Monday, July 1, 2013

Honest Faith

It is not written down anywhere but it’s true. There is an unwritten dictate in the household of faith these days that prohibits honest expressions of pain, sorrow, disappointment, etc., as if such expressions would compromise the gospel. We have stolen a trick or two from our dark world on marketing strategies which value bottom line over honesty, commodities over humanness, façade over fidelity.

Ironically, what we fear is the very thing we need: Simultaneous expressions of both pain and hope, of frustration and faith, of betrayal and continued trust; a story of the heart that dares sincere complaint and confident expectation; candid expressions of disappointment aligned with poised anticipation. No naïveté, but a “though he slay me, yet will I trust him”, Job kind of faith.

And though smiley “confession police” shush such expression, honest hearts tire of pretense, the act, ill-informed mantras and the betrayal of memory – presumptuous non-truths for blind followers of blind guides who have given up on the actual for the virtual. Pretense is lord and guide. Performance is sanctity.

Sadly, this strange and fine polished cross leads to no tomb and to no resurrection; no mourners, no tears, and so no laughter for we have not seen the risen Christ. We do not confess the fellowship of his suffering, so we do not know the power of his resurrection. We can’t speak of our wilderness wanderings and so our children don’t know how to get to the Promise Land.  In all this we preserve our make-believe Christian fairyland. We’ve made it safe so it does not save. We have removed the danger and so it cannot deliver. We have domesticated the gospel until it can no longer rescue or redeem.  We remove the scandal, making it something other than God incarnate, preventing transformational power.

What we do have are select and context-free memory verses (i.e., propaganda), a non-transparent rendering of experience that conveniently avoids hard questions and hovering doubt – Must maintain a holy house of cards! But sincere hearts long for honest expression, confessing with the mouth, believing from the heart. It is a forthrightness that does not resist faith, but keeps fidelity and gives faith a field to plow. Open wounds receive healing. Hearts open to expressions of pain have not become anesthetized to living. It indicates desire to live and to live with authenticity.

We fear that we and our institutions will be implicated by such expressions of pain, and that may be so. We fear we may not have a ready answer for all the questions, and really, we don’t. But better than answers to questions are ears that attentively hear. Better than resolution of contradiction are fellow souls that acknowledge your being. Better than concealing expression of pain is the freedom to live an honest life, acknowledged, validated by, and in communion with others.

And speaking of communion, what about the Lords Supper? Let’s be honest. If we could, would we not edit blood from the table? Would we not do some redaction on the bread that speaks of brokenness and the ritual that remembers death? And it is an enduring remembrance of “death until I come.” And though some would have us imagine Christ’s bleeding was to end all bleeding, is it not closer to the truth to say he opened the food gates of bleeding for those who would follow? His walking the Via Dolorosa (Way of Grief/Suffering) was not a once-and-for-all thing, but an inauguration of sacrament – inaugural, not finale; the opening ceremony, not the climax. He was not going away so much as showing the way.

But please know, this “way” is no masochistic, dreadful life. Rather, it allows for a dense joy and grace-filled living consecrated by the sweet aroma of authenticity, resisting the tilt toward artificiality. It pushes back life’s cumulative sediments, dredges the depths, enlarges the basin of the soul and its capacity for life, becoming reservoir and conduit of abundant flow.

Authenticity allows for what liars and truth-fearers never see or speak of – a sophisticated and nuanced Psalms-like flow of life that gathers up the past and the future into the cup of this present moment of being. It becomes a spyglass for perceiving a future now and a depth of meaning that others only guess about - a felt knowing that transcends the redundant, hypnotic flatness of half-truth living. Here is where we experience delightful depth, satisfying distance, the relief of generous horizons, the joy song that teases out imagination, leaving linear time behind with envy. It is emancipation, casting off redundant expressions of mind-numbing soothsaying, liberating from the same-ole-same that corral the weekly mass of would-be believers into compliant, manageable groups, charmed into conformity, no threat to status quo, following on the heals of the piper, coerced to say the naked emperor is wearing a fine suit of clothes.

Do you ever wonder why it is no longer common to have altars in our churches? While we may risk altar areas (a void where altars once were), there are no altars. Why? Perhaps it is that altars are an uncomfortable visual reminder of what it cost to follow a nail-pierced savior. The sight of an altar might break the trance of spellbind parishioners.  Altars imply sacrifice that is contra church growth principles and marketing strategies that offer false comfort to paying customers. It is a big black lie that declares, “No sacrifice required. Following Jesus is free.”

Jesus words on the cross are not admitted into our faith confessions today, but these where last words, dying words, words that merit our attention. In showing us how to die he was showing us how to live. Honest words: “I thirst”; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And, “It is finished.”  We shush such honest expression in the church these days. Short-changed on honesty, we miss out on abundant living.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


 “Oh how I love your law. It is my meditation all day long.” Psalms 119:97

Not all who read the Word are in love with it. To some it’s just a manual, referenced to get the facts. Some read for technicalities and loopholes, hoping for what they can get away with. For others it’s a book of obligation they examine to be sure of compliance. Then there are those who love it. They see it. They hear it. They get it. And by the Spirit begin to personify the Word.

The lovers are not anguished by mystery, feel little obligation to fill in gaps of uncertainty, cover over apparent contradiction, or make excuses for the book if it does not square with popular epistemology. They have settled with a book that may not presently answer all the questions. They live with the questions and live with the book they don’t fully understand, knowing the Word shall not be confined to the pages of script. The pages convey symbols of thought, but these will not contain (that is, confine) or limit the Word that transcends page, symbols and thought.

So don’t just read in search of facts. Read and let it fill you with faith. More than academic endeavor, it is sacramental, a spiritual experience. E.g., if you read the Book of Revelation as if it predicts the future you will miss the picture it paints of the present. And don’t be so focused on discovering absolutes that you let pass the mystery, the beauty, the song. By saying there is no contradiction in the book, we may be saying what it refuses to say for itself. Irregularity, dichotomy, paradox, etc., are employed to communicate and commend to the heart/mind. Careful not to put the Word in a box, fence it in, tie up its hands, kidnap the genius.

Ever had a piece of music convince you of something? Without strict polemic or hard proof, just pure soul and authenticity that speaks for itself, leaping over the moat of reason into the heart, convicting and convincing - no spectacular philosophical engineering - just heart and soul. The Word romances the heart with love song, sweet murmur and lyrical whispers that move the soul, surpassing cold rationale.

And if you imagine monotone it isn’t there. Rather than a solo, it is a choir - not one voice but many. There is strong melody but hear the harmony. We say it is divine, and so it is, but don’t ignore the human elements in the book, allowed by the Spirit - the Word is made flesh. Like Jesus (divine and human), so our Bible has divine elements, human elements and conveys the Word. Like Jesus, willing to get his hands dirty, willing to crawl down into the ditch with us, so this Word comes in work clothes, gritty, real and incarnating.

Listen to the words without presupposing what holy writ is suppose to sound like. It is unscripted and unrehearsed. Why impose a perfection that is not real? We know the difference between a television drama and a true documentary. The drama may be perfectly acted, but the perfection makes it obvious - it is an act. The documentary or true reality show is less scripted, not perfect, not an act. Our Bible lacks the perfection, the act if you will, of a staged performance. It is truthful, earthy and has the ring of authenticity, connecting with real life.

Some will, in their desire to preserve the Word, insist it never changes - and I get that. I get how they try to protect the Word from folks who crook it to their like. Yet we must not, in our efforts to defend the Word, be found captivating it. There is divine adaptability innate to the Word, making it fresh for each new day and relevant for every context. Layers, we say. There are multiple layers in this living book. Do we not wrap the book in leather (that is to say, dead skin)? Every time we open it we peal back a layer of dead skin, revealing living freshness. We peal back ancient layers and find mercies new every morning.

The Word in the book is most wonderful, at times playing hard to get. It may not yield if you have no heart to pursue. There is mystery but the mystery intrigues. You do not have to fully understand to know. You do not have to fully grasp to have.  You possess only as you are fully possessed. And there is no promise it will not hurt you, for hurt you it will, but the pain is a sweetness you do not refuse.

Complete and immediate understanding is unnecessary. Sit with it, live with it, be in its presence. Relationship, courtship, and romance – it is a knowing of the heart that allows for a knowing of the head. Beyond reading there is living with the Word. Beyond interpretation there is manifestation, transformation and incarnation.

This Word points to a person, not to the exclusion of the conceptual, but beyond concepts and precepts to a person. Our practice of religion, theologizing, theorizing and academic endeavor etc., is fine and good so long as it all follows after the person Jesus.

Come to him who crossed over to us. Made flesh so he could bleed, suffer and die. Dead, to conquer death. Alive, to make us alive. Hero, Captain and Friend. Brother, Lover and Lord God. He is the Word. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Nine Months with Matthew

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” ...Amen.  (Matthew 28:18-20)
It was quiet a journey - like riding in a jalopy school bus on a bumpy dirt road through beautiful backcountry. That is to say, you couldn’t get comfortable in your seat, but what a view! On Palm Sunday, the class I teach at my church concluded a study of the Gospel of Matthew that began in the summer of 2012, a nine-month expedition that was disturbing and wonderful.

For the sake of class time we had to pick and choose what to focus on. There are subtleties in the text reserved for the discrete and unhurried observer, with texture, tones, symmetry and structure revealed only to those with time and an eye for beauty. Some things are spoken softly, whispered…you have to lean in and cup your ear. Hearing is hard work. Like Jesus’ parables, not everything is made obvious. Treasure is hidden - found only by those who seek. We are forced to decide if we will remain casual admirers or fall in love and pursue. Will we be stargazers or worshipers, fans or disciples?

Matthew is a challenge, far too radical and subversive. It speaks of the kingdom of heaven, which stands over the kingdoms of the world. Jesus calls us to live as citizens of this kingdom and shows us what that looks like. He’s the real deal, so hard to ignore, and no less hard to follow. Jesus calls it “narrow” and “difficult” to follow – that we must “sell all” to follow. He’s a lousy salesman but walks the talk.

I hear him calling, though I am more like Matthew’s first century Jewish leaders than I want to admit. I am good with the status quo that makes little demand on my soul. I am an insider and in the majority - comfortable. I am a rule keeper and a rule manager. That is to say, I preserve the status quo and keep things from changing, while this Gospel calls me to the discomfort of change, to minister change, to call for change, to prophesy change… and to change.

What if I do? What if I don’t? I may be hated if I follow and obey. Worst of all, I may be opposed by some within the church – some who, like me, also wish not to change. Jesus will not promise to remove opposition, but says, “Don’t be offended because of me.” That is what he said to John the Baptist just before they cut his head off.

That’s why you sell all to follow this one. Others will tell you, “Oh, I see you are excited about serving the Lord. That’s great. Just don’t be overly spiritual. Don’t loose your head.” In truth they are saying, “You really don’t have to sell all to follow.” I have heard that temptress before. For as long as I have heard the call to “sell all and follow,” I have heard the voice that seduces me to live for lesser things. That voice, that voice from the garden, that voice in the wilderness, that serpent, the devil… Like Jesus’ wilderness temptation, I am tempted to take short cuts to my desire, to choose making my own bread over the Word, to accept the praise of others over worship of God, to choose easy, immediate and sensational “success” over following with a cross.

Nine months in Matthew will change you. To sit before the text and come under it, to move through the text from beginning to end, to do an expository study rather than a topical approach…this will give us a view we rarely get. We typically don’t get this from our pulpits or Sunday school or small groups or video studies. And as a result, we go our entire Christian lives, not only missing what Matthew really says, but also what Mark, Luke, John and the rest of the Bible really says. We live our entire lives on sound bite Bible studies and headline theology, hearing topical sermons that so cleverly avoid the uneasy places in the biblical text or the things not easily understood. These sermons skip all around here and there, preventing the real flow and personality of the text. We get the photo shoot version, the brochure version. We get highlights at best and never get behind the sensational. We get propaganda.

As a result, this Bible we say we love, this book we hold to our chest and place under our pillow, this that we claim is God’s word to us, we never really hear. We know the Word like we know a Hollywood celebrity. We see it with makeup on, with lighting effect and stunt doubles - the edited version. We see acting and what is pretended for the stage and we go along with the pretense.  It is an Entertainment Tonight (E.T.), version of Scripture.

Rather than hearing/living Scripture, are we are satisfied with occasional tweets or a FaceBook relationship with Scripture? We “Like” and “Share” what delights us and leave the rest (or, we “unfriend” entire passages or whole books of the Bible). We edit our account and privacy settings so as to give scripture limits in our lives.

Nine months in Matthew ended with Jesus final words in first gospel, Go therefore and make disciples… teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” A topical approach to Scripture can be helpful at times, but topical alone will not “observe all things”.
This is Good Friday - a good day to be reminded; to follow this One, we must sell all and take up our cross. Get on the bus. It’s a bumpy ride, but comes with lots of windows. Enjoy the view as you “observe all things”.
Happy Easter!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mission: Simple

"We need to get back to simple", says Steven Land. 

It was good to hear Dr. Land guest speaking last Sunday (in the p.m. service at North Cleveland Church of God). President of Pentecostal Theological Seminary, he is one of those rare scholar/intellectual theologians who haven’t forgotten how to speak a down-to-earth message for the church – timely, urgent, refreshing.

[Please note, it is unfair to say what follows is a summary of the message last Sunday. It is not. Rather, it reflects how the message set me to thinking. I don’t want to discredit or misrepresent Dr. Land with my ramblings.]

I was reminded; the urgent message/mission is simple. The broad field of study for Scripture and theology is deep, dense and complex as any other field of study, enough to challenge the greatest minds in history, and deserves to be explored with passion and academic diligence. But, if we allow it, the basic message serves to keep us on task (focused and faithful) in the midst or our studies, ministry, living, etc.

What is the basic message/mission? Some would say it is a matter of ethics and has to do with the failing moral foundations of our society. The basic message does speak to this, and failing morality forecasts a world of hurt and pain. It is impossible to estimate the loss due to our sins. An honest survey can leave you sickened with a dark sense of gloom.

As important as moral behavior is, it is not the most basic element for living and it is not self-sustaining. Many a tyrant trample others under foot for the sake their own perceived sense of morality. Morality is not the starting point and is (in and of itself), an insufficient end.

As basic as morality is, there is something more basic/primary and proves to be a more reliable guide – Love. Loving God and loving others…it doesn’t get any more basic, any more primary, any more foundational. In fact, Jesus says you can sum up “the Law and Prophets” with these two commandments (Mt. 22:40).

Get it right though; this love is more than gooey feelings. This love is a noun and a verb. This love is a doing and a restraining from doing. This love dictates how we live, what we say, how we invest our resources, etc. Love is not indifferent to morality. Yes, this love will order morality. If morality rules primary, morality can become a tyrannical dictator. But when love reigns morality simply follows quietly and mightily behind.

If I relate to the world primarily from my sense of ethics, then we are likely at an impasse and things are irreconcilable as my ethic stands against the world. If I relate to the world in love, then love stands against the evil and yet for the world (i.e., for a world of people).

Of course I am not saying love is important and ethics are not. Just know this, you can exercise your sense morality without promoting love, but you cannot exercise love without promoting morality. Always remember, Jesus connects love with ethics; “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

To be sure, Jesus’ commands are counter-cultural, but as believers our mission in the world is not to enforce morality. It is to serve the world in love. The greatest lift in morality came via Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross. He so loved the world that he gave himself. Enough said. Morality followed in heaps.

This simple referent does not permit us to ignore the agonizing complexities of our dark and crumbling world, nor does it excuse our tendency to oversimplify the rich denseness in theology that invites our wonder and pursuit, but it does serve to keep us on task. It will keep us from getting lost with our head in the clouds as we ponder beauty and mystery. At the same time it will save us from being so overwhelmed with the hard realities of a distorted world that we become paralyzed or disengaged, abandoning mission.

Keeping the command to love will serve as our north star as we navigate both the treacherous and the beautiful – back to simple, stay the course.

P.S. For your library;  To begin his message, Dr. Land made a number of references to John Dickerson's The Great Evangelical Recession, The 6 Factors that Will Crash the American Church...and How to Prepare. 

I have not read this book yet, but my copy is on order. Also, I don't make anything from the sales of this book, but I will pick one person, at random, who comments on this post and I will send them my copy when I finish reading. I only ask that you pass it on after you read it. Thanks. (To leave a comment, just click on _comment: below.)


Sunday, January 6, 2013

One Day

Special Note: This post comes from a piece I prepared and shared recently at the funeral of Marc Goodman, the son of friends Vern and Pat. This is to honor the Goodmans (Marcia and Victoria included) as well as other families who know what it is to lose one you love during the Holliday Season. 

Being an artist, Marc could have told you something about the two faces, the two masks - one with a smile, the other a frown; one expressing joy, the other grief, sorrow, disappointment. They go back to the ancient Greeks, who loved the theater, and are iconic yet today for the performing arts. They are comedy and tragedy and they seem to bracket the human experience.

These two opposite extremes are often explored and experimented with in a relatively safe environment – the stage. But art imitates life and life is tragedy, comedy and everything between. To be fully human, to fully inhabit our humanness, to be fully alive and to fully engage the time and space given for life is to be acquainted with both tragedy and comedy.

I am not talking about a narcissistic pursuit of pleasure or a masochistic ploy for pain. No thrill seeking and no giveness to despair, but by taking life down the middle of the road, both masks will finally find us by natural course.

It would seem that one mask tempers the other. If we never knew sorrow, our laughter might become cheap and shallow, a naive laughter that relies on ignorance for its bliss - an insincere, untested joy, lacking credentials. Without the mask of tragedy the mask of comedy may be nothing more than a staged performance -cheap laughs gotten by the idiocy of a court jester yielding no residue of meaningful, enduring joy. And tragedy without meaningful enduring joy eventually leads to hapless despair and heartsick hopelessness. 

For those who struggle with the unexpected loss of a loved one today, appropriate grieving will eventually bring healing. The unhealthiest thing we could do is to remain denial about what has happen and try to live above the sorrow. I don’t understand how the Spirit of God can use grief to heal, but it is a wonderful and marvelous truth…It is grace.

But not everyone is quick to embrace this. Isaiah prophesied of one “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa 53).
So I wonder if he was despised and rejected because he was a man of sorrow and suffering? And it might be said Jesus acknowledges the issue when he says,

"To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: "'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.' For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners." 'But wisdom is proved right by all her children."                                           
                                                                                     Luke 7:31-35

John’s gospel says the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. That in him was life and that life was the light of men. We could say he fully embraced the human experience and played his role in life neglecting neither mask. Still, he came to his own and his own did not receive him, so we just have to ask, was he not received because he was not recognized and did he go unrecognized because we did not expect our God to fully inhabit the human experience?

He embraced the sorrow and the joy, so we have a High Priest that is touched and moved with the feelings of our infirmities. Because he fully embraced the human experience, he is able to fully redeem it. That is to say, though we grieve our grieving is not without hope. Sorrow has an appointed end.

My grandfather was a minister with the Church of God in Illinois for many years. After his death it was not uncommon for someone to stop me to say how he had blessed their life or to share some funny story about him – he loved life and living.

One such person told me this story; “I was a young man, fresh home from Bible College and I was discouraged, disillusioned and, quite honestly, ready to throw in the towel. I confided in your Grandfather who suggested we go for a walk. As we walked he said nothing most of the way. We walked in silence. Then, approaching the end of our walk he stopped, turned to me, looked me in the eye and called me son. ‘Son, one day…it will all be worth it.’ That was all he said. And that was all I needed to hear.”

A reprisal of my grandfather’s words may be timely just now; “One day…it will all be worth it.”

One day

We will have what we have been waiting for and hold what we have been hoping for, and as the songwriter says, “My faith shall be sight.”
One day:
          >The dream becomes reality.
          >Sowing becomes reaping.
          >Pain will wane to pleasure.
One day:
          >The famine becomes a feast.
          >Fasting will cease for the banquet.
          >Sacrifice becomes sweetness.
One day:
          >What was out of reach will be embraced.
          >The lost found, the stolen returned.
          >The destroyed will be redeemed.
One day
> The unholy become sanctified.
>The sullied becomes saints.
>The deformed will be reformed.
One day:
The heavens will open up and a white horse mounted by the King will charge in upon time, depleting the world of its faulty perception of reality.
>Finally, his kingdom will come in fullness with every knee bowing, every tongue confessing.
>The sea will give up its dead while cemeteries rupture with resurrection and the grave becomes a womb.
>The earth filled with his glory.
One day:
>We will need no preacher, teacher or prophet,
>No steeples, spires, or crosses,
>No church building, board meeting or budget.
One day:
>Angelic choirs will be displaced by the song and singing of the redeemed.
>We will be guests at the perfect feast, hosted by the Prince of Peace.
>We will hear him say, “Well done.”
One day:
          > What was invested will pay off.
> What was endured will recompense.
>What was counted loss will produce a prize.
One day:
>Him that we cannot see - we will see.
>We shall behold him.
>“We shall see him as he is and we shall be made like him.”

One day…But until that day:
“I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, toward the goal, the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”. (Phil 3:8-14)
Until that day we stand. Having done all we stand and remain valiant, ready for the fight, counting all loss for Christ, believing, enduring, suffering and celebrating.

Until that day:
> Every song sung is down payment on eternal singing.
>Every laugh is in lieu of forever laughter.
>Every present celebration is in anticipation of the gala event of the ages.
Until that day:
> Every wedding hints at the coming of our Bridegroom.
>Every vow speaks of his covenant with us.
>Every reception held down here on earth reminds us of the great banquet he has prepared.
Until that day:
>Every saint’s funeral anticipates resurrection.
>Every baby born speaks of eternal youth.
>Every sermon preached calls to mind the Word/Spirit made flesh.
Until that day:
>We live in anticipation of that day,
>The already/not yet,
>Abiding incomplete understanding, healing, and prosperity…until that day.
One day - and it will be exactly that: one day.
>One day with no night,
>One eternal morning,
>An eternal day without end - One day…

Saturday, December 22, 2012

I Want to Wish You a Paradoxical Christmas

Feliz Navidad is one of the more popular and cheerful Christmas songs (one of my personal favorites) written and sung by Jose Feliciano in English and part Spanish. In this special season I join with Feliciano’s song to say, “I want to wish you a Merry Christmas”. I wish you this, but I want to wish you something more. Though not as festive and catchy as the song, admitting it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and though it is not a conventional yuletide greeting, I want to wish you a Paradoxical Christmas.

Consider Christmas paradox: on one hand it is an easy narrative, not too complex, a simple story. We often call it The Christmas Story - a story easily read by small children and complicated only by the beauty of the King James Version. The story seems to hover and glide along with effortless flow, like a cup of hot chocolate that’s not too hot to guzzle.

Simple enough, yet at the same time it carries a transcendent weightiness exceeding the plain words of the story. That is to say, the narrative delivers a sense of glory (The Hebrew kabowd, often translated glory, implies weightiness as in splendor or significance). The story is simple and yet it is splendid.

The paradox continues as the story juxtaposes the glorious with the common and every day. The parents in the story have come to Bethlehem merely for the census while wise men from the east come because they have seen his star. They have come to worship. Plain ole shepherds encounter an angel messenger and a heavenly host announcing “good news and tidings of great joy…Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior…” This glorious transaction is not given to magistrates, governors or king’s men, but to ordinary shepherds.

It is a story of livestock, stable and feeding troth - it is a story of treasure; gold, frankincense and myrrh. The earthly and the heavenly, the ordinary and the divine, the common and the holy…It is the revelation of God, heaven breaking in upon earth, eternity breaking in on time. Mortal man was given a glimpse into the other side while the temple veil that would be torn in two some thirty-three years later was already beginning to show a tear.

Some would eventually call this event Jesus’ birthday. “Happy Birthday Jesus” they glibly say. But perhaps in this they confuse (if not abuse), the paradox. Rather than juxtaposing the common and divine, as does the biblical narrative, they make the divine common which is, by definition, to profane.

This advent is something much more than a birthday and a baby. This is an event some still say never happened – that it could not happen – it is just too glorious to have happened. It was not a birthday so much as the moment of incarnation, a pivot point in history when the eternal Creator God (the Holy Other) is enfleshed, takes on humanity - the separated One suddenly becomes close.

A simple story - baby Jesus baby born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger - a story we can wrap our minds around, and yet a story that defies our absolute understanding. Incarnation of the Divine just isn’t a simple thing. It is paradox.

It may seem like a child’s story – something confined to fairytale books with other enchanted fables, myths and legends. But this story will not stay in a book or be confined to mere words. This story lives, breath off the page and into life. As heaven broke into earth some two thousand years ago, the Christmas story yet lives today. A simple story, but the glory it carries is undeniable.

A spirit accompanies the story that words and concepts cannot completely convey.  To do justice to the story requires an appeal to music and the other arts. Art can transcend words and the conceptual and we need this to tell this story. That is why some of the most majestic music in the world is Christmas music. Art is required to express the wonder of Christmas.

Words are insufficient, so Christmas is expressed with decorated trees, lights, ornamental pieces, golden angels, stars, tinsel and other things that sparkle, catch and divide light. We celebrate with gatherings, ceremony, festival, parade, dinner parties, dramatic presentations and gifts. Gift-giving is off the charts during the Christmas season.

 And note that it is a season. We do not observe a mere Christmas Day for it has claimed for itself a season, and so we make reference to Christmastime. One day cannot contain the glory, so it is not just a day of gift giving, but a time and a season for giving - a season of parties, pageant and parade. Words are not enough and neither is one day. It requires ornamentation, decoration, scents, lighted candles and music for an entire season.

The first Christmas was a great joy to some, a threat/offense to others and surprise to all. The same is true today. Some disparage the surrounding traditions of Christmas, but the entourage of customs that accompany and escort the season forward is testimony to the greatness of the holiday. The sacraments of Christmas are many. Someone say pumpkin pie, cookies and candy are not what Christmas is about. True, but the observance of Christmastime deserves these things and more.

Gift giving is not what Christmas is about, and yet gift giving is what Christmas is about. “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given” (Isa 9:6). So here’s wishing you a Paradoxical Christmas!

Enjoy the video. Feliz Navidad!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Old Scrolls and Dead Men Bones

 As I mentioned in a recent post, I teach a Sunday School class at my church. We have been working our way through the Gospel of Matthew in a series we titled, “Hearing Matthew”. Though it is impossible to come to the text without pre-understanding, our desire is to be willing to hear the text in its present form, allowing it permission to surprise, offend and delight us with undomesticated and unpredictable import.

About midway through the gospel we had a class discussion concerning Matthew’s continual focus on the Kingdom of heaven and wondered if we should not rather focus on the cross instead, even camp out there. I am sympathetic with this view and confessed my tendency to read this into the text. It is simpler to focus on the cross and it just sounds right. However, in this I may be caught the same as  first century Jewish leaders who resisted Jesus’ forward moving message which did not line up with convention and their longstanding presuppositions.

Jesus’ message of the Kingdom rocked the boat. He challenged settled interpretation of O.T. scriptures and rivaled venerated champions of the faith. The Jews knew how to honor the past (events) and dates on the calendar and to preserve the memory of dead heroes of the faith, but this did not impress Jesus.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous," and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.' "Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets”. Matt 23:29-31

They were the best at honoring old scrolls and dead men bones - great at telling an old story, but hearing fresh the living Word was more of a problem. A word from the past can be kept at a safe distance - close enough to admire, far enough away to avoid being bitten. A distant word can be domesticated. You can roll up an old scroll and put it away, but this living Word will be un-tethered and free and so becomes a threat. It leaps from the past into the present, unexpected and often unwelcomed.

I’m in control when I tell an old story. I can manage an old story, but the living Word tells me the story and tells on me. Keeping the Word in the wistful past is safe; e.g., many today are comfortable saying the gifts of the Spirit are not for today. Why? Perhaps it is this - when the gifts are in operation things get messy. There is less control and less predictability. When the gifts are in operation un-credentialed people begin to minister and un-credentialed people do unconventional things. When the gifts are in operation some get healed and others don’t. This offends our sensitivities and does not jive with our propositional view of a mechanistic, predictable God, so rather than deal with the discomfort of inconsistency we reject it all.

“How could the Jews reject their Messiah,” we ask? Could it be much the same way we miss the fullness of God today? He messed up their filling cabinet and their calendar. Our God is not just Lord of the calendar, but Lord over the calendar – timeless, not limited by events and dates. Our timelines and prophecy charts cannot keep him and you must not throttle heaven with dispensational objections. Just when we get our commentaries to jive and our systematic theology all systematized, just when we settle up on what is normative and put the final touches on our creedal statements, this living Word, this living Kingdom shuffles the deck.

Moses’ bronze serpent lifted up on a pole (Num. 21:9) is seen to be prophetic of Christ who would be lifted up on a cross (Jn.3:14). That same symbol eventually had to be destroyed because people began to worship it (2Kgs 18:4). Very quickly the cross can be reduced to mere sentimentality. The Kingdom is mentioned many more times just in Matthew than the cross is mentioned in the entire New Testament. This is not to take anything away from the cross, of course. The cross is inaugural for the Kingdom. The best way to honor the cross is to live the Kingdom.

Without exception, when Jesus uses the term “cross” in Matthew, he refers not to his cross, but exhorts disciples to carrying their cross (“take up your cross and follow” – this is the antidote to sentimentality). We don’t camp out at the cross, we carry a cross. The cross for us is event and process. If we carry the cross we don’t have to go back to the cross. 

We often emphasize what the cross delivers us from and neglect to promote what the cross delivers us to. Is this why so many Christians today are bored with their Christianity? The embarrassing old bumper sticker, “Christians aren’t perfect just forgiven”, kind of says it all for this mentality. We got a Band-Aid for our boo-boo and that’s it. But we are not just forgiven. We are called to follow, called to righteousness, discipleship and the work of the Kingdom. We are called to be people of that Kingdom.

Pentecostals are good at not staying at the cross. To their credit, they go on to the empty tomb and from there they find the upper room. But all too often this is where we camp. We stay in Acts chapter two. But there are twenty-six chapters that follow and the final chapter itself lacks a proper conclusion. So don’t stop at two and don’t stop at twenty-eight. We are to be moving forward with the Kingdom, announcing the Kingdom to the uttermost parts of the earth.  

Jesus says “follow”, not “stay here”. This is not a campout. This is a hiking trip. This is more than old scrolls and dead men’s bones. This is living Word and the coming Kingdom. Try to keep up.