Laying it on

christmas loveIt’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

As we approach this holiday, preparations are being made for huge family get-togethers, massive roast turkeys, bottomless bowls of salad, and copious amounts of drink (alcoholic or otherwise).

With this celebrations, the pressure is on to do what we colloquially term ‘laying it on’–putting on your best face, wearing your trendiest clothes, saying things that could pass as highly intelligent or bring the family to tears of laughter.

Sometimes we simply lose sight of what it is all about, as we are reminded in this fourth week of Advent, love.

Love doesn’t require airs, shows, obligatory pleasantries, or even artfully-painted faces. Love is.

With love–and I am speaking here of both being loving and accepting love from others and from God–there is freedom to be who we are. Richard Rohr uses the example of his favourite saint, Francis of Assisi, to illustrate that my true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me. When I know that I am loved unconditionally (without obligations or requirements on my part) I have a certain kind of freedom where not only do I not care what others think of me, but I, occasionally, intentionally play the fool in order that they don’t get too high a view of my self.

St. Francis illustrates this stage in many memorable ways. When he hears one day that the people of Assisi are calling him a saint, he invites Brother Juniper to join him in a walk through his old home town. Brother Juniper was the first simpleton (that is a compliment!), the holy fool of the original friars. Francis knew he could always trust him to understand what he was saying. Francis once said, “I wish I had a whole forest of such Junipers!”

Francis told Brother Juniper, “Let’s take off these robes, get down to our underwear, and just walk back and forth through Assisi. Then all these people who are thinking we are saints will know who we really are!” Now that’s a saint: someone who doesn’t need to be considered a saint, who can walk foolishly in his underwear the full length of Assisi.

A few years later, when people were again calling Francis a saint, he said, “Juniper, we’ve got to do it again.” This time they carried a plank into the piazza. They put it over some kind of a stone or maybe the fountain, and there they seesawed all day. They had no need to promote or protect any reputation or pious self-image.

That’s a rather constant spiritual tradition in the Eastern Church and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but it pretty much got lost after the 13th century Franciscans. We became more and more serious about this intense salvation thing, or you might say we took ourselves far too seriously. Moralism replaced mysticism. And this only increased after the in-house fighting of the 16th century reformations. We all needed to prove we were right. Have you noticed that people who need to prove they are right cannot laugh or smile?

When you are a “holy fool” you’ve stopped trying to look like something more than you really are. That’s when you know, as you eventually have to know, that we are all naked underneath our clothes, and we don’t need to pretend to be better than we are. I am who I am, who I am, who I am; and that creation, for some unbelievable reason, is who God loves, precisely in its uniqueness. My true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me, not from what people think of me or say about me. Both the people who praise me and those who hate me are usually doing it for the wrong reasons. – Richard Rohr, adapted from Franciscan Mysticism (an unpublished talk)

May you know this kind of love this Christmas, a love that frees, a love that releases from expectations, a love that doesn’t need to ‘lay it on’ for others to see, and a love that values others simply because they are loved by God rather than because of what they can bring to the table.

You Do Not Need to Bring Christ Down

The NativityDuring the Christmas season, we celebrate the truth that God has come to us in the form of a little, human baby, ‘Emmanuel.’

Yet, for tall the talk about ‘God with us,’ we still have this notion that God is ‘out there,’ ‘watching us from a distance,’ and not right here, right now, with us.

God didn’t draw near to us only to remove the Divine Presence from us when Jesus returned to heaven. On the contrary: God is with us now.

Richard Rohr writes:

Paul, a good Jew, quotes Deuteronomy, “The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8), and adds a challenge that I would repeat today, “Do not tell yourself that you have to bring Christ down!” (10:6). He knew that God had overcome the human-divine gap in the Christ Mystery. The issues of space and time have been overcome once and for all. God is here, not there.

The mystery of the Incarnation is precisely the repositioning of God in the material world once and forever. Continual top-down religion often creates very passive, and even passive-dependent and passive-aggressive Christians. I know this as a Catholic priest for over 40 years. Bottom-up, or incarnational religion, offers a God we can experience for ourselves. We have nothing to fight or prove, just something to know for ourselves. This is what we are about to celebrate at Christmas.

(from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 121)

May the awareness of Emmanuel every moment of every day bring you a deep sense of hope, peace, joy and love this Christmas.

When Jesus Comes

It’s Christmas Day and the time we celebrate the coming of Christ. Lynne Hybels relates in The Huffington Post a compelling story about how the coming of Jesus made a real difference in a Cairo slum. It’s heart-warming and inspiring and you can read it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lynne-hybels/a-stunning-transformation_b_799138.html
Merry Christmas. May remembering the coming of Christ bring joy to you today.

Hallelujah (Let there be Joy!)

Yesterday we celebrated the third Sunday of Advent. The theme was ‘Joy’ and we remember this week the overwhelming joy of those who witnessed the coming of Jesus so many years ago.

 

Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare him room,
And Heaven and nature sing!

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love.

I really enjoyed seeing (and hearing) the Adelaide Chamber Singers brilliant performance of

Handel‘s Messiah last Friday night at St Peter’s Cathedral. Together with a small string orchestra, an organ, timpani and a couple of trumpets, they drew us into a beautiful reflection on the birth, passion and power of Jesus Christ. The near-perfect rendition was not abridged, even though the Christmas themes are confined mainly to the first part. Truly this work needs to be taken within the framework and context of the whole. One example of taking it out-of-context is the one chorus that is often used as a Christmas centerpiece: Hallelujah.

Within the oratorio, the Hallelujah Chorus appears at the end of ‘Part the Second’ which speaks about the passion of the Christ and his second coming as a righteous judge, who will shake the heavens and earth, who will laugh at the calamity of the nations, and will judge the heathen in his wrath. The culmination of this Divine rage is  ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever: King of kings and Lord of lords.’

I have to say that I prefer taking this chorus outside of its context because, to me, it is a positive affirmation of the truth that one day Jesus will return and bring his perfect kingdom. In this new heavens and new earth, all will be as it was created to be. In that day the cry on everyone’s lips will be ‘Hallelujah, for the all-powerful Lord reigns.’

And I can think of no better thought this Advent season than that of the One who was born in a manger, who walked on this earth, who took on our humanness, and who ultimately conquered death, coming once again to this earth in answer to our prayer ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done; as in heaven, so on earth.’

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Lists

“. . . what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (from the prophet Micah)

This is a season of lists.  Santa Claus is not the only one who is making a list and checking it twice.  I know that I am making all kinds of lists in this season and I am checking them constantly.  There is the list of people for whom I need to buy presents.  There is the list of people to whom I want to write thank-you notes.  There are my shopping lists.  And because it is sometimes hard to keep track of all of these lists, I have a list of lists to help me keep it all straight.

There are satisfactions in keeping lists.  It can give us the feeling—the illusion, really—that life is more orderly than it really is.  Making lists can make us feel like we are more or less in control of our own destinies, that we can construct our own lives along the outlines of our to-do lists.

But have you noticed that the most important things in life never seem to make it onto the to-do list?  Think about the items on a typical to-do list:  wrap the presents, mail the package, pick up the turkey, write the check.  Expand the list and it still doesn’t add up to much of a life.  Notice what is missing from our to-do lists.  The prophet Micah, in this wonderful phrase, says we are to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God.  Those are the sorts of things that make for a rich and full life.  But how often does anything like that make it to the list?

When we focus so intently on our preparations in this season, it can almost seem like Christmas is something we plan and make happen when, in reality, what we celebrate in this season is something we never could have planned and only God could make happen—the inbreaking of God into our world in a most surprising way, in the birth of Jesus.

Distract us from our to-do lists, O God, so that we may see and celebrate what you are doing.  Amen.

–by Martin B. Copenhaver, from StillSpeaking

Christ

I cannot talk about the season of Advent–or any season on the church calendar–without speaking of Jesus. He is the centre of all Christian celebrations.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, or Sarcastic Lutheran (as she is known on her blog) preached the following on Christ the King Sunday:

Yet when it comes down to it the most reliable way to legitimately know anything at all about the nature of God is to look to how God chose to reveal God’s self in Christ.  And most notably we see who God is in how God chose to reveal God’s self on the cross.  And just to be clear: The cross is not about God as divine child abuser sadly sending his little boy off to be killed because we were bad and well, somebody had to pay.  Because the irony about viewing the cross this way is that the whole thing was about God saying  pay attention – don’t avert your eyes from the cross.  This this is the logical end of your value system. Here is where it will always end. In the suffering of God.  Here is the extent I will go says God to defy your idea of me as a vengeful God.  If you think I am about smiting your enemies then think again for I will not lift even a finger to condemn those who hung me. I will simply not be known as the God of vengeance.  I will simply not allow you to project your puffed up human traits on me as though I’m a bigger better version of the best parts of you or a bigger badder version of the worst parts of you

On the cross we don’t see a legal transaction where Jesus pays our debt.  We see God. The Word made flesh hangs from the cross. And let there be no mistake – this is Christ the King. And while his scornful and shameful death is insulting to our idea of a king and a God the divine royalty of Christ is simply unassailable.  by us or anyone else.  because sometimes things are so holy that they cannot be desecrated try as we might.

In the previous chapter of Luke as Jesus sits at table sharing his last supper with his friends they break out in an argument over who will be the greatest.  Jesus says “the greatest of you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves…I confer on you says Jesus to his faltering friends “I confer on you a kingdom so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and you will sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.

Even Jesus speaks of his kingdom and of thrones and judgment.  Yet today on Christ the king Sunday we see that Christ’s kingdom is comprised of thieves and Christ-deniers.  Today on Christ the King Sunday we see our king enthroned yet the throne is not one of gold and jewel but of  blood and puke stained wood and the crown is not one of gold and jewel but of twisted thorn. And as his crown is piercing his brow it is from here the King of Glory judges the world who put him on a cross.  From his rough hewn throne of a cross Jesus looks at the world…those who betrayed him, those who executed him those who loved him and those who ignored him and he judges it all.  The pronouncement is made and the judgment is ….forgiveness.  Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing is, as my friend Justin reminded me this week,  an eternally valid statement. From his cross Christ the King loves the betrayer, the violent, the God killer in all of us. Because his divine self was unmockable.  Protected and apart and unmanipulatable by our opinions and value systems.  And it finally is only a God who enters our human existence and suffers our insults with only love and forgiveness who can save us from ourselves.  It is only a self-emptying God who walked among  as Christ Jesus, who, in the words of St Paul, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,  humbled himself to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Read the entire sermon here).

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Brian McLaren on The Propitiation Question:

. . . [T]he question itself is problematic because it rests on assumptions about God and God’s nature that need to be examined. Many of us saw that – to use your terms – there is original blessing in the Bible, and there is the reality of sin – and it doesn’t make sense to minimize one to magnify the other. That made a lot of us look for a deeper question – and for me, that question is, “What is the biblical narrative really about?” If it’s about “sin management” – dealing with the “problem” of sin as a legal problem, we’ll read the Bible in one way. If it’s about creation, liberation, reconciliation (and, I might add, incarnation) … we’ll read the Bible differently.

So what is your straight, non-sidestepping, no-holds-barred take on “The Propitiation Question?”

The best way I can reply, since I think the category of propitiation is often defined within an unhelpful and other-than-biblical narrative, is in the form of some questions:
1. Who was the primary audience for the suffering and death of Jesus? Was it intended to bring about a change in God, or in us? Since I don’t think God needs to change, but rather we do, I’d vote for the latter.

2. Where do we centrally locate God the Father on good Friday – in and with the political and religious leaders, condemning and torturing Jesus? Or in Jesus, suffering injustice with and for us? Again, I’d vote the latter.

3. Does Jesus, in some mysterious way, absorb/redirect the hostility of God towards us, or the hostility of us towards God? Again, I’d vote for the latter. (I think this is what C. S. Lewis was after in his idea of “the perfect penitent.”)

In each case, perhaps a case could be made for the former; there are ways we could say there is truth in the former. But I think the weight of meaning is found in the latter option. Many people see everything from within the conventional narrative and so they can’t even imagine Jesus being important apart from it, and that’s a major reason why, I think, they are so adamant in defending it.

Advent

I love the season of Advent. I didn’t grow up in a liturgical community, yet I am drawn into the celebrations of the church year simply because of the focus they bring to my life. Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Advent each uniquely centre on the Christ’s presence with us not only 2000 years ago in Palestine, but in reality.

Advent is a season of waiting. Symbolically, we await the arrival of Jesus, the promised Saviour of the world. In real life, we are waiting (some more eagerly than others) for Christmas Day and what it brings. Bringing the focus back to waiting is important in our “I want it all and I want it now” world. Reflecting on this hopeful anticipation, Henri Nouwen writes:

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life.  But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting.  It is waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for.  We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus.  We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the Ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in glory.  We are always waiting in the conviction that we have already seen God’s footsteps.

Waiting for God is an active, alert — yes, joyful — waiting.  As we wait we remember him for whom we are waiting, and as we remember him we create a community ready to welcome him when he comes. (from In Joyful Hope: Meditations for Advent)

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Here is a reflection on Advent from StillSpeaking’s Tony Robinson:

“ . . . You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

I like Epiphany, I respect Lent, I wish we did Eastertide more and better, but it’s Advent that I love.

I love gathering greens from the cedars in our backyard to fold around the Advent wreath. I love the new purple candles, ready and waiting. I love getting out the silver candle snuffer that a college professor gave us as a wedding gift and laying it beside the wreath.

I love the first, haunting strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” on the first Sunday of Advent. I wait eagerly to sing, “Watchman Tell us of The Night,” and “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry.”

I like purple.

I love that when the stores’ Christmas decorations are already getting tired, Advent is just getting going. I love lighting candles around the house as evening comes and laying a fire in the fireplace. I like hanging the Advent calendar on the wall, and taking turns opening one window a day.

I like the waiting and the watching, and the anticipation. My grandmother, Victoria, used to say, when something good was coming, that she had, “The Anticipates.” Advent is a season for “The Anticipates.” It may be dark now, but a change is coming.

I like the Advent idea of “keeping faith, hope and love alive in the midst of dark times,” because that’s where we so often are and so often need to be. I love that, just when we want to hibernate, Advent says, “Wake up,” startling me like a noon factory whistle. “Wake up,” says Advent, “the world is open at the top.”

I love that when anxiety and fear seem to be so all-over-the-place, Advent’s call to be alert isn’t about fear but hope; that Advent isn’t for mad anxiety but glad urgency. I love the mystery of it.

Advent is a season I love.