The Outraged Jesus

Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

(Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

It is an unsettling image, isn’t it?  I am speaking of the image of Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem temple, turning over the tables, and chasing out the moneychangers. Here is how Scripture describes it:

In the temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple…and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

Throughout my years of ministry, whenever people, particularly men, have approached this moment in Scripture, they have often seen it as the one time in the Bible when Jesus became a real “man’s man.” I call it the (Sylvester) Stallonification of Jesus. I once heard a man put it this way in a Bible study:

If I saw this kind of Jesus more often in the Bible—you know, the kind of Jesus who roughs up his enemies instead of telling us to love them all the time—I’d find it a whole lot easier to follow him.

The danger in this sort of thinking, of course, is that it can lead a person to use a Scripture like this to justify his own oafishness and his own bad manners. “Look, Jesus got angry! So can I! Jesus turned over the tables in God’s house, so why can’t I throw the ottoman through the window in MY house!”

What a dreadful thing it is to reduce a Scripture like this to nothing more than a justification of unhealthy anger or a validation of distorted masculinity. Jesus, after all, did not need this moment of dynamic anger to validate his personhood. His wholehearted identity as a man was already fully on display throughout his life and ministry. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he willingly suffers and dies on a cross for the sake of a fallen world; or when he tenderly weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus; or when he desperately cries over the city of Jerusalem and its sin. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he welcomes the children to come to him; or when he speaks words of life to a spiritually hurting Samaritan woman beside a water well on a hot afternoon; or when he wraps a towel around his waist and washes his disciples feet as a tangible demonstration of the fact that a new kingdom was in place—a kingdom in which servanthood is valued over power and where humility is valued over advancement.

Jesus’ anger in the temple is not a validation of Jesus’ status as a tough guy. It is rather an indication that some of the accepted rhythms of temple life inspired outrage in the very heart of God—a heart that Jesus represented and incarnated.

At what accepted rhythms was Jesus so angry?

The overarching sin to which Jesus seems to be responding in the temple is not the sin of buying and selling per se. Rather, Jesus seems to be angry about a much bigger issue: specifically, the ease with which people of faith conform to the principles and priorities that govern all the other parts of our fallen world. What does Jesus find when he walks into the temple? He finds business as usual. He finds a superficial (and, presumably, corruptly dehumanizing) commerce between merchant and customer, masking itself as service but fueled by the same kind of interplay that one could find just as easily in the marketplace.

Jesus’ anger reveals his demand that our temples and sanctuaries—both the literal temple of one’s place of worship and the metaphorical temple of the human heart—be transformed through sanctification, in order that they might become settings in which people practice a way of life and community that is unlike anything else the world has to offer. In the sanctified temple, sharing and sacrificial generosity take priority over buying and selling; repentance and forgiveness eclipse manipulation and exploitation; and the shared penchant for profit and pecking order begins to give way to an agapic and Christocentric communion.

Perhaps Jesus’ anger is grounded in his heartbreak over his realization of how frequently God’s people resist the call to function by a different economy, a different set of practices, and a different arrangement of priorities. In the “house of prayer” that God desires and that Jesus came to incarnate, people relate to one another, not as potential buyers and sellers (customers and merchants), but as redeemed spiritual siblings who have been liberated from social and economic hierarchies in order to be able to experience a new and often countercultural engagement (in Greek, “koinonia”).

I am inspired to personalize Jesus’ anger. What about the temple of my heart disheartens Jesus when he walks into it? What about the temple of my life inspires righteous anger in Jesus when he sees how frequently I have settled for attitudes, priorities, and patterns of behavior that dehumanize the very people he loves?

It is not a hateful anger that Jesus practices. It is an anger emerging from his heart of indefatigable love for this fallen world and its misguided people. It is an anger over the very things that should make me angry.

The question is, will I allow Jesus’ righteous anger to inspire manipulative denial or authentic repentance and redirection?

Radical Hope for the Addicted

Breaking Free by Koa Kohler

(The painting above, created by Koa Kohler, is entitled “Breaking Free”)

During my first two years in Butler, Pennsylvania, the church that I serve had a connection with 34 people who died as a result of drug overdose. When I say that there was a connection, I mean that those 34 people were either members of our church, or attenders, or related to somebody who is part of our church.

Two years. 34 overdose deaths touching our congregational family.

At the end of my second year in Butler, I stood in a funeral home, officiating at the funeral service for one of these 34 people. Just before the service, the cousin of the young woman who had died walked up to me with tears streaming down her face and spoke to me words that I will never forget. “My cousin was more like a sister to me,” she said, “and I just need you to know that there was more to her life than her addiction. She was a beautiful person who just got caught up in something bad that she couldn’t control.” Following the service for the young woman, her mother pulled me aside. “Pastor,” she said, “I don’t know what the churches of this town can do, but they have to do something. No more of this! Churches have to open their doors to addicts and their families every single day so that people can know that drugs don’t have to win.”

Here is the bottom line. During my first two years in Butler, God had to begin a massive reconstruction project on my heart and my thought processes related to addiction. I came to Butler harboring secret ideas—ideas about addiction only happening in the lives of certain kinds of people who simply need to get it together and make better choices. I now believe something very different. I now believe that the widespread reality of addiction in our community and in our world is the greatest spiritual crisis of our generation, one that demands nothing less than a transformed way of looking at the world.

And a transformed way of looking at the world is precisely what that part of the Bible we call “the Beatitudes” represents. We call them Beatitudes because that word, “beatitude,” is a derivative of a Latin word that means “blessing.” But what is seriously unnerving about the Beatitudes is who Jesus describes as being blessed in his kingdom. It is certainly not the people common sense would identify.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever met anyone poorer in spirit than an addicted soul desperate for recovery.)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever encountered a deeper mourning than the mourning I have experienced in the lives of addicts and in the life of the family that surrounds the addict.)

There is a timeless relevance in the unsettling Word that Jesus offers to us through the Beatitudes. When we dare to apply the truth of the Beatitudes to our context, we find a word of radical hope even for addicted people and the families that surround them. In fact, when I quiet myself long enough to listen with my heart, here is how I am hearing the Beatitudes today:

“Blessed are those who are poor in the spirit of addiction. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn over addiction and the suffering it produces, for they shall be comforted.”

We always have to resist the temptation to make Scripture say something that it does not say. For example, when Jesus tells us that those who are poor in spirit and in a condition of mourning are “blessed,” he is not glorifying human suffering. He is not trying to get us to believe that it is a pleasant thing to suffer or to be devastated by addiction. But maybe Jesus’ point is that, in the world-altering grace of the Kingdom of God, addicted people can be spoken of as being uniquely blessed precisely because they know how desperate for deliverance they really are. The rest of us so often live in the illusion of being in control. Addicted people understand their need for salvation. The rest of us so often fall into the trap of distorted self-reliance, believing that we have no need for a savior. Addicted people are often more available to God than everyone else, precisely because they see (in a way that others cannot) that they are up against a struggle that demands a saving grace of supernatural proportions. That is why an addict can rightly be described as living in a condition of blessing—not because their addiction is good, but because their potential for recognizing the urgency and power of God’s deliverance is good.

If that is at all true, if you hear Jesus speaking a word of radical hope to the addict through the Beatitudes today, then I am inviting you to think differently with me about the reality of addiction. Here is how.

First, refuse to allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because here is the truth: Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls. Jesus never stops.

I heard a pastoral colleague recently (not from this community) lamenting hurtful words that she heard spoken in one of her church’s adult Sunday School classes. The hurtful words sounded something like this:

We need to stop giving these addicts Narcan because all they’re going to do is overdose again. It is a sinful waste of time and resources to keep people alive if they are just going to choose to die.

Can you imagine being the parent of an addict and hearing something like this from a Christ-following brother or sister? The pastor of that congregation put it this way:

“A statement like that indicates that our theology has not kept pace with our context. For me, this is a pro-life issue. I am a pro-life pastor who believes in a pro-life Jesus who never quits in the work of offering eternal life that he makes possible. And neither should we.”

Do not allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls.

Second, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in the struggle against addiction. Be sad about it. Be heartbroken. Be devastated at times when the situation calls for it. But refuse to plant spiritual roots in the spoiled soil of discouragement. Why? Because Jesus Christ will not rest until every addict experiences the blessing of a complete deliverance from an enslavement to addiction. For some, this deliverance might take a portion of eternity that we do not yet see. But rest assured, no addict lives outside the boundaries of Jesus’ love and the redemptive grace that he is so very desperate to offer to addicted souls. And if that is true, if Jesus is on the side of the addicted and committed to their deliverance, then HOPE is our “go-to,” not discouragement.  Therefore, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in this. Instead, commit yourself to participating in the saving work that Jesus is doing in the world by coming alongside the addicted in whatever way is appropriate. Become a part of that saving work.

Finally, refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction, because, here is the thing: Every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of addiction. You might not be addicted to a substance, but I can practically guarantee you that you are addicted to something. We all are.

We are addicted to hurtful ways of thinking that inspire us to kneel down at the altar of our own distorted opinions.

We are addicted to hatred that prevents us from loving, forgiving, and hoping.

We are addicted to patterns of behavior that are hurtful to ourselves and the people around us.

We are addicted to false stories that prevent us from embracing the truth about ourselves and our relationship with the world.

On Facebook, one never has to look far to find someone spouting a passionate opinion (or sharing a convenient meme) about a particular subject. Politics. Religion. Movies. Sports. Hollywood. Current events. When I stumble upon such conversations, it often sounds less like the gracious pursuit of truth. In fact, it often sounds more like a bunch of addicted people getting high on the drug of their own opinions and their forced certainty.

Here is my point: When we speak of addiction, we are not speaking about “those people.” We are speaking about all of us. Because an enslavement to some kind of an addiction is a reality for all of us. When we are in relationship with Jesus, he brings us into a lifelong recovery that manifests itself as a journey of living one day at a time without the particular distortions to which we have become addicted. In that regard, the recovering addict has much to teach the church about what it means to be authentically Christian.

So, I invite you to a refusal. Refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction. Because every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of it in one way or another, and, thanks be to God, Jesus is not giving up on any single one of us!

For the last year at Butler First United Methodist Church, we have held a Saturday evening worship experience that we call “The Bridge.” Everyone is invited to the Bridge, but we offer a particularly pointed invitation to those who struggle with the reality of addiction and their families.

Why do we call it “The Bridge”? Because a bridge is precisely what we believe Jesus to be. He is the bridge from isolation to community; from despair to hope; from addiction to recovery; from being lost to being found.

We never know who is going to show up at “The Bridge.” Nor do we know exactly what will happen in each week’s worship. To be completely confessional, we don’t really know what we are doing with this ministry. (Is it okay for a pastor to admit that?!) But, every single week at “The Bridge,” it feels like we wade into deep and important water.

Last Saturday night, a man stood up during prayer time at “The Bridge,” introduced himself as a recovering addict, and announced that, as of this week, he will be six months clean. He just wanted to thank Jesus Christ for his transformed life.

Following the service, this man came forward to pray with me. When I asked him how we should pray, this was his response: “Pray that more and more people in our community will come to understand what I have come to understand.”

I couldn’t help but ask the question. “And what is it have you come to understand, Thomas?”

“What I’ve come to understand,” he said, “is that addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives. It might be a chapter, or even a series of chapters. But it is never the end of the story.”

That is nothing less than the Gospel, offered by Jesus through the Beatitudes and spoken afresh by a recovering addict in downtown Butler. “Addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives.”

That Gospel is the foundation of the radical hope offered to us by Jesus Christ, in whose name we stand against addiction and in whose name I gratefully write.

Always Hope

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One would think I would be used to it by now. Intense political rhetoric from (occasionally) well-meaning and self-lauded pundits who are absolutely convinced of their own rightness. Ecclesiastical debates that often feel more like the drawing of battle lines than they do a heartfelt and reverent search for the implications of the Gospel. Cancer manifesting its cruelty in the lives of beautiful and unsuspecting people who are seemingly doing everything right to stay healthy. Another heroin overdose, another gut-wrenching and heartbreaking funeral.

Yeah, one would think I would be used to it by now. The problem is, I am not.

I am weary today. I am saddened. My heart is heavy with a pain that I am not even able to delineate and analyze. It is the kind of disquietude that interrupts my sleep and distorts my temperament. So many words being spoken and arguments being sought. So many tragedies being accommodated by fragile souls. So many people assuming the absolute worst about others.

And yet…

Ah, yes. There’s the Gospel in a nutshell: “And yet…” That simple phrase calls to mind the redemptive presence of a God who is always at work to bring about a new reality that runs counter to the existing circumstances. There is pain AND YET God brings healing. There is death AND YET God generates resurrection. There is suffering, AND YET God awakens hope.

Hope. I needed to type that word this morning so that I might see the letters and speak them out loud. Hope. By “hope,” I do not mean a passive disengagement. Neither do I mean an anemic wishfulness or a superficial outcry for how we would prefer things to be. Rather, I mean the kind of hope that the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he told us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23)

That, I think, is the transformational discipline that people of faith call “hope.” It is the nurturing of a sturdy conviction of life’s abundant potential. It is the belief that God is steadily leading us toward the redemptive ground that exists just beyond the edge of our brokenness. It is the life-giving trust that the mistreated threads of our tattered garments are being woven into the richly beautiful tapestry that God is making out of our history.

Hope. It is the gracious gift offered by a God who specializes in transforming sharp-edged rhetoric into relationship; a fractured church into a Christ-centered communion; tragic death into vibrant new life. Hope.

I have shared this song with many of you before. I share it again, simply because I need to. I am honored to stand with you, sisters and brothers, in this meaningful journey called hope.

Always Hope (Words and music by Eric Park)

I can see the broken pieces
I can trace the pain
The bitter tears your soul releases
Falling down like rain

I won’t minimize the anguish
You’re inclined to feel
Though I’ll beg you not to languish
In your own ordeal

There’s always
Hope
The conviction of a life’s potential
Hope
The assurance of a grace essential
Hope
The belief that tears we shed aren’t wasted
Hope
The remembrance of a joy once tasted

Purge me of my platitudes
My impulse to explain
No condescending attitudes
No clinical refrain

I won’t sabotage the silence
That your wounds demand
Though I’ll join your deep reliance
On a gentler hand

There’s always
Hope
The conviction of a life’s potential
Hope
The assurance of a grace essential
Hope
The belief that tears we shed aren’t wasted
Hope
The remembrance of a joy once tasted

Dare to believe that the brokenness cannot define you
Dare to believe that the fragments can only refine you
Dare to believe that the tapestry isn’t completed
Dare to believe in the weaving of threads now mistreated

On the sacred ground of your grief
We will gently tread
At the banquet of belief
Our hearts will find new bread

Just beyond the edge of broken
Lies redemptive ground
Just beyond the words unspoken
Hope waits to be found
Hope
The conviction of a life’s potential
Hope
The assurance of a grace essential
Hope
The belief that tears we shed aren’t wasted
Hope
The remembrance of a joy once tasted

Parkland, Florida and Prayerful Outrage

Photo Parkland

Moments before I walked into our church’s Ash Wednesday service, I heard the particulars.

Another mass shooting in a school, this time in Parkland, Florida.

A 19-year-old shooter with an AR-15 and multiple magazines.

17 dead.

I am a pastor by vocation, yet I feel more outraged than pastoral at this point. Outraged at the brutality and expansiveness of the violence. Outraged at the tragically silenced potential of young lives. Outraged that a 19-year-old came to the conclusion that murder was the best way for him to voice his fury, his torment, his misanthropic angst. Outraged that public discourse on matters of gun availability has become so rancorously politicized that people quickly grab hold of their most familiar ideological tree without ever setting foot into the vast forest of sociological complexity that exists behind it. Outraged at my feelings of helplessness in the midst of an ethos of violence that exploits vulnerability and diminishes our collective hope.

Outraged at my outrage.

Then again, perhaps I am making a mistake in thinking that prophetic outrage and pastoral ministry are antithetical. When a high school becomes a setting for carnage, perhaps prophetic outrage is one of the most pastoral things that a clergyperson can offer. I hope this is true. Because, in the parlance of our time, outrage is all I got right now.

Last night, as I placed the ashes upon the foreheads of my congregants, I said something like this: “Remember that you are dust. But remember even more that God’s love for you is trustworthy and lifts you out of the ashes. Repent, and believe the Gospel.” I am heartbroken when I ponder what Ash Wednesday felt like to the people of Parkland, Florida, especially those who lost precious loved ones in yesterday’s violence. They wear the ashes of grief today in a manner I cannot fully understand, enveloped by both the frailty and the fallenness of a human journey that I suspect feels directionless to them right now.

So what do I do with this outrage? What do you do with yours? How do we channel it so that it becomes something more than amplified sentimentality?

Perhaps all that I can do right now is offer this muddled description of my raw pain conjoined with my deepest hopes. I am praying that you can find your own voice in what I share.  Here goes.

I am wearily mystified and cripplingly horrified by the violence. I do not know what to say anymore. I do not know how to feel, how to act. Sometimes I do not even know how to pray. I simply get quiet in God’s presence with a numb kind of silence, trusting in the Holy Spirit to intercede on my behalf—trusting him to take the deepest groans of my soul and bring them to the heart of God as understandable petitions.

I desperately want our politics, laws, and policies, particularly those related to the stewardship we practice over firearms, to be wise and practical, persistent and visionary, perceptive and prophetic. I long for a way forward that gives peace, sensibility, and justice their best chance at finding dynamic expression. I am desperate for both a cultural and Congressional response to the gun violence epidemic that will take our collective discernment beyond the rhetoric of shortsighted lobbyists and agenda-driven demagogues.

I am envisioning heartfelt dialogue and strategic action overseen by truth-seeking and justice-loving souls—souls who are not so bitterly entrenched in their position that they cannot appreciate the limits of their own vision.

We are confronted by a violence that prayer may not extinguish, yet I desperately and frantically pray. I cry out to God with wordless screams, begging for a grace that saves, a love that heals, and a Spirit who whispers unimaginable life into places of incomprehensible death.

Beyond prayer, perhaps the most moral and personal response to the mass shooting in Parkland is a commitment to naming and addressing violence (physical, emotional, and spiritual) wherever it is found and an unwavering devotion to the kind of life in which an ethos of violence cannot find enough air to survive. Irrespective of the perpetrator—a bully in the school hallway, a spouse in the living room, an employer or colleague in the workplace, a leader in the church, or a loud voice in social media—violence in any form warrants the attention of those who recognize that the way of peace (with justice) demands a resounding “NO” to the politics of mistreatment. An ethos of violence, after all, is built with the bricks of the everyday mistreatment of those we feel justified in undervaluing. Yesterday’s bloodshed in Parkland inspires a commitment to a more rigorous stewardship over our words, our behavior, our anger, our relationships, and our engagement with the world around us.

I have never been more convinced that people must not lose heart in this struggle. Nothing good can come from allowing cynicism, sarcasm, hatred, or an unadulterated sense of one’s own rightness to harden one’s heart. Nothing has happened, and nothing WILL happen, that is outside the scope of what God sees, weeps over, and creatively redeems. I want to work for peace, even when it seems unattainable. I want to pursue justice, even when the answers are not clear. Most of all, I want to live into a risky and sacrificial love, thereby reminding the world that violence and hatred are not humankind’s defining narrative.

That is what I will do with my outrage.

Changes

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Do any of you remember the David Bowie song “Changes” from his 1972 album “Hunky Dory”? I find myself singing the chorus of that song even as I type these words:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Gonna’ have to be a different man
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time

Changes rarely happen without some struggle. And yet, in spite of the challenges, the rhythms of transition are often where God accomplishes some of God’s most magnificent work.

I am finding evidence of change wherever I look these days. Changes in our denomination. Changes in the political climate of our country and the nature of our social discourse. Changes in the dynamics of our churches and the communities to which they are connected. Changes in how people think about spirituality and its ramifications.

Changes.

On a personal level, the changes are even more daunting. Effective July 1, I will become the District Superintendent of the Butler District in United Methodism’s Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. I will be succeeding my current District Superintendent, Joel Garrett, who will retire on July 1 and whose creative ministry and trustworthy friendship have been a regular source of blessing in my life for the last 26 years.

My new appointment requires that I  say hello to a work I have done before. It also requires that I say goodbye to the work of serving as a Senior Pastor to a congregation I dearly love and admire.

Changes.

In the eyes of some, District Superintendents are little more than denominational bureaucrats who toe the party line, extend the episcopal office, put out ecclesiastical fires on occasion, manage the distribution and collection of paperwork, and show up for the yearly administrative dinosaur known as the church conference. Others conceptualize the District Superintendents as the backroom negotiators who shuffle around pastors in that inscrutable segment of United Methodist polity called the appointment system.

For me to be able to return to the role of District Superintendent with a sense of integrity and purpose, I must cultivate within myself a vision for the work that might carry me beyond the sinking sand of cynicism to a more dynamic spirit of hope. District Superintendents, at their best, can be attentive encouragers who hold pastors gently but firmly accountable for their ministry but who also allow themselves to be held gently but firmly accountable by their pastors and congregations. District Superintendents can be facilitators of authentic worship who dare to see worship as humankind’s only appropriate response to God’s majesty and who diligently create opportunities for their brothers and sisters on the district to connect with one another in the context of the communal adoration of God.

They can be relentless champions for outreach and mission who work with other visionaries to create opportunities for hands-on ministry beyond the walls of the church building. They can be sojourners who travel alongside the pastors and laity of their district, comforting the afflicted with gentle words, afflicting the “too comfortable” with prophetic words, and listening quietly when no words are necessary, all the while cultivating the kind of attentiveness that honors the integrity of those they superintend.

They can be enthusiastic practitioners of the spiritual disciplines, who pray for their pastors and churches, who study the Word and meditate upon its revelation, who preach the Gospel with passion, who fast for discernment (in order to remind themselves that they are hungrier for God than they are for food), who worship as though their lives depended on it, and who commit themselves to holy conferencing (both with the churches on their district and the Cabinet).

District Superintendents have a unique opportunity in a changing denomination to lead with simultaneous compassion and vision, so that their ministry is driven, not by a commitment to institutional maintenance, but by a fervent commitment to relational evangelism and missional innovation.

My emotions concerning this new appointment are deeply mixed because of my love for the people of Butler First Church with whom I have journeyed over the last five years as Senior Pastor. Granted, I will have the privilege of serving as this church’s District Superintendent, which is both a blessing and an honor. That relationship, however, is something different than serving as the church’s Senior Pastor. Another Senior Pastor will come and will lead with beautiful giftedness and inspiring integrity. Of this I am greatly confident. One of the strengths of our denomination’s system of polity, after all, is our perpetual discernment of how pastoral leaders can be best deployed and how churches can be best served. With great sadness, I will let go of the role of Senior Pastor. With great joy, I will become an ardent supporter and encourager of my successor.

Please pray for me. Pray for my wife, Tara, who is as unsettled by this transition as I am. Pray for the incredible souls at Butler First Church and for their new pastor (yet to be named). Pray for our Bishop and Cabinet as they engage in the messy and meaningful work of another appointment season. Pray for Joel and Debbie Garrett as they prepare for Joel’s retirement. Along the way, allow yourself to be completely undone by the holiness and hugeness of God amidst all the “ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” with which you might be confronted.

Might You Be

DETAIL FROM ICON OF THE NATIVITY

When Mary held Jesus on that first holy night, I wonder what her thoughts and prayers might have been. I wonder what she imagined when she looked into the face of her newborn son, when she attempted to reconcile his sweet vulnerability with the angel’s message about his mystical identity and his role in the world’s redemption.

I wonder if Mary allowed herself to experience precious moments of letting go of the theological complexities that were embodied in her child so that he could simply be her little boy and so that she could simply be his loving mother.

I wonder.

This is a song about that wondering, a song about God traveling into human history through the vulnerability and comprehensive humanity of an infant. It is also a song about a loving mother and her newborn child.

I pray that you experience a joyful and meaningful celebration of Christmas.

Might You Be
(Words and Music by Eric Park—except the included portion of “What Child Is This,” lyrics by William Chatterton Dix, set to the tune of “Greensleeves,” a traditional English folk song)

Might you be Deity
Cradled within these human arms sleeping peacefully
Might you be Royalty
Sovereign without a crown trusting me completely
Might you be Jubilee
Come to redeem your people, come to bring liberty
Might you be Charity
Love breathing human breath lying here to save me

But the angel said as much to me
A peasant girl’s epiphany
Still, I’m left wondering were his words meant for another
But let’s let go the future now, we cannot see it anyhow
Tonight just be my precious boy, and I will be your mother

What child is this…

Might you be Prophecy
Words of the ancient ones fulfilled in your infancy
Might you be Purity
One day to bear the stain of our vain iniquity

But the angel said as much to me
A peasant girl’s epiphany
Still, I’m left wondering were his words meant for another
But let’s let go the future now, we cannot see it anyhow
Tonight just be my precious boy, and I will be your mother

 

Life Lessons From “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

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November of 2017 marks the 44th anniversary of the release of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” I watched it every year during my childhood. These days, in my “adult childhood,” I still make it a point to watch it every November.

There are moments in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” that are particularly noteworthy. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes playful, these moments, long before I was aware of their impact, helped me to pay attention to the world and its nuances. Here are some of the moments I have in mind:

CB 1

SNOOPY’S BATTLE WITH THE ORNERY LAWN CHAIR—Tapping into the frustration that most of us have experienced with uncooperative folding lawn furniture, Snoopy’s passionate fight with the anthropomorphic chair ranks as one of the great moments in all of animation. I think about that scene whenever I have difficulty opening up the folding chairs at church, which is often. It is a slapstick lesson in fortitude, a ridiculous but cautionary moment that makes a case for a raw “get-r-done” kind of gusto.

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FRANKLIN’S UNIQUE GREETING WHEN ENTERING CHARLIE BROWN’S HOUSE—When Peppermint Patty and Marcie come through the door, they greet Charlie Brown with simple hellos. But when Franklin, the only African American boy in the story, comes into the house, he and Charlie Brown exchange a pronounced and audible slap of hands. In light of the fact that this was 1973, such a greeting was a slap heard round the world—a moment of communicational intimacy that signaled the continuing development of a new age in race relations, even in the world of animation.

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SNOOPY’S PANICKED EXPRESSION WHEN HEARING THE INVITATION TO PRAY OVER DINNER—Peppermint Patty calls for someone to pray over the Thanksgiving meal. Snoopy, in a split-second response, looks suddenly panicked, as though he’s afraid that someone might look to him for the blessing. That sudden look of canine consternation makes me laugh every year because of its creative illumination of a very common spiritual reluctance. “Please, God, don’t let anyone ask me to pray out loud!”

CB 4

SNOOPY’S TOASTED EAR—While preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, Woodstock the bird accidentally puts Snoopy’s ear in the toaster, then butters it. No dinner, I suppose, is complete without a spoonful of personal sacrifice and a dash of vulnerability.

CB 5

WOODSTOCK’S FONDNESS FOR POULTRY—It hit me in late elementary school that, in the closing scene, when Snoopy and Woodstock sit down for a turkey dinner, Woodstock is actually committing a form of avian cannibalism before my very eyes. I wonder if the turkey was accompanied by some fava beans and a nice chianti.

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AN ECLECTIC THANKSGIVING MEAL—The actual meal that Charlie Brown serves to his friends includes jellybeans, pretzels, popcorn, and toast, reminding everyone that the beauty of the feast is always in the eye of the (hungry) beholder.

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LINUS’ PRAYER—When Linus quotes the prayer that was prayed by Elder William Brewster at the first Thanksgiving meal, it is the only moment in the entire animation that his security blanket is not visible. What a winsomely subtle way of making the point that, when Linus experiences the security of prayer, he no longer needs the blanket.

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THE SPONTANEOUS REJOICING—When the children receive word that they are all invited to Charlie Brown’s grandmother’s house for a real Thanksgiving dinner, they erupt with a joyful fervency normally reserved for Steelers games and Springsteen concerts. Their child-like exuberance awakens within me the desire to do everything I can to make the church into the kind of place that always—always—invites children to the table.

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THE REALISTIC SINGING—In the car, when the children sing “Over the River and Through the Woods,” they are neither unified in their tempo nor disciplined about their tonality—meaning that they sounded exactly like every group of singing children that I have ever heard (except for the Jackson 5 and that time that the Brady Bunch kids became the Silver Platters). Their joyful and spirited singing reminds me of how grateful I am that music has occupied a significant place in my life. I want it to occupy such a place in many lives.

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THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF THE MOVEMENT TO SUBURBIA—“There’s only one problem with that song,” Charlie Brown says about the bucolic “Over the River and Through the Woods” as the children sing the song together.

“What’s that, Charlie Brown?”

“My grandmother lives in a condominium!”

By uttering those six words, Charlie Brown concludes the production with a bold and prophetic acknowledgement of the frightening implications of suburban sprawl, generational compartmentalization, and architectural homogeneity. It is a subtle but appropriate warning to a culture that frequently runs the risk of forgetting that rivers, woods, and grandmothers are never to be taken for granted.

If you watch “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” this year, pay attention. It offers some wonderfully whimsical and insightful moments, even after 44 years.