Jesus Is

“It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” This was the famous response then-President Bill Clinton gave to a question asked of him about the scandal that rocked his presidency. Much fun was made of his lawyerly parsing of the question, of his squirrelly, squirming attempt to avoid telling the plain truth.

Oddly enough, this phrase came to mind when I considered the third aspect of Advent: the Advent of the present tense. In between the Advent of history — when Jesus came — and the Advent of the end of history — when Jesus will come again — is the Advent of the present, when Jesus comes into our personal history. It is here that we consider the Jesus of the here and now, the Jesus who is.

But what does it mean that Jesus is? In Advent, we contemplate Jesus’ Incarnation, His becoming human. But having “put on humanity” in the Incarnation, did He shed it once His earthly assignment was done? In other words, is Jesus still human? When we speak about Jesus in the present tense, are we talking about a purely spiritual being that has gone “home”, reverting to some pre-incarnation state? Or are we talking about someone who retains His humanity even as He has been glorified and is seated on the throne?

This isn’t merely a matter of splitting semantic hairs. It makes all the difference in the world to me. I always took great comfort in knowing that Jesus was human. He laughed and loved and mourned. He was hungry and tired. He became angry and frustrated and felt pain when his friends betrayed him. But if Jesus’ humanity isn’t just past tense, if it isn’t just some sense memory, if He knows what it is like to be human because he is still human — that adds a dimension of intimacy and immediacy that someone who is merely remembering an experience can’t give.

Jesus is — and not just in an ethereal way, at great remove. Now, maybe this isn’t the revelation to you that it has been to me. Perhaps you are one of those people who talks about and actually has a personal relationship with Jesus. Maybe you talk about Jesus as your friend or brother. I’ve long felt like a second-class Christian because as often as I’d heard these words, that was not how I saw Jesus.   Until recently, that is.

I was in a prayer session and during a guided meditation, I was asked to recall an early childhood memory. What surfaced was a frightening one: I’m five years old, blinded by the bandages covering my eyes after eye surgery. My cousin taunts me about all the monsters I can’t see lurking around every corner. I am helpless and afraid and vow that I never will be again. This was a seminal experience; so much of my life has been spent trying to protect that little girl.

My prayer partner asks me to imagine Jesus in the scene. I see Him sitting next to me, I feel His arm around me. She asks, “What does he say to you?” “He is says ‘I’ll take care of little Laura. You go and do what you have to do’.”

Jesus has never been more real to me than at that moment and all the moments since when I feel weak and small. Jesus comes, body and soul, to reassure, to comfort and to free me to move forward. In His eternal humanity, He comes as my brother and friend, who knows firsthand the joys and sorrows of this life. He comes as “the image of the invisible God” to offer me hope and healing as only God can. And every time is a new Advent, a new coming of Jesus into the world, my world. Jesus is.  

 

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Do You Believe in Magic?

“There’s not much traffic today.” My husband — my dear, sweet, non-neurotic, Midwestern husband — makes this benign observation, and I’m quick to shush him. “Don’t say that! The Evil Eye will hear you!” This is my Italian upbringing talking. Sicilians are mighty superstitious people, and they believe that the Evil Eye is just waiting for you to express some happiness or pleasure. Then, it will swoop in to gleefully relieve you of it. As soon as you say, “There’s not much traffic” you’ll find yourself able to count the blades of grass in the parkway median. The moment you observe, “What a lovely day,” it will pour. Exclaim, “I feel great!” you’ll be visited by ailments that would make Job’s suffering look like a day at the spa. If my family had a crest, it would say, “Whatever you do, never, never, tempt the Evil Eye.”

Now, I don’t really believe in the Evil Eye any more, but old habits die hard. The fact is, believing in magic (evil or otherwise) appeals to something primal in all of us. When confronted with things beyond our understanding or control, we instinctively seek to understand and control them. Sometimes this means seeking out a supernatural solution: astrology, Tarot cards, crystals, shamans, and psychics are just some of the kinds of “magic” people turn to when their own efforts fall short. Magic says: Make the right sacrifices, chant the right words, bring the right offering and whatever supernatural forces there are can be persuaded to grant your request.

Ultimately, magic is a transaction.

We present our desires, offer the prescribed words or actions, and voila! Easier than ordering a latte. This is why I think these forms of “magic” are so attractive to so many people. We think it is an impersonal, low-risk, “What have I got to lose?” proposition. And the best part is, if your wish is granted, the rest of your life remains unchanged and unchallenged. We think of magic as an encounter with the supernatural on our terms, and those are the terms we like best. (Of course, if you believe there is a malign force of evil in the world — and I do — than any encounter with it through magic is not spiritually neutral. We may think we are in control of this transaction, but we couldn’t be more wrong.)

Now, miracles are a different story. And by miracles I mean God’s intervention in our world in ways that defy our understanding of time, space and matter or are beyond any human ability.

If magic is a transaction, then God’s miracles are about revelation.

Scripture is full of God’s miracles: Creation. The parting of the Red Sea. Jesus healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. The resurrection. It is easy to think of most of these as God seeing a problem and fixing it. Need to get across a body of water? No problem. Not enough food to feed the multitudes? I’ve got this. Blind? lame? Possessed by demons? Bring it on.

While God’s miracles did accomplish those things, their purpose is much grander, much more cosmic than fixing problems. Every time God breaks into our world to act, it is an act of self-revelation. In creation, He is saying, “I am a creative God, a God of order and of beauty.” When He parted the Red Sea He was saying, “I am a God of rescue and restoration.” When Jesus feeds the five thousand, He is saying, “I am the God of provision.” When He heals, He is saying, “I am the God of Shalom — of wholeness and peace.” When He raises Jesus from the dead, He is saying, “With me, death never has the final word.”

God’s self-revelation is an invitation to relationship.

God is not making these proclamations just to hear Himself talk. He longs to be in relationship with his people, and as with any relationship, self-revelation is the first step. “This is who I am. This is how much I love you.”

I think this is exactly why some people have a hard time accepting God’s miracles. I have known people who were perfectly willing to believe that the scent of apple blossoms would help them find their lost keys, but flatly reject God’s miracles. I have known people who believe that shaman incantations can cure disease, but consider Jesus’ healing miracles laughable.

I think that we know instinctively that God’s miracles are inviting us into something deeper, something beautiful and just a little frightening. On the most basic level, it means acknowledging there is a Creator God who is powerful beyond our understanding and operates in ways we can’t predict, often don’t understand and can’t control. In short, there is a God, and it’s not me. For independent, self-actualizing, self-sufficient, self-made people, this can be a tough pill to swallow.

Unlike magic, which leaves us unchanged and unchallenged, meeting the God Who Reveals Himself leaves open the possibility of new life. And while new life with God can mean liberation from things we long to shed, it can also mean that God will ask us to let go of things we want to hold onto. This, too, can be a stumbling block.

In His miracles, God declares, “This is who I am. This is how much I love you.” No forces of magic offer this. No Evil Eye is interested in our flourishing, our peace, our joy. No amorphous auras care about our pain, much less want to enter into it. The Universe doesn’t wait with outstretched arms for us to come “home”. It is only the God who creates, parts the sea, heals, feeds and defeats death who does that.

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The Day After

On this Day After, I feel I should be adding my voice to the chorus of lamentation over the death and suffering in Paris. I believe that somehow I should have something to say, some insight to offer, some outrage to give voice to, some balm for our aching souls. I have none.

I feel I should be posting encouraging Scripture verses that reassure us that God is still on his throne, despite the evidence to the contrary. Or perhaps I should be offering prayers of comfort. Maybe my contribution is a clenched fist of solidarity and a vow of “No retreat, no surrender!”

I can’t seem to muster any of these things. I am just sad. And mad. And afraid. The words of the Isis statement claiming responsibility are meant to strike fear in my heart, and although I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of frightening me, they do. They are words of darkness and chaos; people who say yes to this kind of mass murder are not likely to say no to much else. And while I feel safe here, now, I know I have no more reason to than those who innocently went out to dinner, or to a concert, or to a soccer game yesterday in Paris.

I ache for the lives lost, for the suffering ahead for the wounded, for the people afraid to leave their homes for fear of what a trip to the bakery might hold. And I know that God wants me to feel compassion, to mourn with those who mourn. I know that when I do this, I am most like Jesus. And yet, I somehow have to do this without being overcome by the horror of what has happened, I have to hang onto some hope. Hope that God will comfort. Hope that God’s justice will prevail. Hope that this will not be the final word.

But maybe The Day After it is too soon for me to hope. This morning, I opened my Bible app and this is what I saw:

I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

                                                             (Psalm 121:1-2)

On The Day After, as I resist being pulled into the vortex of death, darkness and despair, all I can manage is to lift up my eyes to the hills and wait for the Lord to send his help.

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Faith and Fear

walking-on-water-christ-saves-peter-began-to-sink.jpg!Blog

When I was 30, I thought that my life had become too safe. I decided that every time I went on vacation, I would do something that terrified me. So I parasailed over the Atlantic Ocean. One time, despite my fear of heights, I climbed a series of rickety ladders leaning unsteadily up against the side of a mesa in Arizona. I keep pictures of these accomplishments on my bulletin board to remind me that it is possible to not let fear rule my life.

Fear is just part of being human, which is why the Bible talks about it a lot. (The word itself appears 399 times!) Scripture assumes that we will feel fear. The question it asks is, “What are you going to do about it?”

One of my favorite stories is from the book of Daniel. Here we find Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, condemned to die because they would not worship the golden idol of the king of Babylon. They expected God would be faithful to His faithful promise to be with them, even if he didn’t save them from the fire.  Now it’s easy to think that their great faith in God meant they weren’t afraid. I think they were plenty afraid.

But faith is about what we do with our fear.

Do we allow our fears to set the boundaries of our lives, then resign ourselves to living within them? Or do we acknowledge our fear, even respect it, but make it subject to boundaries set by God – what God expects of us and what we can expect of God.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did that. Afraid or not, they knew what God expected of them: You shall have no other gods before me. Afraid or not, they knew what they could expect of God: God would be faithful to them, too.

Now, they weren’t sure how God would do that. They just knew he would. And when they are thrown into the furnace, we see how God fulfills his promise. A fourth man, “who had the appearance of a god” enters into the fire with them, and all four emerge, unharmed. Instead of removing these three faithful believers from the danger and pain, God was with them – in the most literal sense.
And for a completely different picture of faith and fear, I think of Peter. Peter and the disciples find themselves in a storm — the wind is howling, the boat is pitching back and forth and when he sees Jesus walking on water towards him, he thinks it’s some ghost come to finish them off. But even though it looks like Jesus, and sounds like Jesus, Peter needs more proof. He says, “If it is you, tell me come to you on the water.” Peter gets his proof – he is able to walk on the water towards Jesus. Then Peter looks at the storm and sinks because in that moment, he doubts that God is with him.
In the middle of the fire, you can almost hear Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego look at the fourth man and say, “God is with us!” as if they expected him all along. Of course God is with them! That is what God does.
In the middle of the storm, Peter seems to say, “God is with us?” as if he can’t quite believe it.  Peter not only didn’t expect God to be with him in the storm, he didn’t believe it when he was.

Faith is about what we do with our fear.  It is not about some unshakable certainty. It is not some superhuman bravado. It is expecting God to show up when what we fear has come true.
When you are in the middle of the storm, or the fire, or the health crisis, or the family problem, what are you expecting?  Do you expect God to show up?  More importantly, do you recognize it when he does?

 

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Welcome to Ordinary Time

always feel a little sad on January 7. The 12 days of Christmas have come and gone, and the decorations are put away for another year. The house looks naked without the garland on the mantle and the staircase, the bowls of deep jewel-toned ornaments, the ever-growing collection of Santas on the bookcase. And the corner of the living room where the tree has been standing since the day after Thanksgiving — Just what usually goes there?

I feel as empty as that corner looks.  The next great milestones of the Christian calendar  — Lent and Easter — are months away.  It’s back to every day life, with no familiar rituals, no shared traditions, in a season without a name.

Well, that last part isn’t actually true.  The time before and after Christmas and Easter — the great lodestars of the Christian life —  does have a name.  It’s called Ordinary Time. We live two thirds of the calendar year — 33 weeks — in Ordinary Time.

It’s hard not to feel that somehow these are the humdrum times, so dull they don’t even have a cool name. Where’s the hoopla of Advent and Christmas?  Where’s the spiritual rigor of Lent and the joy of Easter?  It’s easy to feel like I’m just marking time until the next spiritual  high.

Somehow, this all makes me think about Peter and his experience on the mountaintop with Jesus.  He has an awesome (in the true meaning of that now-overused word) experience when he sees Jesus transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah.   His first reaction?  “Let’s stay here forever”. Would you ever want to leave?   But Jesus says, no, we must go back down, down to “real” life, back to the demanding  crowds, conflict with authorities, back to the messy world He came to save.  He says, in essence, “We have to take this magnificent encounter with God and live it out in Ordinary Time.”

And so it is with us. The Christian life isn’t lived on the mountain. It’s lived in the everyday. And every day isn’t Christmas or Easter, and really, that’s a good thing. As wonderful as it would seem, we would get bored, we would take it for granted. You can’t live forever on the mountaintop without diminishing its power. And you can’t live forever in the valley without the nourishment, encouragement and wonder of the mountaintop experience.  Both are essential to a life of discipleship.

I guess that’s why the church calendar is often depicted as a circle.  The Incarnation and the Resurrection are the touchstones, for sure. But it’s in the weeks of Ordinary Time we figure out what difference these touchstones make in our lives. What difference does it make to me, sitting here in my office in 2015 that the Word became flesh? How is my life any different knowing that? Yes, Jesus was resurrected. But what does my resurrection life look like? What just happened and what am I going to do about it?

And then, these weeks of Ordinary Time lead us, inexorably, back to the next celebration of the Incarnation, the next celebration of the Resurrection, and hopefully, we aren’t the same as we were the year before. We can hope that the Holy Spirit has had another year to soften our hearts, to reveal our sin, to give us courage and hope and joy. And the next time we enter Ordinary Time, we will not be the same as the year before. And so it goes.

Two-thirds of our lives are lived in Ordinary Time. Two-thirds of the New Testament is a collection of narratives and letters telling believers what the events of the Gospel look like when they are lived out in the valley of everyday life.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.

[tweetthis] The Gospel’s true power to change the world and to change us lies in Ordinary Time.[/tweetthis]As wonderful as the Gospel’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection are, its true power to change the world and to change us — then and now — is in the other two-thirds of the New Testament. The two-thirds that challenges us to think differently, live differently, love differently. The Gospel’s true power to change the world and to change us lies in Ordinary Time.

 

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