Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Gift Worth Having

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full. (John 10.10)
Curses in Disguise
Some gifts backfire on their givers, as a hysterical video that made the rounds about this time last year shows. A clueless husband gives his wife a Thigh-Master for their anniversary. She immediately escorts him to a doghouse with a trap door that drops him into an underground sweatshop full of similarly inept husbands. Their only means of escape is convincing a stern, all-female parole board they’ve figured out why their gifts backfired. Other gifts backfire on their receivers. Many “gifts that keep on giving”—Fruit-of-the-Month subscriptions, for instance, or adorable bunnies—sometimes fit this bill. The initial delight fades, leaving a routine dilemma about what to do with cartons of perishables or a child who won’t clean his rabbit’s cage. The gift worth having must be something we truly want. The gift that keeps on giving must be something we can’t do without. Otherwise, we may discover these gifts are curses in disguise.

Unnecessary presents typically wind up stowed out of sight and mind. We can’t bring ourselves to toss them away and risk offending those who give them to us. But as the years wear on and the gifts pile up, they start taking. They steal space we could put to better use. They kill time and energy by forcing us to deal with them. And the longer we hang onto them, the more burdensome they become, gradually destroying our appreciation for the kind gestures behind them. Over time, “How thoughtful of them to give us an automated card shuffler” turns into “What made them think we’d ever use this?” It’s funny how gifts we don’t need ultimately become clutter we detest.

Gift and Giver
In their gospels and letters, the Apostles continually present Jesus as God’s Gift to humankind. This concept originates in Isaiah 9.6: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” And Jesus ratifies it several times, most famously in John 3.16 (a verse we’ll delve into next time): “God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son.” Yet while the concept holds firm, its construct proves surprisingly elastic. John and Paul in particular portray Jesus as a literal—i.e., physical—Gift, as well as the channel through which God’s grace and life are given. In 1 John 5.11, we read, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son,” while Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus in Romans 5.15 by saying, “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”

The dozens of variations on this idea coalesce into a unified theme: Jesus comes as Gift and Giver. He’s born specifically to provide the perfect Offering—a Gift of Love—for our redemption. “This is love,” 1 John 4.10 tells us, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” But in the span between His first breath in the manger and His last gasp on the cross, He teaches us to accept gifts God wants us to receive. No verse better summarizes the extent of what we can receive by and through Him than John 10.10: “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus epitomizes the Gift worth having and the Gift that keeps on giving. We need Him and the full life He gives.

Opening Our Lives
With Advent cresting this weekend and Christmas approaching, we have a moment to remember embracing the Gift of Christ is nothing short of opening our lives to all of God’s gifts: love, grace, mercy, acceptance, strength, purpose, joy, healing, hope, confidence, peace, creativity, holiness, and innumerable other treasures. They’re not ours for the asking; God gives them to us without reservation. This has always been so, even before God sends Jesus to offer them in Person. Psalm 84.11 says, “The LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” And get this: even blamelessness is a gift. Paul writes, “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3.22) No matter how much righteousness we scramble together, we’ll never accumulate enough to merit God’s gifts. Titus 3.5 stresses, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” So great is God’s love, He bestows His righteousness on us for no other reason than entitling us to every other gift He wants us to have.

The tiny Baby in a cow-crib is so much more than a Sacrifice destined for the altar. He’s Life—new life, eternal life, and full life. He’s the Gift worth having, the Gift that keeps on giving. Thus, Christmas transcends celebrating Christ’s birth; it’s the celebration of our lives. We experience it at its fullest by enlarging our worship to include gratefully accepting all He came to give. When Jesus arrived, everything we’ll ever want or need came with Him. If anything’s absent from our lives, it’s not because God decides we can’t have it. It’s because we haven't yet opened our lives to receive everything He gives.

Jesus came into the world as Gift and Giver, which transforms Christmas from a celebration of His birth into the celebration of the fullness of life we experience by receiving all of God's gifts.

(Next: Defying Nature)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Quiet Man

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1.24-25)
The Strong, Silent Type

“Strength calls unto strength” the proverb goes. Having been privileged to be part of a family of extraordinarily strong women (on both sides), I can attest to this, as I’ve also been blessed to grow up around amazingly strong men. Both sexes in our clan assert their strengths in what you might call classic Southern style. The women are more demonstrative, talkative, and imaginative—always organizing things, starting projects, getting involved, etc., which tends to catapult them into leadership positions. The men exhibit their strengths in quieter, complementary ways that support their wives, mothers, and daughters. They embody “the strong, silent type.” The outsider naïvely assumes our men play secondary roles, when nothing is further from the truth. Within our ranks, it’s no secret men and women share equal responsibility for leadership, and nothing happens without mutual consent.

Heritage surely colors my image of Joseph. Yet there’s no arguing he indeed is the strong, silent type. His strength leaps out of the story. Here’s a young, self-employed man from a good family, the Biblical equivalent of “Mayflower bluebloods” that can trace its genes back to Abraham. Joseph’s parents arrange his marriage to a local young woman. Everything’s going along as planned, when the rug gets yanked from beneath them. She gets pregnant through none of her doing. Acting as though nothing’s wrong is not an option. Joseph can rush into marriage, which effectively casts him as the child’s father and ruins his and Mary’s reputations. Or he can cancel their engagement, discreetly sending her away to deal with the baby and shame on her own. Loathsome as the second choice is, it’s the better of the two. Then a new wrinkle appears in their situation. An angel, perhaps the same one that visits Mary, tells Joseph to stand by her and consummate their marriage after she delivers. Such a tactic invites huge risk and demands enormous strength. But that’s what Joseph decides to do.

The Only Word

Many voices filter through the Christmas story—Mary’s, several angels’, Elizabeth’s, Zechariah’s, Herod’s, the Wise Men’s, and the shepherds’—but not one statement comes directly from Joseph. We don’t know what he says to his angel. We’re not privy to his conversations with Mary or his family. Everyone else talks; Joseph listens. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t reveal feelings or thoughts. All we know about him emerges in what he does. As the single unquoted person in the story, he’s definitely its most intriguing character. Furthermore, since we live in an age severely lacking spousal and paternal models, not hearing Joseph explicitly convey his inner thoughts and emotions is unfortunate.

Now brace yourself for the most delectable irony of all time. While the Gospels fail to record Joseph word-for-word, he becomes history’s most oft-quoted individual. In the half-second needed to ponder that, a thousand people (at least) spoke the only word ever attributed to him. After the Christ Child is born, Matthew 1.25 says Joseph “gave him the name Jesus.” The moment Joseph names the Baby he provides the world its most precious—and most abused—word. Billions around the world say “Jesus” daily, many of them several times a day. Some utter it in reverence. Others use it casually. Still others spit it in anger and frustration. But as the first human to say it, had Joseph not called Mary’s Son “Jesus,” we’d be no more likely to call that name than any other.

Preferences Aside

Joseph might have gained prominence by actually choosing Jesus’s name. But as the Baby isn’t his, he has no paternal naming rights. The angel gives Joseph Jesus’s name in advance. A weaker, less astute man would bristle at being told what to name the Child, resenting it as one more thankless task in an overall thankless job. Not Joseph. He sets his preferences aside to support Mary and follow God’s direction. Thus, on that frigid night, in that dim and gamy stable, when Joseph says, “Jesus,” the only word attributed to him forever shatters darkness and radiates warmth.

There’s a wealth of knowledge to glean from the Quiet Man. Listening, trusting, and obeying are far more important than speaking. Seeking God’s will is nobler than looking for recognition. Setting personal preferences aside to support those selected for more substantial duties is an equal honor and responsibility. What we say, not how much of it, is the measure of our character. Courage and leadership are revealed in our willingness to accept what we don’t understand as well as in our persistence when logic insists we give up. One word, two syllables—Jesus—is all we have from Joseph. Yet when he says that, he says it all.

Nothing Joseph ever said is directly quoted in Scripture, yet the one word we know he spoke makes him the most frequently quoted human in history.

(Next: The Gift Worth Having)

Postscript: The Women in Jesus's Past

Claire, over at A Seat at the Table, just posted a lovely supplement to the list of Joseph's ancestors that opens Matthew's account. Today's post originally contained a comment about his taking the time to list 42 generations of men, from Abraham to Joseph, which technically doesn't matter since Jesus has no biological father. [Matthew uses the list prove Jesus is "the seed of David, the seed of Abraham" {v1.1), but his rationale is a little sketchy given the Virgin Birth.]

I cut my comments for length and clarity's sake, but also with regret. We have no history of Mary's ancestry, which is truly unfortunate. However, when I saw Claire's post of "A Genealogy of Jesus Christ" compiled by Anne Patrick Ware of the Women's Liturgy Group of New York, I realized this is as close as we can get to recognizing the powerful influence the women in Jesus's past surely had on His life. It's a lovely piece of work--something worth reflecting on during this Advent season. (Thanks, Claire!)

A Genealogy of Jesus Christ

A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Miriam,
the daughter of Anna:
Sarah was the mother of Isaac,
And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,
Leah was the mother of Judah,
Tamar was the mother of Perez.
The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon
and Salmon have been lost.
Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.
Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse.
The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.
Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,
Naamah, the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.
Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.
Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.
The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.
Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,
Zibiah of Beersheba, the mother of Joash.
Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,
Jerusha bore Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.
Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,
Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,
Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.
Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiahim,
Nehushta was the mother of Jehiachinm
Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiaj.
Then the deportation to Babylon
the names of the mothers go unrecorded.
These are their sons:
Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,
Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,
Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,
Matthan, Jacob and Joseph, the husband of Miriam.
Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.
The sum of generations is therefore:
fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;
fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;
and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation
to Miriam, the mother of Christ.

Compiled by Ann Patrick Ware
of the Women’s Liturgy Group of New York

PS: If you've not yet got over to Claire's place, you must! It's a warm, wonderful, and inspiring oasis of calm in the midst the Web's chaos.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Travel Advisory

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. (Isaiah 43.1-2)
Just the Two of Us
I was a college sophomore when family friends invited me to tag along on a trip to see relatives in Cupertino, California—about an hour south of San Francisco. As I’d not yet come out at home, I concealed my delirium about visiting gay Mecca for the first time. Once we arrived, it seemed clear we’d eventually get there, but our hosts were in no hurry to pile us into their van and head north. So, while patiently biding my time, I hatched a huge crush on their son, Brian, a straight surfer type in his mid-20’s with an unassumingly seductive swagger. San Francisco soon took a back seat to anything he suggested, even the altogether unappealing notion “the guys” should go deep-sea fishing early one morning.

The day came and we reached Half Moon Bay to find conditions too rough for sailing. Things looked to end better than I hoped after we decided to eat at a seaside café and then go to San Francisco. Alas, as we finished, the skipper announced the expedition was back on. “It’s still rough,” she said, “15-to-18 foot swells farther out. But we’ll manage.” By the time we dropped anchor, I’d spewed breakfast and most of my guts into the sea. To the amusement of the older men, I spent the first half of the day flat of my back, too sick and humiliated to budge. Brian sensed how ashamed and afraid I felt, though. He knelt beside me and said, “Let’s get you back on your feet. We can’t let this beat you.” Once I felt stable enough to stand, he gave me some invaluable advice. “Don’t look at the waves. If you focus on the horizon, the waves won’t bother you.” He added, “Don’t worry about the other guys. We’ll go to the other side, just the two of us.” That should have set my heart racing. But wanting him had left my mind entirely. I needed him, and he was there. While dozens of similarly benign crushes are lost to time, the care he showed me that day made him unforgettable.

Belonging to God

I always think of Brian when reading Isaiah 43.1-2. It’s an old favorite, because it declares God’s constant concern and presence with us in the worst situations. Nature can rise up against you, it says, but you have nothing to fear. I’m with you. “I have redeemed you; I’ve summoned you by name; you are Mine.” Since that fishing trip stands as my most awful encounter with Nature, the experience resurfaces when I read this. Brian’s advice echoes in my head: “Look to the horizon. Don’t worry about anyone else. It’s just the two of us.”

I should have passed on the fishing trip. After I heard it would be rough going, I should have hung back on shore. But hidden desires drove me ahead. I had no inkling my harmless pursuit would turn into a sickening, humiliating episode. Since then, I’ve observed most plans fueled by concealed motives end on stormy seas. Usually, we’d never wander into these situations on our own. Yet if they include desirable people, we can’t say no. Then, should the weather turn nasty, we’re often reliant on the very people we want to impress. What’s more, we’re not always as fortunate as I was. Many people we find alluring aren’t as intrigued by us. We may be so far below their radar they don’t notice we need help. Feeling lost and alone in a storm is one of the scariest feelings there is.

That’s why recognizing God in every situation is so vital. Even when foolish ideas ship us out to sea, He stays with us. He doesn’t do this for our sake alone. Our safety concerns Him because we belong to Him. He invested His all to redeem us and called us by name. When situations we venture into turn ugly, everyone else may ridicule and abandon us. It’s just we two—God and us. But since One of us is God, we have every confidence He’ll help us to our feet and stabilize our focus by looking beyond our surroundings. Belonging to God keeps us secure.

We Survive

The Isaiah passage also brings to mind a favorite story found in all three synoptic Gospels. In this case, the disciples hit stormy waters because Jesus sends them there. In fact, rather than sailing off in hopes of excitement, they’re trying to escape it. After preaching for hours, Jesus asks the disciples to sail away from the crowd and find somewhere to rest. He falls asleep as they push off and doesn’t stir when a deadly tempest arises. They wake Him, asking, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4.38) It’s a silly question purely on a natural level. Why would seasoned sailors expect a carpenter to know what to do? But it’s still crazier from a spiritual angle. What causes them to think Jesus doesn’t care for them? He stands up, commands the storm to cease, and challenges the men: “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (v40) Didn’t He call them? Aren’t they His? How can any situation make them insecure if He’s with them?

Our faith journey carries a travel advisory: bad weather ahead. Sooner or later, we meet tumultuous, threatening conditions. Vanity and selfishness lead to some of our troubles. Others we encounter by obeying Christ’s commands. Either way, however, we survive. Not because we deserve to or we’re smart enough to make it on our own. We outlast our storms because we belong to God. We have no reason to fear or feel insecure. Our safety is His concern.

Whether hidden desires plunge us into stormy seas or we encounter them while following Christ, we have nothing to fear. He’s with us. Our safety is His concern.

(Next: The Quiet Man)