Yesterday was Christmas. It was a lovely and yet humble day for us. Having resigned from my position as Sr. Minister at the church I served in Michigan, we recently moved back into our home in Los Angeles. The expenses of the move and the higher cost of living forced us to tighten our belts and curb our spending on gifts. I was courious how our children might react receiving gifts that the entire family would share (Pooper-scooper, mops, cleaning products, etc.).
In the wee hours of Christmas morn, I was surprised to find the same joy, enthusiasm, and giddiness among them all as we opened up beautifully wrapped towel racks and bottles of soy sauce. It was as if they were the PlayStation and designer shoes they'd been hinting at all year long. I don't know why I was so taken by their acceptance of this different Christmas. Could it be they understood or realized that Christmas is more than materialism, consumerism, or some other kind of "ism" that limits our understanding of what God intended with the great mystery of the incarnation?
As I watched and participated in this joyful morning, my mind began to wander about theology (hey, I am currently without church to preach my thoughts to.). Many great people have said far greater things than I could about the true meaning of Christmas.
For example: The Washing Post offers a wonderful story on what Christmas is in comparison to what our politicians and advertisers promise. It looks at president elect Trump and compares his words of promise to the words of God as understood by Pope Francis. (Read here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/24/pope-francis-is-waging-a-war-on-christmas-christians-should-join-him/?utm_term=.2d20065eeba5)
I was not so profound or eloquent. I posted this little bit on Facebook which continues to linger in my heart.
"If you have a baby, or been around them, you'd know babies scream; loudly and often. What kind of God would became incarnate in a small, helpless and vulnerable baby? A God who desires to scream when we scream; cry when we cry; laugh when we laugh; and love when we love. From heaven to be with us in hell...suffering in solidarity with us, for us and for no other reason."
Why Christmas? Because we all cry out to something, in pain, suffering, joy, giddiness, love, anger, fear, isolation, indignation, and so on. Yet there is God. Always present. Always there. Walking, crying, loving and giving with us. Christmas is a reminder of that great holy present that allows us to be fearlessly vulnerable. This gift might not be the sexy set of sensible and comfortable sheets I received yesterday, but the feeling is kinda the same. Perhaps my children have a blessed understanding of this feeling that took me a lifetime to realize. To realize this made my day. It was the best present they have ever gotten me.
When they were just little kids, my children had an unusual way of dragging out Christmas morning. They would open up a gift, tear open the packaging, and begin to play with the toy. It was as if that was the only gift they were going to get. My wife and I would sit there tickled to watch the magic of Christmas come alive. To keep us moving forward, we'd have to convince them to put the toy down and open another. And as you can imagine, we would repeat the same action all over again.
As we enter the Christmas story we do so not with hearts focused solely on the gifts neatly wrapped under the tree, but also on the way we share and wear those gifts in the days and years following. The story of Peter and John at the Temple is a great reminder to us all about the gift that Christ brought us, at his birth as well as in his death and resurrection. It's found in Acts 3:1-10
3 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. 3 Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. 4 And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 And leaping up, he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 And all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
A bigger ask Peter and John for money and in response, Peter replies by giving him what he has. The man wanted to be relieved of his financial burdens, but the disciples saw that he needed more. A deeper, more holistic spiritual healing that would require more than simply dropping a few coins in a cup. It would take the physical touch, the presence of Jesus.
Walking with Jesus, the ApostleS had learned from their teacher that poverty is more than lack of material wealth, it's also a physical and spiritual bondage. Peter takes the man by the hand and gives him the gif of new life. A gift that can be open and enjoyed every day.
As we seek to share this gift, the love of Christ, with others we too are invited to follow the examples of Peter and John, and those who over the generations and millennias have done. Proclaim and act. In doing so, we open hearts and minds. We transform lives, heal bodies and souls. We lavish good deeds while we boldly share great love, and the amazing gift of grace that came into our broken and hurting world in the form of a vulnerable babe.
I try to remember this post Easter lesson during the long nights of Advent to keep the perspective of what it means to see Jesus in the face of all people. But it is also important to see into the heart and learn from the actions of those who followed him before me, if I am going to leave a gift worth opening and playing with to those who come after me.
Watching the expression of a child as he opens up a fantastic toy is priceless. But what really warms the heart is watching as he embraces and plays with the toy long after the season of Christmas has passed.
I overheard someone say, "Christmas is hell." I found it kind of ironic, funny and yet a wee bit sad. Hell is an odd concept for many. And even I have trouble defining it, or believing in it. However, Jesus speaks of it so I cannot simply dismiss it. Neither can I, nor would I, pair it with Christmas, no matter how bad my kids can be.
I like the way Henry Nouwen writes of hell: "Often hell is portrayed as a place of punishment and heaven as a place of reward. But this concept easily leads us to see God as a policeman, who tries to catch us when we make a mistake And send us to prison when our mistakes become too big, or a Santa Claude, who counts up all our good deeds and puts a reward in our stocking at the end of the year.
"God, however, is neither a policeman nor a Santa Claus. God does not send us to heaven or hell depending on how often we obey or disobey. God is love and only love. In God there is no hatred, desire for revenge, or pleasure in seeing us punished. God wants to forgive, heal, restore, show us endless mercy, and see us come home.
"But just as the father of the prodigal son let his son make his own decisions God gives us the freedom to move away from God's love even at the risk of destroying ourselves. Hell is not God's choice. It is ours."
Just as we see God in others so to can we see heaven within ourselves.
The Work of Christmas
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations,
To make music in the heart.
By Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman (1899-1981)
I was at a "White Elephant" Christmas party last night, where the conversation of religion came up (the downside to letting people know you're a minister). One woman, who has explored religion most of her life, confessed that it was the idea of 'suffering' that turned her off from most world religions. "The Buddha wants you to suffer. God, Allah, YHWY, want you to suffer. Why?"
To be honest, I just listened. I didn't want to get into a deep theological conversation to try to sway her towards my beliefs. I just wanted to have a glass of wine, enjoy a meal, and battle over a cheesy $10 gift.
Suffering, like waiting, happens. That's it. It happens to us whether we seek it for a higher purpose or not. We cannot escape suffering, waiting, testing, and the like. Heck, Christmas is all about suffering...finding the right gift, waiting to open your gift, worrying about spending too much or too little, family or lack of...the list is endless.
So how do we make sense of suffering? Why does it exist? Or why do we allow it to steal our joy?
The influential Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said, " 'There cannot be a God of love,' people say, 'because if there was, and he looked upon the world, his heart work break.' The church points to the cross and says, 'It did break.' "
The Apostles Paul, James, Peter...all proclaim that it is in such struggles that we find our joy. This seems crazy, right? But no one knowns sufferjng better than God. And so the way I see it is in our suffering we must remember God is present, at work caring for us. Where true love exists, and where there is suffering, than love must suffer too.
American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, says in his book, Lament For A Son, "God is love. That is why he suffers. To love our suffering world is to suffer. The one who does not see God's suffering does not see God's love. So, suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is. The tests of God are the meaning of history."
Just as God experiences suffering with us, so to our we to be present with others...in our pain or theirs. In the intimacy of such a relationship we find the joy of love. We must allow our hearts to embrace the beauty and reality of the suffering Christ. As we do, our actions will reflect God's heart towards those who suffer and the expressions of God's love for them (and us) will take form; transforming into joy.
In our time of Advent wait, we will experience a gambit of emotions. Through each one, find the joy within. For it is there you will discover, the gift of God's love ready to be unwrapped.
In his parable about seeds and soil Jesus said,
“Others are like the seed scattered among the thorny plants. These are the ones who have heard the word; but the worries of this life, the false appeal of wealth, and the desire for more things break in and choke the word, and it bears no fruit.” (Mark 4:18-19 )
Do you sometimes feel like this? Like a seed trapped in the thorns of life (worries, anxieties, greed, etc.)? As we wait through the advent season, it's hard not to get caught up in the overwhelming barrage of advertisements hawking the latest and greatest "toys" of the Christmas season. We know what we ought to do, yet we continue to allow life to lead us instead of God.
Today, I invite you to take a moment to imagine yourself as a small, insignificant seed; one of thousands sowed by a farmer or a gardener. As you do, remember that a seed is light and can be blown to many places by the wind.
Use this day to let go of the thorny ground you are in, and allow the the Spirit of God to move you to some good, fertile soil where you can begin to transform, thrive and produce the good fruit.
Have a blessed day.
As I begin a new journey, and a new test of my faith, I struggle; desiring to be perfect. I am afraid. I am scared of what lies ahead and what has been left behind. Such fears, I remind myself, are unnecessary. "Put your hope and trust in God," I say and yet I have to remind myself daily to do so. In this, I feel as if I have failed myself as much as I have failed my Creator. I struggle to understand. Why? Because I believe I am in control.
In this wilderness journey, I feel as if I have become blind to the light that surrounds me. I wander emotionless to the joy that is present, and cover my eyes and hide my head from the life I have been blessed with. And yet, I know there is no place to hide in which God cannot penetrate. No shell or armor God cannot crack. Still I allow my body to ache, my heart to yearn, and my mind to grumble and lament. This is nothing new, to me or to God.
Yet as I force myself to face these difficulties, knowing God is present in my life, The Word seems to speak more clearly to me. Daily devotionals and scripture readings speak directly to my heart. For a moment, brief or long, I am taken away from myself and placed in the arms of comfort and peace.
It is here, in The Word, I begin to feel love, joy, hope. And from there the Spirit becomes present again, and I begin to see God all around me. Whenever we struggle with people, prayer, work, the church, or life's difficulties, we have to change our focus, move away from self and closer to God. As Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all the things your heart desires will be given to you."
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”