Beauty, Beast, and the Gospel of Identity

When Christians are outraged over a movie, it’s nearly certain that, not only will I like it, but that there will be an element of the gospel clearly presented.  It happened years ago with Avatar.  Now it’s happened again with Disney’s new version of “Beauty and Beast”.

Though I didn’t want to go because our pre-purchased tickets collided with an important basketball game on TV (yes – I’m that shallow),  it was a family event, and I was persuaded it was “the right thing to do”.  My intent was to check the score regularly, ducking under my seat and checking my phone, becoming one of those rude people in the theater who can’t seem to just sit and enjoy the movie.  I checked early, but was soon deeply drawn in and forgot about the game entirely because something better was unfolding before my eyes:  the timeless story of redemption, seen through the lens of fairy tale.

New to this version is the notion that the villagers once had a relationship with the prince, before his heart was hardened and he was ultimately placed under a curse.  Part of the curse, though, was a sort of amnesia descending on the whole village, so that they forgot their identity with the prince, and identity which was recovered only after acts of profoundly sacrificial love led to the breaking of the curse.

The loss of identity and relationship is, to my mind, why the village is trapped in xenophobia, illiteracy, fear, and a destructive patriarchy.   The cycle of darkness continues as the villagers, in this heightened state of anxiety, are prone to listen to voices that feed on fear, inciting more fear and anger.   Rational voices and truth are drowned out by the loudest voices, lies, and insults.  Sound familiar?

In Mark 6:34 we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”.  Forgetting their identity as the people of God, forgetting that they were made for peace, generosity, the confident rest that comes from receiving deep love and blessing, they lived as if they were on their own.  This led to various forms of legalism, pride, anger, and violence.

Nothing’s changed, of course.   The profound human dilemma is that we’re seeking to know who we are – in relation to each other, to creation, to eternity, and to our creator.  Until we get this right, the identity vacuum renders us vulnerable to all manner of voices inciting us to fear, hate, and violence.

The curse is broken in the movie, of course.  It’s broken in real life too.  The profound word of Christ on the cross that “it is finished” means that his act of sacrificial love has opened the way for us to live once again as free children of God, enjoying shalom, living in joy, and blessing our world.

The difference between the move and reality, though, is that we seem reticent to live without fear and hate, even though the curse has been broken.   Why is this?

The answer to that question is, perhaps, for a different day.

For now though, I’ll note that Paul had the same habit of finding gospel truth outside the Bible and building bridges between the questions/critiques offered by artists and authors and the eternal truth found in Christ.

We’d be wise to take a cue from him.  After all, when he quotes Greek poets, he’s quoting polytheists, and doing so as a means of defending and inviting people to Christ.  He doesn’t care that he doesn’t agree with polytheism.   Wherever he sees a kernel of truth, he celebrates it!

Many Christians have lost that capacity, preferring instead only to point out areas of disagreement.   So there you go.  You’ve shown where you’re right and they’re wrong.  You’ve entrenched a stereotype that Christians are haters.  You’ve built a wall.

Congratulations.  But make no mistake.  You’ll pay for your own wall.

The better way?  Paul rejoices wherever he finds a vestige of truth and so Greek poets find their way into his preaching, just like Eminem, Beyonce, Van Gogh, Disney, Billy Joel, and more find their way into mine.   Truth is truth, and wherever it’s found we should rejoice.

 

New Axioms in a Post Truth World

Do you remember eighth grade geometry, and the subject of axioms?  An axiom is “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”.  An example in math would be:  “if x and y are real numbers, then the sum of x+y is also a real number”.  There’s no need to prove it because it’s self evident.  Axioms are important because mathematicians and philosophers build structures on their foundations.

Get the axiom wrong and the whole structure will ultimately be unsustainable.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction”.   This gets practical in our moment because there are claims floating around in our social/political world and they’re being accepted as axiomatic.

“The lyin’ media”

“My inauguration crowd was bigger”

“I won the popular vote”

“I was wiretapped by the previous president”

I’m not writing here as democrat (I’m independent and voted both sides in the last election) and I’m not writing about health care, or the philosophy that lower taxes will be good for the economy. Both the conservative and progressive voices are vital in shaping our democracy; their ideas need collision with each other in order to arrive at next steps in moving a country forward – at least that was the intent of the framers.  Further, the conservative world won the election and has both the right and responsibility to govern.  All of us are on the bus, so we’d all do well to press for success.

It’s the very desire for democracy to succeed, whoever is in power, that causes me to write today.  Whatever your party loyalties, know that a very dangerous foundation is being laid when a country is asked to believe things as if they were axiomatic, simply because they’re spoken by people with authority.  While not technically axioms, we’re being asked to believe more and more things,  “sans evidence”.

My plea is that you not go there, that we not go there as a nation, that we not allow our leaders to take us there.

Promises gone awry are one thing.  (“If you like your current health care plan you can keep it”).  They’re named.  Apologies are made.  We learn.  Hopefully we move on.

This is a different time; a different leader.  As David Brooks writes: “Everything about Trump that appalls 65% of America strengthens him with the other 35%”.  This is an axiom problem.  It stems from a readiness to believe things, simply because they’re declared by someone, in spite of the fact that, not only are they not self-evident, but all available evidence points in a different direction.

And so we come to the importance of character.  Nobody is perfect, of course, and we know our previous presidents well enough to know that feet of clay have been in the Oval Office from the beginning.  Still, the accumulation of spectacular declarations lacking any evidence is new territory.  The credibility gap that is nothing more than fodder for late night comedians presently, will become the soil of national crisis when we’re asked to enter a sacrificial war because our leader makes an axiomatic declaration demanding it and, no surprise, most of the notion won’t buy it.

When I teach German students, I’m happy to report that they don’t take what I say at face value.  They ask hard questions.  They challenge my statements.  They ask for evidence.  I was taken aback by this years ago, when I first began teaching in Europe.  When I asked why they’re “so skeptical” they told me it had to do with their history, that they’d learned the dangers of following blindly, and so built healthy skepticism into their education of youth.

“Following blindly” is becoming a habit these days and that shouldn’t surprise us, though it should alarm us.  It’s in our nature to believe what we want to believe, rather than allow ourselves to be shaped by revelation that would be disruptive to our held views.  Can I suggest that, rather than elevating any human leader, or source, to the status of infallible – all of us commit to thinking both critically, and open mindedly – to engaging with those holding differing views both civilly and honestly – and that we do it all with the goal of building on a foundation of  finding truth rather than defending fallacious axioms.

So here we are, with truth claims being offered and the expectation declared that we believe them axiomatically, simply because authorities have spoken.

Well Mr. President, and speakers of both house and senate, and minority leaders of those same chambers, if there’s any good news in your deplorable, unabashedly partisan behaviors of late its this:  your lies have become unbelievable, even to yourselves and the people of your own parties.  Your truth claims are, I can only pray, creating a vast sea of skeptics who will no longer take what’s said at face value.   And in the wake of your collective integrity failure, my hope and prayer is that the next round of elections won’t be the circus this previous round was.  Instead, perhaps, people will once again look for people with integrity and elect them, weighing character above everything else.

…because one thing is certain throughout the history of the world:  as goes the king, so goes the nation.

It’s axiomatic

You Can’t Live on Adrenaline Forever – A call to rest

12699122_f520 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Jesus the Christ 

In quietness and confidence is your strength – Isaiah the prophet

God, in infinite wisdom, has given us a credit card for energy.  It’s called adrenaline and comes in handy when we need to “rise to the occasion”.  Historically it came in handy when a lion was roaming nearby in the savannah.  You’d come up over a hill and your eyes would meet. Instantly, your heart rate elevates, glucose is released to give you both clarity and strength, and a whole cocktail of other chemicals and hormones begin coursing through your blood so that you can either “fight” with strength, or “flight” with speed, and have the wisdom to know which to choose.

Then it’s over, you’re either safe or dead.  Either way, the draw down of energy for the acute crisis stops and (if you’re not dead) recovery begins.  You breathe deep, and slowly, your heart rate returns to normal.  You sit with your tribe in the fire circle, recounting stories from the day, and then maybe sing a song, before falling asleep amidst the safety of the camp.  While you rest, you digest, your recover, your recharge your emergency energy credit card, so that the next time you go out, you’ll be ready again.

Or, you live in the 21st century, where the credit card draw down is, for too many of us, a nearly continuous elevation to the fight or flight response for any number of reasons:

1. The rude awakening with the alarm  2. The 24/7 news cycle, because it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, it’s presented as a crisis of epic proportions.  Toss in a measure of guilt or despair for not doing enough about it, or weariness because you are doing enough, marching every weekend.  3. The rent increases, or tax increases.  4. commute challenges and work challenges, encompassing a host of emotions.  5. A virtual world on social media that is, for too many, its own form of porn, offering escape from painful realities, and painting fantasy pictures of a world better than our own. 6. Relational challenges with spouse, children, parents, roommates, friends, ex-friends – or the opposite challenge of 7. Isolation, which was never God’s intention of people 8. Sleep challenges, usually stemming from some combination of spiritual, emotional, and physical reasons.  9. Foods that stress our body because, though tolerable, God didn’t design your body to eat pre-fab food.  10. A perverted notion of faith that leaves one questioning whether they’ve done enough, learned enough, are holy enough – so that there’s a constant nagging that ranges somewhere between shame and inadequacy.

In such a world, overdraws of your stress response credit card become the norm.  Still, you need to pay.  And you will.  it will show up in hypertension, or obesity, heart disease or diabetes, or perhaps any one of a number of other “diseases of civilization”.

When Jesus invites us to learn the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’, what’s he talking about?  For one thing, I strongly believe he’s inviting us to a rhythm of engagement and withdrawal, as well as an internal perspective of mindfulness, because these two things, taken together, can create break the cycle of the chronic stress response.  Here are some practical steps to take:

1. No screens for two hours prior to bedIn one of my favorite books, I learned that sleep difficulties are a major challenge in the 21st century, and that this matters because the evidence is in:  sleep shortage has all kinds of negative effects, the summary of which is described by Robert Stickgold, sleep specialists who builds a compelling case that chronic sleep shortages make us, to quote Stickgold, “sick, fat, and stupid”.   One of the major contributors to sleep loss is screen time before bed, because it dampens the production of sleep hormones that would be created if we were, instead, reading a real book via real light, or better yet, doing our stretching, praying, or snuggling, by candlelight.

2. Spend more energy on your sphere of influence than your sphere of concern.   Jesus hints at this numerous times, but nowhere more clearly than in Luke 12:25, where he ponders the question:  “can any of you make yourself an inch taller by worrying about your height?”  Your height is in your sphere of concern, but not your sphere of influence.  You can’t change it!!  And you can’t change who’s in the White House right now, or the cost of housing, or how your boss will respond to your request for a raise.

The point Jesus is trying to make?  He’s calling us to wisely invest most of our energy in things over which we DO have influence, rather than whining about, or worrying about, things over which we don’t have influence.  This isn’t a call to passivity or withdrawal.  We live in a democracy and all of us have some influence over big things.  But we need to invest most of our energies in things over which we have direct control.  Am I loving my people?  Am I living generously and enjoying intimacy with Christ?  Am I standing for actual vulnerable people in my life, not just advocating for an anonymous “people group”?   It’s been freeing in my own life to begin with things over which I have control, and move outward from there.  Until I learned that lesson, my sphere of concern was paralyzing me with worry, and rendering me ineffective in my sphere of influence.

3. Learn to live in the present – with gratitude.    Jesus is our guide here, when he tells us to take no thought for tomorrow.  You don’t know how long you’ll live, don’t know how the market will do, don’t know when the next terror attack will be, or what will be tomorrow’s news from the white house.  You don’t know.  So don’t live in anxiety over what you don’t know.

You do know that today, the days are getting longer.  You know that there’s glory and beauty in the face of those you love.  You know that you are forgiven, and that One is infinitely and irrevocably for you – and not only you, but for all of humanity, and the planet.  You know that, in spite of everything, there’s beauty still in this world, in abundance.  You know where history’s headed.  You know you have a next step to take, a practical one, that will bring life and hope to the world.

Knowing these things, and rejoicing in them, is enough to stop the adrenaline credit card drain, and bring the rest and peace you need.

NEXT UP:  three more practices –

1. Eat real food

2. Get outside

3. Love your friends

 

 

 

Immigration is about Kingdom Ethics, not Party Preference

A letter in the Washington Post

This week World Relief bought space in the Washington Post in order to invite President Trump to reconsider his executive order banning refugees from several countries.  They also invited pastors of many congregations larger than 2000 to sign their letter.  The church I lead partners extensively with World Relief in Rwanda, and one of their refugee resettlement ministries is located in Seattle, so when I learned of this opportunity, it didn’t require much thought.  I signed as soon as I was able, and the reasons were obvious to me.

1. The insider/outsider paradigm is a ruse.  The assumptions that terror or violent extremism are mostly imported are, to put it politely, “alternative facts”.  Never mind the reality that not a single terror act on our soil has originated from any of these countries; the notion that evil and violence are “out there” and we need to keep “them” at bay is simply wrong, both historically and theologically.  In the country of Timothy McVeigh, Omar Mateen, and Dylann Roof, the elevation of “external terror threats” is theologically tantamount to what Jesus spoke of when said “Why do you try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye when you have a log in your own eye?”  We, in other words, ought to be asking questions about why we lead the developed world in per capita gun violence and what it is about our culture that breeds internal violence and terror.  It’s far too convenient to vilify “the other” in a way that blinds us to more real problems, and threats, that are already here.

2. The vetting of immigrants has been working, as evidenced by the total lack of incidents from anyone residing in the USA from these countries.

3. The executive order is a chain saw, rather than a surgical incision.  There’s a woman and her four children (all under age six) about to enter the USA from Iraq.  They are, in no way whatsoever, a threat to our security.  To the contrary, they are the people who need exactly what we have offered to immigrants throughout our history – a fresh start amongst the most generous and hospitable people in the world.  When we no longer wish to welcome these, we’ve lost our moorings, lost our great idea.

4. Hospitality and Grace are more in keeping with our Christian calling than Fear and Exclusion 

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

When Jesus talks about this stuff, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, and in this story it’s the “so called” pagan who demonstrates the compassion of Christ by entering into the risk and cost of crossing a social divide to help someone in need, while the religiously upright people ignored him.  Whether from pride, fear, or risk, we’re not told.  But we’re not told because it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that someone who’d been tossed aside was cared for, and that caring is exalted by Jesus as a Christian virtue.  At the least, the vast, vast, vast, vast, majority of those who are seeking entry into America aren’t coming for the free health care, or wonderful social safety net.  They’re coming because Alleppo is burning.  They’re by the side of the road, beaten down and afraid.

The punchline of Jesus’ story is simple: 

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”  (Being unwilling even to say the word “Samaritan”!)

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29-37)

So I did…

.And that’s why I signed the petition.  

Is this political?  No.  The kingdom of God, and God’s ethics transcend any party line.  I called out President Obama regarding his views on late term abortion too, because these aren’t political issues; hey’re theological; discipleship issues.  Christ followers who are truly intent on advocating for the vulnerable should be willing to advocate for life in the womb as vocally as for the lives of refugees, and vice versa.  That we’re slow to see this and rise above partisan politics is both what saddens me, and why I’ll continue to advocate for life in the womb, life for the refugee, life for the uninsured woman dying of a treatable disease, and life for the victim of gratituitous gun violence.

I leave you with words from one of my favorite magazines:

“Muslim refugee children are sacred.  Police officers are sacred, as are young African Americans with names like Trayvon Martin, Eric Ganern, and Freddie Gray.  Unborn babies are always sacred.  And so too, with all their grave guilt, are their abortionists.  Progressive hipsters, prosperity gospel televangelists, members of Congress, gender-transitioning former decatheletes, Confederate flag waving white nationalists.  All are sacred.”  

Perhaps we can drop our political labels and dialogue about the ethics of the kingdom.  It’s the only way we’ll move toward an informed unity of Christ’s body to which we’re invited.

Building Your Piece of the Wall – Post Election Reflections gained from new friends

A note to readers:  I’ve been on a bit of a “blogattical”, which is my word for a blogging sabbatical, post election.  I’ve been silent, not because I have nothing to say, but because the volume of rhetoric has been so amplified that it’s felt as if everyone’s talking and nobody’s really listening anyway.  So I’ve been silent, seeking to live into James’ exhortation a bit more than usual:  “be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger”.  I think the “blogattical” will continue a bit longer, but with sporadic entries breaking the silence as appropriate, at least until Lent.  The first breaking of the silence is today’s entry on lessons learned from Camp Andrews.  Thanks for reading, and as always, I welcome both your feedback and your comments.   

After a red-eye flight to Boston, and a chip shot from there to Philadelphia, I soon find myself at Sandy Cove, a wonderful conference center in Maryland where I’m privileged to speak for a few days to people who work for camps on the Atlantic coast.  In the room of 200-300 guests, I know perhaps 3 people.  I make my way to a random table and introduce myself.  I discover that they are all employees of “Camp Andrews”, a camp with Mennonite roots, which leads to conversation about Fresno, and then Yosemite, and ultimately “the west”, where few of them have ever been.  As the conversation develops I discover that these rural Mennonites, in Lancaster County, PA, are passionate about brining inner city youth to their small camp and introducing them to the outdoors and Jesus Christ.  Youth for whom concrete and hip-hop are their common experience make their way to Camp Andrews for a week.  Here they hear the night sounds of the forest, see stars, climb, learn of creation’s rhythms, learn of Christ’S love, and experience that love ‘in the flesh’ through the fine folks sitting at this table.  They light up, all of them, when they speak of the work they do, of the lives that are changed, of how much they love exposing inner city kids to God’s books of text and creation, kids who know precious little of either.

My heart melts as I see their passion, and I leave the table realizing that this is likely the first time I’ve had a good long conversation at a meal table without talking about politics since about November 9th.  It’s clear to me that they know their calling.  They were doing it when Obama was in office.  They’re doing it now.  They’ll still be doing it after the mid-terms.  “Whatever your hand finds to do… do it”  Their camp’s not big.  They’re not in headlines.  They’re just getting on with their calling.

Most of the rest of us could take a cue from them.  I say this because I’ve never in my life felt the mission of God’s people so shrouded in political fears and accusations.  Evangelicals are alternatively gloating, angry, afraid, accusing, protesting, and counter-protesting, and all of it’s about the new Ceasar in town.  The fruit of it?  We the church are more divided than I’ve ever seen us, more accusatory of our own, more distrusting, more cynical.  It’s a lot of sound and fury, and its created an environment where it’s easy to get clicks, but hard to contribute to the unity of Christ’s body.

What a joy to be reminded, by a humble, hard-working group from rural Pennsylvania, that there’s a third way.  They’re not hand-wringing.  They’re not gloating.  They’re simply doing what they know they’re called to do.  Ceasars come and go, and so, by the way, do nations.  God’s kingdom work though?  It’s always there, waiting to be done.  You have a part, and so do I.

I can already hear the accusations that this is disengagement.  Here’s my response:  1000 inner city kids spend a life-transforming week in the woods each summer because of the work of these fine folk.  If you want to call that disengagement, suit yourself.  From my chair, they’re fulfilling the reality of I Corinthians 15:58 –

“…be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” 

We need to continually remind ourselves that while advocacy for the poor, the unborn, immigrants, and other people on the margins is always part of our calling, that same calling has never, ever been wed to a single political party, let alone a nation.  The kings of this world are just that: kings of the this world.  Proverbs rightly tells us that good kings make countries better and bad kings make them worse.  But Jesus, also rightly, and profoundly, says, “My kingdom is not of this world” – so get on with working out your citizenship and calling in your eternal kingdom, whether that means marching, or skiing with your neighbors, or making good art, or crossing social divides.

Each of us have a calling, and that we need to rise up and do it day after day.  For the vast majority of us our calling won’t change, no matter who’s in power.

The Gifts of Christmas #5 – Shepherd, Provider, Gift Giver

img_1627-1
Over 37 years, two stockings have become ten. JOY!

It was in the late summer of 1976 when I first made my way north to Seattle, Washington.  I was headed to a new college, having changed my major from architecture to music.  I drove up from California and every mile north of Sacramento was new territory for me.  I’ll never forget seeing downtown for the first time and being overwhelmed by it’s beauty.  It’s proximity to the the water, it’s view of the mountains, the relatively new Kingdom (and the new Seahawks who’d soon be playing there) bound my heart to the city immediately.  Over the next three years I’d grow to love both the city and the rest of state, as I tromped through the forest with my fiancé, the evangelist of the outdoors, attended Sonics games, and ran 10k races downtown and Bloomsday in Spokane.  By that last year in Seattle, in 1979, my fiance and I had been together on snowshoes, in sailboats, in running shoes, and in hiking boots.  We married and moved, reluctantly, to California, where I eventually went to seminary.

I was offered a full time position at a church in Los Angeles, but declined.  I sat over supper with my favorite professor and he chided me for rejecting the offer.  “I feel called to the Northwest” I said, and he laughed.  “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which I replied, “No. Everyone doesn’t feel called to place – not the the way my wife and I do. It’s the rain, the green, the teams, the culture – everything.  We belong there.”  I was sincere, and it was a few months later, while working as a carpet cleaner, that a church in Friday Harbor called me in search of an interim pastor.  Donna was eight and a half months pregnant then, with our first child.  It was the late summer of 1984 that we returned to Washington state.  The Huskies were playing UCLA on the hospital TV when Kristi was born that October Saturday.  When we moved back in 1984, our hearts landed here.  Home.

Tonight, after leading the services at the church I serve, I’ll drive home to the mountains in the very center of this state we love, and there will be 10 stockings hung, appropriately with climbing gear, on the bookshelves.  My wife and I will, at some point, look at each other and say, “look what God has done!”, as we ponder the reality that we each arrived here solo, 32 years ago, and now enjoy the greatest gift of all, as we see our three children, their spouses, our grand-daughter, and my mother in law, all convened from distant parts of the world to celebrate the gifts we’ve so mercifully received from our God – these children and their families, of course, being the greatest gifts of all – and the privilege of investing in a place,  a region we love, with all the new friends that blossom in such a context, coming in a close second!

The thing is, I’ve never felt worthy of such blessings.  But I know, too, that “there is a time for everything” and that when the time is a time of blessing, the best possible response is gratitude to God for all that he’s given.  Knowing we don’t deserve the many gifts we enjoy, makes us both more grateful, and more generous to share them freely with others.  It also helps us seize today and rejoice with all the strength that is in us, knowing that there will be other days that are valleys of loss, confusion, and loneliness.  “In the days of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13).  Yes, there will be other lesser days, for everyone – and when they come, the hope is that the same God who faithfully rejoiced with us as we received gifts, will walk with us, weep with us, comfort us, when we face loss.  I’ve known it to be true, so believe it to be true still.

When I received a phone call from my wife, during seminary days, that “we’re pregnant”, my response was equal parts joy and fear.  The fear came from this sense of inadequacy I’d always carried with me, for lots of different reasons.  I’d never consider myself a “self- made man”, because as I look back at my own story I see the hands of so many loving me, encouraging me, affirming me, helping me.  Wow!  And behind them all, of course, I see a good God whose gifts of kindness are intended to remind us that we can relax a bit, because companionship with Christ is the bottom line of what makes life worth living anyway, and that’s available 24/7.  Everything else is a gift – and if Bonhoeffer could see the gifts in prison, and MLK could see the gifts in a Birmingham jail, and my friend could see the gifts as he lay dying of cancer, I think I can say with confidence:  the gifts will come, are likely here already.   Ours is to simply see, and receive with gratitude.  They don’t solve every problem, these gifts – but they’re still gifts.

Yes it’s a broken world.  Yes there are clouds on the horizon.  Yes, we must roll up our sleeves and work for justice, and give to those needing help and empowerment. Yes we will walk with courage, wherever we need to go in 2017 – and yes – God is still good.  Christ is still here.  And in the midst of all the brokenness, the world is still beautiful.

The Gifts of Christmas #4: Jesus breaks dividing walls

We live in an increasingly tribal world, where white supremacists feel empowered in new ways, European nations are finding xenophobic voices on the rise, and whole people groups, like the Kurds, find themselves at risk wherever they turn.  In spite of all the good work God has done in Rwanda, tensions still brew just under the surface there, and the developed world is dealing with an exponential increase in refugees, precisely because of tribalism.

With fears of “the other” on the rise, a look at Jesus life, from beginning to end, is like a drink of fresh cold water in the midst of the desert.  This is because Jesus loved all, breaking the normal social and tribal walls that so often isolate and divide. Consider:

1. The wise men were from the east, not Jewish, and among the first worshippers, along with shepherds who, by virtue of their work, were considered ceremonially unclean by the religious elite.

2. Early in his ministry, he goes out of his way “pass through Samaria” and engage with a woman who, by any standard of Jewish religious propriety, would have been an outsider.  She was a) a Samaritan, and Jews have no dealing with Samaritans b) a woman, and men have no dealings with women and c) living with a man ‘not her husband’, which would have rendered her unclean.  And yet here he is, talking theology with her, and eventually revealing his identity as Messiah.  She becomes an evangelist, telling others what she’d seen and heard, just like the shepherds before her.

3. Jesus heals a Greek woman’s daughter, commending her for her faith, and later, heals the child of a Roman soldier.

4. He calls a despised “tax collector” to become one of his disciples.

5. The complaint leveled against him by the religious establishment is that he spends time with “tax collectors and sinners”.

6. He advocates for a woman caught in “the very act of adultery” saving her life, forgiving her, and telling her to “sin no more”.

7. He tells a thief dying on the cross that he’ll be joining Jesus in paradise.

7. He even has a heartfelt and compassionate conversation with “a ruler of the Jews” who is part of the religious establishment

All these things offend the sensibilities of basically everyone, because Jesus refused to be confined to a single people group or party.  Rich or poor.  Jew or Gentile.  Slave or free.  Man or woman.  Married or those with failed marriages.  Undeniable sinner, or sinner covered in a veneer of religion – Jesus loved them all.

This is a great gift this Christmas season, because the reality is that those who love this way receive a much needed gift as a result of crossing social divides and loving those different than them – they receive the gift of joy!

I know lots of Christians, lots of religious people.  One thing I’ve learned is that its the people who “cross over” who find an element of joy in their lives unavailable to those who remain confined within the walls of “their own kind”.  This isn’t because crossing over is  easy.  It’s not.  It’s because crossing over is “the life for which we’ve been created” and when we cross over, we become aligned with the deepest part of our soul.

The gift of crossing over began early, as shepherds, judged as unclean, received a message from an angel and “crossed over” into the presence of a holiness that the religious establishment would have forbidden to them.  God, far from forbidding, initiated the invitation!  Jesus, we are told in Ephesians 2, has broken down the dividing wall.  This is a gift.

Have you unwrapped this gift, and begun enjoying relationships with those across the way – racially, economically, socially, politically? There’s joy “over there” friends, for those willing to follow Jesus and cross the divides.

Here’s the deal, as announced in Luke 2:10:

Good news 

Great joy 

For all people! 

There’ll be a banquet in the end, and most folks at the table won’t look like you; they maybe didn’t even vote like you.   But though the banquet’s still to come, the party’s started, so enter in – by crossing over!

 

The Gifts of Christmas #3: His humble circumstances free us

I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership.  The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected.  He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world.  “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.

It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself.  I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”.  I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world.  Well connected?  I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures.  I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.

I left class that day wanting to quit.  I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job.  When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:

Well connected?  He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.

Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.”  Isaiah 53:2

Agressive and ambitious?  There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on.  In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life:  “What is the will of the Father?”  When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds.  When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone.  When it led to the cross, he went there.

Wealthy?  “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.

There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected.  It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.

This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.

The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters.  I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on.  My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).

Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle.  Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t.  Some could be models, they’re so striking.  Then there are the rest of us.  Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.

Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26

For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.

 

The Gifts of Christmas: #2 – Free! Can’t be bought, only received!

There’s a fun little mystery in the Bible.  Way back in Genesis, ten brothers are starving and decide to travel down to Egypt because there’s grain for sale there.  Little do they know that the man from whom they’ll be buying grain is their little brother, hated as the favored one and sold by them into slavery, over two decades earlier.  They show up and he’s changed of course, and speaks a different language now, so they don’t recognize him.  They buy grain, but before heading home, the little brother sneaks all the money back into their sacks so that on the way home they discover that they had the grain, but didn’t pay for it.  To say there were dismayed would be an understatement, because from the very beginning of time, we’ve all known that “you get what you pay for” and that “there’s no free lunch”.  There are a million other ways we get the message too: from demanding parents who shame us when we fail, to performance reviews that populate our employment files with warnings.  The best things in life are earned.

This little story of free bread, though, tells us that there’s a different set of rules in God’s economy.  God is showing us that the things we need most fundamentally in our lives are not bought, ever.  They can only be received as gifts.  That’s why later a form of bread will show up on the desert floor when a nation is wandering through it on their way to their new home.  Centuries after that, Isaiah will speak of bread that is only available “without cost”, and then Jesus will declare that he is giving us his flesh as “the bread, for the life of the world”.

Give, give, give, means that there can be only one response.  Receive, receive, receive.  We can’t earn the gift that is Christ.  We’ll never be able to repay or reciprocate.  We can only receive, like little children.  My granddaughter, who just turned one, will be with us this Christmas and I promise you that she’ll have no problem receiving gifts without any guilt.  There’ll be no, “Rats!  Grandpa gave me some overalls and I’ve nothing for him.”  There’ll be a pattern to her Christmas day:  receive, enjoy, repeat.

For God’s sake, all of us could stand to become children again vis a vis our relationship with God and Christ:  receive; enjoy; repeat.

That requires a radical reorientation from the performance world that is often the rest of our lives, and the way to get there is to recognize that, though we’ve likely earned a bit in our lives through the sweat of our brow, the best gifts that we’ve received are the free ones.  We’ve been forgiven, I hope, by a parent, spouse, or friend.  We had a flat tire, and someone stopped to help.  We were lonely, and a friend dropped by, unannounced.  These little reminders put me in the frame of mind to see that the things I need most – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, hope, the capacity to forgive and serve… all these things can’t be bought, can’t even be created through some sort of psychological ‘cross fit’ self improvement program.  These things stem from eating the bread of life, and can only be received freely, as the gift it is.

 

 

The Gifts of Christmas: #1 – We are seen and heard

Greetings…

During the days between now and Christmas, I want to share some reflections with you about the many gifts that are part of the One Gift that is Christ.  I’m reflecting on these gifts because, more than ever, I see the deep divisions and violence in our world.  We who claim to follow Christ are at grave risk of becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution if we aren’t careful to maintain what Paul calls the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.  When he writes about maintaining that, he articulates that it’s eminently easy to be “led astray”.  It’s passive language because the reality is that there are strong currents that will simply carry us along unless we’re diligent to recognize the danger of the direction and swim against it.  

I’m increasingly convinced that the recognition of dangerous cultural rip-tides isn’t achieved by being a cultural expert.  Rather, what’s needed at a foundational level is a commitment to intimacy with Christ, for he alone is the fullness of wisdom.  So what better way to prepare for the discernment that all of us will need in the coming year than by considering together the riches of the gift that is Christ.  Unwrapping the glories of Christ is a bit like unwrapping a present that has another present inside, and then yet another, on and on, as we discover different facets of the gift that is Christ.  Each day I’ll hope to offer a short post about a facet of the gift that is Christ and why each gift matters in 2016.  I hope you’ll join me, and find encouragement in the practical value of Christ, today more than ever!  

Gift #1 – Christmas means God sees and hears us.  

There’s a marvelous little passage in Exodus 3:7 which declares that God heard the cry of the sons of Israel and saw that they were being oppressed, so he “has come down to deliver them”.  This was neither the first nor last time God “came down” in response to the suffering of this fallen world because it’s in God’s character to “see and hear” the suffering of humanity.

We may wonder if God is listening these days.  When I see the tragedies in Aleppo, the suffering of immigrants around the world, and the rise in fascist and racist ideologies, we wonder if God’s listening at all.  We wonder too, in the children’s oncology ward.  Who is this God who sees and hears, and why is God not intervening, God’s so good and so powerful?

It’s a fair question, and the answer is found in the name Immanuel, which means “God with Us”.  What makes the “good news” good isn’t that we’re offered escapist immunity from the affects of living in a fallen world.  Rather, it’s that God has promised to walk with us in the midst of everything – the suffering and the joys, and the sickness and the healing, the living and the dying.  We’ve been told that life will run the gamut of experiences, that there’s “a time for everything”.

That God has been “with me” is one of the greatest gifts I’ve enjoyed in my life.  It’s meant that when I lost my dad, I’d eventually come to discover that I wasn’t as alone as I thought.  It meant that when I changed majors and loaded my 68 Ford Mustang to drive north to Seattle, though I’d never been north of Sacramento in my life, and knew not a single person in my new city, God was with me.  It meant that while riding a midnight train from Northern India to New Delhi, a train on which I found myself because of a riot in the city where I was teaching, I wasn’t alone.  I wasn’t alone in my berth when I was alone, and I wasn’t alone when I woke in the middle of the night to see six Indian faces staring at me.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not faced the depths of living in this fallen world in anywhere near the same degree as many others.  I’ve tasted enough of it, though, to know that the companionship of Christ is, at one level, all I need in this life.  And I’ve known those who’ve walked much deeper, darker valleys than mine.  They too, have shared with me that this companionship has been a source of healing, sustenance, peace, and eventually for most, joy.

“God with us” begins with God seeing our suffering and hearing our cry.  This is the first gift.  God knows.  God cares.  Rejoice.  Immanuel.  God IS with us.

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step