Prince of Peace

There are times when events occur in such proximity to one another that making a connection between them happens whether such a connection is real or imagined.  As we celebrate the birth of Christ just a few days after the last truck carrying American troops left Iraq and entered Kuwait, thinking of one in light of the other comes easily.  Whether it was the planning of a clever politician or a thoughtful general, the providence of God, or pure coincidence, a soldier’s homecoming at this special time of year would seem just as sweet whatever the cause.

Except that not everyone is coming home.  Since 2,996 people died on September 11, 2001, nearly 4,500 American military personnel have been killed in Iraq, and almost another 1,900 in Afghanistan.  Almost 50,000 veterans are at home living with wounds suffered while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.  While troops are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan sometime in 2014, they are not yet home.

The service that so many have rendered on our behalf is deserving of our gratitude and our respect.  Rightfully, such sacrifice and dedication is esteemed by those on whose behalf it has been made.  We have prayed and we will continue to pray for those who are still in harm’s way, and for those who are grieving the impact of these wars on their families and on themselves.  For those who wait for a child who will not be coming home, and for those who welcome home sons and daughters broken and scarred by war, we pray.  They need our prayers, and they deserve our appreciation.

In the midst of war and all the terrible pain it inflicts on those whom it touches, one wonders if the singing of angels can still be heard.  Perhaps we would not hear one angel.  But in this holy season, what about one angel joined by a multitude of the heavenly host?  Would we, could we hear them saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace . . .”?

What would we do if there was a child among us who believed that loving one’s enemies, praying for one’s persecutors, and turning the other cheek was something that God expected of those whom God created?  What if there was a child among us who insisted on treating others as he or she wanted to be treated, rather than the way he or she had been treated?  Having read our scriptures, such a child might refuse to pick up the sword and join in the violence that so pervades our world.

Would we in the church pray for such a child?  If so, how would we pray?  Would we respect the courage of such conviction or would we consider it cowardly?  Would such a refusal seem to us to be heroic or traitorous?  Would we appreciate and respect such behavior, or would it leave us mildly uncomfortable, or maybe even visibly upset?

Yet, a child has been born, and he is in our midst.  We like to think that the words of the prophet Isaiah give description to him. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

What does it mean for us that this child has been born?  Well, it means everything to us, it means eternity to us.  The birth of this child is our very salvation.  If it means that much, then we ought to be able to ponder the conclusions about the war in Iraq of Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate, Vietnam combat veteran, and retired Army colonel; and whose son was an Army officer killed in Iraq. “The final tragedy of a tragic enterprise is that the U.S. has learned next to nothing,” he says.  “The belief that war works remains strangely intact.”

If the birth of this child means as much as we say it means, then we ought to be able to hear the words Logan Trainum spoken at the funeral of one of his closest friends, David Emanuel Hickman.  Surely he is not the only grieving friend to have spoken them or at least thought them.  His friend, Hickman, was the last American soldier to be killed in Iraq.  “There aren’t enough facts available for me to have a defined opinion about things.  I’m just sad, and pray that my best friend didn’t lay down his life for nothing.”

If the birth of this child means any of what we say that it means, we ought to take to heart the words of the poet, Archibald MacLeish, who wrote for those who could no longer speak, yet still had something to say,

They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us.  …

They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours, they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say, it is you who must say this.

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Enter the Story

This Sunday is the third Sunday of our Advent Conspiracy at Ball Camp Baptist Church. This is the Sunday for us to more fully enter the story of Christmas, the story of God coming into the World. This Sunday, as we worship, we will seek to enter this amazing story by giving more; giving more of our time, our gifts and our resources. By more fully entering the story of Christmas, we become participants. More than listening to the story, we want to live it. In living it, we want to join with other followers of Christ sharing the story so that others can hear it and experience the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.

Chaouki & Maha Boulos share and live the story of Christ’s birth in the country of Lebanon. As we give more this Sunday, we enter the story of Christmas alongside the Bouloses as they tell the story of  grace and mercy in the region of the world where Jesus was born.

Your Christmas Story

Rhode Island Governor, Lincoln Chaffee, was met by vocal opposition this week at the tree lighting ceremony for his state’s official holiday tree.  That is right; he called it a holiday tree instead of a Christmas tree.   After he lit the tree, a few dozen protesters started singing “O Christmas Tree.”  Their contention was, of course, that calling the tree a holiday tree rather than a Christmas tree diminished the religious significance of the season.  Yet, I wonder if it is possible for anyone to do anything that will diminish the religious significance of the season any more than it has already been diminished.

Governor Chaffee defended his actions by noting that his predecessor had referred to the tree as a holiday tree, and in that sense, he was just following precedent.  He referred to his state’s founder, Roger Williams, who fled religious persecution in nearby Massachusetts, and founded the Rhode Island colony as a place where individuals could exercise freedom of conscience.  At the unveiling of the statue of Roger Williams at the US Capitol in 1872, Rhode Island Senator William Sprague observed that Roger Williams, “successfully vindicated the right of private judgment in matters of conscience, and affected a moral and political revolution in all governments of the civilized world.” Williams was no antagonist toward religion.  In fact, just the opposite was true. Shortly after founding the new colony, Williams organized what would become the First Baptist Church in the new World.

Ironically, Williams likely would have been at a loss for words regarding what to call a tree used to celebrate or commemorate the Christmas season.  Why?  Well there simply were no trees, Christmas or otherwise during William’s day.  They are later additions to the way we observe Christmas, and likely did not appear in this country until the 1700s or early 1800s.

Therein, lies a deeper irony.  Christmas, what it is and what it means, has become a muddled dispute about what to call a tree.  Trees, wreaths, lights and lawn ornaments are, for some people, a helpful way to enter into the story of Christ’s birth.  For others, they add no particular inspiration beyond the festive brightness they add to an otherwise barren winter landscape.  To the extent that they are helpful, they ought to be encouraged. To the extent that they become a distraction, they ought to be set aside figuratively, if not literally.

God is coming.  We as Christians have a hard time getting our minds around that reality.  The very idea of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us is something we know as wonder and mystery.  Our capacity to embrace it and celebrate it is a part of God’s gift of faith to us.  How, then, can we expect an unrepentant world to celebrate what we ourselves only know of because of God’s gracious gift to us? Such expectations seem unreasonable, even as such disputes diminish our testimony and lessen the impact of that first Christmas on the world today.

There really is nothing about which to argue.  Christmas has happened, is happening, and will happen. God is coming.  There is nothing anyone can do or say that will change that reality.  What is essential for us is to enter the story of God’s coming more fully, leaving behind whatever keeps that divine child from being born anew in our lives, and taking hold of whatever causes his presence to be more real in our lives and be more evident in our living.

The story of Christmas is a story of good news. It is a story to which we are not merely meant to listen to, but to enter.  If all we ever do is listen to the story, the carols, and the sounds of the season, we have missed God’s intention for us.  We are invited to join the story and to let our lives be shaped by it so we become a part of the good news God so wonderfully and miraculously proclaimed that night long ago in Bethlehem.

Being Thankful

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Read literally, these admonitions from the Apostle to the church at Thessalonica seem impossible to do.  Given the hardships and difficulties of life, how could anyone expect to rejoice always? With the busyness of life, how is possible for a person to pray constantly? For those situations and events that we wish had never occurred, how do we begin to give thanks in all circumstances?

For some people, these words have led them to believe that Christian faithfulness dictates that they should always be happy, rejoicing in the face of tragedy, and giving thanks in the midst of calamity. Such a reading pushes one to sometimes say what is not truly felt, and to act as if what has happened has not truly happened. While such utterances and actions may provide a temporary respite from the pain of the moment, yet the deeper grief remains untouched. Therefore, it lingers, still hurting and still impacting the life of the one who boldly and bravely tried mightily to rejoice and give thanks.

For some people, these words make no sense and are therefore dismissed, filed away with biblical ideas that are too hard, too irrational, or to impractical to be taken seriously. While such a response may seem the wiser, it leaves unexplored a deeper spiritual reality and richer intimacy with God.

When Paul says to give thanks in all circumstances, the implication is that circumstances are not be the determining factor of one’s thankfulness. If one can be thankful regardless of circumstances, then one’s circumstances are not the deciding factor in whether or not one is thankful. For Paul, giving thanks is something more than a gesture of politeness, good manners, or heartfelt gratitude.  Normally, when we give thanks there is a reason —  our family, our job, our friends. There is someone or something that touches our life in such a way that we express thanksgiving. Yet, Paul seems to point to something more than someone or something for which we are grateful, to a way of being. Be thankful, with or without someone. Be thankful, with or without something. Be thankful, with or without an apparent reason. There is more to giving thanks than our circumstances, whatever they might be, would indicate.

In a similar way, when Paul says “Rejoice always,” I do not think he is suggesting that we ought to rejoice because of this good event or this bad event. Again, the attitude of rejoicing is not determined by the circumstance or situation. Interestingly, one of the ways that the Greek word “Rejoice” was used was as a greeting. It was similar to our “Hello, I am glad to see you.” Perhaps Paul is suggesting that we greet each moment that comes our way with joy. Such joy is not circumstantial or situational, but takes a longer view. Julian of Norwich, 14th century Christian mystic, seems to have understood this sort of joy, “. . . All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

The gratitude and joy that Paul speaks of are the fruits of a prayerful life. Prayer is central for the follower of Christ. It is the oxygen of living a daily Christian life. For Paul it cannot be relegated to a particular time of day, it must be a constant. This does not mean that all activity stops and the believer does nothing except pray. It does mean that everything the believer does can become prayer, a mindfulness of the presence of God, and of being in that presence. Rejoicing and thanksgiving are rooted in such mindfulness.

With joy and thanksgiving for the way God has made us God’s own, we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. We have much for which to be thankful, but nothing more so than the reality that God has come to us and made us children of God. Everything is different because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. This Advent, as we remember God first coming to us, and how radically changed the world is because God did come, we are going to ask the question: What if the birth of Christ could change the world again? Is it possible for the joy and gratitude that we have experienced in Christ to impact the world in a way that makes a difference in the lives of people? Let’s conspire together and see what God will do.

Leaving a Legacy

“The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.” — Billy Graham, who turned 93 on November 7,2011.

Billy Graham has been an internationally recognized religious leader for as long as I can remember.  My earliest memories of him come from sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching one of his crusades on the television.  To be honest, as a young boy, I was not particularly thrilled with the idea of watching a televised sermon.  However, there was only one television and only two channels, so the options were limited.  Even if there had been other options, I am not sure that they would have been utilized.  My grandparents made it pretty clear that watching Billy Graham preach was important.

Through the years, they made other values clear as well.  The way they shared their values was just as important, maybe more so, as the values themselves.  They did so with a steadfast consistency that made their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren feel wanted and loved.

Of course, while they were leaving this legacy of love and faith they were not mindful of it.  At least, I don’t think they were.  They seemed to just be living their lives and doing the work that each day brought with it.  Mind you, each day, each task and each interaction was sprinkled with their values so that day by day their legacy was being left.

Legacies are not something that can be put off until the last minute.  Nor are they something that we can borrow from someone else.  All the while we are living we are leaving one.  The question then is not are we leaving a legacy, but what sort of legacy are we leaving?

Billy Graham rightly points out that leaving a legacy of character and faith is to be desired above one of money or material things.  I imagine that most of us would agree with him. Yet, most of us spend a good part of each day working to earn money so that we can buy the material things that we need.  Given that reality, it is not surprising that those matters become the focus of life for so many people. The problem does not lie in laboring daily for the necessities of life, but doing so in a way that conveys the idea that such activity, and the acquisition of its fruits, is what matters most in life.  Esther de Waal writes, “Christ was a carpenter for most of his life, and those years were not wasted ones.  Then I reflect that for me too it would be really very extraordinary if my own Christian life did not grow out of the most ordinary daily round of family life and earning a living.  Christianity does not isolate the sacred from the secular.  Not only are material things good in themselves, they are also signs of God’s loving attention, and they can, if we let them, open up a way to him.  God, in fact, reaches us where we are, at home, in the prosaic reality of our daily lives.”

The notion of leaving a legacy for those who come after us is a bit daunting.  It can easily become one large spiritual challenge that weighs us down rather than setting us free to live as God calls us.  Truth is, the legacy will take care of itself if we simply endeavor to live our lives day by day as near to God as we are able, recognizing God in the ordinary tasks of day- to-day living. and doing those tasks with care and love, even reverently, so life becomes a prayer.

How will we live the next 40 or so days?  Will we live them anticipating the advent of our savior’s birth?  Will they be for us days filled with mystery, wonder, joy and faith?  Or will they be for us hectic days filled with the stress that seems to have become an expected characteristic of the holiday season?  You may feel like you have no choice. You may feel like you have to do all the traditional things that are expected of you to make this season what it is supposed to be.  Many people do feel that certain holiday activities are necessary, even if those activities leave them worn out, frazzled and worried about how it is all going to get paid for when the bills start arriving in January.  Even church people spend a good deal of time during the holiday season upholding traditions that do little to draw them into a deeper experience the grace and love born so long ago at Bethlehem.

Doing something different can be hard, especially when accepted customs and practices have been established for so long.  Nonetheless, at Ball Camp Baptist Church we are going to try something new this year.  In a small way, it is an attempt to leave behind a new legacy, a legacy that gives life, hope and freedom. That’s right we are going to try to make the birth of Christ the focus of this Advent and Christmas season.  We are going to do that by asking a simple question:  What if the birth of Christ changed the world again?  What do followers of Christ need to do in order for Christ’s birth to once again be a world changing event?  How do we need to live these next 40 or so days in order to leave a legacy of hope and love, rather than one of frenzy and frustration?

This Advent season we are going to conspire together (literally: breathe together) around four ideas:

Worship Fully – because Christmas begins and ends with Jesus.

Spend Less – and free resources for things that truly matter.

Give More – of our presence, our hands, our words, our time, our hearts.

Love All – the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized, the sick, in ways that make a difference.

I believe that in our heart of hearts we believe that the birth of Christ is an event that can still change the world, and that is a legacy worth leaving to our children and grandchildren.

Immanuel

Whose birth are we celebrating at Christmas time?  I suppose it can get confusing in the midst of all the hustle and bustle that has become the Christmas season.  The idea that there is an event, and a person behind it — behind all the holiday trappings —  might even come as a surprise to some people.  Honestly, the layers of tradition, custom and practice that have come to be associated with the celebration of Christmas all too easily distort its meaning and distract us from its significance.  In fact, those traditions, customs and practices have taken on a meaning and significance all their own.  Without them, it would not be Christmas for some.

But what if what you need is God?  The parties are grand and the meals with family and friends are treasures. Giving is a joy and receiving a gift from someone who took the time to think of you is heartwarming.  We ought never to miss an opportunity to celebrate and to share joy with one another.  But what if what you really need is God?  What if, like King Ahaz of Judah, your enemies have allied themselves together and are plotting your destruction?  We read in the seventh chapter of Isaiah that the Lord instructed Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sort of sign. The Lord put no limits on what Ahaz could ask, but Ahaz was too afraid, too filled with despair to ask; and he hid behind a false sort of piety refusing to ask for a sign because he did not want to test the Lord.  The prophet Isaiah does not let him shirk his responsibility so easily. If Ahaz is unable to ask for a sign, God will give him one anyway.   “. . . Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isaiah 7:14-16).

In the midst of these troublesome times, it is a woman giving birth to a child that will be God’s sign.  A woman will do what the king, for whatever reason, could not do.  She who had as much, if not more, to fear from the possibility of war and the horror that it brings to the most vulnerable, will act with courage and faith. When all evidence is to the contrary, she will name her child “God is with us.”  Her bold proclamation will echo the words of the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Psalm 46:1-3).  The King cannot bring himself to trust in God, but this woman will.  She will do for him and for her people what he cannot; she will believe in God.

For Christians, there have been few explanations better than the courage and faith of this Jewish woman to explain the meaning of Christmas and the nature of God.  In this story, we see God taking on flesh and dwelling among us.  We see God coming to us and saving us.  Like Ahaz, we at times find ourselves in dire situations.  To our eyes, there seems to be no prospect for a positive outcome. Our fears paralyze our faith and the idea of turning to the Lord for help appears pointless.  Or we have cried out to the Lord for so long without seeing any change in our dilemma that to do so any longer feels like it would be fruitless. These sorts of situations are ripe for Christmas.  When our courage is waning and our faith is wavering, God gives us a sign and names him Immanuel, God is with us.

Yet, we miss it.  Perhaps our situation is not dire enough.  Our enemies are not drawn up around us on every side.  Our circumstances are not such that we have needed to frequently cry out to the Lord.  We embrace the hustle and the bustle even if it is not all together to our liking.  The traditions, customs and practices that have grown up with around the Christmas season satisfy our need for Christmas, or so we tell ourselves.   Still, we need a sign, perhaps more so than if we were in trouble.  Is there any greater trouble than to not know that we need God?  Though we have constructed our lives to look content, satisfied, and peaceful, our need to know God, to know that we are not alone, to know that God is with us, is no less than that of the long ago Jewish mother who named her child Immanuel.

Merry Incarnation!

The whole idea that God took on flesh, came to us and lived among us, has challenged the human ability to understand and comprehend since that first Christmas.  There are all kinds of questions and few, if any, answers.  Answers that give us a thorough explanation of the details of how the creator of human beings becomes a human are not forthcoming. Mystery is the word that the church has often used through the centuries to explain that which is beyond explanation.  That is what we say when we don’t know anything else to say.  Granted, it is no small thing to be able to look into the pages of scripture, the annals of history, or the faces of the living, and utter a single word in response to the unbelievable, the incredible or even, the unthinkable.

Faith is the gift that enables us to believe what we would not otherwise believe or consider.  It gently nudges us beyond the questions of how to look at why God did what God did.  John’s gospel tells us that it is love that moved God to come into our world with flesh and bone.  God loves us enough to come to where we live and experience life as we experience it.  Faith gives us the ability to know that we are loved and accepted by God.

What we should not allow faith to do is to distort the reality in which we still live.  God takes on flesh and comes to us at Christmas time.  God does not come and get us to remove us from where we are now — not yet anyway.   Faith is not an escape hatch from the world in which we live.  It is, however, refusing to believe that the world in which we live is the sum of our living.

Because Christ has been born, when we hear of a tragic death of a neighbor, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Bethlehem has happened, when we see that someone has had to spend the night in a car in our parking lot we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the one who would be our Savior was wrapped in swaddling clothes when we continue to see the poor and needy at our door, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because the Prince of Peace slept in a manger when distant wars are brought near by the deployment of a friend or family member, we can say even still, Christ is coming.  Because Mary and Joseph did not turn away from God’s call, when we experience the stress, the strain and sometimes the brokenness of human relationships, we can say even still, Christ is coming.

We can and do say it, not as sugar coating or denial, but as a truth born from the gift of faith. Christ comes to the place of pain and suffering, misery and malaise, and of betrayal and disappointment.  He comes to us.  In coming, he calls us to himself.   The call is such that somehow we become a part of the mystery of his incarnation.  We become his hands, his feet, his body.  Led by his Spirit, we find our greatest joy in following his path to the places where there is hurting and want, injustice and wrong.  Far from taking us away from the trial of earth-bound living, his coming to us points our lives in the direction of those who are broken by sin and sinned against, those who are left out, and left alone.

Christ is coming!