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Friday, December 29, 2017

New

       …If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
-2 Corinthians 5:17 (TNIV)


New. New stuff. If you’re anything like me, you know something about newness this time of year. New clothes, crisp and fresh and stylish. New gadgets, shiny and exciting. Stuff still wrapped in plastic or nestled in tissue, books with bindings unbroken and spines uncreased. 
     New is potential unfaded by time and wear. New is expectation. New is beauty. New is possibility. What is new replaces what is worn-out, ineffective, inoperative. Our culture loves what is new. New technology. New possessions. New homes. New clothes. New cars. Hey, today you can even have a new you if you find the right plastic surgeon to erase the marks passing years leave behind and replace or enhance body parts you don’t care for as they are. We long for the new because on some level we believe it will bring us fulfillment and happiness. We’ll be regarded as successful, admired by others, and feel good about ourselves if only we can have what is new.
     But “there is nothing new under the sun,” says the teacher. Whoever wrote that had obviously experienced the disillusionment that we feel when we first realize that newness doesn’t last. The luster wears off of our shiniest new gadgets and toys. This year’s new clothes are old ones next year (or the year after that). Excitement about new stuff gives way to familiarity, which eventually, almost inevitably, gives way to contempt. 
     New, it turns out, doesn’t deliver.
     That shouldn’t be surprising when we think about it. Whatever I may have that’s new, I am still me. I can decorate the outside with stylish new clothes, but down inside is the same old me with the same old problems and struggles and sins. I can go out and find a new wife, but I’ll bring into that relationship the same old me who contributed to the problems of the marriage I bailed out on. I can get a new job, buy a new home, move to a new city – but none of that makes me new. I’m the same old me. 
     If you doubt it, ask yourself in a month or so how different all the new stuff you’ve received over the last few days has really left you. By that time, the credit card bills will have come in the mail. All the new stuff you have will have begun to lose some of its shine. That will be a good time for you to ask yourself some questions. Start with whether or not you’re really any happier than you were before. Then go on to ask yourself how what you’ve received makes you a better person. Are your problems gone? Is your character improved? Is the guilt you carry for past wrongs relieved? 
     New is not what the church is known for. We are old. We are tradition. We’re considered by some to be irrelevant and outmoded, holding to an outdated morality and an out-of-fashion worldview. By definition, we are a community who find our identity in an “old, old story” that dates from a world that no longer exists. But in that old, old story is a paradox that we ourselves often fail to see, because it’s the story of God’s breaking into our world in a way that has implications for as long as human history remains. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!” 
     The old, old story of Jesus makes the astounding claim that in Christ, God has remade his creation. Whenever someone puts his or her trust in Jesus, so the story goes, God acts in that person’s life just as dramatically as he did at the beginning of time. Just as surely as God said “let there be light” and dawn broke for the first time, in Jesus God speaks light and the dawn of a new day into the life of a believer as well. Jesus spoke of a new covenant, a new arrangement with God, sealed by his death. He told his followers to look forward to “the renewal of all things.” Paul writes of believers living a “new life,” raised from the dead with Jesus in the glory of God. He promised that in Jesus our minds are renewed, that we are renewed inwardly day by day, that we are “made new in the attitude of [our] minds.” The Bible speaks of a “new birth” that comes through Jesus and of a “new self” that we can choose to put on because of what Christ has done. And we’re reminded, as followers of Jesus, that instead of being too preoccupied with this world “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth.”
     The language is hardly ambiguous. The claim of the story of Jesus is not that once upon a time, long ago, a man named Jesus lived and taught and had influence and died. The claim of the story is that in Jesus Christ God has made everything new, that he has re-created the heavens and the earth and that he has even re-created us. The old, old story tells us that our history no longer has to tyrannize us. That our sins no longer define us. That our anxieties no longer imprison us. That death and evil no longer have the last word. The old, old story reveals to us that, stunningly, the world as we know it is fading away and that because of Jesus it will one day be replaced by a new heaven and new earth, that sin and death and pain and fear will disappear from creation forever, and that God will complete his project of making everything new.
     So here we are, surrounded by all our new stuff. Anticipating a New Year. Caught somewhere between Christmas and the New Creation, between Christ’s coming in a Bethlehem stable and his coming in glory, bringing with him the renewal of all things. The old, old story reminds us that in Christ we are given the privilege of experiencing a new creation. We have been graced with a foretaste of life in Christ, enjoying his presence, illuminated by his glory, living for his purposes, trusting in his promises. It turns out that there is indeed something new under the sun – or maybe more accurately, under the Son. 
     Our salvation is not in a New Year, no matter how successful we may be at keeping our resolutions. It’s not in new stuff. It’s not a new situation, or a new relationship, or a new hobby, or a new look. Our only hope for salvation is that the God who created us and the world in which we live might step in to undo the damage we’ve done to our world, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. And the fact is that he has. In Jesus, he has.
     The old has gone. The new is here. 

     

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Spoilers

            Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, 
because he has come to his people and redeemed them. 
  He has raised up a horn of salvation for us 
in the house of his servant David 
  (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 
  salvation from our enemies 
and from the hand of all who hate us…
-Luke 1:68-71 (NIV)



As I write this, I’m a few hours away from seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Some of you are shrugging your shoulders right about now. You know what Star Wars is, of course. You’ve probably seen at least some of the movies and know something about the major characters. You may have noticed the subtle advertising campaign for the newest chapter in the series. (Plastered everywhere human eyes can see and tied into every piece of merchandise human beings might consider buying.) But you’re frankly a little tired of the hype and can’t imagine fighting opening-night crowds to go see it. You’ll catch it in a few weeks or maybe even wait until you can stream it or something.
     If that’s you, there’s something you’re going to want to consider: spoilers.
     Starting tomorrow, they’re going to be everywhere. There’s an embargo in place right now: journalists can write reviews, but only if they’re spoiler-free. Those who break this sacred rule and are caught will, I guess, not be invited back to advance screenings of future films. So spoilers are hard to find right now. But that embargo ends tonight or tomorrow with the official release of the film, and that means plot points will be up for discussion everywhere.  You might see something mentioned in a review, or overhear a major twist in casual conversation. After tonight, you may find it hard to go into a showing of The Last Jedi without at least some advance knowledge of how it’s going to go. 
     Some people don’t mind spoilers, though. I myself have been known to occasionally read the plot synopsis of a movie on Wikipedia before I see the movie, or read a film’s novelization before going to the theater. What you may give up in surprise, you get back in a larger understanding of the movie from the beginning. You know what to expect. You aren’t at the mercy of every little plot twist that puts the heroes in jeopardy.  You see the bigger picture. And there’s joy instead of anxiety in watching the director, crew, and actors bring a well-told story to its conclusion, even if you already know that conclusion.
     I know not everyone feels that way. But I think Luke, the guy who wrote the Gospel that bears his name, might have been a fan of spoilers.
     He embeds them, after all, in his earliest mentions of Jesus. Take Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1:68-79, called by some the Benedictus (for its first word in Latin). The song is as full of spoilers as a movie reviewer with a caffeine buzz banging out a review on opening night.
     Zechariah begins by blessing God, praising him, for what he has already done. For context, keep in mind that his son, John the Baptist, has literally just been born. Jesus’ birth is still a few months away. There’s no cross or resurrection for three decades. Yet Zechariah begins by talking about God’s salvation as an accomplished fact.
     Look at the tenses of the verbs. “He has come.”  “Redeemed.” “He has raised up a horn of salvation.” We westerners with our very linear ideas about time and our misunderstanding of prophecy tend to think that Zechariah is predicting salvation. But that’s not really what’s happening. He isn’t predicting as much as he is proclaiming salvation. It’s a spoiler: God is worshipped because in the coming of Christ Zechariah sees salvation. He believes that the story has been written, and everything that happens next is just going according to script. Knowing the ending and the main beats of the story completely changes the way he sees everything else. 
     As Zechariah spoke those words, he lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire. There was a foreigner sitting on the throne of David. When he went to serve in the temple he undoubtedly passed Roman soldiers in the streets of Jerusalem. There had even been times when the Romans had marched their standards right into the temple precincts themselves. His taxes went to Rome, and his religious freedom depended largely on Roman generosity. “Salvation from [his] enemies and from the hand of all who hate [Israel]” might have seemed very far away. Yet, for Zechariah, it was coming just as sure has his son had been born, just as sure as the baby his wife’s relative was carrying was coming. He had been given the chance to see how the story goes and knowing that changed everything.
     It even helped him see the prophecies he had heard all his life in a different light. They were about this!
     Maybe a spoiler would help you this Christmas too. Maybe you know what it is to live under someone’s thumb. When you go to church, when you worship, right there with you is grief, loss, fear, bitterness, and death. Maybe you live in constant pain, or in financial turmoil, or in a broken marriage. All of that is real, and it all hurts, and it isn’t to be minimized or ignored. You’ve been waiting for God to act, to save you, to heal, forgive, restore, renew, and you’re starting to wonder if your salvation is ever coming.
     Well, it isn’t coming. As sure as that baby Mary was carrying all those years ago was born, your salvation has come. I know it doesn’t always feel that way, but that’s the reason the story goes like it does. The birth of Jesus is the only testimony we need that God has come to his people and redeemed them, that he’s brought salvation to us. The struggles and hardships that we live with, the darkness of the world around us, even the sin in our hearts doesn’t change the story. And whatever else we might live through, to live our lives according to that story is to receive God’s salvation.  
     So, maybe, knowing how the story goes will help us have a larger understanding of events of our lives. Maybe the spoiler of Christmas will help us to know what to expect. Maybe it will help us to recall that we aren’t at the mercy of every little plot twist. Maybe it will help us live by the bigger picture. And maybe it will help us find some joy instead of anxiety in watching and being a part of God weaving our stories into the larger one, and together bringing it to the conclusion that he’s had in mind since before we even existed.

     See? Spoilers aren’t always a bad thing. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Building Around Christmas

     Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.
-Matthew 7:24-25 (NIV)


Realtors in Keerbergen, Belgium, selling residences in a new apartment building will have an extra perk to market, especially to occupants of the top floors. Light. Lots of light. Especially after dark.
     The architect of the building consulted municipal authorities in Keerbergen two years ago to have a streetlight relocated from the site of the new building. But the city has dragged its feet, and so the architect (who wants to remain anonymous) was forced into a creative solution. As his building started to rise, he decided to build around the streetlight. Photos show that the masonry on the facade of the building has been “notched” to allow for the presence of the light. "We could not wait, the administrative sluggishness of the municipality in this case has been shocking,” the anonymous architect explained. 
     He promises, though, that the strange solution will only be temporary. As soon as the streetlight is moved, he’ll have his contractor go back and fix the “notch”. For the moment, though, it looks pretty strange.
     Christmas is a time that we “build around” things in our lives. Traditions, habits, unexpected events, celebrations, obligations; at Christmas we adapt our lives to them all. It’s just a given that we have to do decorating and shopping, that we’ll get together with friends, family, and colleagues at various times, that we’ll have to do some cooking or cleaning or traveling that we don’t normally do. It isn’t always convenient. Sometimes we don’t even enjoy all of it. But it’s all a part of life this time of year, and so we adjust our calendars, budgets, and attitudes accordingly. After all: Christmas will be gone soon enough. It will pass to memory and things will get back to normal. At least until next year, when we’ll build around Christmas again. It might be awkward and strange, but it’s just temporary.
     Of course, Mary never had that illusion, did she?
     Her life changed forever because of what happened two thousand years ago. Pregnant out of wedlock, married to a man who knew he wasn’t the father of her baby, chosen to give birth to the long-awaited king of Israel. “You who are highly favored,” the angel had called her. And maybe she was highly favored, but it probably didn’t quite feel that way from the jump. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones / but has lifted up the humble,” she would say. “He has filled the hungry with good things / but has sent the rich away empty.” And, of course, that’s great news for the humble and hungry. For the rulers, for the wealthy, it’s terrible news. Not something that’s easy for them to build around. 
     No wonder, then, that the old man in the temple had warned her: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 
     That first Christmas, for Mary, wasn’t something easily built around. Jesus, for her, was a beginning of course. But he was also an end to the ease and comfort of believing that she could live a life that was ordinary and inconsequential to all except those closest to her. Her son wasn’t just a baby. He was a Savior, and he was a sign, and his life and death would change the world but would pierce her like a sword too. No way he would fit neatly into whatever life she may have envisioned for herself.
     Amazingly, she still called herself the Lord’s servant. “May your word to me be fulfilled,” that’s what she said.
     The same with Joseph. The same with the disciples a few years later, hiding in a top floor apartment when their crucified teacher was suddenly standing in front of them saying something about sending them as he had been sent. With the other disciple a few years after that, picking himself up off the road to Damascus to go stumbling blindly to the house of someone who might be able to help him make sense of what Jesus had said. They knew their lives would never be the same again, would never belong only to them again. There wasn’t a minor alteration they could make in the facade of their lives to accommodate what God was doing by sending Jesus to them. They would have to tear down everything and rebuild on him.
     On the other hand, Herod knew that too. He knew he couldn’t build around this newborn king. But he tried to uproot him. Same with the Pharisees, the scribes, the religious establishment. If he was who he said he was and if what he said was true, they couldn’t make him fit neatly. That’s why they conspired to get rid of him. It really wasn’t surprising at all given the things he did and said.
      Sometimes, folks meet Jesus and want to change their lives for him. Others want to marginalize him, hold him at arm’s length, or incorporate some version of him into their lives as they already are. And some will believe they can just do away with him. 
     It’s funny: hardly anyone in our world has a problem with non-specific “religion.” Even a semi-private, polite, intellectual faith is unlikely to raise many eyebrows, to say nothing of voices. But the more specific you get about Jesus in our world, the more likely someone is to get hostile, to take offense, to do what they can to marginalize you and your faith. And you have to wonder if maybe that reaction to Jesus comes from some consciousness that he’s never content for a person to just build around him. All these centuries later, he’s still “a sign to be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” If you don’t cherry-pick what he says and does, he is intentionally polarizing. Take him seriously, and you’ll either tear down your life and rebuild it on him or you’ll push him away completely. 
     It’s also funny that even people who check the “Christian” box on a form, some who are even found in church on a semi-regular to regular basis, have in reality just sort of decided to build around him. Or, at least, around an idea of him. Just like anyone else, we can tell ourselves — and even really believe — that with just a minor surface adjustment to our lives he’ll fit neatly, with very little effect on what’s behind the facade. Examples could be multiplied, but you don’t need them. You know it’s true. If you’re like me, you know it from experience.
     And what I hope we can be reminded of by the familiar Christmas story this year is that it doesn’t really work that way. The One who came from the “overshadowing” of God into human life can’t be expected to stay in the shadows himself. The one who inverts the values of our world like he does can’t be expected to leave our own values untouched. The one who comes so that the thoughts of many will be revealed can’t be expected to leave our own thoughts shrouded. And if he is a sword that pierces hearts, why would we expect our hearts to be left alone?
     If you’re trying to build your life around Jesus, the way we all try to make room for Christmas traditions this time of year, you’re going to be frustrated. Don’t just make room in your life for him for the moment. He wants to dismantle your life and build it on him.

     May we, too, be the Lord’s servants.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Life in an Impossible Universe

     In him all things were created:  things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;  all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
-Colossians 1:16-17 (NIV)


If you’re not already sitting down, you might want to. I have some potentially bad news.
     Seriously, grab a blanket to snuggle into. Put on your most comfortable PJ’s. Grab a cup of coffee, or some chocolate, or whatever might make you feel better. Then come back. I’ll wait.
     Ready? OK, here it comes.
     You shouldn’t exist.
     I don’t mean that personally. I shouldn’t either. For that matter, according to the best science we have available to us right now, none of us should. Nothing should. According to physicists at the top of their field, people who have spent their scientific careers trying to figure this stuff out, there is no reason in — pardon the expression — the world that our universe should be. And every reason, in fact, that it shouldn’t be.
     That reason — the only one that’s necessary — is antimatter. Besides being what drives starships in Star Trek, antimatter is, as its name implies, the opposite of matter. Specifically, it has an opposite electrical charge to matter. So when matter and antimatter collide, the result is nothing short of spectacular. As in, spectacularly apocalyptic. They destroy each other. Cancel each other out completely.
     And here’s the fun thing: every model of the origins of the universe that scientists can generate using the known laws of physics has antimatter coming into existence in equal parts to matter. And matter — well, that’s us. And, you know, our pets and our houses and the trees and plants and the water and the sun and moon and…well, everything.
     So this perfect symmetry between matter and antimatter is the problem. Our universe should have immediately canceled itself out. Right after the “Big Bang” there should have been another Big Bang — maybe a Bigger Bang? — that annihilated everything that had just come into being. At least, according to what the best scientific minds have been able to come up with.
     Obviously, that didn’t happen. So, obviously, there’s something those minds haven’t thought of yet. They’re aware of that. They’re still looking, and I imagine at some point someone will come up with a good explanation. For now, though, the best we can do is say that according to the models, we don’t exist. 
     I warned you that you should sit down. 
     A couple of things to point out here. One is that science has provided immeasurable good to the world. Where would we be without science? Still treating cancer and heart disease by leeches and bloodletting. Still afraid of falling off the edge of the earth. Still too terrified of monsters to explore the seas. Still getting around on animals or on foot, still writing drivel like this with a stick and some charcoal from a fire (if we had fire), still living hard, ugly lives filled with disease and malnutrition and dying before our fortieth birthdays. 
     For all its accomplishment, though, occasionally a story like this reminds us that science isn’t about explaining everything. I think it’s wonderful to hear a scientist speak with the humility of Christian Smorra, who’s working on this problem: “All of our observations find a complete symmetry between matter and antimatter, which is why the universe should not actually exist. An asymmetry must exist here somewhere but we simply do not understand where the difference is.” 
    Did you hear it? Faith. “We know, but we don’t understand.” Science doesn’t cancel out the need for faith. Whether it’s faith in God or an asymmetry, it’s still faith. All the models say he’s wrong to believe, but there is observable evidence to say he’s right. To imagine that science lives in antagonism to faith is to not understand science, or faith, or perhaps either one very well. Science gives us so much. We should be grateful for and honor the work of scientists in our world. But don’t imagine, as sometimes human beings tend to do, that their work will make our need for faith irrelevant. Often, the more they uncover the more questions are raised.
     So I’d like to propose an answer to the question of why we exist. There won’t be a way to check my hypothesis in a computer model. It wouldn’t meet the standards of publication in any reputable physics journal. It will not satisfy the physicists hard at work on this problem — nor do I imagine that it should. But here’s my answer to the conundrum, an answer born, admittedly, more from theology than physics: We exist because God wants us to.
     Faith tells us that God created the heavens and the earth. Whether he used a Big Bang or not I’m not qualified to answer. Whether he suspended some of the laws of physics to do it or not I can’t tell you. But I do believe in a God who could separate matter from antimatter the way he separated the sea from the dry land. I believe in a God who, through Jesus, holds together and sustains the universe.  
     Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t come to that belief just by looking at the evidence. I didn’t come to believe in God on the basis of this unexplained mystery of physics. Sometimes believers get so anxious about convincing those who don’t believe that we build our case on shaky ground. Reasonable people might come to a very different conclusion than I do about this question. I don’t imagine that a mass conversion of physicists is coming on the basis of a verse or two from the Bible. 
     I come from the other direction, actually. I believe in God, and so I tend to look for him. That’s faith, too. Paul says that we ought to be able to see God and know something about him just by looking at the universe he’s made. But he wrote that to believers, to people already used to looking at the world through the lenses of faith. I don’t look to the universe around me and demand that it prove the existence of God. I believe in him because of his faithfulness to his people and his faithfulness to me. I believe in him because of Jesus Christ. And then I look to the universe around me to tell me more about him, to see in it the self-portrait of its Creator. 
     If our universe shouldn’t exist, if we don’t have the vocabulary to explain our own existence, if creation is so difficult that we can’t even imagine how it was done, then shouldn’t we be looking for a Creator? And shouldn’t we who believe be able to imagine that, as much as human beings seem to want to destroy what he made, he still holds it together in love and faithfulness to us? 
     So the laws of physics say we shouldn’t exist. Let’s live as outlaws, then. May our existence testify to the power and faithfulness of God to create and sustain what every law we know says should be neither create-able nor sustainable. May our curiosity about the universe around us serve the purpose of revealing more of who he is. And may our lives lived in this impossible universe testify to the impossible reach of his love and grace, especially in Jesus. 

     That’s what might convince skeptics to believe in a God who, with limitless, love and intention and power, created this impossibly wonderful, complex, and beautiful universe. 

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