Monday, November 28, 2011

Watch! An Advent Reflection

The call to “Watch” is a common theme at the beginning of Advent. Many Christians interpret this mostly in futuristic terms. Some are caught up in the violent apocalyptic sensationalism reflected in the Left Behind series of books. But many who pay little attention to prophetic calendars still believe that this present age will end with some sort of spectacular intervention or return of Christ. 

Many, if not most, of the early Christians believed the present age would end in their lifetime. The Apostle Paul, from what we can deduce from his letters, almost certainly believed this (see 1 Thess 4:13–18 and 1 Cor 7:28–31). Scholars debate about what Jesus may have believed about the “when” and the “how” of the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. 

The semi-technical word that the early Christians used to refer to the future revelation of Christ that would end the present age and usher in an age of peace and righteousness was the Greek word parousia. It is usually translated “coming.” For example, in 1 Thessalonians Paul prays that the church will be blameless before God at the “coming” (parousia) of the Lord Jesus Christ (3:13). The root meaning of the word is actually “presence,” and could be so translated in some contexts. 

While many Christians today still believe in some sort of miraculous second coming of Christ, there is a minority (but growing number) of Christians who imagine this differently. They imagine not a sudden invasion from outside the world, but a growing manifestation or unveiling of the presence of Christ from within the world. 

Christ is, indeed, present in the world, according to all the New Testament witnesses. The living Christ is present with us in Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, for Christians, the presence of the living Christ. 

Frankly, I’m not sure what I believe about a future coming of Christ, or even how to imagine it. But I certainly believe in the living presence of Christ in the world. Therefore, the call to “Watch” takes on present significance. 

At the end of Mark’s Gospel, the women who enter the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus encounter a young man dressed in white. He says, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised. He is not here.” He instructs them to go tell Peter and the other disciples that the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee. Galilee is where it all started. It’s where they left their fishing nets, their occupations, even their families to follow Jesus. But when Jesus was arrested by the powers-that-be they fled. They denied and deserted him. Now the young man tells them that Jesus would meet them again in Galilee. And meet him they did. There they encountered a kind of “second coming.” There they experienced forgiveness. There they were given a new mission. There they encountered the unconditional love of the risen Christ. 

Christ may or may not return in a cloud of glory. From one point of view, Christ doesn’t need to return, because Christ is already here. We can meet him. We can experience his forgiveness and unconditional love. We can participate with him in the work of the Spirit in the world. It’s possible for Christ to be born anew in our hearts this Christmas season. Christ is with us, among us, for us, and in us. 

Therefore, let us watch, let us stay awake and alert, mindful and faithful to the way of Christ. In colonial New England, I am told, a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness by a sudden eclipse. Some panicked and wanted to adjourn. Some thought the world was coming to an end. But one calm gentleman spoke up: “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move that candles be brought.” 

I think the living Christ would say to us: “Keep lighting the candles. Keep watching, keep praying, keep serving, keep loving.” 

Come, Lord Jesus, convict us, challenge us, comfort us, and compel us to love others as you love each one of us.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Thanksgiving Reflection

Our capacity to nurture an attitude of gratitude is greatly influenced by how we “see.” Luke says that the one who turned back to give Jesus thanks did so “when he saw he was healed” (17:15). The reference to “seeing” was obviously intended to imply more than physical sight. This man “saw” with a deeper wisdom; his insight sprang from a higher level of consciousness.

This is the challenge for all of us: 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?

I love the way Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes God’s grace that enables us to overcome the failures and hardships of life: “where sin abounds, grace does much more abound” (Rom 5:20). God’s grace “out abounds” the consequences of sin—poor grammar, but excellent theology. Love will ultimately win. Redemption is God’s last word. God is large enough and great enough to absorb all the evil, tragedy, pain, and loss—reworking, reshaping, and redeeming it in due course.

An Irish priest on a walking tour of his rural parish observed an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road, praying. Impressed, the priest said to the man, “You must be very close to God.” The peasant looked up from his prayers, thought for a moment, and then smiled, “Yes, he’s very fond of me.” That is not arrogance; that is our birthright as human beings.

Whatever hardship or tragedy we experience, God’s attitude of love toward us is constant. 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 challenge, danger, and excitement. Our security, however, rests in God’s unconditional love, which enables us to find our way back home.

(The preceding reflections were from my book, Shimmers of Light, Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season; click on book to the right to learn more or order)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

God's Unconditional Acceptance Does Not Mean Unconditional Approval

Unconditional love means unconditional acceptance, but it does not mean unconditional approval. God loves us regardless, but God doesn’t approve of all we do. God doesn’t approve when are complicit in injustice. God doesn’t approve when we act in selfish ways that hurt others. God doesn’t approve of our expressions of pride and egotism. Such attitudes and actions contradict God’s love. 

But God continues to love us, even though God may be saddened or angry by what we do. God never writes us off. God is patient and waits like a loving parent for the return of a lost child. 

God’s judgment, however, is not incompatible with God’s love. We have no idea what this consists of really. It may be, mostly, God allowing us to reap the consequences of our actions. Or, maybe it will be more direct, more engaging. We have all heard the expression “tough love.” The expression implies that love can be painful, difficult, and hard to bear at times. Loving parents may have to enforce some rather strict measures of discipline. The wife of an alcoholic husband may have to get a restraining order or even press charges, in order to protect their children or get her husband the help he needs. 

God’s judgment is always a form of love. It is nothing like the sentence or penalty of condemnation that may come from a non-feeling jury or judge. God is always partial toward our ultimate well-being. Judgment is never retributive or strictly punitive. It is always corrective, redemptive, and restorative. The ultimate intent of God’s judgment is to heal, redeem, reconcile, and transform. That may or may not be possible for all people, but it is God’s intent. 

If judgment were anything else it would nullify the gospel of grace. One afternoon when Jordan, my son, was a toddler, he was with me as I picked up a few household items at K-Mart. I told him he could pick out something for himself within our tight budget. (In those days it was very tight.) Well, he wanted some kind of action figure that was more expensive than what we could afford. As I tried to explain this, that he would need to scale back, he threw a little fit in the store. 

I looked him squarely in the eyes and informed him that if he didn’t settle down, he wouldn’t be getting anything. He didn’t settle down. So, I took it all off the table. Then he wanted to compromise. He picked something else out when he knew I was serious. I told him it was too late. As we made our way through the store, he was so sad and mad he couldn’t see straight. 

Well, I began to have a change of heart. I thought this could be a teachable moment. So I went back, with Jordan unaware, and slipped into the cart the second item that he had picked out. When we returned to the car and after I put him in his car seat, I pulled out the toy and surprised him with it. I said, “Son, this is called grace. You don’t deserve it, but in my love for you, I decided to get it for you anyway.” I don’t think he was old enough to understand the Christian concept of grace, but he sure was delighted to get the toy. And his delight was my delight. The hug he gave me to seal the whole experience made my heart melt. It demonstrates, I think, the healing, transformative power of grace. 

If God’s judgment is an expression of God’s grace, then there is nothing to fear. Whatever God’s judgment may involve, no matter how painful it may be at the time, it is for our ultimate good.