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.

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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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.

One less plastic bag in the ocean

I just read about recent expeditions into the Mariana Trench in the northern Pacific Ocean, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. It’s about 7 miles down at its deepest. Reaching the bottom, the scientists’ cameras and traps both captured remarkable creatures God made that thrive in such a cold, dark, inhospitable environment, including tough amphipods (shrimplike crustaceans), intricate sea anemones, and transparent sea cucumbers.

A retired naval officer from Texas with a love for the oceans landed his submersible at the bottom of one part of the trench to meet shy marine life and see vast, untouched underwater landscapes.

Except, as it turns out, it wasn’t so untouched.

Within minutes of his submersible reaching the bottom of the trench, it found trash. The naval officer told reporters his cameras detected Graphic from Maclean's magazineplastic with writing on it. “It could have been a plastic bag,” he said.

That news, more than the fact that this naval officer had accomplished the deepest dive in human history or that his expedition had broken a slew of other records, made the headlines. How had garbage reached the deepest part of the ocean even before humans?

It actually doesn’t take as much as one might suspect. Like dirt in anyone’s home, junk collects at the lowest points. It’s simply a matter of gravity, and the trenches are as deep as it gets.

Humans are “made in God’s image to live in loving communion with our Maker. We are appointed earthkeepers and caretakers to tend the earth, enjoy it, and love our neighbors” (from “Our World Belongs to God”). Finding a plastic bag at the bottom of the ocean is an indicator we can do a better job of caring for God’s good creation as the Bible tells us to.

To care for creation, for the soil, water, and air God gives us, you and I can start small:

    • Use the city’s recycling bins to their full capacity and bring them to the curb every other week. Maybe we should even ask the city to switch the collection schedule so recycling gets picked up weekly and garbage every other week.
    • Use cleaning supplies with less harmful chemicals.
    • Turn off your car when you stop to run into a store or an office.
    • Plant a tree in your yard.
    • Use a refillable water bottle.
    • And, naturally, in light of the plastic at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, bring your own reusable cloth bags to the grocery store and everywhere else you shop.

These reflections appear in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
I concluded with noting that I care for creation in a small way
by often biking to the office thereby using my car less.

Summer hospitality

Summer day graphic found with Google

The best days of summer are those you can spend outside with family and friends – not getting drenched in a thunderstorm downpour and not fleeing to somewhere with air conditioning in a heat advisory. This summer I hope to find numerous occasions and excuses to invite people over on a lovely summer evening.

Offering hospitality like that is not simply a nice thing to do. I understand it as a Biblical command for anyone who is in Christ: “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

The trouble is, it’s easy for me to confuse hospitality with hosting. If I think I’m supposed to be a good host, then Martha Stewart is my role model. I want the house spotless. I want the lawn freshly mown. I want to take out the good dishes. I want to offer fancy hors d’oeuvres. I want the kids to be on their best behavior.

While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of those things, none are requirements for showing hospitality. Hospitality is first of an all an attitude. It’s the willingness to get to know people and have a heart tuned to welcoming others. This can be done in a messy house over coffee served in old, cracked mugs.

Hospitality, though, is not only about welcoming people I know. The original Latin underlying the word hospitality is hospes, which means stranger or even enemy. I believe Jesus calls me to show hospitality not only to family, friends, and neighbors up the street; he wants me to open my life and heart to strangers, to people I don’t know and might not even want to get to know. After all, Jesus showed grace to me by dying for me despite me being a sinner, being like an enemy to God. When it comes hospitality, Jesus is my role model.

How might the Spirit of Jesus be nudging you to extend hospitality this summer as he is with me? Use these examples to fire up your imagination:

    • Plan with others on your street a neighborhood BBQ, potluck, or game night.
    • Smile and say hello to people on the street and employees in the store.
    • Introduce yourself to someone who is of a different ethnicity than you.
    • Deliver a fruit or candy basket to new neighbors.
    • Invite a widow or widower out for coffee or over for a meal.
    • Offer to babysit for free.
    • Volunteer to be an ESL partner.
    • Talk to someone after a church service or at an event who is standing by themselves.

Like myself, people long for hospitality, to be welcomed and be known. It’s a gift I desire and a gift everyone (you and me included) can give regardless of how clean the house is.

These reflections appear in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
I concluded with noting how we usually have ice cream in the freezer to share with anyone who happens to drop by our house!

Way more than twice

Delegates of Synod 2019 with new candidates for ordained ministryLast month I had the privilege of serving as a delegate from Classis Iakota to Synod 2019 of the Christian Reformed Church. We deliberated and decided on many matters including the funding of denominational ministries, responding better to allegations of abuse, rejecting kinism, and approving a biblical foundation for understanding human sexuality.

One discussion that especially held my interest was about worship. It had to do with these particular instructions in the CRC Church Order: “[Each] congregation shall assemble for worship, ordinarily twice on the Lord’s Day, to hear God’s Word, to receive the sacraments, to engage in praise and prayer, and to present gifts of gratitude” (article 51). Trinity CRC, where I serve as pastor, follows the wisdom of this Church Order article with our two services each Sunday in which we seek to glorify God and grow in our faith through the Word and Sacrament. Gathering twice on Sundays “reflect[s] the Biblical practice of morning and evening sacrifice and patterns developed in church history” (Synod 2019 Agenda, p. 509).

However, Trinity CRC is in the minority. Only about a third of CRC congregations hold two worship services on Sundays. So if the Church Order is meant to reflect church practices, the question was raised whether to remove the specific reference to “twice” in article 51. Synod delegates noted a number things, including the multiethnic nature of our denomination: Many congregations that aren’t predominantly Dutch hold midweek services or early morning prayer services. Moreover, “neither God’s Word nor the Reformed confessions mandate a second preaching service; in fact, the goals of rest and worship reflected in the confessions may be met in other ways than by attendance at a public worship service” (p. 511).

At the end of the day, the delegates to synod decided to remove the specific clause in article 51 about gathering twice on Sundays (the rest of article 51 will remain the same). However, we added this next sentence: “Each classis [regional group of congregations] shall affirm the rich tradition of assembling a second time on the Lord’s Day for worship, learning, prayer, and fellowship by encouraging churches to include these items as part of a strategic ministry plan for the building up of the body of Christ.” Essentially we said that if you’re not going to have a second service, look for ways include the benefits of this practice in your church’s other ministries.

Perhaps not surprisingly, reaching this decision came only after a fair amount of discussion. Some delegates affirmed that yes, we simply need to update the Church Order to align with current reality. I was impressed with a young adult representative, though, who spoke of the value in giving people multiple opportunities to worship and to fellowship together – that is, multiple opportunities for people to feel they belong. My favorite comment on the matter came from a delegate who lamented that the prevailing trend isn’t to change the Church Order to instruct congregations to gather three or four times each Sunday!

That got me thinking: It doesn’t matter what the CRC Church Order says, we are wired to worship God. As St. Augustine prayed, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” Worship is so much more than the one or two hours you spend in a church sanctuary on Sunday! If we leave a worship service on any given Sunday – even the second service – with the attitude that we can now check “worship” off our to-do list for another week, then the Church Order mandating 10 services per Sunday won’t help us!

The reality is that worship does not end with the blessing at the close of the service. Instead, gathering for worship services propels us into lives of worship all week long. As examples, we strive to do our best at work, and work with integrity and honesty as part of regularly honoring God; we recognize family members and friends as God’s gifts to us and we regularly thank God for them; we delight in the beauty of creation around us and are eager to regularly glorify God for it.

Only by grace do we gather for worship; only by grace are we compelled to live lives of worship. We worship not to get God’s attention, but because God has already given us His attention and we recognize His power and love in our lives and church despite our sins against Him and frequent gracelessness to one another. We worship God not in order that His blessings may flow to us; on Sundays and all week long, we praise God from whom all blessings have already and continue to flow for time and eternity.

See the July-August 2019 issue of The Banner
for lots of reporting on Synod 2019.