rebelled against this outrage, and formed a band of guerrilla fighters. Their slogan—Who is like you among the gods, O Lord?—was in Hebrew an acrostic for maccabee, or hammer. Joined by farmers and peasants, and led by the priest’s son, Judah, they hid in mountain caves by day and destroyed pagan statues and attacked soldiers at night. Within a few years, this small, poorly-armed company defeated 40,000 soldiers and captured Jerusalem.
            The Jews reclaimed their Temple, purifying it from the Madman’s desecrations. As they prepared to relight the menorah, they unearthed one jar of oil, marked with the high priest’s seal, enough to sustain the lampstand for one day. Though producing ritually pure oil was a seven-day task, they kindled the flame, and it blazed as evening and morning marked the first day…and the second…and the third…and the fourth….Recalling the ancient miracles of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, one jar of oil multiplied to fuel the holy fire for eight days.
            And so each evening of Hanukkah adds another candle’s glow, until eight flames honor the heroic Maccabees and magnify the miracle-working God of the Jews…whatever the consequences. The menorah in the window whispers a message to us today, worshipers of God in an increasingly godless world.
            The light of our words and actions may invite curiosity or inspire respect; it may instigate ridicule or incite persecution. Fear cautions us to bolt the door and shutter the window. Faith counsels us to throw open the door, kindle our light and place it in the window.
            May we always choose faith and advertise the miracles of God.

1 Oxford Dictionary of Jewish Religion, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997, page 301.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Journeys of Christmas 4

Fourth Sunday in Advent
            As we reach the last Sunday in Advent, you may be making final (and even frantic) plans to travel. If so, you join the biblical characters who journeyed to participate in the first Christmas.
            We’ve already considered the angel Gabriel, Mary, and Bethlehem’s shepherds.
            Today we’ll investigate the wise men, or magi, whose voyage is shrouded in mystery. We long for more details than Matthew gives us in his Gospel. Who were the magi? How many traveled to Bethlehem? Where did they come from? How long was their journey? What exactly was the star they followed?
            The magi may have been Zoroastrian priests from Persia. They may have been advisers to their government, somewhat like the Old Testament prophet Daniel, who served the rulers of Babylon and Persia. Or perhaps they came from Arabia. They could have trekked from seven hundred to over one thousand miles.
            Where history falls short, legends have grown.
            From catacomb walls to church mosaics, works of art have depicted as few as two and as many as twelve magi. Three emerged as the favored number because they presented three gifts. Over the years the magi were given names and specific nations of origin, representing Asians, white Europeans, and black Africans. By the tenth century, they had become kings.
            Where legend falls short, science steps in.
Theories abound about the identity of the star: Saturn and Jupiter appearing together…or Venus and Jupiter…or a supernova…a comet…a meteor.
            We may never know the true identity and origin of these wise men or their guiding star, but we do know their purpose and destination. These mysterious men searched for a king, a newborn king of the Jews. They came to worship him and give him treasures worthy of royalty.
            We can excuse their error of first looking for a king in a grand palace in a nation’s capital. We would have done the same. When redirected to nearby Bethlehem, a small village with less than a thousand residents, they rejoiced enthusiastically. In Bethlehem the magi found no splendor, no servants, no semblance of royalty—just a simple dwelling, a young mother, and her son. Recognizing young Jesus as king of the Jews, they bowed with their faces to the ground and worshiped him.
            What insight can we glean from the magi’s Christmas journey?
            Perhaps the very riddle of their identity and origin reminds us that it doesn’t matter who we are or where we’re from. It only matters that we kneel before Jesus. They compel us to recognize him as king. They were not deceived by the humble surroundings of the Christ child, and we must not be distracted by the extravagant trappings of modern Christmas celebrations.
            May the magi’s example guide us to seek Jesus with eagerness and determination and to worship him as lord and king. And may we approach this week as the king’s ambassadors, inviting all to become citizens of his kingdom.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Journeys of Christmas 3

Third Sunday in Advent
            While “there’s no place like home for the holidays,” my Advent blogs invite you to think about the participants in the first Christmas, who were not at home. We have already visited with Gabriel, who delivered God’s messages to Zechariah and Mary, and with Mary, who left the commonplace to become the mother of the Messiah.
            Today we meet a group of shepherds. Their mileage was so low that it qualified more as a jaunt than a journey. Camped out with their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem, they reached the baby lying in a manger in record time. To appreciate their journey, consider not the geographical miles, but the spiritual miles. They trekked a short distance on foot, but a much greater distance in mind and heart, in soul and spirit.
  • The shepherds traveled from the mundane—earning a living—to the meaningful—finding life.
  • They began their journey in the darkness of the graveyard shift, traveled beneath the brilliance of a glory-lit sky, and arrived in the radiance of the Light of the World.
  • They began their journey terrified at the appearance of an angel, but at their journey’s end, they testified about the appearance of the savior.
  • They hurried to Bethlehem wondering, but returned from Bethlehem worshiping.
            The shepherds were uniquely qualified to walk this road. Think about their location, less than ten miles from the Temple in Jerusalem, where every day priests sacrificed lambs in rituals to pay for sins. These shepherds provided those lambs. At the manger, they encountered the one who would years later be called the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “ (John 1:29)
            As shepherds, they knew what it was like to risk life and limb protecting the flock and finding lost sheep. At the manger, they encountered the one who would years later say, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
            At the manger, they found both the Lamb of God and the good shepherd swaddled in the flesh of an hours-old infant. Perhaps God included these men in Christ’s birth because of their unique foreshadowing of Christ’s death.
            What encouragement can we glean from the Christmas journey of the shepherds?
            Of all the participants in the first Christmas, we identify best with these men. We find Gabriel too other-worldly, the magi too wealthy and mysterious. We realize that Mary was given a once-in-eternity opportunity we will never have. But the shepherds, ordinary working folk like us, discovered that God “is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27)
            Because God meets us more than halfway, it is only a short sprint into his arms.
            May the shepherds’ example guide us into the fold of the good shepherd, and from that sheltered place, into the wilderness to seek his lost sheep.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What do you say?

            I’ve been following Fox News’s coverage of the War on Christmas and occasionally I catch some comments from the other guys mocking Fox News. Let me say right up front that I am a BIG Fox News fan (though I don’t understand why their male newscasters show only their heads and hands while most of their female newscasters flash thighs and cleavage. A blog for another day, I promise.) And I pretty much despise Stewart and Colbert. However, I laughed out loud at Jon Stewart’s take on the War on Christmas…which I saw on Fox’s O’Reilly Factor. (Irony?)
            There IS a war on Christmas and it’s been going on since Herod the (not so) Great attempted to kill Jesus by murdering Bethlehem’s baby boys and toddlers. But if the war on Christmas has been reduced to Santa and acceptable greetings and what we call trees, I think my side might have already lost.
            In 2008, I wrote an essay which appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette Christmas Day issue. I thought I’d share it with you, since we seem to be stuck in the same war. Here it is:
            We Say Merry Christmas. Bill O’Reilly, host of the O’Reilly Factor radio and television programs, offers this motto, flanked by two fleurs de lis, on a red bumper sticker, so that Factor fans (who spend at least $19.95 in the online store) can “Show your support for Christmas.”
            The significance of the fleurs de lis escapes me. Am I showing my support for New Orleans—or France—as well?
            O’Reilly’s bumper sticker strikes back at the nonspecific Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays, phrases foisted upon us to pretend that this great big fuss we’re making every December has nothing to do with the birth of an infant twenty centuries ago.
            Several years ago my own frustration inspired the writing of this Politically Correct Greeting: 
I’m sending you Season’s Greetings,
A month of generic good cheer.
Avoid all mention of Jesus
And have a Happy New Year.
            Don’t misunderstand. I love Christmas, and I’m somewhat fond of Mr. O’Reilly, too. I just don’t think he takes it far enough. We’re talking incarnation here, God born in human flesh, and all he can think of in support of this holy day is We Say Merry Christmas?
            I would rather take my cue from the original participants in the events that Christmas commemorates.
            An angel said, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High,” and later, “give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
            A close relative said, “Blessed is the child you will bear.”
            The child’s mother said, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
            A lot of angels said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.”
            An old prophet said, “My eyes have seen your salvation.”
            Eastern travelers said, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
            Even lines from carols would make better bumper stickers: Joy to the world, the Lord is come…Glory to the newborn king…O come let us adore him…Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.
            And all we say is Merry Christmas?
            I guess it’s a start.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Journeys of Christmas 2

Second Sunday in Advent
            “There’s no place like home for the holidays” is a popular song and sentiment, but I discovered that the participants in the first Christmas were all far from home. During my Advent blogs, I will tell about some of these long-ago travelers. Maybe they will teach us something about our own journeys.
            Our first traveler was Gabriel, the angel who journeyed to deliver God’s messages to Zechariah and to Mary. Gabriel’s example encourages us to spend time in the presence of God this Advent season.
            Our second traveler shares her ancient name with a brave Hebrew woman. The original Miriam defied the command of a cruel tyrant and saved the life of her infant brother Moses, who was later used by God to deliver the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery. The first century Miriam, young Mary of Nazareth, was also entrusted with the life of an infant, who would become the redeemer Moses foreshadowed.
            Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, that she would be the mother of the Son of God, caused the young woman to begin a series of journeys. First, she traveled to the hills of Judea to visit her relative Elizabeth, joyfully pregnant with John. Then, Mary headed back to Nazareth in Galilee, thirdly, to Bethlehem in Judea, where she gave birth. Then she escaped to Egypt, fleeing from Herod’s plot to kill her son. Finally, when circumstances became safer, she returned to Nazareth. The possible total of seven hundred miles may not seem challenging in our age of autos and airplanes, until we remember that Mary trekked on foot or on donkey, first pregnant, then with a toddler in tow.
            Further even than the geographical mileage was the distance from the commonplace life of a first century Jewish wife and mother, which Mary had expected, to the extraordinary calling to mother God’s son. Mary journeyed from being a na├»ve teenager to becoming a sober woman who waited for a sword to pierce her own soul, as the old prophet Simeon warned her. (Luke 2:35)
            How did Mary feel years later, seeing her son cheered and loved by thousands…and hated by a powerful few? While other women her age looked after grandchildren, Mary looked upon her son, executed like a dangerous criminal on a Roman cross. 
            Only God himself shared the intensity of Mary’s pain, because he, too, gave his son, “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
            Mary is last mentioned by name in the first chapter of Acts, where she waited, praying, in a large upper room with her younger sons, the women disciples, and the eleven apostles. Fifty days after watching her son’s lifeless body lowered from the cross, Mary was filled with his life-giving Holy Spirit.
            What insight can we glean from Mary’s Christmas journeys? Mary’s first reaction to Gabriel’s visit was to feel greatly troubled, but her final response was to say, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) Perhaps Mary tells us to agree with God, even if we don’t fully understand his actions.
            After she gave birth in a less than ideal location, and received a middle-of-the-night visit from shepherds, the Gospel tells us that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) Perhaps by treasuring and pondering, Mary was able to live in obedience to God’s sometimes painful plans.
            May Mary’s example guide us to that quiet place where we treasure and ponder the works and promises of God, and from that quiet place to the journey God has for us.