Monday, December 29, 2014

Rabbi Baird

The funniest interaction of my Christmas holiday season was when my 12 year old nephew stepped off the plane from Nashville to visit us in Southern California and posed a deep and pontifical question.  He asked, "How's the Synagogue going?"  "Synagogue?" I asked.  "Yes," he said, "you are a Rabbi right?"  "No," I said, "I am a Presbyterian pastor in a Protestant church."  "Oh," he said quizzically, "I thought you were a rabbi.  You have so much Jewish stuff in your house.  You have a menorah in your window, a dreidel on your tree, a shofar on your coffee table, and you are always using Hebrew words in your Sunday messages."  I had to admit, my young nephew had a point.  I do have a lot of Jewish accoutrements in my life.

The truth of the matter is that though I am not Jewish (that I am aware of, followers of my blogposts over the years might remember one in which I stumbled upon a long held possible family secret that my great, great, great grandpa Adam Kahl might have been Jewish), I do love looking at the life of Jesus and his times through a Jewish cultural lens.

Most people who attend seminary do a preponderance of their study from one principle cultural standpoint - Greece.  Because the New Testament was originally written in Greek, seminarians study the Greek language.  Though not exactly Homeric Greek (high Classical Greek) the New Testament, in varying degrees of exactness, is written in Koine Greek - quite literally, Greek slang.  The most basic of the New Testament books is the book of Mark, which is comprised of a long list of prepositional clauses connected with the word - AND (Kai, Kai, Kai - in Greek).

The Hebrew language is also taught in seminary, though not many of my colleagues took it very seriously as a study.  I, am ashamed to say, included in this group.

The history of the New Testament is often studied through the lens of Greek history.  Herod was at least part Greek, because he stemmed from what was known as the Seleucid Empire.  Some of the great historians of the early world were Greek (Aristotle was Greek, and wrote history, of course).  But not many of the Greek historians focussed on the land of Judah.  Most of the best historians of the period were not Greek, or Jewish but were Roman - Plutarch was one of the most famous.  The Romans were primarily interested in documenting the expansion of the Roman empire, and so wrote history from the standpoint of military victories.  One of the few great Jewish historians was a Jewish man who's name was both Roman and Greek in origin: Falvius (a Roman name) Josephus (a Greek name).

But studying the Bible through a Greek or a Roman lens is akin to learning to cook French cuisine at a McDonald's restaurant training camp.  You might learn a few of the basics (eg: the French Fry is distant relative of the Pomme Fritte) but the essential beautiful nuances will always be lost.

Here are some of my favorite aspects of Jesus' life as understood through a Jewish cultural lens.

*  When Jesus says to the crowd in Jericho that "salvation" has come into the house of Zacchaeus, it is a Hebrew word play.  The name Jesus in Hebrew is "yeshua".  Jesus is saying, "I (salvation/Yeshua) am coming into Zacchaeus' house".

*  Almost every time Jesus is asked a question, he answers with a question.  This is a very Jewish cultural pattern.  Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?"  Jesus asks, "Is that your idea, or did someone else give that to you?"  Jesus is not being cheeky or cute, he is following the pattern of his own cultural conversation.

*  Much of the Old Testament is really written from a standpoint of Jewish puns.  When Jacob wrestled the angel on the banks of the river Jabbok, it is a word pun sentence.  The Hebrew word for wrestle is "Javok".  This is also the Hebrew word for hipbone - "Javok".  And so, the literal translation should go something like this, "When Jacov, Javoked with the angel, on the banks of the river Javok, he disconnected his Javok."

And the list goes on.  Maybe my nephew is correct, I am a kind of protestant rabbi.  I firmly believe that many of the most interesting aspects of the Bible and of God can be unearthed by understanding more about Jewish history and culture.

And so, I hope that like me, on New Years Eve, you will raise your glass and say,

Lacheim - Cheers!


All For Now,

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Places Jesus Would Go

Well, it's two days until Christmas Eve and Mission Street Church has done our utmost to get the word out about our two worship services on Dec. 24 (5:00 and 7:00), held at the Spanish Hills Country Club (999 Crestview Ave., Camarillo, CA).  Actually, in my 15 years of ministry, I hardly remember a Christmas Eve where more has been done to prepare for this service.  To this end;

*  40,000 postcards have been sent to every resident of Camarillo
*  A sticker was on the cover of the Ventura County Star
*  An article is being written for the Ventura Star coming out on Tuesday
*  An ad was in the Acorn Newspaper and Happenings Magazine
*  Liz Brackenbury (LA Opera Singer) is singing "O Holy Night"
*  A free gift has been procured (a votive battery powered candle) for all guests
*  A Boston Pops concert pianist will play welcome music on a grand piano
*  Incredible catering has been arranged for all guests

And the list goes on.  But one of the things I am most proud of is the personal effort that has gone out to get the word out.  To this end, I have personally visited over 300 stores, restaurants, and businesses in town, letting people know about the evening.

And as I have visited these stores, one stark reality has come to my attention.  Lots of churches reach out on Christmas Eve, but not many churches reach out to:

The Places Jesus Would Go

As I made my way through the streets of Camarillo, I saw lots of Christmas postcards, ads, and banners featuring various Christmas and holiday celebrations, in various churches.  However, whenever I would come to one of the following:

*  A liquor store
*  A bar
*  A smoke and cigarette shop
*  A massage parlor
*  A tavern
*  A tattoo shop
*  A pawn shop

I found no Christmas flyers or brochures.  "Do such establishments not welcome religious outreach?" I thought to myself.  "Maybe these types of stores are just against God altogether," I wondered. I decided to test out this hypothesis.  And so, I entered what might be called a bit of a seedy bar in Camarillo.  As I ventured inside, the green hew of neon and the rusty pallor of inebriation hung in the air like chords from an old slack guitar.  The pool table lights swung over the emerald chipped tables like FBI interrogation lights.  Maybe this was a bad idea after all, I thought.

"Excuse me.  My name is Graham, and we are doing a Christmas Celebration at the Spanish Hills Country Club," I said, with a lump of nervousness in my throat.  "Would you like to put up a flyer and a  banner in your bar?"  A long pause ensued.  Then, from behind a wrinkled and be-tattoed grin, the bar tender said with a gravely voice that only a lifetime of smoking or working in coal mines could produce said; "Honey, you can hang that flyer anywhere you like.  And I will personally tell anyone that comes into this bar that they should go to your service."

I kid you not.  She was one of the nicest people I encountered on my 300 store treck.

And then it occurred to me.  These are:

The Places Jesus Would Go

Actually, because there was no place left in the hotel room over the bar, Joseph and Mary stayed in a manger (actually akin to a kind of homeless shelter in the first century).  Later, Jesus would grow up in a tiny cowboy town, known for it's rough establishments in Nazareth.  One of Jesus' disciples would later joke, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  One of Jesus' favorite stopping points on his journeys between Galilee and Jerusalem was Jericho.  Jericho was the Wendover, Nevada of the time.  Jesus would visit bordello after bordello, bar after bar, tattoo parlor after tattoo parlor throughout his ministry.

And I think I know why.  Within such places are some of the nicest people you can ever meet.  This Christmas, sometime, I encourage you to enter and invite someone to a Christmas Eve service in one of

The Places Jesus Would Go

All For Now,

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Little Child That Could

Most of us view history backwards.  No, Duh…that's why it's called history, right!?!

But think about it for a moment.  All of history is viewed from the present backwards.  In other words, we start with the time line today and we move to the left.  Today is Dec. 15, and yesterday was Dec. 14.  History is about standing in the middle of today, looking back and seeing the events that occurred yesterday.

If we were to look at the recent history of the events that have occurred in Camarillo (major mudslides after torrential rainstorms), we might write history this way; "There were these huge rains that hit Southern California.  The rains caused billions of loose rocks to fall on houses at the base of Camarillo Springs.  No residents were killed or injured, but the clean-up efforts will take months if not years." Thankfully that was the historical narrative from Camarillo this past week.  However, in the middle of the rains, in the middle of the mudslides, no-one knew how big it would be, or whether there would be fatalities or injuries.

By the way, thank you so much for your constant flow of prayers and support for the entire community.  We really appreciate them!

And so it is with all of the major events of the history of the world.  We view history backwards:

*  We view the history of the US Civil war as a clash between North and South.  The North eventually prevailed.  But no one at the time knew if the North would win or the South would win.

*  We view the history of World War II as a clash between Germany and Japan and Europe and the United States.  The West won, but no one actually knew at the time whether that would be the case.

*  We view the history of the Plague as a medical epidemic that claimed the lives of millions of Europeans in the Dark Ages.  The Plague was eventually marginalized, and almost eradicated, but no one knew at the time whether this pestilence might, in fact, be the end of humanity.  History is viewed backwards.

*  Christianity is often viewed the same way.  Backwards.  Most Christians view the life of Jesus from the standpoint of the cross.  Jesus came into the world, lived, worked, healed did miracles, and then was killed on a cross, and then on the third day, he rose again from the dead.

However, it can be an interesting reversal, for a brief moment, to view history not as a backwards reflection, but as a forward reflection.  In order to do this, one needs to try to put themselves into the shoes and the context and the lives of the people who were living at the time.  To look at the life of Jesus forwards, then, doesn't put the main emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ, but on the birth.  Wveryone living before the birth of Jesus, who lived in the Abrahamic faith and culture viewed the birth of Jesus not as a preamble to the crucification, but from one great and hopeful vantage point.  Jesus was what was possible.  Jesus, it might be said, would be:

The Little Child That Could

For the prophets (Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and Ezekiel) who looked forward, thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, the Messiah was, the little child that could bring salvation into the world.

For the Israelites who lived in slavery and bondage in Egypt, Babylon and Persia, the Messiah was the little child that could bring freedom from bondage

For the Jewish people who lived under the oppression of the Roman government and it's extremely heavy taxation and oppressive rule, the Messiah was the little child that could right the wrongs of injustice and heavy taxation

For the shepherds, who were at the bottom of the social structure (essentially "untouchables" as the continental Indians would call them), the Messiah was the little child that could help them out with their impossible tough lives.

For the Persian Magi, who trekked 3,000 miles across the desert sands to find a child that was predicted in the stars of the sky, the Messiah was the little child that could bring meaning into their otherwise meaningless lives.

And so the list goes on.

So, here's my assignment for you for this week.  Try to think about the birth of Jesus as a forward event, rather than a backward one.  Pretend that you are living in the first century in Judah.  Your life is tough.  You basically live without hope.  Now, place your current life into the context of that world.  What are your current struggles and woes? And now, imagine that you have just been told, by an angel of the Lord, Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.  Today in the town of David (Jerusalem) a Savior (helper) has been born to you; he is the Messiah (The Little Child That Could) [Luke 2:10-11].

And now ask yourself this.  What can this little child do for you this Christmas?  Is Jesus, for you…

The Little Child That Could?

All For Now,

Monday, December 8, 2014

Opportunity Evangelism

I will never forget when I was a little boy, and in church on a Sunday morning, where my father was pastor.  My little legs were flapping from the pew in which I sat, and my father was be- robed in black clerical "flowingness" (is that a word?).  Half-way through the service he would invite up all the children in the church who were in the sixth grade or younger, to come up front for the Children's Sermon.  When Dad said that, there was always a long pause of anxiety for many children, determining in their hearts whether they really wanted to make the long trek to the front of the church to sit at the feet of this Darth Vedar-like figure wearing a black robe, or just continue to sit in the pew and color.  Then Dad would say, "For anyone who comes up front with me, I have a special gift, I have a present, I have a toy for you."  At that, all the kids in church would throw down their B-rate Sunday school coloring material and Bee-line it to the front.  The kids were there, let's be honest, for the toy.  Or were they….?

The image is also clearly imprinted on my mind of some of the religious establishment of the church, elders, deacons, ushers, choir directors (what have you), saying out loud, "That's wrong for the pastor to give out gifts on Sunday morning to kids.  The kids should be there for the Gospel and not to get a gift.  Church shouldn't be about getting something tangible, it should be about getting something Spiritual."  When I would tell Dad about these comments from elders, Dad would say, "I know that some of the kids come on Sunday for a toy.  But I also know that along the way, they might hear the Good News of God.  And without the toy, there is no way they would ever be in church, or hear the good news of Jesus."

I have remembered this good advice for these many long years.  And this simple dictum has morphed into a full blown theological approach that I have followed for the past 15 years of ministry.  The approach is what I have called:

Opportunity Evangelism

The premise behind this approach is that most people today, in a consumeristic society, will not come to church unless, in their own minds, they can get something tangible, substantial, concrete, a toy, a gift.  And that while a gift is not the reason a church exists, or God came to die on a cross, quite frankly, it is a small price to pay for the potential of winning a person's soul for eternity.  In short, you give a person Opportunity, and you will have a chance at Evangelism

I believe that Opportunity Evangelism was at the very heart of Jesus' ministry.  When Jesus invited the brothers who were fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John, to; "leave their nets and follow me, I will make you fishers of men," I believe this was an example of:

Opportunity Evangelism

The truth is that fishing was a very tough industry in the first century.  A fishing family could work for months on end, and sometimes, not catch any fish or earn much money. But, here's something you may not realize.  Following a very popular rabbi, or teacher, or leader (being a disciple) could sometimes be a good means of living.  You would never become wealthy following a rabbi, but you could pay the bills.  We know for a fact that the disciples did have money from several Biblical sources.  When the disciples see the 5,000 people coming who will need to be fed, they say, "Should we pay for their meals, or do you have some other idea?"  The very fact that the disciples suggest that they COULD pay for the meals, suggests that they had means.  And of course, we all know that Judas was - the money keeper.  Now, were some of the disciples following Jesus for the money, or for the Good News of Jesus?  Who knows?  Who Cares.  The point is that they were there, listening to the Good News of Jesus Christ!

Every Christmas, for years, we have hosted a huge Christmas Eve outreach celebration for the entire community.  This is a chance to bring friends, who would not otherwise attend church, to the service.  Every year, we give out a gift to whoever comes.  This year will be no exception.  Every person that attends will get a battery-powered flickering votive candle.  It won't cost very much (maybe 10 cents a piece) but it will be a way for people to be able to take the "light of Christ" - a candle - SAFELY - back home with them.  Now, do people come to Christmas Eve for the gift, or for the Good News?  Who knows?  Who cares?  The point is that they are there!

Each week I do a Bible study at the Old Town Tavern in Camarillo.  Each week, I order around 5 appetizers for the table to be able to munch on during the lesson.  Are people there for the appetizers or the Bible study?  Who knows, who cares?  The point is that they are there, listening to the Gospel.

Occasionally, there will be server who helps with the table that is in a tough financial situation.  We always leave a good tip.  One of those servers attended church a week or so ago.  Were they there for the tip or for the Good News?  Who knows?  Who cares.  The point is that they were there!

Opportunity Evangelism

We are in our 7th week of our new church development - Mission Street Church.  Things are going very well.  It is such an exciting journey.  People are coming to Christ.  The Holy Spirit is present.  Now, on a given Sunday, I would say that around 12 people who attend are being paid a small amount for their help with setting up services, music leadership, children's ministries, sound crew, theater management, lighting and what have you.  I know for a fact that many of these people are slowly but surely inching their hearts, every day, closer to God.  Now, are they there for the money or for the Good News?  Who knows?  Who cares?  The point is that they are….

You get the picture.

Opportunity Evangelism

Now, full disclaimer, of course there is a moment when Opportunity Evangelism which is good, can devolve into The Prosperity Gospel, which is not good.  Slowly but surely good Christian leaders must morph beginning followers off of tangible earthly assets and move them towards longer term Spiritual ones.  But not in the beginning!

This Christmas, look for ways of giving opportunity to those who don't have it.  Leave a great tip, give a present, offer assistance.  Then see how open they may be to the Good News of Jesus.  You might just be surprised!

All For Now,

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sempo Sugihara

This past weekend I was told one of the most remarkable true stories of faith and courage I have ever heard.  I heard the story on NPR; further detail can be found on Wiki.

Here is the story...

In the 1940's in Germany and Eastern Europe, as Jews were being rounded up by the millions to be sent away to concentration camps like Nuremberg and Auschwitz, there was general panic among the Jewish community.  Total terror found it's way into the small neighborhoods of Poland, Romania, and Lithuania.  Many sought "Visas of Transfer" to countries that were more sympathetic to the Jewish cause and plight.

One of those Jewish men was an Ashkenazi Jew by the name of Joseph Shimpken.  Knowing that his life and his family's lives were being held in the balance of fate, he went from embassy to embassy in Lithuania looking for a transfer.  Much to his despair, all of the "Visas of Transfer" had already been issued by the countries that gave refuge to Jews during the Holocaust.  There was no room left for Joseph or his family.  They were doomed.

In a last moment of desperation, Joseph knocked on the door of the Japanese embassy in Lithuania.  Joseph knew that it was a complete fools errand to get a Visa from the Japanese government, since at that very moment, the German and Japanese governments had signed a pact of alignment and mutual interest.  But he figured that it was at least worth a try - his last try before being shipped to a camp.

The man at the desk was a kindly Japanese Vice-Consul by the name of Chiune Sugihara (aka - "Sempo").  Sempo heard Joseph's story about the need for a Visa, but shook his head in denial, knowing what the answer from the Emperor's government would be.  But then, Sempo said, "Let me try.  But first, how many Jews need asylum?"  Joseph thought for a moment, scratched his head and then said, "At least 6,000!?!?"  Sempo said, "I'll see what I can do.  Sempo made the perfunctory call to Japan and received the expected answer - "No!"

At that moment, something changed inside of Sempo.  His heart for the Jewish people, or any people who were facing such great adversity was great.  That night, Sempo began writing Visas.  In those days, Visas had to be written by hand.  They weren't computer generated back then, like they are today.  Each Visa required intricate detail and minute attention to process.  Sempo wrote 100 Visas that night.  The next night he wrote 100 more.  Sempo issued these Visas to Joseph and many of his friends and family who came looking for them.  Joseph was beyond appreciation and delight at the receipt of these Visas.

When the Japanese government heard about Sempo and his illegal Visas, they were outraged.  They ordered that Sempo be arrested and brought home under "States Arrest" immediately.  Sempo continued with the Visas.  Every day and every night he wrote more of them.  In a flurry of paperwork and Japanese caligraphic handwriting, Sempo wrote more and more.  When he was on his train, bound home, under arrest by the Germans, he wrote more Visas.  Visas were literally being written and thrown out the window as the train whizzed past the small East German towns.  Jews would pick them up from the rail-road tracks like - Manna from Heaven.

No one knows exactly how many Visas Sempo wrote for the Jewish people.  Best estimates are that in a two week period he wrote 6,000 Visas by hand.  When he got back to Japan, Sempo was dishonored, and demoted and arrested.  He and his family spent 21 months in an Eastern Soviet Camp.  When he got out of the camp he spent the rest of his life as a dishonored member of the Japanese society.  He was reviled.  He died in a pauper's grave in Japan.

The Simon Weisenthal Center, a group that tracks Jewish movements since World War II, estimates that because of Sempo, there are around 40,000 Jews alive today.  Today, in Tokyo, there is actually a large Jewish population.  Joseph Shimpken's family is among them.  They all thank Sempo for their survival and existence.

Not long ago, the Japanese government reversed it's decision about Sempo, returning him to a place of honor in the society.  He is now being hailed by many as a national hero.  Sempo will be remembered through the ages as a courageous servant.

Jesus said, "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last" (Matt. 20:16).  He also said, "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13)

Sempo put himself last, and now he is first.  Sempo laid down his life for his friends.

God Bless You Sempo!  God Bless You!!

All For Now,