January 2013


I drive a couple of times a month for the local animal shelter, ferrying cats and dogs to vet appointments. Last Tuesday, my SUV was full almost to overflowing with five animals. Four were in small kennels; the fifth, a large hound mix puppy named Xenia, was in a big crate.

Usually, the pups or kitties are quiet. But today, Xenia was not happy at all. Yes, she had the biggest kennel and plenty of room, while another dog was a bit cramped in one of the small carriers for the short trip to the doctor, since no other kennels were available. Xenia began howling and whining before we even left the parking lot and kept it up the whole way. (The cramped dog didn’t make a sound.) No soothing words would calm or comfort her. She faced forward, looking at me, the whole time. What the dog wanted—affection—wasn’t being provided. She was cooped up and couldn’t get to me to be petted and loved on.

Xenia’s story is a parable. It reminded me that no matter how big their houses are, some folks won’t be, and can’t be, happy. That’s because their spirits are not being nourished. They want more than anything to be loved and cared for, and no matter how many square feet they live in or what kind of car they drive or how much is in the bank account, they are emotionally deprived. Material things simply cannot provide what the soul needs to flourish.

Fortunately, all the animals I drove earlier this week were adopted. Xenia’s new mom put her in the car as soon as we arrived back at the shelter that afternoon. What a great feeling to know these homeless cats and dogs would that evening be cuddling with someone and would know love.

Now if that could just be true of all the lonely, hurting people and the empty, longing souls out there.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

Over Christmas, I was browsing through a soon-to-be-closed Cokesbury store in Birmingham. Languishing on a sale rack for half off, I spied a book titled Christ of the Celts by J. Philip Newell. Maybe it was the copy from the dust jacket that sold me, with its promise to readers of a reflection on the “forgotten” Christ. Or could be it was my attraction over the past few years to Celtic symbols like the knot, triskele, triquetra and of course, the Celtic cross. In any case, the price was right (I doubt I would have paid the $20 Cokesbury was originally asking for this slim volume), and the book was mine.

My eyes have truly been opened as I have begun to unearth the riches of Celtic Christianity that Newell shares. Part biography, part theological treatise, Christ of the Celts particularly has shown me how the demands and needs of empire have co-opted and corrupted the gospel. You will need to read the book to get Newell’s whole argument, but he is convincing in his observations about the way the Church came to serve the Emperor after Constantine was “converted” in the 4th century and Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire.

For example, Newell notes how the canon was restricted to a narrowly defined list of writings that taught an orthodoxy acceptable to the state. Other works were destroyed or lost. The doctrine of original sin

was a convenient “truth” for the builders of empire. They could continue to conquer the world and subdue peoples. And now they could do it with the authority of a divine calling. What the world needed and what the masses throughout the empire required was the truth that they, with their ecclesiastical princes, possessed, Truth was to be distributed from above. It was to be a religion of dependency (20).

So, too, for the doctrines of the virgin birth and the perpetual virginity of Mary as well as the satisfaction/substitutionary theory of the atonement. These were perfect to serve the needs of empire and an imperial church that wanted to dictate the right, imposing orthodoxy from the center. Newell says that Celtic Christianity was, and is, more poetic and doctrinal, and thus did not and does not have a theological headquarters (84). Again, get and read the book  for full explanations (http://www.amazon.com/Christ-Celts-Creation-Philip-Newell/dp/0470183500/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1357918233&sr=1-1&keywords=christ+of+the+celts). See also Newell’s blog at http://salvaterravision.org/jpn-blog.

Around the time I began reading Christ of the Celts, I started leading a class at my church on the Book of Revelation. That work, contrary to what the fundamentalists believe and teach, is not about a 1000-year reign of Christ or the promotion of fear about the Second Coming. Rather, it calls believers to resist the demands of empire, with its impulse to control thought and action (the infamous “mark of the beast” symbol). Empire can be manifested in the church, the state, communities, and families. Wherever freedom and openness are suppressed and conformity and fear are the rule of the day, there is empire.

(By the way, Douglas John Hall, in his new book Waiting fo Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant “Establishment” has some reflections on the subject I look forward to reading, given the recent highly positive review of the work by Walter Brueggemann [The Christian Century, January 9, 2013: 37]. Hall, according to the review, probes how empire requires religion and specifically what it finds attractive about Christian religion.)

I’m just beginning my adventure into learning about Celtic Christianity and along with it, how empire and its established church have corrupted the faith of Christ. I think it will lead me to places that, somewhere deep inside, I have been longing to go.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Each of us harbors ignorance and darkness (some more than others) as well as wisdom and light, and each of us are responsible for what we say and do. Going forward may everyone see this truth clearly so that we can bring out the light that unites us rather than the darkness that separates us (Lewis Richmond, Buddhist teacher).

May the dark universal mourning of the waning weeks of 2012 give way to bright universal mornings of hope and progress as this new year unfolds before us! (the Rev. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary)

(See note 1 below for source.)

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Growing up, I was thoroughly puzzled by the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I don’t mean two turtledoves or four calling birds and all that. I was confused about how Christmas could have twelve days. And what was Shakespeare talking about when he named a play Twelfth Night?

I also knew nothing about the significance of January 6 other than that my sister was born on that date. I had no idea the day was known as “Epiphany” or that it was very significant in the Orthodox tradition.

Such lack of understanding came from my not having the benefit of ministers or a church or family who cared or knew anything about the liturgical year that Christians had observed for centuries. When Christmas Day came, Christmas was over! We threw out our Christmas tree or later, put it away, on January 1, but that had nothing to do with liturgy, only cultural customs. And as far as appreciating the place of Epiphany in the Orthodox traditions: a) there were no Orthodox churches in Albany, GA and b) we were even suspicious of other Presbyterians, so we certainly were not going to learn about what other Christians did.

But since those days, I’ve learned to appreciate the rhythms and the significance of the church year as a spiritual discipline, at least to a great extent. Epiphany in particular fascinates me, with its tale of magi from the East coming to seek the child king Jesus. Maybe it’s because they were part of the movement that, in Israel, produced the wisdom books in the Bible, which I dearly love. Or could be I’m intrigued that Matthew, that most Jewish of gospels, begins with a story about the global  or at least far-off reach of God’s message of hope and peace.

I suggest that the magi can teach us three important lessons for leadership and living today. First, they call us to seek illumination. These were men committed to knowledge and truth wherever and from whomever they may be found. They, and the festival that celebrates their visit, invite us to come out of the night of ignorance into the light of knowledge.

What a relevant message for today, when a politicians and priests make ignorant statements about women’s bodies or our education lags behind other nations or some people think the “X” in “Xmas” is an attempt to banish Christ from Christmas in a liberal conspiracy! (The “X” is not an English x at all, but the Greek letter chi, which is a monogram of Christ.)

Let igorance be banished from the earth, for as Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present told Scrooge: “…most of all beware this boy (Ignorance), for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” And as an ancient apocryphal work, The Secret Book of John, reminds us, ignorance is one way we fall under the sway of what Christ in the book calls a “counterfeit spirit,” for we lose touch with the wisdom that is within us (J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: 5).

Second, the story of the magi invites us to inclusion. Brian McLaren is right. We often define ourselves, we say who we are, by declaring whom and what we are against (see note 2). We do it in government. We do it in our families. We do it in our groups of friends. We do it in the church, as we declare ourselves the elect and all others the damned or our group the clean and the rest, dirty.

But in our day of instant global communication, of awareness of other cultures and religions, the peaceful future of humankind is better served by learning about (even if we do not appreciate) the beliefs and practices of our neighbors on this planet and in this nation. The solutions to the huge problems that confront us will come from cooperation and collaboration, not distrust and refusal even to consider compromise, like some in Congress. And churches whose numbers are dwindling (like my denomination) can hardly afford to exclude by rules and suspicion those who seek to belong.

Finally, the magi model imagination. They went home by another road, Matthew’s story tells us. Sometimes there’s value in doing things the same old way. But on the other hand, a new situation, new information, new technology may require a different approach or provide expanded opportunities and fresh possibilities.  What would our worship, our education, our communication, our daily lives be like if we routinely asked “What if? and “Why not?” Isn’t it true that too many times, we’re like Suzie in A Miracle on 34th Street? We can’t picture ourselves as a monkey or an elephant. We need someone, like Kris Kringle (or the magi!) to invite us to live in the “imagi-nation,” to be playful, open, longing to discover, to be transformed. When we answer the call and are taught, we may find a different path to the place we want and need to go.

With such richness in its message, no wonder Epiphany is a favorite among the festivals for me!

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Note 1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-raushenbush/hope-for-2013_b_2385220.html?ir=religion&utm_campaign=123112&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Alert-religion&utm_content=FullStory

Note 2. http://vimeo.com/49211069#