Not just any night

I'm delivering this brief reflection tonight, Christmas Eve:

This night carries so many memories and feelings.

We remember the excitement of getting and receiving gifts.

We long for the warm fuzzies proclaimed by the greeting cards that somehow don't match our real lives.

We relish the feelings of joy and wishes for peace that fade after a few days.

But this night is more.

This night is the beginning of … a revolution.

The birth of this child fractures the status quo.

He was born not to bless our ways of doing things but to radically shift them.

It is a revolution that levels playing fields, that fills the hungry and sends the rich away, that makes the last first.

His is a revolution that redirects us from trying to position ourselves for God's favor and instead calls broken, fragile people like me and you to be his heart and voice and hands and feet right here and now.

His is a revolution that reveals the margins of life as a place where God is powerfully and mercifully active… perhaps, even more so than at what we call the center.

A revolution that embraces the poor, the broken, those who don't have it all together, and that leads kings and priests to want to stamp it out.

This child loves you so much that empties himself of power and privilege to take on your burdens.

He doesn't ask for your gold, for your Chanel, for your iPod, for your investments…

He asks for you.

He asks you to redefine your life in the light of that night in a Bethlehem stable … and that Friday on a hill near Jerusalem, and that Sunday morning outside an empty tomb.

The revolution has begun.

Are you in?


What's your desire?

37signals' "Get Real" philosophy of coding is also an online book, which applies to a lot of projects beyond software -- like transforming or starting a business, or a church.

In the "What's your problem?" chapter, they suggest that the way to write compelling software (or create compelling products or organizations) is not to out-feature the competition but to solve your own problem, so you can be passionate about the solution. And in my experience this is what many missional, emerging churches do - looking at a community and its spiritual needs, and trying to address them rather than importing a fully-developed model.

The 37signals folks conclude the chapter with an interesting quote from Malcolm Gladwell, which is about writing but could inform any organization that wants to share the Good News:
When you write a book, you need to have more than an interesting story. You need to have a desire to tell the story. You need to be personally invested in some way. That was what happened. If you're going to live with something for two years, three years, the rest of your life, you need to care about it.
As I have observed churches and individuals that share the way of Jesus, it's passion for the Gospel, an investment in living that way, that sets apart those who really communicate the message.

It's a good question all of us, as church leaders, need to ask ourselves every once in a while: How much desire we have to tell the story?


Grace notes

Hosea 11:8-11

Most times, my biggest obstacle to understanding God as a God of unrelenting kindness and mercy is -- me.

It's hard most of the time to accept that God is willing to be with me where I am, and draw me toward him, as I am able. It's more compelling, more logically God-like (meaning, how I would be if I were God) to perceive that God wants my working at being better, and my feeling bad at my failings.

What helps me remember Gods' rare, relentless grace?
  • Psalm 139. (One of my favorites. Try reading it several times, then reading it again but this time, shifting the point of view from your self to God. Bob, I have investigated your life. I know your thoughts firsthand... I always find this leads to the most amazing conversations with God.)
  • Pierce Pettis' "God Believes in You."
  • The Virgin of Vladimir (above)
  • Remembering how, even when I fail, God comes to me with a healing embrace, not a wagging finger.
  • Reflecting on the manger, and the cross. How can a God who would go to such lengths to restore God's people not be the God whose compassion has not turned warm and tender, and who has not shown that he will not execute his fierce anger?


Wired together

Genesis 2:18-25

It's almost impossible for me to imagine Adam as a solitary creature, alone in the dark night of the cosmos, except for God. I can imagine the stars in the night sky, trees and water glistening with moonlight, and the wind – God's breath – tossing Adam's hair. And God's vast presence…and a sense of incompleteness, longing for a friend.

In one of the most beautiful moments in the creation story, God notices and empathizes with Adam's aloneness. But of course! The cosmos was created because God is love, and love requires an object. And God, who created Adam in God's own image, knows instinctively that Adam, in order to fulfill his calling of imaging God's love, needs to be in relationship.

It's significant that God's solution is not just a woman, but connectedness to every living creature. He creates from the dust all the animals and birds, and invites Adam to participate by naming them. God's desire is that we be experience his longing to be united with every species, all of creation, and recognize the cosmos as good and necessary. Only then does the Creator complete humanity from one flesh, connecting us at the cellular level with people of every tribe, nation and generation.

It is not just emerging generations that are wired for connectivity! Sadly, we have spent long generations forgetting that our actions affect butterflies half a world away. We have subdued species, sometimes to extinction. We have forgotten how to work with the rhythms of nature and pushed to control it with chemicals and bioengineering. We have elevated race and clan to a primary rationale for killing our enemies.

Yet, somewhere deep in our bones, God's cry for connectedness resonates. Lord, help me to let that quiet music sooth the noise of the world!


Sense of identity

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Our sense of identity is a complex thing. In part it is shaped long before we are aware of it, yet it is also formed every moment by the choices we make and the experiences we encounter. Yet the nature vs. nurture debate doesn't get at the totality of our identity.

The core of our identity is this: We are chosen by God. Jesus affirms it in John 15:16, when he says to his disciples, "You did not choose me, but I chose you." God created each of us to bear his image, and to reflect God's light into the world.

Just as our own life histories only make sense viewed through the lens of our families and our communities, our identity as people chosen by God is framed by the identity of God – the God who is revealed as creative, relational, and merciful, and self-identified as "love."

We know our places in our families through story. We learn how our great-grandparents came from the old country, how mom and dad met and courted. We learn about the work they did and the personality traits they carried. As these stories are told and retold around the family table or the fire, they become ours, and we know in a deeper way who we are.

The wisdom of this text from Deuteronomy is that it reminds us that those stories and our self-knowledge are incomplete without God's story. Telling God's story to our children (or our parents), writing parts down and posting them on our blogs, recalling them as we wake and work and worry. This isn't just a law to be followed. It is what the Apostle Paul called praying without ceasing, which is not withdrawing into a non-stop retreat of silence and holy words, but is living with gratitude for God's presence and gifts in the midst of life.

We can choose to live immersed in God's story, take it for granted, or run from it – just as we can with our human family histories. And we will be different, based on the choices we make.


"Perfect" love

We English-speakers "love" so indiscriminately. We "love" our spouses and kids, and the deal we just got at Target. We use the word to cover our desires, our passing fancies and our deepest attachments. Of course we know the difference, even if we can't express it.

But it becomes problematic when we try to embrace a seemingly simple declaration outside of our experience, such as "God is love." Is God's love for me, God's very nature, like the constancy of our closest relationships, like the sacrifice of those who have helped us get where we are, like my desire for the latest tech toy (which I would love to have)? All of the above? Something beyond all of these? And what about my love for God?

Take a minute to think about how you experience the love of God.

John's first letter urges us to respond to the love God has for us with "perfect love."
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. – 1 John 4:18
The very phrase "perfect love" makes me fearful. I am far from perfect, and the exhortation reminds me how far away I am. The last clause closes the case: See, if you fear, you haven't done it right!

At a workshop this weekend, Fr. William Meninger, one of the originators of the Centering Prayer movement, offered a very helpful way to think about perfection. Rather than some hyperactive, compulsive act of ours, he suggested that perfect love is the love that God has, and is. It is love that delights in the beloved without any thought to the rewards or feelings that come back to us. There can be no room for fear in this love because it's there for good, no matter what – we can't change it or reject it.

We can, however, receive it – or not. We choose to participate in it. This doesn't mean that we commit to getting it right, but by returning God's love God can make our imperfect love more and more like God's, in God's time.

Now there's a deal!


Wake-up call

The first Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

No one expects the Kingdom of God!*

The Messiah who is coming, and the reign of God he ushers in, isn't more of the same. Today's lessons make that clear. This kingdom is as different from the world we know as consciousness is from sleep, as peace from war. It is as unexpected as a flash flood, as a burglary-of-opportunity. Are you awake to it?

Isaiah's prophecy emphasizes the contrast. Who notices the hills? In our busyness, do we even take time to notice what is around us, above us? But when the mountain of the Lord is raised up above the taken-for-granted scenery that barely registers in our peripheral vision – then the peoples pay attention. So awesome is this vision that it is seen immediately as a source of justice and truth. Can you imagine the nations of the world today recognizing any authority as so just and fair that they can not only sign an arms control treaty but forget how and why to wage war? This kingdom is not an adjustment of the existing power structure, but a radically new order.

But if we don't wake up, if we don't pay attention to what is going on in and around us, we might just miss it completely, as Jesus and Paul remind us. For this kingdom that broke into the world in a stable in Bethlehem hasn't reached its fulfillment, but it continues to break in as we – God's people – wake up to the transforming potential of God's love. Can you – can I – be alive to the possibilities?

*Apologies to Monty Python.


Change of season

I started this decade of my life newly changed of jobs and tentatively dipping my intellectual toes in the water of theological education. Today I ended it journeying to a workshop on contemplative prayer and pondering my still changing vocation. Who says God isn't surprising?

My spiritual director reminds me that my 40s is the time that I am supposed to process these questions. Who am I called to be? How does God work with me? But I didn't see it coming. I figured the path would keep going where it always had gone. I thought I would be more settled, not more restless. Who knew "A New Kind of Christian" could be more than a book title?

It's my last day of being 49, my daughter teases me. Sure, there's some regret at missed moments and lost opportunities…I'm human. Mostly it feels at this change of season like I'm getting where I'm supposed to be, maybe a little behind schedule. I didn't predict the twists and turns of these last years, but I wouldn't trade the growth and challenges. There are so many whose words, ideas and friendship have literally changed my life and helped me to move toward the person I was created to be. Too many to name, but you know who you are, and thank you.

If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit. – Leviticus 26:3-4

In this season, God has sent rain and sun as they were needed, allowed me to lie fallow and produced some surprising growth. I can't wait to see what he provides in the next season.