Monday, December 30, 2013

The Household of God

I have been thinking lately about the nature of the church.  It's not hard to make that leap during Christmas as we think about what the incarnation means.  What does it mean that God has become Emmanuel, Jesus-in-the-flesh, God with us?  Then, make a short leap with me to Jesus' words to his followers -- "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" and think about what it means that the church has become incarnate, or as Paul writes in First Corinthians, "the body of Christ."  What does it mean that the church is a physical body called into the world?

To help in some of that pondering, I have been reading Lesslie Newbigin's lectures assembled into a book entitled, The Household of God.  Of course, I highly recommend it.  Warning, however, that you should read slowly and frequently go back to repeat a paragraph or a page.  It's dense stuff, though not hard to understand if you take your time.

Here's a sample worth pondering:

"... the life of the new man in Christ is both a reality now given, and a reality whose completeness awaits the day of Christ's return.  In this time 'between the times' we are made one in him by the Spirit -- and the Spirit is the spirit of promise, the earnest, the foretaste of the completed victory of God.  It is the mark of human life 'after the flesh', that is human life in its separation from God, that it seeks to have its fullness in itself as a present possession.  It is the mark of life after the Spirit that it looks always to God in dependence and hope.  It longs for the day of God's victory and places all its confidence in that.  Under the conditions of the flesh, the victory of God is known only as defeat.  The sign of the Cross is the sign under which the Church must ever live in the flesh.  When the Church, in the flesh, under the conditions of this present age, claims to have in itself the completeness of God's victory and therefore to be incapable of sin, it becomes precisely 'of the flesh' -- carnal.  The true mark of the Church's life in the flesh is the mark of the Cross, of life through death, of 'bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body' (II Cor. 4:10)."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Dear friends,

We are at the top of the slide -- about to leap onto the slope and go screaming downhill into Christmas!  What I mean is, I am sitting in my office at Central in a shepherd's costume (wrinkled and fastened with a safety pin in the best tradition of Sunday School Christmas programs through the years) and in twenty minutes, we'll start the first of five Christmas worship services here.

I pray that wherever you are, you are keenly aware of the love God has for you that caused him to come in Jesus so you might know him, so that you might live with him.  May his presence transform your life and brighten your soul, not just at Christmas but for Jesus' sake, throughout the year!


Friday, December 20, 2013

Getting ready for Christmas

I had a lot of fun this morning re-reading this set of Christmas meditations.  If you are looking for a way to prepare for Jesus' birthday, I encourage you to take some time in the next few days and read through them.  You can also get to the same document by clicking on the link to the right that says "Twelve Meditations for Christmas."  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 19, 2013


"And the Word (Christ) became flesh (human, incarnate) and tabernacled (fixed His tent of flesh, lived awhile) among us; and we [actually] saw His glory (His honor, His majesty), such glory as an only begotten son receives from his father, full of grace (favor, loving-kindness) and truth." (John 1:14, Amplified Bible)

There is an idea floating around in the church that God is spiritual.  We think this is a biblical idea because the Bible in fact says "God is Spirit."  Jesus himself said this (see John 4).  But what we mean by "spirit" might be quite different from what Jesus meant by the term.  When we talk about spirits, we usually mean a Caspar the Friendly Ghost kind of spirit that can float through walls and is more than a little translucent.  We use "spiritual" in a way that is somehow the opposite of "physical."  This is NOT what the Bible means by "spiritual" -- so when the Bible says "God is Spirit" it is not talking about a lack of a physical body.

We should not be surprised, then, at Christmas.  Jesus' birth into humble, physical circumstances is not surprising in the sense that it's strange for God to become physical.  God has been doing exactly that throughout the Bible.

Think of the Garden of Eden, for example, where the Lord God came walking (not floating) in the garden in the cool of the day to enjoy fellowship with Adam and Eve.  Or think of Abraham's three visitors, one at least of whom seems to be God in some sense.  I'm quite sure Jacob experienced God as a physical reality when he wrestled with him on the north bank of the Jabbok.  God was at least physical enough to throw Jacob's hip permanently out of joint.  Moses experienced a real bush, and a real fire.  

Maybe the burning bush is a good illustration.  What Moses experienced was real enough -- physical enough.  But the burning bush was not bound by the conventional laws of physicality.  According to the normal, physical laws of The Way Things Are, the bush should have been consumed.  It was this failure of fire to act in normal, physical ways that first drew Moses to the conflagration in the first place.  

In a similar way, God's "Spirit" nature does not prevent him from being physical; rather, God's spiritual nature means he is not bound by the conventional expectations of physicality.  So when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into the fiery furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar sees a fourth person is walking in the flames with them, and by his presence with them they are protected from the conventional physical laws that people in infernos have to burn up.

This Advent season it is worth setting aside some time to ponder the Incarnation -- that doctrine that says Jesus is God in human flesh, God in the physical stuff of his creation.  This is not the first time God moves into the physical realm, as we've demonstrated.  Instead, it is biblical to say that God is constantly getting physical (apologies to Olivia Newton-John) with his creation.  

So in Jesus, the Word becomes flesh and pitches his tent (love that translation) among us.  We see throughout Jesus' life that he is completely physical, but he is not bound by the conventions of physicality.  Instead, he is the ultimate Spirit-filled person.  The Spirit of God filling Jesus doesn't make him less physical in any way.  He breaks bread, sleeps in a boat, drinks water, touches people, draws in the sand.  In each of these activities he is acting beyond the simple limitations of physicality.

Christmas is the grand celebration of the Incarnation, of Jesus-in-the-flesh, but it doesn't end there.  God insists on getting physical by pouring out his Spirit into Jesus' followers.  Pentecost is the great physical multiplication of God, as the Spirit fills the church.  Thus it is no contradiction when Paul writes, "Now you are the body of Christ ..." (see 1 Corinthians 12).  God continues to get physical.

Someday, the Bible says, God's essence, God's Spirit, God's self will inhabit all of creation, and none of the physical world will be subject to the limits of physicality, of entropy, of sin and death.  Instead, the creation will be made new and it will become "a land in which righteousness is at home" (see 2 Peter 3).  

This is a big idea to cram into one holiday.  But as you're enjoying the physicality of Christmas -- the tree, the presents, the food, the drink, the embraces, the lights and the smells -- don't think God is somehow above it all, outside it all.  Instead he is in the midst of it, closer than your taste buds.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Shame, vulnerability, and courage

If you heard my sermon at Central on Sunday (or if you didn't) I referred to an NPR program, "On Being", that I had heard on the way to church that morning.  Here's a link to that program.  The interview was with Brene Brown, and it's worth an hour of your life to listen to it.  Especially if you're a parent.  Or some other kind of human.  Well worth your while.

Friday, December 6, 2013

One of those weeks

Do you ever have one of those weeks?  Not the kind where everything goes wrong.  I've had those, too, and they're lousy.  Sorry about that.

No, I mean one of those weeks where you're almost TOO alive.  Where things keep engaging your heart, where you have to deal with reality straight up over and over again from a whole bunch of different directions, and you feel every nerve ending in your soul like you're really, actually alive.  Emotions run raw from the highest heights to the lowest lows.  Beauty breaks out of the skies without warning and breaks your heart open.  Music floats into your relationships.  Tears flow from what you thought was going to be a polite sob into that ugly crying that no one wants to see.  You laugh like a maniac just for the sheer joy of it.  You dangle in the wind and writhe in pain waiting for resolution as if you were wrapped up in duct tape.  You sit by the fire and enjoy languid sips of good conversation and hot, delicious coffee like velvet.  You burn your tongue not enough to really hurt, just enough so that you taste everything at a new level.  You look your own death in the face and realize it's not happening today, so you're joyously alive.

It's been one of those weeks.

It kind of hurts, in a really good way, like a serious core workout.  And maybe that's what it is.

Monday, December 2, 2013


It's December 2nd as I write this, and there's a new dusting of snow on the ground outside my office, with considerably more in the forecast.  I think we may be headed into winter, right on schedule.

It's also the second day of Advent, when we focus on the coming of Jesus -- remembering his coming two thousand years ago (give or take), anticipating his coming to bring all of history to completion, and -- most immediate -- his coming into our own hearts and lives.

I encourage you to use these days of Advent, between now and Christmas Day, to focus intentionally on Jesus' coming.  Here is an excellent blog post that provides an easy-to-use format for families or groups of friends to celebrate a weekly ritual of scripture reading, candle lighting, and song.

Or, if you prefer, you can use this selection of scripture readings that includes the birth narratives of Jesus as part of anticipating his coming.  This might be a better choice if you are just doing this as an individual, but it's up to you.  I highly recommend, even if you're just doing these readings as an individual, that you light an "advent candle" (better yet, and advent wreath) while you focus on these meditations.

In any case, Advent is a great time to hunker down into the dark and quiet, more meditative days of December.  While we try so hard to put up lights and get our shopping done, it's worth setting aside a few moments each day to let your body, mind, and spirit be reflective and quiet, abiding with Jesus in the growing darkness, relishing his presence as the Light of the World.