new takes on an old story

The story of how Jesus’ birth happened is of course very old. For many people today, it has entered into the realm of cultural mythology, in the same category as little George Washington fessing up to chopping down the cherry tree and Christopher Columbus setting sail to prove the earth is round. Not strictly true, but a nice story for the kids.

For Christians, if Christmas is not strictly true, we are wasting our time. Jesus’ birth meant the enfleshment of God himself, on earth, before the eyes of very human humans, as a real, crying, needy baby. We call this the Incarnation – perhaps the most mind-boggling event in creation’s history. This is the event Christmas celebrates and commemorates, year after year.

And every year, artistic people in the family of God come up with new ways to celebrate the old story with creativity and originality. I love it. Here are two videos I really like (both made last year) that tell the Christmas story in new and insightful ways:

“A Social Network Christmas.” “This video is an artistic take on how the story of the nativity might have read had a social network existed at the time of Jesus’s birth” (from the website). A poignant reminder of the disgrace Joseph and Mary went through (and Jesus was born into) because of the Lord’s uniquely supernatural conception.

“The Christmas Story,” as told by the children of St. Paul’s church in Auckland, New Zealand. Sort of reminds me of the excellent movie “Where the Wild Things Are.” And the music is so catchy! Not to mention the incredibly adorable children, especially with their New Zealand accents. This one is difficult not to watch repeatedly.

Do you know of any others? Share them!

the problem with Santa’s list

A big difference between juvenile fiction and adult fiction is the complexity of the characters. In most juvenile fiction, there are two fairly clear groups: “good guys” and “bad guys.” There are heroes, whom we root for, and villains, whom we root against. Good guy-bad guy stories are fun to read and easy to understand. They do little to illuminate truth about the human condition, however.

The mythology of Santa Claus follows a similarly simplistic breakdown of the world. According to the songs, Mr. Claus divides all the children of the world into two camps: naughty and nice. The nice children get toys, the naughty ones get coal. Not that I have ever heard of children whose parents had the heart to follow through with the threat of coal in return for bad behavior, but still, that’s what we say.

For the Christian, Santa represents one way of viewing the world. Santa may know if you have been “naughty or nice,” but all he can see is your external behavior. He can tell whether you did chores or threw a tantrum, but he has no way of knowing why you did either of these things. To him, the child who does chores is good and deserving of a reward while the child who throws a tantrum is bad and punishable. It’s simple. Too simple. A worldview which breaks the world down into camps of “naughty and nice” people, like Santa’s list, does not, and cannot, address the heart.
The same is true of our judgment of each other. On their website Mark Driscoll and the guys up at Mars Hill church in Seattle say this:
Religion says that the world is filled with good people and bad people. The gospel says that the world is filled with bad people who are either repentant or unrepentant.
People who understand the gospel understand that we are all more alike than we are different. They consider the sin in their own hearts as more weighty than the sinful behavior they see in the people around them.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 1 Timothy 1:15
The Bible, thank God, does not fundamentally follow a good guy-bad guy/naughty-nice dichotomy. Its anthropology is much more sophisticated. Like good novels and honest biographies, the Bible exposes the contradictory truths about the human heart through both evocative story-telling and well-reasoned teaching.
It does make distinctions between the “righteous” and the “wicked,” especially when speaking of things such as oppression, abuse, and other evils perpetuated by people who have no reverence for God or people. We also must make such distinctions, as people concerned with holiness, justice, and righting the world’s wrongs. God forbid that we “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20) for the sake of appearing non-judgmental.
But we may not leave it at that. God says, look at yourself. Look into your own heart and see the evil there; if your circumstances have prevented you from seeing the darker side of your own depravity, consider what you might be like had you grown up differently and lived in someone else’s shoes. We’re more alike than we are different.
David, a man who wrote often about the wickedness of the wicked and the righteousness of the righteous nonetheless referred to himself as “feeble and crushed” under the weight of his own sin (Psalm 32:8). He stole another man’s wife and conspired the man’s murder; his children committed rape and murder against each other, largely because of his monumental failures as a father; throughout his life the man was prone to lust, pride, fear, and complacency.
Why would human authors, on their own, choose to include such despicable details of the life of their greatest king and hero? For that matter, why would David publish his private poems of confessional prayer, to be read and studied throughout his nation? Even today we are still studying his failures and confessions.
It is because the Bible’s anthropology does not fundamentally break the world down into good guys and bad guys, or naughty children and nice children. “No one is nice, no, not one” (paraphrasing Romans 3:10). All need atonement and grace; none are disqualified from receiving it.
Jesus makes Santa’s list irrelevant. That’s the gospel. As my pastor loves to say, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Or, since it’s almost Christmas, “The ground is level at the foot the feeding trough.”
Gospel people treat Santa’s list as irrelevant too. That’s the gospel applied. No more treating outsiders as outsiders, as people who will never “get it,” or as people who need to clean up their act (and appearance) before they come to church.
Such Santa-ish thinking is exactly the opposite of what the church is here for.

when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning

I do not know if waking up and feeling absolutely no desire to get out of bed and begin the day is a universal experience. I do know that it is a common one. If it is a feeling you are familiar with, here are some things you can do:

Receive grace. I hesitate to call this something you “do.” Receiving is inherently passive; but there is a sense in which the gift must be recognized and remembered by the receiver. Similarly, “free grace” or “the gift of grace” are redundant expressions. Grace is, by definition, free. By definition, it’s a gift. It is never something other than something you receive.

Sometimes this is what “receiving grace” looks like for me:

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Jesus | My Lord and my God. My King and Master. My Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep and calls me by name. The One by whom and for whom all things were created. The One not ashamed to be called my brother.  The One to whom I am united in spirit. My Husband. My Friend.

loves | Is committed to. Is patient with. Desires the ultimate good of. Feels compassion for. Gives strength to. Withholds nothing good from. Sacrificed for (once for all).

me, | A complete screw-up whose greatest spiritual strength is begging for mercy.

this I know, | This I believe. This I have experienced. This reality I cling to, sometimes barely, but always somehow, by faith.

for the Bible tells me so. | The Bible, the majestic and sufficient Word of God, tells me of this Jesus, and of this love, from start to finish.

[Jesus said:] As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. John 15:9

Pray. There are a few components of prayer which I see present in nearly all biblical prayers.

One, which is perhaps the most fundamental and essential of all, is addressing God personally. Sometimes it looks like “God of heaven, maker of all that is”; sometimes “God of Jacob, our Redeemer”; sometimes just “Father.” Honestly, at times this is as far as I can get in prayer; but then, sometimes it is all I need to say.

Another is giving thanks. Like never before, lately, I am utterly convinced of the power and importance of intentional thanksgiving. If I express only one thought to God today, if I do only one pure thing in twenty-four hours – let it be that I give thanks.

Another is confessing sin and asking for forgiveness. If thanksgiving is hard to do on feeling-less mornings, this is harder; but if there are any two things a Christian must be convinced of, it is their sin, and God’s forgiveness. To return to confession and forgiveness-claiming, over and over, is not like a dog returning to its vomit, but like a child returning to its father. Over and over.

Finally, prayer includes asking for help. Prayer comes, at the elemental level, from the profound, yet plainly demonstrable idea that we need God. Asking for help recognizes that fact in the simplest way possible. “God, help me”; “Lord, she needs you, they need you, help them”; “Father, help us.” It is childlike, and therefore sweetly appropriate.

Feed his sheep. John 21, the last chapter of John’s Gospel, is, to me, one of the most poetic and tender chapters in the New Testament. Three times, on Galilee’s beach, Jesus asks Peter, that remarkably devoted and remarkably flawed disciple of his, “Simon, do you love me?” Simon was his old name.

“Do you love me?” Jesus knows what Peter will say. He asks him the question three times, echoing Peter’s three denials of knowing Jesus just a few chapters earlier. The repetition grieves Peter, but it is not a guilt trip. It is a truly extraordinary display of forgiveness, a forgiveness so comprehensive that Jesus applies it specifically to each of Peter’s denials.

Jesus’ replies to Peter each time Peter affirms his love – “feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep” – speak of something greater than merely “apology accepted.” Jesus’ message is: “I am not only pardoning you, but I am giving you a mission. Here you are, fishing again, going back to your old life, your old name, your old self as if you are not good enough for what I have called you to. But I am not done with you yet, Peter. I promised to turn you from a fisherman to a fisher of men and I will do it, even now, just you wait. Go. Feed my sheep.”

That is how total Jesus’ forgiveness is. It gives us a purpose. A reason to get out of bed in the morning. Help his people. Feed his lambs. Tend his sheep.

Now, Christianity is not the same as cognitive therapy: change how you think in order to change how you feel/behave. That is part of it. More than that, though, Christianity is an objective statement of reality – a hope. A status – child of God in Christ. These realities have many biblical labels, but intrinsic to their definitions is that they do not change, even when we do not feel we can get out of bed in the morning. They are stable, which is another way of saying God is stable.

For that, let us praise him.

The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

Remind them of these things… 2 Timothy 2:11-14

outside the camp

We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Hebrews 13:10-14
Follow the logic of the author’s train of thought here – it is beautiful.

We as Christians are entitled to eat from the altar of the holy communion, the bread and wine which depict the very body and blood of Jesus, an altar which the priests of the old covenant neither understood nor accepted. Just as they burnt their sacrifices for sin outside Jerusalem’s gates as prescribed by the law they idolized, Jesus, the only efficacious sacrifice for sin, also suffered his death outside the city. He was hated and excluded from their religion and from his people as a “blasphemer” – yet he volunteered for this. He did it to cleanse the consciences of sinners and to bring them in his wake to the Father.

Therefore, says the author, let us abandon our familiar territories, our safety zones, and our mundane desires. Let us claim the reproach and the ridicule that is ours by right, as people named after the great Outcast, the supreme Reject. The “city” we too comfortably habitate at the moment is on its way out. We aim for a different city altogether: the New Jerusalem, the breathtaking city of God that will be here before the world knows it.

The New Testament book of Hebrews is one of my favorites in the Bible. It is something of a commentary on the Old Testament, with a perspective, a realness, and an urgency that all revolves around the person Jesus. Here at the end of the letter, the unknown author beckons his very persecuted, very human, very real recipients: “let us go to him outside the camp.”

Of people who would answer his beckoning, several things must be true.

Jesus must captivate them. Not in a passively impressed way, like observing an interesting specimen behind a glass. Nor simply in an ethereal, indefinably spiritual way, like being drawn by the Spirit into figurative clouds of heavenly understanding. As a person with a particular personality who lived a particular life, Jesus of Nazareth must inspire awe in them. No one can imitate someone, to the point of self-denial, whom they do not know, or do not cherish.

Jesus’ love for these people must saturate them. They must unshakably believe that he is on their side, that he belongs to them, that he treasures them. Not by right nor by nature – sinners assuming God’s blessing is ultimately ridiculous – but by his proclamation of mercy at the cross. They must be utterly convinced of the cross’ power to transform them from self-loving lawbreakers into the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). “Jesus paid it all,” they say. “All to him I owe.”

Jesus’ Spirit must empower them.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t fit into any of our ordinary categories, and we very much like categories. Perhaps part of his majesty comes from his refusal to submit to our categories. In any case, we underestimate him all too often. He is the agent of power within us, the power that builds new things where old things were destroyed, explodes God’s love into our hearts, resurrects corpses, gives gifts of a spiritual nature to the church with variety and creativity, leads the sons of God, and a thousand other things for which he deserves worship and thanks – and dependence. People venturing “outside the camp,” outside the mold of self-reliant, self-serving living, must, out of necessity, lean harder on the power of the Spirit than on any other thing.
At this point in writing this post, personal experience forces me to consider the question: “What if I don’t feel this way? Why should I even care?” Whether from non-Christian or Christian lips – or more likely, unspoken thoughts – these words uncover something important about all this. Captivation, assurance of Jesus’ love, and the Holy Spirit all sound to my ears like very intangible, emotional things than I can do little to stir up inside myself. Emotions peak and bottom out, and efforts of the will have little to do with them.

But God does not submit to our categories, he does not. He does not leave us because our emotions dry up, nor does he lessen what he asks of us.

What he asks of us is to run to him for help a million times over, to believe that one ounce of obedience is worth an ocean of vain emotion, to fight temptation in prayer, and to really obey his command to follow him “outside the camp.” He asks us to obey it, disregarding the cost, disregarding the fact that more often than not we crave the approval of our peers more than the approval of our God, because he is our Lord who has gone before us, and because on the outskirts of the city, among the outcasts, the enemy-lovers, and the counter-cultural anti-heroes, is where he most truly dwells.

Let us go to him outside the camp.