Incarnation as Charge and Challenge

pregnantGod became flesh. Incarnation – derived from the Latin in caro – to be made flesh. That is the miracle we celebrate at Christmas. Yet we hear the Christmas story so often that we speed right past the scandal of it. Imagine for a moment that you had never heard the story of Jesus. You have lived on an island somewhere your entire life. You have a concept of God that includes things like how God is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), omni-present, beyond time, eternal, without beginning or end. You also have a clear understanding of what it means to be human, with all of the accompanying frailty, limitations, and frustrating ups and downs. Now imagine someone comes to you with a rather fantastic and outlandish story. Someone dares to tell you that God, with all that makes God, chose to become flesh with all that comes with a body like yours. Imagine.

older-handsImagine how God would descend to endure a body with the indignity of hiccups and indigestion. God would take on bodies like ours, that so readily disappoint us time and again. Bodies that can gain weight, age quickly, suffer allergies, succumb to infection and disease, quit producing insulin, and suffer any number of dangerous reactions to temperature, trauma, and environment. Bodies like yours and mine – that fumble through life experiencing all kinds of aches, pains, bruises, and wounds. Imagine.

What does this mean? God takes on a body at Christmas. God becomes flesh. God becomes a baby. What does that say about bodies? My body? Your body? Other people’s bodies? Think about it a moment.

wheelchairWhat does this miracle say about

… unborn bodies still in the womb?

… little bodies – children, full of energy and vitality, but who are often shushed, dismissed or ignored?

… incarcerated bodies in our jails and prisons?

… immigrant bodies?

… black bodies? … white bodies? … brown bodies?

… trafficked bodies?

… disabled bodies?

… hungry bodies with little or no food?

… naked bodies without sufficient clothing or shelter from the elements?

… wounded bodies in need of healing and care?

… aged bodies that are failing and in need of assistance and compassion?

God became flesh and dwelt among us. God came in flesh so that God could redeem all flesh. That is the scandal, the miracle, and the great promise of Christmas.

The Christian year revolves around three main events – those three long “tion” words that pop up around Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter – incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. But perhaps we should remember that without incarnation, the crucifixion would be a kind of non-event. So what? A man died by execution of the state some 2000 years ago. That is not news. That is certainly not new. Unfortunately, that is a story we have already heard over and over and over again. What makes this one execution different – what makes it so shocking, so amazing, and such a radical moment to transform all other moments is that the man who hung on the cross was not only fully human – he was also fully God. God in flesh. The crucified God.

There is reason in this holy season to sing carols, bring offerings, worship, and celebrate this incredible event that took place in Bethlehem so long ago. Yet, as we journey together this Advent, I invite us to reflect deeply as we peer around the tree, unwrap the presents, drink wassail and eat special treats. Let us not fail to remember the radical miracle that is present in the child born to Mary. And let us never fail to remember the implications that this holy mystery has on our own physical bodies and the bodies of every man, woman, and child in our family, church, community, and world. The incarnation is not just about Jesus, it is also a challenge and a charge to every single one of us who would come to adore and worship this child born of Mary. Our charge? Our challenge? To welcome, to embrace, to stand with, to advocate for, and to defend with our lives and our bodies the dignity of every single beloved treasure that God has so generously and miraculously placed in these – our bodies – these very earthly, fragile, yet magnificent and beautiful “clay pots.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

I leave you with this poem on the incarnation by Luci Shaw, titled “Descent:”

Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.
And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.

From Summer Malaise to Missional Motivation!

dog days 1

from malaise …

Malaise – a condition of general bodily weakness or discomfort; a vague or unfocused feeling of mental uneasiness and lethargy.

Something happens to many of us in the dead heat of summer. We sometimes call this season the “dog days of summer” or the “summer malaise.” We slow down. We try our best to stay cool, near water, under shade, or tucked inside rooms with well-conditioned air. It is hard to think, hard to focus, and hard to move and stay motivated. Churches experiences similar things. Summer attendance in worship wanes while people travel and engage in other summer activities. Ministries continue but with irregular schedules and often less energy and excitement. How might the church turn some of this summer malaise into motivation? Taking some insights from others in the business world, here are a few suggestions (thanks, Chris Myers):

Revisit Expectations and Goals

This year we have set some big ones at FUMC Graham. The first is our “Removing Barriers Campaign.” We are currently in the middle of one of the biggest renovations of our church in decades, seeking to make our ministry facility more welcoming, accessible, and modern. A final push to complete the first stages of this project is coming soon, including some exciting news about how to meet some of the financial contingencies that have arisen. Stay tuned for more! Secondly, our goal of revamping our website, streaming our services, and reaching more people in the larger community for Christ remains our central vision and mission. This fall, stay tuned for new ways to connect through small groups, bible studies, LIFE groups, and even a possible off campus gathering for unchurched seekers.

Stay Focused on the big picture and don’t sweat the small stuff

Focus. That is the key word. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ through love and service. Our vision for how to do that in Alamance County is by becoming a loving and diverse community meeting the real needs of our neighbors through spirit-filled worship, inter-generational discipleship, and caring service. It is not complicated, but we can and do get distracted. The public square and our national discourse has become shrill and divisive. Violence, terror and fear continue to threaten our lives and, more importantly, our higher ideals of love, forgiveness, and unity. The world has never needed the Church more – called as we are to witness to a different way of being, loving and serving. Now is a time to stay focused on our calling, our purpose, and our Lord.

Staying focused and keeping our eyes on the larger mission and Gospel goals of God’s kingdom also requires a third thing …

strength to muscle through.

... to missional motivation!

… to missional motivation!

Fortunately, our strength comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. Hear these wise words from Proverbs 4:20-27: “My child, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them escape from y our sight; keep them within your heart … Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Keep straight the path of your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil. Do this and you will thrive. Do this, and you may also turn summer malaise into missional motivation!

Harsh Words (sermon 3 on Job)

Remembering the Context

job friendsThis sermon is the third in our series on Job – Weathering the Storm. First – lets recap a bit. Do any of you remember the scene in Job chapter one and two? The action is fast, furious, and unrelenting:

  • First messenger comes – Sabeans have attacked Job’s field hands who were watching the oxen (500) and donkeys (500) … they killed the servants and stole the livestock. While that messenger was still talking …
  • Second messenger – a bolt of lightning, fire from heaven, stuck Job’s sheep (7,000) and all the servants watching them. All are reported dead. While that messenger was still speaking …
  • Third messenger – Chaldeans set up 3 companies and raided Job’s camels (3,000) and killed the field hands. While that messenger was still speaking …
  • Fourth messenger – Job’s 7 sons and 3 daughters were in the home of his eldest son eating. Strong wind hit the house and it collapsed. All dead. While Job is still processing all this news …
  • His body is struck all over with severe sores and he is reduced to scraping himself with shards of pottery.

Place yourself for a moment in Job’s shoes. Who in the world can weather that kind of a storm?

Bible Thumping in Job

To add insult to multiple injuries, the three friends show up – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and after sitting shiva with him for 7 days and nights, they proceed to do a little Bible thumping. Anyone heard that expression before? It has been described as the act of aggressively and relentlessly promoting your understanding of Christian faith and practice to convince someone to believe and think the way you do on the matter. Listen to how one friend warms up for his version of Bible thumping: “If you were truly wise, would you sound so much like a windbag, belching hot air … I’ve a thing or two to tell you, so listen up! I’m letting you in on my views …” (Eliphaz in Job 15, the Msg) After all this windy, judgmental, and unhelpful talk from Job’s friends, it is Job’s turn to respond, and what comes out of his mouth might surprise you.

Praying with Raw Emotion

Hear again Job’s harsh and anguished prayer:

God has surely worn me out … his anger tears me and afflicts me; he slashes at me with his teeth … I was at rest, but he shattered me, seized me by the back of the neck, dashed me into pieces; he raised me up for his target. His archers surround me; he cuts my kidneys open without pity and doesn’t care, pours my gall on the ground, burst me open over and over, runs against me like a strong man. I’ve sewed rough cloth over my skin and buried my dignity in the dust. My face is red from crying, and dark gloom hangs on my eyelids. But there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure. (Job 16)

Harsh words. Lets put aside for a moment the notion of Job’s incredible “patience.” Lets talk about how angry he was. How frustrated. How anguished. How much in pain he was. Words cannot describe the depths of his anguish, but he gave it a good try … and when the words came, WOW … they came, pouring forth in waves of utter agony.

crucifixionEver thought about praying like this before? This is an example of one type of prayer taken straight from Scripture. And if you are ever afraid to pray like Job, might you consider praying like Jesus? Yes, Jesus taught his disciples the “Our Father” prayer in Matthew, but he also taught us to pray in the way he lived and died. Listen to how Jesus prays in the moments before he takes his last breath – with raw emotion from the depths of his suffering: “From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. 46 At about three Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matthew 27:45-46 – Jesus’ words were the first line of Psalm 22, one of many psalms of lament in the Bible’s prayer book)

One thing we all need to learn from Job and from Jesus is that we need our prayers to get more honest. Fortunately, we have a long tradition of prayers that are offered up in the midst of suffering, trial, and despair. They are called prayers of lament. You can find them in the book of Lamentations and in the Psalms. They are prayers that express a cry of need in a context of crisis. They are prayers that appeal for divine help in moments of great distress. They are raw. They are real. They are honest. If you want a real relationship with someone, it has to be a relationship based on authenticity, honesty, and love. Should that be any less true of our relationship with God? Job, among other things, wants to teach the church how to lament again.

Learning to Lament

The best way to learn how to lament is to just do it, so lets give it a try. Some can’t bring themselves to say the words they feel. That is OK. When in doubt, just start by praying Scripture. Let saints and sinners who have gone before us give voice to the things we fear to name:

How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long will I be left to my own wits,
agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
3 Look at me!
Answer me, Lord my God! Restore sight to my eyes!
Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I won!”
My foes will rejoice over my downfall.
5 But I have trusted in your faithful love.
My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
6 Yes, I will sing to the Lord
because he has been good to me. (Psalm 13)

There you have it. A Prayer? Yes. Heresy? No. Harsh words? Absolutely. Biblical words? Certainly. But notice something else about most lament prayers. They start with where we are in the midst of suffering, but they almost always begin to turn just a little near the end. They begin to point us toward something better … something beyond … something on the other side of our pain and despair. That something has a name in our Christian faith. It is called HOPE.

Christian “Get-Back-Upedness”

get back upDr. Kavin Rowe at Duke Divinity School has written and taught on the subject of resiliency. In a recent post, he recalls experiencing the song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba on a trip to Europe. The song, which went on to become an international hit, had one simple phrase that everyone seemed to know. The refrain keeps people all over the world coming back for more: I get knocked down, but I get up again; you’re never going to keep me down! … Getting knocked down is as basic as being human — life just does this to us — and so is the desire to get back up. The legend of the phoenix, for example, is a story about resilience: when the phoenix dies, it is reborn out of its own ashes. All human beings are knocked down, and all long to get back up.”

Resiliency is the ability to get back up again … and again … and again … and again. Again, as Kavin puts it: “Resilience isn’t, however, the typical quality we ascribe to leaders. We think instead of charisma, intellectual prowess, rhetorical skill, political savvy, financial success or something along these lines. Christ shaped leadership is resilient leadership … and it is grounded hope in God’s permanent faithfulness. It is not inner strength or self-confidence.” NO. When we get knocked down, even to the point of death … we still hope in the one who conquered sin, death, and the grave. Resilience is not toughness … is the response of hope. Kill hope and resilience will die with it. Kavin goes on to suggest three recalibrations that are needed to help cultivate resiliency among Christian leaders and followers of Jesus Christ:

  • First, we need to acknowledge that profound difficulty is a part of life. Contrary to popular opinion, we not entitled to a good life.
  • Second: establish sites of hopefulness in the midst of despair (like here in worship, like AA meetings, Life Groups, and spiritual friendships fostered in Christian community)
  • Third: Resiliency is best learned in community – it is not a matter for us to tackle alone as individuals.

Kavin’s insights go a long way towards grounding believers in what I might call the Christian “get-back-upedness” of our faith. We get back up again as followers of Jesus, not because of our resolve or strength, but because of our hope and trust in God’s faithfulness, even when we are surrounded by evidence to the contrary.

One song I have used over the past 20 years of my volunteer work in jails and prisons is an old Gospel song titled Victory is Mine. I close with it today, but share it with you because of where I have experienced this song’s power the most – in prison. In other words, in circumstances that have a lot of evidence contrary to hopefulness. Every time I sing the refrain, I imagine the many inmates who have become friends and brothers in Christ. I have witnessed how this song and our worship together creates a space for hope to endure in the midst of alienation, self-doubt, unanswered calls from family and friends, and fear about never being physically free again in this life. Even when one is surrounded by nothing but concrete walls, electronic doors, and nothing but time that could be used to wallow in self-pity, space can be created for Christian hope to flicker, burn, and shine in the darkness.

Victory is mine, victory is mine, victory today is mine

I told satan, get thee behind,

Victory today is mine.

Joy is mine … Peace is mine …

Hope is mine, hope is mine, hope today is mine.

I told satan, get thee behind,

Hope today is mine. 

 

So-Called Comfort (sermon 2 on Job)

When Friends Come

job friendsWhen the going gets tough in your life … who shows up? What do they do? What do they say?

“When Job’s three friends heard about all this disaster that had happened to him, they came, each one from his home – they wept loudly … each one tore his garment and scattered dust above his head toward the sky. They sat on the ground seen days and nights, not speaking a word to him, for they saw he was in excruciating pain.” (Job 2:12; the word for excruciating means “increasing in greatness”)

It is called “sitting shiva” – the seven day period of mourning for Jewish families; this lasts for seven days when family members traditionally gather in a home and receive visitors. At the funeral, mourners traditionally wear an outer garment or ribbon that was torn at the funeral in a ritual known as keriah.

Here is one of the first things I want us to hear from Job’s story and ours – especially when we or someone we know is in the midst of a storm. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says that when one member of the body of Christ suffers – we all suffer. When one member rejoices we all rejoice. That means that as followers of Jesus Christ, when our brother or sister is in pain – we come. I don’t care how we do it … but we need to do it and keep on doing it. Followers of Jesus show up – and yes, if they are Methodists, they bring casseroles … and they also sit, laugh, cry, talk, read, and pray together. Sometimes, they just sit together. It is called the ministry of presence.

When Silence is Golden

silence goldenIn the midst of such storms, we often crave silence. English poet, Thomas Carlyle, once wrote: “As the Swiss inscription says: sprecfien ist silbern, schweigen ist golden (speech is sliver, silence is golden) … or as I might rather express it: speech is of time, silence is of eternity.” We love to fill the air, the cable feeds, the web, and our social media streams with words – LOTS of WORDS – but sometimes silence is …  well, silence is just better. Here are a few other quotes you may have heard about silence. MLK JR: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Or how about this one from Mother Teresa: “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.” Sometimes, silence truly is golden – especially when there are no words that can touch the depths of our pain and grief.

In Job’s case, the silence was golden compared to the round robin of words that were about to be unleashed on him by his “so called friends.” And the words that followed the silence? I doubt they could be called silver, for when they came, they came more like burnt ash, flaming darts, and heaping piles of disdain thrown atop Job’s already sky-high pile of despair and confusion.

When We Crave Words

blah blahIn grief we sometimes also crave words: Robert Louis Stevenson: “The correction of silence is what kills; when you know you have transgressed, and your friend says nothing, and avoids your eye.” Aldous Huxley: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. “

Job sings the blues.
Eliphaz takes it upon himself to correct Job and to overcome his despair: “Afterward, Job spoke up and cursed the day he was born ……then Eliphaz responded: who can hold back words?” (Job 3:1, 4:1-2) How often do we do this in the church? We hear someone say something we disagree with in Sunday School or a small group study, and we immediately make it our main purpose to set them straight … help them think right … which usually means, help them see things the way we do.

Round and round the friends go – Round 1 (3:1-14) Eliphaz (Job), Bildad (Job), Zophar (Job), At the end of round 1, Job states emphatically: You, however, are plasterers of lies; ineffective healers, all of you. (13:4). / Round 2 (15-21) Eliphaz (Job), Bildad (Job), Zophar (Job) / Round 3 (22-31) Eliphaz (Job), Bildad (Job) … and then Job. At the end of the three rounds of Job’s so-called comfort from friends, we read this: “These three men stopped answering Job because he thought he was righteous. Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite from the clan of Ram was angry, angry with Job because he considered himself more righteous than God. He was also angry with these three friends because they hadn’t found an answer but nevertheless thought Job wicked. Elihu had waited while Job spoke, for they were older than he. When Elihu saw that there had been no response in the speeches of the three men, he became very angry.” (Job 32:1-5)

When We Defend

comfortHere is the thing we need to stop doing when others are experiencing a storm. Stop defending God. We don’t need to defend God … God needs no defense. If we need to defend someone, then defend those who suffer. We need to stand with, defend, encourage, pray, weep, and comfort those who are experiencing excruciating pain. Let me say it again just to be clear. Defend, encourage, and stand with those who suffer – period. That is one of the key things we should learn from the book of Job.

I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: “The friends are in Job’s way. They are in God’s way. They are trying to insert themselves between the silence of God and the one for whom the silence is intended, and in the end their interpretations are more painful to Job than the silence itself.”

Romans 8:28 is a go to verse for many who experience storms. It doesn’t answer all the questions that we raise in times of crisis, but it does offer comfort. More familiar translations say: “All things work together for good to them that love God” (KJV). But that doesn’t get the Greek quite right. God is the subject of this sentence, not all the “things” .. not all the “stuff” … not all the calamity that may happen to us. The CEV reads: “God works all things together for good for the ones who love God.” Tony Campolo once gave a better translation of this passage when he said: “God is at work cooperating with those who love Him, to bring about good.” God doesn’t manufacture the storms and does not sit on high looking for whom to smite next … but God can take any circumstance, any pain, any amount of suffering and somehow … over time … with large doses of grace, patience, love, and mercy – turn it to good for all who love, trust, and wait upon the Lord. Thanks be to God.