Wednesday, December 25, 2013

God with us

Without getting into the debate over the choice of December 25th as the designated birthday of Jesus, or the annual arguments of how Santa and flying reindeer enter the picture, or why we decorate dead trees inside our homes, or whether or not the wise men should be included in your Nativity crèche; today is the day we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus: the savior of the world, the Messiah, Immanuel - “God with us!”

For thousands of years prior to His incarnation, God reached out to human beings in love and tried to develop a relationship with us. God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, as an angel He spoke to Abram and Sarai and sent them on a road trip, as fire He directed Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead the Israelites on the protracted scenic route through the Sinai Peninsula, as the Holy Spirit She spoke through prophets from Huldah to Micah, and so on.

The fact that very few of these attempts resulted in human enlightenment says more about us than it does about God. We humans are notoriously stubborn and myopic. We seem to want our enlightenment handed to us. Now. On a silver platter.  And yes, we want fries with that. It didn’t occur to ANY of the people God so patiently worked with, that the journey – the very reality and experiences of their lives - was the most important way to develop a relationship with God.

God refers to Godself as “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14. God uses the present tense, always, because God IS. Jesus did the same, when He said, “I’m telling you, before Abraham was even born, I am.” (John 8:58) and "The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near." (Mark 1:15)  Paul continued in this vein at Athens when he said, "God did this so people would seek Him and perhaps reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and exist!" (Acts 17:27-28) God is intricately entwined in everything. God is the ultimate reality. And that is what God had been trying to teach us from the beginning of time. We just didn’t get it.

We needed a concrete, flesh-and-blood example to follow. We needed to see, feel, hear, taste and touch God, because we are just a bit slow on the uptake.

So to clarify things for us, God came to earth dressed as a baby called Jesus.

And in His incarnation, Jesus proved to Mary – and the rest of humanity - that God is embedded in the messy, excruciating, miracle of birth. He showed us that God is visible in the child’s awestruck wonder at seeing clouds floating in the sky for the first time, as well as the terrifying panic of losing sight of that child in the crowd of Jerusalem or Target. 

God was in the sound of the Samaritan woman’s realization that she was really looking for God, not another boyfriend, when she spoke with Jesus by the well.  God was in the scent of the immense net full of fish that convinced Peter that Jesus might be onto something.  God was in the devastation, hopeless despair and skinned knee that Mary felt as she fell at the foot of the cross. God was the breath in Mary Magdalene's gasp when she realized Jesus was not the gardener, and her laugh of indescribable elation as she ran off to find the other disciples and tell them Jesus was alive.  And God lives in the words “I am with you always.”

God is in all the little details of our lives – giving a glass of water to the guy who mows the lawn, cuddling up next to our spouse, riding the subway to work and smiling with that homeless guy, driving the soccer carpool and listening to “What Does the Fox Say” 50 times because it makes the kids laugh hysterically, feeling that tingly warmth spread through your body as you pray, shoveling snow from both your own and your neighbor’s driveway, hearing the diagnosis and bravely holding Dad’s hand, planning a wedding and a baby shower at the same time for the same girl, and sobbing on the shoulder of a friend because the cat was hit by a car. God is in every single detail of living this life. We must experience this life in order to see how God is involved, because we learn by experience. God is with us.

That was just one of the myriad of things Jesus revealed to us by being born in a dusty manger, in a tiny town called Bethlehem, in a unimportant Roman outpost, on a small blue planet, oh so many years ago. He is God with us.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Love On Display

(Originally posted on That Reformed Blog

Advent: n. An arrival, or coming into being; the coming or arrival of something extremely important. (with capital A, in Christianity) the coming of Christ; in the church calendar Advent is the four week period prior to Christmas. [From Latin adventus, meaning arrival.]

The 2003 British Christmas film, Love Actually, takes place during Advent. The first scene of the movie features a voiceover from Hugh Grant’s character saying, “Whenever I get a bit gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals terminal at Heathrow.” He explains that the arrivals terminal is where love is unselfconsciously on display.

For American Christians in the 21st century, Advent has become one of two things. It is either:
·        Irrelevant and forgotten, as in: “Advent? Never heard of it”; or
·        Relegated to a “season” of frantic, mind-numbing, holiday busy-ness (preparing, decorating, shopping, partying, wrapping, shipping, baking, and overeating) that drives our stress levels into the stratosphere.

Many people think of Advent as a time of waiting and preparation, similar to the waiting and preparation that happens before a baby is born. In some respects this is true, as that singular event which occurred more than two thousand years ago is re-enacted by Sunday School children in Christmas Pageants across the globe. Christians need to remember and relive the journey of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. It grounds us and reminds us that God did, in fact, come to earth as an infant and that His birth was announced by both the lowly shepherds and the glorious angels alike.
pageant sheep

Remembering Jesus’ humble arrival in the midst of the chaotic Roman Empire comforts us and lends our lives meaning in the cold, impersonal, technological world we live in (which is not unlike the Palestine of Jesus’ day). It was the ultimate juxtaposition of Godly and worldly power.
But we need to remember that Advent means Arrival, not waiting or remembering. Advent is like the Arrivals Terminal at Heathrow.

Advent is “Love unselfconsciously on display” for everyone to see. God showed His unconditional love for humanity by arriving on earth in the form of an infant in a cow shed. God didn’t care what anyone else thought about it – Jesus’ arrival was God’s love on display. And when we live in God’s love for us in Jesus, we are free to display our love for God and others unselfconsciously.

May you have a blessed Advent.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Holiday Traditions

Winter is upon us, and the Holiday Season is in full swing! Between the shopping and the parties and the joyful chaos of families gathering together, take a moment for yourself.

Find a quiet spot, and relax. Take a deep breath, and try to remember the personal meaning behind the various holiday traditions that you practice. Think about why you light a candle each evening; or recall the story behind a certain
recipe you pull out only in December. Maybe there is a reason that particular ornament is placed at the top of your Christmas tree; or perhaps you recall your grandfather who told funny stories whenever you hear a certain holiday song.

Think back to where you were when you first heard the story of Jesus' birth - do you still hear it being read by Linus in "A Charlie Brown Christmas?" Does your great-grandmother's menorah - the one that was carefully hidden in her steamer trunk - still gracefully display the candles each year in your home? Are there elves on your shelves? 

Next, look for the larger meaning in the celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or New Year's Eve. Many of the traditions we practice connect us not only with our immediate families and generations past, but also with the world! Think about how many millions of people around the globe are doing the exact same thing you are, because you share a faith and a practice!

Recalling the origins and the intentions of our holiday traditions can be very powerful. Allow yourself some time to ponder these traditions, and perhaps journal about a special memory or insight.

"Holidays" is a shorted form of "Holy Days" and no matter which cultural or religious traditions you hold to, in the waning days of December we all pause to take notice of the Holy in our lives.

Our wish for you this season is that your days be filled with holy moments!