Advent day 23/Christmas Eve

I’m polishing off my notes for my Christmas Eve message. Besides the customary Isaiah and Luke passages, I am using this text from Colossians:

Colossians 1:11-20

1May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The points of emphasis for me are “image of the invisible God” and “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”. What does God look like? A baby? A baby with questionable paternity? A baby whose parents were too poor/slow/unconnected to find a warm place to welcome him into the world? A baby born into a people under imperial rule? This is God? If we can find divinity in these circumstances, why can’t we find it in other places?

But let’s be honest, it’s really easy to see God in a baby. Babies are hope, joy, peace, and loved wrapped into an adorable bundle. But I think the point of the incarnation might be that God can be found in all of humanity. I’m not saying we’re all gods. I’m saying that there is something divine in all of us and we would do well to work a little harder to find that of the divine in the other.

I took a marvelous class my first semester of seminary entitle “Jesus: Images and Experiences”. It was primarily about the ways that Jesus has been portrayed in art. The interesting thing that came out of that class for me was the fact that every culture has created a Jesus in their own cultural image. There is art with African Jesus, Chinese Jesus, European Jesus, American Jesus… everyone once their piece. It’s because we all want our images of ourselves reinforced. And their have been periods in history when many oppressed people have absolutely needed to see Christ in their image for their own sense of self esteem and self worth. But now, we have to go out of ourselves and begin to recognize the divine in the “other”. This is the challenge that the incarnation lays at our feet. God is in flesh. Something of God is in all flesh. Even flesh that is very much unlike my own. I can see God in the baby. Can I see the spark of the divine in my enemy? And because I see that divine spark, can I love my enemy, turn the other cheek, pray for them and serve them without reward?

Yep, Christmas is pretty serious. That baby means business…


Advent day 22: the only answer I have

Sometimes I feel like I am cheating people. Sometimes I feel like I am copping out. Sometimes it feels like I am a charlatan, a snake oil salesmen.

Maybe it’s cliched, maybe you’re tired of hearing it. Maybe you never believed it in the first place, Maybe you’re incapable of hearing it any more.

And yet, I feel it has to be said, because frankly, it is the only left that can be said.

There is only one solution to what is wrong with the world, and that is love. Not sentimentality, not rosy feelings, but love. Agape love. Selfless, other-regarding, indiscriminate goodwill toward all of humanity, not just those for which you have an affinity. This is the answer. This has to be the answer. The only other options are violence, separation, and division. We’ve been trying those for centuries and they’ve solved nothing. But love as a holistic strategy or social movement has only been tried sporadically and in fits and starts. If agape became our policy, what would our world look like?

So sorry. Love is the only answer I have. Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same. Love is the answer. It is the only answer.

Advent Day 21: Blue Christmas

I feel like I have more people in my life who are waiting for Christmas to be over than who are actually waiting for Christmas. I must admit that I number among them, but I am feeling that way mostly because the season has been exhasuting and I need a break. For others, the sadness comes from much more extreme factors: loneliness, estrangement, missing a loved, recent deaths, chronic illness… I could go on. There’s a lot of hurt in this world and the season just seems to amplify the hurt.

So how do we love people through the stresses of the holiday? First and foremost I think it important to let people feel their disillusionment with the season. I think trying to talk people into feeling some sort of artificial happiness or invalidating their feelings just adds to the hurt that people may be experiencing.

I have found that people need a listening ear this time of year more than other times. Usually, if you listen long enough, you hear what it is that makes the season hard for others. That seems incredibly obvious, but we don’t listen well this time of year because of all of the busyness. All the running around makes it difficult to hear the heart of another, even it we want to do so.

If it is someone with which we have a close relationship, we can ask if we can be with them in their loneliness. Generally speaking, I think isolation is a negative thing. I say this as an introvert with a penchant for self-isolation. Asking people if we may be with them in their pain respects whatever boundaries that might exist.

Sadness often comes from the high expectations placed on the season. I think we help people out by allowing for some grace. Being sensitive to people who may not have resources we have. Being mindful of those who may be alone on or around the holiday. Creating space for people to vent, cry, drink, swear, laugh… and just be. Granted, we probably should be doing this for one another all year round (we definitely should) but we absolutely need to be there for people who experience this time of year in profoundly painful ways.

We need to love each other. This season is not light and joy for everyone. Be alert and love your neighbors for whom this is a dark time.

Advent Day 20: love in a ditch

Jesus was asked at one point what the greatest commandment was. He responded simply with love God and love your neighbor. Simple enough. Then when asked what that love might look like, he told a story of a man who got beaten and thrown in a ditch. Or at least that’s my interpretation of the story…

Well, today, I was in a ditch. We got our first big snow of the winter. It wasn’t much snow, but it was very cold and windy. Two cars ahead of me was an suv that lost control and started to spin out. I swerved to avoid hitting it and I ended up going off the road and down a hill. My car got stuck in mud. I called my wife, called AAA and proceeded to wait. 

I have to say, that story of Jesus’ has timeless application. I was clearly visible from the road. Lots of people passed me. I felt pretty helpless. A little ashamed. Pretty powerless. But a few people stopped. This gave me a renewed sense of hope in humanity. An in-uniform military guy was one of the people who stopped to help (you know, obvious good guy), but most were just average guys who wanted to make sure that help was on the way and that I was warm. There are some good people in the world. 

As we begin to wrap up Advent we move our thoughts to love. Love, we have to remember, is never a weak feeling or passive emotion, at least not in the ways it is used in the bible. Love as defined by the New testament is always accompanied by actions that meet the needs of others. Love isn’t weak. Love sees the person on the side of the road and reaches out to where the hurt is and responds in service. 

If love really is the hallmark of our faith, and I would argue that it is, then it seems that our highest calling is to those who are left on the side of the road. Those who have been left behind and abandoned are the measuring stick by which our faith is evaluated. Christianity is for the benefit of the lowly, the ostracized, and those who suffered injustice.  The ways that we love should speak to the realities of those in need of help. We can’t love until we are willing to get into the ditch with people, be with them and help them out. 

As we wait, we anticipate the day when the majority don’t pass by those on the side of the road, but work together to find solutions to problems. 

Advent Day 19: … are we there yet?

Advent has been exhausting for me. I expected all of the additional church activity. I didn’t expect all of the additional crises, both in my world and in the world around me. It’s funny how the pain in the world feels amplified this time of year. This has been an unusually sad feeling season this year. Unlike last year, it’s less my own sadness and more the angst of those who are around me. In some ways, that is far worse.

There’s something to waiting with joy, but at some point, you want to to stop waiting. You want that event that you are waiting to occur to just… occur already. I’m tired from the wait. Tired from the journey. Tired from the activity. Tired from the planning. I just want Christmas to come and go already. That probably sounds awful, but I really just want this thing to end. 

For those who are waiting for real change, waiting for something fundamentally different, the change can’t come quickly enough. We wait for Christmas, but we’re not really waiting for Christ, not in the way that people were waiting for him 2000 years ago. Our waiting doesn’t have the urgency of those who are hungry, waiting to be filled with good things. We don’t wait with the intensity of the lowly hoping to be exalted while waiting for the mighty to be brought down low. We talk about this joyful, hopeful waiting that we’re supposed to experience in Advent, but what about the impatience. Waiting sucks, especially when that for which you’re waiting is life changing and liberating. 

I want Christmas to be here. I want Advent to be over, more for my own rest and peace of mind than for the joy of the holiday. But more than I want “Christmas”, I am impatient for Christ to be born into the world around me. I am impatient for hope, peace, joy, and love. I am impatient for this world to end in order for a new better world to be birthed in its place. 

I guess that’s why I’m kinda rooting for the Mayans to be right….

Advent Day 18: the joy of the “not-yet”

Can you receive joy from something that has yet to happen? Can anticipation fill us with joy? 

Obviously, my mind immediately goes to those months of waiting for my children to be born. So much possibility mixed with so much reality. Obviously, my children were “real” to me in those months before they greeted the world, but they were not here in their fullness, the way they are now. Sometimes I wish they could tone some of their fullness down, but that’s a different story for a different time. There was a “here but not yet here” quality to that whole season that allowed me to have joy even though I didn’t have the total expression of that for which I was longing. 

I’ve been reading the texts for this coming Sunday, Mary’s “Magnificat” from Luke 1. Mary speaks of the powerful being dethroned and the hungry being filled. Those were not the immediate realities of the world simply because Christ was going to come into the world. Mary’s song was sung in the joy of what was to come. Mary’s joy was of the world the way it should be, not as it was. 

For Mary, joy was tied to hope. It seems strange to find your joy in something as ambiguous and nebulous as the world which we imagine. To live with the kind of joy that Mary had is to live in a world pregnant with possibility. it’s to hear the heartbeat of an imagined future without being able to cradle it in our arms. It’s to feel the kicks of a reality waiting to break through, with being able to  stare it in the eyes. I don’t want to stretch this analogy too far, but I love this quote of Meister Eckhart who said that “We are all Mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born”. To live in joy is to live into the process of birthing God and God’s justice and goodness into the world, knowing that the fullness of it has not yet arrived, but that we can feel it moving within us. 

Sorry if it’s insensitive for a dude to write about pregnancy in these terms. Doing the best I can. 

Advent Day 17: joyless faith

Well, it only took a few days for the religious folk to come out and say that Friday’s mass shooting was because of gay marriage and abortion. And then there’s Westboro… always showing up at awful times to say awful things in awful places. It seems that some branches of Christianity exist only to make non-adherents miserable.

I don’t like playing the “us” and “them” game between myself (and my friends) and other Christians. At some point “we” are “them”, whether we like it or not. But I wonder if something is missing for people whose faith seems to be based off of calling others unworthy, unclean, and unredeemable. If your faith is based off of making people feel less than, than what you’re feeling isn’t joy it’s pride. If your faith is based off of exclusion, then you’re missing the joy of being a part of a larger, broader community. 

I don’t want a joyless, angry faith. I don’t want to build walls around myself. I don’t want a faith that is rote memorization and dead ritual. I don’t want to be a part of a community motivated by guilt and shame. 

I want a joyful faith. To me joy comes from a width and depth of relationships. I want a faith that celebrates all that life has to offer and that invites all of God’s people to do the same. There’s no joy for me in thinking or believing that anyone is left out of God’s party. My joy comes in knowing that God’s circle is ever expanding, ever growing, ever widening. I want to be a part of a faith community that is unpredictable, vibrant, and enlivening. 

If people experience God as joyless, boring, or harsh then we have failed. My God is the God of joy, inviting all to dine at a table of love and acceptance. My God feasts, toasts, welcomes, invites, and accepts. This is the joy the world needs to know and experience.