I performed a spoken-word poem this morning at my congregation of Holland UCC and was asked by several to share it. It was inspired by Dorothe Soelle and this excellent article by my friend Ryan Kuja: Modern Mary: What a Pregnant Minority Refugee Teenager Would Sing Today.

You can listen to it here, edited with music, or to the original version performed before the congregation. I haven’t written or performed many poems before, so I appreciate feedback, and also, be kind.

Full text:

Not the white-skinned, blue-hued Madonna
of front lawns
And post cards.

This girl
as the dirt she sweeps
across the barren floor

A two room house
with broken beams
the poor. Continue Reading..

10 Things You Can’t Do at Christmas While Following Jesus

Guest post by Mark Sandlin, original post at

Ah, Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year. A time to gather with family and friends, and, with a smile on our faces, pretend we aren’t quietly measuring who received the best present and which relative really, really needs to stop drinking. A time to hang tinsel and baubles from the tree, and time to hangup our hopes of losing that last 10 pounds this year. Such a joyous season!The real point here is that Christmas is what we make of it. For Christians, however, there are some very specific things you can’t do if you want to actually honor and follow the person we celebrate this season.

10) Celebrate Consumeristmas. 
[Pub Theologian note: Chris Lubbers coined this term several years back] For many folks, Christmas starts standing in line on Thanksgiving Day. ‘Tis the season for mass consumerism. Regardless of where you think it began, Christmas has slowly drifted into the bog of consumer madness. Like frogs in a pot of slowly boiling water, we never saw it coming. For Christians, this is particularly problematic because the guy we are celebrating this time of year told us that collecting stuff here on Earth is not the way to follow him.

9) Forget Those Without Food.
Jesus once said that when we feed the hungry we are feeding him. Anyone want to guess what it means when we ignore the hungry? How about ignoring the hungry as we scrape the leftover Christmas ham from our plates into the trash? Maybe we need to change the name of the season to Gluttonousmas? Too many presents, too much food – too little consideration for those in need.

8) Forget Those Without Shelter.
No room at the inn. One of the key moments in the story Christians celebrate is the moment when Jesus was almost born in the streets of Bethlehem. Our need to clean up the Christmas story assumes that the innkeeper told them to use the manger but the Bible says no such thing. There was no room at the inn, leaving Mary to place her newborn child in a smelly feeding trough. For that night they were without shelter. Throughout his life Jesus would spend his ministry with no place to lay his head. This time of year we celebrate a homeless man. Do our actions, do the places we place our money, honor that?

7) Forget About Immigrants.
We three kings from orient are. Beside sounding like Yoda wrote a Christmas carol, there are a number of things messed up about that line. We don’t actually know how many there were. They were magi, not kings. We also do not know where they were really from other than “from the East.” What we do know is they were foreigners and their revelation of the real king’s plans to kill all newborn boys to put an end to Jesus turned Jesus’ family into immigrants in Egypt. Our Christmas story is replete with images of people journeying to new lands. Christmas should cause Christians to recommit to embracing immigrants.

6) Miss The Message About Resisting Abusive Power.
Mary and Joseph and their family had to flee their homeland because King Herod strong-handedly used his power to squash out what he saw as a threat to his power. I can guarantee you two things; One, in the house where Jesus grew up, the narrative of why they had to flee to Egypt and of the senseless deaths imposed on other families by the powerful was a story that was told time and time again. Two, the focus on abuse of power in Jesus’ teaching and his constant willingness to confront it was no accident. Christmas should cause Christians to recommit to confronting those who abuse power.

5) Forget Those Without Presents.
If you have two coats give one away. In announcing the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist told us what God was asking of us. Coats were just and example – a place holder if you will. If you have two Christmas presents give one away.

4) Insist Your Religious Celebration Rule Them All.
This time of year far too many Christians remind me of Gollum and his Precious. (A LoTR shout out in a Christian Christmas post! C’mon Peter Jackson, give me some promo love!) One holiday to rule them all: “We nee-eeds it. They stole it from us!” Never mind that Jesus was Jewish or that there is a list of other celebrations that occur this time of year, there’s a certain cultural privilege in the air that seems so very un-Christian to me. You can just about bet that the folks calling out for the dominance of Christmas would be singing a new song if Judaism were the dominant religious culture and this time of year radio stations across the land played Chanukah songs. Well, metaphorically they would be singing a new song – maybe a few even literally.

3) Get Mad About “Happy Holidays.”
On a related note, you know what “holiday” is short for, right? Holy day. Do you really have a problem with people calling Christmas a holy day?

2) Think That It Is Actually Jesus’ Birthday .
Um. So… dang, this is hard and I’m really sorry to be the one telling you. Um, let’s see. Remember how when you were growing up the Sunday school teacher told you it was Jesus’ birthday? Yeah. Well, um… they lied. Yeah. Sorry about that. We don’t actually know when Jesus was born. It was probably in the spring or summer because “the shepherds watched their flocks by night” – something which definitely didn’t happen in the winter.

1) Confuse The Religious Observance With the Secular Holiday.

It may be that December the 25th was picked as the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth to compete with or even to adopt the followers of the pagan celebration of Saturnalia, which included decorating with evergreens, gift giving and parties. (Hmmm, why does that seems so familiar?) I bring this up to make a simple point; A lot of our “War on Christmas” problems would rightfully go away if we simply acknowledged that there are two celebrations of Christmas each year. One is religious and one is not. Most of this article actually points to the issues that happen when we conflate them. So, let’s stop doing it.–


“Holy Innocents” and the Birth of Jesus

A guest post by Kyle Roberts.   This piece originally appeared on the Cultivare blog on Patheos.

Jesus was born into a world of violence. A world where demented people kill innocent children.

It’s right there in the infancy narrative of the first gospel (in the order in your Bibles). It’s easy to miss, because we don’t often focus on it in our telling of the Christmas story–understandably so.

Matthew 2:16-18 tells the story of the “massacre of the innocents.” When Herod learns that a presumed threat to his throne was born in Bethlehem, he orders all male infants under age 2 in Bethlehem and surrounding area to be killed. An angel warns Joseph, who subsequently removes the baby Jesus from danger.

Tony Jones and James McGrath recently had an interesting back and forth as to the historicity of this account, and what that means for how we might understand suffering and God’s will. McGrath pointed out that the only evidence of this particular tragic event occurring is Matthew’s account itself (nothing in the other gospels–canonical or non–or in early histories like Josephus’). There is significant debate as to whether the account tells about a historical event or whether Matthew created or borrowed a fictional story. In any case, the story connected Jesus’s story with Moses’ (remember Miriam’s basket?) and underscored the significance of Jesus of Nazareth and his Messianic identity. McGrath takes the account as mythological–and is relieved by that. If it actually happened, it would suggest that God only cares about his own family (he sent an angel to warn Joseph, but not those other families — Weren’t there enough angels to go around?)

Tony Jones, on the other hand, insists that the story is historical and suggests that to consider otherwise is to silence the cries of the victims.

Guido Reni, 1611
Guido Reni, 1611

It’s easy to sense the heart behind both positions. On McGrath’s side is a concern that we not see divine providence behind every tragedy. Surely God’s will is not that little, innocent children die. Can we really believe that God takes sides? And even if we were to interpret Scripture this way,  we dare not apply that logic to contemporary, tragic events.

On the other hand, I get where Jones is coming from. While we can’t prove the event is historical, we certainly can’t be certain that it didn’t happen. So why risk silencing the voices of the victims and burying their faces under the genre of mythology?

For my part, I accept the story’s basic historicity (it’s certainly not out of character for Herod to do such a thing–indeed, he slaughtered his own sons, if we believe Josephus). But the really important element, for our purposes, is the theological message.

There’s an important lesson Matthew is telling through this story.

In his contribution to the Global Bible Commentary, Alejandro Duarte reads the gospel of Matthew through the lens of the second chapter, and the massacre of the innocents in particular. He suggests that Matthew is contrasting the kingship of Jesus with the kingship of Herod. Duarte recognizes the disjunction, the “divine injustice” that “Jesus was saved while the other children in Bethlehem were not…” This seems in contrast with the purpose of the mission of Jesus, which is to “save his people from their sins.” Salvation, Duarte insists, includes the “harm that awaits them in their daily lives.”

Massacre of the Innocents
Massacre of the Innocents

The disjunction, the tension is certainly there in the text (why was the Savior’s birth seemingly interlaced with the death of other children?). Why isn’t Matthew as troubled as we are by the implication that God somehow orchestrated this tragic scenario? Why didn’t God simply strike Herod dead–or keep the news from him? Why not save the others? Duarte suggests that the tension is due to the greater point Matthew is making: we have on display, here two kinds of royalty, two kinds of king.

Herod is a fearful and ferocious king–fearful of losing his power and ferocious toward his enemies. He makes use of his strength to wield his weapon of war and to vanquish those who threaten him. Herod’s power is the power of empire, the power of brute strength. Herod is a bully king. And Jesus? Jesus is the opposite: a baby, born to a poor illegitimate family, “dependent and passive.” While he is recognized as a unique figure, he is “weak and vulnerable,” dependent on God. The power of Jesus is exemplified by his birth as a vulnerable baby in a dingy manger. The tension from the beginning of Jesus’ incarnate life–as the birth of the Messiah occurs in the midst of the death of innocent, little ones–follows all the way through to Jesus’ act of sacrifice on the cross, in which he shows his solidarity with the powerless and ends the power of the powerful. Evil and suffering meet their end at the cross (even if the end-game must still be played out).

Christ came into a world where innocent children died. Christ “comes” again and again in a world–this we proclaim this during advent season) of intense suffering, a world where innocent children, “Holy Innocents” still die, whether by gunfire, errant drone strikes, starvation, thirst or disease.

Jesus shows us that the death of innocent children is not God’s will–and he prayed that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. The ultimate disjunction we live with is that God’s will is too often not done on earth as it is in heaven. God does not force his way. God creates space for freedom–even for evil and tragic suffering. And he urges obedience to the call of justice. While we pray that prayer, and hope in the advent of Jesus, we must also rise up and do whatever lies in our power to right wrongs and protect the innocent. But we must follow the model of Jesus the baby and the crucified one. He was a different sort of King than Herod. And we must not lose hope that the  birth of Jesus means the eventual death of the kind of power that too often rules our world.

Emmanuel | Christmas Day

by Frederick Buechner:


Christmas is not just Mr. Pickwick dancing a reel with the old lady at Dingley Dell or Scrooge waking up the next morning a changed man. It is not just the spirit of giving abroad in the land with a white beard and reindeer. It is not just the most famous birthday of them all and not just the annual reaffirmation of Peace on Earth that it is often reduced to so that people of many faiths or no faith can exchange Christmas cards without a qualm.


On the contrary, if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell. Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with us.” That’s where the problem lies.


The claim that Christianity makes for Christmas is that at a particular time and place “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity” came to be with us himself. When Quirinius was governor of Syria, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless. The One whom none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft, indifferent gaze of cattle. The Father of all mercies puts himself at our mercy. Year after year the ancient tale of what happened is told raw, preposterous, and holy — and year after year the world in some measure stops to listen.


The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. A dream as old as time. If it is true, it is the chief of all truths. If it is not true, it is of all truths the one that people would most have be true if they could make it so.


Maybe it is that longing to have it be true that is at the bottom even of the whole vast Christmas industry the tons of cards and presents and fancy food, the plastic figures kneeling on the floodlit lawns of poorly attended churches. The world speaks of holy things in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.


Emmanuel. We all must decide for ourselves whether it is true. Certainly the grounds on which to dismiss it are not hard to find. Christmas is commercialism. It is a pain in the neck. It is sentimentality.


It is wishful thinking. The shepherds. The star. The three wise men. Make believe.


Yet it is never as easy to get rid of as all this makes it sound. To dismiss Christmas is for most of us to dismiss part of ourselves. It is to dismiss one of the most fragile yet enduring visions of our own childhood and of the child that continues to exist in all of us. The sense of mystery and wonderment. The sense that on this one day each year two plus two adds up not to four but to a million.


What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.


Emmanuel. Emmanuel.


Three Cheers | A Christmas Eve Reflection

From Robert Farrar Capon:

Advent is the church’s annual celebration of the silliness (from selig, which is German for “blessed”) of salvation. The whole thing really is a divine lark. God has fudged everything in our favour: without shame or fear we rejoice to behold his appearing. Yes, there is dirt under the divine Deliverer’s fingernails. But no, it isn’t any different from all the other dirt of history. The main thing is, he’s got the package and we’ve got the trust: Lo, he comes with clouds descending. Alleluia, and three cheers.

What we are watching for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace.

God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding-present china has been chipped. He is funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.

Afterwards | An Advent Poem

Mystery. Paraclete. God’s particular dance with the ordinary.

Usually, in the great 15th century paintings, shown as the dove.

You have to look up to see it, above the angel. Mary, sees only

the angel, holds fast the gaze of the extraordinary. It’s love,


the lover that hovers high. Waiting. Does it know the answer

she will give to the angel? Can it read already the intricacies

of the human heart? Or does it have to wait to hear from her?

Each wing beat a forever until she said “Let it be.” Afterwards


the world resumed its normal orbit – there, for a hearts beat,

it had tilted closer to the sun – the moon had wavered. All of

the old loyalties had felt the shudder, felt the blow in the feet

and up to the belly. No one divined the nature of the disturbance


but her. The one whose belly now housed the Word, a universe.

This world, now different , the Spirit, taken, made utterly human.

Word translated in a womb to the language we would dismiss or

read as truly fantastic, thrum of miracle in the blood of a woman.

Richard Osler

Advent | 2007