Like many of us, on Tuesday evening I watched the President’s State of the Union address. President Obama offered an impassioned appeal for us as Americans to provide help and hope for everyone in the country. Everybody deserves a shot, he said; and he went on about our ability to overcome adversity through hard work and investing in hope; and providing opportunity through initiatives that will level the uneven playing field.
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Posts from retired blogs, including Bishop Mark Beckwith's blog "Signs of God's Grace," Canon Greg Jacobs' blog "Out of the Ordinary," and blogs by General Convention deputies in 2012 and 2015.
The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas is rooted in the gifts the Wise Men left the infant Jesus twelve days after his birth, as recorded in Matthew's Gospel, and which we commemorate as the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). The original gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were given out of gratitude; and indeed, the season of Epiphany is set aside for us to express gratitude over the many ways God's presence comes to us.
Gratitude is a choice made by the head, but requires participation of the heart. For the participants in the original Christmas/Epiphany story, the gratitude did not come easily.
As the Christmas story continues to be told and dramatized and sung, I have an abiding sense that the cave where the Prince of Peace was born was – for a moment, the center of the universe. His parents were there, of course, as were some local shepherds who were drawn in by the voices of a throng of angels and archangels, who were hovering above. Light emanated from the manger, and a celestial light led three dignitaries from far-off foreign lands to the place of birth. It was the same divine light.
A scapegoat is someone who is punished for the sins or offenses of others. It dates back to Leviticus 16, when the “Azazel” goat was sent out into the wilderness from the Temple in Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement. Often the goat had the curses of the community written on his flank. The purpose of the scapegoat was a solemn sacrifice for sin.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” That is the King James Version of the third commandment (Exodus 20:7). Like most of us, I was taught that it meant there is certain language you can’t use – swear words being chief among them. And as a kid, we all knew what those forbidden words were (and the excitement we felt when we learned a new one).
The way we use language influences the way we think. When I was in high school in the late 1960s, the country was in the throes of the civil rights movement. Part of the movement’s energy was directed to creating equity in the use of language. Instead of calling people of color “Negroes” (which is Spanish for black), the culture was challenged to identify people by their color (whites and blacks); thus creating a language equity.
We tend to read scripture and culture through the lens of the church. Al Roxburgh calls this “ecclesiocentrism” (page 48, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood). Our predisposition, he says, is to think first and foremost in terms of church questions. Scripture and culture have become secondary to, and a function of, church effectiveness questions: How do we get people into church? What does this biblical passage say about our congregation? We look at the culture and scripture through the lens of the church.
Dwelling in the word. It is a recurring metaphor in Alan Roxburgh's book, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood. It derives from the wisdom of Leslie Newbigin, an Anglican missionary to India in the 1930s, who discovered that he needed to relearn the gospel. Newbigin's missionary approach was to sit with local people to listen and learn.
What is God up to? For me, it is helpful to look back at the biblical record of Jesus, who, during his lifetime, was the living embodiment of God in the world. Jesus went to places of pain; and as his ministry developed, the places of pain, and the people in pain, came to him. He healed, he restored, he taught – and all the while he embodied and expressed a divine hope that was transforming. It was transforming to the people then – and to us now. He was – and is – up to a lot.
As the culture and the church continue to experience dramatic change, Al Roxburgh suggests that most of our questions are "church questions" (page 22, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood). He says these questions misdirect us, because they keep our focus on church, and not on God. The church questions are subsets of the more important God question: what is God up to?