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.

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.

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.

Talking Like God

I was listening to my sister explain to my niece why she could not spend the night at her Aunt Patti’s house.  My sister had to make several attempts at explaining why the night was not a good night for her to sleep over.  At the conclusion of what would be her final effort, she ended her reasonable and logical explanation with an emphatic, “…and that is the end of it, because Momma says so.”  The conclusion was when I stopped listening to my sister and started hearing my mother.  There are all kinds of ways that my sister is different from my mother, but I chuckled to myself as I heard my mother’s words coming out of her mouth.  We learn the vocabulary of living from those who are closest to us.  It gives me pause to think what I have taught my boys.  What will it feel like if one day I hear my words coming out their mouths as they speak to those who are nearest and dearest to them?

Words are what we use to communicate with each other.  What we mean by them can be easily misunderstood if how we use and understand them is different from how the person we are speaking to uses and understands them.  Our tone, volume, body posture and attitude can also impact the message we are trying to communicate with our words.

Words can hurt and words can bless.  Words spoken by us can encourage someone to discover the joy of life, and they can also leave wounds that will be a long time healing.  Sometimes we speak before we think.  Our intention would never be to hurt or to harm someone, but a word or phrase slips out and the damage is done.  Words are powerful. They can nurture and grow a life, or they can tear it down.

Words are used all the time in our world, not just in our closest relationships.  They are the tool that anyone who has something they want us to know, think about, or act upon gets his or her message to us.  Politicians who want our votes throw words at us.  Retailers who want us to buy their products throw words at us.  Criminals who would deceive us with a fraudulent scheme throw words at us.

Words are everywhere and they come at us all the time these days.  Facebook, email, and texting allow words to come our way on a virtually continual basis without us even speaking with another human being.  How do we process all those words?  Is there a danger, in the midst of so many words, that words will have less meaning, or over load our capacity to process them, understand them, make sense of them, and respond to them accordingly?

With all the words that are zipping through our lives each day, it is no wonder there are times when we miss the Word that God spoke to us so long ago, and is still speaking to us today, “…the Word that took on flesh and lived among us.”  When God wanted to speak to us the deepest longing of the heart of God, God left words behind and came to us.  The Word God spoke was God in the flesh with us.  We know God because God came to us.

In times of difficulty and challenge, God still speaks.  God is still with us.  In times of grief, God is still with us.  In times of joy, God is still speaking.  In all of our days, in all of our living, the Word that took on flesh and lived among us is still with us. That Word still holds out to us “…the power to become the children of God.”

The challenge for us seems to be one of discernment.  Is it possible for us to distinguish the Word that God is speaking into our lives from all of the other words that fill up our world?  Are we willing to so position our lives in proximity to God that the Word God is speaking to us becomes our language, our way of communicating with the world around us, and interacting with it — so that as we live, our lives speak of forgiveness, mercy, peace, hope and redemption?  Ultimately, what God said to us by taking on flesh and coming to be with us is that we are loved.  Can the Word that God spoke to us, and is still speaking to us, be spoken through us?

It can, if we make time to listen to God.  If all we ever listen to are the voices that clamor for our attention, then we can never hope to speak with any other language.  Nor can we hope to see life from any other perspective than that of those clamoring voices.  Let us listen to God so that our lives will tell the story of God’s great love for all of us. As children of God, let us repeat the sounding joy over and over again.

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.

It is a Wonderful Week

The week between Christmas day and the start of the New Year is a delightful time to collect thoughts, review events and ponder the possibilities of the upcoming year.  It is a time to take a deep breath and enjoy the afterglow of being together with friends and family.  Taking account of the people, places, and happenings that have enriched our lives provides fuel for our ongoing engagement in this business of being alive.   Recalling the mistakes and wrong decisions we have made can help us to use our energy for living in a more fruitful and meaningful way.

That brings me to the question of whether or not we can change.  Can we be different than what we have been?   Sure, we can, but in most situations that requires effort and determination.  We need a strong will, a good plan, an abundance of motivation, and continuous encouragement to make significant lasting changes in our lives.  Sure, we can change, but sometimes we do not.  Sometimes we find it easier to stay the way we are and to continue doing the things we do, and not doing the things we don’t do, even when we wish it was otherwise.

I have a friend who recently reached a lifetime goal after years of working toward it in an on-again off-again sort of way.  Having not heard from him in some time, I was not sure what was happening in his life.  The challenges and setbacks that he has faced on his journey would have been enough to sink most of us.  Yet, somehow he kept coming back for more; he kept on trying.  His success, after all these years, is a testimony to the fact that we can change, we can be different.  Human beings are indeed resilient creatures.

No doubt there is a spiritual dimension to our efforts to improve the way we live our lives.  Those who walk by faith and seek to live in a way that reflects the reality of Jesus Christ, find themselves in continual dialogue with the teachings of Jesus.  What would Jesus do?   As we listen to scripture and to the way the church has heard God speaking through the centuries, we get a sense of what God might be saying to us.  As we ask questions about the ways God has been at work in the world through the lives of people, we get some idea about how God might desire to work through our own lives.

While we are full participants in setting the course for the living of our lives, the most significant change comes to us, not as a result of our resolve, determination, or plan.  No, it comes to us as a gift.  It is that gift that changes us in the most profound ways.  It changes us in ways that we are altogether incapable of changing ourselves.  It is the gift that God gives to us when God looks at us and says, “I love you.”   It is the gift that God gives to us by taking on flesh and living among us.  It is the gift that God, after looking at all our broken pieces, awkward moments, and utter failures, gives to us by calling us children of God, God’s own sons and daughters.  Being loved with that kind of love is the most transforming event that can ever occur in any human being’s life.  We cannot help but be changed by it.

Most of the changes we seek to make in our lives are based on someone else’s idea of what we ought to be.  Whether we are talking about our health, our appearance, our work habits, or how we spend our free time, the changes we seek to make are changes that we think are important because someone told us it would be good for us and make us better.  Whether it was a doctor, a counselor, or talk show host that gave us the idea about what we needed to change, the idea was probably a good one.   We would all benefit from healthier hearts, clearer communication, and more organized lives.

I am pretty sure that God does not mind us taking steps to improve the quality of our lives so long as we realize that it is not what we do that causes God to love us.   Our efforts to be better people, more efficient, healthier, wealthier, and smarter are not what God desires most.  What God desires most is for us to know that we are loved right now, today, in this moment.  Change or no change, we are loved.  Not our effort, but God’s gift is what brings to us the most radical change our lives can ever experience.  Yes, we can change, but more importantly we can be changed by the unconditional love of the One who always welcomes us and never leaves us.