Archives For Advent

Christmas PictureA few weeks ago, on Black Friday, I joined the crowds getting on Amazon to see what their Christmas deals were. And I was fascinated by one thing in particular. In the Lightening Deals Amazon has three categories 1) All Available 2) Upcoming 3) Missed Deals

We have a section for missed deals!. Does it strike anyone else as particularly disturbing that we have a section of a website set aside just to shop for regret? Amazon gets to show us how great of deals they’ve had, and we get to mope about the things that we missed.

Joy Beyond The Walls of the World

A few years ago, I read Mark Sayers terrific little book The Trouble With Paris, where he observed the disconnect between our materialism and our the way we use things to try and medicate our pain:

“I recently watched a reality makeover show. The woman who had been selected for a makeover had being trying to have a baby for several years, only to suffer a number of miscarriages. The woman had finally successfully given birth to a healthy child, only for that child to tragically die in its first year of life. The show lavished the woman with various makeovers. They remodeled her house and her garden, taught her how to cook gourmet dishes, helped her lose weight, and gave her a new wardrobe of the latest fashions, along with a European vacation. The show ended in an almost awkward fashion as it become apparent that the world of makeovers could never heal this woman’s grief. He problems were internal, not external, and our culture had no solution for her pain.”

There’s not enough makeovers that can heal the ache.

In his great memoir, Surprised by Joy, writes about his conversion from Atheism to Theism and then to Christianity, and what ultimately convinced him that Jesus was the Son of God.

One of the most surprising things about C.S. Lewis life was what he meant when he said Joy.

Joy, for Lewis, isn’t extreme happiness or even a very positive emotion. Joy for Lewis, is The Longing.

It was what haunted him as a child when he read the folk stories and myths of the Celtic and Greeks, it was what he felt when he looked out over the England countryside and imagined Kingdoms and Castles and Kings and Queens.

Joy for Lewis was the stabbing pain of desire, it was a wish for things that were not attainable.

This would lead Lewis to say things like

“[Humans] remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread. But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating, and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. So too the craving for myths (hearing them, reading them, making them) suggests the presence of a need that they satisfy–or, more accurately, try to satisfy. Because they reach something deep within us, we return to them repeatedly, but because they do not and cannot meet the need they invoke, our experience with them is characterized by longing.”

Joy is Waiting

So it’s Christmas, and by now most of the people reading this have already done quite a bit of shopping. The Tree is up, the lights are on, and the Visa bill is growing. And, on Christmas morning, if you’re lucky for a few brief moments the ache in your soul will be covered over with laughter and smiles as you watch the people you love tear through wrapping paper and try out or try on their shiny new things.Time Hourglass

All of this is fine, and I don’t mean to diminish it.

But that ache comes back.

And that is a very good thing.

It is what C.S. Lewis called Joy, and it’s what the Christian Calendar calls Advent

Advent is just the Latin word for longing, or waiting, and it actually the way Christians for well over a thousand years have prepared for Christmas, and one that I think we need today more than ever.

Ancient Christian wisdom demands that we remember that there is a desire that we have that points us North. It’s a desire that can only be experienced, and never fully satisfied on this side of Eternity.

And if you aren’t aware of this reality, no matter if you are religious or spiritual or not, it will be used by advertisers and marketing firms to make subtle, yet over-reaching promises that will only break your heart.

Because no doorbuster or gadget or Lexus can give you joy. Indulge yourself enough and you can even find a way to lower the signal on the true joy that is offered.

The only Joy that is really offered is the joy of waiting.

Which I think makes this whole season make more sense, but not the way we are celebrating it.

That emptiness that comes after the wrapping paper settles on Christmas morning. The dull ache that comes back after all the gifts have been opened, is a gift.

It’s a gift that reminds us the best is still to come.

The empty chair on Christmas Eve, the stocking you haven’t been able to hang up for years since the accident took him away, those are ways that…if we let it, can actually increase our joy.

All the longing that is welling up inside of us actually has a end desire, and Christian hope says that it’s not only true, it’s exactly what this time of year was made for.

Advent means Longing, Christmas Advent means longing for the Joy that once did enter the world, and one day will come again.

So we wait.

And this is joy.

So What are you waiting for?

He who is the issue of an illicit union [ממזרmamzerwill not enter the assembly of the Lord, even his tenth generation will in no way enter the assembly of the Lord” -Deuteronomy 23:2

His glory was that he laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respactablilty and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.” -Charles Spurgeon

Christmas PictureLast year the Huffington Post ran one of my new favorite Christmas montages. It was a collection of short Nativity Pageants that had started off with such high hopes, but had crashed spectacularly. My favorite is the camel falling into the audience. I’ve worked with animals in front of a live audience before. I know it can go bad in a hurry, but this is way worse than anything I’ve ever worried about.

I imagine the people involved trying to shake that off. Maybe they’re at a nice restaurant after church trying to explain to their friends why they have camel hair all over them and smell like Egypt.

But what I loved the most about these compilation of videos is that reality comes shining through despite our best efforts at glossing over it. The world, for most of the people in it, isn’t primary shiny and sparkly and clean and happy. Maybe if you are young and fit and have enough money you can avoid this fact for a while, but eventually each of us have to face the messy bits of reality.

Sometimes Mary falls off her donkey and no matter how hard they practice, 8 year old kids discover that the 12 days of Christmas are really, really hard to memorize.

Christmas is Messy, and it has been from the beginning.

Jesus The Mamzer

In the Hebrew language, the word Mamzer is the word for a child that comes out of a forbidden relationship. The word is flexible, it can mean anything from a child born from incest to a child who was born from a Mamzer. But almost every single time the word is used it refers to a child born from parents who weren’t married.

John Ortberg points out that every culture has a word for their mamzers, and none of them are nice.

If Joseph has been Roman, Jesus would probably not have even survived. In the Roman culture, children like that were usually abandoned in a dump, or on a hill made of dung. To this day, in many places, they still are.

This is not just an incidental detail of Jesus’ life, it is something that comes up often in the Gospels.

One time in the Gospel of John, the religious leaders of the day are arguing with Jesus and apparently they aren’t doing so well so they bring it up:

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

John writes in Greek, so the word he uses isn’t Mamzer, it’s Porneia…as in the word we get pornography from. When push comes to shove, they bring up that Jesus entered the world with disgrace.

The New Testament Scholar Scot McKnight says it this way:

“Jesus was labeled by his contemporaries as a mamzer. And such a label would have carried with it socio-religious implications with a powerful significance for Jesus.”

It was a label that would have, from the very beginning made Jesus more than just a peasant carpenter, it would have made him an outcast, excluded from social circles, religious assemblies and any opportunity to marry into a “good family.”

That’s the world Jesus was born into, and the way he was born into it.

The Gospel According to Jesus

Now revisit the Gospel. Think about all those times that Jesus interacts with labeled condemned people, and the way He does it. If you’re paying attention you begin to realize that this is the trajectory of Christmas.

Jesus seems rather indifferent to grading the kind of sin that people are dealing with, only with getting them to admit it, bring it out in the open to be dealt with.

The inner rings of the elite, seem to hold no appeal for Jesus. In fact, he seems to think that with his life and ministry he maybe able to redraw the lines of who’s considered in and who is out.

Jesus healing the bleeding woman, as depicted in Roman Catacombs

Jesus healing the bleeding woman, as depicted in Roman Catacombs

Take for example, the story of Mark 5. Jesus is approached by Jarius, the Synagogue Ruler who has a dying daughter. The Synagogue ruler is a prestigious role in 1st century Judaism, and to be able to put “friends with Jarius” on a resume is good for any Rabbi. A dying daughter might be the only reason that Jarius would approach a Mamzer, Jesus ministry hasn’t really taken off yet, and this is a risky move by a prominent community leader.

But along the way, Jesus is interrupted by a woman with a bleeding disease. As far as the social scale, Jarius and this woman couldn’t be further apart. They actually had created rules and commandments to keep the apart. She couldn’t go to synagogue, she could legally even be in public. But here she was, throwing a Hail Mary, asking Jesus if He would do for her what he was planning to do for the prestigious man’s daughter…give her back a life.

And here’s the most breathtaking, yet subtle thing in the whole story. It’s a glimpse of Christmas and the messy glory of it all.

Jesus heals the bleeding woman publicly, and he heals the prestigious young daughter in secret.

And publicly, in front of the whole community, Jesus calls this woman the only word that could heal her heart, “Daughter.”

Jesus knows a mamzer when he sees one, and takes care to let everyone know that she belongs in God’s good world too.

She’s belongs, because God didn’t just become a baby, He became a Mamzer. So that the world would finally know a community of God’s people where everyone has a place, just as God intended.

Christmas Picture

I had a dream.

Seriously, that’s the only way I would’ve considered writing this post about Ferguson.

I read this story in the NY Times and then I had a dream. I went to bed on Monday not planning on writing anything about Ferguson, but I woke up Tuesday morning with this haunting me.

It’s a blog about Ferguson and Christmas and a story of how a good police officer in Ferguson is embodying the Christmas story whether he means to or not.

But first.

The Polite Policeman

Officer Jerry Lohr, wasn’t setting out to be the most popular policeman in a city where policeman are anything but. He wasn’t trying to make the New York Times, he’s got a reputation for getting easily annoyed with the media and the circus they’ve turned his hometown into, but despite his best efforts Lt. Lohr is becoming famous in the country the way he has been in his city.

Black residents, despite the fact that Lt. Lohr is a white man, regularly ask for him by name when they have a grievance to file. They trust him, and seem to have no problem obeying even the orders he gives. One black teenager, Joshua Williams said, “He’s the only one I feel comfortable being around “

This past week when one of the protestors was leading a group of people in the street to block traffic, Lt. Lohr walked up to her. She looked at her watch and asked him to “Give me three more minutes.” And he did.

He’s got this hunch that by actually listening to people’s complaints, even when they disagree with one another, he can help the community he serves come together. So he listens to each person…like they are a person, and he helps them if he can, but he always tries to let them see that he is human too.

I read that article in the Times, and found myself thinking, I know lots of police officers who do that too, why is this working so well for him?

Why in the world has Lt. Lohr garnered the respect of the “other side” in what is quickly becoming a racial war that could break out in any city of these United State? And what does this have to do with the Christmas story?

Great question, glad I asked it.

When I was in college, one of my professors, a guy named Monte Cox, told me a story about a friend of his who was a father of a brand new baby. They also were registered with the state of Illinois as foster parents, which meant that a child in need of some temporary parents could show up at their doorstep anytime.

And one did. A little girl came to their house who had been traumatized by events in her recent past. I don’t know the details but I know that she was almost catatonic from fear of adults and what they had done to her in the past. So coming to a new strangers house and being told to trust them was not something that was on her agenda.

And so immediately this girl began to freak out. She was terrified of the new hell she had just been introduced to, so she began to run through the house trying to find a place to hide. And she ultimately hid under the bed…for hours.

Monte’s friend tried everything to get her to come out, they talked in soft voices to her, trying to reassure her that everything was going to be fine, that they weren’t going to treat her like the adults who had gone before them. They tried just sitting patiently by the bed, but nothing was working.

Until one of them had an idea.

They took their newborn baby and gently slid him under the bed toward the frightened girl, and moments later she came out holding him.

I have a six week old baby at home right now, and I can’t imagine the courage it took to take such a risk, but it was the risk that opened this girl up to the possibility that maybe these adults aren’t like the ones I’ve met before.

It was the vulnerability of the baby that made the girl realize that she was around people who weren’t just looking to protect themselves but who were willing to open themselves up to being hurt, which is really the only true first step in love.

Photo of Lt. Lohr by NY Times

Photo of Lt. Lohr by NY Times

The Power of Vulnerability

So back to Ferguson…a few months ago I was talking with my African American brother Jerry Taylor. Bro. Jerry preaches all over the country and helps churches work toward racial reconciliation. He’s someone who loves God and loves His Church enough to help us have the hard conversations we need to have so that we can be a community of reconciliation, the very kind that Jesus’ birth initiated.

A few months ago, Jerry told me that the greatest challenge facing racial reconciliation among churches right now is black anger and white fear.

And immediately I knew he was right. We live in a world of great fear and great anger, two ingredients for a vicious cycle that has no end.

Unless Jesus story is true, and Christians decide to follow him into it.

I think this time of year has a lot to say about the events in Ferguson because the Christmas story is about a God who lays down his priviledge and makes himself vulnerable. I love the way Frederick Buechner says this:

For those who believe in God  this birth means that God is never safe from us. Maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we could turn him down, as we could crack a baby’s skull like an eggshell, or nail him up when he gets too big for that.

This is not just theological abstract ideas, the Gospel actually is good news and a good strategy. It’s at the heart of what has made Lt. Lohr so trusted and respected.

The secret that Lt. Lohr has is that he actually goes into the riots, he’s the only police officer to wade through the protestors, and he never wears riot gear.

His secret is the power of vulnerability, what Jesus would call “Laying down one’s life.”

This is what started at Bethlehem. It’s a God who became a baby, who showed us the power of vulnerability, which is of course the power of love.

On December 24, 2013

Christmas Time: Christmas Future

“The future is the major time zone in which Christian faith has it’s being.” -Teilhard de Chardin

“I hope that real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in the world.” -Charles Dickens

Christmas Time Picture

I don’t know about you, but for me, one of the best turns of any character in any story is when Scrooge wakes up, a new man, on Christmas morning. He can’t give away his fortune quick enough, but what I love the most about it is the great sense of joy about the whole scene. He once was a stingy miser but now he’s found, or more to the point, something found him.

And the great turn of the story for Scrooge, was Christmas Future.

When Charles Dickens was a boy, his father was put in a poor-house/prison. And young Charles was forced to start hard manual labor, just to be able to survive. For the rest of his life, Charles held hard feelings toward his father, his relationship to his dad was a mixed bag at best (most people thought that his dad was the Scrooge character from his story).

In other words, Charles Dickens life wasn’t all roses and sunshine. In fact, it was probably more like Tiny Tim’s than anyone else in his story. But that is an interesting background because Dickens wrote a story of pure joy, when he lived a life that was quite a bit less than that. In fact, so was his whole world. When Charles wrote his Christmas Carol, Britain was a somber, gloomy place, and maybe that’s exactly why he wrote this little world-changing story.

He wrote a story, that became one of the the most well-known stories to make Christmas a time of hope again.

In fact, it was His hope that drove him to tell this story.

I think it was his picture of Christmas Future.

And Christmas Future is not something that we Americans tend to think much about.

In the words of theologian Mirslov Volf:

“My sense is that contemporary culture does not have this nation of a definite future toward which we are headed, but rather an empty concept of the perpetual novelty has replaced a stable and morally filled concept of the future….The resultant feeling is like driving a fast-moving car on a highway. Our experience of life is like a blur-not stable images, integrated into a larger framework of meaning. “

The End of Revolutions

Did you know that the original “War on Christmas” came from the Christians? Several decades ago, ministers across America saw the commercialization of Christmas, and they didn’t want our stores saying “Merry Christmas” not because they didn’t want to celebrate Christmas, but because they didn’t want us to start celebrating Christmas as a way to legitimizing over-consuming.

They obviously were way off.

But I think they had more reasons that greed and materialism for this concern. Because consumerism convinces us that the most important moment in time is now. It creates a world that we are at the center of, and any world that I am at the center, is bound to be a very small and sad world.

Think about how many times you’ve seen the word “Revolutionary”  used in commercials lately. It seems like every new Iproduct says it is a revolutionary something.  Just because something is faster or brighter or has more color doesn’t mean it’s “World-Changing.” But we use this language as if we all know we want the world to be different, we know something is off.

We all want a revolution but all we get is an iPad.

Time Warner Cable has a current ad out right now saying “Join the revolution Enjoy life better.” As if enjoying life better is a change from what we are trying to do right now.

More than any other time, the Holiday season, has become a season where we use language that taps into our deep desire for the world to be different, but really has become a way to keep the world predictable.

And that really is a hopeless world.

And this is why the Scriptures that Christians have selected for over a thousand years for this season, are not just about mangers and shepherds and wise men.

Instead, for this season, the first Christians reached for the ancient prophets and their dreams of a world that was somehow different and better. A world without injustice or poverty, and ultimately a world without death.

And this is a glimpse of the Christmas Hope. It is what Christmas ultimately promises. God didn’t just enter our world to leave it like He found it. He came, and is coming again, to set things right. And what started at Bethlehem ends in the New Jerusalem. What started with a Baby coming down, ends with all of Heaven coming down.

That a revolution.

A Tomorrow Unlike Today

Maybe this is what Charles Dickens was drawing from when he gave the world a vision of a new Scrooge.Scrooge-with-Tiny-Tim2

A Scrooge who was living into Christmas Future.

I’ve noticed something about the human condition, we so badly want to not be naive, and anytime you hope you will find that it makes you vulnerable. It requires risk to put yourself out there and to give yourself over to great faith.

The Christmas story isn’t just about something that happened in the past. It is about something that will also happen in the future.

There is a new day coming and it won’t be like all the days that have gone before it.

This is the season where we abandon ourself to hope in that day.

It’s just around the corner,  in the words of  St. Teresa of Avila this new day will make the most miserable life will feel “like one night in a bad hotel.”

Christmas says that morning is coming.

The Light has entered the world.

So kill the Christmas Goose and let Tiny Tim have his operation.

Let the earth be glad and the Mountains clap for joy.

For all the Scrooges everywhere, For all the people with chairs that are empty and all the tables that are full.  God has entered the world and is setting it right.

And all shall be well in Christmas Future.

On December 20, 2013

ChristmasTime: Christmas Present

 “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”- Hebrews 13

Christmas Time Picture

I don’t know what your plans are for this Christmas, but I can almost guarantee what most of us will do. We will drive or fly considerable distances to be with people we love, or they will come to us. We will all gather around in rooms and tables with our friends and family…and many of us will be plugged into our phones and our televisions and iPads.

We will be so close, but if we’re not attentive…still so far. 

And we will never know what we are missing right in front of us.

Back in the days of the Old Testament, God would reveal Himself through or as a certain person, there would always be a moment of confusion for the people who God was visiting. For a while, they might even think that they were just talking to a normal person…then it would dawn on them…We are in the presence of God.


And this meant that you should always treat every traveling stranger with kindness, because who knows where God will come from and what kind of form He might take.

Think about the passage in Genesis when Abraham is visited by three men. To Abraham and Sarah, they are just they are hosting some visitors, but the narrator lets us in on a secret. This isn’t just some mid-day refreshment, they are being visited by God Himself.

And then it goes on…as if that was the most normal thing in the world.

Touched by An Angel

A few years ago, right at this time of year, Leslie and I had just found out that we had a late term miscarriage. It was a baby girl, we already had the name picked out and we had passed the point of “it’s safe to tell everyone” when we found out that our little baby was never going to be born.

And for a while we didn’t tell anyone.

We didn’t want to be the Debbie Downer on everyone else’s Christmas. But then right in the middle of our most difficult time the doorbell rang….
It was a group of people from Highland, who were out Christmas Caroling. Most of them were from a family who owned a bakery, and they brought enough sweets to give cavities to a Dentist’s family. And it was the best thing we could have ever hoped for.
They had no idea that they would bless us as much as they did, but it was the turning point for our Christmas. And looking back on it, they were the presence of God for us that year. 
Back when we lived in Fort Worth, one of the guys in the Jail ministry I was a part of had told me and another chaplain about his greatest regret about being in prison. He had a couple of children and they weren’t going to get any presents this year. So we got some friends together to put together a Christmas miracle. And we had the pure joy of going to the apartment complex where his family lived and bringing Christmas with us. 
And the word for these kinds of stories in the Bible, is angel. 
In the Bible there are beings that are not human and not quite divine, and there are strange stories about how angels do battle against the Principalities and Powers (Think the Angelic version of Braveheart)
But back in this day, they didn’t think about Angels the way we do. In fact, in the Old Testament, Angel is a word that means sent by God. 
It’s someone who is doing something for people toward the purposes of God.
Which has got to make us rethink how we view our Christmas plans.  angels

Today In A Manger

One of the more interesting things about the Christmas stories in the Bible is that they all are preceded by Angels. Think about it, every story we talk about this time of year is filled with Angels. Angels come to Mary, and Elizabeth and Zecheriah, and the shepherds. It’s like an Angel Flash mob in the first few chapters of Luke and Matthew.

Angels don’t always glow or have haloes, in fact that seems to be one of the peculiar differences between the way Scripture talks about them and the way we’ve grown up thinking about them. Angels could be the person right in front of us, so be aware of the person right in front of you. 
Which is why the Gospel of Luke ends the Christmas story the way it does: 
In these days He has shown His Favor.
Luke quotes the Old Testament more than almost any other New Testament Writer. He’s always alluding to these ancient stories.
But you know a word that Luke uses more than any other book in the Bible?
Today is used by Luke 19 times, that’s more than any other book in the NT by far, and here’s why.
It’s because Luke is deeply interested in letting us know that this story isn’t new, that this has been going on for a long time, but it’s not stagnant either.
In other words, God cares about now. 
When Angels to show up, it seems like their goal is to get us to show up.
It’s as if the story is saying, “This is going to happen whether we acknowledge it or not, but we should have our senses heightened. They are here, to help make us aware of what might be going on already. God just could be doing something in your midst at this very moment, so put down your phone and unplug from Facebook. 
Jesus is born and God is alive right now, and He might just be trying to do something in this moment.  

The grace of Christmas present could be to help us to just be present.

On December 10, 2013

ChristmasTime: Christmas Past

 “If a lion roars, who will not be frightened? And if the LORD God has spoken, who will not be a prophet?” -Amos 3:8

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. -Luke 1:29

Christmas Time PictureA few years ago I was having a conversation with my friend Randy Harris about how someone had wronged me. I was waxing eloquent about how righteous I had been, and how villainous I thought this other person was acting.

Then Randy told me something that has stayed with me ever since.

He said, “Have you ever noticed that it’s really not the thing that happened that bothers you? It’s the story you lay on top of it?”

Immediately something in my heart started to soften. I began to realize that for several weeks I had been re-interpreting the recent past with a story that helped me to nurse a wound and keep me the righteous victim.

The way I thought of the past was infecting my present.

Last week I mentioned how right Charles Dickens was. There is a sense that Christmas is about the past, present and future. Christmas time feels magical because time is different here.

This may sounds strange, but I’ll be it’s something most of us have intuitively experienced.

Have you noticed that at Christmas time your sense of nostalgia stands out? Have you noticed how much more profoundly the ache is for deceased loved ones this time of year?

It’s that empty chair or that present you didn’t give…it’s the longing for what used to be.

It’s a longing for Christmas Past’s.

ReVisioning The Past

Last week, I read a book by James Kugel called The God of Old. Kugel is a Harvard professor of Ancient Judaism, and one of the things that he stresses is that this need to lay a story on top of things is something that religious people have always been tempted to do. And it’s not always a good thing.

For example, there is a Jewish document that dates back to a little before the time of Jesus called “The Book of Jubliees.” It’s basically a retelling of the entire book of Genesis, with some running commentary added. (This was a common way for Rabbi’s to teach back in the day called Midrash). What the Book of Jubilee’s did was tell the old stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, by trying to fill in some of the plot gaps for questions that people had.

And it gets really interesting when they talk about Abraham.

In the original story of Abraham in Genesis, Abraham is given no special introduction. In fact, it’s kind of non-sequitar. Genesis goes almost directly from the Tower of Babel story to “And God called Abram to leave his home and be a blessing to the world.”

But apparently, Jewish people started asking the question “Why Abraham?”

So the Book of Jubliee’s gave them a story to put on top of the story.

In the book of Jubilee’s, Abraham is no longer just a regular guy. He’s now a pillar of righteousness, he’s bothered by all the idol worship that is going on around him. In this story, the people’s pagan worship disturbs Abraham so much that he starts praying to God for Him to please do something  This new Super-Abraham prays and fasts and then God acts.

In other words, in this story, Abraham initiates.

God doesn’t take the first step, Abraham does.

Here’s how James Kugel says it:

What’s interesting about Genesis account of Abraham is what Abraham does to bring about this encounter with God: absolutely nothing. He does not pray. He does not fast, he indulges in no acts of self-mortification such as those practiced by mystics and seekers in later times…What Abraham was doing or had done was just not important from [Genesis] standpoint. God spoke to Abraham and that was all that mattered.

Now this re-writing of story wasn’t just specific to Abraham. Over time, Moses and other heroes were also given more pious backstories. Because, Kugel says, “It just didn’t seem right to the religious people that God could just choose anyone, anytime and anywhere.”

Christmas Grace

This matters more than you probably think. Because what you think about the past will shape your present, and how you think God is working in it.

Which brings us to the Christmas story.Christmas scene

One of the most overlooked details about Christmas is the passive nature of everyone involved. Zechariah and Elizabeth aren’t actively trying to get pregnant, Mary certainly isn’t…and Joseph has to be talked into the whole thing!

The first Christmas wasn’t filled with pious people praying fervently for God to act, as much as it was filled with people who were absolutely shocked that He was acting. Christmas is a divine initiative…

Christmas was a surprise to everyone.

In my experience with religious people, we tend to think so much like those ancient Jews, re-reading those ancient stories. We like to take the mess out of the “heroes of Christmas.” We make Mary so heroic and Joseph full of virtue….and rightfully so. But we must never forget those parts of their story, like Abraham, only begin to come out….after God has acted in surprising ways through surprising people.

In the Bible, no prophet ever seeks God out first, God always initiates. In the words of the prophet Amos: “If a lion roars, who will not be frightened, and if the LORD God has spoken, who will not be a prophet?”

The Christmas story, is one of many stories, that make us reconsider how strange and good God is. He just starts talking to people who are not considered sane by the right authorities. He initiates this whole thing.

And if he did that then, maybe He will do it now.

We never know how or when, but anything is possible and it could just be around the corner.

And whatever it is, and whoever it’s through,,,it’s always grace.

On December 3, 2013

ChristmasTime: A Season of Hope

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up in a house that celebrated or talked about Advent. We were suspicious of all things Christmas because we were pretty sure it had the same pagan roots as the Easter Bunny or David Hasselhoff.

In fact, when I was around 12 years old my parents got wind that having a Christmas tree was from a pagan tradition and so, like a horrible Hallmark Christmas movie, we had to stop putting one up. We still passed around presents and listened to the same songs as the rest of the world, we just didn’t think it had anything to do with our faith.

And we missed out on something really important.

My friend Tim Spivey has written a great post on why Churches should celebrate Advent, but I wanted to pass on something we wrote at Highland to help people understand why this time of year has been so important for Christians for centuries. Because if we are not careful we can forget that this isn’t just a time for family and presents, it really is a Holy, or set apart, time of the year.

Here’s why:

The Season For More Than Reason

For more than a thousand years, followers of Jesus have celebrated a season called Advent. Advent is just the Latin word for “Coming ” or “Visitation” it is a season where the Church around the world, prepares to remember and prepare for Jesus to once again come into the world.

Most of us, if we know anything about Advent at all, might think of candles or calendars with candy and families smiling around a tree. But the original Advent story is much harder to domesticate.

The word Adventure actually comes from the same root word. It means something that is about to happen. But it also implies risk and danger and potential failure.

Which is exactly how the earliest Christians thought of the Christmas story.

And that, of course, is a story of genocide and suffering, tyrants and war, and refugees and heartbroken elderly people, and single mothers who thought they could change the world…and turned out to be right.

It’s a story of a God who enters into the world as it is, to transform it into the way it will one day be.

Advent is about the longing that is in every human heart, a desire, an ache that we all share for things to be different…to be better. The season of Advent is where we name the brokenness in our own hearts, and in the world.

At the heart of Advent is the recognition that something is missing.

Every Christmas season we wait and anticipate for Christmas morning and family gatherings and gifts. And every December 26th we tend to feel a little let down, because we realize what we should have known all along.

Something is missing that can be wrapped up with a bow.

That’s what Advent is about.  

It is the recognition the world isn’t okay, but that God hasn’t given up on us.  Advent is about naming that longing, that desire for things to be different, and waiting for Jesus to appear among us again.

Time for Hope

Advent is a season of hope.

And if it’s a season that means that first, It’s about time.F3561-C_Z

The first Christians understood that time, like sound, is best when broken up, divided and arranged into patterns and rhythms. And so they created the church calendar. It is a way to organize the year, and bring variance to our days, a way to find the beat in the passing of time.

Have you ever noticed that this time of year the world starts to feel a bit more enchanted?

We tell ourselves that maybe it’s because of the lights and the parties and the songs, but what if those things only came along because the wonder was already there?

For over a thousand years, the Church said that this was the season that we just stopped living in ordinary time, and we’ve just begun living in a more enchanted part of the year, a season called Advent.

Charles Dickens was right. There is a sense that Christmas time involves the past, present, and future. We remember that God came into this world, that He is still here, and that one day He will come again.

We have entered into a season of hope and enchantment that we can neither explain or ignore.

Advent is a Season of Hope

The religion of our day is cynicism. It is the idea that the way things are, are the way they will always be. But the season of Advent wants to confront this corrosion of the heart and remind the people of God that Jesus is coming. This season of Advent announces to a tired world that a new day is possible and it won’t be like all the days that came before.

So this Advent season, May we let God meet us where we are.

May we name the brokenness of the world.

May we open up our brokenness to the God who still lives with us, as we wait for him to come among us again.

Advent is a Season of Hope.

May we Hope well.

On October 24, 2013

Zoe 2013: Here With Us

If you grew up in Churches of Christ, chances are you haven’t heard much about Advent before. But for over a thousand years Christians have observed a season called “Advent.” Now I grew up in a church that was suspect of all things Catholic (I wasn’t allowed to be friends with girls named Mary). But this is not just a Catholic idea, Christians from all the traditions have celebrated Advent, and even if it is new to you, I think that Advent might have a word to bless you.

For the upcoming Zoe conference this weekend, Jeff Childers and I sat down to talk about what Advent means and why it matters. If you are interested in digging deeper into this for your churches go to the Zoe website. Jeff made four separate videos talking about why Advent matters,  or, if you can come, to the Zoe Conference this weekend to learn even more.

Here are some highlights from hearing Jeff Childers talk about Advent:

  • Advent is just the Latin word for “Coming” It’s the idea that Jesus came into the world, and that he will one day soon come into the world again.
  • In order to understand Advent, it helps to understand the ancient Christian Calendar. Christians have had for thousands of years certain ways of thinking about time and space, and Advent is one of the ways that we can understand the way that the whole world revolves around Jesus.
  • Advent is about the longing that is in every human heart, a desire, an ache that we all share for things to be different…to be better.

At the heart of Advent is the recognition that something is missing.

And this is the difference between what Americans call Christmas and the Advent season. Every year for Christmas we wait and anticipate for Christmas morning and family gatherings and gifts. And every December 26th we tend to feel a little let down, because we realize what we should have known all along.

Something is missing that can’t be wrapped up with a bow. And Advent says that something isn’t a thing. It’s a Someone.

Jesus is coming to the world.

He does every year.

End of the World pictureSo tomorrow is the day that the world is supposed to end. For over a thousand years, the Mayans have scheduled every day on their calendar.

And today is the last one.

I remember the first time I heard about this passive-aggressive prediction. It was eerie and freaky, and I totally believed it. I had all these images from the movies I’ve seen about the end of the world flash through my mind. There were volcanoes and lava or earthquakes and asteroids (there’s always an asteroid isn’t there?), and then finally at the last minute Will Smith comes in and saves the world.

Those are the images we’ve been handed for how to think about the end of the world.

And I think they’re wrong.

So it’s Christmas time. And for a lot of us that means shopping and parties and eggnog. But if you’re afraid of the end of the world tomorrow, than I think Christmas can really bless you today. Another word for the Christmas season is Advent. And Advent is just the Latin word for “Coming” It’s the idea that Jesus came into the world, and that he will one day soon come into the world again.

Advent is about the longing that is in every human heart, a desire, an ache that we all share for things to be different, for there to be no more cancer, or school shootings. It’s a hope for the world to be made new.

At the heart of Advent is the recognition that something is missing.

And Christmas reminds us that this something is really a someone.

I’m preaching this Sunday on a text from 1st Peter that has really captured my imagination the past few weeks. I rarely blog about what I’m about to preach on, but since enough people think that the end of the world just might happen tomorrow, I wanted to share a word of hope that might bless you this Christmas.

When Jesus first met Peter, he was a rough-around-the-edges fisherman. He was impulsive. He was a racist, he was a self-promoting, fearful bigot. In other words, he was a human. And Jesus found Peter, trained him and taught him for years. Peter betrayed, annoyed, and refused Jesus. And Jesus just kept pushing into Peter’s life. Jesus forgives again and again, he piles grace upon grace for Peter.

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When the original Christmas story happened, three magi, or magicians came to help tell the story. Which is interesting, because the Israelites disdained magicians. They were evil and wrong, but God used them in ways that no one could have predicted.

And so in that spirit, I’d like you to watch the above video.

Whatever you think about Stephen Colbert, I think you should watch this clip. It was from this past Thursday night episode of the Colbert Report, Stephen is interviewing the Catholic Nun Simone Campbell…and it’s incredible.

For those of you who don’t know Stephen Colbert is actually a devout Catholic who teaches Sunday school every week at his local church. I know the character he plays can be incredibly offensive and off-putting, but he’s speaking the very specific language of satire, and satire is not for everyone.

But I don’t want to defend Mr. Colbert here, I just want to show you (in case you missed it) what aired on the cable network of Comedy Central this last week, the day before the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. This Sister is pushing against the modern conceptions of American Christmas and trying to reframe what the real Christmas story means.

And if you don’t watch the video, here is what I want you to hear her say, “Christmas is touching the pain of the world, experiencing it as real…and then choosing to have hope.”

That’s what Christmas was.

That’s what Christmas is.

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