Advent Reflection 17: Fear

“Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm” (Mt. 8:26).

My four year-old Kezek calls it his “blankey.” My two year-old Ryser has just recently adopted the term. Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus called it his “security and happiness blanket” (Good Grief, More Peanuts, 1956). Child psychologists refer to it as a “comfort object” or “transitional object,” often referring to a (literal) “security blanket” but sometimes to a stuffed animal or other such item. These are objects that are typically used in early childhood as children begin to develop self-awareness and a sense of relative independence. Newborns see the world as an extension of themselves, but soon that illusion is reduced to just the mother, who “brings the world” to the infant. Desire is translated to screaming in the middle of the night; screaming in the middle of the night becomes the faithful mother who is there to satisfy the desire. But eventually, the child must necessarily be disillusioned if s/he is going to make it in the world. The child must learn that mom isn’t going to be around forever to bring the world at every beck and call.

This is where blankies and passies and teddies come in handy. It’s about having something familiar to hold onto in a world that often forces the unfamiliar upon us. Ambulances are stuffed full of “emergency blankets” to give to victims of trauma, not because trauma victims are necessarily cold, but because there are times we all need a “blankey.”  Indeed, after polling over 6,000 people trying to track down the owners of about 75,000 stuffed animals in 452 hotels, the hotel chain Travelodge discovered that 35 percent of British adults still sleep with a teddy bear. Life is scary, especially for adults.

That’s why we prefer the illusion. It’s also why we refer to retirement funds as “security blankets,” which is just another way of talking about the “blankey” we take to our death bed. We hold on to the illusion because between recessions, ISIS, teenage texting and driving, not to mention the inevitability of death, letting go of the illusion would mean holding on to…what? What is there to “bring the world” to us that isn’t terrifying?

Perhaps that is why we don’t take Advent seriously anymore. Resurrection of the dead, reconciliation of all things—the most basic promises of God’s future—are the promises Christians doubt most. We have that in common with atheists. We may believe God will bless our nation, prosper our business, secure our retirement fund, grant us traveling mercies, eliminate life’s storms. We will believe just about anything about God other than what he has definitively promised. This is how we can still talk about having “faith” in God without having to have either faith or God. Faith in God is not truly faith in God unless it requires us to let go of our attempts to control or avoid the future.

Advent means that though the world attempts to control or turn away from the unfamiliar future, the Church looks futureward with open arms because we are familiar with God’s promise: that Christ is coming to bring the world to us. 

In that case, we could all learn a little lesson from Linus. Linus was known for being the kid who refused to let go of his blankey. But who can blame him when the alternative is to begin exchanging one illusion for another, when life begins with a baby blanket and ends with one for the death bed? But, in fact, Linus did let go of his blanket. He just waited till the right time. He waited till he found something else to hold onto, something he need not fear, something real, the world that was being brought to him–Advent.

Just notice the exact moment he drops it.

Now go and do likewise…

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Advent Reflection 16: Promise

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev. 22:20-21).

And with that, the Bible concludes. We are left on Scripture’s last page with two basic claims about the course of history, the fate of the world: Christ has come. Christ will come again. Between the times is born a people called the Church, an Advent people. The Church stands on the first Advent of Christ and stretches itself out toward the second. That is what makes the Church what it is. We are a people formed in the exact shape of a promise.

God always comes in the form of a promise, every act a promise to act. Every Advent is two Advents, one done and another to come. There was Egypt and there was Canaan, slaves of Pharaoh and the land of giants, but suddenly Egypt was the Exodus and Cannon was the Promise Land. It was the same day a no-people became the people of God (1 Pet. 2:10), a promise-shaped people. Israel was born.

God makes promises in a way that only he can make good his promises, in the space between impossible and nevertheless, between heavy chains and wild honey, between no more life and no more death. Between whence and whither is the world of faith, sometimes called the wilderness, other times just “the world.” The world is the place where God makes faith possible, because the world is the place stuck between impossible and nevertheless, the place of Advent.

So Advent gives birth to a people who point to God in both directions, and we need God in both directions. Too much has been lost and there is too much to lose for God to be otherwise. Creation groans, waves swell, mothers cry, children hurt. If Christ has not come, there is no consolation. If Christ is not coming, there is no hope. The world regularly points in one direction or another, promising to rebuild what once was or to build anew what never has been, but only the Church points in both directions at once. Donald Trump promises to “Make America Great Again.” Bernie Sanders promises “A Political Revolution is Coming.” The world always promises a gospel of yesterday or a gospel of tomorrow, but only the Church heralds the promise of the an “eternal Gospel” (Rev. 14:6). Only the Church has the nerve to point as far back as Paradise and as far forward as forever. Only the Church is shaped like a promise-shaped cross. For us, there is Advent or there is nothing.

But there is not nothing! That is why we are here and why we speak. We are the people sent to the wilderness world to tell the truth about both sides beyond the waters. On one side, there is a slavery too strong to escape, on the other a life too good to be true. There is only impossible on both sides—nevertheless, there is Advent. And it can only be seen as the Advent of God when it cannot be mistaken for the Advent of anyone else. The Virgin asks how the news could be possible, so the angel assures her, indeed, it cannot, not apart from God at least—“For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37). Only when the world can expect nothing to happen is it prepared to receive the happening of God. Advent. The Promise of Advent. Jesus has come. Jesus is coming.

“For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20).

Advent Reflection 15: Impossible

[Originally published by Asbury’s Seminary’s publishing house, Seedbed.]

“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 called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:35-38).

It was biologically impossible. But it was also socially impossible.

I’m thankful not only that the virgin Mary embraced her Unplanned Parenthood but also that “Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her” (Mt. 1:17). I’m thankful that Mary consented to mother the Son of an unconsented conception and that Joseph consented to father a Son of another Father.

I’m thankful too that when Mary received word of her pregnancy from God, that with it came the assurance that she need not fear, that she had found favor with God (Lk. 1:30). She had found special favor with God, because in the life of her unborn Son, who had already been named, was the Life of every son and daughter (Jn. 1:4). His Life made flesh proved that every life made flesh has found special favor with God (Jn.1:14; 3:16), for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these (Mt. 19:16; Mk. 10:14; Lk. 18:14).

I’m also thankful that when her unplanned Son was hanging on a cross the moment before he was able to declare all his work “finished” (Jn. 19:30), that his final provision for the human race was to ensure that his mother would not be left alone and that she would be cared for by the beloved disciple: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (Jn. 19:26-27). If Christ shares the burden of human death, surely He can expect us to share the burden of human life, whether that means adopting babies or adopting mothers–for we all are adoptees (Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5).

Jesus became the Son of Man so that we could become children of God (Jn. 1:12-14; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:1-4, 28-29), but if we embrace God as Father and claim our right to be his children in Christ, we must embrace one another as family (Eph. 2:19; cf. 1 John–the whole book). “Welcom[ing] one another as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7; cf. Eph. 4:32) means the embrace of every potential life of a baby, planned or unplanned, for indeed these are the least of “the least of these” (Mt. 25:40). However, welcoming one another means no less than the embrace of every potential mother. When Mary found herself with an unplanned pregnancy, she did not find herself alone. She found herself within the embrace of God and the community He placed around her, and so was empowered to embrace her seemingly uncertain future.

The Church of Jesus Christ must be pro-life, but it must be pro-life in the way Joseph was pro-life at Jesus’ conception and the way the beloved disciple was pro-life at Jesus’ death. We must embrace the life of the unborn precisely by embracing the life of the mother. We can be no less than Joseph for every fatherless child and no less than the the beloved disciple for every lonely mother. But that’s costly. It means making room in our homes–literally. It means welcoming young guys and gals before they find themselves in such a situation. It means welcoming young guys and gals during and after they find themselves in such a situation, as well. It means: we make room for their lives so they can make room for life when it comes–planned or unplanned.

Indeed, Jesus’ Plan all along was to send that defining message to the disciples, that “I am ascending to my Father and their Father, to my God and their God” (Jn. 20:17), so that “those who believe in his Name would be given the right to be called children of God” (Jn. 1:12). So our calling, indeed our right, is to “conform to the image of the Son…the firstborn among a large family (Rom. 8:29).

I’m thankful that the gospel announces God’s Planned Parenthood for all humanity: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. An impossible plan, God’s plan.

 

Advent Reflection 14: Desert

[Special guest post by my sister, ChristiAnna Coats. Check out her new book here!]

Desert

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isa. 35:1-2)

The year is approximately 700 BC and Israel is under captivity once again.  After the miraculous exodus through the Red Sea, the tribes are scattered and hope is fading.

The year is 2010. Land has been donated in India for a children’s home and discipleship training center, but the water in the region is so scarce, it seemed impractical to continue what God had called the ministers to do. The task ahead seems hopeless.

Is there any emotion quite as debilitating as hopelessness?

Hopelessness is the papers, the final papers, for a broken promise. Forever had seemed so possible. When did that change? Neither one could pinpoint exactly how. She wanted to blame his job, but if she were really honest, it really began before that. Way before that. It was probably the first time she chose to wallow in being right. It had felt so good not to concede that time; compromise had become so uninteresting….

Hopelessness is the fateful oncology report. “…nothing more we can do.” The doctor’s words both before and after didn’t seem relevant. He had been so sure of the trial. Even his practiced eyes shifted when he broke the news to the child’s mother. Not this child, he had assured. Not this time. And now he had nothing more to offer them. He couldn’t do anything…

He who made a way through the sea,

a path through the mighty waters,

who drew out the chariots and horses,

the army and reinforcements together,

and they lay there, never to rise again,

extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:

Forget the former things;

do not dwell on the past.

See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I am making a way in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah is bringing hope to his people, a foretelling of the coming Messiah…a promise of a NEW thing coming.  The new thing would be Jesus. And hope would shatter convention, time, and space and would make his dwelling among us.

It would be that same Jesus who would soften the woman’s heart toward her husband. It would be that same Jesus who would grant perfect peace in the pit of the despairing, grieving mother.

It would be the same Jesus who would provide literal streams in a wasteland in India in 2010. He would make a way where there was no way. There seemed to be no way, but they prayed anyway. There was no hope, but they hoped anyway.

What they did not perceive was that across the globe in Trinity North Carolina, a Sunday School class had been urged by that same Jesus to raise money for a well in a developing nation. The two groups made a most unlikely connection, and they began to prepare for the well. Here is an excerpt of the email from the pastor in India to the Sunday School class in North Carolina shortly thereafter:

“Finally we could do the bore well in the place where the Lord enabled to buy the land.  It would be easy to do it in another place, but we wanted to put this bore well in this land because there was so much water scarcity and it was amazing what the Lord did. Yesterday by the grace of God, we found a Bore well company and also a Pastor of ICA who is gifted in finding the water resources.  He came and we all prayed and trust[ed] the Lord to start the machine.

“To God be all the Glory and Honor, we could find water in less than 15 meters (40 feet) and we did up to 100 meters (301 feet). The neighbors of the land came and saw in awe and asking how is it possible, this place is known for dry ground. That’s the reason the land doesn’t produce hardly anything and the prices of the land have dropped. Also the neighbors have dug the ground more than 600 feet (200 meters) and still there is very little or no water.. How come?! We could point them to heaven and said: with Jesus all things are possible.

“He promised we will have water, water in abundance and He did what He spoke. Praise to the Holy Name of the Lord.

“All of them are Hindus, still under the bondage of idolatry, but all they could say was, “Yes, its true. Only Jesus could do that!”

When hope is fading, trust in Him. He’s the kind of God that restores marriages, even when the papers have been signed. He’s the kind of God that offers peace, incomprehensible peace, to grieving mothers. And he’s the kind of God that still makes water spring up in the desert. And it’s the kind of flowing Spring that will never, ever run dry (John 7:38).

Advent Reflection 13: Low

“The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down” (Ps. 146:8b).

I don’t know why Jesus came for me, but I do know that Jesus loves low. And I know it because he came for me.

—-

I met Joyce on Monday evening at Embrace United Methodist Church. Each month I take a group of students to Embrace to help serve the community meal, to feast together, and to worship. Over the past few years we’ve developed some great relationships. Mary is my best friend there. She always takes my picture and holds up her phone next to a yellowed wallet sized photo of her late husband, Dave, and asks (re: tells) everyone about the resemblance. This past Monday she used the word “reincarnation.”

But this was my first time meeting Joyce. I think Joyce is young, perhaps in her late thirties, early forties, but it’s hard to say. The age of her hair doesn’t match the number of years under her eyes. I’m afraid she has the quality of a face that has learned to love everyone but herself. She is quick to smile, even quicker to look down. Her eyes sink with her shoulders, low.

When I sat between her and Mary on Monday, she was accommodating. Mary did the ritual with the phone and the picture. “I can see it,” Joyce convinced herself. (I look absolutely nothing like Dave.) We then began sharing our stories across the table. It turns out Joyce “grew up in this church. This is my church.” A number of churches had in fact passed through the building, but she knew her church as this building. Despite the popular criticism against identifying a building (rather than the people) as a church, the fact is the faithfulness of a building almost always outlasts the faithfulness of the people. Such was the case with this building, this “church.” So this was Joyce’s church.

She spoke about her early days in the way you hear parents talk about children growing up so fast. What I mean is she spoke about those days as days she just couldn’t get back. Her words ached. They made me ache. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it had to do with the thought of Joyce-the-little-girl running up and down the halls and playing in the sanctuary. It had to do with the thought that there was a time when Joyce had a sanctuary. And it was the awareness that at some point along the way something happened to her, and that sanctuary was gone, or at least the girl who used to play in that sanctuary was gone.

And maybe it also had to do with the memory I have of running up and down the halls and playing in the sanctuary of the place I called “my church” growing up. The church I grew up in is now part of an irretrievable past I have often thought of with the same ache in the deep part of Joyce’s eyes and the lost part of Joyce’s words. There was a time when I had a sanctuary, when I was a little child in God’s big house. But at some point along the way something happened, and that sanctuary was gone, because the little boy decided to leave and grow old. I have so longed to go to that little boy and reassure him, to get him to turn around, to stay, but I cannot. He is back there with that little girl. And now, here we are, older, lower.

During our conversation Joyce was texting back and forth with someone. With each text she seemed to be getting more anxious, and the more anxious she got the more troubled she seemed talking about ‘old times’. It was as though her cherished past was in confrontation with her heavy present. Then, out of nowhere, she announced, “I heard the voice of God in this church! I heard the voice of God in that room over there!” In tears, “I heard his voice…” She was now on the verge of sobbing.

“What did he say, Joyce?”

“I’m not done.” She said it resolutely. “I’m not done.”

I don’t know what that meant to Joyce, but I know she heard it. I know she believed it more than I think most people ever believe anything. I think she believed it more than she believed in herself. She believed it like she had to believe it, like if it weren’t true nothing were true, like if there’s no hope in God there’s no hope at all. I also know God said it to her, because that is the kind of thing God is always saying. But it’s something God says on a low frequency. It’s hard to hear the hope God offers when you’re on top of the world. But it’s the thing God came to say. It’s what God said to me, in no uncertain terms, when my life had sunk immeasurably low, out of touch with my past, out of the reach of any future to speak of. Long after I had left that child behind, Jesus came for me and took me as a child, just as I was.

Wherever he finds you, I know what he wants to say. He wants to say to you the thing he said to Joyce. It’s the message of Advent: I’m not done. Wherever that is heard, there is still a child, there is still a sanctuary.

And when it looked like the sun was never going to shine again, God put a rainbow in the clouds.

Advent Reflection 12: Homeless

Homeless

[Special guest post by my sister, ChristiAnna Coats. Check out her new book here! ]

“The Lord watches over sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps. 146:9).

I had lied to my mother. I had lied to her about where I was going, who was with me, and what I would be doing. Those were the three questions she always asked and I had lied about each one in order to go on a double date…fully two years before I was permitted to do so.

And I regretted it immediately.

I thought it would be dinner and a movie. Like an episode of Saved by the Bell, where we ended the evening laughing at the diner drinking milkshakes. I was fourteen.

We had ended up at someone’s home. No. Someone’s house. But did anyone really live here? I couldn’t figure out what they were doing with the spoon over the fire. I remember feeling invisible. No one seemed to notice me and I tried not to look directly at any of them. Being invisible was the only solace I had. Should anyone have spoken to me, or attempted to engage me in whatever it was they were doing, I fully expected to become a puddle in the floor. It was the Saturday night before Easter.

I wanted to go home. I was 14, but I may as well have been 5. I longed for the scent of my mother, the creak in our wooden floor, and blankets that would envelope my shame. I imagined that she would be preparing our baskets and the morning would come and it would be the most glorious feeling in the whole world. I couldn’t wait. I looked around the room and knew that no one else there had a mother like mine. I was so close to home, but had never felt so far away. My gut had such a wrenching ache.

This was my first true experience of longing for home.

My second longing, however, is much different from the first. The second longing comes with an assurance that the first longing only dreamt of. There is no longer a hollow ache in my gut. My second longing is accompanied with hope. The second longing is accompanied with peace. The second longing is able to experience the kingdom already but not yet the kingdom to its fullest. The kingdom to its fullest is still yet to come. Until then, we sojourn on. Until then we are all foreigners here, strangers in a strange land. Even when the babies are tucked in tight, and there are soft carols playing, and the glow of the twinkling lights provide the only evening light we need, and I am in my home…I’m not home. Permanence here is illusive. Because for every child nestled all snug in his bed, there is a restless one with no earthly ear to hear his cry.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

I’m not home until there are no more homeless refugees, trying to makes sense of their plight. I’m not home until there is nary a need for a gun, nor a fence, nor a password, nor a calendar, nor antidepressants. I’m not home until the fatherless get evening bear hugs with real touchable beards. I’m not home until babies sleep from a full belly, rather than hungered exhaustion. I’m not home until there are no more orphans smoking in crack houses on the Saturday night before Easter. I’m not home until there is no more night. In his book, Longing for Home, Frederick Buechner writes, “be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intricately interwoven that there can be no real peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us.”

——-

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

But there will come a Day!

Until that Day, we wait. We wait as Israel waited. And we wait with the promise that “The Lord watches over sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless…”. Until that Day, we wait not as we wait in line at WalMart, passively biding the moments until we can get on with our day. We wait as we wait for Christmas. We wait in constant preparation and proclamation. We wait, all the while proclaiming to the orphan that she has a Father! We wait, all the while proclaiming to the addict that the void can be filled – filled to overflowing! We wait, all the while proclaiming to the hungry, and the weary, and the worn – hope! And we proclaim to the refugees – all of us longing for a home – there is a home with table prepared, and where everyone has a Father.

And the Father is always, always home (John 14:2-3).

 

Advent Reflection 11: Blind

For a reflection on spiritual blindness as it relates to unbelievers (as opposed to ‘half-believer’s, as here), click here: “A Letter to My Skeptic Friends.” 

“The Lord open the eyes of the blind” (Ps. 146:8a).

There are two types of blindness. Mark points this out in the way he arranges two stories side-by-side in the his telling of the Gospel. There’s a blind man. He couldn’t see things like the ‘E’ on an eye exam. That kind of blind. His friends brought him to Jesus. Jesus spit on his eyes and laid hands on him, naturally. “Do you see anything?”, asked Jesus, wiping the side of his lip. “I see men, but they look like trees, walking.” That’s kind of like calling the ‘E’ and ‘8’. He could see things now; he just couldn’t distinguish one thing from another. Maybe it was the spit? Jesus gave another whack at it, laid hands on him again and, “E!” (paraphrased).

There is a total blindness and a partial blindness, but neither are safe behind the wheel (cf. Mk. 8:22-26).

The very next story Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” People were blind. They couldn’t see things like God or his Christ. “Some say John the baptist, others Elijah; one of the prophets.” Jesus spits, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter could see it: “You are the Christ!” Jesus calls him blessed, gives him the keys to the kingdom (Mt. 16:19). He was right, halfway. He could see in part. It’s just that as soon he could see that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus began helping Peter distinguish him from all the other “christs” who had come before him. Many had come and would continue to come claiming that title (Mt. 24:5; Mk. 13:6; Lk. 21:8), but only would be the kind of Christ he was going to be: “Yes, Peter! Now I’m going to go be murdered!” Peter pulls the God-Man aside and rebukes him, naturally. “Ehmm, actually Jesus, the plan was….” Jesus calls him Satan.

Peter was right about the Man, wrong about the Mission. He was partially blind, certainly not safe behind the wheel. He didn’t realize that “it was necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24:26). So Jesus kicks him out of the driver’s seat: “Get behind me, Satan!” (cf. Mk. 8:27-38; Mt. 16:13-28) and take the keys back, for now.

The resistance to Jesus being the kind of Christ who will be crucified is that he is the kind of Christ who says, “Follow me.” Actually, he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And the first time he says it, in fact, he says it to Peter just at the end of this uncomfortable exchange: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me…” (Mk. 8:34).

The world is filled with blind people. The Church is filled with partially blind people. To confess Jesus is the Christ is half way there. But we can’t be right about the Man and wrong about the Mission anymore than Jesus can be the Truth without also being the Way. That’s like the guy who can just make the ‘E’-or-is-it-‘8? and yet expects to be given a license to drive. That’s a license to kill. There’s still some spit in his eyes. No keys for him.

The thing about the Gospel is that there really is no fine print. Jesus puts everything on the top line. “Yes, I am the Christ. Yes, my way is the cross. Yes, so is yours. No, there are no shortcuts. Hop in the back.” But our blindness is not a defect of the eyes to see or the mind to perceive. It is the defect of the will to see, to perceive, to obey. It is the exercise of the will to believe what cannot be true in light of the cross, things like: I am justified in holding grudges, keeping records of wrong, deciding to not like somebody, gossiping, calling gossip: “well, it’s the truth”, turning a blind eye…, not forgiving, wanting to remain the victim rather than choosing to trust, lying, hiding, not really believing Jesus is coming back, etc.

Popular opinion is like cataracts. It clouds the vision. It’s a safe assumption that the answer to “Who do people say that I am?” will almost invariably be a half-truth at best. But the only way to see Jesus for who he is is to follow him–down the path of humility to the place where we can see things for what they truly are in the light of the Christ, especially ourselves.

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mk. 8:29).