Bryce Harper and the Problem of Partisan Politics

I am a fan of Philadelphia sports teams. This necessitates that I hate Troy Aikman, JD Drew, Sidney Crosby, Joe Carter, Sean Rodriguez, and plenty of others.

For seven years I hated Bryce Harper too.

He played for a rival. He was entitled and arrogant, an obnoxious jerk. Easy to hate.

This year he switched sides. He plays for Philadelphia now. He is one of us.

Suddenly he isn’t entitled, he is driven. He isn’t arrogant, he is confident. He isn’t a jerk, he is passionate. Easy to love.

Instead of taunting him, I defend him. Instead of pointing out his abysmal batting average and strike out rate, I laud his defensive skill and hustle.

Last night in Washington, his former city, he was heckled for switching sides.

In sports you are either for us our against us.

This is ugliest when people ignore grievous sins like assault and abuse when it benefits their team.

It turns ugly when it shows up in our politics too.

When the only thing that matters is the name after the name on the ballot. When we determine what we think about a person only by the party they belong to.

When we defend the indefensible simply because they are on our “team.” When we ignore lies or immorality or twist ourselves into pretzels to explain away troubling realities.

When we attack the other team for doing the exact same things we applaud on our side. When we pick and choose based on an R or a D after a name.

We have reached a time in our country where we have long settled what and who we believe and any evidence to the contrary is rationalized away with ease because we are more loyal to our team than we are to rational thought or even our convictions.

In politics you are either for us our against us.

And we are worse for it.

It hurts the country, the Church, even the parties we seek to defend. I mean, is there no one else from your political bent who can advance your causes while still being a decent person?

As a Christian I cannot allow a political party to determine what is right and wrong. I cannot allow leaders to steer my moral direction. As the psalmists says, I cannot put my trust in princes and human beings who cannot save.

Church, blind and unmoored partisanship is idolatry. It aligns our heart with other kingdoms and it destroys our credibility in the world. We should be the most consistent when it comes to right and wrong, yet we are often seen as the least.

Our elected officials should be held to higher standards, even when they play for our team. Let’s not so fear making our team look bad that we are afraid to call out wrong behavior. Let’s stop defending people and things simply because we agree on some policies.

We say our hope is in Jesus then we act and talk and attack like our hope is in the president or congress. We say truth and morality matter and then turn a blind eye if it benefits us. We say that Jesus is Lord and then participate in the ways of Caesar.

We must be more faithful. Partisan politics will exhaust us to the point of death and will drag others right along with us.

May our convictions guide us more than our favorite teams. May accountability lead to health for us and the Church and our nation. May we be free to always fight for what is right and good. And may righteousness and justice matter more than winning.


Jesus is not the solution.

american jesus

Image from

Whenever we face despair in our country one of the most common refrains is, “People just need Jesus.”

My friends, I have bad news – Jesus is not the solution.

At least not the Jesus most of us mean.

The Jesus who is a neat little add on to our lives. The one we keep close in case we find ourselves in trouble or need reassurance that we are good people.

The Jesus who is only after mental agreement that he is God and asks little from us in return (besides inviting people to church and trying to cuss less).

This Jesus allows us to occupy pews with prejudiced hearts and systems unchecked. This Jesus allows us to pray “Thy Kingdom come” without considering the implications.

This Jesus allows us to imagine we are faithful disciples while doing most of our learning from cable news. This Jesus will make your life better if you simply pray at an altar or raise a hand with all heads bowed. This Jesus is easy. 

This Jesus fits comfortably next to the gods of power and wealth and upward mobility. This Jesus doesn’t mind sharing space because this Jesus is enamored by those things too.

This Jesus allows us to harbor hate and bitterness. This Jesus allows us to distance ourselves from the world and feel good about it.

This Jesus surely didn’t mean love our enemies and turn the other check, because this Jesus is reasonable and really only wants us to be happy and healthy and make it to heaven some bright morning.

This Jesus has been invited into the hearts of slave owners, rapists, abusers, power hungry preachers, white supremacists, idolaters, war mongers, and the like and done nothing but help them feel more holy in their un-Christlikeness.

He is little more than a prop on the campaign trail and a get out of hell card should this whole thing turn out to be true.

This Jesus is powerless. And a fraud.

But there is a different Jesus.

One who is not beholden to the American dream. One who does not bend like a reed when politicians ask us to change our convictions for the promise of power. One who does not ask too little of us.

This Jesus is Lord.

This Jesus throws out the charlatans and calls the religious folk “white-washed graves.” They have the right hymns and sound bites and bumper stickers, but nothing of life and love on the inside.

This Jesus will not allow us to sit complacent. This Jesus will not allow us to settle for platitudes. This Jesus doesn’t want to just make you into a nicer version of yourself.

This Jesus will not tolerate our prejudices or violent words or the space we make for other gods. This Jesus demands we repent and turn from all things that look like death and destruction.

Even when we enjoy them. Or we want them. Or sell our souls to justify them.

This Jesus instructs us to love our neighbors, to welcome the outcast, to care for the sick, and imprisoned. This Jesus is less concerned about borders and budgets and security and constitutional amendments than we’d like to think.

This Jesus will call into question all our allegiances. To self, to family, to politicians, to country.

This Jesus is not safe. He will disrupt everything. He will put us at odds with people who follow the other Jesus and the kingdoms of the world. There will be hurt and pain and ulcers. He told us this. That following him would bring division because following him turns it all upside down.

This Jesus said, “If you want to follow me be ready to go to the death.” The other Jesus convinces us this was only hyperbole and we can go on living just the way we like.

But the true Jesus, the one from Nazareth, the one crucified under Roman rule and resurrected from the dead, he is Lord. And he is the only Jesus worth knowing.

This Jesus and all the disruption and difficulty and hard reflection that he demands is worth it. With this Jesus we find that this is the only way to truly live.

With this Jesus we find change and transformation for ourselves and the whole broken world. With this Jesus we find there is another Kingdom where the last are first and the greatest are servants and that even death leads to victory.

This Jesus pushes us outside of our walls and comfort zones and partisan talking points and air conditioned answers and confronts us with what is real and true and right and good. This Jesus changes minds and votes and spending behavior and addictions and priorities and conversations and attitudes and neighborhoods.

May we know this Jesus. May we follow him.

May we allow this Jesus full access to all our biases and comforts and brokenness to do with as he pleases. May he do his best work in places we don’t even realize need work.

May we put to death the false Jesus that has for too long masqueraded in our sanctuaries and rocked us to sleep. May we put away apathy and comfort. May we turn from the gods of power and wealth and personal success in order to fully and loudly proclaim, that Jesus is Lord.

And may this change the world.

Take Care of Our Own First.

You’ve heard about the kids in camps at the border. You’ve likely heard that the US government argued in court that it should not have to supply these kids with blankets, beds, soap, or toothbrushes.

And you’ve probably heard from someone that while this is sad we can’t do much about it because we have to “take care of our own first.”

I’m convinced this is less about helping veterans and more of an excuse to justify our apathy and/or disdain toward these kids and their families. We seem to only apply it to those fleeing north at the border and refugees from around the world.

What we mean is: These people don’t deserve our help because there are others more like us (in color, language, country of origin, culture) who deserve it based solely on their similarity to us.

Used this way, “take care of our own first” is not a Christian argument.

As Christians we are called to care for all people, regardless of their likeness to us. We are told to love our neighbor. Jesus says this is the second most important thing we can do.

When questioned about who exactly our neighbor is (so we can be sure to love only those we have to and not those other, yucky people) Jesus blows the doors wide open by including someone from a different faith and a despised country and ethnicity. Someone that good religious folk would have avoided due to their differences. Someone who doesn’t live next door or on the right side of the border and someone who doesn’t attend our community church. Someone not “our own.”

Jesus says the one we’d rather not help is indeed our own – a neighbor.

“Taking care of our own first” includes taking care of our neighbors. All 7.5 billion of them. With Jesus we don’t get to pick and chose who is our neighbor.

And there is more.

We’ve been baptized into the Church Universal. Our boundaries are far broader than national borders. We belong to a great congregation that includes every tongue and tribe and people.  Many of those fleeing persecution and poverty and violence are people who also belong to this Church.

We call these people Brother and Sister. They are family. Members of the communion of saints and the great cloud of witnesses. St. Paul writes that together we are members of one body. People we say will spend all eternity with us.

No matter their legal status or language barriers, these are truly our own people.

And among them are children. There is no child on the face of the earth who does not belong to us, who is not our responsibility. Jesus doesn’t want the children hindered. He welcomes them and blesses them. Honors them.

Children are often among those considered the least of these – people who have limited power or resources  – like children held in camps at no fault of there own. Jesus identifies with those who are most desperate by saying how we treat them is how we treat him. So its not just a kid who is being denied medical care or a blanket (which is shameful enough), it is Jesus too.

I see too many of us making excuses as to why we can’t or shouldn’t help. Why we shouldn’t feel bad. Why we should care for others instead because they are more like us.

The only way we can make these arguments is by viewing these people through nationalistic lenses rather than through Jesus Christ.

It is too easy to see differences in how people vote or look or believe or come from. We divide out those we like and those we don’t. Those we know and those we don’t. Those who can help us and those that can’t. Those who belong and those that don’t. Those we deem worthy and those who aren’t. 

These distinctions do not exist in the Kingdom of God. Our allegiance is to something grander and more wonderful and far more transformative. We belong to a better way.

So yes, lets care for our own first. But “our own” is a lot broader than maybe we originally intended. Jesus keeps moving the lines we draw.

Young and old. Undocumented or documented. Asylum seeker or desperate nighttime crosser. They belong to us and with us. We belong to them.

We belong to a different Kingdom and a different way. Even our enemies are included.

This is how it works in our Kingdom. And as long as we have a voice and a vote I’m convinced we should be insisting that the elected officials of this nation make it a priority to treat all people from all places and all legalities with the utmost decency and care.

We can have a secure and safe border and a process for immigrating and seeking asylum. We can have laws and boundaries for the safety of everyone. And we can do those things while offering dignity and toothbrushes to anyone and everyone, including veterans and the homeless.

It is not a money issue. It is a heart issue.

If our government can’t figure out how to do it, they should move out of the way and allow humanitarian organizations to care for these precious people who are ours.

Because we take care of our own first. And you are our own. And they are our own. And those folks over there are our own. We claim veterans and the homeless and immigrants and refugees and single parents and all those other people too. We claim everybody as our own because in the Kingdom of God there is always room for more.

In the Kingdom of God no child goes without a blanket or a parent because of lines in the sand. In the Kingdom of God their pain is our pain. And their victory is our victory.

May we have hearts to know and love our neighbors. May we know and love and care for those who live down the street and around the world and in detention camps. May we see people instead of categories; the image of God instead of legal status.

May we find that taking care of our own means including more and more people. And may we find that this is the key to changing our hearts and the world.

May the Kingdom come on the southern border as it is in heaven.

Sometimes We are Holy Saturday People.

Scott Rodgerson,

We know how it turns out.

But sometimes we don’t.

We know life conquers death.

But sometimes we don’t.

We know who we are and what we believe.

But sometimes we don’t.

We have faith.

But sometimes we don’t.

We know how we should live.

But sometimes we don’t.

Holy Saturday is a strange day. Fixed in-between the crucifixion and the resurrection is this time of uncertainty and waiting.

On this side of history we know what is to come. We are resurrection people.

But sometimes we aren’t.

Sometimes despite knowing in our heads we feel unsure in our hearts. Despite all we have seen and sung and prayed, we still wrestle with doubt and what-ifs. Sometimes our tears threaten to drown us.

We join the followers of Jesus in their grief and anxiety, replaying over and over how things could have been different. We wring nervous hands and bite shaky lips because somehow we have ended up far from where we set out to be.

What in the world happened?

It is in this in-between place that so many of us find ourselves. Waiting. Wondering. Hurting. Trying to catch our breath.

We have more questions than answers. We have more fear than faith. We have more holes than wholeness. We feel the sting of death and this broken world.

We are Holy Saturday people.

And here on this black Saturday, we are not alone.

The women will gather what is needed to prepare a dead body. The male disciples will dismiss the testimony of their friends. People will go home confused and unsure. The fishers of men will go back to fishing for fish.

And it is here in their confusion and doubt and fear and anxiety that they meet the risen Lord. Jesus comes to them not when they have it all figured out but smack dab in the middle of not knowing a thing. He meets them in sorrow. He meets them in pain.

Holy Saturday people, take heart. You are not forgotten. God is still at work. Do not give up and do not give in.

It is not your perfection that saves you. It is not your lack of mess that makes you clean. It is not your certitude that makes you strong.

God is near. Even when morning feels a million miles away. Even when we don’t deserve it. Even when we aren’t sure which way is up.

Hold on to whatever hope you have. You are not abandoned. Holy Saturday will come to a close and be met with a new day and a new reality. All that brings doubt and fear and destruction is on its way out.

Hold on. One more day.

Hold on. As long as it takes.

There will come a day when Holy Saturdays are no more.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 21:4-5

May we remember. And may we find the strength to hang on until that day dawns.

We (Still) Want Barabbas

img_7179Some choices are easy.

Salad or ice cream? Fajitas or anything? All expenses paid vacation or work?

Other choices are hard.

Move or stay? Keep going or give up? Take a risk or play it safe?

Whether easy or hard, the choices we make often reveal who we are and what we value (In my case: ice cream, fajitas, and trips to the shore).

In the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus we encounter a pivotal moment. There is a choice to be made.

Scripture tells us it was customary to release one prisoner in honor of the Jewish Passover. This generosity was intended to pacify the large crowds gathered in celebration.

This year the governor gives them a choice: a man who stands accused as a murderous revolutionary or one who is accused of blasphemy.

The supposed blasphemer is the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth, also called the Son of God. The revolutionary is named Jesus Barabbas, which literally means Jesus, Son of the Father.

The crowd gets to pick their Jesus. To decide which son they prefer: the mercenary or the Messiah.

They make their choice.

Jesus of Nazareth will be beaten and executed. The people want Barabbas.

And us, all these years later, we (still) want Barabbas.

When given the choice between the mercenary and the Messiah we often choose the wrong Jesus. We may say all the right things and claim the right beliefs and have the right bumper stickers, but the way we do politics and conflict and church and relationships and whatever else reveals who we have really chosen.

We still want the violent insurgent.

We, like the crowd that day, have little patience for the slow Kingdom coming.

We want movers and shakers. Those who get things done.

Those who cause our enemies to tremble.

We have no time for a Kingdom that is like a mustard seed, small and slow and making its way little by little. We prefer kingdoms of tanks and trains: get on board or get run over.

We want to be first, not last. To be catered to, not to serve.

We want conquerors on stallions, not peacemakers on donkeys.

We want people to pay. To get what they deserve.

We have little use for mercy. And no use for meekness.

We want brash and bold and big.

We still want Barabbas.

Sure he is a edgy. And sure he has a shady past. And questionable morals. But he is with us. He fights for our rights. It’s not like we want him to be a priest or anything.

We know where he stands and he says it like it is.

Give us Jesus, the mercenary one.

We want the Jesus who will rid us of our foes. Who isn’t afraid to throw some elbows and shed some blood.

We want power. We want to call the shots. We want to be sit where Caesar sits because we are convinced Caesar’s way is the only way.

The other Jesus? He prays for his enemies. Instructs his followers to love them even. He tells us to control our tongue and not to insult others. He says to care for the poor and sick and he hangs out with people who have no clout in society. He says the way up is down. He says not to repay evil with evil. He washes other people’s feet. He lets people spit on him.

This isn’t how we win.

Give us Barabbas.

We’d rather fight alongside the scoundrels than be crucified with the holy.

It is pretty clear which Jesus we choose most often. And what things we value and who we really are. And the truth is not pretty.

Too often I am more a Barabbas-ian than a Christ-ian.

Too often the choices I make look more like the kingdoms of this world than the Kingdom of God. Too often I can’t even imagine any other way of doing things.

I want mine. I want it now. End of story.

The way of Jesus Barabbas feels quicker. It looks sexier. It looks like it is working for the other side.

But this is the not the way. When it comes to what matters most, shortcuts only lead to dead ends.

This is not the Jesus that leads to life.

The other Jesus, the one from Nazareth, will show us the way. He will invite us lay down our swords and to lay down our lives. He will invite us to trust, to have faith that this is the way to lasting victory. He will demonstrate a love that has the power to change lives and hearts and worlds.

And when this way and this Jesus look completely defeated and hopeless. When it is stripped naked and beaten and gasps one final breath. When this way is laid in a grave and left to rot.

We will learn that this way is just getting started.

May we have the patience to avoid the shortcuts. May we have the ability to imagine a better way and a better Kingdom. May we choose the right Jesus. And may we find life now and forever and abundant. Amen.

Breaking Up On Purpose

broken heart

Image Source: Spectator Health, UK.

One of my middle school friends was broken up with today. He is a basketball star, she is one of the cool kids. After a couple weeks of dating that consisted of little more than sitting together at lunch and texting after school, he was convinced she was the love of his life.

He loved her with his whole 14 year old heart.

Now, you and I know better. We know this was infatuation. We who have the wisdom of years know that love is more than butterflies and more than the excitement of reciprocated attraction.

But the pain my friend is feeling is real. Even though this was not a deep, committed love, his heart is breaking for the loss of relationship. It stings.

And this sting of the heart is the invitation in season of Lent. We are invited to let it hurt.

On purpose and for good cause.

Lent often begins with a call from the prophet Joel:

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your hearts,
with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow;
tear your hearts
and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
very patient, full of faithful love,
and ready to forgive. Joel 2:12-13

Those of us who are human have a tendency to get our hearts caught up in things that are not full of love. Not real love. At least not the faithful love of God.

We are captivated by cute and shiny things, much like middle schoolers. We are enamored with mutual attraction. We like being liked. The butterflies, the status it brings, the fun of young love infatuation.

Unfortunately, these infatuations are not as innocent as they were in middle school. They distance us from God and God’s desires for us. They cheapen our commitments to each other. They fill us with empty things. They call for our allegiance. They distract. They numb. They consume. They block out any conviction that might otherwise call us back to the right path. 

They tell us we are loved and they ask for our whole hearts. The first part is a lie and the second is a death sentence.

What starts out as a fleeting middle school romance quickly turns into full fledged idolatry and adultery. What seemed fun and harmless becomes the thing that destroys our faith, our witness, our church, and/or those we most care about.

And so in Lent we take the time to ensure this is not happening to us. We do the hard work of breaking our own hearts. Of examining where and to what we give our attention. We break up with our crushes even when our crushes look like everything we’ve been searching for. Even when it hurts.

More than just ripping our clothes (an ancient act of sorrow) or going to a worship gathering or saying “I’m sorry” or jumping through the next hoop, we rend and rip our hearts. We get in there where it stings and we let it make us uncomfortable.

We let it sting believing that the sting teaches us. It reminds that these things (whether good or bad) can distract us. It reminds us that they are not truly life giving. It reminds us that God alone is worthy of our whole hearts and allegiance. And it helps us remember just how much work we still need.

Perhaps it is people’s opinions that easily catch our attention. Or maybe its the pursuit of endless pleasure that draws our eye. For many of us it is the allure of power and control. For many it is our allegiance to partisanship that is standing in the way of faithful love.

It can be something as simple as Facebook and as complex as our core identity. Some of these things are new and some of them have been making their way into our hearts for years and years.

The invitation from God for us this day is to, “Return to me with all your hearts.”

The way to ensure we are doing this is to put an end to these other relationships. To break up with (even temporarily) whatever may be in the way of what God wants to do with and through and for us. One typical way to do this is through prayer and fasting. 

Perhaps you and I should abstain from social media for a while. Or political news. Perhaps we could channel the energy we put into politics towards our faith or our family. Maybe we take a break from food or drink, especially when we reach for these things in times of trouble. Maybe its a person. Or a bad habit. Maybe its a break from television that numbs us to death. Or perhaps there is something new we should begin or return to (perhaps a commitment to a faith community) that can help us align our hearts with God.

Whatever it is, however good or bad it may be, we have to put in the work. We need Lent because it is too easy to sit idly assuming that everything we do and and are attracted to is good and godly when there is ample evidence in human history and our very lives that demonstrates this is probably not the case. We need work. Lent is an invitation to allow God to do that work in and alongside of us.

Even when it stings. Perhaps especially when it stings.

My friend will be fine when he realizes this girl wasn’t really the love of his life. Though he hurts today he will be better sooner rather than later. One day he may think how fortunate he is to have not wasted time and energy in this relationship.

May it be so in us as well.

May we have the courage to break our own hearts for the sake of our faith. May we be willing to sit in the sting of heartache long enough to know where true love is found. And may the pain and anguish of a break up turn us back to the God who “heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” May we find life in response to the death of our middle school crushes.


The Bible and the Border Wall

Do you know what the Bible has to say about a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico?

Absolutely nothing.

Some will tell you that because a man named Nehemiah once built a wall around Jerusalem, God obviously wants a wall on our southern border.

This forgets that in the Bible God instructed a group of people to march around a wall until it fell down.

Some say heaven has a wall and gates so our nation should too. They forget that it says those gates will never close. And what a metaphor is.

Jesus is said to tear down “the wall of hostility that divides us.” Is that a literal wall? Or spiritual? Or both?

Is God pro-walls or anti-walls?

How does the Bible prove or disprove our opinions?

Maybe a better question for us – What if trying to get the Bible to validate our opinions is the problem we need to address?

This isn’t really about The Wall. You can have your opinions about whether or not it is necessary or wise or good. I think we can disagree on this without violating God’s instructions.

The bigger issue is our mutilation of the Scriptures.

Yes, I think we should look to the Bible to help us learn who God is and how God wants people to live. I believe this includes how we do politics.

But when we force the Bible to say what we want, we do damage to its power and its place in our lives. When we search for the perfect Scripture that will simply confirm our positions, we have reduced what we consider inspired, sacred text to little more than an ancient meme.

We become butchers, carving out we like and discarding what seems troublesome.

This is how slave holders defend the practice of owning humans: “Look at this Bible verse here that says slaves obey your masters.”

This is how people justify child abuse: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

This is how people sanctify misogyny and segregation and war and anti-Semitism and the slaughter of indigenous people and any such things. They take something out of context because it fits their already held belief. They bend the Scriptures to their will instead of allowing themselves to be changed.

The Bible is messy. It involves all sorts of people with all sorts of hang ups and failures. At times it is downright scary. Sometimes it speaks in ways that are hard to understand in our modern world. Sometimes we find people acting in blatantly evil ways with little or no protest.

If we start with our opinions or our party platforms, we can make a case for a lot of things that are actually counter to God’s desire for the world. When we start with our previously held positions we are putting ourselves or our politics in the position of authority.

This is an insult to God. It is an act of idolatry, setting up self or partisanship as its own god.

We must deal with Scripture faithfully. We must read it in its context and understand it in its original location in history. And we must deal with all of it. What does the breadth of this holy text say?

There may one story about a wall being built and one story about a wall falling down but the arc of Scripture has passage upon passage about how to care for neighbors and immigrants and people in need, whether or not a wall is ever built. That should motivate us far more than a once off story that proves us right and others wrong and really has absolutely nothing to do with our current situation.

The Bible doesn’t point us to a conclusion about a specific security infrastructure along the US border. The Bible points us to Jesus, who is the Word of God. And Jesus is concerned about our heart and how we align our lives.

We start with Jesus. And we allow Jesus to shape and form our worldview and our politics. First.

And we allow it even when it grates against our conservatism or our progressivism. We humble ourselves and turn away from what we think and allow God to challenge us. Even when what we believe feels right. Or even when the Bible doesn’t lay out something explicitly.

The Scripture doesn’t divide out when we should have individual liberty and when we should have communal support. It doesn’t solemnize big government or limited government. It certainly doesn’t speak of the United States or its borders at all.

But it speaks of Jesus and it calls the people of God to follow after him. This is our starting point. This is the lens through which we view all things.

From there we build our worldview and our politic. From there we can see what is essential and what is a matter of opinion. From there we can find ways to be faithful regardless of whether we would have chosen it on our own or not. Regardless of laws or parties or upbringing.

May we stop using the Scriptures as a weapon to defend things that we have decided on long before searching the text. May we allow ourselves to be shaped by God and not force God into our own image. And may we be faithful to the God who inspires the text and the way this God calls us to follow.

The Gospel of the Magi

three kings

Three Kings by Mary Tere Perez

Plenty of people have been packing up their Christmas decorations since December 25, but the celebration of Christmas continues for twelve days. It only ends at the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th.

And then at Epiphany we remember the visit of the magi, or the wise men, to young Jesus.

Sometimes we rush past this remembrance as we put away our trees and head to the gym armed with New Year’s resolutions. But we need Epiphany. The magi are essential to the Christmas story and essential to our faith.

They are not essential because they were there on the night of Jesus’ birth (they likely weren’t) or because they were earthly kings who bowed to the one true King (they likely weren’t kings either). They aren’t essential because they round out our  nativity scenes and Christmas pageants and greeting cards.

They are essential because they carry the Gospel. They themselves are an announcement, a proclamation, a living, breathing sermon about who our God is.

See the magi were not Jewish. They weren’t part of the chosen people. They were Gentiles, outsiders. Strangers.

Worse, they were likely priests in another religion. Pagans. Idolaters. False prophets.

They studied and/or worshiped the stars looking for signs and wonders. They were astrologers, they were magicians and sorcerers, not the kind of people who get much applause in Scripture or Christianity.

They were from foreign lands and spoke foreign tongues. Potentially from people groups who were enemies of the Jews. Definitely from other cultures and values.

These folks did not belong.

And yet here they come.

Present before Jesus. Included in our celebrations. Sign posts of the good news.

This is the Gospel of the magi: God has come.

God has come not just to a select few but to every person on the face of the earth. God has come for those who are close to the truth and those who are far from it. God has come for pagans and sinners and saints. God has come for us and them and those people over there.

God, in Jesus, has come for us all.

Jesus is the revelation of God’s character – he is what God looks like, the Bible says.

And Jesus is revealed not just to his people, the Jews, but to Gentiles and pagan priests and shepherds and wise men and midwives and governors and janitors and kings and presidents and teachers and bus drivers and pastors. He is revealed to insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, right and wrong, poor and rich and everybody in between.

The magi are an announcement about the wideness of God’s mercy.

The love and grace and mercy and heart of God don’t stop at national borders. It is not reserved only for those in the right religion. It doesn’t have a specific language. There are no prerequisites or hoops to jump through.

The grace of God shows up first.

This is good news.

In the magi we can see ourselves. We have been wrong. We have been outsiders. We have been far from God. And yet the grace of God has come for us anyway. Calling, wooing, changing us.

And in the magi we can see every person. Every skin tone and every language. Every religion and political party. In every stranger on the street. And in the person who we’d least expect (or hope). The love and grace of God has shown up for them as well.

Yes, Epiphany is essential. Epiphany reminds us of our story. It comforts us and challenges us to be faithful to goodness of our God.

We need reminded that ours is a God who comes for each person, no matter how far away they have started. We need Epiphany to keep us accountable so that our own love doesn’t sputter out at borders and church signs and party platforms. We need it to keep us from thinking we’ve somehow earned something because of our position or denomination or family of birth.

The magi are preaching the Gospel to us today: God is for us all. For you. And for me. And for them.

May we know and follow and trust this God, the God who draws the whole entire world in. May we find ourselves aware of the presence of God’s grace right here and now. And may we embody the good news of God’s love to all those for whom God has come.

Love, Actually.

God is love. And loves shows up.

When the night is dark and cold and we feel all alone.

Love shows up.

When we’ve messed up yet again. When we’ve broken promises to ourselves and others. When we’ve reached rock bottom.

Love shows up.

When we’ve abandoned hope. And we’ve sold out our values. When our shortcuts have gotten us lost.

When money and power and relationships and politics and whatever else has failed. When we’ve got nowhere else to turn.

Love shows up.

And unlike some sappy Hallmark movie type love, this love is profound. It is higher and deeper and wider and longer than we can wrap our heads around.

This love is patient and kind and never jealous or rude.

This love is not boastful or arrogant. It isn’t selfish or self-seeking. It isn’t easily irritated.

This love does not keep a list of all the wrongs that have been done.

This love fights injustice and parties with the truth.

This love trusts and hopes and endures the unendurable and outlasts all that makes the rest of us quit.

This is love, actually.

It is better than the movies say. It is bigger than romantic feelings and more costly than all the gifts that can be bought. It is far more wonderful than the hands-off permissiveness society sometimes calls love.

And its not something that one can simply fall out of. It is gritty and sticky and hard to wash off.

This love never fails.

At Christmas this unfailing, unending, all encompassing love shows up in the person of Jesus. At Christmas this love, the very love of God, is embodied, enfleshed, in a baby wrapped in cloths and laying in a manger.

He is love, actually. Touchable. Hugable. Knowable. Followable.

He is an announcement. A proclamation. A living message shouting throughout the universe,

“You are loved. Really, truly, deeply, fully loved.”

Despite your flaws and your mistakes. Despite all your self-made messes. Despite what you’ve been told. Despite what you think of yourself. Despite what you think you deserve. Despite your bad theology and your politics and your track record.

You are known and you are loved.

Christmas reveals that God is not angry with you or fed up with you. God does not simply tolerate you. God is not waiting around the corner to catch you in the act.

God is for us. God is with us.

God has come for us. Not to judge us, Scripture says, but to love us. To show us the way. To bring us home. To mend our wounds. To heal our hearts. To set us free. To clean up our mess.

He has come for us and come for them. He has come for those we call enemies. He has come for those we like and those we fear. He has come for those we would rather exclude and he has come for those we wish he hadn’t.

This is love. And it is the message of Christmas. It is an invitation to a better way, what Saint Paul calls “the most excellent way.”

At Christmas we are invited to trust this love and this God and we are invited to respond in love to the world around us.

To be patient and kind and full of grace. To be humble and look to the needs of others. To seek justice and speak truth. To be faithful.

To reach out across boundaries and divides. To forgive. To make space. To include.

Christmas is the story of a God who loves and sends and comes and loves again.

May we know this love and may we be changed by it. May we believe that love has come. May we be so convinced of this love that we live like its true. And may we be so defined by this actual love that our neighbors know it too.

Hush the Noise, Cease the Strife

img_6060It’s a busy time of year. We run. We shop. We bake. We visit. We wrap. We wait in line. And in traffic. We decorate. We host. We travel. We carol. We volunteer. And that’s just Tuesday.

Our stress goes up as our calendars grow full and our receipts pile high, as we juggle in-laws and office parties. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, we say, but I can’t help wondering if we rush and fret right past the most wonderful parts of it.

There is a version of an old Christmas carol that sings, “O hush the noise and cease the strife and hear the angels sing.” I can’t get that line out of my head.

It has me thinking about about the noise and strife in my life. There is a lot of it. It all has an impact on me. Some of it exhausts me. Some distracts me. All of it influences me in some way or another.

Maybe silencing it for a short time would be beneficial to me. Maybe I’d hear more angels singing. Or children laughing. Or friends sharing their lives with me.

Maybe hushing and ceasing would allow me to be more present with those that matter most. Perhaps I’d be healthier for it. Maybe I’d eat and sleep better. And be less angry. Or at least shake my head in disgust a few less times a day. Maybe I’d eventually discover that “peace on earth and goodwill to men” thing.

I’m certain there are times to make noise. And there are good reasons to wade into strife, especially as peacemakers and justice seekers. But there are times when we need rest and reset. When we need to withdraw for our well-being and the good of those we are tasked with loving. The journey is long and if we aren’t careful it can eat us alive, making us cynical or apathetic and leaving us empty inside.

As this is the most wonderfully busy time of the year, perhaps its a good time to practice hushing the noise and ceasing the strife. As we run from event to event and drown ourselves in around the clock media coverage, perhaps it is a good time to hit pause and take a deep breath or two.

The Christian calendar starts with a season called Advent. In Advent we wait in anticipation and prepare for the coming of Jesus (both his birth, which we celebrate anew each year, and his eventual return to make all things new). Each year we remember our need for saving and the hope that is found in a God who shows up in our world. This year Advent runs from December 2 to 24.

I’m planning on adopting some practices during these weeks to help me make the most of my time. For me it is important that my heart is ready for Jesus’ arrival. I don’t want to miss it while I’m busying crafting clever tweets about how wrong someone is. I don’t want to miss it by filling my world with obligations and shopping and non-stop running.

I don’t want to be so busy celebrating what we call Christmas that I miss Christ.

I don’t want to be surrounded by such incessant noise that I miss the call to come and celebrate the birth of Christ the King.

So I’ve come up with a list of practices I believe would make a difference in my life. Not so I can end up on the Nice List or get some heavenly reward. But to ensure I’m ready. To ensure I’m present. To ensure I’m listening to what and who matters most.

To hush the noise and cease the strife.

I share them here just in case you’d want to practice one or two of them with me from now until Christmas Day.

Whether you try these or something else or nothing else, may we be ready to meet the child who is coming. May we hear his voice and call. May we find his hope. May we rise above the noise and strife that distracts or disrupts. May we find peace and rest. And may we find this season as wonderful as all our songs proclaim.

A sampling of practices for a more peaceable Advent

Turn off cable news. I’m convinced we are not meant to listen to people telling us what we should be angry about night after night. Turn it off for an extended time. Watch the local news if you need some connection to the outside world. I promise if anything earth shattering happens you’ll hear about it. Cable news isn’t inherently bad, but if its adding to our distrust of neighbors or elevated doses of anxiety to our lives, maybe we could do with a break.

Abstain from social media. Shut it down for a while. Block out the noise. You probably don’t need to know everyone’s opinions. And you (read: I) certainly don’t need to enter into anymore unproductive Facebook debates. Or, if that isn’t an option…

Uninstall your Facebook and Twitter apps. You’ll be less likely to mindlessly check in on what your former neighbor’s daughter ate for lunch and what conspiracy that one person is peddling on your news feed again. You can still check in from your browser, it will simply be more intentional. Of if that is too much to ask…

Commit to one month of no potentially divisive social media posts. Stop sharing everything you think slam dunks on the people you disagree with. Even if you know just how right it it is. Instead share pictures of your grandkids or puppies or stories that enlarge even the smallest of hearts three sizes. Don’t contribute to the strife in others’ lives. You can do it and we need you to.

Have dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Preferably out at a restaurant so no one has to do dishes. And tip well. Friendship is a gift to the soul. We need reminded we are not alone and there are people who love us.

Say no. Find a way to resist filling every moment of every day. Make sure you have an evening at home at least once or twice a week. Ensure you have time to get the laundry done so that the mounds of clothes don’t taunt you every time you drag yourself in from the latest obligation. Create space for yourself.

Play board games. Gather friends or family and spend time laughing over Scrabble or Ticket to Ride. Be together and have fun.

Go to bed earlier than you normally would. Rest is important. I’m terrible at this. There is always something to do. Or those few moments of quiet in the house are too enjoyable to waste on sleep. But we need it. It makes a difference in physical and emotional health. An extra hour of sleep over four weeks sounds pretty beautiful and is likely needed if you are anything like me.

Shut out distractions. Maybe its a phone game or a person who is no good for you. Maybe its not something bad, just something unproductive. Can you set it aside until Christmas? Would your life be better for it?

Spend less. Credit card debt is not healthy. Not knowing how we will pay the rent next month is not helpful. Don’t buy into the idea that we have to spend a lot to show we love a lot.

Hand make a gift or two. Hello Pinterest. Or maybe you aren’t crafty. Hand write a letter. Take time to think of a person or persons who matter to you and instead of throwing money at them, give them a gift with meaning.

Be generous. A pastor friend of mine said recently, “Being generous is the most fun you you can have.” I believe it. Share with others. Open your home. Give cookies. Give grace. Generosity changes us. Its why Scrooge and the Grinch are the villains this time of year. Don’t believe the lie of scarcity. Share what you have and watch your joy grow.

Less television. Especially Hallmark movies (just kidding). Perhaps just sit by the fire or Christmas lights. And talk. Or read a book. Or just rest in the quiet. Embrace silence. Especially if the idea of silence bothers you.

Go slow. Don’t speed. Don’t honk when the light turns green. Don’t eat fast food. Make yourself slow down. Slowing down means we have to plan better. It keeps us from the chaotic stress of constantly running. Maybe we will notice something we would have missed otherwise.

Be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for all you aren’t doing or the ways this year didn’t turn out how you’d hoped. Don’t compare yourself to that person who looks like they have it all together (they don’t). Give yourself permission to mess up. We all have room to grow, but we won’t get there by dragging ourselves down.

Be kind to others. Cashiers are extra busy. Wait staff have kids at home with babysitters. Teachers are herding over-tired and sugared up children. Some folks are hurting. Some are missing loved ones. Some are struggling in heavy ways. Take the time to be kind. Make it a discipline. Speak life. Hold your tongue. Give compliments. Be a blessing.

Study your way to Christmas. Join an Advent reading plan. Read the Scriptures in a posture of listening. Hear the good news again and again. Some options here, here, and here.

Perhaps you can think of other things we could start or stop in the coming weeks. Let’s be intentional about how we get to Christmas this year. Together lets hush the noise and cease the strife.