What's the goal?

Photo: angietorres

A friend recently described for me her church's confirmation class' goal of "ending hunger in our town by the time we graduate."

How excellent it is to see the church's young people focused out on the world and hoping to bring a congregation along with them. Theirs is a goal that exudes youthful exuberance and confidence that "we can do anything we put our minds to." We need that kind of faithful response, trusting that with God all things are possible. Even if it sounds like "pie-in-the-sky" to someone who has lived long enough to see the truth in Jesus' statement that the poor will always be with us -- sometimes in spite of my (our) best efforts and sometimes because of my (our) indifference.

Even if hunger can't be ended in their town in a handful of years (and I pray that it can be, everywhere), their goal suggests some deeper objectives that can shape their lives for years to come:
  • being aware of what they are blessed with, and what others lack
  • creating a way of life that includes sharing with those in need
  • getting to know those who are hungry and in poverty
  • raising awareness among their complacent neighbors of the needs of the poor
  • learning about and advocating against the causes of as well as the results of hunger
I hope that these young people name these as goals, too, and not just as tasks and strategies to be ticked off along the way.

We're a culture that loves to set impossibly high goals and then give ourselves excuses for not meeting them. (Made your New Years' resolutions yet?) Would it surprise you to know that Google searches for the word "gym" peak sharply each December and then quickly trail off into January? And how often do people say "I don't have the resources to really make a difference about hunger," so they do...nothing.

And we in the church are not immune. Don't we set practical goals like increasing giving by 5 percent, or welcoming 20 new members, or adding seating for 200 at worship? Or we resolve to become spiritually deeper (which means..?) or to read the Bible in a year. Or (let's be honest here) just to stay open a while longer and try to keep things the same in a changing world?

With the exception of that last sentence, there's nothing wrong with such goals. But I fear we often get it backwards, using our relationship with God, our prayer, our faith as mileposts on the way to those goals, rather than the eternal journey and destination. Jesus doesn't call us to be faithful as a tactic in order to enact social change. He calls us to perceive and live a new reality...which will change the world.

Ending hunger. Filling the pews. Knowing the Bible. These are all good tactics to keep us motivated as we pursue the lifelong task of personal and social transformation. The goal of our faith remains threefold: to know Emmanuel, the God who is with us and loves us wildly; to perceive the radically upside-down kingdom that is God's dream for us; and then living as if that dream is already true (which is the only way the kingdom actually arrives).

When we do these things, the Holy Spirit can take it from there.


Love comes down

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’  (See Matthew 1:18-25)
Jesus' birth is announced to Mary by the mystical appearance of an angel.  Scholars seek him out because of the appearance of a celestial phenomenon previously unseen.  Out in the fields, shepherds are roused by a host of angels singing the glad news.

But Jesus' birth is in raw circumstances.  In a bed of uncovered straw.  Out behind the inn.  Just his mother and father, and the barnyard animals.  Not only in our world, but in a place most of us would consider lowly, unworthy.  Yet this is what God plans.  I think that, if it were happening today, Jesus' birth would take place in the alley behind the bustling pub, between the dumpsters.  Or on a grate.  Or in a homeless encampment or refugee camp.

In Jesus, God is with us, in a way we cannot completely understand.  God is birthed in the world vulnerable, dependent on imperfect humans, waiting on the unfolding of years to be seen.  God could have come to us in a miraculous appearance, leaving no question that he was in charge.  Yet he chose to come, in Christ, virtually unnoticed by the world, and to live with us in the joys and trials of everyday life, so that he could point us to the new kingdom and life God offers.

God is with us.  No hoop jumping or ladder climbing required.  We don't have to get ourselves righteous, or even notice what God is doing, for him to be with us here and now.  He lives with us, so that we can be his presence for those who live around us.

How is God with you today? How do you want God to be with you?

What difference does it make to you that God is not "up there" waiting for you to climb to him, but right next to you reaching out his hands to you?


Who are you waiting for?

Luke 7:24-30

Jesus challenged the crowds that flocked to him from John the Baptist to look deeply at their motives.  Did they seek out John because they were following the crowd?  Were they expecting a spectacle, or seeking someone to show them a prosperous, problem future?  Or were they seeking a prophet?

His question resonates today.  As we toss around slogans like "Let's keep Christ in Christmas" and "Jesus is the reason for the season," Jesus still calls me to look within.  Am I just going along with the church crowd?  Do I long for a meek, mild baby who doesn't cry or ask much of me?  A savior who will bless and rescue my life as I know it?  A source of certainty I can use to anchor my life or differentiate myself from others?  A conquering king?  Or a Messiah who will suffer nails and spears and model losing my life in order to really live it?

Are you waiting for the answers to your prayers? Or the answer to the world's prayers, who calls you to be part of the solution?


A deepening awareness

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to get such a clear message from God?  A direct visitation from an angel -- that would be more definitive than neon lights or skywriting or the other signs that I often long for when discerning God's message to me.

I used to think that Gabriel's appearance was the source of Mary's confident response to the unexpected, disruptive news that the angel brings. "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."  An otherworldly spectacle would certainly grab anyone's attention, overcome their fear and galvanize them into action.  Right?

But Mary's encounter with the angel doesn't suggest a change of mind or heart.  She is perplexed by the visitation at first, but her simple question and then her acceptance of a new life sounds to me more like a deepening of an existing revelation, another chapter in a a story already in progress.

We human beings have a pretty bad record noticing when God is speaking to us.  Adam and Eve ignored clear, direct orders.  God's prophets to Israel were routinely ignored.  The power structure of his day plotted to trap and execute Christ.  Today, when some try to hear God speaking for the poor in the midst of economic upheaval, or for the environment in the face of disaster, other voices are quick to question.  Rarely do we have clarity about God's message in real time; often our best understanding comes from looking back at unfolding revelation.

So how do we move forward?  It seems to me that trusting response, like Mary's, to God's call doesn't come from an overwhelmingly convincing voice from above, but from a gradual deepening of our own ability to notice God's presence with us.  Mary's willingness to submit to the claim God places on her life isn't so much a response as it is a sign that she recognizes God's love and companionship down to the very depths of her soul.