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Meredith Gould on her book, “Deliberate Acts of Kindness”

March 31, 2017

I recently had a Q&A conversation with Dr. Meredith Gould on her updated book, Deliberate Acts of Kindness: A Field Guide to Service As a Spiritual Practice. Dr. Gould is well known for her writing and work within the fields of spirituality, church communications, and social media (among other disciplines).  She makes a compelling case to go beyond the proverbial random acts of kindness and to embody kindness that is intentional and authentic. It is a wonderful book that will help point readers to practical and spiritual direction for service in the church and the world.

Q1: You wrote the first edition of your book in 2002. What has changed in 15 years in our culture and spiritual lives of people that called for a second edition?

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blog, Christmas

Why the “inn” is a Christmas myth

December 16, 2016


If you have been to church in some point in your lifetime during Advent or Christmas, you’ve most likely seen an adorable Christmas play or pageant.  Poor Joseph and Mary, often in bathrobes, are portrayed by children who  are turned away by an “innkeeper” who lacks compassion. “No room!” is the line. The problem is, when you read the Gospel of Luke or Matthew, there’s no innkeeper or an inn. Such things are a Christmas myth.

Putting aside the adorable nature of children’s Christmas plays, the account of Jesus’ birth must be placed into context of where the birth of Christ took place: Bethlehem. The town of Bethlehem, thought to contain around 1,000 people at the time, was David’s hometown. Since it was David’s hometown, there was sure to be family present because Joseph, along with other family, had to return to be counted for the census. We read from the King James Version of Luke 2:

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

From the passage, we learn two things. First, Mary gave birth while in Bethlehem. Apparently, Mary and Joseph were there for some length of time. Second, Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the “inn”. The trouble here is that the King James Version translates the Greek word katalumati as “inn”, but the translation of “guest room” is more accurate – as the New International Version renders the word.  The interpretation of katalumati is more of a product of 16th and 17th century European understandings of a guest room when the KJV was first published. Generally, “inns” in the time of Jesus were found in larger cities, not small towns, and inns were no place for a woman in childbirth.

We read later in Luke when Jesus eats his last supper the disciples gather in a katalumati – guest room, also translated, “upper room”:

As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you.  Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, “Where is the katalumati where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:11)

In all reality, Jesus was most likely born in a house.  Many assume that Jesus was born in some sort of stable, where animals were kept. However, in the time of Jesus, humble folks lived with their animals. According to ancient Near East culture expert, E. F .F. Bishop notes the the arrangement of people and animals:

“One of the Bethlehem houses with the lower section provided for the animals, with manger ‘hollowed in stone,’ the dais [or raised area] being reserved for the family. Such a manger being immovable, filled with crushed straw, would do duty for a cradle. An infant might even be left in safety, especially if swaddled, when the mother was absent on temporary business” (“Jesus of Palestine“, p. 42)

When I visited Israel in 2012, I went to Bethlehem to a site that recreated, based on historical evidence and archeology, a house that included a lower section for animals and an upper section for living quarters. At the lower portion of the house was a manager, or feeding trough for the animals. After seeing such a home, the birth story of Jesus made sense – sans the inn and innkeeper.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the myth of an “inn” in the Christmas story is that Luke uses another word for a rental inn. Luke used the Greek word, pandocheion, to describe a place one could stay for a price.  In the story of the Good Samaritan we read in Luke 10:34:  “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an pandocheion (inn) and took care of him.” If there was truly no room in the “inn”, Luke would have used pandocheion in the Christmas story.

Imagine for a minute, everyone of Joseph’s family is in town for the census, the house is full with guests and relatives, and Mary has to go through the very painful and messy delivery of a baby. With the guest room and main living areas full, Jesus was placed in a manager to sleep – as Luke describes.  Ancient Jewish customs and cultural behaviors were not have allowed Mary to stay in an ancient version of a Motel 8. Mary was most likely cared for and surrounded by people in a time of great expectation of Jesus’ birth.

With this perspective, your Christmas nativity scene in your home or church is still accurate, but imagine it as a home – not a stable. It should give us comfort and relief knowing that after everything Mary and Joseph had been through, they were among family, and well cared for with all the extended family around to hold the newborn Christ child.

blog, Christmas

The Bethlehem you don’t know

December 12, 2016


The wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. In the background right, you can see the Mount of Olives , which overlooks the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem.

As millions of Christians around the world sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” this Advent and Christmas. If you visit Bethlehem today, you would see that it is indeed still, but not in that Christmas-y way. The hopes and fears of all the years are real and have been made worse by a years of conflict and a massive concrete wall.

Four years ago this week, I journeyed with a group of fellow American Baptists and a group from the Church of the Brethren on a goodwill-peace and perspectives trip to Israel and Palestine, which was organized by The Telos Group.  It was a trip that went beyond visiting holy sites but sought to understand the conflict in Israel firsthand. If you enter into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, you are greeted by a Cold War like military wall complete with lookout towers, rusted fortifications, armed soldiers, and checkpoints. The Berlin Wall was about 12 feet high, but the wall that separates Bethlehem is 25 feet high. To the Israeli government, it’s not a wall, but a barrier to protect against suicide bombers and attacks. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the terrorist organizations that operate in the West Bank are equal to the average Palestinian. However, not all Palestinians are Muslim. They are Christian as well – and of other faiths.

If you travel along the wall in Bethlehem you’ll read stories and see art work of how the wall has impacted people in Bethlehem…

The stories are stories of death, oppression, injustice, rape, injury, and violence, that accompanies the wall, checkpoints, and military security. There are messages of hope as well.

At one of these checkpoints, our small bus was boarded by four Israel Defense Force soldiers. We were asked by soldiers the nature of our visit from the West Bank into Jerusalem. They asked for our passports. Our bus driver and guides explained that we were Americans on a Christian pilgrimage and visit.   As the soldiers pointed their loaded M-16s in our faces, one announced that all the men would have to come with them to be questioned. Our guides were stunned. In all their years of traveling with American groups, such a thing never happened. As the bus driver and soldiers discussed our entry, we sat waiting to hear what was going to happen next. It was extremely tense situation. Thankfully, the lead soldier discovered that our driver had family in the soldier’s hometown and the two continued to talk. This enabled the out-ranking soldier to release us on our way. As we talked to Israelis, Palestinians, and other non-nations on our trip, we found that this checkpoint interaction is common.

The Israeli government is understandably concerned with security. Between rocket attacks, shootings, bus bombings, and other mass casualty attacks, the country has a duty to protect. Certainly, there are enough instances of Palestinian aggression and violence. The unfortunate reality is that some Israeli protection policies fall within a gray area. Due to the vast restrictions on Palestinians, even those Christians from Bethlehem, it has led to border crossings that have included shootings and “harsh conditions of overcrowding, long lines, and cases of humiliation during inspection.” Due to years of persecution, most Christians have left Palestinian towns like Bethlehem for better economic opportunities and basic freedoms.

For some, to object to the treatment of displaced peoples in Bethlehem is to object to Israel. To question any policy of the Israeli government can be seen as anti-Israel or even anti-Christian.  We know that Americans question American government policies everyday, but that does not make someone automatically anti-American.  It is easy to treat this Middle East challenge as a binary issue, but it is not.  For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there can be a third way. There can be pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, and pro-peace solutions. However, it is hard work to find a third way. It is easier to draw lines and pick between two options. The more we draw lines the more we separate ourselves from our neighbor. At the basic human level, all three major world religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, all have some form of teaching or instruction for respect and love for neighbor. This must be considered as a way forward.

For people living in Bethlehem this will be another Christmas that sees continued divide among neighbors. If you sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem… How still we see thee lie…” remember that modern-day Bethlehem is far from peaceful or still from the imaginary Hallmark Christmas card version. The Bethlehem you do not know and the complex conflict around it requires our prayers, attention, action, and support.

Advent, blog

Advent outrage: Would Jesus curse?

December 1, 2016

The PG version. For the real Advent devotional, scroll down.

(WARNING: If you are offended by coarse language. Don’t read this.) Advent is here! Advent is a time for Christmas trees, lighting candles, waiting for the coming of the celebration of Christ’s birth and… dropping F-bombs?

A new Advent devotional is pushing the edges of decorum with such words and hashtags as…

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Join me tonight on Twitter #chsocm

November 15, 2016


I’m moderating #chsocm on Twitter tonight @ 9:00 p.m. If you are a church-ie social media type, just join in on Twitter with the search and hashtag #chsocm. It’s pretty easy to join in. Just keep #chsocm in your search on Twitter and follow the conversation.

My topic tonight will be centered around social media listening and responding post-election:  Continue Reading…

blog, election

Post-election prayer

November 9, 2016


The post-election reality is here: Donald Trump won the election for President over Hillary Clinton. I have friends who voted for both candidates.  Looking at my Facebook and Twitter feeds, it is clear that many are troubled by the divided nature of this political season and the results of the election. What shall we do?

This is a time for prayer. What shall we pray for?

Four years ago, I posted this to Facebook after the last presidential election:

No matter if your candidate won or lost last night, remember that what makes this nation great should not be about the loudest political rancor. What makes our nation great is our history of shared resolve to advance the common good.

May you pray this post-election prayer:  Continue Reading…

blog, Christianity

Starbucks green cups ruins everything

November 3, 2016


Last year, it was Christians protesting Starbucks red cups. This year it’s Starbucks green cups and people are protesting again. What’s going on?

In the midst of this crazy election season, Starbucks released a green cup that was, according to the CEO, designed to “represent the connections Starbucks has as a community with its partners (employees) and customers. During a divisive time in our country, Starbucks wanted to create a symbol of unity as a reminder of our shared values, and the need to be good to each other,”

It seems people assumed this was some sort of holiday cup and the reaction was swift:

And it’s not just a few people complaining on social media, but opinion pieces reflect a supposed subversive agenda on behalf of Starbucks against Christians and Republicans. The truth is, those green Starbucks cups are not the holiday cups. And if Starbucks rolled out a green cup for the holidays, so what. If you need a for-profit company to promote Christianity through marketing a $5 cup of coffee, you’d better rethink what makes Christianity… well, Christianity.

As I have said before, Starbucks or secular culture are not the holders of our sacred traditions and beliefs. Secular institutions are not the keepers of Christianity.  We Christians are keepers of Christianity. We are the ones charged to be the messengers of the Christmas story. At the end of the day, companies are here to make money off Christmas.  Stores are decorated with Christmas displays to get you to buy stuff.  If Jesus were walking past a store during the Christmas shopping season, I’m pretty sure he would roll his eyes and place his palm squarely in his face… Or, Jesus would buy a Starbucks green cup, take a sip, and say, “And…?”

Freud supposedly once said, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” I think we can safely say here, “Sometimes, a green cup is just a green cup.”

Let’s take a breath here folks and not insert our religious insecurities, political fears, and cultural anxieties into a little green cup.

blog, Dallas Shooting

How to stop, pray, and respond to Dallas shooting

July 8, 2016


The gun violence this week is unbelievable. Unnecessary killings. Alton SterlingPhilando Castile. Many more unreported shootings. And now, 5 Dallas law enforcement officers are dead and 7 more injured. As Black Lives Matter protesters and others were peacefully gathering in Dallas and other cities around the country, an individual (or individuals) decided to take wrongful action with gun violence. The main target? White police officers.

Our police officers need our prayers. Victims of this violent crime need our prayers. However, not everyone shares such thoughtful compassion.

In time of violence, trauma, racial tension, and death, I’m shocked and appalled at some of the responses – the insensitive responses. One such response comes from radio host and former U.S. Congressman Joe Walsh who tweeted:  Continue Reading…

blog, Christianity

Social media reactions to the Orlando shooting

June 15, 2016

orlando shooting

As I watched the news of the Orlando shooting unfold on television, CNN interviewed a man who came to the scene to try to find his friends. Although it was painful to watch, the man said something that struck me. He said, “Just pray for us.”  Here is a man, who identified himself to be a member of the LGBTQ community, asking for prayer.

What followed in response to the Orlando shooting on social media was a mixture of thoughts and prayers, internet memes, statements on guns, and statements on the LGBTQ community. Most social media posts on Facebook and Twitter was supportive, positive, and hopeful. However, many were hateful, negative, and very abusive. Some Christians expressed anger at the mention of banning of assault weapons.  Some even blamed the whole Orlando shooting solely on LGBTQ community. Many of the conversations online devolved into hate filled expressions of rage.

When faced with tragedy, especially with such politically sensitive topics of gay rights and gun ownership, most attempts to have a serious conversation online about cultural problems tend to result in defensive positioning.  I’m not referring to posting a prayer or a message of support. I’m referring to online interactions that are insensitive or tone deaf to the pain and suffering experienced in tragedy, such as the Orlando shooting.

Our response should include support, prayer, and positive action. However, not everyone agrees. Here’s some of the best and worst I’ve seen online (all comments were publically viewable at the time of posting): 
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blog, Christianity

3 things churches can learn from David Bowie

January 13, 2016


As the death of David Bowie, the provocative entertainer, artist, actor, and singer, continues to shock fans and the general public, his mark upon culture is undeniable. David Bowie’s work spans decades and touched millions of people. As musicians rise and fall with cultural tastes, Bowie was able to keep the attention of the masses. Bowie’s success is obvious. He sold over 140 million records.

Despite Bowie’s brand of suggestive visuals and content, churches have a lot to learn from this cultural icon. Though Bowie was mostly agnostic and didn’t really dive into religion, (some flashes of spiritual moments, though) his ability to stay relevant is unmistakable. As churches struggle to understand how to “be church” in the 21st century, Bowie’s life teaches pastor and church leaders how to thrive:
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Be informed, not ignorant on Baltimore

April 29, 2015


Baltimore is a great city. It is home to the sports teams I follow, universities, churches, an inner harbor, and more importantly where people live. My mother was born and raised in Baltimore. I was born outside Baltimore in Maryland and lived there for about 20 years. As a former Marylander, I’m shocked at the reporting in Baltimore that I’ve seen.

The scenes and pictures of Baltimore rioting over the death of Freddie Gray by police is inescapable. Facebook, Twitter, TV, and the internet are all reporting using words like “thugs”, “vandals” or “rioters”. However, media talking heads are blaming, criticizing, and pointing fingers. As usual, the media are driving a very specific narrative and image: inner city [racial] chaos.

An example of this is on Fox News 

Another protester told Vittert he’s upset about all the police brutality, but it was drowned out by more indiscernible shouting. The audio feed briefly cut out, but one f-bomb was picked up on the air. Kelly immediately said, “This is ridiculous. This is how folks want to be heard? They want to shout down the reporter? They want to endanger him?”

One person equals “This is how folks want to be heard”? One story, one person does not equal the whole story. However, that is the picture that many in the media want to paint. Geraldo Rivera told a vandal protester who was blocking the news camera, “You blocking my camera… You’re making a fool of yourself!” to which someone replied, “We don’t want your false coverage!”

With cities like Ferguson, Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Baltimore protesting what residents feel as injustice, the media captures the worst of the worst. Riots in other cities, for other reasons, are often reported differently by some news outlets. It seems that scenes of violence fill the airwaves more than the scenes of peaceful protests. What about the scenes of people trying to help? Perhaps one of the most powerful and important news worthy events that are occurring in Baltimore is what the clergy are doing. Hundreds of clergy marched in Baltimore to promote peace. WBAL in Baltimore reported first hand what occurred on April 27:

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