Christmas Is Coming…

Advent has begun.

As I write this, it is mid-November, and I have been listening to Christmas music for half a month now. This year our church has decided to be a little more low-key about the Christmas season. Our huge Bethelehem Walk is on a break, so for this year I get to savor Christmas. I’ve also had two cups of coffee in quick succession this morning, so I’m pretty excited about life!

The original advent lasted hundreds of years, and not just a month before Christmas. The Jewish people were resting all of their hopes on God’s promises of freedom and an end to the exile. Sure, the physical exile was over, Jews once again lived in Judea and Galilee, and there was a Jewish king on the throne and a high priest in the Temple. But things weren’t right… all the way. The king wasn’t from David’s line. The high priests were a wealthy family who had a hand in politics. Oh, and Rome had its grubby little (well, not so little) paws all over the territory. Rome had a special interest in this region of the world because of Egypt and the surrounding area’s ability to grow wheat to feed a gigantic empire. There was peace on earth and goodwill toward men… so long as you stayed in line, were actually a man, not a slave, and had the coveted status of Roman citizen. So, maybe the Pax Romana had a few caveats…

The Jewish people languished under Roman rule. What did it even mean to be Jewish under Roman rule? How long would God wait to overthrow the Romans and reestablish His Kingdom on earth? Hadn’t the seventy sevens been completed? Hadn’t the time arrived for the anointed one to appear, who would lead Israel to freedom and power, and create a new world where the nations fell under God’s generous rule? Maybe if they followed the rules even more strictly, something would happen. Maybe if they created monastic, apocalyptic communities to purify themselves, something would happen. Maybe if they prayed enough, or sacrificed enough, or were faithful enough, something would happen. But all they could hear was the deafening silence…

One young lady, though, received a visit. She was told to not fear, to find joy in the favor God had given her. She was given an opportunity. And, unlike many of the men of Scripture, she asked one question, and accepted her mission. What was that mission? She was to carry the Son of God. She was to give birth and raise a child who would grow up to be both king and high priest, who would represent Israel in Himself, who would shoulder the burden of the curse of the Law in order to break its power. This child would be God with His people – a more concrete presence than Israel had ever experienced, a walking, talking Temple.

Last year at this time, I was waiting with broken heart to hear two words, “I’m pregnant.” I, too, was anticipating a child, but one who hadn’t been promised. I was heartbroken, feeling exiled myself. I wondered what I needed to do to get God’s attention. I knew where God was, though, present with me as He has always been with His people. He sat with me as I wept, angrily pleaded, and finally accepted my situation. He listened, and let me continue waiting. What are you waiting for? What has you feeling exiled, broken, oppressed?

This year, though, is full of joyful expectation as I look forward to celebrating my little girl’s first Christmas. Don’t read into this that God always grants our requests. Read into it that I had hope over three years of trying and waiting. And my hope did not disappoint. Hope and trust are our greatest gifts, our greatest tools for dealing with the difficult times of life.

We must, like the 1st Century Jewish people, continue to hope against despair. We must stare into the face of the oppressive forces of this world with hope and trust in God firmly in our hearts, minds and hands. We must work and carry on, and day, one hour, one step at a time.

I encourage you to find time this Advent to stop and rest in God’s peace. This time of year can be a struggle, but look for the peace. Look for the moments of quiet anticipation. Maintain hope. Maybe, like Mary, you too can carry Jesus with you through this season.

Do your Christmas plans make time for calm, stillness, and peace? How does your family’s holiday schedule form your child’s priorities?

Advertisements

Thanksgiving is coming! Grab the flak jackets!

I’m weird.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way: I have about three news podcasts that I listen to on a daily basis – two American and one UK source for a worldwide perspective. I usually listen to these in the morning, and sometimes my little girl gets to listen along and we’ll have some discussions about what’s going on in the world. And by discussions I mean I try and simplify the topic at hand in such a way that a newborn can grasp. (For real, though, we all know she’s just getting language training at this point by learning speech patterns and the basics of English.) Anyway, one of these podcasts had an interview with a Senator I have a hard time understanding. (Nope, not gonna name names, or give that much info about it. Read into it what you like.) I looked down at the precious eyes of my baby girl and said, “And what we’re doing now is listening to someone we don’t completely agree with because that’s the kind of people we are.” And I sure do hope I model that behavior as much as I preach it.

That most American of holidays is approaching – Thanksgiving. We’re all already dreaming of turkey, ham, potatoes, sides, rolls, desserts, and the millions of pounds of butter that will be used over the course of that week. (What? You don’t celebrate for a whole week? Then I guess you aren’t very grateful, are you?) I also know that many people dread this holiday as a time when speech must be very guarded or arguments will explode. The only blessing I have for you is this: may your conversations have more civility than social media. I worry about how family gatherings or other physical social meetings may change in this culture of outrage, perpetual anger, and general frustration. I know I’ve found myself on more than one occasion keeping my trap shut to avoid any conflict. Instead, I listen. I try to hear what the other person is saying, to stop and really consider the words, their motivation, source, heart. Learning is one of my hobbies, and listening is the best way to learn, in my opinion.

I also enjoy having misconceptions busted. Sure, it’s jarring, but there’s a sense of fun and adventure when confronted by the truth. (And it bothers me that the word and concept of truth have become such a contentious issue.) I love the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. So I listen. I try hard to listen without judgment or creating my counter-argument. I may learn something and be able to better understand a topic, or at the very least the other side’s view.

This season throws us all into a lot of situations with people we may disagree with on a theological, political, philosophical, culinary, or some other basis. We should be willing to sit, break bread, and experience them. The experience may be joyful, or painful, but either way, be present – be welcoming.

When do you model acceptance of others, even without agreeing with them, to your kids? How do your family gatherings look: are they places of peace and active love, or are they places of anger and dissension? What steps could you take to prepare yourself to be better able to listen and welcome?

Everything is Terrible and My Life Is A Mess!

I’ve been dealing with stress on a large scale lately. Nothing life-threatening, but there are days I stare at my computer screen or to-do list and wonder who’s going to do all of this. The frustrating thought that occurs after these staring sessions is that, yes, I have to get them done.

I’ve gotten some encouragement lately, though, from some unlikely sources. See, Abraham was homeless. Moses changed careers 2 times. Ruth had to date again after her first marriage. Job lost everything. Jesus only lived until age 33, well, the first time, anyway.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “That’s not encouraging. Those are all terrible things to have to deal with!” You’d be right. They are pretty terrible. Then again, consider the hope that acknowledging God brings. All of those people found themselves smack dab in the middle of God’s grace and mercy. Each found God’s faithfulness in the midst of their darkest moments.

No matter what we face, God’s faithfulness doesn’t run out. Even the Israelites, who were told flat out that they would run after idols and selfishness and turn their backs on God were promised that after their hearts broke, they could turn back to God and He would restore them into something even greater than before – a people who would have God’s law written on their hearts.

So when you’ve done the millionth load of laundry, or when you’re facing down an Everest-sized to-do list, or you’ve come face to face with one more person demanding your attention and patience, remember that God’s faithfulness doesn’t run out. Remember that stress will pass – if we hand it over to God. Cast your cares on Him, for He cares for you. Don’t be anxious about anything, pray about everything. The King is on His throne, and is ready to grant peace.

Take a moment today to pray over the small things. Pray with your family. Ask for peace. Ask for grace and patience. Model to your kids what it looks like to seek after God, even when you don’t feel like you have time.

Peace in the Family?

I’ve been thinking a lot about child-parent relationships lately – mainly because I’m already trying to develop one with my own little girl. (A few months left before a face-to-face visit, but I’m already making sure to spend time with her nearly every night, talking to her, playing her music, and giving her some rubs. My wife’s not sure how to feel about the whole thing, but she’s being a good sport while I talk to her tummy.)

Not only has my own child’s impending birth got me thinking, but a passage in Romans got me thinking as well. See, Paul and I used to never get along. Growing up, my understanding of Paul was limited – I saw him as an angry grump who decided to switch to a Greek mindset once the Jewish community had ousted him enough times. I saw his trips to the synagogues in each town as more of a “let’s get this over with” deal. And because of that, the way I read his work was through a primarily Greek mindset – using philosophies built on Plato and Aristotle via the Middle Ages and Enlightenment. Recently, though, I have had a rather profound “duh” moment when I had an author (NT Wright) point out that Paul remained strikingly Jewish throughout his life and writings. Suddenly, I realized I need more insight into that line of thinking, and so I undertook a journey through the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and began listening to Rabbis to get a better grasp of how Jews view the Torah. And, fellow Christians, we’ve been missing so much!

Anyway, back to Paul, in chapter 5, he speaks about how we now have peace with God – a relationship… a parent-child relationship. In the previous chapter, he talked about how faith is the basis of Covenant membership now and how Abraham had been given covenant membership before his circumcision and the giving of the law. So now, the whole world is eligible for covenant membership based on faith – in trusting God who sent Jesus and raised him from the dead. And on that basis of being called “in the right” we have peace with God, a reconciled relationship.

The idea of reconciliation of family is a theme that runs deep in Jewish thought, and especially the Torah and Prophets. In Genesis, we see four sets of brothers, who become increasingly reconciled, but never reach the point of complete peace: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. Joseph and his brothers come the closest, but his brothers still remain on edge in case Joseph decides to revoke his kindness and pay them back. The Prophets continually use the metaphor of family reconciliation to talk about the time when God will forgive the idolatry of His people and heal the relationship between them. Both of these threads tie up nicely in the person of Jesus who made that peace possible through his own faithfulness in Israel’s place.

Sigmund Freud’s lesser known theories include one that the source of all conflict is sibling rivalry – that each child is vying for resources, particularly parental love and affection. Children may perceive parental love as a limited resource, rather than the unceasing fountain that it often is.

As I’ve wondered, I reach this point: how will I make sure my children understand that love will never run out? How do I give them each the affection they need to keep them convinced of their status of peace in the family?

How does your love model God’s to your kids? How do your priorities show your kids that love?

Words You Can’t Take Back

There has been so much bile and venom spit during this election, I’m kind of hoping that everyone has run out for the next decade. That’s probably a lot to hope for, but I did want to say a few words on Election Day.

Remember, once everything is over, we will all have one president. We’re called to be a people who pray for the leaders of this country. And, honestly, I’m not sure most Christians have taken that to heart the past 8 years. Either way, a little under half of the country will have to eat their words with some roast crow and humble pie for dessert.

Once the election is over, we’ll need to reconcile. We’ll need to apologize. We’ll need to work all the harder to make sure that we stay “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Let’s work for justice, let’s protect liberty – all of it, yours and the other persons you don’t agree with.

Pray for this country, its leaders, and its people. Pray for peace, for justice, for unity. And then, most importantly, be a peacemaker, a seeker of righteousness, and a force for unity.

(And remember, your kids will hear what you shout at the TV tonight.)

Photo Credit: Election 2016 | by DonkeyHotey Election 2016 | by DonkeyHotey vi Flickr

How Marvel’s Civil War can teach us to talk about race

With a lofty title like that, you’d think I would at least have some kind of real credentials for this sort of thing – a degree in race history, history, or social psychology. Nope. I’m a white guy with glasses, a laptop, and a mug of funny-sounding tea beside him. (It’s Numi Chocolate Pu-Erh for those that are curious. Rich, flavorful, and energizing.)

Anyway, so I never really put up any kind of review of Marvel’s Civil War, which my wife and I saw, in costume, as a female Captain America and Tony Stark, respectively. We both enjoyed the movie, though we still hold to the sides we went in supporting. I supported Tony Stark (Iron Man) in his push for more supervision of superheroes, while my wife supported Captain America and his push for continued liberty in the way superheroes could and should respond to situations. Both sides had pros and cons, and, in the end, side is irrelevant. The main thrust of the movie is depicting what happens when two sides draw a hard line in the sand and begin shouting at the other side, “no, you move.” Both sides care about people, about individuals. Both sides are legitimately trying to find the best way to do what they believe is right. Both sides make painful mistakes by responding emotionally and irrationally, despite peaceful solutions being within their reach.

And here’s where we start talking about Dallas, Baton Rouge, and every other racial problem we have going on in this country right now. At this point it would be naive to refuse to recognize that there is still inequality and that there are issues inherent in the system. As a white guy, I have to come to grips with the fact that the system is weighted in my favor.

I read a piece on the Slate website that discusses how we could better address the race issue. (Click here to read.)

Saletan, in this article, describes a bait-and-switch situation into which we are all seemingly falling. Much like Stark and Captain America in the film, the general population is assuming that there are only two groups at play here. Yes, we would be amiss to not rightfully point out that there are tensions between blacks and whites but we also need to understand that the grand majority in both parties would much prefer a peaceful, fair, just solution to the problems at hand than more violence. There are also groups who claim membership on both sides who enjoy violence and want things to come to a head in a confrontation for the ages. Much like the agent of division in Civil War, these groups want to see someone destroyed and division is often the greatest weapon.

After the Dallas tragedy this weekend, I watched as people began pulling into groups, one side for and another side against the police. Can we all agree, that policemen, in general, are trying to do the right thing? And can we all admit that there are a worrying number of bad apples in the bunch who ruin the character of the whole, and that there are some rectifiable training and systemic issues that create problems?

But, on the other hand, can we also support peaceful protest for change while understanding that there are those seeking to cause trouble that can initiate violence on that side prompting action from law enforcement?

Basically, both sides contain real, breathing, feeling, dreaming human beings. We all make mistakes and can all make great strides toward making a better world for everyone. We can grieve for both sides at the loss of life. We can be angry with both sides at the problems we have all created over years of complacency. We can give support to both sides without compromising who we are as people, as believers, as God’s people who strive to heal this world.

I have also been warmed by the outpouring of love on the ground for those families who have lost loved ones this week. We should all watch for those opportunities to seek after healing, forgiveness, and, importantly, building a better world for tomorrow.

The ending of Civil War leaves the viewer with an uncomfortable tension. There is no resolution. Relationships are not healed in any meaningful way. Each individual now carries with them the memory of conflict, of felt betrayal. One character, though, extends an olive branch, giving a ray of hope to the broken Avengers. This olive branch is a cell phone, and the giver offers his help in a time of need. The phone isn’t used right then, but we’re left with a hope, however small, that healing is possible. I have to hold that same hope for America right now. The phone is sitting there waiting for someone to call, to ask forgiveness and start the process of healing, rebuilding. Maybe we’re not ready for that kind of honesty, yet. So we wait, fitfully, for that day.

How have you talked about this past week’s events with your family? Have your kids asked questions about why there’s so much violence? How have you responded? How do your children hear you discuss issues of race, violence, and conflict? Do they know which side you’ve chosen?

Fighting from the Low Ground

To fight from the low ground is to fight at a disadvantage. Having the higher ground means having a better view. Being higher means having gravity working for you and against your opponent. Would you prefer to start from the higher or lower ground?

Christians have gotten into  a bad habit over the past 1000 years. Ever since Christianity became part of an empire, we’ve been used to having enough power and authority to be able to leverage people into the kind of life we think they should live. That time is very swiftly drawing to a close. Christians are losing the high ground politically.

We’re coming to a time when legislation and power plays in politics will be harder to come by. What then, brothers and sisters, shall we do? We relearn how to function from the political disadvantage. We relearn the principles that Jesus laid out when he warned and encouraged his followers that in this world we will have trouble, but take heart, Jesus has overcome the world.

Consider that Jesus, through his disciples, was capable of turning the Roman Empire upside down to the point where governors are having to write letters to the emperor to figure out how to handle these nutty Christians. What was the early Christians’ biggest sin in the eyes of the Roman Empire? They refused to take part in politics, which were tied to emperor worship. Because of this, they were labeled traitors and “atheists.” (I’ll continue when you finish chuckling over that point.)

How did Christianity spread so quickly? Well, besides the Spirit of God moving powerfully, persecution was the biggest mover. Persecution broke out in Jerusalem, so the Christians spread out into other cities. Then those cities got frustrated and drove the Christians on to even further-flung cities and villages. Even struggling from the disadvantage proved to be an advantage for God and his mission.

For a while, we as Christians have been struggling with how to use power. We like the phrases in Genesis “fill the earth and subdue it.” And, yet, we also see that our own sinfulness has made power a very dangerous weapon to wield.

Paul makes clear that God makes the wisdom of the world seem like foolishness, and that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Perhaps it’s about time we begin bringing up a generation who understands how to fight from a disadvantage.

We always bring up the Civil Rights movement when discussing power, weakness, and change. Even though many who held power resisted that movement, the quiet strength and disadvantage of the marchers and peaceful protesters was nearly unstoppable. Consider what Jesus could accomplish if we stopped depending on our own power and began acting out of our weak points so that God’s strength could be made perfect through us.

Does this mean raising a generation of weak men and women? Of course not. It takes an indomitable spirit and willingness to face danger and anger and power itself. It’s being Paul listing his suffering, it’s being Peter sitting in jail, it’s being Jesus shutting out the mocking by asking God to forgive his tormenters. These people aren’t weak, they’re strong, but their power isn’t one of violence and privilege. Instead theirs is a power of peace, determination, perseverance, and trust in a God bigger than the current suffering.

How do you and your family talk about change that needs to happen? When culture seems to be lashing back at Christians, how to you react? In what ways are you preparing your family to act boldly from the lower ground.