Going Global

Like the spring that is quickly coming to South Texas, it’s a welcome sign indeed.  For when the official announcement was made earlier this week of the formation of a new Wesleyan denomination, the Global Methodist Church, it signaled all kinds of possibilities for those looking for a way out of the convictional and conversational cul-de-sac in which our church has long been circling.  And as a life-long Methodist, I couldn’t be more excited and pleased to see such a solution at last.

Predictably, of course, some immediately characterized the move as one-dimensional.  NBC News, for instance, headlined their story by proclaiming that “United Methodist Conservatives Detail Breakaway Plans Over Gay Inclusion.”  And others have already taken to Twitter to falsely suggest that the planned denomination will be discriminatory not just to those in the LGBTQ community, but to women in ministry and anyone who has a sniff of a social conscience.

None of that is true, however.  In the proposed polity, in fact, there is no reference at all to homosexuality, only an affirmation of the traditional understanding of marriage that is supported by the scriptural witness.  Rather, the emerging church will be “called to inclusiveness,” which is defined as “openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the spiritual life of the Church and its service to the community and the world.”  Or in other words, everyone will be welcome.

Likewise, anyone who speaks Methodist will quickly discover that they will be fluent in the new denomination as well.  Particularly as it relates to local congregations, many of the organizational features of the UMC are a part of the Global Methodist Church, though without much of the bloated bureaucracy on top. The new Book of Doctrines and Disciplines, for instance, is dramatically shorter than the UMC version, coming in around 100 pages rather than nine times that amount. And as the name suggests, it also has more emphasis on doctrine, by the way.

On the other hand, there are other changes that are perhaps long overdue. Bishops will no longer be elected for life but will serve defined terms with a twelve-year maximum before retiring or returning to serve as a pastor or other elder.  Along with giving oversight to the church, their primary task will be to guard, transmit, teach and proclaim the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition from a Wesleyan perspective.

In turn, congregations will have more say in who comes to serve as their clergy, as well as full control of their own property without a Sword of Damocles-like Trust Clause dangling over their heads.  And pastors will neither be guaranteed an appointment nor face a mandatory retirement age.  Like everyone else, they’ll need to earn the trust of others by being effective and accountable servants of Christ.

What’s more, as the name implies, the new denomination has been designed to be truly global in character, with male and female leaders from Africa, Europe, Russia, and Asia already involved in its formation.  And it promises to be bold in its witness to the world both in words and in actions, with the largest part of its reduced apportionments (roughly half of the current amounts) going to missions and church planting.

So what’s not to like?  In a word, change.  But then even a cursory look at the history of Methodism will show that our movement has undergone numerous shifts and realignments since it first emerged almost three centuries ago.  The United Methodist Church itself, for instance, is only 53 years old.  In many ways, thus, the Global Methodist Church simply represents a fresh expression of the Wesleyan spirit that long ago changed the world and we believe can do so once again.

Many long discussions are yet to come, of course, and a lot depends upon how and when the UMC General Conference is finally able to convene.  And every local congregation and annual conference will need to have serious conversations as to where they are most comfortable and called. But after a laborious and hard winter—both weather-wise and in the church which I’ve long loved and served—I’m taking the emergence of the new Global Methodist Church as a definite sign of spring indeed.  

            Or as the Lord long ago expressed it through the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, I am about to do something new… do you not see it?” 

(Full disclosure here:  It was my privilege to serve as a member of the writing team of the new Book of Doctrines and Discipline.  To read the entire book, or to find out more about the new denomination, visit www.globalmethodist.org.)

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An Ashless Wednesday

It wasn’t exactly how we planned.  But then again, few things have been in this decade so far.  Just within the past few years, for instance, we’ve had numerous “hundred year” floods, a once-in-a-century pandemic, and just since Sunday, we’ve had record low temperatures, some of which we haven’t seen for 121 years in this part of Texas.  So all in all, we’ve probably heard the word “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times.

Still, until the winter storm hit, we had cleverly planned how to impose ashes in a socially distanced manner, using individual Q-tips to mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful, even while faithfully masked ourselves.  What we hadn’t planned on was the loss of power and pipes busting in the church building, creating if not streams in the desert at least rivulets in the hallways.

All of which raised the question of “How do you do Ash Wednesday without, well, ashes?”  Oh, I know that the practice itself is not actually Biblical.  Jesus never spoke about it, nor did He or the disciples ever observe it.  And the early church didn’t do so either, until a pope named Gregory the Great started the tradition in the sixth century, and even then, it took another four hundred years before the term “Ash Wednesday” came into use, when a different pope with the oddly modern sounding name of Urban began to call it that.  But we might note that the reformers such as Luther and Calvin still weren’t exactly keen on the idea.

To be clear, the Bible does talk about ashes sometimes.  Mordecai is said to have put on sackcloth and ashes when he found out about the plot by Haman to kill all the Jews.  And when poor old Job repented, he did so in dust and ashes as well, just as Jeremiah similarly told his people to put on sackcloth and roll in ashes as a sign of their contrition.  Ashes thus were both a symbol of repentance and a reminder of our mortality and thus, our dependence upon God for the gift of life itself.  But given all that’s happened in recent times, some might ask, does anyone really need yet another unwelcome reminder that life is fragile?

And the answer is, “yes.”  For Lent is meant to trigger both our repentance and our renewed rejection of whatever habits or attitudes we may have fallen into that are not worthy of the gospel of Jesus.  It’s a bit like the French expression:  recular pour mieux sauter, “step back in order to jump farther.”  Indeed, that’s the heart of Ash Wednesday, with or without ashes, carne or con carne, if you will, as we would say here in South Texas.  For the ashes are just an outward sign that we are ready for a re-set of our relationship with Christ.  And it all begins with that simple reminder:  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Oh, I get it, trust me.  This has been a trying time indeed, especially for the millions here in Texas who have literally been left out in the cold for several days without power and heat and sometimes water.  And if we have one more “unprecedented” or “once every century” event it may just send all of us over the edge.  But then perhaps that’s all the more reason to “step back” from that edge in order to take a better leap of faith forward during the Lenten season ahead.  For maybe wearing the ashes visibly is not nearly as important as actually remembering who we are supposed to be as the children of God.  For even without physically marking our foreheads, we can still remember that we are dust and repent and believe the gospel. 

I have a feeling that God will see that sign of the cross that no one else can.  And maybe no one else needs to this year.

(Taken from a video Lenten message delivered on Ash Wednesday.  To watch the full message, visit christchurchsl.org or log on at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYgyGiCZtrg&feature=youtu.be)

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All Quiet on the Western Front

As the dawn unfolded this morning, a silence descended on the western steps of the building, almost like the Capitol itself was catching its breath after the chaos that ensued there yesterday.  For though it was not unprecedented–nor even entirely unpredictable, in fact–the disruption in Washington D.C., was still deeply disturbing on both a personal and national level.

My first time in that building, for instance, came as a high school senior when I participated in a week-long seminar with other students from around the country. I was dazzled indeed not just by being in those beautiful halls but by feeling an almost cosmic connection somehow to the many who had walked in those corridors before me.  For I found myself not just in an impressive building that is the seat of our government, but in one that is the home of an idea itself, the very notion of democracy.

And so, the images of rioters scaling the walls, breaking windows, and forcing their way into those almost sacrosanct Senate and House chambers hit a visceral nerve for me.  For I might have hoped that no matter how heightened the political tensions may be in America today, there would have been some boundaries that even our deepest disagreements would still respect.   

The problem is, however, that in allowing ourselves to become so bitterly divided in our politics and culture, we’ve also lost a significant part of our souls along the way.  When the President personally denigrates his political opponents (and even allies), for instance, and the Speaker of the House publicly tears up his State of the Union address in full view of the cameras, or when party leaders–or even neighbors–treat one another not just as opponents but as actual enemies, incapable of any good at all, we’ve gone well beyond policy disagreements into the politics of personal destruction.

In the end, however, the real struggle is not between Democrats and Republicans, progressives or Proud Boys, but between serving God and serving ourselves.  And in that respect, it is not too much to suggest that what was on full view yesterday in those scenes from Washington was nothing less than human sin run rampant.  Unfortunately, it’s the same kind of evil that lurks in the recesses of all of our hearts too if we do not consistently take steps to root it out.  For as C.S. Lewis once noted, if God should sovereignly determine to destroy all sin at midnight tonight, who among us would still be here at 12:01?

In Washington, they’ve already begun the clean-up, of course.  And by the time that the inauguration of a new president takes place on that western side of the Capitol, having been moved there from the eastern front forty years ago, things may outwardly at least look a bit more normal.  But if we don’t fix what’s really wrong with the system—you and me—it will not stay quiet on either side of that building, nor down the street at the White House, or even, in fact, in your house or mine.   

Indeed, if anyone is going to short-circuit this cycle of sinful self-destruction that has consumed our country, it may just have to start with us, as we resolutely refuse to be enemies with others. 

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A Christmas Ambush!

I suspect she learned it growing up on the family farm near Hillsboro.  For from the 1840’s on, in the rural South it became a Christmas tradition for many such families such as hers, most of whom likewise had limited resources at best. Not surprisingly, thus, my mom, one of five sisters with a widowed mother, not only practiced it as a child, but when she grew up she taught it to her own family and, in turn, I passed it onto my kids, too.

It’s a simple idea, really.  For the point is just to be the first one in your household to greet others on December 24 with the exclamation, “Christmas Eve Gift!”  And whoever you manage to get the drop on is then expected to present you with a small present, traditionally some candy or nuts.  Amazingly enough, however, the tradition can get downright competitive.

When I was growing up, for instance, my mom would often be right at our bedsides when we awoke on the 24th, and before we could even adjust our eyes, she’d yell out with a smile: “Christmas Eve Gift!”  And though I thought her tactics were a bit unfair as a child, when I became a parent I found them to be eminently reasonable.

There’s a variant on the tradition, of course, that moves the whole practice to Christmas Day itself, changing the greeting accordingly.  In my mind, however, doing it on the day before presents are customarily exchanged seems to add an extra dimension to it, almost like getting a bonus gift or, to use another Southern expression, some lagniappe that you hadn’t planned on receiving.  

But in either case, there’s something wonderful indeed about a greeting that recognizes the birth of Jesus as a gift to this world.   For that’s what all of our presents, large or small, one to the other, are meant to remind us of in the first place, is it not?  That God so loved the world that He GAVE the ultimate Christmas Eve Gift, so that you and I might not perish but find eternal life?

Despite what advertisers might try to sell us, thus, Christmas is not about the commercialism, but the connections—those between God and ourselves, and ourselves and others whom we love.  And in that respect, I am glad to know that even in England, far away from the rural South, my grandchildren are growing up with that family tradition, too.

Just because they are six hours ahead of us here in Texas doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to beat me, however.  For should they happen to read this while I’m still sleeping on this side of the pond it will still count: “CHRISTMAS EVE GIFT!” 

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The King and The Maiden (Advent Devotion for December 23)

“Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden.”  So began the story once told by the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard.  For in his tale, the king was the most powerful man of his time, one with the strength to crush any who opposed him.  This mighty king had but one chink in his armor, however:  he was deeply in love with a humble maiden, one with no family pedigree, education or standing in the royal court.

Why he should love her was, in Kierkegaard’s telling, “beyond explaining.”  But love her he did. The problem became thus how could he act upon his feelings, given his position and power?  His royal courtiers told him, of course, that all he had to do was command her to be his queen and it would be so.  For she would surely not resist him—no one dared to do so. But while he could force her to be present in his palace, the king knew that he could not force love to be present in her heart.  So would she truly love him in return?

To be sure, she might say that she did, for again, who could defy that mighty king?  But would she really?  Or would she simply subject herself to his power, live with him in fear, but secretly bear a grudge for the life she had been forced to leave behind?  Would she even be happy by his side?  And how could he ever know for certain that she was?  For the king did not want a conquered consort but one who equally shared his love; “it is only in love,” Kierkegaard noted, “that the unequal can be made equal.” 

And so unable to elevate the maiden without destroying her freedom, that king made a rather momentous decision:  he would be the one to descend to her status instead.  He arose, took off his crown, relinquished his scepter, and took upon himself the life of a peasant, not just posing as one but actually becoming such. 

Clothing himself in a tattered cloak as a beggar, the king thus went to her cottage not in disguise but in a new identity, renouncing his throne to win her hand. Or in the words of the writer, that king thus became “as ragged as the one he loved so that she could be his forever.  It was the only way.  His raggedness became the very signature of his presence.”

And the point which Kierkegaard made in his parable is the very one which the apostle Paul long before expressed when he wrote to the Philippians about the One who “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  Indeed, the Incarnation is nothing less than the story of a great King who left His throne and descended to this earth in order to win our hearts as well.

And just suppose He did it all for us.

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The Santa Snitch (Advent Devotion for December 22)

The authors of the book behind the concept will tell you that it all came from a family tradition started by Carol Aebersold for her twin daughters, Chanda and Christa, when the girls were growing up in Georgia in the 1970s. Since the family first self-published the Christmas-themed book in 2005, however, The Elf on the Shelf has been widely embraced by literally millions around the world.  For it offers an explanation for the age-old existential question of how Santa Claus actually knows who is naughty and who is nice.  

Simply put, it suggests, Santa has “scout elves” hidden in people’s homes who not only see everything we do but who fly back to the North Pole after everyone has gone to bed each night to report into Santa all the activities, both good and bad.  Santa then is able to update his list, (running the data twice, no doubt) before the elf flies back and hides in a new place for the next day’s surveillance.

What’s more, although children can speak to the elf and tell it all of their Christmas wishes to get a more direct pipeline to Santa, they are warned never to actually touch the elf lest its magic disappear.  With parents thus willing to pay twenty-nine dollars for a keepsake box to teach their children that it’s okay for others to spy on you, the Elf on the Shelf has become a multi-million-dollar business over the past several years.

As cute as it may be, however, and as hard as some parents may work to deliberately re-hide the elf each evening, there’s something indeed a little off about the whole concept.  For aside from the privacy issues it raises, it reinforces the idea that at Christmas we should all get simply what we deserve in life—toys (or a new Lexus) if we’ve been good, socks or lumps of coal (or a used Pinto) if not.  

And that would seem to be just about the opposite message of what the Christian faith is about, at least according to the Bible.  For it was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us, demonstrating God’s own love for you and me.  In fact, God so loved the world, so John rather famously wrote, that He gave His only Son so that any who believe in Him—even if they have been naughty and not so nice—might have everlasting life.  In short, it’s all about grace, not receiving our just desserts in life.

Of course, the elf is far from being the only Christmas tradition that goes against the actual meaning of this season.  And I get that it’s meant to just be a bit of fun, something everybody could use about now.  It was not too many years after the elf first appeared, in fact, that a stuffed toy looking a bit like a rabbi or Hassidic Jew showed up on store shelves as well.  And before long, the Mensch on a Bench (a Yiddish term meaning a “person of honor or integrity”) became the team mascot for the Israeli national baseball team.

But I’m grateful still that while God does indeed see me while I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake, He doesn’t need a surveillance elf to keep tabs on me and report back.  For His watchful eye is meant to protect more than detect, and His magic will never disappear.

Just in case you’re looking for a good investment opportunity, however, I do have a good idea for a “Preacher on a Bleacher.”

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Look Up! (Advent Devotion for December 21)

By now you no doubt have heard about it:  if you look to the southwest night skies this evening just after sunset, you’ll see a heavenly display that no one on earth has viewed since 1226. Scientists call it the Great Conjunction and it reminds us just how relative everything really is.  For though Jupiter and Saturn will still be roughly 460 million miles apart, to observers here on the third rock from the sun it will look like they have snuggled up, separated by only inches, or just one fifth of the moon’s angular diameter.

To be sure, by our way of reckoning eight hundred years itself is a pretty long time.  For in 1226 Genghis Khan was still ruling Mongolia, Francis of Assisi died, and in Paris, workers had just started building a brand-new cathedral known as Notre Dame.  But on the other hand, though the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn line up about every twenty years, the two planets won’t look this close again until 2080.  And if you want to see the conjunction on a Christmas Day itself, you’ll need to figure out how to hang around another eight centuries to 2874.

For many, of course, this Great Conjunction would seem to be an explanation for the Christmas Star referenced in both the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  The former book, for instance, tells us the Star of Bethlehem appeared unto the shepherds nearby the little town on the night when Jesus was born.  And in turn, Matthew records that some six hundred miles to the east Persian astronomers known as Magi saw the same conjunction and traveled to Israel to find out what it meant.

If that is so, however, scholars have some ‘splaining to do about just exactly when the birth of Jesus took place.  For using the death of Herod the Great as a chronological clue puts the Nativity somewhere between 7 and 3 BC, though many now question when Herod died as well.  And though there were three different times when Saturn and Jupiter got closer in 7 B.C., none of them would have been all that remarkable, and certainly not nearly as dramatic as what will appear overhead tonight.

When you project the night skies backwards, though, astronomers believe that in 2 B.C. there was indeed a conjunction where the planets were so close to one another that they may have looked to those on the earth like a single spot of light.  Yet even that would not be quite the dramatic imagery that much of Christian artwork over the years has depicted, with a divine spotlight shining down on a wooden barn which, given the lack of wood in the area, was probably a cave instead.

In the end, thus, we are left with as many questions as answers.  But if the celestial performance this week causes us to at least wonder a bit about the Bethlehem skies that night, then I say it’s worth it to go out and at least look up a little.  For it’s not the stars that really matter; it’s the One who made them that ought to captivate us.  

The psalmist said it best perhaps: “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” (Psalm 19.1) So should it really surprise anyone that when God put His rescue mission for all of us into effect, landing at Ground Zero in Bethlehem, those same heavens would not explode a little in both anticipation and joy?

Maybe we should do the same.

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Still Standing After All These Years (Advent Devotion for December 18)

It’s the oldest place of Christian worship in the world still in daily use.  Its preservation over the centuries, however, clearly has the Lord’s fingerprints all over it.  For even before a church was erected over the particular cave in Bethlehem where Christians believed Jesus was born, the Roman emperor Hadrian had a pagan temple dedicated to the Greek god Adonis constructed there in 135 AD, hoping to wipe out any lingering association with the memory of Jesus among those who lived in the region.

The irony, though, is that what Hadrian actually did was simply to mark the spot until two centuries later when Helena, the eighty-year old mother of another Roman emperor, Constantine, was able to tear down Hadrian’s shrine and build the first Christian church there while on her spiritual pilgrimage to Palestine.  Enlarging the cave to accommodate more pilgrims, she surrounded it with a church in the shape of an octagon, installing a silver manger and dedicating it on May 31, 339 AD.

Unfortunately, that building was largely destroyed by fire during the Samaritan revolts of the sixth century, and so a new and larger basilica was built over its foundations by yet another emperor, Justinian, in 539.  But when Persians invaded Palestine seventy-five years later, conquering nearby Jerusalem, it looked as though the Church of the Nativity might suffer the same fate as other Christian buildings across the land.

At least according to tradition, however, Justinian’s basilica in Bethlehem avoided destruction because of a singular piece of artwork which had been painted just above the doorway, a depiction of the three Magi wearing the garb of Persian Zoroastrian priests.  For the invading commander is said to have been so moved by that imagery of his own countrymen that he ordered the building be spared.

Other challenges emerged in the years after that, of course.  The entrance to the church was lowered around 1500 to stop looters from simply riding in to conduct their raids, making visitors even today have to stoop to go inside the four-foot “Door of Humility,” perhaps appropriately so.  And the rafters in the roof were damaged by both water leaks and earthquakes, leading an English king, Edward IV, to send English oak and tons of lead in 1482 to rebuild it, until the Turks looted the lead to melt into bullets two centuries later, that is.

Likewise, most of the original mosaics, including that of the Magi, have been lost to the ages.  And there have frequently been actual fistfights over which Christians—the church is divided between Armenian, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox believers—have the rights to what parts of the building.  There’s an unwritten system known as the Status Quo, in fact, which stipulates that things must be done as they were always done, including who can even clean what.

But since becoming a World Heritage Site in 2012, restorations agreed upon by all have uncovered not only some of the artwork on the walls, but even the original mosaic floors of Helena’s basilica, visible through trapdoors in the current flooring several feet above.  In short, one way or the other this special place has survived everything for almost eighteen hundred years.

And so too has the Christian story that was born in that cave long ago.  Indeed, neither the friends nor foes of our faith can defeat it, and all the efforts to do so only serve to remind us of that fact.  For as St. John expressed it, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”  

Just ask those Magi who made the trek to find the newborn king of the Jews.  For I rather suspect that they never could have dreamed that a painting showing their garments would protect the church built over the site of His birth centuries later. 

(Special note:  if you’d like to know more about the Church of the Nativity, join us on Sunday, December 20, at five p.m. CST, for a special video visit there led by Bible geographer and scholar, Dr. Jack Beck.  You can log onto the session via our website, christchurchsl.org, or on the Christ Church Sugar Land YouTube channel.) 

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Those Three Little Words (Advent Devotion for December 17)

You have to be at least over thirty to remember him, I suspect.  In many ways, however, he was the undisputed first voice of online life for an entire generation.  Some twenty-seven million times a day, in fact, his buoyant words greeted others every time they logged on, and for a while, I was one of them.  

What I didn’t discover until later on, though, was who that voice actually belonged to, a man from the Midwest whose name was Elwood Edwards.  I also learned that Elwood actually met his wife over the worldwide web in a Christian chat room.  It was as a favor to her, in fact, that he recorded his famous line on a cassette deck in his living room, for which he ended up being paid just two hundred bucks.  And after finding all that out, I felt a more personal connection to him indeed, kind of like knowing your mail carrier, before they stopped coming to your house, that is, and left your letters in a community cubby instead.

When that otherwise disembodied voice on my computer said, “Welcome,” thus, I would generally reply, “Good morning, Elwood.”  And then I would wait for him to tell me what I actually dialed in to find out.  For what I really liked to hear Elwood say, even if it was grammatically incorrect, were those three special words, “You’ve Got Mail!”

And as quirky as it may sound, I’m reminded of that phrase all during this season of the year.  For when the angel of the Lord told the shepherds of Beth Sahour long ago “today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you, and He is Christ the Lord,” that angel was actually just repeating the same basic message which the prophet Isaiah had centuries beforehand proclaimed, “For unto us a child is born, a son is given.”  Or to put it another way, “Welcome—You’ve Got Male!”

It’s a bad play on words, of course.  But I wonder what might happen if some folks had the same level of anticipation and even excitement about receiving that gift of God’s Son as they do about opening their electronic messages each morning.  Oh, I understand that out of the 304.6 billion emails which are sent and received each day around the world it may be easy to overlook the significance of any one of them.  But that particular Word from on High that came two millennia ago was meant to change the world forever, for that Son who was born unto us was no one less than a Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, and even the Prince of Peace.

Like many, of course, I moved on from Elwood years ago, not long after the $164 billion merger of his company, America On-Line, with Time-Warner ended up sending AOL into a tailspin.  But even after breaking off the relationship with Elwood long ago I have to confess that sometimes I still miss his cheery little greeting. 

Elwood also moved on in life and is driving for Uber in Cleveland these days.  But every once in a while, he will surprise his passengers by delivering his trademark line.  Which makes me kind of wonder: what do you suppose might happen if every time someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” we simply replied, “And You’ve Got Male!”  

For in fact, we all do. 

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Up on the Housetop, Ick! Ick! Ick! (Advent Devotion for December 16)

Like a bad remake of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, they showed up suddenly, an ominous line of nine or ten of them just sitting on our fence in the back yard before moving to the ridge of our house.  As menacing as they looked, however, the birds are actually some of the most graceful and harmless of any you will find in this part of the world.

They can sail along on air currents and thermal updrafts as high as 5,000 feet, for instance, folding and opening their flight feathers with aerodynamic precision, slightly swerving from side to side as they unfurl their cambered six-foot wingspans.  And their uncanny sense of smell can lead them to their next lunch or dinner even while soaring high above whatever may be on the roadside or woodlands menu far below.

Likewise, they have neither the interest nor the physical attributes to pose any threat to people, never mind all those old misleading Western movies that portrayed them just waiting for a hapless fellow in the desert to die of thirst before they swooped in.  For they wouldn’t even eat a household pet if it comes to it, much less you or me.  

Indeed, the only real defensive mechanism which they possess is the ability to throw up on you.  Oddly enough, however, it’s their lack of a voice box, limiting them to low hisses and grunts, which makes them seem more creepy, I think.  For if they would just say something, we might not assume the worst of them.  

But then we’ve also assumed that they are buzzards.  The big black birds that bounce from rooftop to rooftop in our area are not buzzards, however, but actually vultures, more akin to storks than hawks. Whether you call them buzzards or vultures, though, the one thing you probably won’t call them is beautiful.  For with their funeral-black feathers and bare-skinned grey heads, the birds that sat on my rooftop are still not exactly heart-warming symbols of the Christmas season.

On the other hand, maybe there’s a reason why two of those black vultures, whom we’ve named Boris and Natasha, seem to come to Christ Church every year to have their offspring in our courtyard.  For they’ve figured out that we’re just as harmless to them as they are to us.  

Perhaps we should rename them Joseph and Mary, thus.  For the parents of Jesus too had to find a safe haven for his birth, in a culture that looked down on them as well.  Likewise, their “migration” from Nazareth to Bethlehem could not have been an easy trip, especially given Mary’s pregnancy.  But just as a sparrow can’t fall to the ground outside the care of God (Matthew 10.29), He took care of that cast-off couple too, leading them to exactly where the prophets of old had said that the Christ would be born.  

Just a FYI, however.  If you happen to hear a rustling on your rooftop in the next few days, you might want to check it out.  It may not actually be St. Nick quite yet.

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