Rushing To Christmas

Rushing Toward Christmas

There’s a cartoon floating around the Internet in which the Thanksgiving turkey shouts at Santa, “This is my day! Wait your turn!”

In our hyper-commercialized culture, there’s no waiting for Christmas! Wreaths were crowding out pumpkins before Halloween.

On one hand, the rush to Christmas can be a good thing.  It creates a months-long opportunity for followers of Christ to share the story of the way God’s love became flesh among us in Jesus.  It’s not Macy’s or Starbucks’ job to tell the gospel story! But you don’t have to a Christian to know that “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” doesn’t hold a candle to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” All you have to do is like good music!

On the other hand, the rush to Christmas undermines the meaning of Advent, the season of waiting when we live with vivid anticipation of something yet to come.  Magrey deVega got it right when he titled his Advent bible study “Awaiting the Already.”

Waiting for the Future 

In the worship tradition of the church, the First Sunday of Advent points our attention beyond the past or present into the future.  It lifts our vision to catch a glimpse of that day when God’s Kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  It draws us toward the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purpose in the final coming of Christ.

I remember hearing an Episcopal priest named Fleming Rutledge preach in the Duke Divinity School chapel on the day when the Episcopal Church honors John and Charles Wesley.  She said she loves the  First Sunday in Advent because she gets to sing Wesley’s interpretation of the promise in Revelation 1:7:  “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him,even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.”  I had never heard the hymn before.  Charles wrote:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!

The historically British tune is downright challenging, but in the right setting, it has the power to stretch the imagination to catch a glimpse of the final coming of Christ.  You can hear it here.  

Active Waiting Shapes Hopeful Living

Even a passing glance at the daily news will confirm that we are still waiting for the fulfillment of the Kingdom vision.   That’s why the final words of the Bible are the persistent prayer, “Lord Jesus, come.”  (Revelation 22:20)

But faithful waiting doesn’t mean sitting around doing nothing.  It means living now in ways that are consistent with the way we believe this world will be then.

  • We care for the environment now because this renewed creation is the place where God will dwell then.  (Revelation 21:3)
  • We resist violence and work for peace now because we know that “nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” then. (Isaiah 2:4)
  • We do all we can to heal racial and ethnic divisions now because we know that diverse people from every race, tongue and nation will be gathered around the throne then.  (Revelation 7:8-9)
  • We demonstrate compassion for hurting, suffering people now  because we know that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” then. (Revelation 21:4)
  • We feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, seek economic justice and welcome refugees now because we know those are the criteria by which every nation will be judged then.  (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • We bear witness to the One who came among us as the Prince of Peace now because we know that  “every knee will bow and every tongue that Jesus Christ is Lord then.  (Philippians 2:10-11)

Waiting for the way we believe the world will be then becomes the defining reality by which we shape our lives now.  It transforms our faith, our relationships, our economics and our politics.  Waiting teaches us how to live as disciples of the One who is and one day will be Lord of all.

That’s worth waiting for!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

The Weight of This Sad Time

This Sad Time

The horrendous images of the slaughter in the Bataclan Concert Hall reminded me of the final scene in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”  A recent article in “The New York Review of Books” described it as “the most devastating scene in all of theater.”

The stage is littered with bodies when Lear enters with his dead daughter Cordelia, the one consistently good and loving person in his dysfunctional family, in his arms.  His cries, “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” come from a place too deep for words (Romans 8:26) and echo in the cries of our broken hearts at images of Paris, Beirut and Baghdad and a Russians airliner in the Egyptian desert. They are compounded by the pictures of thousands of refugees fleeing the same injustice and suffering in their homelands.

Reading the headlines, we are tempted to agree with Shakespeare who has Kent say, “All’s cheerless, dark and deadly.”

Back to the play, the “Review” said, “No one, it seems, is willing…to present even the pretense that order has been restored.” There’s no pretense that order will easily be restored in our world, in spite of the bombastic calls for revenge by some of our political leaders.

All of which brings us to the final lines in Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy: “The weight of this sad time we must obey,/ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

Speak What We Feel

 The first thing we feel is sadness, sorrow, and pain. We hear the groaning that is too deep for words of a world that longs for God’s redemption. (Romans 8:22-23) Our hearts are broken with the things that break the heart of God.

And then, with good reason, we instinctively feel fear. It’s a normal, healthy human emotion. But it’s also a dangerous one. Fear can awaken us to real and present danger. But fear can also ignite flames within us that, if not balanced by with wisdom and compassion, feed the destructive fires of xenophobia, racism, prejudice, injustice and violence.

As we are seeing right now, reasonable fear can be manipulated by self-aggrandizing politicians to generate irrational fear that can be used to accomplish their own agenda, often resulting in more injustice that feeds more fear and continues a spiral of hostility and scapegoating.

Fear vs Love

 Biblically, the opposite of and only antidote for fear is love.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. “(I John 4:18)

Don’t expect a violence-addicted world to understand that. It’s as absurd as Jesus command (it’s not a suggestion) that we love our enemy. Paul called it the “wisdom of God” that looks like “foolishness to the world.”

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved…This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (I Corinthians 1:18-25)

What Love Looks Like

 So, what does the love that drives out fear look like in this sad time?

For one thing, it looks like hospitality to refugees. “Relevent” magazine shared What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees. Their texts did not include the clear instruction to “show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Christian leaders including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals have called for our leaders to continue, with careful screening, to welcome refugees who are fleeing from the same violence we are trying to defeat.  Sadly, but not unexpectedly, our governor has joined the irrational reaction to a rational fear by refusing to welcome Syrian refugees to Florida.

Followers of Christ don’t have all the answers to how to deal with ISIS — I certainly don’t.  But “the love of Christ leaves us no choice” on this one.

For if we are out of our minds, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you.  For the love of Christ controls us, since we have concluded this, that Christ died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised.  (2 Corinthians 5:13-15) 

For followers of Jesus, the real “weight of this sad time” is the weight of love, which is nothing less than the weight (and foolishness) of the cross.

Grace and peace,

Jim

The Impossible Possibility

The Possible Impossibility

The question both haunts and inspires every person ordained into the Methodist ministry since Mr. Wesley: “Are you going on to perfection?”

It’s a good question for every follower of Christ in the aftermath of All Saints’ Day.

  • Do we really believe that each of us, in our own very imperfect, unsaint-like lives, are, in the words of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) “in possibility of becoming saints?”
  • Do we dare to believe that God is at work in this tragically fractured, war-torn, economically-unjust, environmentally-abused world to fulfill Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Kingdom of God?
  • Can we believe that with all of our divisions and failures, our nation could actually become “a more perfect union”?

Having just returned from another pilgrimage to South Africa and dropped back into the political circus of our Presidential nominating process, it’s hard not to sometimes feel that it is downright impossible.

Is it Possible?

Looking out across the sprawling impoverished townships and corrugated steel shacks of the “informal settlements” that surround the spectacular beauty of Cape Town with its multi-million-dollar condos along the beach, hearing the way some of the hopes and dreams of Nelson Mandela that are enshrined in their Constitution have been defaced by the political corruption and financial greed that has plagued the South African government in the first twenty years of democracy (see A Rumor of Spring by Max Du Preez), listening to the stories of people who have been both afflicted and affected by the HIV-Aids epidemic…it’s all more than enough to confirm Desmond Tutu saying that because we believe in original sin, we should not be surprised, but we can be disappointed.

Watching some of the candidates for our highest office — some claiming (and abusing) Christianity as a basis for their candidacy — fuel the fires of some of the lowest, meanest, most xenophobic and racist fears and divisions within our nation is enough to make us agree with the Psalmist who said, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” (Psalm 146:3-4)

The Impossible Becoming Possible 

But then, just before drifting into my genetic tendency for skepticism, often in places where we least expect it, in the lives of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, we catch a glimpse of what can be actually becoming a reality among us. It’s enough to confirm Jesus’ prediction that the Kingdom of God comes in things like mustard seeds planted in the ground and yeast folded into a lump of bread.

They are the imperfect people on the way to perfection; people “whose hope rests on the Lord their God.”  (Psalm 146:5)  They live now in ways that are consistent with the way they believe that world will be when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth it is in heaven.  They live and work in the confidence of the Psalmist:

The person whose help is the God of Jacob—
    the person whose hope rests on the Lord their God—
    is truly happy!
God: the maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
    who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
    who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who frees prisoners.
    The Lord: who makes the blind see.
    The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low.
    The Lord: who loves the righteous.
    The Lord: who protects immigrants,
        who helps orphans and widows,
        but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!

The Lord will rule forever!  (Psalm 146:5-10)

We discovered it in the joyful energy of the people who serve John Wesley Community Centre.  We felt it in the warmth and hope with with Jack and Joan Scholtz look back over a long life of ministry and look forward with hope for their nation.  We were inspired by it in worship with the people of Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg (read Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled Onto a Sidewalk). We found it in the work of business leaders who are pouring their energy into building a healthy economy.

I also experienced the depth of faith and strength of commitment in the lives of the dozen United Methodist pastors from Texas and Arkansas (all of them young enough to be my children!) who traveled together.  And back home, I’ve found it in the same energy, passion and vision of young leaders within our Conference.

Living the Impossible Possiblity 

In his book, Max du Preez writes:

“A century from now historians will still write about Mandela’s spectacular role in bringing freedom, stability and democracy to South Africa. They will still remind their students that he became an international icon as a man of great integrity with an enormous capacity to forgive, to heal and to bridge seemingly impossible divides.”

He acknowledges:

“No nation will ever be blessed with two or more Mandela-type leaders in succession. The present leadership of the ruling party does not, to put it diplomatically, reflect the best of our society.”

But he goes on to say that Mandela was not “a freak or a saint sent by some supernatural power.”

“We are the products of the same history and society that produced a Nelson Mandela.  Above all, Nelson Mandela brought out the best in all his fellow citizens of all creeds, colours and classes. 
He gave South Africans a glimpse of what they could be as a nation. He will remind them of that long after his passing. 
To me, Mandela was living proof that good can prevail over evil, that there actually is something such as a shared humanity. 
We’d better believe in that in years to come.”

That’s what “saints” do–they bring out the best in all of us.  They give us a glimpse of “what will be” within the reality of “what is.”  They dare to live their lives in ways that demonstrate that they are on the way to perfection.  And amid all the imperfections of their lives and their world, they make their mustard-seed-like contribution to what God intends this world to be.

As the hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” concludes, “There’s not any reason, no , not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.”

Going on to perfection,

Jim