This is a place for me to reflect on the believer's relationship with God and others. For the most part I am just thinking out loud - not offering answers so much as asking questions. Your comments are encouraged.The God of all has written upon our hearts. What will we then write?
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
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
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!
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
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
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.
Jesus came from
Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent
Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to
me?" But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for
it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed Him. Matthew 3:13-15
the wilderness of Judea comes a prophet. In the tradition of the prophets he
preaches repentance, fire, judgment, the presence of God and the coming of the
Lord. While John the Baptist is baptizing repentant souls, Jesus gets in the
baptismal line. Understandably, John objects, but relents at the very first
words of Jesus rehearsed in the Gospel of Matthew. "Permit it to be so now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all
For some, words like righteousness, holiness, repentance, etc. come with lots
of baggage. Some are inclined to “prevent” these words, but we ought to
“permit” and “allow” their usage. Though these words may allow for momentary
heaviness, ultimately they permit life. Consider the illustration that follows:
great-grandmother was yet surviving when I was a very young child, but she was
in poor health. She had lost ability to communicate well and was not herself. I
never knew her and she never knew me. Her personality had slipped through the
closing door of her life leaving little more than a shell to linger. It
remained only for surviving family members to honor the dignity of human life
and her life by loving and caring for her until she was completely passed on.
remember being in the dim room where she was sitting silent and motionless in
her chair. It seemed all black and white, no color. She had no kind words for
me. Perhaps she had no words for me. I don’t remember. She did not try to woo
me or get me for a hug and kiss. Did she know I was in the room, that I was
full of life and curiosity? - That I was special? Did she notice my new cowboy
boots? Did she like my recent crew cut? Did she think I was getting bigger,
that I had muscles, that I was strong and brave? But there were no words, no
response, only her heavy presence, blank, hollow and draining.
was afraid of her. Instinctively I knew this was someone I must reverence. She
was ancient, gray and petrified. Her rocking chair seemed like a throne and she
a haunting queen who could at any bitter moment render condemnation on me for…for
being there. I did reverence her, kept quiet in her presence and could sense
the adults were not themselves while in the room with her and talked in
different tones. It seemed her lack of personality was a vacuum, absorbing the
personality all who came into the room. I noticed this creepy power she
possessed and I feared her.
often, this experience is similar to our concept of righteousness, holiness,
etc. Religion has made it a creepy thing – a seemingly yet-living-but-approaching-death
kind of thing. It is a thing we cannot help but reverence, yet dread to
embrace. It steals our words, gives us no words, robs us of personality and
offers nothing in return but obligatory gloom. We know there is something once
living in all this, yet now a void and vacuum to incarcerate the living.
I contrast this memory of my great-grandmother with that of her daughter, my
grandmother. She was not confined to a throne, but walked about freely doing
this and that, all the while laughing and talking with a generous supply of smiles.
also, appeared old to me and this again drew from my young soul an instinctive
sense of reverence for her, yet a reverence un-shrouded in gray, distressing
shadows. My reverence for her was filled with light. She seemed to sparkle in
my young eyes and was as irresistible to me as she was ancient.
seemed to me I was as special in her eyes as she was in mine. She spoke
frequently to me and till this day no one says my name the way she did.
Usually, when others spoke my name, it meant I was in trouble and had some
explaining to do. But when grandmother spoke my name it sounded no different
than “I love you”. How did she do that? She had power too.
later, the day came when it was obvious my grandmother was not long for the
earth. I feared I would be asked to speak at her funeral. It would be a great
honor, but the burden still... I was, in fact, asked and was relieved another was
not officiating, for I supposed they might get it wrong. I knew others may
portray her as a saint, that is to say, an untouchable, otherworldly saint the
rest of humanity could not manage to immolate, somehow separate from the real
life others live. It was my honor to both praise a life well-lived and to
commend a way of life any could follow. I confessed in that service, it was
because of her life I live for Jesus Christ.
spell over me was not fixed in glum despair, but in love, freedom and
reverential delight. She made holiness for me not to be like the sad and down
days of an impending funeral, but more like the anticipation of festive
holidays or family reunions where there would be wonderful food, joy, love and
holiness does not fail to recognize and acknowledge your personality and
God-given uniqueness, but rather, it facilitates these. Biblical holiness knows
your name – speaks your name – and speaks your name with a sweetness that could
only come from one who loves you dearly – could only be spoken by the Darling
of your soul.
Gospel of Matthew leaves no room for antinomianism, condemns lawlessness and
emphasizes righteousness. But the law is interpreted through love. There is law
in Grandma’s house… No big – it’s Grandma’s house.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a
field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all
that he has and buys that field. Matt 13:44
teach a Sunday School class at my church. A few months ago we began a study of
the Gospel of Matthew. I titled the series, Hearing
Matthew. It is our desire to hear Matthew, that is, to hear as if hearing
for the very first time. We confess that we do not come to the text as innocent
hearers, but we are making a conscious effort to limit our control over what
the text can and cannot say.
weeks into the series I confessed to the class I felt the need to relearn what
being Christian means. As I attempt to hear Matthew I am confronted with several
questions. Here are just a few examples:
> Have I taken the
edge off the hard sayings and demands of Jesus?
> Am I comfortable
speaking of final judgment as Jesus did?
> Have I simply reduced
following Jesus to status and a “better life”?
> Have I made it merely
about being forgiven (i.e., forensic imputation)?
forgiven is only a byproduct of following Jesus. It is more than having your
ticket to heaven and your Get out of jail
free card. Like the Pharisees in Matthew, we have made it about our status
as children of God, but Jesus is not checking your card; he is watching your
honest. Have you ever been bored with this version of Christianity? Have you
ever thought to yourself, “There has to be more - Is this it?” And if this is it, why bother going to church
on Sunday night, or Wednesday, or revival service, or why bother going at all?
Rather than promoting a perceived status,
Jesus asks us to follow. He asks us to leave off our old life, even if that
life was not marked by great sin. He asks us to live differently even if we had
been living a “good” life. He asks us to take up our cross, deny ourselves and
follow (Mt. 16:24).
this point in Matthew’s story, if we are listening, it starts to dawn on us
is not promoting decisions for Christ so much as a Kingdom. He is preaching the
Kingdom, not just repentance, not just conversion, not just having sins
forgiven, not just tickets to heaven and free stuff.
Kingdom is its own culture, with its own values. It is a new family. It is the
rule and reign of God on earth. It should have been obvious all along, but we
just now start to get it. We heard his invitation, but did we? He is asking us
to be part of that Kingdom.
Kingdom foreign to us. It is like world travel and never leaving town. What
does it mean? What does it look like? Jesus described what people of the Kingdom
look like in the Sermon of the Mount (Mt chapters 5-7), and since then he
models the Kingdom for us. Jesus models the message he brings and his message
is the Kingdom. He describes the Kingdom with the parables and he himself is
heavens parable for us to see.
is a question: Do we have the courage to see again? - The courage to review
(i.e., re-view) what it means to be a disciple? I would say review what it
means to be “Christian”, but I am afraid the term “Christian” has become for us
what “Jew” came to be to the Pharisees in Matthew’s text – mere status. To be
Christian, for most, means to be nice, to not do bad stuff, to believe the
right things. To be a disciple is to deny yourself, take up your cross and
before you think I am only speaking of a glum and masochistic devotion to
martyrdom, consider the attitude of the man in Matt 13:44 who “found treasure
hidden in a field… and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and
buys that field”. “For joy over it” the text says…makes me wonder if he had an “aha”
moment. That is to say, he has a fresh view of what the Kingdom of God is. It is
perhaps a vision in answer to the question, “There must be more…is this all
this is an answer to similar questions today, e.g., “Is there more than just
being a Christian with an American dream, more than just being a good
conservative Republican, more than being a faithful Democrat, more than voting
the way those voter guides tell us to, more than being a Christian who builds
bigger barns, who keeps the rules, gets to work on time, goes to church…does
not rock the boat?”
of the same ole sermons that keep people middle of the road, sanitized and safe
- Tired of a pseudo-Christianity to
control the masses and keep people from asking hard questions, embarrassing
questions, and funnels them into manageable, cooperative, homogenize groups - Tired
of pretending the emperor is wearing clothes, he desperately breaks out of
line, goes for a much needed walk, breaths fresh air, looks down and there it
is…there is that thing everyone pretended did not exist - A Christianity worth
living for, worth dying for, worth selling all for.
there was a problem. Someone else owned the field. And the problem is, you
don’t own discipleship, it owns you. You don’t own it, but you can buy it. For
everything you can buy it. “For joy over it” the text says, because he sees it
for what it is…“treasure”. Why hasn’t everyone found it? – It is hidden. Jesus
will not cast pearls before swine and will not give what is holy to the dogs.
That is to say, you have to want it. You must recognize its value. “For joy”
the text says...joy!
worth living for, more than career, houses, money, 401k, retirement, etc., something
more than just coloring within the lines, minding your manners and repeating
old mantras. Finally a life that has not been robbed of mystery and beauty, a
life un-gelded and much bigger than we and what we can comprehend. This is more
than saying “the prayer” and being forgiven. This is a mission, a new way of life,
a new family, new citizenship, and a new Kingdom transcendent of the ordinary.
Thomas said to
Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the
way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No
one comes to the Father except through Me". John 14:5,6
says, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Notice he
doesn’t hold up a book and say “Behold the way…” This is interesting. He might have gotten an “Amen”
had he declared dogma and doctrine or canon and creed to be the way. Instead his
words, “I am the way…” get akward stares, misunderstanding and questions.
way is a person. If the way is a book or static words on paper, it puts us in
control. That is to say, access to the way could be manipulated by how we choose
to interpret words on paper. The way would degenerate from those words to our
interpretation of those words, and quickly our interpretation would become the
way, the truth and the life. Finally, we would begin to say who was in or out
by way of our opinion. If not careful, we might begin to divide along lines of
different interpretation. Try real hard and you can imagine we might even form
separate groups or denominations for the sake of preserving our interpretations
and opinions. Perhaps we would make accepting our interpretation prerequisite
for membership into our divided churches. So it is a good thing Jesus didn’t
say a book is the way or doctrine and dogma are the way or that creeds are the
way, so that doesn’t have to happen…Right?
way is a person, and to commend the way, the truth and the life to others we
must do more than hand them a book. The Word is a “lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps. 119:105) – it is
light for the way. The book facilitates, the book is a given necessity, the book is
authoritative, but the book has an author and the author is a person. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among
us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,
full of grace and truth.” ( John 1:14)
truth is commended by virtue of a way and a life lived. Not a theoretical life,
it is an authentically lived life. People don’t follow because you read Scripture
so much as that you live Scripture. We cannot save a generation by giving them
information. They need transformation. Transformation requires trans-personal
transaction. “They shall know the truth
and the truth shall make them free” and the truth is a person.
saying is, “Some things are caught more than taught”. How do we pass down the
truth? The Apostle Paul says, “Follow me
as I follow Christ”. Are you a lover
of the Word? - Be a liver of the Word. The old adage, “Seeing is believing”
applies. The best apologetic is a living example. Our lives become the word of
the Lord to others. “You are our epistle
written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of
Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living
God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.” (2
in the church have a misguided sense of obligation to provide a scientifically
verifiable case for the factuality of the Scriptures, but in this they may be attempting
to answer questions no one is asking. What authenticates for this generation is
not facts, but authenticity - lived faith, authentic living. Previous
generations wanted to see a list – this one requires a life. Whereas past
generations would have asked, “What do you believe?” this one watches for what
you live…who you are.
way is a person. The way is preserved by persons. The way is commended and
passed down by way of persons. Books, books, books…there is no end to the
writing. We have more books than we can burn. What we need now is a person.
“For the law was
given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” ( John