“For All People…” Why the Radical Inclusiveness of Christmas matters.

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:

  1. Jesus is the only door.  – That’s what Jesus himself says here, and so this is a repudiation of any sort of bland universalism which dismisses the central role of Christ in the restorative narrative of history.
  2. God has applied the work of Christ to those who don’t know Christ’s name but have faith in what God has revealed.  – We learn this from the entire Old Testament narrative, believing of course, that Abraham is in God’s family, and Moses, and the children of Israel who put the blood of animals on their doors and, we read, were drinking from Christ without knowing his name!
  3. God’s historically been more generous regarding salvation than God’s people have been.  This was part of what made Jesus’ message so scandalous.  His first evangelists were chosen from the lowest social class.  The 2nd evangelist was, from the perspective of insider religionists, a hated Samaritan, living with a man after five failed marriages.  Jesus speaks of outsiders dining at the kingdom table with insiders being cast out.  Jesus first speech spoke of the inclusiveness of his kingdom plans and nearly got him killed.  If God’s been more generous than religious experts, and I’m a religious expert, at the very least I need the humility to acknowledge that maybe I too am at risk of being pre-emptively judgmental, and asking God to spare me from that ugly sin.
  4. Since I know Christ and love Christ, I’ll preach Christ and invite people to Christ – I think Jesus is fantastic.  His ethics are stunningly beautiful, resonating with the deepest longings of the human heart, even though there are big and small parts of us that recoil at them too, or try to explain them away.  His companionship is more intimate than the most intimate lover, in that he lives within all who’ll let him. This has provided me with a source of joy, strength, hope, wisdom, that is wholly from him.  To the extent that I’ve drawn on that companionship and those resources, I’ve never regretted it.  And finally, the kingdom he’s creating is where I’m pinning all my hopes for the future.  With every report from Syria, every school shooting, every report of human trafficking or oppression, remind me that the only hope is this new king and his marvelous power to bring life where there’s only death.  This is glorious, and why I do what I do.
  5. There’ll be surprises.  I’m convinced that every person’s formula of “what’s required” for salvation will be wrong.  There’ll be people, we know from this passage, who did great stuff, but didn’t pursue intimacy with Christ.  There’ll be others who are invited in precisely because they did good stuff and in so doing blessed and served Jesus, as we learn here.  Some will never have heard the name Jesus and be at the table.  Others will have preached the Bible their whole lives, perhaps, and miss it.  There are markers, and a clear invitation for all of us to know Christ, be reconciled to God, and follow Jesus daily.  But if you try to figure it out with total precision who’s in and out, you’re on a fools errand, and you’ll be wrong, whatever your conclusion.  So relax.
  6. I won’t try to save anyone.  I’ll simply point people to Christ as the greatest hope for this tired and broken world, and invite people into God’s story, starting today, right where they’re at.  Hopefully, along the way, I’ll look and behave a little bit like the Jesus who lives in me, so that some generosity, hope, mercy, truth telling, joy, healing, come about.  That will be good.

For all people… wow!    Merry Christmas.

Remembrance stones in a climbing wall….

IMG_2959What do these stones mean to you? – Joshua 4:6

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.”

Image 7Sunday, 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 Image 10and 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

IMG_2913What 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 IMG_2921changes 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.

“Christian” – a tired word. May it rest in peace.

(in light of some conversations I’ve been having lately, here are some formative, not definitive, thoughts, about the words we use and how they affect our testimony)

When you talk to people and the subject of spirituality or faith comes up, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to use the word Christian in any meaningful way.  Here’s why:

Words, in order to have meaning, need to have boundaries.  The noun Hat can mean a lot of things –  ranging from a baseball hat, to a helmet for football or motorcycle riding, to a lovely hat for some sort of formal event, to an Amish head covering.  But we all know that it isn’t referring to a bottle, or a piece of cake, or a car.  The limits of words make conversation and understanding possible, and though words can have varieties of meanings, the boundaries need to “reasonable” or else the possibility of some real misunderstandings arise exponentially.

This brings me to the word I’m putting on trial:  Christian.  Here’s why:

“I’m not a Christian – I’m a democrat”, implying that Christian and a view of the world that favors higher taxes and bigger government are inherently, de-facto, incompatible.

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I was baptized when I was 8 months old.”

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I grew up in the church.” 

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I prayed the sinners prayer and went forward in church when I was nine” 

“No I don’t want to be a Christian.  Have you heard of the crusades?  Slavery?  The Christians were at the root of all that suffering.” 

“I’ll never be a Christian.  Just look at what Christian Europe did to our (African) continent.” 

You could go back through these comments and try to build a definition of the word Christian based on the answers, and what you’d end up with are six different definitions, but that’s only because I’ve shared six stories with you. I could share thirty, and then you’d have thirty definitions, each one diminishing the meaning of the word rather than clarifying.  The result?  The word has come to mean so many different things that it essential means nothing.

What’s a Christian to do? 

Continuing to use the word in the same way we talk about baseball and perfume, (assuming that everyone who’s listening knows what we mean by it) isn’t wise because we’re identifying ourselves with a word that, in the end, likely misrepresents us to the people who are listening.

If we’re not going to keep using it, there are only two options left: First, we can try to recover the word, offering a fresh definition.  I’ve been a fan of this strategy for a long time, believing that to surrender the meaning of the word to all its false detractors is sort of like raising a white flag and quitting the fight.  Isn’t it better to let everyone in the world know what the word really means by living out its true meaning for everyone to see?

Well, actually, no.  It’s not better at all.  That’s what I’ve come to believe at least.  I’m tired of fighting this battle and saying, “don’t confuse MY Christianity with that yucky stuff over there.  I’m not like that. I’m not like them” because these conversations have led to perhaps the worst definition of “Christian”-   “Christians fight with each other all the time!”  It’s a true statement, and ironic, since the one thing for which Jesus explicitly prayed is that Christ followers would be known by their unity. Instead, we’re known by our capacity to point out, more than any other religion in my opinion, how so many groups wearing the same word  Christian really aren’t – and are worse than us.

“Over here.  We have the real stuff!  We’re the real definition of Christian”  we shout, loud enough so that people already not interested in Jesus are now less interested than ever.

Nope.  I’m finished with that game, because the person not talked about very much in all this shouting is Jesus himself, which is ironic, because in the end, what we’re supposed to be doing is inviting people to follow Jesus.  The name calling, doctrinal fighting, and presumptive claiming of moral high is a game that’s worn me down.  But when all the shouting, and divisions, and pleas for institutional loyalty have died down, what I love is that Jesus is still here in the room with me.

“I’ve been waiting for you man.  Where have you been?”

“O you know.  Out and about, promoting your faith.” I know I look tired, and it’s a little embarrassing because he seems so calm, so centered, almost unconcerned that I’ve been running myself ragged for him.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that” he says, sipping his coffee.  “You’re confusing people.  Don’t promote ‘my faith’.  Why don’t you try just telling people about me?  People are tired.  They’re dealing with shame and failure.  They’re living in the midst of kingdoms that are enslaving them.  I want to bless them, help them, heal them, invite them to rest.  They don’t need religion. They need me.”

“I thought I was telling them about you.”  I say, defensive.  Jesus reminds me that telling people to “go to church” or “become Christians” are phrases so loaded with toxic junk that they do more harm than good.

“I think that’s why Paul said that he was determined to know nothing more than Christ crucified.  It might even be what Bonhoeffer meant when we referred to religionless Christianity.  But even those words are too loaded.  Just love people like I do.  And tell people about me.  Good things will happen.” 

It’s advent.  “Messiah” is playing on my computer, reminding me that the whole arc of history is, in the end, not about Christianity at all.  It’s about one person who changes everything, ultimately saturating the universe with glory and beauty, bringing hope and healing to all.  I pray that my eyes, this advent, will be looking for him all the time, talking about him freely, and giving him the freedom to do what he does best through the likes of me; love, serve, bless, and impart hope.

Yes.  I’m burying the word Christian… if it rises from the dead, so be it.  But may it never rise unless it represents the pure unadulterated glory of the risen Christ.  Amen?

These are my thoughts… still forming.  I welcome yours!