Manuscript: He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease

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This is part of an Irish prayer, commonly atttributed to Patrick and named “Patrick’s Breastplate,” the part of the armor that protects the heart. And I’m Irish.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s a prayer. Asking for Christ with me, before me, behind me, beneath me, above me, on my right, on my left, when I lie down, when I sit down, when I arise.

Theologically, we believe that God is omnipresent. He’s everywhere, somehow present at the same time everywhere. But I don’t think this prayer is invoking God to be present as if he weren’t before. Patrick wasn’t trying to convince God to be around. This prayer does something different. It speaks a reality that we forget, it invokes not God to be here when he wasn’t but me to be here when I wasn’t. Yes, I’m here. You can see me and hear me. But when I imagine that I’m here without God, I’m kind of living a fantasty; I’m not any less here, but to a significant degree, I’m not living in reality. Christ is with me, Christ is before me, Christ is behind me, Christ is in me. This a great prayer. Sometimes people’s response is, “I know that.” But do you?

I have a habit that some people find humorous, or eccentric, or perhaps some less generous word. I walk to school. That’s between 5 and 6 kilometers. It’s not the best walk, since the majority is on caretera vieja leon, which is usually pretty busy. But I like it, because it’s a good prayer time for me. My preferred ways to pray are to write in my journal or be moving while I’m praying. So I walk for about forty minutes and talk with God, because of course he’s there with me. And I ask God to bless people as I pass them, because, you know, we’re walking together and talking and all.

And then I get to school and it’s almost like I say, “Thanks, catch ya later.” God isn’t any less with me than he was when I was talking with him. But I experience him less. I live less aware of his Presence.  He doesn’t go away, but it’s as if I 

John 3:22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized 24 —John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

The first thing to say about John the Baptist is he’s been utterly clear, all along, that he is not the Messiah. He is the messenger. He is the voice calling in the wilderness. To emphasize this, he tells the priests and Levites who ask him, “Are you the one?” “Not only am I not the one, I am not worthy to untie his dirty shoe.” Get this: an ancient Hebrew source says, “A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master nor put his shoes on.” 1st century Hebrew slaves are expected to do everything for their master…except untie the thong of their sandals. I’m assuming because people walked through manure and sewage water and even slaves aren’t that lowly. And recorded saying, ““All services which a slave does for his master, a pupil should do for his teacher with the exception of undoing his shoes.” John the Baptist says of Jesus, “I am not worthy to undo the thong of his sandal.” Do you feel the weight of that? Hebrew slaves don’t have to untie their master’s sandal and John the Baptist says he isn’t worthy to do for Jesus the thing that is beneath a slave to do.

I would call that a “No.”

John has been directing his disciples to Jesus. Jesus walks by and John shouts to his disciples, “Hey, there goes the Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples heard this and followed Jesus. Makes sense. One of them was Andrew, who would spend the rest of Jesus’ life on earth following him, being Jesus’ disciple, and the Gospel tells us the first thing Andrew did was find his brother Simon to tell him, “We’ve found the Messiah.”

So when we look at what John says in our passage, “He must increase but I must decrease,” we’ve already got concrete examples of how John carries this out.

We’re going to walk through the passage and then consider some implications.

In verse 22, John tells us that Jesus and his disciples have headed into the Judean countryside, and they are spending time together there and baptizing people, receiving new followers. Notice this, for Jesus to disciple meant, first, that he simply spent time with them. The first two verses of John four clarify that “in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.”

John continued to baptize, as well, calling people to repentance and directing them toward Jesus, the Lamb of God. Aenon means “springs” or “fountain,” so it’s saying John was baptizing at the springs near Salim. Since John had been baptizing “beyond the Jordan,” meaning east of the Jordan, he’s now moved West and is no longer baptizing folks in that river. We can’t really say how far apart Jesus and John were, because “into the Judean countryside” is like saying, “somewhere around Managua.” It’s also interesting that the Gospel writer tells us, “John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.” That’s a way of marking the chronology of this event. But it’s also striking because it shows that the Apostle John’s readers would have known all about John the Baptist, as this is the only reference to the Baptist’s time in prison. The other three Gospels describe when Herod locked up John and ordered him killed, but the Apostle John has a different focus. We get to see the transition between disciples of John the Baptist and disciples of Jesus.

In verse 25, “a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew.” The question raised may have been which is superior, ceremonial cleansing or baptism. Before John the Baptist, the Jews practiced ceremonial cleansing as laid out in the Law, for everything from washing before meals to purifying themselves after coming in contact with a leper. John describes his ritual as “ a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And somehow, this debate leads John’s disciples to come talk to him. Really, the underlying motive appears to be jealousy. They go to John and object: “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and all are going to him.”

I get this. These guys had committed themselves to following John, and John had made a big impact. Everyone was talking about him. Matthew’s Gospel describes that everyone from tax collectors to Roman soldiers were coming out to hear him. And John could preach up a storm. He was…direct. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

But in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist has one message: go to Jesus. That’s the Lamb of God. I’m not him, I’m just pointing you to him. John needs to correct his disciples now, who are apparently jealous on his behalf (and maybe their own):

No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him. 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

There are few statements in the Bible that better capture our position with Jesus than this. First of all, I’m not the Messiah. So true. Neither are you. Agreed? Good. John says, “I have been sent ahead of him.” And here is the relationship he sees: He who has the bride is the bridegroom. Jesus is the bridegroom. Jesus uses this same analogy about himself in Mark 2, when people scold him that the Pharisees and John’s disciples are fasting but his disciples aren’t: The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.”

So Jesus is the bridegroom and there’s a big wedding on. So what does the friend of the bridegroom do? He rejoices! The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled. John has his joy fulfilled. I love this answer to “Rabbi, remember that guy? The one you talked about? He’s baptizing [which he wasn’t] and people are going to him!”

Have you ever tried your best to teach something and realized “they aren’t getting it?” I know a bunch of you have. I have. John doesn’t say, “Idiots! Haven’t you been listening? What have I been saying this whole time?” No, he says, “my joy is fulfilled!” Jesus says in the 15th chapter of this Gospel, “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” John the Baptist’s joy is complete!

John concludes, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” My joy is fulfilled; he must increase, but I must decrease.” Do you hear any sadness in that? John is completing his work, his calling. His moment to be the center of attention, to preach, to baptize, is passing, and Jesus’ public ministry is beginning. IN fact, the other three Gospels all say some variation of this: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.John’s arrest is Jesus’ moment to begin preaching the Kingdom of God and the good news. But in this moment, we get a response very similar to Simeon when he holds the baby Jesus, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”


That’s our passage. Let’s talk about some implications.

He must increase, but I must decrease.

John’s specific calling was to prepare the people for Jesus. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s task is nearing its end. John must step back out of the center of attention so that Jesus can step into it.

Though I am sometimes wary of spiritualizing a literal truth, I think that we can appropriate John’s statement. Going back to the Irish prayer we began with, Christ is in me and before me and behind me.

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s both a reminder and a request. May Christ be in the heart of every man who thinks of me. May thinking of me be a moment to think of Christ. And may Jesus Christ so increase in me that when someone speaks of me, their words turn to Him.

And because Jesus is always present, Christ is in every eye that seems me, and every ear that hears me.

So how does Jesus increase and we decrease?

1.We lead people to Jesus, not to us.

That’s a tricky line, because they are paying attention to us. But if they aren’t getting more of Jesus, if we are increasing, then we’ve lost the point and might even be leading in the wrong direction.
2. We rejoice in him.

John the Baptist isn’t fighting this, he’s embracing it. He’s rejoicing in it. The friend of the groom is not having a fit that the attention isn’t on him nor that the bride isn’t for him. He is rejoicing that the bridegroom has come.

What does it mean that we must decrease? I don’t think it means that we hide and withdraw and try never to be noticed again. I don’t think we become less than we are. In John’s case, it was time for him to transition roles. For everything there is a season. We, in whatever stage of life we’re in now, are praying for Jesus who is Christ to increase in us, and everything that isn’t him to decrease in us. And rejoicing does this. When I truly rejoice in God, when I consciously remember and thank him, then the small, selfish part of me recedes. God is filing me up more and there just isn’t as much room for that.

3Next, Jesus increases in us and we decrease when we let people know that it’s God’s strength, and not ours, God’s goodness, and not ours.

Paul writes For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” II Cor 4:7 I know you’ve heard this from me before, but you’re probably going to keep on hearing it as long as I’m up here preaching: we are here by God’s grace and we communicate that grace when we let others see how truly messed up we are. Now I know it’s a little unfair that I have more material than most in this area, but we all get to play the cards we’re dealt. God increases in us when we recognize, to others—and more importantly, to ourselves—that it’s God in us, not some power or kindness or love we just summon up within ourselves. In fact, I’d say that when I call others’ attention to this, it helps me also remember and believe this is true.

4. Finally, as I was reflecting on how we seek to have Jesus increase in us and let ourselves decrease, another famous prayer came to mind. When we talk about things that need to decrease in us, that part of me that resists God because it wants to be in control, it wants to be the center and get the glory, we’re talking about something that would kill us. The wages of sin are death. Scripture uses some other words for that: die, crucify, put to death. That’s what we need, because those things are death in us. If I went the other way, I must increase but he must decrease, that would destroy me. Grace means God has us, even when we fail, and he is faithful to help us. Perhaps the most important think for us in cooperating with God that he might increase and I decrease is simply believing that the true me, the me that God made and intends, the most fully alive me, is the one in which God does increases. The real question of faith is whether we believe God that he will make us fully alive or if we believe our ego that screams and yells not to die.

So listen to this prayer as a prayer of belief: Help us to believe that this is what we truly want, so that God will increase in us.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

A Little Conflicted

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One of my girls catches the winning score in ultimate–playing for the other team.*

The basketball players I coach, whom I used to dominate, can now outplay me.  In fact, I’m hanging on by my fingernails to keep up.  

My son knows more about the Star Wars universe than I do.  He used to ask me questions to learn; then he asked me questions to quiz me; now, I have to watch The Clone Wars with him to figure out what he’s talking about.**

This isn’t primarily about sports (or Star Wars), I just find those examples the easiest to explain.  These are things about which I’m a little conflicted.  I see the good and I rejoice.  I’m happy for it.  Mostly.  

I’m a little conflicted about dying.  I’m a little conflicted about becoming less so that others can become more.  John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase but I must decrease.”  

It isn’t merely a refusal to let go.  It’s more than an ego war.  Dying to self also involves a change of identity.  Is being a coach better than being a player?  Or is being a player better than being a coach?  

I think the answer is in Ecclessiastes:  for everything there is a season.  John the Baptist first increased.  He gathered crowds.  More accurately, crowds mobbed him out in the desert.  He said scary things and they gathered around all the more.  He had a crucial time to speak, to be heard.  Then he stepped back out of the spotlight because he knew his role.  He understood his own identity.  Blessed is the man or woman who understands that. 

When I counsel young wanting-to-be-married people, often the strongest thing I say is “Don’t get married until you know who you are.”  I did the wedding of a couple of late teenagers who thought they did.  But they didn’t yet and they didn’t stay married.  One day she woke up and realized, “This is not who I want to be.”  And that’s a perfectly valid decision, especially in one’s early twenties–but it does a lot less damage if one hasn’t already made a life covenant with someone else.  

But sound though this advice is for young adults considering marriage, it also suggests something too clear cut for real life.  We don’t come to some glowing epiphany between 19 and 25 when we figure out who we are, once and for all, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to do that well.  Okay, a few of us do, and God bless them.  This blog likely isn’t for them, unless they’re hoping to make sense of the rest of us.  

As I’m starting out 2017 and trying to make some significant changes in my life–because it’s time and I’ve been thinking I need to without actually doing anything about it (which, by the way, does nothing)–one of the things I’m facing is the next step of my identity.  In what ways do I need to decrease so God can increase in my life?  In what ways do i need to focus more on fewer things so that I can become who I’m made to be?  

A friend recently shared this quote from Upile Chisala :  

there is danger in letting people misname you

if you are a fire

don’t answer when they call you a spark

So here’s a funny thing, and by funny I don’t mean funny:  I think some of the dying I need to do involves giving up being less than I am because it’s easier and more comfortable and, frankly, people like me better this way.  Maybe this is a paradox of life.  I have to decrease not by stepping out of the way but by stepping into my role more fully, by stepping into my truer self, the self that I need to become now.

Where is the decrease in that?  Circling back to my original examples, I can’t win every time and also have my girls beat me.  If my basketball players never get better than I am, we won’t be very good; I throw everything I’ve got at them so that they will rise to that challenge and then rise above it, at which time they’ll need a stronger challenge than I can provide if they’re to keep improving.  

Bigger picture–and please forgive the vagueness, I’m figuring this out as I go, making out the shape of the room in the dark by  feeling along the walls while trying not to slam my shins into every single sharp object–I think it’s time to stop feeling bad that I’m not all the things people wish I were.  Next step, it’s time to stop trying to be those things.  Or even to keep making a nominal effort just to appease and receive approval.  

I’m a little conflicted about this.  The small part of me needs to die so that the more solid me can stop tiptoeing around back here and step up.  The scared part of me needs to quit self-sabotaging so that the me-it’s-time-to-become can get on with the becoming.  

I must decrease–sin, fear, self-doubt, self-accusation, all the stuff I let myself believe I’m stuck being now and will be forever, that just has to die–so that he may increase in me. 

Not long ago, a friend said, “I think you have a prophetic gift,” and I said, “Yeah, I don’t want that.”  Assuming my friend is right about me,***  I really said, “I’m refusing what God gave me because it scares me too much.”  

But I’m not a spark.  I just haven’t figured out how to be a fire yet.

 

And you?  

 

* I wrote this late last night; today, my daughter did catch the winning score for the opposing team, after my other daughter, my teammate, caught the score that put us within one point of victory.  

**Not impressed with The Clone Wars yet, but worth it to share it with my son.  I can live with having him outrank me in Star Wars geekdom.  

***Not necessarily a safe assumption, since I have some friends who are pretty nuts. 

Photocredit:  :devdark-indigo-stock

Christ Himself Manuscript

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In the traditional lighting of the Advent Candles, we celebrate and we remember and we remind one another of Hope, Joy, Peace, Love, and finally, Christ himself. The final candle of Advent, the final reminder, the final celebration, is Christ himself.  So a look at each through Scripture.

Hope  

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Joy.

The people walking in darkness have see a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy…”

Do not be afraid,” the angel said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger.”

Peace.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
Love.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his uniquely existing Son so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life. 17 Because God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world would be saved through him.”

Christ himself.

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven, to shine on those living in the darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Christ himself.

We just had the kids put on a Christmas pageant. Do you know what a “pageant” is? We don’t really use the word much outside of “Christmas pageant” and “beauty pageant.”

A pageant is: “a public entertainment consisting of a procession of people in elaborate, colorful costumes, or an outdoor performance of a historical scene.”

This is both: a procession of people in elaborate, colorful costumes and a peformance of a historical scene. We used to be more outdoors before we built the Eagle Center, and without four walls, we still have the feel of outdoors. We’ll also be outdoors for fireworks. But mainly we focus on Christ himself—our kids just dramatized an historical event. It’s not a Christmas play or a Christmas drama, it’s a pageant, an historical scene that our kids help us to remember every year. Christ himself, in the flesh, born to a young girl, laid in an animal’s food trough, a child born to us who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

And everything we believe rests on this. This child is Mighty God and Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father. God loves us exactly, specifically in this way: Jesus who is God came to save us and not condemn us. God sent Jesus, Jesus who is God came as a child, “to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God.” Those are Zechariah’s words, the father of baby John who will be John the Baptist. Jesus, Mighty God and Prince of Peace, gives us salvation through the forgiveness of our sins, because of the tender mercy of our God. Just to be clear, Zechariah the priest says this immediately after being mute for nine months because he questioned how he could be sure of what the angel Gabriel told him—that his wife would have a baby who would help prepare people for Jesus’s arrival.

Priests kind of need their words, but I guess nine months is a good long time to reflect on, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.” I’m always amazed, every time I read this story, because I can almost always relate to how people screw up in the Bible, but how does Zechariah go from “startled and gripped with fear” so that the angel tells him “Do not be afraid” to “Yeah, I’m not sure I buy what you’re saying here.” We went to see the nativity scenes by the Luis Alfonso park last night and one of the angels they had, formed out of lights, was about 30 feet tall. And I thought, “That would explain why angels always start their conversations with ‘Don’t panic. Don’t freak out. Do not be afraid.’” The Bible doesn’t specify the size of angels.

My point is, we don’t have our kids do this pageant because it’s fantasy. These Scriptures, this is our history. Fantasy is that snowmen come to life and sing and dance, or even exist in Nicaragua. Fantasy is that some people are better than others because of the color of their sin or that God loves a rich person more than a poor person. On Christmas, we celebrate history, we celebrate the history of God entering the world because in His tender mercy he refused to let us be destroyed by our sins. We celebrate Christ himself.

I’m remembering two people tonight. One I met eight years ago at House of Hope. She got to stay with us for a few days recently and we talked about her graduating from colegio next and where she wants to go to university. God rescued her from the shadow of death. Christ himself saved her, spiritually and physically. Many people have gotten to play a part in God’s miracle that is her life. The other is a friend whose wife just died of cancer. Today is his eight anniversary. I’m praying that Christ himself will be Steve’s peace and help him to find joy even through his grief, deeper than his grief. Christ is our reality.

And I promised this would be concise, so I’m ending here, because here is the whole point: We celebrate Christ himself. We follow Christ himself. We have lots of traditions and symbolism and I love that stuff, but it’s about Christ himself, not a nice idea. Christmas is not that we have learned to be nice people and give presents; Christmas is that we were living in the shadow of death, a death of our own making, and the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, saved us because he loves us. Christmas reminds us that God enters our history, God himself, not merely prophets or priests or even angels but God Almighty, Jesus who is our Christ, and he guides our feet out of that shadow of death and into the path of peace. That is our good news of great joy for all people. Eat cookies, sing Christmas Carols, give presents, shoot off fireworks, and in all of it remember: Christ himself, God and man, man who was and is God, came for us, died for us, lives in us. He alone is our life and he is our gift.

What’s Wrong with Me–A Different Kind of Advent Reflection

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Holidays are hard.  If you can’t relate to this, I’m happy for you, but I also ask that you seek to understand and, if possible, empathize.  

For many people, Holidays are the hardest time of their year.  Why? Expectations that everyone will be filled with joy and good cheer when, in fact, depression and loneliness lurk behind all the lights and tinsel and TV specials.  I heard a “Christian” radio program once in which two guys were talking about their wonderful Christmas memories and basically scolding everyone who didn’t appreciate Christmas as they did.  I consider that the opposite of empathizing:  why don’t you like this as much as I do when I’ve experienced it to be so warm and loving?

I love Christmas.  I love Advent season, the smell of pine trees, I love trying to make this a magical time for our kids and keeping some focus on God.  I love preaching during Advent.  The Christmas Scriptures never get old for me.  There are some layers of myth (a bunch of our Christmas story details don’t come from Scripture) but at its core, Christmas to me means Jesus’ incarnation, God’s coming in human form, which changes everything.

AND…almost every Christmas I can remember as a kid involved an explosion.  Not fireworks, like they enjoy–really enjoy–in Nicaragua from December 1 through January 1 (give or take a few days) but an emotional meltdown by my father.  I love my Dad, who died many years ago now.  Dad loved me, as well as he could.  I loved him then and I love him now, though there was a stretch in between where I had to forgive him and sort out how to love him.*  

I think the pressure and expectations of Christmas being a perfect, wonderful celebration for all of us was too much.  He was very high strung and suffered from bi-polar disorder (diagnosed only 6 months before he died).  No matter how we tiptoed around or how happy we all were, at some point he would get triggered by something and Christmas day became his shouting at the top of his lungs while we waited for the storm to pass…if it passed. 

I’m very fortunate and loved and blessed and I have successfully broken that tradition.  Our family loves being together on Christmas and I don’t think I’ve ever lost my temper at my kids on Christmas day (though to be certain we’d have to ask them).  But if I’m honest, remembering my fond childhood memories of Christmas Day–and my parents truly wanted it to be a magical day and were generous and committed to our family time together–always comes with a small knot in my stomach.  I understand what my dad struggled with so much better than I did then.  I don’t resent him.  I’ve forgiven him  

AND…I have all that baggage.  What do I do with that?  I almost curse having such a strong, clear memory.  I almost envy those who can let their difficult past fade into a hazy, semi-rosy glow.  But I can’t.  That’s not me.  God wired me differently, for good and for…challenging.  

I empathize.  People, many people, feel suicidal at Christmas time, and a huge number more feel miserable.  Get that. Please.  If you don’t, you are blessed and loved and fortunate, and I hope you can see that clearly and give thanks.  Had I stayed on the trajectory that my genetics and upbringing might have set me on, I’d be that guy, too.  How many steps, how many life decisions, how much grace has intervened to set me on a different path?  I don’t consider “There but for the grace of God” a throwaway phrase.  That’s my life.  And I’m unspeakably grateful.  

This all struck me clearly and afresh when, of all things, a friend made a kind comment to me on Facebook.  A little context: my friend is an extraordinary human being who has no use of his arms or legs.  He is a college graduate, a budding theologian, and a kind, encouraging young man.  He brings light wherever he goes.  I say none of this out of pity, but pure admiration.  I know me and I know I would be severely tempted to feel sorry for myself if our situations were reversed, whereas I think would do fine given my lot.  So I’m saying this is a young man who, at his core, is probably more godly than I am, by which I mean he has a deeper connection and a stronger faith than I do.  Not flattering him, just calling it like I see it (as my dad always said).  

So my friend told me I’m “pretty awesome,” and I started to cry.  Just a few typed words.  Cut into the deepest part of my heart in the good way, in the clean, sharp scalpel that cuts out rot and brings healing way.  

Why?  Because I’m not…and yet, I am.  

I’m not amazing.  I suck.  In a thousand ways.  And if you read this hoping for that list, sorry, I’m going to disappoint you (though I understand).  Because my friend is not wrong, even though I could argue the case to my dying breath.  By the grace of God, I am what I am and not what I could be, and the fact that a young man with such a heart and such kindness and joy can tell me that, can see that, doesn’t mean I fooled him, it means God has done great, miraculous, unexpected things in me.  

Hallelujah!

I’m not going to reject his kind words, tempting as that may be for my insecurity and pseudo-integrity (which is really self-hatred disguised as “I’m just being honest”).  I’m going to open my heart as wide as its still-limited capacity will allow and receive that word, not as an ego-boost but as praise to a God who loves me enough to change me.  I mean, really change me.  Transformation.  Grace transforms us.  If you can’t see how you are being transformed, take courage and ask someone who can see what you can’t.  Then take it, however it makes you squirm and fight.  Let it help cut out what is dark in your heart toward yourself and let in the truth that God’s love changes us and God’s love wins.  In us.  

What’s wrong with me?  I’m going to give you three answers:

1)I focus too much on my sins and shortcomings and failures and not enough on God’s faithfulnes.  How do I know?  Because I want to argue with kindness toward and affirmations about me. But it turns out hating myself doesn’t actually make me more godly.  If you wrestle with this, feel free to write that down, because we “know” this and yet we fall back into it all the time.  Psalm 56:9b “This I know, that God is for me.”  If we simply believed that, how would it change us?

2)I’ve heard some negative things about myself, some of them at a formative age.  (Or maybe they’re all formative ages.) Without delving too deeply into my own psychoanalysis, that did some damage.  I don’t know why some people can seem to shrug off horrible, potentially traumatic words while others take them to heart, in the most harmful sense. I just know it’s been a lifelong challenge (nice euphemism) to learn to believe other things about myself.  

3)Because of 1 and 2, I’m susceptible to criticism, actual or implied…or completely unintended but read in, anyway.  People have said I’m conflict avoidant, and it’s probably true to some degree; if it is, it’s because of the vast amount of emotional energy and time I end up needing to recover from criticism.  That means I’m going to have to really trust you to hear what you want to tell me, because otherwise the cost to me will be really high and I don’t even know for certain that it’s accurate.  I thank God for my wife and her ability and willingness to help me see such things more “objectively,” or at least from a different perspective.  

All these make simple words of kindness and affirmation much more powerful for me when I can receive them.  So here’s my conclusion: look around, with open eyes, for who is struggling and suffering this Christmas, these Holidays.  Do not, on any level, be like those radio guys and shame people for not being cheerier at Christmas.  You don’t know what people are carrying or what’s been inflicted on them.  Speak words of life!  Tell them God loves them.  They may not believe you.  Tell them what you see that is beautiful, true, or loving in them.  It’s not your job to make them accept your words, but you can give them the opportunity.  

And here’s a crazy thought.  Since you don’t know who is struggling or who has heavy baggage, Holiday or otherwise, just go for it: take the risk to affirm everyone you can.  Call it a Christmas present you don’t have to put on your credit card.   Don’t flatter or lie, just look for good and speak it.  

Like my friend did.  

 

 

 

 

*My dad suffered severe asthma and emphysema (what we now call SARS) and it both robbed his physical capacity and induced him to become embittered and depressed.  He was never the same.  Being physically debilitated exacerbated his mental and emotional struggles.  Chronic illness hit and shattered him…and his pieces never really went back together.  And I loved my dad.

Incarnational Love–Manuscript

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[Manuscript from the sermon I preached for Advent from John 1.]

Recently, I stumbled again onto the argument that Christianity is just another cult. I was thinking this week what a poor job we do here. We gather here for some teaching, but we’ve got a group of preachers and you never quite know what they’ll teach. You get some instruction for your life, but then you’ve got the rest of the week and this book and you may have a small group but you’re all just kind of discussing the ideas and trying to make sense of what to do. Even if you’re a student at the Christian school here, you only have one Bible class three times a week, maybe a chapel, and half the time they don’t even tell you what to do, they just give you the words from the book and ideas on how you would make decisions for yourself.

We do a really poor job of being a cult. If we were going to do it well, we would need much more uniform instruction, starting at a much younger age, and with no variation or any encouragement for thinking for ourselves or for discerning our own “application” to this book. Speaking of uniform instruction, we’d need to be much more rigid about our uniforms, to keep us all the same.

But you know, really the failing of setting up an effective cult is in our framework. It’s in the foundational teachings we received from our founder.

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God

and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being 4 in him was life,

and the life was the light of all people. 5

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Okay, so far, so good. Distant, mystical Creator that created everything and is far beyond our understanding.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

It all breaks down with He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth

Because if you’re going to have an effective cult, of course your leader turns out to be God and only the special people can recognize him, but then he has to tell everyone exactly what to do all the time and he has to be controlling. He needs power. That’s the point.

But this Jesus, he had power and he gave it away. He gave it up. He let it go. He set it aside and emptied himself, emptied himself of this immense power that he had so that he could be among us. He didn’t take over; he didn’t come and suddenly take charge. According to John he was in charge, he created everything, and then he came and joined the everything he created and the everything he created didn’t even recognize him! Didn’t even know he was around.

And yet, he lived among us, full of grace and truth, and, according to John, we have seen his glory.

Here’s the crazy, completely un-cult-like thing about that: seeing Jesus’ glory meant seeing his love, and then finally his love to the degree of giving his life, allowing his life to be taken by violence, by a hate crime, which turned everything on its head, which in the moment of hatred and darkness actually overcame hatred and darkness with light and love. This Jesus forgave the people who were killing him while they were killing him but not not just that, he gave his life not just as a symbol but as a act of power, he actually defeated the death and hatred through his own death, through becoming the ransom, the payment, for all the evil done by everyone he had created.

See, in a cult, the members have to earn their way to salvation by becoming more perfect, by obeying the cult-leader/God in every detail. But Jesus, fully aware that people would not obey what he told them, died for their failure, for their evil that they could not fix on their own. Because it turns out that even perfect-looking behavior doesn’t change people—the only real change in a person comes from the inside, when the heart changes first and the change works itself outward.

Okay, obviously we aren’t trying to set up a cult, so we haven’t failed. I was being facetious (one of my dad’s favorite words). The truth is, the belief we live by, is the God who created everything and then come unrecognized among the people who he had made—imagine that, walking down the street, passing people, no one glances at him, and for him, “I made you, I made you, I made you.” But more than that, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

And really, it’s the opposite of a cult. It’s all personal. It’s all individual. You matter, as yourself, to God. The stupid mistakes and the small, unnoticed acts of love you did this week, they matter and Jesus the Incarnate God is working through them.

Because of this, I would say, it’s crazy messy. It doesn’t look all the same for each of us. We aren’t uniform. Each of us is on an individual journey with God, and sometimes it feels bewildering and other times we realize we are so utterly surrounded by God’s grace, sometimes we can’t see how God is present in all this and sometimes we realize that God is so committed to Incarnation, dwelling among us, that now he has made us his Incarnate Presence in the world, through his Spirit that dwells in us.

We have our different themes at Advent. We talk about Hope and Faith and Joy. Today is love. Because Incarnate Love is the greatest form of love. Jesus said, “

John 15: 12 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Jesus lays down his life for his friends. But Jesus was not mortal, he was not finite, he was the almighty, infinite God. So he first had to take on a mortal body, let go of his power, so that he could lay down his life. He had to let go of power even to make the sacrifice of his life.

14You are my friends if you do what I command you.15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

This is how we become able to love one another. Not through cultic rituals, not through blind obedience, not through having a perfectly unified ideology and overpowering those who do not believe what we believe or whom we deem lesser human beings than we are. We learn to love by following Jesus’ example. Love other people as Jesus loves us. As the youth group wristbands say, “Love like Jesus loves.”

Staying on this theme of God loving us individually, Jesus’s incarnation also teaches us that God’s love for us means that each of us has a different route to know God more intimately. Jesus doesn’t treat all his disciples exactly the same. When people think about a big, scary, unknown God in the sky, with people trying to appease him and deflect his anger, it doesn’t matter who each person is individually, what matters is that deity and staying out of his way. God’s incarnate love has shown us that God Himself, the Almighty and beyond comprehension God of our universe and all Creation, knows that Peter needs different encouragement than John, and Peter, to experience his fullest life in God, will have a different calling than John. Mary and Martha both need Jesus but he knows they need different instruction to be able to receive what he wants to give them. Zaccheus needs to be called down to have Jesus for supper, while Nicodemus the Pharisee needs to have a secret conversation by night to ask his questions, while the Saul the Pharisee needs to be knocked off his horse and temporarily blinded, and when Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord,” God answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” God is not some distant, grumpy, capricious deity. God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ who loves people, Peter, John, Mary, Martha, you and me, individually, specifically, and leads each of us a different path because we are different, he made us unique. How do you know that God cares about you, individually, personally? Jesus showed us that. And then said, “It’s better for you if I go, so that the Comforter, the Spirit of God, can come, and we—“God is one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–”will make our home with you.”

The Incarnation is that God made his home with us, “The Word became Flesh and Blood and moved into the neighborhood” as the Message translation puts it. And the Incarnation continues because God still makes his home with us, but even closer now: within us.

Back in the 90’s there was a song by Joan Osborne called, “One of Us,” the chorus of which is, “What if God was one of us?” I really like the song, though it asks more questions rather than strongly affirming who God is. But in my opinion there are plenty of songs that affirm God is Jesus, and it’s great to have a song that raises questions for people who might not believe in God or Jesus and who aren’t listening to those other songs. But being the grammar enthusiast that I am, here’s what I love about this song:

when you say, “What if God was one of us,” that implies God actually was. If you were asking this question but suggesting that God was not one of us, You would say, “What if God were one of us.” When you use were, it implies a hypothetical situation contrary to reality. “If I were a bird, I would fly.” I’m not a bird; I don’t fly. “If I was Irish, I would have a bad temper.” I am Irish; I do have a bad temper.

What if God was one of us? Well, he was. God was one of us, and that makes all the difference.

Without incarnation, we would still say, as the Psalmists did, “Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”

We might believe in God’s forgiveness. But Jesus forgave the very men who crucified him, the ones who spat on him, the ones who mocked him from the below the cross. He forgave them, personally. This week, like most weeks, I was reminded how I am not like Jesus. I did what I thought was a gracious gesture, and, in my opinion, was not repaid in the same way. I did something I thought was kind and when I got treated poorly in return, I got angry. Like actually really angry. And not hidden angry. Out in the open angry. Now, it was a tough week, there are some major things going on for us, yada yada. But as I was praying about it afterward, what really appeared clearly to me is how incredible Jesus’ love is, that when he extends kindness to me and I do not respond, he does not get angry. What is God’s love like? How does God forgive? Jesus forgives the people who crucify him! While he’s being crucified. And it’s more than that they committed this atrocious act of violence, more than that they murdered him, he was doing good to them. “10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” They killed him.

How did he not respond in anger? How am I ever going to be like Jesus?

The answer to the first question is,

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

This is who God is! God not only forgives our sins, he shows us grace–and truth–while we reject and murder him. Can God, the abstract deity in the sky, actually forgive me? Do you know who God is? What if God was one of us? What if God was one of us who forgave us for our worst actions, before we asked forgiveness?

And how am I ever going to be like Jesus? Well, though it feels a long way off some days, like an infinite distance, the answer is:

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

This beautiful prologue of John’s Gospel ends: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Jesus became incarnate, he became a man, so that he could atone for our sins, so that he could take our sins, my sins, into himself and–beyond my capacity to grasp but I believe this by faith—forgive us and make us like him. But we have not understood our Bible or our own theology if we think the incarnation was solely for atonement. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Incarnational love, love of God to become a baby, a poor immigrant refuge child, a young man growing in wisdom and favor with God and man, the adopted son of a carpenter–or builder–named Joseph, and then to become a rabbi in order to make God known.

How do you know God loves you? This is what Jesus is like.

How do you know how to love others? This is what Jesus said.

What do you mean I’m supposed to love my enemies? That’s what Jesus did. In these specific ways. We love like Jesus.

Merry Christmas. Merry “Now we know what love is because God himself showed us.” Merry “you are loved specifically, individually, infinitely, by the God who knows you.” And Merry “We’re not ever going to be a good cult, but we are becoming the Body of Christ together.”

Merry celebration of the ongoing Incarnation of God.

Advent Reflections: Faith

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This is the first in a series of brief Advent reflections.

 

I was once conversing with a Ph. D. candidate at Cal Tech (CIT).  I had become good friends with his roommate, a fellow ultimate player and hiker, who had also developed an interest in spiritual questions.  My friend was genuinely seeking and we talked for hours while hiking about philosophy, theology, psychology, and nature.  The roommate, who had just met me, was taking the lay of the land with me, trying to grasp what level of religious nut he was addressing:

“Do you believe in the virgin birth?”

“Yes,” I said. He nodded his head, not in affirmation, but clearly having successfully categorized me.

I found that fascinating, because a woman who had not become impregnated by a man but somehow conceived and gave birth to a child strikes me as no more implausible than that this child would be the incarnate God or that after dying this same now-grown child would return to life after being dead and stay alive.  Permanently.  He would leave everyone he knew during his life and, with eyewitnesses, depart by going up into the sky until he was out of sight.

Naturally, biologically, none of these things happen.  They are either supernatural or not at all.  I’m not sure why he picked out one as being so incredible and far-fetched, so inconceivable, that my believing it made me one of  those people.  Personally, I would consider resurrection harder to believe than virgin birth, and certainly more central to my faith in Jesus as God.

But if a young woman came to you now and told you that she was pregnant but had never been with a man, you wouldn’t believe her.  At best, you would try to get her help for her mental health issues.

We talk about “what strong faith” those living in poverty have.  If tomorrow morning you woke up and discovered that your place in life had been switched with one of our Nicaraguan neighbors and you now had their home and resources and what they have to live on, would you thank God?

Faith, we learn from the Bible, means believing something you know to be true more strongly than you believe the evidence your eyes can see.  Sometimes it means believing in spite of what the physical evidence seems to indicate.

Why do you believe that in a certain city, on a particular day, one young woman came to be with child in a way different than any of the other times that has happened in human history?  Why would you disbelieve a girl who told you that now but believe it about that individual?

I believe in Mary’s pregnancy and giving birth without her having intercourse, because I believe in Jesus’ resurrection.  I believe in Jesus’ resurrection because I’ve experienced its power, God’s power, in my own life.  I know how hate-filled my heart was and I know I became able to forgive people, including myself, when I asked God to help me.  Actually, it was more like I became a Christian and God said, “Now you need to forgive;” he both told me what I needed and made it possible where it had been impossible before.

I suspect that much of what people call “faith” is something very different from biblical faith.  For many years, I thought I had a sound faith in God, but in retrospect I think I had developed my own bargain with God about what I would do and what I would get in return.  God didn’t sign that contract, but I thought we had an understanding.  I wouldn’t have described it that way, of course.  But I came to believe in grace after our son died and what I had called my faith shattered.  Faith is not a bargain with God.

The  New Testament compares faith with metals tried by fire.  Any part that isn’t the true, pure material gets melted away.   The shocking thing about faith is what must happen in our lives most of the time for our faith to strengthen.  I don’t think God tears the crap out of us because we pray for more faith and he says, “Okay, you asked for it.”  I do think that when our faith is untested and complacent, it’s often very weak or might not be faith at all.  That’s how the Scriptures describe it.  Until it enters the really hot fire, we can’t tell which part is the genuine metal and which part is the dross.  If you just say you have faith and there is nothing backing it up, no action or testing or trials, it’s…what’s the word?

Oh, yeah.  Dead.  Faith without works–accompanying action–is dead, i.e. is no faith at all.

Now if you’re saying, “Hey, I thought this was going to be a warm, fuzzy Advent reflection!  Challenging, introspective reflections are supposed to happen for Lent,” a)uh, sorry, and b)I think we’re right in that thick of that crazy dance we do with God in which he gives us what we need but has us take part in receiving it.  Put another way, faith in God comes from God, but God won’t do it without us.  When Jesus healed people–and to be clear, I fully believe the man Jesus walked around with his disciples and did supernatural acts that we call miracles–he frequently said, “You’re faith has made you well.”

“No, Jesus, you made me well.  I was there, I experienced it, this is not a detail I would miss.”

Both are true.  Of course Jesus healed them.  Jesus said their faith healed them.  Jesus tells the truth.

This means Jesus makes us part of the process of our own healing through giving us faith and leaving it to us to act on it–again, faith  is only faith if it involves action, “faithing;” if it’s not a verb, it’s meaningless.

Going back, then, when I say I believe in the virgin birth, I mean that I believe in Christmas.  I have faith that Jesus came incarnate to earth, to Bethlehem, to Nazareth and Jerusalem, and I am faithing that he is–not was, is–who he said.  He is who the Bible says he is.

I need God to give me faith.  I also need God to show me the parts of my faith that are not real.  Faith is a big deal.  We are saved through our faith in God; that’s the medium through which God saves us.

“I have been crucified with Christ;  and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

As Jesus followers, we live by faith in Jesus the Son of God. Our faith is in who Jesus is, his love for us, and what he’s done for us.  Advent means Jesus coming to us.  The Advent season leading up to Christmas is a time to reflect on where–or in whom–we have put our faith.  In what things do I trust for my well-being?  What do I believe will give me life?  Looking at the world around me, looking at all that my physical eye can see, do I have faith in what the world, the culture, the politicians tell me is true, or in what Jesus says is true?  When these come into conflict, which do I choose?  

And what are the daily expressions, the outward manifestations of my faith?  If we have only platitudes, this season is a very good time to make some changes.  Biblically, living by faith does not mean having a list of truths to which I give mental confirmation.  My friend’s roomie was asking, “Is this actually something you’re able to think, to convince yourself something that obviously can’t be true is true?”  

But what I was trying to say, and what I think I can say more accurately now than I could then, is “Yes, I Iive my life by faith that God is real and Jesus is God.  And, somehow, that faith is healing me.”  

What Do We Do Now, Part 1

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[TRIGGER WARNING:  I am addressing difficult things in this post that could potentially set off painful emotions or call up trauma for those who have suffered sexual violence. My intent is not shock value, but pressing people to empathize.]

 

 

 

You were raped. 

You were forced by someone you trusted, someone who used violence to violate you.  Brutal.  Shattering. Your life has changed.  You feel unsafe almost all the time.  You look at every one and try to decide if they might hurt you. You didn’t think your rapist would, and you were wrong.  Are you wrong now?  Can you take that risk?  How will you have an intimate relationship, ever again?  

You wake up Wednesday morning after the election to the reality that the man elected President said, boasted, “I just grab them by the p***y.”  The man who won the electoral college votes and will lead the U.S. for the next four years has claimed to be a sexual predator. 

Was he lying?  Boasting of something he didn’t actually do, ever?  What does it say about a man that he would claim to commit sexual violence against women but in reality doesn’t?

Or did he do exactly what he said?  Has he done that for years?  Has he done that or worse throughout his life?  

How do you feel now, after what you’ve suffered, to find that the President is also, by his own words, a violator?  To learn that enough people in the United States decided that this was not a deal-breaker, in the Election of 2016, that either the other alternative was worse or that this was somehow acceptable in our leader or that his positions or his party affiliation or his promises mitigated this behavior, this character.  

I’m asking you to empathize.  To try to understand how someone would feel.  To understand why someone would react strongly.  What kind of terror would that trigger in you, had you suffered this way?  

Is he a rapist?  I don’t know.  I know what he has said.  I know what girls under 18 have said about his walking in on them when they were not dressed.  I know that he has committed adultery against each of his three wives (his statement about “grabbing” was, of course, while he was married).  I know what is public knowledge about him.  

 I have heard, over and over, that “people are upset that Trump said mean things.” No.  People are upset, horrified, agonized, keening, that Donald Trump told us he committed sexual violence against women and we elected him President.  

If you are still reading this, I’m hopeful.  I’m hopeful that you are trying to listen, trying to understand.  We are in a very bad situation.  I’m not discussing whether he was a better choice than she was.  The election is over.  We are here now.  I pleaded and prayed that the Republicans would pick a different candidate, any other candidate.  I tried to make the case that Christians could not support him during the primaries, long before it was down to the two of them.  I wish John Kasich were our President-elect, instead.  He’s not.  

I’m speaking to everyone who wants in any way to help our country move forward, to reconcile, to seek peace and pursue it.  I’m specifically addressing Christians.  Exit polls show that 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for the President-elect.  I’m Irish-German.  I’m talking to people like me.  Again, I’m not debating who we should have voted for.  That’s over.  I’m addressing where we are now and where we will be tomorrow.  

If you are a follower of Jesus, I believe these things are non-negotiables:  

Your allegiance to Jesus is higher, always higher, than your allegiance to political party, leader, or anything else.  Jesus says that.  He says it about family.  He says it about money.  He says it about everything.  Obedience and allegiance to Jesus who is God comes before everything else, literally, and anytime there is a conflict of allegiance, we may struggle with living our belief, but our belief is clear: God first.  

We are to love God and our neighbor, which Jesus names as the most important commandment God gives–

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The commandment to love your neighbor is like the commandment to love God above all else.  They are related.  They are inextricable.  Through loving God, we love people.  Through loving people, we love God.  Jesus actually said that caring for people in need–hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison, stranger (meaning immigrant, a foreigner to one’s country)–is caring for him (Matthew 25).  He so utterly identifies with them that to love them in practical ways is to love him.  When we talk about what it is to worship God, we must include this, because it’s arguably the most explicit thing Jesus said about how to love him.  

Now I’m asking you, as a Christian:  look around.  Open your eyes.  See what is happening.  Please, please stop criticizing the people who are reacting strongly in fear and horror.  If you are not, tell your friends who are to stop.  I cannot see how attacking them is loving your neighbor.  

Your sexually abused neighbor is terrified.  I’m picking one issue to try to make this clear, but there are many others.  I have been discipling and mentoring people for a long time, seeking to empower them to grow spiritually, in their capacity to love and be loved, to show grace and compassion. To be light in the world.  I started trying in my early twenties.  Now, in my late forties, I’ve gained a little wisdom and a lot of compassion, thank God.  I’m much less judgmental than I used to be, praise God for his mercy.  In these years, I have worked with and cared for many females and some males who have been sexually abused, raped or molested.  Not a few.  Many.  I am not making up their response, I am seeing it first-hand.  

Jesus also says love your enemies.  This is hard.  I’m lousy at it.  But I’m clear that Jesus commands it and does not make it optional.  Even if you believe that the President-elect’s opponent is “a witch from hell” (and I’ve heard this stated explicitly, and worse), even if you believe that her supporters are your mortal enemies who sought to destroy your country, you are called to love them.  Telling them to shut up, quit whining, quit overreacting, “deal with it,” is not loving them.  It is not showing compassion.  

Loving them means trying to understand “Why?”  That’s the path to empathy and compassion.  Please don’t argue that the last two elections the other side may have said the same thing.  So what?  Seriously, I’m asking this with all sincerity: how does that in any way impact how you obey Jesus in this situation?  “I told you so,” “In your face,” “You have no reason to complain,” and “You have no right to respond this way” are all responses that people make in political arguments, but your politics are not the most important thing in your interaction with those expressing their grief and horror.  Your relationship with God is.  Are you praying for the people grieving?  Are you asking God to comfort them?  Are you listening to them, really trying to hear, asking them why they are responding this way–not as rhetorical question or mockery, but with genuine desire to learn so you can better care for them?  

Are sexual harassment and attacks increasing?  Are people using the always-publicized candidacy and now the election as a basis, a warrant, to commit evil?  Do you see that happening at all?  I am seeing that.  I am seeing reports of increased, active racism, of threats and intimidation and violence.  

“What about them?  What about the rioters, what about the protesters who are committing violence?”  My belief is that we should never protest violently.  Protest is one of the crucial elements of democracy–I live in a country that represses protests–and I am a Jesus-follower who also agrees with Churchill’s view, 

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”― Winston S. Churchill

So of course I repudiate responding with violence, because I do not believe in the myth of redemptive violence, that acting violently against others will somehow bring God’s redemption.  That’s my understanding of Jesus’ teaching.*  I’m not defending or excusing those acts.  

But “What about them?” and “Yeah, well they’re worse” are not justifications for the Jesus follower.  They aren’t a free pass from loving neighbors, from loving those who are suffering, or from loving your enemy.  Take your pick.  Which applies to your situation?  Which category fits?  Who is Jesus calling you to love today?

If Jesus said to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies, that means there is no in-between whom we get to disdain and revile.  When I have tried to call people on not loving their enemies, I’ve been told, repeatedly, “They’re not my enemies.  I don’t have any enemies.  I just disagree with them politically.”  I cannot, for the life of me, understand how this makes belittling and name-calling acceptable for the disciple of Jesus.  

But I’m asking–pleading–for more than simply kinder discourse.  I want you to step out of your world and step into that of your opponent, the other side, the people who are behaving now in ways that make no sense to you.  That’s how we love our enemies or our political opponents.  Jesus always sides with the oppressed. He does.  Why are many ethnic minorities in the US terrified right now?  What are people saying to them?  If you disbelieve every report, every ugly incident, then I’m going to challenge you that you are in denial.  Has it gotten worse, or were these things already happening and now they are being reported?  Are grade school children who are legal US citizens being called racial slurs by their classmates and told to “go back home,” “we’re building a wall to keep you out,” “go back to Africa”? 

If that’s happening–and my teacher friends tell me it is–then what is our response as Christians?  

A Nicaraguan student in our school, a senior who may quite literally be a genius and who has been planning to apply to MIT, said to one of our teachers, “They’re not going to want me there now.”

How has having foreign students, “strangers,” impacted the U.S. throughout our history?  I would say they have contributed significantly to the greatness we claim for our country.  Historically and currently, I think this is inarguable.  

Many of those who voted for the President-elect are not racists.  But he had many vocal supporters who proudly and unmistakably are racist, members of racist organizations, and leaders of racist organizations.  I’m asking a serious question here: what do we do with the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for a candidate who was enthusiastically endorsed by the KKK?  I understand that Christians had different reasons than KKK members to vote for him.  But to the world outside the Christian church, what does that say?  No, that’s not their problem, that’s ours.  We are trying to be grace and love to the world in the name of Jesus.  Jesus told us to be salt and light for them. 

Again, I understand this is an uncomfortable question and it’s much easier and more appealing to point fingers at the rioters destroying property and committing violence.  But that, though horrible, is not sabotaging the witness of Jesus followers to the people who don’t know God’s love and forgiveness.  And again, I’m not arguing who you or I should have voted for; we voted, the results came in, we’re here. But we’re here getting news reports that the President-elect has named Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.   How would you expect Latinos or blacks or Jewish people to respond to this news?  David Duke proclaimed it an “excellent choice.”  How do Christians respond?

This is where we are:  the fact that such an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals voted for Donald J. Trump communicates that they support his actions, values and leadership. He is, overwhelmingly, their choice for President of the United States.  The divide in the US is deepening every day.  People who oppose Trump because they feel threatened for their race or gender or religion or orientation are angry, hurt, and fearful for their future, and the future of the United States.  

I know this:  the racists who voted for Donald Trump are not going to seek empathy, compassion and reconciliation unless God does a miraculous work of transformation in their hearts.  But God has already done a miraculous work of transformation in our hearts.  We are the sinners saved by grace.  We are the people who believe in repentance and forgiveness.  We are the people instructed to become all things to all people in order to help as many as possible to know God’s love and forgiveness.  We are the followers of a poor Jewish rabbi who, as a child, became an immigrant refugee fleeing the murderous violence of his occupied country’s oppressive leader; we are disciples of the incarnate Son of God who broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and gentiles, between racially hostile enemies, and made the two one.  

 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  

Racial reconciliation isn’t an agenda of political correctness, it is the work of Jesus and all who follow him.  Defending victims of sexual violence and seeking their healing by standing up to their attackers, that is the call of peacemakers…as in,

“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

That is what we are. That is how we must act now.  Peacemakers.  Reconcilers.  People of compassion.  Jesus had compassion for the suffering, the oppressed, the outcasts, the lost.  I’m not talking about pity, I’m talking about compassion.  

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.

–Henri Nouwen

We must follow Jesus there.  Because perhaps you weren’t raped, but your daughter or sister or mother was, if we see other people the way Jesus taught us to.  That’s how God understands our relationship to one another.  That’s who we are in Christ.  And I tell you God grieves for their pain right now.  Weep with those who weep.  

I have spent the past weeks, since the election, praying over my response.  I was asked directly by friends how I think we are to respond now.  I hope and pray this will help some people.  I am going to write a separate post to those who are reeling,who opposed Trump’s candidacy.  Preview: it will also say “love our enemies.”  

*I know not everyone believes this about Christianity.  I know the Old Testament has examples of God commanding his people to go to war.  I said “Jesus’ teaching” specifically.  The discussion of violence versus peacemaking as a follower of Jesus requires a much more in-depth discussion than what space allows here.