Archive for November, 2016

My family once had a potbelly pig for a pet.  Yes, we literally bought a pig for a pet.  It was the runt of the litter, rather small.  We named it “Wilbur.”  It wasn’t long before Wilbur needed a bath.  FYI, pigs tend to become dirty and smelly in a short amount of time.  If Wilbur was to stay in the house, he needed to be cleaned.  So, bath day came.  We prepared the bathtub and set Wilbur down in the water to begin scrubbing.  Wilbur had a different idea.  He didn’t care for the bathtub.  Maybe it was the water.  Maybe it was the slippery porcelain floor of the tub.  Whatever it was, Wilbur wasn’t having anything to do with the bath.  He began to freak out, squealing and squirming.  Suddenly, Wilbur began to fly in the air as he used the slick porcelain bathtub like a snowboarder using a half-pipe – flying up one side, back down the side, and then shooting up higher on the other side.  It was a disaster.  Water was everywhere.  Wilbur was a piglet of chaos and no closer to being clean.  Wilbur eventually worked himself out of a home with us because he refused to be cleaned.

Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.”  It is a time for preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, that is, Jesus’ birth, and also Jesus’ coming again to complete the union of heaven and earth.  The season of Advent lodges us between these two events.  As the early Church used to say, “Christ has come; Christ will come again.”  As Christ came as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, now we wait in joyful anticipation of Christ’s return to reconcile and redeem the world to God.  The time is coming, says Jesus.  Prepare.  The time is drawing near, says Jesus.  Be ready.  The day is on the doorstep.  Be prepared – “wash your robes.”

If we are totally honest with ourselves, we could all write up a lengthy laundry list of grievous sins, poor decisions, lapsed judgment, and painful brokenness.  Imagine yourself robed where everything that you are and everything that you have done was written in permanent marker for everyone to see.  What would it say?  If we came to the gates of the City of God wearing those robes, would we expect entrance into the wedding party?  No, we’d expect to be outside with the dogs.  But, we’re not always sure we want to go through the tedious work of preparation – of washing.  We’d rather toss it in the laundry heap and forget about it.  Advent reminds us that the time for Jesus’ return is drawing near and we need some clean clothes for the party.

Like Wilbur, we desperately need to be washed, made clean.  Our robes are dirty, tattered, and torn.  Our lives are soiled rags, frayed threads, and filthy garments.  Some stains are so deep that Clorox can’t touch ‘em.  We look worse for the wear.  The mud of lust cakes the sleeves.  The dirt of gossip smudges the collar.  Broken relationships fray the cuffs’ hems.  Anger tears apart the seams.  The buttons of love are chipped or dangling by a thread.  Wrinkles of dejection and anxiety mangle the fabric.  Distrust leaves the bottom edges thin with strings dragging in the dust.  Our robes are rags, hardly suitable to wear at the coronation of Creation’s King.  “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me… Blessed are those who wash their robes.”[1]

Do you know the key for clean clothing?  Two things: Clean water and agitation.  Stale, stagnant water only increases the filth and stench in our clothes.  Using the water of this world, with its empty promises for new life and purpose, leaves us wreaking of death.  We have soaked too long in the stagnant pools of our world and culture so that our robes have taken on their flavor.  We have washed ours clothes with the disease-ridden waters of arrogance, deception, racism, sexism, idol worship, addictions, greed, and any other number of things.  Our robes, our lives, are covered in sludge, slime, and slander.

Jesus, the Living Water, calls us out of the filth-filled floodwaters of our world into the stream of life flowing from the very throne of God.  These waters of purest crystal, fragranced with milk and honey are God’s free gift to all.  Jesus offers us Living Water to drink for our parched and thirsty souls.  Jesus invites us to bathe, to soak, to dive deep into this life-giving current, which is the very Life and Way of God.  In these waters we find healing for every disease, every malady, every infirmity, and every seeping wound.  This Water can bring even life to the Dead Sea… surely it can bring life to my dusty rags.  To drink of this Living Water is to also be swept up in its current, its Way, and its movements.

Water isn’t the only necessary ingredient for clean clothes.  Soil, soot, stains, and sweat are dislodged from clothing when water is combined with agitation.  People used to wash their clothes in rivers and then beat them on rocks.  Or, they used washboards to agitate the stains out of the material.  Today, we use machines that turn barrels with paddles that toss the clothes to-and-fro and then sift out the dirty water through high-velocity spinning.  Removal of stubborn stains requires adequate agitation.  Our sin-stained robes… our broken lives could use some agitation.  If you’re in need of some good old-fashioned agitation, like I am, Advent is a wonderful place to start.

Advent places us firmly in what theologians call “the now-and-not-yet” Kingdom.  Christ has initiated the Kingdom of God here on earth, but it hasn’t come yet in its fullness.  We’re still waiting for the final unveiling.  Christ’s first coming unveiled the brokenness of the world and marked out a different pattern of living.  Jesus demonstrated what it means to be both fully human and a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  His birth, life, death, and resurrection both initiated God’s Kingdom on earth and pointed toward its future consummation and completion.

And that’s agitating… because Jesus wakens us to a new, truer reality that calls all of our previous ways of life into question.  Everything is thrown into question: politics, economics, family relationships, marriage, divorce, education, personal rights, private property and land, nations, power, parenting, community and neighborliness, poverty, violence, hope, success.  EVERYTHING!  The shabby robes with which we have clothed ourselves and our world is put under the black-light of Jesus… and the robes we wore and which we imagined to be clean and whole are shown to be disgusting, disheveled rags clinging to our bodies.

Jesus’ way calls for peace and unmasks our love of violence.  Jesus’ way calls for mercy, but we are bent on retribution.  Jesus’ way calls for love, but anger has its claws in our flesh.  Jesus’ way calls for justice, but we enjoy the benefits of injustice too much.  Jesus’ way calls for hope, but we are entrenched in fear.  Jesus’ way calls for truth, but we are committed to our collective lies.  Jesus’ way calls for sharing resources, but we’re just not sure there’s enough to go around.  Advent agitates us, stirs us, and disturbs us because we are confronted with the reality that our lives, both communally and personally, don’t yet fully reflect Jesus or his Kingdom.

Waiting and preparing for Jesus often tumbles us, throwing our world upside-down.  Yet, when we encounter God’s grace in Jesus the Living Water who washes us and the Spirit of God that agitates us from places of complacency, something life-giving stirs in us that we would have never anticipated.  We begin to change – little by little.  The stain of discontent begins to fade.  Neighborliness sews together the seams frayed by enemy-making and violence.  The stench of anger and bitterness are replaced with the fragrant aroma of Christ’s mercy and grace.  Greed is washed out with self-giving love.  Humility and service bleach out vanity and pride.  The more we are washed by God’s presence and stirred up by Christ’s life, the more we realize that our robes are being repaired and made clean and that we’d rather not wear those old, dirty rags of our former lives.  So…

The Spirit and the bride (that is, the Church) say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.[2]

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne[3]

 

 
[1] Revelation 22:12a, 14a.

[2] Revelation 22:17, 20-21

[3] Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

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Occasionally, I hear phrases bemoaning the state of the “younger” generation.  Somehow or another, they are given credit for the state of the world or the Church’s stumbling about.  They are usually castigated as lazy, unmotivated, faithless, entitled, and ungrateful persons.  Of course, this is true of persons in every generation, but it is easier to point the finger at others than to reflect critically on the ways we are responsible for the world and the state of the Church.  It also releases us from taking responsibility for the way we have discipled the next generation.  There have been books and blogs written ad nauseum about how to fix “the problem.”  I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of growing up to do still.  But, I want to point out that the issues we face in the Church concern all generations within the Church, both in culpability and responsibility.  After all, some problems we created, others we inherited.

Using blanket statements about this younger generation, often couched in negative language, has sometimes blinded us to the incredible things God is doing in and through them!  Becca and I sat at a table of Church congregants complaining about how “this younger generation doesn’t appreciate commitment in marriage.”  Granted, Becca and I hadn’t been married but for five years at this point – there’s still a long way to go.  But, we looked at each other as if to say, “Well, I guess we don’t count as taking our vows seriously in their eyes.”  I can name so many others that have undertaken those vows with utmost seriousness.  Is divorce still an issue?  Yes, definitely!  But, it hasn’t just infected the youngest generation.  In fact, what has often been modeled for them hasn’t looked like fidelity and covenant – even when the marriage hasn’t resulted in divorce!  This is an issue for the whole Church, not just a small segment.

I have actually been encouraged watching young Church members, ministers, and pastors.  Some of the work and witness that they are doing is incredible!  Some have written books, some are ministering in “unconventional” ways, some are teachers, some serve the most vulnerable and destitute in our communities (when they could be making bigger paychecks doing other kinds of work), some are using the arts to proclaim God’s glory.  There are a million ways that these young ministers, entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers, counselors, librarians, coffee-makers, and others are serving and proclaiming Good News in their communities.

One young minister in Oklahoma City has created a community garden as a means of living sustainable, healthy lives and simultaneously helping those in need.  Several people that I know (or know of) have created community through coffee ministries where they integrate themselves into a community and share the Gospel.  Some others run a weekly VBS in Section 8 apartments, while their church has created a center that is intentionally being used to help those families through education and other programs.  Incredible gifts that are being offered by those who want to make a tangible difference as the hands and feet of Christ.

This is not to raise up a younger generation as the saviors of the Church or to say that they have all the answers.  I really don’t believe that to be true.  Nor is it to say that an older generation is unfaithful and obsolete.  I have often found the contrary to be true.  Rather, it is to say that all are needed as part of the Body.  But, if we continue to look upon every new generation as a liability or with suspicion while failing to recognize them as a gift, then we might very well find generations absent from the church (by the way, Millenials were not the first generation to leave denominations or the Church over generational divides. Our parents modeled this trend for us.).  If we can’t love those represented in the Church, how much more difficult is it to love those we might identify as enemies?  But, we are often suspicious of difference and change because it creates tension in us and sometimes challenges our own assumptions (this is not a new problem).

If we are fearful of change and the resulting conflict, we will treat those who are different like a body treats an illness.  It attacks the foreign element to eradicate it.  There may be elements that are harmful to the Body that must be healed or expelled (i.e., sin), but when the Body attacks itself we call that “cancer.”  Sometimes we have lacked the patience discerning when it is a disease in the Body and when its simply difference represented in the Body (i.e., the foot or the hand or the eye).  Like the wounds of Jesus, the Body bears the marks of our wounding one another.  As Pastor Becca, my lovely wife, once stated: “It is sad when we who have had our wounds healed turn around and wound others.”

The wounding of one another is astonishing.  I think of a young pastor that I know who went on vacation with his family only to return to find that the board had voted to fire him out of the blue.  I recall a young female pastor that is a tremendous pastor and yet is dealing with “ministry PTSD” because the church treated her like an enemy because her ministry resembled something they didn’t expect (I think it resembled the Kingdom, which makes all sorts of people uncomfortable!).  I know a pastor that received death threats from his some of his congregants!  I can name too many stories where “difference” was met with disdain.  Rather than seeking conversation, clarification, and discernment together, faithful people were dismissed, demeaned and denigrated.

As I have reflected on these realities, there are a few areas (though this list is not exhaustive) where these tensions, dissonances, and differences have created conflict.  They revolve around questions concerning the nature of the Church, what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple, our responsibility for living as Kingdom people here and now, and our complicity with the powers that be, among other issues.  These are important and complex issues that every generation must navigate and re-articulate because every generation faces a changing world in which to contextualize the Gospel.  It is hard yet necessary work which has been going on since the beginning of the Church.

Rather than problematizing a “younger generation” and dismissing them out-of-hand, we could see the tension emerging from the changes happening around us as opportunity for discipleship and discernment together – which is a two-way street where we are all willing to learn, to grow, and to work together for the proclamation of God’s Kingdom.  I am deeply grateful for the many older pastors and parishioners who have lovingly and graciously engaged with me on the hard issues without disowning me and branding me a heretic when we disagree.  Those have been transforming relationships that continue to shape me.  And, I pray that I will be that same kind of non-anxious presence for those who come after me.  When we fail to embody this kind of posture, we move, in the words of Willie James Jennings, toward “Faith seeking understanding” to a “Faith judging intelligence.”