Monday, December 27, 2010


When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2.13)

One Vision from Two Versions

Attempting to weave a unified timeline from Matthew and Luke’s Nativity accounts invites madness. The Holy Family, Bethlehem, the Virgin Birth, and (of course) the event’s magnitude are their only common threads. Luke’s version highlights Christ’s humble beginnings: Mary and Joseph are modest people; the Child is quietly born in a stable; angels summon shepherds from the countryside to worship Christ the Savior. Roughly 40 days later, as required by Mosaic Law, Mary and Joseph present Jesus to the Temple priests in Jerusalem. There, a holy man named Simeon confirms the Babe is the Messiah, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2.32) Luke’s is a tender, heartwarming story.

Matthew’s tone and timing couldn’t be more dissimilar. Since his story is all about Christ the King, he wraps it in august language and political intrigue befitting a monarch. Joseph takes center stage, as his family traces its roots to Abraham—i.e., he comes from royal blood. A star on the eastern horizon captivates eminent astronomers who traverse the Arabian Peninsula to greet the Christ Child. They stop in Jerusalem to pay homage to King Herod, telling him they’re in search of the recently born King of the Jews. Their news troubles Herod and his court. Worse yet, it places Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in mortal danger. After the Magi leave the house where they find the Holy Family—Matthew will have none of this lowly stable business—an angel instructs Joseph: “Get up! Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2.13) It’s anyone’s guess how they flee to Egypt, remain there until Herod’s death, and still manage a high-profile appearance six weeks after Jesus is born—in Jerusalem, of all places—in the Temple Herod built, no less—where a prophet announces Jesus is the Child Herod’s scouring the land to locate and destroy. How do we get one vision from two versions?

Why Egypt?

Up to the birth, we sort of blur them together. The accounts basically run in parallel and if we fudge a few details to line up the Wise Men and shepherds for the star-lighted manger scene, well, it’s a small fee in exchange for such a priceless tableau. After the guests depart, however, no amount of buffing can fix the discrepancies between the two stories. If we insisted on reading every word in the Bible as factually true, we couldn’t be sure which to believe. But since Biblical truth transcends trivia like dates and times—and Scripture’s purpose surpasses those of almanacs and textbooks—we can divorce Matthew from Luke to consider what each wants to show us. Luke’s intention behind the Temple presentation is straightforward. He slips in Simeon’s prophecy to establish Christ as the Savior of all humankind, Gentiles and Jews. Matthew is less forthcoming with his reasons for placing Jesus in peril and sending Him in exile as an Infant.

Our first question is, “Why Egypt?” Mary and Joseph just as easily could go east—more easily, actually, as the distance from Bethlehem to Judea’s eastern border is less than a third of the 200-mile trek to Egypt. The angel’s directive somehow seems backwards. Egypt represents everything Christ will defeat: oppression, powerlessness, loss of identity, and death. Yet its remove and reputation are why there’s no better place to go. It’s the last place anyone expects to find Israel’s newborn King. Furthermore, since the Egyptians are religiously isolated from Messianic mindsets, Christ’s anonymity is guaranteed. In many ways, it would be like hiding the infant Dalai Lama in America’s Bible Belt. For all the locals know, Mary and Joseph are merely sojourners; the Child’s identity holds no import for them.

Newness Covers Our Lives

Then, beyond its pragmatic appeal, Egypt’s selection symbolizes something so thrilling we strain to absorb it. The angel tells Joseph to move Christ to Egypt to liberate Israel from its past. God does a new thing here, transforming the site of the Jews’ greatest sorrows into a sanctuary for their highest hopes. Unlike his Old Testament namesake—who enters Egypt as a slave and ushers Israel into bondage—Christ’s presence enables this Joseph to enter and leave Egypt as a free man. The Egyptian shadow is no more. The kingdom of terror and torment is now a safe place.

In retrospect, it’s a good thing that Joseph and Mary don't leave Bethlehem before the angel reroutes them to Egypt. One can hear their loved ones challenge them: “Are you crazy? Egypt is nowhere to raise God’s Child! How did you dream up such an idea? After all our people suffered there, that makes absolutely no sense!” Blinded by deeply imbedded phobias, they’d miss the point. Christ changes everything. Former oppressors become future protectors—often unawares. Hierarchies that divested us of power inadvertently wind up preserving it. Places that stole our identity as God’s people ultimately prove instrumental in restoring it. Villains who threatened our lives unwittingly help us thrive. The past we knew without Christ is no more. God is doing a new thing, and that newness covers our entire lives. It turns wherever we go—not just literally, but as we journey back and forth through our days—into a safe place. The Christ with us, in us, transforms our sites of sorrow into sanctuaries of hope.

Christ comes to liberate us from the past we knew by transforming it with newness that covers our entire lives.

Postscript: “Imagine Me”

I’ve posted this video before, yet its power keeps calling me back. Turn up the volume and as you watch its riveting depiction of a past without Christ and how Christ’s presence changes everything, see your sites of sorrow transform into sanctuaries of hope. Kirk Franklin’s extraordinary ballad, “Imagine Me.” (Lyrics here.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1.19)

Ancient History

We’ve got so comfortable discussing sex, marriage, and pregnancy we forget as late as the 1960’s, they weren’t appropriate topics for casual conversation. Sex stayed off the table entirely, while marriage and pregnancy only got mentioned when they were happy news—meaning, in mutual context. Divorces were like deaths. Unfaithful spouses were shunned as if they were murderers. Living in misery for the sake of the children—many of whom were badly scarred by anger and violence that attended “sticking it out”—was viewed as the best thing to do. Unwed pregnancies shocked everyone. Most middle- and upper-class single women who conceived quietly surrendered their babies for adoption to spare their family’s disgrace. (That is, if they didn’t pay a discrete visit to a trusted gynecologist, a luxury seldom available to lower-class unwed mothers, who had little choice but to raise their children on their own.) Couples cohabiting without marriage licenses were dismissed as morally reckless. If they brought children into the world without marrying, they were vilified all the more.

If this reads like ancient history, that’s because it is. Though methods and morals of marital relations, along with childbearing, have waxed and waned across time, it’s only very recently that society as a whole has taken a more liberal view. (That’s why two of English’s most inflammatory castigations refer to children born out of wedlock.) Reading the Christmas accounts, cross-referencing Matthew’s telling from Joseph’s perspective with Luke’s version from Mary’s, we’re jolted by the intense pressure they’re under from the first. Honoring custom, their marriage contract has been formalized, the dowry negotiated, and their union announced. We now call this “engagement to marry,” though reasons for the delay have got lost. In Mary and Joseph’s time publishing banns (as the practice eventually was called) gives time for anyone to disclose information that might nullify the union after consummation. Grounds include: prior sexual activity, previous marriages not yet dissolved, hereditary illnesses, and legally prohibited degrees of kinship.

Deadly Serious

Ancient communities adopt such policies to protect their interests. If new facts void a marital contract after sexual union, the divorcée and children become social outcasts andburdens. To preempt future scandal from this, families do thorough background checks before entering into the contract. Publishing it seals the deal, with the couple named husband and wife before living and sleeping together. Sex is forbidden to bar status changes during the wait. Non-compliant couples face fornication charges. Straying partners risk adultery convictions. Under Mosaic Law, both are capital offenses. So when Mary finds out she’s pregnant without her consent—a little detail we don’t dare mention—and Joseph learns of it, they realize they’re fodder for deadly serious scandal. Mary’s benefitted from discussing the situation with God’s messenger; her response is tempered by resolute faith. Her husband isn’t as fortunate.

Joseph’s first impulse urges him to take the most legally prudent route. But it’s an impossible dilemma forcing him to choose where his heart lies. Matthew 1.19 spells it out beautifully: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” That is, he decides to obey his community and religion’s rules by discretely severing the marriage contract before Mary’s pregnancy becomes obvious. That frees her to disappear—possibly returning to Jerusalem to live with her cousin, Elizabeth, and raise her Child there. If all goes well, the couple will escape scandal and legal action they’d inevitably confront in Nazareth. It’s a smart plan. But it’s not a safe one, because it’s not God’s plan. To paraphrase a thrilling observation my pastor made in last Sunday, by design, God hands Joseph a scandalous situation and dispatches an angel instructing him to face the scandal with Mary and choose to protect someone beside himself. “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” the angel says, “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (v20)

The Big Difference

That’s the big difference between Mary and Joseph. She has no choice. He does. Christ’s presence in his life hinges on courage to confront scandal and placing Mary’s welfare above his own. He says “no” to fear. He says “no” to pressure. He says “no” to the Law! Telling them “no” is how he tells God, “Yes.” And his willingness to confront scandal is essential here, because scandal will follow Jesus from manger to tomb. Based on this tiny glimpse of Joseph’s character, can we doubt Jesus is also his Son? God chooses Joseph as Christ’s earthly role model in full confidence he’ll make influential choices.

From what we see in Joseph and the Babe he raises to adulthood, by its very nature, a Christ-led life is scandalous. If that doesn’t shock us, perhaps we’re not aware how often fear, pressure, and accepted rules decide our actions. What seems smart isn’t always safe, because our wisdom typically lacks courage and puts self-interests first. That’s not what God wants. It’s not what Christ teaches. It’s not what Jesus exemplifies. So we’re subject to derision in communities where logic ridicules faith. So? So religionists bellow when we defy their rules and say yes to God. So? So determination to house Christ in our hearts, nurturing Christ’s presence in our thoughts and actions, raises suspicions and threats of rejection. So? The Babe conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit is the Christ conceived in us. This thing is bigger than we realize—too holy to hide, too daring for discretion, too wonderful to worry with human rules. If dreading scandal sends us packing, we haven’t fully embraced God’s purpose and power in our lives. Face scandals. Don’t be afraid. Choose right. Say “Yes!”

Saying no to fear, pressure, and manmade rules is how we tell God, “Yes!”

Postscript: “Trading My Sorrows”

Oh my, talk about scandal! I’m about to embed a John Tesh video into this post! But go with me on this. When you hear the refrain, I’m sure you’ll get it. Saying “yes” should swing wide huge windows of joy in our spirits. And indeed it does.

Monday, December 20, 2010


This is an account of the origins of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham... There were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. (Matthew 1.1,17)


Among all the things the Bible is, it’s the exhaustive record of one family. It covers 62 generations in all, 20 from Adam to Abraham and then, by Matthew’s count, 42 from Abraham to Jesus. Treating the Bible as a dynastic saga leaves us uneasy, though, as if we’re forcing it into a genre beneath its dignity. It feels sacrilegious to imagine Holy Scripture sandwiched between the Caesars, Borgias, Bourbons, and Kennedys. But Old Testament genealogists and Matthew would argue God’s early dealings with humanity are family matters. From Adam to Abraham, the focus is bloodline. Ethnicity doesn’t emerge until God promises Abraham he will father a great nation, Israel, which approaches nationhood as a family matter by taking its name from Abraham's grandson, Jacob, and self-identifies as his “children.” After Abraham, Bible history is consumed by marital and reproductive crises. It’s no stretch to say, when the dynasty teeters, wars, invasions, coups, captivities, famines, and plagues take a back seat. God’s sacred oath to bless Abraham’s offspring is Israel’s raison d’être. Family comes first since its DNA holds the deed to God’s promise.

We resist approaching the Bible as a family saga because dynasties are horribly messy. Heroes are few. Scoundrels run riot. Usually it’s hard to tell one from the other. Titans crumble to lust, greed, and blood-thirst. Conspiracies abound, paranoia thrives, children rebel, parents grieve, tables turn, and heads roll. “Maybe that’s the stuff of opera, tabloids, and TV miniseries," we say, "but surely not the Bible!” Alas—and I’m guessing you’re already way ahead of me—it’s truer than we prefer to believe. To verify this, we need look no further than Matthew’s genealogy, which opens his gospel to establish Jesus’s bona fides as Abraham’s descendant and a rightful heir to David’s throne. In the process, he reveals more about Jesus’s background than he probably wants us to see.


Matthew lists an illustrious pantheon of patriarchs and kings: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Boaz, David, Solomon, et al. His first challenge is contriving a way to connect Jesus to this lineage, as He isn’t Joseph’s biological heir. The writer fixes this by including five women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and, finally, Mary—who give birth to legendary sons. The importance of adding these women to the roster can’t be overstated for its implications to first-century readers and its affront to patriarchal mentality imbedded in Christian traditions to this day. Every one of them is a potential victim of chauvinistic legalism. Yet, while Matthew traces bloodline through the fathers, calling out five mothers allows him to stitch a thread of redemption into Jesus’s story. Like her four predecessors, Mary bears mention because she is God’s vessel of intervention to correct the dynasty’s waywardness and fulfill God’s promise. What Matthew can’t fix are warts on the dynasty’s most prominent men. In some ways, they’re extraordinarily heroic. In others, they’re hopeless scoundrels.

Abraham lets his wife become Pharaoh’s plaything in exchange for favors; then he disowns Hagar and Ishmael to appease Sarah’s envy. After Isaac gets tricked into marrying an ugly sister, he negotiates a new deal to wed the pretty one. Jacob steals his brother’s inheritance and swindles his father-in-law. After Tamar is left childless by two of Judah’s sons, he sends her from his house—a violation of Jewish custom—to spare his youngest boy from marrying her; he later mistakes her for a prostitute and impregnates her. Boaz, as next-of-kin to Ruth’s late husband, is legally bound to marry her. But he settles for letting her work his fields with other women until she sleeps with him. Then he claims her. Where do we start with David? He doesn’t avenge his daughter when her stepbrother rapes her, creating enmity between him and another son, who dies in a freak accident. He has a neighbor killed to marry the man’s widow. He murders anyone who gets in his way, Jew and non-Jew alike. Solomon collects 700 queens, plus 300 concubines, and unwisely turns from God to please his pagan wives. These are just the headliners. If we vetted Matthew’s genealogy line-by-line, few of its entries could boast of lifelong moral and spiritual integrity.

Living Truthfully

Matthew’s reasons for opening with Jesus’s genealogy are legitimate and noble. He’s undertaken the task of reworking Mark’s earlier account of Jesus’s ministry into a full-fledged biography. (Luke will do the same.) Since Mark begins with Jesus’s baptism, His birth is the first omission to be rectified. Matthew gives great consideration to framing his book for readers he hopes to reach. He intends to prove to Jewish converts that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by the prophets. Yet, even in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus distances Himself from the Messianic dynasty. When people call Him “son of David,” He never acknowledges it. In His last week of human life, He severs all ties to His lineage by asking the Pharisees, “Whose son is the Messiah?” They answer, “David’s son.” Jesus challenges them with Psalm 110, where David refers to the Messiah as “Lord.” He asks, “If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22.45) The contradictions bursting through Matthew’s genealogy, combined with Jesus’s apparent disregard for His dynastic background, teach us a powerful lesson.

Family background doesn’t define us. Regardless how good or bad our “stock” may be, in the end, we alone are responsible for our identity and character. The best of families are riddled with scoundrels and hypocrites—some of them more twisted than any you’d find in “lesser” families. We shouldn’t accept shame or humiliation for our family’s flaws, nor should we submit to pressures to pretend to be something we’re not. Family façades are seldom accurate or truthful; admiration they generate is illusory. That’s the fallacy in keeping up appearances and worrying what neighbors think. In the end, Matthew’s genealogy does us a much greater service than confirming Jesus’s Messianic credentials. It proves authenticity of self is vital. Following Christ obliterates all stereotypes and false expectations—including those within and about our families. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus says in John 14.6. Christ comes to show us we can live truthfully as ourselves. Living truthfully is why we come to Christ.

(Next post: Scandals)

All family trees—including Jesus’s—hang heavy with scoundrels and hypocrites. Our origins may shape us, but they don’t define us.

Postscript: A Matter of Choice

Authenticity of self is a matter of choice—following Christ’s example. I recently found this inspiring medley of “I Choose Jesus” (written by an old family friend, Mosie Lister) and “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” performed by Fortunato Yabut III and the Centerville Presbyterian Church Chorale (Fremont, California). May this Christmas renew our confidence that following Christ, not family origin or anything else, is what defines us!


Some say life is just a series of decisions

We make choices, we live and learn

Now I'm standing at a crossroad

And I must choose which way to turn

Down the one road is all the world can offer

All its power, its wealth and fame

Down the other just a Man

With nail scars in His hands

But there is mercy in His eyes

And there is power in His name

I choose Jesus, Jesus

Without a solitary doubt

I choose Jesus

Not for miracles, but for loving me

Not just for Bethlehem, but for Calvary

Not for a day, but for eternity

I choose Jesus

I have decided to follow Jesus

No turning back

No turning back

Saturday, December 18, 2010


We will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name. Restore us, LORD God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80.18-19)

Confession, Prayer, and Promise

“Revival” is a loaded word for me, remarkable for its distinct meanings in several circles. To Fundamentalist family and friends, it’s a term for spiritual course correction. In that circle, “revival” means “back to basics.” Among creative colleagues, it means using an outdated medium or marketing technique for novelty’s sake. We file “revival” under “Everything Old is New Again.” When I’m with theater people, “revival” means restaging a previously produced play. Their revivals—the best of them, at least—uncover current relevance in outdated works. The underpinning concept of renewal applies all around. Yet nuances in each usage contain starkly unique implications. Broadly put, Fundamentalist revivals reverse; marketing revivals reintroduce; theatrical revivals reimagine. So, when "revival" turned up in tomorrow's readings, I needed to step away from the phrase and reconsider it in a new context.

The Advent thread is apparent in the readings. The Old Testament texts anticipate the coming of “God’s Son,” while the New Testament declares Jesus is God’s Son. Isaiah and Matthew (quoting Isaiah) have the Christmas edge: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son.” But Nativity’s nexus is tucked into Psalm 80’s prayer for revival. The poem repeats one chorus three times, each in subtly altered form. At first, it’s “Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” (v3) The second calls on “God Almighty.” (v7) The final chorus begins, “Restore us, LORD God Almighty.” (v19) On its surface, the poem is a plea for salvation, not much different from other laments crowding the Psalms’ pages. Still, the refrain’s evolution tells us something is going on. The cries sound more desperate as the appellation for God gains gravity.

The poet’s energy flags as he goes. In verse 2, he writes, “Awaken your might; come and save us,” essentially asking, Don’t You see we’re in trouble here? Then, in verse 3: “Restore us, O God.” In the verse preceding “Restore us, God Almighty,” he complains of being under attack: “You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us.” The last cry, to “LORD God Almighty,” follows the confession he's got nothing left—no confidence or strength of his own—and can’t make it without a Savior: “Let your hand rest on the man at your hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away form you; revive us, and we will call on your name.” (v17-18) Here, “revival” transcends reversal, reintroduction, or reimagination. It begs God to reenergize our faith and stamina. Pondering the psalmist’s plea, we realize “revive us” is the Christmas message. It’s the Christmas confession, prayer, and promise.

Refuge, Rescue, and Redemption

With his circumstances growing grimmer between choruses, we question why the psalmist revises his description of God instead of revising how he describes his immediate fears. Dissecting his names for God holds the key, because changing God’s name changes the request. In verse 3 he calls on God as elohim, a plural noun portraying God as Refuge. “Restore us” and “Make Your face shine on us, that we may be saved” ask for clarity to find refuge in chaotic times. Modifying elohim with “Almighty” (tzevaovt: “hosts,” to mean “Lord of hosts”) in verse 7 adds a not-so-subtle militaristic tone imploring God to rescue us from adversaries and abusers. The third chorus invokes the ultimate, universal Power: “LORD God Almighty” (Yahweh elohim tzevaovt)— Creator and Ruler of the world and humankind, the God Who speaks light into existence and breathes life into us. Thus, the third prayer cries out for redemption by encompassing the earlier pleas: “We’re in trouble. We’re under attack. We've got nothing left. Restore us. Shine on us. We’re desperate for the clarity, safety, and certainty of Your light. Send a Savior to revive us. To renew us. To redeem us.”

We Need a Savior

Advent is, above all else, our hour of confession. We need refuge. We need rescue. Most of all, we need revival. On our own, we have nothing left—no confidence or strength to continue. We live in a disorderly, unpredictable, troubled world. We are beset by adversarial attitudes and abusive behaviors. Doubt looms on every side. The work of living depletes our reserves. We need a Savior to reenergize our faith and stamina, One Whose light will restore our clarity, safety, and certainty. The Christ Child is our Redeemer. The Babe in the manger signifies the Lord God Almighty has answered our prayer.

Matthew 1.22-23 summarizes the Nativity: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” The Infant revives our faith in a God Who is with us in every circumstance. Mary’s Baby reenergizes our confidence and stamina to press on. The Christmas revival rekindles God’s light in our hearts. We find refuge. We are rescued. We have been redeemed!

We need a Savior—and one has come to reenergize our faith and stamina, to revive us.

Postscript: “Revive Us Again”

Ashley Cleveland, a multiple Grammy-winning artist, puts a ferocious country-and-blues spin on the old hymn “Revive Us Again.” She shakes us to remember that Christ came to reenergize our faith and stamina—and her conviction springs from having struggled with addiction until she turned to the Savior for revival. (See the second video for her story.)


We praise Thee O God

For the Son of Thy love

For Jesus, Who died

And is now gone above

Hallelujah, Thine the glory

Hallelujah, amen

Hallelujah, Thine the glory

Revive us again!

We praise Thee O God

For Thy Spirit of light

That has shown us our Savior

And banished our night

Hallelujah, Thine the glory...

Ashley’s story.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Joy After Pain

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16.21-22)


I once asked an obstetrician why doctors in old movies always send the father off to boil water while they tend to the mother. I suspected it had to do with sterilizing instruments. She laughed, “Who knows?” Barring complications, she explained, childbirth requires no more than a scissors to cut the umbilical cord. Since that’s immediately tied off, risk of infection is close to nil. She theorized the convention was meant to divert attention from the delivery. “The last thing the studios wanted was a movie goddess panting and sweating. In the time it takes a kettle to boil, the baby could be born, bathed, and blanketed, the room tidied up, and the star’s make-up reapplied. For glamour’s sake, off-screen worked best, I suppose.”

Movie mentality leads us to glamorize the Nativity. (Matthew and Luke help by discretely ignoring the delivery.) After Mary and Joseph find shelter in a stable, we fade to black to indicate passage of time and fade up on the Babe in the hay; Mary refreshed and rested; Joseph calm and collected; livestock lowing while the couple hosts a bizarre group of surprise guests. Our hearts sing, “Joy to the world! The Lord has come!” We extol the “miraculous birth of Jesus,” when it’s nothing of the kind. It’s like any other birth: painful, prolonged, and—because Mary’s away from home, without a midwife or female relatives to coach her through it—an agonizing ordeal. Oh, and there’s one more thing. Since she and Joseph are well aware of the Baby’s identity, the prospect of losing Him surely terrifies them. Those off-screen hours must be their darkest, loneliest, and most tentative. Yet injecting a harsh dose of reality into the Christmas story ultimately amplifies our joy and wonder, because every birth brings joy after pain. Every newborn is a miracle.

Greater Joy

Strangely, the best description Scripture affords of Mary’s delivery is found in a comment Jesus makes at the Last Supper. He prepares the disciples for His execution by comparing His absence between death and resurrection to a mother in labor. “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come,” He tells them. “But when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16.21) Irony colors the remark coming, as it does, from the Child born to die to bring life to a dying world. One can’t help wondering if Jesus says this with His mother in mind, knowing His crucifixion will plunge her into a second labor while she awaits His rebirth as the Risen Christ. Although the Gospels single out the twelve male disciples at the Passover meal, it’s not unreasonable to imagine Mary and other women disciples are also present, opening the possibility she hears Jesus say this and understands Him more clearly than the rest. She alone knows the joy after pain of giving birth to God’s Promise. Only Mary could grasp the full extent of what Jesus is predicting and what He’s asking His followers to do. As Luke 2.19 so splendidly summarizes her Childbirth experience, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Jesus tells the disciples, “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (v22) If Mary indeed hears Him say this, her mind flashes on her struggles to safeguard her joy. The movie moment imprinted on our brains—the bucolic tranquility of the star-lighted stable—is short-lived. Big trouble brews in Jerusalem. The Magi have tipped Herod off that a potential challenger has just been born. His astronomers verify the possibility. It’s quickly apparent Mary and Joseph are at the center of a political crisis that could end tragically for their Newborn and them. They can’t go home. They can’t remain in Bethlehem. At the urging of an angel, they seek asylum in Egypt until the storm passes. They make huge sacrifices and take enormous risks to prevent Herod from stealing their joy. It’s unlikely they realize it amid their chaos, but in retrospect, they may figure it out: while the Child Who brought them great joy also jeopardized it, His presence with them inexplicably secured their joy from loss. That’s what Jesus wants the disciples to see. Because He’s with them, their joy is at risk. They will suffer pain and grief. Yet their anguish will give birth to greater joy that no one can take from them.

Pregnant with Joy

The parallels between Mary’s labor and the disciples’ anguish awaiting the Risen Christ’s return illuminate our awareness that lasting joy entails gestation. The joy Christ gives isn’t a by-product of happy coincidence. It’s seeded in us and takes time to develop. A number of times we hear Jesus mention this. In John 15.11, He says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” When He prays in Gethsemane, He tells God, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” (John 17.13)

We are pregnant with joy—complete joy, the full measure of Christ’s joy. It is in us. While we marvel at this, we’re also aware joy’s delivery doesn’t come easily. We will labor to bring it to life. There will be dark hours of pain and anguish. And once we give birth to joy, its presence in our lives will stir jealousies and paranoia in others that will inherently create risks. We will struggle to safeguard our joy, making unforeseen sacrifices and perhaps even moving far from what we know to see that it survives. But once joy is born, its presence guarantees it cannot be stolen. The whole thing is a mystery. It makes sense until we try to make sense of it. Subjecting it to logic tears the concept apart. Joy after pain; joy in jeopardy is joy that endures. Cinematically, it doesn’t play. But somehow in Christ's reality it does.

We will labor to bring joy to life. There will be dark hours of pain and anguish. Once we give birth to joy, we will struggle to safeguard it. But no one will be able to take it from us.

Postscript: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

A Christmas favorite beautifully performed by Celtic Woman: Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy. (Isaiah 60.2-3,5)

Arise and Shine Now

Yesterday I spent a priceless half-hour on the phone with a young hip-hop artist diagnosed with a debilitating condition. I entered the conversation in my capacity as a healthcare writer inquiring about his progress on a treatment my client manufactures. But our talk soon surpassed his resurgence after starting medication. Despite setbacks and sorrows—his crowd rapidly thinned once it became apparent getting his health restored would delay his success—he kept returning to a theme: “It taught me a lot about my circle, my family and friends, and me.” With his career back on-track, I asked if he had a message for younger fans with similar illnesses. “I want to tell them this is the first of many challenges they’ll face,” he answered. “But if they learn from it, they’ll wake up grateful for each day, just like me. It will keep them glowing.” Not “going." Glowing.

After the call, I closed my notes to find my browser open to Isaiah 60. I’d had the passage up for some time without getting to it. The first few verses took my breath. “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” verse one reads, “and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.” That’s the verse we know—the one we sing and recite at this time of year—God’s glistening promise to restore Jerusalem’s glory after decades of debilitation. Yet revisiting the text in the wake my conversation startled me. Its message is not a forecast. It’s an invitation to arise and shine now. Its promise hinges on courage to defy circumstances—to keep glowing: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but LORD rises upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” verses 2 and 3 say. Verse 5 declares, “Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.” Just as the musician’s attitude chastens us for nursing self-pity and pessimism when life takes a cruel turn, Isaiah challenges our belief that light and joy are contingent on God’s blessings and goodness. Both insist we’ve got it backwards. Blessings, healing, and deliverance don’t make us shine. We don’t wait for brighter days before stirring from our stupor. First we glow, and then we grow.

Taking Back the Night

We jump on Advent’s juggernaut, hurtling through darkness with eyes trained ahead. Salvation is coming. We long to be there when it appears. We ache once more to see nascent glimmers of redemption in Christ’s newborn eyes. Finding our hope cradled in Bethlehem’s manger, we instinctively raise our sights to Calvary’s cross. The moment hums with excitement about the future: this changes everything. In our forward-focused enthusiasm, however, we can’t forget there’s more to Christmas than a new dawning. It’s also about taking back the night. Fears and dangers that left us scrambling for shadowy corners or trembling behind bolted doors can torment us no more. Injuries and injustices that haunted us shrivel under our radiance. That’s right, our radiance—the glory of God that rises upon us in darkness. The Christ-Child is our light. John 1.4 tells us in Jesus “was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Christ’s gift of redemption pivots on enabling us to perfect God’s reflection in our lives and world. We are created to glow. The glory rising over us gives us power to destroy darkness in our present, future, and our past.

Now we have a choice. Either we treat this metaphorically, which puts it with other prophetic poetry we unpack at Advent. Or we embrace it as a real thing—a phenomenon we experience and practice all year. What does that mean? As far as we run from our pasts, our pasts are never far from us. I suspect most of us seldom finish a day without bumping into a reminder of fears and losses that vexed our nights before Christ illuminated our lives. Holidays and homecomings are notorious for plunging those of us who’ve escaped unhealthy pasts into dizzying darkness. We timidly enter these scenes, needlessly availing ourselves to prejudices and pressures by dimming our lights. But we weren’t created for low light. God made us to glow. We shine because light has come to restore what we lost. Whether darkness invades our minds with a passing memory or surrounds us in settings we’ve outgrown, we keep glowing, never faltering in our quest to take back the night.

No Posturing Needed

But, realistically, how do we manage this? Should we act like memories and night haunts don’t menace us? We’re talking about incredibly mean stuff here. We’ve got scars that brushes with the past repeatedly rip open, wounds that never completely heal. All it takes sometimes is a word, a look, a voice—even a room or smell—to hurl us into the blackest of nights. Are we supposed to adopt an impervious posture to keep glowing? Can we even do that? Here’s where faith in God’s promises becomes critical. Remember Isaiah 60.5? “You will look and be radiant.” Who we were when we lived in darkness is not who we are now. God’s glory has risen on us, shattering our night. Our light has come. We found it in a manger. It changed us forever, enabling us reroute our future and empowering us to reclaim our past. No posturing is needed. We simply have to be. We look radiant when we reencounter darkness because we are radiant. It's that simple. Darkness holds us no longer. And we have only one lesson to retain from its meanness: when we glow its power fails. Through this season and always, be radiant. Glow.

God’s glory rises on us and we glow. Our radiance defeats our darkness. It’s not a posture or pretense. It’s who we are.

Postscript: “Walk in the Light”

I mentioned in an earlier post how this Advent keeps sending me down well-trod musical paths from my youth. As I worked on today’s reflection, I couldn’t shake this glorious rendition of the classic hymn, “Walk in the Light,” by a treasured late friend and musical genius, Thomas Whitfield. I slapped together a quick video, but the beauty—the triumph—is in the song!


Walk in the light, beautiful light

Come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright

Oh, shine all around us by day and by night

Jesus is, Jesus is

The Light of the world.

No need to worry, no need to fret

All of my needs Jesus has met

His love protects me from hurt and from harm

Jesus is, Jesus is

The Light of the world.

If the Gospel be hid, It's hid from the lost

Jesus is waiting to look past your faults

Arise and shine, your light has come

Jesus is, Jesus is

The Light of the world.

Jesus is the Light of the world

Jesus is the Light of the world

Jesus is the Light of the world

He's ever shining in my soul

Monday, December 13, 2010

Repost: 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 one 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 strength 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 solid family—the Biblical equivalent of “Mayflower bluebloods” that traces 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 is 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. Yet, since we live in an age severely lacking spousal and paternal models, not hearing Joseph 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 a 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.

Originally posted December 17, 2009.

There is much we can learn from Joseph’s compassion, trust, and obedience. Though nothing he says is reported, when he calls Mary’s infant “Jesus,” he says it all. (Image courtesy of Tarzen.)

Postscript: “I Surrender All”

Many years back, a writing partner, Patrick Henderson, and I wrote a traditional “book” musical about the Nativity that focused on Joseph. The first act ended with the Christ-Child’s birth, and after composing and tossing out a half-dozen original lullabies for Joseph to sing to Jesus, we settled on a well-known hymn that captured everything we imagined he might say at that miraculous moment. Here is a video of the hymn we chose, “I Surrender All.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 35.10)


It sounds trite to say Maria, our housekeeper, is like family, yet she is. She’s shown up every Tuesday for the past 16 years to set our house straight. With Walt and me both working from home, she seldom has the place to herself. Over the years, Tuesdays have evolved into a wonderful sort of unhurried family time. While the three of us go about our respective tasks, we stop for long chats about how her family's doing, what’s going on with us, current events, and so on. We ride out the seasons together: the school year, holidays, and my work’s annual cycle—which invariably speeds up between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day.

Last week, Maria came in to find me already in the second hour of a conference call. I’d been at my desk since 4:30, playing catch-up on what time didn’t permit me to finish on Monday, hoping to get a jump on Tuesday’s madness. After the call, I dashed through the kitchen for a fresh cup of coffee en route to a fast shower before running off to a meeting. Maria said, “Oh my God”—her favorite pet phrase—“every year like this, it’s so crazy for you!” We laughed when I remarked that growing older doesn’t help. “Everything is harder,” she said, shaking her head. I took a deep breath. “I’m weary, Maria. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll make it.” Only Maria could tell me, “I know,” with enough empathy and reassurance to convince me she understood, but more than that, had faith in me. She went back to what she was doing. So did I. Yet somewhere between the kitchen and shower, my steps picked up. The weight of another grueling day lightened. “I can do this,” I told myself. The joy came back to the job.


Today’s Advent readings invite us to contemplate joy—to expect it, prepare for it, and practice it. After wrestling with hope and peace these past two weeks, one imagines thinking about joy would be a respite from the heavier stuff. Not really. Advent sets joy in a context where none seems to exist. It dares us to ride out our seasons, having faith while we await the promise of joy together. Both the Gospel and Old Testament texts feel particularly poignant by calling to us from very dark, grim places where weariness and the weight of what lies ahead offer no sign of joy. Nonetheless, they teach us it's there, ready to happen when we say, "We can do this."

Matthew 11 starts with John the Baptist in prison. His ministry has reached its nadir. It’s tough for him to accept, especially since Jesus’s reputation as a Healer and Teacher continues to grow. Questions that never would have taunted John in his glory days echo in his head. Was he too hasty in declaring Jesus the Messiah? Has Jesus become enamored with popularity and lost His way? Why hasn’t He intervened? John sends his disciples to ask, “Are You the Promised One, or should we wait for another?” Jesus overlooks the question’s impudence and responds to its despondency: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (v4-6)

Jesus chooses His words so John will recognize their source: Isaiah 35’s great promise of joy to a people under siege. Trapped between warring enemies, they’ve lost their land and many of their family are imprisoned in exile. “Your God will come,” verse 4 pledges. “He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Verses 5-6 predict, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” Jesus asks John, “Remember this? It’s happening,” prompting John to recall the entire passage and claim all of its promises, down to the final one: “Those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (v10) Jesus wants John to realize the promise is being fulfilled even as he waits. Joy has come.

Let Joy Happen

Isaiah 35 merits attention for its candid conclusion. Until its last sentence, it reads like a Disney spectacle. The wilderness blooms into a flower field. Disabled people regain their faculties and break into song and dance. Fresh springs burst through sun-baked ground. Lions, jackals, and ravenous beasts vanish. A new road paves the way for the exiles’ return. They enter Jerusalem singing happily ever. If this were a Disney film, that would be that. Yet Isaiah’s final statement wants to tell us something very real about joy. The Jerusalem the exiles enter won’t be what they left or dreamt of during captivity. They’ll return to ruins. Restoring its pre-war beauty will be a grueling task. Weariness from the season they’ve just endured will be amplified by the hard work ahead. Joy will dissipate swiftly. That’s why Isaiah ends with one final promise: Gladness and joy will overtake them, proceeding ahead of them to drive out sorrow and despair. The exiles’ eyes will be opened to see joy in devastation; their ears will hear joy in clamor; joy will heal their city’s paralysis. As living proof of God’s faithfulness, they’ll expect to be overtaken by joy and, as they work, they’ll let joy happen.

This is Advent’s message to us. Expect joy to overtake you. Let joy happen. Weariness isn’t for the weak. They give up before things get truly exhausting. As it turns out, joy isn’t for the weak, either. It takes tremendous courage and fortitude to ride out the season, holding with all one’s strength to joy’s promise. It demands great vision to face disappointments and losses with confidence we’ll be overtaken by joy. Advent’s message goes beyond the promise of joy. It assures us joy is already in front of us to restore our sight and hearing, to heal our paralysis and revive our spirits. When we’re weary from yesterday’s toil and disheartened by today’s tasks, we remember God’s promises are true. Joy has come. It has overtaken us. Let joy happen.

Though we may be weary from what’s behind us, God promises joy will overtake us, going before us to restore our senses, heal our paralysis, and revive our spirits.

Postscript: "Center of My Joy"

This is, for me, the greatest gospel song about joy ever written. It's more of an anthem, actually, a testimony of confidence in Christ's joy. Written decades ago by two favorite composers, Bill Gaither and Richard Smallwood (who sings the lead here), it's timeless. And this video has special meaning for me, as the chorus is comprised of dozens of Chicago gospel legends I've loved all of my life. Many have gone on, yet much of what they gave me as a kid who listened and learned at their feet lives in these pages. These great lions of faith were tested in every way by racial hatred, religious opposition, and social stigma. Yet here they are, many in their 60's, 70's, and 80's, singing of joy! Oh yes, they surely knew how to let joy happen.


Jesus, You're the center of my joy

All that's good and perfect comes from You

You're the heart of my contentment

Hope for all I do

Jesus, You're the center of my joy

When I've lost my direction

You're the compass for my way

You're the fire and lights when nights are long and cold

In sadness You are the laughter that shatters all my fear

When I'm all alone, Your hand is there to hold.

Jesus, You're the center of my joy...

You are why I find pleasure

In the simple things in life

You're the music in the meadows and the streams

The voices of the children, my family and my home

You're the Source and Finish of my highest dreams

Jesus, You're the center of my joy...

Friday, December 10, 2010


A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. (Mark 3.32-33)


Few situations are more awkward than getting dragged into another family’s conflicts. When I was in college, a family in my parents’ congregation invited me to Sunday dinner. At church, they were the Waltons—soft-spoken, precious people. At their table, they were closer to the family in Moonstruck. Everybody had issues with everybody else, and no one showed any self-restraint in front of their guest. It was amusing at first, but the novelty thinned as the volatility rose with each spat. It peaked when the entire family turned on the eldest daughter, a young woman my age, who had completed college in three years and was fast-tracking through a prestigious investment house. While I long ago forgot the nub of contention, I’ll never forget my panic when her father said, “Tim, talk to her. See if you can get through her thick skull.” They gave me no chance to decline tactfully or say anything at all. I suddenly became the quarrel’s focus, with everyone insisting I agreed with her or him. I felt like a shuttlecock in the world’s craziest badminton match. Thankfully, I knew not to let their behavior at home alter my respect for their faith’s sincerity. In a way, it verified their earnestness. That said, however, it really wasn’t necessary for me to know just how “earnest” they could be.

I’m reminded of that awkward afternoon whenever I read about Jesus rebuffing Mary and His brothers’ request to speak with Him. It’s a side of their family I’d rather not see. It’s clearly important, although why that is is not so clear. After it’s recorded in Mark, the oldest Gospel, Matthew and Luke also include it. Their discomfort with the episode surfaces when they tuck it much later in the narrative than Mark, who puts it right after Jesus calls the 12 disciples. What’s more, both discreetly skate past His family’s intentions, even though Mark 3.20 explicitly says after they hear Jesus is drawing crowds, “they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Believing Jesus is crazy, they want to keep Him out of trouble! There’s no mistaking the compassion in their motives. Yet their presumption also reveals how meagerly they understand Jesus. His response underscores their estranged awareness of His identity and calling. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (v33) He asks. What He says next creates a very awkward moment for everyone around Him. Jesus looks at them and declares, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (v34-35)

Problem Child

The tense situation likewise underscores a fact about Jesus we seldom consider. He’s a Stepchild. He’s part of Mary and Joseph’s family without fully belonging to it. Naturally, we want to romanticize His upbringing. Once the drama of Jesus’s birth and infancy passes and His earthly parents return to Nazareth to settle down, we imagine He’s just one of the kids, loved and treated like the siblings who follow. We picture His family life as an ancient version of domestic bliss. And, to be fair, Jesus’s family definitely loves Him—especially Mary, who stands by Him to the end and remains faithful to His message after the Ascension. But it’s naïve to discount complications attached to parenting the Christ Child. There are legal matters like birthright and inheritance. There are pressures to provide Him the best education and training possible. There are concerns about guarding His identity to protect Him from political conspiracy and religious outrage. There’s deciding when and how to explain Jesus to His stepbrothers and sisters. Jesus is a special Child, more than any child ever born, and though we’re reluctant to say it, that makes Him a problem Child of a uniquely challenging sort.

Think about it: Mary and Joseph are charged with the Incarnate God’s nurture and survival! Can we reasonably assume they aren’t riddled with uncertainty and trepidation? The mere prospect paralyzes us, let alone actually doing it while we run a household and business, bring other children into the world, and navigate a maze of social and religious obligations. Does idealized hindsight deprive Mary and Joseph's freedom to fail, as all parents do? Is it really conceivable that Jesus’s family is so healthy and harmonious He escapes alienation and confusion that haunt the most emotionally secure of adolescents? The family’s attempt to save Jesus and His shockingly curt reaction suggests unresolved issues on both sides. They want to ensure His safety because they love Him. He knows what they’ve not learned: His safety can only be secured by doing God’s will. They don’t get it—not yet, at least—and that frustrates Him.

Our Reason for the Season

Jesus is a Stepchild, a special Child, a problem Child. That’s the ugly truth of it—and its amazing beauty as well, because each of us is also a stepchild, a special child, a problem child. With Jesus as our unabridged example, His life serves as our template. He’s born for a very unique purpose. So are we. God shapes Him by hand and designs His circumstances to do God’s will. God does the same for us. God places us in families and communities that take on the staggering duty to care for us and cope with our complexities. Like Mary and Joseph, even the finest of them sometimes fail. We must grant them that freedom—in hindsight, if necessary—realizing the healthiest home can’t shield us from alienation and confusion. When we embrace our God-given identity, placing God’s will above our family’s wishes, they may think we’ve lost our minds. They may try to save us from ourselves because they love us. We’ll miss that and wonder why they don’t get it. Perhaps, like Jesus’s family, they eventually will. Perhaps not.

These awkward moments are really about our nativity. Every one of us is born by design. Our presence in the world is a miracle all its own. God’s purpose is our reason for the season. Yes, Advent is about expectancy and desire for Christ’s birth. But it's also about expectancy and desire for our birth, our need to fulfill God’s purpose for us, as God wills, according to God’s plan. We have to get that, whether or not our families ever do.

Jesus is a special Child, which makes Him a problem Child. As Christ’s followers, Advent is also about our birth as special, problem children. God’s purpose is our reason for the season. (Tema Stauffer: “Teenage Boy.” All rights reserved.)

Postscript: “Ooh Child”

For all of us coming into the world to fulfill God’s purpose in our making, an unconventional Advent anthem: a masterfully optimistic remix of “Ooh Child” by Nina Simone. Some day, we’ll walk together in a beautiful sun…