The Radical Vulnerability of God

As far as religious paradox goes, the radical vulnerability of God has got to take the cake (or the stollen, the bunuelos, the figgy pudding, the buche de noel, the truchas de navidad…).

As I’ve lost my grip on all the other Christmas traditions still dear to me — the weekly advent services leading up; making pepparkakor, rum balls, and sweet rye bread; practicing my piano part for the “Jesu Bambino” trio with my sisters; the pickled herring and cold duck; singing carols to myself while skiing through Lester/Amity’s quiet woods of birch and pine; even the iconic tree itself… Even as I’ve let these slip away in the context of new relationships and warmer climes (differently rich and delightful), there is one, sparkling mystery of the season that will not let me go.

Light in Winter

Are we all still such children or even animals at heart that we so love the light? For those of us in the northern hemisphere, and especially those in the northernmost reaches of the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is cause for celebration. As a kid growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, I remember in the last days before Christmas break slipping into my school clothes in a morning darkness, eating breakfast in the dark, and walking to school while it was still dark. When it was time to walk home again, the sky had already turned to dusk. Then one morning, my mom would greet me with delight, “The days are getting longer now!” Her joy was as striking as the news itself.

May Your Father’s Day Not Be Entirely Biblical

Despite a common assumption that the Bible is all sweetness and light, filled with upstanding moral models for individuals today, it doesn’t always translate so neatly. After Adam, the next father is one who murdered his brother. There’s Noah’s drunken nakedness whose story involving his sons ended up endorsing the slavery of Africans, Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, Lot’s sleeping with his daughters, Isaac’s tragic failure to discern the difference between his sons, Jacob’s favoritism with the resulting conflict between Joseph and his brothers,… and by golly we haven’t even gotten out of Genesis. That said, of course there are models of fatherhood in both Old and New Testament books that strike readers as better for men to emulate. And there are texts that honor fairness, strength, generosity, and love by fathers. Finally, of course, as Rabbi Daniel Brenner wrote, “On Father’s Day, we honor our fathers not by comparing them to some ideal, but by acknowledging them for whom they really are.” I am lucky to have a dad who takes the Bible seriously but (and?) judges for himself what is right and good. Happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there! May you be not entirely biblical in your parenting and loved whatever the case.

Cyrus Cylinder’s Visit Extended

Sept. 10-12, and now Norouz. Is it just coincidence that the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old document sometimes described as the first declaration of human rights and attributed to the founder of the Persian Empire, traveled from its museum home in the West (UK) to the Middle East (Iran) on September 10 (2010) for an exhibit that began on September 12? The deafening silence to my American ears is of course Sept. 11.  Iranian President Ahmadinejad proudly introduced the Cylinder, ascribed to Cyrus II (the Great), at the beginning of its visit to the National Museum of Iran, touting it as a testament to the importance of fighting oppression and championing the rights of individuals for freedom and dignity. The cylinder was due to return to the British Museum today (Jan. 10), but BM officials have extended its visit through the Iranian New Year holidays (Norouz) until mid-April to allow schoolchildren and others to view this object, a piece of historythat is “crucial” for its resonance in the histories of East and West. Simply engaging in this exchange, as Iranians and Brits have done, honors the power of the past to shape our present and future. Relations between nations, a crack in the suspicions that divide us. Happy New Year in the West, and best wishes for the same to our neighbors in the East.

Forgetting… and Remembering

Living as a nomad, it was bound to happen: I left my computer behind. Bouncing between cities (two) and offices (four) as I’ve done the past semester, I rely on THE LIST — things to do before leaving the house (empty the kitchen compost, e.g.) and things to bring (er, that’d be the computer, e.g.). The list works great… if I actually use it. Last week, I didn’t. The irony is, I’m finally settling in again, finally staying put  — one city, one office, for the most part, anyway. Maybe that was it. I let my guard down, got cocky.

A Gospel Easter

This essay first appeared in the Fredricksburg Free Lance-Star on April 4, 2010.  

Of all the Christian holidays, it’s Christmas that gets the most attention. And can you blame us for that? Light and life in the dead of winter, gifts galore, and cookies to boot — no wonder it’s a favorite. Yet Easter is the most important Christian holiday and was celebrated long before Christmas became what it is today. We can be comfortable with Christmas, its jollity and twinkling beauty, the stable, newborn, and serene mother. Easter, on the other hand, is different and a bit unsettling. For one thing, it is preceded by a gruesome, torturous death by crucifixion. What’s more, it’s based on an utterly unnatural event — the coming back to life again of a definitely dead man. Let’s face it, being born is nothing special. We’ve all done it, and in every case at least one person was on hand to witness the occasion. But resurrection?… 

Jesus and Punxsutawney Phil

 I love the movie Groundhog Day. It’s such a great story about redemption, and I for one, an accomplished bumbler, would love a few do-overs to get things right. Besides, the film’s hilarious. I might have guessed that it would have some sort of religious theme to it, but until recently, I didn’t imagine that Punxsutawney Phil and Jesus share that auspicious day… and not by mere coincidence. Groundhog Day is exactly forty days after Christmas Eve, and Jewish religious tradition required that certain things happen forty days after a boy’s birth. Those traditions, together with ancient legends, ultimately led to the connection of that cheeky little varmint with the Christian “light of the world.” 

For the Love of Books

Huge snow in VA, cold days clear down to FL, these are the days for books. Any form, any genre, grab a fav or something new and settle in.   Want something fun to share with family gathered over the holidays? Or maybe you need a break from the mayhem. Perhaps you’re going solo this year and feeling a little blue or happily free(!) … books. Gotta love ’em. Need some ideas? Check out this bibliophile website , culled from Don Swaim’s CBS radio show, “Book Beat,” where you can listen to great writers talk about their books, the craft, life, in brief segments. There are countless books featured in the line-up. Find one to suit your taste, hunker down, and be transported.

Far from home? Scandinavian Christmas in NYC

I’m sitting in a cafe on 58th and Broadway, far from home. So far from home,… and yet. It’s Christmas time in New York, and I’m here for a quick turn-around visit, counted in hours. Breakfast this morning at a little scandinavian cafe. nothing fancy, but good good good. It brings to mind the picture-perfect holidays I remember from childhood. Northern Minnesota among strong, quiet Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes. And oh, the sight! Pine trees heavy laden with snow perched impossibly on feathery branches. Branches extended and bending to hold a weight, only possible because the snow fell flake by flake, gently, patiently. There’s something there of Christmas, besides the charming red wooden horses and tomte figurines, the pepparkakor and saffron-dyed buns. I’m far from home — the home of Minnesota, the home of Virginia, the home of the one I love farther still. Still, what is home? What is home?, especially in this time when the dominant story is of God (God!) determining to know what it is to be human, to be so far from home. Cast as a baby on the beautiful mercy of a small world. (A God to care for?!) Christmas to contemplate.

Happy Hanukkah!

 As my dear friend and colleague Jack Spiro says of this and other Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Now, let’s eat!” Good wishes to Jewish friends and family celebrating this Festival of Lights! Latkes for all. You may enjoy this column by Ben Romer, a Richmond-area rabbi — a thoughtful meditation on the season. Did you know that although the book of Daniel is set during the periods of Babylonian exile and Persian diaspora, its apocalyptic sections (chaps 7-12) were probably written around the time of the great Hellenization crisis (167 B.C.E. and Jewish victory) that Hanukkah commemorates. Go, Maccabees!