YOU ARE NOT ALONE

John Donne famously wrote,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Nevertheless, everyone feels isolated, everyone feels alone now and then, perhaps especially during the holidays. It’s part of the human condition, a result of the fall. Eve caved to the serpent’s song followed closely by Adam, each seeking to be like God, only to find that they lost connection with God and each other. Loneliness began in the garden.

From that day to this every man, woman and child knows the ache of loneliness, the pain of separation from his fellows and his Creator. Loneliness assails us especially on significant anniversaries when we feel the loss of loved ones long gone. The divorced also feel the pain, with the added grief that separation was by choice rather than by chance.

It was with such melancholy mental meanderings that I turned to meditate on John 14:1-4, a passage so familiar that the words felt lukewarm on my tongue as I recited them back to God. Lukewarm that is, until I spoke verse three: “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” said Jesus to his downcast disciples, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

… that you also may be where I am. That little phrase lit a pale flame on the horizon of my soul that grew in magnitude like the sun rising in the porch window, filling it with warmth and banishing the night.

… that you also may be where I am, is Jesus telling us that he is just as unsatisfied with the separation as we are, that he knows the ache in our hearts, and that he is doing something about it.

… that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us how much he wants to be with us, even more than we want to be with him.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are welcome at his table no matter how inadequate we may feel about being there. It is he who prepared the way, not us, for he was the only one who could.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are not alone.

I don’t know where this meditation finds you today, perhaps full of joy and good fellowship. But if you are experiencing that existential ache, if you are feeling deeply the losses of life, Jesus offers the way home.

How? Funny, that’s the same question Doubting Thomas asked, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

THE MEMORY TREE

THE MEMORY TREE

The tree appears like magic every year, the day after Thanksgiving. Rising from the floor to its full seven feet, strung with lights and nothing else, a green canvas of branches waiting to be adorned by the master artist I married.

From old boxes emerge simple ornaments, each a reminder of years and blessings past. First the forty, communion cup ice cream sundaes, created the year we met.  Then twenty-five Nut Cracker characters, crafted from clothes pins our first year of marriage when we were poor as church mice. Twenty decorative fans follow, formed from folded Christmas cards and glue-on lace that second year of seminary poverty. Cross-stitched frames with our girls’ names find their favorite branches, gifts from Grandma’s hand. Miniature presents from the “My Gift is Me” story, wrapped in metallic green, red, blue, silver, and purple are accompanied by popsicle-stick sleds the girls made with Mom.

A starfish Santa that came from the lady who had a Christmas tree in every room – “Can we do that?” my dear decorator asked.

“NO!”

But she could make driftwood Santa’s to keep the solidified starfish company, and she did, along with thirty of our fifty-odd nativities, made of cloth, flower pots, fabric, wooden spoons, and everything you can think of. An angel from our missionary friend, a star from Sandie, in our then-new pastorate. And finally, on winter’s first whisper, sixty hand crocheted snowflakes, gifts from another pastor’s wife, because snow can’t fall till it gets cold.

I gaze with greater wonder each year. How does she do it? There is no plan, no scheme, no blueprint or photo of where to place each ornament. Even if I had one I couldn’t do it, not without her. She has the eye, the perspective, the balance of all the elements in her head. By themselves in a box they are just pieces of paper, thread, and popsicle sticks. Stuff other folks would throw away. But in her hands, they come together to form something money cannot buy: beauty.

Simple, lovely, one-of-a-kind, a memory tree never exactly the same from year to year, but always a powerful visual aid that the Creator-Redeemer can take whatever we give him, no matter how plain or simple, and arrange it into something beautiful.

Merry Christmas!

FRANCIS COLLINS FINDS THE LIGHT

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

(John 1:4 NIV)

We call Christmas the season of light in no small part because of the meaning of this verse. But what are we to make of this mysterious word? How was Jesus the light of men?

Famed geneticist Francis Collins’s journey to faith is a good example.

Collins’s credentials and accomplishments are legendary in the scientific community. He headed up the Human Genome Project before serving as the Director of the National Institutes of Health. In 2007 he wrote a New York Times best-seller, The Language of God, which weaves together the story of his work as a world-renowned scientist and his journey from atheism to faith in Christ.

As a young doctor and atheist at the University of North Carolina Medical Center, Collins cared for many desperately sick people who, in spite of their illnesses, had profound faith. He wondered, “why were these people not shaking their fists at God and demanding that (their families) stop all this talk about a loving and benevolent super power?” After all, most of them were dying from illnesses they had done nothing to deserve.

That’s when an older patient, suffering from untreatable angina, asked a question for which he was not prepared, “What do you believe?”

“I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words,” he wrote, “I’m not really sure.”

Collins was in the dark and knew it. He began to question his integrity as a scientist and realized that, rather than consider all the evidence and come to a rational conclusion on life’s greatest question, he had engaged in, “willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance … Suddenly, all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.”[1]

After a long period of searching, which included a review of the world’s great religions, grilling a pastor with questions, and reading C.S. Lewis’s classic, Mere Christianity, the light dawned:

“On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”[2]

Perhaps you can identify with Collins. You know something is out there, something true, and good, and powerful enough to give dying people hope and peace, but you have been avoiding it. That something is really Someone, the light of the world, Jesus Christ.

Maybe you are ready to begin your journey into the light today, or you know someone who is. If so let me recommend C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, the book that helped Collins so much. Then there’s Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith, a modern classic. And finally, if you are of a scientific bent, The Language of God is a great place to start.

[1] Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), p. 20.

[2] Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2007), p. 225

HIGH OCTANE ANGELS

I have a problem with angels. But maybe that’s because the angels I’m talking about are on the take from Hollywood.

You’ve seen them. They show up in film and television with names like “Al,” played by the always nutty Christopher Lloyd in Angels in the Outfield; or “Seth,” (Nicolas Cage) in City of Angels, who falls in love with a human; “Dudley,” (Denzel Washington) in The Preacher’s Wife, who nearly seduces her; and the ever popular “Clarence” in It’s a Wonderful Life. Then there was the television hit, Touched by an Angel some years ago. Often suave, sometimes nutty, and usually cheerful if somewhat mystical, these angels are far too human for me. Yes, they do good things in the movies, and I’m not saying the films are particularly bad, just that their angels are low octane.

The angels I’m used to, the ones I expect to see one day, aren’t anything like the human-ish versions on screen. They aren’t cute, suave, falling in love, or trying to earn their wings. Neither are they funny, except possibly for the episode with Balaam’s donkey, but I bet he wasn’t laughing.

The angels scripture reveals are high octane representatives of heaven.

Angels are, when they appear in human form, on a clear mission to deliver God’s message, protect God’s people, and/or accomplish God’s purpose. Either way, they are not to be trifled with. When they appear in, shall we say, extra-human form they are terrifying: Ezekiel’s angels, technically known as Cherubim, had four faces, four wings, and feet like burnished bronze. Fearsome power is the idea. Other Old Testament angels kill hundreds of thousands of God’s enemies, swoop down in chariots of fire to gather up Elijah, and surround foreign armies to protect Elisha (2 Kings).  We also find them quenching the fiery furnace and closing the mouths of lions (Daniel), or, as in the New Testament, tossing tomb stones, springing apostolic prisoners, and standing, rank upon magnificent, military rank roaring glory to God.

When angels show up, humans fall down — either dead or just frightened out of their wits.

That’s what happened to the prophet Daniel (See 8:15-17) as well as Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. Both men, hundreds of years apart, were stunned by the presence of Gabriel, the being who seems to be heaven’s press secretary in all things related to Christ. Daniel fainted and Zechariah, who though terrified managed to show a little disrespect, was struck dumb by Gabriel until the Baptizer was born.

Real angels are high octane.

So this year, whether you’re watching your favorite Christmas movie, or just having a cup of hot chocolate while gazing at the little angel ornaments on the tree, remember, the beings that announced the birth of Christ shimmer with power and glory. And when he returns, they’re coming with him.

ELUSIVE CHRISTMAS JOY

Joy, for many of us, is elusive at Christmas. Instead of mounting happiness as October fades and November cools, our moods fall like spent leaves, wind drifts of brown on grass no longer green.

Reasons for sadness pile up as the year runs out.

“Holiday sales” burnout plays a part. Holy awe, and the joy it builds, is dulled by crass commerce that begins before Halloween ends. Only in America, where glitz is king, can the latest Mercedes induce more wonder than the Word made flesh.

But that’s not all the sales and marketing do. They remind many of us of things we’d rather forget, visual cues of tragedies past. Loved ones lost as the holidays arrived, graveside services in the snow. Or simply beautiful seasons of life that have come and gone, and will never come again, as children grow and jobs carry us away.

Then there is the actual gathering of family members, long dispersed and often better off that way. Seasonal expectations of heightened happiness against the backdrop of broken promises and dreams create a special kind of emotional dissonance. It’s hard to sing NOEL when your heart is full of Lamentations.

It was to people like that that the angel announced “good news of great joy.” People just like you and me. “For all people,” this news was come, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Ponder those words.

Men have peace with God. More to the point, God has declared peace to men. The relationship broken in the Garden of God, the fellowship lost when our first parents were banished from the place of blessing (read “Joy”) has been restored–restored not by man returning to the Garden, by earning or breaking his way in, but by God leaving the Garden and coming into the world. Truly, those who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

And the good news is “for all people.” Not for some, but for all. Not for the elite, but for all. Not for the powerful, but for all. Not for the popular, the famous, or the merely well-liked, but for all. Not for the religiously pure or the morally righteous, but for all. Not for one race, or kind, or nation, but for all. Not for someone else, no, the good news is for me, and for you, and for all.

A great assumption lies behind the angels’ news: That our estrangement from God is worse by far than all of the stress, all of the loss, all of the tragedies, and burnout combined. Indeed it is, because that estrangement is the root of all other alienation. And the reconciliation made possible by the babe of Bethlehem, the first step of God again into the world, was the beginning of true hope, the well-spring of lasting joy.

This Christmas, don’t look for joy from a brightly wrapped package under a tree, in family, or parties, or songs. These are just the trimmings. Look for joy in the face of Jesus. He has come to reconcile all who will believe, and he will come again to restore all things.

SON OF THE MOST LOW

She’s going to break my fingers! But I can’t tell her to stop!

That debate ran through the back of my mind while the front tried, and failed, to help my dear young wife face the panic and pain of her first birth. She was holding the fingers of my left hand all in a bunch, sitting on the sofa of our little apartment, and squeezing the daylights out of them with every contraction. We had already been to the hospital once and sent home. “She’s not ready. Come back tomorrow morning.” That had been hours ago. I thought she might pass out. Heck, I thought I might pass out. But the nerves, and the pain, and the anticipation kept us up all night. By the time the doc decided on a C-section, she’d been in labor seventy-two hours, but that’s another story.

I think about that when I think about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Like many of our contemporaries, we were having our first baby in a brand-new birthing center, with all the latest science, and comforts at our disposal, supervised by an obstetrician with decades of experience. Of course first century mothers had none of that, but Mary had reasons to expect better than she was getting.

Remember what the angel had told her? “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

With that kind of information about the child in her womb, it would be understandable for Mary to have high expectations. What kind of birth arrangements would God engineer for His Son? How would the Son of the Most High make his entrance?

But the birth of Jesus was a true worst case scenario for Mary and Joseph.

It came at the most difficult of times. The census had the whole country in upheaval. Roads were jammed with travelers; the price of 90-octane donkey fuel went through the roof. Tempers were short and lines were long. Everybody was stressed to the max and they had no choice about making the trip. Their son’s first day on earth would be a day marked by an act of oppression. He was born with a Roman boot on his neck.

It came at the end of a draining day. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is only sixty miles as the crow flies. Maybe two hours by car. But it was a three-day journey for them–Joseph on foot, Mary at full term on a swaying donkey’s back, camping out under the stars, eating sparse meals. Even if Mary was a teenager, she was no doubt extremely tired and sore. They probably traveled alone as well, because by now it was known that Mary’s condition was not a result of her marriage to Joseph. Both must have felt a sense of isolation. There would be no joyous family celebration like the one at John the Baptist’s birth.

Finally, the baby came in the most desperate of circumstances. Joseph was still searching for a room when Mary’s labor pains began. The inns in Bethlehem were full of other census pilgrims who had traveled faster than an expecting mother could manage. As a last resort they took shelter in a stable, filled with the pungent smells of pack animals. The first air that would fill the nostrils of the Son of God was the air that peasants breathe.

I wonder what Mary must have thought of all this as she remembered the Angel’s words, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” I know what I think. The Son of the Most High came to Earth as the “son of the most low.” God engineered the birth of His Son so that all who believe, from the lowest to the highest, could come to Him without fear, and experience the best gift He has for man, a life giving relationship with Himself.

AND SO WAS FULFILLED

Back in the late 1980’s, when George H. W. Bush (aka “Bush 41”) was running for president, one of the criticisms hurled his way concerned the circumstances of his birth. “He’s the child of up-east, old-money privilege and can’t connect with the common man,” was the gist of it. The fact that he was also a decorated combat hero of WWII and had made his own way in the hard-knock oil business after the war didn’t matter.

I love the way the future president handled that slam, “It’s true, I was born in Massachusetts,” he said. “I did that to be closer to my mother.”

That quote came to mind recently as I re-read the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel. A repeating phrase (See 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23) rings like a chorus at the end of each element of the narrative: “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophet.”

Six hundred years before Messiah’s birth the prophet Isaiah said he would be born of a virgin, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred years before, the prophet Micah said Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred and fifty years before, the prophet Hosea said he would come out of Egypt, and he did.

Four hundred plus years before, many Old Testament prophets alluded that Messiah would be a Nazarene, and he was.

And just like Mr. Bush, the baby Jesus had no control over the circumstances of his birth. He “did it to be closer to his mother.” Yet everything about his first advent testifies to the earthly fulfillment of an eternal plan formed for our good by a loving heavenly Father.

I offer three conclusions from this that I hope will enhance your Christmas meditations.

First, know your Bible. Read it well and deeply. Each prophecy came from what, to us, might seem obscure references. Many of us wouldn’t know about Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and the rest of the prophets, were it not for the Christmas story. But they weren’t obscure to Matthew’s readers and they weren’t the only prophets he quoted. A similar refrain runs at least twelve times throughout his gospel, confirming for his Jewish readers that Jesus really was the fulfillment of all their messianic hopes.

Life often seems obscure to us. The better we know our Bibles the more things come into focus.

Second, trust God even when you cannot see the plan. No one, save perhaps the Magi, saw this coming. No one knew to combine the predictions of the various prophets in the way they ultimately accumulated in the person of Jesus.

The providence of God in the outworking of his plans is to us inscrutable. We can only see the beginning from the end, whereas he sees the end from the beginning. So trust him. Walk the path of faithful obedience and don’t try to figure out how he’s going to accomplish his plans.

Third, put your hopes squarely on the second advent of Christ. The specific fulfillment of all the prophecies surrounding Jesus’s first appearance points us to the reliability of all the other promises of his return. God was silent for four hundred years between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. Then, in the space of three decades, the fulfilled predictions of Messiah piled up on one another in the person of Jesus.

God’s further promises will come to pass as surely as any we celebrate this December. Put your hope in him.