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Peace on Earth

Between the crass commercialism and consumerism of secular society and the Church’s safe and sanitized celebration, it is a struggle for me to get through another advent season.

This Christmas, I chose this passage to reflect on:

Then Herod, when he realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men. Then what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
and she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.
—Matt. 2:16-18; CSB

Though we sing of “joy to the world”, we must never forget the sorrow all around us and that bereavement is never far from blessings. While Matthew cites only Jer. 31:15, the verses immediately following are full of hope: “There is hope for your future” (vs 17) in the promise of return from Exile. Ultimately, Jeremiah will express this hope later in the chapter (vs. 31–34) in the language of the new covenant, which Jesus came to inaugurate. So although “weeping may lodge for the night” as we sojourn in the now and the not yet, “shouts of joy will come in the morning” (Ps. 30:5; ISV) with the dawning of the eschaton.

Secondly, Herod’s heinous act failed to hinder God’s redemptive purpose (Ps. 2). Christians today need to be reminded not to react so pitifully at every little opposition, and not to fall into the temptation of trying to court favour with Empire. As Rachel Held Evans rightly asserts:

The incarnation isn’t about desperately grasping at the threads of power and privilege. It’s not about making some civic holiday “bigger and better.” It’s about surrendering power, setting aside privilege, and finding God in the smallness and vulnerability of a baby in a womb.

— Mary, the Magnificat, and an Unsentimental Advent

Finally, may we not let the sentimentality of the season distract us from the reality that for the vast majority, the King was rejected: He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11; CSB), and that is still the case today.

O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

—Malcolm Guite

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Making Space

Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! (Hebrews 13:2; NLT)

Tonight I am feeling for you
Under the state of a strange land
You have sacrificed much to be here
Therefore the grace as I offer my hand
Welcome home, I bid you welcome, I bid you welcome
Welcome home from the bottom of my heart

Out here on the edge
The empire is fading by the day
And the world is so weary in war
Maybe we’ll find that new way

So welcome home, see I made a space for you now
Welcome home from the bottom of our heart
Welcome home from the bottom of our hearts
Keep it coming now, keep it coming now
You’ll find most of us here with our hearts wide open

On Categories and Cages

Churches exert a homogenizing influence on its members as unity becomes confused and conflated with uniformity. At the same time, we consciously or unconsciously group members according to our narrow categories. Michael Foley notes that “Our categorizing tendency likes to put people in pigeon holes (often contemptuously, as ‘the careerist’, ‘the philistine’, ‘the slob’, ‘the shrew’, etc.), then notices only behaviour that fits with the simplistic classification and finishes by dismissing people as superficial, limited, predictable and boring.” (Life Lessons From Bergson, Macmillan; 2013)

In particular, those who are different, who march to the beat of a different drum, who are outspoken, and who are not yes-men, are viewed with discomfort,  fear and suspicion. We think, Why can’t they be normal like me?  Once labelled, it is hard to escape from other people’s perception of you, unless perhaps, you go out of your way to act out your life according to another carefully chosen script. Foley goes on to say that “It is common even to want others to behave badly in predictable ways in order to confirm our own good judgement and enjoy superiority and righteousness. Conversely, because we hate change and want people to stay in their labelled boxes, unexpected developments can be irritating.”

I find it challenging therefore, to navigate the tricky balance of behaving according to biblical norms, church cultural expectations and one’s authentic expressions of self. No doubt I am not doing a good job of it.

What’s the answer? I think we need to be more curious, make less assumptions about others. We need to slow down and open our lives to each other, something that is sorely lacking in the superficial chit chat that too often passes for genuine conversation during the coffee time at church.

For me, my love of the arts has been helpful in arresting my own instinctive reflex to cast premature judgement or be unthinkingly dismissive. As Foley rightly observes, “A crucial function of the arts is to prevent, or break down, dismissive labelling and reveal the singular instead of the similar, the peculiar instead of the familiar, and the inscrutable instead of the understood.”

It is sad that there is no room in many churches for the arts.

In a Deep and Dark December

Splitting from Jack Delaney’s, Sheridan Square,
that winter night, stewed, seasoned in bourbon,
my body kindled by the whistling air
snowing the Village that Christ was reborn,
I lurched like any lush by his own glow
across towards Sixth, and froze before the tracks
of footprints bleeding on the virgin snow.
I tracked them where they led across the street
to the bright side, entering the wax-
sealed smell of neon, human heat,
some all-night diner with its wise-guy cook
his stub thumb in my bowl of stew and one
man’s pulped and beaten face, its look
acknowledging all that, white-dark outside,
was possible: some beast prowling the block,
something fur-clotted, running wild
beyond the boundary of will. Outside,
more snow had fallen. My heart charred.
I longed for darkness, evil that was warm.
Walking, I’d stop and turn. What had I heard,
wheezing behind my heel with whitening breath?
Nothing. Sixth Avenue yawned wet and wide.
The night was white. There was nowhere to hide.

—Derek Walcott, “GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN” (The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013)

Remembering RC

RC Sproul’s books were a helpful resource to me when God revealed the doctrines of grace to me decades ago. While I was not a “fan boy” and there were areas where I respectfully disagreed with him, I was saddened when I heard the news of his departure.

Done in Secret

Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly,
leaving nothing out.

–Wendell Berry, “Like Snow” (Leavings: Poems, 2010)

Biblical Model of Leadership

Here are 6 short, helpful videos about church leadership:

Note: while I don’t endorse everything Terry Virgo teaches, he has some very good points on what constitutes biblical leadership.

Curt Paton has written a good article and for more details, the reader can consult Alexander Strauch’s comprehensive study in his excellent book: Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership.