Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wrestling and Christmas

But as he considered these things . . . an angel appeared to him in a dream (Matt. 1:20)

In our house last week the focus was getting through exams. In fact, the focus was not merely on getting through, but doing well. That’s why I didn’t give much thought to the email that came from my son’s wrestling coach: the email that explained the practice schedule over the Christmas break.

I shared the content of the email with my son on Sunday night. He was not enthusiastic.

School’s out and Christmas is coming. That combination makes for one of the best times of the year. Wrestling practice doesn’t fit in to that very well. Enough wrestling. It’s Christmas. It’s time for a break.

He’ll end up going to the practices, but I understand how he feels. Sooner or later we all feel like we’re tired of wrestling, tired of grappling with the lives we live in order to get things pinned down and figured out: schedules, payments, deadlines, needs to be met and appointments to be kept. A relentless wrangling of moving parts. Who doesn’t get tired of that?

And then there’s the life of faith. We had thought that following Jesus might make things better, more manageable, less exhausting. Thus our surprise when we discover that following Jesus also involves some struggle. Once again, we’re wrestling. We’re like Jacob. Jacob wrestled with God and lived – but he walked for the rest of his life with a limp (Genesis 32:22-28). Maybe you’re limping too. Christmas is a tough time for wrestling. But we are hardly the first to know this.

The story of Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy is a wrestling story. Matthew gives it to us in spare language. Mary is pledged to Joseph, the marital commitment in place without the full benefits and living arrangements of the marital relationship. This is when Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. And this is when the wrestling begins, unseen and yet strenuous. Joseph grappling with God, grappling with his own heart and mind.

Again, Matthew shows us none of this except to say that Joseph “considered” how he could divorce Mary quietly and thus protect her from public disgrace. But can such “considering” be anything less than anguish and pain? How long did he “consider?” How many sleepless nights, how many bitter questions hurled at heaven? How many tense conversations with his beloved? How many fake smiles at neighbors as if all was well?

And even once the Angel has appeared and Joseph has taken Mary as is wife, the difficulties are hardly over. Craig Keener notes that Joseph’s decision to go ahead with his marriage was a decision to sacrifice his own reputation. The wrestling surely didn’t stop. Wrestling mingled with waiting until the birth in the Bethlehem stable.

Many of us come to Advent wrestling and waiting; life has us in a head-lock and we’re trying desperately to find the right move that will loosen its grip. With the Psalmist we ask “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” (Ps. 13:2). Christmas doesn’t change the fact that we’re wrestling with decisions that need to be made, decisions we wish could make over again, afflicted bodies, conflicted relationships and competing expectations. We wrestle through one challenge only to face another.

But in the midst of the wrestling, Joseph’s and ours, there is this assurance: the Holy Spirit is at work. To see it may require waiting, long waiting and still more wrestling. But God is active in your wrestling story, even – perhaps especially – at Christmas.

What opponent will you wrestle today?

Grant to us, O God, the patience to trust you in all things and the strength to wrestle long until we see your hand at work: show your hand in the difficult situations, the perplexing questions, the stubborn circumstances that refuse to budge. Be present with us in the struggles of this day, making us confident as we wrestle and wait in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Mt. Ararat

At the end of 150 days the water had abated . . . the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat (Genesis 8:3-4 ESV).

A few years ago I had the privilege of doing some teaching with a small community of Christians in Armenia. Armenia is a tiny sliver of a country that borders Turkey, and the relationship between those two nations is very tense. One might be right in saying that Armenia and Turkey really don’t relate to each other at all.

My time there included a free day in which we saw the sights around the capital city of Yerevan. The one sight that has stayed with me was a view of Mt. Ararat. On a rocky ledge a kind of open-air shrine had been constructed that faced the distant mountain. On one of the walls was inscribed a poem that spoke of Ararat as being in captivity. These days Ararat is within the borders of Turkey. Armenians maintain that the mountain is theirs.

What struck me at the time was the massive presence of Ararat. We were looking at it from far off, gazing across the border of another country, but even miles away the mountain stood as an imposing feature of the landscape. I found myself wondering what it would be like to approach and ascend Ararat. And I found myself thinking about Noah and the ark. What kind of flood could have possibly submerged something as enormous as Mt. Ararat? And where on that sprawling mountain did the ark finally come to rest?

Last year a group of Chinese and Turkish explorers claimed they had found the ark, or remains of it. The veracity of that claim has been challenged, but I’m not as interested in the boat as I am in the mountain.

What the story tells us is important to keep in mind when storms rage. Eventually the rains will stop. It may take a long while, but once the downpour lets up the waters that engulfed you will begin to recede. And one day dry land will appear again and you’ll discover that you’ve found a solid place to stand. There’s a massive mountain under your feet, holding you up. It was there all the time.

Do we know where the ark came to rest? Not exactly.

Have we found the remains of Noah’s ark? Scholars are debating the matter as they are prone to do.

But this much is certain: Mt. Ararat is real and it is formidable. And when the storms end and the floods evaporate there is a place to find rest. Solid ground.

Even if you’ve never seen Mt. Ararat you can still get a vision for it. Allow your imagination to enter into Noah’s story. God’s purposes for you will not allow you to drift or be endlessly blown about. Maybe the rains are falling hard today. They will cease. Maybe, like Noah, you’ve sent out a dove of some kind – some effort to see if there’s a future for you, a place to stand, a place to start over.

It is there. The waters will one day recede and make their complete exit, leaving you in the hands of a merciful and powerful God. Mt. Ararat is beneath your feet even if you can’t see it now.

Once you find that place, build an altar. Worship God.

“His oath, his covenant, his blood, support me in the whelming flood; When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.” (My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, Edward Mote, c. 1834).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Cross Prayers

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed (Luke 23:32).

When read together, the gospels render seven utterances of Jesus from the cross. These “seven last words” have been the focus of much study and reflection. They have been expounded from pulpits and lecterns; sung from choir lofts and concert halls. Much of what Jesus speaks from the cross is prayer. He asks God to forgive his executioners. He also cries out in his dark moments of God-forsakenness. Merciful prayers, anguished prayers, and some in between.

But Jesus isn’t the only one praying. Jesus was crucified with two criminals. They too speak from the cross, and if we listen to their words we hear prayer laced throughout. Both criminals address Jesus directly; both make requests of him. But these two convicts pray very different prayers.

One of those prayers is demanding and angry. Spoken from the place of threat and trouble, this prayer seeks escape and little more. The one praying is not interested in God. This prayer is about getting results, getting rescued, getting out, getting away. The caustic words of the petition reflect the words of the surrounding crowd and the prevailing culture. Let Jesus prove himself. The essence of the prayer is simple: “Get me out of this mess.”

The other prayer comes from a different place, from a different man. This prayer comes from a man who recognizes the truth about himself. What’s more, he recognizes the truth about Jesus. Jesus’ innocence exposes the criminal’s guilt. This prayer isn’t seeking to escape. Rather, it seeks to enter into the reality over which Jesus is King. The essence of this prayer is also simple: “Remember me.”

On any given day we pray from one side of the cross or the other.

There are days – usually hard days - when we want to say that if God were truly good and truly powerful, then our circumstances would change. Things would be different. God could fix the problem and bring order to the mess of our lives if only he would. We sometimes pray through clenched teeth. Do something God! Make it right!

And sometimes we pray from a far more humble place. We gather the courage to face what is rather than insisting on what we want. We know the truth about our lives and we own what’s worthy as well as what is shameful. And we ask for grace because we know that in the end only grace can save us.

From which side of the cross are you praying today?

Once again we ask you, Lord Jesus, teach us to pray. Our prayers flip-flop, moving from one side of your cross to the other. We make demands; we humbly ask for mercy. Help us to pray from the foot of your cross, covered by your grace, placing our concerns and our lives into your hands. Amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"He Descended into Hell"

He was . . . made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in bondage (1 Peter 3:19).

A couple of weeks ago my wife was searching the internet for videos that we could use in our worship service. We were coming up on the Sunday that would launch us back into the Apostles’ Creed series. Perhaps a good video might be effective in getting the content of the creed back in the minds of the congregation.

As she searched she came across a video montage of ordinary looking people saying the Apostles’ Creed. The camera shot switched from one person to the next as each spoke a different line of the creed - simple but on target, just what we needed. But there was one problem.

The focal phrase for the week was to be “He descended into hell.” The video montage skipped that line. They didn’t say it. One person said something about Jesus being crucified, dead and buried. The next person said “on the third day he arose from the dead.” No descent to hell.

We’re not going to skip it. However, the line is perplexing and it merits some explaining.

Without getting bogged down in history or the finer points of biblical exegesis, here are some things you might keep in mind. First of all, there’s a substantial representation of Christians who do not say “he descended into hell.” Part of the reason for that might be that only one version of the creed prior to AD 640 has this line. Many other early versions don’t have it, so some omit the line given the lack of textual support.

Nevertheless, for 1300 years much of the Christian church has said these words, so we need to wrestle with what they might mean. Three options have emerged: (1) some understand the descent to hell as a reference to the grave. It is another way of saying that Jesus truly died. (2) Others say it really does mean that Jesus went to the region of the condemned. They cite 1 Peter 3:19 for support of this position. (3) Others say that the descent to hell was the spiritual separation from God the Father that Jesus experienced in his death on the cross (See Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot, 87-91).

A decent case can be made for each of these understandings of what it means to say “he descended into hell.” But there is another reason – not as scholarly – for saying these words when we say the creed. Maybe we say this because we know that descent in our own lives. We know what it is to endure some form of hell as we live with the brokenness of this world.

Sometimes that descent carries us to a deep darkness in our family life, in our physical bodies, or maybe in our emotions and thoughts. Sometimes the decent carries us into the poverty and wreckage of the inner cities or places where destruction is rampant like Japan or Haiti. There is no shortage of people who can testify that hell is real and you don’t have to go too far to find it.

So this is what we believe: Whatever your hell might be, Jesus already knows it. He has been there, done that. There is no hell you can live through that he hasn’t already been through. There is no descent deep enough to exceed is reach or his knowledge.

However you understand it, it’s worth saying with confidence. “He descended into hell.” The good news (and we’ll get to this later) is that he didn’t stay there – and he doesn’t intend for you to stay there either.

We give you thanks, Lord Jesus, for your descent to us in all of our brokenness. In mercy you embraced all that it means to live in this world. Thank you for being faithful to us in the deepest darkness. Teach us to trust you in those places, patiently waiting for the day when you will make all things new and whole. Amen.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

We Need the Creed

These things are written that you might believe (John 20:31).

Nine years is long enough. I should have it down by now.

I’ve been a Presbyterian long enough to have the Apostles’ Creed committed to memory. But whenever I’m in a worship service and the congregation is asked to “stand and say together what we believe,” I reach for the print version. I guess when it comes to the creed I still need a crutch.

The faith tradition grew up in did not say the Apostles’ Creed. In fact, the oft repeated boast in my tradition was that “The Bible is our Creed.” That’s all well and good, but it pretty much rules out any kind of congregational “recitation.” I was probably in seminary before I knew that there was an Apostles’ Creed. I’m sure I was 30 years old before I attended a church that used those words in worship.

But now I know what it is and what it says. And I like repeating those words even if I do self-consciously reach for the bulletin or the hymnal for some help. I like that we can actually say what we believe. And I like very much that when we say it we’re saying something that others before us have said for centuries. I am increasingly at home with the creed, with the rhythm of its language, the orderly movement from God the Father to Jesus the Son to the Holy Spirit and finally the church.

I have found my way to the creed rather late in life, but I’m learning to like it. More than that, I’m learning that I need it.

Ours is an age when everybody has an opinion and plenty of people are willing to tell you what they think. We also live in a time when emotions are highly regarded and all of us are regularly urged to explore and give expression to what we feel. But it’s a different matter to say what you believe.

I need the Apostles’ Creed. I need to stand with other believers and say together with them what we believe. I need it because sometimes, quite honestly, I need to be reminded. Maybe you do too.

Some months ago we began a series of reflections on the words of the Apostles’ Creed. In the weeks ahead we will pick up where we left off. We’ll take our beliefs bite-sized and linger with what they say and ponder what they mean – not as an exercise in theological posturing but as prayer.

My basic premise is that we need the Creed.

Some of us need it because we know what we believe but we take it for granted. We haven’t given serious thought to our beliefs in quite a while. They’ve collected dust or they’ve mildewed slightly in some dark corner of the mind. We know where they are; we just never pull them out and look at them very often.

Others of us need the creed because we’re not sure what we believe. We’re not sure if we believe. It’s time to get honest – not just with ourselves but with our tradition. We need to hear what it claims and then deal with what it claims of us.

Hopefully, in the weeks to come, you’ll realize that you also need the creed, even if you can’t say it from memory.

Grant us grace, O God, to believe with both humility and confidence. Make us bold in what we believe, not in order to win arguments but to bring others to you. Bless these weeks so that what believe may be clarified and strengthened by the power of your Spirit. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

For My Wife on Valentine's Day: "The Cookie Cake"

Last night after the kids had gone to bed, I watched you press cookie dough into a heart shaped pan. You were planning to surprise them with a cookie cake for Valentine’s Day. As is typically the case, I was done for the day, ready to do nothing. You were just getting started.

That initial effort at a cookie cake didn’t work out too well. I don’t know what happened. I don’t think you know what happened. On the counter by the oven I saw a plate with a mound of gnarled and gooey not-quite-baked cookie on it. It didn’t matter. You cleaned the failed experiment from the heart-shaped pan and started over.


This morning our kids found what you had made for them while they slept. Perfectly formed, gently scooped out of the pan and placed on a red plate. After taking a picture of it, you let them eat some for breakfast and placed the rest of it in a zip-lock bag for after school. I warned them that it might not be there if I got to it first. But that won’t happen. They know that. I know it too.

The well-baked cookie that they had for breakfast speaks of your (our) love for them. It is theirs to enjoy.

But it’s the other cookie that I cherish. The one that didn’t come out right. The first try that taught you what needed to be done on the second try. The one that kept you up a little later than you might have wanted to be up.

I cherish the gnarled mound of cookie dough because you didn’t give up, you didn’t get frustrated, you didn’t complain or berate yourself or resent the task in any way. Yes, the cookie cake was a labor of love for our kids. But it speaks to me of why I love you.

You bring to me, Marnie, what I do not possess on my own. I love your conviction that something will work, especially when I can’t see how it will. I love your courage and your determination to figure it out and your confidence that you can. I need more of those things in my life. I’m so thankful for the way you bring those things to me, to our home and our children.

God loved the world so much that he gave his son. And in a particular act of grace, God loved me enough to give me you. My Valentine.