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Friday, December 21, 2012

Advent Sermon

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 19:1-7
John 1:1-9

I recline on the damp gray carpet next to Hei Nay Htoo, the traffic of North Indian Creek Drive rushing like a gasoline brook outside of the open French doors. Thick summer air pours in from the balcony. Baw Baw lies sprawled on the dilapidated couch, provided by some church or resettlement agency, and now the primary home of several colonies of roaches.

“Can I make a doctor’s appointment for you?” I ask. She has been quite sick and not her usual self for the past few weeks.

“No. I will not go yet. I sick like this with Wonderful, Blay Blay, Hae Tha Blay, Ga Pu… ta blaw nya ee dee tho tho.

“You’re pregnant?”

Uh. Ya duh lee.”

Floored, I run to my room to find my English-Karen dictionary, thinking of all of the chaos of the past months while both parents were working, the many challenges of managing four kids, let alone another, and their intention to move back to Comer in just a few months. I flip the dictionary open to the C’s, and finding the page, I turn the book to face Baw Baw, pointing to the Karen word.

Na thay nyaahh? Do you know?”

Slightly insulted, she nods her head, “Ya thay nyaehh. Yes, I know. But we will have one more here. An American.”

This is the second Sunday in the season of advent, a time of anticipation for the arrival of our anointed one, our liberator. In Isaiah we hear a coronation liturgy for a new king who will restore Israel to glory. The text from Isaiah reveals a culture of expectation for an ideal worldly king, and God meets this expectation with the surprise of a helpless baby born in a feeding trough. The people who have walked in darkness, the darkness of domination, subjugation, and exile, have seen a great light, but perhaps not the light they had in mind. Though this baby is a king, his kingdom is not of this world and so we are not to prepare ourselves as such. The poet Rilke admonishes us:

We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.

We hear in the Psalm the way that all of creation proclaims the glory of God. Like the radiant heavens, an infant captures the attention of a people in the way that no politician ever will. As we prepare for Christmas we should be as expectant parents: eager, joyful, and terrified. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. Before we know it the creator of the universe will be helpless in our arms, crying to be nursed, waiting to be nurtured into being. The birth that we anticipate is inseparable from its inconvenience. The news from the Angel Gabriel announcing Mary’s pregnancy, no doubt surprised her. She knew that this pregnancy would cause her great embarrassment as a young betrothed woman. But she received this news joyfully, as though pregnant with hope itself. She had faith that this unlikely humiliation would become her salvation.

Our scriptures this evening invite us to contemplate Christ coming into the world as a rising sun. The prologue to the gospel of John is reminiscent of God’s speaking the world into being in Genesis. This new light coming into the world illumines everything, enlightens everyone. “Nothing is hid from its heat,” the Psalmist sings. We can rejoice for this new warmth and clarity of vision, but this sun also exposes us as we are.

Thomas Merton writes, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” It is a time of preparation for our journey with the infant king into Lent. The birth of this child will completely reorient our lives, much as it did for his parents. We will grow together with this child. He will become a mirror for our condition and perhaps as he learns to crawl, walk, and speak, so will we also rediscover these simple pleasures and forget the complexities of the world with which we tire our spirits. A new parent can anticipate a kind of death in the arrival of a new child, but how much greater is that new life. Through this imminent birth, we realize a new reciprocity in our relationship with God. We are with God as day pouring into day, night pouring into night.

To love the one who comes in this season we must love the way in which he comes: poverty. The message coming to us this advent is one of a simple hope, an affirmation that life is sacred because it opens up infinite possibilities for human love and creativity. The holy interruption of a newborn reminds us of that even in the most impractical of circumstances. How much more so should our God who becomes our very own child, our Isaac, our lamb, our liberator, who in his vulnerability invites us to union with him. We who have become disenchanted with humanity must embrace the spiritual poverty of an infant and search for Christ crying out for us in the stable, the street, the dingy apartment. As we hold him in our arms we are invited into a new reality that Mary knew well. The creator of the stars at night dwells in us.

On Saturday April 14, 2012 I wake up late in the morning still caught in the slump of humiliation from being fired from the chicken plant the day before. Leaving my phone behind, I wander over to the Farmer’s Market. I arrive at Corey and Lauren’s market table and pick out a bundle of asparagus.

“Baw Baw is trying to call you. She said something about her stomach hurting,” Corey says.

I walk over to their little white house behind the gas station and open the door. Baw Baw comes into the kitchen, just barely able to walk, four excited children in tow.

Ya gaw na ta blu law lee. Na ta paw fone bah duh—I called you many times already, but you did not pick up your phone.

“Sorry. I left it at home. Did you call Sue?”

“Yes, but she come 10:30.”

“Ok. I will call her again.”

Sue pulls up in a van and helps Baw Baw in. We gather towels and clothes for them to take to the hospital, and the four kids and I watch as the car drives away. Russ and Christina agree to watch the kids while I call the chicken plant, and teave a message with Human Resources to deliver to Hei Nay Htoo, who is working overtime, that his son is being born and to wait outside for me to take him to the hospital.

Leaving the kids at Jubilee, I take off towards Athens. Upon arriving in the parking lot at the plant on Barber Street, my phone rings. Pa Saw Paw says Hei Nay Htoo is at her house in Comer looking for me. After uttering some frustrated words, I tell her to tell him to come back and meet me at the chicken plant, since the hospital is only a few blocks away. Twenty odd minutes later, we caravan to Athens Regional and find our way to the third floor. There, tightly packaged in a warm blanket in his mother’s arms, is Wisdom.


President Obama made a historic visit to Burma in November as the first U.S. president ever to visit the country. The streets filled with people to welcome him and sing his praises for spending six-hours in their long-closed country. Somehow he managed to make a speech at Rangoon University, meet with Aung San Suu Kyi in her compound, and make an offering in the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda within these six hours. His speech included an emphasis on the work ahead of deescalating ethnic conflicts and embracing ethnic diversity within the country, comparing the situation in Burma to the United States.

I recently read To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson, a biography of Adoniram Judson. Judson was the first American foreign missionary and spent his life translating the Bible into Burmese and preaching the gospel in Burma. He departed with a fairly imperial attitude, bent on “converting the heathens,” but even from the beginning there is something quite profound about what he takes on. When he departed in 1812, he offered his entire life to Burma, expecting, quite reasonably never to return to the United States of America.
As a young man before the emergence of his Burma fixation, he was raised in a conservative Congregationalist culture in Massachusetts. In his studies however he came to consider himself a Deist and for a while had little interest in the church, until finally driven from doubt he returned to study theology. He later converted and became a Baptist.
Every page of To the Golden Shore details seemingly yet another hardship. Judson endured the deaths of his loved ones and closest companions time and time again, yet remained steadfast in his mission. His imperial impulse to “convert the heathens” certainly dismissed the spiritual grandeur of Buddhism, but Judson’s life work cannot be dismissed as such. While his language is offensive in our modern pluralist society, his mission was certainly a conversion experience for himself also. His spirituality took on a markedly mystical tone after the death of his first wife, Nancy. He often read the works of the French Catholic mystic Madame Guyon, and perhaps under this influence, withdrew into a dark and ascetic period of his life aimed at self-annihilation. At his most extreme he dug a grave and spent hours sitting in it contemplating his own death.

In the center of the monks’ quarters at Pathom Asoke, a Buddhist lay-monastic community in Thailand where I spent a month during college, there is a glass casket with a decomposing corpse and various gruesome photographs of bodies in the throws of death. This horrific shrine functions as an emblem of the three marks of reality: dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no-self).

Before the death of his first wife Nancy, Judson also spent a couple of years in the horrid conditions of a Burmese death prison during the war with the British because the Burmese became suspicious of all foreigners. While imprisoned, he concealed his Burmese translation of the Bible in his pillowcase.
What motivated his steadfast commitment to such a hostile land? It seems the same faith that smacked of intolerance grew within him a great love and intimate knowledge of the Burmese language and people, so much so that he was willing to suffer immeasurably for his mission. This is perhaps closer to the original meaning of the word “tolerance” from the Latin tolerantia, or “endurance.” The casting of one’s entire life away for the cause of a people not one’s own has a great deal to speak to us today of tolerance.
Our pluralist society offers the easy temptation of relativism, which propagates the myth that we can live together without really knowing each other: a dangerous path of intolerance. Christian and Buddhist tradition alike are meant to cultivate the practice of endurance: endurance for the suffering and dissatisfaction that we necessarily incur by living in community, by existing in relationship with other human beings.

Two centuries later, Adoniram Judson’s Christianity is returning to the United States with the Karen and other ethnic groups from Burma resettling as refugees. I sit on a frigid metal folding chair in a clearing in the pine forest gazing forward towards the stage built of from pine logs for the occasion and elaborately decorated with colorful garlands and streamers. Reverend Tha Hgay stands reading scriptures in Karen and English, his voice blaring over the poorly adjusted PA system. There are over two hundred people in attendance today for this year’s Christmas celebration.
The Karen own almost forty acres of pine forest off of a dirt road in the Vesta Community of rural Oglethorpe County. On this poor land, Reverend Tha Hgay, the chair of the Karen Baptist Church in the United States, dreams of establishing a mission school to raise up young Karen leaders to engage in ministry to their people here in the U.S. and abroad. Currently the land has four family homes and countless small shacks and cabins erected from felled pines. It is quickly developing into a village of sorts, with doublewides and singlewides rather than bamboo houses. In July of 2013, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Judson’s arrival in Rangoon, Reverend Tha Hgay intends to enact his dream with the support of Karen communities nationwide and a faculty from as far away as Burma. He is personally inviting me to be a student.

While excited about the Karen self-empowerment of this project. I also fear it regressing into some kind of backwoods fundamentalism. With the bloody and exploitative history of Christendom, what space is there for missions? Yet we who would practice Christianity in the West and travel the road of tolerance will be sent, perhaps not to a foreign land but instead to our own neglected backyard. There is in post-Christendom perhaps a space for a negative missiology: a sending that positions us to receive.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I rest my bicycle against the water tank and gaze out over the meadow, where there were once watermelons and tomatoes. I suppose if you want to be a gardener you cannot leave the country for a whole month during the summer. After tilling with the tractor, I set to work digging a trench around a fifty by fifty foot section and hoeing up wads of grass. Using twine and sticks, I lay out a path down the middle and several raised beds. Karen gardeners walk by on their way to pick chilies and plant daikon radishes in the freshly tilled soil and offer puzzled looks at my tired face and sticks with string. It is already mid-September and soon it will be too late to put fall crops in the ground.

Na ku ra. Na mah ga oh kee gha—You are very hardworking. You will have two wives!” a voice calls from down the path.

I look to see Naw Say back from fishing in the pond and gathering her things to return home for the evening.

Mayahh? Naw oh ah geh soh, ya bah ma dee ee—Really? There is too much grass. I have to make a garden like this,” I reply.

I return to forming a second bed with a hoe and picking out clumps of Bermuda grass. With the daylight fading, I know that I will not be able to plant seeds yet tonight and resign myself to finishing the bed.

In the spring I spread seeds sporadically, too enchanted by the simple mystery that a little particle could later yield abundant food to plan out beds and such. This seemed to be the way Naw Say planted as well, without a plan, creating more of a food forest than a garden. This chaos yielded a bountiful harvest, but always in competition with encroaching grass, which eventually overtook many of the crops planted.
I cannot plant a fall garden in this same way. It seems that intentionality is a necessity for effective agriculture, from crop rotation to weed control. So I will start with setting aside an area to patrol for grass with designated beds, walking areas, and mulch. This will be my fortress from which I can wage war against Bermuda grass.

The word “apocalypse” pervades our pop-culture as though indicative of the ominous end times, providing the subject matter for countless Hollywood films and even the occasional less than historical special on the History channel. The original Greek word refers to an uncovering, or revelation of something hidden. The early Christian worldview revolved heavily around this mystery of apocalypse. Living with an apocalyptic worldview for the early church meant living in an uncovered reality, rejecting the asserted permanence of empire and the powers that be, and embracing this fragility as fertile soil for the coming Kingdom of God.

The Karen arriving in the United States do not know the experience of imperial security, only imperial persecution. Like the early church, many Karen Christians along the Thai-Burma border live in tumultuous times, the day and hour unknown when their village or camp might be massacred, or they might be taken by a third country. Such instability cultivates a radically different worldview than the average American, feeling secure with our well established, though certainly not always agreeable, government, economy, infrastructure, etc.
Karen refugee gardening is shaped by this experience. Decisions are made promptly and seeds are planted for quick yields to feed many. As Eh Kaw recently told a reporter from the Athens Banner-Herald, the Karen planted seeds along their path while fleeing through the jungle, hoping that others did the same before them. This is gardening for the end times, embracing the impermanence of the surrounding civilization. Intentionality here becomes not so much a means of establishing something permanent, but of preparing for an uncertain future.
Coming from the experience of a comfortable stability within the empire, I perceive this as chaos. In the summer I grew very frustrated with the many volunteer tomato and amaranth plants which Naw Say opposed pulling and yet were shading out the watermelons I planted. The idea of removing a food producing plant seemed unthinkable to her even if it would prevent other yields later in the season. Weeding is seldom practiced among the Karen, because they enjoy many of the wild plants in stir fry or soup almost as much as the planted vegetables. There is a strange sort of food security in this agricultural chaos that is difficult for the Western mind to comprehend. Dale, my herbalist friend, claims that wild plants actually offer us the most strength and “life force.” “Chickweed will grow up through pavement. You don’t see garden vegetables doing that.”

With the advent of Food Stamps, however, more and more processed foods are becoming a part of the daily Karen diet. As families become more established here, owning their own homes and speaking fluently the language of America, the Karen gradually transition from survival mode into a newfound stability. If they are like most other ethnic groups that have immigrated to the United States, much of their agricultural tradition will melt away after only a generation or two. The memory of fleeing through the jungle will fade. Wild plants will become weeds to be pulled from gardens and trampled on paths.
There is an incredible pride in the Karen nationality among newly arrived refugees here. The challenge before community leaders is to preserve this identity as a distinct voice within the cultural conversation of America. As our politicians speak we can recognize an empty pride devoid of values and meaning, too drunk on corporate sponsorship to stand for anything. Among the Karen, there is certainly a different kind of pride, but what is to keep the empire from crawling in like Bermuda grass and taking over the garden? Four generations into the experiment, I can say there are certainly some weeds to pull.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


“Rothenburg ob der Tauber 4 km,” a sign announces as the car drifts to as stop at a “T” in the road. Samuel puts the car into gear and I rouse myself from a nap as we lurch forward and turn left. I crank up the seat to an upright position to catch a glimpse of the rolling hills of corn and wheat.

One century ago, a great grandfather of mine emigrated from this town according to my cousin’s research. My late grandmother’s stories placed her father’s hometown as Nuremberg, which with the approximations of an elderly memory suggest the little town of Rothenburg, about 80 kilometers to the west, as a probable place. Both of her parents immigrated to the United States as adolescents together with their families, leaving the rolling hills of Bavaria far behind for a new life of economic opportunity in Baltimore.
As a child, I obsessed over this distant ethnic identity as a German. It was one of my fascinations I fell into with a deep, though ephemeral intensity. I acquired a German flag for my collection, a book that I never read on Adenauer, the German leader during the reconstruction after World War II, and a pocket-sized German dictionary, which fit conveniently into my pencil box so that I could look up important vocabulary like “geschlecht” during the school day. I repeated the few German phrases that my mother taught me like mantras passed down from her grandparents:

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
Ich spreche kein Deutsch.”

The town emerges from the farmland first as a gas station and set of shops, then in its medieval splendor, complete with town wall, moat, and watchtowers. We park on the side of the road and follow a path around to the main gate where a cobblestone street flows in lined with old Tudor houses with signs indicating restaurants and shops. We walk into a restaurant and order a pizza to go. We have 15 minutes to explore before the pizza is ready and then we must return to the road. Samuel amuses himself by playing the role of tour guide and pointing out various sights of supposed relevance to my family history. “…And this is your great grandfather’s house, here the well where he drew his water…”
Samuel tried to talk me out of our detour here while we were stuck in traffic several times on the autobahn around Stuttgart, but I tried to convey its importance to me, which he found a little funny, since I have no living relatives here. He graciously accommodated my desire however by making the one-hour detour on the way to his family reunion in the north.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber was founded in the 12th century and prospered until the Thirty Years’ War when the Count of Tilly, commander of the Catholic League, decided to quarter his troops there. Rothenburg was a Lutheran city, but easily overcome by the troops who left it empty and impoverished after their several month stay. The Black Death arrived a few years later and virtually wiped out the remaining residents, leaving the town as a fossil not uncovered until the 19th century by artists and tourists. The Nazis adopted Rothenburg as the archetypal German hometown and the state leisure organization arranged frequent day trips for the masses from all across the country.

We walk down the hill to the black stained stone of St. James Church before turning around to meet a hoard of Japanese tourists about to attack the gothic structure with their cameras. We sneak around them and climb back past the numerous gift shops, restaurants, bars, and inns inviting us in with multilingual chalk signs placed on the cobblestone street towards where our pizza waits for us. I snap a few photographs and we take our pizza outside of the city wall where we find a bench to sit and chow down. I gaze back at the city as we walk to the car and prepare for the long journey north to the Sauerland, where Samuel’s family still lives.

The next morning we arrive at the wooden gate of his uncle’s retreat. There are two fish ponds fully stocked with trout fed by the stream at the back of the property and a small lodge in between with its door open and several people loitering outside. Smoke issues from a charcoal grill and the scent of freshly grilled sausage wafts through the cool air. The people approach us with handshakes and hugs and I am introduced to a series of aunts, uncles, and cousins as a friend visiting from America. We set up our tent beside the stream and settle down to a meal. Samuel’s elderly grandfather is eager to try his broken English out on me by telling stories from his life, much to the amusement of the others. After eating and taking a rest, I decide to go for a run in the countryside.

At my grandfather’s funeral the priest called my cousins and I up to the altar for his homily. He explained the symbol of the candles on the altar representing Christ.

“Candles provide light just as Christ was the…?”
“Candle!” I blurted out.
“Not quite,” the priest said.
“Light of the world!” said my Catholic school educated cousin.

A dirt path adjacent to the stream eventually pours into a paved road. I follow the road as it meanders between sloping pastures without a car or person in sight. I breathe in the fresh air warmed by the afternoon sun and continue to a “T” in the road. A small white chapel sits in the grass across from the intersection. I enter through a gate and look through the open door of the chapel. There are two or three candles flickering before an image of Mary holding the infant Jesus. I lower myself onto the kneeler and fold my hands intending to pray, but no words come. I stare at the rather uninspired icon of the holy mother for a moment before standing up and turning to a bag of tea lights placed on a shelf on the right wall. I strike a match and place the candle on the altar, silently departing to continue on my way.