God Will

My Column for The Elgin Review 1.8.20

We gathered outside the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem in Israel. Ezra, our tour guide, knew I had a Bible in my pocket. “Becky, read Jeremiah 31:15.” Thus says the Lord; a voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.

We were in Ramah, near Jerusalem, where 2,400 years earlier Jewish mothers from all the surrounding area were forced to gather, separated from their children, to begin their sad sojourn into seventy years of captivity in Babylon. Then Ezra asked me to read the story in Matthew of Herod the King, raging mad upon hearing of the birth of a Jewish child (Jesus). Herod murdered all the Jewish babies from Bethlehem to Ramah to Jerusalem to be sure he’d done away with the one who might someday cause him trouble. The story, found right after the story of the wisemen and the star quotes the words of Jeremiah about bitter weeping in Ramah over lost children.

Inside the memorial it was dark, a hollowed-out cavern. It is circular with candles burning in its center and mirrors all around so the candles look like millions of stars reaching in all directions. Portraits of Jewish children killed in the Nazi Holocaust are projected on the walls. As our group moved in hushed solemnity, a voice read the names of every child known to have been murdered by Hitler’s regime. First name, Middle name, Last name. Age at death. Nationality. Read in Hebrew, in English and then in each child’s native tongue. It takes three months for all the names to be read out loud.

Overwhelmed, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I thought of my own sons; Adam Lawrence Zahller Brown 12 years old, American. Daniel Scott Zahller Brown, 10 years old, American. Benjamin David Zahller Brown, 9 years old. American. God, how can human beings be so cruel? How was it, that I was living in a time and place where my sons were safe, but other mother’s sons and daughters were not, are not, will not be?

Listening to the names, I wasn’t aware of the hall emptying-out. Their own mothers were not there to hear their names being spoken. I needed to listen on behalf of the parents whose beloved children were slain.

Eventually, one of the other ministers in our group touched me on my shoulder. “Becky, the rest of us are on the bus now, it’s time to go.”

I asked, “How can we leave? Who will listen to the names of the children?”

Quietly, my friend said, “God will.”

This part of the Christmas story doesn’t make it into carols, or on the front of cards. This part isn’t recounted in sweet pageants with darling children playing the parts. This part is so infrequently told, that those who make it to church only on Christmas and Easter, may not even know it exists.

Who wants to hear of a massacre of children while we’re still finding pine needles in our carpets and the candy canes haven’t all gone from our counter-tops? Who wants to think of Mary and Joseph and their little one, fleeing under the cover of darkness, alone and terrified as shouts of soldiers and cries of anguished parents pierce the silent night?

We don’t want to hear it, but we need to. Jesus’s followers need to know this story by heart. Our Savior was born poor and, though he was visited by kings, his parents had no choice but to flee in the dark of night, lest they be among the parents remaining in Ramah weeping. They were political refugees.

The story is as old as time; 2400 years ago, when the Jews were exiled to Babylon, 2000 years ago, when Herod killed the children, 75 years ago, when Jewish children were slaughtered, and today.

God hears the children’s names. God wipes the tears of the grieving parents. The question for us is will we?

Will we understand that every Jewish child growing up in this season of rising anti-Semitism is a child just like our Jesus? That every child fleeing danger and poverty who arrives on our nation’s southern border is a child just like our Jesus? Will we remember that every child in Iran, vulnerable to the whims and avarice of powerful rulers is a child just like our Jesus?

God hears the weeping in Ramah.

Will we?

Peace on Earth

My Column for the Elgin Review 12.18.19

For two or three weeks before Christmas, little Libby, a precocious three-year-old whose parents were directors at the YMCA, answered as her parents taught her to every time she was asked by people at the Y, “What do you want for Christmas, Libby?”

“Peace on earth” was her constant, quick reply.

Word spread throughout the Y, “ask Libby what she wants for Christmas, she’s just the cutest little thing!” And so, a gazillion times, Libby responded saying all she wanted for Christmas was peace on earth, until, she was asked the gazillion-tenth time. Libby didn’t answer right away, but looked at her mother and said,

“Mommy, I don’t want peace on earth for Christmas anymore. I want toys!”

Peace on earth is a lot to ask for, isn’t it? And, truly wanting peace requires sacrifices we aren’t all that interested in making once we find out what they are. I mean, who doesn’t like shiny new toys? Who doesn’t want some nice new thing chosen just for us, wrapped up in a bow? Wanting stuff is easy. Giving and receiving gifts is fun. Peace, on the other hand, makes demands on us. If our prayer is, “Let there be peace on earth” we know the next stanza of the old song is, “and let it begin with me.”

Wanting peace on earth means sharing earth’s resources fairly so everybody gets clean air to breathe and fresh water to drink. Wanting peace on earth means protecting the planet’s resources, not pillaging them to fuel our latest desire for gizmos and high-tech gadgets and the profit-driven desires of big business.

Wanting peace on earth means doing the hard work of going beyond charity like providing food in back packs of school children for the weekend, to figuring out why so many families are too poor to buy their kids food, and then doing something about it. Wanting peace on earth means going beyond putting plastic toys into a shoebox for children across the globe, to finding out why those children die of cholera or have so little hope for living healthy, productive lives.

Wanting peace on earth means being willing to give up some of our comfortable homogeneity to make room for people fleeing persecution or hardship where they come from. Wanting peace on earth requires us to be brave enough to say, “this is wrong” to those in power when what they are doing makes life harder for people whose lives are already hard. Peace requires of us the willingness to sacrifice things we want for a greater good, for the collective good of all people.

God did not send Jesus into the world so we can have picture perfect celebrations with our families around lighted-trees each year, even though our celebrations are wonderful and good. God did not send Jesus into the world so we could be a thousand dollars in debt and ten pounds heavier come January 1st even though the gift giving and delicious indulging feels worth it at the time.

God sent Jesus into the world, a baby, a refugee, a small-town boy from an occupied land, to teach us the way to peace. God sent Jesus into the world to be the Prince of Peace, a Messiah who saves us, not through power and not through might, but through self-sacrificing love. A Savior who died, not to make us feel good, but to show us the way to make the world good, as it was in the beginning, as it is in God’s holy imagination, as it is in heaven.

What do we want for Christmas this year? What are we willing to give up in order to receive it?

Join us at Park Church for worship this Sunday. Worship is at 9:15 am ten miles west of Elgin on HWY 70 and ½ mile south. On Christmas Eve you are welcome to worship by candlelight at 7:00 pm followed by refreshments in the fellowship hall.

What if God Simply Wants to Hold You?

My Column for The Elgin Review 12.11.19

“What if God simply wants to hold you and love you?” Anne, my spiritual director asked me. Sitting in her cozy corner room looking out the windows at quiet sports fields blanketed in snow below, I held that thought.

I have a nativity scene made of cast resin with only three figures, Mary, Joseph and the baby. Mary lies on her side, her arm crooked in the way of mothers after giving birth, ready to cradle her baby at her breast. Joseph sits, his knees drawn up and his hands open, in nervous readiness to hold his newborn son. The baby is swaddled and sleeping. In this nativity there is no manger, only loving arms as cradles and new parents’ eyes gazing down in wonder on their sleeping son. Sometimes Joseph holds the baby, sometimes sweet Jesus sleeps in his weary mother’s arms under his father’s watchful gaze.

“What if God simply wants to hold you and love you?” I imagined God holding me as tenderly as my nativity Mary and Joseph hold their newborn son. Seeing me, not with critique, but with wonder, looking on me with tenderness and awe. Holding me, safe and protected. Soothing me with sweet lullaby sounds.

I was avoiding time in prayer. I was overwhelmed and soul-weary. I had been wounded and I was ignoring God. I told Anne I wasn’t on the outs with God, I was merely keeping my distance. She laughed and asked why. Slow to answer, eventually I said, “Because, I’m afraid. If I listen for God’s voice, God is going to ask me to do something hard, or something I don’t want to do.” She looked quizzically at me. “Like going to Zaire, or leaving the congregation I loved to do not-for-profit work. God has asked some fairly big things of me in the past, and I’m not ready for something like that right now.”

“What if God simply wants to hold you and love you?”

Long ago the prophet, Isaiah wrote,

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…
…For I am the Lord your God…
…Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…
…Do not fear, for I am with you.  (Isaiah 43:1-5 selected New Revised Standard Version).

My conversation a year ago with Anne stays with me still. At the core of the story of Jesus is the profound truth that we are loved. We are loved by the source of all creation. We are created in love to be loved, to share love, to live in love.

You, my dear reader, I ask you what Anne asked me, what if God simply wants to hold you and love you?

Will you give God opportunity in this holy season to gaze upon you with love?

You are always welcome to worship God with us at Park Congregational United Church of Christ. We’re ten miles west of Elgin on Highway 70 and ½ a mile south. This coming Sunday we are having a no-rehearsal Christmas pageant during our service at 9:15.

I love to hear from you. My email is beckyzmcneil@gmail.com

Home for Christmas

My column for The Elgin Review 12.4.19

“I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me, please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree…” Bing Crosby’s famous song has woven its way like a ribbon around a wreath through our thoughts about Christmas. In the dark of mid-winter, we make our homes cozy with twinkling lights and evergreen branches and anticipate a Hallmark movie kind of happiness to fall like snow upon us. A blanket of white against the chill of what’s real sometimes.

Once, when my boys were little, I left them playing nicely in the family room while I ran upstairs to get something. I had gotten no further than the top of the stairs when I heard a commotion below, wailing and yelling so loud I thought the house was on fire (or something similarly dire). What I found after my mad dash down the stairs was eighteen-month-old Daniel with a death grip on two fists-full of three-year-old Adam’s hair. Dan was holding Adam hostage and banging him against the front of the sofa. “Pow, Pow, Pow, Pow, Pow.” Both boys were hollering and bellering.  It was an epic battle over a toy.

I pried open Daniel’s hands and scooped him under one arm, and scooped Adam under my other arm and carried them into the dining room where I plopped them, one and then the other, onto chairs on opposite sides of the room. When they quieted, I said, “Boys. In our family we do not hurt each other. In our family we love and protect each other.” Yeah. Right! Who was I kidding? I had just seen first-hand evidence that what I was saying was untrue. In our family the little brother took his older brother by death grips on his hair and walloped him!

Except, it was true, too. In our family we love and protect each other. In our family we were raising little boys to be the kind of men who care about and for each other inside our home, and about and for their neighbors everywhere. Time on the chairs in the dining room was a time for recalibrating relationships and remembering who we are.

Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas isn’t about appearances and creating lovely memories of a snow-covered, idyllic season at home. Advent, this season we are in right now, is a time to recalibrate our relationships with each other. It is a time to remember who we are, and whose we are. In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah talks about beating swords into plowshares. Advent is a season for making peace and for making right what has been wrong. It is a time to let go of the death grips we have on old resentments and bygone battles. It is time to make our hearts ready so that our homes and our lives will be places where it is clear that God lives with us here.

At Park Congregational United Church of Christ, ten miles west of Elgin on HWY 70 and ½ mile south, you are welcome to be part of a faith home where we gather every Sunday for worship at 9:15 am. Worship is when we sit a while together to recalibrate our relationships and to remember who and whose we are. All of us are welcome home with God not just for the holidays, but every day.

I love to hear from you. My email is beckyzmcneil@gmail.com

And Was It Cold? A Prayer for the very cold first Sunday after Christmas

And was it cold, Dear God, when Magi made their way across the desert plains?

And was it cold, Oh Lord, when angels sang to shepherds on rocky terrain?

And was it cold, Redeeming One, when first breath was taken by infant lips?

And was it cold, Light of all Light, when Joseph covered Mary quivering after labor long into the night?

Frigid is the cold outside today, but warm are we, in your embrace and each other’s company.

For those who make their way, exposed to weather’s whims,

For those who earn their living under tenuous conditions,

For those whose breaths and lungs and bodies are vulnerable and frail,

For those who can do only so much for ones they love,

We pray today, warmth of heart, the fire of hope, and the light of love

burning brightly,


In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Jesus Junk

Underneath the labyrinthine exchange of roadways, the Interstate highway, the elevated expressway, and city streets that carry the heaviest traffic in our city, at the end of the dead end road beyond the fast food and drive thru Starbucks, there’s a mega-store. My skin crawls and I feel a little sick every time I see it. I went in a couple of times just to look around and felt dirty just being there. But, sadly, I think I’m pretty alone in my revulsion over this store. Recently there were protests and the city-council spent hours trying (rightly in my opinion) to keep a strip-club from opening a couple miles to the east of this place, but, I’ve never heard of anyone being anything but pleased by this store’s presence in our fair city.

Even so, I can’t help thinking if Jesus were to come to town, there might be some serious table turning action taking place down there.

So, can we talk about Jesus junk and cheap churchy tchotchkes and bad books and those who profit, bigly, off the sales of that stuff? This mega-store is crammed wall to wall with Jesus home décor, and Jesus jewelry, with Jesus plush-throws, and Jesus tees in every size, with Jesus baby burp cloths and nativity napkins and Jesus is the Reason for the Season soup mugs. The place is filled with the scent of “manger mixed with myrrh” melted wax (you can buy it in a set with the handy light-up nativity scented wax warmer for only $25.99).

A couple times I’ve been given gift cards to the Jesus Junk store. Last year I went there thinking I could use my gift card to buy a new Bible. The cover was coming off my old leather-bound Oxford Annotated NRSV and I thought it might be time to replace it. I braved my way through the Jesus gift gallery and past the thousands of glossy-covered books selling a “God loves America Best–Jesus is your Ultimate Life Insurance–Do you Know Where you’re Going when you Die? (and, in the mean-time, Heaven on Earth can be Yours if you follow our Ten Easy Ways to make your Husband Feel like a King)” kind of pseudo-Christianity. Way in the back of the store is their fairly large Bible section.

The Women’s Thin-line Pretty in Pink King James Version Bible complete with a matching pink journal and pink pen was only fifty bucks. But nowhere, amongst all their Biblical offerings was a single Bible for which a woman was a member of the editorial board. Not one. I’ve been exaggerating a little (could you tell?) about the stuff this store sells like hot cakes, but I’m not exaggerating at all about this. Every one of the hundreds of Bibles in a breathtakingly large array of colors and covers and versions and editions was translated and edited only by men. Why does that matter? Because women, like men, were created in God’s image. Women, like men, have brains and are scholars and are capable carriers of God’s stories. The more broadly representative the editors and translators of God’s word, the more accurate, the more inclusive the important editorial decisions. The earnest salesman helped me look at every version of the Bible sold in his store. Dozens of versions, no women editors. “Isn’t this strange?” I asked him. He admitted it was. He said he’d never really thought about it before.

Isn’t that the way it is with the whole big, let’s show the world how much we love Jesus by buying stuff with his name on it charade? We just don’t think about it. We have this good citizen-consumer attitude “It’s nice we have that big Christian store selling Christian things for all the good Christian people.” But, is it nice? Or, is it maybe a sham? Is it maybe a place where day after day hour after hour God’s name is taken in vain?

Using God’s name to make a buck, using God’s name to enhance one’s own wealth, using God’s name to  please one’s investors, using God’s name to improve one’s business, using God’s name to silence half of God’s people seems to me to be risky. What I’ve read in my plain old black leather covered study Bible indicates God has never been all that pleased when people claim things in God’s name that are self-serving. Who benefits from the sale of Jesus Junk? Are the factory workers paid living wages to make all that stuff? Are they given full-benefits, do they get to take Sabbath rest? And what will happen to the Jesus junk when it’s gathered dust on our shelves and our kids have to go through our stuff after they’ve sent us to the old-folk’s home? Will it be valuable, or will it go to the landfill where it will be buried with no hope of resurrection?

Who benefits from Bibles edited only by conservative old white men? Who is being served? Is it God? And who benefits from books that trumpet piety and morality and “Christian” values that leave out the poor and the vulnerable and venerate the rich and powerful?

I don’t like the strip club in the middle of town. It’s degrading and dehumanizing. But, at least it’s not selling its’ tainted wares in the name of God.

Ben’s Box and November in Nebraska

It’s November 27th and it was 67 degrees when I went to the grocery store an hour ago. (I live in Nebraska). We’ve had high temperatures in the mid-sixties since Thanksgiving Day, four days ago. (I live in Nebraska). The weather has been beautiful. On Black Friday Mike and I took advantage of it and hung our (minimal) Christmas lights a whole week ahead of the beginning of Advent, because we live in Nebraska and who knew when we might have another day so nice for hanging lights?

Usually, hanging lights involves snot freezing as it drips from one’s nose when tipped upside down from the ladder. Usually, hanging the twinkling cheer involves fingers frozen stiff with cold and a face lacerated by leaves whipped up into mini-tornadoes while one stands defenseless atop a ladder. Not this year. I’m not complaining, except, it is a little weird. Shorts, flip-flops and Christmas tree displays go together in Florida maybe, but not here, except today. Today even that sight made sense in a very nonsensical way.

One of the errands I ran today was to mail a box to Benjamin, my youngest son. He lives in New York City and because he started a new job in October he has no vacation time and was not able to come home for Thanksgiving. For the same reason, he won’t be coming home for Christmas. The box I mailed holds a Christmas ornament for each year of his life so far. Every year since they were babies, I bought each of my sons a new ornament for our tree. My mother did the same for me and my brothers when we were little. When we left home, she sent the ornaments with us so we’d have a little bit of home on our Christmas trees even if we lived far away. I still have the little gingerbread house, and angel with orange fluffy hair and Raggedly Ann from the trees of my childhood.  This year Benjamin will have his jointed frog that he broke and secretly fixed with chewing gum and the Santa whose arms and legs move at the tug of a string, and a delicate carved wooden ornament in the shape of Nebraska tied with a red ribbon among twenty-some others.

Once I graduated from college  I spent most of my Christmases far away from home. My first husband and I were both pastors. We served churches in Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan and since churches generally expect their pastor(s) to be present for Christmas Eve at least, getting home to Nebraska for the holidays wasn’t usually feasible. Once in a while my parents came to where we were for the holidays, but mostly we created traditions of our own with our boys and talked with my family by phone late in the day on Christmas.

That the day would come when my own children might not be home for the holidays is something I always anticipated. That  we would not always be in the same place, enjoying the same glittering tree was inherent in my buying ornaments for them to “take with them someday.” But, knowing the day would come is not the same as living that day. Dropping off that box today I felt my heart. It ripped a little bit inside my chest as I gave the woman Ben’s address.

This five day streak of near record breaking warmth in Nebraska in November just doesn’t seem right. Neither does sending Ben his box. I’m not complaining exactly, but it is a little weird.