“Son of God, Love’s Pure Light”

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, Love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth

Continue reading ““Son of God, Love’s Pure Light””

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Over-Blessed and Under-Nourished: An Advent Primer

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone.

I was compelled this morning while I was walking my parents’ dog, thinking about my life and all the ways that I am blessed but all the ways I am also dissatisfied. I think a lot of people on Thanksgiving might have this feeling and then feel guilty, saying something like, “I take for granted all the blessings God has given me.” And there might be something true to that. But I wonder if we also aren’t confusing what we mean by the term “blessing”.

Thanksgiving is a perfect example of misunderstanding blessing. Thanksgiving is a holiday founded on collective forgetfulness. This isn’t a post about America-shaming or trying to make anyone feel bad about celebrating Thanksgiving. But if we’re honest with ourselves, our “receiving the blessing of America” had a lot to do with taking it from people that already lived here. What we often call a blessing and give thanks for was actually something we took ourselves from someone. We took someone else’s blessing and made it ours. That doesn’t sound like God’s blessing, that sounds like human darkness.

I still celebrate Thanksgiving because for the most part, the day has become more about family, feasting, and thankfulness than rewriting American history, and I can get behind that. But I still think that when we talk about blessing, we might be confusing the types of things that are of God and the types of things we got for ourselves because of consumerism, greed, and gluttony.

Thanksgiving is for gluttony, and we’re proud of it. And I’m not sure there’s a lot wrong with that. I ate a lot today, and I love for mom for preparing a feast for our entire family to eat together and for going out of her was  to make it delicious. We often look at that food, though, and say, “Look at all our blessings.” We look at our family, we look at our food, we think about all of the good things we have in this life and we collectively say, “Thank you, God.”

And then we ransack department stores for cheap electronics, trampling each other to depth earlier and earlier each year, so much that people are skipping Thanksgiving to wait in line.

People are quick to point out that there is a disconnect here: how do we go so quickly from being thankful for what we have and then rushing out to buy things we don’t need? But what if there is no disconnect? What if both Thanksgiving and Black Friday point out the same emptiness that we all feel and try to assuage with “blessings”?

Every Thanksgiving, we stuff ourselves with lots of food that has very little nutritional value. At the end of today, our bellies may be full but our bodies still lack some of the basic vitamins and minerals we need, but we are stuffed to the rafters with things we don’t. And then on Black Friday we do the same thing with our closets and our homes. We give thanks for all the “blessings” we have, (usually thinking of homes, jobs, success, possessions,) and then we use our blessings to add to our bounty.

Again, I’m not in attack-mode here. I love Thanksgiving. I will show my hand and admit that I despise Black Friday and everything it stands for, but I’m not here to guilt people or even ask for anything to change.

I just hope that this year, it can point us to Advent.

In Advent, we wait. We live into this poignant part of Jewish history where they longed and waited for release, like the Israelites under Pharaoh or the people of Judah in the exile or the governed Jews in the Roman empire, we cry out to God wondering when we will finally experience the promises of God that will fill the hole we feel so desperately every November. We fill our houses and our bodies and our memories with “blessings”, the bounty of earthly good. And that’s okay. But I think it all points out the thing we’re all looking for, and we need each and every year: the coming of Christ.

Advent is the season where we prepare ourselves for Christmas. We enter our darkness and live there, so that Christ can bring light into it. Advent is waiting, hoping, and praying. It’s recognizing that we are over-stuffed but under-nourished, over-blessed but unsatisfied; recognizing our blessing and taking on the pain of those who appear to not be blessed; recognizing that we live in a broken system where my “blessing” might actually be taking somebody else’s without even knowing it.

That is the type of world that Christ entered into, and each year we invite and inaugurate a fresh Incarnation for ourselves and for our world. Let’s invite Christ into our brokenness and the world’s brokenness and let the Word of God speak again and anew to a world that still desperately needs it. I still need it.

Maybe I am just bad at being thankful. Maybe I do take my blessings for granted. After all, I do believe that God showed up in my walking my favorite dog this morning, and in hiding away in a room with my wife and laughing at inside jokes. I felt very blessed today. But I would be lying if there wasn’t a significant part of me that will go to bed feeling like I’m still missing something. And without sounding like the inside of Precious Moments greeting card, I think what I am missing is Christ – a fresh, new expression of Christ entering into my life and refreshing me – my relationships, my call, my sense of justice, and my willingness to serve. I begin this Advent season realizing the bigness and the smallness of my many blessings – my simultaneous over-blessedness and under-nourishment – and I hope you join me.

Advent Project: Christmas is for Beauty [OR, why my grandma was right all along]

Each year, I blog through the Advent Season – a time of waiting, expecting, and longing in the midst of exile. This year’s Advent Project is my way of intentionally seeking truth in this time and motivating myself to reflect. Let’s reflect together about what it means for God to be with us, and how badly we need it.

Christmas lights

In a lot of ways, studying theology ruined Christmas for me. Once I really started to understand who Jesus was, what God’s hope for the world was, and so on and so forth, the way we celebrate Christmas and Advent always made me incredibly mad. I’ve talked about this in my other posts, but part of the truth is that these posts during the Advent season have always been an attempt by me to try to reclaim some of the “Christmas spirit”. I guess part of me has always thought that more theology would help me feel like a kid again when Christmas came around each year. So I would always try to consume some sort of theological text about incarnation or the historical-Christmas to prepare myself for the season.

A few months ago I took a class called Aesthetic Theology and Postmodern Culture. The basic premise of this class was that beauty, through art, nature, and experience, we can catch a glimpse of the divine. God is active in the world through the beautiful, through the things God created, and the things we create. Ceceilia Gonzales-Andreiu says it this way:

What is beautiful can be so most powerfully in that it wounds us and directs us to the longing our wounds reveal. In this beauty that is most fully revealed in Christ, the good and the true are woven together and made sensible, so we may want them, grasp them, inhabit them, and love them.

When I was a kid, I experienced Christmas, even if I didn’t comprehend it. Experience is the true home of the aesthetic. But even this can require a little learning. the best learning I’ve done on the matter came from Friedrich Schleiermacher, who is actually a brilliant theologian. But it wasn’t a book on theology or philosophy that taught me this. It was his small but beautiful Christmas Eve Dialogue that both taught me and showed me the beauty of the Christmas story, and the ability of art to shape theology and provide an encounter with God. The work is actually a short, fictional story about friends talking on Christmas Eve about the meaning of Christmas. Yet, even for them, it is the experience of music, decorations, and the joy of community that becomes their fullest understanding… not the academic content of their conversation. They realize in their celebration that there is an intertwining of faith and beauty, as one character explains:

If something fine or gratifying is presented to us at a time when we are most inwardly conscious of the greatest and finest thing of all, then that consciousness will be taken up into our awareness of it. Furthermore, in relation to the glorious salvation of the world, all love takes on a greater significance, as does everything good.


All this leads me to one main point, the subtitle of this entire post: my grandma was right all along.

At the point where my grandma was no longer able to put up decorations herself, I was old enough to get paid to do so. Every year, after Thanksgiving, I would go over to her home and drag endless strands of lights, nativity scenes, angels, snowmen, and the like out from her shed and put them up. My grandma loved having the most decorated place in the neighborhood, and it brought her joy to see lights and angels during the Christmas season. It made her happy, and she believed it made others happy too.

At some point I realized that this actually meant a great deal to me too. Last Christmas I drove around with friends to see some of the best-lit houses in LA, and I truly believe that it was a spiritual activity. So this year, having read this text by Schleiermacher, and learning to find and experience God in beauty, I decided to do something I haven’t done in a few years.

Naomi and I went to Arizona for Christmas, and decorated my grandmother’s apartment. She doesn’t have a home or yard to decorate anymore, but you better believe she still has nativity sets! We spent time with her putting up the decorations and playing Uno, (if you know my grandma, you’ll understand,) and it was an amazing time for us.

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I tell you all that to simply remind or suggest that Christmas is a time for beauty, and that beauty may help you find God in a new way. If you’re inclined, like me, to look to books or sermons or lectures to find God, maybe Christmas can be a season where you look in a different place. Obviously I don’t mean to say that God isn’t in those other things. Of course!

But if beautiful things are good, and God is the source of all that is good… then perhaps God can be found just as much in the beautiful experiences of our lives as in the spoken word of a preacher. We shouldn’t be afraid to feel warmth in our heart as we gaze in awe at a spectacle of lights and call that experience “God”.

Tis the season! In many places snow is falling, colored lights are draping, children are ecstatic, trees are adorned, beautiful flowers and wreathes and mistletoe abound… breathe it in! Christmas is a time to stop and smell the poinsettias!

You might just find God there.

[R.C.] – Prisoners of Hope

This season I am blogging through Advent in a series called “Resurrecting Christmas”. I hope to find something new and fresh in the midst of this season. I hope you join me.

Well, everyone, here we are. Christmas is a week away. As much as it saddens me to say so, this Advent season has truly been a time of darkness.

sanctuary-lamp

I wrote in my first post that Advent is the time of the Christian year that we allow our darkness to creep in, that we take this time to examine our darkness, even enter into it, and create space for God to enter in and be incarnate. This is something I tried to do in my last post myself by telling a story that hurts my heart a lot to tell, because it reveals my doubts and my insecurities about God and my own future.

What I didn’t anticipate, and no-one could have, is that we as an American society would be repeatedly confronted with our darkness collectively during this time. Continue reading “[R.C.] – Prisoners of Hope”

[R.C.] – Albert

This season I am blogging through Advent in a series called “Resurrecting Christmas”. I hope to find something new and fresh in the midst of this season. I hope you join me.

One thing I mentioned in my first Advent post was that this season is about experiencing and entering darkness, and creating space there for God to enter in, to be incarnate.

So I suppose it’s fitting that I am awake writing this at 2AM.

When i was home most recently, I was going through all of my scattered belongings from the times I’ve moved. I found this old photograph from a church I interned at called Penn Avenue Church of the Nazarene. This was an inner-city urban mission church, concerned primarily with social justice, homelessness and recovery ministries. When I left this church, I recorded some of my reflections here.

The photograph is of a man named Albert, a very important friend of mine from that church. Thinking about this story is a dark place for me, because it brings up a lot of pain from my past, and my present. It makes me question my strength as a minister, my belief in God’s power and compassion, and my hope for the future.

And because of that I think it is an Advent story, and one I need to share and reflect on.

photo

Continue reading “[R.C.] – Albert”

[R.C.] – Words Becoming Flesh

This season I am blogging through Advent in a series called “Resurrecting Christmas”. I hope to find something new and fresh in the midst of this season. I hope you join me.

Only Matthew and Luke give us narratives of the birth of Christ. Mark, being the briefest, fast-paced gospel, doesn’t bother with it.

The Gospel of John gives us a theological exposition of the significance of Incarnation. Over the first chapter, he makes this poetic case that the “Word” of God, known in the Old Testament by other names like Wisdom, was with God in the beginning and has now come to dwell on earth. The crux of this chapter comes in verse 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 what Incarnation means. It’s what Emmanuel means. That God became flesh.

incarnation

Continue reading “[R.C.] – Words Becoming Flesh”

[R.C.] – Do Not Be Afraid

This season I am blogging through Advent in a series called “Resurrecting Christmas”. I hope to find something new and fresh in the midst of this season. I hope you join me.

This post initially appeared on Fuller’s website. They had asked for students/faculty/alumni to write Advent reflections, and I wrote this piece. As it was my first Advent reflection of the year, and because I like to keep things all in one place as much as possible, I’m posting it here as well. But I would also encourage you to check it out over at the Fuller page so you can read some other great reflections by some friends and faculty I know and a lot that I don’t. You can find all those reflections here.

Offering-of-the-Angels

“Do not be afraid!”

Every appearance by an angel of the Lord in Luke’s gospel contains these words.

Zechariah in the sanctuary, then Mary, then the shepherds in their fields—everyone’s first reaction is fear. I always assumed this was because they were startled by the sudden appearance of a heavenly being. Wouldn’t you be?

But maybe there’s more to the story.

Continue reading “[R.C.] – Do Not Be Afraid”

Resurrecting Christmas

I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas.

Of course, as a kid I loved it. I used to always wake up way too early on the morning of Christmas in anticipation and feel tortured waiting for an appropriate time to leave my room.

I love the time with family, the season of weather (as much as an Arizona boy can,) I love the food and baked sweets my mom makes, the ideas of hope and peace on earth with the coming of Jesus.

But I’m also not crazy about some aspects of Christmas. I hate Christmas movies, hearing the same 1950’s version of every Christmas music (though I find the songs themselves to be compelling and beautiful,) the stress of gift buying and receiving, the unavoidable family drama, and the fleeting nature of all the good feelings of the season.

This isn’t a post about how as I’ve grown up I’ve become frustrated by the materialism of Christmas. This isn’t a post about how I’m frustrated about our culture “removing Christ from Christmas”.

This post is simply about wanting this year to be different, what I’m doing about it, and to invite others to join me.

This post is about Resurrection.

advent

Continue reading “Resurrecting Christmas”