God with Us

God with Us

I haven’t always been a Christian.  I know what it is like to feel alone and feel like there is no God, as if I were in a deep, dark pit with no way out and no one there to hear.   I resonate with David in Psalm 40 when he said that God “lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”

I have had many people have often asked me the question: “where is God?” in reference to their own slimy pit experience.  What I have learned since in my own dark night of the soul is that God was there all the time.  So, in response to that question of where God is, I can say with both confidence and compassion that he is right here, weeping with you; he is right here, walking alongside you; he is right here, sitting beside you; right here with you if you will have the eyes of faith to see.  I know God is here because it is Christmas; God came down and moved into the neighborhood with us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us (John 1:14).

It was not just Mary that was pregnant with Jesus, but history itself was pregnant because the time had fully come for the kingdom of God to break into this world through a child who would save the people from sin, through an infant, Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:1:21).

What I believe we need to know more than anything is that God is with us!  God is so great that he is not somehow trapped in heaven; he can come down; he wants to come down; he did come down, literally becoming one of us – he is Emmanuel, God with us.

God did not come to this earth with a big advertising campaign letting us know of the grand opening, or with a huge and expensive party to draw attention.  Neither did God come through a rich and powerful family.  Instead, so that he would fully relate to us, to genuinely be with us, he came in through a lowly stable.  There are many theologians and scholars who articulate this truth for all kinds of curious intellects of how this could take place, that God became man.  Yet, sometimes it simply takes a personal story, a testimony so to speak, to bring clarity.  Bono is the lead singer for the pop/rock band U2.  He tells of a time when he returned to his native Dublin, Ireland for Christmas and, on a whim, decided to sit in a church service.  At some point in the worship, he came upon the great realization, with tears streaming down his face, of what it is all about; he says,

“The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough.  That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty, in manure and straw, a child, I just thought, ‘wow!’  I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this…. Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered…. Love has to become an action or something concrete.  It would have to happen.  There must be an incarnation.  Love must be made flesh and dwell among us.”

God has descended to our messy, mixed up, broken world, standing with us in our suffering and shame, plunging head long into our pain and hurt and loneliness.  Biblical scholar, Paul Louis Metzger, has wisely pointed out that a God who is simply nice and decent would take pity and send some help, maybe an angel or a prophet – at least some sage advice for us.  And, we would respect that, maybe even be satisfied with it.  But the good news is that God went far beyond nice and decent.  On this very day God became a naked baby.  He was a fetus, then an unwanted pregnancy, then a slimy, screaming baby – he grew up and ended up a criminal, stripped naked, tortured by those who knew not who he was, and condemned to die.  There is nothing nice and decent about that!  It was done for us.

Perhaps you are not feeling close to God this holiday season, but rather far from God.  Perhaps this holiday season brings you more sorrow than joy.  Perhaps the weight of a situation that seems beyond your control has caused you immeasurable worry and concern.  Maybe you are wondering where he is.  I will tell you:  he is right here.  And he is waiting for you to respond to his coming, his Advent, his incarnation.  Throughout the New Testament Gospels Jesus is presented as God with us.  He was with the disciples when the storm struck and threatened their lives, and he rebuked the wind and the waves and saved them; Jesus was with his people as they were rejected by others for preaching that the kingdom of God had broken into this world through the Emmanuel.  Jesus is not an idea, not a myth, not a historical figure to be debated, not a nice guy with some pithy wisdom; he is Emmanuel, God with us!  And he is with us to the point that whatever happens to us, happens to him.

Since he is here, since Jesus is Emmanuel, now is the time to recognize him for who he is.  God with us means that God is here!  Since he is present with us, we can and must respond to his presence by admitting that we have made a mess of things through living by the illusion that we are in control of our lives and living as if he weren’t here at all.  But God is here, and he is looking for us all to center our lives on the person of Jesus, and to give up going our own way and instead pursue knowing God in Christ.

Maybe you are a person who has gone to church all your life, and like me years ago, are familiar with the baby Jesus and Advent wreaths and Christmas carols and worship services.  Yet, you have not come to the point in your life where you seriously and deliberately responded to the presence of God in Jesus and devoted your life to him so that everything centers on him and not you.  One of the realities of Christmas is that God is calling us all to feel the impact of the baby Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, and to let that joy fill our souls to overflowing.  The Christmas story is a story of invitation.  We are invited into the story of Jesus.  Come and see the angels singing glory to God; come and see the shepherds praising God for what they have seen and heard; come and see Mary and Joseph rejoicing in the birth of Jesus; come and bend down and see the smelly, lowly manger, and you will see God with us.   You are invited into a new life.

The Suffering of Christmas

candles

Christmas:  a time for joy and a time for cheer…  But, unfortunately, it is also a time of profound loneliness and a yearning of days gone by for many people.  A few years back, I received a call on Christmas Day.  One of my parishioners was stretching out to put the angel on top of the family Christmas tree, and fell over dead from a heart attack.  The family’s Christmas will never be the same again, a weird mix, a strange amalgam of both happiness and heartache.  Tragedy that occurs around the holidays makes all future holidays awkward and different.

I have also known folks who were expecting a juicy Christmas bonus, finding instead a pink slip and a surprise lay-off from their job.  Children of divorce probably know the strangeness of the holiday the most, being shuttled here and there obtaining more gifts than they need but more bitterness than they want.  For every one of us who look forward to Christmas Day, there is another who dreads facing another season with unpleasant memories of what happened and what could have been….

Whether Christmas is chiefly joyous for one or sorrowful for another, the bald fact of the matter is that we all suffer in some way.  Let me offer a definition/description of suffering for you to ponder:

Suffering occurs when someone or some circumstance acts against your will and damages either your body, mind, soul, spirit, or all/part of them, creating the great need for healing.

Suffering creates a portal, an opening to either love or hate.  It brings us to the point of decision:  We did not choose suffering; it chose us.  But the choice for healing is very much in our control.  Suffering is an event, maybe even extended over time, which will make us either bitter, or better – it’s your choice.

There are numerous people who will offer you a cup of bitterness, the sour wine vinegar which will dull the pain.  Jesus had such an offer while he hung on the cross, and he refused it.  Nothing was going to stand in the way of his full faculties experiencing the vicarious suffering for our sins.  Dulling the pain doesn’t bring healing; it only makes us forget for a time and just prolongs actual healing.

Instead, the wise choice is to take charge of your life and choose the hard path of healing.  There is a world of difference between the pain that is forced upon us, and the pain which we choose so that we become better and healthy.  The pain of violation must be followed with the pain of healing.

A major way you know your choice of healing is happening is when your heart and life open-up to love, when the shape of grace begins to mold your soul and brings a reception to people who benevolently wait to help with kind words and ways.  Your sight becomes different.  The world becomes brighter.  Decisions are motivated more by love than by protection.  There is the willingness to persevere and patiently complete the process of healing and see it through to a new maturity.  You cease trying to manipulate others and focus more on your own responses to people and situations.  Every day becomes a fresh opportunity to love God by serving others.

Because God is love, and we are created in the image of God, this means we were designed to receive and to give love.  We are love, as well.  To not love is to buck our inherent design from the beginning of time.  We are not just to grit our teeth and force-out loving words and actions; we are to tap into the originality of our souls and be love.  The great task of the Christian life is to awaken to who we really are, to become a whole person, complete and mature.  The only means for this to happen is through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, our great professor in the faith, knows that suffering is a teacher.

Far too many persons are perplexed as to why they still struggle and hurt.  They have prayed.  They have read the Bible.  They have tried, time and time again.  Hurt and pain might and is very personal; but healing is communal – it demands more than our own efforts.  Unless we open ourselves to the love of others, and risk putting our souls on the line, we will not realize the peace we long for and the mending of our spirits.

The first step is speaking to someone who is safe, someone for whom you trust, and telling them where you are in your soul – not making yourself look better than you are, and providing a real picture of the state of your life – and, not diminishing the very real abuse which occurred against you by saying others have it harder than you.  In other words, be real.  Humility and honesty will always serve you well.

Yes, it’s Christmas.  How will you choose to deal with it?

Is There Hope?

manger

Every single hope and longing of your heart is to be found with a baby born two-thousand years ago.  The birth of Jesus Christ is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum on which the entire history of humanity hinges for its purpose and fulfillment.  Come and take-a-peek inside of a smelly room with stinky sheep and the distinct aroma of fresh hay – a dimly lit room which could be the place of any ordinary ancient family – and gaze upon the infant born.  The Christ child entered this world, this banal common space, just for you – to bring to fulfillment all your hopes and dreams.  The hope of the nations, the anticipation of peace on earth is just beginning….

Now your past, with of all its lack of direction, poor decisions, and missed opportunities can fade away.  “Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit… name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

Now your present circumstances, whether good or ill, have meaning and are not random events with no purpose.  “And the star they [the wise men] had seen in the east went on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  They were thrilled and excited to see the star.  When the wise men went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they knelt down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:9-11).

Now your future, which was so uncertain and filled with worry and anxiety, has direction and a trajectory in which to shape your entire life.  “With my own eyes I have seen what you have done to save your people, and foreign nations will also see this.  Your mighty power is a light for all nations, and it will bring honor to your people” (Luke 2:30-32).  “The Word became a human being and lived here with us.  We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.  From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us” (John 1:14).

I was once in the mass of people who were familiar with Jesus, knew the supposed facts of his birth, and gave no real credence to it.  After all, that was then, and this is now.  What has an ancient birth have to do with me today?  But I found within Jesus all that he claimed to be, and discovered that his words and ways were more than worth following.  What is more, I realized that forgiveness is real, grace is enough, faith is as epistemically sound as my five senses, and that the world really does revolve on the axis of love.  That is, if Jesus is at the center of it all.

This season, this most blessed time of year, is truly a call to all humanity.  It is a summons to awaken to God, to discern that he is there wooing you to himself through his Son, the Lord Jesus.  It is an invitation to forsake the old life and familiar path, to strike out and find your heart’s truest hope.  It is the chance to make a difference as a new person.  Your past does not need to define you forever.  Your present is awaiting your next move.  And your future can be bright.  Catholic nun, Sister Joan Chittester, has wisely said:

“The challenge of hopelessness is the challenge to re-enter the human race, to take our part in it knowing that it has as much our responsibility to shape life as it is for life to shape us.  It requires us to understand that misfortune is not failure.  It is at most simply a digression through life intended to make us reassess our course, our goals, our aspirations.”

            That reassessment is the opportunity to hope again with the real hope of Christmas and the Christ child.  It is not a call to a job, or necessarily to do something.  Rather, it is an appeal to becoming fully human and alive to the image of God within, awakened by coming to the manger.

Take some time and withdraw to a quiet place, either sitting down in your favorite chair or walk along a secluded path.  Use your imagination in coming to Jesus and see, smell, taste, touch, and hear the birth of the Savior.  What is the sixth sense of faith telling you as you ponder the scene?  How is Christ filling your heart?   Where are the places of your life Jesus is coming and enlarging?  Is there hope as you find an alternative way of sensing God in your life?

Galatians 4:8-20

           I wonder if any one of us could say, with the same confidence as Paul, this statement:  “I beg you to be like me.”  Paul was a committed follower of Jesus – so much so that he ached and longed for others to embrace a life of grace, just as he had.  “My children, I am in terrible pain until Christ may be seen living in you.”  Paul was referring to the same pain as childbirth.  In other words, he was laboring and working hard to give spiritual birth to those that would become like Jesus.
 
            If you are a person who has experienced a transformed life in Jesus, as if you have been born again by grace through the Spirit, then you likely feel and resonate with the travail of Paul.  Knowing the elixir of grace, you want everyone to drink it in and be inebriated with its effects.  You want it so bad that it hurts.  You desire it to the point of exclaiming, “I beg you to be like me!”
 
            You may be spending the upcoming Christmas with some family or friends that are strangers to grace.  Either they are stuck in the clutches of the law and are complete stick-in-the-muds because of it, or they simply do not know what they are missing.  Either way, let’s together offer our passionate prayers to God for the grace of Jesus to overwhelm us all.  Like old Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps grace will change everything.
 

 

            Gracious God, may you weave your way into the lives of those who need you the most, so that mercy will be more than a theological idea.  Work in me in such a way that I can stand with Paul and encourage others to be like me.  Amen.