An Inkling: Haunted by a Sense There’s More

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“If you were God, how would you have come into the world?” This question from one of my Young Life leaders has stayed with me for years.

He said he would have gone the dramatic route of having the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flight demonstration squadron do a fly-over at the biggest sports stadium in the world. He would parachute out and land in the middle of the field, dressed in a black leather flight suit that had zippers everywhere. He’d silence the cheering crowd with a wave of his hand and say, “Now that I have your attention—it’s time you listen to me…”

The world has changed a lot since I first considered this question. James A. K. Smith gives a sobering portrait of our religiously-disinterested culture.

Your “secular” neighbors aren’t looking for “answers,” for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary, they have completely different maps. You’ve realized that instead of nagging questions about God or the afterlife, your neighbors are oriented by all sorts of longings and “projects” and quests for significance. There doesn’t seem to be anything “missing” from their lives – so you can’t just come proclaiming the good news of a Jesus who fills their “God-shaped hole.”

Smith describes how our neighbors have no idea they are failing to ask some very important questions.

They don’t have any sense that the “secular” lives they’ve constructed are missing a second floor. In many ways, they have constructed webs of meaning that provide almost all the significance they need in their lives (though a lot hinges on that “almost”)… No, it seems that  many have managed to construct a world of significance that isn’t at all bothered by questions of the divine – though that world might still be haunted in some ways, haunted by that “almost.”

(James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014, p. vii-viii).

I realize these are meaty quotes, but I encourage you to read them again slowly. They describe both our toughest challenge and our greatest hope. The hope is in that word, “haunted.”

Scripture assures us that all people have an innate sense of that there’s “Something” or “Someone” more out there. They try to ignore it or dismiss it (see Romans 1:18-20), but it lingers. The preacher in The Book of Ecclesiastes says,

God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 New King James Version NKJV).

The wonder of Christmas, of the incarnation, of Jesus coming as the Word of God in flesh, is that God gives us much more than an argument for his existence. God gives us much more than a dramatic, coercive confrontation. God stirs that internal, eternal longing.

God’s strategy leaves us in awe because it so very “down to earth”—literally!

God’s response to human longing was more than a sentimental message.

Yes, God continued to give his message through Jesus, as he had through his prophets;

But in Jesus Christ, God gave (and gives) his Living Word– a message not only to hear, but one humans could touch and watch and know.

God’s response to human longing was more than a philosophical proof.

Yes, there are many reasonable proofs for the existence of God.

But in Jesus Christ God gives us much more than a reason to believe; God gives us a person to trust.

God’s response to human longing was more than a show of power.

Yes, God showed his power through Jesus’ miracles: water changed into wine, loaves and fishes multiplied, bodies healed and, above all, his own resurrection.

But Jesus’ powerful acts point beyond themselves to what the fullness of love and the gift of salvation in him look like. God hates suffering and evil and death. Jesus shows us how much more God intends for us.

You see, God gave us nothing less than his very best: God gave himself.

For to us a child is born,

    to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

    and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  (Isaiah 9:6 English Standard Version)

The message of Christmas is this: God exists, and God’s strategy is to win the heart– and with it the whole person through faith in Jesus Christ.

Pay attention to that inkling. Doubt your doubts and follow them to faith.

The Great Train (Set) Robbery (or one way to spoil Christmas)

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I was not an original sinner, but I caught on fast. By that I mean I didn’t usually think up ways to get into trouble. But I was quite responsive to suggestions.

One November, when I was in sixth grade, my friend, Jimmy, said, “I know what I’m getting for Christmas!”

“How could you know?” (I know this sounds like I was terribly naive– but it’s true…)

“I found my presents,” he said. “Wanna’ know what you’re getting? When you’re mom’s not home, we can look…”

So we did. And in the hamper in my parents’ room we found an HO Gauge Train set that I had asked for to go with my road race car set.

So now I knew… and I felt sick to my stomach with guilt.

Christmas morning came. When we opened our gifts, I noticed there was no box under the tree that resembled the train set. That seemed odd. We finished with all the presents, but I must have looked a bit puzzled.

My mom (who was no dummy…) looked at me and said, “Oh, just a minute…” And she came out with a present the size of the train box. “I think you were hoping for this,” and I could see “the look” in her eye.

While we could consider a number of lessons learned from this story, the one most appropriate to right now is waiting. In gift-giving and receiving, waiting is part of process. For many, anticipation itself contributes to the joy. It’s fun to look forward to what’s coming. And that applies to both the giver and the receiver.

Most often the giver has given a great deal of thought and time (and, likely, expense) to getting the right gift. The experience of seeing the reaction the gift elicits is the giver’s greatest joy. To steal that by “peeking” is selfish and hurtful to the relationship.

Waiting is also a significant part of life. Sometimes we wait in excited anticipation. Sometimes we wait in anguish. Sometimes we just plain wait. In most cases, there are lessons in the waiting.

In the Christian Year, Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) is a season of waiting, of anticipation, of reflection. We look back on God’s people awaiting the promised Messiah. We look around to our current circumstances of waiting for direction, for answers to prayer, and for particular projects to come to fruition.  We also look forward as we await Jesus’ promised return.

When we ponder the timing of Jesus’ coming, the Bible tells us that Jesus was born “In the fullness of time…” (Galatians 4:4). The Greek word plaroma could be used of a woman coming to full term with a child, being ready to deliver. God’s people had waited centuries for his coming. God was waiting until the time was just ripe. For instance, it was a time of relative peace under the Pax Romana. It was the first time such an extended region of the world shared a common language that could communicate the gospel and had roads that could enhance the ability to carry the gospel beyond Judea. For these, and many other reasons, Jesus was born at just the right moment.

Waiting is rarely easy, but it becomes more bearable when we trust that the Giver wants to give the best gift possible at the best time possible.

Overcoming Christmas Distractions

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I’m not one of those totally against the way we do Christmas in our culture.

I enjoy taking time to bless our family and friends with gifts.

I like the emphasis on putting up decorative lights at night—that’s a powerful symbol of Jesus coming into the increasing darkness of the world.

I really enjoy the gatherings around food and special events.

And I love the additional church services and seasonal music!

Sure it’s a bit crazy for a few weeks, but much of it is driven by our desires to give, to connect and to celebrate. Those are good things.

Still, as we plunge headlong into the holidays, many forces conspire to pull us away from the real meaning of Christmas:

Searching & searching for new gift ideas for those people “who have everything;”

Being plagued by the post office warning “mail early or else;”

Deciding on a Christmas card list (“Let’s see, did they send us a card last year?”)

Losing that favorite recipe;

Trying to make all the parties, pageants, concerts & community appearances;

Trying to make good memories;

Feeling the sting of loneliness, loss and/ or disappointment that is magnified during these days.

It’s easy to lose sight not only of the new life that came to Bethlehem, but the new life faith births in us through Christ.

When you stop and consider, however, that “first Christmas” was pretty chaotic, too: Mary and Joseph’s untimely (from a human viewpoint) journey to Bethlehem, the “housing challenge,” the birth of a child, and the coming of shepherds to offer special greetings… It was a bit much.

And in the midst of it all we read these wonderful words: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19 NIV).

Treasure—See the value of every moment, every interaction, every opportunity– and even every challenge.

Ponder—Give yourself the gift of some time to reflect. Ponder conveys the meaning of thinking deeply about something, of giving something more thoughtful consideration.

How do we resist the many forces that conspire to pull us away from the real meaning of Christmas? Taking time to treasure experiences while they are happening, and to ponder them afterward – perhaps through journaling—can go a long way to enriching every day, especially this holy season.

 

 

How Jesus (un)dressed for success

Nativity feetAt that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them (Luke 2:1-7 NLT).

How would you expect the Creator of the Universe to be clothed if and when entering this world?

Would you expect the first garment to be a robe of rags?

These were exchanged in later years for a single robe–a seamless one.  But that was stripped from him.

A jail suit– stripes and all–can you see your Lord in it? But he didn’t even get that…

He was stripped naked and publicly exposed.

For God’s sake (literally)–please understand–this is the essence of the incarnation:

Not merely a baby cooing,

But a naked man dying.

It’s not a comfortable picture.

It’s enough to break your heart–

Enough to break it open?