Sunday, December 8, 2019

Christmas or Easter?

I have a problem. 

It is my problem and it doesn’t have to be yours, but I need to talk about it.

I want Christmas to be as important theologically as Easter is. 

I know that you probably think they are and, thus, my problem isn’t really a problem 

Hear me out. Please. 

I think Christmas is very important theologically, but between commercialism and problematic thinking about God, we have lost sight of how to understand Christmas. 

Easter is also important, but between commercialism and problematic thinking about God, we have lost sight of how to understand Easter. 

I cannot do much about commercialism. (I can remind you about the sin of idolatry.) 

I can try, with the Spirit’s help, to do something about problematic thinking about God. 

First things first: Jesus was always going to be born. 

We learn in John 1 that the Trinity has always existed as the Trinity- meaning there has always been One God with Thee Persons- co-equal and of the same substance. 

We learn in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 that Jesus is the firstborn among creation. So that eternal Word (through whom all things were created) took on flesh in a specific time and place. Whether the time and place were always destined can be debated, that Emmanuel (God-with-us) was always going to live for a time as one of us cannot be debated. 

In particular, the Hebrew scriptures hold prophecies about human leaders- kings and governors. Those persons who have been gifted by God with a specific type of faith (Christianity) are able to also interpret those scriptures in the light of Christ. 

If, within the eternal wisdom and planning of God- the 3in1- the Word was always going to come flesh, what does that tell us about the nature of God? 

Second things second: God is bigger than our understanding. 

When our attempts to explain who and how God is fall short, the problem isn’t God. 

The problem is our language and our human minds.

When we have a failure to communicate with the Divine, it is not God’s inaccessibility or inscrutability that is to blame. 

There are genuine limitations that come with being mortal. 

Our refusal to accept these limitations is a control problem, which is the actual reality of original sin. The snake presents Adam and Eve with the opportunity to know what God knows. I doubt the actual knowledge was as appealing as the idea that if one knows what God knows, one could potentially control what God controls. We still have the phrase “knowledge is power”. Most of us say we want the former, but only because we hope and pray it will deliver the latter.  

Christian theology, in its second thousand years, has painted a portrait of God, the Holy Parent, first person in the Trinity, as angry, insulted, and demanding satisfaction because of the horrible behavior of people. 

Through the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, we have created the picture of God stomping around God’s office, throwing things at the wall, and generally foaming at the mouth. We appease this picture by adding in a meek Jesus who comes to die, in a gruesome way via capital punishment, so that the Holy Parent will be appeased. Thus, divine wrath having been soothed by the holy antacid of crucifixion, we will have less to fear from our Creator. 

-record scratch- 

If point one is true (Jesus was always going to be born), then how long was God mad? Didn’t that make things hard at heavenly staff meetings- with one person (co-equal and of the same substance) so ticked off- that the other two are basically counting down until Plan Appeasement can kick off at a time that will be called 1 A.D./C.E. 

Which brings me to one of the key verses of Advent: “a shoot/branch will grow forth from the stump/tree of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1). 

If God has been so outraged by human behavior, then why is God bothering to keep promises to people who are so obviously undeserving- like the covenant to David? 

If you are about to say that God is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, then we have either a God with a split personality (at best) or we have an interpretation problem. Which one of those is preferable to you? 

Third things third: Jesus as the whipping post for our sins is not our only theological option. 

Remember when I said that substitutionary atonement has been the major Christian understanding for the last thousand years. What was the understanding for the first thousand years? 

A concept called Christus Victor

In Christus Victor, the second person of the Trinity is relevant and successful from the moment of conception. Both his earthly parents matter- his mother, Mary, because of her willingness to be used for God’s purposes for the sake of others; his father, Joseph, because of his willingness to be used for God’s purposes for the sake of others. 

When the Word is made flesh, named Jesus, and lives, he becomes something more than a body in a holding pattern until he’s reasonably old enough to be crucified and, therefore, calm down the One stomping around in the heavenly office. 

Jesus, fully human and fully divine, thwarts the spiritual and worldly powers that are attempting to derail God’s plans for the world. If Jesus was only going to be born to die for us, he could have breathed his last in the manger. It wouldn’t have mattered how he died, only that he did. 

Instead, he lives. He LIVES. He speaks truth to power- oppressive power from Rome and from some religious leaders, to social inequality, and to the devil. When Jesus speaks truth to power, he also serves to remind people that they are not God. Their attempts at control will not succeed because they are not the ones with the ultimate power. 

As it turns out, no one likes to be told that they aren’t in control or that they are powerless. People then try to control Jesus by killing him. Turns out, he was right. They weren’t in charge and they were not in control of the narrative. 

Jesus’ life is as important as his death. Not merely for moral example, the way that Jesus lived showed how God is victorious over all powers and principalities of the political and spiritual forces that attempt to oppose the divine will. 


If 1) Jesus was always going to be born AND 2) God is bigger than our understanding AND 3) Jesus as the whipping post for our sins is not our only theological option, 


Christmas is as important as Easter. Jesus being born among us isn’t just God deciding to enter human history. Jesus being born as one of us is how God- 3in1- demonstrates that God has always been a part of, directing, and being compassionate in human history. Jesus being born into this part of creation reveals that the Holy Parent, the Holy Word, and the Holy Spirit have known since the beginning that we would need a lot of help, direction, and grace. 

Good Friday, the day of crucifixion, shows us the worst of what people can do. Easter shows us that the worst of what people can do is no match for the best of what God does. 

Christmas, then,… Christmas is how God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- show us that they are willing to do anything and everything to bring all of creation into alignment, into at-one-ment, with its Creator. 

The peaceable kingdom of Isaiah, the strong words of John the Baptizer about correcting one’s behavior, Paul’ exhortations about inclusion to the Romans in chapter 15 of that letter- they are all ways that people have tried to write about and capture in words some aspect of the nature of God- the one who was, who is, and who will come again. 

And I have just done the same thing. 

I have a problem. 

It is my problem and it doesn’t have to be yours, but I need to talk about it.

Christmas is as important as Easter. 

Christ didn’t come to die for us. 

Jesus was born so that we would understand and be able to trust and live for God. 


Monday, December 2, 2019

Let's Be Honest about Grief

Grief is a weird thing. Some people are able to push through and they think everyone can, if they want to. Some people are paralyzed and it's confusing to them how the world even thinks they can function.

Most people manage to find their basic new level of functioning (because grief inaugurates a whole new era), but that functioning waxes and wanes. All of this is normal.

There's a tiny moment of acknowledging what grief is like in Frozen 2. It passes fairly quickly in a song, but it was true enough that I wanted to call out, "WAIT! Anna is telling us something real."

Elsa (the blonde one) has gone off on a quest, which has unexpected results. The consequences of this (SPOILER) is that Olaf (the snowman) disappears. Kristof missed the women's departure and he is searching for them, lamenting that he hasn't fully expressed his feelings to Anna. Thus, Anna is alone and she can perceive that something not good has happened. Olaf's disappearance means something has happened to Elsa and this fear and sadness and confusion hit Anna like a sheet of ice.

The song is called "The Next Right Thing" and the lyrics are very sharp. It won't be your six-year-old's favorite song, but it might be yours.

Besides the lyrics about being unable to rise, this section gets me right there:

Just do the next right thing 
Take a step, step again  
It is all that I can to do 
The next right thing
I won't look too far ahead 
It's too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make

Sometimes the next right thing is just taking a shower and changing the sheets before you get back in bed. Sometimes the next right thing is texting a friend to bring you groceries. Sometimes the next right thing is pausing before you click "buy" and asking yourself if you really need that new whatever (and maybe you do).

Grief is hard and it is everywhere.

It can look strange from the outside, but there's no timeline. There's no "should be past this" or "should be able to do X" or "should feel better by now". Grief moves in and takes its luggage to the thrift store on the second day because it has no plans to pack up and leave any time soon.

Confession: Every few weeks, I go to Rachel Held Evans's Instagram or Twitter feed because I am hoping that she's not actually gone, that there was a mistake, that she's still there- speaking words that bring hope to us all. That's my grief.

Confession: Sometimes I dream that I'm in my grandmother's house and I'm going through her drawers, trying to find something, anything of hers that can be mine. She's been dead for thirteen years, but the truth is that she was someone to me who she wasn't to others and both my missing her and that mystery of her behaviors haven't fully sorted themselves out yet.

Confession: A guy I dated died years after we dated and I'm still sad that he's not in this world, doing some of the amazing things that were his passion. And I miss his Kahlua chocolate chip cookies.

Grief takes up residence in your house and you learn to live with it. You cannot wait it out or force it out or pretend it's not there. Eventually, you change your own spiritual and psychological interior design based on your preferences in consultation with grief. So it is and so it will be.

Most of us are doing the best we can in the midst of fresh grief and griefs that have scarred over, but still ache on occasion. Like Anna, most of us are trying to breathe, take a step, and do the next right thing for us.

What I hope we can learn, if not from Frozen 2 then somewhere, is that it is okay not to be okay. It is okay to admit that we are sad, that we are grieving, that we are angry. Honesty IS the best policy and the whole truth, especially about grief, lets us share our burdens and helps others know they are not alone.

I say: more honesty about grief. It's the next right thing.