God with us

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (Is. 7:14)

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6).



“God With Us”

Prince of peace, transforming one
You call us now to love
Wonderful, counselor
Born to make us whole

Mighty God, revealed so small
Raised up to be our truth
Everlasting, one with the Father
Beginning and the end
Beginning and the end

We bow down before you the little one
Knowing your great power
The mystery of your amazing life
Draws us before you
It’s who you are…

Jesus Christ, Immanuel
God with us, God with us
Born to live, to live in love
Immanuel, Immanuel

(DW – 2006)

what is peace?

In advent and Christmas the message of peace gets proclaimed year after year by Christians around the world.

We crown Jesus our “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6) and join the angels in proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk. 2:14).

But really, what does this mean? How do our professions that Christ is our peace become actualized in our lives and in this world?

For some, a focus on the internal peace that Jesus brings through his love and forgiveness is the most meaningful aspect of peace at Christmas. There is comfort in the belief that whatever situation we find ourselves in, “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Ph. 4:7). And in a world that seeks inner peace through personal success and shallow happiness, the reminder for an internal peace rooted in Christ is a timely one indeed.

But I’ve wondered if the peace of Christ offers more? What if Christ as the “Prince of Peace” means that participants in the kingdom of God – Christians – are in fact a people of peace?

Now, I’m not so naive as to forget the centuries of Christian violence both in the world and among ourselves that taints our witness as a people of peace. And in a world torn by violence, war, and injustice, we can’t help but lament the absence of peace. Sadly, most times Christians aren’t a people of peace. It’s quite appropriate then to question the peace we profess at Christmas:

Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won't rhyme

So what's it worth?

This peace on Earth
(“Peace on Earth,” U2)

But in our lament at peace’s absence, let’s beware not to become hopeless, and thus relegate peace solely to our personal experience of faith. We must not forget that Christ’s message of peace and reconciliation redefined what it meant to be the people of God – peace experienced in the unity of all people. I like how John Yoder describes the reality of reconciliation that Christ’s peace brought between Jews and Gentiles – a reality of unity the global church and our local churches must continue to realize today:

It is not the case that inner or personal peace comes first, with the hope that once the inward condition is set right then the restored person will do some social good…Two estranged histories are made into one. Two hostile communities are reconciled (He Came Preaching Peace).

So as the peace of Christ is known in our own lives this Christmas, my prayer is that we may live tangibly as a people of peace in a world starved for reconciliation.

For Christ is our peace, who demolished all divisions and made us one new family united by His one Spirit in the bond of peace. We proclaim that our allegiance to the name of Christ is higher and stronger than any other loyalty.
(Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith - Liturgical Version)

advent and the growing need to conspire

Every year we hear of Christians bemoaning the commercialization and secularization of the Christmas - or perhaps I should say “holiday" - season. “Why can’t they just call it for what it is!” we hear incessantly across the airwaves and interwebs. Well, recently a group of Christians have decided to take a different approach to reclaiming Christmas. They call it Advent Conspiracy.

Responding to the extreme consumerism that dominates much of Western Christmas celebrations, Advent Conspiracy calls Christians to instead worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all. And while I’m not sure why we need a “conspiracy” to live out these core Christian practices, for a religion often unaware of how deeply its been shaped by culture, the call for change is refreshing nonetheless.

Most refreshing perhaps is the shift in direction Advent Conspiracy takes in the whole issue of Christmas and culture. As co-founder Rick McKinley suggests, "Christians get all bent out of shape over the fact that someone didn't say 'Merry Christmas' when I walked into the store. But why are we expecting the store to tell our story? That's just ridiculous" (see Time magazine article here and CNN story here).

I tend to agree.

Should it really matter to Christians if the Gap or other organizations censor their use of the word Christmas (see here)? Is my faith somehow dependent on secular culture’s acceptance of my religious symbols? Is not society’s support of clean water projects – one of Advent Conspiracy’s proposed gift alternatives – more important than a store clerk wishing me a sentimental Christmas greeting?

So, as we celebrate advent – this time of expectation for Immanuel, the “God with us” event of Christ's birth – Advent Conspiracy reminds us that celebrating Christmas moves us from the grandiose sentimentalism we often take for granted to a recognition that in the most plain and ordinary of circumstances (a stable in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago), God’s love is most profoundly known.

Merry “Conspiring” Christmas to you all!



"advent is patience"

Some interesting thoughts from Stanley Hauerwas on patience and advent as a way of understanding Christian living in the world. And while some (including myself) have argued his idealism leads to an impractical - and often vague - approach to Christian living, his reminder that Christians are a "patient people" is particularly poignant around the chaotic busyness of the holiday season.

"To recapture advent is to recapture a sense of what it means to live as a people in a world which has taken the time of God's patience not to live the way Jesus made it possible for us to live. So, advent is the recovery of how to live in a world of impatience as a patient people."



(h/t The Work of the People - if you haven't checked out this website, do it. It's great!)

searching

The Christmas season often involves a search for meaning and connection - a desire for inner peace or as the cartoon suggests, a need to simply "feel good." In my preparation for an Advent sermon this coming Sunday, I came across this poem which describes how in the context of Advent, we are reminded not of our own searching, but of God's coming.




THE BONDING
by Ben Witherington III

A cold and listless season,
And full of cheerless cheer,
When hopes are raised and dashed again
And joy dissolves in tears.

The search for endless family
The search for one true Friend
Leaves questers tired, disconsolate
With questions without end.

Best find some potent pleasure quick
Some superficial thrill
Than search for everlasting love
When none can fill that bill.

So hide yourselves in shopping
And eating ‘til you burst,
Use endless entertainment
As shelter from the worst.

And hope at least for truce on earth,
Though warlords rattle swords
As if to kill could solve our ills
We seize our ‘just’ rewards.

Mistake some rest for lasting peace
And calm for ‘all is well’
And absence of activity
As year end’s victory bell.

But what if Advent is no quest
Despite the wise men’s star
What if Advent isn’t reached
By driving from afar?

What if Good News comes to us
From well beyond our reach?
What if love and peace on earth
Are more than things we preach?
What if a restless peace
Is what He did intend
Until we open up our lives
And let the stranger in?

What if a peaceless rest
Is not the Christmas hope
What if nothing we could do
Helps us truly cope?

What if there is a bonding
With one who rules above
Who came to us in beggar’s rags
And brought the gift of love?

The God shaped hole in every heart
Is healed by just one source
When Jesus comes to claim his own
Who are without recourse.

So give up endless seeking
Surrender is required
The one who is the Lord of all
Cannot be bought or hired,

He’s not conjured into life
By pomp and circumstance
By Yuletide carols boldly sung
By fun or drunken trance.

He comes unbidden, unawares
Fills crevices of souls
He comes on his own timely terms
And makes the sinner whole.

‘We shall be restless’ said the saint
‘Until we rest in thee’
And find that we have been reborn,
Our own nativity.

How silently, how silently
The precious truth is given
And God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.

curiosity over assumptions

In recent months I’ve begun listening to podcasts from Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett. Produced through American Public Media, Speaking of Faith is a weekly radio program discussing topics in “religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.” In exploring the various topics, each episode attempts to tell the stories behind the ideas. Each program, then, “takes a narrative, or first-person, approach to religious and philosophical conversation (and) draws out the intersection of theology and human experience, of grand religious ideas and real life.”

As I prepared for my participation in the Living Library (see here), a recent Speaking of Faith episode caught my attention. Titled “Curiosity Over Assumption – Interreligiosity Meets a New Generation,” the program introduced the Muslim-Jewish relationship of two young women in Los Angeles. While openly admitting their differences – differences that have the Middle East mired in violence – these women are determined to seek peace not violence. And they do this in the simplest fashion – they spend time together and they listen to each other’s stories. Simple, yet radical, these women are “innovating templates of practical relationship that work with reality, acknowledge questions and conflict, yet resolve not to be enemies – whatever the political future of the Middle East may hold.”

Through the story of these women, I’m reminded (chided?) that engaging our differences requires humility and honesty. Conveyed in the phrase “curiosity over assumptions,” humility shelves our own preconceptions about others and their ideas until we’ve let them tell their story. And honesty is an important companion to humility. It acknowledges that humility doesn’t always mean agreement. In fact, the women readily admit that “dialogue is messy.” There are no easy ‘lets-just-get-along’ answers.

And so I'm inspired that even amidst the stark differences in our world, humble and honest dialogue can bring hope to our conflicts – a hope that in our curiosity we’ll find peace.

living library

Last week, I had the chance be a book. Not write a book. Or read a book. But be a book.

How, you ask? Well, a local community college (Douglas College) has recently introduced the Living Library, a movement designed to “promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding” amidst the diversity of our pluralistic world. This goal is achieved by participants engaging people instead of just borrowing books.

So, last week I was a book on the topic of religion and culture, with the specific title, “Engaging Our Stories - Living Amidst Spiritual and Religious Diversity.” People could ‘borrow’ me for up to a half-hour and discuss anything related to my topic. For two hours I occupied a small table in the library in which three people signed up to discuss religion and culture with me.

Most valuable was the chance to hear peoples’ stories. I met a woman from Guatemala who grew up Catholic, a woman recently immigrated from Iran who is a faithful adherent to the Baha'i religion, as well as another person who resides in East Vancouver and is intrigued by the shifting role religion has in Canada. All three people I met probably did more talking than me, even though I was supposed to the ‘expert.’ But considering my book title, I didn’t mind. In fact, interacting with these folks simply reaffirmed my belief in the value of sharing our stories.

In a Canadian culture that prides itself as tolerant, we too often tolerate without understanding. You know how it goes: “You do your thing. I’ll do my thing. We’ll all just get along. That’s the Canadian way!” Well, I believe we need more – we need tolerance with understanding. In a culture as diverse as Canada, the idea of simply tolerating fails to address the reality of our differences – differences that in other areas of the world lead to intense conflict both personally and politically. If we simply tolerate, I wonder how long our Canadian peace can last? But when we take the time to understand what’s behind our diverse values and beliefs – i.e. examine how our stories shape our values – we make a very important statement: in the midst of our differences: people are important.

And so as we strive for peace in society, acknowledging our stories can add depth to our tolerance. When addressing differences, an engaging tolerance can equip us to peacefully handle conflict - not because we are a tolerant country, but because we know each other.

And so I think events such as the Living Library are actually quite countercultural (perhaps without even knowing it). Instead of a passive tolerance we’re used to as peace-loving Canadians, the Living Library calls for an engaging tolerance that values peoples' stories. And considering the Christian belief that humanity is created in the image of God and along with all creation was declared “good,” I’m willing to support any efforts in my community that affirm God's view of the world.

"One Love" on World AIDS Day

It's only fitting that I came across this music video today - World AIDS Day. May the unity expressed in this music reverberate into a tangible response to the brokenness around our world. And in particular, the brokenness caused by AIDS.



(h/t Dave Cho)