Rewriting the Tape

We are caught between two stories. One tells us what we are supposed to be. The other tells us what we are. One tells us what is possible if we try. The other tells us what is possible in spite of our failures. One tells us what Christmas can be. The other tells us what Christmas is. Which story will you be a part of?

Theologian Karl Barth was once asked by a student to articulate the most important of all Christian doctrines. He answered in six words: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Despite so many things we think we might need, especially during the holidays, the most pressing need of the human experience is to understand the meaning of these six words. Why?

Each of us has a sort of “tape recorder” that plays in our minds (okay younger readers, a DVR). It repeats basic messages, usually about who we are. And they’re usually discouraging. It says things like “You’re not good enough.” “You’re too (insert any physical feature here like thin, fat, hairy, etc.)” “You’re just average.” “You’ll never find someone who loves you.” And so on.

The gospel (“good news”) of Jesus also repeats a message about who we are. It’s a simple, down-to-earth message. Its simplicity might actually be why so many people miss it. But it has been on repeat since the first Christmas, but each new generation has to discover its meaning. The message is: In Jesus, you are a child of God.

Understanding our identity as children of God has nothing to do with our efforts or achievements. It has nothing to do with anything that might bolster our self-esteem. Jesus did not come to give us better self-esteem; Jesus came to share with us “God-esteem.” In Pastor Aaron’s words: “Jesus came to empower us with all the rights, blessings, and responsibilities of what it means to be God’s children and to transform us from fear-based life to a confident, love-filled life. This is our new identity.” Never forget the sequence of events. First, God so loved the world. Then God gave his Son.

Rather than reflection questions today, I’d like to offer the four one-line prayers we prayed today, and invite you to pray these prayers throughout the Christmas season:
– Lord, rewind the tape in my mind and rewrite the message I hear.
– Lord, renew my mind that I may believe in your esteem for me.
– Lord, soften my heart that I may feel your embrace and acceptance.
– Lord, ready my hands that they may respond with love to others.

Merry Christmas,
MM

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A Baby Changes Everything

Emmanuel — God with us.

In Jesus Christ, God chose to dwell with us in the most ordinary way. What does this mean? At the very least, it means you do not have to earn God’s attention. God is seeking and pursuing you.

God’s pursuit of humanity came in the form of a baby, and as the song says, “A Baby Changes Everything.” Anyone who has ever had a baby knows that is true in so many ways. But in the case of this baby, the Christ-child, everything that matters most to us and to the world is changed.

Or…it isn’t. But it can’t be both. The fact is that we get to make our own decision about whether or not Jesus changed everything. If God did not choose to become flesh, if the baby Jesus doesn’t change everything, then the world and the universe in which it resides is a cold and empty place. The task defining life’s meaning falls to us. The burden of judging and forgiving sin falls to us. The burden of saving the world falls to us. Are we up to the task?

But if God does dwell with us, first in the Christ-child, then by the Holy Spirit, the everything that matters most is changed. It’s changed forever. It’s changed for good, and for the good, and for everyone.

For reflection:
1) Did the baby Jesus change “everything?” What part of “everything” do you see that Jesus changed, and what part of “everything” do you feel has remained the same as always?
2) Does it change how you might relate to God to realize that God is first pursuing you, rather than the other way around?

A blessed Christmas,
MM

Down to Earth: Flesh Comes Down

I’ve noticed a disconnect in our midst.  Pretty much everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to bemoans the divisiveness in our culture these days.  No one seems to be celebrating it.  But on the other hand, most people seem to also agree that the divisions are increasing, not decreasing.  So, why the disconnect? 

One possible reason is because of all of the talking.  Beyond interpersonal dialogue, the internet has become a free-for-all of anyone’s ideas about anything.  So much talk that can lead us to create our identities around ideas, rather than actual issues.  And these “identity-based ideologies” are “by the far the more potent predictor of social distance.”*

In his brief letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing  to a church struggling with divisiveness, and he offers one of the most theologically and poetically rich passages about Jesus in all of scripture, and maybe in all Christian literature.  In only 3 verses, Paul describes the lengths to which God went to surpass mere talk of love and instead show his love to us in the flesh.

In Jesus, God is present in the flesh. 
Jesus’ birth in the manger is much more than just the arrival of a great prophet or teacher.  And Paul describes God’s presence in Jesus in two distinct ways.

1) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as God.  
Jesus “very nature” is God, and he shares “equality” with God.  Paul begins this way because if we miss Jesus’ divinity, we miss the miracle of Jesus’ birth in the flesh.  It is precisely because Jesus’ very nature is divine that his birth fulfills the promise of Isaiah, that God would dwell with us.  Jesus’ birth as God among us fulfills the deepest human longing to be near the Creator.

2) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as human.
God’s choice to be human does not empty him of his divinity.  The phrase in the NIV “made himself nothing” can be misleading.  The Greek verb kenoō denotes an emptying but is used figuratively to connote a neutralization of effect, or an emptying of significance.  So Jesus did not relinquish his equality with God, but rather chose to lay his divine power aside in his life in the flesh.  N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience — this decision was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine,” which is to offer self-sacrificial love.**

Jesus’ human life reveals what it means to be divine, and also what it means to be human.  It is to be God’s image-bearers, capable of loving our communities as God loves — in the flesh.  

Faith in Action: 
1) What is one practical step you could take this Christmas season to embody God’s loving kindness in person?  Who needs to hear in your voice or see in your face God’s down-to-earth love?
2) Maybe even more challenging — from whom are you longing to experience that in-person kindness?  Is there someone who should know that you need to reconnect, even reconcile with them? 

Many blessings this Advent,
MM   

*”Why Has America Become So Divided?” Psychology Today, 9/5/18.
**N.T. Wright, NT for Everyone, Philippians 2:6-8.

Down to Earth: Love Comes Down

The season known as “Advent” is a time of “spiritual pregnancy,” as we wait for the arrival of our long-anticipated savior.  At the same time, we are Christmas people, and the baby of the manger is already alive and amongst us by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit.  So the season of Advent is a time of waiting, a time of remembering, and a time of celebrating.

We live in a culture of deep divisions.  Social ideologies compete with each other for a place at the table, partisan politics (which so many people seem to dislike) still makes top headline (which so many people seem to watch).  When the apostle (which means “one who is sent”) Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he was unable to visit them in person because he was stuck in prison.  But his concern over some divisive issues went ahead of him in the form of his letter, the inspired wisdom of which we still benefit from today. 

In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul begins with an indirect question: “Has your faith in Jesus made any difference?”  Because if it has, that difference should be noticeable in people’s lives.  In particular, in the way Jesus’ people treat each other.  Advent and Christmas introduce an entirely new way of living that imitates the character of the one born in the manger, the one called the Prince of Peace.

But even many of Jesus’ followers today are trading in the peacemaking narrative of Christmas for an unfulfillable promise of material comfort that places us on the busy hamster wheel — all our efforts amounting to so little by the time January rolls around.  What did you get for Christmas last year, after all?

So let’s be counter-cultural and consider a couple of things on this first week of Advent.
1) We do not always have to agree because there is a love we can agree on.
– Speaking of hamster wheels, if we think agreement on “issues” is the path to peace, we’ll be spinning that wheel until our last days.  That kind of agreement has never been a prerequisite for peace.  But the new way of living that Christmas calls us to is an agreement that the one love of God in which we share transcends and unites us all, in all.
2) We do not have to win in order to win.     
– Putting others’ interests before our own is truly counter-intuitive.  But consider the freedom within it.  And consider the harm we do in the name of “winning.”  The incarnation of God in the humble feed-trough is a revolutionary reminder that winning based on God’s criteria looks very different than winning based on the world’s.

For reflection: 
1) Think of someone with whom you have a fundamental disagreement.  What would have to happen for you and that person to find agreement in God’s love, so that you’re not divided by your disagreement?  Make a move to make it happen this week.
2) What would it take for you to “come in second place”?  In your next argument?  In the parking lot at the mall?  In the dangerous game of “who gave the best gift?” 
3) What kind of reward might you get from being “second place”? 

Many blessings this Advent season,
MM