god with us

A family struggles to make ends meet. The father faces sporadic work. The mother endures chronic illness. Three kids. Two in school. One just born this fall. Eviction notices greet them monthly as they just barely scrape together enough to pay the bills – a roof over their heads for one more month. This year’s Christmas hamper smaller than usual. 2012 looms with much of the same. They just want to get back on our feet.

A young man lives with rejection. Last year’s holiday included a marriage proposal. Joy. Elation. Expectation ran deep. Plans were made. But then plans have changed. Well, her plans changed. Last year’s expectation is this year’s loneliness and despair. He just wants to be happy again.

She has a great family, career, home, church – independence. “The good life” many would say. She loves her husband and 10-year-old son. But in the rare moments of quiet and self-reflection, dissatisfaction creeps from the shadows. Life is a blur. Christmas only increases the busyness. She barely has time to enjoy this good life she’s made for herself. Success hasn’t brought fulfillment. She just wants some peace and contentment.


At Christmas, the search for happiness and fulfillment is present in many ways, for all people...

Perhaps you hear parts of your story this Christmas in these stories here. We all, in different ways, long for fulfillment in our lives.

The right amount of money.
The right relationships.
The right spirituality.
The right, well, anything.

Everything is fair game in the search for personal happiness. “It’s all about me” is the world’s mantra.

And it’s the same for religious folks. Only now it’s me with God. My ability to connect with God. “Me with God.”

It’s an age-old search, this desire for fulfillment.

But...

all our striving,
all of history’s examples of societal bliss,
all of religion’s attempts to get the spiritual formula just right
all our attempts to have a successful life
all these things are revealed to be, in the words of a wise old man, “a chasing after the wind,” meaningless even. Meaningless in the sense that self-created happiness fades away.

If it ever comes at all.

Striving for happiness and fulfillment, this idea of “Me with God,” is a tragic reversal of the actual reality of Christmas.

It’s not “me with God,” it’s “God with us.”


We read about it. We sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” – come, God, with us!

The picture is profound, but not in the way we’d expect from the Creator of all things. Not in an “out-there,” esoteric, spiritual way, God identifies with the very reality of human existence; life in this often confusing and broken world.

You know the story:

A questionable couple. A dirty barn. Farm animals. Stench and loneliness intermingled in a picture of physical and social struggle. And then the he comes. The Messiah, the Son of God, Immanuel. Names suggesting royalty, power. But here?

This One comes not in power but in weakness. A baby. God with us in weakness.

We know weakness. In our striving, we fail to find fulfillment. If we’re honest, we’ll never get enough money, or find that perfect relationship, or be continually content with life’s circumstances.

But we don’t walk this journey alone. In our search for fulfillment we're confronted with a different picture altogether. Not God-fixing-everything-in-our-life-so-we’ll-be-happy-all-the-time-with-no-reason-to-complain-ever-again. No, our lives will likely continue to mirror the life of an outcast family in stable of a small obscure town. But weakness meets God’s presence.

God immerses himself in this common part of human experience. Identifying with weakness is God’s avenue to overcoming brokenness, pain and death. After all, what begins with the birth of a baby culminates in the re-birth of new life, resurrection.

No more tears.
No more death.
No more striving for that elusive fulfillment.

After conquering death, rising from the grave, Jesus reaffirmed the Immanuel message of his birth. “I will be with you until the end of the age.”

Our hopes and dreams for this life – and the next – can be complex, filled with a combination of hope and uncertainty. Christmas sometimes brings these to the forefront. And in that moment of trying to figure everything out in our lives, we pause.

We remember
We remind
We treasure
We share
We place our hope
We rest in the presence

of “Immanuel, God with us”

Christmas – all of life! – God. With. Us.


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!

hum of the holidays

Is it just me, or does the week leading up to Christmas have a buzz in the air? Literally. You could almost say that Christmas is actually audible. Call it the “hum of the holidays.”

At Christmas, there is just more of everything.

Traffic.
People.
Food. LOTS of food.
Conversation.
Music.
Drink. LOTS...oh wait...No :-).
Honking.
Advertisements. LOTS of advertisements.
Gatherings.

My initial reaction is to say this is the sound of busyness. Each individual aspect of Christmas coalescing into a holiday carol that transcends them all - this “hum of the holidays” chorus. And depending on your personal disposition, this all-encompassing noise can be either exhilarating, exhausting, annoying, or simply go unnoticed. For me, it depends on my mood. In general, though, I think our world could do with a little less busyness. So when such busyness is amped up like at Christmas (who controls the volume dial?), part of me cringes and wonders if this is the way it has to be. I hope not.

But before my inner-Scrooge takes over, I need to remember that not all the verses of this cultural carol have to sing of the dark side to busyness. The song isn’t called “The Negativity.”

Perhaps one verse sings of connection - relationships strengthened in a time that for some reason, people are that much more ready to commit to a few extra hours together. We are relational beings after all. Being together can be a bright side to busyness.

And maybe another verse sings of generosity. Despite the consumeristic selfishness lurking behind the tradition of Christmas gift-giving, the premise itself remains a good one. As we celebrate the ultimate gift - Immanuel, God with us - our gift-giving reflects our nature - a nature made in the image of a self-giving God.

Lastly, as a parent, I can’t help but think another verse has to be for the kids. And not just in a fun "Frosty the Snow Man" or "Jingle Bells" sort-of way. There is something about the wonder and mystery of Christmas from a child’s perspective that shines through the busyness (be it the Santa-version or the Jesus-version). Trust combines with awe combines with expectation that - although at times infused with sugary-induced, present-crazed zaniness - should inspire wonder and hope in the most cynical of holiday observers. Jesus was onto something.

Connection.
Generosity.
Wonder.

As we continue to participate in this cultural carol - “hum of the holidays” - may we remember to sing these important verses loudly, harmonized for all to hear.

Rob Bell, celebrity pastors, and...a baby

Popular American pastor Rob Bell has preached his final sermon in advance of moving on to pursue other opportunities. You can read the transcript here. (h/t Kurt Willems)

Whether you like Rob Bell or not, there is no denying his departure from Mars Hill Bible Church will impact the mega church. Observing his transition, and reflecting on leadership transitions in the church in general, reminds me of just how much emphasis Christians put on good leadership. And while there is biblical basis for strong leadership, in a culture that highly values trained expertise, Christian leadership has become a sort-of subculture itself, separate from the church it’s supposed to serve.

As a result, churches can easily become dependant on their leader, not the fact that they are a dynamic group of Jesus-followers called to gather in life together regardless of who leads them (Acts 2:42). Like a celebrity-endorsed product, too often the church’s success depends on the pastor - the celebrity.

In his final address, Rob Bell calls out against this danger, offering an alternative vision for his church family:

when people ask 'what about mars hill?' or 'what's mars hill
going to do?' it's as if mars hill is a disembodied reality with a life of its own.
here's the twist: the church is not an inanimate, impersonal product. there is no 'mars hill' in theory.
there is no abstract, disembodied entity mars hill apart from the people in this room who ARE mars hill.
so when people say what's going to happen to mars hill? they're asking what's going to happen to you.
what are you going to do? how are you going to respond?
you are the answer,
because you are the church.
mars hill is not a product,
it is a gathering of people.
you.


The cynic in me thinks Bell’s church will struggle in his departure. Whether he likes it or not, he is a celebrity leader to a lot people. But the optimist in me sees hope in Bell’s words - hope for the broader Christian church in general. The church is not a product, it is a gathering of people. As a pastor myself, this is an important reminder.
Such a message is especially relevant this time of year - a time of year when the Nativity story redefines the categories of leadership, blatantly opposing the celebrity pastor model.

A questionable couple. A dirty barn. Farm animals. Stench and loneliness intermingled in a picture of physical and social struggle. And then the leader comes. The Messiah, the Son of God, Immanuel. But he comes not in power but in weakness. A baby. This is the church’s model for leadership. This is God’s model of leadership - “servant...humble” (Phil 2:7-8).

What does the success of Mars Hill Bible Church depend on? What does the success of your church depend on? What does the success of the global church depend on?

The greatest leader to ever live - a leader who’s strength is genuine weakness.

Our leader is a baby.

a story of waiting

During Advent, Christians often focus on the parts of Christmas story leading up to Jesus’s birth - Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and the angel Gabriel, Joseph’s dream, the Magi beginning their journey.

But the events surrounding the nativity story go even further back, years before Jesus’ birth...


There was this young Jewish man – he encountered God, not unlike the prophets of old. The Holy Spirit was upon him. To others, he was always distracted. His attention was never on the present. In the marketplace, in conversation, in his home with family, and especially in the Temple, his gaze – his attention – was always on the horizon. It was like he lived in a constant state of waiting.

Because he did. You see, he’d received a promise that he would see the Messiah of Israel in his lifetime. “The Messiah?” he thought. “Wow! The One who will restore our nation back to greatness; restore God’s favour like it was in the days of David and Solomon!” What a message! It was an exciting time. It was distracting in the most hopeful of ways.

His expectation ran so deep he moved to Jerusalem and made of point of going regularly to the Temple to worship, committing himself to this waiting, often telling others of his hope.

But time passed. Waiting got difficult, monotonous even. Excitement waned. Yet even in uncertainty,, the man kept going to the Temple, committed to the promise that his waiting was not in vain. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Waiting. Waiting for the consolation of Israel.

The man was still waiting in old age. His body aching. His mind wandering. He was tired. Navigating the slopes of Jerusalem streets got more and more difficult. Yet, he persisted. He didn’t lose hope. Seeing this hobbling old man day after day - often muttering strange things under his breath - the people in the Temple wondered, “What is he waiting for?”

Yet the man wasn’t the only one waiting. There was an old woman in the Temple who didn’t join the others in questioning ridicule. She could relate. Hers was a similar story.

As was the norm, she had married at a young age. But tragedy struck, and she was widowed shortly after marriage. But rather then remarry, the woman dedicated herself to worship and prayer, choosing a life of simplicity and devotion, day and night fasting and praying in the Temple. It was here that God met her.

At first, people were surprised to see this young widow of seeming insignificance hear from God. She developed a reputation as one with great wisdom, a prophet even. All of this despite her obscure family background from one of the Northern tribes of Israel, a place God was thought to have abandoned long ago.

Nearly 70 years passed. Day and night in the Temple.

She could remember the day the man first showed up, young and full of excitement for this great promise he had received. But where others doubted his message, she believed him. “The Messiah was coming! Our oppression at the hands of Romans will end. Our limited freedom to worship as Jews will be gone. The king of David will reign again!” She was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. She joined the man in his waiting.

But that was decades ago.

Now in their old age, even she wondered if the promise of a Messiah would be fulfilled. She was weary, often dozing instead of praying - hunger pangs that much more intense as her aging body endured the toll of regular fasting again and again. She was getting weak.

But like the man, she persisted. Waiting wasn’t a curse, but a blessing, accompanied by the presence and promises of God.

Together, the man and woman found purpose in their waiting. The words of the great prophet Isaiah remained their hope:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the LORD returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.

They watched together, their daily commitment spurred on by the prophet’s promise, “They will see it with their own eyes.” Where some in the Temple lamented Israel’s waiting, the man and woman found hope in the very act of waiting. Waiting wasn’t passive. Waiting wasn’t to be avoided.

For Simeon and Anna, waiting was holy.

Where is the Advent music?

I've been thinking a lot about waiting this Advent.

I also like Christmas music. I don't mind spending the month of December listening to cheesy holiday music breeze the airwaves in home, car, mall, etc...

But most Christmas music isn't Advent music. There isn't much waiting.

O Come O Come Emmanuel is about it - which happens to be one of my favorite Christmas songs.

So I was surprised to note the lyrics of one popular Christmas tune that I'd never noticed before.

When a Child is Born - my favorite version is by Boney M - places the good news of Christmas firmly within the context of waiting - waiting in hopeful expectation that sorrow of this life won't reign forever. The hope of the baby's birth is meaningful in the very fact that we wait. It's good news because we wait.

...And all of this happened
Because the world is waiting
Waiting for one child
Black, white, yellow, no one knows
But a child that would grow up and turn tears to laughter
Hate to love, war to peace
And everyone to everyone's neighbour
Misery and suffering would be forgotten forever...

This comes to pass when a child is born...

In a time of countless shallow Christmas songs, the depth of this song - even in all its cheesiness - has enriched my Advent journey.

Any other good Advent songs to recommend?


For your listening and watching pleasure, check out this music video of the Johnny Mathis version of When A Child is Born:


conspiracy fatigue?

I’ll start by saying this: I like Advent Conspiracy. I’ve shown my support several times here before. The call to “worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all” during this season of incessant me-centered spending is greatly needed. I continue to lead my church through the project (we’re conspiring now for the 3rd time).

But I wonder, has Advent Conspiracy run its course? I’ve noticed less cyber-buzz as in past years. Have we reached conspiracy fatigue?

Here’s the problem as I see it. I’m not convinced a conspiracy can sustain itself. Can and should Christian faith and practice (in this case, Advent) be framed as a conspiracy? I like the counter-cultural undertones, yes. Jesus was very counter-cultural himself. So was the early church and many other examples in the past 2000 years. No, my concern is that conspiracy is a limited concept. People conspire together for a specific task, like the overthrow of a government. A conspiracy by definition, is temporary and measurable.

Advent - the season of expectation and remembrance of the coming of Christ into the world - is in many ways unlimited and immeasurable. We celebrate it every year. You don’t overthrow the government every year (I hope not at least!). And more importantly, I believe, is the message that Christ’s coming is a permanent reality that calls for a radical change in our whole lives - to “worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all” are not just practices to seasonally conspire at. I worry that Advent Conspiracy becomes a droning “do do do” that, ironically, ends up mirroring the very busyness it’s trying to conspire against.

I don’t mean to be negative or cynical. The movement has wonderfully raised millions of dollars for clean drinking water and hopefully inspired millions of people to reconsider how they celebrate Christmas. And I pray that continues. But as a conspiracy, I worry that the change in behavior is temporary, which I don't think is the intention of the movement. Perhaps Advent Conspiracy has served it’s purpose. It’s raised awareness and new action. But in our conspiracy fatigue, perhaps it’s time to move on.

I want to suggest that the conspiracy needs character. Perhaps a new name is in order: Advent Character (boring, I know). Instead of practices just at Advent we need character to sustain us the other eleven months of the year. The fruit of the movement needs the fruit of the Spirit! The traditional Advent themes - hope, peace, joy, and love - are needed to sustain our conspiring actions. Worship, giving, and love, while represented in the actions of Advent Conspiracy, are rooted in our character as God’s people. We are worshiping people. We are giving people. We are loving people. As we embrace this character of our identity, practices will come naturally. We don’t need a conspiracy if we have character.

No doubt my suggestion won’t become popular. Or turn into a movement. Nor should it. If we’re honest, the path of Christian character is difficult and frustrating. Our ideals bump up against the reality of sin and brokenness every day. Darkness overwhelms glimmers of light. It’s hard to wait for the world to get better.

But that’s what Advent is all about, is it not? Waiting. Advent character can help us as we wait.

dealing with destruction

“We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.” (MB Confession of Faith)

This phrase is part of my denomination’s confession of faith, asserting the centrality of the Bible for the Christian life. I have no trouble accepting this assertion...usually.

Stories about Jesus and phrases like “God is love” and “love one another” (1 Jn. 4) form some of the best testimony for the world to follow Jesus.

But there is a problem.

The Bible also includes some words and sections and images that provide some of the worst testimony for the world to follow Jesus. Old Testament records of judgment and destruction portray a God bent on wrathful destruction not loving embrace. In the New Testament, grotesque apocalyptic images from Revelation are enough to scare anyone away from God.

In today’s world, as much as love is a common reason to accept God, judgment and destruction are common reasons to reject God. How do biblical texts about wrath and judgment fit with the message love? This is a common objection to Christianity. “God is love” is seen as a facade, hiding the real God - a wrathful, destructive, judging ruler of the universe.

As Christians, how we respond to this objection is crucial, especially if we want to hold onto the view that the Bible is still authoritative in matters of life and faith. Dealing with destruction is no small task.

But Christians often quickly leap to answering the how and why of God’s judgment as we find it in the Bible, without taking time to pause. And be honest.

Christians are allowed to struggle with God’s judgment too.

Already in my early tenure as a pastor, I’ve had three sermons I didn’t particularly enjoy. God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19), David defeating the Amalakites (1 Sam. 30), and God enacting various forms of judgment on the world (Rev. 8-9). On the surface, there are very few, if any, redeeming features in these biblical texts. If anything, they just confirm the negative image of a mean God held by so many people. And so for each sermon I’ve started out by admitting my hesitation to speak of God’s judgment. I don’t like it.

And only then do I go about dealing with destruction. Answers come, for sure. Perhaps another post is warranted. But before answers comes honesty: I don’t like wrath and judgment. Considering God’s intention for humanity (Gen. 1-2, Rev. 21-22), I don’t think I’m supposed to.