Thursday, December 16, 2010

Be more materialistic

I think we should all be a bit more materialistic this Christmas. No really. We so often talk about finding the spirit of Christmas, but the actual Christmas story is about the Spirit finding flesh and blood. John described the incarnation this way, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God, who is completely other, transcendent, became one of us at Christmas. In doing so, he declared once and for all that matter matters (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Now, obviously, the incarnation isn’t saying that only the material aspect of this world is important. No one has ever relied more on the spiritual side of life than Jesus Christ. But Jesus also made plain that the spiritual and the physical are anything but enemies of one another. He fed the hungry; he gave sight to the blind; he touched the leper. In every instance, the physical not only gave testimony to the spiritual, but was tied up with it. Physical healing served as the evidence of God’s kingdom come. Even at his departure, Jesus left his church with the most physical reminders of his presence: the cold, wet waters of baptism, the warm, delicious taste of the bread, the deep, crimson color of the wine. The physical and spiritual inseparably tied up together.

So, this Christmas, some of us need to be a little more materialistic. That is we need to value the matter we find around us. No, I don’t mean all the gadgets and gizmos we find for sale in the market, but the salespeople we meet, the beggars we pass, the neighbor we greet, the family we welcome home. Each and every one of them a soul, yes, but a soul that enlivens flesh and blood. Matter that matters enough to God for him to become one of us. May they be important to us, as well.

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? – James 2:15-16.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Secrets. They’ve dominated the news over the last few weeks with the release of thousands of secret State Department cables by the website WikiLeaks. There has been plenty of embarrassment for the U.S., and certainly some damage to foreign policy, but maybe not nearly as much as what was first feared. Why? An article by Time’s Fareed Zakaria explains, “The WikiLeaks documents . . . show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly.” That is, the State Department’s secrets don’t contain too many secrets. Their private words match up quite well to their public words. Kudos to the State Department.

All of this has me wondering about other kinds of secrets, namely, our secrets. A recent study by the University of Michigan revealed that many of us lie about how often we go to church. The research revealed not so much that we intentionally deceive pollsters about our church attendance so much as we have a tendency to deceive ourselves. We consider ourselves more faithful than we really are. Our words match our perception of ourselves but not our actual church-skipping selves. My guess is that church attendance isn’t the only area of life in which we inflate our sense of righteousness. Jeremiah explained that our hearts are “deceitful above all things.” To put it another way, every heart carries around its fair share of secrets.

At first, we might take some consolation in the truth that WikiLeaks has no access to the chambers of our hearts. But that does mean our soul’s thoughts belong to us alone? No. Jesus once told the crowds, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2-3). God certainly knows whether or not the words of our mouth match the conditions of our hearts. At face value, that’s terrifying news, that God knows our deeds (just read through Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 for an example).

The good news? God knows who we are better than we know ourselves, and loves us anyway. God’s coming, his revealing (of both himself and our hearts) isn’t meant to embarrass us (though it might very well do that) but to bring us salvation. His Truth, if received, sets us free from the need to keep secrets even from ourselves. I mean, if God loves me even though I am a sinner – is there any need to pretend that I am something else? If God loves me despite my faults, why the pretense of perfection? The only person we fool in such instances is ourselves. Better to come clean and be free.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Only three things we must do

Came across this quote while reading a delightful little book, Letters to Children by C.S. Lewis. The book is, as the title indicates, a collection of various letters Lewis wrote to children.

In one of those notes, he writes to a God-daughter this advice:

Oh - I'd nearly forgotten - I have one other piece of advice. Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do (2) Things we've got to do (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don't like because other people read them. Things you ought to do are things like doing one's school work or being nice to people. Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping. Things one likes doing - but of course I don't know what you like. Perhaps you'll write and tell me one day.

At face value, this strikes me as an ingenious way of looking at one's daily activities - there are things we do out of obedience (to God, to our promises to others, etc); there are things we do out of necessity (like eating, breathing, etc.), and then there are things we do because we enjoy them. Each category has it's own pleasures and obviously they can overlap. I ought to love my kids, and very often I enjoy loving them. I need to eat and very often delight in the process (maybe too often!).

But the categories remind us that we do not always like the things we need or ought to do. I don't like to discipline/correct my children, but I ought to, for their own good. The opposite is also true, I am, in God's good grace, allowed to do some things for the pure enjoyment of them (so long as they do not violate God's will). My guess is that art and music and all manner of fun fall into this category.

Most importantly, the three categories appear to describe those things that are necessary for a well formed/lived life. Each category, in it's own way, contributes to a life well lived. This gets to the heart of Lewis' advice - if something doesn't fit one of these categories - toss it. As we might say, "Life's too short."

I wonder, what things do you do because you ought to (even if you don't like to do them)? What things do you like to do purely for the joy of it? What might you need to stop doing for the simple fact that you need not do it, you are under no obligation to do it, nor do you enjoy doing it? How might your life be different if you gave this activity up?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Waiting Together

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love – Ephesians 4:2.

It’s only December 2nd, and yet, many of us may already be tired of waiting for Christmas to arrive. For some of us, especially the little ones among us, it’s difficult to wait for the presents to arrive. For others, our struggles with waiting take an entirely different form. We’re trying to wait out Christmas, get it over with, get past it, so we can get back to our routine, get back to normal. Perhaps, Christmas with its gatherings and celebrations paints too stark of a contrast to our own loneliness and grief. We can’t wait to be done with it. But we must, for neither in joy or sorrow can we speed up the clock.

What makes waiting easier? Company. Not any company mind you. There are some people who only increase our pain, but there are others who are able to encourage our faith and deepen our hope and who help us to wait. Mary and Elizabeth were both waiting for a tremendous promise to be fulfilled. These promises were not without their costs. To receive these gifts would alter their lives tremendously. Plans had to change. Friends would be lost. Family would turn their backs on them. Without one another, they would have been all alone. But even God seems to understand that waiting alone is a struggle almost too great to bear.

So God gives us each other - that we may hold one another’s hands, sit by each other’s side, and voice one another’s prayers. After all, prayer, as Henri Nouwen put it, is “coming together around a promise.” Such were the prayers of Elizabeth and Mary. Such can be our prayers as well, so long as we’ll learn to pray for and with one another.

Father, today, we your people confess that it is often difficult to wait on you. But we do wait, trusting that the God who has come shall come again. Until that day, we wait together, believing that this life together is an important part of your plan. Amen.