Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ready or Not

Today's post is inspired by my "friend" Katie, who moved to Uganda in her teens and has since adopted 13 girls. Her day-to-day life is very different from mine, but so often her posts speak to me exactly where I am, a world away. She wrote about not feeling "ready" for Christmas with 13 children and about a hundred other mouths to feed, but that this reminds her of the God who came into our world in real time-- as a baby in a dirty manger, when Bethlehem was just not ready to host him-- and how that's just the point. Can anyone ever be "ready" for God to show up? God comes to us as we are, where we are, ready or not: 

His perfect timing, now. Now is where He has called us. And we are just not ready yet. We need to clean up the house a bit and pray a little more and seek more counsel and we don’t know how to do that yet and oh, we have our excuses. And God says, “I’m here now, and I am ok with the mess because I am here for the messy.”

This year, I've been feeling lots of "not ready." Not ready to graduate; not ready to leave my new home; not ready to face whatever is next; not ready to say goodbye to my grandmother; not ready to care for a parent with cancer; not ready to actually take on the responsibility of shepherding a congregation and helping them to grow toward Christ. And yet, God has moved me toward and through each of these things, ready or not: 

This new season looms and I don’t know what is next. But He doesn’t need me to be ready for this season because He is ready. He just needs me to be clinging to His feet.

What kind of "not ready" are you? Maybe you are interested in this God-who-came-near, this Jesus; maybe you want to come near Him too, but you just don't feel ready yet. Maybe you're waiting until you kick that bad habit or get your worst sins behind you; maybe once you get "the fun" out of your system or when more of His words make sense to you; maybe you're waiting until He explains Himself for the pain you subconsciously hold Him responsible for; or maybe you're waiting until you feel worthy to even approach Him with those questions and feelings. 

Wherever you are, I hope this helps: I've been following this Jesus for the last twenty years, and I still don't feel ready. I still have unanswered questions, unexplained pain, and un-kicked bad habits. I still have plenty of reasons to not feel worthy to approach Him at all, much less call Him my own. And yet, that's the whole point. The God-who-came-near is the God who emptied Himself of all, in order to meet us where we are in real time: 

He makes Himself very least, no more status or opportunity than an easily overlooked infant in the slums where I spend so many hard hours. Very least so that He can commune with the very most desperate – you and me. He doesn’t mind that I am not ready yet and He doesn’t mind the wretched condition of my heart or the stench of my sin. God’s time is now and He enters into the mess, ready or not.

Read Katie's whole post here

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How Harry Potter Helps Me Understand the Bible

One of the funny phrases that gets used at my school a lot is "eschatological reversal." (Now that I almost have a Master's degree, I know how to spell that.) It's basically a fancy way of talking about what happens when Jesus steps on the scene of our world-- about what He started in His first coming, and what He will fulfill and finish when He returns. 

Now a lot of times the story gets told as if Jesus came to "die for our sins" and that's it. And, it's true that He did die to pay the penalty we owed-- "the wages of sin is death"-- and He did it on purpose; giving Himself as a sacrifice to save sinners was central to His mission. But that glorious gift is located within the larger context of His plan to establish His Kingdom-- His rule-- on earth. So in that sense, His death and resurrection was not just a payment for sinners, but a battle against the dark powers that had taken over the whole place. Jesus won (He rose again! He beat death itself!), announced His victory, and declared Himself King. 

So in one sense, being a Christian is saying you want to live on an earth in which Jesus is King. It's saying you want to be His subject, and choosing to live as though He is King now-- (because that's what His resurrection inaugurated; He defeated the foreign enemy!) Being a Christian means living expectantly for His return, when all doubts will be removed. Now if you're a good democratic American, maybe you want to know what Jesus is like as King before you sign up to "seek first His Kingdom." That's where eschatological reversal comes in-- it's an aspect of His Kingship. There's talk of what it means all throughout the gospels: "He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;" "every valley and hill will be made low;" "the last shall be first and the first shall be last." 

When I was a kid, I heard that stuff and thought, "how unfair!" But here's what I didn't know as a kid: biblical language about the rich and the poor, "the mighty and the humble," the first and last, etc. has to do with injustice and oppression. As privileged Americans, we aren't overly familiar with these realities on a broad scale, so it's hard for us to even think in these categories. But essentially Jesus' Kingship means that those who've been oppressed by corrupt people in power will be freed. Those who have been exploited and mistreated will be lifted up and protected. And those who've deceitfully, wrongly, or manipulatively abused others to get to their positions of power will no longer be able to get away with it. Jesus' coming "judgment" is a good thing, because it means justice. Whether you're democratic or monarchic now, one thing is for sure: Jesus' fair and righteous government is what you long to see.

So, why am I writing about all this? Well, the truth is, it's because last night we watched Harry Potter. And at the end of the movie, Slytherin is in first place for the House Cup and Gryffindor in last place. But everyone knows Slytherin shouldn't win; they're cruel, they take advantage of people, and they cheat. Everyone knows that it's Gryffindors who actually helped save the school and deserve to be honored. And at the last minute, Dumbledore brings justice. He acknowledges the sacrifice of four main Gryffindors, giving them enough points to put them in the lead. Gryffindor wins! Now part of me wanted to roll my eyes and subdue my longing for this kind of justice with, "how cheesy. This ending is too good to be true." But the other part of me wanted to cheer and cry and wish this kind of thing happened in real life.  

That's when I realized, it will. From our jaded perspective-- rightly developed after a lifetime in a corrupt, sin-filled world-- Jesus' Kingship means an ending that is too good to be true. But because of His defeat of the very evil that causes corruption, He's recreating the world to be more like Hogwarts than Sudan, or Syria, or even America. When He returns to sit on His throne, the last shall be first. And we all will cheer. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thank You, Mr. Grinch

My last post was about loneliness during the holidays. Maybe you can relate. Over Thanksgiving, we watched one of my favorite movies-- The Grinch (with Jim Carrey)-- which chronicles the life of someone who would fit this category. He's a bit different (being green and eating glass aren't exactly "normal" in Whoville, for example); he never really fit in, and was treated particularly cruelly during a Christmas party when he was a child. So he ran away, lives alone away from town and experiences intense anger each year at Christmastime (hilariously, I'll add. There's no one quite like Jim Carrey). 

But this film version of the Grinch is so interesting because it really emphasizes this grumpy guy's insight. He resents Christmas, sure, but for good reason. The people who are all about "Christmas spirit" down in Whoville are the same ones who used Christmas as an opportunity to shame and disgrace him as a child. In other words, the Grinch doesn't "buy" Who-Christmas because he sees through it. 

This month our church is celebrating the season of Advent, a Christian tradition that encourages those who know Christ as "the Light of the World" to anticipate His coming; to not jump in to Christmas celebration without first recalling our great need for it-- to remember that it's the darkness of His absence that sets the context for the light of His arrival. In other words, this tradition asks us to go against the grain of "Christmas" culture in a lot of ways. This past Sunday, my pastor talked about holiday commercialism and the "false self" it encourages us to put on: happy, fulfilled, rolling in cash, ________ (fill in the blank.) For the most part, we Americans tend to buy into it and work really hard to believe, "That's us." 

This "Christmas culture" encourages us to think that if we follow the holiday liturgy-- if we act happy, polish our homes, cook enough cute appetizers, drink enough eggnog, or buy enough stuff-- we'll really feel as if we've arrived at the "Happily Ever After" that's being paraded in every store-front and in every movie; we tell ourselves that if we pretend long enough that it's our reality, maybe we'll start to really believe it. Think "The King's New Clothes," Christmas style. But then we get together with family and realize our relationships are still dysfunctional; or open our new toys and discover they bring us less fulfillment than we hoped; or pull our appetizers out of the oven and wince because they didn't come out quite as cute as we expected; and we realize it may not have been worth going into debt for all of it after all. In short, something inside reminds us that things haven't actually turned out "happily ever after." 

So what do we do? We comfort ourselves that going along with it all at least dulls our senses enough to ease the pain. Better to be busy shopping-- or drinking a bit too much eggnog-- than to feel lonely, right? And at least we'll have some new stuff to enjoy temporarily, until the buzz wears off. By then, they'll put away the Christmas cups at Starbucks and we can forget about the whole thing-- about the fact that we haven't arrived, and that we really are more broken than some eggnog or a new designer sweater can fix. 

I think that's what made the Grinch so mad. He knew the pain, the dysfunction, the emptiness behind the whole charade; he knew that all the noise was just a distraction from reality. He saw Christmas culture as an exercise in dishonesty and wasn't interested. He decided he'd rather be grumpy and honest than "in the Christmas spirit" and a hypocrite. 

What does any of this have to do with Advent? Well, my pastor pointed out that Advent is about honesty-- about preparing for Christmas in a way that acknowledges the reality that things are broken-- that we haven't arrived at "happily ever after," and that we are actually in need of what Christmas brings. We start every Sunday worship this month reciting the 10 Commandments, to serve as a reminder that we've missed the mark. Remembering that we haven't "loved our neighbors as ourselves" places us in a position of humility and helps us to realize how we've wronged those who are different from us. 

But my pastor also said that the honesty of Advent is one that leads to hope. See, we can choose to drown out the reality of our brokenness with the noise of Holiday cheer, or we can acknowledge it and receive the God who chose to come into the midst of it for our salvation. We can pretend we're not lonely or we can accept the friendship of the One who came to meet our loneliness; we can try to fill the gnawing emptiness inside us with eggnog and appetizers or we can choose instead to run to the One we were created for.

Year after year I've bought into the Holiday "let's pretend everything is awesome" game. And year after year, I've been disappointed and disillusioned when I've realized it's not true. So thanks to Advent and the Grinch, I'm planning to turn over a new leaf this Christmas and cut the crap. I'm going to admit where I'm hurting-- and where I've hurt others-- and receive the much needed gift of hope that doesn't ask me to pretend. 

What is your experience of the holiday season like? Can you relate to a pressure to "pretend" everything's great? How might acknowledging your pain inform your celebration of Christmas this year? 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Celebrating Advent with Surgery

I have never given birth to a child. At the ripe old age of 25, I'll admit that in many ways I look forward to-- and hope to experience-- being pregnant one day. But, I also am already a bit fearful about it. Aside from the fact that my emotions are out of control as-is and I can't imagine how pregnancy hormones would add to my particular cocktail of crazy, the thought of giving birth period terrifies me. This is in part because I'm hippie-dippie enough to want to have a child without pain medication, but also just because I'm a teensy person with teensy bones and I can't imagine a human coming out of me. 

That being said, my adult awareness of the anxiety that usually accompanies a woman's first pregnancy has given me a new appreciation for Mary as of late. One of the central characters of Advent, Luke's gospel opens with Mary receiving the scary pronouncement that she would give birth-- unwed (which, for a woman in the ancient world was a fate almost worse than death), and to a child whose special calling from God would cause all kinds of drama. In that moment, Mary was dealing with a kind of "unknown" that I can't fathom. It involved her reputation, her family life and relationships, her future as a mother, and her own body. And her response was, "Let it be unto me according to your word." 

For that reason, Mary is often described as the ultimate disciple, the ultimate Christian: she responded to the call of God with a simple, "yes." It doesn't mean all her questions were answered; it doesn't mean she didn't have fears, doubts, or shattered dreams of her own (I doubt, for example, she envisioned having her first child under such scandalous conditions, or far away from home and help). But it does mean she was receptive to what God had for her, even with all the scandal, pain, and unknowns it entailed. The result? Well, she became the mother of the King. All generations call her blessed (Luke 1:48)

Today my mother is visiting me in Dallas before she heads down for her surgery in Houston. She'll be spending almost the whole month of December in a foreign city under the knife in a pretty scary way. When I remember my own fears of just having a baby inside me-- an invited bodily experience-- I can't imagine what it would be like to prepare for this kind of operation in just a few days. As I reflect on her situation, I remember Mary's simple "yes" in the midst of fearful unknowns and shattered dreams. I see how faithfully the Lord cared for her throughout her whole painful calling of being Christ's mother, and I can encourage my own mother to trust Him, too. 

And in some ways, I can be thankful that this surgery is during Advent. It is a reminder that God doesn't always meet our expectations the way we would like, and that sometimes He asks scary things of us. It is a reminder that belonging to Him and knowing His redemptive love doesn't mean being shielded from unanswered questions, looming doubts, bodily pain, or shattered dreams. But it does mean being given the grace to say "yes" with courage no matter what. And it does mean knowing that whatever the call, we don't go it alone; because the child Mary gave birth to has a name: Immanuel. God with us. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lonely During the Holidays

Over Thanksgiving break, I read a post by my friend Julie that really impacted me. Currently single, she wrote about how the holiday season can be a time of increased loneliness for her but also for others, in various life stages. Whether you'd classify yourself as someone who feels lonely during the holidays or someone who lives in the throes of fulfilled euphoria, read her thoughts on the whole shebang from a Christian perspective: 

Holiday Fears

Holiday cheers are upon us! Starbucks Christmas cups, affections for Ralphie, and the Home Alone theme song all collide in a rather gushy way for me. But with all the carols and cheers come holiday fears for many people, some years for me as well. For many there are fears of facing family, fears of going it alone, fears of being the only one who hasn’t reached the height of human happiness in a sea of blissful carolers. I don’t know why it hits folks harder in the holidays, but many feel a surge of loneliness in the middle of all the family-filled holiday cheer. Obviously the answer isn’t for couples to stop instagramming the adorable photos where they’re sporting matching chic scarves, but there are ways we can be intentional about community and authenticity that might make the holiday season a little more bearable for those who experience the ought-to-be joyful times with guilt-ridden dread.
One place to start is with honesty that we haven’t all reached the pinnacle of human happiness. Christians often present the appearance of perfection, and this seems heightened during the holidays. There is the indescribably joy of remembering Christ’s birth, and that joy pulses through most of us to a greater degree throughout the season of Advent. But the joy that burst through with the birth of our Savior doesn’t eliminate the grief we still experience in a fractured world; it offers hope in the midst of the grief. If we’re honest about the grief, about the loneliness, about the longing, about the broken families that we wish so desperately were whole, then we’re actually putting hope on blast even more than we do when we act like there’s no need for a Savior. We don’t have to give the illusion of perfection in order to demonstrate the joy of Christ, as the former kind of removes the need for the latter. We’re not perfect. Our families aren’t perfect. That’s why the Gospel message is so beautiful. And if we’re honest about some of the ways we experience difficulties then we immediately make life more bearable for those in despair.
ImageWith that said, many of us have a lot of love to give. We can be a tremendous gift to others by inviting them into our space in this season. A lot of folks don’t have a home to return to; they don’t have a family to share “I’m thankful for _______” sentiments with around a table. I hope we, as the Body of Christ, will bring them around the table and offer them a glimpse into the imperfect-yet-flourishing hope we’re living into. Hope doesn’t come in the form of a card or a profound idea; hope comes in the form of people. It came to the earth in the person of Jesus Christ and now it flows through us as a community who embodies His Spirit. How can we offer this hope to people from a pulpit if we don’t offer the hope with ourselves? I’m floored by the number of Christians I hear from who are living like this—looking out for others like this—and I pray more will catch the vision of an outward focused existence.
If you’re one who’s experiencing the reality of loneliness or pain during this season, I hope you’ll invite some trusted people into that space with you. You’re not alone. The more you begin to share the struggles, the more you’ll hear “Oh my gosh, you TOO?” and the more you’ll believe you belong. You’ll also give those who are looking for ways to share themselves with others an opportunity to go deeper with you than they’re able to otherwise go. If you feel lonely, allow yourself to be brought in the fold in ways that lessen the loneliness—the gift goes both ways and you’ll be a blessing to them. The Church is packed with potential to be an abundant blessing to one another in every season of life. We just need to be intentional, committed to keeping it real and sharing the slowly-transforming beauty of it all with one another.
What would it look like for you to be more honest about your own "imperfection"-- loneliness, longing, brokenness-- this holiday season? What would it look like for you to reach out and share yourself with someone else (who might be feeling the same way)?