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.  

Friday, November 30, 2012

Jesus and Grandma

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

In 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 righteousness."

Righteousness… 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:

My 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Too 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.

Now 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.

She, 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.

It 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.

Decades 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.

Her 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 laughter.

Biblical 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. 

The 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.   

Saturday, November 17, 2012

For Joy

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

I 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.

Several 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)?

Being 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 life.

Be 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).

At this point in Matthew’s story, if we are listening, it starts to dawn on us that
Jesus 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.

This 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.

This 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.

Here 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 follow Jesus.

But 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 there is?”

Perhaps 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?”

Tired 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.

However, 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!

Finally, something 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.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Way is a Person

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

Jesus 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.

The 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?

The 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)

The 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.

The 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 Corinthians 3:2-3)

Some 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.

The 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 1:17)