Friday, December 27, 2013

O Little Town of Bethlehem

In 2012 my wife and I had the extraordinary opportunity of traveling to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to visit the Holy Land.  Having studied Biblical Archeology in college, I was excited to visit all of these archeological digs that not too many people realized what they were or why they were significant.  Some sites were only mentioned in the Bible a couple of  times.  I was like a kid in a candy store when we visited Beth Shean, Tel Dan, and Hazor.

As we made our way south towards Jerusalem, we made certain to spend a day in Bethlehem.  It was a day I will never forget.  For American terms, Bethlehem is almost a suburb of Jerusalem.  They are that close to each other.  However, in Palestinian terms, they might as well be a world away.  When we drove up to Bethlehem, our Jewish-Israeli tour guides got off the bus.  Our driver was a Bedouin Arab with Israeli citizenship.  Since 1995, Bethlehem, which has a majority Palestinian population, has been under the Palestinian Authority.

When we drove up to Bethlehem, it sent shivers down my spine.  I did not have thoughts of the song "O Little Town of Bethlehem" singing through my head.  Instead, I was confronted by a huge concrete wall that would put the Berlin Wall to shame.  Having lived in Germany for 10 years (after the fall of the wall), I had an eerie feeling as I saw this portion of the wall after entering Bethlehem:

The quote from President John F. Kennedy, "Ich bin ein Berliner," sent waves of uneasiness into my soul.

The stated purpose of this wall (barrier, or more euphemistically, "fence") by Yitzhak Rabin, the then prime minister of Israel, was: "This path must lead to a separation, though not according to the borders prior to 1967. We want to reach a separation between us and them. We do not want a majority of the Jewish residents of the state of Israel, 98% of whom live within the borders of sovereign Israel, including a united Jerusalem, to be subject to terrorism." (1)  Yitzhak Rabin was then later murdered by one of his fellow Israelis. (2)

Our guide through Bethlehem was a young Palestinian Christian named "Shukrit."  Recalling my scant Arabic from when I had visited Egypt in the past, I remembered that "shukran" meant "thank you" and asked him if his name and that phrase were related.  He said, "Yes, my name means 'thankful.' So I am always telling people that I am thankful!"

Christians tend to forget that the vast majority of Christians living in the Holy Land are not Jewish Christians (Messianic Jews).  They are Palestinians.  They are Arabs.  The United States' policy of aiding the Israeli government has led to the isolation of Christians in the Holy Land.  Once Bethlehem had a large population of Christians living there.  Now they are a scant minority, according to our guide, Shukrit.

We have turned a blind eye to the plight of our brothers and sisters living in squalor in the Holy Land.  While supporting the Israeli government, we do not question their motives in erecting this monstrosity of a wall to keep out terrorists.  Walls divide.  They do not unite.  They do not bring peace.

This video shows the true horrors of what is happening in Bethlehem.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


I thought I would share something a little lighthearted for once from my days as a missionary in Germany.

In 1997, I was studying for my Master of Arts in Missions.  One of the requirements was that I travel overseas for 6 months for a practicum.  My denomination, The Salvation Army, was very accommodating.  Since I could already speak some German, they found me a place with The Salvation Army's Missionsteam Hamburg.

Since I would be staying for over 3 months, I would need to get a visa.  I applied beforehand to the German consulate in Chicago, but the answer from them took so long that I arrived in Germany after they said I could stay.  So I went to the Ausländeramt, the German version of the Immigration Office.  I went to a waiting room for all applicants whose surnames (family name/last name) started with the letters "L-N."  My surname is McPherson.  So I went there to wait.  I could not make an appointment for this.  I just had to go and wait.

I waited.  I waited a long time.  I waited for 2 hours until my number was called.  Finally I went into the office where a tired official looked at all of my paperwork that I had filled out in advance.  Understand now that my German, although good, was not quite yet at the "fluent" rate.  After he perused my documents, he asked me, "Where is your Anmeldungsbestätigung?"  My school German went into overdrive.  Anmeldung = Registration.  Bestätigung= Confirmation/Verification.  OK.  The words I understood.  The fact that Germans love to combine words into even larger words made me crazy sometimes.  The official was patient with me and explained that when people come to a new city, they need to register first with the city.  This registration is required of all German citizens and foreigners.  The main purpose of this was for taxation.  It also allowed one to open up bank accounts and register for other every day things.

I went back to the the house where everyone else in the team stayed.  I told our officers what had happened.  They told me that they thought that this might happen, but weren't certain.  So I had to go to a different office and register at the local Bürgeramt (a citizen service center).  I waited for a little over an hour there and got my registration with no problem (after filling out the proper form).

Then I traveled back to the immigration office.  Remember:  My last name is McPherson.  I went to the room for all foreigners whose family names ended in L-N.  I waited again.  This time it was even longer.  I waited for 2 hours and 30 minutes.  Finally, my number was called.  I met with the same tired official.  He looked over my papers and I proudly showed him that I had my Registration Confirmation.  He nodded sagely and then looked at my last name.

"Your family name starts with the letter 'P.'"

"What?  No, it doesn't.  My family name is McPherson.  It starts with the letter 'M.'"

"But in Germany, we do not attach the Mc or Mac to the family name.  Your last name starts with the letter 'P.'"

"OK.  My last name starts with 'P.'  Is there a problem?"

"You are in the office for people whose family names begin with the letters L-N.  You will need to go to the office that handles people who family names begin with the letters O-P."

I was dumbfounded.  I found out later that this requirement was also for Germans who had a "von" in their name.  So Maria von Trapp (The Sound of Music) would have to wait in the "T" room and not the "V" room.  I also learned another truth.  Germans love bureaucracy.

So I trudged on over to the next office, waited again for a long time, but this time only a half an hour.  I received my visa and stayed for 6 months in Germany.

My time in Germany made me very aware how difficult it is to be an immigrant.  I was there legally, too!  I did everything right, but it was still an uphill battle to even be allowed to stay there.  Those who came from other countries which did not have good diplomatic ties with Germany had an even more difficult time immigrating.  Coming back to the United States after being overseas for 10 years made Germany seem easy to immigrate to in comparison.  A German friend of mine who also had a visa to stay in America for one year told me that when he arrived, the immigration officer told him that if he overstayed his visit by one day, that he would be imprisoned, deported, and not allowed to come back to the US.

A friend of mine reminded me recently of this passage from Leviticus 19:33-34 (NASB):  "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God."  This also goes hand in hand with Christ's admonition in Matthew 25:35b (NASB):  "I was a stranger, and you invited Me in."

If we are to be welcoming to all immigrants in our respective countries, we should practice what Jesus taught us to do, for in doing so, we are welcoming Jesus, too.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Neither Here, Nor There

A friend of mine once made a very nice logo for me, which I have really appreciated:

If you notice, it has my initials and the colors of the American flag as well as the colors of the German flag.  This blending of the 2 colors accurately portrays how I've been feeling lately.

Discussing feelings is not one of my fortes, but I will try to explain it.

Three years ago my family was transferred from Germany to the United States.  We were there for 10 years.  One of the things I have taken pride in is the fact that I have never requested a transfer.  I view each and every appointment as the appointment I will retire from.  So moving from Germany to the United States wasn't something I actively looked for, which probably made the move that much harder for me.

Since being back in the United States, it has taken a lot for me to adjust to this culture.  I try to put it in perspective for people.  I moved to Germany before the attacks on the 11th of September 2001.  A lot had changed in America since then!  To me, it seems that the country has become a bit more paranoid and divisive.

Most missionaries can understand me when I say this:  When people ask me how my time was in Germany, they are looking for a few words or a sentence here and there.  Rarely do they want to hear my whole story.  Instead, their eyes usually glaze over with disinterest.  I was even told by a fellow colleague to refrain from talking about my time in Germany whenever I preached.

Invariably I am asked 2 things:  Do I miss Germany?  Do I want to return to Germany?  The answer to the first question is the easiest to respond to.  Yes.  I miss Germany very much.  I miss the people and the culture.  I miss the 300 different types of bread they have there (not just wheat, white, and sometimes rye).  I miss how for Germans being on time for an appointment means being there 5 minutes early.  I miss how German Christians place importance on religious holidays that Americans have forgotten:  Pentecost, Ascension Day, Epiphany.

The second question is more difficult to answer:  I will return if God wills it.  For now, I am planning to retire from my current appointment.

Which brings me to my next point.  I have heard recently many people talking about American Exceptionalism, a concept which I find tantamount to idolatry.  Simply by expressing my objection to this idea will cause many people to object to that statement.

Recently, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, said the following:  "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation . . . We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."  ( I actually agree wholeheartedly with the President of Russia in his statement here!  I don't agree with all of his policies, but this statement is true.

When we start to believe that somehow God has ordained our nation to be exceptional above all other nations, then we start to believe that we are better than all other inhabitants in the world.  This is actually contrary to Scripture.  Paul said in his epistle to the Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  If this is the case, then we need to stop viewing ourselves as somehow better than the other nations in this world.  We may see God at work in our country, but other countries see his hand at work in their nation, too.

Hopefully, we won't turn into the pigs of Animal Farm and start saying, "All people are equal, but some people are more equal than others."

Sunday, April 14, 2013

At the Electric Chair

This image is from Paul Fryer's "Pieta."  It is a startlingly disturbing image of Jesus.  I can surmise that some people would be disgusted by the image and want to turn away.  Can you imagine now how shocking such an image would be to the disciples and listeners of Jesus when he said, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his electric chair and follow Me."

Jesus' death was a gruesome experience meant to intimidate the local population.  It was a symbol of a tyrant against his oppressed people.  Crosses were placed outside of towns on the main thoroughfares as a warning to obey the tyrant or face the consequences.  In this context, Jesus said to His listeners that they needed to embrace this.  Can you wonder why this would turn people off?

Following Christ is one of extreme devotion.  Our great hymns tend to take on a new light.  What if we sang instead, "So I'll cherish the old rusty chair"?  "Jesus keep me near the chair."

It took the Early Church a long time to adopt the cross as a symbol for Christianity.  Beforehand, they would use the symbol of the fish.  The word "fish" in Greek, "ichthus," was an acronym in Greek for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior."  It also had the fortune of looking like the lower case Greek letter "Alpha."  I had a professor in college who speculated that if a Christian met another person he/she believed were a Christian, the first person would inscribe the letter "alpha" in the dirt and the other Christian would inscribe the Greek letter "omega."  This came from Jesus' statement in the Book of Revelation that He is the "Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and End." It wasn't until the third century that the cross finally because a symbol that Christians could say they identified with.

I hope that those of us who are Christians can appreciate what the cross truly symbolizes.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Second Coming of Obama

A friend of mine asked me for my opinion on a recent cover page of Newsweek's online article.  It shows a profile photo of President Obama and the wording:  "The Second Coming."  This brought instant furor on Facebook.  My friend asked me what I thought about it.  I decided to go straight to the source.

It took me quite awhile to actually find the article by Newsweek in regards to the cover they posted.  On either the third or fourth page of my Google search did I finally find Newsweek's actual article.  (I thought at first that I would need to have a subscription again.  I hadn't had one since I moved overseas to Germany 12 years ago.)  Every other Google page in reference to Newsweek's article were from conservative Christian magazines and FOXNews, lambasting Newsweek for even comparing Obama to Jesus Christ and his Second Coming.

For your information, here is the actual article in regards to the cover page:

As you can see, it had little to do with President Obama being the Messiah, but rather could he deliver a speech that would inspire the nation in his Inaugural Address?  This was the question addressed in the article.  It had mentioned that most Inaugural Speeches failed at this, with the notable exception of John F. Kennedy's speech and that was from 1961.  Hardly recent.  Newsweek suggested that Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address was the one that meant the most because it came from his heart.

Let me address the very obvious:  Did Newsweek use a religious term on purpose with the President's portrait.  Absolutely they did.  This is nothing new.  Newspapers and magazines have use sensational headlines all the time so that they would grab potential readers' gazes and have them purchase their magazine.  In this particular instance, Newsweek succeeded admirably.

However:  I am very disturbed that Christian magazines and websites are harping on this article.  First, if they were so offended by it, they should have left it alone and brought no attention to it so that Newsweek wouldn't have succeeded in their marketing ploy.  Secondly, after a very quick perusal, I could find no reference in these websites to the actual article.  The uproar was about the cover page and not about the article itself.  They judged a book by its cover and not its content.

Finally, I am amused and also disturbed that conservative Christian websites are upset about this.  I have read in so many different websites, articles, and other sources where President Obama is compared to the Antichrist.  They ranged from insinuations to outright declarations of the title.  There is no evidence for this whatsoever.  I believe that it is hypocritical for conservative Christians to flaunt their proclamations of the President being the Antichrist and yet cry "Foul!" when another news sources simply insinuates the opposite as a marketing ploy.  I also think it is ridiculous that Protestant Christians didn't vote for him:  the only Protestant Christian on the ticket.  Some Christians said that they were looking beyond Mitt Romney's religion.  I say that they were settling for Mitt Romney because he became the Republican Party candidate. Then they had to do some inner soul searching as to whether or not one could be a Christian and vote for a Mormon. And as absurd as it sounds, many Evangelical Christians equate Christianity with Republicanism.  To vote for anyone else except a Republican is considered to be heretical.

In other words, Newsweek won.  Conservative Christians missed the point and actually helped Newsweek's cause.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Bereshit . . .

This is the beginning for me and also for my blog.  If you wondering about my title, it is the Hebrew transliteration of the first word in the Bible:  "In the beginning."  I have been wanting to adequately express myself for some time now to let people know who I am and where I am in my life.  I have tried to do this on an infrequent basis with various tools, but unsuccessfully.  So now I will try here.

For those of you who already know me, you know that I am a Salvation Army officer.  I have been one for 12 1/2 years now, commissioned on 28 May 2000.  I spent the majority of my officership overseas in Germany.  I returned with my family in June of 2010, having spent 10 years in Germany.  I was a permanent resident and my 2 oldest boys were born there and my third was on the way; however, The Salvation Army saw fit to transfer us back to America during the middle of our 4 term.  We knew for a year that we would be returning; however, it was still a shock and an adjustment for us.

I always like to keep things in perspective and to offer that perspective to others.  To clarify for you on how long I had been in Germany, I'll give you this statement:  I lived in Germany since before the attacks on September 11, 2001.  Things had changed in America since I had been gone.

I was confronted by many things that had changed since my time overseas.  Then I realized that the biggest thing that had changed was myself.  I had changed so much in the past 10 years, I realized that I was no longer the same person I was before.

I first realized things were different when we were preparing for the birth of our son.  Our first 2 boys were born by water birth.  It was very relaxing for my wife and she didn't want to use any medication, which I supported.  When we found out that we were moving to Ludington, we searched for facilities that would offer water births, but the closest was in Muskegon, which is about an hour away.  I didn't feel that my wife would like to drive in a car for an hour with the possibilities of anything happening.  We did find a midwife in Hesperia, just south of us, who was more than willing to do a water birth.  We had used midwives before in Germany.  Our first 2 sons were born that way.  Midwives are the norm, not the exception in Germany.  Obstetricians are only called in if there were an emergency.

Our insurance would cover the expenses of a midwife; however, they required that we also have a gynecologist give her prenatal care.  Suddenly, doors slammed in our face.  No gynecologist would accept my wife to give her just prenatal care because they were afraid we would sue them should something go wrong during the birth.  Even talking to other physicians, they were aghast at how we had given birth in Germany.  Our gynecologist in Germany wasn't allowed to be at the hospital for the birth.  Only hospital staff were allowed to be there.

To make a long story short, we actually found a gynecologist willing to work with us and our son was born with 10 fingers and 10 toes on Halloween at our home using a water birthing pool.  God was good to us.

I then heard a huge uproar about NPR.  People wanted to defund NPR because of some statements their CEO had said and because of their firing of Juan Williams.  That got me curious.  I remember listening to NPR with my father growing up and heard nothing wrong about it.  Then people started saying that they were so liberal.  So, I decided to listen to NPR to see what the brouhaha was all about.  I started by listening to the Diane Rehm show.  It was good and informative.  I kept on listening.  I didn't hear anything terribly offensive whatsoever.  Both sides of the story were always presented.  I actually made a donation to my local NPR (IPR Interlochen) during their listener support time.

Finally, one of our soldiers told me that I was a liberal.  I never even thought about it until he told me so to my face.  Then I realized it.  I was a liberal.  I was tired of Fox News being outrageous in their claims and always asserting that all of the other news agencies were biased.  It sounded a lot to me like certain religious groups (such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) saying that theirs was the only true viewpoint.  Fox had become caustic to me and absurd.  I stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh a long time ago, especially when he started publicly offending people on the air.  I never heard Diane Rehm do that.

I started to express my opinions.  I discovered that most Evangelical Christians in America were Republican.  People accused me of being evil and unchristian.  Some people in my own family started to criticize my views.  It was bizarre.  One family member even told me to stop talking about my time in Germany because people would start thinking I was unpatriotic.

What had happened?  Why had I changed?  I lived in a foreign country and saw and experienced a different type of system that actually worked.  I was glad to have had this experience and knew that it could work.  In fact, most Christians in Germany accepted that system.  They didn't criticize it that it was unchristian for the government to be doing social work and helping out the downtrodden.  In fact, they had succeeded where the Church had often failed.

Being a Salvation Army officer caused me to wonder how much of a stand I should take.  My own wife suggests I restrain myself.  A good friend of mine, Chick Yuill, suggested that I stand for what was right, while maintaining integrity in my own life, so that no one could accuse me of having a double standard.  A professor of mine in college once remarked that one could be a Christian and a Democrat at the same time.  I came to realize that this was true.  I also realized something else.  I wasn't a Democrat.  I was more in line with the Green Party.

Some might be wondering, "Do you advocate that all should belong to that party?"  No.  I still believe just that one can be a Democrat and a Christian at the same time, that one can be a Republican and a Christian at the same time.  We are all diverse and unique.  If we believed all in the same way, it would be quite boring.  It's how we work together which is important.