To Be the Apprentice of a Newborn

Jesus and the Shepherds take their places in our Creche. They go together as they go together in the climax of the nativity story. Jesus and the Shepherds are tied together, and will be so forever.

Why shepherds? Why did God first give the good news about Jesus’ arrival to the shepherds? Yes, Jesus’ family of course knew. But the shepherds were the first neutral party to hear the news. Why?
There are a few reasons, I’d say. I give them quickly before I get to the heart of what I want to say.

John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, will later call Jesus the Lamb of God by who takes away the sin of the world. So the shepherds come to see this new lamb who will change their lives. There is a foreshadowing here.  

Also, there is the even-then revered scripture we know as the 23rd Psalm – The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. The Gospels will also later point to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. So the shepherds are also coming to visit a fellow shepherd, the shepherd’s shepherd, the shepherd of all shepherds, the Good shepherd.

But an even more telling reason for why it is shepherds that God first reveals the good news to is seen in Jesus’ lineage. Jesus is the son of David, the Messiah, the new David who will take the throne as King of Israel and renew Israel to greatness again.

And who was David? A shepherd. The shepherds represent David. David in the form of the shepherds come to confirm that here is the New David, the awaited anointed one, the Messiah, King of Israel. David via the shepherds is blessing and anointing Jesus, passing the torch to this babe King.

Fine and good. We got some nice bits of knowledge here. But when it comes to spirituality, when it comes to our relationship with God, where is the importance? Who cares that it was shepherds God first comes to?

Well, we might ask, who are we in the story? Are we more like a newborn named Jesus than the Shepherds?

Most of us, are mere human beings doing our work, paying our bills, raising our families, doing what we need to do to get by. We are more shepherd than infant king, aren’t we? We are more mere common folk seeking meaning and hope. We are the shepherds, at least initially. We are the shepherds looking for joy and peace to be born onto us and in us.

This one in the manger, the infant is the master. The prophet Isaiah talked about a child that shall lead us. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”

This is that little child, the Christian tradition tells us. This is the little child leading us even in a lowly manger given because there is no room to stay in, no crib to be laid.

This is the little child we are to look to as not only our leader sent by God, but as our model for leadership, as our benchmark for what it means to lead – a shepherd king lying in a manger, leading us with his mere presence.

Are we present enough to see this?

We – the shepherds – are the apprentices. We look to this infant lying in manger to teach us the way of selflessness for the sake of the flock. The baby surrounded by the oxen and the donkeys teach us what it means to guide and lead, by being present with those we guide and lead. An infant is without thoughts about the past or the future, but resides in the moment. An infant does not judge us or ponder things for too long but simply breathes in and out with us, letting us know what we need to do by our watching and listening.

The little one cooing there in the manger teaches us that there is power in vulnerability, there is power letting love feed and nurture us.

In the Nativity Story we have a story of commoners. At the center of the story is common people who’ve been waiting for some truth, who’ve been waiting for some joy, who’ve been waiting for some hope, who’ve been waiting for a love that saves them.

And wouldn’t you know it, it is through the common birth of a common son, born to soon to be homeless, refugee parents, it is through this common human story that divine truth, joy, hope, and love is made real.

Our mentor, the one we seek to be the apprentice of, is us, is like us, is just as vulnerable, just as weak and needy, just as prone to falling and losing. Baby Jesus, or even the adult Jesus, would not be someone we’d call the winners among us.

There are some whom I know would not find much alluring in this Jesus who in order to help others win the game of life becomes the loser. This becoming the loser for the sake of the salvation of others begins from the very beginning. Jesus is a child who is not even born in a room of a shoddy motel, but in the barn outside of it. Jesus is a child who goes from being born amid farm animals and laid in a feeding trough to then having to flee to Egypt to escape the persecution and violence of his government. Far from victors of the world’s ways, Jesus and his family are victims, victimized by raw power, hate, and violence.

And so from the crib to the cross, Jesus walks the way of the lowly good shepherd. He defies raw power by being a servant. He overcomes hate with love. He resists violence with nonviolence. He accepts his victimhood. As the ultimate victim, he becomes the victor. And in him, salvation is given and sin and death defeated, as the Universalist teaching tells us.

We are called to be the good shepherd’s apprentices. We are called to sit at the foot of the master cooing awake in a manger and learn the way of simple love.

So as we enter this Christmas week, I pray that you look past all of clutter and chaos all around us this Christmas season and look to the One we celebrate, the One lying in a manger a vulnerable and frail as a newborn can be. May we see a lesson in the fragile moments of that newborn’s presence. This tender moment, this tender One, here to save us, namely from ourselves, trumps all pride and greed and ignorance. This little One whom Universalists believe extinguishes the fires of hell with the light of hope, this humble One presents us apprentices with a priceless grace, a renewed life, a love that helps us to love God and others. May we receive the gift and live accordingly. 


Keep Christ in Christmas Creep

So a couple weeks ago, I took Corey to a department store. Of course, we walked toward the toy section. And upon seeing signs of Christmas, what exactly I cannot recall, Corey says, “What!? Christmas stuff already. It isn’t Halloween yet.” I am sure he learned this from me, but it was funny hearing him say it, and so expressively.

Who hasn’t said this? Add in the yearly anthem of resistance, which we all can bet on hearing soon – that of Keep Christ in Christmas – and we have a couple examples of unconscious Christmas traditions, traditions that tap into negativity amid the positivity of the season.

However, when you look at these two traditional complaints we all either say or hear, they are built on a misconception. Both the “Christmas stuff already?” and “Keep Christ in Christmas” conceits imply that there is something novel, something newly wrong that we need to resist, some traditions we need to preserve. Yet looking at the history of such things, we would see that these traditions of resistance to change are nothing new. They are in fact traditions of keeping tradition.

Let me sketch out the history a bit.

People have been saying Christmas is starting too early – what has been deemed “Christmas creep – for decades. A couple Charlie Brown specials make this clear. The TV special A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving from 1973 has a scene in it where Sally goes shopping for a turkey tree for Thanksgiving but can only find Christmas stuff. A year later, It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, has the Peanuts characters going shopping for Easter in the middle of April and seeing Christmas displays. 

In a non-fiction based example, in a St. Petersburg Florida newspaper from September 25, 1968, there was a caption for a photo of a Christmas display reads:

“Earlier every year. It used to be the day after Thanksgiving, then the day after Halloweed, and now it’s shortly after Labor Day that the Christmas season starts showing up in St. Petersburg stores. Several already have put up Yule displays, urging shoppers to get the jump on each other.”

As far back as 1912, there were retailers selling the idea of shopping early. The Montreal newspaper Daily Telegraph had an ad on Oct. 28, 1912 that read: “This may SEEM a little premature to you—but it really is NOT… not many days left in which to do your Christmas buying."

A brilliant article in the webzine Slate discusses how Christmas Creep goes all the way back the Victorian age. Author Paul Collins says, “The problem, then as now, was not the idea of shopping before Thanksgiving—that barrier had already toppled—but the more heated question of pushing past another holiday and into the precincts of Halloween. Sioux City, Iowa, merchants were berated in 1901 for revving up Christmas sales in mid-October, and that same season saw the Philadelphia Inquirer sighing the annual complaint that "Gift buying has begun in earnest—seems to get earlier every year."

For a time, there was a genuine reason for the season’s Christmas Creep in those days, the early 1900’s. As an article in Slate lays out, increasing the days of Christmas shopping meant less abuse of child labor in that frenetic, and fearsome final week of Christmas shopping. Progressive giant Florence Kelly, co-founder of the NAACP, and Labor Unions actually pushed for shopping to be evenly spread in a longer shopping season so that final week didn’t see children working long, exhaustive hours selling, manufacturing, or bike-delivering gifts. Collins writes, “Early shopping was part of Kelley's crusades for child labor laws and an eight-hour workday, because the last few weeks before Christmas were exactly when overtime and seasonal child labor were most abused.”

During times of war, more time for Christmas shopping assured that soldiers got their gifts by the big day. This is where we get the Christmas in July adage. Buy in July and get it to the boys overseas in time.

The added benefit was to the retailers. They had more evenly spread books and a longer shopping season, which meant better and more consistent sales.

So there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the quip, “Christmas comes earlier each and every year.”

That said, is Christmas coming early such a bad thing? First of all, having worked retail for many years and experiencing many a Christmas season, more time for people to shop means lesser stress for clerks working in those last days before Christmas.

But more importantly is the spiritual import. I am also reminded of that Christmas tune, made famous by the Charlie Brown special, Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown. “Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer, Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year.”

Yes, the retailing involved in a longer Christmas season may be a problem. However, a longer Christmas season itself, one whose spirit last through the year, that would be a good thing, as the song suggests.

A spirit of Christmas not just early but perennially – what would that look like?

Well, first of all we must ask -- the spirit of Christmas, what is it? It is the spirit of Joy to the World, a joy that results from Hope-realized, hope for love and forgiveness and liberation.

Luke 4:18 makes it clear what the spirit of Christmas is. Here Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The Spirit of Christmas is the jubilee brought forth by a baby’s birth, a jubilee marked by a new way for the poor, freedom for those celled in and kept down, sight for those who’ve never seen.

So when you see and want to complain about Christmas coming too early, see it as a reminder that we need the Spirit of Christmas all the time, we need the Spirit that offers us poor souls good news amid the bad, that shows a way out of no way, an insight into light instead of darkness.

Now we come to that other annual anthem of resistance – Keep Christ in Christmas. It is another thing we hear every year. Of course, it presumes that Christ was always in Christmas. But Christmas, as I talked about last year, wasn’t a universally celebrated Christian holiday until several centuries after Christ was born. And in America, with its Protestant-heavy history, Christmas was seen as too pagan and too Catholic and resisted as a central celebration. Some of our Pilgrim and Puritan forbearers might say, Christmas, the Christ-mass, amounts to a War on Christ, a humble yet divine figure who in his simplicity is used to save us. It was the push of city merchants that led to Christmas becoming central and what it is today – retailer’s necessity.
Nonetheless, the plea to keep in Christmas has not abated. And it too is not new.

Here is a few examples that show how old the Keep Christ in Christmas tradition is. These come from the Dictionary of Christianese:

1921 The Walther League Messenger (Milwaukee, Wisconsin): “Keep Christ in Christmas” A public library in one of our larger cities is exhibiting a collection of books recommended for children. Among the Christmas books not one brings the real Christmas message of the new-born Savior. 

1937 The Lutheran Witness: They Keep Christ in Christmas-Greetings! Each card carries a Scripture-text in keeping with the sacred Christmas season, plus friendly sentiments that every Christian will delight in sending and receiving. 

1941 Report of Cases Decided in the Court of Appeals of the State of New York: The defendants, on December 22, 1939, operated a truck on Seventh avenue in the city of New York bearing large signs with the words printed thereon, “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Buy Christian for Christmas.”

So the so-called war on Christmas has been going almost a hundred years. If you count the early Protestant American Christians resisting the too-pagan and too-Catholic holiday of Christ-mass, it has been going since the beginning of the country.

To bring in another religious cliché that actually holds a lot of meaning, what I find myself asking is “what would Jesus do?” What would Jesus say about the loud demands that we keep Christ in Christmas?

Well, I think Jesus would say as he said to Peter in John 21, you say you love me, well, if you love me, feed my sheep. I also think of Jesus speaking to a rich man wanting to follow him. If you want to follow me, Jesus said, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. And I think of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount where he says if you feel persecuted, bless those who persecute you. And if someone is using your name, using the name of Christ, but not really your disciple, well, if they are doing good, don’t stop them. We just talked about this a few weeks ago when we talked about snippets of tolerance.  Remember the passage in Mark where John comes to Jesus and says people are healing people in the name of Christ but are not part of us. And Jesus said don’t stop. If they are doing good, they are with us, not against us.

In other words, don’t complain about people we see as ignoring the Christ in Christmas but look at the effect of what they are doing with this day we call Christmas. If they are using simply to sell stuff and get stuff, and being mean and nasty along the way, then point to the greed and selfishness involved and how it contradicts the spirit of Christmas. But if they are honoring the Spirit of Christmas if not completely the letter of Christmas, which is the story about Jesus’ birth and the beginning of the Christian religion, if they are honoring the spirit of giving and selflessness, then there is no conflict or war there.

The Spirit of Christmas crosses these boundaries we make, boundaries of religion and letters of religious laws. The Spirit of Christmas is saving love and we honor it by seeking to love one another as Christ loved others.

I close with a meme maybe you’ve seen on the internet or Facebook. It really gets to the heart of what I am trying to say. It comes from author Steve Maraboli in his book Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience. His quote along with the words from the song Christmastime is Here, say it all:

“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

 “Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year.”

Harry Potter & A Pastor's Reflection


READING: I Corinthians 15:22-26 (v. 26 quoted in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, p. 328

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

So, Harry Potter. I grew up in the Luke Skywalker era, not the Harry Potter era. Star Wars is making a comeback, however, the original era was the late 70s, early 80s. I missed the Harry Potter era by some 15 years or so. At least, I missed it directly. Even grown adults could not miss the phenomenon that was Harry Potter beginning in the late-90s. It was everywhere. The series of books had young readers standing in line of your Borders Bookstores – remember them? – and your Barnes and Nobles. And these books weren’t 100 pages either. These were big, thick, 400 page books that kids devoured once they got their hands on them. And there are seven books in the series! Then there are the movies which blockbusters too. Now there is a Harry Potter Land in Florida. We can not underestimate the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise.
Up to just this week or so, I had never read a Harry
Potter book. I’ve read about them. I’ve seen a movie or two. I’ve heard about the Evangelical backlash and controversy. But I did not pay the book or all the talk that much attention.
However, in my conversations with young people about the book, it struck me that this was no ordinary book series. It was deeper than just simple entertainment. There was a profound connection to the books, to the character of Harry Potter, and to the storyline. In these conversations I got the idea that for many, it was a spiritual experience. Reading the books was akin to going to church and considering matters of good vs. evil and life vs. death. It felt and feels to me that the Harry Potter, in the absence of young people’s direct experiences with church or maybe negative experiences of church, Harry Potter filled the void. So much so that a big number of young people know more about the details of Harry Potter and Hogwarts then they do generally about Biblical stories and narratives.
I am not making a judgment here as much as an observation.
All of this is to say, I felt I needed to investigate this myself by actually reading the books. So I’ve been reading through the first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get to the second in the series. But that’s okay. I have enough to go on.
Before I get into the first book itself, which will mostly be next week, I want to first give some background, about the author and about the genre of the books.
The author of the Harry Potter series is JK Rowling. Here background is very interesting, giving the context of the books an intriguing narrative all by itself. JK Rowling was born and raised in a struggling, working-class family that Rowling described as impoverished. Her one aim in life from a very young age was to be an author, to write a novel. This was to her impoverished family a pipedream that was better left alone. But she couldn’t leave it alone. When JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in the late 80s she was far from one of the richest women in the world, which she is now. She was a single mother on welfare. She was newly divorced after a short yet turbulent and harmful marriage. Her dream and work toward being an author had nothing to show for it at all. These were very hard times for Rowling. She experienced bouts of deep depression at this time, even times of feeling suicidal. However, she expresses that it was her daughter as well as good healthcare from her doctor that saved her from her depression and such an irreversible decision.
Fortunately, for a lot of people out there, she waded through this dark time and made it out on the other side. Rowling voiced pride in making it out of this dark time, she believes it made stronger. In her commencement speech to Harvard University in 2008. Rowling states, “a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”
But Rowling was benefited by this failure. She states the failure means “a stripping away of the inessential.”
“I stopped,” Rowling shares, “pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
She goes on, “Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”
So with that typewriter, Rowling finally finished her first book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – interestingly in the US it was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Next step, try to find a publisher. Not being able to afford photocopying the original, she hand-typed each copy she provided to publishers! Yeah, that is dedication and diligence. 
Believe it or not, she was turned down many times. The reason regularly given – it was too long at 320 pages. She found an agent, Christopher Little, which she chose because it sounded like Stuart Little or another children’s book character. Eventually, the book was accepted by Bloomsbury in London. How this came to be is an incredible story too. The president of Bloomsbury Books, Nigel Newton, not sure about the book off-handedly let his daughter read the book. She read it in a couple hours and asked for more. Bloomsbury gave his approval and initially published 500 copies. It would go on to sell billions. We have two daughters to thank – Rowling’s daughter who helped her to get through her depression and Newton’s daughter who experienced greatness in the book.
Let us move from Rowling and the story of her book’s publishing to the book itself. From the very beginning of the book it becomes pretty clear that we are in familiar territory in some ways. Harry Potter is a book in the long line of children fantasy books like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Moreover, like Chronicles of Narnia or Wizard of Oz, Rowling uses a common literary subgenre of witches and wizards. Rowling uses the standard devices and tropes of the witch and wizard subgenre – black pointy hats, flying brooms, magic, cauldrons and potions using silly ingredients like the shed skin of a rare exotic reptile. In many ways, Rowling is tapping into the similar archetype as the TV show Bewitched.
This is to say Harry Potter is not tapping into any legitimate pagan religious understanding. As any true Wiccan can tell you, Harry Potter in no way resembles the specifics of their religion. In fact, Rowling herself said a few years ago that the only religious faith not represented were Wiccans. She said, “To everyone asking whether their religion/belief/non-belief system is represented at Hogwarts, the only people I never imagined there are Wiccans. It’s a different concept of magic to the one laid out in the books, so I don’t really see how they can co-exist.”
Rowling also has discussed the importance of her own religious faith. Rowling is a Christian who is a member of and regularly attends her church in Scotland and who has had all her children christened. She claims that “Christianity – and her struggles with and claiming of her Christian faith – inspired Harry Potter and mirror the character’s journey. In fact, the seventh – telling itself - and last book of the series actually quotes from the Bible, twice!  Rowling quotes Paul in I Corinthians 15:26 who states “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” referring to Christ and his universal victory over all sin, all enemies of Love, and over even death itself, both spiritual death and physical death.  Then Rowling quotes Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as well. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  
In other words, there is a lot here. The Harry Potter books have a religious/spiritual import that many may not realize is there, especially if you’ve never been to church, but is most certainly there. I have noticed this in my reading of just the first book which I will look at more specifically next week.


READING: Matthew 6:19-21 (v. 21 quoted in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, p. 325-26)

Don’t store up treasures on earth! Moths and rust can destroy them, and thieves can break in and steal them. Instead, store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy them, and thieves cannot break in and steal them. You heart will always be where your treasure is.


Just Thursday, in the waiting room for a doctor’s appointment for Corey, there was a young girl Corey began talking to, as he often does whenever there is a kid his age around. The young girl was 9, as Corey found out which he also often does when there is a kid around. On her lap she had two books from the library. She was reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which is the largest of the 7 books at some 500 pages. She was 14 pages in. The other book, also a library book, was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which she just finished. She had begun reading Sunday and finished on Thursday!

So if you’ve wondered about the popularity and enthralling nature of the books some 7 years after the last book was finished and 17 years after the first installment, that experience should tell you, it is still immensely popular and still enthralling to kids.

Why? What is it about the books?

From my reading of just the first book, it seems to me that Harry Potter is the Everychild. In the character of Harry Potter, we have represented the child’s journey, process of growing-up, with all that this entails.

There is the added dimension of grief that Harry Potter must deal with. The first book begins with an 8 year-old Harry living with his Aunt and Uncle. He lost his parents when he was an infant. And the aunt and uncle, and their spoiled and ill-behaved son Dudley, all treat Harry horribly. He sleeps in the closet, he is given very little to eat, he is not allowed to do any kind of extracurricular activity, he is spoken to unkindly and disrespectfully, and Dudley, the son, is the epitome of a bully toward Harry.

Harry, despite his lot in life, is supernaturally balanced. This is not to say he likes the abuse, but he endures it and even rises above through the strength of his will and heart. However, he is vulnerable, overpowered, dependent and made to feel weak by his environment.

How many children have felt this way? How about “all”?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone offers a ray of hope, however. The first part of the book revolves around uncovering the mystery of Harry Potter’s identity. There are hints that Harry is special despite his context. And there is something hidden about the family that has adopted him.   

When letters for a Hogwarts School begin being delivered to the home Harry lives in, letters saying he has been accepted into their Boarding school program, the mystery is heightened. That his mean aunt and uncle discard the letters, despite Harry knowing they were addressed to him, only makes the mystery unbearable.

Finally, the content of the letters is revealed to Harry by a giant of a man named Hagrid who breaks into the island home of the aunt and uncle's. They have taken the two boys to the island to escape the constant deluge of letters being delivered to Harry and discarded by his so-called family.

The mystery of Harry’s identity and the content of the letter is revealed to Harry and to the reader simultaneously. Harry is a wizard born to parent who were wizards. His parents were killed by a renegade wizard named Voldemort. The renegade wizard attempted to kill Harry, but failed, which turned Harry into a legend in the wizard world. Harry’s innate strength prevented him from being killed by the evil Voldemort. This failure effected Voldemort’s departure from the scene, bringing peace to the Wizard World.

Harry was a wizard and a legend but didn’t know it. Being told this truth, his life is transformed. Despite his adopted family – his aunt was his mother’s normal human sister - not wanting him to go to Hogwarts School of Wizardry, Hagrid assures that he does go. This begins Harry’s astounding journey.

Realizing you are special. Yes, it could be said that this sentiment has been overdone. The narcissism in our society is rampant, especially in the Harry Potter generation. Mr. Rogers is critiqued for this very reason. His focus on telling children that they are unique, special, and to be loved just the way they are has been ridiculed and criticized as initiating our demise into a narcissistic culture. Harry Potter, some have said, confirms this by offering up supernatural protagonists who are all like normal kids but special at the same time. Special kids with special gifts -- this is true for everyone. Kids are all special like Harry Potter.

That is a misinterpretation of both Mr. Rogers and Harry Potter, I’d argue. But these critiques do offer us something important to think about.

That we all, ALL, are, in Christian lingo, created in God’s image and therefore all unique, means no one is inherently better than the other. Because we are ALL God’s image carriers means there is an innate equality to be risen to. We are all created equal, as Thomas Jefferson notes. This divine equality which we all share is the natural antidote to narcissism.

That said, we must consider the culture in which both Mr. Rogers and Harry Potter felt the need to highlight the fact of our God-image-carrier status. We see that culture represented by the culture Harry Potter grows up in. His aunts and uncles attempt to make him feel less than nothing. They ridicule, diminish, degrade, attempting to shatter his ego.

A culture that says we are sinners in the hands of an angry God does the same, does it not? A culture that says you are born a sinner and will die one ridicules, diminishes, degrades, and in some cases shatters our sense of self – it amounts to putting us in a closet and hiding us from us who we are.

The danger for our culture, I will say, is that the more and more we move away from the sentiment that says we are all sinners in the hands of an angry God, the less helpful is the sentiment that says we are special. If we are told we are special and unique from the get-go, with no reminders that we also carry imperfections and delusions and with constant assurances that we are special, narcissism is definitely a danger.

Harry Potter actually does a great job of reminding us that there is evil in the world. It reminds us that not everyone applies their uniqueness, their God-image-carrier status in good ways. 

In the first book, we see this in the character of Draco Malfoy. He is like Dudley, someone who thinks he is special in a harmful way. The balance, the balance that Harry Potter comes to embody, is seeing we are each equally special, equal in the eyes of God, and we are to act accordingly, seeking to make that equality a living, working reality.  

Another powerful thing Harry Potter teaches us is that there is a process, a learning, a growing into our specialness. It is one thing to know we are created in God’s image. It is actually a life-changing, salvific thing to know we are created in God’s image. It is a transformational thing to know that within each of us is the likeness of God here and now.  It amounts to what Buddhism calls sudden enlightenment. The insight into our spark of divinity changes everything.

But it must not stop there. We must also acknowledge that the Universe was created Good and that all humans too have that of God in them, as the Quakers say. An insight into our shared, our SHARED nature, is the next step in our own school of Hogwart learning. We are each created in God’s image. We are each equally special in this way.

Yet there is more to learn even after this. There is learning to act accordingly, in accordance with the fact that when we look at another person, we are looking at a being who carries within them the image of God. Treating others on the basis of this truth makes all the difference. We treat them like we would want to be treated because in the most essential ways we are connected. We share God’s likeness in us.

There is also learning to use our God-image-ness, the power that comes with it, in positive, helpful, and compassionate ways. This requires practice. This requires building on the foundation. This requires building friendships and trusting mentors and finding community.

Again, we see this in Philosopher’s Stone. It is clear that Harry Potter, because of his parents, is a natural when it comes to being who he is, a wizard. And there is some cockiness there even early on. But Harry soon learns that relying on what is inherent, what is inherited, what is natural to us, is not enough. We have to do the work, building strength in our hearts and minds.

I have been teaching a class on American Popular Music, as you know. This week we discussed Jazz and how jazz musicians have to be good improvisers. Yes, there is an element of being born with good improvisational instincts. But the art of improvisation, the art of creating art in the moment, is not something that is done haphazardly or magically. A good improvisationalist doesn’t simply grab good music out of the sky and begin playing it. There is a lot of practice involved. A lot of foundation-building through hard work and tenaciousness.

Similarly, we are born with God-image-ness, but it takes practice – prayer, meditation, works of compassion, community – to build upon that God-image-ness we carry.

We need a Hogwart school of our own. And the name of that school is The Church. Church brings us together to pray together, to meditate together, to on Sundays sit with God and express our deepest gratitude together, to lift others up together, to show compassion to others together. The Church is the place where we build the muscles of what Buddhism calls the three means – wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness.

So Harry Potter and the Hogwart School teaches us a lot, maybe things we never really considered when thinking about the book series. It reminds us of the reality of our own vulnerability and need for others. It teaches us about the importance of realizing who we really are. It helps us to see the need to build on our own spiritual inheritance and from that foundation spiritually grow and develop and love. It shows us the significance of a community that helps us to grow, develop, and learn to love.     

That’s what I learned from reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Thus ends my book report of a sermon.

The Shepherd's Leading

There is no more famous refrain as the beginning of our scripture this morning, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The first sentence of this beautiful, timeless, ancient poem provides us a metaphor that is essential in understanding God.

The Lord as shepherd. God as shepherd. God as pastor, which is another translation for it. What does this mean?

Have you ever contemplated the work of a shepherd? In North Orange where I live it is easier to do, I suppose. I have some sheep and shepherds as neighbors.

One actually gets a great picture of a shepherd in the parable I shared with the children. A good shepherd cares for his sheep as if their parent. The shepherd is a guardian, a protector, a watchmen, a caregiver, not to mention a midwife.

The shepherd also develops a bond with his sheep. He gets to know them personally, gets to know their personalities, their tendencies, their quirks, and their routines. He even names them. And as the parable shows, when one goes astray, which like humans they tend to do, a good shepherd will go and find it no matter what. Each sheep is precious in the shepherds sight.

This description of the shepherd applies to God. The Lord is a shepherd, yes. Moreover, the Lord is my shepherd. God is not some shepherd in theory far-off somewhere. God is not aloof to me, hidden away in heaven. God is my shepherd, here with me, guiding me, watching over me. God is as important to me as the shepherd is to a lamb being brought into the world and watched after ever since.

Another item that is interesting to consider is the nature of the shepherd’s leadership and guidance of his or her sheep.

There is a Buddhist teaching that elucidates three different types of what are called Bodhisattvas, which are angel like figures that help lead people to spiritual salvation, called enlightenment in Buddhism.  The first Bodhisattva leadership style is the King, who realizes enlightenment first, takes his throne, and then from above in his throne leads others toward salvation. This is leadership from above, if you will. The second type is the Ship Captain who realizes enlightenment together with the others on the boat. This is leadership standing with, next to, in the midst of those he or she is leading. And finally there is the Shepherd who from behind his flock moves that flock toward salvation. The shepherd is the source behind the sheep entering where it belongs, home. And the shepherd only enters its paddock, its home, after all the sheep have arrived home. This is leadership from behind, getting the wide view of where each of the sheep are and where they are going and guiding them to where they need to go, to the homeplace of enlightenment where the shepherd will follow after each of the sheep have entered.

That God is equated with the shepherd-style of One waiting for all to first enter the green pasture, all to enter the stillwaters, all to experience the restoring presence and righteousness of salvation. How telling and beautiful, especially to a Christian Universalist like myself.

God moves us as a shepherd moves his sheep.

And that is a third thing that I find very intriguing to ponder. God moves us as a shepherd moves his sheep. Are we talking physically here? Does God physically herd us cats of a people? Does God use his rod and staff to physically move us forward? I’d say no. The work of God happens in the space of our souls, our hearts, our minds, our spirits. God moves us, guides us, shepherds us from the inside-out.

You know that phrase, let your conscience be your guide. Well, the image here is the Lord as shepherd is your internal guide. God from the pasture of our hearts, if you will, looks ahead, sees the terrain, and the green hills and still waters and right paths ahead and leads us accordingly.

To mix metaphors a bit, from the king’s throne in the kingdom of God within us, God leads us.

Actually this mix of metaphors, the mix of shepherd and king is a biblical theme.
Who is the author of the Psalm about the shepherding God? The shepherd-king, David.

In Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep what is the Kingdom of God equated with?  The Kingdom is equated with the shepherd risking the 99 to look for that 100th sheep. The king is a shepherding God here too.
And who talked about the kingdom of God within? The good shepherd, the new David, the new king of kings, Jesus.

God, and God in Christ, defines what it means for a shepherd to be king. God steps down from the pomp and circumstance of king up there in heaven and enters the landscape and life of a shepherd, God become pastor. Where? Not in some land of make believe. Not in the landscape of Jerusalem or Washington D.C.

No, God is our ultimate pastor in the pasture of our hearts. Within us. God the shepherd king takes residence in our hearts. And from God’s humble, shepherd-friendly throne in our hearts, made available through the coronation of our faith, God shepherds us, pastors us, to the home-place of green pastures, to still waters, and to the restoring presence and right ways of God.

See, what makes it possible for us to reach green pastures, stillwaters, and to be restored when we go astray is this: a Shepherd-King God’s insight and internal urging within our hearts.

From the vantage point of the sheep, it is the sheep who are walking the right path. They are directed by the shepherd but it is they who are walking the path, the shepherd unseen from behind. This is to say it is we who do the walking. God in our hearts simply assures to us the paths are indeed right. God who we do not see but trust assures that it is we that go and that is God’s path we go by.

Not only that, the sheep walk that path for the name’s sake of the shepherd. God patiently trails behind to make sure all enter the green pasture, stillwaters, and restoring presence and righteousness of salvation. So we enter transformation in the name of God and for God’s namesake. It is we who must make God’s work evident. We carry God’s banner. God walks behind us, but it is we who must first and foremost enter.

Let us jump ahead for the sake of time to what has always been for me the most difficult phrase in our scripture. Verse 7 says, “He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Now, reading this a lot as a hospice chaplain, I earlier on pondered it and even questioned reading it, mainly because it is the one sentence in the scripture that does not seem to fit the ethos of comfort and care the Psalm presents. It always seemed  a bit out of place. But I came to this understanding of that phrase:

First of all, the word enemies does not necessarily have to be personal, referring to a person that is your enemy. An enemy can be cancer or addiction or a chronic pain. An enemy can be injustice or inequity or poverty. In fact, it is a biblical principle to look primarily at the wrong and not the wrongdoer. Do you know that saying, “hate the sin; love the sinner.” It’s the same theme. Hate the wrong, seek to right the wrong, but love the wrongdoer.

In any case, God prepares a table of food for me, feeds me, nourishes me, despite the presence of the enemy of cancer or heart disease or chronic back pain, despite the reality of injustice, inequity and poverty. God doesn’t Herself remove the enemy, but helps us to be nourished and strong as we can continue in the struggle of getting well or turning wrong into right or the enemy into a beloved.

However, it doesn’t stop there for me. Recall Jesus’ spiritually revolutionary declaration that we love our enemies?  Now, I take that as a real benchmark we are to seek to follow. But how do we read verse 7 of Psalm 23 in the context of Jesus’ command that we love our enemies?

First, we must understand the enemies here are not external to the flock. The good shepherd would not allow external predators to get as close as being present in front of the sheep’s dinner table. The good shepherd would not allow wolves as a dinner guest. The good shepherd protects us.

No, the enemies are internal. The enemies could be the sheep next door or sitting next to you. And as shepherds can attest, sheep do like to fight internally.

Anyway, God prepares a table before me in the presence of the enemy right next to me. God does this not so I can laud the meal over my enemies in front of me. This is especially not a good idea considering that war, like the internal conflicts between sheep, is usually a struggle over limited resources, either it be territory or money or food. And these conflicts and wars inevitably destroy the already limited resources in the process. It becomes a vicious cycle.

In other words, my enemy is usually just as hungry as I am and that is why we are enemies.

But God prepares the table before me in the presence of my enemies in order that I can share that meal with my perceived enemy. The dinner table is actually a table for mediation, a breaking of bread that produces a truce, making it easier to love my enemy.

In Psalm 23, we are talking about table in the name of peace, knowing that war is often over a conflict over resources. The table mentioned in Psalm 23 is in this way the precursor to the Communion table where a spot is made available to all so that enemies become beloveds, strangers, friends.

Lastly, there is the phrase that maybe you’ve wondered about as well. “You anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over.” Well, it is somewhat tied to the “prepare a table in the presence of enemies: phrase. It is also tied to the mention of the shepherd’s other tools of a rod and a staff, the sight of which comforts the sheep. The other tool here is oil. As an old-school shepherd could tell you, sheep tend to literally butt heads. You know how goats will clash horns, well, sheep, rams, do similar things. A shepherd would use oil on the head and horns so that an attempted blow would end in glance, one ram’s head slipping off the greased head and horns of the combatting rams. This throw off the battlers. Out of their bewilderment, and lack of the satisfaction in a good hit and good heat, the battle often dissipates.

Again, we have God as shepherd, not choosing sides between two sheep, but using the anointing of oil to bring peace to the locked-horn battle.

It is interesting that the next phrase goes back to the meal at the table metaphor. My cup at the dinner table overflows. God prepares a mediation table to ease the existence of enemies; God uses oil to ease the combatting ways of enemies; and as a result the cup at the mediation table overflows, never runs out, is abundant with thirst-quenching water.

Again, we have another example of God as shepherd out of lovingkindness and care providing for the sheep before him.

 It is no wonder the Psalm ends with a flourish of gratitude and faith. The sheep knows her shepherd is ever-present, watching with clear vision and intuitive sense, looking ahead with the wisdom of foresight and love, guiding his flock together safely into the home-place of salvation.

The Lord, ever-present guides me, leads me, restores me from the inside-out. Though I walk through the dark valleys all around, in the shepherd’s presence and in my trust in that presence there is a light shining through me and into the world. So, yes, surely, Goodness and mercy shall follow me all days of my life and I shall make my home-place residing with God.  

In Remembrance of Fred Mock (1/29/28-12/27/14 )

Etched by my 7 year-old son months before Fred's Passing
The first time I met Fred was at a supper Murray and he hosted for Corey, Holly and I along with the pastoral search committee. It was part of my candidating process. We were a bit nervous. But were quickly put at ease. With Fred, no matter who met him I’d imagine, the first impression was clear and true and lasting. I sensed right away that this is a man of profound goodness, a goodness running as deep as the ocean he loved. It wasn’t peripheral or partial. Goodness was the soil of his soul. 

Why did I sense this? Why did so many of you here like me sense this?  Where did that goodness come from? 

Well, of course, as a minister, I believe goodness comes straight from God. Goodness is God’s life at work in us. It’s in us all, as bearers of God’s image in real time. Fred simply had the gift of expressing so well that goodness we all have. He also had the gift bringing out that same goodness in others, in those he came into contact with. What made Fred so good at giving expression to God’s goodness? 

First, Fred adored and looked to his mother as a source of strength and as a model for living the good life. At the core of his mother’s faith was the idea that our capacity for goodness is limitless. And that goodness, when practiced, can inspire and help us and others in its wake. Fred often said that he was not one who enjoyed studying the Bible or theology. But his mother, who did?  Her own goodness and devotion continued to inspire him and provided him a strong, positive foundation, one he valued to the very end. 

Fred was also inspired by his wife, Murray. Murray was the love of Fred’s life. They were married an amazing 57 years. They were a team. Their aim was to love each other and together work at loving and caring for others, for their neighbors, for even the stranger as best they could. And they were a great team, touching lives and making a difference in peoples’ lives.  

Murray, a nurse, taught Fred the power of nurture as well. Certainly, in the last year or so, the power of nurture that Murray exuded could not be denied. It was a force that Fred looked to and was inspired by. Such love they shared – it sustained Fred. They were a team to the very end. 

Then there are their children and grandchildren. Kate, David, and Steve, and their children – from their very first vocalizations in this world, and maybe before, I imagine Fred basked in the wonder and glory of childhood, of a newborn growing into being. He looked at their innate expression of goodness in simply being, the unique gift of a child, and saw God’s gifts and work. Maybe Fred never voiced how his children changed him for the better, but the sparkle in his eye, the pride in his voice whenever they came to mind or to conversation evidenced how their mere presence moved him profoundly.  

He also learned from his children and other’s children the art of being silly and fun. And Fred felt free to be silly and fun, with a sense of humor that was as sharp as a brand new razor. It could come out of the blue, and leave you laughing. 

Fred’s friends also meant so much to him, and boy was he a good friend. Fred had the gift of seeing the good in people, especially his friends. But not only that. He had the wondrous gift of bringing that good out in us. You felt a better person just being around. His belief in you, it wasn’t saccharine or even voiced. But you felt it. He sought the good in you, he found it, and lifted it up, and lifted you in the process.  

It was certainly a two-way street for Fred. He was truly inspired by people, by his friends, his loved-ones, and even those he never met. He was lifted by the goodness of others, even if that goodness was experienced in small ways. The thing is, he made those small ways bigger somehow and the person expressing those small ways was made better. 

Then there were the folks who began as customers or strangers but ended as friends, at least in the moments he was with them. Especially those who were struggling or having a tough time of it – they taught him the need of expressing our goodness. See, Fred’s kindness and goodness wasn’t the kind that lived in the clouds, blind to the hardship around him. He saw the bad, he saw the hardship, he saw the injustices, and they hurt him. He simply couldn’t stand by. His goodness moved him to do something, to do his share making what ought to be, what is. He wanted the goodness sometimes buried by the bad to be lifted out of the soil, to be reclaimed.  His acts of generosity towards his customers, his work on the Missions Committee here, and his community involvement in Orange all showed this. 

Lastly is the beauty and power of creation. Fred loved the woods of North Orange. He loved the waterfront of Marblehead. In our conversations, he shared with me the stories of his childhood in Marblehead and the spiritual connection he felt to that coastal town, to the ocean, and to his roots there. He also shared with me the love for the forests around his home in North Orange. The wonders of nature made clear to him the beauty of God.  

This brings us to what undergirded all these things, and that was Fred’s faith. I remember in one conversation, in a poignant moment when Fred was reflecting on his life. His eyes moist, the moment quiet and rich, he simply said, “God is good. And He has been good to me. 

Fred’s faith was a profound one held deep, a profound faith born of this simple beliefGod is good, Creation is good, and Jesus and his life and teaching are good.  No, Fred did not wear his faith on his sleeve or shout it from Mount Tully. But his faith defied cliché. It was more than words could express. It was evidenced most for me in his tears when he talked about all these things he learned and the people he learned them from.  

So here we are, as Fred would say. We are here to honor, to remember, to send Fred off. We are here to recall his graciousness, his humility, his humor, his happiness, his goodness.  

But I’d dare say Fred would not want us to spend too much time on this. I’d dare say he’d  say the best way to honor him, remember him, send him off is to apply Jesus’ words – let us bring good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, release the captives, give sight to the blind, and free the oppressed. In other words, he’d want you to give expression to your own goodness by helping others as best you can. 

Now he would humbly disagree with this, but Fred in his life certainly gave us a great model of this, of a life well-lived. And so may our remembrance and our sending him off lead to a carrying forth of the light he carried and let shine so well. May we embody the simple faith Fred embodied. And may we do so graciously, humbly, happily, with good humor and with goodness and faith undergirding us.