Monday, June 23, 2014

Disappointed Expectations

When I heard that we would be going to Bethlehem, my heart leaped a bit.  I was going to go to the town where, for the first time in history, God became man.  This is the town where Jesus was born, where the Hope of all nations came down from his throne, and took on flesh.  It is a moment in history that has very literally defined it, just note the fact that we have attempted to count our years from that moment.  I began to imagine what it would be like to visit the traditional spot where Jesus was born, to sit in contemplation in the church that occupies this holy site.  Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more the excitement began to mount.

We pulled into the Palestinian town in our big charter bus and parked in a garage with a number of other tourist buses.  Next came our navigation through the streets filled with shopkeepers and various merchants selling their wares including a "Stars and Bucks" made to look like Starbucks.  The excitement within me continued to mount the closer we got to the Church of the Nativity.  When we finally arrived, my professor gave us a few last minute instructions concerning the church then let us go in.  At first I looked around wondering if the structure she had pointed to really was the Church of the Nativity.  Having already been to sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dormition Abbey, I was a bit taken aback by the sight of the Church of the Nativity.  The image I had built up in my mind didn't match what I saw on the outside.  To be sure the disrepair is understandable since it has been in existence since the 6th century.  Still, the sight of the structure was halting.  It was not what I expected at all.

As you walk into the building, the doorway is significantly smaller than a normal door.  It is this way so that you must bow down as you enter into the building.  Originally it was intended to keep conquerors and looters from entering the church on horseback.  Today it attempts to move tourists and pilgrims into a state of contemplation as they enter the church that sits on the site where Jesus was born.  This was perhaps the most moving part of the church.  Upon making my way through the door I was immediately struck by how loud it was.  There was a line that made its way from the back of the church to the front and down into the grotto where it is believed Jesus was born.  The day we were there, there were a couple hundred tourists and pilgrims waiting in line to get into the grotto.  In fact the church was so loud that I struggled hearing myself think, let alone pray.  This was far from what I had imagined.  An emotion that I had not anticipated began to sneak in:  Disappointment.  The images that I had built up in my mind began to fade away as this unexpected image began to take its place.

Now I traveled all over the nation of Israel.  I visited numerous sites that left me in deep contemplation and utterly humbled.  Some places were simply breathtaking and almost everywhere there was a palpable sense of the Holy One in our midst, yet here at the place where everything changed, the place where Jesus left his throne to dwell among us, something was missing.  It was hard to put a finger on what exactly made this place different.  Perhaps it was the sheer number of tourists, or the doubt and speculation concerning the authenticity of the site, or perhaps the grotto itself that was rather cramped and filled with people taking pictures.  Whatever it was, there was certainly a sense of unmet expectations.  Now before you think my experience an anomaly, James Martin a Jesuit priest and author of Jesus, A Pilgrimage, writes of having a similar experience.  He says, "The Nativity Grotto was the only place where one of my original objections to visiting the Holy Land - the touristy sites would turn me off - proved justified."  Even in talking with others several expressed that it wasn't at all what they were expecting.  Despite the reassurance that I wasn't alone in this, I felt almost guilty for feeling this way and so I tried praying all the more.  This was the place where God took on flesh, where he came and made his dwelling among us and yet standing in the church I felt nothing but the sting of disappointment.  It occurred to me much later however, how appropriate this feeling was.

At the time of Christ, the Israelites were being governed by Herod the Great who was essentially a puppet king of Rome, one of the most brutal empires of all time.  Their rule was harsh and the Israelites suffered enormously under their reign.  Throughout the Intertestamental Period, the Israelites continued to hold on to the promise of a coming Messiah.  They believed that a king would rise from David's line who would free them of their oppressors and then establish the nation of Israel forever.  They expected a Warrior King.  Jesus came as an infant.  Paul would later describe the cross and Jesus' sacrifice as a scandalon, the Greek term meaning a stumbling block, an offense, the same term we get the word "scandal" from.  His birth was little different from his death in that regard.  The Messiah, the one that an entire nation had been waiting for, indeed all of creation had waited for, came almost unexpectedly and unnoticed.  It came with little fanfare except for the angels that appeared to the shepherds and the wise men that followed the star.  Indeed, his birth was not how the Israelites had imagined it would be, one could say, it was disappointing.

Yet isn't this often our experience with God?  Aren't there times in our lives, where we expected God to act a certain way only to have that expectation go unmet?  If I'm honest, there have been numerous times where I have been left scratching my head wondering what God was thinking.  Situations that simply didn't make sense and left me feeling disappointed.  I'm sure that I'm not alone in this feeling.  Undoubtedly, all of us have experienced this a time or two in our lives.  One thing about God though, he never promises we won't be disappointed.  He does however promise that He is good, that He is sovereign, and that His ways are far above ours.  I seem to lose track of that.  Often wishing God would ask me my thoughts on the matter before acting.  Yet the life of Jesus shows us this exact thing.  In the feeding of the five thousand, his disciples expected him to send the crowds away so that they could get food.  Jesus' response?  You feed them!  His disciples thought he was going into Jerusalem to overthrow the Roman oppressors, instead he was crucified by them.  Throughout his life, Jesus made it a habit of doing the unexpected and sometimes even disappointing those close to him.  Yet, even in the midst of disappointment Jesus sets the stage for the remarkable.  He feeds the five thousand with a few loaves of bread and some fish.  After being crucified he is raised from the dead.  His ways truly are above ours. 

I think we often get disappointed when we hold too tightly to our own expectations failing to realize that God wants to do something far greater.  The door to the Church of the Nativity is a powerful rebuttal to the disappointment I felt in the church.  It reminded me that sometimes I need to let go of my expectations and simply bow in obedience before God.  Indeed, sometimes in order for God to do something remarkable He must first disappoint our expectations, only then can we be prepared for the unexpected.

The doorway into the Church of the Nativity

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Whose Kingdom?

Standing out on the top of the Herodion you can literally see for miles.  It is only one of many impressive structures that Herod built during his reign, but it is also the only one that bears his name.  As you can see from the picture, it towers over the landscape.  The hill it is perched on, however, is artificial, a fitting irony.  Herod took the top half of a neighboring hill and used it to build up this one.  Inside the structure, you are again overwhelmed by the impressive nature of it.  There is one tower in particular that stands apart from the rest.  It is 18m in diameter, for those of us in the States that is close to 54 feet.  Archaeologists suggest that this massive tower would have been several stories tall and would have served a number of purposes including protection.  The Herodion is indeed an incredible architectural achievement.

As I said, however, there is a bit of irony in this structure.  The land of Israel is marked with a number of monumental structures that were built by Herod the Great.  The Herodion is one in a long list of engineering feats that includes things such as Caesarea, a constructed harbor which used underwater cement (in the first century BC no less), the Temple Mount, the fortress at Masada, and various others.  All of these things were done because Herod wanted to make a name for himself.  He was building up his kingdom and his legacy.  Every building was yet another attempt to secure his place in history.  Yet despite all of this, history remembers him mainly as a villain and a puppet.  His entire kingdom belonged to Rome.  If they chose they could simply depose him and appoint another.  In fact, that is exactly what happens to one of his sons who takes over the rule of Jerusalem.  His kingdom was an artificial one just as the hill that he built this structure on.

Unfortunately, kingdom building seems to be a symptom of the human condition.  We're so busy trying to make a name for ourselves, trying to leave our mark on the world, that we often do so to the detriment of others without much thought.  The west is constantly critiqued as being materialistic and consumer-driven.  Guilty as charged.  On my way out of the country, I had to essentially unpack my entire carry-on.  It took quite a while to say the least.  The security agent and I laughed a bit about it until she finally asked, "Why do you have all this stuff?"  A just question, one that has no suitable answer.  I've unwittingly fallen into the same trap as Herod.  I've built up my own kingdom, falling in line with the rest of my society in pursuing material things, wealth, and status.

To the southeast about 3 miles away lies another settlement which is considerably more modest, yet perhaps far more significant.  It is the town of Bethlehem.  This is where Jesus was born, where God came to Earth and took on flesh.  Today, Bethlehem lies in one of the Palestinian territories.  It is wrought with the same poverty that was undoubtedly present at the birth of Jesus.  It is a stark contrast to the riches that must have been present at the Herodion.  Yet only one of these kingdoms continues on today, only one of them continues to shape the world.  Our professor posed the question throughout the day, "Whose kingdom are we building?"  Herod's kingdom with all of its lavishness has fallen away, yet Jesus who was born in a feeding trough has built a kingdom that will stand forever. 

I would wager I'm not alone in building up my own kingdom.  I'm sure many can look at places in their lives where they have promoted themselves instead of following Jesus' example.  Unfortunately, there is a great danger in building up our own kingdoms.  Herod is the perfect example.  We read about his edict to kill the children under the age of two in Bethlehem in scripture, but that is only one instance of his tyrannical reign.  He slaughtered his political rivals on the Cliffs of Arbel.  He killed several people close to him including one of his wives because of his paranoia regarding conspiracies along with many other atrocities.  Now certainly we don't carry out our kingdom building to this degree, but we still carry it out at the expense of others.  We buy up the latest gadgets not thinking about the plight of those under the living wage who built them.  We blissfully use up natural resources despite the impact that it has on the ecosystem.  We compromise our integrity for the sake of a small advantage over someone else on the corporate ladder.  The examples are endless.  Yet Jesus calls us to more.  Jesus was aware of the plight of the poor, not just because he saw it but because he experienced it.  He identified with them and trumpeted their cause.  When tempted with power, riches, and fame he turned them down choosing to worship God alone.  When he had the opportunity to tear others down, he sought to build them up.  Jesus built a different kind of kingdom.  Set when the world acquired power through violence, Jesus created a new kingdom through peace.  It is His kingdom that has endured throughout the centuries and it will be his kingdom that will endure until he returns.  So whose kingdom are we building?  Are we building ours at the expense of others, or are we building his to their empowerment?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Listening to understand not reply

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a remarkable church.  It happens to be one of my favorite churches to visit in the Old City of Jerusalem.  Inside are six different strands of Christianity that celebrate the place where Christ was crucified and buried.  Represented in this church are the Franciscan, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopic, and Coptic churches.  Each commemorates the crucifixion in their own way.  In going through the church, one sees fellow believers worshiping in a plethora of ways.  Certainly, from western eyes, the sight can be a bit overwhelming with experiences vastly different from our own typical church service.  Once you push past this, however, it is a beautiful picture of the body of Christ... except for one small thing.  A ladder.

You see this particular ladder has a long history.  It has been entitled the "immovable ladder" and has been around for over 250 years.  Pope Paul VI once called this a sign of Christian division.  Indeed, it has also been called the "status quo" ladder.  It is a symbol of the underlying conflicts of the different sects found in the church and stands as a testament to trying not to upset the status quo.  The story is different depending on where you find it.  The general consensus however is that a mason left it there by accident in the 18th century.  Since no one sect can alter any of the property without the consent of all the other parties, the ladder has remained.  Unfortunately, the ladder is only the beginning of the disharmony among the sects in the church.

Now, before you get the impression that I am ridiculing this church, I want to ensure you that I hold this church in high regard and the sects represented there in awe.  This church is on perhaps the holiest of sites for Christians and the diverse nature of the sects make conflict almost unavoidable.  If anything the church gives hope that in the midst of our imperfection some form of unity can be found.

Recently, I have had many conversations with people regarding various church traditions and find that many people are not only suspicious of traditions outside their own, but are actually hostile towards them.  They cite peripheral issues as being their reasons for their mistrust and in some cases even doubt whether or not they are indeed Christian.  It is disheartening to watch and see.  This is probably most evident in America where individualism has bred division within the church.  Denominations continue to split off and we are left growing ever disjointed in a world that desperately needs a unified message of hope.  It is estimated that there are currently 41,000 different denominations of Christianity.  I come from a non-denominational background and once thought that was the answer to this disunity.  The problem is that each non-denominational church has their own essential doctrine and thus it is easy for a single non-denominational church to be its own denomination.

Why is it then that there is so much disunity among believers?  Why do we react with hostility and suspicion when it comes to faith traditions that are not our own?  We harp so often on our differences, that we've completely neglected the fact that much of our beliefs are very similar and if we just listen we may even learn something that will enhance our own worship.  We want to make sure that we have the perfect theology or the right answer to every doctrinal question, but we are also convinced that we indeed have all the answers.  I'm not saying things like theology or doctrine aren't important, but I am saying that in the pursuit of these things we cannot and should not try to codify God.  Doing so would make us god.

At the risk of overgeneralizing the problem, I want to suggest that our problem stems from the tendency to listen in order to respond rather than listening to understand.  We often listen intently to opinions outside our own, but it often happens that we are only listening enough to form a reasonable argument for the contrary.  Again, I'm not saying that everything we hear should be assimilated.  Far from it.  There are many doctrines within Christianity that are nonnegotiable.  What I am trying to convey, however, is that we need to listen to truly understand others.  Too often our differences among traditions come about because both parties refuse to understand the other.  We humans are inherently bad at seeing someone else's point of view especially those that we disagree with.  I personally have found that when I listen in order to formulate a response, I end up building a wall.  When I listen in order to understand, however, I end up building a bridge.  What kind of builder do you want to be?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Drink, Drink.

Drink, Drink!  I've heard it a number of times throughout the day.  During my trip in fact, I've heard it so many times that it has become similar to a pavlovian response mechanism.  I hear the word drink and I reach for my water bottle.  Everywhere we go, we begin to realize that water is a precious commodity.  The abundance of water in the US has made me complacent and it has become yet another thing I take for granted.  Now I've been in other areas where water is important, but normally that's because it isn't safe to drink from the tap.  The water here is safe to drink, there just isn't much of it available.  Conserving water is a must and pursuing it is a necessity.  The spiritual parallel of this is not lost on me.

Isaiah 35 talks about the fact that blind will see, but it also says that "waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert."  All of these are said in relation to Jesus and the work that he did and will do.  Having seen the wilderness, it is absolutely stunning, but there is no water to be found.  It is dry and hot and the hills and mountains block the rain from making it to this area.

How many times have I found myself in the wilderness?  How many times have I been searching and looking for God's provision, but only to find nothing but rocks and dirt?  It seems to happen frequently and I'm often left spiritually dehydrated repeating the psalmist, "my soul thirsts and even faints for you."

There is another side to this, however.  After hearing those words "drink, drink" we all made our way into Hezekiah's tunnel.  It was built during the invasion of Sennacherib who was trying to seize Jerusalem.  Hezekiah realizing that his water source was outside the wall dug a tunnel from the Gihon Spring to inside the walls of Jerusalem.  The tunnel is 1/3 a mile long and cuts through the bedrock.  The diggers dug from both ends and met somewhere in the middle.  It is an absolutely remarkable story and to this day, nobody is entirely sure how they were able to do it.  One thing is certain, however,  Hezekiah and the men of Israel went to extreme measures to have a source of water closer to them.  I think there is much to learn from this.  So often I am stuck in that wilderness and almost wallowing in my position.  Despite feeling the dryness of the wilderness or the groanings of my own soul, my efforts in pursuing the Living Water are meager at best.  May we begin to listen to our soul's longings.  May we recognize our great need for the Living Water.  May we listen to His voice when he says, "Drink.  Drink."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Great Expectations

I sit here on the first leg of my journey.  I have dreamed about making this trip for years and for the last several months this dream has been at the edge of the horizon slowly coming into view.  I'm filled with emotions of many kinds.  From soul-bursting excitement to anxiety and uncertainty. It is difficult for me to comprehend the fact that at the end of this journey I will be in the land where God chose a people to be a blessing to all nations.  A land where that same people struggled with what it meant to be a blessing and frequently failed to deliver upon it.  The land where God himself came down to us, where he walked among us.  It is the land where my Savior lived and breathed and where he drew his last.  More gloriously, it is the land where he defeated death and rose again beginning the work of making all things new.  This is the land today known as the Holy Land, the land of Israel.

As I wait for the train to leave the station, I allow my mind to wander and wonder.  I begin to dream of what it will be like when the dust of the Judaen wilderness blows over my sandals.  Will I gaze out over the barrenness and feel the loneliness of the shepherd's life?  Will I recall the temptations of Jesus and recognize those same temptations in my own life?  What will it be like to stand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and imagine what the disciples felt as they saw Jesus coming to them?  I feel like Joshua on the edge of the promised land.  I'm looking out over the land that I have been working towards, the land that I have dreamt about in my wanderings and now the rush of excitement mixes with a twinge of fear.  The dreaming has left me with great expectations.  What if it fails to measure up?  What if I miss out on what God wants for me on this trip due to my own preoccupations with life?  Then the other 'what if' questions begin to enter into my mind.  What if I miss my flight?  What if my luggage gets lost?  What if... What if...  Life seems to be filled with 'what if's.

I find that my journey to Israel parallels the rest of the story I find myself in.  After wandering for so long in trying to find God's desire for me, I am quickly approaching graduation.  In a few short months I will be finishing up seminary and looking to do what I was created for.  It has the same feelings of excitement and uncertainty that I now face going to Israel.  The same great expectations linger in my head.  The same 'what if' questions dance around in my thoughts.  What if being a pastor isn't what I imagine it to be?  After all, I've built it up so much, how it could it possibly measure up?  I wonder if I have been in error in allowing these expectations and dreams to fester.  If somehow I have already set myself up for disappointment.  A part of me seems to be saying to do away with these expectations so I won't be disappointed or discouraged.  Yet there is something else, some part of me hears a whisper that gently reassures me and says "Dare to dream big, and see if I'm not more than all you've ever dreamed."  When we are on the verge of all we've known and are about to embark on a journey into the untamed wilderness of the unknown, it is there that God says "I am with you."  May we never forget that and may we continue to dream big.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The heart of God, a mother's heart.

Today is mother's day.  It is the one day of the year that we set aside to take a moment and simply honor our mothers and reflect on what they have done for us.  I realize this is a painful day for some as their own mother acted anything but motherly towards them.  To you, I extend my deepest condolences, for I do not know where I would be had I had a mother like that.  I do not want to discount your experience, but today I also want to honor my own mother personally and to express the deep joy I have that she is my mother.

Every year, I get my mom a mother's day card and I write in it and tell her how much I have appreciated her and that I would not be the man I am today if it had not been for her guiding influence.  Indeed, this is true, but sometimes I wonder if I'm not being self-centered in this.  You see, it seems to suggest that I am only grateful for those things that she has done for me and the impact that she has had on me.  Furthermore, by identifying only those things, I fail to acknowledge the many things that she does that go unnoticed or may not have a direct influence on my life.  When I do this, I equate her worth by what she's done for me and this would be my among my greatest failures for my mom is far greater than the things she has done for me or the influence she has had.  For all of these things only hint at the underlying truth and that is that my mother's heart reflects well the heart of God.

Indeed, I have watched as my mom has been slow to anger even as I find myself to be the primary culprit that incites that anger.  In this, she displays Christ's love for his enemies and the fact that while sinners he came to us.  She has demonstrated incredible humility when others have attempted to place her on a pedestal, that she rightfully deserved.  She has spoken truth to those who were in need of it and has forgiven even when it was painful.  She has been right outside the spotlight cheering others on as we have chased our dreams.  Reflecting back it is clear that it is only by her example that we ever had a hope of attaining them.  It is this selfless love that she gives freely and unconditionally.  Certainly, I am thankful for my mother, but more than that I am humbled by her and the life of surrender that she continues to live. 

So to all mothers who are reading this, thank you for so often exemplifying God's heart for his people.  Thank you for demonstrating to us God's humility and sacrificial love.  Indeed, we may forget that fact, but know that you are of immense worth even when we fail to appreciate it.  To my own mother, my gratitude for all that you've done is far too small a gift to offer you.  Your life continues to show others the love of God and I am humbled that I am your son.  You are indeed a blessing to our family.  I love you mom.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Broken Pieces made whole

We are broken.  We carry with us the shame from our past failures and disappointments.  We wander through life concealing our wounded selves from the world, hoping, praying that nobody will see the pain we carry.  We go through our day saying we're fine or that life is great, when really there is a sense of mistrust and uncertainty in our hearts.  It has been built up from taking our identity in lesser things.  We have been caused pain by judging eyes and misplaced trust.  We live lives that are stained with regrets and shame from our past.  We are desperate for healing and yet there is a part of us that begins to resign ourselves into believing that this is the way life is.  Earlier this week I shared a story that still brings with it a bit of shame:  my failing out of Grad school.  Despite knowing that my identity is not wrapped up in those past failures and shortcomings, there is always a creeping desire to prove that that is true.  To prove that I'm not a failure and that I am worth more than that.  That I am enough.

There is powerful story in the gospels that illustrates this idea of shame and guilt in our lives.  It centers on the woman who had a discharge of blood for 12 years.  I really resonate with this person.  Every day she lives with shame over her condition.  She is so scared of being found out, of being exposed for her identity as an outcast that she just barely touches the cloak of Jesus.  The woman was unclean according to the law, touching anyone would have made them unclean and would have brought shame and guilt upon her.  She knew the law and had lived that life for 12 years.  She was what was called an "untouchable."  Yet in this moment of desperation she touched the cloak of Jesus.  Not only has she touched the garment of this prominent figure, but she had to push her way through the crowd to get to him.  In the Greek it is clear that she is repeating over and over again the words "If I only I can touch his cloak."  She knows the condemnation that she will receive if she is found out, but she believes that it will all be worth it as long as she can touch his cloak for she knows that will bring healing.

She finally does it and is immediately healed, but suddenly Jesus turns around and looks for her.  He says someone has touched him and she's mortified.  Her sins are about to be exposed.  She tries to shrink away into the crowd, but she knows that there is no use.  Jesus knows.  She throws herself at his feet in fear and trembling.  She knows that what she has done was sinful and now she sits before Jesus ready for his punishment.  She admits to everything and you can feel her pleading for mercy.  She fears that the cost for what she has done is too great.  She knows her place as an outcast and nothing can change that.  She's living in the brokenness of her identity.  She is living in the shame of her past and the sins that she has committed by touching Him.  Imagine yourself in her shoes for a moment.  All of your past sins and failures lay bare at the feet of Jesus.  What has been your secret shame and guilt is about to be made public.  You are ready for Jesus' rebuke and condemnation, you only hope you can bear the weight of the shame.  Jesus is about to expose you as the failure that you are.

Then Jesus opens his mouth and calls you, "Daughter."  The word is more than you can take.  It's a word that your own parents have forgotten.  It is something that you haven't experienced in 12 years.  Acceptance.  No.  Not acceptance.  Love.  You begged for mercy, but instead Jesus gives you Grace.  The weight and shame of your past replaced only with joy and hope.  No longer do you live as an outcast or a failure, but instead as a child deeply loved by God.  It is there that you find your new identity.  It is too good to be true.  Those around are speechless.  They know her, but Jesus has spoken and nobody dare oppose him on this.  She is a new person with a new identity.  You see this what happens to us when we encounter God.  When we place our shame at his feet.  He calls us, "Son" or "Daughter."  He sees past our failures, our mistakes and sees us through loving eyes.  He has redeemed our pasts and made broken pieces whole.

His final words to her are this, "Go in peace, and be healed of your disease."  It is a command to live in that new identity.  To not allow shame and guilt to plague us anymore.  We have been healed of our past.  We can move forward.  We are called to live into this new identity.  We are called to live truly healed.  We are called to live as broken pieces made whole.