Love with us

At Christmas, we refer often to "Emmanuel," the prophetic name for Jesus meaning, "God with us."

It's a profound concept, this incarnation of God in the world. Divinity and humanity fully united. Theologians have spent centuries exploring this mysterious union. Wonder, awe, and joy are likely responses to such a blessed truth. Our Christmas celebrations will no doubt honor Emmanuel in many ways this week.

Yet if you're like me, there is also a December dissonance that comes with celebrating our lofty beliefs in the incarnation. We look around in the world and see much violence and conflict, sickness and disease, sin and brokenness. Self-doubts can creep into our consciousness as we recognize our own failures. There are times that the good news of Christmas is better framed as a question: God with us?

But then we encounter the Nativity narrative and should take heart. Just when you'd expect God's perfect revelation to be perfectly revealed, you get this:
  • Mary – pregnant teenager
  • Joseph – typical Jewish man
  • Zechariah – average priest 
  • Elizabeth – barren, “well along in years”
  • Shepherds – low social standing, rough around the edges, violent even
  • Wise men – pagans, non-Jewish religious folks
  • Herod – a mad king
The grandeur of God’s love incarnate is revealed in the messiness of everyday life, the type of messiness we know all to well ourselves. Other-worldly ideas exist in a down-to-earth reality. God’s love isn't “out there” bound by abstract caricatures of how the supreme powerful creator of the world can and should act. Just when we think the world is beyond God, God reaches beyond our expectations into the world. 

In the Nativity, we get love in its fullest sense:
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 1 John 4:9

And the good news of Christmas is this: love with us!

I'm taking a year-end blogging break - Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

the risk of incarnation

Parker Palmer on the risk of incarnation:

"The story of God taking the risk and showing up in the flesh"

"A risk we are all called to...the risk of being fully human..."

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

This phrase is offered as a sort-of “how’s the weather” alternative for social small talk during December. Typical answers revolve around buying presents and attending Christmas parties. In a busy time of year, this is a natural banter we can unite ourselves around. It’s amazing and amusing (and troubling!?) how shared stress unites!

This year has been no different.

Personally, however, the question has come to mean something more than presents and parties. In the context of Advent, I’ve realized “Are you ready for Christmas?” takes on a whole new meaning.

Am I ready for hope? Peace? Joy? and Love?

And, really, am I ready for Jesus!?!

Such questions are no small talk. But then, Advent and Christmas are no small talk either. Advent as a time of preparation calls for deep reflection on these questions. And the fact easy answers are absent is kind of the point. We have a period of preparation in Advent because answering these questions takes time. Reflection is hard work.

Such reflection reveals the tension of Advent:

I want hope for a world filled with stories of hopelessness.

I want peace when stories of violence continue to shock us day after day.

I want joy in a time when pessimism seems to reign on so many levels.

I want love knowing how peoples’ default feeling is one of rejection or judgement.

Yet this desire for God’s reign in the Advent themes comes with the stark reminder of how my own life often neglects such aspirations. Advent words can easily become empty words - what “I want” isn’t lived out. My life isn’t consistent with the reality of “God with us.” In this sense, I’m far from ready for Christmas. I’m guessing I’m not alone.

We can hide from such deeper reflections, busying ourselves with Christmas chaos as we are so prone to do. Or we can hide in self-pity and retreat from our own failures at being more hopeful, peaceful, joyful, and loving. Or we can realize that Advent and Christmas was never about our readiness to begin with.

Instead of readiness, we get this realization: God is ready...for hope, peace, joy and love.

Yes, we hide, distracted and insecure.

But in Advent, God calls out in the most hopeful, peaceful, joyful and loving way:

“Ready or not, here I come.”

Gun control - "Fear not, Seek peace"

Indeed, the lament and mourning will continue in the wake of another violent tragedy.

But action is also needed:

a lament: "peace on earth"

In Advent and Christmas, as we look to the Prince of Peace, too often we are confronted with the very absence of what we’re celebrating.

This week is no different. With yet another devastating shooting, families left are mourning the senseless loss of their innocent children. And we all mourn. We wonder, where is this peace on earth?

Now isn't the time for trite answers. We can't fabricate our advent themes of hope and peace and joy and love. Nor should we. Even the Prince of Peace wept at the suffering in our world. I think Jesus is still weeping.

U2's lament, "Peace on Earth" has been on my mind lately, today even more. Timely words this sad advent day...
Heaven on Earth
We need it now
I'm sick of all of this
Hanging around
Sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there's gonna be
Peace on Earth...

Jesus this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
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
Peace on Earth
Peace on Earth

light in the darkness

As we near the winter solstice, many people struggle with the shorter days and longer nights. Daily life carries with it a constant weariness. The reality of a drenching greyness that characterizes life on the “Wet” Coast only exacerbates the fatigue. For many these winter days, living in darkness is no metaphor.

Added to this seasonal experience are the areas where living in darkness is indeed metaphorical of other struggles in life: fear, loneliness, despair, sickness, frustration, apathy, gloom, wickedness, questions, brokenness, misery.


Then we hear this:

The people walking in darkness
   have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
   a light has dawned.
Is. 9:2

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Jn. 1:4-5

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jn. 8:12

These familiar Christmas words are filled with hope, no doubt. Reflect on them. Soak in the light that overcomes the darkness.

But also be honest.

Too often the light of Christ is portrayed as little more than Christmas cheer, in which going through the motions of holiday tradition with a smile on your face is somehow supposed to magically cure your ills. Light, we believe, is something we acquire by an act of our will. Being “happy” and “merry” are fabricated cures for escaping the darkness, or at the very least, ignoring it.

Sentimentalizing the light of Christmas ends up trivializing the darkness of our lives.

Let’s not forget there is darkness even in the nativity story:
  • Mary - social darkness through an illegitimate pregnancy.
  • Joseph - secrets of his betrothed cast a shadow on his place in a community.
  • Zechariah and Elizabeth - barrenness dims any hope of a future.
Where are you experiencing darkness this Christmas season?

Interesting, though, that these individuals didn’t overcome their darkness to only then encounter God’s light. No, in the midst of their darkness, light broke through the gloom of worry, exclusion, fear, and uncertainty. Not light after the darkness. Light in the darkness.

Yes, December is dark for many. Let’s not pretend it isn’t. And the hope of Christmas isn’t to ignore or escape this darkness for a period of temporary holiday happiness.

In our darkness, we don’t find the light; the light finds us. 

The light shines in the darkness...
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned

Related: Light of the World 

preparing for peace

Advent is all about preparation and waiting.

I take comfort in how prominent waiting is in the Bible. The Christmas story itself is full of waiting. The old couple Elizabeth and Zechariah knew waiting. Childless in their world was a social curse – “disgrace” as Elizabeth herself puts it. The blessing of religious leadership for Zechariah, a priest, was missing the sign of a blessed life: children. And along with all faithful Jews, they waited for their Messiah, for a restoration of God’s promise of peace made long ago. Waiting had both personal and communal implications. Life was incomplete.

Then Zechariah had a vision, an encounter with a holy being, an angel. They were to have a son!

Do things ever make you laugh or scoff in church, or reading, or prayer? “Ha! Yeah right.”

Zechariah, naturally, doubts. “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” Muted waiting becomes his lot.  Until, miraculously, pregnancy is followed by the birth of the promised child. And then we get what’s known as Zechariah’s song:

Nativity of the Forerunner
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Luke 1:67-79

With all his hope and confidence, Zechariah’s still proclaiming a future reality. Waiting is still his lot. His prophet son is still a baby after all. Romans still ruled. Peace wasn’t the path.

So why this preemptive song of hope?

We often think of waiting as a passive exercise. But it isn’t. For Zechariah, waiting wasn’t wasted. He wasn’t satisfied waiting for peace. Zechariah was preparing for peace.

This Advent, anticipating the Prince of Peace, how are we preparing for peace?

We long for peace in our lives, in our community, and in the our world.
And we wait for peace, perhaps even more this time of year.
May we join Zechariah, preparing for peace, committed through the gift of God’s love and salvation, to walk the “path of peace.”

Related: a story of waiting

**This post is adapted from my recent sermon, "Preparing for Peace"**

weekly clips: "Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel"

Are your expectations for the perfect Christmas sabotaging your chance to experience the real path of Christmas? What will it take to begin a fresh journey? Are you trapped in the same mechanical process of preparing for Christmas year after year? With whom in your life can you start new and meaningful traditions that celebrate Jesus' incarnation?


who would you have lunch with?

There is a story floating around cyberspace this week about forgiveness, Ted Haggard, and Christian community. A pastor reaches out to disgraced evangelical leader, Ted Haggard, through the simple act of inviting him for lunch. It's a touching story.

You can read it here: Michael Cheshire, "Going to Hell with Ted Haggard"

Here’s my initial response (which I posted in a comment over at Jesus Creed):

I appreciate the engagement and love reflected in this story.

One phrase, however, has troubled me: “Of course, I understand that if a person doesn’t repent there is not a whole lot you can offer.”

Really? I understand and value accountability within Christian community, as well has having a certain moral standard for leadership. But I see a resignation in this phrase that dismisses the complex journey of sin and repentance as the Holy Spirit convicts. Can one still meet Ted Haggard for lunch if he hadn’t repented? I’d hope so.

I’m glad Michael Cheshire pushes us evangelicals with this story. I just think he could have pushed us further.

And here a few more thoughts for consideration:

We can and should graciously love those on the outside (“Love your neighbor” - Mt. 22:39)

We can and should graciously love those on the inside of Christian community, as this story illustrates. (i.e. “Love one another” - 1 Jn. 4).

Where Christians struggle, however, is how to graciously love those who were on the inside, but now find themselves on the outside.

I don’t think there is simple solution, for as I’ve already mentioned, sin and repentance is a complex journey. And in the context of Christian community, especially those we empower in leadership, complex can be an understatement to describe how to process situations such as Ted Haggard’s.

But that’s not what troubles me with Cheshire’s story. I think ministry leadership is conditional, sure. But leadership role and friendship are different. And I don’t think friendship is necessarily conditional. Sometimes friendship is the most and best we can offer to someone not seeing the err of their ways, whatever the situation. Abandonment isn’t biblical accountability.

So my question I’m pondering is this: what type of people are we friends with? Insiders? Outsiders? Or everybody?

Or more simply, who would you have lunch with?

taken for granted

It was typical late-fall rainy Saturday on the West Coast as my son and I meandered through town. One of our stops included the bottle depot - a chance to “cash in” on the pile of containers that had collected in our garage. We cashed in on a whopping $12.60 (which is actually a fair-amount if you’re familiar with bottle returns).

For years we’ve been in the practice of giving our bottles or the money we cash in to various charities or good causes. This year we agreed the neighborhood food bank was a worthy option.

But as we were leaving the bottle depot, we met homeless man going about his daily business (i.e. cashing in bottles from his daily bike route). Incidentally, I had just met him earlier in the week at said food bank. I knew he lived in a tent by a nearby river.

So at the car I asked my son if we should give the man the money instead. He agreed. Turning around we went and introduced ourselves and gave our gift. The man remembered me, although he was a little stunned, perhaps wondering what the catch was. Then my son and him bandied on about bears, coyotes and other critters that are a normal part of living in the woods. My son was intrigued to say the least and the conversation went on for a few minutes. But it was raining, so into our warm car we went, off to do more errands and eventually head back to the confines of our dry home. Off we went.

 “Why do we have a house daddy?”

My distracted Saturday-errand-mind was jolted to attention. I take our house for granted. Yes, there is bills and mortgage payments that remind me whose house it really is. But for the most part, I don’t think about it. It’s my house. I take a house for granted.

And of all people, shouldn’t my four-year-old son take his house for granted?

Obviously not.

Now distracted by the profundity of my 4-year-old's question, I gave a simple answer: “Um, because we’re lucky to have enough money to live in a house.”

His “oh” was followed by my internal “whew” - discussion diverted to preparing for our next stop, the pool! My reflection on this one question, however, has persisted.

My son’s world is getting bigger. He notices things - notices important social realities. He’s meeting people who are different than us. And being more social than I’ll ever be, he has no problem striking up a conversation with a stranger whoever it is. As such, he’s learning.

And I’m learning.

I’m learning that generosity is more about sharing with others than me giving from a position of superiority or wealth (as if $$ is all we have to give!). The homeless man’s gentle interaction with my son was a gift worth far more than our $12.60. Need and vulnerability is measured in more than dollars and cents.

I’m also learning to discover where I should stop taking areas of my life for granted. My seemingly trivial residence actually reflects a deep dependence on the support of others, be it from family, banks (!?!), or employers.

And finally, like most parents, I get tired of the relentless ‘whys?’ from my son. Yet like most parents, I’m learning that sometimes ‘why?’ is often the very question I need to stop me in my distracted tracks.

If there’s one thing I can take for granted, it’s that there is much wisdom to be found in hanging out with a 4-year-old, ‘whys?’ and all!

Recommended: Tim Keel, The Cardboard Shack Beneath the Bridge

weekly clips: "recapturing advent" - Stanley Hauerwas