Food for Thought-Do You Remember When You First Met Santa?

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Who is Santa Claus? You know him, don’t you? He’s that guy you think you remember but can’t quite recall. We see him everywhere but aren’t certain if he’s the actual “one”.  I know exactly who he is. Santa’s presence, visage, and image are quite clear in my mind. I have no doubts about the identity or reality of Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas.

I’m trying to remember when I first saw Santa. While the moment remains hazy, perhaps around age four or five, the meeting does not. I think he was about two and a half or three feet tall. His complexion wasn’t rosy, as is often described. I will say it was warm. He held a healthy glow. I wanted to hover around Santa in the same way I’m drawn to a fresh bowl of soup.

Santa’s boots stand out in my mind. It’s not their blackness, the coal like sturdiness their roundness gave to his figure; it is that they were shiny. These plastic leather boots glowed like the guards standing watch outside Buckingham Palace. Did Santa polish his own boots? Or did that task fall to the elves or Mrs. Claus? It seems like something he would want to do himself. Even then, though I may not have known how to express it, I think I saw Santa as a guy who liked to maintain a degree of independence. He had big pockets on his large red jacket. He could have carried boot polish, toys, or cold weather survival equipment. His coat was more of a festive safari jacket than a “Santa” suit. Santa was a benevolent action figure bringing love and cheer instead of death and violence.

Santa’s belt was massive; big, black, and gold. I wasn’t sure if he might have been a professional wrestler in his past. The belt wasn’t there to hold up his pants. It was present as a symbol of his Santa authority. Without a belt, Santa is a man in a matching red coat and pants. The belt completes the ensemble. Would Superman be Superman without a cape? Of course not. Santa needs a belt. Only the man in a red suit needs a belt this black, unbelievably wide, and with an enormous gold buckle. Despite this monstrosity of a fashion statement, Santa didn’t look gaudy or like a redneck wrestler with a white beard. He looked like Santa because he was Santa Claus. Everything fit and nothing seemed out of place.

What do you do when you’re four years old and have a three foot tall Santa? Most of the Santa figures I’d seen (those similar to the one in our house) were standing beside trees or perched on window ledges. This wasn’t going to work for me. I wanted to play with Santa. Why couldn’t I pick Santa up and bring him along for car rides or trips to church? Santa would be the perfect companion to play with through Christmas and beyond. If my room were the North Pole, or so my imagination ran, we could start our own toy distribution center. The possibilities were limitless. Or, if things we slow, we could sit and talk. I was sure Santa had seen plenty in the few years he’d roamed the globe, maybe he could tell me something about the clouds over Canada or how they grew fish in Gibraltar. These were some of the questions in my young mind.

I still have a desire to make Santa as tangible as possible. This is because I love Santa. I consider him to be a friend. I saw him yesterday. Despite his age and ever growing responsibilities, he continues to do worthwhile work for communities around the world. It’s also a blast to spend time with him. Most people will zero in on the “jolly old laugh”. If that’s all you hear, I think you’re missing the Santa point. It’s his presence that matters most. It’s when he’s standing there, nearby, ready to be of comfort or service that’s often most fun. Santa is up for anything. I know this from my own experience. You don’t find people like that these days. Santa’s wild sense of adventure will shape and inform imaginations if you allow yourself to spend quality time in his presence. To do this, go beyond the laughter and the cardboard cutouts the world has created. The Santa’s clothing (and the man who wears it) isn’t a prop or a manufactured image, it is who he is so we can be who we are.

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Food for Thought-Jesus Is Not on Trial (John 18:33-37)

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Some of the most compelling dramas on television are based in courtrooms. Legal fantasies which walk viewers through the world of jury selection, evidence gathering, and cross examination dominate the broadcast schedule of networks and cable television alike. However, most lawyers say, “It’s never like it’s depicted on television.” Nothing ever is, really.
For centuries, people who claim to be in the know have referred to this encounter between Jesus of Nazareth and Pontius Pilate as a “trial”. It’s really not a trial, even in the 1st century, Greco-Roman sense of the word. If it’s anything, it’s a trial the way William Shakespeare might have imagined two rivals meeting to discuss a moment of moral profundity in Act III of a tragedy. Others will say, “Pilate is the one who is really on trial here.” Yeah, ok. I see the point. But it’s not a trial.

The word trial leaves open the possibility that the outcome might not be set in stone. Trials, in our minds, are the result of a fair assessment of facts by a jury or judge. The decisions, in theory, are never foregone conclusions. Jesus is guilty as charged. He doesn’t need a trial. Jesus is guilty of being himself. He will die. We know this to be true. Jesus knows who he is and that his death is imminent. To call Jesus’ meeting with Pilate a trial, leads one to believe he might have the opportunity to be found not guilty and released to continue his ministry.  We know this isn’t true and is never going to happen.  No, this is not a trial.  This is a conversation between two men. At times it is awkward, uncomfortable, and one-sided. Yet in this conversation we learn who the early church understood Jesus to be. Our challenge, within this brief encounter, is not to miss the most important things said and left unsaid by both Jesus and Pontius Pilate.

Food for Thought-Awkward Discussion Topics for A Thanksgiving Meal in Rural North Carolina

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I live in rural North Carolina. I was born and raised here.  I know Thanksgiving is a time for family discussions and catching up on the world around you.  If you’re in the rural south (or anywhere really) let me offer these awkward topics for discussion at your Thanksgiving table. These are guaranteed to enliven any celebration.  Use them at your own risk.

1. So Mom, is the upstairs bedroom ready for the refugees?

2. Have you read those Biblical verses about welcoming widows and orphans?

3. I’ve just enrolled in a new class in Sharia law. They make some super points.

4. You know, there are parts of the Bible which are just as brutal as the Quran.

5. What Would Jesus Do?

6. Are you going to eat the drumstick?

7. So I hear you’re supporting this podiatrist Ben Carson?

8. Allah is the basic Arabic word for God. We could substitute God with Allah when we bless our food.

9. Why did you make so few deviled eggs? You know I like deviled eggs. Someone ate more eggs than they were allotted by the Thanksgiving High Council.

10. Praying five times a day, formally, as mandated by some holy book. Who could get any work done? You spend all day long in prayer? Am I right?

Food for Thought-Should We Let Refugees In Who Believe In a Man Who Committed Suicide By Execution?

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There are underlying reasons (not justifications) for everything, especially when it comes to religious belief and faith in God. If you realize you’re dealing with religious people in a religious situation, believe it or not, you can start to see why people take certain actions and do certain things. Devout people are predictable. For instance, I can tell you where many of the people I know are going to be on any Sunday morning at 11:00 am. It’s a better than average chance they’ll be in church. This is because they’re usually going by a sacred book or books and accepted faith traditions which determine their religious conduct.

If one reads these holy texts in some of the many ways they might be interpreted, one may form a good idea of what motivates them to do what they do. In my case, it’s possible to understand what drives them to make audacious claims about eating the body and drinking the blood of a dead Galilean carpenter. Far from an archaic practice which recalls an instance Greco-Roman cannibalism, we symbolically retell the story of how an innocent man died. And through this death, we’ve come to understand a fuller understanding of life in the present through something called the kingdom or community of God. This is because religious belief, faith in a God, has a habit of bringing out the best and worst in people. This type of behavior has occurred long enough and in enough religious traditions (especially the Abrahamic faiths), it becomes easier to predict and understand why people make both good and bad decisions in relation to their religious faith.  Placed in one context, we think we understand how our sacred stories can help us be better people.  However, these same stories can be can not be separated from the images of death and suffering where they found their origin.  The idea of a righteous death makes good people, especially religious people, open to the idea of dying for God.

At the most basic level, Christianity is a faith built around the sacrificial death of one man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus allowed himself to die. He permitted himself to be arrested, taken, beaten, tortured, and killed by the Roman authorities. The words “allow” and “plan” are part and parcel of our Christian vocabulary. Except for a few sermons in Holy Week, when a pastor may refer to Jesus’ desire to have the “cup pass from him”, there’s never any indication given that Jesus didn’t want to die. We love to talk about how Jesus wanted to die for our sins. Jesus committed suicide by allowing himself to be executed by the Roman army.

Modern Christians take this idea for granted. It makes us squeamish. Jesus, on the cross, becomes the first Christian martyr. He is martyred for the ideas, beliefs, and religious vision. Towards the end of the 23rd chapter of Luke, awaiting his death by martyrdom, Jesus tells one of the two thieves who is dying with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” As a willing martyr, Luke says he awaits a place in paradise. We compose hymns about his desire to die. Palestinian mothers (perhaps from Nazareth or Bethlehem) sing songs today about their own sons who choose the path of martyrdom and death:

The martyr give us stone from his blood,
From his red blood thee rose becomes red
His mother trills for him in joy,
He has given his blood to the nation.

A camp meeting hymn by another name? It sounds almost Pentecostal, doesn’t it?

Are others killed when Jesus chooses to die on the cross? On that day, no. Will other early Christians eventually choose death, suicide, and martyrdom? Yes. Embedded within the creation our own Abrahamic faith tradition is the violent suicide by execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The glorification of choosing death would seem to be at the heart of what we believe and do. We appear to be more than at peace with this notion.  We revel in our bloody past.  We tell the stories.  We read the books and now we show the videos.

Who would want to let anyone into the United States (or any other country) who held such strange beliefs? Surely, anyone who believed in symbolic cannibalism or suicidal death cult leader would be a threat to the good order of rural communities all over the United States. He believes in dying and going to paradise? Are there 72 virgins involved? That’s awful suspicious. Could Jesus be a “terrorist”? What if Jesus’ followers infiltrated the country and started encouraging others to commit suicide as a means of civil disobedience to unjust laws? He did it once before. We don’t know what he really believes because none of us have read the religious texts relevant his teachings. Who reads Greek or Aramaic? Certainly not the government. Perhaps, we should ban all Christians from entering the United States of America. We might need to get rid of the ones we have.

Food for Thought-Surely This is About More Than Praying for Paris

Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr

So what do we do? What does a country do when it has bombed everyone it can bomb? Osama bin Laden is dead.  We’ve killed the number two in every militant group twice over.  What do we do when there is no nation state with an army to fight? Will the special forces of any given nation be able to complete what thousands of regular soldiers were unable to do in 15 years? What do we do when all we know how to do is mourn and mourn defiantly? What do we do when everything we’re doing seems to be playing out like a well-worn script entitled, “What to do in the first week and arguments to have in the first days following a major terrorist attack.” What do we do?

I think platitudes are unhelpful. I believe vague requests to pray for cities and countries have little impact; unless they are followed with specific ideas about which to pray. Prayer is confusing for Christians on a good day. In the wake of the attacks on Saturday morning, I needed to write down tangible people and places to remember in prayer. I might pray to go on vacation in “Paris”. I may remember visiting the Louvre. When I first saw these “hashtags” and memes, something didn’t quite connect. These prayers were about more than clichéd landmarks and ideas of Paris in my memory and mind. They didn’t seem to be about the reality of the event unfolding on the streets.

In truth, Praying for Paris means praying for people I’ve never met, will never meet, and who died in places I’ve never been. It also means praying for the Russians who died over the Sinai and the Lebanese who died 24 hours before the attack in Paris. Praying for Paris must mean praying for victims of violence everywhere. We have to pray in a contextual way that makes sense of our beliefs, remembers the dead, and doesn’t turn the symbols of grief into idols being worshiped.

Flags, towers, short video clips, and monuments all have the potential to become idols. The first commandment Moses gave the Israelites as they left Egypt addressed a prohibition against worshiping images and ideas he believed might be greater than the God who had delivered them from slavery. The first commandment hasn’t been far from my mind since Friday as I’ve watched the French tricolor pop up everywhere. Here’s my question: Are we worshiping symbols (yes, a polite way to say “idols”) or remembering the dead? Are we becoming slaves to the coverage of the carnage, worshiping the fear, riding the “How dare they attack city of lights again bandwagon?” rather than genuinely remembering the lives of those who died?  I fear we are.

We pray and we mourn. What else do we do? How do we find meaning in the midst of the meaningless? I’ve done a great deal of reading this weekend both in and out of scripture. I want to read the words of people who went through traumatic, anxious times and lived to tell the tale. On a cold Saturday night, after officiating at a candlelit wedding, I went to see Paul Tillich.

In his 1957 book, Dynamics of Faith, Tillich describes a “crisis of faith” in western civilization. The old German was right then, when France was fighting a colonial war in Algeria which set the stage for much of the immigration to France from Morocco and Algeria in the late 20th century. Paul Tillich is also correct today. We have a crisis of faith. There are people who take their faith too seriously; seriously enough kill others and there are those who remain completely befuddled by anyone still attending church in Western Europe.

Tillich goes on to say:

There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions and questionable definitions than the word “faith.” It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men. Today the term “faith” is more productive of disease than of health. It confuses, misleads, creates alternately skepticism and fanaticism, intellectual resistance and emotional surrender, rejection of genuine religion and subjection to substitutes. Indeed, one is tempted to suggest that the word “faith” should be dropped completely; but desirable as that may be it is hardly possible. A powerful tradition protects it. And there is as yet no substitute expressing the reality to which the term “faith” points. So, for the time being, the only way of dealing with the problem is to try to reinterpret the word and remove the confusing and dis¬torting connotations, some of which are the heritage of centuries.”

Yes, we have faith in all the wrong things. There is a faith which says suicide vests will change our status in eternity. There is faith which believes that signs of solidarity, displays of lights, and singing “Imagine” will send messages of cultural strength to terrorists who could care less about how others grieve. There is a faith which believes our governments will do the right things when it comes to welcoming refugees. There is a faith in humanity’s goodness always deteriorating into name calling on Facebook. There is faith in the deity I call God and others call Allah, a God who felt absent on Friday night in Paris and was nowhere to be seen among the Russian wreckage in the Egyptian desert.

Yes, it is time to find a new word; a new way to remove the distorting connotations hanging over our heads at this moment. What next? What is the new word? I don’t know.  In the last sentence of “The Courage to Be” there is an indication of what one might do in times like this:

“The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”

That is a good place to start.

Food for Thought-Hashtag Pray for Paris

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I need to be told more than to “Pray for Paris”. Spiritually, it’s not doing it for me this morning. In light of what happened, the words sound vapid and vague. The phrase is already becoming commercialized, popping up on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and all over EBay.  Don’t get me wrong; the thought, idea, concept, and sentiments are good. My question is this: in the wake of such abject horror and terror, for what and whom do we pray. Where does one begin to pray? How do you do it right without making it cheesy, money-grubbing, and gross?

In such an overwhelming tragedy, I had to make a list. I can’t simply send good vibes to France behind a hashtag. I must write this out. I am praying for:

1. The survivors
2. Those who are coming to terms with the reality their loved ones aren’t coming home
3. Those trying to protect others from further harm
4. Those caring for the wounded
5. Those trying to connect the dead with the living
6. Those who believe faith in any deity means you have the right to kill another human being.