Monday, December 31, 2007
And so December is a mad rush of buying and scurrying and hurrying. And then Christmas Day comes we exchange presents and eat a big meal. We wake up the next morning with post-Christmas hangover. And more than a few of us are both relieved that it's over and wonder how we managed to "miss Christmas" again this year. We box up the decorations with a mixed emotions and move on to New Year's resolutions.
In the midst of this pattern in my own life, I've deeply appreciated my new-to-me Anglican church experience. The Anglican church emphasizes waiting and anticipating during the Advent-weeks leading up to Christmas. So much so that if you're "a real Anglican" you don't decorate the house or the tree or listen to any Christmas music or wish anyone a "Merry Christmas" until the day of. It's all about longing and expectancy--not only longing for Jesus to come in the flesh but also a longing for his return to earth to make all things right.
When Christmas finally does come it's not just one day. It's twelve days. The pressure is off to have a mystical, magical, spiritually-ecstatic experience on December the 25th each year. Twelve full days to allow the enormity of the incarnation event sink in, take root, make its' home in your heart, mind, and soul. There are twelve full days to listen to Christmas music with impunity.
So I'm still listening to my Charlie Brown Christmas, long after the local mix station has gone back to their normal format after being "the Triangle's official Christmas music station" (much to the relief of the dj's, I'm sure, who were forced to endure the same 20-song playlist for the previous four weeks...which, now that I think about it, isn't any different from their normal format). And I'm loving that today is seventh day of Christmas. Slowing down long enough to enjoy and actually experience life rather than just hurry through it is something I need plenty of help with.
Friday, December 28, 2007
But anyway, here are some of my first attempts with her camera--some fun photos of Christmas 2007.
Here's Zoe trying to be Christmas coy. One of the few moments she has her pacifier out of her mouth...she did have (and continues to have) a pretty quality cold, so there's some good gunk around her nose in this pic.
Here's Emma Kate on her newly-acquired throne.
Below is Davis feeling a lot of Christmas love.
And lastly, this great shot captured by Kelly of Zoe sitting at her new craft table in the light of Christmas morning sunrise.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
So I realized over Christmas what it was as a kid that at least in part made Christmas such a magical time. There was a sense in my imagination that something that was waiting for me on Christmas morning could radically alter my world for the good. My world was simple and small. It did not take much to turn it in significantly different and wonderfully better directions: the right toy car, a video game system (never did get that Atari that was at the top of my list for several years), a new bike, etc.
So on the days leading up to Christmas I lived in expectation and hope and anticipation of how my Christmas morning loot would radically alter my life. And I can't remember ever being disappointed as a kid...even when I didn't get my Atari.
I remember the first Christmas I did feel disappointed about Christmas morning. I was in Junior High, that awkward time of transition and change where my head and ears were grossly disproportionate to the rest of my body. My world was getting bigger (like my ears) and more complex. Packages and gifts weren't going to change it nearly as easily. I couldn't articulate this at the time, I simply realized that my expectations of Christmas had be ratcheted down.
I'm not sure what to make of all this apart from observing it and perhaps stating that it's not a bad thing as a kid to have a small world that is easily made much more fun. In the Scriptures Paul states that when he was a child he talked and reasoned as a child and then when he became a man he put childish things behind him. This is not to say that childish things are inappropriate for a child. Just not for a grown man or woman.
So it would be a little messed up for me as a thirty-three year old to have that same giddy expectation that Christmas morning's presents would change everything. But now I get to enjoy watching my kids have that hope. And I rest in the bigger reality of One Christmas gift that started it all that really did change things once and forever.
No, not the Atari.
Monday, December 24, 2007
The best gift I ever received was easily a gift I got from my brother one year for my birthday. We were both two years out of college. I was in Richmond, working with InterVarsity at Virginia Commonwealth University and things were more or less falling apart. Daniel was in seminary in Philadelphia.
Our relationship had been fairly good since high school and through college. But we were in a hard place at that time. I was insecure in my work (the chapter was falling apart, after all) and I wasn't sure that my brother (a.k.a. "the smart one") theologically agreed that para-church ministry was a legit thing. We had a couple snippy conversations. Things were a little tense.
So my b-day rolls around in late-February and I get a thick envelope in the mail from him. Enclosed is a pocket-sized calendar. He has marked off every-other-week as a "call from Daniel" week. There's a note enclosed. His birthday gift to me is that he is committing to call me every other week for the next year.
He sticks by his commitment. He calls me every-other-week for the next year. It is the turning point in our adult relationship. Nowadays, we talk just about every week. Daniel is far and away the person outside of Kelly that knows me the best and that I can talk to about anything. He gave me the gift of himself that year, it changed everything.
This self-giving is the heart of the Christmas story. An old Puritan prayer says something to the effect of in Christ Jesus God has given us so much that heaven can give no more. God gives us the gift of Himself. It is the deepest need of all of us, the place of redemption and hope and life for some, the place of stumbling and final and ultimate rejection for others. If the Christian story is true and God Himself has come to get us, then it can be nothing other than ultimately definitive for all of us.
Friday, December 21, 2007
Several years ago my wonderful wife (who just joined me at the ripe age of 33 the other day, btw) invented a word that sums up both of our tendencies during times like these: catastrophize.
To catastrophize is to cull through a particularly challenging time of life and magnify all that is hard while carefully avoiding anything hopeful or good. You then extrapolate all the hard things over the next fifty years of your life. Tah-dah, you've just managed to catastrophize! See how easy that was? Don't we all feel better now?
This is probably indicative of some deeper psychological issues, at least in me. But that's for another days post.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Late last fall I was meeting with a student who was going through a mini-faith-crisis. Some of this was personal, some of it was with the church. We talked some about the person stuff, then I asked her about her struggles with the church.
Her frustrations with the church was the usual cast of characters: the church was full of hypocrisy, the church was picking and choosing which Scriptures to follow, the whole conservative Christian = Republican politics, the church seemed overly-simplistic in how they thought about faith and the world around them, the church didn't serving the poor, the widows, the orphans. The more we talked, the more she got amped up. The church had pretty much failed in every area she could think of.
But here's what became clear as we talked: the category of "the church" wasn't anything that corresponded to any sort of reality. "The church" became a catch-all for every possible negative stereotype and disappointment that she could be frustrated about. "The church" was just a giant pinata for her to work out all her frustrations with just about everything that was wrong with the world.
This happens with my Bible-belt students all the time. They come to UNC, meet thoughtful and critical people from all over the place, and they begin to resent their churched upbringing for not being interested in the things that seem to really matter in the real world.
But here's the problem: "the church" is not just this giant catch-all for all the wrongs in the world. "The Church" is a huge, glorious, stumbling, wonderful, mixed-up community of 2,000 years of broken and redeemed people who are in process. It is not all bad. It is not all good. It is a real, dynamic community of people--people who, according to our own theological understanding of the world, are created in God's image but who are cracked by the fall and by sin.
Without a nuanced understanding of the church, it is easy to either overly-romanticize the church or to overly-condemn the church. Both extremes are simply two sides of the same coin: demanding a perfect Bride for a perfect Christ before Her perfection has been made manifest. One side ignores the ugly parts, the other ignores the beauty that is already being worked out here on earth.
Jesus tells a parable where an enemy sows weeds in with the wheat. The servants ask the master if they should go through and remove the weeds but the master says to wait until the harvest so that none of the good wheat is lost. And so it shall be with the church. There is much that is broken in the church; there are many who claim to be Christ-followers who simply grasp for power, who manipulate, who steal and lie and exploit. They shall be dealt with. But not until the end.
In the mean time, there's two things we know about the church: 1. It is full of broken and messy people who we must not expect either too little or too much from. and 2. Jesus is not ashamed to call Her his beloved Bride. Holding on to both of these helps us to live in the tension of our own experience and understanding and evaluation of "the church" in all its' beauty and brokenness.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
My friend went on to reflect that this is a pivotal place of difference between the church and the parachurch. Parachurch ministries have "mission" at the very core of their culture and they can afford to continue to have mission at the forefront of their values. Churches, by contrast. often have to choose between mission and tending to the people in their congregation.
Of course, these two aren't always in tension. But there seems to be critical junctures in the life of Christian organizations when they have to choose between mission and accommodation.
In one of the gospels, Jesus' last words are a resounding "GO!" And that "go" has echoed throughout the past two thousand years of global history--sometimes faithfully, sometimes less than faithfully.
So I love mission. Not at the expense of people but as an opportunity to bless people. And I love the church, especially when it's on mission. And I'm quite content for now to be in para-church world where I don't have to apologize quite so much for having mission at the forefront.
My guess is that one day I'll end up in church-land. Hopefully my experience of mission at the forefront in InterVarsity will be a blessing to me and to the people I have the opportunity to serve and work with.
Monday, December 17, 2007
Here are some of the highlights of Jesus' suffering:
-Jesus suffers death so that he might taste death for everyone (2:9)
-Jesus suffers in order that he might be made perfect (2:10)
-Jesus suffers to be able to help us/empathize and sympathize with us in our own struggles (2:18)
-Jesus suffers in order to learn obedience (5:8)
There's a couple of take-homes here.
First, Jesus is God become human. The "lowest common denominator" in all our shared humanity is suffering. Certainly suffering is not distributed equally across all people.; indeed, some seem to get through life with very little obvious suffering. But suffering is nevertheless the most commonly shared experience in all of humanity. We suffer, and so Jesus does as well.
But second, notice that there's always an "in order to" or "so that" attached to Jesus' experiences of suffering. Jesus enters into suffering not merely to experience it and so to throw a meaner pity-party for us when we, too, enter into suffering. Instead, Jesus enters into the full experience of suffering in the land of the ruins and he redeems it.
The tragedy of life here among the ruins is not that some suffer but that some suffer without purpose, without some sort of redemptive benefit on the other side. Jesus enters into all our suffering and he does so in order to ensure that for all who will trust him, walk in him, live in him, for all who would be united with him, all our sufferings might be forced to serve us rather than the other way around. The tyrant of suffering which once held us captive has now become our servant. In Christ, all of our hardships must bless us.
Of course, we do have a critical role to play in this. Apart from faith-full perseverance sufferings can bear the fruit of cynicism and despair and bitterness in our hearts. And so the call from the Scriptures to hold on, to walk in this way by faith no matter what. The promised rest for our souls is ahead.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
And so last night as we wrapped up our time together, I was actually a little sad. Our Regional staff team is spread out across Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. There are many friends working in far-off places that I see only rarely.
But then this afternoon I walked through the door. And there was my four-year-old son, Davis. With a sweet smile and a big hug he ran up to me with the best greeting any daddy could receive: "I missed you daddy."
Son, I missed you too. It's good to be home.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Last year at this time on campus the number of students in spiritual, emotional and/or academic crisis was overwhelming. Last year at this time on campus I was embroiled in more conflicts with students than I've ever been before--some of it was my fault or made worse by how I handled the situation, some of it was making hard, right decisions that my staff team and I took heat for.
I have to fundraise to be on campus. That is, friends and family and local churches and alumni give money each year to pay my salary and expenses and all that. This can be a serious place of stress and difficulty for many staff. But I'd never had any troubles raising my budget...until last year. The money wasn't coming in as it had in the past. And I wasn't sure where it would come from.
Last year at this time at home, we were in serious financial anxiety. In the previous twelve-ish months we had over $10,000 in home and auto repair that had wiped out our savings. We were one blown head gasket or water pipe bursting away from having to consider doing something fairly drastic like sell our house or a body part on Ebay. And we were stressed.
And so I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment as I've been thinking about redemption to set up redemption's marker.
Last Friday afternoon I met with my last group of students for the semester. As I walked across campus and towards my car, I was teary-eyed. While no semester of ministry with students is pain or drama-free, this semester has been a very sweet one. I've seen the Lord deliver students from hard places. I've seen the Lord take young leaders and mold them into wise and strong ones. I've seen students move from places of isolation and loneliness to making significant decisions for community that has paid off in much blessing. I have seen God work and bless and multiply the ministry.
It has been a sweet, sweet semester on campus.
Last summer, the Lord raised up donors to help to keep me on campus. A couple of major donors literally contacted me out of the blue to ask if they could support me. God has provided.
At home, we had the addition of Emma Kate in early September. Before she was born I looked at the calendar and thought that by the time mid-December rolled around, we'd be more or less toast. Given the track record of our first two kids, sleep was not going to be had for the first eight to twelve months.
But for the most part she has been a dream baby. She is laid back and flexible and she sleeps like a champ. And now she readily gives sweet smiles to her mom and dad and big brother and big sister.
And so I head into this Christmas season with much to be thankful for. I have already received a bevy of gifts from the Lord. Gratitude to the Lord does not come as easily for me as complaining to him does. This redemption's marker is one way for me to help change that.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Good luck with that.
If redemption is the universal cry of our souls, what sign or proof do we have either in our own personal experience or the experience of human history that we are able to secure that redemption for ourselves?
Redemption, that is the making right of all the broken places in our lives, seems to require some sort of in-breaking from the outside. To draw upon my eleventh grade chemistry recollections, if our lives are "closed systems" then we are stuck with our own baggage and redemption is impossible. If all of human history is a closed system then humanity as a whole is doomed.
But the Christian story is that the precise in-breaking that is needed to turn the story around has happened. When we were stuck in our regrets and guilt and shame, God came to get us. God himself has become one of us, entered into our regrets and guilt and shame and finally into death itself and overcome all of it. He has redeemed all of History in precisely the only way it could be redeemed.
And so you and I don't have to struggle and strive for the redemption our souls long for. It has been fought for and won already on our behalf and it's now offered to us as a free gift.
Friday, December 07, 2007
Here's what I know about you: in order to put as much distance between you and that stuff, you try to do things. If you're an over-achiever, you work hard to over-achieve. If you're a thrill-seeker, you thrill-seek. Maybe you watch t.v. or watch movies or smoke pot or drink or go to church or help out at a homeless shelter or throw great parties.
But here's the problem with that: all that baggage doesn't go away. Memories haunt us. A picture, a word, a phrase, a smell, sometimes just for no reason whatsoever it just all comes back. And we realize that no matter how hard we try to put the pedal down and try to convince ourselves that all of that is behind us, we can never put enough distance between our baggage and who we are today to live free.
The earliest Christians were adamant about a number of things: 1. Jesus is Lord. 2. We are not. 3. That is good news.
Of course, it never sounds like good news. The original temptation was "you'll be like God." And so the whole history of humanity is about people trying to live out God-delusions. With the amount of wealth and technology, 21st century Americans live it out about as "well" as any people in the history of the world.
But here's why it's good news for you and for me today that Jesus Sits as Lord; why it's good news that He's Lord and you and I are not. If He is Lord then your crap does not have the last word on you. Jesus does.
Your baggage that is just a breath away from all crashing down on you today does not define you. He does. What Jesus has to say about you is the most true thing about you, not the voices in your head. You are not Lord of your own life. Jesus is. His work and word defines you, not your work and words.
Some people spend their whole lives attempting to escape this reality. But we don't have to. This is a gift. To be free from the tyranny of our baggage of shame, regret, anger and guilt and to live under the umbrella of grace and mercy and love is the invitation of Christmas.
Jesus is Lord. You and I are not. Hope has the last word on you today. And He has already won.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Last week my good friend Marshall had a post where he offered up his favorite Christmas music. Mostly I've got a random collection of random stuff, but I've got my top 3 that I will hereby share with you:
3. Amy Grant's "Home for Christmas." This cd got me through some dark days in college--I was playing it in March to try to not be depressed and it mostly worked.
2. Charlie Brown Christmas Album. Some of the sweetest, laid-back cool, pensively warm songs ever written and performed, captured for our enjoyment. You can get this one at your local Starbucks, which I did last year. Best $15 I'd spent until...
1. Handel's Messiah. I downloaded this on Itunes a couple weeks ago and I cannot stop listening to it. Some of this is because of the memories--my mom is a choir director and I feel like I grew up listening to her practice it with her choirs at least a half-dozen times. But the richness of the Scriptures and the power of the music has really carried me into this Advent season.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Hebrews is one of the hardest books of the Bible to understand. It's also sometimes called "the fifth gospel" because it focuses so much on the person and work of Jesus Christ. The first few chapters have made for surprisingly good Advent reading. Preparing for Christmas in the midst of everything that leads up to Christmas takes a lot of work for me.
One of the things that Hebrews is big on is that Jesus is sitting. The author (whoever he or she might be, no one's quite sure) mentions it throughout the book. Jesus does all this crazy stuff and then he sits down.
One of the dominant compare/contrasts that the author of Hebrews works throughout the book is Jesus as compared to the Old Testament high priests. The high priests are the religious leaders who offered sacrifices on behalf of the Jewish people, the most significant being the sacrifice on the day of atonement.
I once heard a sermon on this whole idea of Jesus sitting in Hebrews. The speaker was pointing out that in the Old Testament we have a pretty detailed description of the temple and there was no place for the high priests to sit. There were no chairs in the temple. That's because the work of the high priest was never, ever done. There were always more sacrifices to be offered. Every week, every month, every year the sacrifices had to be made over and over and over again.
So here's where it gets good: Jesus is the high priest who sits down. It is finished. There is no more sacrifice to be made for sin. Not for my sin. Not for your sin. Sin and death no longer have the last word. Jesus does. Life does. No one has to do anything more to take care of our guilt, our shame, or our regret. We don't have to try to work it off or perform better to try to make up for what we've done. We don't need someone else to present a sacrifice for us. Jesus is Lord over all things and so Jesus sits. Hope wins.
Jesus sits. Good news for you and for me this week as we start a new week and a new month that culminates in the celebration of the birth of our Great High Priest who loves us and who died to take care of all of our junk for us.