Monthly Archives: December 2013

Have We Dealt With Race in Christmas?

Picture2Last year, I showed my teenage Sunday school students a series of portraits of Jesus. When I got to the larger one on the right, one of my students exclaimed: “But that’s not Jesus!”

By the end of our session, we could all laugh (or cry?) about the way our culture has remade God into our Western image. Of course, the picture in the middle is the one most likely to resemble a Palestinian Jewish man of Jesus’ day. But the topic was reopened last week when a popular cable news anchor told the country that Jesus was racially “white” – as was St. Nicholas.

That comment has prompted all kinds of scholarly responses. But I thought this one, from an Eastern Orthodox theologian specializing in St. Nicholas’ early Byzantine church, was worth reading as a challenge to all of us as we struggle to overcome the prejudices we have inherited from our culture.

You correctly stated that the mythical figure of Santa Claus is based on an historical figure, St. Nicholas.  St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a city near the southern coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).  First of all, modern categories of “black” and “white” are just that – modern – whereas race was understood differently in the ancient world.  St. Nicholas was not “white” if by white you mean European…. Rather, St. Nicholas was an unmarried, ascetic (i.e., thin through fasting), Mediterranean/Middle Eastern bishop, so the notion of the contemporary Santa Claus’ being “black” is no further removed from the historical reality than his being fat, married, and “white.”

Even more disconcerting was your equally inaccurate assertion that Jesus was white.  Jesus was, of course, Jewish, and so was racially Semitic, at a time when there was very little intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews.  This means that Jesus would have had black or very dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and olive skin, with Middle Eastern facial features, including probably a large nose.  He was most certainly not a white European.  The portraits of Jesus that I have seen in Protestant churches and homes throughout the country depicting him with light brown or even blue eyes, light brown (almost blond) hair, and clearly European facial features is as historically inaccurate as any black/African Jesus.

As I go about my Advent preparations – seasoned with uniquely Western images of decorated fir trees, snow-laden cottages, and carols recalling “the bleak mid-winter” – it’s worth asking: How do I feel about worshiping beside a Palestinian manger cradling a dark-skinned baby, attended by parents of a distinctly different race?

Am I content that God created me, or will I insist on having a hand in re-creating Him?

J. Elwood

Wishing You an Earthy, Genuine, Physical Christmas

Yesterday afternoon was our annual “Messiah Sing” event. Our church’s charming white clapboard sanctuary was festooned with Christmas greenery. Last night’s snow still hung heavily on the Norway spruce trees. The hillside gleamed white through the ancient glass panes. Singers representing every age and talent level squeezed themselves into the creaky pews, designed for a generation of congregants of lesser girth.

As one of only two basses at that particular moment, I had just finished butchering the usually glorious chorus “Let all the angels of God worship Him.” As usual, I muttered my apologies to those nearby who had shown regrettable judgment in their seat selection, and slumped back to recover and take in the lovely alto solo:

“I know that my redeemer liveth…” she sang, “…and that He shall stand on the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God…. For now is Christ risen from the dead … the first-fruits of them that sleep.”

It’s Christmas time.

Community Messiah sing at Knowlton Presbyterian Church

Community Messiah sing at Knowlton Presbyterian Church

Hmm. “For now is Christ risen.” Christmas? Why are we singing about the Resurrection at Christmas time? In fairness, I don’t think that Handel ever claimed that The Messiah was a Christmas cantata. But to 21st century religious ears, it’s the physical nature of everything – whether incarnation, resurrection, or the renewal of all things – that stands out in Handel’s score.

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name EMMANUEL, God with us.”

It’s pretty earthy stuff. Virgins conceiving, the eyes of the blind being opened, valleys being exalted, and mountains made low. Christ is risen bodily from the dead. And yes, worm-eaten bodies are seeing God as they somehow stand in his presence in the flesh.

Something tells me this score wouldn’t have made it in our day. We are spiritual people; or we are material people. Either we inhabit the world of science and earthy matter; or we dwell in the realm of ideas, heaven and spirits. The dualism of our age gives us this awful choice: This world? Or the next?

I think that’s one reason why so few contemporary religious people ever bother to think seriously about stewardship of the Creation – wetlands and forests, amphibians and invertebrates. We tend to run with the “spiritual” types, and really, what does the fate of a species of butterfly or toad matter in “the land to which we’re bound?”

But if you’re prone to this kind of thinking, don’t count Handel and his Reformation contemporaries in your fellowship. For them, the kingdom of Heaven and the created Earth don’t come apart so easily. Handel’s Redeemer is born in a barn, and cradled in a feeding trough; he promises to stand on his feet upon the Earth on the latter day. And what God did in raising Him from the dead on Easter is exactly what He plans to do for the whole Creation: the risen Christ is “the first-fruits of them that sleep.”

And what, then, follows the first-fruits in this harvest? Why, all the rest, of course. “Behold, I am making everything new,” he declares in the Revelation to St. John. And “everything” means just what you think it means: Everything. Things in heaven and on Earth; things that are visible, like soil or birds or spruce trees; or things that are invisible, like ideas, and music, and spirits.

And if that’s His plan for everything at “the latter day,” what do we think He is doing in the meantime? When we pray daily for the coming of his kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven,” does it occur to us that we’re praying now to share in the renewal of everything, which He promises?

And here’s the good news: you’re included in this deal – every aspect of you. Because, as the alto sang, in your flesh, you shall see God. Even though you and I are subject to decay – “though worms destroy this body” – in your physical body, you will join all the renewed Creation in looking upon the glory of the Creator in a renewed Earth.

But in case you’re feeling all cozy at this prospect, please remember: This deal isn’t only for you. The whole Creation is groaning for the same bargain we think we’re getting. In her article “The Dominion of Love” in The Green Bible, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it neatly:

If they are here, God made them, and if God made them, God loves them… We humans do not get to make distinctions…. We are here to preside over the dominion of love. Made in the divine image, we are here to love as God loves. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Wait, wait, wait a minute. How does that work? Well, you know how it feels under the shadow of those wings, right? Perfect. So move over. Make room, because there is a whole Creation seeking refuge, and you, you are the spitting image of the One who gives life to all.

From Beloved Planet, we wish you an earthy, physical, genuine Christmas. A baby is born into poverty. His parents narrowly escape genocide, and become immigrants and exiles. He will return to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, and release to the oppressed. And He will proclaim: “I am making everything new!”

Merry Christmas! And congratulations! You’re part of the plan.

J. Elwood


Solar Power Your Home for Free

“… the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness….” Luke 1:78

It’s about time that we celebrated some good news at Beloved Planet!

Yesterday, our family took a step that will save more than 35 tons of CO2 emissions. Woo-hoo! 35 tons! It won’t cost us any money. It doesn’t involve biking to work, or shivering in the winter, or reading by flashlight. We’re not going vegan, or selling our big old farmhouse.

No cost, no work, no sacrifice, but big carbon savings? You bet. You see, we’re leasing a rooftop solar PV system for our neighbor’s house. And it will save more carbon than the average American emits in two years.

As you know, carbon emissions are serious business.  Earth-heating greenhouse gas concentrations are at their highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years. And not by a small margin, mind you. Earlier this year, atmospheric CO2 concentrations ticked over 400 parts per million. That’s 43% higher than it’s been at any time in human history, and headed much higher still in the next few decades. The main reason is the burning of fossil fuels, with clearing of land a distant second.

Courtesy: Skeptical

Courtesy: Skeptical

On average, humans today emit a total of 4.7 tons of CO2 per capita every year. We drive our cars, and light our streets, and watch TV, and cool our homes. We fly where we want, and eat lots of meat. We import our groceries from around the world: wines from Australia; bottled water from France, flowers from Israel. And all that burns fossil fuels: coal, gas and oil.

It really adds up. 4.7 tons of CO2 every year, for every person on the planet. Much of it gets absorbed by the oceans, which are becoming dangerously acidic from all that carbon. But some remains in the atmosphere, raising concentrations year by year without fail.

Of course, not everyone emits the same amount. Newly-prosperous Brazilians emit only 1.9 tons per person. In the Philippines, it’s less than a ton. For the 35 million people of Uganda, only 0.1 tons apiece.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the carbon hogs. Tiny Qatar, with all their oil: an almost incomprehensible 44 tons of CO2 emissions per person. Kuwait’s not far behind, at a whopping 30 tons. At #11, there’s the first big country: Australia, at 18.3 tons. That’s four times the global average. What’s wrong with those people?

And #12? Well, that would be the United States. 314 million people, generating 17.2 tons of CO2 emissions per person. 4.5 percent of the world’s people, emitting 16.5 percent of its earth-heating gases.

We’re so far off the charts, that it seems impossible to fix it. But I don’t think that’s true. People everywhere are improving their energy efficiency, and changing their lifestyles for the sake of their call to be earth-keepers. And some people have homes with sunny southern exposures; if you’re one of those lucky ones, today you can cut your electric bill – and possibly eliminate your home’s carbon footprint – for free. Here’s how we did it:

Our neighbor's house will save 35 tons of CO2

Our neighbor’s house will save 35 tons of CO2

Our neighbor has a smaller home next to our old farmhouse. Her average electric bill is $64, and it’s been going up about 6 percent every year. She’s on a fixed income, and doesn’t like the risk of price spikes related to all the storm damage we’ve been having these last few years. And here in New Jersey, none of us like those Pennsylvania coal-fired power plants upwind that foul our air with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and carbon pollution.

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Climate Change and the 21st Century Famine

… I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat …

In recent months, a group in my church has been seriously asking the question: What if Jesus really meant the things he said?

We’re not particularly new at this. Christians in all ages have struggled with the hard sayings of Jesus, especially when we measure our conduct against his standards. But one teaching comes back to me again and again like a persistent nightmare: “The King will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat …’” Matthew 25:41-42.

If you’re like me, this warning of divine justice gnaws at you most when you’ve looked away from a homeless person on the sidewalk, or ignored one of those TV appeals from a children’s aid agency. But let’s assume that Jesus was not just trying to make us feel guilty; maybe he was revealing to us the heart of God when it comes to cosmic justice. Here were his priorities: thirsty people receive clean water; strangers and immigrants are welcomed; those exposed to the elements are wrapped in warm clothes; medical care is provided to the sick; and prisoners are looked after.

But before he mentioned any of those priorities, Jesus first addressed food insecurity. “I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat.” If Jesus meant anything at all by the order of his judgments, we must see feeding the hungry a matter of paramount importance to our faith.

And if that’s even remotely true, then Christians should pay close attention to a new report from the UN’s climate agency, warning of severe global hunger in the coming decades. Early last month a draft report, drawn up by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was leaked to the public. It’s the second of three reports, following the first that came out this September. The leaked IPCC draft report outlines the threats climate change poses to the global food supply, predicting a decrease of up to 2% each decade in yields of staple crops like corn, wheat, and rice. That projected decline is all the more alarming when we consider the parallel 14% increase per decade in the demand for food that scientists are expecting. And it puts to rest hopes that once flickered in the minds of some researchers and many “climate skeptics” that hotter weather and higher carbon levels might actually increase photosynthesis and food production.

Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland

Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland

You got the numbers, right? Manmade climate change could depress global yields of staple foods by 2% per decade, at the same time that demand for food grows by 14% per decade. If you do the arithmetic, you’ll find that in four decades, there would be half as much food supplied as food demanded, on average, all over the whole world, absent other major changes in agriculture.

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