When the angel announced good news of great joy for all people, the angel opened the door for a feisty conversation about who’s in and who’s out of God’s family. That conversation has been fueled by arrogance and fear, and given birth to violence and hatred, as religious wars and posturing in things likes Crusades, colonialism, and genocide, have all been carried out by people with great big Bibles.
So let’s take a moment and consider what, perhaps the angel meant by the phrase “for all people”, based on what the Bible says.
Here’s the thing:
For all people… wow! Merry Christmas.
Early 1990’s: The first time I saw the climbing wall it was located at the ski area adjacent to Tauernhof, the bible school where I teach in Austria. Students (and a few of us teachers) would use it during the semester, perfecting our skills as we talked of life, faith, beauty. I climbed on it once during autumn, when some sheep were coming down from the high country, across the hills of the ski slope. Those sheep, their fear of me, and their confidence of the voice of their own shepherd, made this verse come alive for me.
1994: Same wall, different year. I climbed with a young man named Harry on the wall and we shared great fellowship and conversation as we negotiated holds, practiced technique, and spoke of God, Christ, leadership, and eternity. The next weekend, Harry would climb with a student, and fell to his untimely death. Every year, it seemed, the wall become a deeper and deeper repository of truths learned, fellowship enjoyed, loss suffered. And then the wall disappeared….
Sometimes in the early 2000’s: When I asked Hans Peter, the director of the bible school about the wall, he told me of the ski area’s expansion plans, and how that necessitated it’s removal. “But we’re getting it” he said. “We’re going to put it on the Bible School property.”
2012: The wall is in place on the Torchbearer property and Hans Peter points shows it to me. The rabbit, which was the mascot of the ski area attached to the wall before, was replaced with: Jesus Christus, plus three German words I don’t recognize. “It will be there for everyone to see – so that people will know that everything we do here, all the skiing, climbing, hiking, food, fellowship- is about Jesus.”
Sunday, December 8, 2013. Hans Peter, previous Bible School director, is gone, killed in a paragliding accident this past August. His teaching gifts and strong leadership of Tauernhauf were evidenced in both the breadth and depth of ministry from this relatively small center. His death meant the loss of a friend, mentor, and leader to many, including me. I’m privileged to be in Schladming today because my friend Martin is being “confirmed” in his new role as director.
The moments are bittersweet, joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning, all woven together as leaders from the larger Torchbearer community, along with students from this year’s Bible school, the whole Torchbearer staff, and lots of other local town leaders, friends, and family, gathered to literally lay hands Martin and pray for him as he steps into the role of director. An old friend sat by me and translated every word of the service. There were songs, readings, a bit of a biography of Martin, and then key leaders layed hands on his head and prayed for him, one by one. I know some of these leaders with whom I’ve shared ministry for two decades now. I know we’re older; we feel it, we look it. We’ve seen a lot. Change is happening all around us, and its rarely easy.
Then it was Martin’s turn to speak….
What does one say in such a time as this, when the occasion of your anointing comes in the wake of a beloved leaders death? Martin reads this for us from the book of Hebrews: Jesus Christ: The same yesterday, today, forever. He reminds us all, gathered here to affirm him, but gathered in a shadow of grief as well, that everything changes; leaders, ministries, plans, our own bodies, our children, everything. “But”, Martin reminds us, “Jesus Christ remains the same: yesterday, today, forever.”
In world where many Christians have their own publicity machinery, heroes, media strategies, and branding consultants, Martin’s word reminds me that all of us who are called to lead anything are entrusted with leadership but for a season. Our goal isn’t to get more people to read our stuff, or listen to us, or amass followers – and most certainly our goal isn’t to create an aura of indispensability, as if we’ve the corner on the truth market. Our goal, simply, is to point people to Jesus, precisely because he alone never changes:
He was there for you when you walked away from him. He’ll be there for you when you return.
He was a source of wisdom when you didn’t think you needed it. He’ll be wisdom when you know you do.
He was a source of comfort when you turned to alcohol instead. He’ll be a source of comfort when you turn to him
He was your provision when you thought he wasn’t. He’ll be your provision when you know he is.
He loves you when you don’t believe he does. He’ll love you when accept his love.
He’s all you need in seasons of grace and peace.
He’ll be all you need when all hell breaks loose – when there’s cancer in the family, when your fried dies in an accident, when you lose your job.
He’ll change lives at this bible school when Hans Peter Royer is the leader. He’ll change lives when Martin Buchsteiner is the leader
What a good word for me when, at times, I feel overly weary due to my own foolishness and wrong sense of my own importance. His speech is followed by hilarious gifts given to him, ranging from an umbrella, to Red Bull, to Schnaps. And then his wife gives a marvelous word, and we sing a final song, and it’s over.
The meeting ends and after hugs with friends we migrate back to the school for a meal. I walk over to the climbing wall though, and it’s there, at the top, right below the exalted and highest “Jesus Christus” that I see the words: gestern heute immer. My very poor German’s good enough to know that the wall, which has been in the midst of all the changes in this little part of the world, now reads:
Jesus Christ: Yesterday, Today, and Forever.
Yes…this is the most important truth in my life, and the wall has become a memory stone for, a continual reminder that, though everything changes in life, Christ remains the same.
The best children’s book series, in my opinion, is the “If you give…” series. I like it because it speaks to the realities of cause and affect, and the importance of what Peter would call the “day of visitation”, but does so in a way that children and even adults can understand. Each book begins with someone giving an animal something edible, and then this simple act leads to another act, and another act, and another act, until the day is filled with nothing that was originally anticipated. This is the way of it for mice, and pigs, and the plural of moose.
Who knew that giving a moose a muffin, or giving a mouse a cookie, or giving a pig a pancake, could lead to such a flurry of activity? But there’s more in play here than just children’s entertainment because in truth, much that is significant in our lives comes about because we took what we thought in the moment was going to be an insignificant step:
It was just supposed to be an elective class, but as a result of it she changed her major from drama to global development, spent a summer in Rwanda, and now works for a company focused on global health initiatives. If you give a mouse a cookie….
It was just supposed to be a concert, but Mozart’s Requiem pierced his soul, pouring water on parched parts of it that had dried up due to disillusionment, growing up as he did in a strange blend of Jesus talk, racism, and obsessive social propriety. He wept as listened and tasted again for the first time the reality and goodness of God. This revival would lead to a different vocation that would take him around the world and help him give voice to people doing remarkable yet unsung things in Jesus’ name. If you give a moose a muffin….
It was, for me, just a weekend in the snow, in search of powder and in hopes of connecting with a cute blonde. The words of the speaker at this ski conference, though, were spoken only for me, it seemed, and before the weekend was over, I’d taken a major step in my life which eventually lead to a change of major, a change of college, which of course, would lead to my marrying a different person, and ultimately becoming a pastor, a writer, and a resident of what is, to me, the most beautiful city in the world. If you give a pig a pancake….
We decide to get the wood floors in our house refinished. We move the piano out of the room. We decide the room looks cleaner, nicer, without a baby grand. I envision how nice it would be to own an electronic keyboard and once again write music the way I did when I was young. We start thinking about the meaning of simplifying our lives, and downsizing. Just thinking about this makes me realize how insanely wealthy on the global wealth scale, and how this creates real responsibilities. I read a book on the subject of simplifying. We begin envisioning living lighter and, though getting there will mean more work rather than less, at least in the short term, we decide that this is part of our calling and start walking down a new and life changing path.
Someone watches a documentary on the global exploitation of women. They only go there because they were flipping channels out of boredom. Whatever. Their eyes are opened, and they’ll never be the same, as they take steps to make the world better reflect the justice and freedom that God has in mind for us all. Soon they’re deep in a story much larger than flipping channels and waiting for the new season of Modern Family.
I call these muffins, and cookies, and pancakes, and concerts, and floor refinishings, and documentaries, ‘catalyst moments’. Here’s what all of us would be wise to remember about catalyst moments:
1. You don’t come looking for them; they come looking for you. Theologically, this is what is called the ‘day of visitation’, and we diminish ourselves if we think that the visitation requires a burning bush, and an angel. Visitations happen all the time – on hikes, in concert halls, in pubs, staring at newly finished floors, staff meetings, staying overnight in a homeless shelter, taking a class, listening to a person describe their deep pain or joy – there are lots of moments of visitation.
2. Our lives are richer if we’re paying attention. One of the challenges many of us face is that religion often blinds us to moments of visitation. The religionists of Jesus day picked apart His healing of a man born blind – “Why did this Jesus heal on the Sabbath?” “How did he heal?” “Are you really the man born blind, or a body double to trick us?” They parsed and pontificated, but they never saw. I’m convinced many Christians never hear what God is trying to say. Some of them are too busy to listen, their minds constantly running 100 miles per hour, so that they never see the sunrise, or hear the Mozart or Mumford. Right at the critical moment of intimacy, when his spouse has exposed her soul and his, the cell phone rings. “THANK GOD” he thinks, as he answers and avoids yet again the single most important conversation of his life. Visitation averted.
We need to wake up and pay attention, because visitation usually comes when we’re not looking, and if we’re either intentionally avoiding God encounters, or are just too busy, we’ll miss them over and over again.
3. Our lives are richer still if we respond. If we hope to walk in God’s better story for our lives, it will be best for us if, in our encounters, we respond. If God’s asking you to confess your sin to someone, do it. If God’s asking you to take a class, or visit an orphanage in Romania, or volunteer for a medical clinic, or invite someone over, don’t ignore the prompts. Sure, check things a bit to make sure you’re hearing from God, rather than just reacting to heartburn or lack of sleep, but when you know God’s speaking to you respond.
Robert Frost makes it sound like there’s a single fork in the road – one moment for Moses, or Jonah, or you, or me. Without even trying hard I can think of about five hundred vital, life shaping moments, including: a Sonic game in 1978, watching “The Mission” in a theater in Friday Harbor, a night climbing in Stone Gardens, a hike to Snow Lake, responding to an e-mail from an acquisitions editor, and choosing to go to Los Angeles for seminary even though everything in us wanted to be in the Pacific Northwest. All these forks in the road have made all the difference.
How do you attune your heart to listen for God’s voice throughout your day and week?
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We’ve all had moments when we ran and hid, tears stinging in our eyes as we either said or received angry words, words that should never have been spoken. We’ve all had moments of anger towards those we love, when we felt our blood pressure rising and couldn’t imagine the person in front of us as capable of goodness or beauty. We’ve all had these moments, and when they pile up we become something we were never meant to be. We become lonely.
Isolation and our longings to connect would go on to saturate thoughtful music and film, beginning with Ordinary People, and continuing on with Fight Club, Garden State, Lost in Translation, and Goodwill Hunting.
Loneliness and isolation are woven into the fabric of every cultural demographic worldwide. It’s increasingly said that “all poverty is relational”, which means that when people are stuck in cycles of oppression and want, there’s a lack of healthy relationships upstream from those presenting problems. Dealing with relational poverty is increasingly seen as the first step in dealing with material poverty. But the wealthy aren’t immune from loneliness. In The Price of Privilege, we read that wealthy people, “in spite of their economic and social advantages, experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of group of children in this country”. The overwhelming evidence is that whether you’re shopping at Goodwill or wearing Gucci, odds are that you’ll face intimacy challenges. There are two good reasons for this, along with the good news that the gospel provides a way forward in our intimacy dilemma:
1. We’re made for intimacy. If the first two chapters of Genesis are our reference point for how humanity is intended to live, then we’re clearly made for intimacy. “It is not good” says God, “the man (humankind) should be alone”, after which God creates another person and we find this glorious phrase, “naked and not ashamed” in the text, a word which means that this first couple knew each other perfectly, with nothing hidden, and were able to love each other in the knowing. God is telling us something significant here about the longings of the human heart, telling us that in distinction to the animal kingdom, we’re made for more than procreation and copulation. We’re made for intimacy, and this is as it should be because we’re made in God’s image, and God isn’t a one, but a three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living in perfect fellowship, community, and union.
It is, in other words, “in our nature” to seek intimacy, to be fully known, and to fully know. It’s why we risk sharing our hearts with others, as we peel back layers to share our deepest selves, or listen intently as another unveils in order to be known. It’s why we have parties and spend time with the neighbors. It’s why we smile when we see an old couple holding hands and think to ourselves, “this is as it should be”. Maybe the Beatles were right; maybe love is in fact, “all you need”.
2. Anti-Intimacy is in our nature. Though love might be all we need, love isn’t “all we have”, because there’s something in us that runs from intimacy too. We discover this in Genesis as well, where we see that it’s in our nature to make anti-intimacy choices. First, we reject intimacy with God by saying in essence, “I don’t care about your longings for me. I want to do what I want to do”, and choose paths of our own making rather than those of the one who loves us perfectly and longs for us to be whole. Then, having chosen autonomy from God rather than intimacy, everything else unravels. We suddenly see the world through a different lens, and shame becomes part of our being. We feel the stinging pain of our own vulnerability, our loss, our hurt – and decide that we don’t want others to see that, so we cover our shame. In the Genesis garden we covered it with leaves. Today we cover it with other things: fancy clothes, fancy cars, plastic surgery, schedules so packed that we’ve no time to share or listen to those we love, machismo, hyper-sexualization; it’s a long list but in the end we see that there’s a whole tool kit enabling us to hide from each other. And we’re experts at using it.
What’s more, we’re afraid. Adam tells God that he heard God’s voice and was afraid, so he ran and hid. I’m afraid of rejection, afraid of conflict, afraid of truth telling because at various times when I’ve gone down these roads, things haven’t turned out well – I’ve been hurt, and so I crawl into my shell – choose safe illusion over naked reality. “Naked’s too risky” is what we tell ourselves as we run from each other, not literally usually, but metaphorically through the use of words that paint a thin veneer of propriety over reality. The result is loneliness, as we know from movies, and the lives of others and our own lives as well.
This is our dilemma. We’re made for intimacy and long for it, but there’s something in us that wants to run and hide. The results are stale marriages, stalemate relationships between children and parents, millions settling for the pseudo-intimacy of porn or sexual addiction, and an ache in our hearts which, try as we might, we cannot fully numb.
3. There’s an isolation antidote – The gospel is good news because it makes a way for intimacy. God pursued Adam in the garden and said in essence, “you’ll never be able to cover your shame – but I’ll deal with your shame” and God killed an animal and made coverings for Adam and Eve. That act was a seminal picture of what God would do in Christ when, naked on the cross, he absorbed our dysfunction and shame, our sin and guilt. This reality enables us to know that we’re fully loved and accepted, in spite of our failures. There is ONE who is inexorably for us, more even than we’re for ourselves. Learning to actually believe this isn’t some theoretical theological exercise; it’s what enables our own transparency and intimacy.
What’s more, this Jesus not only forgives and loves, he transforms, so that little by little, we find ourselves better able to choose truth telling, confession, forgiveness, sacrifice, and vulnerability. All the ingredients of intimacy become ours in fuller measure because the Master of Intimacy lives with us, and in us, and is committed to teaching us his ways. “Perfect love” we’re told, “casts out fear” because fear involves judgement, but the one who is our judge says, “you’re known – and forgiven”. If I can believe this, receive this, then I can learn healthy patterns of intimacy, because I know that, come what may in this world, there is One who loves me completely, with whom I can be naked and not ashamed. If I have this as my starting point, I’m on the right road. If I miss this, I miss a lot.