Recently there has been talk about making Christmas bigger and better than ever. And something about this just hasn’t set right with me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and big family gatherings and all the festivities around the church. But bigger and better than ever? I’m not quite sure those are the values that should qualify Christmas. It almost seems like more and more this is how society is trying to shape what began as something very different. You need to buy this better gift or your friend, spouse, kid, coworker, etc. won’t have a Merry Christmas. You need to make sure your debt ratio is getting bigger and bigger or Christmas won’t be complete. We have to make sure we capitolize on this season in our churches with as many activities to draw people in because this may be the only time of year we get to see them (well at least until Easter). We need to make sure everyone around us knows how big and important this holiday is because otherwise they’ll never understand the true meaning of Christmas.
To me it just all feels a bit off. The idea of shopping and planning and stressing and exhausting schedules seems so far removed from Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. One of my favorite versions of the Christmas story in scripture was actually written by Paul to the church in Philippi. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human.” – Philippians 2:6-7 The Christmas story is best categorized by words like emptied, slave, less, weak, humility, frail, fragile, etc. Not words like bigger and better. When God stepped into our world He became less. God became small. In fact, if you weren’t a shepherd or a magi (I’m not sure if I ever got to be one in one of the kid’s Christmas pageants) you probably didn’t even know about the first Christmas.
You may ask yourself though, why am I taking such issue with this? Because Christmas should represent our values as Christ followers and not as economists. Perhaps we should seek to embody the shepherds and seek out those who appear to be weak, vulnerable, less, frail and fragile this season. And when we find them it might be an opportunity for us to practice a Christmas value as we seek to enter into their situation with them. Perhaps Christmas is more about becoming like the broken, outcast, unloved, untouched, smaller and weaker because that is what God did for us at Christmas. So maybe for a moment this holiday season we all might find a way to try something different. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture or anything massive, but maybe the smallest thing might become the most Christ-like as we seek to emulate the God who emptied Himself and became smaller and less for our sake.
When our first born son was around four years old we thought it was time to introduce him to the book The Polar Express. After all, he loved trains and it seemed like the right thing to do for Christmas. And in true good parenting fashion we decided we should also introduce him to the movie…which quickly became an obsession. In the midst of all of this we also decided that he needed bell; much like the one received by the little boy in the book. However, a four year old doesn’t always understand yuletide physics and quickly became frustrated. You see, he would grasp that bell with his whole and and shake for all it was worth and yet…there would be no ringing. He couldn’t seem to figure out that holding on to that little bell so tight would mute its noise and so of course in his world, “it broke”. After trying multiple times to help him see how to grasp onto the bell and it not clicking, my wife and I conveniently lost the bell until a more age appropriate Christmas season.
The image of a noisy bell brings to mind one of my favorite passages of scripture. In his letter to the Corinthian church the apostle Paul writes about the greatest of gifts, “f I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” – I Corinthians 13:1 The imagery of a resounding gong could even be translated as an empty, loud annoying brass bell. Paul is saying to us that if we don’t have love, all of our blustering lip service to the world around us is just that…noise. And not good noise either…but loud unproductive obnoxious noise. Our world today is full of noise. If you have been out shopping at all during the Christmas season you know this to be true. People hustling and bustling to get everything they need to make the season bright. But I am wondering if this is a huge and loud misrepresentation of the season.
Charles Wesley, a great hymn writer and one of the theological fathers of our faith, once penned these words to describe the Christmas story, “He left his Father’s throne above so free, so infinite his grace. Emptied himself of all but love…” Emptying, letting go and allowing love to be all. This was the Christmas story of Christ. But I think all to often we find ourselves like that little four year old when it comes to life. We hold on to our things, our loved ones, our dogma, our traditions, our way of doing things so tight that all of a sudden we are just making noise. Love isn’t ringing through us because it has become about us and not about those who we are called to love. Love is a hard thing. It’s the one action where when you know all motives are fixed on another then you finally have it right. And that is what the Christmas story was about. God letting go of everything in order to show us love. Maybe we need to let loose of some things in our life so that we can truly show the love of Christ to those around us this Christmas. Maybe then we will no longer be a noisy gong/bell/brass/cymbal, but instead may join in the angelic chorus, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
In 1992 there was a film released starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise that received a lot of notoriety known as A Few Good Men. Although I am sure many of you, like me, may not have seen the entirety of this film, we are all on at least some level familiar with it…or at least one scene. The plot deals with a Marine Colonel Jessup who ordered a code red on a fellow marine that ended up costing his life. Tom Cruise’s character Attorney Kaffe is trying Jessup on this account and it all culminates in one of the more famous dialogue exchanges in all of cinema. “Col. Jessep: You want answers?” “Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.” “Col. Jessep: You want answers?” “Kaffee: I want the truth!” “Col. Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!” You can’t handle the truth…wow. And yet on some level he was right. Kaffee, like many other characters in the story and many of us have a version of the world that exists in our minds that if it gets challenged could really upset the balance.
I wonder if this is ever something we struggle with when it comes to our living out the life of Christ? I especially tend to think on this during this season in the life of the church known as Advent. It’s a season of preparation and expectation for the coming of Christ. But all to often it becomes a season of stress, busyness, economic abundance and distractions that couldn’t be further from the truth of what the Christmas story was all about. Even though the book of John doesn’t formally retell the Christmas story, the writer does give us a testimony as to what this story was all about. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14 The Word of God himself, Jesus, took on flesh and came to us full of grace and truth. I love this last phrase. Full of truth…what is that truth? That we are hopelessly lost without God. What is that grace? God has made a way for us to be found.
Sometimes I think we haven’t been able to handle this truth. I don’t care if you are a brand new believer, still seeker, or someone who has been in the church all your life. To think you have a chance at making it without God’s grace daily being poured out into you and through you is another version of the truth altogether. Even the apostle Paul, towards the tail end of his faithful ministry had this to say, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” – 1 Timothy 1:15 I wonder if we live out of this truth or if we somehow have started living into another version. A version that says, ‘I’m okay’. A version that validates our comfort, our possessions, our indifference towards others, our embracing of ideologies not of God or our piety. Jesus himself said that He was the truth and here is someone who was called a friend of sinners, prostitutes, drunkards and tax collectors; a blasphemer and the son of the devil. How often does our truth align with Him? Or has our version of truth aligned us so well with society that we don’t subvert the selfish norm anymore?
Maybe during this season of Advent we might find that we can’t handle the truth…but that through the grace offered to us through the Word made flesh, we just might try.
The year was 2005…at least I think it was. And my wife and I were attending a youth conference in good ‘ol Nashville, TN. We were returning to the exhibit hall after lunch and had some take-out from the restaurant with us when we saw a homeless man on the sidewalk. I approached him and asked him if he might like my half-sandwich and fries and he was very grateful for it and then he asked if he might give us a hug. How could we refuse him? He then proceeded to hug my wife and I for no less than 3 or 4 minutes. It really was rather uncomfortable for the both of us…my wife really isn’t a hugger. But there we were, caught up in this embrace that for a moment made us feel incredibly uncomfortable, incredibly vulnerable and incredibly human. We both came away wondering how long it had been since that man had received any human contact and it floored both of us to think that it might have been ages since he received a hug.
I don’t know how many of you reading this frequent concerts and/or musical festivals. I myself really enjoy them, I just can’t always afford to go. But there was this weird phenomena that started to occur around the turn of the millennium that kind of creeped me out at first. You would see people walking around with signs that simply read ‘free hugs’. And people would walk up to them or visa versa and receive a free hug. Sometimes these would be full on huge embraces and other-times quick little side hugs but it just seemed to me to be the weirdest thing until I understood the power of an embrace.
You see, there is this amazing focal point in the Christian story that is central to who we are that I think we miss sometimes. The writer of the book of John puts it this way, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” – John 1:14 The most basic and fundamental truth of the good news that we as Christians base our entire existence around is that God became like us and lived with us to show us love. Divine love was best exhibited by God putting on flesh and living among us. We have a fancy word for this in the church and that word is ‘incarnation’. The greatest way that God knew to show us his amazing love and grace was to put on flesh and live with us…be with us…share space with us…
This morning I was given a simple reminder of the power of a hug. Without word, warning or invitation my 5-yr-old daughter walked up and gave me a big hug. In that moment I was reminded of the fact that there is something so powerful and assuring about the touch and presence of another. I reminded our church last week of our role as “Christ’ ambassadors” in the world today and I think that if we truly ’embrace’ this calling we might find ourselves handing out a lot more hugs and being present with a lot more people. We really never know what people are going through, what kind of assurances or judgments they are receiving in life or what things are weighing heavy on them. And truthfully, you never know what a hug might do.
Sometimes there’s a word that keeps coming up in your world regardless of the context. For instance, as many of you know, the Arps are in the process of moving. And so on many of the boxes that contained our earthly possessions we printed the word “Fragile”. And not because we are necessarily particularly fond of these possessions, but more than likely because we cannot afford to replace said possessions. These last few days this term has also taken on new meaning to me as I became the victim of one of the latest strands of a stomach virus and realized just how “fragile” I was. There is nothing like twenty-four desperate hours spent clinging to a ceramic bowl to remind you just how delicate your body’s balance is. To think that the body can be completely disrupted or even destroyed by an entity that is roughly 1/100th the size of an average bacteria.* It gives whole new meaning to the word “fragile”. And yet, at this time of year this takes on even more meaning for those of us belonging to The Way.
Our entire faith walk is built around the belief that our God took on flesh and made his dwelling among us. The apostle Paul puts it this way in in his letter to the church in Phillipi. “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” – Philippians 2:6-7. Now let’s think a little bit about the gravity of that. God, who existed fully in the Triune form before the world began, chose to empty himself of all Divine Power in order to become human…in order to reconcile us to Him. He chose to embrace all of our fragility in order to redeem our humanity. This is a whole other spin on the huge expansiveness of Advent.
To think that God would choose to experience all that we experience. That he would willingly suffer through the fragility of human pain, sickness, weakness, grief, etc. in order to show us what love made flesh looked like is beyond massive. This is the gospel. And to simply call this good news is like calling an 8.0 earthquake a slight trimmer. This is the greatest, most insane, logic-defying, life-giving, death defying, event the universe has ever, or will ever know. And the wonder behind it all is that He looked at us in our fragile state and wanted to do it. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6-8
I know what fragile things look like. I know what it feels like to be fragile. And I belong to a God who chose to become fragile to redeem His bride, the church and I can’t think of anything more amazing to celebrate this Christmas season.
* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virus accessed on December 23 2014 at 7:36 AM
As most of you who occasionally read this blog know I am a very urban person. I am always up on modern lingo and so throwing out a title like, ‘where u at’ should in no way be surprising. In fact I am always hip to the jive talk of youngsters around me and therefore connect oh so well. But enough about my linguistic morphing, although it does lend itself to a certain subject I have been wrestling with as of late.
This last Monday I had my normal day off which I always look forward to. Usually my schedule on Mondays looks a bit like this…… And so you can see why I look forward to it. I usually just hang with my wife and kids and we just see where the day takes us. And this last Monday was no different, except that at the end of the day I couldn’t tell you what I did. I couldn’t tell you what funny things my kids did or said and I am not sure I can remember any of the subjects my wife and I talked about. I found myself at the end of the day asking if I was even present that day. It was just sad. But how often do we find ourselves guilty of this trap. How often do we find ourselves wishing that the day would just end so we can get on to the next one? The average human life span is roughly about 28,000 days and sometimes we find ourselves not even living those.
So why all my concern? It has to do with presence. You see, I think the thing that set Jesus apart (aside from the fully God/fully man thing) the most was his ability to be fully present in any and every situation. The writers of the gospels would put it like this, “…When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them…” – Matthew 9:36 or “…When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, Zacchaeus, come down immediately…” – Luke 19:5. It really didn’t matter what Jesus was engaged in, He was present. He saw the needs all around him in every moment and lived life in that fashion. One of my favorite verses in John goes like this, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10. And maybe that idea of life abundantly is life lived out in fullest presence in every situation.
It’s Holy week this week. The week that we Christians set aside to remind us of the passion of Christ and His resurrection. But I like to think it is also a week to remind us of God’s physical presence in Christ and continued presence through the Holy Spirit. And that because of that presence we are empowered to live fully present in every moment. After all, we only have 28,000 days…are we making the most of them or wishing them away. May you find a way to be fully present and live life more abundantly today for the sake of the Kingdom. And then you probably won’t have anyone ask “where you at” again because it will be apparent to all.
The story goes a bit like this. I received a call from a mother of a student last Sunday as I was getting ready to head home. Evidently her son had gotten a flat tire and was stranded on the side of the road having never really changed a tire before. So I gallantly rode in to help out. Strangely enough he had made it down the road a ways and was parked in front of a church. So I jumped out to help out and found out we were in for more than we thought. Evidently the tire had rusted/froze onto the wheel well and there was no budging this thing. Although, we did have a couple of guys try to stop by and help us. The first, who was smoking like a chimney jumped out even though he was late to a meeting with some guys about a job. In his attempts to help us he even let a few choice words fly. And he apologized sincerely for his inability to help. The second guy who stopped by was covered in ink from head to toe and also had less than desirable language. But he even worked for a tire shop and helped us to realize our efforts were futile and we would be better off calling a tow-truck; which was the eventual solution. But the weirdest part about all of this is that it was 12:30 PM on a Sunday in front of a church, twenty degrees outside and not one person in “church clothes” stopped to ask what was going on or even offered help.
Kind of reminds me of a similar story. It goes a bit like this, “Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man. “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’ “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?” “The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded. Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” – Luke 10:30-37 The Message
So my question is, what keeps us from compassion? Lunch appointments…the cold…not wanting to get our clothes dirty? I just hope that maybe the next time we encounter that moment for Christ’ action that the roast and potatoes can wait.