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.

Less is More

As I am speaking to a small group gathered for midweek worship and a meal at an inner-city Baptist center, I can not help but notice the coughing of the woman sitting over to my left.  I immediately recognize her from the last time that I had gathered with this group.  She has pancreatic cancer.   Her coughing, like “groans that could not be expressed in words”, do not disturb the service, rather it is a part of the service.  It is a litany of sorts that speaks her deepest longing.

At the end of the service, she comes to me asking for prayer.  The weight of her burden is great.  Who knows what the cancer has done to her body?   She does not know, as she lacks the means for medical treatment and the feedback a doctor would give her.  Her only hope is prayer.  While she may not know exactly what the cancer is doing to her, she knows that it is surely taking life from her.   In a very real way, life now for her consists of that space between her and God.   If she lives, it will be because of God. If she does not, she will be with God.

After we pray, I cannot help but wonder what the days ahead will hold for her.  Will she suffer?  How much will she suffer?  Will a miracle happen?  How will it be between her and God?

Disease has a way of focusing our attention.  It causes us to see things that we had not seen, or had overlooked.  We think differently; our perspective changes when confronted by an invasion of our bodies that is likely to be our undoing.  Sometimes, it causes us to turn toward God and to move closer to God.  For some people, the effect is the opposite.  For them, there is anger and resentment toward God.  Still others respond with a mixture of emotions and thoughts in such trying times.

Yet, with or without disease, our lives share a common condition.  We all live in the time and the space that God gives to us.   A life threatening illness may cause us to be more aware of God and our dependence on and accountability to God.   However, good health does not mean that we are any less dependent on God for our lives, and we are certainly no less accountable for them.

Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah plead for God to “…tear open the heavens and come down…” to us, to fill the time and the space of our living.  In essence, we asked God to be with us.  That is the heart of Christmas, Immanuel, “God with us.”   We know that God has been born, that God abides with us each day, and that God will come again.

Advent prepares us for all the ways that God has, does, and will come to us.  As we prepare, is there room in our lives for more of God?  Is there room for God to do with us what God wants to do with us?  When we put up the Christmas tree at our house, it almost always means something has to be moved to make room for the tree.  What do we need to rearrange in our lives in order to make more room for God, to make ourselves more available to God?  The radical commitment that God makes to us in taking on flesh and being born among us, calls us beyond rearranging.  God’s purpose for our lives is not that they be busier, heavier and more burdensome.  In being born, God makes a way for us to be liberated from all that would separate us from God.

What is it that keeps us from experiencing the presence and peace of God?  Whatever that is, that is what we need less of.  If we are too busy, then we need fewer commitments.  If we are too burdened by debt, then we need less spending.

This Advent season we are conspiring together because we believe that Christmas can still change the world.  The proposal is quite simple.  Start small by spending less.  Eliminate one gift– one fruitcake, one sweater, one gift that will probably not be missed, and use that money to do something that will make the birth of Christ a reality for someone who desperately needs to know Jesus.  It is a small step, but a good beginning as we seek to empty our lives of that which keeps us from experiencing the fullness and wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

What if Christmas was about Christ?

That night when Jesus was born, how many people new what was happening?  Think about it for a minute — how many people new that God was being born?  Did anyone know that incarnation was happening?  Who knew that God was taking on flesh in order to dwell among us?  Who knew that God was so in love with us that God was coming to be with us?  Was anyone thinking that God was so radically intent on being reconciled with God’s creation?

Mary and Joseph had an idea that something special was happening.  Elizabeth and Zechariah might have known, along with a few other family members, perhaps.  The shepherds, of course, get clued in by a heavenly visitation.  Eventually, there will be visitors from the east.  Herod will be briefed on what they believe has happened.  Beyond a handful of people, most of the world’s population had no idea that anything significant, much less world changing, happened on that first Christmas.

All these years later, some might argue that the birth of Christ has been changed by the world more than it has changed the world.  Christmas seems to be about many things that have little or nothing to do with God coming into the world in order redeem and reconcile human hearts.  Granted there are many opportunities to do good for the less fortunate during the holiday season, but for most people these are sandwiched into a hectic schedule that reduces them to obligation or afterthought, rather than focal point.  The truth of the matter is that Christmas has become an industry, an economic engine, that springs to life earlier and earlier each year, so that it can better serve the purpose to which it has devolved.  The air around Christmas is so polluted by the smog and debris of consumerism run amok that the Christ is hardly visible.

Some have seen a threat to Christmas in the practice of referring to the season as the holiday season, rather than Christmas.  Their aim is to keep Christ in Christmas.  It is a laudable goal insofar as it goes.  One would think that a birthday celebration would, at a minimum, include the one for whom the celebration is being given.  But what purpose does it serve if the end result is still the same old hustle and bustle, the same cluttered and obstructed view of God entering our world in order to embrace us with an everlasting love.

We still live in a world that needs to experience the love God expressed so emphatically on that first Christmas.  How can the world ever hope to experience that love unless the body of Christ, the church, intentionally and practically shares that love?  We have been loved with that love and we know that it is not ours to enjoy just for ourselves.  It is ours to share.

Keeping Christ in Christmas is not enough.  What if we did more than just keep Christ in Christmas?  What if we made Christmas about Christ?  What if Christmas was an event that could once again change the world?  This Christmas, at Ball Camp Baptist Church, we are conspiring together (literally, breathing together) to do just that.  By worshipping fully, spending less, giving more, and loving all, we are going to be a part of a Christmas that will change lives.  We are not alone in this conspiracy.  Others are breathing with us. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionaries in the United States and around the world are daily striving to be the presence of Christ to those who have yet to fully realize the meaning of that first Christmas in their own lives.  As we seek to make Christmas more about Christ this year, their world and their lives may never be the same.

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!