“The Road Goes on Forever, and the Party Never Ends”

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.John 13:34, NRSV

There’s nothing like a quote from the famous Robert Earl Keen song to set the tone for a post, and you can’t lose when reinforcing it with the beloved New Commandment. So what do these two very different snippets have to do with one another? Follow me!

After Epiphany closed the Christmas season this past Sunday, I have been reflecting on the major Christian holy days and how celebrating them should impact us today. These days honor various aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, so it would make sense for there to be some application for his disciples beyond just remembering what happened 2,000 years ago. So far, I’ve discerned one major reason for keeping these holy days (all of them) sacred in our lives.

They are all happening, all the time.

I know that sounds like some “new age” stuff, but it’s true. The Exodus, the mystery of the Incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit are all realities here and now, in this life, in this moment. And they should be, otherwise we run the risk of denying the true power of these events for the sake of some mere, lame commemoration.

Each of us knows the difficulty of changing our lives for the better, of growing in relationship with God and moving from sin to life (Exodus). We know what it is to marvel at, question, or even deny the idea of a God that would take on flesh for us (Incarnation), even if it it shows indirectly as a questioning of our own value. All people know the reality of suffering and death (Crucifixion), and the importance of hope and restoration in the midst of it, ultimately leading to victory (Resurrection and Ascension). We know what it is to be inspired, and to be filled with the drive to use our gifts for the betterment of the world (Pentecost).

The problem comes when we fail to see the life of Christ in our own and vice versa. We get too caught up in the “Crucifixion” moments to remember what hope feels like. We are too consumed with our victories and comfort to remember that suffering is still a reality for many that we have a responsibility to ease.

We lose compassion for one another when we forget that all of us are sinners on the road to the promised land. Perhaps most tragically, when we lose sight of the Incarnation, we fail to recognize all others as brothers and sisters for whom God took on human flesh and died. When we limit these realities to seasons and days, we lose sight of the fact that they indeed are realities.

Christ lived with eternity in mind. He loved with eternity in mind. In eternity, everything echoes at once, without regard for day, year, or time. If we are to love as he does, we also must keep eternity in mind, letting these holy realities shape our daily lives.

It is my prayer that you will join me in living this new year in light of the reality of Christ’s life. May we all remember who we are, who God is, and what responsibilities come with that identity. Above all, whatever situation rings true for you right now, I pray that you will know how loved and valued you really are.

Peace be with you!

Floods Will Come

“I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.” — Luke 6:47-48, NRSV

I remember seeing an illustrated version of this parable. If I remember correctly, it was in Grandma’s Gospel, a book my grandma in West Virginia (who we are visiting this week) used to read to me on her front porch swing. I have always liked this teaching, even if at first it was because I’d laugh at the guy that thought he was building a strong house on sand. Anyway, I feel this is a good parable to ponder as we enter into a new year. Why?

A new year is a new opportunity, a chance for a new way of life for some of us. It is important that we take a moment to pause and consider how we are going to live in this new year. 2017 certainly revealed a lot about our more negative sides. Selfishness, greed, prejudice, and apathy marked the public sphere, leading to a sense of despair for everyone involved (except for those in power who benefit from the above sinful expressions). The question now is whether or not we want more of the same.

You see, such sinful expressions are the result of houses built “without a foundation” (Luke 6:49). Fragile existences based on possessions, status, self-satisfaction, or the need to be superior often fail us in the moments when the floods of life come along. Notice I said “when,” not “if” the floods come. The text says the same thing. “When a flood arose, the river burst against that house” (Luke 6:48).

Floods are going to come, regardless of whether or not our lives are rooted in stone or sand. Living a life founded on the rock of faith does not exempt one from the immense and often overwhelming pain life brings along. In similar fashion, basing our existence on things that can be easily swept away (work, relationships, self-importance, fleeting pleasures, etc.) doesn’t do us any favors either. The trick for this new year, then, is building our lives on a foundation that is not only strong enough to sustain us through the pain of life, but also has the power to provide shelter and peace for others in the midst of their own storms. 

How do we do that?

It begins with the teachings of Christ in Luke, all summed up earlier in chapter 6. You might recognize the foremost of these teachings in Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” From there, look around at the other teachings.

“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35).

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

This chapter is then wrapped up with the parable of two foundations.

Coincidence? Of course not. Keep up.

Jesus says the one who builds their house on a strong foundation is the one “who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them” (Luke 6:47). If we want to begin and continue this year in a new, better way, the best advice is build a foundation on those things that keep us kind, gracious, patient, loving, forgiving, and compassionate. What’s the best example? Look at Jesus.

Jesus was maligned almost everywhere he went. People claimed to be his disciples, only to abandon him with alarming quickness. He came teaching freedom, transformation, and a closer relationship to the Divine, which led to a miserable death on a cross. In the midst of mistreatment, persecution, beatings, and a humiliating execution, Jesus never compromised on his love, compassion, justice, and inclinations toward healing and wholeness for those who needed it.

If we want to experience a different sort of year, that’s exactly what it’s going to take for us.

Floods are going to come. Whether literally, as in Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast of the United States, or figuratively in the form of mass shootings, sudden loss of life, familial stress, unemployment, or the ending of important relationships, these floods all have the capability of turning us into self-serving people who only serve to feed the hateful atmosphere that has been so prevalent in our world as of late. If, however, we build our lives upon a foundation beyond ourselves, a foundation that prioritizes the care and well-being of others, we will be able to withstand the turbulent waters. 

Will there be damage? There always is. Will life hurt? Of course. If, however, our lives are geared toward others, in alignment with the will of God, our pain can be healed and made useful. This results in a very different reality from the one we have seen before. You know, the one where our pain and our suffering and our desires take precedence over anything else.

As you go about beginning this new year, I hope you join in me in doing some construction work. How can we change the foundation of our lives to one that is firmly set on the unshakable rock that is the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ? We won’t always get it right, but our continuous efforts alone will yield something beautiful that will go a long way toward healing previous damage done to us, to others, and to all of creation. So let’s get started!

Happy New Year!

Peace be with you!

Just a Moment to Marvel

“For this foreign affair, I will abide as the middle man, ‘Cause the solo cry is more than I can stand. So I walk on air, and awkwardly seek out a child’s form. And I know that you won’t lead me to the storm.”

Christmas is a-coming! With just two days to go, I have been reflecting pretty intently on the Incarnation. If you don’t know, this is the word that means “to take on flesh,” which is what we Christians celebrate on Christmas: when God took on flesh as a baby in a feeding trough, soon to show us the true meaning of love and humility in the person of Jesus Christ.

The quote above is from a song called “Anything You Say,” by Deas Vail, a band with heavy Christian influence. When I hear this verse, I immediately think of the gift of the Incarnation, and I wanted to share why this story is so beautiful, powerful, and worth becoming a part of.

When we think of God, we often picture a big person or figure in the sky, like Zeus. Maybe we imagine an invisible, impersonal force. Some just don’t even think about it at all. In any of these scenarios, God is something hard to look to or imagine, much less something with which we can have an honest, intimate relationship.

That’s why this story is so important! God desires to have us love Him, know Him, and follow His ways. Because God is so immense and, in some way, unknowable, He has made a habit of revealing Himself to us. We see God in Creation, on Mount Sinai, in the still silence on a mountain, and, in time, our very own flesh!

The Christmas story is the tale which reminds us that God is not some distant tyrant who lords over our lives. God is willing to humble Himself, becoming a lowly child, not born in a palace or house, but in a barn. This child grew to be a wandering preacher and healer, crucified because of the wickedness of those He came to save, only to break the powers of sin and death by rising again. On Christmas Day, we celebrate the beginning of this beautiful story, which teaches us that, wicked as we may be at times, God still earnestly desires to dwell among us in love. That’s some inspiring and instructive stuff!

Peace be with you!

“To Bind Up the Brokenhearted”

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” — Isaiah 61:1

This is a pretty popular Scripture among Christians, as it should be. After all, Jesus quotes this very passage, using it to refer to himself in Luke 4, which actually makes this a perfect Scripture for the coming of Christmas!

Christmas isn’t always a full-on occasion for celebration. Many people find it to be one of the hardest times of years. It is a time for family, love, togetherness, and joy, but many of us experience it as a reminder of the absence of these things in their lives. I myself am experiencing that this year. I am unemployed, changing careers/callings, and about to close a chapter of my life that I was so sure had many more pages to go. I will be battling shame and a major sense of disappointment as I interact with family this year. This is one of several Christmases that were more painful than joyful. Odds are, you yourself know what this is like.

This is why it is essential that we remember Scriptures like this one from Isaiah. They remind us that the coming of Christ isn’t about family gatherings, presents, and being of good cheer for a month straight. Christ is entering into the dirty, dark depths of human existence. When Christ takes on flesh, it is that of a poor carpenter’s son, nestled into a feeding trough. Christ’s life is lived in the service of others, homeless, wandering from place to place, His great love rewarded with a cross.

With that in mind, the Incarnation we will celebrate this coming Monday is more than a cause for joy; it is a cause for remembrance. We are to remember that there is no darkness, no heartbreak, no addiction, no dishonor, no shame, no scars that are strong enough to defeat the love of God revealed in Jesus. We are to remember that, knowing all that we are and all we have done, God still chooses to be immediately and powerfully present among us, sharing our pain and guiding us to wholeness by the tenderness of His Spirit. Further, we must remember that we are called not only to experience this wonderful story, but also to take part in it. Through Christ, we are made members of God’s family, and as members of God’s family, we are called to share in the work of Jesus Christ. We are called to be sensitive toward those who are in pain, and to develop a rule of life based on the compassion, justice, and grace we receive in Christ.

As you go about the final days of preparation for what truly is a joyous holiday, remember why it is joyous. It’s not about your successes or failures. It’s not about what you have lost or what you have. It is about the God that meets you right where you are, with open arms and a heart full of love as He calls you to experience grace. Believe in this Good News, and share it through your own love of others.

Peace be with you!

 

The Season of Giving and Why God Probably Doesn’t Like Christmas

“Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” — Isaiah 1:14

Now THAT is a Scripture full of holiday cheer! Okay, so between the title and Scripture, you may think this is going to be harsh, but it really isn’t. I don’t hate Christmas, and neither does God, I’m sure. There are, however, some issues for the faithful, and anybody else, when it comes to seasons, rituals, and holidays. So let’s talk. 

Now, this isn’t going to be a rant about the pagan roots of modern-day Christmas decor and traditions. Yes, it’s true. No, it isn’t a bad thing because those symbols are re-interpreted faithfully. All in all, if it bothers you, don’t get a tree. It’s not a requirement and your faith is more important. So there. Done. 

That said, the reason I picked the Scripture I did for this conversation is because I’ve gotten sick of hearing the phrase “Season of Giving” applied to Christmas time. Why? Because giving, kindness, and familial love are not to be restricted to particular times and places. This attitude actually typifies one of the worst issues facing us as Christians (and as people in general).

What issue? The issue of compartmentalized living. You know what I’m talking about. “Religious me” is private and for church time. “Work me” is for work. “School me” is for school, and so on. Similarly, we have “Holiday me,” the alter ego that goes all “best behavior” for the span of about a month or so, and I am just about sick of all of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I have been just as guilty of this as everyone else. It’s a problem we all have in this world where it is frowned upon to be utterly devoted to a way of being that doesn’t match the values of the powers that be. That’s why we have holidays, designated times for kindness and familial celebration so that, when they end, we can ease back into life as it should be lived: in pursuit of other things. 

This practice is as bad as it sounds, especially within the Christian world. When Christmas became the “Season of Giving” and our holy days/worship meetings became THE time and place to devoutly practice our faith, a major battle was lost in the war for our souls. It became much easier to have our cake and eat it. We can worship at the designated moments while dedicating the remainder of our time to getting what we want, achieving what we desire to achieve. Why is this a problem?

Nothing changes, including our hypocrisy. To us, it seems like balance. To the rest of the world, it’s the proof that what we believe is self-serving B.S. 

So what is the solution? Abandon holidays?

Don’t be dramatic

While we are on the subject, though, it’s time worship and holidays (from the Old English word meaning, “Holy Day”) were re-understood as what they were really intended to be: reminders. The practice of faith and goodness is not found in the sanctuary, worship center, or the temporary toleration of difficult people in the “spirit of Christmas.” Worship, holy days, and other such themed seasons are supposed to be reminders, means of getting in the habit so we can function like human beings were intended in the other aspects of our lives.  

Now, you’ve no doubt heard or been this person before. “I don’t celebrate commercial holidays because we should be that way all the time.” Well, we aren’t, ding-bat, that’s the problem. However, instead of treating these holy days and weekly reminders as instances in which we can learn how to habitually love, we treat them like the timed trials in which we are to get all of that distracting affection, adoration, and discipleship out of the way so that we can get back to living life in the usual self-serving, poor-ignoring, tension-avoiding way. 

This is why God says what he does in the Scripture at the start of this post from the prophet Isaiah. Our holidays and designated times/places for worshiping and following God “have become a burden to [God], [He] is weary of bearing them,” precisely because their point is being missed entirely. These seasons and holy days are designed to teach and remind us to “cease evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17). These are actions that make up a lifestyle of faith, the intended lifestyle of Christians (it’s even a great way to live as a non-Christian, I might add). This is not a lifestyle that allows for our preferred, compartmentalized lifestyle. We are to be “faithful me” at work, at school, at home, in the voting booth, in the mall, yes, in our places of worship. 

As you go about the holidays, worship, and rituals of your life (whether they be Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, family dinners, new moons, weekly worship, Lent, Ramadan, etc.), remember that these are times to develop habits, not to hastily exercise all of your kindness. What habits? The habits that will allow you to live a faithful, kind, generous, just, and full life all day, every day. If we can begin to take even a tiny step in this direction, perhaps we will see a “Season of Giving” that never ends, and that Kingdom of God will move just a tad bit closer.

Peace be with you!