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…

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Separate Peace

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14.27)

A Troubling Thought—A Terrifying Prospect

Is there a time when Jesus, the Nazarene yeshiva prodigy, looks up from His Messianic lessons and inwardly whispers, “I think this is about Me”? The Gospels are maddeningly sketchy about His personal development. After His birth and presentation—a Temple rite observed 40 days after a first-born son’s delivery—we get a glimpse of Him at 12, dazzling Jerusalem’s teachers. Next comes the notorious 18-year gap devoid of any information about His youth. We turn the page and He’s leaving home at 30 to start His ministry. We don’t know if Mary and Joseph ever sit Him down and say, “Son, we need to talk.” It’s not suggested Jesus innately realizes Who He is all along. Whether any of this is true, at some point the Earthly Child has to catch up the Incarnate God. It may be a gradual dawning similar to how we come to grips with our identities. Maybe it’s a startling revelation. Either way, this reality surely gives rise to waves of anxiety, because Jesus’s scriptural mastery burdens Him with comprehension of what it means.

Jesus grasps what many will expect of Him. Imagine yourself at 14 or 18 or 22 opening Isaiah 9’s promise of a Prince of Peace, of Whose “government and peace there will be no end.” (v6-7) Or Nahum 1.15: “Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace!” Or Zechariah 9.10: “He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Now step outside your father’s carpenter shop and gaze across the square. See the Romans, corrupt politicians, collaborators, and warring religious factions, the ultra-conservatives and restless revolutionaries. Look at your neighbors clinging to promises of a savior—namely, you. Even though the peace prophecies aren’t what they’re taken to mean, that popular myths define what’s expected of you has to present a troubling thought—a terrifying prospect. It’s impossible to conceive the crushing concerns young Jesus battles with, since the peace He’s come to give is not what we hope He’ll bring. The God in Him knows we need God’s peace—a separate peace—to empower and sustain us in the crossfire of human conflict. Yet His mortal side also senses how hard it will be for us to embrace God’s peace when turmoil, hatred, and violence overwhelm us.

Lasting Peace

It hasn’t got any easier, has it? Our world is still a huge mess. Oppression and corruption persist. Religious animosity and pride go by different names, but the sin remains the same. We, who are most disturbed by relentless conflicts, cling to Christ’s promise of peace. Yet we’re so undone by hatred and violence on every front, it’s nigh unto impossible to release the concept of our peace to welcome Christ’s peace. Particularly during Advent, when we reclaim prophecies that fueled hopes of peace in Jesus’s time, it’s a challenge to accept peace Christ comes to give is not what we hope Christ will bring. Yet without this enormous leap of faith, our angst about the human condition will find no relief.

Jesus often speaks of peace, constantly teaching us to align our preconceptions with His meaning. In John 14.27, He’s very frank: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” My peace is separate, He says. It’s not the kind of peace the world gives. It’s the peace of assurance, a calming confidence that we can survive and rise above strife causing us to feel troubled and terrified. It’s not a dreamy peace that pretends our world isn’t seething with conflict, hatred, and violence. Rather, it’s one born of realistically viewing our turmoil as a result of not accepting Christ’s peace. What are war and prejudice and cruelty if not the progeny of doubt and fear? Had Jesus lived up to His contemporaries’ expectations—had He somehow brought world peace to His day—it’s ludicrous to suppose it could have lasted. Our intrinsic insecurities wouldn’t allow us to maintain the peace Christ created on Earth. Since Cain killed Abel because he feared God preferred his brother’s sacrifices, humanity has lived and died by the sword. Christ’s peace is a lasting peace. It quells inner, spiritual chaos that feeds overt, material destructiveness. I leave My peace with you. That’s the peace our Advent quest seeks. Because Christ’s peace alone can overcome our doubts and fears, it becomes vital to embrace it wholeheartedly without reservation as our first and only means of ever achieving the world peace we long for.

Take Heart

The reminder that Christ’s peace is separate from world peace comes during the four-chapter account of Jesus’s Last Supper discussion with His disciples. He concludes by saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 14.33) Again, He emphasizes Christ’s peace, our hearts, and the world’s troubles. Embracing Christ’s peace in the midst of our troubled world is how we take heart. This peace that sustains us is the only sustainable peace we know. It’s impervious to doubt and fear by remaining untainted by human greed and ambition. It is the only peace we should trust—the only peace we can transmit to others, one by one, and therefore the only peace that will transform our homes, communities, and planet. We have every reason in the world to take heart in Christ’s peace.

While we do the work of Advent, contemplating our chaos and awaiting Christ’s peace, our hearts are untroubled. We are not afraid. To paraphrase Psalm 27, the Lord is our Light and Salvation; though wars surge around and against us, we take heart in Christ’s peace. The Incarnate God enters our world to bring us peace. The Everlasting God leaves peace with us—a separate peace impervious to our doubts and fears, a lasting peace uncorrupted by our greed and ambition. Embracing Christ’s peace is how we change the world.

The peace Christ brings is not the peace many of us expect. Yet it’s the peace we need to sustain us through trouble and transform the world.

Postscript: "Wonderful Peace"

For some reason, this year's Advent has drawn me back to many forgotten melodies from childhood. This song is particularly moving for me, as it brings back numerous times my father would sing it with tears painting his cheeks. It's a lovely, Appalachian-flavored hymn that, for me, conveys the essence of Christ's peace. "Far Away in the Depths," performed by Azure Fields.



Far away in the depths of my spirit tonight

Rolls a melody sweeter than psalm

In celestial-like strains it unceasingly falls

O'er my soul like an infinite calm

What a treasure I have in this wonderful peace

Buried deep in my innermost soul

So secure that no power can mine it away

While the years of eternity roll!

Peace, peace, wonderful peace

Coming down from the Father above!

Sweep over my spirit forever I pray

In fathomless billows of love!

Every soul without gladness or comfort or rest

Passing down the rough pathway of time

Make the Savior your Friend ere the shadows grow dark

Oh, accept of this peace so sublime

Peace, peace wonderful peace...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Make Peace

Wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3.17-18)

The Wisdom-Wedge

Everybody’s experienced it; most everybody’s done it: misused wisdom as a wedge. A lot of the time, devious motives behind the ploy are so bald the tactic implodes on delivery. Even if the wisdom is sound, the objective disqualifies it, because the underlying goal is disrupting peace. Using what one knows to seed suspicions and discord proves how little wisdom one has. But how can that be, if we share our wisdom to spare others from eventual hurt? Before our defenses take charge, perhaps we're wise to consider: Are we really sparing them?

If I tell you the neighbor you sacrifice time and attention to love isn’t worth it, is my “wisdom” painless? I’ve essentially told you you’re wasting time. That hurts. I’ve also raised doubts that deprive the neighbor of your love. And who needs love more than one whom others dismiss? Now my “wisdom”—which amounts to no more than my opinion masquerading as counsel—creates conflicts that harm two people. The damage multiplies from there. You’re less trusting of anyone you’re drawn to love. The neighbor is less trusting of anyone who tries to love him/her. The ripple effect expands across time and space, as “wisdom” gets applied without discernment and passed along. Its prejudices generate the very behaviors and attitudes it warns against. Peace is destroyed.

When we’re tempted to misuse wisdom as a wedge—or when others succumb to the same temptation in their dealings with us—a flare goes up. Wisdom that disrupts and disparages is patently unwise. James 3.15-16 says, “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” With all of us having seen harms caused by the wisdom-wedge, James’s words surely ring true.

A Checklist

Our wisdom very well may be sound. Our life experience and spiritual knowledge may be useful for someone who appears likely to fall into traps that snared us. We are correct in our compassion to warn them against similar fates. Yet before we speak, the wisest thing we can do is to examine our hearts and the words we intend to say, purging any sign of envy or selfish ambition. Many times what we want drives our compulsion to speak, and we’re blessed to catch ourselves before we do. But forethought also enables our use of wisdom as a peacemaking tool. It makes us highly aware of how we address issues that trouble us and define outcomes we hope to achieve. This is what James calls “heaven-sent wisdom,” which he says, “Is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (v17)

It’s a checklist—one we’re wise to keep handy for when wisdom we’ve gained may prove useful to someone else. Prior to dialing the number or making the lunch date, we’re smart to evaluate what we plan to say against James’s criteria. The list also proves useful when we suspect another of misusing wisdom as a wedge. James teaches us to evaluate what we hear by the same criteria. If it honors them, we take the advice to heart. If not, we let it go.

Bucking the Trend

This is the week in Advent when our thoughts turn to peace—seeking peace, waiting for it, making it. The unparalleled scale of Christ’s coming invites us to consider it at a macro level. Our hearts ache for war to cease and violence to end. Yet conflicts of such global, impossibly unmanageable sizes grow from disruptive behaviors between neighbors, friends, and loved ones. How often do we neglect our calling to make peace by misusing wisdom to foster discord and suspicion? We don’t like hearing it, but villains we curse as warmongers and haters base their license to ill on our comfort in pursuing personal agendas at the cost of peace in our homes, families, and communities. Scope and visibility don’t distinguish peacemakers from peace's enemies. The wisdom-wedge is hateful on any scale, in any forum. Whether over a cup of coffee, with a hastily written email, on national TV, or in a multilateral treaty negotiation, it ends exactly as James predicts: in disorder and every evil practice.

Yesterday, our church lighted candles for three Chicago teens felled to gun violence last week—two of them young women—bringing the 2010-11 school year total to 18. Eighteen candles burn on our altar, with more undoubtedly to come. That’s 36 parents, 72 grandparents, untold siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and on and on destroyed by mayhem. There were future leaders and lovers, artists and examples among those 18—stories that may have gone bad but were destined to turn around. After service, I turned on the TV and what should come on? A promo for a “reality” series starring a gun-happy, faith-talking vice-presidential candidate who’s mastered communications channels to promote arms ownership in the private sector. The preview showed her drawing bead on a caribou. Hunting game is a personal choice. Yet my stomach churned as I wondered if, at the very same moment somewhere in my city, one teen was drawing bead on another. I sickened at how foolishly the ambitions of this loose-talking, self-proclaimed “mama grizzly” contribute to the genocide of our children.

The wisdom-wedge craze is completely out of hand. Disrupting peace, inflaming imaginations, and unleashing chaos are now maniacally profitable occupations. There’s too much power, pride, and money at stake to expect those possessed by these evils to surrender en masse so peace will break out around the planet. Bucking the trend has to begin with us, where we live, and in what we do. Christ comes to bring peace on Earth. We need not wait for it. We can make peace. The wisest among us will make peace where and when we can, heeding James’s wisdom in verse 18: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

Wisdom we give and receive rises and falls on the merits of its peaceful intentions.

Postscript: "Up to the Mountain"

This Patty Griffin masterpiece--here beautifully rendered by Kelly Clarkson--served as the emotional centerpiece of our church's Advent "peace" service yesterday. In testimony and sermon, we confessed a sense of futility in the struggle for peace. Some days, as the song so honestly says, we feel "nothing but tired." Still, we go up to the mountain, because God asks us to. We wage peace, rather than wedge wisdom.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Night Vision

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit. (Psalm 147.3-5)

A Vastly Different Sky

Three summers ago, I pulled a New Yorker from the pile of unread issues and found “The Dark Side,” David Owen’s piece on light pollution. I was riveted before finishing the first paragraph’s description of Galileo’s homemade telescopes and three discoveries he made with them: lunar mountains; Jupiter’s moons; and the Milky Way’s composition of individual stars. The last one stunned Galileo’s peers, who theorized the galaxy—which looked like milk spilling from the sky—was a “continuous substance.” What stunned me was learning the Milky Way had once been visible to the naked eye. “The stars have not become dimmer; rather, the Earth has become vastly brighter, so that celestial objects are harder to see,” Owen explained. That sounded reasonable. Then came the real shocker. The prevalence of artificial light and air pollution binding it to our planet results in seeing “less than one per cent of what Galileo would have been able to see without a telescope.” We’ve lost over 99% of our night vision to the fear of not seeing what’s near us after darkness falls.

Before “The Dark Side," I’d never considered how most of the Christmas narrative occurs in a nighttime bearing little resemblance to the one we know. That is, assuming our assumptions that much happens over night are correct. Luke’s Annunciation account doesn’t note the hour, though a nighttime scenario seems right, as people in Mary’s era were seldom alone by day. It’s also likely we assume the angel appears to her while everyone sleeps because Matthew tells us Joseph’s visitation comes in a dream. As these events transpire in Nazareth, the Magi traverse the desert, trailing The Christ Star through the heavens. Matthew doesn’t say they reach Bethlehem on Christmas night. (Epiphany celebrates their arrival 12 days later.) Still, legend places them manger-side with the shepherds, who journey to the stable after an angel choir interrupts their night watch. Setting the saga in the wee hours, when the world goes silent and dark, makes for an exciting, mysterious tale—just as conflating the Magi and shepherds’ adoration creates a lovely tableau. But “The Dark Side” causes us to become very mindful that the story unwinds under a vastly different sky than the one we know. That inspires us to refine and adjust how we interpret night’s role in Advent, literally and metaphorically.

Nighttime Is the Right Time

We’ve modernized Advent’s night to mean impenetrable darkness rife with fear and danger—i.e., what we most fear: absence of light. On one level, we’re not wrong. Darkness is a fearful, dangerous thing in ancient times, which is why Messianic and Early Church writers use it to describe our state prior to Christ’s appearance. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” Isaiah 9.2 declares, while 1 Peter 2.9 tells us we are chosen to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Hearing these and numerous similar verses, we instantly infer “night and day,” when they actually suggest light appears in darkness to guide us safely through it. And that’s because night is never absent of light in the writers’ minds. The night sky is a luminescent, breathtaking pageant of celestial bodies in constant flux. These scriptures evoke tensions between the heavens, where God performs amazing feats, and Earth, where sunlight’s absence exposes the night traveler to deadly threats and impediments. Darkness commands humanity to stay put and watch God work. Comets streak the night canopy. Planets of every shade and size glisten like jewels. Meteors flare and fizzle. Milk pours out of the sky.

Thus, while we get the fear-and-danger aspect of Advent’s night, we may be missing its most crucial aspect. The emphatic use of darkness urges us to find our place in God’s universe. Turning from knowledge gained by ordinary daylight allows us to see God’s power hovering just above our heads. Darkness becomes more than the night season when we long for Light’s appearance. It’s when the Light—the great Light, the wonderful Light—makes possible what we can’t accomplish without its illumination. Bypassing historical facts altogether, John employs the light-dark metaphor to recount Christ’s birth, saying, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1.5) Though darkness surrounds us, when we see the Light and walk in the Light, we can’t be overcome by benighted, natural-minded fears and threats. Dramatic impact notwithstanding, nighttime is the right time for Advent’s story. It’s when God works wonders we can’t explain. It’s when we rehearse for times when dark hours enfold us and we look above for light to guide us through them. It’s when our stasis ends and we step into God’s certainty and safety. By day, we manage our earthly affairs. At night, we marvel at our place in God’s universe.


Spun from Messianic filament, Psalm 147 shines its own light on the tensions between the heavens and Earth that play out in Advent’s light-dark metaphors. One is quickly engaged by its vertical pairings: God does something on the ground, followed by something in the sky—or vice versa. Bearing the vastness and versatility of the ancient sky in mind, its first combination acquires thrilling potency. First, God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (v3) Then God “determines the number of the stars and calls each of them by name.” (v4) Specificity is the common link. The psalmist looks at a night sky strewn with millions of lights—too many to count or identify. Yet God numbers and names each one, just as God cares for each of us who suffer because of emotional and/or physical violence we’ve endured. Not one of us is the same. Yet God heals us and binds our wounds, one by one, name by name.

“Great is our Lord and mighty in power,” verse 6 exclaims. “God’s understanding has no limit!” As Advent’s journey continues, we pray for night vision to see the majestic Presence above our heads. When we marvel at the night sky’s vast expanse of stars, planets, and galaxies, we realize we’re seeing God’s universe as God sees our world. Each of us has a place. God sends Light to guide us through night seasons. God knows us by name. God works wonders by healing us to display unlimited power and understanding. Light shines in darkness. Darkness cannot overcome it. There’s nothing to fear. That’s the Advent story.

This picture, taken atop the Chilean Andes, approximates what Mary and Joseph saw when looking into the night sky. God’s majesty is seen in its vastness. God’s mercy shines in each star.

Postscript: “Starry Night”

This video matches dazzling photographs of star formations to Chris August’s “Starry Night,” reminding us of the power that hovers just above our heads. You are like one of these stars. So am I.