Monday, December 25, 2006


While the world was in a taxed uproar,
unnoticed except by a few,
He slipped in the world's back door.
The Word became dust, like us.

No grand entrance for this King;
making a big show's not his thing.
He likes the quiet margins and shadows,
teaching wonders from the grassy meadows.

Simple folk and simple life,
simple food and oppressive strife,
He walked our way bringing peace,
to those who are the last and the least.

Christmas child, Bethlehem son,
Immanuel, Anointed One
Entered our world in a surprising way.
Rejoice! my friends, he's here to stay.


"My name is Zechariah ben Judah. I am a shepherd. I want to tell you something I have done. I held God in my hands...."

So begins a dramatic monologue I wrote years ago, telling the Christmas Story from the viewpoint of a shepherd. I "performed" it last evening at Fellowship Evangelical Covenant Church where I am interim pastor.

"For unto to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord."


Monday, December 18, 2006


Bethlehem: Good News of Great Joy!

I'll never tire of seeing wiggly little actors and singers telling the birth of Jesus story. Smiling at mommy and daddy, becoming a star for the first time, sweetly singing o'er the plain "Glory to God in the highest" in high little voices. I melt seeing the wonder in their faces (look at little Jessica with her hands poised in worship). The children are so happy to let us know about a new born baby. Children love babies. And this one is "baby Jesus."
At Fellowship Evangelical Covenant Church (pictures above), the ancient story is told fresh, dripping with the sparkling excitement of "God with us." Mary (Aimee) and Joseph (Clay) are poised over the manger with the baby Jesus there...right there! And as the wee angel choir sings with fuzzy halos held up by wire in their hair, the big people appear--the wise men (Rick is one) bearing their gifts and shepherds (Jack is one) in rehearsed excitement to tell the world the news.
Adults and children are swept up for a moment in more than a story; they are carried on the strong tide of a movement--a new king has arrived and a people will be delivered, discovered. All kinds of people with angel light in their eyes and God-news on their lips, scurry all over the land talking about Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah, Emmanuel, Savior of the world.
During the transition of scenes, a scrambling boy bumps the microphone over and a loud thump! is heard throughout the land. Is that a "Burger King" crown on one of the wise men? Are those Florsheims on the feet of that shepherd? Mary looks so young and pretty and peeks into the box the wise man brought. Shy voices whisper words that have changed lives and nations.
We, the audience, sing songs while wiping our eyes from tears of love and laughter. For this menagerie of happy, squirmy children and willingly-costumed adults tell us once again about the surprising wonder of God's great love.
Tucked away in a little Michigan church far from Hollywood, on a set made of cardboard and straw framed with blazing poinsettias, a cast tells the story. Heaven is hushed; angels (the real ones) peer down and Jesus Himself smiles, I think, at Shelby and Sammy, Ashleigh and Aimee, Jay and Rachel, Jack and Lisa, Dan and Brandon, Clay and little Jessica, and all the rest.
"That is my story," I think Jesus says, "and they are making it their story. Glory to God in the highest."

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Monday, December 11, 2006


Blogger friend-feedback is a good thing.
In my last entry (see December 7) I mused about the "hard" or "dark" side of the American Advent season. I lamented the degeneration of strong words like hope, love, joy and peace into marketing tools to keep the economy strong. I lamented air-brushing the birth of Jesus so that Christmas cards look more like vacation posters than the nitty gritty, earthy, smelly birth that it was in reality. My wife's labor and births of our daughters even in a clinically clean delivery room was messy. How much more for Mary and Joseph bent over in a dark, straw- and dung-filled stable cave!
Yet true biblical lament, in deep trust in God who is always up to something surprising, always gives way to praise. Words like hope, love, joy and peace (symbolized in the candles) can be brushed off, cleansed and polished up. Having become limp and anemic by decades of commercialization, these words grow strong and take life-giving shape in the presence of faith in God.
Behind all "hope" is a person or God who keeps his word. You can't have hope in the words of a wishy-washy, willy-nilly talker. Hope is anchored in promise; in God who has spoken and it will be done. When we lose promise, we lose hope. When we lose hope, we are dead while we live. We live best by God promises, not by some Bible-expert's ingenious "biblical principles." God didn't give principles, he made promises. Therein is our hope.
This season don't be a talker. Be a creator of hope in others by using words to promise something. It doesn't have to be a big or expensive promise (though these things are not bad). Each promise you make to someone extends that person's future with a sense of worth and anticipation. A promise personalizes others while mere gifts commodify others. A word spoken and a word kept is a fruitful tree of life in a barren land strewn with disgarded things.
I halt at my computer. I'm stymied in the presence of the word "love." Like the Bible, the most purchased, yet least read book, love is the most spoken, yet rarely experienced reality this season. Love masquarades this season as sexy, glittery, rare things (like $50 a pound coffee beans).
Love with no mask is wiping the baby's messy behind for the 30th time today; letting the person go ahead of you at the check-out lane; wanting to be with your spouse more than with anyone else even though you've been together almost 40 years; listening intently and with respect to that relative who keeps repeating the same thing; making a call to someone distant and saying, "I just wanted to hear your voice." Love got down on hands and knees and washed the dirty feet of 12 men. Love, while racked with pain and bleeding profusely on a cross, made a promise to a terrorist about the hope of paradise. Love walked out of a tomb-cave on a Sunday morning and said, "I'm here for you."
Joy is knowing that the last word said about us is said by God. Joy is knowing that God's last word will be "Come, enter into the joy of your Lord." Joy is that settled assurance that in the worst and darkest place on earth, evil and sin will not have the final word. God will. Joy is a subterranean layer of reality on which the rough and tumble of life is played out. When tears are in your eyes, they still sparkle even in a pitch-black room because the light comes from within you. You spread joy, not by buying things, but by living well; not by seeking another titillating experience, but by stopping and stooping to help another person in need. Joy is the rhythm of God's heart beating in you. Joy is watching people stand at your grave site and saying to one another, "She is not here; she has risen."
There is a big difference between "Let me give you a piece of my mind" and "Let me give you peace of mind." God links peace of mind with peace with himself, yourself, others and the created world about you. Peace is not unruffled solitude or inner tranquility. Peace is harmony with and in the deepest, closest, life-infested relationships we have. We often feel more comfortable with strangers than with family and close friends. Why? Because there is no investment in them. We mistake the "comfort" for peace. That is a sad mistake. Peace, the Bible word shalom, is a snuggle word; it works best with those nearest. Shalom will experience, even expect anxiety and agitation in its quest to live rightly with God and others and creation. And wouldn't you know it? Those who pursue shalom seem to be at ease with life and with others. God stands guard around their hearts and minds.
Advent. Let's live in such a way this season that we redeem these mighty words with little acts of love.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Advent Awareness in the USA

Tiny candle, tremendous light.

An infant arrived, a world altered.

Like so many Christ-followers during Advent, I have had time to reflect on the anticipation and wonder of the coming of the Christ.

We have been lighting the Advent Candles at Fellowship Covenant Church where I serve as interim pastor. Each candle represents the marvel of the character and mission of the coming Messiah, the Savior of the world.

Hope. Love. Joy. Peace. The Christ.

None of these treasures can be purchased, even at Macy's. These things are not acquired by MasterCard and Visa. No credit works.

How many feel hopeless trying to satisfy all the family by buying the things on their gift-list? All that worry involved in creating "holiday cheer." Most hope for early January when the whole mess is over...until they start putting up Christmas decorations next 4th of July!

Where's the love? Fist fights break out in long lines at the stores as customers vie for the "unbelievable sale price." The mantra: "Gotta get my X-box." Police patrol about Christmas shoppers. "Every 'kiss' begins with Kay." Love is a piece of high-priced, pressurized coal. Or, love is the new sexy bra from Victoria's Secret. Yep, love = sex.

Joy. We wish. According to those who know things, this is the most depressing time of the year for many people. Fantasized family happiness when many families are deeply fractured adds incredible gloom to people. "I just can't 'play the game' one more time." Joy comes in a bottle of Jack Daniels as idiotic commercials show husbands' buying sports cars(!) for their wives. "You gotta be kidding." Meanwhile joy is happening on Madison Avenue as merchants see money coming from people's pockets into their cash registers and credit card companies gear up for those 18-21% interest rate "great deals...don't pay until January 2009."

Peace. A pipe dream word. "Peace in the Middle East." Peace in Iraq, in Iran, in North Korea, in American politics, in churches were "emergent" is a curse word. There will be no peace as long as the world runs on money and guns. You don't create peace with a doctrinal statement or a "biblical" view (which usually means "my" view) of the church.

So, we light little candles and long for Jesus to come. The Christ candle. The baby born to those walking with wishes and calling them "hope." To those who violate the old Beatles' song "can't buy me love." To those who with dread or even mild panic sing "Joy to the World." To those who react to the word "peace" as just another empty political cliche.

You may think: John, you sound pessimistic. It's Christmas after all. I know. I have a friend who recently spoke in a Christian college chapel on "Why I Hate Christmas," not on "Why I Hate Christ." Showing Mary's after-birth among sheep dung doesn't sell well on Christmas cards. "The Slaughter of the Innocents" just doesn't push the merchandise. What have we done to the real Christmas, to the words Hope, Love, Joy and Peace that came packaged in human flesh and crying in a feeding trough? Apparently to our sorrow and dismay, we thought we could buy and sell these weighty deliverance words wrapped in colorful paper and tied with a bow.

A child shall lead them...out.

O, Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive...USA.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Scot McKnight's Embraceable Mary

Scot McKnight accomplishes two good objectives with his latest book The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (Paraclete Press, 2006).

First, as the subtitle suggests, Scot wants to take the jitters out of evangelicals who are jumpy about honoring Mary the Mother of Jesus. Some kind of anti-Catholic Protestant Reformation residue lingers on many of us and we find it hard to honor Mary because we might be mistaken for "worshiping" her. Oh, no! With a scholar's keen research, a pastor's concerned heart, and a writer's competent, engaging communication style, McKnight presents a down-to-earth, gospels-based Mary. Young Mary is a true, courageous human being surrendering to her part in the unfolding drama of God's story. Scot doesn't present a religious, stained-glass goddess, but a fiesty, gutsy, intelligent, deeply devoted woman who wrestles with the demands, responsibilities and heartaches of being the Mother of God-in-flesh.

Second, Scot wants the Catholic readers of the book to assess where they may have gone too far in honoring Mary, not so much in practice as in theological pronouncements. This is done, once again, in plain, understandable language. Scot is fair because he shows that some Protestants have misunderstood some basic tenets of what Catholics believe about Mary. I was surprised by how many Protestant "greats" in church history believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. On the more controversial theological issues, Scot offers in-depth chapters toward the end of the book.

Scot "unpacks" Mary's Magnificat showing the deeply held convictions Mary had regarding God's redemptive work in the world. Scot converses about how much Mary influenced Jesus' own vision and mission of his ministry. The question whether or not Mary had other children is raised and dealt with in an irenic manner.

Remember the scene in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ when Jesus falls under the weight of the cross and Mary, his mother, has a flash-back to when Jesus was a little boy and fell while running? Remember how those scenes made Jesus seem more real, more truly human?

The Real Mary does the same thing. Both Jesus and Mary are incarnate--flesh and blood human beings in a real mother and son relationship. After reading the book, I felt no urge to "worship" Mary, but I felt deeply challenged by her life of courage and devotion.

This book would be a very fitting Christmas gift this season.

Thanks, Scot, for another great book.