Something to Sing About

Nicolaes_Berchem_-_Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds

Annunciation to the Shepherds, Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem [Public domain] via Wikimedia

This has been a month of singing! I sing in a choral group and a church ensemble. The choral group, Capriccio Columbus, held our Christmas concert last Sunday. Our church ensemble has sung each Sunday during Advent and on Christmas eve. Christmas favorites and gorgeous but unfamiliar works. A good deal of music. Many rehearsals and practice. And hours of singing! Then there are all the songs of the season that our congregation sings.

I love singing, but when we seek to do it with some standard of excellence, in all the rehearsals we can sometimes lose focus on why we sing, beyond our sheer love of it. Yet the season of Advent and Christmas is a time of song and I’ve been reflecting on why that is so.

Certainly part of it is this thing we call “the holiday spirit.” Our choir has been part of several community tree-lightings, and I think creating a mood, a sense of shared conviviality is one of the functions of the songs of the season. At its worst, it is the background to the shopping orgies our retailers hope we engage in. At best, they lift spirits and draw our communities together.

As we get older, I also think we sometimes love Christmas music because it connects us with all the child-like sense of wonder as we remember music, lights, nativity scenes, and Christmas plays past. Music has this power to transport us to our past and recall cherished memories. Past and present merge and we have a sense of the seamlessness and wholeness of our lives.

But I’m not quite sure this answers why we sing so many songs in this season, or for that matter why so many songs have been written. A familiar song that we sang this morning suggests some of the reasons why:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!

To me, this song invites us to join an angelic chorus. Now angels in the Bible are pretty formidable creatures, that human beings are tempted to tremble before in terror or bow to in worship. Yet these creatures in all their greatness are moved to song because something greater has occurred. Strangely enough, their songs of glory center around a baby born in a small town south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem. It was a city associated with Israel’s great king, David. They proclaim a greater king has been born. He is a king who brings peace between God and human beings. And not just for one nation, but for all nations, all humankind without distinction. All the discord, all the grief, all the conflict, all the evil humans devise meet their match in this baby.

This is something to sing about! All earth is invited to join “the triumph of the skies.” We still live in a world of discord, grief, conflict, and evil. Yet we sing not to pretend that these things don’t exist, but rather that this king who was born, taught and worked wonders, who died and rose, is making peace between humankind and God and will one day have the last word, in restoring all things. We sing to celebrate the ways God has already brought peace, and in hope that what we have found in part we will one day know in full.

As you listen to, or even join in the songs of the season, do you have something to sing about? If you listen to the songs of the church (and not the “holiday” music about reindeer and snowmen) I think you will find truth that is worth singing about. And in that discovery, you will truly be able to join me in saying and singing…

Glory to the newborn king!

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Review: The Sleepy Shepherd

the sleepy shepherdThe Sleepy ShepherdStephen Cottrell, illustrated by Chris Hagan. London, SPCK, 2018.

Summary: The story of a shepherd boy who constantly fell asleep and slept through the angels’ announcement of the birth of the king in Bethlehem.

It is not often that I review children’s stories (and perhaps for my own soul I should do it more) but I just received this eye-catching Christmas story and enjoyed the tale as much as I did the colorful illustrations.

The story in brief is that of Silas the shepherd boy who was constantly falling asleep, throughout his day, at a meal, and while tending sheep–which was not a good thing! It turns out that he was tending sheep on that starry night outside Bethlehem when the angels appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of a king. Silas slept through it all, and later when his friends returned, he refused to believe them, believing they were playing a trick on him. He never went to Bethlehem to see for himself, and missed seeing Jesus, the newborn king.

Years later, he is tending some goats in a garden called Gethsemane. He’s heard about this teacher who is stirring things up in Jerusalem. He’s heard the story he tells of a shepherd with a hundred sheep who leaves them for the one lost. And one night, he hears a commotion in the garden and watches as Jesus leaves his disciples to stand guard while he agonizes in prayer…and they sleep. What will Silas, the sleepy shepherd, do?

This story ties the birth and passion of Jesus together. Through the fictional character of Silas, we understand the mission of Jesus more deeply–whether as an adult or a school age child.

Sleepy shepherd (2)

One of Chris Hagen’s illustrations from the book. Silas “counts sheep” at night.

The illustrations grew on me. The human figures look the way I would have drawn them as a school age child. The colors are vibrant, ideal for reading with a child on one’s lap, delighting in the illustrations which tell the stories as well as the words.

You might still be able to get this before Christmas, but even if it comes during the twelve days of Christmas, I think it will quickly become a family favorite that you will pull out at Christmastime during the coming years!

___________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Christmas Gifts For Booklovers

giftideasRecently, I surveyed a collection of websites that purvey gifts for booklovers. I would categorize many of these as bookish tchotchkes–more or less useless items or knick-knacks, that just add to the quantity of stuff you eventually have to get rid of (or re-gift if you are that tacky). But I thought I would highlight one item from each website that I thought might be useful or just fun (and others might think not, so I would just add IMHO).

At “63 Gifts for Booklovers and Avid Readers” I found a “Personal Library Kit” right at the top of the list. I wrote recently about the books we lend and never get returned. If this bothers your bookish friend, here is a gift that might help.

The Best Non-Book Gifts For Bookworms” featured some really nice throws. We have one on my reading chair that I like to wrap myself in on chilly mornings when I get up to read, and it is one of those things you can never have too much of.

22 Affordable Gifts For Readers” offers a “Book Lovers Journal”. They write, “Readers know the stress of seeing another list of the best books to read this month, this season, or this year. It’s hard to keep track of a reading wish list when there are so many genres and authors to tackle! This journal helps organize any reader’s inventory—the notebook includes spaces to record books you want to read, books you’ve loaned to or borrowed from friends, and the contact information for your book club. The main attraction: Pages and pages to record details from the books you’ve read, making it easy to reference and recommend your favorite novels in the future.”

Uncommongoods website has a number of suggestions, some which I saw elsewhere, but one looked particularly fun. It was the “Storymatic Game” which is a game that provides a series of “prompts” that allow a group to spin out their own stories.

50 best literary gifts for a modern-day book lover” features an abundance of posters with book quotes, phone covers, e-reader covers, t-shirts and other items. I liked the personalized library sign that you could custom order.

The transparent book weight that I found on “24 Insanely Clever Gifts for Booklovers” caught my eye. It is transparent, keeps your books flat and protects them from spilled food and drinks! Insanely clever indeed.

Bookish Gifts Under $20” features a t-shirt that says the obvious: “This is my reading shirt.” Others may be more fashionable. None is more basic than this!

Gone Reading” has some of the nicest bookplates I found at any website, if you want to identify whose library that book that is in someone else’s library came from.

Of course, nothing says love to a book lover like books themselves. Astute book lovers will have created an Amazon wish list that will give you ideas. Looking at their GoodReads profile is another way of figuring out what they’ve read and what they like. Sometimes, I’ve appreciated gifts of books that are just outside the range of what I usually read–for example a book on social media shaming that I recently read is probably not one I would have picked up, but given my presence on social media, it ended up being a really fascinating read (thanks, Ben and Hannah!).

You might think a gift card to be a cop out. But not to the book lover! Knowing you have to spend so much at this particular store makes for fun as one thinks about that wishlist. It is easy to do that big chain of bookstores or that online seller. But I would suggest that this is your chance to support that favorite Indie store trying to make a go of it, particularly if this means introducing them to a new customer. By the way, I would recommend for the regular followers of this blog, and particularly my reviews, buying a gift card from Hearts and Minds Books. I asked my good friend there, Byron Borger, if they sell these and he said, “Oh yes, for any amount. We can send them to the recipient with a little note or, of course, to the person ordering it to sign themselves.” Typical of the personal service orientation I’ve come to expect from these folks, and what you will find from any good Indie.

Happy shopping for that book lover!

Coming tomorrow: My best books of 2016!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Top 10

This is the time of the year where people are posting all sorts of Top Ten lists for 2015, and so I thought you all might enjoy seeing what were the top ten “Youngstown” posts in 2015, based on number of views. I will just give the topic for each post without the “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown”. Each topic is linked back to the original post. Enjoy!

Open_Hearth_bar

The Open Hearth Bar on Steel Street, Photo by Tony Tomsic, Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library

10. Neighborhood BarsWritten on the occasion of the closing of the Boulevard Tavern, I reflect on how bars were a rich part of the fabric of neighborhoods in Youngstown.

9. PierogiesOne of the staples of Friday night dinners during Lent. Numerous churches in the area sold them as fund-raisers.

8. SleddingI posted about a number of the places I went sledding growing up and you added memories like “Suicide Hill.”

7. The Three “F’s” of ChristmasJust posted. If you didn’t see it, can you guess what they were?

WHOT Good Guys6. WHOTDo you remember the Good Guys, who we not only listened to on the radio, but met at dances and WHOT days at Idora Park?

5. Brier Hill PizzaYou know you are from Youngstown if you know what a Brier Hill pizza is. I throw in some history and videos in this one!

4. Boardman RollercadeA favorite hangout for many of us growing up. Many of you shared memories of the Kalasky family who ran the place.

3. Front PorchesYour response to this one surprised me! So many shared memories of sleeping out on porches on summer nights or watching TV on the porch.

2. The Cookie TableAnother of those “you know you are from Youngstown if” kinds of things. Most people, other than those from Pittsburgh, don’t even know about this tradition, and nobody does it better!

And the top post of 2015, drumroll please….!

Bejgli2

Kolachi or nut rolls. By Hu Totya (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

1. Kolachi. We love these nut rolls, even though it takes a lot of effort to make them. And consistent with last year, a food post was the top post once again. We do love our food if we are from Youngstown!

I’ve loved interacting with so many of you on Facebook or on the blog. You’ve made writing about our home town such a blast. Happy New Year!

 

The Mess

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Own work

[W]ho, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, NRSV)

During this Advent season, I’ve thought a good deal about the central wonder of Christmas, that the one Christians believe to be “very God” was “born in human likeness”, which is really to say, he was born as fully human as you and me.

I wonder if we have ever thought about how messy this all was. To begin with, we have a baby developing over nine months in a bath of amniotic fluid in Mary’s womb. Then there is water breaking, and the passage of the baby and the placenta through the birth canal. Amazing, yes, but messy. And then there is infancy — nursing and changing — yes, Jesus didn’t come toilet-trained.

It is amazing to me that the son of God would so thoroughly participate in our mess. We are messy people, and not just in our infancy. We are physically messy and smelly and bathing only temporarily covers that. And it could be argued that we are pretty good at making a mess of the world around us. And we do this all the way until we make our exit from this world, often a messy affair as well.

I’m staggered that God would indeed get intimately mixed up in all the mess of human bodily existence. He didn’t stay aloof in some ethereal, spiritual realm, far removed from our mess. He got right into it, even to the point of death by one of the cruelest means humans have devised, the cross.

The real question Christmas poses is “why?” Why does God the son let go of all the prerogatives of deity to wade into our mess? What is this (messy) baby in the manger really all about?

The only thing that really makes sense to me is the conclusion one of the early fathers of the church, Athanasius, wrote in On the Incarnation:

He became what we are that he might make us what he is.

More prosaically, you might say, he entered our mess to clean us up and make us like him. And why would he do that? To become what he is, at least in character, though not in essence, is not just about reclaiming what was lost but about restoring us to relationship. Jesus became a child in a human family so that we could be children of God, part of a heavenly family.

The real gifts of Christmas are not those brought by the Magi nor found under the tree, but rather the child in manger. And the questions this day poses to us are, will we believe he is indeed gift for us and receive the gift that is him? Will we let him into our mess? Will we not simply welcome him into our family but accept his welcome into his?

This is Christmas.

The Month in Reviews — December 2014

One last look back to 2014! I finished and reviewed a number of books in December, heavy on the religious side because the books tended to be shorter than the third volume of Teddy Roosevelt’s biography or the Jeff Shaara account of the fall of Vicksburg which took longer to read. This month’s books included both a theology of racial conflict and reconciliation from an Asian American perspective and a novel set in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. I reviewed a new book on the life of C.S. Lewis looking at it from the light of life crises Christians might face. In the thought-provoking category was a new apologetic approach by Universe Next Door author James Sire, and Ken Bailey’s take on the nativity story in the form of a play. Maybe one of my “last reads” from 2014 will make your “to be read” pile in 2015. So here’s the list with links to my reviews:

1. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, by Scott Bader-Saye. This is a thoughtful book on the ways fear can hinder us, how various entities exploit our fear, and how we might live with courage and faith in a fear-filled culture.

Culture of FearCrisis of a ChristianChain of ThunderEastern Orthodox2. C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, by Gregory S. Cootsona. This book takes the unusual approach of considering what we might learn from the life of Lewis as we confront life crises related to coming to faith, confronting challenges to faith, and facing the ultimate crises of suffering and death.

3. A Chain of Thunder, by Jeff Shaara. The fall of Vicksburg is the subject of this historical fiction account of this turning point of the Civil War. Shaara helps us understand what seige warfare was like for both armies and for the civilians of Vicksburg.

4. Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, by Andrew Louth. This book gives us an outline of Eastern Orthodox theology as it shapes the practice of Eastern Orthodox worship and life.

5. The Cross of Christ, by John R. W. Stott. John Stott considered this his most significant work and it is indeed a model of rich theological reflection that explores the nature and significance of Christ’s atoning work.

Open HeartsGospel MarketplaceCross of Christ

6. The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas, by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak. The authors explore the relevance of Paul’s Mars Hill message in Athens to communicating the Christian message with faithfulness and relevance in our own day.

7. Open Hearts in Bethlehem, by Kenneth E. Bailey. This play will revise your ideas of what happened in Bethlehem and our “no room in the inn” narrative.

8. The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul, by Therese de Lisieux. The “story” here is one of Therese’s intense love for Christ from childhood to pleading with bishop and pope to enter the cloister to her death at 24.

Saint ThereseApologetics beyond SeeingColonel Roosevelt9. Apologetics Beyond Reason, by James W. Sire. This book maps a different apologetic approach from most rational apologetics, arguing for “signals of transcendence” throughout creation and in literature that point us to God, if we will see this.

10. Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. The third and final installment of Morris’s biography covering the last decade of Roosevelt’s life, how difficult it was for him not to be president, and his harrowing journey down the River of Doubt.

11. Freshwater Road, by Denise Nicholas. Set in small town Mississippi in Freedom Summer, this novel narrates the journey of a young black woman from Detroit and the choices she must make to face both her own family story and the vicious, entrenched racism of the South in the 1960s as she runs a Freedom School and seeks to prepare local residents to register to vote.

Peace CatalystsRacial ConflictFreshwater Road

12. Racial Conflict and Healing: An Asian-American Theological Perspective, by Andrew Sung Park. The author explores the reality of painful experiences of racism using the Korean concept of han and develops a theology of seeing rooted in the Korean concepts of hahn, jung, and mut that envisions a new reconciled community.

13. Peace Catalysts, by Rick Love. The author, who leads an organization committed to “just peacemaking” between Muslims and Christians maps the biblical principles and practices that an individual, organization or community can take to pursue peace.

The Christmas holidays afforded some extra time to curl up with a good book, a warm drink, and some good music. I hope you have opportunities like that in the winter months ahead. If you read one of these let me know what you think. And if you find something else good, I’d love to hear about it!

The Great Disruption

Disruptions.

I don’t like them. I’m a creature of routine, compulsively so my wife might say. In our Christmas Eve service last night, our pastor reflected on the giant disruption that the coming of Jesus represented. Among other things his coming:

Nativity holy family

  • Nearly wrecked the marriage plans of Mary and Joseph.
  • Disrupted the life of the family in Bethlehem who hosted them (see my post reviewing Open Hearts in Bethlehem for more on this).
  • Broke into the quiet night of shepherds.
  • Sent the Magi on a journey following a strange star.
  • Enraged Herod the King, threatened by a possible rival.
  • Led to a sojourn as an undocumented immigrant in Egypt.
  • Led eventually to a new numbering of years around the “thought to be” year of his birth.

His life was pretty disruptive as well as he:

  • Defied temptations to comfort, power, and acclaim.
  • Broke the power of illness and evil in countless lives.
  • Drove the money-changers from the “house of prayer for the nations.”
  • Challenged a religious system that divided one people into “law keepers” and “sinners” offering no hope for the latter.
  • Defied the messianic expectations of crowds and disciples to break a more oppressive power than Rome and win a greater victory.

I cannot celebrate Christmas without celebrating the “great disruption” of my life by this child, servant king. It is easy for me to focus on the parts of that disruption that I like — the forgiveness of sins, the love of God, the hope of eternal life. That’s a lot better than alienation and hopelessness. But this is a disruption that calls me out of self-centeredness to the love of God and others. It disrupts my checkbook, my comfort, my politics, and my associations. It disrupts the “either-or” ways of dividing the world into “us” and “them”, a world of “allies” and “enemies”. Sometimes it means not being understood by any of the people who love these divisions.

Our sentimental ideas of peace on earth have little to do with the shalom of God. To get lions to lie down with lambs represents the disruption of a predatory system. Exalting the humble and humbling the proud represents the disruption of systems of power, privilege, injustice and economic disparity.

This Christmas I’m praying that the coming of King Jesus will disrupt the racial divisions and wounds of our land. Maybe the disruption in my life will begin with some of my friends who I will not join in the litanies of “what is wrong with them.” Frankly, the disruption of Jesus makes me far more aware of the “logs” in my own eye that I need help getting rid of. Maybe the disrupting shalom of Jesus’s coming is meant to bring the quiet that cuts off our blathering, defending and denouncing in mid-sentence. What difference might it make to our national conversation if some of us would just shut up and listen?

It doesn’t seem very “Christmas-y” to wish you disruptions in your life. Yet, to say “come Lord Jesus” seems to be an invitation to life-giving disruption. Neither as individuals nor as a nation can we be all we are meant to be without such disruptions. And so this Christmas day I say “come, Lord Jesus!”

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Eve and Day

There were lots of different ways families in Youngstown worked out Christmas Eve and Day, most of which revolved around church. And every one of us thinks ours is best (family pride is a high value in Youngstown!). Some families put their trees up on Christmas eve (we didn’t). Some had special foods, usually from their particular ethnic heritage.

Christmas at my parents (c)2014 Robert C Trube

Christmas at my parents (c)2014 Robert C Trube

I grew up in a home where we attended early evening Candlelight services. Christmas eve dinner was often a light affair because we had to leave for church early. There would be more snacks at our house or a relative’s later. Often, dad would grill up some of his favorite sandwiches. It was always a priority to get to church so you could find a parking space and get your seat.

As a kid, I remember being in Nativity plays. I got to be Joseph one year, which I thought was pretty cool. Most of the time, I was a shepherd. As I grew older, I think the thing that meant the most was the candle-lighting usually as we sang “Silent Night”. All the church lights would be dimmed and the only light was from candles. Often we would sing “What Child is This?” and there was that moment when you realized that this holiday wasn’t just about Santa and presents. We were remembering something far more important that night.

Oplatki Bread, Public Domain image, Author "Julo"

Oplatki Bread, Public Domain image, Author “Julo”

Afterwards, we would drive around and look at Christmas lights and either stop at my grandparents or return home. We usually would have a treat, and then up to bed before Santa came. When I was young, i would watch for the glow of Rudolph’s nose on the blinds in my room until I fell asleep!

My wife grew up in a home that celebrated Midnight Mass at St Cyril and Methodius Church, across town from where she lived. Dinner for her family was a much more elaborate affair which began with oplatki bread, this wafer thin bread you got from the church with imprints on it. I remember coming one time for dinner when we were dating and there was no end to the food, it seemed. Midnight was a good ways off and you needed to be well-fortified. Of course there were kolachi and other baked goods. My wife’s one memory of Midnight Mass was that at midnight the baby Jesus was put in the manger in the church’s nativity scene.

Sts. Cyril & Methodius Church (c)Ripcho Studios, Cleveland Ohio, used by permission.

Sts. Cyril & Methodius Church (c)Ripcho Studios, Cleveland Ohio, used by permission.

Neither of our families opened presents on Christmas eve, even though we wanted to. When I was young, I would sneak downstairs early to find the Christmas tree already lit and this wondrous array of presents that had appeared during the night. But we had to wait until mom came down to open them and were not allowed to disturb her. My favorite present was the year I received a model raceway. We set it up down in our basement and I added more and more track and cars and had this elaborate layout. Some of my guy friends would come over and we would race each other for hours, or “work” on our cars. My wife’s favorite gift was not the doll she is holding in the picture but a doll house that she loved decorating (an artist even then!).

My wife as a child with her Christmas doll

My wife as a child with her Christmas doll

Of course there were rounds of visiting with all the relatives. My wife’s father had three brothers and they would go from house to house over the holidays. When my grandmother Trube was living, we often had Christmas day dinner there. It was really fun the year my cousins from Texas visited. In later years, we hosted Christmas and my grandfather Scott would come and tell all the stories we already knew (but they were good stories told well).

Did your family have any special Christmas Eve and Day traditions? What were your best memories?

 

 

Love and Lostness

The parable of the prodigal in Luke 15:11-32 is among the most famous Jesus told. Rembrandt did a famous painting of this story that has moved many. Yet to read the parable is always unsettling. I wonder why on earth a father would give half his estate to a son he knows is planning to squander it? That just does not seem like good parenting. It also doesn’t seem fair that this son receives such a lavish welcome on his return without even having to grovel! At least a part of me is with that older brother in pitching a fit and staying away from the party.

One of the insights from our pastor’s message this past Sunday that really helps me is to see how both of the sons are lost. What they share in common is that both are lost in selfishness. In different ways, each is a prisoner of his own self-absorption. They are different only in the way they express it, which might help explain why the older brother is upset. Down deep, I suspect the older brother was confronting the reality of his own selfishness in that of his brother, but didn’t want to see it.

Rembrandts-The-Return-of-the-Prodigal-Son1

Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son

Both brothers are absorbed in themselves to the exclusion of any concern for either their father or their other brother and for the future of their family. The younger brother essentially wishes his father dead and wants the present value of his inheritance now, not willing to share in his older brother’s labors that might have enhanced it. All he cares for it seems is maximizing his pleasure in the moment. Even his approach to his father, as repentant as it is, masks a shrewd appraisal that he might do better as a servant in his father’s home than he is feeding the pigs.

The older brother is lost in self absorption as well. He is absorbed in his personal rectitude and his resentment of the younger brother. Seeing his father’s distress, he makes no effort to find his younger brother. And when the younger brother finds his way home, he seethes in anger both against his brother and his father for not throwing him a feast, when he could have had this at any time!

There are so many ways I can be lost to the captivity of selfishness! There are so many ways I create a cosmos that revolves around closing myself off to God and others! In the end we dehumanize ourselves, whether in unrestrained hedonism or an ugly self-righteousness that is both angry and envious toward those who don’t match our personal rectitude. I vacillate between “I want what’s mine!” and cries of “It’s not fair!”

Rich pointed out that it is easy in this story to try to identify which brother we are most like. But identifying the kind of selfish we are can do little to liberate us from being lost in selfishness. The only thing left for us is to stop focusing on ourselves and rather on the Father who is truly extravagant in love. Both sons lived in a “zero sum game” world. By contrast, the Father is one who is extravagant in love, who always has enough to go around and who would much rather throw parties for those liberated from lostness than leave either son on the outside.

I’m struck that in Christmas, we celebrate this extravagant, prodigal love. The birth of Jesus reflects this collusion of Father and Son to rescue us in all the ways we are lost in self-absorption. Jesus becomes the truly loving and righteous Elder Brother and Father’s Son who rejoices not in condemning people in their failure but in finding lost people and restoring them to the Father.

Christmas is rightly a time of parties. It rightly reflects the parties of heaven over the lost who are found by the Savior whose birth we celebrate. The question for each of us is will we turn from our own forms of self-absorption to join the Father’s party or will we remain on the outside, a party of one in a cosmos centered around self?

[This post also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog for this week.]

Review: Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama

Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama
Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama by Kenneth E Bailey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Say it isn’t so!

If Kenneth Bailey is right (and I believe he is) I need to revise my mental images of the birth scene in Bethlehem. The manger scene in our living room is inaccurate because it places the birth in a stable.

We’ve grown up with the narrative that there was “no room in the inn” and then assumed that the “manger” in which Jesus was laid was in a stable. Bailey argues first of all that the normal word for inn (pandocheion) is not used here but rather a word (katalyma) that is most accurately translated (as does the NIV in Luke 2:7) as “guest room”. Bailey observes that this refers to a room in most homes of the time that would be used for visiting guests while the family occupies the main room. Second, he contends that in most of these homes there was an area off of the main room, sometimes slightly lower, where animals were brought in for the night. It would have been easy to move a manger for a small animal to the main room to serve as a bed for the baby.

Our "stable" nativity

Our “stable” nativity (c) 2014 Robert C Trube

Furthermore, Bailey’s explanation gets at a mental objection I’ve always wondered about. It is basically along the lines of “how heartless can Bethlehem be if a town won’t house a relative ready to have a baby?” Furthermore, anyone who knows about Middle Eastern hospitality, knows that this flies in the face of everything that is good and decent and expected. Bailey contends that in fact, the real picture in the biblical narrative is one of relatives who are already hosting visitors in town for the census who open up their home even further to make room for their relatives in need–and so in fact open up their hearts to Messiah Jesus.

Bailey introduces all of this at the beginning of his “Christmas drama” which is built around his explanation of what most likely actually occurred on the basis of both custom and the biblical narrative. The drama that follows struck me as an understated account of how a couple, Benjamin and Judith, respond to the demands of hospitality. There is the practical question of whether to bring the animals in and the decision to do so with so many strangers in town. Most riveting for audiences is the scene where Joseph and Mary arrive outside the home and call out requesting hospitality. We see the real choice of a Herod-fearing people between fearfulness and welcome and what happens in this home, as well as with some neighboring shepherds, when this family opens not only home but hearts to Joseph, Mary, and the child that is soon born to them.

The drama is written to serve as a church nativity play and includes stage directions and program materials which may be used without permission for non-profit purposes if certain criteria (including purchase of twelve scripts and no admission fee) and suitable credit is given. There are also several songs in the drama for which a musical score and CD is available from the publisher.

This review probably comes too late for Christmas celebrations this season. However, churches may wish to consider this for the future because of the crucial question it poses to both cast and audience: is my heart open for the coming of Jesus?

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