Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent is Now!

Jesus’ life in this world began in a small, one-room peasant house that would have been divided between living quarters and space for the animals. It was most likely damp and dirty, not the kind of warm, cozy place often pictured in our manger scenes.

Many of us know Jesus in his redeeming role as “Son of God,” but the title he used of himself was “Son of Man,” a phrase employed most often in the Hebrew Bible meaning simply, “the human one.” Jesus was a teacher of wisdom, a sage, a healer and prophet, who challenged the status quo, turning conventional wisdom on its head. We meet Jesus among “the least.” Of course, “the least” are only “the least” from the point of view of a world gone awry, a world that elevates wealth and status over humility and compassion, a world that rewards the winners and the successful. Jesus turned this sort of world upside down.

Mary’s Song of Praise (the Magnificat) anticipates the scattering and deposing of the proud and powerful, and the uplifting and strengthening of the weak and humble. The rich are stripped of their wealth and the hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). A change of fortunes is anticipated in the Messianic age.

God’s choice of a humble peasant girl to give birth to the Messiah signals that the great eschatological reversal has already commenced. God’s values and the world’s values often clash in a collision of opposites. To partner with Christ in the work of the kingdom is to side with the poor, weak, powerless, and humble, for to them belongs God’s new world. Unless we find ourselves among them, we will not likely encounter Christ’s presence or experience Christ’s redemption.

The gospel of God’s new world that Jesus proclaimed and incarnated has been altered and distorted by many modern versions of Christianity, which attempt to make the message more marketable to a culture obsessed with solace and security. Whether the focus is on health and wealth in this life or the afterlife, some folks want a Jesus who can solve all their problems, answer all their questions, and be an endless source of comfort and happiness. Jesus, however, who was born in humility and died in humiliation, bid his followers to take up their cross and pursue his same path of surrender, service, and sacrifice for the good of others.

Christ’s coming in humility and service is not only tough to market, it is difficult to comprehend. Any rendering of Christianity that reduces the mystery of the incarnation to a propositional statement, a creed, or doctrinal formula diminishes its truth. Any attempt to explain it will inevitably miss the mark and stifle spiritual understanding.

The coming of God in Christ invites us to bow in wonder and entertain the mystery in a spirit of humility and awe. “Advent” is derived from a Latin word meaning “arrival” or “coming.” It marks something momentous: Christ’s coming into our midst.

The invitation to celebrate Advent includes both remembrance of the past (the life of Jesus of Nazareth) and anticipation of the future (God’s new world), though the light that was and will be is now, shimmering against the backdrop of our lives. The presence of Christ is for the present.

The invitation of Advent is the invitation—right now, this very moment—to open our ordinary lives, common experiences, and everyday relationships, as well as our deepest selves, to the Spirit of the living Christ. Today is the day the Lord has made. Let us gladly give ourselves to it, to live in it as one fully alive, with eyes wide open. Advent is now!

(The preceding reflections were adapted from my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season available form Wipf and Stock Publishers (wipfandstock.com). For more information click on the book cover)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude

Our capacity to be thankful is greatly influenced by how we “see.” The great challenge for all of us (though for some it is greater): Can we “see” beyond and through the chaotic circumstances that threaten to envelop us? Can we find some stability in God’s mercy and love, even when all hell breaks loose? Can we discover the underlying thread of God’s grace and presence beneath the rough, jagged texture of suffering and hardship?

One thing that helps is to remember that whatever tragedy or tumult we experience, God’s attitude toward us is one of acceptance and love. Even when God is upset with us, God loves us and will never banish us from her presence.

To Catch an Angel, by Robert Russell, is the autobiography of a young blind man who lived alone on an island in the middle of a river. He went rowing on the river almost everyday by means of a fairly simple system. To the end of the dock, he attached a bell with a timer set to ring every thirty seconds. In this way he was able to row up and down the river, and every thirty seconds judge his distance by the sound of the bell. When he’d had enough, he found his way home by means of the bell. In the young man’s words, “The river lies before me, a constant invitation, a constant challenge, and my bell is the thread of sound along which I return to a quiet base.”

Life is like a continually flowing river. God calls us to venture out on it where there is frequent danger and challenge. Unexpected storms arise. Our security, however, rests in God’s unconditional love, which enables us to find our way back home.

We can find reasons for being either grateful or bitter. We have to determine the attitude that will permeate our spirit. The late Henry Nouwen spent the last years of his life working with developmentally disabled adults who had every reason to be bitter. They experience loneliness, rejection from family members, the unfulfilled desire to have a partner in life, and the constant frustration of needing assistance. And yet, observed Nouwen, most do not choose to be bitter, but grateful for the many small gifts of their lives—an invitation to dinner, a birthday celebration, a few days of retreat, and most of all, for their daily community with people who offer friendship and support. The more we decide to be grateful, the easier it becomes to live a grateful life.

Even when our problems are unsolvable and mountains unclimbable, God is with us. As we cultivate an attitude of gratitude for God’s sustaining grace amid all the tensions and pressures of life, and as we learn to live through our disappointments and let go of our frustrations, then we will become more aware and alive, more whole and complete—more fully human. Our hard places may become “thin places” where we can catch a glimpse of God’s glory and grace.

The preceding reflections were adapted from the first chapter of my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season. It is just off the press and available on line at wipfandstock.com. Click on picture to order.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” Jesus is talking about those who have given themselves to the difficult and challenging work of making peace between individuals, amilies, groups, and nations.

An excellent contemporary example is Nelson Mandela. When he assumed the reins of power in South Africa he refused to be bitter toward his enemies. After twenty-seven years of imprisonment, he refrained from any form of vindictiveness and called on all races to work together to heal the nation.

At the core of all peacemaking is a basic commitment to nonviolence. Only nonviolence can break the cycle of violence and open a door for peace. Violence can never stop violence because its very success leads others to imitate it. It’s ironic, but violence can be the most dangerous when it succeeds.

However successful we are in Afghanistan it will not put an end to terrorism. Governments face hard decisions, but whenever violence is met with violence it causes hate and animosity to escalate. Every terrorist we kill, and particularly every civilian that gets caught or killed in the crossfire, becomes a cause for recruitment to the terrorist agenda and increases their hatred.

Peacemakers committed to nonviolence always look for creative alternatives. There may be times in self-defense that we have to resort to force, but disciples of Jesus should always be looking for creative ways to diffuse violence and make peace, even when it involves bearing the hate without returning it—the way Jesus did on the cross.

Our society is so saturated and prone toward violence that people find it hard to believe in anything else. Many people tend to trust violence. And one has no trouble in marshaling biblical support. One can find any number of divinely sanctioned expressions of violence in the Old Testament, even divinely commissioned genocide. Jesus, however, while he certainly held his Scriptures and traditions in great respect, did not blindly accept everything in the Bible hook, line, and sinker.

Jesus exposed the lie and the deception of so-called “redemptive violence” by embodying a life of nonviolence in what he taught, how he lived, and especially in the way he died. This is why the cross becomes a symbol of the gospel of peace. Jesus bore the violence of the powers that be without returning it upon them.

Peacemaking through nonviolence, however, does not involve being a “doormat.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offered examples of how his followers could take nonviolent direct action against the oppressive powers. To so act involved great moral and spiritual strength and courage.

Peacemaking through nonviolence does not mean conflict avoidance. There were numerous times in the Gospels where Jesus acted in defiance of the religious authorities, thus provoking conflict (for example, see the Sabbath controversy stories such as those found in Mark 2:23–3:6).

It’s ironic today that so few Christians even aspire to be peacemakers, and yet, according to Jesus, these are the ones who are living up to their title. These are the ones, says Jesus, who are truly living like children of God.