Tag Archives: Hope

Advent: Meth, The Messiness of Lie, and the Incarnation of God

Years ago I was sitting in the living room of a couple that I was reading the Bible with. I met them because I had seen the man hitchhiking in the rain and stopped to give him a ride. As I go to know them, I heard that both he and his wife had been released from jail for crimes related to a methamphetamine habit. Nevertheless, they were nice and I was hoping to teach them about Jesus

On this particular day, the wife had made some brownies and she offered me one. I knew it would be impolite to refuse, so I politely received the plate with this very appetizing warm and fresh out of the oven chocolate brownie. The problem was that is was so gooey that I needed a fork and so when I asked for a fork, I was told to look in a particular drawer in the kitchen. So I did and when I opened the drawer, there on top of the utensils was a used hypodermic needle which presumably was used to shoot up meth.

As you might imagine, every worst case scenario of possible health issues suddenly came to mind. I also had a decision to make. Do I eat the brownie or do I not? Be polite or possibly risk offending this wife? Do I put my own health first or the relationship I am building with this couple first? What does faith look like in this moment and do I have that faith?

Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus

I mention all that just to illustrate how messy life can really be. The good news is that God doesn’t avoid the mess, our mess, that life often is. Instead God embraces the mess by becoming one of us, becoming flesh, in the person of Jesus. We call this the Incarnation and a significant portion of our incarnational theology flows from reading the Gospel of John but the Gospel of Matthew has something to say about our understanding of the Incarnation too.

In short, Matthew draws attention in the genealogy to the names of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” which we know is Bathsheba. There is scandal attached to each of their stories which sets us up for the scandal attached to the story of Joseph and Mary, namely the fact that Mary is unmarried and pregnant. You see, prior to the angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph, all he knows is that Mary is pregnant and he’s not the father. In his eyes, Mary has committed adultery and this is why the angel must first tell Joseph “don’t be afraid” (Mt 1:20). Then in the eyes of their neighbors, who are unaware of what the Angel says about Mary conceiving a child by the Holy Spirit, Mary simply appears as unmarried and pregnant.

Those two words, unmarried and pregnant, are word that no pious and God-fearing person wants to hear in the same sentence. It’s scandalous! And yet this is the story in which this baby child, who will be named Jesus because he save his people from sin, is born (Mt 1:21). It also is the fulfillment of prophesy in which child will be called Emmanuel because this child is “God with us” (Mt 1:23).

This is the scandalous story that Matthew tells of the Incarnation and it tells us something about who God really is. God doesn’t run from our sin, with all of its scandal and shame. Rather, in Jesus, God risks becoming associated as a sinner so that he might embrace us as sinners and save us from our sin. In fact, God took this risk knowing that  the cost of salvation would lead Jesus into Jerusalem to suffer death by crucifixion on a Roman cross. Though we feel the shame of our own sin and often our hesitant at involving ourselves in the lives of others, whose sin we seem to deem as more shameful than our own, God risks his own self to embrace us and the other so that he might save us from sin.

And if you’re wondering, I ate the brownie and it tasted good. I never became sick or experienced any illnesses that I irrationally feared might happen. I don’t know what ever happened to the couple because it wasn’t long before they both were back in jail facing new criminal charges. But on that day, as the ambassador of Christ that I am, I hope they somehow saw that God loves them and isn’t afraid or ashamed to be around them because of their sin.

That’s good news to us as well. For we know very well that we are sinners too and yet God still loves us and embraces us with the grace extended in his Incarnation. And this is another reason why Advent matters. It’s the messiness of life, marred by our sins, that is met in the coming of God Incarnate, born among us as the Savior.

Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King !”

Advent: Do We Really?

The season of Advent is upon us. We are in the second week of this lovely season and so we sing.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

John the Baptist came before the Lord as a prophet sent from God to prepare the way. He did this by calling people into a baptism of repentance. That is, in preparation for the coming of the Lord, he was inviting people into baptism “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Lk 3:3).

Our God is coming! But do we really want God to come? Do we really desire Advent?

shelteredbyhisglory.jpgEmbracing Advent is more than just anticipating the coming of God, it’s an anticipation of participating in the life for which God comes to offer us. This is a life wrapped up in the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Yet it’s a life that can only be received by those willing to repent. This is why John the Baptist came before the Lord as a prophet sent from God to prepare the way. He called us into a baptism of repentance, telling us “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Lk 3:3).

If we follow the good news of the Lord’s coming, we are led to Jerusalem where the cross awaits our Lord. It’s not the path anyone would expect of this Jesus, who was born as King of the Jews (Mt 2:2) but that to the cross he goes and we either follow him there or we don’t follow him.

The apostle Paul tells us that it is by the death of Christ on the cross that he destroys division and hostility between Jew and Gentile. The cross is where enemies, factions, and tribes are reconciled as one new people who belong to God. This is the reason for the Advent of God, the coming of Christ. Now do we really want God to come? Do we really desire Advent? Or is Advent just some religious ritual we observe on four Sunday’s in December only to go back to business as usual, lost in the growing animosity of our tribal ways?

I’m not asking such questions in a vacuum of nothingness but in the context of an American culture that is heading towards a chaos of hatred and political division. The polarities of left and right, Democrats and Republicans, is the new tribalism that is bubbling up like as a volcano ready to erupt. As a divided Congress argues over the impeachment proceedings of President Trump, many people are already poised along the sidelines, ready to defend the side they are on at all costs. And sadly, many Christians are lined up on one side or the other while trying to convince themselves and others that God is on their side too.

So again I ask, do we really want God to come? Do we really desire Advent? Christ has come, we believe, to heal the nations. As we sing in the great hymn O Holy Night

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Now Christians, if we really believe this and want to participate in this gospel, then maybe it’s time we let go of our tribalistic garments and be the church. Because it’s very difficult to see how we can embody this gospel as long as we continue aligning ourselves with the sides of left and right, Democrat and Republican.

Whether America knows it or not, America needs the church. Not the church it is all too accustomed with, a church that has baptized the gospel into Americanism, but the church that is wholly aligned with King Jesus. Not the church that confesses “Jesus is Lord” on Sunday but then gives her allegiance away to the tribal politics, but the church whose singular alignment with King Jesus results in embodying the kind of life that makes for peace.

Oh church, do we really desire Advent?

Advent: Waiting With Hope

One of my favorite lines in the Psalter says “I was too troubled to speak” (Ps 77:4, NIV). It’s a line that has resonated with me for seventeen years, ever since that doctor in the emergency room pronounced Kenny dead. For I still know not the words that adequately describe losing my son.

In my lament, I ask how can it be that my son is dead? Why did God allow this child to be conceived and born only to die three days later? Where was God throughout those nine months as my wife and I prayed so fervently for the well-being of our son? Why did God not heal Kenny when the doctors were attempting to resuscitate him? Has God even heard my cries begging aloud for him to help my son? Yet God did not answer… Why?

Seventeen years later, I’ve certainly processed through these questions of lament. I seem to think I can answers them, at least in part, as abstract theological inquiries, though that offers little, if any, comfort. Perhaps I can even answer some of those questions in a pastoral manner that gets at the heart level.

Maybe.

But even then, these answers don’t assuage the grief and pain of such a loss like this. As a believer committed to following Jesus, all I am left with is the hope that one day God is making all things new. So I hope for the day of salvation when death will be no more, when the grief and pain is consumed in the fulfillment of redemption, when the tears and disappointment are gone, when the blessing of joy and peace are forever lived in the presence of the Lord, when the sting of death gives way to the victory that we will forever share in with the Lord.

christmasstar

This promise of hope is one of waiting. It is to look upon a distant bright star showing forth among clouds of darkness, with an anticipation veiled by tears. This is advent hope.

For four-hundred years after being exiled into Babylonian captivity ended, Israel waited for the day of the Lord. That’s four hundred years of waiting. At the time, they weren’t sure when that period of waiting would end and that is what makes waiting with hope so difficult.

The season of Advent is upon us again. We celebrate Advent knowing that the Lord has come. God came into our world in the person of Jesus, born as a baby destined to suffer a humiliating death on the cross so that he could take his life up again in resurrection and thereby save us all from the sting of death, our sins. While we have this assurance of hope, by faith we still wait for it as the day when salvation will be fully realized. Until then, what we have is hope. So we wait with hope.

Waiting with hope isn’t so easy. It’s never so easy and the hope we have doesn’t negate the darkness of silence that we live with as we wait. So what can we do? Wait! And don’t look pass the darkness by For as the great hymn Be Still, My Soul reminds us, the mystery of our hope is known as we wait in the darkness.

Be still, my soul when dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears
Then shalt thou better know His love His heart
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears
Be still my soul the waves and winds shall know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below

I’m Not Renouncing My Faith

In recent weeks a couple of more popular Evangelical Christians have publicly renounced their Christian faith. In particular, I’m thinking of former pastor and author Joshua Harris as well as Hillsong Worship Leader Marty Sampson. Both seem to be struggling with the Christian faith as they understand it, though I’m not sure if that means they have completely abandoned belief in Jesus Christ or they’re just struggling with a lot of doubt right now. What I do know, based on what I have read, is that both are struggling with their faith.

iBelieve Series

My point isn’t to criticize or pass any judgment on anyone, including Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson, who struggle with doubts and even for a time may lose their faith. I’m just mentioning this to provide some context for this blog post. You see, I actually sympathize with those who struggle in their Christian faith because I have struggled in my Christian faith too. In fact there was a time during my seminary years, of all places, when I nearly walked away from this life of following Jesus because I wasn’t sure of what I believed anymore and I wasn’t even sure if it mattered.

The existential crisis for my own struggle with faith was the death of my first son, Kenny, followed by the death of my younger brother, John, a year later. Such suffering has haunted me. Not only did the death of my son and brother burden me with much grief and pain but my eyes began to see the suffering of others and the unfairness of it all. I remember well the afternoon I went to visit someone in the hospital battling cancer and walked through the pediatric oncology ward… Haunting!

The reality of suffering leaves me with many more faith questions than I have any satisfactory answers. Beyond that, as a pastoral-theologian, I know that life is much more complex than the fundamentalist Christian worldview some Evangelicals have. There are issues about creation and science, the end of time as well as God’s judgment, the nature of scripture, and so forth that I still wrestle with because some of the answers I have are not dogmatic absolutes. At least they’re not for me because the issue seem far too complex for such black and white solutions.

All that said, I still believe in Jesus. Even though there are questions for which I’m unsure of the answer, I still believe.

I still believe in the good news about Jesus, his death, burial, and resurrection, because I find the testimony about what happened to be believable. That is, I find the story of Jesus dying on the cross and being raised back to life (and bodily resurrection) to be reasonably credible. I’m not saying that this story is provable like one can prove the laws of gravity but I do think the story is credible, and therefore believable, just like the story of the American Civil War even though we weren’t alive to witness either event with our very own eyes.

What makes the story of Jesus believable is the evidence we have, the testimony that has been passed on from those who did see (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-8) and the effects what happened. While it might be possible that the story of Jesus was all just a ruse or some lie perpetuated by the early Christians, that possibilities loses their probability when considering the suffering of persecution many of these Christians endured. In one-hundred years time, from AD 25 to AD 125, history went from no existence of Christianity at all to a movement so numerous that some saw Christians as a new human race (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 359). This happened even though the believers didn’t have any legal standing and faced much opposition, including persecution and death. The only explanation is that what they believed about Jesus, his death, burial and resurrection, did really happen.

I also still believe in the good news of Jesus because of the hope that blossoms from such faith. The good news of Jesus is the story of how God overcomes sin and death, bringing about a new creation. Without that promise, our life ends in death so that all the suffering endured to that point is without any hope. Nihilism is what we are left with. As difficult as suffering is, it becomes utterly unbearable if life is nothing more than just “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

As I said earlier, there are many questions about faith that I don’t always have satisfactory answers for but there is one thing I do know. If the story of Jesus being crucified and resurrected is true, and I believe there is credible reason for believing it is true, then it changes the course of history. The life Jesus lived, with all of his teaching, is the life that God is bringing into existence and it’s the life I want to participate in as a follower of Jesus. It’s a life lived by faith and a faith that’s big enough for and can co-exist with the questions and doubts we sometimes have.

So I’m not renouncing my faith and I pray you won’t either.

Be The Church!

Like others, I am tired of turning on the news only to hear that another mass-shooting has occurred. With the most recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio taking place within twenty-four hours of each other, it seems as if such violence has become an epidemic. Maybe that’s more perception than reality but nonetheless what is reality is the fact that more innocent lives were harmed and killed.

It is beyond me to understand how anyone could so maliciously plot and carry out a deadly attack on other people. Yes, I am aware of the anger and extremism, the hatred and racism, the mental health and emotional trauma, and the many other factors that come into play, including the easy access to certain firearms — assault weapons designed simply to kill with efficiency. I’m frustrated that elected officials just keep offering their “thoughts and prayers” without undertaking any reasonable solutions. I’m frustrated that, fifty-one years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., racism still has a grip on America and my frustration doesn’t end there. As a White person, I am also frustrated with many White people who either don’t seem to care about racism or seek to downplay it and even want to disassociate from the racism (a White privilege), failing to see how systematic racism still exists even if they don’t personally discriminate against any person of color. And if the truth be told, maybe I have been one of those White people too. I try not to be but I am a sinner too.

So what can I do?

What can we do?

As followers of Jesus, what must we do?

Be the church!

I know, I know… It sounds simple and even trite because for far too long “church” has been nothing but a place where people gather on Sundays. Our traditional understanding of Church in the west has often become an impotent caricature of the ekklēsia that Jesus called us to be as his followers. It’s the reason why many of the Sunday parishioners “go to church” and then leave an hour later as the same people they were before and as the same people they were when they first started going to church many years ago. Let’s be honest, this understanding of church is a place for people to sing songs about Jesus, hear a message about Jesus, and pray but not necessarily follow Jesus. I’m not against singing, preaching, and praying but such worship loses its way when those gathering for “church” leave only to sound more like an echo-chamber of whatever news-pundit they listen too as they continue pursuing a life shaped more by their own individualistic desires.

But that is not what I mean when I say “Be the church!” What I mean is hopefully a little more profound because it is about following Jesus and serving as a living embodiment of the gospel Jesus proclaimed. That means living as a people who gather, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, with others, including people of other colors, nationalities, social-political viewpoints than our own. As we gather together, we do so as people learning to be practitioners of the Jesus way (discipleship) in which we embrace each other with love. This is a love that is full of the grace and truth that opens space for us to confront our sin with repentance and forgiveness so that we all may journey forward as reconciled brothers and sisters. This love is a fellowship in Christ that we have pledged ourselves to in baptism and that we continuously acknowledge together in the Eucharist. This vision of church, which Jesus has called us to be, is one that bears witness to an alternative kingdom — the reign of God — and becomes the beacon of light in a society shrouded in darkness.

This is the kind of church we are called to be and it is this kind of church that I believe God is working among to offer hope in the midst of despair and peace in the midst of violence. That’s why I posted on Facebook the other day this word for pastors, saying:

Pastors, the best response to a society boiling over with hatred and violence is for you to cultivate a living embodiment of the gospel among the church you serve so that there will be a community bearing witness to the way of peace in Christ.

This kind of church doesn’t effect change like a tsunami crashing upon the shore. Rather, it is a patient approach that doesn’t force its way of life on others but becomes such a beautiful portrait that others are captivated by it and want to become a part of this life. It is a life that flows from the prayers of those who are committed to living. So I leave us with the Peace Prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.