Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Stories Converge at the Nativity

At the beginning of each Star Wars movie, there is an opening crawl with yellow words playing across the star field setting the scene for where we are picking up the story from “the last episode”.  There is typically a wide shot from space before the camera pans in on the action unfolding.  

The Bible sort of does that with the four Gospels—each tells the story of the life of Jesus from a different perspective.  Interestingly, you will not find a description of the birth in the Gospel of Mark, which is believed to be the earliest Gospel written.  Like Star Wars movies, Mark starts his story in medias res; he doesn’t feel the need to “set the stage” with “yellow words” across the star field.  (Perhaps he assumes his readers already know the backstory?) When Mark’s Gospel begins, adult Jesus is already on the scene and the opening scene is one of John the Baptist's fiery proclamations to "prepare themselves" for his arrival. 

While Mark gives us no description of how Jesus came to be, it’s abundantly clear that he very much is.  But perhaps every good story needs an introduction, and Matthew, Luke, and John, all of whom had Mark as a reference (as well as other sources), each saw fit to provide one.

The Gospel of John is like the view from space in Star Wars. John 1:1-15 reads like “yellow words” setting the scene for the birth of Jesus—and all subsequent Episodes.  This “cosmic perspective” says that on that night when Jesus was born, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; Light entered the world and the Darkness could not overcome it.   The Word was barely audible at first and not many heard it; the Light started small and fragile, a smoldering wick that could’ve easily been snuffed out on many occasions—but, remarkably, wasn’t. 

Perhaps after the birth itself, the greatest Christmas miracle of all is that, against all odds, the Word and Light managed to take hold and grew in volume and intensity.  To this day the Darkness has not overcome it!

As Jesus grew up, and became a man and began his ministry, the Word spoke louder and the Light shone brighter.  The Word and the Light eventually came into conflict with Rome.  In the world in which Jesus was born, Caesar was the word; the Emperor was viewed as the light of the world.  Into that world, comes Jesus claiming a completely different revolutionary reality for those that chose to follow him.   Jesus would not stop proclaiming the Word nor shudder the Light—ever—and ultimately that refusal led to his death at the hands of the Romans.  But the Word was so powerful and the Light so bright that even brutal death didn’t have the last word; even ultimate Darkness did not prevail.  The Word and the Light endured—and continue to endure today. 

Of course I am giving away “spoilers” here, let’s get back to Christmas...

The "birth narratives" in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 give us the “view from Earth”— a much more “human” perspective.  Luke tells us the miraculous stories of the birth of John the Baptist and the conception of and birth of Jesus.   That same account says that shepherds tending their flocks saw a host of angels telling them about this birth, assuaging their fears and proclaiming glad tidings of great joy.  The shepherds hurried to Bethlehem to see what was going on. 

Matthew’s version of the story also tells us the birth story, but more from Joseph’s perspective. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is actually born in Nazareth.  Also according to Matthew—a few years later—wise men come from the east, having followed a star that led them to the house where toddler Jesus and his family lived.  Matthew also tells us that the Holy Family is forced to flee Bethlehem to escape Herod’s infanticide to exterminate the threat to his throne; they go into exile in Egypt (evoking parallels to Exodus) until it is safe to return. 

Our typical Christmas nativity draws primarily from Luke’s story, but then amalgamates elements from Matthew’s account.  We usually add the wise men at the manger for convenience—but they likely weren’t there for the birth.  If we mention the infanticide and exile to Egypt at all, it usually isn’t until the weeks following Christmas, when the “poinsettias” have disappeared and attendance is much lighter.

Jesus: Episode I – “The God-Awakening”

There has been an awakening.  Can you feel it? ­­Star Wars, Episode VII

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. Isaiah 43:19

We have recently had the long anticipated debut of Star Wars, Episode VII: “The Force Awakens”.  Yes, I’ve seen it (twice!); no I’m not going to spoil it.  (Okay maybe there’s a hint or two…)

If we think of the life of Jesus as a series of Episodes, Christmas would be covered in Episode I.  Indeed, Jesus, Episode I, has parallels to Star Wars, Episode I.   In “The Phantom Menace” we meet young Anakin Skywalker, and, of course, baby Jesus is first “introduced” at Christmas.  In both stories, the first Episode is less about the child than about other characters reacting to news/knowledge of the child’s existence.  The child himself takes “center stage” in the Episodes that follow. 

The focal point of Jesus’ life isn’t necessarily Christmas, but not unlike “The Phantom Menace”, what happens in “Episode I” is crucial to set the stage for all the Episodes that follow.

Without getting into specific plot details—the “first Christmas” also has parallels to, the “The Force Awakens”.  It was a time in human history when a slumbering “force” woke up.  If you think waiting 30 years for a sequel to “Return of the Jedi” was a long wait, think how God’s people felt!  From the last words of Malachi to John the Baptist’s calls to prepare the way, the “voices of God”, fell eerily silent for 400 years.  For all that time, there were no prophecies, no revelations—no direct communication from God. It was as if God had gone into exile.   

There was no convenient map to the Divine provided.  The world had to wait in uneasy silence until the time was right for God to make his ultimate revelation.

Just because God is silent, however, doesn't mean God is not active.  Things were happening “behind the scenes” during those “silent” centuries, you just had to be paying close attention to realize it.

Everything was going exactly as God foresaw it.   

We recognize in hindsight that the world stage was slowly rearranging itself during those four centuries, as if Creation itself was preparing to receive its Creator. 

Hebrew prophecies were translated into Greek—a more “universal” language than Hebrew, which allowed many more people access to the Word.  Meanwhile, as old empires crumbled, new ones rose to take their place.  From humble beginnings, Rome rose to become the dominant power on the planet—the latest in a long line of ruling Empires.  Rome asserted its dominance and kept “peace” through military might.  They also kept potential threats in check by oppressing cultural minorities, including the Jewish people. From time to time, hope would spring up among the Jews in the form of some individual who claimed to be the Messiah—the promised King in the line of David who would liberate the Jewish people.  But time and time again, the rumors proved to be unwarranted.  Roman rule continued and although faithful Jews still clung to faith that “the Messiah would come”, in practical terms, it seemed the Jews would never be free.

And then without much warning, the long-awaited God-awakening happened—and everything began to change. Suddenly, as if making up for lost time, God’s messengers were on the move in our world.  A remarkable story unfolds as a new prophet is born to a barren woman.  He would grow up to proclaim a radical message of preparation and repentance for sins.  However, he assures the people that he himself is not the Messiah.  No, he only points the way; he is not worthy to tie the Messiah’s shoes.

Six months later, in an obscure part of the world, a baby is born who Christians believe was the Messiah—the Savior of all.  The conception is remarkable in the fact that Mary was a poor, Jewish virgin chosen to bear God’s Son, yet the birth itself is totally ordinary.  No doubt, like all births, it was messy—and painful.  And to add insult to injury, this particular birth takes place in a place not in a royal palace, or even a modest home, but in a manger—a place normally reserved for animals.
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When Star Wars Episode VII begins, most people aren’t aware that, “there has been an awakening”.  By the end of the movie, a few more people have become aware. As Episodes VIII and IX unfold, my guess is that the “awakening” will become even more apparent to the average person. 

Something similar happens with the life of Jesus.  Although it gets crowded on the altar as we assemble our familiar nativity scene each year for the Kodak moment, only a small number of people actually witnessed what happened. As the verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” describe, the average person living in the town of Bethlehem is asleep as these miraculous events unfold—oblivious to the God-awakening.  They are more concerned with conforming to the Emperor’s decree concerning the census and rushing home to gather with family.  (According to Luke, that’s why Joseph and Mary end up in Bethlehem for the birth.) 

Most certainly, people in the big cities like Jerusalem, or far-off Rome had no clue that this night was anything out of the ordinary.  It was business as usual in every place but the Manger.

By the time Jesus is crucified (you might think of this as the “final Episode” in the story of Jesus) more people have become aware of the God-awakening that has taken place with the coming of Jesus, but it is probably still a relatively small number.  It’s really after the resurrection that God-awakening really begins to spread like wildfire.  The book of Acts is the second volume of Luke’s account, and contains another series of Episodes describing how the church is born and is forced to flee its home in Jerusalem, but as a result it spreads through all Judaea, to Samaria, and to the “ends of the Earth”—which Luke used to refer to the Gospel reaching Rome, but today the Gospel has literally has reached every corner of the globe. 
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How does this speak to us today?  We must make the question we opened with personal.  “There has been an awakening.  Can you feel it?”   Do you live awakened—aware of God’s Presence in our world—or are you asleep?

According to John, at Christmas: The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood; a Light came into the world and that no Darkness can overcome.  A quick glance at news headlines sometimes makes those words seem hollow.   We live in a world where Darkness seems to be rapidly gaining ground.  The Word may have become flesh long ago, but the world loudly broadcasts its own “words” that saturate us every day. They threaten to smolder our light and drown out the still, small voice of God within us.

Today, God-awakening depends on us waking up!  Jesus is “born” in our world today whenever ordinary people like you and me—who are Christ followers—choose to let our light shine and make our voices heard over and against the noise of the world—no matter what it costs.  

That is our challenge not only on Christmas—but every day…

May our God be with you

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Grounded: A Theology of God With Us

It is Advent as I write these words, the time in the Christian liturgical calendar of preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus.  We have a tendency to view the Incarnation as a “special exception”, when God came to visit Earth in human form for a “limited engagement”.  And in some sense, I suppose it was.  Jesus the human being lived for a fairly short time, then died—and rose again.  When Jesus left his original followers, he promised the Holy Spirit would be their constant companion.  That Presence seems to permeate the pages of the New Testament and Christians believe the Spirit is still present today.  But while we give lip-service to that Presence “in church” we often act oblivious of it in the world. That is to say, we live our daily lives as if God is distant, aloof, unconcerned—far removed from us. 

The good news is that many people seem to be rediscovering, both inside and outside the church walls, that the Spirit of God is alive and well in our world today.  God is always with us but, like Jacob, we often struggle to recognize it.  So perhaps what we need is eyes that “see”, ears that “hear”, and hearts that are open to the “new-old-thing” that God might be up to in our world. 
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:19
Author and theologian Diana Butler Bass has been helping many of us see “new-old-things” for over a decade.  In her writing, she puts into words things that get caught of the tips of others’ tongues.  As she shares her experience, many seem to relate—including me.

I have just finished reading Diana’s newest book, Grounded:Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution. It seems fitting that I complete my reading as we are in the midst of Advent, for she truly outlines a theology of Immanuel—God with us—as good as any I’ve read previously[1].

The basic thesis in Grounded is that the vertical God that organized religions have known—and more or less “controlled”—for a long time is giving way to a horizontal God that is much more personal and organic in nature.  That is to say, we used to think of God “up there” in heaven, beyond us, and saw church as a place you go to gain access to God. Diana’s analogy is that church is the “elevator” through which one accesses the vertical God, so we might call the priest or pastor[2] the “elevator operator”. Whatever we call them, the idea is that the spiritual authority tells you how to gain access to the “elevator” to heaven, or to say another way, to “be saved” from the planet’s eventual destruction.

In more recent years, however, many people are discovering that incarnation wasn’t a one-time thing.   Though Jesus was and is a unique revelation of God, God still comes to us—is “born” in us—today.  God is certainly “down here” with us now, right in the middle of our complicated circumstances.  

Diana explains how a shift in how we view God has caused a shift in the questions we ask.  We once asked: What must I do to be saved (i.e., to go to heaven when I die).  Now we ask: Where can I experience God with me—now?  How can I train my eyes to see God in the world?  People aren’t seeking escape as much as engagement.  They want to know how they can be part of making this world into that which God dreams it could be?  They see themselves as co-creators with God, working in their time and place, on God’s ongoing creative masterpiece.

In Grounded, Diana tackles these “newer” questions of where and how to experience God in the world head-on.  The book is organized into two sections—sandwiched between an Introduction (called “Genesis”) and Conclusion (called “Revelation”).  She begins by looking at finding God in the natural environment with chapters focusing on Dirt (soil), Water, and Sky.  In each chapter, she begins with a personal anecdote, which leads into the question:  Where is God in the Dirt?  In Water?  In the Sky?  

In the second part of the book, she turns from physical geography to human geography (i.e., relationships with “neighbors”).  The second part of the book covers Roots (ancestry/genealogy), Home, Neighborhood, and Commons.  Again she asks where is God in all of these relational settings. 

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Grounded.  While my personal view is that God is both/and; God is both “up there” utterly separate from us and “down here” right beside and within us, I also understand why Diana chooses to focus heavily on finding God in the world in her book.  I think much has been written about God “up there” but not as much about finding God “down here”.  I must confess that I am more familiar with the idea of God with us than I am of the actual experience; I feel that I do it in my own life but sometimes struggle to put it in words.  I appreciate Grounded because it articulates some of Diana’s actual experience of finding God in the world along with many academic and experiential insights from other spiritual and secular authors. I could certainly relate to some of her anecdotes and at times found myself nodding my head or even laughing out loud as I read my book at the gym. 

Even better, I think her style will appeal to the increasing numbers, who for a host of reasons, may have stepped away from participation in organized religion—or who have grown never knowing such participation, nor feel like they are “missing something”.  These people don’t “go to church” but studies show that they still search for and long to experience God in the world.  Grounded gives lots of examples of how and where this is happening.  Diana challenges the church to accept these experiences as every bit as valid as anything that happens during a formal “church service”.

As I understand it, church was never intended to be a place where people come to access God and escape the world.  Rather, church should be a community of practice in living like Jesus that equips its “members” to engage the world with the radical way of Jesus, for the common good of all.  Grounded challenges the church to reclaim that revolutionary identity.

The Advent/Christmas season is when we remember the remarkable fact that the God of the Universe chose to become grounded.  The miracle of Christmas is that part of God became part of us—and remains part of us for all eternity. 

Jesus, says conventional Christian doctrine, is fully human and fully divine. Through Jesus, God mixed with human flesh and experienced profound solidarity with our race.  Through the birth, life, death—and resurrection—of Jesus, God was—and is—with us in every way a person could be so he can save us in every way we need saving.  This means far more than forgiveness of sins to go to heaven when we die, which we sometimes make the mistake of reducing it to; it was meant to launch us into a lifetime of apprenticeship to Jesus, and being transformed the human beings we have the potential of becoming.  Grounded is an excellent practical guide to how we actually do that in the settings where we live out our lives—connected to the soil, water, and atmosphere of this third rock from the Sun, and connected to one another a web of relationships that weaves together our family history, homes, and neighborhoods, into a larger interdependent global commons. 

If this review peaks your interest, perhaps Grounded would be a good book to read during Advent or during the New Year on your own and/or as part of a group.  It might make an excellent Christmas gift for you or someone you know.  I highly recommend it!

[1] One of my favorite Bibles is the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, which is organized around the theme of “God with us”, tracing God’s presence with God’s people throughout the Biblical story. Both Richard Foster (founder of Renovaré) and Dallas Willard have influenced my spiritual formation.  They both develop ideas of God with us in their writings, in particular Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Willard’s Divine Conspiracy.
[2] Butler Bass is Christian and thus writes primarily from that perspective, but she argues that the shift from vertical God to horizontal God is a universal experience.  Moreover, she includes examples from other faith traditions throughout her book.

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