The Sweet Victory of Suffering on Top of Suffering

After a recent Saturday training run, a few of us were talking with our coach Amy Begley from Atlanta Track Club about the unexpected women’s results in the 2018 Boston Marathon. She said she believed what helped the top two women was that, unlike their competitors, they were used to suffering. When we stared at her for a second with looks like, “Really? Isn’t any marathon training a form of suffering?”, she added, “I mean, they’re not just used to suffering; they’re used to suffering on top of suffering.”

She went on to explain that many of the elite runners who were favorites to win came from fair-weather states with more favorable training conditions. The top two women did not. The first woman to cross the finish line, Desiree (Desi) Linden, lives in Michigan. (If you think our winter in Atlanta has been cold, talk to a Michigander.) The second woman to cross, Sarah Sellers (who basically was a no name in the running world until April 16), is a nurse anesthetist in Tucson, Arizona. Given her schedule, she had to begin her double-digit-mileage training runs at 4 am before work or at 7 pm after a 10-hour shift at the hospital.

Marathon training in ideal conditions involves suffering. But when having to train in snow and frigid temperatures in the dead of winter, or when having to train well before sunrise or well after sunset, before or after being on your feet all day for work? That’s suffering on top of suffering.

Yet what better preparation for race day – and ultimately for victory?

When the forecast on the day of the Boston Marathon called for gale-force winds and freezing rain, they were ready – because they’d been there. They knew what it was to suffer. As a result, when the real test came, they could handle whatever the race required.

There’s a reason Scripture often compares our life with Christ to a race – and I would add that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Like many of us, I’m good at staying the course when conditions are favorable. When life becomes a tough climb, I may whine or complain some. Add a little rain to that uphill battle, and I might begin sending out invitations to a pity party.

Some of us have said that April has been a hard month for our congregation. We’ve experienced several deaths and cancer diagnoses. Others have said it’s not just the past month. The past year has been hard. Two pastoral transitions, financial challenges, and more. Nevertheless, we’ve stayed the course. We’ve endured. We’ve persevered. We’ve trusted that, in the words of Romans 8:38-39 that our youth shared with us on Youth Sunday, nothing can separate us from the love of God. If God is for us, who or what can be against us?

And I intentionally use the pronoun “we” – because there’s another factor that gave Linden the edge.

Race commentators were surprised when favorite Shalane Flanagan stopped at a porta potty. They were even more surprised when Linden stopped to wait for her. Linden could have seen Flanagan’s pit stop as a chance to get ahead of her competitor. Instead, she saw it as a chance to help her teammate.

According to sports psychologists, Linden’s willingness to support Flanagan and other American runners and get them back on pace allowed her to take her focus off her own pain and suffering and re-direct her energy toward the goal. In Linden’s words, “when you work together, you never know what’s going to happen.”

When going through a difficult season, it might be tempting to do whatever is needed to take care of myself and make sure I come through it ok. Especially in those times, Scripture calls us to a larger vision. When we look beyond ourselves and focus on those around us, when we remember who we are and whose we are, what amazing victory might Jesus accomplish through us together?

….and no offense to Desi, but I’m pretty sure that victory far exceeds the one she received in Boston.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

-Romans 5:1-5

Are You a Dreamer or a Complainer?

Martin Luther King, Jr memorial monument in Washington, DC
Washington: Martin Luther King, Jr memorial monument on September 2, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Are you a dreamer, or are you a complainer?

Today our nation celebrates a dreamer named Martin Luther King, Jr. His speech given at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, is commonly known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. But that wasn’t his original title. His original title was “Normalcy, Never Again.” In fact, the words “I have a dream” weren’t part of his original manuscript that day. He’d spoken that refrain at two other speeches earlier that year in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Detroit, Michigan. But when he stood at the podium in Washington, D.C., those weren’t the words he planned to say.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was sitting behind Dr. King that day as he struggled to find words to connect with his audience. “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” she called to him. He heard her, and so he did. He told them about the dream, and the dream captured hearts and history.

Reflecting on Dr. King’s words fifty years later, in 2013 Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, observed there was another phrase missing from Dr. King’s speech. It was the phrase, “I have a complaint.” Wallis continued, “There was much to complain about for black Americans, and there is much to complain about today for many in this nation. But King taught us that our complaints or critiques, even our dissent, will never be the foundation of social movements that change the world – but dreams always will. Just saying what is wrong will never be enough to change the world. You have to lift up a vision of what is right.”

Do you have a dream, or do you have a complaint?

There’s a culture of complaint that threatens to draw us into its bitter current. Think about the last informal social gathering of which you were a part – standing around the coffee pot at work or the lunch line at school, sitting in the stands watching your kid’s basketball game, waiting in a grocery store line, or engaging in a social media thread. Odds are the conversation around you involved some kind of complaint. The demands of your boss or teacher. The length of the line. Even during celebratory events like National Championships or play-off games, which tends to generate more dialogue – an amazing pass by the quarterback or one lousy call by the referee?

Even in the church….In early November 2001, I was serving as the youth director of a church in Virginia, when the pastor received a letter of complaint against him and the Session that was signed by about 100 members out of a 1,000+-member congregation. When we traced back the letter to when it started, based on how long it would take to write it and generate that many signatures, it would have been roughly mid-September 2001. 9/11, when everything around us seemed unsafe and out of control.

In my experience, when everything around us seems unsafe and out of control, we tend to turn against the one place that should be safe and within our control, and we tend to point fingers at and try to figure out who’s to blame for all of our problems.

Why is our natural inclination to gravitate toward complaint?

Once at a national meeting of college student-service professionals, a dean of students was leading a workshop, talking about things he’d learned on the job. He was remarking on the fact that, wherever you go in American higher education, there’s one gripe you’re certain to hear from the student body. It’s about the food in the dining hall.

Since part of his job was to make the lives of students more comfortable, the dean shared how over the years he’d convened many university committees to improve their campus’ food quality. They polled the student body to find out what students wanted, and they made improvements accordingly. The food got better and better every semester. Yet, over all those years, the dean observed a strange phenomenon: the students never stopped complaining about the food.

“I have a theory of why that is,” he explained to his colleagues. “When a group of students comes together from all over the country, from many different income levels and ethnic backgrounds and religious creeds, who are majoring in everything from poetry to organic chemistry, there’s one topic of common interest any student can raise with any other, and it’s sure to get a sympathetic hearing. It’s the subject of how bad the food is. The food doesn’t even have to be bad for students to complain about it. Because it’s not about the food. It’s about the deeply felt human need for community.”

A culture of complaint is a quick and dirty way to build community. But it’s a false unity. It has no staying power. Once the novelty and emotion around that particular complaint dwindles, people will move on to another complaint. Because there’s never a shortage of complainers.

It doesn’t take a lot of courage to complain. That’s the popular and easy way out. It does take a lot of courage to dream. It takes a lot of courage to dream, even if it might be lonely or cost you something – even if it might cost you everything for the sake of others.

Joseph was a dreamer (Genesis 37:5-20.) I’m an only child, so I can only partially understand this scenario. But for those of you who have younger siblings, how would you respond if your baby brother or sister were to say, “Hey! I dreamt we’re all sheaves of wheat, and suddenly my sheaf is going to rise up, and all of you little sheaves are going to bow down to my sheaf”? Or, “Hey, I dreamt the sun, moon, and all you eleven stars bowed down to me”? I’d imagine his brothers would want to slap Joseph upside the head and make him see stars.

His brothers’ vision was myopic: “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?”

Joseph’s vision, on the other hand, wasn’t myopic, but cosmic. He had the courage to dream of a different world, even if it meant temporarily his world was the pits.

If we keep on reading in Genesis, we find that Joseph endured the pit. He endured Egypt, from finding favor in his master’s eyes to finding himself in prison…to later finding that his willingness to hear and respond to a dream was what got him out of prison.

And later still, in a time of terrible famine, his brothers came to this Egyptian bureaucrat, begging for food (thus fulfilling the dream they’d once found so offensive), and Joseph responded, not with judgment, but with compassion: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20).

How do you know if your dreams are of God? Joseph’s words pretty much sum it up.

There have been some political words said this week that have caused me to consider my own words – how I speak of other peoples, other nations. Over the past few years and especially this week, I’ve thought a lot about my words –  how flippantly I speak of first-world problems or third-world countries, as if there were one, two, three, or more worlds. Or how important pronouns are: which do I use more – “me and I” or “us and we”?

The book which defines my life, the Bible, says there isn’t one, two, three, or more worlds – there is one world. There isn’t us vs. them – there is just us, all of us, God’s children, together. And if my dreams only benefit me and my world, not the common good and the world, then chances are they are not of God.

I’ve certainly been among the complainers and the scoffers. I can be as snarky as the snarkiest of us. Even with this Dopey Challenge in which I participated last week and which I attribute to a long run a while back. We’re told to do our long runs at a conversational pace. I say I did that long run at too conversational of a pace because, somehow at the end of the run/conversation, I’d basically agreed to sign up for the Chicago Marathon and the Dopey Challenge.

In all seriousness, I’m grateful for that conversation. My reaction to the Dopey Challenge before had always been, “A 5K on Thursday, a 10K on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday, a full marathon on Sunday? And then what – knee surgery on Monday?”

In response, one of my running partners said, “Yeah…but what if? What if we could do it?”

“But what if?” Those are the words of dreamers, not complainers. Those who see the world, not as it is, but as it could be.

I heard someone say once, “If your preaching doesn’t make you want to have a getaway car waiting for you at the exit doors, you’re not trying hard enough.” The same could be said of us and our dreams. If our dreams don’t leave us shaking in our boots, then we’re not dreaming hard enough.

Our playing safe will not change the world. Our complaining won’t change the world. At a more basic level than that, our complaining betrays the joy we have in the Lord. Our complaining begs the question of whether we believe the good news is really good and whether we trust that nothing is impossible with God.

Our willingness to dream, on the other hand, shows that, no matter how wild our dreams, there’s no need for us to shake in our boots, for even in our wildest, craziest, most infinite dreams, God’s dreams are wilder, crazier, and more infinite still. From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Now to him who by the power at work within you is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine”or dream, as some translations say.

The good news that is truly good is: God is bigger than we ever dreamed, and we can’t out-dream God.

“Tell them about the dream.” That is still our call today. Among the words Dr. King spoke almost 55 years ago, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah, saying, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

Tell the world about that dream, and trust God to do abundantly far more. And to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Finding the Living Among the Dead

Easter Sunday Sunrise Mediation Based on Luke 24:1-12

Today we gather to celebrate that the old is gone; new life has come. On that first Easter morning, a group of women gathered because they thought the reverse was true: When Jesus began his ministry, they saw their world changed in ways they never thought possible. Jesus healed the sick. He gave sight to the blind. He looked upon the outcasts of society and told them they had worth. He talked of another world – the Kingdom of God, he called it – a world where there was hope, joy, and peace, where there was life – life to the full, he said.

But three days earlier, everything changed. Jesus was nailed to a cross, and it seemed all their dreams were nailed there right beside him. That new world of which Jesus spoke suddenly came to a screeching halt. Life must now return to normal, and death and graveyards were a part of that normal.

When there is a crisis or natural disaster, those first to respond on the scene come looking for signs of life. They turn over every stone in search of the living. But these first responders had no illusions of finding life among the stones, as evidenced by what they brought with them. You don’t bring spices to help expedite the body’s decay unless you expect to find…a body.

However, the body they found is not the one they expected. Jesus’ body is gone. In its place are two living bodies, two men who ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Then they jog their memory: Remember what he told you? How on the third day he would rise again?

I imagine in the hours leading up to and immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion there were whispers about Jesus’ promise to rise again. As time went by, those rumors faded away. But now with this sight – or lack thereof – of Jesus on his death bed, they remembered.

For Peter and the other disciples, the reports of the women also sounded like nothing more than a fairy tale – until Peter goes to the tomb himself, and he, too, finds it empty – and believes. They say seeing is believing. In this case, not seeing is believing.

In a similar way, a few hours later, according to the very next passage in Luke, two of the disciples were walking with Jesus. Luke says their eyes were kept from recognizing him. In most post-resurrection appearances, Jesus appears to people at first as a stranger. It’s a sign of mercy, in some ways. After all, if you or I were to see someone who once was in the grave, it might scare us to our grave. It’s a sign of hospitality, inviting us to recognize Jesus in the strangers we meet today. It’s also a sign of faith – because Jesus knows that faith is much more than what we can recognize with our eyes or touch with our hands.

Later still that day, when the two disciples invited Jesus to stay for supper, they recognized him when he took the bread, blessed it, and broke it. A familiar act to them and to us. And they remembered.

Memory is a powerful thing. Ever been to an Alzheimers or memory care unit for a worship service or hymn sing or Christmas caroling? Even patients who can’t speak a word will spontaneously begin to sing, for long after the mind is gone, the memory remains lodged in the heart.

I think that’s why the word “remember” is one of the most frequent and most important words in Scripture – so that, when we think there’s no sign of life in the world or in our own lives, our memories can bring us back to the truth: “Remember the works of the Lord. Remember you once were strangers. Remember God brought you out of slavery. Remember God’s everlasting covenant with you. Remember…I am with you always.”

That’s also why we gather this morning – to remember this event of long ago. We don’t gather as if at a memorial service to honor the dead. We gather to declare that, where once tombs were a sign of death, they are now a sign and promise of life. Because this tomb is empty, every tomb can now be empty. That Kingdom of which Jesus spoke? It’s not some misguided hope or distant fantasyland that died with Jesus. It’s alive and well, just as Jesus is.

The good news of Easter is that Jesus is on the loose. And so we also are called to be on the loose – by going from this empty tomb to another tomb.

There are plenty of people in this world, in our city, in our neighborhoods – people who have given up hope, who think the grave is the end, that the world is a lifeless place. But you and I live by a different story: Because these women could not find the living among the dead, we can go find the living among the dead. Because Jesus conquered the grave, we can see life where others see death. By pointing to hope where there is despair. By choosing love where there is hate. By seeing value in people whom the world tosses aside. By offering grace when it is least expected. By declaring that that distant Kingdom of God…maybe isn’t so distant after all. We know it. We remember it – because we’ve glimpsed it today. Thanks be to God.

Love One Another – Or Like One Another?

Yesterday morning I found myself wondering what Jesus was doing on the Wednesday of that first Holy Week. We know what he did on Sunday. Tradition says that on Monday he turned over the tables in the Temple. But we don’t get a play-by-play of the rest of the week – until we come to this night, Maundy Thursday, with Good Friday and the cross less than 24 hours away.

None of us knows the exact day we will die. But Jesus did. What would you do if you knew you only had 24 hours to live? Many of us would probably want to spend that day with family and friends, and so did Jesus. He says elsewhere in Scripture how much he longs to celebrate this Passover meal with his disciples. But for the Gospel writer John, it’s not just the meal that is significant, but what happened during it.

Each of the other Gospel writers relates the account of what is traditionally called the Last Supper. John instead shares the account of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17), for to John both events carry the same message. In the conversation during the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples that his body will be broken and his blood poured out for them because of his love for them. Here in John’s Gospel, instead of telling them about his love, he shows his love – by picking up a towel, grabbing a basin of water, and washing their feet. What exactly do a bunch of feet have in common with a nice, fresh loaf of bread and a pretty chalice of wine? Feet aren’t always pretty.  Some of them are kind of funny looking. Most of them are smelly, especially back then when people walked around on dusty roads with sandals. That’s why this job was reserved for the lowest slave in the household.

But it’s not just the foot washers who are humbled by the task, but also the foot wash-ees. Ever had someone wash your feet? Many of us may resist at first like Peter (John 13:8). “Oh, no, I’m too embarrassed to have you wash my feet.” “I have bad foot odor,” or “I haven’t had a pedicure in a long, long time.” Foot washing can be a humbling, vulnerable experience for both sides. Yet Jesus commands us to do it – because Jesus knows that only in moments of humility and vulnerability can the greatest transformation happen.

A few years ago on a youth mission trip to the Dominican Republic, as part of the evening worship one night I invited our group to wash one another’s feet. We took turns, with each person choosing whose feet they wanted to wash. An older sister washed her younger sister’s feet. A man in his 60’s washed the feet of his wife of 40 years. I choose to wash the feet of someone I’d falsely accused earlier that week. We sat in silence for a long time after worship. The next day we would learn that one of the kids – the so-called “wildest” one, the one people thought was far from faith – came to Christ that night. In watching this act of humility and vulnerability, in being willing to be humble and vulnerable himself, he discovered the truth of Jesus’ words: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

Now, compared to laying down one’s life, washing feet may not sound that bad after all, huh? Washing feet may also sometimes pale in comparison to some of the other commands Jesus gives us, like feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, love your enemies. We don’t always – rarely? ever? – like to humble ourselves and be vulnerable. When I was on Young Life staff, I led a weekly Bible study for a group of sophomore girls. One week we talked about humility. The next week I asked them, “So what’d we talk about last week?” One girl quickly responded, “Humiliation!”

Humility can sometimes feel like humiliation. Maybe that’s why we tend to water down Jesus’ command in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give you: that you like one another.” But when we define love as simply liking each other, tolerating each other, being nice to one another, or – here in the South – blessing someone’s heart, there’s an imbalance to the equation: “Just as I have loved you, you also should like one another”?

Jesus calls us to something more: A love that can’t be defined by just trying to do the right thing or be a good citizen. A love that doesn’t aim for the minimal requirement. A love that goes above and beyond, that does the unexpected, that loves and serves even those who deny us, betray us, and desert us. A love, Jesus says, that makes clear that we are his disciples (John 13:35), for no other explanation is humanly possible.

So what do we need to do to love in that way? The answer is found, not in what we do, but in what we know. In verses 3-4, John writes, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had put all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” Jesus knew three things: He knew he was fully in control, he knew where he’d come from and where he was going. In that knowledge, he could get up from the table and humbly serve his friends.

We know those same three things to be true. Scripture tells us that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Matthew 28:18). He’s in control. He’s got this. Scripture also tells us God created each of us – and not just created us, but created us in his image (Genesis 1:27). We know our roots, that we came from our Heavenly Father who loved us enough to create us in his image and to call us his children. And we know where we’re going: Later on in this same conversation, Jesus will tell his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for us in our Father’s house. “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” he says, “I will come again and will take you to myself.” (John 14:2-3). With this assurance that we know the bookends of our life – that we’ve come from God,  that we will return to God, and that in between the two Jesus has us and all things in his hands – we are free to love one another just as freely as Jesus loves us.

So let us share Jesus’ love with one another around the table tonight that we may, too, may get up from the table to extend it to the world.

 

The Golf Course Is Calling

Earlier this week a colleague shared a story about a golf tournament he attended. During the tournament, he heard many of the players complaining about how the course wasn’t as nice as it used to be. Parts of it were overgrown. The grass was greener on other courses they’d seen. The paths had some potholes that made for a less-than-smooth cart ride, and so on. But then he noticed one player who didn’t seem bothered by the change in terrain. He just kept doing what he was there to do: play golf. “I think there’s a lesson in that,” my colleague said.

Yes, there is.

Our terrain has changed much in recent years. Challenges in our economy, politics, global conflict, racial-ethnic tensions, social and ethical dilemmas, and more have made for a bumpy ride. Some days it can feel easier to sit on the sidelines and complain than it is to get in the game.

Perhaps those most prone to this dynamic are those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, when the Church faces, not just external, but internal struggles – whether in our denominations, our local congregations, or both. We live in a season when fear, uncertainty, and dis-ease can be so paralyzing that we, too, are reluctant to get in the game. We may even forget there is a game to be played.

That’s what happens when we get so caught up in the “what if’s” that we forget the real question – the question of God’s sovereignty.

A few years ago, a friend from The Outreach Foundation spoke to our congregation about Muslim-Christian relations in the Middle East. The most pressing question people asked him was, “Is the situation in the Middle East as bad as it appears on the news, or better – or worse?” My friend replied, “CNN does not define reality; Jesus Christ defines reality.”

I’ve thought about that statement often in recent months, for it can be said of any situation today. Take any crisis, any fear, any worry, or concern – anything that speaks to the reality in which we find ourselves. Then fill in the blank: “_______ does not define reality; Jesus Christ defines reality.”

And his reality, the reality of the gospel, is this: Jesus Christ still sits on the throne. Either we believe this, or we don’t. If we believe this, then no other question ultimately matters. If we believe this, then whom shall we fear? Let’s get on with being disciples!

Let’s get back on the golf course. Not on the beautiful, well-groomed courses, but the ones that have long been neglected. The ones that are overgrown with weeds and potholes. The ones that need, not someone just to make it through 18 holes, but someone to really play.

Because of Jesus Christ, rather than just sitting on the sidelines saying, “Look what the world has come to,” you and I are free to get in the game saying, “Look who has come to the world” – by playing with all our heart and soul, all the joy and grace and hope of the gospel, all for the sake of the Kingdom.

It is a question of sovereignty. By which reality will we live: the reality to which the world would conform us, or the reality that Jesus desires to transform through us?

See you on the links.

Sail Away

The Spirit can be a funny thing, can’t it? How many of us can say we fully understand who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does? Probably none of us, this side of heaven. I remember in seminary, in our Theology 101 class, when we were working through each person, or each article as it is called, of the Apostles’ Creed. When we came to the third article, the third person, the Holy Spirit, we had to write a short paper about the Spirit. After reading our papers, our professor came to class one morning and said, “You people just don’t get the Holy Spirit, do you?” Who could argue with her?

It seems even Scripture can’t argue with her. When Jesus meets with one of the religious leaders Nicodemus, Jesus tells him, ““The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Anyone ever tried to understand the wind? We have meteorologists who can track it with charts and maps, but if you’re in the middle of a hurricane, the experience trumps anything any chart or map can tell you.

Luke’s story in Acts of the coming of the Spirit can be equally perplexing. He, too, finds the Spirit hard to describe, calling it “a sound like the rush of the wind” and “tongues as of fire.” Those of us who are in school or who still remember being in school, how were we taught to analyze a story? You look at the characters and character development, the plot and the story’s setting, its time and place. But Acts seems to have little interest in the things that typically make for a “good story.” Instead, the story is in service to the community: Luke seeks to reveal some truth about the community – that is, the church – something which can only be known by sharing this story, by letting go of our analytical questions, and by letting the story have its way with us. Sometimes this story has given the church hope. Sometimes this story has convicted the church and found it wanting. What will the story say to the church today? Let’s find out.

So I invite you to let go. Read Jesus’ story for his Church (Acts 2:1-21), and let it have its way with you.

Right from the start, Luke’s story shows its focus is community, for it begins with community – the disciples were all together in one place, in a room of a house. The story begins with community, and it will also end with community, but the two will look very different.

While they are all together in one place, suddenly there is that sound like the rush of the wind and tongues as of fire. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages. When we hear about tongues and speaking in other languages, we may think Pentecost means Pentecostalism and its emphasis on the gift of speaking in tongues. But that kind of speaking in tongues requires an interpretation. Here the goal is not interpretation, but proclamation. No interpreter was needed, as we quickly discover, when the setting shifts from inside their house to outside on the streets, where there is a crowd of people already present.

We in the church often forget that Pentecost didn’t start with the birth of the church and the coming of the Spirit. It started over a thousand years before that. Pentecost was an agricultural festival established by God through Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:22). At Pentecost, the 50th day after Passover, farmers brought their first sheaves of wheat from their crops, partly as a sign of gratitude, and partly as a prayer that the rest of their crops would be just as fruitful. But that day on Mount Sinai wasn’t just the day God put a bunch of festivals on the calendar; it was also the day the people received the law, when God gave God’s people the way of life by which they must now carry out his purposes.

Pentecost didn’t start with the church, but it is fitting that the church started at Pentecost, for it was this day when God gave us God’s people the power of life by which we, too, must now carry out his purposes.

On this particular Pentecost, as was typical of every Pentecost, people from all over the region were present. They were gathered together for the sake of the festival, when suddenly something else drew them together – first the sound of the wind, and then the sound of their native language in a foreign city. Every tongue was on the tongues…of Galileans of all people!

You may have heard the joke: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? A trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? A bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American. (It’s a sad commentary on us, but one that is hopefully changing.) The same joke could be told here: What do you call a person who speaks multiple languages? Certainly not a Galilean. But here they were, speaking not just a few languages, but the native language of every nation under heaven: from Elam in the far east, to Rome in the far west, from African nations such as Egypt and Libya, to the desert nation of Arabia and the island nation of Crete. Through this miraculous witnessing to people gathered from across most of the known world, the Spirit gave the disciples a glimpse of Jesus’ calling to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

And not just to the ends of the earth, but to the ends of time. If you go back and read over the names of the various nations in Acts 2, some of these nations no longer existed at the time of this event. They were ancient people groups from long ago. But somehow they were there that day. It’s as if, by bringing these past nations into this global summit of present nations, God were showing the world how something he started centuries before was now coming to fruition…

It was an unbelievable event – awe-inspiring for some, unsettling and threatening for others. So, human nature being what it is, the crowd had to come up with some explanation to rationalize the irrational: “They’re drunk!” What other explanation could there be?

But there is another explanation, says Peter. If the first gift of the Spirit was the gift of communication, the second was certainly giving Peter courage to speak. This disciple, who just a few weeks beforehand had denied and deserted Jesus, now finds both the nerve and the words to proclaim what God is up to by citing a prophecy of Joel. A prophecy that captured the people’s hope for centuries, that answered the question the disciples asked Jesus right before his ascension (Acts 1:6). The question that threads its way throughout the book of Acts, that perhaps even threads its way through our hearts and minds today: “Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom? Is this the time when you will finally make everything right again – when you will redeem, restore, and make all things new?”

The answer is yes – and not yet. That’s how theologians today describe the time in which we are living – between the already and the not yet – between the time when Jesus came and launched the start of his Kingdom, and the time when he will come again and complete his mission. The early Christians also believed they were living in between the last days and the ultimate last day, the day of the Lord, as Joel describes it. The way that they knew they were living in these in-between times? Because of what Joel tells them will be a sign: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17). Before, in the Old Testament, the Spirit had been given to a select few – prophets, priests, kings, and other so-called “righteous” people. But now in these last days, on this Pentecost day, that same Spirit is given to all kinds of people – slave and free, men and women, young and old. And look where it began! Not in the temple or university or seminary or among other so-called “professionals,” but in an ordinary room with a group of ordinary people who simply had been willing to wait and pray together for God’s next move.

A good friend of mine Joan Gray compares these disciples’ “efforts” to the difference between a rowboat and a sailboat. In her book Sailboat Church, she says most of us are skilled rowers. Even if we’ve never been in a rowboat, if we were to find ourselves in one, we’d probably figure out how to make the boat move, because a rowboat relies on our efforts, our muscles. But we’re not all skilled sailors, because a sailboat depends on a different “muscle”: harnessing the power of the wind. Really, the main skill of a sailor is positioning oneself in the same path as the wind – because if you want to catch the wind, you have to put yourself where the wind is blowing.

That’s what the disciples did: They raised their sails and then prayed for wind. They were open and willing for that wind to take them wherever it blew, whether it was miles away from their comfort zone or just across the street from it – for where else do we have more need for the Spirit to be our Comforter (John 14:16) than when we are out of our comfort zones?

In his book Forgotten God: Reversing our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, author and pastor Francis Chan asks, “Why would we need to experience the Comforter if our lives are already comfortable? It is only those who put their lives at risk for the gospel who will most often experience Jesus’ being ‘with you always to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). Though this verse is true for all believers (of course God is always with us), if we are never alone or feeling like we need Him, how much do we care or need to know that God is with us?”

Lutheran pastor Dan Mangler tells the story of his family’s Shetland sheep dog named Amber. Amber loved windy days. No matter how windy it was, whether it was a gentle breeze or a gale-like gust, Amber would stand on their front lawn, face the direction from which the wind was coming, stick her nose in the air – and immediately enter doggy heaven, totally oblivious to anything going on around her. Mangler says he finally figured out why: Her world, for the most part, was confined to the house or the yard. But the wind brought her experiences of a world beyond her power to visit – the smell of a dozen kinds of trees, the smell of a dozen kinds of squirrels, and of all kinds of lands and animals and peoples. When she smelled the wind, Amber caught whiff of the whole world.

Now, not to say who is the dog in this story, but I pray we all are – because that’s the invitation of Pentecost: to catch wind of what God is doing in the world, and then to join him in that mission.

So may we raise our sails this Pentecost Day. May we do whatever it takes to put ourselves where the wind is blowing. And when we catch a whiff of God’s Spirit, may it lead us to visions beyond anything we’ve ever dreamed. In the name of the Father, the Son, …and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When Your Get Up and Go Has Got Up and Went: Lessons from the First Century

The lectionary texts always fascinate me. These texts, set up in three-year rotation over thirty years ago, always seem quite timely, perhaps especially this day.

One of today’s New Testament texts is Acts 8:26-40. As we read the text, let’s back up a bit and trace Philip’s ministry thus far. When persecution began in Jerusalem, Philip went down to the city of Samaria, where he quickly became very popular. Given the success he had experienced, I imagine Philip would have been quite content to stay there for a while. But then suddenly God calls a new play.

It doesn’t seem to bother Philip that God would take him from headquarters in Jerusalem, to set up a satellite site in Samaria, where he’s been packing them in every day, seeing hundreds of people come to faith in Christ and join the church – any pastor or congregation’s dream, right? – and then, suddenly, God sends him out to the desert to talk, not to many people, but to one person, and not just any person, but a foreigner and a eunuch at that. Without going into graphic detail, being a foreigner and a eunuch meant this man had two strikes against him. He was a double outsider according to the religious system.

Incidentally, while he was a double outsider from the religious perspective, he was a double insider from the cultural perspective, as evidenced by the fact that he was a court official and he was also literate. It seems the larger society did a better job of reaching out to this outcast than the religious society did, when perhaps it should be the other way around…

But even though he was excluded from the Temple, there was something about the God of Israel that attracted him. So he went to worship him, and on the journey home from worship he spent time reading the Scriptures to learn more about this God.

That’s when he crosses paths with Philip, and Philip asks if he can join him in his chariot. I mean, can any of us imagine going to the wilderness of a deserted road in the outskirts of town – or maybe the “wilderness” of the busy streets of downtown – finding a random stranger in a random car, and saying, “Hey buddy, can I join you?” Yet that’s exactly what Philip does! It’s like he goes from one risky act to another: To leave a place where you are guaranteed success and go to a deserted road where nothing is guaranteed. And then to leave a (somewhat) familiar road and get in the chariot of a completely unfamiliar stranger. The story sounds a little absurd. But if we read the first few chapters, we find that this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time, in Acts that someone hears a seemingly absurd call from the Lord – nor, for that matter, will it be the last time someone in Christ’s Church will hear such a call.

In fact, by his grace, Jesus is still calling his Church to do crazy things today.

For example, last year a pastor in London heard Christ’s call to start a bakery. Now that doesn’t sound all that wild and crazy – except for the fact that the bakery wasn’t in London. It was in northern Iraq. Many of us recall hearing the horrific stories in the news last August, about the 50,000 Yazidi people who were driven from their homes by ISIS, finding temporary refuge on top of a mountain. ISIS pursued them, killing several thousand of their men and selling many of their daughters into child sex-trafficking. But some 23,000 managed to escape to a camp near Dohuk. To help them get back on their feet, this pastor, a member of the Presbyterian Church of Egypt, left his ministry in London to partner with a local pastor in Dohuk and with the Presbyterian Outreach Foundation to open a bakery, a bakery that provides, not only employment for many of the women, but also bread to feed all of the people. Because of this much-needed humanitarian work, the local church has been allowed to offer a sports ministry and even a Bible study. While most Christians are running out of ISIS-occupied territories, these two disciples ran into the heart of it, to sit beside people there – all because they know Jesus and want others to know him as well.

It’s for that same reason that Philip does the wild and crazy act of getting into a stranger’s chariot and sitting beside him. Hearing him reading out loud, Philip starts with where the man is, with what his questions are, and proceeds to share the gospel with him. When the man hears God’s story, which tells him that he, once doubly excluded, is now wonderfully welcomed in God’s Kingdom, it’s no wonder that he wanted God’s story to become his story. It’s no wonder that he would want to be baptized, in recognition of Jesus’ both breaking down the barrier of sin and inviting him into God’s family, the Church. And it’s no wonder that, having heard the good news of Jesus and being welcomed into his family, this man went on his way rejoicing and inviting others into the family, becoming, according to tradition, the first to spread the good news in his native country.

And it’s no wonder that we perhaps should wonder – for as much as we have to learn from how the culture versus religion reached out to this man, we have even more to learn from how the early church treated him. As we said, this man was from Ethiopia. That means that one of the first converts to and first evangelists for the gospel was a black man. When today Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in our country, we do have much to learn.

But I don’t have to tell us that, do I? All we have to do is turn on the news, even just this week. From scenes in Baltimore to scenes in Nepal, we know we still have many barriers to break down – racially, ethnically, politically, economically, socially, even spiritually. Where do we find the power and strength to do that?

From the same place the Ethiopian did – in baptism – for there is power in the water.

The way we practice it may seem pretty tame with just a sprinkle of water, but baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible something going on that’s bigger than anything we could imagine, and that’s God’s grace – God’s grace that floods us, overwhelms us, drowns us, and transforms us, pointing us back to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that saves us and pointing us forward and empowering us to live and work for a day when there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

Our baptism doesn’t just break down barriers between us and God, but it sends us out – with riptide power – to break down barriers in all the world, so that all might come to know the good news of Jesus Christ.

So how do we obtain access to this barrier-breaking power? It comes by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who calls Philip to get up and go to the wilderness road, the one who tells him to get up and get in the chariot, and the one who snatches him away to his next great adventure. And the Spirit that calls Philip to get up and go is the same Spirit that empowers his got up and went, for the Spirit is a restless Spirit, a Spirit that’s always on the move, calling us, not to settle for the many, but to go after the one; not to be comfortable with the known, but to move confidently into the unknown; not to run from the crashing waves, but to wade right into the middle of the ocean, confident that Jesus will help us sit beside and meet others where they are, just as he sits beside us and meets us where we are.

And the way we obtain access to this barrier-breaking power of the Spirit? It’s not by controlling or rushing, worrying or planning. We obtain power by staying and waiting. Not just any kind of waiting, but an expectant, anticipatory waiting – for a restless Spirit on God’s part deserves a restless waiting on our part. I don’t know about you, but I’m not good at waiting. Instead of “Ready, aim, fire,” I tend to say, “Ready, fire, aim.” It’s for that reason that Jesus tells us to wait for the promise of our Father, and that promise is that we “will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and we will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) – maybe even to Ethiopia. So may we pray for a restless spirit – that when God’s restless Spirit wrestles with our spirit, we’ll be ready to respond, “Here I am. Let’s get up and go.” May it be so. Thanks be to God.

The Morning After

The new Easter dresses and ties have been put in the hamper. The Easter ham has been turned into leftover sandwiches. The last Easter egg has been found – or, if it hasn’t, the nose will find it on the next hot day. The Peep-induced sugar crash has (almost) subsided. Easter is over.

It’s the morning after.

We can now indulge in chocolate or Facebook or whatever else we gave up for Lent and go back to our normal routine.

Even we church leaders may find ourselves relieved to go back to life as normal, now that the work of Easter is over.

But, thanks be to God, it is not.

Every year around Easter many documentaries and news articles, secular and otherwise, address the question: Do we believe Jesus rose from the dead? It’s an important question. But Duke Divinity School professor and author Stanley Hauerwas challenges us to consider another question that is equally important, if not more so: “The problem, after all, is not belief in the resurrection, but whether we live lives that would make no sense if, in fact, Jesus has not been raised from the dead.”

On the secular calendar, Easter is a day. On the church calendar, it is a season. But for the follower of Jesus, Easter is a lifestyle. In other words, it is our “normal” routine.

Because Jesus calls us, not just to believe the resurrection, but to live it.

He even gives us a specific place where we are to live the resurrection. When the women arrive at the tomb and hear that Jesus has been raised, they are told: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:7).

Why Galilee?

Galilee was the hometown of the women and the disciples. It was the place of their daily routine – their chores, their work, their studies, their mealtimes, their family relationships, their waking and their sleeping. But in addition to being their home base, “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15) was also the launch pad for Jesus’ mission to make disciples of all nations.

That’s where we are told to go and see Jesus – the Galilee’s of our homes and the Galilee’s of our community and world. In the places in our lives and in the places of the world’s lives, in every place where hope seems dead, we are called to declare the tomb is empty – by daring to live in ways that make no earthly sense, save that the Savior lives.

Howard Thurman’s powerful poem “The Work of Christmas” reminds us that Christmas does not end on the day after Epiphany. His message is equally timely on this day after Easter:

When the last note of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” has been sung, when the last chocolate bunny has been eaten, when the lilies have wilted…

…the work of Easter begins.

It’s time to go and see Jesus in Galilee.

What Time Is It?

What time is it? How many of us instinctively look at our watches or smartphones when we hear someone ask that question? Telling time is something we learn to do as a child by looking at where the hands are on the clock. Yet as we get older, we learn that telling time is not always as simple as that. Though the hands of the clock may work, well, like “clockwork,” time itself seems to be a bit more elusive. Depending on which team you are pulling for in a college basketball game, the final two minutes of the game may seem like two seconds or two hours. For high school seniors, the days until graduation seem far too many; for their parents, far too few. How slow does the time go when waiting for a loved one to arrive? How quickly does it pass before they have to leave?

Even the understanding of being “on time” can be elusive, differing from culture to culture or sometimes even person to person. We all know people who define “on time” as five minutes early, and others for whom being just five minutes late is as close to on time as they may get. My husband James and I have traveled to Kenya three times in as many years. There have been many jokes made there – on both sides – about the difference between American time and Kenyan time. In Kenya, if a meeting were supposed to start at 9:00, it might start by 9:30 (at the earliest!). That made many of us type-A Americans a bit antsy, glancing at our watches which our culture tells us dictate our schedule. However, in Kenya, it’s not a watch that dictates time, but people. When the people are gathered and ready, then the meeting begins – not a second before.

At the same time, if ever there were a people that needed to be on time – right down to the second – it’s the people of Kenya. James and I were there to serve with a ministry called Tree of Lives, a mission that provides holistic care and support for those suffering with HIV/AIDS. Most of the Tree of Lives clients receive life-saving antiretroviral medication provided by the U.S. government. The medication is highly effective if taken properly, that is, twice a day every day, at the exact same time every day. Whereas that 9am meeting may start at 9:30, 9:00 for medication means 9:00 on the dot. Not 8:58 or 9:01. There’s no fashionably late here. It would be challenging for any of us who have a watch or smartphone alarm to be that precise day in and day out. Imagine how much more challenging it is in some remote villages in Kenya, where the majority of people don’t own a watch or even a simple clock. Yet some 90% of Tree of Lives clients manage to take their medication successfully on time – day after day, month after month, year after year. How? We’ll come back to that in a minute.

For many of us, the issue is not just about being on time, but about finding time for all the many things that demand it. How many of us go to bed having checked off everything on our to do-list? How many of us go to bed with more things on that to-do list than were on it at the start of the day? When we look at all of the things we have to do, it seems there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Yet the author of Ecclesiastes claims there are: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The author then lists 28 items in 14 pairs – all multiples of 7, the number symbolizing completion or perfection in the Bible. Even the literary style suggests this sense of completeness, using pairs of polar extremes as a way of capturing everything that lies between them, all of life’s experiences, both literal and figurative: “A time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted,…a time to tear down, and a time to build up,….a time to seek, and a time to lose,…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…” (verses 2-8).

But even though the author describes the complete expression of the human experience, it doesn’t seem complete. Something’s missing. There’s no progression. The lines of the poem never stop, yet they never progress, much like the lines of our life may seem, when we go through the motions and carry out our day-to-day routines in a palindrome-like rhythm, back and forth, from sunrise to sunset. The monotony can sometimes leave us wanting to cry out with the author in that other famous phrase from Ecclesiastes: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). Indeed, it can be meaningless – depending on how we tell time.

While there may be a season for everything, you and I can’t do everything. Yet, how hard do we try, right? Think about the typical opening words in a conversation with a friend or colleague. When someone asks, “How are you?”, what’s the most common response we hear? There once was a time when “fine” was the standard response. But today, more often than not, what answer do we hear? “How are you?” “Busy.” It seems busy has become the new fine. In fact, busy has become better than fine. We now determine the significance of a person by how busy he or she is. When I recall conversations with my peers in college and even in seminary, it was like we were trying to compete for who was the busiest, as if it were a poker game: “How are you?” “Busy. I’ve got two exams.” “I’ll see your two exams and raise you three term papers.” It’s laughable to me now, and yet I know I still play the same game. Different chips. But the same stakes.

And what’s at stake is this: Busy is not better than fine. In fact, busy often means I’m not fine at all. Next time we find ourselves responding to the question, “How are you?” with the answer, “Busy,” let’s ask ourselves why: Why am I busy? Sure, there are seasons where we just flat out have a lot we need to do, so we are busy. But often our busyness masks something deeper. Because often being “busy” is a barrier – a defense mechanism or excuse or other barrier that keeps us from experiencing true community. Typically, when we are busy trying to juggle everything we have to do, the first ball we tend to drop is our relationships. In those times when we most need to be in community, instead of investing more in being, we invest more in doing. The end result of such busyness is not greater significance and meaning, but ironically greater loneliness and depression.

There is a season for everything, but we can’t do everything, no matter how hard we try. And we were never meant to do so. Because when we try to do everything, we’re probably not doing one thing well.

Still, Scripture maintains there is time for everything.

How is there a time for everything under heaven when it seems there’s no way on earth to fit it all in? If we can’t make sense of it, then maybe it’s time we re-learn how to tell time – and it begins by getting a new watch.

After listing these pairs of life’s activities that never seem to progress anywhere, the author asks almost rhetorically, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” Then he answers his own question: “I have seen the business that God has given everyone to be busy with” (verses 9-10). To explain how to discern what that business is, the author continues: “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future in their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (verse 11). It’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? We have a sense of the past and future, but we don’t know the beginning and the end? If it seems paradoxical, maybe it’s because we get so caught up in questions of “When?” and “How?” that we forget the “Who?”

But the “Who?” question is what helps us adjust our clocks.

Flash forward to the New Testament, and we find that same language of beginning and end, not in the form of a timeline, but in the form of a person. When everything was made suitable for its time, in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), God sent his Son Jesus Christ, whom Revelation calls the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 1:8), the first and the last, the beginning and the end. We might not know what happens in the beginning and the end, but we can know the Beginning and the End. When we let go of the time we have in our hands and live more in rhythm with the One who ultimately holds time in his hands, from its beginning to its end, then day by day we find that time falls into place, as we discover more of “the business God has given” us and, more importantly, the meaning of it all: “God has done this, so that all should stand in awe of him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

Our business of busyness places significance on what we do. But God’s business frees us to rejoice, not in what we do, but what God in Jesus Christ has done for us.

So which are we about: our busyness or God’s business? If we’re tired of being busy and want to be more about God’s business, then the antidote is found in recovering our sense of community – with God, God’s people, and ourselves.

Start by giving yourself time – time to do that vital practice of prayer and reflection. Maybe that means getting up a little earlier for some quiet time before anyone else in your house begins to stir. Maybe it means committing this week to turn down the noise. Our lives are full of noise, yet somehow we often choose to add to it. If you’re like me, the radio is constantly on while driving. If you find yourself needing that critical time to reflect, then commit with me not to turn on the radio this week while commuting back and forth, thus making quiet space to listen to the still small voice of God.

Spend more time being instead of doing. Disengage in order to engage – for, when we disengage from our watches, we will soon find Jesus calling us to engage a different watch.

As I shared earlier, in Kenya, time is marked not by the watch of the wrist, but by the watch of people – the watch of one’s neighbor. How do 90% of HIV clients manage to take their medicine on time without the help of a watch? Because they rely on the help of those who do have a watch. In each case, there was a neighbor or family member who had committed to get up and walk to the client’s house – however near or far – to make sure they took their medicine on time. Twice a day, everyday, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And because of that seemingly small act, thousands of people are winning the fight against AIDS in Africa. All because a neighbor committed his or her time to something that transcends time.

What might Jesus do through you and me if we set our watches, not by our own needs, but by the needs of our neighbor?

What time is it? Perhaps it’s time you and I got a new watch.

When the Nativity Sets Go Back in the Box

Like many of us, this past week found our family packing up our Christmas decorations. I always look forward to unpacking our decorations and recalling the stories behind them – special ornaments given to us by friends, crafts created as a child, family heirlooms passed down over the years. Especially I enjoy unpacking our nativity set and waiting, together with all of the figurines, for the placement of baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Day. The unpacking day is a day of great anticipation.

The packing day, on the other hand? It just doesn’t quite hold the same anticipation. Beyond just the work of packing and cleaning, it is marked by a bit of sadness, as all of these treasures go back in the box for another year.

Christmas is over.

Many congregations also find themselves in the throes of packing. The celebration of the Day of Epiphany or Baptism of the Lord Sunday signals that it’s time to put away the church’s decorations as well. Advent candles and wreaths are moved to the storage closet. Christmon ornaments get carefully wrapped and put in their boxes. The nativity set used in the children’s pageant and in worship returns to the basement until the next Christmas season – because this Christmas season is over.

Every year it is the same routine, and with it the same tinge of sadness. But this year for me was marked less by sadness – and more by conviction – a conviction that began long before that first Christmas box was opened.

Back in October, in a conversation with our Future Travelers cohort, our facilitator Alan Hirsch made a statement that kept swirling in my heart in the weeks leading up to and throughout Advent. The closer we got to Christmas, the faster it swirled – faster still in the days following Christmas.

Hirsch said, “Evangelicals emphasize the cross and the resurrection. But what we often miss is the incarnation.”

In my Doctor of Ministry residency this week, we’ve been visiting various congregations’ worship spaces in order to help us consider several questions: How does our worship space tell God’s Story? What is the Story it tells – in its layout, design, stained glass and other images? What parts of the Story are missing in the space and thus need to be told in other ways?

When we visited one particular congregation, I was struck by how the sanctuary conveyed the transcendence and beauty of God, with its domed ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows lining the length of the walls. In the far left corner of the sanctuary stood a nativity set. As the worship leader explained, the nativity set was to be removed yesterday, following worship celebrating the Baptism of the Lord.

In the Sundays that follow, other stories of Jesus’ life would become the focus in worship. Many of these stories were captured in the stained-glass windows and elsewhere in the sanctuary. The big cross hanging front and center told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The picture of the empty tomb in the window closest to the cross recalled the story of his resurrection.

But what about the story of the incarnation – when Jesus took on flesh in the form of a baby in a manger? Nowhere was it to be found except in the nativity set.

And when the nativity set went back in the box, so did the incarnation.

This congregation is not unique. Think about the story your congregation’s worship space tells. Where in its images and décor do you see the incarnation? When do you hear it celebrated in worship? If you are involved in leading worship, when and how do you tell and retell the story of Jesus’ incarnation throughout the year? If I’m honest, I admit the temptation is to relegate it just to those four Sundays of Advent (hopefully, all four!) We’ll then give the incarnation its due by letting the story take center stage on Christmas Eve and Nativity of the Lord/Christmas Day before moving on to the other stories after Epiphany.

There’s good reason why the Twelve Days of Christmas end with Epiphany. On Christmas Day, we celebrate the coming of light in the birth of Jesus. On Epiphany, with the visit of the Magi, we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus’ light to all the world. It’s as if Epiphany adds a big exclamation point to the good news of Christmas.

Or rather, not an exclamation point, but a colon.

Because the great celebration of Christmas doesn’t end on Epiphany: The party is actually just getting started.

While the baby Jesus and the Magi figures may go back in the box, the incarnation was never meant to be boxed up. It was meant to be on “unboxed” display throughout the year….through figures like you and me.

Jesus, the one who said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), also said, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).   The way, not just our congregations, but all of the world is to see and experience the Word become flesh is in the way you and I live the Word in our flesh.

How are you living out the incarnation in ways that call you out of the box – the box of comfort, the box of familiarity, the box of security, the box of control? Where do you find yourself still living “boxed in”? How might Jesus be calling you to shine his light into the darkest boxes of this world? The box of despair, loneliness, addiction, disease, poverty, hunger, and more? What is one step you can take this week to live more out of the box – and to help someone else do the same?

As we put away our nativity sets this year, may we take care not sadly to put away the incarnation with them. Rather, may we with joyful conviction “unbox” the incarnation every day – until Light comes again.

"In life, it's not about what you do; it's about what you see – out of which you do." – Father Tom

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