Sunday, December 30, 2012

Monday after Christmas

Here's a golden oldie, a post I wrote a few years ago on the Monday after Christmas.  It seems appropriate this evening, as I anticipate tomorrow morning:

The shepherds returned

Today is Monday. The Monday after Christmas. It's tough after I don't know how many days of family get-togethers, candlelight worship services, quiet times around the Christmas tree, and the endless parade of gift openings and cookie trays and all the rest, to face a Monday morning. In a few minutes I'll head back to work. The garbage needs to go out to the curb this morning. I have a snowblower that needs some work, I have a handful of bills that need to be paid today, and a lamp in one of my pickup taillights is burned out. It feels a little like a Monday.

The shepherds returned. They did not suddenly give up their important work of tending sheep. Yes, it was important. Though it made them into outcasts from the religious and social establishment in their culture, their work as shepherds was vital to both the religious and the economic life of their people. Without shepherds the sheep would be at risk. Without sheep the Jewish people in the time of Jesus would have been at risk. The shepherds returned.

However, Luke tells us more than that they simply went back to their sheep. They had met Jesus, and they had been changed. These outcast shepherds returned "glorifying and praising God." They had received the promise of God and it had begun its work of transforming them. Luke tells us (Luke 2:20) that the shepherds were praising God for all they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. They had heard God's promise from the angel, they had acted on that word, and they had experienced God's faithfulness.

What word from God have you heard? What promise have you received this Christmas? If there is no other word that has lodged in your heart these last days, I invite you to take this one from Romans 8:38-39:

38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What a powerful post-Christmas promise! These words take God seriously that Jesus is "Emmanuel" -- God with us. That desire of God's heart to live among his people comes back again and again in the Bible. It is at the heart of what Christmas means.

Don't let yourself go back to Monday mornings after Christmas as though nothing had changed. Let yourself, like the shepherds, act on this promise and be changed by it! God has made his home in the midst of his creation, first with the birth of Jesus, and then with the coming of his Spirit at Pentecost. He resides in his people. He is present, near; "immanent" is the fancy theological word. He is here.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A reasonable epistemology

Last night my wife and I were privileged to attend a delightful wedding reception.  I must admit, I'm a little skeptical about wedding receptions being "delightful."  I'm a bit jaded to young love -- I've seen too many marriages which, a year or two later, are deadly to the participants and in the last throes of convulsing their way toward divorce court.  As the officiant at some of these marriages, I'm always a little wary.

Last night, however, bride and groom both seemed to be entering into marital bliss with open eyes, and more important, with some excellent role models and support structures.  So I wish them all the best, and hope and pray for it.

Before I step up onto my soapbox and wax eloquent about marriage and its importance, which many of you know I've done before in this blog, let me get onto the rabbit trail that started this whole post.

At the reception I got to talk with Dan, a relative of the bride who happens to teach history and philosophy at the high school level.  He's a strong, well-informed Christian as well.  We talked about a great many things including the philosophy of studying world religions, emotionalism vs. rationalism and the pitfalls of each, and much more.  Dan made a comment that stuck in my mind, simply for the elegance of his phrase.  He said something like, "I believe what we need in this country is a reasonable epistemology."

How often do you get to enjoy a conversation in which someone uses a term like "a reasonable epistemology"?  Usually if you ARE in a conversation involving the word "epistemology" your eyes have been glazed over for at least twenty minutes.

For myself (recently returned from and others who need a refresher, "epistemology" is the study of knowledge -- how we gain it and what makes it valid or not.  So for example, in Christian terms, epistemology might have to do with questions like whether the good news about Jesus is true, why we should believe it, and how it is communicated to us.

A reasonable epistemology.  Basically, Dan was saying that as a culture, we need to know

a) what we believe;
b) why we believe it, and
c) how we have received these beliefs.

I want to confidently assert that if we had a "reasonable epistemology" in this culture, we would all be far better off.  At present my suspicion is that we tend to believe in much the same way that overpopulated lemmings navigate in the Arctic -- we look where the crowd is going, and follow.  So currently as a culture we are angsting about gun control or not, about mental illness care or not, about fiscal cliffs or not.  We have not engaged in responsible thought about these things; instead, we listen to a lot of other opinions and base our opinions on what sounds reasonable to us.  Sadly, we fail to realize that there is very little "reason" to our reasonable opinions.

To take this train of thought farther down the tracks, we don't even think about the social, cultural, and historical factors that shape our opinions about what we believe.  We are the unwitting victims of the Enlightenment (so-called) and Rationalism (so-called) and Humanism.  But most of us are marginally aware of these movements as categories in a despised textbook, at best.  We could not articulate the truth-claims of these isms, primarily because that feels a lot like work.

So we continue to parrot the opinions of others who have articulated them largely based on emotion and worry rather than careful thought or plain reason, or to make things totally radical, an authoritative and time-tested document like the U.S. Constitution or (deeper yet) the Bible.

It makes me sad.

And, as someone pointed out to me the last time I ranted about this particular topic, I fully understand the irony of using a blog as a platform to criticize our culture's over-emphasis on opinion.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Preparing for Christmas

The last few days I have been preparing for Christmas.  It may seem odd, this preparation, but I can think of no better way to get ready.

Some of you will wink and nod at this because you know I was in northern Minnesota, on the farm where I grew up, and I was bowhunting for deer.  This is most certainly true.  But if you have ever participated in bowhunting in December, you know it's a slow, quiet, cold business.

Saturday afternoon, for example, I spent two hours sitting on a stand attached to a tall oak tree, fifteen feet above the ground, face exposed to a brisk breeze from the north-northwest.  The temperature hovered around zero, but the breeze made it feel much colder than that.  I sat quietly, trying not to flinch or shift or wiggle.  I closed my eyes from time to time to keep the water on my eyeballs from freezing.  Ice crystals formed in my mustache and my breath blew back against my face and frosted my beard and my eyebrows.  I looked out into the cold and watched for deer.  I waited.

As Tom Petty said years ago, "the waiting is the hardest part."  When was the last time you sat without electronics, without something to read, without conversation, for two hours?  Even without the cold, those two hours on stand are tough.  Add the windchill -- or maybe more accurately, subtract it -- and it gets brutal.  I sat still in the cold roughly twelve hours over a few days.

In every minute of that waiting, I was keenly aware of Christmas approaching.  Over and over during those long mornings and afternoons on stand, I wondered: What does it mean?

What difference does it make that Jesus came back then?  What difference does it make today?

The world can be a pretty cold place.  People complain that the news broadcasts are always negative, and especially this time of year you see the occasional "human interest" story -- a pet that saves its owner, a soup kitchen saved from bankruptcy by kind neighbors, a company adopting a needy family, etc.  These are good stories and I'm glad they include them in the broadcast from time to time.  In the face of the real cruelty, the real evil, that we see in our news, however, these stories don't carry much weight.

Fact is, the world is a pretty cold place.  Those who want to believe in the essential goodness of humankind look to me like people standing on the streetcorner, trying to keep a tiny candle lit on a dark and stormy night.  It's a hopeless task.

I am not a cynic, but I do not believe in the essential goodness of humankind.  I believe, along with the Bible, that humankind -- along with the rest of creation -- is broken.  We are in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves.  We need a savior.

Isn't that what the angel told Mary when he announced to her that she would bear a child who would be the Son of God?  "You shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  We need a savior, because the icy power of sin is chilling our hearts, breaking our bones, grinding our relationships, stealing our hope, starving our love.  Left to ourselves, we are alone in the dark.

These cold December days are dark as well.  I hunted the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.  Just a few desperate hours stood between sunrise and sunset.  The late sunrise and the long, long evening made this hunt quite different from the warmth of early season bowhunts.  Most of the hours are spent in darkness, and the sun seems to have little power to warm.

One of Jesus' closest friends and most loyal followers reflected on the question of Jesus' meaning, many years after Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.  That friend acknowledged that the world is a dark and dreary place, that darkness seems to have the upper hand.  But then he wrote, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

So today, we live in a dark, cold world.  I am not speaking about weather and astronomy but about the state of the human soul.  John's assessment is true, however: Jesus' light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  Jesus' light wins.  This is true not because we see it, not because CNN reports it or it makes the front page of the New York Times.  It is true because Jesus promises that he will make it true, that his power to thaw icy hearts and to enlighten darkened souls overcomes the stubbornness of the forces of darkness.

When life is chaotic, dark, dreary, cold, hopeless, we have confidence.  Not because right always wins, nor because the essential decency in people always comes out.  We have confidence because God has given his Word -- the word of hope he spoke in creation, his word of promise in the face of sin, the Word that took full form in Jesus of Nazareth.  God has given his word that evil will not win the day.  Dark will not overcome light.  Hope will not be extinguished.  Death will not sing the last refrain.  All of this rests on Jesus' arrival as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, born to obscure but faithful parents who simply did their best to raise a child destined to be the fulfillment of God's promises to his beloved creation.

It is only when we take time to see our need that we can begin to know our Savior.  My prayer for you in the next couple days is that somehow, somewhere along the journey you can find a few quiet moments to recognize just how much you need Jesus' presence in your life, to acknowledge his grace in coming for you while you were still far from him, and then to thank God that he cares enough to fulfill his Word, to shine the light of Jesus in our darkness.

Thanks be to God.  Merry Christmas.

P.S. If you're within reach of Central Lutheran, Elk River, MN tomorrow, I'll be at the afternoon services designed for families with young children (2:00, 3:30, 5:00) and at the 11:00 pm candlelight worship.  There will also be a candlelight worship at 7:30 pm and a celebration service on Christmas Day at 10 am.  It would be an honor to have you at Central to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus' birth!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The ends of the world

The world has been a crazy, chaotic place for the last few days.  We've had a shooting (last Friday) in Connecticut that has dominated the news and people's thoughts.  We're coming up on the apocalyptic end of the Mayan calendar (this coming Friday) so the world is supposed to end.

I had to chuckle this morning -- rereading some old journals and ran across this quote:

May 21, 2011
Today the world was supposed to end, according to some radio ministry guru who’s been putting up billboards and causing a bit of a flap.  We’re eight hours past his deadline now and things still seem to be ticking along.  

It's easy to get sucked into either or both of these apocalyptic scenarios.  In one, a lone gunman violates the innocence of an elementary school in an unthinkable act of violence.  This horror makes us cold right down to our bones, and we begin to surrender to fear for the sake of our children and grandchildren.  We mentally wring our hands (very few people actually physically wring their hands anymore) and wonder what kind of a world it's becoming.

In the other, ancient wisdom sees far ahead into the 21st century and predicts the end of all things.  (NOTE: For what it's worth, the whole end-of-the-world thing is based on faulty cultural understandings and lousy reasoning.  The world has no more chance of ending on Friday than it does any other day.  Besides, I have friends in southeast Asia who are about 12 hours ahead of us -- they have promised to let me know if the world ends and, if I hear about it, I will post on this blog ASAP.  So faithful readers will have a few hours' notice at least.)

The world has always been a violent, tragic place, as any student of history can tell you.  That's not an excuse to be jaded -- I have wept like many of you for the crushing weight of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary -- but it pays in times like these to study history.  Things were not better back when Herod killed every child under two years of age in the region of Bethlehem.  Things were not better when the Jewish patriots killed their wives and children before they killed themselves atop Masada.  Things were not better in the middle of the 20th century when Hitler sent Jewish children into the ovens with their parents or when Stalin sent Russian children to the gulag with their parents.  

And the world has always fallen prey to stories of the end of the world.  We love to listen to Chicken Little ("the sky is falling, the sky is falling!") if only for the adrenaline rush he gives us.  Time after time the faithful in one form or another have sold their possessions and gathered on a hill outside town to wait for The End.  There is some comfort, I think, in the feeling that while all things are about to be destroyed, we are at least part of a grand drama.

Our greatest fear, perhaps, is that T.S. Eliot was right, that the world ends "not with a bang but a whimper."  (His poem "The Hollow Men" is always worth a slow, ponderous read.)

So how could Paul, writing between Herod's slaughter of the innocents and the Jewish tragedy at Masada, write, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us"?

The task of the Jesus-follower is not to be distracted by the tragedies of this world or by the predictions of its end.  We are to focus our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and follow him, come what may.  With him we are brokenhearted in the face of grim tragedies.  With him we go open eyed into the apocalyptic possibilities of the future.  Our job is not to control things but to follow him, to trust him, in the midst of things we often do not understand.

There are certainly things to be said about gun control and about mental illness and about the end of the world.  But that's for another post.  Today, fix your eyes on Jesus:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.

That vision does not remove us from this world, but draws us back into the world, engaged with the needs and the brokenness with God-given courage and hope.  It's the only way we do this world any good, however long it lasts.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Launching pads

My daughter said to me the other day, just offhandedly, "Dad, you should be teaching in a college somewhere."  There's a powerful pull to that idea for me, as I love to teach.  One of the most satisfying things I know how to do is to take biblical truth, whether it's focused on a biblical passage, or church history, or "secular" history, or current events, and teach it in a way that it makes sense to people.  I love that.  So for just a second, the idea of a life devoted to teaching sounded pretty good.

Then I started to think about it.  Not that there's stuff wrong with teaching that would keep me away; any career is going to contain plenty of frustration, guaranteed.  (No matter what you go into, you'll be working with sinners AND you are one yourself, so the frustration is a given.)  In another life I could easily be a college professor.

The thing that keeps me away from that line of thinking is this: I believe that in the 21st century, the primary location of God's activity AND the primary location of people doing cutting-edge thinking about God's activity is in the local congregation.  This has not always been the case, but it is certainly the case today.  So for me, the best place to be working, thinking, and teaching, is in the local congregation.

Yesterday my wife and I were talking about this and she challenged me on it just a bit.  "What about all those leaders you'd be influencing by teaching at a seminary?  You'd be influencing hundreds of congregations, not just one."  Again, there's a lot of draw to that idea.  But a congregation ought to be a center of God's kingdom-building activity in the world.  Congregations ought to be places where the Spirit of God is working overtime in people's lives and into the world.

One evidence of that work will be that people within the congregation discover gifts and callings they would not otherwise have known.  They find themselves doing, leading, and serving in ways they would not have planned for themselves, because Jesus has a radical hold on their lives.  Hopefully this is true of each and every person who spends time in that congregation.

Also if a congregation is healthy, and is doing what it is called to do, one result (among many others) is that it should act as a launching pad.  That is to say, some of the brightest and best of its members should catch fire and rocket off into other places in the world as God's Spirit calls them to follow Jesus someplace else.  Some of the greatest life and vitality in a congregation comes as they see people who have been nurtured in its ministry heading out to other ministries and then staying in touch with the sending church.

So a church leader exercises great influence.  By creating an environment where people know Jesus, grow deep into his Word and into Christ-centered community, and hear the Spirit's call to go beyond themselves, a church leader has the opportunity to nurture a generation of upcoming leaders who will then look for their place in God's kingdom.  A few of these will end up in Christian colleges or seminaries, probably, but many will be following Jesus in new and radical ways, and a few will be launched like rockets into the world.

I can't think of anything more satisfying.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Used to think I was logical

Confession time:

I'm sitting home this evening listening to Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" and reading Psalm 106.

Could be worse, I suppose.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Huron Carol

I am more than a little shocked.  I just did a search of my own blog and found that I have never written about Jean de Brebeuf's amazing hymn sometimes called "Huron Carol" and sometimes known by its first line, "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime".  I apologize for not writing about this before!

Jean de Brebeuf was a French missionary to the Huron in the early 1600's.  He came from France and lived among the Huron for years, traveling with them, learning their language and culture, and seeking to lead them to know Jesus Christ.  Some historians have called Brebeuf Canada's first ethnographer because of his strong interest in Huron culture and language.  He was eventually captured by the Iroquois, enemies of the Huron, and tortured to death.  In the 20th century he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and is today recognized as one of the patron saints of Canada.  (Interesting detail -- it is possible that Brebeuf coined the term "lacrosse" for the game played among the Huron, as he thought the sticks they used, with a loop of leather at the top fastened with a small cross-piece, resembled a bishop's crosier, or in French, "crosse.")

During the course of his time among the Huron, Brebeuf recognized that it was important to put the good news of Jesus into terms these people could understand.  Realizing that many elements of the Nativity (shepherds, stables, gold, frankincense, myrrh, etc.) would be strange to the Huron, he took the Christmas story and recast it in terms that would have been understandable to this fur-trading, hunter-gatherer people.   He then set the words to a popular French tune.  Here is a translation of his hymn recorded several years ago by Bruce Cockburn:

Have courage, you who are human beings: Jesus, he is born
The okie spirit who enslaved us has fled
Don't listen to him for he corrupts the spirits of our thoughts
Jesus, he is born

The okie spirits who live in the sky are coming with a message
They're coming to say, "Rejoice!
Mary has given birth. Rejoice!"
Jesus, he is born

Three men of great authority have left for the place of his birth
Tiscient, the star appearing over the horizon leads them there
That star will walk first on the bath to guide them
Jesus, he is born

The star stopped not far from where Jesus was born
Having found the place it said,
"Come this way"
Jesus, he is born

As they entered and saw Jesus they praised his name
They oiled his scalp many times, anointing his head
with the oil of the sunflower
Jesus, he is born

They say, "Let us place his name in a position of honour
Let us act reverently towards him for he comes to show us mercy
It is the will of the spirits that you love us, Jesus,
and we wish that we may be adopted into your family
Jesus, he is born 

The hymn was translated into English (and greatly altered) by Jesse Edgar Middleton in 1926.  Middleton muddled up the cultures and language a bit, adding "Gitche Manitou" as a name for God and romanticizing the "men of authority" into hunters who bring gifts of "fox and beaver pelt."  Still, the intent behind Middleton's translation is to show the story of Christmas transcending cultures, and that is worthy of applause.  This version has gained some currency among Native Americans, especially among the First Nations in Canada. Here is Middleton's version, and here is an excellent rendition of this version:

Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead
Before their light the stars grew dim
And wandering hunters heard the hymn,

Jesus your King is born
Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round
But as the hunter braves drew nigh
The angel song rang loud and high

The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there
The chiefs from far before him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt

O children of the forest free, O sons of Manitou
The Holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy
Who brings you beauty peace and joy

It is worth thinking about how we communicate about Jesus to those who don't know him.  Christians are notorious for speaking in the religious shorthand of their own faith, using the "Christianese" words like salvation, atonement, sin, redemption, and so on.  While among theologians these words have specific meanings and are often helpful, they are an abomination when it comes to communicating Jesus to non-theologically trained people.  What Brebeuf did, simply is this:

1. He lived among people he wanted to reach, cared for them, and learned their language and their culture.
2. He found ways to tell the stories of Jesus in terms they could understand.
3. He invested himself, even to the point of giving up his own life, so that they might know Jesus.

This has been the basic model for Jesus-followers to do evangelism throughout the centuries.  Sadly, it is a rare thing today, largely because we have lost sight of the need to get beyond ourselves and make the cross-cultural move to reach another's heart.  Perhaps we have lost sight of the fact that this is exactly what Jesus did for us!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent Conspiracy

This is a short video my daughter just posted on her Facebook account.  It is seriously worth both your time and your consideration.  Watch, then visit the website and take some kind of action.

Click here to watch the video.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Leonard Sweet, among others, has pointed out that to move into the future you have to get traction from the past.  It's like the swing sets we used to play on (and some of us still do).  You "pump" to gain altitude, making use of the backward momentum by tucking your feet underneath you, then as you move forward kicking your feet out straight in order to gain a little height on each swing.

In the same way, you don't move forward into the future by simply plotting it out.  You have to look back a bit, too.  You have to look backward to see who you are, where you've come from, how God has used you in the past, and the assets and relationships God has placed in your life.

Usually we are guilty of viewing the past through some kind of lens.  We look at it either through the eyes of idealism, remembering the good things and thinking about how rosy it was "back then," or we look at the past remembering the pain and bitterness of old difficulties.  Rarely do we have an accurate perspective on our own past.

So it's important to pull in other perspectives.  This morning I sat up in my Recliner of Meeting for an hour or so before my wife was awake, reflecting back on our time in western North Dakota.  I realized that while I remembered a lot of detail about my work, the two churches I served, and a few other odds and ends, I remembered relatively little about our family life during that time.  So when Julie got up, we reminisced together for a while.  She had a whole different set of details about our time there, and those details complemented my memories in significant ways.

I believe this is one of many reasons God created families.  It's always interesting at weddings or funerals (two places where I have a front row seat to watch how families interact) to see siblings remember their shared past.  Those shared memories, used properly, can become a platform from which we are able to move into the future in new ways.

The trick for many of us is to be intentional about this process.  We're good at being vexed -- even anxious -- about the future.  We need to cultivate the skill of talking with those who share bits of our past, who can help us assess what God was doing back then, so that we might begin to understand a bit of what God wants to do next.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A pre-Christmas gift

I received a gift several weeks ago.  It came wrapped in a telephone conversation, tied with a disclaimer.  "I'm not asking you this question," my friend said, "It's just that this is the question I'm dealing with."  Like most gifts from one guy to another, it wasn't frilly or fancy.  It looked plain and a little rough and I didn't want to deal with it much so I shoved it off to the side of my mind.

I let the gift sit for a long time, thinking it wasn't for me.  Even at the time, I realized it was a beautiful, precious thing in spite of its packaging, but I thought it belonged to my friend, and not to me.  So I let it sit.

The last few days, however, I keep tripping over it.  So last night I decided, finally, to unwrap it, and I realized that the tag had my name on it the whole time.  Funny how you can miss things like that.  Some gifts just won't leave you alone.  So I unwrapped it last night when I was home by myself for the evening, looked at it from a few different angles, poked and prodded and played with the switches and levers.  I haven't quite figured out how the gift works yet, but I'm having fun playing with it.

After a half hour or so last night I put it away again.  It's mine, of course, and I'll pull it out again.  But it is the kind of gift you can play with for a while and then put away and it always comes out fresh.  I suspect that the more I use it, the better I'll like it.

What's the gift?  I hesitate to tell you because you may not like it.  But for some of you, the gift will sit at the edges of your mind until one day, you'll unwrap it and start to play with it.  Get in touch and we can have some grand conversations!

As I said earlier, the gift is a question, a question my friend was dealing with, a question he dropped on my desk almost by accident, though I'm not much of a believer in accidents.  Here it is:

"What would the next ten years look like if you lived them intentionally?"