looking back...looking forward

I'm not sure why, but I felt this picture (taken this week on a walk in my neighborhood) was inspiration enough to put perspective on the usual New Years' practice of looking back and looking forward. There's something about sun and snowy mountains that offers a cause to pause...

Happy New Year 2011!

(It's been a great week with family and friends and I look forward to more regular blogging starting up next week)

light of the world

Related: light in the darkness

Darkness, the absence of light, the growing shadows at dusk, a blackness emerging, hiding all we see.

Darkness, a daily cycle transferred into human experience – fear, loneliness, despair, sickness, frustration, apathy, gloom, wickedness, questions, brokenness, misery…

Light absent in so many places. Darkness, too often without a dawn.
Darkness, that inescapable reality haunting us each day, confirmed each long night.

We live in a world of darkness. Darkness, at times, is all we know.
And we wonder: will life get better? Where is the light?

Yet hints of light infringe on darkness’s dominion. We’re told we’re “the light of the world,” which spurns us on to be bearers of light. We bring light into this dark world.

We care for one another. We listen, give, embrace, console, rescue. We answer questions, reveal meaning, share our love.

We think our light is enough. Where darkness remains, we’re encouraged to “get it together” or better yet, to “see the light.” But we get tired. Our light begins to fade, to burn out.
The light we offer is incomplete, partial, a dim reflection of a greater light, a broader light, a full light. THE light.

Amidst the prevailing darkness. Amidst our own clamouring to provide light. The unexpected occurs. The light doesn’t go out – “darkness has not overcome it.” This light grows.

“A light has dawned. The light shines in the darkness.”

This growing light is not a distant power like the sun millions of miles away. Nor is it a worldly power, aligned to influence from a position of cultural light. No, this light is profoundly simple – God’s light invades the corners of everyday darkness. A light shining first in a small village, in a dirty barn, in a farm animals’ manger. A light shining now in our small lives, in our hurting communities, in the messiness of human experience.

“Christmas is about Jesus Christ entering the darkness of every time and place (including ours), to bring light, healing, forgiveness, renewal and abundant life. Christmas is about Jesus coming into the darkness with God’s promise that some day all of creation will be bathed and illuminated and renewed by the healing light of God. May we receive and walk in that light today” (Dan Nighswander)

Christmas. The birth of Jesus. Emmanuel, God with us. The light of world has come…

God of glory, your splendor shines from a manger in Bethlehem, where the Light of the world is humbly born into the darkness of human night. Open our eyes to Christ's presence in the shadows of our lives and our world, so that we, like him, may become beacons of your love, God, we thank you tonight for being our light – for being the world’s light. Amen.

love all

Ok, last installment on Advent Conspiracy:

#1 [Worship Fully]

#2 [Spend Less]

#3 [Give More]

#4 [Love All]

“For God so loved the world...”

This familiar phrase sums up the Christmas message. “God is love” tangibly expressed in the very midst of human experience. “Immanuel, God with us” - with us as human. With all of us. Advent Conspiracy is rooted in this reality.

Yet for Christians, especially in a multicultural society of often-competing worldviews and religious celebrations, it can be tempting to think the Christmas story is mainly for us. Hence the fight to hang onto the true meaning of Christmas, better known as the “war on Christmas” or the “Christmas Controversy.” I wonder, however, if this desire to dictate the celebration of Christmas has more to do with Christians’ stubbornness than their faithfulness. Christians want to have their voice; and somehow it’s expected that secular culture will be a primary vehicle for the message. In the language of feasting (appropriate this time of year), it’s demanded that Christmas be one of the main courses at the religious smorgasbord of modern N.A. culture. While all this may be true to some degree historically and culturally, the fight for Christmas by Christians, I believe, has become a distraction. Christmas has become about us: Our celebration. Our traditions. Our God.

This last theme of Advent Conspiracy acknowledges the full message of Christmas: God loves all. And so should we. As the website points out, “When Jesus loved, He loved in ways never imagined. Though rich, he became poor to love the poor, the forgotten, the overlooked and the sick. He played to the margins.” If you think back to the first Christmas, who was first to celebrate the birth? Royalty? Religious folks? 'Normal' people? No, it was shepherds. The people we might call “blue collar” nowadays. Or worse, people we might simply label as “them.” In the Christmas story, you see, all people have been included from the beginning.

As you gather with family and friends to enjoy feasts, exchange gifts, worship together, remember that the story - the reality - of God with us isn’t just for you. It’s not your right to celebrate Christmas. It’s a gift - a gift for all.

I'll leave you with the song I've had in my head all week - "Feed the World"

“it's time to take baby Jesus out of the manger”

“It's time to take baby Jesus out of the manger.”
What’s your reaction to that statement?

Well, this was the solution offered by comedian Stephen Colbert in a recent satirical (and "weirdly prophetic" as my friend Ryan suggests) tirade on the meaning of Jesus and Christmas.

You can watch the whole clip here.

I think Colbert’s main point is this: wherever people fall on the Liberal/Conservative spectrum, most define Jesus how they want him to be. And often such descriptions of Jesus create environments of exclusion where the very people Jesus talks so much about (poor and needy) are excluded from our telling of the Christmas story. So why not replace Jesus with “something that’s easier to swallow” Colbert proposes with tongue fully in cheek (something Christians are often guilty of already). In a world where so many are left out, Colbert’s conclusion, while humorous in presentation, is chillingly honest and incisive in its truth:

“Either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are; or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition. And then admit, that we just don’t want to do it.”

Sad, but in many cases true. Colbert’s is a refreshing honesty in a world of sanitized feel-good religion.

give more

And some more on Advent Conspiracy:

#1 [Worship Fully]

#2 [Spend Less]

#3 [Give More]

“Give more” is rooted in God’s action in the nativity story:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).

Now consider Mozambique. In their dry season, lush fields and forests turn brown, and streams evaporate. Many women begin their days before dawn, waiting in line hours to scoop water from an open hole, or walking to a distant river. Sickness and death come from a lack of clean water. God with us?

Or think of those we often call the “outcasts” in our society, many of whom have never participated in the simple act of sharing a Christmas photo - a tangible reminder that you are not forgotten. Without a picture to give or receive, however, these people feel - and even are - forgotten. God with us?

Or picture your favorite Christmas memory. Now picture it alone. Somehow it’s not the same, right? Yet for many people around us, this is their experience of the holidays. Your family is far away; you’re estranged from your siblings; you’re depressed; you’re sick. Christmas only serves to heighten your loneliness. God with us?

Sadly, “Immanuel - God with us” isn’t always a reality. Rather, Immanuel comes in the form of a question: God with us?

But in Matthew’s gospel, “God with us” is a declaration, not a question - a declaration according to the Christmas story and the life of Jesus which is a reality. “Give More” finds its basis in this reality. Give more - God with us!

A leader in the Advent Conspiracy movement makes the following observation: “Many of us remember to repeat this name (Emmanuel) at Christmas each year and tell each other what it means—but do we allow it to permeate the way we live during the Advent season? Is it possible that even our gift-giving could be drenched with this beautiful moment when God gave us his presence in a unique, flesh-and-blood way? The apostle Paul writes that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. God had a face and a voice and he lived with real people. There’s something incredibly tangible about God’s gift. What can that teach us about the way we give Christmas gifts?” For God, giving meant his presence (not presents)

Upon Jesus’ birth, the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the good news. They didn’t give a theology lecture. They gave an introduction. But not an introduction to information - an introduction to a person. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:11).

As someone else has commented, we know from Jesus’ life that “he intentionally cultivated relationships. He paid attention. He listened. He noticed. He did everything that people in a hurry forget to do.” He met needs appropriately – each person or situation was addressed in a personal manner. In the language of today’s often generic, impersonal gift-giving, there were no gift cards from Jesus! God’s giving is incredibly personal – “a Savior has been born to you.”

In Philippians, Paul describes how Jesus came as a servant – “made himself nothing…taking on the very nature of a servant…humbled himself…becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:7-8). God’s gift in Jesus wasn’t the easy route. It involved entering into our world, where sin and brokenness affects everyday lives. One of my favourite verses is John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” God giving more means he felt what we feel, lost what we lose, suffered where we suffer. The one bearing the name, “Immanuel – God with us,” sacrificed his ability to escape reality in order to fully love reality. And this was costly: long nights, long days, frustration, conflict, violence, travel, interrogation, uncertainty – all as a gift – “God with us.” God’s personal presence was risky – it was costly.

Matthew does something neat in his gospel. “God with us” isn’t only a nativity term or a reality referring to the physical presence of Jesus in his 30-some years on earth. The familiar passage goes like this: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:19-20) “God with us” didn’t end with Jesus’ birth and life. God giving more didn’t end 2000 years ago. Giving more continues today. “God with us” lives on…

Now back to Mozambique. As the Mennonite Central Committee reports, they are “working with the Christian Council of Mozambique to drill wells with manual pumps and train local residents to maintain them. By bringing a new source of water to a community, this project also reduces the time people must wait in line at older wells, giving women and girls, who traditionally gather water, additional time for other work or schooling. ‘When you don’t have good access to water, it affects virtually every area of your life—your time, work, relationships, health, cleanliness,’ says Dan Wiens, coordinator of MCC’s food and water programs. This project helps provide water, a gift of life.” God with us!

Or remember those forgotten individuals around us. The Province Newspaper recently reported this moving story: “For the hundreds of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside residents who filed into Carnegie Centre Saturday, December 4, getting their picture taken was a big deal. They climbed the old, well-worn marble stairs to the second floor to take part in Help-Portrait, a global not-for-profit event that brings together less-fortunate people with professional photographers to have their portraits taken, free of charge. "With photographs, you have the opportunity to show people that they are somebody, that they mean something," said photographer Jonathan Cruz. "We're just human like everyone else," said participant Tom Delvecchio, who came to the event with his longtime girlfriend, Tracey Morrison. "We might be poor. Maybe some people are just down on their luck. But we're still human." God with us!

Help-Portrait Vancouver 2010 (Thank You) from Steve Tan on Vimeo.

Or when we think of those who are lonely, imagine this: The new immigrant gets invited for Christmas dinner with a family that came to Canada five years ago. A group of siblings meet for a New Years Eve party for the first time in 12 years. A person attends a Christmas Eve service and for the first time doesn’t have to sit alone. A growth group decides to bring Christmas baking to someone’s parent sick in the hospital. Someone without any family gets invited for a family Christmas dinner and feels complete belonging. Loneliness is met with love and generosity. God with us!

This post comes from a recent sermon I preached at my church. You can listen here.

Calvin and Hobbes Christmas

In my mind, Bill Watterson's cultural commentary in his comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, is genius. His accurate portrayal of North American culture is particularly engaging in his Christmas themed comics.

And as I explore themes of Advent Conspiracy, Watterson brings a humorous, if not challenging, contribution.

And finally, this great quote from Calvin's dad I believe (I couldn't find the comic itself):

Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food and beer. Who'd have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment and spirituality would mix so harmoniously?

emmanuel prayer

God, we thank you for your gift of Emmanuel
God with us!
Where there is pain, sorrow and sickness
God with us!
Where there is healing, care and comfort
God with us!
Where there is addiction, abuse and brokenness
God with us!
Where there is recovery, belonging, and meaning
God with us!
Where there is loneliness, conflict, and despair
God with us!
Where there is belonging and reconciliation
God with us!
May we live our lives and our lives with others in your presence
Emmanuel, God with us!

spend less

More on Advent Conspiracy:

#1 [Worship Fully]

#2 [Spend Less]

How we spend says a lot about what we value. And I’m not just talking about money. How we spend our time, our energy, our resources and even ourselves reveals a lot.

I’ll admit, “spend less” is probably my least favorite of the Advent Conspiracy themes. It’s difficult to imagine and can quickly develop into guilt or misguided decisions. I know it's not supposed to be Scrooge-like, but spend less on what? Unless we’re all ready to move into the mountains and remove ourselves from society, spending less can become a confusing chorus that echoes impulsive non-spending. Don’t get me wrong, I think we could do with a lot less spending, especially on things we don’t need. Let’s just be clear on why we’re spending less (or at least spending differently).

I’d actually prefer the theme “spend well.” I think our excessive spending problem is largely the result of excessive ignorance - we don’t think about how we spend our money (or time, energy, etc...). Spending well means thinking through our priorities.

If we look at the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph likely had to do some serious thinking around the direction their lives took those few angelic visitations. It’s clear Joseph wasn’t impulsive. He rationalized a way out of the situation (divorce), yet became convinced to “spend less” on his own reputation by following through with the marriage to Mary (Mt. 1:18-25). The journey to Bethlehem; the birth in a stable; a detour to Egypt - all examples of re-prioritizing their lives. Their decisions were focused and informed by a knowledge of their role in the world - parents of “Emmanuel.” Interestingly, we never consider the financial strain being parents to the son of God could have put on Mary and Joseph. What would have happened if they refused to re-prioritize? Refused to "spend well"? In a way, God relied on their re-prioritizing for his plan to be fulfilled.

Hmm...there’s something to think about...

the hopeful judgment of advent

We typically don’t associate Christmas with bad or negative news. I mean, from a Christian perspective, the incarnation of Christ is the beginning of “the good news” - Immanuel (“God-with-us”) is a reality!

Yet one of the Advent texts in Isaiah goes like this:

The LORD Almighty has a day in store
for all the proud and lofty,

for all that is exalted

(and they will be humbled),

for all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and lofty,

and all the oaks of Bashan,

for all the towering mountains

and all the high hills,

for every lofty tower

and every fortified wall,

for every trading ship[a]

and every stately vessel.

The arrogance of man will be brought low

and human pride humbled;

the LORD alone will be exalted in that day,

and the idols will totally disappear.

People will flee to caves in the rocks

and to holes in the ground

from the fearful presence of the LORD

and the splendor of his majesty,

when he rises to shake the earth.

In that day people will throw away

to the moles and bats

their idols of silver and idols of gold,

which they made to worship.

They will flee to caverns in the rocks

and to the overhanging crags

from the fearful presence of the LORD

and the splendor of his majesty,

when he rises to shake the earth.

Stop trusting in mere humans,

who have but a breath in their nostrils.

Why hold them in esteem?

(Isaiah 2:12-22 NIV)

Hmm. That’s not very Christmasy, is it? Well, I read a reflection this week that stated the good news of Christmas must include the "hopeful judgment" of this Isaiah passage. Read this piece carefully, as I think it helpfully nuances a positive view of judgment (literally, “making things right”):

The problem is that good news without prophetic critique invariably is a cover-up. Good news that will not openly and honestly confront that which perpetuates brokenness and sin is not good news at all. An Advent without judgment isn’t Advent at all. It is a secular Christmas with store-bought peace.

Isaiah will have nothing of such cheap grace. If the day of the Lord will be a day of justice, mercy and shalom, then it must be a day against all cultural life that fosters injustice, cruelty and war...

And so we must discern what the day of the Lord is against in our culture. What are our symbols of cultural prestige--a BMW? Our places of idol worship--the shopping malls and the stock exchange? Our structures of autonomous security--skyscrapers and military systems? Our implements of economic prosperity--NAFTA? Do these dimensions of our cultural lives arise out of a worldview pimped by idols? If they do, then they with their idols will all utterly pass away on the terrible day of the Lord.

But is that really bad news? Is all of this against language really as depressing as it at first appears? Or is there a profound hope in this prophecy of a day of judgment?...this abandonment of idolatry is fundamentally good news...

To live with an Advent hope is to anticipate the day when idols will pass away and we will no longer feel compelled to pay them homage. Such a hope engenders faithful living now, no longer subject to false gods of death and oppression because we are subjects of a coming kingdom of life and liberation.

Not unlike Mary in my previous post, Advent confronts us with a challenge of allegiance - who/what will we worship?

container village - VOTE SOME MORE!!!

So, last time I appealed for your support of Container Village, they were trying to make it into the semi-finals of the Aviva Insurance Community Fund contest. Well, thanks to a final push, they squeeked in (thanks to all who voted!).

Now it's time to vote some more. And it doesn't matter where you are or where you're from. You have the chance to participate in the making a tangible difference in the lives of hundreds of homeless people in the Tri-Cities region of B.C. (part of the Greater Vancouver Regional District). Please help!

SIGN-UP HERE (please take the time - it's for a good cause)

VOTE HERE (reminder: you can vote once per day until Dec. 15th - they need all your votes!)

Here's an overview of the project:

Container Village is a "temporary" shelter idea for the Tri-Cities (Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody), a suburb of Vancouver With civic approval they are responding to a community concern to shelter the homeless by creating a "Container Based Homeless Village" out of donated specially altered shipping containers. Every room is heated, fireproofed and offers reading lights.

VOTE HERE (in case you missed it)

If need musical/visual inspiration, watch this:

Also, check out this artist's rendering of the finished project:


worship fully

I mentioned earlier that our church is participating in Advent Conspiracy again this year, with each Sunday of advent reflecting on one of the four themes of the project: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Each week of advent I’m going to reflect on these themes on my blog. So, theme #1:

[Worship Fully]

The Advent Conspiracy folks put it like this:

It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus. This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year. Entering the story of advent means entering this season with an overwhelming passion to worship Jesus to the fullest.

It’s important to understand what is meant by "worship" here. Much more than a Sunday service or singing along to your favorite (or least favorite) religious radio station, worship involves all of life. Eugene Peterson explains this idea of worship well in his translation of Romans 12:1: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering” (MSG). I think this is a the type of “holistic approach” Advent Conspiracy aims to inspire us towards.

For Mary, the mother of Jesus, you could add pregnancy to this list of ordinary everyday experiences. While her call to bear God’s son was immensely spiritual (Holy Spirit conception), the fact is, she was pregnant - one of the most ordinary (and extraordinary!) down-to-earth experiences of human life. Having journeyed with my wife through pregnancy, I know there is no sanitizing of this 9-month experience of both wonder and tribulation. And we see how for Mary, worship is important in the midst of her situation. She doesn’t wait till Jesus is born to express her adoration and commitment to God. And if she only knew what awaited her! Yet worship bursts forth from the very reality of Mary’s physical experience. Immanuel, ‘God with us’, is a reality that warrants response - worship:

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
(Luke 1:46-55 NIV)

In a season where our commitment - our worship - is constantly competed for (watch TV for 10 minutes if you don’t know what I mean), Mary’s response confronts us with a challenge: will our everyday experience of life - the “ordinary” - bring us to worship, where in all we do, our “soul glorifies the Lord”?