Advent Devotion: Welcomed Rejects

Photo Courtesy of National Geographic

Pashtun shepherds watch over their sheep. Photo Courtesy of National Geographic

This past weekend we had the chance to watch our kids perform in our church’s Christmas pageant.  It was fun to watch the children dress up in their Christmas best with other kids dressed as angels, wisemen, and shepherds.  In fact, if you’ve spent any time around the church, you are probably pretty familiar with these images.  For myself, the image of the Nativity has become a pretty standard Christmas image, with Mary and Joseph kneeling near the Christ child, with handsome looking shepherds, cuddly lambs, and wisemen looking on in reverence.

However, as I have thought about this story some more, something really stands out to me.  In most, if not all, of these Nativity images the people included all look pretty good.  The shepherds are well dressed and clean.  Mary and Joseph’s robes are neatly pressed and colorful.  Even newborn Jesus looks like he popped out of the womb with a full head of hair looking like a three-year-old.  And this has really forced me to ask the question, “Who is Christmas for?  Is it for the cleaned up and presentable?”

The reason I think that this is such an important question is because, when I read the Christmas story as it is recorded in the Bible, I see a very different picture of who the Christmas story is for.  Specifically, I think it is interesting to note who first hears the news of Jesus’ birth.  In Luke 2:8-20 we read that on the night Jesus was born…

8 ….there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Now, when I say the word “shepherd,” who from the Bible comes to mind?  For Christians the answer is usually “Jesus”.  But other answers include men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Amos, to name just a few.  You see, often we associate shepherds with these great men of faith.  So when we read the Christmas story we miss the irony of this scene.

The truth is, back in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. shepherds were a rather unsavory lot. You see, shepherds were often viewed with some suspicion back then. They were seen as outcasts and thieves; men who had to live out in the wild places overseeing animals because they were not welcome in broader society. They were a ragtag bunch of rough-and-tumble men.

And another interesting element of this story is that, because of the proximity between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, it is very possible that these men were watching the sheep that would have been used in the Temple as sacrifices to God. And therein lies the irony: these men are watching over the Temple’s animals, and yet, they probably would never have been allowed to set foot on the Temple grounds.  They are outcasts and rejects in every sense of the word.

And it is to these guys, that the angel comes.  These outcasts and rebels are the ones to whom Christ’s birth is announced.  Furthermore, they become the first evangelists of the New Testament, for we read that after hearing the angels’ message

 …they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The shepherds, not the religious leaders, were the first to learn of God’s plan of redemption.  And they found the promised King not in Herod’s palace nor in the halls of Caesar, but sleeping in a feeding trough in a humble stable.  With their own eyes they saw God Incarnate and they become His royal messengers.

In the story of the shepherds we learn the truth that God comes not to the powerful or wise of the world, but to the rejects, the outcasts, the unclean and unkempt, and He invites them in.  He makes them a part of His plan of salvation.  He makes them His messengers to a world lost in darkness.

That is what is at the center of the Christmas story:  God making himself known to the outcasts and rejects, to the sinners and the unsavory.  God coming not to the perfect, but to the imperfect.  God redeeming and bringing hope to those dwelling in deep darkness.

Furthermore, we see that God is a god who identifies with the shepherds; one who is born not in palaces of gold, but in a stable of straw and hay, among the people He has come to save and redeem.  This Christmas we are invited to remember that every person is precious to God, even those whom society places on the margins.  Each person is the object of His love and redemption.  May our Advent meditations remind us of our calling to be bearers of Good News to all, serving them and pointing them to Christ, the True Shepherd who rescues all of His sheep and brings light and life to even the darkest and most forlorn places of the world.  Praise be to Immanuel, God with us.  Amen.

Advent Devotion: Joseph’s Quiet Faith

Joseph

One of the things that I heard a lot growing up was the phrase, “Actions speak louder than words.”  This was taught in my elementary school and reinforced in the home, so much so that it is something I now teach to my own children.  Actions have an incredible way of telling us more about a person and his/her character than words ever could.

So why am I mentioning this in an Advent post?  Well, as I have read the Christmas story over the years one of the things that has really stood out to me is the fact that of all the characters in the Christmas story the one character who remains silent is Joseph.  We have the recorded words of Mary, Elisabeth, Zechariah, the angels and even the shepherds.  But of Jesus’ adopted father we hear nothing. Not. One. Single. Word.

And yet, that is not to say we know nothing of Joseph’s character, for what we see in his story is a man whose life was characterized by a quiet faith; one that was expressed in actions more than words.

When we first meet Joseph, he is a man betrothed to Mary.  Like any good 1st century Jewish man, he was probably preparing a household for them, eagerly anticipating the day when they would finally come together as husband and wife, and start a family.  However, he soon receives some disturbing news:  Mary is pregnant outside of wedlock.  No doubt, this news disturbed Joseph.  How could his fiancee, his betrothed be pregnant?  The answer in that society was clear.  She must have broken her vow.  Furthermore, the Law was clear.  A person who has committed adultery is to be stoned to death (Lev. 20:10).  As a Law-abiding and devout Jewish man, Joseph is obligated to carry out his religious and social duty.  But if Joseph accuses Mary he is sentencing her to certain death.

What will Joseph do?  Matthew’s gospel reads:

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly
(Matthew 1:19).

Though he had every right to expose Mary publicly, Joseph was a man of compassion.  Not wanting to see the woman he had promised himself to exposed to shame and death, he found another way to both satisfy the Law and extend grace.

But his story doesn’t end there.  Matthew’s gospel continues:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

In an incredible vision, God informs Joseph of the truth of Mary’s claim via the words of an angel.  And now Joseph has a decision to make.  If he obeys the message of the angel and takes Mary as his wife, he opens himself up to shame and scandal.  At best, he would be seen as enabling her “sin” by the society around them.  At worst, he would appear to be complicit in her pregnancy and be labeled a fornicator.  However, if he refuses to take Mary as his wife, he effectively denies the message of God and leaves the Messiah-to-be without legitimate parentage.  Jesus would not be born ‘a son of David’.  What will Joseph choose?

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (Matthew 1:24-25).

Joseph’s actions speak well of his faith.  He was willing to bear public ridicule, along with Mary, in order to be obedient to God.  He takes her as his wife and Jesus is born “The Son of Joseph, the Son of David”.  Joseph’s obedience actually helps fulfill the promises of the prophets.  The Father chooses Joseph to help prepare the way for Christ.

And Joseph’s silent faith is something attested to in the rest of the texts that speak about him.  When warned about the threat of Herod, Joseph obediently takes his family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).  Likewise, when called to return to Judea, Joseph trusts in God and brings his family back (Matthew 2:19-23).  Over and over again, Joseph proves himself to be a man of quiet faith.  No words.  Only actions which attest to his trust in God and his willingness to carry out the calling to which he has been called.

As we reflect upon his story during this Advent season, we see that Joseph’s life reminds us that faith is something so much more than just intellectual assent to a series of doctrines.  It is not only the confession of our lips.  Faith is something much more.  It is a trust, a confidence in God and His promises, which then shapes our actions in the world.

But this is not the only reason that Joseph is important for our Advent reflections.  Joseph is important because he points us to Jesus himself.  Joseph’s quiet faith points us to the man who was truly faithful; who “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).  Jesus was a man of action who did what needed to be done to bring forth God’s plan of salvation.  Likewise, Jesus is the one who was willing to take scorn upon himself in order to fulfill God’s purposes in redeeming his people.  Jesus is the one who, “like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7), and who carried out his purposes with silent faith and fortitude.

In Joseph’s story, as in Mary’s, we see that he prepares us for the Lord by showing us the character of faith and by pointing us toward the greater “Faithful One” who is to come:  Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Redeemer.  This is Joseph’s contribution to the Advent season.  May his quiet faith inform our own faith in this season of waiting and point us to the one who fulfills all of His promises:  Christ the Lord.

Healing In A Broken System

how do we fix a broken system?

For a while now I have been relatively silent on social media regarding recent events in Ferguson and New York City surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Up to this point I’ve tried to post articles and pieces written by people I respect and who have more insight than I do on the complex issues of race-relations, theological reflection, and social justice.

Why?  Because I need to admit that I am not an expert here.  Furthermore, I know that my own perspective is limited and I have not been as involved in addressing issues of systemic injustice and racial reconciliation as many of my colleagues.  So, I’ve tried to lift up and point to voices that I respect and who I think can help bring healing and perspective to a very deep and long-standing problem in this country.

However, there is a trend that I have noticed recently on social media.  While countless people of a variety of racial backgrounds have decried our law enforcement system as broken, I have not seen as many people addressing how to bring about healing or change.  More often than not I’ve seen expressions of anger, hurt, pain, and frustration.  I’ve heard phrases like, “White people need to listen!” and “Our leaders need to bring change!”  And yet very few of those who are angry and hurt have offered solutions or ways forward.

Now, hear me clearly, I bring this up not because I want to “get over” or “move past” the pain and anger of those who have been hurt and marginalized by what has happened.  I’m fully cognizant of the fact that I am a white man addressing an issue that is deeply personal and painful, especially for my brothers and sisters in the black community.  Furthermore, I know that it has often been the tendency of my own community to minimize and move past the hurt and pain that those in the black community have expressed, and I don’t want to further that trend.

I think that there must be a place to voice anger, pain, and hurt.  Furthermore, I think that those of us in the white community need to be willing to listen to the voices of our black brothers and sisters as they share their stories of pain and anger over racial profiling and injustice directed at the black community.  In her recent post, “The Intellectual Condescension of White Liberals”, Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein highlighted the disturbing trend among those of us in the white community to rationalize, marginalize, and ignore the pain of the black community over the violence we have seen.  In a particularly poignant passage she writes:

Perhaps taking to the streets is not your style, or is not possible for you. For many white folks, the longest and most important distance to travel in our claims to be an anti-racist, justice-seeking people may be from our heads to our hearts. Our longest march may be the one that takes us down from the dais of of competitive debate and rational inquiry to the common ground of listening, witnessing, mourning and embracing.

And she’s right.  This is a time to seriously examine ourselves and take up the call to listen and embrace compassion.  And we dare not move past the pain too quickly or with haste.  Doing so only further marginalizes and trivializes the pain of men and women who have and continue to be the victims of an unjust and unequal system.

So why am I writing this post?  Well, because I want to know if there is a way to both mourn and heal?  My fear is that people in my own community will, without a clear call to move forward, begin to shut their eyes and ears to the pain.  I’m afraid that my white brothers and sisters will begin to suffer from what Dr. Weinstein calls “compassion fatigue” and just engage in further expressions of rationalizing and ignoring the voices of their black neighbors.  Now is the time to begin having this conversation.  As such, I think we have to ask the question, “Is it possible to begin working toward reconciliation and change even as we shed tears and listen to one another?”

Maybe I am naive, but I think that there is.  And this is my own small attempt to begin to address the need for concrete steps in changing our broken system.  What follows is nowhere near exhaustive, and it isn’t an attempt to be.  Rather, these are a few thoughts that I had, especially as I have considered the long-standing history of mistrust and fear that exists between police officers and black communities.  Furthermore, I’m going to try to restrict my comments to how police departments can begin to build positive relationships between their officers and the communities that they serve.

I’m hoping that those who read this will suggest their own solutions as well.  I’m hoping that wiser people and more educated minds than mine can offer deeper healing and change.  But here are my own humble thoughts and I offer them up for honest and gracious discussion.

RECLAIMING THE MOTTO:  “Protect and Serve”

Language is a powerful thing.  It has a the ability to stir our imaginations, shape our consciences, and redefine our realities.  In short, what we say and how we talk affects our attitudes and actions.

When I was growing up I was told by a local police officer that his job was to “Protect and Serve”.  He said that the reason he wanted to be a cop was because he wanted to help his community become a better place for the people and families living there.  It was a simple and powerful motto, and one which is often painted on the sides of police squad cars.

However, in the media this phrase is seldom used.  Often when we talk about the police we call them “Law Enforcement officials” and so forth.  And I think this language has an effect.  For example, what happens in the mind of a police officer when he thinks of his role as “law enforcement” rather than “protecting and serving”?

I think that what happens is police officers and their superiors begin to see their role as enforcing rules and regulations over and against serving and protecting the people in their communities.  Yes, the law is there to do just that:  protect and serve.

However, when the idea of protecting and serving human beings is subservient to the call to enforce laws and ordinances, a process of depersonalization begins to take place.  And when depersonalization happens, people become “obstacles” to peace and order that must be removed or eliminated rather than the objects of service and protection.  When the calling is to protect and serve ALL members of the community, how police officers begin to interact with and address men and women on the street (even the offenders) begins to change.

So how do we recapture this call?  I think there are a couple of concrete steps that police departments can begin to take.

STEP ONE:  Walk A Beat & Build Trust

“Walk a beat.”  It’s an old phrase, but an important one.  It used to be the case that new police officers were required to literally walk through the neighborhoods where they were assigned.  Block after block they would have to interact with the men, women, and children who lived there.  On a daily basis they learned names and faces, heard stories and local gossip.

Over the years, though, walking a beat has taken on a different form; one in which police officers drive through neighborhoods rather than walking or talking with those under their care.  As such, when a police officer eventually does get out of the car, it is only to write a ticket, issue a warning, or make an arrest.  The impact on the community is profound.  No longer are officers a part of the community.  They are outsiders who only come in to punish and remove.

Likewise, the impact on the officers is profound.  When you don’t know the names, faces, and stories of the people in the area where you are assigned a patrol it is easy to de-personalize and objectify them.

Officer Deon

Officer Deon Joseph. Image courtesy of http://www.WitnessLA.com

Conversely, when police officers begin to walk the beat again, amazing things happen.  There are chances to get to know one another.  To learn each other’s stories and faces.  Trust begins to be built as human beings interact with one another.  One of my favorite pictures of this is the example being set by Officer Deon Joseph of the Los Angeles Police Department.  Officer Deon regularly walks through and talks with the men and women of Skid Row.  The result has been profound.  As he has interacted with those in the neighborhood he patrols he has built trust and brought change.  He is no longer seen as an intruder, but as a part of the community.  Likewise, he has grown to love and care for all those in his neighborhood, even the most difficult members of his community.

STEP TWO:  Deep & Sustained Cross-Cultural Training

The second step is a more internal one.  It involves training police officers in cross-cultural interactions and relationships.  But this requires so much more than a couple of seminars or lectures on the subject.  The most profound cross-cultural training I have ever had involved conversations, storytelling, meals, and relationships.  They brought men and women of different racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds together to talk about the issues that unite and divide them.

Image courtesy of NPR

Constance Rice. Image courtesy of NPR

Furthermore, they challenged me to address the racism, prejudices, and fears of my own heart as I thought about people of other races and cultures.  In an incredible interview with NPR, civil rights attorney Constance Rice talked about how she built trust with members of local police departments and began to address issues of racism.  She said that a key step was listening to and creating a safe space in which both cops and members of the community can name their own fears.  She highlighted the fact that, oftentimes, it is unnamed, unaddressed fears and misconceptions that cause situations to escalate into violence.  Here is how she has begun to address this problem as she has worked with police officers:

I have known cops who haven’t had a racist bone in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children, they went to black churches on the weekend; and these are white cops. They really weren’t overtly racist. They weren’t consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men…

…They would say things like, “Ms. Rice I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great hulk strength and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me.”…

…So what I’m saying is that for people who have to be in the business of solving this dilemma you have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids; black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots and scared cops, and racist cops, and cruel cops, and good cops. You have to be able to distinguish between all of those human experiences and bring them together.

This kind of model must be implemented across the board in police departments.  It will take honesty and vulnerability, but it allows police officers and community members to face the reality that, deep down, we all have fears and prejudices that emerge violently when the pressure is on.  Furthermore, naming and owning this is the first step in ensuring that these fears do not drive our interactions in tense situations when police officers are serving their communities.

STEP THREE:  Connect with the Community

A third step is also needed, and that is sustained and intentional engagement between local police departments and their communities.  At the end of her interview, Constance Rice said that she always challenges police departments to earn the trust of those they are called to serve.  This means being committed to developing those communities in which they serve.

Some of the best relationships that I have been privileged to see are when police departments and community leaders have long-standing, well-established working relationships with one another.  In one of the communities where I lived it was the regular habit of the police department to host community open-forums, coffee hours, dinners, and panel discussions.  These were well-publicized and open to all.  Conversations would range from topics as serious as the rising crime rate among juveniles to those as light-hearted the police chief’s favorite Thanksgiving recipe.  The result was a heightened level of familiarity and trust between the police department and the people in the community.

But it has to go further than this.  It involves police officers and departments working together to build parks, lead youth sports leagues, and working with aldermen and community leaders in long-term sustainability and development projects.

STEP FOUR:  Recruitment & Hiring

This last step is one which will only truly begin to take place when the above steps are put into place, but it involves how police officers are recruited and hired.  I believe that the only way that a system can truly change is when power and authority are shared across communities.  What this means for police departments is that they need to recruit and hire men and women from the communities that they are called to police.  Furthermore, departments need to reflect the demographics and the diversity of the neighborhoods they patrol.  The only way that this can happen is if police officers are viewed positively by the young men and women of the communities they serve.  It can only happen when being a police officer is seen to be a legitimate and honorable line of work.  This is why the first three steps are so essential.  But police departments need to actively recruit and hire men and women of color from the communities they are called to serve.

CONCLUSION

As I said at the start of this post, I know that what has been suggested is not exhaustive.  But, hopefully, it is a start.  As I look over what I have suggested, one key theme that emerges is the theme of relationships.  Relationships are needed to bring healing.  This is my firm conviction as a Christian.  It is a view informed by God Himself, who came and made His dwelling among us in order to bring forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation.  As such, I think that relationships, and specifically the relationships between police officers and the communities they are called to serve, have to be at the heart of the change that is being called for.

However, I want to hear what the rest of you think.  What would systemic change look like?  What steps would you offer and suggest as we move forward as a country?  I offer the comments section here for discussion.  All I ask is that it be gracious and honest.

What is Love? Just Ask a Troll!

Trolls

WARNING: The following post is rated “S” for “Spoilers”…But seriously, if you haven’t seen Frozen at this point then you are even further under a rock than I am :p

Well, we’ve finally done it. After a year of holding out, we finally bought the movie Frozen and spent an evening as a family watching it. Since that time we have been continuously serenaded with everything from “Let It Go” to “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” The kids love this movie! And who could blame them?! It has a walking snowman for comic relief!!!

But as I’ve been thinking about this film (I’ve had a lot of time on my hands) I’ve started to wonder if we, as a society, have gotten this movie all wrong. Here’s what I mean. Two of the most beloved songs – “Let It Go” and “Love Is An Open Door” – are also two of the most relationally dysfunctional songs in the whole movie.

Let’s take “Love Is An Open Door” first. The whole song is based on the idea that what really matters in a relationship is “hitting it off” on the first date. And yet, everything in the song that the two characters – Anna and Hans – celebrate is superficial. They have an awesome conversation. They “finish each other’s sentences”. And yet, we later find out that Anna doesn’t even know Hans’ last name. Furthermore, once she actually gets to know him she finds out that he is a closet sociopath bent on Scandinavian domination. In fact several times during the movie Anna is criticized for falling for this guy so hard even though they’ve just met.

However, kids and adults alike love singing this song. Why? I think it is because this is how our society tends to think about love.  It is something magical and instantaneous. For it to be “true love” there has to be this instant attraction and connection. So we go out on dates with insanely high standards looking for the “perfect” person with whom we just “click”: the veritable prince or princess of our dreams. We want that “falling in love” feeling and if we don’t feel it on that first shot then he/she must not have been the right person for us.

And this brings us to the other song:  “Let It Go”. This song has been sung, covered, re-enacted and lip sunk (is that a word?) to death. It is, hands down, the song of the film.  But let’s stop and think about this song for a second. It is sung by a character (Elsa) who, out of fear, runs away from her home, turns her back on the one person who loves her (her sister Anna), and chooses to isolate herself from all relationships and social contact. While she proclaims that she is finally “free,” in reality she is alone. Sure, she has the awesome Ice Palace, but she has no one to share it with. Furthermore, her “freedom” isn’t actually able to cure the thing that drove her up there in the first place:  her fear.

Yet we sing this song like it is the power ballad of the century. We belt it out in our cars and sign major pop stars like Demi Lovato to cover it. And, again, I think this says something about our culture. Sure, we want the romance of “Love Is An Open Door”, but we also want the freedom and individualism of “Let It Go”. But all we end up with is shallow relationships and the “freedom” of loneliness. Neither of these songs really gets at the heart of what true love is really about.

So what does? Well, the answer is found in another song in the movie. “Fixer Upper” by the Trolls. You know, that one song that is so fast that no one can sing it? That’s the one I’m talking about. What is so great about this song is that the Trolls reveal that they actually understand what love is really about.  It’s summed up in a couple of great lines:

We’re not sayin’ you can change him,
‘Cause people don’t really change.
We’re only saying that love’s a force
That’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices if they’re mad,
Or scared, or stressed.
But throw a little love their way,
And you’ll bring out their best.

We need each other
To raise us up and round us out.
Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper,
But when push comes to shove.
The only fixer-upper fixer
That can fix a fixer-upper is true love

Yup, that’s right. We’re all fixer uppers. Each one of us comes into a relationship with flaws and baggage.  Which is why finding the perfect relationship is so hard. Because the moment you find it, you mess it up simply by being a part of it!!! Furthermore, true love involves a willingness to be shaped by the other person. Though we don’t change who we are at our core, relationships have a way of both raising us up, but also rounding us out.  They polish off the rough edges and works on the flaws, all in the context of commitment and grace-giving between two people. The trolls get it right…kind of.

Wait! What? Yeah, you heard me right. The trolls are only partially right, because even at the end of their song they think that the solution to the problem is found in romance: a true love’s kiss. However, at the end of the movie Anna finally sees what true love really looks like. She discovers it when, in a moment of selfless love, she defends her sister at the risk of her own life. The truth is that, up to that point, Elsa had done nothing to deserve Anna’s love. For years she had shut her out and kept her at arms length. And yet, in that moment of desperate need, Anna laid down her life for her sister. You want to know what true love looks like? It looks like self-sacrifice. It looks like hardship and risk. It looks like throwing yourself in front of the sword for someone who has shut you out, abandoned you, and left you with nothing but a frozen heart.

FullSizeRender

And this is where I think that Christianity has something to offer when it comes to thinking about love.  You see, for Christians the essence of love is found in Jesus Christ.  In Jesus we see a God who loves us so much that he enters our world, lives among us, walks with us, feels our pain, and ultimately dies for us, even as we are the ones wielding the hammer and nails. Though we push God away time-and-again, He pursues us in love. He takes all the punishment that we can dole out and embraces us anyways. And when we face judgment for all the wrong we’ve done, He takes our place, dies for us, and reconciles us to Himself forever. That is the central story of the Christian faith.

So imagine the radical effect that this story would have if it were lived out in human relationships? What if we started to see each other as God sees us? What if in our relationships we were willing to admit that we are not perfect and be okay with the fact that other people aren’t either, because we know that we are loved by God anyways? What if, when we are hurt, we extended the same grace and forgiveness that God has shown us? I think that this is why the apostle Paul compared Christian marriages and relationships to the kind of relationship that Jesus has with His people (see Ephesians 5:21-33). He is saying that when we see the love that God has for us it radically reshapes our relationships. It helps us see our relationships as places for repentance and forgiveness, vulnerability and grace. Furthermore, it gives us a well-spring to draw upon when the going gets tough by reminding us that God loves us even when we are unloveable, and helps us to love others in the same way.

This is what true love looks like. It looks like a God who loves us, forgives us, and gave Himself up for us so that we might have a restored relationship with him. That is the true love which brings out the best.

PS Yes…I did just make Frozen about Jesus. You can thank me later :p

Advent Devotion: Mary, God’s Untouchable Servant

(c) Jyoti Sahi; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I wasn’t raised in a religious household. In fact, my family didn’t start attending church until I was a freshman in high school. As a result, my exposure to the Christmas story was limited to what I saw in paintings, statues and holiday stamps. I’d seen many pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, but these images always struck me as a bit odd and otherworldly. Here was Mary, this mature, peaceful woman in immaculate robes, holding a very adult-looking Jesus with a tiny, restrained half-smile on her lips—like the Mona Lisa dressed in religious garb. These pictures shaped my view of Mary as someone wholly unrelateable and distant, an obscure figure only revered in Catholic circles with very little relevance to me, a young, evangelical Protestant.

But then, several years ago, I encountered a very different kind of painting. It was an image created by the Indian artist Jyoti Sahi entitled Dalit Madonna. In it, Sahi depicts the Virgin Mary as a dalit, cradling the baby Jesus, with deep love and affection in her eyes as she looks down upon her infant child. Her hands and feet are dirty and calloused. And yet, the love this mother shows for her baby envelops her and the child in warm light. I was immediately taken by the beauty of this painting and the touching intimacy it depicts.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term dalit, it refers to a group of people in India more commonly known as “untouchables.” Some Westerners have mistakenly called the dalits the lowest caste in Hinduism. However, this is an inaccurate assessment, for the dalits have traditionally been viewed as living outside the proper caste system. They serve in labor industries deemed too defiled or unclean to be attended to by proper Hindus.

Fortunately, there have been many movements within India to eradicate this discrimination, including efforts by the late Mahatma Gandhi, who was a great friend and advocate of many untouchables. However, dalits are still looked down upon in more rural settings, and social stigma continues to be attached to the term.

As I reflected more on Sahi’s painting, I could not help but think what it would have been like for the historical Mary, giving birth to her son in first-century Judea. In the Bible, we read that Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel before her official marriage to Joseph and told she would bear a son who would be called “the Son of the Most High.” What’s more, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33).

On the one hand, this was the most exciting news Mary could have heard. After all, the Messiah was believed to be the heir to the throne of David, the greatest king in the history of the Israel. Many of the Israelites in Mary’s day, living under Roman occupation, hoped the Messiah would come and free them from the political oppression of foreign rulers and usher in an era of prosperity and peace. No doubt, Mary believed much the same thing and desired to see a day of freedom for her people.

However, Mary also knew that to accept the angel’s message was to accept a social stigma. You see, she was already betrothed to Joseph. This meant that they were legally husband and wife with the exception of sexual relations. We know from Matthew’s account that Joseph was well aware the child to be born was not his (see Matthew 1:18-19). As such, Mary would have been labeled an adulterer. As some people are labeled dalits in certain parts of the world, so Mary would have been labeled sotah, the ancient Hebrew word for “adulteress.”

In his book The Real Mary, Scot McKnight writes about the dangers Mary would have faced as a woman with an illegitimate child. He reminds us that, if she were openly accused of adultery by Joseph, Mary would have faced death by stoning. Yet even if Joseph did not bring charges against her, she would have been stripped half-naked and forced to stand in the center of her village to endure the verbal ridicule and scorn of her neighbors and former friends. Likewise, Mary would have known what would be at stake for her child.

McKnight highlights the realities Mary would have faced:

“She knew villagers would taunt and ostracize her son. He’d hear the accusation that he was an illegitimate child and he would be prohibited from special assemblies (Deut. 23:2). She knew as well that Joseph’s reputation as an observant Jew would have been called into question … She knew that he was legally required to divorce her. And one more connection for Mary was that he could leave her stranded with the Messiah-to-be without a father.”

All of this is affirmed by the biblical text. Christ, at one point, is mocked as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), a clear reference to His lack of a legitimate father.

Mary was faced with a difficult decision. Like the dalits of India, she would become an outcast, an untouchable, one whom people would regard as disobedient to God and a traitor to the acceptable standards of behavior set out in “proper” society. However, not to receive this message would have been to turn away an invitation from God to participate in His plans for the world. What would she choose?

“‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me according to your word'” (Luke 1:38).

Mary chose to obey God. In the face of certain rejection and a difficult life ahead for her and her child, Mary knew God and knew He would provide for them. Furthermore, she was faithful because of what was at stake. Though she could not anticipate just what kind of life Jesus would lead, she knew the Messiah would bring the salvation promised by God. She desired, more than anything, to see this salvation brought into the world and was full of faith that God would act through Him to that end.

Mary is important for our Advent meditations because she reminds us that following Christ often leads to persecution and rejection by the world.  Sometimes the price we pay for obedience is rejection. We must ask ourselves, “What are we willing to surrender to God? Are we willing to be used for His purposes in the world? Are we willing to trust Him to provide for us when the rest of the world may turn its back?”  Mary models for us what obedience in the face of rejection looks like.

But Mary is also important because her story is an invitation to re-examine how we approach the untouchables in our midst. The truth of Mary’s story is that God often works through the outcasts and the marginalized. And yet, as Christians, we often miss this.  She reminds us not to be too quick in judging those that society would deem untouchable or unworthy.

However, Mary’s greatest contribution to our Advent reflections is the way in which her life points us to the life of Christ.  Her humble obedience points forward to the obedience of Jesus Christ, who, when faced with his own rejection and, ultimately, his death, responded to the Father with the words, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  Christ is the ultimate untouchable servant.  He is the one who was rejected so that we might be included.  He was the one cast out so that we might be drawn in.  He is the one who died so that we might have new life.  Mary’s life is a precursor to the greater story of Christ.  She points us to the Messiah, the one whom she would bear, and who would ultimately bring about nothing less than the salvation of the world.

So, this Advent season, take time to reflect on Mary’s words as found in The Magnificat, and let your heart be directed toward Christ, the one who fulfills her prayers and ours:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me–
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
~The Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46-55)

An Advent-shaped Faith

1909706_629061034500_254_n

This is a re-post of my inaugural piece on the Sojourners website.  You can visit the piece here.

Well, I’ve finally given in.  It’s November 19th and I’ve decided to start listening to Christmas music.  While this might not seem radical in a culture that starts decorating stores before Halloween, for me this is a big deal.  You see, I’m one of those stubborn holdouts.  In the past I have refused to decorate my house, listen to holiday tunes, or do anything Christmas related before Thanksgiving.  Why?  Because I like having the holidays separated.  I want to be able to enjoy Halloween.  I want to savor Thanksgiving.  And I don’t want to be rushed into Christmas!!!

But over the years my wife has softened me in this regard, largely because of the sheer, childlike joy she takes in the Advent season.  She loves decorating, listening to Christmas music, singing hymns, and reading the Bible stories to our kids.  Her passion for this holiday is infectious.  So here I am listening to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Silent Night”, and the “Ave Maria.”  And I’m loving every minute of it.

And as music does, it got me thinking.  On November 30th the Church worldwide will celebrate the first Sunday of Advent.  Over the course of the following weeks we will spend time reflecting on one of the most momentous events in history:  The God of the Universe being born in a lowly stable in a Middle Eastern city under the oppressive might of the Roman Empire.  The Incarnation is one of the greatest, most beautiful mysteries in the universe as God on High came to dwell with His people and bring light and redemption to a world trapped in darkness and Sin. Advent is the season in which we take some time to meditate and reflect upon this beautiful gift. 

The high liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent have always held a special place in my heart because of their emphasis on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  But Advent has special significance because it, unlike any other season, most accurately expresses the now-not-yet feeling of the Kingdom of God.  It highlights the fact that we are waiting.  We’re waiting for the return of God, for the day when He will come and restore all things. 

Many of our Advent hymns capture this beautifully, especially “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Before the birth of Christ, God’s people lived in a time of waiting.  The space between the Old and New Testaments, between Malachi and Matthew, cover a span of over four hundred years.  That was four hundred years without a word from God, without a prophet.  It was four hundred years of one invasion after another as one conqueror overtook another.  And the people began to wonder, “When will YHWH come?  When will He send His Promised One?”

And then, announced by shepherds and angels, and greeted by Magi from the East, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  The Promised One had come!  The Kingdom of God was at hand!  But not quite.  He lived, he died, he rose again….but we’re still waiting.  We live between the two great Christ events of history, between His first coming and His second.  We live in the in-between time as we await the return of the King and the day when God will come again to dwell with His people, to wipe away every tear, and to finally and for all eternity make everything new (Rev. 21).

This is why Advent is so important.  Its a time of waiting…but waiting with expectation.  It is a time of hope in the midst of uncertainty.  Its symbols, songs, and rituals reflect the cries of our hearts for the return of the Redeemer.  And this is vital for us to remember as the Church today.  It is easy, in a world torn by war, injustice, wickedness, and evil, to become discouraged.  To lose heart.  To wonder, “Has God forgotten?  Where is He?  When will He fulfill His promises?”  Advent reminds us that we do not wait in vain, for God is at work bringing about His purposes in the world.

When we sing hymns like “Silent Night” we are reminded that though God seems silent, He is still at work.  He is quietly, subtly moving in His world.  When faced with the difficulties and pain of living in a world marked by Sin, we are reminded that the darkness does not have the last word, for God’s “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

This is what it means to have an Advent-shaped faith.  It is a reminder that though we live in a time of waiting, we cling to the God who fulfills his promises at the right time.  This is what gives us courage and endurance.  It’s what enables us to continue to fight the good fight, to continue speaking the Gospel to those who seem far from God, to work for justice in a world of lawlessness, to step once more into the mission field for the “fields are ripe for the harvest” (John 4:35).  We are an Advent people, for we know the God who has come and who will come again, and that is a hope that will not disappoint.

So sing the songs.  Put up the decorations.  Light the candles.  Tell the stories.  And may you have a blessed Advent as we await Emmanuel, God with Us.  Amen.

Reframing Our View of Religious Terrorism

"Battle-of-Ager-Sanguinis" by Original uploader was Asta at ru.wikipedia - Transferred from ru.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:nettadi.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Battle-of-Ager-Sanguinis.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Battle-of-Ager-Sanguinis.jpg

“Battle-of-Ager-Sanguinis” by Original uploader was Asta at ru.wikipedia – Transferred from ru.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:nettadi.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Battle-of-Ager-Sanguinis.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Battle-of-Ager-Sanguinis.jpg

SETTING THE STAGE
There is a major world religion that very few of us have spent any time studying. Though it has made a profound impact on world history, it is often ignored or overlooked. Over 1500 years old, it has spread from the Middle East to such far-flung places as Africa, Asia, and Europe. And while its adherents can be found in almost every major country, many of them live below the poverty line, fighting to survive on day-to-day subsistence living.

A monotheistic faith, it has rich theological, philosophical, and artistic expressions. Sadly, most of its followers live in ignorance of this fact, believing God to be a harsh and angry judge who punishes unbelievers and sinners in the afterlife. This ignorance is further reinforced by the fact that both its Scriptures and its worship are read and carried out in a language that most of its own people cannot read or understand. As such, the majority of this religion’s followers rely on the interpretations and teaching from a few educated religious leaders.

In abuse of their position of influence, several of these leaders have preached a version of the faith that encourages violence against those of other faith traditions. They impose harsh taxes on those of other monotheistic faiths and crowd them into ghettos and restricted communities. They execute those deemed heretics and burn their writings in an effort to purify the faith.

But these power hungry clerics are not content. So they rally their followers to wage a holy war against another sovereign nation, one that is rich and whose citizens include people from a variety of religious traditions, cultures, and people groups. These violent clerics’ goal is, ultimately, to overthrow this country and impose their own harsh view of their religion upon its inhabitants, even upon their fellow believers who do not share their own narrow and violent views. Their rallying cry is, “Convert or die!”

Sadly, many of this religion’s followers have taken up the battle cry, having been told that dying in this holy war guarantees them eternal life in paradise and the blessings of God in heaven. And so they march off to battle—men from every socio-economic and cultural background—united by their zeal for holy war.

The religion is Christianity during the Middle Ages. The target is Jerusalem. 

Why do I bring this up? Earlier this week I posted a column entitled ISIS & The War on Islam. Not surprisingly it caused a bit of stir. One of the common responses that I received was from fellow Christians who continued to argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that ISIS is nothing more than the latest expression of this ingrained hostility.

As such, I thought it would be worthwhile to respond to some of these criticisms by reminding us, as Christians, of our own background and noting some of the parallels between what we see in groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda and what happened during the Middle Ages with Christianity and the Crusades. 

SIDENOTE: STOP COMPARING HOLY WARS
Now, before I get too far into this comparison, let me start by addressing a common objection that I have heard over and over again. It goes something like this: “The [medieval] Muslims struck first and conquered the vast majority of the Mediterranean. Besides, they attacked and conquered far more territory than the Christians ever did.” Yes, yes, I have seen your YouTube videos and I have heard this argument.

But let’s get down to brass tax; holy war is holy war, whether being waged by Christians or Muslims. It is all-around bad news. While some people may want to make the Muslims seem like the only bad guys, keep in mind that the Christians of medieval Europe were just as bent on destroying Muslims in the Middle Ages as the Muslims were on conquering the Christians. The only difference is that the Muslim armies were better trained, unified, and led than the ragtag Christian forces that marched off to the Middle East. So it wasn’t for a lack of zeal that the Crusades never ultimately succeeded.

So rather than arguing in circles about who started what and how much territory so-and-so conquered, let’s focus on the bigger picture. The truth is that most Christians (maybe with the exception of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson) think that the Crusades were a bad idea. We, as Christians, recognize that the Crusades were not reflective of what it means to be a follower of Christ, and we are right to repudiate and denounce this dark chapter in our history. We recognize that what spurred on the Crusader mentality was a lot of ignorance, fear, bad theology, economic distress, and the propaganda campaigns of some of the clergy.

ISIS IS NOT ISLAM
So what does this have to do with groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Well, quite a bit actually. Muslims number over 1.6 billion. That is roughly 23% of the world’s population. Yet the vast majority does not even live in the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest number of Muslims is India and the nation with the largest Muslim majority, by percentage, is Indonesia. Islam’s central Scripture, the Qur’an, is written in Arabic. Yet, for most Muslims, Arabic is not their primary language. Finally, if figures are accurate, then the majority of Muslims live in underdeveloped or developing nations. They make ends meet on less that $1 a day, like much of the rest of the world.

So what happens when you have well-funded clerics from more extremist countries telling the rest of the Muslim world that what it means to be faithful to the teachings of Islam is to participate in open war against the West? You get groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda: organizations that actively recruit young people who are disgruntled, often economically poor, or just looking for purpose in an increasingly complex and confusing world.

But this does not mean that this is the truest expression of Islam. Islam is a faith tradition that is rich and complex. It has made a profound impact on world history, enriching the arts and the sciences, even during the medieval period. As such, we must become conversant with the rich history and legacy of this faith tradition. It is worth it to spend some time studying books about Islamic history and theology. It is important to learn from and read well-educated Muslim leaders and scholars as they articulate their faith to the world in ways that are reflective of their religious tradition.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that the majority of Muslims are not violent. They are doctors, business owners, policemen, professors, peace activists, and politicians. They are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who love their families and who serve their neighborhoods. They are our neighbors and our friends, our co-workers, clients, and service providers.

So let’s not lump them in with the psychopaths that we see on television. Let’s not step on their faith tradition by equating it with those terrorists who would seek to hijack the name “Islam” for their own sordid ends. Rather, let us let them define what Islam truly looks like. Let’s listen to their stories and seek to understand their faith tradition through their own eyes.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a theology professor who said, “One of the greatest disciplines you can pursue is learning to see the world from someone else’s perspective.” I would encourage us to do likewise with our Muslim neighbors by honestly asking ourselves the question, “What is it about Islam that makes it so attractive that it would make people like my friends and neighbors want to follow it?” 

SHIFTING THE PARADIGM: CALLING TERRORISM WHAT IT IS
One of the common objections that I have heard from people goes something like this: “Well yeah, there are nonviolent Muslims, but these people aren’t really being true to the religion of Muhammad. They are the liberals.”

First of all, not only is this insulting to the majority of Muslims around the world, but it is also not true. I’m hesitant to label the temperate movements within Islam “liberal” because there are many conservative Muslims who are non-violent as well. I think a wonderful example of this is the work that Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is doing through Zaytuna College in Berkley, California.

Zaytuna was founded “to help revive Islam’s educational and intellectual legacy and to popularize traditional learning among Western Muslims.” Its goal is to develop Muslim leaders “with the cultural literacy to tend to the spiritual and pastoral needs of American Muslims.” They do this by teaching the traditional Islamic sciences. It is a conservative institution through and through. Yet its founder, Sheikh Hamza, has also been an outspoken critic against groups like ISIS and has actively worked for peace and nonviolence over the course of his distinguished career. What this shows us is that just as there are liberal and conservative Christians who are nonviolent, there are also liberal and conservative Muslims who are nonviolent.

A better distinction would be to learn the common threads that all violent religious groups share in common and label them for what they are: terrorists. There is a huge body of literature out there that highlights the fact that religious extremists of every stripe—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.—share many of the same characteristics in terms of their values and aims. Someone who has done some great research on this is Jessica Stern in her book Terror in the Name of God. Likewise, it is worth it to read Landscapes of Jihad by Faisal Devji, as he paints a powerful picture of what actually drives extremists like Al-Qaeda and how they actively recruit people into their movement.

Again, my hope is that we can redefine this struggle as one that is not between Islam and everyone else, but rather as that between terrorists and the rest of the world. This is not about Islam. This is not about Muslims. This is about a group of violent psychopaths who want to destroy anyone—including Muslims—who does not agree with their own narrow brand of pseudo-religion.

My hope and prayer is that we, as Christians, would begin to stand with our Muslim neighbors in denouncing these violent fanatics and do so in a way that does not demonize and ostracize our friends.