Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Heartbreaking. That's the only word I have for the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian violence. As I write, Israeli F-16s have retaliated for Hamas-initiated rocket fire on innocent Israeli suburbs. The death total at the moment: 225 Palestinians killed (400 injured), 1 Israeli dead from rockets. While we can debate about what constitutes the just use of force and the morality of eye-for-an-eye retaliation, the sheer imbalance here is overwhelming. Israel possesses the fourth strongest army in the world, is a nuclear power, and is far and away more powerful than the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors combined. The Gaza Strip is one of the world's most densely populated areas, called the largest penitentiary in the world: over 1.5 million Palestinians live enclosed here--they cannot come or go at will. For Israeli jets to bomb Hamas strongholds in Gaza is to guarantee the death of scores of innocent Palestinian bystanders, who, through no choice of their own, live all around the militants. The death of these noncombatants, by anyone's standards, is not just. The Gazans--Muslim, Christian, radical, moderate--have nowhere to go: they are surrounded by Israeli military and cannot leave their tiny enclave. Their water and power are turned on and off at the whim of the Israeli military. Their sources of food and medicine are extremely limited. Gazan Palestinians are desperate and theirs is a humanitarian crisis. What Hamas has done is not justifiable, particularly when it targets innocent civilians. But what the Israeli Defense Force and its jets are doing right now is tragic and unjustifiable as well. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

No Vacancy?

When I was a little kid, our family used to take car trips across the Southwest. We’d get in the station wagon (remember those?) and we’d drive out to Utah, or Arizona, or New Mexico. We never camped. We always stayed in motels. Sometimes we ‘d drive until way past dinnertime and arrive in a small town looking for a place to stay. We’d pass the nicer motels, the Best Westerns, even the Motel 6, and always, at that hour, the same red neon sign warned us away. What’d it say? “No Vacancy.”

No vacancy. Just two words, but they communicated a bunch more. Too late. All full. Keep moving. Not wanted. We’d press on and finally we’d find room in a seedier motel on the outskirts of town. “No Vacancy.” Not a great sign.

Imagine how Mary and Joseph felt…
Mary and Joseph had walked and camped for about a hundred miles just to get to Bethlehem. They were tired, Mary was in pain and ready to give birth—and the same sign met them: “No vacancy.” The Bible says that she “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

Our Christmas pageant this evening explores this story. The Hotel Bethlehem has reached capacity. There’s no vacancy. What will happen to the holy family? Will there be room for them? Will people make space for them?

It’s a foreshadowing of the life of Jesus.
You see, in Jesus, God travels all the way from heaven to earth to get close to human beings. God literally comes to live within us, to re-connect us with himself. The New Testament says that Jesus came in order that he “might dwell in our hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17). As with Hotel Bethlehem, there’s a dramatic tension: will there be room in our hearts for Jesus? Or will we already be full up?

So many things compete for residency in our hearts.
Our jobs, our families, our health, the economy, our retirement savings, the world—all of them demand entry and cry out for room. And this season is even more crowded with all the stuff and things trying to barge in: card-writing, tree-trimming, gift-buying, package-wrapping, party-going, cookie-baking, eggnog-drinking—the list is endless.Will we let all this stuff in? If we do, we’ll quickly reach capacity. And when Jesus knocks on the door of our hearts, that same red neon sign will warn him away: “No Vacancy.”

There’s a great, but little-sung, Christmas carol that captures this theme. It’s called “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.” Listen to the words of the first verse…

Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown when thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home there was found no room for thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.

What’s your heart’s capacity this Christmas? What sign greets Jesus as he comes looking for room? Is it the dreaded red neon one that says “No Vacancy”? Or is it one that says: “Room Left! Come on in!”?

Wrapping Lessons

Are you good at wrapping presents? I'm not. I stink at it. Unless they are books or CDs. Those I can do. I don't think I'm the only one who's wrapping-challenged. I was at the Boulder REI the other day, where I heard a man on the PA system announce that a gift-wrapping seminar was soon to be offered. Wrapping goes with the Christmas season, whether we're good at it or not.

At Advent our family usually has some form of nightly devotion together. For our boys, the prospect of playing with matches (a.k.a. "lighting the Advent candles") and scarfing down chocolates (a.k.a. opening the Advent calendar windows) is too good to pass up. Anyway, this sporadic seasonal spirituality, when it works for us (which sometimes it does), can be very enlightening. The other night we were reading from Luke's Gospel, where, in Chapter Two, verse 7, we heard that Mary "gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger." For whatever reason, the verbs "wrapped" and "laid" leaped out at me.

Quickly flipping to the end of the gospel, sure enough, I saw them again, this time applied to Joseph of Arimathea, who took down the crucified body of Jesus, "wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb" (23:53). "Wrapped" and "laid" again! It's the perfect bookend to the life of Jesus: he enters this world (most likely) in a cave, where he's wrapped and laid for the hope of the world. He then exits this world in cave/tomb, where he's wrapped and laid for the sins of the world. The wrapping of God's gift! Christmas entry, Good Friday exit, the life and death of the Son of God in a perfect symmetry. The unwrapping of the gift we read about a bit further in the gospel, where on Easter the linen cloths that wrap Jesus' body are empty and Jesus is risen.

It's given me pause, this reference to wrapping: I wonder if the next time I'm muttering over my crinkled wrap-jobs and pesky Scotch tape, I will take time to consider the wrapping and careful placement of God's greatest gift. What a whole new way of looking at it!

The Church as a Christian Nordstrom?

It's time to rethink the role and nature of the local church, particularly the full-service, "one stop shopping" larger church. In my opinion, one of the problems with a large program church is that it's easy for a culture of consumerism to penetrate its walls. Often this is subtle and unintentional. Let me explain: Large, well-maintained, highly professional, and well-organized churches can send off what I might call a "spiritualized Nordstrom" vibe. The staff and leaders of the church may strive to develop an attractive facility with high quality goods and services. The church becomes an oasis of respite from the world (we can almost hear the tinkling of the piano greet us in the lobby!). Polite professional people offer to help us and they present a high quality ministry designed to meet our needs. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But there can be a shadow side: for those not deeply vested in the church, for those who mainly visit it for its services, they may be tempted to default to an unconscious Christian consumerism. As with their purchasing habits in other areas, they can become discerning church consumers looking for the best deal on the dollar. When the quality of goods and services dips, they may look elsewhere.

Interestingly, in this consumerist paradigm, a curious co-dependence can form between leaders and church members: the more professionalized, on-top-of-things, and in-control the leadership of the church appears, the more the membership may be tempted to retreat into the role of savvy spenders, carefully weighing the quality of services and programs in the free market economy of churches in the area. The more active and professional the leadership presents itself, the more passive and consumerist the congregation becomes. Not always, thank goodness, but sometimes.

Times of change and upheaval in a church (just like an uncertain economy for a high-end department store) challenge the paradigm and poke holes in it. What's occurred to me recently, is that the bigger church is not so much like a spiritual Nordstrom, but more like a big family. Like all of our families the church can be a place of successful nurture and celebration, safety, and predictability. But, like our very real families, sometimes the church, even the large one, is a place of brokenness and dysfunction, struggle and sin, uncertainty, vulnerability, and weakness. This is no reason to leave it for a better deal elsewhere--think what happens to families when family members do that! No, the church as family, as opposed to the church as Nordstrom, is the place of deepened commitment and growth. When challenges come, we re-commit, we work together, we try to communicate more effectively, we even call for outside help as needed. Church as family? Or church as department store? If it's the latter, "buyer beware!"

The Delectable Lectionary

Since last month, after an encounter with some Presbyterian liturgical devotional practices at a training event, I've found myself curiously drawn to a widespread Christian practice: reading the Daily Common Lectionary. For those not familiar with it, the Revised Common Lectionary is a cycle of Scripture readings for personal devotion (it includes a morning and evening psalm, an Old Testament passage, a New Testament epistle selection, and a gospel reading). It's a bit of a workout, admittedly, but well worth it. The lectionary is developed and used by many mainline denominations, including my own, but it tends not to get much reading in more evangelical circles. What I like about it is that it exposes me regularly to a much broader selection of the Bible than I would tend to read on my own--and, better yet, it allows me to share the readings with a wide, though invisible, circle of Christians, not just in the United States, but around the world. With this new discipline, I'm experiencing a freshness in reading the Bible and I awake more eager each morning to see what spiritual food God has in store for me. As the day unfolds, it's amazing to watch how individual passages end up speaking to the practical realities I experience--it's uncanny, really.

Granted, this is only a season of reading I'm in, and this is only one tool among many I can reach for devotionally; however, I'm finding that it draws me out beyond the narrow confines of my personality, presses me to move outside my pet themes and passages, and reminds me of the grand sweep of God's activity historically. I'm really enjoying it and for those who'd like to give it a try, may I suggest you go to There you'll see what I'm reading and you might try it yourself. And, if you're comfortable, please circle back to give me your take on the practice. Happy reading!