In Him, Life

The Incarnation is one of the most joyous, miraculous, and astounding events to happen in all of human history. Easily trivialized to little more than a sentimental gesture towards the birth of Christ, it represents with unreserved nakedness the love of God towards a people alienated from his presence.

A Fall and a promise

The Scriptures document thoroughly the fall of mankind. From the first sin when “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6) to the first curse:

So the Lord God said to the serpent: “Because you have done this,
You are cursed more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you shall go,
And you shall eat dust
All the days of your life.” (Gen 3)

The subsequent pages of scripture outlining man’s rebellion against his creator demonstrate man’s utter sinfulness in light of God’s complete holiness. However, almost as soon as man’s rebellion is revealed -a more powerful good is made known. Even as he is cursing the serpent, God makes a promise -the first of many -that culminate the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ:

15 And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel. (Gen. 3)

And down through the ages His promises continued. To Abraham, ” in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) and David, “And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Sam 7:16).

When Everything Became as Nothing

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (John 1)

The incarnation is diametrically opposed to the way of the world: in a culture where success is measured by upward mobility in work, family, influence, power, etc -humbling oneself from a position of affluence seems unreasonable, if not unthinkable. After all, even Adam and Eve, in the fall, sought only their own elevation and glory. Not only that, but the incarnation represents a condescension of such magnitude that it cannot be fully understood or appreciated -no equivalent comparison exists within the observable cosmos. Returning to the quote from John 1, the implications are quite stark: Christ has been and will always be; he is the one who spoke and brought ALL things into existence -every star, galaxy, planet, creature, and atom. This is who it is who became a cold, poor, crying baby. The following passage from one of Augustine’s sermons is quite helpful thinking about God becoming man:

“Man’s maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.”
– Augustine of Hippo (Sermons 191.1)

In Him, life

The Incarnation only makes sense inside the context of fall, promise, and redemption. As Paul says in Galatians 4, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” So this Christmas, as we consider the meaning of the day, let us wonder at God’s love for those who rejected him: that he would become one of them, suffer as one of them, be humiliated by them, and murdered by them -all so that “He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8:29).

A Christmas Book Trio

Winter has so many aspects that I love.  While I don’t care for the longer nights and sometimes dreary cold for their own sake, I do appreciate the juxtaposition they create with the indoors.  How cozy wintry weather makes home seem!  I love cuddling up with a book in a warm house with a cup of cocoa when it’s cold outside.  I love the colors of snow, ice, evergreens, holly bushes, migrating birds, and Christmas decorations.  One of my favorite parts of winter is singing and listening to Christmas carols, and I am always tempted to break family tradition and listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, in spite of my sister’s objections.

What truly makes winter wonderful, though, is Christmas and the story of Christ’s birth which we celebrate during this season.  Christmas is a story that mankind has been commemorating since before it even had the name “Christmas” or the date December 25th.  This true story began with Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds and for over two millennia has continued with the young and old, men and women, around the world.  We continue to celebrate it in many ways, from decorations and traditions to music, movies, and books.  And as is my tradition, here are three Christmas books I have discovered over the past year.

A Child's Christmas in Wales

A Child’s Christmas in Wales / Dylan Thomas (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman)

This children’s book is my most recent Christmas discovery.  A Child’s Christmas is essentially a collection of Christmas memories and scenes.  Dylan Thomas writes in a very poetic, stream of consciousness style that is sometimes confusing and at other times creates a vivid picture of what is happening.  The book captures the quirky, unfiltered reality of life at Christmastime in Wales.  However, although I appreciate the realism and the artistry Thomas displays, the content and tone don’t seem to suit a young audience.  While the book is packaged as a children’s story, contains “child” in its title, and follows a child’s perspective of Christmas, I think adults would appreciate the story more because of its complex writing style and nostalgic tone.  That said, I would definitely recommend the book for its art.  Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite children’s illustrators, and her artwork fills the story with character, expertly bringing to life the scenes Dylan Thomas paints with words.

The True Gift

The True Gift / Patricia MacLachlan

Liam and Lily are visiting their Gran and Grandpa for Christmas.  When Liam finds out that their grandparents’ pet cow no longer has her donkey friend, he worries that White Cow will be lonely and sets out to find her a new companion for Christmas.  This story resonates my Christmas memories and family visits in surprising ways.  From making snowmen cookies with red cinnamon buttons to debating how many books to pack for vacation, Liam and Lily’s experiences are funnily similar to my own.  I found this little book charming and hope you do as well!

The Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree / Julie Salamon

What’s your Christmas tree story?  Mine isn’t all that glamorous.  First, my father or brothers climb into the attic and haul down the artificial tree (version 3.0 since I’ve been around).  Then, my mother, siblings, and I shake the dust off the needles (and shake off some needles too) and spread the stiff branches.  After swathing the tree in strings of lights, topping it with an angel, bedecking it with ornaments, and swaddling it in a rug and a pile of presents, the journey is done.

Keeping this in mind, you can imagine my surprise and curiosity when I discovered in The Christmas Tree a story about the journey of perhaps the most famous Christmas tree in the world.  I had never thought much about where the famed Rockefeller Center Christmas tree comes from each year.  But in a beautiful story filled with fascinating characters, sweet illustrations, and Christmas themes, Julie Salamon crafts a delightful Christmas narrative that gives me a whole new perspective on Christmas trees.  I would say more, but it’s been a while since I read the book—and I want you to enjoy it for yourself!

Do you have a favorite Christmas book?  Or have you discovered any new ones this year?  I would love to hear from you in the comments.

A Prayer of Thanks

Christians are called to rejoice and give thanks at all times, and in all situations -and how can we not if indeed the Gospel is true? As Paul says,

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” ~1 Thess. 5:16-18

This Thanksgiving, the holiday can merely be a break from routine, a time eating lots of good food with family (not a bad thing!) -but it can also be more. While Christians are called to give thanks always, this day provides an opportunity to intentionally praise God for the ways he has worked during the past year. There are any number of ways this can look -but the following from the Book of Common Prayer has helped me as I’ve contemplated God’s working in the past year, and maybe it will be beneficial to you as well:

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have
done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole
creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life,
and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for
the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best
efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy
and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the
truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast
obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying,
through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and
make him known; and through him, at all times and in all
places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

~Book of Common Prayer -Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

The Condescension of God

One does not have to look far during the Christmas season to find images of Christ’s birth: an idyllic scene full of hay, a smiling Mary and Joseph, three wise men with gifts, and friendly looking animals, all surrounding a peacefully sleeping Jesus. This is an amazing image: a king, not coming in power and with a sword, but in abject poverty and humility.

At the core of Christmas we celebrate the great condescension of God himself. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” and again in Philippians 2:6b-8, “Though he [Christ] was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The classic manger scene is a beautiful picture of the humiliation and hope of Christ’s life intertwined: the suffering and death and, ultimately, resurrection in victory.

Whenever reading the account of our Lord’s birth today, let us do so in the context of what a recently imprisoned Chinese pastor said, “The way that Christ resisted the world that resisted him was by extending an olive branch of peace on the cross to the world that crucified him” (Wang Yi, 2018). If in the beauty of the human birth of our Lord we see the depth of his humility, and how he would go on to even greater and more painful sacrifices out of love, then only can we truly begin to grasp the magnitude of that peaceful manger scene and respond as Zechariah did:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people. For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. He has done this to […] remember his holy covenant -the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham. This oath grants that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.” (Luke 1:68-75)

Merry Christmas!


My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience -Wang Yi

Hope in the Darkness

Since college, the last two months of each year have held a special place in my heart. Part of what has always made holidays helpful for me is how they offer the opportunity to derail from the train-track of everyday existence. By doing so, I can examine the road that has gotten me thus far in a way that is hard to accomplish amid the activities of daily life. Below is passage that I spent some time pondering this past week and found very helpful and timely given the Thanksgiving holiday:

“Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication.” Micah 7:8-9

Much like David in Psalm 51, the prophet expresses a hope seated firmly in the goodness and ability of the Lord. Amid his trials, Micah has no problem rectifying his own sinfulness with his status as God’s child -he knows he has committed evil, and with penitent heart submits to the discipline of his father, but all with the forward-looking hope that God will ultimately deliver him and Israel.

Life is easy to live in the weeds: to spend day after day slogging through the routine and grind without giving a thought to the “why’s” of life. Even if we know the hope of the gospel, sometimes darkness can descend: anxiety, depression, shame, recurring sin, broken relationships, broken bodies, and the thorns and thistles of life; however, even when we forget, Christ does not cease to reign. When we sin and wreck our lives, we can stand in hope, even as David and Micah did, knowing that our debt is paid, and deliverance will come. When life is hard and full of pain, we can cry out to God, trusting in his promises, as we remember the words of the Lord to Moses: “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant” (Ex. 6:5).

The last two months of each year are a great time of rejoicing for some, and full of loneliness and hardship for others, but no matter which we are this year, or next, Christ remains unchanged: a deliverer of light on a cold and stormy sea.

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago.” Micah 7:18-20

Standing

In the movie Bridge of Spies, Russian character Rudolf Abel tells the protagonist James Donovan a story.  Abel describes how, when he was young, border guards came to his house, beating his parents and his father’s friend.   “Every time they hit him,” Abel says, his father’s friend “stood back up again.  So they hit him harder.  Still he got back to his feet.  I think because of this they stopped the beating.  They let him live.  ‘Stoikiy muzhik.’  I remember them saying.  Which sort of means…‘standing man’” (“Bridge of Spies Quotes”).  This simple story has so much power, yet little do people think about the significance of merely standing.  Standing sounds passive, but it can represent defiance, taking a stance, respect, serving, or waiting expectantly.

Loki and German man in The AvengersAnother movie contains an example of how standing can symbolize defiance.  Partway through The Avengers, the Norse god and villain Loki is in Germany.  A terrified crowd is before him, and Loki commands all the people to kneel.  One by one, they do.  As Loki is exulting in his show of power, though, one old man rises to his feet.  This simple act of standing quietly demonstrates defiance.  Without yelling, without weapons, this old man displays his defiance.  His mere standing up carried a weighty message.

Almost five hundred years ago, another man quietly defied the power before him.  Martin Luther, however, did more than display defiance when he spoke his simple words “here I stand” before the church council at Worms.  By speaking these words, Luther took up a position.  He maintained that he believed that what he had written and spoken was true and that he was going to continue to hold to his beliefs in spite of the Roman Catholic church’s call for recantation.  In the book Democracy in America, French author Alexis de Tocqueville also calls upon his readers to take a stance, this time in defense of true liberty.  Alexis de Tocqueville writes,

There is a liberty of corrupt nature, which is affected by both men and beasts, to do what they list; and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint;… But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty, which is the proper end and object of authority; it is a liberty for that only which is just and good; for this liberty you are to stand with the hazard of your very lives (42).

In addition to taking a position, many traditions around the world connect standing with respect.  When royalty enters a room, people stand to demonstrate respect.  Waiting until the hostess at a dinner has sat down before taking one’s own seat is another tradition associated with good manners and politeness.  People stand when their national anthem is played.  After a musical performance, a standing ovation is the highest form of praise.  Interestingly, some historians think that the tradition of standing during the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s The Messiah originated when King George stood up during the concert to stretch his legs, forcing the rest of the audience to stand because it was impolite to remain seated in his presence.

The Pilgrim's ProgressStanding can also mean that one is serving.  British poet John Milton became blind at a young age, and in a poem he contemplates the purpose of his life and his inability to work because of his blindness.  He concludes the poem by writing, “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts…Thousands at his bidding speed / And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest: / They also serve who only stand and waite” (Milton).  John Bunyan, another famous British author also touched upon the idea of standing and service by naming one of the most remarkable characters in the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress Mr. Standfast.  This character valiantly resists temptation and is one of the strongest Christians characterized in the allegory, ranking up there with the more warrior-like Mr. Great-heart.  A further example appears in the first season of The Crown, the 2016 Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II, where one episode emphasizes how oftentimes the monarch helps most by not doing anything, and sometimes standing firm, resisting the pressure to act, and serving by inaction is the right response, though the hardest task of all.

A final meaning that standing can have is of readiness and waiting with expectation.  In Ephesians, Paul describes the armor of God and calls upon Christians to don this armor.  He concludes the passage by writing, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:13-15).

In a world which constantly calls upon people to do something, to protest, to write, to speak up, Christians sometimes forget and devalue the Mr. Standfasts and stoikiy muzhik.  Sometimes it feels easier to follow the call to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1) than to “stand firm in the faith” (1 Corinthians 16:13).  However, God calls Christians to do both—to pursue holiness and to resist Satan—and promises help in times of need (1 Corinthians 10:13).  While standing firm may lack the glamour of running a race, I think it is important for the church to remember that, just as secular vocations can be as much a form of service to God as pastoral ministry, so running and standing for the LORD are different but integral ways in which Christians serve and obey God.


Works Cited

Bridge of Spies (2015) Quotes.”  IMDb.com, 14 Jun. 2016, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3682448/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu.

Milton, John.  “On His Blindness.”  Poetry Foundation, 14 Sep. 2017, poetryfoundation.org/poems/44750/sonnet-19-when-i-consider-how-my-light-is-spent.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001.  Print.

Perseverance, not Complacency

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9).

In his essay/devotional last week, Insanity Builds Character, my fellow writer highlighted the importance, nay necessity, of stubborn perseverance to the Christian walk. In that post he mentions the following, “Suffering, pain, adversity, all work to elicit perseverance from a person. In this way (and others not mentioned here but outlined also in James 1 and 1 Peter 4), suffering is actually a blessing to believers, for without suffering we would never learn to persevere in trusting God.” There are many kinds of suffering in the world, but here I want to particularly touch on material and social suffering -or specifically lack thereof.

In the United States, and in some ways the West at large, culture has been largely prosperous in recent centuries, affording opportunities for self betterment unparalleled in previous times; along with that, Western civilization has maintained a social structure largely complementary to, at best, and ambivalent of, at worst, the Christian faith. This is not to say that eras of mass poverty and anti-Christian social movements do not continue to exist, but the prevalence of affluence and Christian nominalism, especially in the U.S., has made it possible to cheaply claim the Christian faith in many cases. This poses a challenge to perseverance in the faith that Peter addresses above: be sober minded, be watchful. It is not so much a trial of suffering as it is a temptation to complacency brought on by the material and social ease that many of us enjoy. As such, it can be easy to try and live out our Christianity so as to not rock the social and material boats of our lives. This is the kind of ‘Christianity’ that is hollow on the inside, the kind that is fundamentally defined, not by what Christ has done, but by a party line or special interest group. This is why perseverance in watchfulness is such a critical part of the Christian walk, and not merely personal watchfulness, but watchfulness performed in conjunction with the community that God has provided: his Church. God’s wrath is stirred up against those who walk complacently in the comfortableness of wealth and do not weep over the injustices on the earth:

“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
    and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria,
the notable men of the first of the nations,
    to whom the house of Israel comes!
Pass over to Calneh, and see,
    and from there go to Hamath the great;
    then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
Are you better than these kingdoms?
    Or is their territory greater than your territory,
O you who put far away the day of disaster
    and bring near the seat of violence?

“Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
    and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
    and calves from the midst of the stall,
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
    and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
who drink wine in bowls
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
    and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”

The Lord God has sworn by himself, declares the Lord, the God of hosts:

“I abhor the pride of Jacob
    and hate his strongholds,
    and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.”

Amos 6:1-8

So the next time we are at a crossroads, it behooves us to ask ourselves WHY we are saying, doing, voting, spending time the way we are: is it driven by a Godly desire to pursue His glory, or is it a merely a crinkled Christianese wrapper around an idol of ease? The first will honor God and bless our neighbors, the second will only incur judgment and wrath.

Insanity Builds Character

What’s the definition of insanity?

One night, amidst a a hail of sarcastic barbs with a past roommate, the thought occurred–people often bring up an allegedly Einsteinian quote:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. – Einstein, maybe

To give an example of how this quote might be weaponized: your friend has been buying Powerball tickets religiously for a year, and each time he says to you, “this’ll be the time!” You say, “Hey Ed, what did Einstein says the definition of insanity was?”

Let me show a different definition here:

To persist in or remain constant to a purpose, idea, or task in the face of obstacles or discouragement.The Free Dictionary

This, of course, is the official definition of perseverance. But I am surprised by the similarities between the concept of perseverance and what some would consider insanity. For what is perseverance but doing the same thing over and over again in hopes of a different result?

When someone gets up and goes running each day in hopes of losing weight or a faster mile, they may not always see immediate results. It’s true that some alterations happen overnight, but often, significant transformations take years of careful development. Along the way, it can become discouraging to see an apparent lack of progress, brought on by a narrow-sighted view that only sees the number on the scale that is greater than yesterday’s.

But even in this apparent trough, perseverance is producing habits that can easily produce long-term rewards. If a weightlifter practices good technique instead of simply “maxing out” during each workout, he or she will initially not be lifting as much weight as possible, and this may be discouraging–I could be doing more! But persevering and mastering technique on easier weights becomes critical later in avoiding injuries on heavier lifts. In all walks of life, persevering has benefits.

For believers and unbelievers alike, perseverance is a virtue that can have many positive effects. But we can take it even further for the Christian. We know from Scripture, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, that for believers perseverance is produced by suffering. Suffering, pain, adversity, all work to elicit perseverance from a person. In this way (and others not mentioned here but outlined also in James 1 and 1 Peter 4), suffering is actually a blessing to believers, for without suffering we would never learn to persevere in trusting God, and without perseverance we will not experience what Paul says is the outcome of perseverance: character. And character leads to another blessing – hope.

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:3-5

What are areas of your life that you need to be persevering in? Areas where you may have been discouraged and slacked off? Look to God’s promises in his word, and know that when we persevere it is not without hope but with expectant hope, because we have a reliable redeemer who is worthy to be followed with all the grit and determination we can muster.