Thursday, November 27, 2008

Advent is a Season of Waiting on God

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of the Christian calendar with the start of Advent. The word Advent comes from the Latin meaning “to come”, and the season that bears this title consists of the four Sundays before Christmas that look with anticipation to the coming of Christ. While we observe this season as a time of looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas, the practice of Advent each year is also focused on our faith and hope in what God is preparing for our future: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

As we enter into this holy season, I want to focus my next four columns on four particular words that capture the essence of the season of Advent. While Christians have traditionally focused on the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love, important themes as they are, I would like to glean another set of ideas from the opening of the first Gospel to be written, the Gospel of Mark.

Although Mark does not say anything about the birth of Jesus, as do Matthew and Luke, this does not mean that Mark is without an Advent theme. Moreover, a careful look at Mark’s prologue produces some very important spiritual practices for our renewal during this season of Advent. These practices are: waiting, hearing, repenting, and believing. We will consider the practice of waiting first.

The opening of Mark’s narrative situates the story of Jesus in the context of the past; Israel’s history of exile, and God’s promise of redemption and liberation. Although all the statements that Mark attributes to the prophet Isaiah cannot be found in Isaiah, the intention of the Gospel narrator is to pick up God’s promises of the past spoken through Isaiah in order to declare the new work that God was doing in the present as the fulfillment of those promises. In the thought of the Gospel’s author, the theme of a New Exodus, which was prevalent in Isaiah’s prophecies, was now being realized in the coming of God in the person of Jesus.

But the fulfillment of this promise comes only after God’s people had experienced a long period of waiting. Indeed, a remnant of God’s faithful continued to wait and believe, hoping to experience the realization of God’s promise of redemption. In their minds, God was the only one who could act to accomplish God’s promises, and the waiting of God’s people was an act of faith and hope in the God who they believed would affect that which they had not experienced, but which God had surely promised.

In our nanosecond oriented world, we find it difficult to wait. We are extremely uncomfortable with delayed satisfaction, and we make every effort to achieve and obtain quick, but often fleeting, ways of gratifying our lives. We realize we hunger, but we fail to realize that our deepest hunger cannot be satisfied by those momentary pleasures. Our deepest longings will only be satisfied by the renewal of God, who is continually making things new, but perhaps not at the speed we would desire. And, thus we must wait.

Yet, waiting on God is not like waiting in line at the store or waiting for an appointment. Waiting on God is like a child waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. There is hope and expectation, along with the assurance that though she may not know what is wrapped in the Christmas paper, she does know the one who gives the gift and she knows that the gift is the expression of the giver’s love. While we wait on God, we do not wait in fear and anxiety of what might come in the future; we wait with faith and hope in the God who holds the future.

In our waiting, however, we do not separate ourselves from the reality of a creation under chaos. Rather, we wait with creation, and we suffer with those who suffer, proclaiming the gospel through service and healing until God’s final redemption. In doing so, we do not deny the reality of suffering and injustice, nor do are we complacent about suffering and injustice, but we work as a means of confronting the suffering and injustice of our world with the realization that they hold no eternal reign over us.

But more than anything, waiting on God is a time of preparation. Just as Jesus commanded his disciples to watch and pray in the garden as a time of preparation, so too God demands that we watch and pray while we wait. Through our time of waiting, we are preparing to experience God’s renewal as our lives of disorientation are continually oriented toward God’s future hope. And through our time of preparation, as we wait with faithfulness, we can learn to perceive and embrace God’s work in the present as we continue to look for the horizon of God’s blessings.

The period of Advent is a season in which we celebrate what God has done in the incarnation of Jesus. But it is also a time in which we wait on God to do something new in our lives, something we have yet to experience. Advent is a time of hope, anticipation and waiting. Yet, through our waiting we work, watch, and pray as we prepare for the coming God, the one who is making all things new.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Giving Thanks is a Way of Life

This coming Thursday, Americans will celebrate a treasured holiday in our nation’s history, Thanksgiving Day. On this day, families will gather around the table to share turkey, dressing, and all the trimmings before they laze away the afternoon visiting with relatives, taking a nap, or watching football on TV. While we have these well established traditions, the day is really set aside as a time for families to come together to share verbally with one another of the things for which they are thankful.

Perhaps, like many families, you and your loved ones take a few moments at the table, before you partake of the delicious food, to give every person a chance to express for what and for whom he or she is most thankful. These expressions of gratitude continue around the table until everyone has had the chance to share with the rest how thankful they really are. But when this national day of thanks ends, and the turkey, dressing and fixings are put in the fridge for leftovers, the expressions of the day are often put away until it is necessary to bring them out for the next Thanksgiving Day.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not being cynical about this holiday. I do appreciate the fact that we have a national holiday set aside for the purpose of giving thanks. I also believe that this day serves a grand, and yet, humbling purpose as a yearly reminder of our need to give thanks to God and to appreciate what is truly valuable in this life. But thanksgiving must be more to us than just a day.

Scripture tells us that we are to give thanks continually and in all circumstances. Thanksgiving is not something we do only on one day out of the year when we feel all warm and cozy in our nice homes, gathered around a table of good food with the people we love. No, thankfulness is something we are to express everyday of the year as we live, work, play, and yes, even suffer among our family, friends, acquaintances, and yes, even our enemies. We are to have attitudes of thanksgiving at all times and in all situations.

But is being thankful fully captured by simply having attitudes of thanksgiving? Can we honestly say that being thankful is merely an attitude we are to carry throughout our lives? To answer this, let us return to the events of the day we call Thanksgiving. We gather with family and friends in our warm and beautiful homes. We eat plenty of food; most often more than we need. And we cap off the day with a relaxing afternoon. Sure, we express our thankfulness through words to one another, and even words we offer to God. But are words and attitudes the true measure of thanksgiving? Can we honestly say that merely mouthing phrases of thanks to one another or to God means that we are actually thankful?

Thanksgiving is not just an attitude; it is a way of living. To express true thankfulness to God for the blessings we have received, we must do so through tangible acts of love and service to God and to those around us. In this way, thanksgiving is much like love, and indeed it is an expression of love. Love is not simply the feeling of love we have for others. Love can only be defined by the act of expressing love. Love cannot be love if it is only felt. Love becomes real when it is expressed through loving acts.

In the same way, thanksgiving is more than an attitude; and it is certainly more than a national holiday. Expressing thanks to God and to others is a way of living that is articulated through tangible acts of gratitude, service and love. Indeed, thanksgiving is the seed that produces the fruit of kindness and generosity. True thanksgiving is sharing in the blessings of God through participating in God’s work and sharing of the blessings of God with those around us through acts of love, kindness, and generosity.

So as you gather to celebrate this wonderful holiday, be thankful as you share fellowship with your family and friends, as you eat the delicious meal and as you enjoy the day we have set aside to give thanks. But bear in mind that thanksgiving extends to all aspects of life with God and others. Thanksgiving is more than a day. Thanksgiving is more than an attitude. Thanksgiving is a way of living.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Lord's Prayer Calls Us to Pray for God’s Protection during Times of Testing

The Lord’s Prayer continues to be one of the most beautiful pieces of private and public worship, lifting the hearts and minds of those who recite the words. Yet the prayer that begins on a high note ends with a tone of fear and trepidation implying the reality of humanity’s weak and sinful existence. With two statements, Jesus defines life in the world under the power of evil as dangerous to those who would seek to do the will of God, and he calls them to pray to God for protection.

But what does it mean to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”, as we traditionally do? To answer this question, we need to take each statement separately and define as specifically as possible the important words. From there we can discover the essence and meaning of these declarations for Jesus’ first disciples and for those who seek to follow Jesus today.

First, the meaning of the phrase, “Lead us not into temptation,” is dependent on the definition of the Greek word peirasmos. This word can mean “temptation”, as we normally find in English translations, or it can mean “testing”. If we take the word as primarily indicating temptation, as we usually define the meaning of the English term, then we are presented with a highly individualistic prayer that focuses on our personal struggle with sin. This may indeed be part of what Jesus intends, for he certainly was concerned about personal sin, and his teachings do focus on the morality of his followers.

However, if we take account of the context of the early Christian movement in the Roman Empire, then we might consider the importance of the English word “test” or “trial” to capture the meaning of Jesus’ statement. While the persecution of early Christians was sporadic during the infancy of this Jewish sect, we know that under Nero, Roman Emperor in the late 60s, torture of Christians became an act of the state.

In such an environment, Christians might find it easy to deny their faith in order to save their lives. Thus, while Jesus may indeed be calling his followers to pray to God for protection against the temptation to commit personal immorality, he is certainly encouraging them to pray that God would not lead them into a time of testing where they might recant their faith.

This helps us understand the second statement in this portion of the prayer; “Deliver us from evil.” Some biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus’ reference to evil was not pointing toward evil in general, but more specifically to the one who does evil, “the evil one”.

Although Jesus may have the mythical figure of Satan in mind, “the evil one” could also be a reference to a powerful person who carries out evil; an allusion, perhaps, to the emperor or any other political leader who wields power unjustly and oppressively. The petition to be delivered from the evil one is not simply a call for protection from moral failure; it is also a plea to God to be delivered from the testing brought about by Imperial persecution that could cause the disciple to deny his or her faith.

A second century story might help to illustrate my point. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was put before the proconsul of the Roman Empire and commanded to “revile Christ” or be put to the flames. Polycarp was being tested by the evil one to give up his confession of Christ and his commitment to the gospel in order to save his life. Polycarp refused and was put to death.

But Polycarp’s story, and the context of the early disciples, is vastly different from our own. While there are Christians around the world who face persecution, believers in the West do not face the tests many early Christians faced. So how do Jesus’ words remain important for us without limiting their reference only to our protection from individual moral failure?

While we may not face the power of the evil one who threatens us with bodily harm, we are confronted by an evil and powerful system that tests us to renounce the living of the gospel by our failure to remain true to our confessional practice as Christ’s disciples. By this, I am not saying that we recant our faith intellectually. We may do this. But more tragically, we recant our faith in practice when we fail to love our neighbors and our enemies, when we neglect the poor and oppressed, and when we use abusive power against others. The evil of our culture can test our faith by tempting us from authentic discipleship, and thus we must seek God’s protection from denying our faith through unfaithful living.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Lord’s Prayer Calls Us to Forgive Others as God has Forgiven Us

I will never forget seeing a bumper sticker on a vehicle in front of me as I waited to pick up my kids from school one afternoon not long after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. “God may forgive, but we will not.” I realized that the slogan expressed the honest anger of many people; a normal human response to a very tragic situation. But I was also reminded of Jesus’ most troubling statement from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” These words easily flow from our lips in private moments of prayer and public times of worship, but they are probably the most challenging of all the statements Jesus gives his disciples to pray.

What do the words Jesus gives us to pray mean? Is forgiveness really demanded of all followers of Christ, or are there limits to when we forgive, who we forgive, and how far we are to extend forgiveness to someone who has harmed us? These questions require thoughtful and thorough consideration not only so that we can comprehend the meaning of Jesus’ prayer, but also so we will discover the extent to which we are called to live the gospel of limitless grace.

The key to understanding Matthew’s version of the prayer is found in his use of the term debts. Matthew’s “debts” is a stronger term than Luke’s “sins”, and expresses the idea that our sins against God are debts that we owe to God; debts that have become so large that we can never repay them. Thus, with the weight of such debt, we find ourselves hopeless to find any relief, and we have no choice but to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.

But we must be careful when praying this portion of the prayer, for to pray for God’s forgiveness of our debts is inextricably linked to our forgiving others of their debts. In fact, the wording of Jesus’ prayer may imply that we must first forgive others of the debts they owe to us before we can even think of seeking God’s forgiveness.

But what does it mean to forgive our debtors? In Jesus’ era this would certainly mean the forgiveness of economic and political debt. In the social world of the first century, patronage was the system of social order as clients would receive money and protection from wealthy and powerful patrons. In turn, these clients were always indebted to their patrons, and patrons always held power over their clients. In this sense, Jesus calls for the forgiveness of political and economic debt, proclaiming the perpetual sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee in the new community of God. Thus, Jesus’ prayer demands the forgiveness of all economic debts.

But debtors are not limited only to those who owe political and economic debt, for we also must forgive others who sin against us. In forgiving others who sin against us we express the character of God, who extends forgiveness to all. We forgive because God forgives us.

But are there limits to our forgiveness? Peter asked this same question of Jesus when he inquired as to how many times one should forgive another. Jesus responded, “seventy times seven,” implying that there are no limits to the forgiveness we are to extend to those who have hurt us. As God’s forgiveness has no boundaries, so too followers of Christ cannot set boundaries around whom and when they forgive.

Some may be critical of this way of reacting to those who harm us, for our human nature is to seek punishment and even revenge. But such a view misses the transformative power of forgiveness. Jesus does not command us to forgive others as an act to which we begrudgingly submit. Rather, Jesus understands the power of forgiveness to transform enemies into friends.

In October of 2006 the country was shocked when a gunman entered the school in an Amish community, taking the lives of five innocent girls before he ended his own. Yet, people were also shocked by the response that came from the Amish. Amish men went to the home of the man’s family offering their heartfelt condolences to those he left behind. They also attended the funeral of the man. When asked by the confused media about their unusual response, they replied that God commands forgiveness.

While we often look oddly at the Amish people as living an archaic way of life, we would do well to heed their rich theological tradition of obeying the simple teaching of Jesus to forgive our debtors as God has forgiven our debts. Through their act of forgiveness and grace, they brought the living and transformative power of the gospel of light to shine in the darkness of sin and pain.