The Controlled Burn of Advent

I smell it before I see the sign. “Caution: Prescribed prairie burn being conducted in the area. Air quality will be affected during the burn period.” It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and I am walking along a bike trail near my home.

Not having been raised in the Midwest, I wonder, “Why would a large section of this beautiful prairie be deliberately set on fire?” The next day I travel to a Franciscan retreat center for an Appointive Cabinet retreat and see a similar sign.

I ask a volunteer who is tending the prairie burn why it is necessary. She replies, “Intentionally burning prairie lands to ash is essential for restoring native grasses and plants. Fire destroys invasive species that can get out of control and provides a balanced habitat for insects, birds, and animals as well as plants. In addition, nutrients from the ashes enrich the soil, and plants return much healthier than they were before.”

Is it a coincidence that these controlled burns are taking place during Advent, which marks the beginning of the liturgical year in many Christian churches? Is it possible that, contrary to many of the world’s expectations, Advent calls us to eliminate whatever gets in the way of doing God’s work in the world? What is God teaching us about the necessity of periodically taking stock of our lives and letting die whatever prevents us from growing in our faith and making a difference wherever we can?

I did not grow up in a liturgical church, so I had no awareness of Advent until I went to a Lutheran College as an undergraduate. However, I did have several opportunities as a teenager to sing in the Messiah by Georg Frideric Handel. I have vivid memories of well-known soloists coming from New York City to our southeast Pennsylvania church to sing,

The Messiah is structured around the church year. Part I relates to Advent, Christmas, and the life of Jesus. Part II corresponds with Lent, Ascension, and Pentecost, and Part III depicts the end of the church year and the end of time. I have always been intrigued with Part I, especially the colorful Bass/Alto Aria and Chorus from Malachi 3:1-2, which is the Old Testament scripture for the second Sunday of Advent, 2018.

“But who may abide the day of His coming? And who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.”

“And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” (KJV)

Every Advent, my heart goes to the desert, to the barren places where the emptiness of my soul is revealed. I listen to the Messiah and imagine God as a refiner’s fire in my life. The image refers to how the Messiah will be like a refiner who uses fire to heat metal to a molten state. Then he skims off the dross (waste) that floats to the top in order to purify the metal.

I am reminded that the purpose of a refiner’s fire is not wholesale destruction. Nor does the refiner’s fire consume everything in its path like the indiscriminate devastation of the forest fires that we have seen again in California. The purpose of a refiner’s fire is to sort out the impurities and melt down and refine the silver, gold, or metal, thus preserving its value.

 

The themes of “Advent,” which literally means the “coming” of Jesus into the world, include expectation, repentance, and the fulfillment of God’s prophecies the last days. We not only anticipate the return of Jesus in the future but also engage in the preparation to which we are called in order to be ready for Jesus. This preparation, however, does not involve the shopping, decorating, and partying that consumes our culture in December. This is an inner preparation that calls for giving up everything that separates us from God and refining our faith, our character, and our hope.

During Advent, as we wait for Christ’s coming, God invites you and me to participate in a controlled and prescribed burn. In order to maintain our own spiritual health and vitality, we engage in disciplines that are very different than the Christmas activities of much of the world. These disciplines might include giving to charitable organizations, journaling, volunteering time in ministries to those in need, and visiting the sick, the lonely, and the hopeless. How about listening to a recording of the Messiah?

Can you set aside time every day to read the scriptures of Advent and Christmas? How about focusing on the “songs” of Christmas in the gospels: the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79), the Song of the Angels (Luke 2:14), and the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:28-32). Knowing that Jesus himself was a refugee boy, his family having to flee to Egypt, how can you advocate for the 65 million refugees and displaced people in our world?

 

How might this Advent be different? What do you need to let go of in order to be prepared for the coming of Christ into our world once again? And what will spring up out of the ashes of your life in due time? Will you dare to engage in the controlled burn of Advent?

In the Advent seasons, when the past has fled, unasked, away
And there is nothing left to do but wait,
God, shelter us.
Be our surrounding darkness;
be the fertile soil out of which hope springs in due time.
In uncertain times, help us to greet the dawn and labor on, love on,
in faith awaiting your purpose hid in you
waiting to be born in due time.

Ruth Duck, United Methodist Book of Worship 

War and Peace the Circle Goes: A Christmas Story

“Do you know the history of Algona during World War 2?”

“I don’t think so.”

“We have a world-famous nativity scene here that you need to see. Do you have time after lunch?”

I was preaching on November 19 at First United Methodist Church, a strong and active United Methodist congregation in the north central Iowa county-seat town of Algona, population 5,500. After lunch, Marvin Chickering, a member of First UMC, drove us a few miles to the Kossuth County Fairgrounds, where the Algona Nativity Scene is located. The story began during World War 2, when thousands of German soldiers were transported to the Algona, Iowa area as prisoners of war. During the war, four million German soldiers were killed, three million were injured, and eight million German soldiers became POWs.

One of those POWs was a German named Eduard Kaib, an architect by profession and radio man in the war. Imagine being captured in France in August 1944, taken to a holding camp in Italy, and then transported to the middle of the Iowa corn fields in the fall! Plus, Kaib was sick with a gastric ulcer.

Almost 400,000 German soldiers were brought to the US during the war and were housed in five hundred facilities, mainly in rural areas in the South, Southwest, Midwest, and Great Plains. The major camps in Iowa were located in Clarinda and Algona. The Algona camp was built on 287 acres with 180 buildings and 160 military guards and could accommodate up to 3,000 prisoners. 10,000 German POWs called Algona home from April 1944 to February 1946. The prisoners were guaranteed rights under the Geneva Convention and worked mostly in farm labor by repairing machinery, detasseling corn, and harvesting vegetables. They were paid 80 cents a day, received in credit.

In the Algona camp, prisoners created an orchestra, choir, and drama club. But the camp became most well-known for POW Eduard Kaib, who, upon arrival in Algona, had a vision of bringing the joy of Christmas to the camp. Like prisoners of war the world over, the men in Algona keenly felt the isolation and loneliness of separation from their loved ones and country. That loneliness intensified all the more at Christmas, as the POWs remembered the holiday festivities and traditions of their homeland.

During that first Christmas of 1944, Kaib built a small nativity set by shaping the Iowa soil into 18-inch-high figures, baking them in an oven to harden, and then arranging them in a 12-foot wide space in the prisoners’ quarters. On Christmas Eve, the prisoners gathered around the nativity scene and sang “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht) in German.

Kaib’s labor of love attracted the attention of the Camp Commander, Arthur Lobdell, who asked Kaib if he would be willing to create a much larger Nativity Scene for the camp. The only stipulation was that funds would have to come from the prisoners themselves. Kaib and five other POWs started in January and worked on the nativity the entire year. As a noncommissioned officer, Kaib did not have to work in the fields and could devote all of his time to this project.

In December 1945, they unveiled the fruit of their labor: 65 figures, half life-size, each made of wood and wire frames covered with cement, plaster, and paint. One of the camels weighed 500 pounds! There was the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph, kneeling shepherds with 31 sheep, the wise men, and angels. In the background was the town of Bethlehem. The detail and intricacy of the work takes your breath away. The $8,000 cost was entirely paid for by the meager daily earnings of the prisoners.

When the war ended and the prisoner of war camp was closed, the German prisoners donated the Nativity Scene to the community of Algona with the provision that it was would always be free to the public. The Junior Chamber of Commerce decided to make it a permanent exhibit, and Eduard Kaib helped move the Nativity Scene to its new location, where the figures were repaired and repainted and lighting and heating was installed.

In 1959 the United Methodist Men of Algona First United Methodist Church became been caretakers of the exhibit, and today the entire church has taken on this amazing ministry. Over the years, many improvements to the exhibit have been made, with contributions of time and money from the church and community. In 2004, the Camp Algona POW Museum was opened as well. Nativity Scene Board Chairperson Marv Chickering said, “You have to see it to believe it, because people can’t comprehend the size and beauty we have. And in 2009 it became much more beautiful because of the enhancement that was done.”

During the war, when many German congregations in Iowa stopped using the German language in worship because of hostility and persecution from fellow Americans, the POW’s in Algona were tearing down walls by building a nativity scene. For 73 years, the Algona Nativity Scene has been available for the public to view in December and upon request at other times of the year.

The Algona Nativity Scene not only helped to heal the wounds of the war, but it has been a testimony to how our “enemies” are not always our enemies, as prisoners and guards stood side by side singing Christmas carols in German and English. After the war was over, most of the prisoners returned to their homes, but others stayed in the U.S. In some cases, relationships between POW’s and farm families became friendships that were maintained over the years.

What a gift the Algona Nativity Scene has been! Residents were so blessed by the impact that Kaib’s Nativity Scene had on the town as well as on visitors from around the world that they raised the money to bring Eduard Kaib and his daughter back from Germany for a visit in 1968. At that time, Kaib painted a mural of Bethlehem on the back wall. A year ago, Kaib’s granddaughter came to visit the Nativity Scene for the first time.

As I sat in wonder in front of Kaib’s masterpiece that day, taking in the magnificence of the 65 lovingly-made figures in the Nativity Scene, I listened to a song written especially for this setting. Fear Not was composed in 2003 by Iowa native Joyce Johnson Rouse. It’s part of Rouse’s CD, Christmas Heart.[i]  Click here to listen to the song (used with permission).

War and peace the circle goes, must it begin again? Maybe those who hold us here are not the enemy. As we stumble on our way to find our own humanity as well as the humanity of others, how will God use you to bring peace on earth this Christmas?

Iowa prairie, it was 1944

Three thousand men so far from home, prisoners of war

They’d worked to bring the harvest in, but now the task was done

With idle time they worried for their future and for their distant loved ones

Eduard lay awake at night with Christmas memories

Of the village creche at home in Bielefeld, Germany

First he built it in his head, then told a few his plans

What would their captors say of this, and would they try to stay the prisoners’ hands?

CHORUS

Fear not in the stille nacht

Maybe those who hold us here are not the enemy

God be our guide as we struggle inside

And stumble on our way to find our own humanity, and fear not

The prisoners counted out their cash, a precious store revealed

From eighty cents a day they’d earned working in the Iowa fields

They bought concrete and plaster, mixed it with some soil

They formed and carved a Christ child and a manger scene, for a year they toiled

Word went through Algona, the nearby little town

The prisoners had built a gift to them for the kindness shown

Townfolk hesitated – What of their brothers at the front?

Was it disloyalty to share a Christmas moment with these German sons?

CHORUS

Back then they were the enemy but today they are our friend

War and peace the circle goes, must it begin again?

Still the sons and daughters come to see that manger scene

From all around the world to stand in peace and hear the angel sing

CHORUS

 

[i] Christmas Heart available on iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby, and www.earthmama.org.

The Bell is Ringing

A cell phone went off right in the middle of the church conference I was leading as a district superintendent. It happened eight years ago, right before Thanksgiving, at the Salem and Bradley Indian Missions in the West Michigan Conference. Normally, we would all just smile and move on, but retired local pastor Joe Sprague was inspired to tell a story about a time before cell phones, the Internet, and even land lines. He said that many years ago the Bradley church itself used to be the telephone.

When there was important information to share, someone would ring the church bell at Bradley Indian Mission. Hearing the bell, people dropped whatever they were doing and began a journey from all directions: from Shelbyville, Gun Lake, Bradley, and Hopkins. Because there were few roads, they would make their way to the church, creating paths through woods, fields, and meadows. Even after the fields had been plowed, new paths would continually appear as the people of God walked. After reaching the church, they not only heard the information but were fed with spiritual food as well. It was that food which nourished them to return by the same paths to spread both the news they heard and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

As people of faith, we have a bell to ring and important information to share at this time of year as we move from celebrating Thanksgiving to entering into the season of Advent. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday because gratefulness lies at the very core of my being. Having been born on Thanksgiving Day, gratefulness is literally in my DNA.

Over the past few weeks I have been pondering the difference between thanksgiving and gratefulness. On Thanksgiving Day our family has a tradition of going around the table before we eat and sharing those things for which we are thankful. Every year we give thanks for specific blessings such as family, good health, a new job, a car that still runs, supportive friends, a wonderful church family, and opportunities to serve.

Gratefulness, on the other hand, is a state of being that springs from deep in the heart. I am grateful. Gratefulness is a disposition to express gratitude by giving thanks. What is gratefulness? I am standing outside in the driveway at 6:00 a.m., about to go for a run. It’s pitch black except for a sky dotted with bright, glittering stars. I can’t tear my eyes away from the wonder of the universe. I am taking my evening walk and am mesmerized by the swirl of intricate cloud patterns, a sunset palette of red, orange, and yellow and the jet streams of two planes forming a perfect cross in the sky. I am scrambling up a steep mountain trail in Arizona and am awestruck by the stark beauty of the desert. A cardinal sits quietly in the backyard and stares at me as I work at the kitchen table. I am grateful.

“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” (St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier) Gratefulness is the bell calling us to a deep awareness of God’s presence in our heart. Just as a bell summons us and then sends us back home transformed, so the heart gives life by taking in and then pumping out blood. In the silence of our hearts, we breathe in the gift of life: gratefulness. Then we breathe out hope for our world: thankfulness. Whereas gratefulness has to do with being fully alive and attentive, thankfulness has to do with cultivating gratitude in a social context.

Gratefulness without thanksgiving is incomplete and empty. Conversely, thanksgiving without gratefulness is disconnected from the Giver. Because I am grateful, I can be thankful. How ironic. At the very time when our nation is called to gratefulness by expressing thankfulness to God and others, we are poised to respond the very next day to the bell of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The insidious message that gratefulness is best expressed through the rituals of purchasing and giving things often crowds out the rituals of spiritual practices, family time, and the cultivating of relationships.

What is it that inhibits gratefulness?
• We have too much stuff and too few life-giving friendships.
• We have too many distractions and too little silence.
• We are over-committed (too much doing) and under-rested (not enough being).
• We believe that we can only be grateful when we are happy.
• We’d rather ask God for what we want than thank God for what we have.
• We focus on the small stuff rather than look to the stars.
• We overeat at the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts while starving ourselves of the Bread of life.

Joanna Macy has written, “Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art… It is a privilege to be alive in this time when we can choose to take part in the self-healing of our world.”

As we move into the expectant season of Advent this Sunday, we not only enter a season of waiting and wondering, but we are also invited to participate in the self-healing of our world, which is nothing more than doing our part to bring in the reign of God on this earth.

Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday, which was created in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation as a way to focus on the generosity that lies at the heart of America and also exemplifies our Christian faith. The first Giving Tuesday was covered extensively by the media as well as the official White House blog, which gave a huge boost to the event. Many organizations now give a percentage of their sales on Giving Tuesday. Others pledge to match contributions.

Through the 2016 #GivingTuesday campaign, over 2,550 individuals in 19 countries contributed a total of $853,909.78 to United Methodist mission projects and missionary support. Click here to learn more about the United Methodist 2017 #GivingTuesday campaign.

How can we transform Advent from a time of focusing on external preparations to internal spiritual preparation? What if each one of us, along with the Salvation Army, make a commitment to “ring the bell?” How can we express our gratitude to God for sending Jesus into the world to show us how to give up our lives in service to others?

• Make decisions about charitable donations first before setting your budget for Christmas gifts for friends and family.
• Click here to make gifts to United Methodist mission projects. One of the projects I support is Haitian Artisans for Peace (HAPI)

• Right-size Christmas this year by giving gifts to those who least expect them and most need them.
• Commit to participate in a local hands-on mission project in Advent.
• Believe in, walk with, show grace to, forgive, and invest your energy in others.
• Give tender care to the world and its creatures by changing some of your habits.
• Shuffle through a pile of leaves, make a pot of turkey noodle soup, and read a book to your grandchild.
• Breathe in the goodness of God, breathe out light and love, and be open to the possibility of transformation.
• Share a word of comfort and courage to someone living in despair or fear.
• Ring the bell – walk the path – share the good news.
The bell is ringing. Can you hear it? If gratefulness is, indeed, in our DNA, then walk, skip, hop, and run to the bell! Become one with the steady pumping of God’s grace into your heart and the rhythmic pumping out of acts of justice and mercy. We cannot be too grateful. “A single grateful thought toward heaven is the most complete prayer.”
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing