Christmas, according to John Chrysostom

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolding within itself on every side, the Sun of Justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For he willed, he had the power, he descended, he redeemed; all things move in obedience to God….

For this he has assumed my body, that I may become capable of his word; taking my flesh, he gives me his spirit; and so bestowing and I receiving, he prepares for me the treasure of life. He takes my flesh to sanctify me; he gives me his Spirit, that he may save me.

Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended., the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken. For this day paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spread on every side—a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and we now hold speech with angels.

Simply beautiful.

Amen.

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As We Come To It …

I won’t be posting on Christmas Day, and as we all get ready for the last push to get Christmas gatherings prepared, gifts bought, parties prepared for, here’s a note about peace from Brennan Manning…

When we are in right relationship with Jesus, we are in the peace of Christ. Except for grave, conscious, deliberate infidelity, which must be recognized and repented of, the present or absence of feelings of peace is the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual life. When things are plain and ordinary, when we live on the plateaus and in the valleys (which is where most of the Christian life takes place) and not on the mountaintops of peak religious experiences, this is no reason to blame ourselves, to think that our relationship with God is collapsing, or to echo Magdalene’s cry in the garden, ‘Where has beloved gone?’ Frustration, irritation, fatigue and so forth may temporarily unsettle us, but they cannot rob us of living in the peace of Christ Jesus. As the playwright Ionesco once declared in the middle of a depression: ‘Nothing discourages me, not even discouragement’ (from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas).

Peace—real peace—to all of you over these next few beautiful days.

 

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Saltwater

Last time I checked, salt water looks suspiciously like, well, fresh water. In fact, if you live near the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean, there’s a decent chance that the salt water there looks a lot better than most fresh water you’ll see (trust me, I used to live near Lake Michigan).

But there’s just this one thing about salt water.

If you drink it, it will kill you. 

I’m a little fuzzy on all the science, but essentially salt water is four times as salty as the blood in our bodies. As you drink it, the cells inside us are shrinking, and basically we are suffering a “net loss” of hydration with each drink. Keep it up, and you will fry your body’s system, and you’ll be unable to recover.

But, last time I checked, salt water looks suspiciously like, well, fresh water. 

There are things around us, that look like they give us life.

There are things in our environment that appear to help us, but are actually causing a net loss inside us.

There are activities that we think are making things better—that even appear necessary to our existence.

But they are taking a toll.

We are in the season of Advent, which is designed to be a season of reflection and anticipation. Instead, for most of us it’s a season of frenetic activity, consumption, and distraction.

And for most of us, our solution to this “problem” is to run faster, consumer more, and “multi-task” more and more.

But is that actually our saltwater?

Sometimes, the very thing that appears to help us is the thing that is actually beginning to choke away our life. It’s saltwater.

It’s a few more days until Christmas; chances are, your schedule is not going to get any slower over the week.

But do you need to run faster? Check email more often?

Or is that an illusion?

Is it actually producing a “net loss” in your life?

Is it saltwater?

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Just a Prayer

Full disclosure: I saw this prayer from Walter Brueggemann posted on Ryan’s blog. I have no other words.

Another brutality,

another school killing,

another grief beyond telling…

            and loss…

                        in Colorado,

                        in Wisconsin,

                        among the Amish

                        in Virginia

                        Where next?

 

We are reduced to weeping silence,

            even as we breed a violent culture,

            even as we kill the sons and daughters of

                        our “enemies,”

            even as we fail to live and cherish and respect

                        the forgotten of our common life.

 

There is no joy among us as we empty our schoolhouses;

there is no health among us as we move in fear and

            bottomless anxiety;

there is little hope among us as we fall helpless before

            the gunshot and the shriek and the blood and the panic;

we pray to you only because we do not know what else to do.

            So we pray, move powerfully in our body politic,

                        move us toward peaceableness

                                    that does not hurt or want to kill.

                        move us toward justice

                                    that the troubled and the forgotten may know mercy,

                        move us toward forgiveness that

                                    we may escape the trap of revenge.

 

Empower us to turn our weapons to acts of mercy,

            to turn our missiles to gestures of friendship,

            to turn our bombs to policies of reconciliation;

and while we are turning,

            hear our sadness,

            our loss,

            our bitterness.

 

We dare to pray our needfulness to you

            because you have been there on that

                        gray Friday,

                        and watched your own Son be murdered

                                    for “reasons of state.”

 

Good God, do Easter!

            Here and among these families,

            here and in all our places of brutality.

 

Move our Easter grief now…

            without too much innocence—

            to your Sunday joy.

We pray in the one crucified and risen

            who is our Lord and Savior.

 p.s:

“‘Come, Lord Jesus!’

May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s holy people.” – Revelation 22v20-21

What Beck Can Teach Us About the Bible and the Mission of God

Beck’s latest record, Song Reader, is a phenomenal example of innovation and new thinking in music-making in the 21st century.

You see, Beck released Song Reader not as a CD, or a download, or even vinyl, but as sheet music.

That’s so Gutenberg!

Let me be clear: Beck released Song Reader with the intention that the actual performance of the songs would be carried out by people who bought the music. They would determine the character of the songs, based on his suggestions and music (folks could then submit their performances).

It’s a lesson about so much: not only about how we used to consume music (sheet music used to be enormously popular in the early 20th century) but about what art actually is and where it “resides.”

But I’d like to suggest that Beck’s idea can teach us something compelling about the Bible.

N.T. Wright uses this great analogy about how the Bible for us is sort of like a script to a great play without a written ending. We’re stuck, right now, in the gap between what’s written and the ultimate fulfillment of our story (in Revelation 21).

And, as Wright puts it, it’s up to us to improvise. 

Now, we don’t improvise in a way that is inconsistent with what’s written before; but we also don’t simply repeat the earlier acts. We symbolically “write” our own stories into the play, knowing that eventually the whole thing is going to be resolved by Jesus.

In this same way, Song Reader reminds us that we have the opportunity to take the “song” that’s been given to us—the command to love God and love others—and perform it in new and compelling ways.

Our song may not sound like everyone else’s; it’s really not supposed to.

It’s supposed to be our “performance” of what’s been given to us.

Are you singing? Are you playing?

You Have to Know Your Story

Last week I was in Dallas to lead worship with some friends of mine. My in-laws also live in the area, so I spent the night with them, and ended up driving around Arlington, marveling at how the area had grown (and shaking my fist at Texas Stadium, but that’s another story). Driving through the warm Texas fall, I noticed something that I found utterly fascinating.

Arlington has mostly always been a place of strip malls and—to my eyes anyway—awful urban planning. It has been marked by the worst of our public space and architecture, of a lack of awareness of history and human scale. In some ways, this trip merely confirmed all of that: ugly buildings that were merely twenty years old had been destroyed to make way for new ugly buildings. Chain businesses that had been thriving years ago had been rebranded and become new chain businesses that were now (for the moment) thriving.

But then I noticed something else.

Astonishingly, in the midst of this urban/suburban renewal and sprawl, I found two unlikely establishments that had somehow weathered the storm, and were still open,—twenty-plus years later—and were still going strong.

photo-4Out to breakfast with my father-in-law, we were driving down Division street when I asked him to slow down. There, set back from the street about 50 yards, was  “The Gold Nugget”. This place was really special to me and my wife, since it was the place where we really began dating. Back in the day it had a stage, and a volleyball court out back, but here’s the deal: in 1992 this place was a bit dingy, and a throwback. How in the world is it still in business? 

As I left Arlington and drove to Garland, I drove up Collins Street, past Cowboys stadium. Almost immediately across from that monstrosity was a tiny restaurant called “The Pitt Grill”.

That’s right: that’s the name.

Image via rollbamaroll.com

Image via rollbamaroll.com

I don’t know how long the Pitt has been in business. I know that I used to go there and get greasy eggs and bacon (mmmmm bacon) twenty years ago, and as best I can tell, greasy eggs and bacon are still on the menu today.

The Pitt has no website; neither does the Gold Nugget. Yet these two businesses somehow have weathered the storm of development that has utterly remade (and erased) most of Arlington.

There is no sleek, modern design in their dining rooms…

They don’t serve sushi…

They don’t serve any form of fusion…

I’m pretty sure their bartenders don’t have ironic handlebar mustaches…

While I have no doubt that their bills are manageable (seriously, they’re really not the nicest of places), I think what struck me about The Gold Nugget and The Pitt is that ultimately they knew who they were. I’m sure that over the years they grew a little, and got really good at what they did, essentially these businesses are doing the same thing that they did 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago. They’ve seen probably fifty businesses come and go around them, and they still plug on.

The Gold Nugget and The Pitt remind me that you have to know who you are.

The Pitt and the Gold Nugget know what they do, and I have no doubt that they do it consistently.

I have no doubt that they have great stories to tell.

I think of churches that I’ve talked to that have essentially a beautiful traditional service that suddenly feel called to create an awkward and sparsely attended rock and roll service, merely because “that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

I think of leaders who are trying to be something that they obviously are not, struggling with authenticity (by the way, the people you lead can see it) without questioning why they are trying embrace this.

Meanwhile, all that many people “out there” in the world are asking for is for churches, organizations, and leaders that

  • quietly and confidently live out who they are (sometimes in the face of a radically changed world)
  • tell stories about what they’ve seen and what they’ve done

How well do you know yourself? How well does your church or organization? Are you living out your story? Or someone else’s? 

*e

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When Good News is Really Good Pt 2 :: “Creation is One Great Magic Trick”

When I was young, I was taught that Jesus’ miracles offered proof of his divinity: after all, who else but the son of God could turn water into wine, heal people, or feed thousands (much less bring someone back to life)?

This is absolutely true; God was working supernaturally through Jesus and his ministry, restoring the people of God and inviting others into the family.

But is there something else going on in the miracles stories as well?

In contrast to the other three gospel writers, John has a very interesting and specific agenda, and he hints at it in the opening lines of his gospel:

“In the beginning the Word already existed.

The Word was with God,

and the Word was God…”

John’s opening words are not mere prose—compare them with way Luke begins: “Many people have set out to write accounts about the vents that have been fulfilled among us.”

John is up to something else here. His opening is less like an account and more like a poem. It’s almost like a song.

And we have seen this before.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

In the beginning…”

John opens his gospel with a poem. What’s more, he uses the same opening phrase. It’s as if John is intentionally pointing us back to Genesis 1, saying, “this is the filter you need to read this gospel through.” Not only that, but I’d also like to suggest that John pushes this Genesis connection strongly through his gospel.

Especially through Jesus’ miracle stories.

Jesus works a few significant miracles in John’s gospel, and John directs our attention to them in a very unique way. For example, after Jesus has “got the party started” at the wedding feast in Cana, John writes this, “This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed his glory.” (2v11)

John uses phrase miraculous sign in a very distinct way. It’s associated with Jesus doing some kind of miracle and associated with a revelation of his glory.

But John is telling another story as well.

Because if you read the whole of John gospel, you’d find that he uses that phrase five more times between chapter 4 and chapter 12.

  1. After Jesus heals the Roman Centurion’s servant (4v54)
  2. After Jesus heals the man by the pool in Bethesda (5v9; technically John doesn’t use the word “sign” here but scholars identify this as one of the significant healings in this gospel)
  3. After the feeding of the 5,000 (6v14)
  4. After Jesus heals the man born blind (9v16)
  5. After Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (11v47)

For a total of six… 

OH, and the sixth one involves giving life to a human being. 

Hmmmmm….Where else has there been six of something, with something involving humanity on the sixth? 

Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reigh over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.’

“So God creed human beings in his own image.

In the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them…

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!

And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day.
(Gen 1v26-27, 31)

John is telling another story here, one that has to do with creation—new creation, in fact.

In other words, Jesus’ miracles aren’t just cool magic tricks. Something radical and cosmic is happening in Jesus and through Jesus, and John wants us to know it. Through Jesus and his ministry, a newness and a freshness is beginning (“God saw that it was very good!”). Through Jesus, a new reality is breaking into this present reality; a foretaste of what God eventually wants to do everywhere, for everyone.

To restore creation, ultimately and completely.

But John’s not done yet; there were only six miracles, but Genesis accounts for seven days.

“So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.” (Gen 2v1-2)

When is John’s “seventh day”?

Before we get there, the sixth day isn’t over yet. John has an interesting account of Jesus’ interaction with Pilate, hinting at where all of this is going. John tells us that Pilate had Jesus beaten, whipped, and mocked. If you’ve read accounts of this, or seen The Passion of the Christ, you know that this was not pretty. 

Jesus is bloody; broken.

And in the midst of this scene, John relates a curious phrase by Pilate: “And Pilate said, ‘Look here is the man.” 

Man.

Adam.

Genesis 1 (and 2) again.

John is trying to get us to see that Jesus is the “new Adam”, but also that this newness comes with a cost. In order to fulfill Adam’s “commission”, suffering has to happen.

Blood has to be spilt.

And we’re still not done.

When does the “seventh day” come in John? When does Sabbath—which means wholeness, peace, healing, completion—occur?

Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfill Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.’ A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips. When Jesus had tasted, he said, ‘It is finished!’ Then he bowed his head and released his spirit (John 19v28-30).

“It is finished.”

Genesis 1.

The six “signs” culminate in this one. 

Only at the cross is Jesus truly done.

John’s “seventh day” comes on the cross, with Jesus’ death. Only when Jesus has done what only he could do—to be obedient all the way to death, to defeat evil by letting evil do its worst to him—could he say, along with God in Genesis 1, that this work of New Creation is truly “finished.”

Sabbath is coming: healing, completeness, rest.

Death will shortly be defeated, and the era of the resurrection will begin.

When good news is really good, miracles aren’t just clever magic tricks: they are signs that something cosmic is breaking out all around us. When good news is really good, we realize that God wants to heal the whole world, and every one in it. 

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