The Beauty of Advent Will Save the World

Advent reminds me of Dostoevsky’s famous maxim from “The Idiot,” that beauty will save the world. Except I would say that the beauty of Advent will save the world because I am reminded of the beauty of God in Christ, and how beautiful the Church could be. If we were to commit our lives to discern and bear witness to the presence of Christ through an active embodiment of what we proclaim as true and good we would display a life-altering beauty.

I think about it this way. The Christian Church holds it to be true that all are made in God’s image and every human from every nation is of divine intrinsic worth. Therefore, a particular kind of love, namely the kind of self-giving love seen in Christ, for neighbor and enemy alike, is the only acceptable good. Fear, hatred, retributive justice and violence are not.Another way I think about it is like this. The Christian Church holds it to be true that all are loved, pursued and welcomed by God the Father who is able to redeem all things and refused to abandon us to our own death-dealing ways. Therefore, welcoming and embracing all people no matter their past or present, ideology or religion, ethnicity or sexuality, is the only acceptable good.

Advent reminds me that a community of people who claim to know truth and what is good should embody its proclamation by practicing self-giving love that reasons with the world through faithful presence, humble rhetoric and if need be, courageous martyrdom—never by coercive force. I would suggest that if it doesn’t, it does not hold tightly to the truth and its proclamation of what is good lacks credibility.

The Christian Scriptures remind those who are to be guided by them that before truth is to understood as a proposition or position, it must be understood as a Person–Jesus, who claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life.¹ Jesus as the Word Incarnate is what God has to say to humanity. We would do well to listen and interpret all other propositions and positions in light of what we see in Him.²

Jesus is the embodiment of all that is true, good and beautiful. May His Church be faithful and by His Spirit put His truth, goodness and beauty on display for all to see.


¹ John 14:6
² John 1, 14; 5:39; Colossians 1:1-20, 27-28, 2:2-3, 9
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Heroic Acts & Alternative Facts

There was this one time when Jesus said:

“But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks you, and from one who takes your things, don’t ask for them back.Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” Luke 6:27-36

The other day a friend of mine, and new Christian, asked me if I was keeping up with national politics. He then said, “They keep talking about ‘Evangelical Christians.’ First off, what is that? That isn’t who we are, is it? And second, why is that the people they introduce and interview as Evangelical Christians talk more like the way I used to think, and still struggle to think, than the way Jesus talks?” He went on to name names.

Our conversation left me heavy hearted. He’s right, you know. Texts like Luke 6 should be put on display in today’s Church. It should be described in the conversations the Church has when they gather. But my friend is right. The teachings of Jesus he has come to know as found in the gospels seem so foreign to what’s often put on display by the Church. It’s like the stories of the gospels have been replaced with alternative facts that create alternative narratives. Here’s what I mean.

In Mark 8, the story goes:

“In those days there was again a large crowd, and they had nothing to eat. He summoned the disciples and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with Me three days and have nothing to eat.If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a long distance.”

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The way some of us talk you might think it goes something like this:

“In those days there was again a large crowd, and they had nothing to eat. He summoned the disciples and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with Me three days and have nothing to eat.But they should have made better plans, so just send them away. They can fend for themselves.”

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The alternative narrative reminds me of the type of things we say when hearing about people in need of financial help.

In Matthew 9:26-28, the story goes:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed Him, shouting, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When He entered the house, the blind men approached Him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I can do this?” Then he touched them…and their eyes were opened.

But you might think it goes something like this:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed Him, shouting “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When He entered the house, the blind men approached Him, and Jesus said to them, “What have you done for yourself? I need to be sure you’re not taking advantage of me.” They responded, “I —” Jesus interrupted and said, “And if you weren’t born blind, could you have done something to avoid it? If so, that’s on you.” And He shut the door.

This reminds me of the type of things we think when encountering people living through homelessness, or even through addictions.

In Matthew 8:5-7, the story goes:

When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony!” Jesus told him, “I will come and heal him.”

But you might think it goes something like this:

When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony!” Jesus told him, “I could but since you’re not one of my countrymen I can’t. Besides, he’s your servant anyhow. Sorry.”

This reminds me of the type of things we do when hearing about refugees, immigrants or people living in impoverished conditions in other parts of the world.

My work as pastor and president of a non-profit often leads me to Christians who offer the kind of push back that reflects these alternative narratives rather than the actual ones. I could offer reasons as to why I think this is the case, but I’ll just settle to say that it seems to be a predominant way of thinking for a particularly influential brand of Christianity in the U.S.

How else can I explain to my new christian bro the Evangelical Christians he’s seen that openly support people claiming allegiance to Jesus while their character and witness seems anti-Jesus? It’s one thing to quote a stanza from the Psalms, and quite another to live the verses found in the one of the gospels.

Here is what we concluded. Thanks be to God whose faithful love is driven by a stubborn refusal to give up on us and to treat us better than we treat one another. 

But that’s not all.

We also concluded that in a society seduced by power, position and privilege, taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he says is a heroic act of resistance. In a society dominated by fear, indifference and violence, taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he says is a heroic act of defiance. In a society determined to push aside the weak, marginalize the vulnerable, and exclude the stranger, taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he says is a heroic act of protest. And in a society that makes it permissible to profess an understanding of Christianity that allows it’s adherents to belittle others because of their religion, sexually harass women (or explain it away or dismiss it), downplay or deny racial tension or white supremacy, let fear drive out christian love (along with refugees and immigrants), taking Jesus seriously enough to do what he says is what the Scriptures call faithfulness.

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Love is the Witness

I made a confession.
I cannot make a concession.
I will never quit this.
Love is the witness.

Defend the displaced,
With a bold embrace.
Welcome the unwanted,
With a grit undaunted.

Plead for the poor,
By giving what is yours.
We cannot quit this.
Love is the witness.

Though the anger rages on,
And the arrogant are strong,
Though denial is the school,
And many play the fool,
We will never quit this.
Love is the witness.

~ My late night Advent poem

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Advent & Misguided Discernment

“Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient because of these things. Therefore, do not become their partners. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light— for the fruit of the light results in all goodness, righteousness, and truth—discerning what is pleasing to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:6-10

“Discerning what is pleasing to the Lord.” Discernment seems to be a lost art. I wonder if it is because many of us have stepped too close to the darkness and the eyes of our heart have adjusted to see, although dimly.

One thing seems evident as I listen to Christian responses (or lack thereof) at what is taking place in national politics: we have become incapable of discerning what is true, good and beautiful. Perhaps it is because many of us have unwittingly changed partners. We have misplaced our hope, peace and joy in a fragile kingdom causing us to unwittingly misplace our allegiance to a fickle and faulty “king.”

Misplaced allegiances result in misguided discernment.

As our beloved bro Paul might suggest, if it doesn’t result in goodness, righteousness and truth it isn’t of the light, my friend. There is nothing good about hatred and fear-mongering. There is nothing righteous about treating women as though they are sexual objects and acting like it is okay. There is nothing truthful about scapegoating, shaming of dismissing the pain of others. These behaviors aren’t the results of a person walking in the light no matter their confession. It is the result of walking in darkness and evidence of a different partnership than partnering with God. And if by chance we cannot see, perhaps we need to take a look at with whom we are partnering.

The season of Advent reminds us that a great light has dawned on those living in darkness.

May we see. May we turn away and turn back to King Jesus. Forsake all other allegiances and change partners. Partner with God. Just know it is going to cost you something. It will cost you friends and reputation, maybe even with those you’ve consider close to you. But it is worth it.

May we see the light and live in the light so we can discern what is pleasing to the Lord and be a light.

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Following Jesus & Labelled Lunatics

 

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Billboards claiming to identify Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a communist training school stand on the route from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery.

Taking Jesus seriously as Lord may cause some christians to consider you a lunatic. Taking Jesus seriously as Liberator may cause some christians to consider you a liberal. Taking Jesus seriously as King may cause some christians to consider you a conservative. Taking Jesus seriously as Restorer may cause some christians to consider you a radical. Taking Jesus seriously as Advocate may cause some Christians to think you have some sort of agenda.

What all of these possibilities expose is the ideological categories we tend to impose upon Jesus. If you or I are not careful we’ll react to those with a need for these categories and labels and fall into the ideological trap. We may be tempted to return the favor and hand out a few labels of our own. Placing labels upon another demonstrates our woefully pitiful tendency to childishly avoid dealing with the discomfort of alternative points of view. Ultimately, casting down labels or constructing categories is our way of stubbornly refusing to deal with another’s personhood.

When it comes to this little conundrum I’ve discovered two things in my short 17 years of vocational ministry. The first is that people who reach for categories and labels rarely see how much influence their ideology has over them, especially when it’s dressed in the clothes of religion. It’s happened to me. It still can. The second is this, the reality of taking Jesus seriously still has to look like something in 2017 and it isn’t always going to align with anyone’s preferences, including mine.

The Witness of the Christian Scriptures

The Christian Scriptures teach us that Jesus preached in the synagogues and demonstrated the presence of God’s kingdom in Galilean neighborhoods. He proclaimed forgiveness of sins and practiced hospitality with “sinners.” He made the blind to see and the disabled able. He strengthened weakened hands and straightened crooked legs. He touched the untouchable lepers and welcomed the unwelcomable lawbreakers. He hugged the hurting and held little children.

Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand him, his family couldn’t explain him and the religious leaders couldn’t stand him. He was called a drunkard, labeled out-of-his-mind, rejected by the religious right, and lambasted by the religious left.

Though none of us might readily admit it, there is a chance many of us would find him difficult to understand or explain today. I’ve often wondered what I would think about him if he came to us at this time and in this place.

I think he would preach in our churches and demonstrate the presence of God’s kingdom in our subdivisions. I think he would still proclaim forgiveness of sins and practice hospitality with those we consider the worst of sinners. I think he would make the blind see but remind us that though we can see we can still go blind. I think he would prove that the disabled are able but remind us that the able can always disable themselves. I think he would still strengthen weakened hands but remind us that sometimes strong hands are actually weak. I think he would still straighten crooked legs but remind us that straightened legs sometimes walk along crooked paths. I think he would still touch the untouchable and welcome the unwelcomeable but remind us that we should do the same. I think he would still hug the hurting and hold the little children but remind us that when we hurt we can come to him with faith like a child trusting that he loves us.

archer-criminal-hurting-a-person-for-his-back-with-an-arrow-of-an-arch_318-56279Labelled Lunatics Pressing On

Brothers and sisters, keep taking Jesus seriously. He will always embrace you. Be sure to surround yourself with people who are trying to take Jesus seriously too. When the arrows of accusation fly and the Gatling gun of gossip is deployed, stand firm as a peacemaker who follows the Prince of Peace. Lean in to your companions for encouragement so together you can be encouraged by Emmanuel. Pray for the ones attacking you from behind and be quick to forgive, just as the Lord forgives you. Bless them as you are able, even when it is hard.

When you and I decide to take Jesus seriously and other Christians start tossing out labels, let’s encourage one another to remember that the same gracious love at work in us is at work in all.

Jesus is still Lord. Press on.

Zelner & Me.001

From a family line of KKK members, Bob Zellner became one of the first white southerners to engage in the early civil rights movement. He organized sit-ins, rallies, investigations and speeches from Missouri to Massachusetts. He was insulted, violently attacked, beaten unconscious, and arrested over 18 times became one of the first whites worked and led with Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Julian Bond and others during the civil rights era in Alabama and Mississippi. He takes Jesus seriously.

Protests Continue In Kiev As The Opposition Calls For A Snap Election

A man kneels before an Orthodox priest in an area separating police and anti-government protesters near Dynamo Stadium on Jan. 25, 2014, in Kiev. (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

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Sometimes national leaders get in on the label-making, like then FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover.

 

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When Timothy Is My Pastor

As a pastor I read Paul’s letters to Timothy often. Timothy was Paul’s protege of sorts. He was young and seems to have been a courageous man. According to christian tradition at the age of 80 Timothy was dragged through the streets and stoned to death for trying to disrupt a religious procession for the goddess Diana. 

One day it occurred to me to read this letter from a different point of view. I’m reading it slowly imagining that Timothy is the pastor of the church I’m a part of in my city. 

I imagine gathering with our missional community in our neighborhood. Timothy is there, week in and week out. Questions always come up about what it means to live as citizens of God’s kingdom here in this place. I listen to what he has to say when he chimes in. I see how he listens, how he handles the ideologies and frustrations of others; how he handles his own. It puzzles me how he gets fired up over some things while appearing disinterested in others. I don’t always agree with what he says. I don’t always see what he sees. 

I imagine myself gathering with the church in our large gatherings on Sundays. As one people we share in the liturgy, hope to hear a word from God, and come to the Lord’s Table. But before the Eucharist I can see Timothy come before us, open the Scriptures, and speak. He invites us to imagine what it could look like if Jesus is King. He reminds us of things we know but have forgotten, or maybe dismissed. We are stirred. We are convicted. We are hopeful. At times I confess that the words he shares irritates me, sometimes confounds me and sometimes comforts me. The way he talks about what the Spirit could be up to out ahead of us both excites me and bothers me. Then he turns his attention to the Eucharistic Table. There he invites us to remember whose we are and who we are. Some Sundays what he says is resolved at the Table. Sometimes it creates tension. But at the Table it makes a little more sense and we find a way to move forward in light of it all because Jesus is Lord and we’re in this together. We can join His Spirit who is at work among us, between us and out ahead of us. We can love each other, our neighbors and our enemies. And we can trust God with the consequences because He loves us. 

Timothy still says things that press in to my way of seeing the world. I ask him to meet. I share my concerns. He listens and tries to help me reason through it. Finally, he pulls out a letter the apostle Paul sent him some time ago. Paul believes the Spirit entrusted our church to him and him to our church. Timothy tells me he’s doing the best he can to stay faithful to what Paul told him God wants him to do. He admits he could be off or wrong, but he, like me, is trying to stay faithful to our confession of faith and to his calling as our pastor. He hands a section of the letter to me. This what it says:

“I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he comes to set up his Kingdom: Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. But you should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you.” ~2 Timothy 4:1-5

Reading Timothy this way is sobering.

No wonder Timothy was dragged through the streets and stoned to death. 

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Two Stories of Almost Unimaginable Faith

In our good country christians enjoy safety and security. In others christians live every day with the possibility of death. They are pushed toward an allegiance to Christ as Lord that is unbreakable, resulting in a deep dependency and trust that for many of us seems unimaginable. Yet their stories and actions show us that it is not only imaginable, but possible and even necessary.

Every week I read from the Voice of the Martyrs. I have donated and read their publications for almost 17 years (I hope you’ll consider giving to them too and subscribe to their publications). The stories of brothers and sisters all across the world has greatly shaped my faith and over and again proven my need to mature as a Christ follower. They are my teachers.

I’ve also read the works of the early church fathers for 17 years. These theologians and leaders have played a pivotal role in my understanding of what it looks like to possess a high view of the Scriptures and trust the promises of God revealed in Jesus Christ. With all their imperfections (like us they were heavily influenced by their cultures, resulting in questionable points of view in matters of gender and race), they loved the Lord and His Church, and many died a martyrs death to prove it. Plus, I am always stirred by the language with which they express faith is compelling. We just don’t talk like that anymore. They too are my teachers.

I offer two parallel stories here. One is from Syria in a 21st century world of globalization and taken directly from Voice of the Martyrs. The other is from Alexandria Greece in a 3rd century world ruled by Rome.¹

Both stories are of real people living in real places in really difficult times confessing the same allegiance to the Lordship of Christ.

Sister Nouha of Syria

20374649_10159402034505508_1453033797267871789_n“Sister ‘Nouha,’ a Syrian believer and her family were driven from their home by ISIS. They lost their businesses, home, land, and worst of all many people they loved. She was asked by a Voice of the Martyrs worker: “Nouha, you’ve lost a lot. Why is it worth it to you to follow Jesus?”

She responded: “I haven’t lost anything. I have Jesus. And when we have Jesus, we have everything.” 

Nouha and her family have chosen to stay in Syria to help build up the church and reach out in love to Muslims. Pray for sister Nouha and the many believers like her who have chosen to stay. May we always be motivated by the worth of Christ, no matter what happens.”

Origin Adamantius of Alexandria, 185-254 AD

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Origen once said,

“To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have for a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of following the ancestral customs in which we were strangers to the covenants.”

Origen was born in Alexandria. At age 18 he opened a grammar school to support his family around the time his father was beheaded for his christian faith. It is there he copied texts and instructed those seeking to become members of the church. He also studied under the pagan philosopher Ammonius Saccas in order to better understand paganism and give reasonable arguments for the faith he confessed.

Origen spent 20 years working on his “Hexapla,” a massive work of Old Testament analysis written to answer Jewish and Gnostic critics of Christianity. This work was so important that it became a significant step in the development of the Christian canon (the Bible as we know it) and scriptural translation.

In no way was he flawless in his interpretations of Scripture. But he was dedicated to understanding what it looked like for God to reorder the world through the Lordship of Jesus and the coming of his kingdom so the Church could embody a witness of faith, hope and love. Origen wanted those who confessed Jesus as Lord to be able to trust him fully in complete loyalty and total allegiance rather than fall prey to Caesar’s decrees of complete loyalty and total allegiance. To Origen faith (pistis) meant more than affection or a belief in God or his promises, and is about trust, loyalty and a total allegiance grounded in love. Speaking of faith in these terms makes it clear that what’s expected of christians as adopted children and heirs and subjects of God’s kingdom is a call to embodied faithfulness to the Lordship of Jesus. This kind of faith renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works’ absurd, for a child and heir to God’s kingdom cannot be loyal to their King without following His commands.

Origen recognized that all ruling powers, like Rome, would regularly be at odds with the reign of God in Christ and contend with christian faithfulness. He believed that God’s reign had to become concretely visible to the world through a people who lived by faith (trusting allegiance) expressed in love (for God, fellow christian, neighbor, and enemy), committed to peace (shalom), and anchored in hope (that God’s promises of life eternal are true). Christians will not change society by trying to change society. Christians will change society by living faithfully in society as subjects of a different King. It is this conviction that caused him to say what I quote above.

The authorities were not impressed. In 250 the Roman emperor Decius had Origen imprisoned and tortured. He was deliberately kept alive in the hope that he would renounce his faith. But Decius died first and Origen was released. With his health inalterably damaged, Origen died soon after.

A Cloud of Witnesses

Stories like these always draw my attention back to the Scriptures where it is said:

“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us,  keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.” ~ Hebrews 12:1-3


¹ By globalization I mean the process of interaction and integration of goods, services and cultures between companies and governments of nations.
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