Friday, December 29, 2017

In the Image of God

Just as there is something fundamental about God's nature that is revealed in Him as Father and through the patriarchy of human beings, there is something fundamental about God's nature that is revealed in us being distinctly male and female. When we labor to conceive of women as men, or worse, as human beings indistinctly without sex, we lose what it is that God is trying to reveal of Himself through this design, which was very much intentional from the very beginning.

The feminist argument will not acknowledge this. The feminist argument says that in the beginning, God created only Adam; Eve was an afterthought. It was her nature as an afterthought that gave men the bravado to diminish women so severely throughout human history, which is what feminism is now pushing back against. The original design, they say, was for men. 

The honest theologian, however, says, "Not so fast." God is an artist first and foremost; Creation is His masterpiece. Yes, He made Adam first, but then, like any good artist, He took a step back, put His thumb to His mouth, and said, "Something is not quite right here. A central essence of being is missing." We would not look at the unfinished work of a Picasso or a Van Gogh or even the unfinished opera of a Verdi or the unfinished writing of a Nouwen and say, "This first draft is precisely how he intended it; everything else was an afterthought." Of course not! We wait until the artist has finished, has set his brush down, has said, yes, this is it, and then we look at what he has created. 

We owe at least that much to God. 

Which means that when Creation is not "very good" until there is a woman in it (and we know that it was not because just before creating her, God says, "this is no good"), we can know that there is something fundamental about the nature of femininity that reveals the very nature and heart of God - a revelation that is not complete without her.

It is not complete without her, and it is not complete if we change her into something God never intended her to be. That means that if we read the stories of the women of God through the lenses of masculinity, we lose something about the very nature of God Himself. It means if we defiantly assert that we are not men and women of God, but mere human beings of Him, we lose something about the very nature of God Himself. It means that if we refuse to believe that male and female are complementary, that we as women are helpmeets in a profoundly theological creation, we lose something fundamental about the very nature of God Himself. 

Historically, Christianity has seen the complementary nature of male and female as a reflection of our Triune God, a reflection of the complementary nature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (and, by the way, if we fail to acknowledge that women are daughters of God, then Jesus, in flesh, can be no Son, either). If we remove what is fundamentally complementary, male or female, then we can know nothing about the Triune God at all. Our complementary nature would be based entirely on individual characteristics and the intricacies of our own personalities, which means we would be required then to know the intricacies of the personalities of the Trinity to understand how they work together, intricacies that we cannot possibly begin to fathom unless there is an inherent, unchanging, invariable complementarity among them. 

I put this point in parenthesis, but it is not parenthetical comment - without acknowledging females as daughters of God, we cannot legitimately recognize Jesus as His Son. We cannot reasonably claim that females are sons of God; females are never sons. We would not say that males are daughters of God; men are never daughters. Thus, to do away with sex as God designed it, we are left only to say that we are children of God, which we are (and as much is claimed in the Scriptures). But we mean something very different when we say that we are children of God than we mean when we say that we are sons and daughters, and this is something very different still than what we mean when we say that Jesus is the Son of God. We should not say that Jesus is the child of God; this loses the very essence of Him.

So this feminist theo-ideology that insists that God would be pleased for us to move beyond patriarchy and male and female is not only wrong; it is dangerous. It is, by its very nature, destructive. It takes everything we could know about God and throws it away in favor of a postmodern "sensibility" that is for some reason offended that a natural order exists at all. 

And again, I'm not saying that human beings have gotten this right; there are some very painful ways in which we have wounded one another in our patriarchies and in our sexed societies. But to claim that these things are not God's things just because we don't do them well is a dangerous claim to make, one that will destroy faith itself from the very heart of it on out.

Without patriarchy, we cannot know God the Father. Without God the Father, we cannot know God at all. Without femininity, we cannot know the Trinity. Without femininity, we cannot know complementarity. Without femininity, we cannot be sons and daughters of God. Without daughters of God, we cannot have His Son.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Women of God

The same broken feminist theo-ideology that alienates us from God, calls into question His very nature, and makes Him entirely unknowable also alienates us from ourselves, as we go back through the Scriptures and re-read them through the lenses of popular gender politics.

It is not at all uncommon for us, in trying to demonstrate either gender equality or gender neutrality, to read the stories of the faithful women of God through eyes that no longer see anything feminine about them at all.

For example, take Jael. Jael is the woman who drove a tent peg through the invading army commander's temple while he lay resting in her tent in the heat of battle, killing him. We think of Jael as the she-man, a hammer in one hand, doing this very masculine thing that God had called her to do. Women were not warriors, but God made this woman a warrior. So, we say, He made her a man.

And to back this up, we go back to the words of Deborah, the prophetess who foresaw the whole thing and said plainly that victory would come through a woman because the man was unwilling. See? See? the feminists cry out. God raised up a woman to do a man's job! He's all for this feminism thing!

An argument, we might add, that is padded by the example of Deborah herself, who was one of the only female prophets that we know about in all of Scripture. Again, a more commonly male role that we see here being filled by a woman, who we immediately masculinize and declare that women can, indeed, be men; there is no reason to distinguish the two.

But what if God called these women not to be men, but to be women? What if, instead of reading our postmodern gender politic into these passages, we read the God-breathed creation into them? What if instead of thinking of Jael or Deborah or any of the other female characters in Scripture as she-men, we thought of them simply as "she"?

Because there is something good and beautiful about being a woman, about being distinctly female. We know that there is because if there wasn't, God would not have created them male and female and called it "very good."

Don't get me wrong - I get it. Men and women throughout history have gotten so much of this wrong. We have corrupted the patriarchy, twisted gender roles so that it's almost impossible for us to even imagine driving a tent peg through a man's skull to be a feminine act. So that it's almost impossible for us to fathom a female prophetess. So that when we read the story of Lydia in the New Testament hosting a church in her home, we can't help but ascribe to her the role of both pastor and elder. We have been so hurt, so wounded by the way that our world handles our femininity that it's easier for us to reject it, to refuse it, to refute it than to embrace it for what God intended it to be.

But I'm telling you - there is still something good and beautiful about it. And what we have to do is not to say that there's nothing at all to being male and female, but that there is something inherently incredible to it. There's something amazing about it. We have to look at the women that God has called to do these incredible things, and we have to see them first as female, not by the nature of their acts, but by the intention of their creation. And then we ask what it means to be a woman of God.

Spoiler alert: being a woman of God does not mean becoming a man of God. Ever. Being a woman of God does not require us to trade in our femininity for something holy; our female nature is already holy.

We have to rethink what we've rethought about these female characters in the Bible and let them help us recapture our feminine grace, not exchange it for some fictional masculine glory. Jael is no she-man; she is a woman of God. Deborah is no prophet; she is a prophetess. Lydia is no pastor or elder; she is a deaconess. That's not the popular opinion, I know. We have worked so hard to remove these feminine suffixes from our culture, from our vocabularies. But there's something about them. Something "very good" about them.

God said so Himself. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

God the Father

Yesterday, we introduced one of the arguments presented by popular feminist theo-ideology, namely that God would be quite happy with us if we "finally" moved "beyond patriarchy" and adopted a system of gender equality or, better yet, completely genderless existence, where we are all simply human in the eyes of God and neither male nor female.

One of the problems with that, of course, is that God has always called Himself our Father. It's hard to believe that a God who has invested so much of His energies into convincing us that He is our Father and we are His children would have a master plan whereby we no longer live in a patriarchy.

It's hard to believe, but it's even harder to conceive...because such an idea creates some very significant theological problems.

The argument, or one of the arguments, is that the language God uses in the Bible has been given to us because it is language that we will understand. In other words, because our societies were patriarchal, God used the language of patriarchy to illustrate for us what our relationship with Him, and His relationship with us, is like. When we actually come to know God, it won't be like that at all; we cannot presently even fathom what God, or our relationship with Him, is like - we don't have human words for it.

On the surface, that may sound like a pretty good argument. God is so much bigger than us, we can't possibly understand, so He always puts things in our words so that we can at least begin to imagine.

But here's one problem with that argument: if God gives us Himself in terms that we will understand by the very nature of the world that we live in, a world that is somehow contrary to what God seeks for us, then our world 1) did not come from God, for He would not give us a system that He didn't approve of and 2) must either pre-date God or arise completely out of His power, which calls into question His eternal nature and/or His power. He didn't order the world, but He used it...He's not Creator; He' egotist. He only wants us to recognize Him as an afterthought, without making Himself central to our very world.

It's basic logic. If God is only using what we know because it's the best that we have, then God didn't intend or design it this way, which means that we did, which means that we did something without God. And all of a sudden, who is this God anyway? We have done one thing without Him, which means we can do other things without Him, which means we are simply creating Him in our image as we go along and attributing our creating to our creation.

We're lying to ourselves.

Here's another problem with that argument: if God only gives us Himself in measures that we can understand by our own earthly systems and societies, what can we ever possibly know for sure or for real about God? Nothing at all.

If God is a Father only because we recognize patriarchy as a familiar system, then God may not actually be a Father at all. If He is not a Father, He may not discipline us. If He is not a Father, He may not love us. There is absolutely no reliable way for us to know anything at all about God if His revelation is only ever given on our own terms; there has to be a reference point somewhere. Otherwise, everything we think we know is nothing but a shadow of a figment of our own imaginations. Again, we're making Him up as we go along.

We're lying to ourselves.

The only way for God to be who He says He is and to reveal Himself as such is for Him to make such revelations on His own terms, and this is what Christianity (and Judaism) from the very beginning have always believed (until recently, when all this feminist junk...and others...started to move in). God reveals Himself as Father because He is a Father - He loves us, disciplines us, trains us, cares for us, begets us.

And then He gave us a system of patriarchy so that we would understand what He means when He calls Himself, "Father." He gave us patriarchy so we would understand what having a Father really means. It's another part of the creation that reveals to us our Creator, given to us in words we understand because it is His system, not because it is ours. He came first, not us. It was His idea to weave into creation the threads of patriarchy so that we could begin to know, begin to fathom, begin to imagine His very heart.

We can't do that without an order to the universe that tells us what a Father is.

So when we start to make nonsensical arguments like how thrilled God is that we "finally" break free of this "patriarchy" junk, we are saying that God is not our Father, that we can actually know nothing about Him, that He neither created nor ordered this world, and that what is important to Him is our allegiances, not our love...or His.

In other words, we're lying to ourselves.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Beyond Patriarchy?

Recently, I saw a pastor's take on patriarchy; the argument was that we are "finally" moving "beyond patriarchy" and God could not be more pleased with this. God is, so they say, happy that we are finally breaking free of our long chains of male domination. Or something. 

It is, of course, a distinctly feminist religious position and one that, sadly, is coming to gain more and more favor among the people of God. Yes! they cry. Yes, we are finally on the brink of living the kind of life God had intended for us, shaking free of all this "male" and "female" baggage and simply being Christians.

Because, you know, in the beginning, God created them Christians, Christians He created them, and He said that this was very good. 

But the problem with this kind of broken, worldly theology is not just that it smacks against the very Creation of God and claims something that God never intended; it rails against the very heart of God, who has always called Himself our Father. 

It is impossible - not just difficult, not just troublesome, not just problematic - to take a faith that has historically, since the beginning of its time, worshiped God the Father and to proclaim that this same Father has always longed for His people to stop living in a patriarchy. (For those who need it, patriarchy is a social system in which fathers are the ones responsible for leading, guiding, etc.) When we say that God the Father never intended for us a patriarchy, we are also saying that He never intended us for Himself. 

That's a problem. And not a little one. 

This is the greatest challenge that faces theology today - we continue to reshape our God in our own image, taking the things of this world that make sense to us and then forming our God to fit them or approve of them or even, in some weird way, to have to designed them, even when what we're buying into goes directly against what God Himself has said to us. In a world that has become all about how we feel about it, we have begun to make our God the same way. 

Feminism makes a lot of feminists happy (they think), so God must clearly be a feminist. Feminism corrects some of the problems that humans have made in their societies (they think), so God must clearly be a feminist. And then we even go back through our Bibles and reinterpret His stories through this new lens, changing the very lessons that God was trying to teach us. 

Not only is it killing our faith, it's killing our God. In the same way that feminism has come to emasculate men and count this a victory, it has castrated God and called this good. In the same way that feminism lifts women up only by breaking men down, it has lifted up humankind and broken down God and called this good. 

It's a dangerous theology, a very dangerous theology indeed. By its doctrines, we lose the very heart of God, the very nature of Him, and we lose ourselves, what it means to be both men and women of God, and we lose our communities, what it means to be His people.

This is not at all to say - hear me on this - that God does not love women. That's not it at all. We are not going to argue, nor should we ever have argued, that God favors men, chooses male over female. Not in the slightest. But recognizing that God loves women does not make Him a feminist. Recognizing that God does not favor male over female does not make Him a feminist. If we'd listen to His wisdom on this issue, we'd see that God is exactly what He always said He was:


I'm going to spend a few more days on this and expand on a couple of ideas and arguments because this is important. It's important because this feminist ideology is the kind of junk theology that sounds more and more "reasonable" to the world, but it gets us further and further from God, ourselves, and each other.  

Monday, December 25, 2017


Blessed Christmas morning comes once more and all eyes turn to the manger, where lays a newborn baby boy - the Son of God made flesh for us.

Amid all the hushed whispers and coos, we all want to know what it is He has come for, what this baby boy is going to do. 

We talk about how God promised us a Savior, the Savior of the world. And this is Him. But it didn't have to be. The God who created the world in a single breath could have saved it just the same way; by an act of His sheer will, He could have redeemed all Creation. He chose not to and sent His Son, but this is only a shadow of why this babe is here.

We talk about how God has come to heal us. And this is our Healer, this precious Boy. But it didn't have to be. The Gospels record full well that at just a word, a man can be healed; he doesn't have to also be touched. God could have spoken just the word and healed us. He chose not to and sent His Son, but this is only a shadow of why this babe is here.

We talk about how God desires to show us how to live. And this is our Example. But it didn't have to be. God who commands the spirits and calms the seas could speak with the same authority into our lives and guide our living. He chose not to and sent His Son, but this is only a shadow of why this babe is here. 

There is only one thing this babe can do that God in all His power, authority, knowledge, and wisdom cannot; there is only one thing for which the Son of God, the Word made flesh is absolutely necessary, and it is this:

Only in flesh can He be our Friend. 

God cannot will us to be His friend; He cannot will Himself to be ours. God cannot speak our friendship into existence. God cannot command our friendship. In order to be our friend, our all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-creating God must be present here. 

If you want to be my friend, you have to sit across the table from me. You have to laugh with me, cry with me, break bread with me. You have to know what I smell like after a long day's work, and you have to let me get familiar with all your little quirks. We have to know each other the way that lets us share inside jokes and hearty belly laughs. We have to be there for the big moments in each others' lives. 

Like Christmas. In a barn. When You took Your first breath and cried out into the world, I am here. 


* * * 

For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son....

Merry Christmas. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Beautiful Christmas

As we peer through the postcard and take a look at what the first Christmas was really like - family feuds, competing messages, messes and stinks and stalls - we start to get a sense that the first Christmas, for all the nice, neat, clean images we like to hold of it, really was not unlike so many of ours. It was, and for good reason, a very human event, with the markings of fallen man all over it.

The good reason, of course, is that Jesus Christ, Son of God, was God made flesh in that moment, and if it were anything less than a thoroughly human event, we would not know how fully He had come to us. 

But the truth about that first Christmas - and about so many of ours - is that at any moment, it could have changed. At any moment, the story could have turned the page and unfolded completely differently than the version that we have of it today.

Joseph's family could have seen his staunch refusal to leave his pregnant fiance, and one of them could have opened their home to the couple, pulling them out of the barn altogether. Another guest at the inn, most likely a woman, could have heard the familiar sounds of childbirth and chosen to bring the young mother and her new babe into a certain quarters in the inn. The innkeeper could have gotten strong wind of what was going on and come out to shift the animals around, making a cleaner, more livable space for the new family of three - or at least ordering a servant to do it. An angel could have come to any number of men and women in Bethlehem and spoken a word, and we have no idea how the story would have turned. 

We could have gone from a Christmas story where there was no room for Jesus to a Christmas story where humanity made room for Jesus. All it takes is one character, one person to step into something new, to discover something previously unknown, to have one moment of bold faith or even human compassion, and we might not be sitting here talking about a baby in a barn. We might be talking about something else entirely. 

The same is true for our Christmas stories, our not-so-quiet, unwelcome, unbelieving, quite-a-scene Christmas stories. At any moment, our stories could turn and unfold in an entirely new way. 

And in one breathtaking moment, they have.

That breathtaking moment happens when the Christ child takes His first breath. When the stale air of a fallen world hits the tender lungs of Word breathed flesh. When a silent night turns into a wild ride. And all of a sudden, we look around at all of the mess and the muck and the mire and the very human nature of, well, human nature and say, yeah. 

This is Christmas.

And it's beautiful. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Commotion at Christmas

As if everything taking place in the inn, the barn, and the in-laws' home wasn't enough to mark the first Christmas as being so much like so many of ours, in come three shepherds from the fields. 

You might be asking, with a scene like the one already unfolding, what's three more persons? Honestly. But it would not have been just three more persons. Not if those three persons were shepherds.

Because shepherds in the first century did not just leave their flocks. It's not like they were watching over sheep in some nice, safe, fenced-in enclosure in the dead of night where there we no threats and no worries. Don't you remember what David said? He had to fend off both bears and lions to protect his sheep. No good shepherd, no matter what, just leaves the sheep in the pasture.

Which means that when the shepherds come strolling into Bethlehem, their sheep come with them. So now picture this. There's already commotion in the barn, enough that everyone is probably already wondering what is going on in there. Some of the guests from the inn have probably complained about the noise, and the innkeeper has probably sent a servant down to tell his other servants in the barn to keep things down out there. There's blood and animal waste and a woman screaming in labor, then a newborn babe crying His first breaths in a broken world, all amid the grief and the pain of being rejected by family when they shouldn't have had to stay at the inn in the first place, let alone in the barn. 

And now, in stroll some shepherds with flocks of sheep in tow. Hundreds, at least, if not thousands of sheep, doing whatever it is that groggy sheep do (because it was really too early to wake them up, but if you don't leave sheep alone in the pasture, you certainly don't leave sleeping sheep alone in the pasture). 

If this first Christmas wasn't crazy already, it certainly is now. If it wasn't making a scene, you can bet that by this point, it's a scene. And not that picture-perfect, golden-halo, silent night scene on our postcards. 

This was a real Christmas. 

Just like most of us celebrate. Because try as we might, we can't just shake off all the trappings of our day-to-day lives for Christmas. Try as we might, we can't just set it all aside, even for a day, even for a few hours. We know that at some point, we've got to go back to it, and we're still responsible for all the things we've always been responsible for, baby in a barn or no baby in a barn. Son of God or no Son of God. 

So our lives sort of just straggle in behind us, bleating and baaing and bringing all their noises and adding to the scene. Anyone who looks out the window from their comfy room in the inn and sees our Christmas will say it's a mess, and you know what? We'd probably agree with them.

But the only reason we bring our mess at all is because there's still something holy about it. The only reason we come, even when we can't shake the rest of our lives for even just one peaceful moment, one quiet day, is because there's this whisper in our hearts that tells us something beautiful is happening here, and we wouldn't miss that for the world. 

Certainly not for the sheep.

And so, we come - flocks and all, mess and all, noise and all - because we know how special this moment is. We know how incredible it all really is. We know that this isn't something that just happens every day, that the angels don't always let us in on their chorus. This is Christmas. 

There's just something beautiful about it. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Unbelieving at Christmas

It should not really surprise us that Joseph's family would make no room for him and his pregnant bride-to-be; to be pregnant out of wedlock was a tremendous dishonor in the Jewish culture, the mark of a whore, a real moral conundrum that no good, God-fearing Jew wanted any part of. And of course, we have no record of the angel Gabriel explaining any of it to the extended family. Just Mary and Joseph. 

Which means that part of the reason that they found themselves pushed toward the crowded inn was that they had a Christmas story that their family didn't share. They knew something the others didn't know. They believed in something that no one else was willing to believe.

This is, I think, the Christmas story in all of our houses; I know it is in mine.

Everyone comes to Christmas with their own version of what the holiday means. Some come with their focus on Bethlehem, on the Christ child, on the Promise. Some come with hope and joy in their hearts. Some come thinking of snow and fireplaces and cuddling with loved ones in the glow of the tree. Some come with expectations of presents and all the new things they're going to get. Some come with their eyes on the children, wanting to make sure that this season never loses its magic for the little ones.

Some come with empty stomachs and big plates, ready to dive in to all the Christmas ham and cookies. Some come for the chance to see family they only see this time of year. Some come for decorations and lights and all the wrappings and trimmings of the season. Some even come just for tradition, because this is what we do.

It would be nice if we all came believing in Christ at Christmas, longing for Him, waiting for Him, hoping for Him, worshiping Him, but that's just not the way it is. Not this year, not any year. Not even the first year.

I wonder sometimes how it would change Christmas for us if we all came this way, not just my family, but your family, our family, our churches, our communities. But as I think about that first Christmas, I recognize how many stories there were about what was happening in that barn. Joseph's family had a story that didn't have anything at all to do with Christ. The innkeeper had a story, but we don't know how much he knew. The guests at the inn, who must have heard the commotion, had a story. The shepherds had a story. The wise men had a story. The king had a story. Everyone had a story, but how many of those stories knew for real the heart of Christmas that first night in Bethlehem?

How would it change our Christmas if they had recognized what they had? If they had known the real story that was unfolding right there in their midst?

How would it change our Christmas if, then or now, everyone believed in the babe at the center of it all? 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Unwelcome at Christmas

When we talk about how picture-perfect the first Christmas was, beautiful in the barn, the one piece that seems less-than-perfect to us is that there was no room at the inn for a very pregnant woman and her husband-to-be. What we don't seem to realize - indeed, we often read right past it because it is not in the biblical story at all - is that Joseph and Mary should not have been staying at in the inn at all.

That's not how Jewish society worked.

One of the core values of Jewish society was hospitality; another core value was family. Joseph and Mary were headed to Bethlehem because of the census that required them to go to their hometown. Mary being betrothed to Joseph, his hometown was her hometown - Bethlehem. And if Bethlehem was Joseph's hometown, we can know with almost absolute certainty that he had relatives still living there. Relatives that should have opened their home to him and his beloved. Especially because she was pregnant.

In those days, it just wasn't likely that an entire family would uproot itself from its hometown. It would have been extremely rare for not even a remnant to remain in the place of the family's history. And Jewish custom would have required whatever remnant there was to open every single inch of space in their home to any traveler who needed a place to stay, but even more so to family who was coming home. It would be the Griswold family Christmas on steroids - brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, everyone stuffed into every conceivable space inside the Jewish home and even some on the roof, which could be converted to living space as necessary (as demonstrated in other places in the Bible). 

So the fact that Joseph and Mary are looking for space in an inn at all tells us that they were not welcome in the family home that Christmas. Joseph was not welcome among his kin; Mary was shunned by her in-laws. 

And just like that, the first Christmas is starting to sound a whole lot more like ours, isn't it?

This is the story. This is the story that so many of us live this time of year, trying to balance our family relationships with the reality that even among our own flesh and blood, we are sometimes not welcome. Even among those with whom we share this strong bond of biology, there's no room for us. Some of us will go to homes this season where we will be not welcome or even shunned. It's a tremendously painful experience. 

But this is the story of Christmas.

I'm not trying to be a downer here. It's not at all that Christmas is horrible and we should all just accept it and get through another year. What I'm trying to do is to emphasize that when Jesus came into the world 2,000 years ago, He came into the very same broken world in which we now celebrate His coming. He came in a flesh that knows exactly what our flesh is going through. He didn't come in postcard-perfect glory and silent nights and stillness and beauty; He came in noise and mess and blood and strife and the same kinds of things that we experience every day, even at Christmas. 

We want so much for our Christmases to be beautiful. We want them to be the kinds of joyous celebrations that we can put on our own postcards next year. We want there to be auras of holy light and glistening golden straw and warm hugs and hearty laughter around a fireplace, but that's just not the way that Christmas works for most of us. That's not the experience we're having. 

So it is important that we understand that that's not the experience that Joseph and Mary were having, either. That's not the experience that Jesus was having on that first Christmas. There is no reason that Jesus should have been born in a barn, no reason that Joseph and Mary should have been searching for room at the inn (which, by the way, should not have been full of Jewish persons, although there may have been a number of Romans who traveled for the census, as well). They should have been at home with Joseph's family, with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and brothers and sisters and everyone. 

But not everyone is welcome at home, even at Christmas. And that's hard. It hurts. It hurts with the deepest kind of pain there is, the relational pain of rejection. If that's you this year, I'm sorry. That's not the way that Christmas is supposed to be. 

Thankfully, by the grace of God and the innkeeper, there's plenty of room in the barn. 

And something beautiful is happening out here. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Not-So-Quiet Christmas

As we turn our eyes toward Bethlehem and the manger that would cradle our blessed Savior as He made His way into the world, it's worth recognizing that all of the images we have of this moment are essentially quiet ones. 

They are paintings made in warm gold tones, with brilliant auras all around. They are smiling faces and tender hearts, a young mother and father perfectly posed with their newborn babe. They are animals lying in beds of straw, one next to another next to another. They are silent nights, holy nights, with bright and morning stars sparkling in the dark stillness. All is calm, we sing. 

...that's cute.

I don't know where it is that we got the idea that the first Christmas was so unlike the Christmases that most of us celebrate. I don't know where we got the idea that it was all quiet and calm and perfect, with this incredible stillness and peace and idealism.

We are, after all, talking about childbirth. In a barn. With animals.

Absolutely none of this screams, "Unfathomably perfect and beautiful." Absolutely none of this suggests that it was as pristine as our paintings pretend. The journey was arduous, the birth was painful, the animals were real. There was noise and screaming and crying and mooing and the stench of both new life and decaying organic matter (read: animal excrement).

The first Christmas was as much of a mess as any of the rest of them. 

And that's good news.

It's good news not because it somehow makes us feel better about what we're getting into this week. The reason this is good news is because it means that Jesus really was fully human coming into a fully human world. 

To diminish the first Christmas into this postcard image is to deny that. If Mary's childbirth was easy, her loving husband near to her, a seamless entry into the world for the coming Savior, then Jesus wasn't born of flesh. He wasn't born of the curse. The curse, all the way back in Genesis 3, says that childbirth is not going to be easy. It's not going to be "calm." It's going to be loud and painful and crazy. So in the barn that night, we have to know that it was loud and painful and crazy. 

And can we talk about the barn that night? Only someone who has never been in a barn thinks it's this nice, cozy, clean place with fresh beds of straw all the time and animals that rest quietly when there are disturbances about. I live in 4-H country, and my house is less than a mile away from the barns at the county fairgrounds. When those barns are full, they aren't quiet. At all hours, I can hear, even from this short distance away, all the noises that the animals make. And if the winds are blowing just right....

The barns in Bethlehem were full. The inns were full, so the barns were full - because persons and families traveled by animal. The barns were probably over-full, given the situation. Everybody who had any ties to Bethlehem was there, along with the animals that they rode and the animals that their servants rode and the animals that they placed their packs on to travel. And if the barns are full, let's just admit it right now: they aren't clean. That beautiful golden straw that we see on our postcards? Not a chance. 

And then let's talk about the other persons present. Let's talk about those in the inn. Let's talk about the women who would hear the sounds of labor and know what was happening. Let's talk about the number of families staying in that inn who would have, at the very least, sent their servants out to see what was happening. Let's talk about the midwives that must have been there, at least one - even for a poor family like Mary and Joseph. Because Joseph would not be there holding his wife's hand and whispering encouraging sweet nothings in her ear. That's a modern invention, not a first-century birth. Birthing was for women; Joseph was probably petting a camel or something. 

There's nothing quiet and calm and pristine about the first Christmas. There's nothing perfect about it. Our perfect Savior was come into an imperfect world in imperfect flesh in a dirty, busy barn on what was anything but a silent night. Even when all was said and done, even when He laid in His mother Mary's arms, it wasn't quiet. Jesus Himself was making the noise. Jesus Himself was crying, adding to the lowing of the animals and the noise from the inn and the flocks in the fields. 

It just wasn't "pretty" like we want it to be. And that's okay.

Because let's be real for a second: none of our Christmases are. They're not pretty.

But they're beautiful. Just like the first one. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

One Little Gift

Each of the three gifts of the magi - gold, frankincense, and myrrh - shows up exactly one more time in the story of Jesus. The gold, given to show His wealth and His worth, is redistributed to us to show our wealth and worth. The myrrh, intended to mark His humanity, is used to show His full embrace of His humanity. The frankincense, brought to anoint Him, is poured out to prepare Him. 

On their surface, these don't really seem like good gifts to give a baby. They aren't practical, and they certainly aren't obvious. There are a lot of other things that a human baby, even a divine human baby, could use. But after we look at the way that Jesus uses these gifts, we see just how perfect they actually were.

And this is good news.

Because I don't know about you, but I often struggle with what I bring to Jesus. It doesn't feel like much at all, like anything, really, and I often find myself thinking how impractical or imperfect a gift that it is. I wonder what He'd ever do with my gift, and sometimes? Sometimes, that keeps me from bringing it at all. 

But Jesus uses the gifts that He's given. He uses every one of them. Every time He received something, no matter how strange or weird or un-useful it seems to us, it always comes back into His story somewhere. Just once. One gift - one scene - one story. And it always reveals, in some way, His glory. 

The story of the wise men is an encouragement to all of us. It made sense to them to bring what they brought, even if it seems strange to us. They were going off of who they believed that Jesus was, what they were told about the Messiah and this Promised babe. 

We do the same thing. I don't think any one of us takes something to Jesus without recognition of who He is. It's not like we just take Him some random gift card because we don't know what to give Him. We take Him something that seems meaningful to us, something that makes sense to us to give Him, even when we don't really understand what He might possibly do with it. 

And then...He does something with it. 

Every time.

He does something with it that helps the world to understand something about who He is. He does something with it that helps the world understand who they are in Him. He does something with it that reveals His glory or His nature or His heart to a world that is desperately seeking Him, profoundly in need of a touch of Heaven. 

As I think about the gifts of the wise men this year, I can't help but think about my own gifts. So often, they seem like so little. So often, they seem so weird. But I know, from the stories of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, that they always turn up again somewhere in His pages. And as I think about the gifts of the wise men this year, I wonder exactly where my own gifts have turned up. I wonder how Jesus has used them or what He has planned for them. I wonder if I'll ever know. 

Maybe not. 

But that's okay. I don't really have to know, I don't suppose. I simply believe...the way three wise men did so long ago.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


The third gift brought to the baby Jesus by the wise men was a gift of frankincense, an expensive and aromatic oil. And this frankincense, too, we see one more time in Jesus's story.

It comes the second time in the hands of a woman, a sinful woman, if we are to listen to what the Pharisees say about her. She bursts into Simon's house while Jesus and His disciples are having lunch with the men of the town and she falls at His feet, breaking open a jar of expensive perfume and pouring it over Him, along with her tears. 

Frankincense was a perfuming ingredient most primarily, and it was also a vital part of anointing oil and embalming oil. When Jesus declares that this woman, who has given Him this most expensive and precious gift, has prepared His body for what is to come, it's a good indication that in this perfume was frankincense - at least two of its primary purposes were wrapped up in this one offering.

Which is, of course, a second offering.

It's highly unlikely that when the wise men brought frankincense to the newborn babe, they thought it would be an embalming oil. No one comes to embalm the Savior of the World when He is just a few breaths old; no one would even consider that He would ever die at all. After all, isn't He the Promise? How does the Promise die? 

And it's unlikely that you would give a baby boy a bottle of expensive perfume simply because it smells nice; newborns already smell nice. The stable could probably have used a little help in the odor department, but nobody brings a baby shower gift to give the barn. It would be like taking a bottle of bleach to the hospital. It doesn't make sense.

Which means that when the wise men brought frankincense, they likely brought it as an anointing oil, a recognition of Jesus's purpose as priest, a recognition of His standing before God. It only makes sense to anoint God's Son, after all. God would probably approve of that. 

Interestingly, when the woman does it, it is also an anointing, even though Jesus says it is essentially an embalming. It is a recognition of Jesus's purpose in this world, a recognition of His standing before God. This woman pours out the frankincense, which Jesus has already received once, and anoints Him again for the trial He is about to face, which is also holy. 

It's pretty cool, really. 

And it's beautiful, in exactly all the ways that we expect God to do beautiful things with even the most mundane, or weird, among us. I mean, c'mon - who brings a baby frankincense? 

Only a wise man.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


On a quiet night in Bethlehem, a second wise man brought to the baby Jesus the gift of myrrh. And this gift, too, comes again in Christ's story, although if we are waiting to see the myrrh, we must wait until almost the very (almost) end.

As Jesus hangs dying on the Cross, He cries out. Those in witness believe Him to be in pain (He probably is, although He does not cry out from pain, but from agony). Someone orders quickly for a sponge to be brought to Him, and on this sponge is myrrh, which is supposed to take away the pain.

Myrrh in olden times was used, among other things, as an analgesic. It was not an anesthetic; it did not put a man to sleep. It was an analgesic; it soothed a pain. You might think of it as an antiquated Ben-Gay, although it could also be taken orally, like Tylenol.

Which makes it all the stranger a gift to give a newborn, doesn't it? If there was anyone in pain in that stable, it was more likely Mary, from the hard pain of labor, but the gift is not for her. Or perhaps it was Joseph, from Mary's bone-crushing hand-squeezing, but the gift is not for him. The gift is for the baby Jesus. 

Welcome to this broken, messed-up, painful world, Kid. You're gonna need this.

But it was, perhaps, an acknowledgement of Jesus's tender and very real flesh. It was perhaps a recognition that this baby was, in fact, fully human. He was subject to the same hurts and wounds that the rest of us are. His human existence would not be immune to anything that our human existences are not immune to. 

In this world, you will have pain. But take heart....

This is what makes what happens on the Cross such a beautiful thing. At His birth, He is brought this gift of myrrh that recognizes that He is a baby born in flesh. At the Cross, He is offered a drink of this myrrh, and He rejects it. 

He wants us to know that He is fully in this flesh. For real. For the long haul. For whatever it takes. He does not get a pass; He won't take one. His sacrifice demands that He feel the full weight of our brokenness. 

So the dying Christ, the living God, the Son of Man, this Jesus turns His head away from the gift that would take away His pain in order that we might know how fully, how sincerely, how truly He has taken ours. 

It was a gift given to acknowledge His flesh, and it was a gift used, far later, to confirm it. Our Lord who came to live among us came wholly as we are, that He might somehow make us holy through His own aching flesh.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


The gift of the first magi was gold, and though received by the babe, Jesus uses it in quite an interesting way.

To understand exactly why, we have to understand gold's value in the times in which Jesus lived. To the Roman world, gold was of very little value; almost all of the Roman coins were made of silver.  When Jesus leads Peter to the coin in the fish's mouth, it is a silver coin. Because it was silver that had value for the Romans. But in the Temple...

In the Temple, gold had immense value. In the Temple, gold meant something. In fact, gold had come to mean so much in the Temple that in Matthew 23, Jesus curses the Pharisees for how much their gold meant to them. It meant so much, He says, that they thought it was the gold that gave the Temple its value. 

So it is telling, then, that we don't see gold very often in Jesus's story; He does not want to give the impression, even in the slightest, that the gift of gold somehow makes Him valuable in the Temple. 

But there is this beautiful parable that Jesus tells about a wealthy man who is going on a trip. The man takes his gold and gives it, in certain measure, to his servants. This is, of course, the parable of the talents, where the servants are rewarded based upon their faithfulness with the gold that they have been given. This is where we get the phrase, "Whoever is faithful with a little will be given more." 

Jesus takes the gold that He has been given, which would likely have made Him a big deal ceremonially, and He spreads it around to His servants, giving them a stake in the most holy thing: worship. He takes what was meant to make Him a big deal, and He uses it to make us, the faithful, a big deal. 

That's pretty cool.

And to the Pharisees who insisted that it was gold that made the Temple holy, that gave this ceremonial place its worth, Jesus makes here a bold statement that it is faithfulness that makes holiness, giving the servants His gold but rewarding their hearts, not their investments. 

This is the only place in the Gospels where we see gold, and it's no accident. It is the gift of gold that is invested with the servants not because it is a representation of material wealth (if it were, He would have used silver), but because it is a concept of spiritual richness. Jesus isn't interested in making men wealthy; He is interested in making men holy. 

He can only do that with gold. 

Because gold has no earthly richness, not in ancient Rome; it only has ceremonial richness. It is only worth anything in men's holy places. Therefore, what a man does with his gold is a measure of how he stands in scared spaces. Well done, good and faithful servant. This....this is true wealth. 

So if you want to know what happened to the gold from the manger, here it is, in this parable. It's the only place we find it in all the Gospels. Christ took the gift of gold and invested it in us, that we might show our faithfulness and become, good servants, the wealth of the Temple. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Gifts of the Magi

With the bright and morning star to guide their way, three wise men set out to discover the Christ child, the much-heralded birth of the Savior right there in Bethlehem. And these wise men brought with them gifts. No, not pacifiers and diapers; they brought with them gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

Strange gifts, indeed, for a baby, but...what ever happened to them?

These were not cheap gifts. They were not particularly practical gifts, at least to most of us, but they also were not cheap gifts. It's interesting, at best - weird, at least - that we don't seem to see these gifts anywhere else in the Gospels. 

Every time we see Mary and Joseph, they're still poor. They come to the Temple and present their son bearing the poor man's offering, a couple of pigeons. We don't hear about any upgrades being made to their Nazareth homes. We don't hear about them suddenly becoming generous and giving to their friends. Joseph didn't quit his job; much later, we hear the crowds murmur, "Isn't this the carpenter's son?" That means Joseph was still a carpenter, even though somewhere in his fairly recent past, there were tremendous, amazing, lavish gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

We don't hear about the gifts being put in the treasury of Jesus's work, a treasury that we're told that Judas was in charge of. And wouldn't that be an interesting scene, if Judas, the discipleship treasurer, had access to even the gift of gold...and yet for some reason still settled for silver. But no, we don't see the gifts anywhere near the treasury.

Maybe they left them in the stable, left them in the barn. Maybe they used them to pay the innkeeper, although it's hard to imagine that such modest, last-minute, I-guess-if-you-have-to accommodations with the animals would cost so much as to take even the smallest measure of such precious gifts. So that doesn't make much sense, either. 

We never hear about them being brought to the Temple. Don't hear of them being laid on the altar. Don't catch wind of them being dropped in the collection box. We aren't told that they are given away or even that they are shared or even if they are kept.

We aren't told anything about them, except, of course, that at the birth of Jesus, the wise men came bearing them and laid them at His feet. (Or gave them to His parents or whatever.) 

But what if we did see these gifts again? What if we saw them in the same way that we see so many things that God shows us...quietly? 

What if these gifts that the wise men brought to reveal who this baby truly was were later used by the Son of God Himself to make His own statement? 

Because we do see these gifts again. Not all together and not at center stage, but they're there all the same. And everything we know about God says that's probably not an accident, likely no coincidence. 

So where are the gifts of the Magi? We'll see. 

Stay tuned. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Christmas Season

And so, here we are, fully into another Christmas season. Asked to give two words that best describe this time of year, most of us would say, "hustle and bustle;" the culture would simply nod its head. 

That's it, this world says. That's the heart of Christmas.

Christmas, to our culture, is a bunch of running around. It's chasing down the latest and the best and the most-desired gifts. It's decorating the house, inside and out. It's cleaning and cooking and baking and preparing and setting the place for the family and friends who are about to come by. It's getting things ready for Santa, of all people, who we know is about to come into our homes and track soot all over the nice, clean floors that we've spent weeks preparing to impress those who already know we don't really live like that. We hang tinsel and lights and stockings, whatever we can do so that we're more focused on our hearths this Christmas than our hearts.

'Tis the season.

Here's what is completely backward and crazy about this whole notion of hustle and bustle: it would have been entirely foreign even to those who likely most should have felt it.

Mary and Joseph are the ones, if anyone, who should know about the hustle and bustle of Christmas. They were the ones traveling just over 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, with some estimates adding almost an additional 20 miles of just plain wandering as they searched for accommodations along the way. Mary, at the time, was fully nine months pregnant, ready to pop at any moment. The two young Jews were likely making some plans for their upcoming wedding, Joseph having abandoned his plans to abandon his bride. And the roads and the inns were so crowded that there was nowhere for them to even lay their heads at night. Our craziest Christmas has nothing on them.

But hustle and bustle is the one thing you don't hear in Mary and Joseph's story. Franticness is one thing you don't hear. Out-of-breath, collapse-on-your-feet tiredness is something you don't hear. Why is that?
It's because they weren't living their Christmas in the mess; they were living it in the promise. 

They were living Christmas in recognition of the Spirit that was leaping with life inside of Mary. They were living with one eye on the baby they were about to bring in the world. They had their priorities straight, and they made sure that what came first in their Christmas...was the Christ child. 

Instead of living in the business and noise and trial of their own times, they were living in anticipation of something entirely new. Their hearts burst with what was coming, not with all that it took to get there. They did not let their travel or their trouble distract them from their hope, a hope they knew intimately because it was literally welling up inside of them. 

That's what we've lost in our Christmas season. That's what the world has convinced us we don't even need to see any more. We talk about this season, and the first two words that come to our mind are "hustle and bustle," but what about "hope and promise"? What if instead of anxiety, we lived with anticipation? What if instead of getting sucked into another Christmas mess this year, we stepped back and settled into the Christmas promise? 

What if we got our priorities straight and remembered what comes first this Christmas? 

...the Christ child. ..the precious Babe. ...the hope of nations. ...the Son of God. 

He's the reason 'tis the season. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Christmas Spirit

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, "Well, bah humbug to you, too!" Because for the past few days, we've been looking at the ways that we've lost Christmas to our culture and how we might get it back. 

Not to be, you know, more difficult here, but if you're among the bah humbug crowd about now, then you're right there in step with another good point. Essentially, what we're saying when we say bah humbug is this, "Where is your Christmas spirit?" 

My Christmas Spirit is in the baby Jesus, God-made-flesh to bring the Spirit of God into this world. Where's yours?

Quietly, this has happened, and we've so easily bought into it that we don't even notice. The world has told us that there is such a thing as the Christmas spirit and that we're supposed to find it every year. It's up to us to bring it into the world by spreading joy and giving gifts and decorating our houses and remembering how much we love this time of year.

Except we don't. The statistic we keep coming back to this week is a recent study that shows that nearly 70% of American adults would skip gift-giving, the celebration of Christmas, this year if they could get their families to agree it. 

Talk about losing your Christmas spirit. 

But it's just not joyous any more; it's tedious. It's not a celebration; it's a chore. Every year, it's the same thing - Black Friday, boxes, bows, and burnout. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yawn. There's nothing new to keep the spark alive, nothing different to make it fresh. It's the same persons around the same tree having the same arguments and playing the same games and eating the same cookies and opening the same presents and running off to the same places. And we're supposed to get excited about this? Why, exactly?

Ah, yes. Christmas "spirit."

Turn this on its head just a little, or even on its side. Instead of asking again this year, "Where is your Christmas spirit?" ask instead where is the Spirit this Christmas? What is God doing? Where is God moving? What is it about a baby boy in a manger in Bethlehem that infuses Christmas with all the Spirit that it needs?

Because babies make Christmas better. They just do. The way their eyes light up with all the things that we've grown weary of so easily. The way they're more enthralled with the packaging than with the gift. The way they smile and laugh and giggle and coo and they don't understand a thing about it; there's just a spirit there that makes it...better. 

And that's the same spirit we find in the baby Jesus tucked away in a stable. It's the way His eyes light up with all that He sees that's new in the world...and in His eyes, we see it, too. It's the way He's wrapped in flesh - God made flesh for the first time in all of history, and we can't get over it. We don't understand, in swaddling clothes, the gift that lies inside, but just look at His tender human flesh. This hasn't happened before. This is incredible. It's the way that He smiles and laughs and giggles and coos like He doesn't understand a thing, although He understands it all. From the very depth of His soul, He knows what we can't even imagine, can't even fathom. And there, among the hay and the feed and the stench and the darkness, there's just a Spirit that makes it...better. 

Because this baby make Christmas...Christmas. He just does. 

So you want to know where the Christmas spirit is this year? It's in a manger in Bethlehem, just where it's always been. That's where God's heart has come beating into the world. It's where His Spirit rejoices. It's where His Son's eyes glisten with life and light. 

Bah humbug? Really?

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Christmas Story

Still again, if we want to recapture Christmas, we have to first discover how we lost it. And one of the ways in which we have lost Christmas is by believing our culture when it tells us that Christmas is a feeling.

Most of us, some time this month, will encounter a friend, a family member, a neighbor, a loved one who will say something like this, "It just doesn't feel like Christmas this year." Or "Christmas, yeah - not feelin' it." 

And it won't be for lack of trying. We throw decorations all over everything. Our light posts are wrapped in tinsels, our porches decked out in lights. There are trees in every window, glistening through dark curtains as the sun sets early. Just about every store has Santa somewhere, a few reindeer out in the yard. Big, fake presents are wrapped with giant, perfect bows (quite unlike anything you'd ever see under any of our trees). Christmas music blares from overhead public address systems, blasting Rudolph and Santa and Frosty the Snowman into our ears. And that weird little fake frost and snow covers the windows because, gosh darnit, it has to at least look like it might be a white Christmas. 

Yet, someone will still say - it just doesn't feel like Christmas this year. 

You know what? They're right. It doesn't feel like Christmas this year, no matter how much we cover it in Christmas clothing.

Because Christmas isn't a feeling.

It's a story.

And if this Christmas "feels" a little empty to you, it's because the story's been overshadowed by the sensation of it all. If you want to get your Christmas back, you have to turn the page.

See, we've bought into this lie that our culture has told us that Christmas is that time of year that's supposed to make us feel good. But as we've seen, most persons aren't feeling good at Christmas. They're feeling stressed, burdened, burned out, and ready to skip the whole thing entirely. And who could really blame them? If the entire point of Christmas is to give us a time of year to "feel" good, then certainly, we should skip all the hubbub if skipping it is what makes us "feel" good. 

But Christmas isn't about good feelings; it's about good news. And good news always comes in stories. 

Think about it. If you watch the news and see something that makes you feel warm and tingly all over, it is because that something is firmly rooted in a good story. It is one thing to hear that three children will be receiving new bicycles this Christmas; it is another thing entirely to hear that these three children are cancer survivors, celebrating their first Christmas in remission. The former may evoke a Christmas feeling, what with the giving of gifts and all, but the latter evokes a Christmas story. The difference between the two is immense.

And that's what we're talking about. We're talking about a Christmas that has lost its story. We're talking about a Christmas that has become too wrapped up in bows and presents and carols to remember a baby, a promise, a Christ. Something about it feels disconnected, feels disjointed. Like something essential is missing from this Christmas "feeling." In all our attempts to make sure that we have a "good" Christmas, we've forgotten that at its very heart, Christmas is good. Because it's good news. Because it's a good story. 

Not a good feeling.

So if you want to recapture Christmas this year, step out of the sensation. Get away from the Santas and the reindeer and the snowmen and the lights; turn down the music. And head toward Bethlehem, down the unbeaten path, by the light of the star that guides the way. There, unto us, a child is born.

It's a story you've just got to hear. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Christmas Gifts

If we want to recapture Christmas, we have to first understand how we lost it. And one of the ways that we've lost it is by buying into some of the lies that our culture tells us about this holy day. 

For example, you've probably heard that Christmas is not about receiving, but giving. "It's not what you get; it's what you give." 

This is, of course, a good general principle to live by, most of the time. It is a buffer against our own selfishness and self-centeredness, a reminder that when we give, we have the opportunity to bless tremendously someone else. It keeps us humble, turns our eyes outward, and opens our hands. 

But at Christmas, it's a bald-faced lie, plain and simple. Christmas is not at all about what you give, but what you've received - the Son of God, the Lord Himself, clothed in flesh, wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger. The Light crying out in the dark of night. Life coming boldly into death. 

Because in case you've lost it in all the hubbub, about Christ. 

That's precisely what our culture has tried to get us to forget. They have tried to tell us that it's all about the gifts, about the gifts that we're giving. The wise men, they say, brought gifts, so be wise men; bring gifts. People will love you if you bring good gifts.

I'm pretty sure Jesus loved the wise men even if they'd come empty-handed, for their journey was not about delivering their precious gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their emphasis was not on gift giving. There was nothing urging them, frantically telling them how important it was for them to make sure that the baby Jesus got a bunch of spices and scents and wealth that He didn't even need.

They set out for Bethlehem because their hearts were drawn to see what they had been given. They wanted to see the miracle that was done that night for them.

It's the same with the shepherds. They didn't even have gifts, but they went anyway to see what they had received on that starlit night. God beckoned them to. He said, "Come, see what I have given you."

And now, we tell our families and friends, "Come, see what I have given you." Because we have made this Christmas season all about giving, an act that, as cited yesterday, nearly 70% of us would forego if we could get each other to agree to it. 

That's not - hear me - that's not because we don't love each other or because we don't like giving good gifts. It's because obligatory gift-giving in this particular holiday season feels empty. It feels like a burden, like a bother. It feels like we're missing something important about Christmas. And we are. 

We're missing what we have received. 

Recognizing the gift of Christ, gathering around the baby in the manger, does not make us selfish or self-centered the way that we're told it might if we focused on getting rather than giving. Not at all. Properly recognizing Christ in Christmas makes us more generous, for this is the one gift we have been given that turns us outward. It is the one gift that raises our heads, that lifts our eyes, that opens our hands and positions us to give. Not to re-gift, but to give generously and to share what we have been given.

So if we want to recapture Christmas, we have to first discover how we've lost it. And one of the ways that we've lost it is by losing sight of the Christmas gift - the one we have received, by thinking that this season is all about what we give instead of what we've been given - the most precious gift of all. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Christmas Crazy

Christmas is upon us once more, and as we wait in humble anticipation for Christ to come into our world, it's important that we recognize just how much so many among us have come to hate this season. 

Not because it's about Christ, mind you, but (I propose) because it isn't any more. 

A recent survey revealed that the majority of American adults, something around 70%, would forego giving gifts at Christmas if they could get their family and friends to agree to it. And why? Because gift-giving has become an essentially meaningless task, a chore, an expected but inconvenient expense in a world where we've been told that Christmas is about giving and getting. 

Christmas has become quite a pragmatic holiday, at least for adults. Each year, we give each other a list of things that we need or want, things that we don't want to buy for ourselves, and then we rush around to a bunch of different stores to find the best deals on the things that our friends and family don't want to buy for themselves, and we call it a gift.

The children in our lives are no better off. Sometime around mid-November, we shove catalogs of the latest and greatest toys under their noses and ask them to tell us what they want. Spoiler alert: they want everything. I asked one of my nephews just yesterday what he wanted for Christmas, and he said, plainly, "There's not a lot in the toy catalog that I don't want." 

Alright then.

And then there was some kind of debate about one of the things he said that he really wanted because his dad didn't even recognize this as an actual thing and started to ask him if he was making it up and if it was something he was going to invent, and my nephew said plainly no. The whole matter trickled off, but this morning, I searched the interwebs for it's an actual thing.

But that's just it - we don't even know what we're giving each other any more. It's a what? Okay, whatever. We're giving things we've never heard of to persons we'd rather not give presents to anyway because, you know, who has the time or the money or the energy for Christmas? 

Ho, ho, ho.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. You get that, right? This is not what Christmas was supposed to be about. It wasn't supposed to be about stress and resentment. It wasn't supposed to get to the point where we despise the whole season. It wasn't supposed to make us think of one another as burdens. That's not Christmas. 

I don't know what it is, but it's not Christmas. 

So let's talk about Christmas a little bit this week. Can we? Can we talk about what this is really supposed to be, what God intended this season to be about? Can we acknowledge that so many of us are burned out on Christmas because we've lost our sense of what Christmas even is? Can we cut through some of the cultural hullabaloo and get back to the heart of it all?

Can we recapture what it is about Christmas that sets our hearts right...before we all lose our minds? 


Friday, December 1, 2017

Nothing Doing

So, then, where does this leave us? Because the truth is that the only reason we have come to the conclusion that God works His miracles in quiet ways through men is because most of us have not seen the kind of water-into-wine, death-into-life miracles that were so common in the Gospels. It is our desperation to know that God is still at work that has driven us to accept less of Him.

For we would rather have a God too simple than a God too quiet.

Fair enough, perhaps, but the problem is not really with our God; the problem is with our expectation.

Today's Christians just expect a miracle. We expect God to do the things that we ask Him to do, whether or not they require miraculous intervention or something less. We expect that when we pray and tell Him to heal someone, He will. That when we pray and expect Him to deliver, He does. But a prayer with such expectation is no prayer at all. 

The men and women who cried out to Jesus in the Gospels cried out with humble expectation. They knew that He could heal them, but they understood that it would take an act of the God of Creation - a miraculous act. 

We cry out with indignant demand. We know that God can heal us, and we expect Him just to do so because that's what God does. That's the way that God works. The God that we hold in our minds and our hearts heals us; why is He not healing us? 

It is a far different heart that stands on the side of the road and cries out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!" than the one that stands on the sidewalk and screams, "Lord of my bumper sticker, where in the world are you?" 

You see, we are men and women today who seek God out for our own sake, holding on to all that we believe He has promised to us. But the men and women of the Gospels are those who sought God for His own sake, holding on to all that He promised about Himself. 

It is no wonder we are not seeing miracles these days; we have come too simply to expect them, and we have forgotten what it requires - a reworking, a re-ordering of Creation itself - to make them happen. It doesn't occur to us what God is doing or why He has the power and authority to do it; we simply expect it of Him. 

No wonder we are not seeing miracles.

The truth is that God has not lied to us. The God who says He is the same yesterday, today, and forever is the God who truly is, and He is still working miracles. He is still reworking, re-ordering, re-creating Creation in ways that, if we were really paying attention, would absolutely blow our minds. He is still stepping in, bearing mercy, breathing new life into this world with every single holy breath that He breathes, and most of us are missing it.

We're missing it because we live in expectation, not anticipation. Because we live in indignation, not humility. Because we hold on more to our crosses of fine gold and silver than onto the cross of wood and splinter that actually bore the body of our Christ. 

Listen...we're on the edge right now of a season of miracles. We're there. For the next four weeks, the world will hold its breath, waiting on the birth of the Promised King. We are entering today the season of Advent, and there is no better time than this to recapture what we have lost of our miraculous God. 

For He is about to do an incredible thing, an incredible thing indeed. The God of all Creation is about to re-order it once more, coming into it Himself as a man. As the same flesh and blood in which He created us. You want to see a miracle? It's coming. swaddling clothes. 

And we who wait, we who hope, we who long for this miracle must wait, hope, and long not with self-righteous expectation, but humble anticipation...

Come, miraculous Lord Jesus. Come. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

God of Creation

The miracles of God are miraculous precisely because they break through all that we know of the created world and somehow re-order something, somehow re-create something, somehow set straight something that was broken. No one can tell us how these things were done; no one but God knows. 

This is because God alone is God of Creation, and we are but mere men. 

When we let ourselves believe that the things that men do are God's miracles, we take every bit of the mystery out of it. As we saw yesterday, God no longer need be the God of Creation, but only the God of men, but it is worse even than that.

Because a man can tell you exactly how he did it. The man who designed the robotic legs that helped the paraplegic to walk again has filed a patent on them and included drawings and diagrams that show exactly how it was done. The single mother who pushes through despite all odds has journals and receipts and records of how it was that she got through the years. The scientist who one day develops the cure for cancer will know the chemical formula used to create it. These things are like a child playing with building blocks. He may make an incredible tower, but we would hardly say it is a miracle; he was given the blocks to begin with and can tell you precisely how he did it.

Contrast this with the miracles of God. No one knows how they were accomplished.

No one knows how water turns into wine just by being poured at the command of Jesus. No one knows how a little bit of spit and a little bit of mud, or even just a word, open the eyes of the blind. No one knows how telling a man to get up and walk does something for him that all his thoughts of walking have not done for himself. No one knows how a man stands in the center of the place of worship and stretches out his deformed hand, a hand that would not have stretched out at all just fifteen seconds before. No one knows how a bush burns, but does not burn up.

We cannot explain these things. We cannot take them into our labs and dissect them and discover them and tell you how they were done. We cannot do them ourselves. We just can't. They are beyond us. They are beyond our understanding. They are beyond our best science. 

It is as if the same child takes the same blocks and builds the same tower, and all of a sudden, window boxes with flowers appear. We can explain the tower, but we cannot explain the flowers; we had only given him blocks.

This is because God is the God of Creation. It is because everything lives or dies, grows or stagnates on His Word. 

It's the same thing we're looking at when we look at Creation. For as long as men have existed, they have been trying to explain the universe, but they cannot. They can tell you what it is made of, perhaps - atoms and quarks and a bunch of other scientificky things. They can tell you what bonds these small pieces together and holds them in place. They can expound upon the forces that act upon all of us and make certain things appear to work the way that they do. 

But they cannot tell you how this all happened. 

We are but children playing with blocks, wondering where the flowers have come from. 

That's why we cannot confuse the works of men with the works of God. It is why we must insist that miracles are not made by human hands, even under divine influence. God alone works miracles, for if they are not God's, then they are not truly miraculous. We could just as easily show you how they were done. 

That bothers some, I suppose, but it doesn't bother me. I love the idea of a God who works beyond what I can know, beyond what I can even imagine. I love a God who can take everything that I know about the world and make it, even just once, work differently. I love that millions, billions, trillions of jugs of water have been poured, but only those very few turned into wine. I love that a man who has thought a thousand times of walking need only be told once in order to actually do it. I love that of all of the countless loaves of bread that have ever been torn, only one fed more than five thousand. I love it. It reveals something about God that I could not know if He were not miraculous. 

He is, indeed, the God of Creation. 

Because of this, I can know that what He says is true: behold, He is making all things new.