Of Embryos and the Incarnation: a Christmas Meditation

Mary and child JesusAnd the Word became an embryo…

 
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, what is theologically called the Incarnation. God the Son, the Word, took on flesh and dwelt among humanity, being both fully God and fully Man (John 1:1-14). He did this to deal with our sin. The sole purpose of his birth was to grow up and die, thereby dealing with the darkness of sin us that separates us from the Light of Life (Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:11; 24:45-47; Isa. 9:2-6; 53:4-12; Jn. 1:9-13). Yet rarely have I stopped to consider the magnitude of the fact that Jesus did not appear on the scene as an adult or fully developed. Continue reading

Why the Prosperity Gospel angers me

941678_22182854The Prosperity Gospel gets a lot of hype – both positive and negative – in evangelical circles. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to believe that Jesus wants us to have our best life now or that by trusting him all of our problems will disappear? Who doesn’t want to pay their bills, have a nice house, be healthy, or live in peace? Many Christians have experienced the physical blessings of God in Christ, and that is something to rejoice over and sing about.

Yet is this prosperity truly the focus of the Gospel message? Is this what Jesus came for; is it why he died? The theology of the prosperity gospel has always bothered me intellectually, but recently is has also angered me experientially, sounding like a clanging cymbal in the midst of difficult circumstances. It has been the joining together of theological reflection and experience that has caused me to take seriously the danger which the Prosperity Gospel presents. There are five key areas where I see this gospel being theologically and experientially untenable, undermining the true beauty of hope in Christ. Continue reading

After the Elections, Where do we Find Stability?

This week was both historic and emotional for our country. Many are weeping and many are rejoicing. One thing that has become abundantly clear to me is that we are a nation that desperately desires security and stability. While we are a nation divided on how to attain it, it is something we all are pursuing. The problem is that no matter how good or bad any political party is their promises of stability eventually fail some or all of us.  So as we enter into the first weekend after the election I’m wondering, what do we look to for stability in life? Continue reading

In the Midst of Peril

Today is not an easy day for me, which I’m sure many can relate to. In the midst of difficulties questioning God’s goodness is not reserved to the Atheist and Agnostic. Every Christian I know, including myself, has at one point or another faced pain. And in the pain we’ve wondered where God disappeared to. If he is good and just, why does he allow certain things to happen? If he loves us, why doesn’t he step in and stop the pain? It’s a very personal question that touches us all. As an apologist, I wrestle with this not only intellectually, but spiritually and emotionally.

In this post I don’t want to give you all the intellectual reasons on why you can trust that God is good (though I will recommend you listen to Lee Strobel’s talk on why God allows suffering here.) Instead, I want to share with you a thought close to my heart and a prayer.

One of my favorite verses is found in John’s Gospel. On the night Jesus was betrayed, a few short hours before he went to the cross, he looked at his disciples and said something very profound. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” This is a big promise from a man about to die. Yet it is a promise he can make and keep because he did not stay dead. He is alive. He has defeated, is defeating, and will ultimately defeat all that is wrong and evil; not only the evil out there, but the evil within me. He is my reason for hope and trust in the goodness of God, because he is God, the Word made flesh.

The prayer I want to share with you comes from a book called Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. It’s not nearly as archaic and boring as the title sounds. It’s an amazing little book filled with prayers that beautifully show what it looks like to know God and to communicate honestly with him. Wherever you are in questioning God’s goodness, I hope it speaks to you as it has me.

Peril

Sovereign Commander of the Universe,

I am sadly harassed by doubts, fears, unbelief,

In a felt spiritual darkness.

My heart is full of evil surmisings and disquietude,

And I cannot act faith at all.

My heavenly Pilot has disappeared,

And I have lost my hold on the Rock of Ages;

I sink in deep mire beneath storms and waves,

In horror and distress unutterable.

Help me, O Lord,

To throw myself absolutely and wholly on thee,

For better, for worse, without comfort,

And all but hopeless.

Give me peace of soul, confidence, enlargement of mind,

Morning joy that comes after night heaviness;

Water my soul richly with divine blessings;

Grant that I may welcome thy humbling in private

So that I might enjoy thee in public;

Give me a mountain top as high as the valley is low.

Thy grace can melt the worst sinner, and I am

As vile as he;

Yet thou hast made me a monument of mercy,

A trophy of redeeming power;

In my distress let me not forget this.

All-wise God,

Thy never-failing providence orders every event,

Sweetens every fear,

Reveals evil’s presence lurking in seeming good,

Brings real good out of seeming evil,

Makes unsatisfactory what I set my heart upon,

To show me what a short-sighted creature I am,

And to teach me to live by faith upon thy blessed self.

Out of my sorrow and night

Give me the name Naphtali –

‘satisfied with favor’ –

Help me to love thee as thy child,

And to walk worthy of my heavenly pedigree.

Is Faith a Crutch? You Better Believe It!

My four-year-old niece has a little stuffed panda named Pammy. Pammy is her “best friend” and the two of them do everything together. Even though this little bear is falling apart and almost as old as I am (she was mine as a little girl), she is my niece’s favorite toy. When she is sad, Pammy is there. When she’s afraid, she hugs Pammy for comfort. She shares her laughter, jokes, and kisses with this little stuffed animal. The joy and comfort she has received are legitimate. Yet in reality, my niece’s faith in Pammy’s ability to comfort her is a misplaced faith. Pammy is a toy that cannot offer her any real help.

For many, faith in God is similar to my niece’s relationship with Pammy the Panda. You may gain perceived comfort from it, but it’s a fictional comfort divorced from reality. Just as Pammy can’t really protect my niece from her fears, God can’t protect us, help us, or guide us because He’s not real. He may make us feel better, but in reality nothing changes because He’s just a psychological toy. He’s a crutch people use when they don’t understand what’s going on around them and don’t know how to cope with life.

If you had come up to me a year ago and told me my Christian faith in God was a crutch, the apologetic wheels in my head would have begun turning and I would have started sharing with you all the reasons why my faith has legitimate grounds. I would have delved into the evidence for God’s existence and tried to show you that my faith in Him is not wishful thinking. I might have looked at Freud’s understanding of faith as wish-fulfillment and compared it with how C.S. Lewis would respond. Maybe I would have taken you to passages in the Bible that talk about faith’s foundation being built on evidence for God’s existence and loving character. I definitely would have sent you to articles by apologists smarter than I am who have answered this question so well.[1]

But that was a year ago. A lot can happen in a year, and in my case a lot has. In a year I’ve gone through a period of depression, which in all honesty, I’m not sure has fully gone away. I’ve experienced the discouragement of unemployment in a struggling economy. I watched one of my closest friends lose the fight against cancer. I’ve worked through the pain of broken relationships and the loss of trust.  I’ve watched my family suffer and experience injustice that leaves me at a loss for words (which is saying a lot because I’m a very wordy person). When I’ve thought I can’t handle another wave of suffering without shattering into a million pieces, another wave has come crashing down. I’ve questioned my worth, purpose, and God’s goodness. I’ve gotten angry at Him, and agonized over how a good God can allow the personal suffering and injustice I’m experiencing. This past year I’ve had to wrestle through my faith in God where the rubber meets the road.  My faith’s been tested as I’ve had to wrestle through what, or who, I base my faith upon.

So what about today? If you came to me today and told me my faith is a crutch, how would I respond? Well, I still hold to and believe everything I would’ve said a year ago. I still believe my faith rests upon reliable evidence and not wishful thinking. But my response would be quite different.

Is my faith a crutch? You better believe it! In fact, it’s more than that. It’s my life support.  It’s what keeps my heart beating and my lungs breathing. My faith is an acknowledgement that I am utterly broken and weak. I can’t do this thing called life in my strength. My faith is kind of like that mustard seed Jesus talked about. It’s small and has no strength. But my God is strong! I desperately need Him and I have no one else to cling to but Him. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Clinging to Him and not the brokenness of this world and my life is a safe place to rest.

My soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”[2]

 

Unlike my niece who finds fictional comfort and friendship in Pammy the Panda, my comfort comes from choosing to trust that God’s steadfast love and faithfulness in the midst of life’s sorrows is real.  I gladly acknowledge that He is my crutch.


[1] I still recommend you read these articles: “Your relationship with God is just a Psychological Crutch,” http://www.rzim.eu/your-relationship-with-god-is-just-a-psychological-crutch  and “Is Christianity just a Crutch?” http://www.rzim.eu/is-christianity-just-a-crutch

Questioning the Purpose of Life in Toy Story

Have you ever noticed that children’s cartoons often have very adult messages? Recently my niece has fallen in love with the characters of Disney Pixar’s Toy Story. When she isn’t watching the three animated movies, she assumes the role of Buzz Lightyear, running through the house declaring, “To infinity, and beyond!” When I first saw the movies I loved the heartwarming, and often comical, story. Now having seen the movies more times than I can count, I’ve realized that they are much more than the favorite cartoon of my three-year old niece. Through the eyes of a few toys, the human heart’s longing for purpose becomes clear, and I think, the answer to where that longing is found.

As Buzz, Woody, Jessie, and the rest of the toys face their insecurities surrounding their ‘toyness’ and worth, we face with our own human longing for purpose. For example, in the first movie Buzz Lightyear has no idea he’s a toy, believing he’s actually a space ranger on a mission to protect the galaxy. As the story unfolds Buzz discovers who he really is to the undoing of his understanding of reality.

In despair he tells Woody, “I’m just a toy; a stupid, insignificant toy.”

And into his brokenness Woody speaks words of truth, “Look, over in that house is a kid who thinks you are the greatest, and it’s not because you’re a space ranger, pal. It’s because you are a toy. You are HIS toy.”

Buzz had to learn that his purpose and worth was found in fulfilling the role he was created for. He was a toy created for the purpose of being loved and played with by a child. His meaning was found in acknowledging his toyness. As he embraced this reality he found joy, contentment, and peace. When Buzz accepted the love of the child he was made for he found the significance he longed for.

I wonder how often we are like Buzz Lightyear. We have grand ideas and plans surrounding our identity and purpose. Yet there inevitably comes a point in life when we’re confronted with the reality that we’re not all we thought we were. We’re not capable of what we thought we could do. And like Buzz, we’re overwhelmed with our smallness and seeming insignificance. Like Buzz we need to discover our created purpose, our reason for being. Because it is only when we fulfill our created purpose that we find true contentment and peace.

So what is our created purpose? Where do we find our meaning? St. Augustine once said, “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.”

This echoes Paul’s word on humanity’s created purpose: “… that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” And, “All things were created through him and for him.”[1]

Buzz found his worth in accepting his created purpose of being a beloved toy. Likewise, we need to find our worth from accepting our created purpose. We were not created to rescue the galaxy. We were made for so much more. Where is your heart seeking its worth and rest?


[1] Acts 17:26-28; Colossians 1:16

Liberating Weakness

Have you noticed we live in a world that scorns weakness? Evolution tells us life is about the survival of the fittest. The weak disappear while the strong survive. Our culture tells us that happiness, success, and security are for those who have the strength to raise themselves up out of any hardship. If we have more money, more fame, more stuff, or more power we can conquer anything.  We believe weakness means being abused, used, lonely, and miserable. It means you are out of control. To be useless and powerless means bondage, so liberating weakness becomes the driving force of our actions and reactions.

Kelly Clarkson’s song, “What doesn’t kill you (stronger)” powerfully conveys our fear of weakness and our wish for strength and control.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger
Just me, myself and I
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone

These words show the belief we all have that weakness leads to heartache and pain. When I’m weak I’m at the mercy of others. When I’m strong no one can harm me.  I stand tall. I’m never lonely. I’m liberating weakness, my weakness.

As I write this I’m very mindful that I have lived as if I need to liberate the weakness in my life. As a follower of Jesus I’ve acknowledged that I am helpless to fix my brokenness. I need the gift of His grace to make me whole. Yet on a daily basis I live as if loving and serving Him means I have to personify steady strength.  I run from my weakness. When I can’t run anymore I hide. When I can’t hide anymore I avoid it. And when I can no longer avoid how weak I am I try to cover it up. All the while the strength I long for beckons, yet vanishes like a mirage in the desert. Rather than bringing freedom, pursuing strength has left me in bondage.

It shouldn’t surprise me that the Bible has a lot to say about strength and weakness. Its message blows my preconceived ideas of strength right out of the water.  Listen to the words of Paul.

But he (God) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.[1]

Rather than attempting to liberate my weaknesses I’ve found liberation IN them. Freedom comes not from pursuing strength but from pursuing the One who is strong. The more I acknowledge my utter helplessness and look to Christ, the more His power rests upon me. This is the power of liberating weakness.

The world tells me to grow stronger,

Be more independent every day.

But I find that I grow weaker.

Or more like it, I become more aware

Of the weakness that’s always been there.

Yet the weaker I become

The more of Your strength I find.

When I’m lost in the dark,

Your beauty shines.

The less I can handle, the more I see

Your grace really is sufficient for me.


[1] 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV)

Where Were You?

“Where were you?” It is a common question. Parents in fear ask it to their child who wanders off. Spouses ask it when the one they love comes home late with no good explanation. The question is anxiously pondered when communication with a friend is suddenly cut off. It’s a question that often acknowledges unmet expectations. More than simple curiosity, it communicates doubt and mistrust, an admission that a loved one’s behavior is out of character. Is this person who I thought they were?

The Apostle John records a moment in history when Jesus heard the question, “Where were you?”[1] Jesus had three intimate friends in Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. One day Lazarus became deathly ill. It is easy to imagine the fear and anxiety Martha and Mary experienced. The life of their beloved brother was draining away before their eyes. Their hope of security in a male dominated culture was threatening to disappear. What could they do? In their need they turned to Jesus, the one who loved them and whom they loved. “Lord, the one you love is sick.” With confidence and expectancy they sent their message to Jesus. They were full of hope that he would come and fix their brother. He was the Christ, the Healer, and their friend. Of course he would come!

But Jesus didn’t come. Lazarus continued to grow worse until, to the sisters’ shocking grief, he died. Why had Jesus abandoned them in their greatest time of need? He claimed to love them. Yet he ignored their cry for help in their most desperate hour. They longed for his presence and words of comfort. Instead, they his absence and the deafening silence of death.

What would the sisters have thought if they could have seen into the mind of Jesus, perceiving his motives and intentions? John informs us that Jesus was fully aware of all that was taking place. He purposefully delayed going to see Lazarus. He stated that “This illness does not lead to death,” yet Lazarus died! He knew the suffering of sickness and the pain of death Lazarus was facing. He knew the grief of loss, fear of the unknown, and agony of perceived abandonment his friends were experiencing. And still he waited. What kind of love waits like this? What kind of friendship hears about the suffering of loved ones and does not run to offer healing and comfort?

Days after Lazarus had been laid to rest, Jesus arrived to see the sisters. Martha, with all the agony of a broken heart that comes from deep love ran to him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Where were you?!

Most of us have asked this question in the pain of sudden abandonment by a trusted friend. You are afraid of the answer, but love will not let you remain silent. And so you ask, “Where were you?” For Martha, when hope seemed buried with her brother, she chose to cling in faith to the Jesus she knew. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” She chose to trust in the love of Jesus even when His love seemed absent.

To this grieving woman’s trust Jesus gave one of his greatest promises. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Then to the joyful wonder of Martha and Mary the Resurrection and the Life restored the life of Lazarus. The illness did not lead to death. Jesus had been their loving and faithful friend through the valley of the shadow of suffering.

Just a short time later Jesus went to the cross. In agony he cried, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” He died with the crushing weight of the world’s sin resting on his shoulders. Yet, like Lazarus, the story did not end in death. The Resurrection and the Life rose again and lives! He lives and he offers life to all who turn to him and believe.

The love of Jesus sees beyond the momentary afflictions of the present to the greatest good of the future. His love does not end in death but in life. Will you trust him to bring life tomorrow out of death today? Though he tarry, will you wait for him? The Resurrection and the Life has promised that “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” The question Jesus asked Martha nearly two thousand years ago is the question he asks us today, “Do you believe this?”


[1] John 11

What’s so Merry about Christmas? The Agony of Loss, Pt. 2 of 3

This morning I found out that one of my dearest friends and mentor is in the hospital in critical condition. She, like many, has gone through the war against cancer. I have watched her struggle through chemo, a bone marrow transplant, and the painful complications that have followed in their wake. More than the physical pain, I’ve watched a family walk the path of agony that comes from seeing someone you love suffer. The fear and uncertainty of constantly wondering why things aren’t getting better is suffocating.  The most dreaded question of all constantly haunts you, what if things never get better?

Tonight it is hard for me to think about being merry at Christmas. The agony of loss seems too close at hand. Recognizing that my fearful “what ifs” have turned into reality for so many makes the thought of opening presents and going to parties seem shallow and pointless. Losing a loved one, or in my case even the thought of it, is too much to bear.

The agony of loss and the merrymaking of Christmas seem in direct opposition to one another. Joy and loss don’t seem to go hand in hand. Or are they? I tend to forget that what I celebrate during the holiday season is a story of a greater loss and agony than I am capable of comprehending.  At Christmas we talk about baby Jesus “away in a manger.” He’s cute and cuddly with a baby lamb or two nearby. We tend to forget that the baby in a feeding trough was the Creator and King of the universe. We forget he accomplished his purpose for living through his death. What suffering must he have experienced in his life and death, what pain? Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah’s description of the Child in a manger resounded with the anthem of agonizing loss; “Despised, rejected, man of sorrow, acquainted with grief, sorrow, stricken, afflicted, smitten by God, wounded, crushed, oppressed, afflicted,  anguish of  soul, death.”[1]

Jesus knows the agony of loss. He knows what it is to cry out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[2] If the story ended here Christmas would be the greatest tragedy and not a time to celebrate. If all the God-Man can do is sympathize with my suffering then what hope is there? But this is not the end of the story. There is a reason an angel brought “good news of great joy” at the birth of Jesus. There is a reason to hope. The hope and celebration of Christmas is realized on a cross years later when Jesus would die for the sins of the world; my sin, your sin. The hope and celebration of the cross is in the empty tomb three days later. Jesus suffered and conquered the agony of loss so that you and I could know comfort and joy.  Through his great suffering we can know great gain. His loss and death did not end in agony but in the victory of life. He offers us that same victory.

Tonight I sit wondering if things will get better. As I pray for my dear friend and her family, overwhelmed with the grief of “what if” and loss of so many, I hear through my tears the joyful message of Christmas; and I’m filled with hope.

I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people… Jesus has risen, as he said.[3]


[1] Isaiah 53

[2] Matthew 27:46

[3] Luke 2:10; Matthew 28:6

What’s so Merry about Christmas? Do I really want God with me? Pt. 1 of 3

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Jingle bells and ho, ho, ho. We are in the midst of the chaos affectionately known as the Christmas holidays. It’s a chaos that seems to start earlier every year. As much as we all affirm to each other that Christmas is not about consumerism or materialism, our actions seem to indicate this is not the case. From Black Friday brawls to the Christmas Eve rush for that last-minute stocking stuffer, we’re a culture that’s consumed with consumerism. In all honesty, what’s so merry about Christmas? It’s often full of stress from strained relationships, no relationships, or one too many swipes of the credit card. Not even Starbucks’ red cups can fully drive away the nagging sentiment that things aren’t quite right. Is there more? This mess can’t be all there is.

Into this mess the message of the Incarnation, God becoming a Man, resounds. It challenges us to consider why Christmas is merry. It speaks to us about what it means for God to be with us, where true freedom comes from, and the hope of light in the midst of darkness.

Our consumer-happy world is nothing new. Into the chaos of a broken and materialistic culture two thousand years ago, a baby was born with the name Immanuel, which means God with Us. For the follower of Jesus, this is the heart of Christmas. God Himself in Jesus took on humanity. He dwelt among us. Let’s be honest though, do we really want God with us? Is it all that comforting to think of Him living next door or down the hall? A God far away who does His own thing while we do ours is fine. Let Him worry about cosmic things while we go about our own business. We’d rather Him not walk among us, seeing how we live, gazing at us with eyes that penetrate our masquerade of living. Or maybe we long for Him to be with us, but we see the tragedy that our lives have become and wonder why He watches silently from the sidelines. If God is with us, why aren’t things better?

The wonder of Christmas is that in the Incarnation God chose to dwell among humanity with all of our fragility and brokenness. He came as a baby in poverty and became the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief. He chose to fully identify with us, showing us the chaos and futility we’ve created and the peace He freely offers. His life penetrates our living masquerade with the hope of freedom. He has not sat quietly on the sidelines and left us to drown in the filth we created. He entered the filth with us and for us. He dwelt with us to die for us and offers to rescue us from death itself. Into a chaotic world consumed with self and materialism He was born in poverty to die in scorned obscurity. In the words of John Donne, this is the God who dwelt among us, this is why He came.

“The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost a sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day. From the cradle to the cross is an inseparable line. Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter. It can have no meaning apart from that, where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.”[1]

What’s so merry about Christmas? God is with us. Will you welcome Him to dwell with you?


[1] John Donne, “Christmas Day, 1626,” in Sermons of John Donne, ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), 7:279.