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.

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!

Conform or be transformed

Grad graphic found with GoogleThis is the “Perspectives” column I wrote for the
Rock Valley Bee. It is adapted from part of the graduation address I delivered to the 8th grade graduates at Rock Valley Christian School last week.

It’s gotta be tough being a kid in middle school. You want to be uniquely you, yet you don’t want be different and excluded. I see middle schoolers walking the tightrope of expressing themselves (pursuing their particular interests and talents) while simultaneously wanting to conform (looking more or less like everyone else).

The apostle Paul tells middle schoolers and adults, little kids and senior citizens: “Do not conform” – at least not to the pattern of this world. This quote from Romans 12 is part of the class verse the 8th graders at Rock Valley Christian School chose for their graduation. When I had the privilege to give the graduation address last week, I reminded everyone of the definition of the word conform: to behave in accordance with socially accepted standards.

Sometimes socially accepted standards stink.

Yes, there are many beautiful things and places and ideas throughout our culture, and I seek them out and recognize God’s grace in them. But there is also darkness and rebellion in the world. It comes in many forms: lipping off at your parents or yelling at your kids, cheating on a test or making a substandard product at work, being judgmental of someone, uttering a racist slur, violent computer games, filthy language, pornography, gossip, even gambling (with new opportunities to do so in the news lately). Don’t conform to this kind of garbage, Paul urges.

Instead of conforming, Paul invites me to be transformed. And this is critical for me to hear: Paul is not telling me that I have to transform myself; he is inviting me to be transformed –something Jesus does for and in me and you.

Author Marva Dawn in one of her books describes a little boy trying to pry open flower buds. With blossom after blossom falling apart in his hands, he asks his mom, “Why does the bud fall apart when I try to open it, but when God opens it the flower is beautiful?” His mom wisely answers: “When God opens it, he opens it from the inside.”

Through his Holy Spirit, God is working within me, changing me, making me a new creation in Christ. Yes, I can resist it. I can choose to conform more to the dark and rebellious patterns of the world than allow the holy and gracious God to transform me. I can insist on having my way. Or I can let God have his way in me which will be far more meaningful and filled with vitality.

The invitation is for you, too: God wants to transform all of us into the beautiful creatures God created us to be. We’ll discover that’s the best kind of unique anyone can be.

Fasting for Lent

Those of us getting tired of winter’s cold grip eagerly welcomed the official start of the season of spring last week. A couple weeks before that we entered the church season of Lent which spans from Ash Wednesday to Resurrection Sunday (a.k.a. Easter). Both seasons are about renewal: In springtime we anticipate longer days, birds returning, flowers coming up, the grass turning green, kids on the playground, and farmers getting in their fields – all reminders of new life. In Lent, we seek renewal and new life in our hearts.

Lent graphic found with Google

To help experience this renewal, Christians often choose to fast during Lent. For some, that means skipping a meal each day; others abstain from a particular food, such as chocolate. I’ve also heard of people choosing to disconnect from social media or turn off the radio in the car. (One of my children volunteered to fast from doing homework, but I don’t think that’s quite the right idea.) Each time you miss the thing from which you are fasting, you choose to focus on God instead. So instead of scrolling through your Facebook feed or hanging out on Snapchat, you choose to read the Bible instead. You treat each growl of your stomach as a call to prayer.

Reading from the prophesy of Isaiah the other day, I was reminded of another kind of fasting, a kind of fasting to which God called his people when their abstaining from food had devolved into an empty ritual, something to just check off the To Do list. Here are some ways I’m being challenged to rethink fasting this season:

“You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist. The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground… This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once.”  Isaiah 58:4, 6-8, Message paraphrase

These sorts of things make skipping a meal suddenly sound a lot easier than before! But when I choose to “fast” in these kinds of ways, I suspect my walk with God will grow closer. It’s not that fasting from food, social media, unjust practices, or a stingy attitude will impress God and save me. It’s more that this sort of fasting will make me more attentive to his presence and plans for me. And that will create a very welcomed kind of renewal in me during Lent that will have an impact long after the season is over.

These reflections appear in today’s Rock Valley Bee.