O Sordid Town of Bethlehem

Until recently, if you’d have asked me what I imagined the town of Bethlehem to have been like in Bible times, I would have described a pleasant hillside village on a cool evening surrounded by peace and quiet. I assumed the Christmas story takes place in a sort of wholesome US Midwest small farming town, where people are generally friendly and values matter.

Artwork by Carol Sheli Cantrell

It turns out that the Bible paints a startlingly different picture of Bethlehem. The place is first mentioned in Genesis as the location where patriarch Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel sadly dies in childbirth. After that, the next two stories with references to Bethlehem come in the book of Judges. These stories are filled with idolatry, injustice, rape, and murder that culminate in civil war. Then right on the heels of that comes the story of Ruth which begins with a famine in Bethlehem that makes a local family flee to a foreign country. We learn in 1 Samuel that the great king David is from Bethlehem. But we’re first introduced to him as the youngest son of Jesse who doesn’t even bother inviting the kid to the feast when the prophet Samuel asks to meet all of Jesse’s sons. In 2 Samuel, Bethlehem is under the control of the Israelite’s enemies, the Philistines, at that point in history.

We read about Bethlehem once more in the New Testament soon after Jesus’ birth in that town when King Herod goes on a murderous rampage in an effort to destroy “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” The despot kills all the children in Bethlehem 2-years-old and younger.

To summarize: Stories in the Bible connected with Bethlehem are filled with extreme sadness and sin.

Yet despite its sketchy history, God chooses Bethlehem as the birthplace for His Son! I see in God’s choice of Bethlehem a picture of God’s redemptive purposes – His tendency to rescue the most hopeless of situations.

I head into Christmas fully aware that I do not have the perfect family that people might be inclined to think we have based solely on the smiling faces on our Christmas photo card. Our home is not always a haven but sometimes a place filled with stress and short tempers. There always seem to be temptations vying for my attention and opportunities for me to mess up and hurt others.

Yet I need not despair: If God can bring something (Someone!) good out of Bethlehem (of all places, it turns out!), then God can use me and whatever mess I find myself in. The Good News is that God specializes in redeeming bad places, relationships, and situations.

Which, of course, is why Jesus came to Bethlehem in the first place.

These reflections appeared in last week’s Rock Valley Bee.
They are an adaptation of something I blogged for Christmas 2015.

Dressed for the holidays

Tuxedo graphic found with GoogleIt’s that time of year when you dress up for Christmas programs, concerts, and parties.
In one of his daily e-devotions, retired pastor
Dale Vander Veen reminds me of some apparel that’s always in season and should always
be worn regardless of the occasion.

“Therapy”

Occupational therapy. Recreational therapy. Massage therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy. Anger management therapy. Holistic therapy. Hydrotherapy. Psychotherapy. Group therapy. Physical therapy. Aromatherapy. Magnetic therapy.

A large clothing store suggested… apparel therapy. When you’re down, buy a gown. When you’re blue, get something new. How about hair therapy? When I’m blue, get a new do. (Note: Not recommended for men like me who lack the necessary raw material.)

God recommends apparel therapy. When I loathe, I should clothe. When I mess up, I should dress up. What shall I wear today? In one of his richest epistolary gems, Paul parades this collection on the fashion walkway. I can clothe myself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, peace, thankfulness, wisdom, and singing (humming suggested as a sensitive substitute). Nothing flashy, nothing faddish. Always seasonable, always reasonable. Someone next to you wears the same outfit? Thank God and move a little closer!

And did you notice? All pieces of “The Classic Collection” mix and match to perfection. I can wear the entire wardrobe every day – and never appear out-of-date. Above all, I must not forget the final touch. “Over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

…With the prayer that today you will find your heart therapy
in the wardrobe of Jesus.

Ruth the risk taker

Ruth graphic from timewarpwife.com

Each time I read about her, I’m singularly impressed by the Ruth of the Bible. I admire her as a loving risk taker.

Out of love for her mother-in-law Naomi, Ruth risks leaving her family, her country, and her culture to move to Bethlehem. Widows did not have it easy in ancient Israel, and things would have been even more difficult for an immigrant widow like Ruth. Yet she declares to Naomi:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.

These brave words echo down through history, sometimes even making their way into wedding vows today.

Once in Bethlehem, Ruth does not passively wait around to see what will happen next. She takes the initiative, suggesting to Naomi that she go out and find work and food for the two of them. Destitute people in Israel (often foreigners and widows) were permitted to pick up leftovers from the edges of the fields during harvest time. Perhaps recognizing those leftovers would not be enough for both her and Naomi, Ruth takes another risk and asks the foreman if she can gather grain from among the sheaves behind the workers who were harvesting. Instead of being told to remember her proper place, Ruth is allowed to work among the harvesters. Landowner Boaz recognizes the spirit and not just the letter of the law meant to help the poor and he ensures Ruth is both welcomed and protected among his workers.

Naomi soon perceives that Boaz may make a fine husband for Ruth and she concocts a plan that looks like a marriage proposal. Naomi carefully instructs Ruth with what to do and say, but when the time comes, Ruth veers away from the script Naomi provides her. Ruth asks not only for Boaz to consider her, but to embrace his role as the entire family’s guardian-redeemer, making it possible for Naomi to reclaim her family’s estate. Out of love for Naomi, Ruth risks challenging a powerful landowner to fulfill his duty for Naomi’s family regardless of how costly it will be for Boaz.

Ruth is rewarded for her love-filled risks: She finds a stable food source for herself and Naomi, she restores Naomi’s honor in Israel, and she herself finds a place among God’s people that will be remembered for all history.

The apostle Paul calls God’s people to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Some might argue that headstrong, risk-taking Ruth is not very submissive. I disagree. She perhaps is not always very compliant, but I nevertheless see her as one who, instead of looking out for her own interests, looks out for the interests of others – a good role model for myself and my selfish tendencies. She submitted to the God of Naomi and discovered how to submit to others while still taking the initiative. She sets a great example for both male and female Spirit-filled followers of Jesus today.

Read the entire story of Ruth – at only 4 chapters,
it’s a quick and exciting read. To dig deeper into this story,
I recommend Carolyn Custis James’s book,
The Gospel of Ruth:
Loving God Enough to Break the Rules
.

Rules that Set Us Free

I would guess that most of my readers are familiar with the 10 Commandments. Maybe you can even list some of them off by heart. (You can find all ten in Exodus 20.)

But do you know why God gives us these commandments?

Some people think God gives these commandments as a test: If we obey them, he may give us a reward. Other people imagine God as someone who wants to take away our fun, 10 Commandments graphic found at society6.comand laying down rules is one step in that process.

I don’t see God that way. I believe God gives us the 10 Commandments for the same reason the park officials installed fences in front of the cliffs along the Tunnel Mountain Trail I hiked earlier this fall in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Those fences kept me safe. They told me how far I could go to enjoy the views and take pictures without falling and injuring (or even killing) myself. Similarly, the 10 Commandments teach me what’s safe and what’s not. It lists behaviors and actions that prevent me from harming myself and others.

But the fences in Banff National Park not only prevented me from going somewhere dangerous; they also told me where I could enjoy myself and have fun. Everywhere on this side of the fence was fantastic for At the top of Tunnel Mountain with my colleague Dan Hoogland from Fredericton, New Brunswickgetting exercise as I hiked and for basking in stunning scenery. Similarly, the 10 Commandments explain to me how to enjoy life. I have the most meaning and contentment in life when God is central and I treat others with dignity and respect. I experience joy and fulfillment and even fun as I love God and love others (to summarize the 10 Commandments).

I believe that God created the world and that he created me. As the original designer, he knows how things and people work properly. The 10 Commandments convey that wisdom to me. They are not a means God uses to enslave me; God gives them to me so I can experience the wonderful freedom he created me to have.

Like God’s people in ancient times who were freed from slavery under a cruel dictator, God frees me from slavery to sin. Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection on the third day guarantee my sins are forgiven, giving me new life today and for eternity. In profound gratitude for this, I embrace God’s will for me (including the 10 Commandments) so I can please him and discover how he indeed wants what’s best for me.

These thoughts put into writing a children’s message I gave several weeks ago at Trinity CRC and this is the column I submitted for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
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Humility prayer

Last month I enjoyed attending a conference for pastors in Calgary (with a daytrip to Banff!) organized by the Pastor Church Resources office of the Christian Reformed Church. Our worship time included the prayer below, adapted from the Litany of Humility, a prayer attributed to Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, who likely drew from earlier sources. The words are memorable and powerful; I’ve found myself returning to them numerous times since the conference.

From the desire of being praised,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being esteemed,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the desire of comfort and ease,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being criticized,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being passed over,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being lonely,
deliver us, Jesus.
From the fear of being hurt,
deliver us, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than ourselves,
Jesus, grant us the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and we ourselves set aside,
Jesus, grant us the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and we ourselves go unnoticed,
Jesus, grant us the grace to desire it.

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
make our lives like Yours.
O Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
strengthen us with Your Spirit.
O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, Hands graphic found with Google
help us put our
self-importance aside
to learn the kind
of cooperation
with others
that make possible
the presence of Your
Abba’s household.

Louis

I recently stumbled across the story of 9-year-old Louis. He was watching his father work with leather in his harness-making shop in 19th-century France. “Someday, Father,” said Louis, “I want to be a harness maker, just like you.”

“Why not start now?” retorted his father. He took a piece of leather and showed his son how to work with a hole puncher.

Excited, the boy began to work, but soon the hole puncher flew out of his hand and pierced his eye! He lost sight in that eye immediately. Later the other eye failed, and Louis was totally blind.

His life came to a standstill until one day when Louis was sitting in the family garden, holding a pinecone. As he ran his sensitive fingers over the layers of the cone, he could picture it clearly in his mind. Suddenly he thought, “Why not create an alphabet of raised dots to enable sightless people to read?” So Louis Braille opened a new world for the Bust of Louis Braille by Étienne Leroux found at Wikipediablind, something that would never have happened if not for the tragedy he experienced.

There have been times I could look back and see something good come out of a bad situation. I’ve heard about a death in a family bringing two estranged relatives together again. And natural disasters can bring out the best in communities as people pull together to help one another. A lot of times, though, it seems to me that sad and hurtful circumstances happen for no good reason.

Regardless, I can choose one of two ways to respond to hard times. I can choose to become angry and bitter; however, that will only make the difficulty more painful. Or I can choose – by God’s grace and with his help – to endure. A pastor colleague I know once compared going through hard times to the work of a jeweler. Like an excellent jeweler, the Lord brings his most treasured possessions – you and me – to journey through the crucibles of fire so that you and I become stronger and more beautiful on the other side. In the Bible, the apostle Peter puts it like this: “Troubles test your faith and prove that it is pure. And such faith is worth more than gold. Gold can be proved to be pure by fire, but gold will ruin. When your faith is proven to be pure, the result will be praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ comes.”

I don’t like hard times. I don’t go looking for them. But, as Louis Braille discovered, God can use them to bring about something good. In fact, one of the greatest miracles is that God – the one who knows how to bring back to life that which was dead – regularly uses hard times so we can grow, live, and hope in him.

I shared the story of Louis Braille in a chapel with the students at Rock Valley Christian School last week. I wrote these reflections for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

Unexpected blessings

May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, hard hearts, half-truths, and superficial relationships. May God bless you so that you may live from deep within your heart where God’s Spirit dwells.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people. May God bless you so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war. May God bless you so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world, in your neighborhood, so that you will courageously try what you don’t think you can do, but, in Jesus Christ you’ll have all the strength necessary.

May God bless you to fearlessly speak out about injustice, unjust laws, corrupt politicians, unjust and cruel treatment of prisoners, and senseless wars, genocides, starvation, and poverty that is so pervasive.

May God bless you that you remember we are all called to continue God’s redemptive work of love and healing in God’s place, in and through God’s name, in God’s Spirit, continually creating and breathing new life and grace into everything and everyone we touch.

Graphic provided by agenerousgrace.com


Several times now in worship services at
Trinity CRC I’ve used and adapted this Franciscan blessing that asks God to bless us with discomfort, anger, tears, foolishness, and courage. Originally published in Troubadour: A Missionary Magazine, it now appears on many websites.