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INCARNATION: The Outrageous Claim at the Heart of the Christian Faith, Part 2 ©

A couple of weeks ago the question was posed to the Warmed Hearts Sunday School Class (of which my wife is a member) at Arborlawn United Methodist Church along the lines of “what is the greatest miracle, the incarnation or the resurrection?” As my wife reported the discussion (I was not present), it is a fascinating question, and I have not been able to get it out of my mind. Even more, it is an excellent question. Regardless of how one answers it, the question takes us deep into the realm of core doctrines (teachings), which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.

I suspect that a good argument can be made for either the incarnation or the resurrection. Even more, my hunch is that a better argument can be made that they are theologically (ultimately) inseparable. This much is certain. Both the incarnation and the resurrection are outrageous claims at the heart of the Christian faith. Hold them together. In one hand, the incarnation – “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14); in the other hand, the resurrection – “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. . . . If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4,14).

Today, the great celebration called Christmas, I’ll take the incarnation as the outrageous claim at the heart of the Christian faith. If the incarnation had not happened, the resurrection could not have happened. I return again and again to Martin Luther’s great series of Christmas sermons (The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton). Luther is purported to have said, “The Gospel is not so much a miracle as a marvel” (Martin Luther, The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton, p. 10). This is so true. We take miracles somehow as an action outside of known scientific laws. I think this is a mistake. (For philosophers who are reading, I would argue that such a definition is a “category mistake.”) The label “marvel” better fits, for the incarnation is a wonder to behold, to take in with breath-stealing awe. God is at work here in our world and even more, in our very midst!

Dr. Bainton (a great history professor and author of the award winning Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther) captures well Luther’s conviction about the incarnation. “Christian teaching is that in Christ God became flesh. Compared with that, no particular miracle matters much. If one could but believe that do lay in the manger, one could let go the star and the angel’s son and yet keep the faith” (The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton, p. 12).

Recently a colleague encouraged me to re-read Annie Dillards’ marvelous book, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Dillard writes about attending a local church stuck back in a remote part of the country. “Week after week I was moved by the pitiableness of the bare linoleum-floored sacristy which no flowers could cheer or soften, by the terrible signing I so loved, by the fatigued Bible readings, the lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, the horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, p. 39). As she reflects on the core of the Christian faith she is taken in by the incredible truth and awesome reality of the incarnation, of the outrageous notion that the God of the entire universe is actually with us and for us in Christ. She writes, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flairs; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, pp. 52-53).

Thus it is, I think, that we come to this day called Christmas and this truth of Christian teaching we call the Doctrine of the Incarnation. John the Evangelist is surely right. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  Here we must live and move and find our being. This is a stone on which to stand; a foundation on which to build; an outrageous doctrinal core to hold on to at all costs.

In his missionary classic The Christ of the Indian Road, published in 1925, E. Stanley Jones eloquently portrays the powerful difference Christ’s show-and-tell, personal revelation made:

                He did not discourse on the sacredness of motherhood – he suckled as a babe at his mother’s breast and that scene has forever consecrated motherhood….
He did not discourse on the dignity of labor – he worked at a carpenter’s bench and his hands were hard with toil of making yokes and plows, and this forever makes the toil of the hands honorable….
He did not teach in a didactic way about the worth of children – he put his hands upon them and blessed them and setting one in their midst tersely said, “Of such is the kingdom of God.”…
He did not paint in lowing colors the beauties of friendship and the need for human sympathy – he wept at the grave of a friend.
He did not argue the worth of womanhood and the necessity of giving them equal rights – he treated them with infinite respect, gave to them his most sublime teaching, and when he arose from the dead he appeared first to a woman.
He did not teach in the schoolroom manner the necessity of humility – he “girded himself with a towel and kneeled down and washed his disciples’ feet.”
(taken from Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 46)

May the joy of the Savior’s birth be yours. Bishop Mike Lowry, Christmas Day, 2017

The Fourth Sunday in Advent ©

Today, I offer a liturgy for the lighting of the Advent Wreath candles for both the fourth Sunday in Advent and for Christmas Eve. Traditionally (and usually) those are different days. This year, they fall on the same day.

In the Methodist traditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Christ Candle is lit on Christmas Eve as a sign and symbol of welcoming the newborn Savior into our lives and the life of the world He came to save.  Jolynn and I will be lighting the fourth candle before our traditional Christmas Eve worship this year. We will then use the liturgy for Christmas Eve on Christmas morning. I urge families to use the liturgies in whatever way appears best for their own special celebration of the Savior’s birth. The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. -Bishop Mike Lowry

The Fourth Sunday of Advent
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light four candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light four candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given to us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The fourth candle stands for the peace of the Lord. In the birth of the baby Jesus, God comes in human flesh and rules among us with peace and justice.”

Read:   Luke 2:1-20

Sing: “The First Noel”
“The first Noel, the angels did say,
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel!”

Prayer:
Lord God, we who live in a world torn by violence; we who live in a culture of clamor quietly approach a Bethlehem stable longing for your peace. As we too receive again the good news of your birth in the baby Jesus, may your peace settle on our hearts, minds, and lives. May your peace which passes all understanding encompass our world and inhabit our homes. Come Lord Jesus, Come! Amen.

 

Christmas Eve or Christmas Day
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 52:7-10

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light four candles and the center Christ Candle as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light four candles and the Christ Candle?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The fourth candle stands for the peace of the Lord. Today (or tonight) we light the Christ Candle in celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, God with us! “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:3-5).

Read:   John 1:1-14

Sing: “Joy to the World”
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and heaven, and nature sing.”

Prayer:
Dear Lord God, on this day (or eve) of your birth as the baby Jesus, we come to give our overwhelming thanks and praise. Your hope is with us; your love surrounds us; your joy fills us and peace settles upon us. In the birth of your Son our Savior and Lord, you declare once again your eternal love for us and for all human kind. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. Amen.

INCARNATION: The Outrageous Claim at the Heart of the Christian Faith, Part 1 ©

“Whew! You’d better take that sweater to the cleaners,” exclaimed Jolynn shortly after Thanksgiving. I confess, she was right. I had been holding (as much as I possibly could) then seven weeks old Adam Amittai Gabrielse-Lowry on my shoulder. He had rewarded my enthusiastic affection and joy by spitting up, multiple times, on the sweater. The smell of sour milk had left its marking scent all over me.

As I put the sweater in the car along with other clothes to go to the cleaners the following Monday, my thoughts had turned to Advent. Advent is the great time of preparation for the coming of the Savior. Thus it was a short mental leap for me to move from my beloved newest grandchild to the coming birth of the baby Jesus. Frederick Buechner’s words about “God in diapers” stuck in my mind.

Stay with me here, for this is the outrageous claim at the heart of the Christian Faith. God has come to us in the person of a baby named Jesus.

This outrageous claim is embedded firmly in John the Evangelist’s great symphonic opening overture. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Many a scholar has noted that the phrase translated as “made his home among us” (CEB translation) or “dwelt among us” (KJV) means literally “pitched his tent among us.” Luke offers the awesome grandeur of an angelic announcement. “Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). Matthew shares in a more prosaic phrasing; “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place…. She gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus” (Matthew 1:18, 25). Mark, well Mark only gets at this universe-shaking change of reality in a roundabout way. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, … After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:1, 14-15).

Each gospel in its own unique way announces a cardinal, core conviction of the Christian doctrine (teaching). It is called simply the Doctrine of the Incarnation. The great Nicene Creed puts it this way:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”

Scholars define the term “incarnation” as literally meaning “enfleshment.” As one eminent scholar puts it, “incarnation expresses the belief that the divine took human form, or to be more specific, that God’s Word became the human being Jesus from Nazareth” (James D.G. Dunn, “Incarnation,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 I-Ma, p. 30). This outrageous claim lies at the heart of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul understands full well what is at stake in the doctrinal conviction of the incarnation, especially as it plays out in the death and resurrection. “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

This claim of incarnation, of the God of the entire universe coming in human flesh and living among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, must be at the very heart of our preaching, singing, prayers, and sharing at Christmas. Frederick Buechner grasps the essence of this outrageous doctrine at the heart of the Christian faith when he writes, “The incarnation is a kind of vast joke whereby the Creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers…. Until we, too, have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”

To us, a “savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). May we sing with the angels and come with exuberant awestruck joy to a Bethlehem stable to peer over the shoulders of kneeling and behold God with us.

A Message for Advent 2017 ©

Bishop Lowry shares an Advent message of hope for a bruised and battered world – a hope that comes in the form of a baby at Christmas.

Please share this with your church, small group, friends and family by clicking either the share icon (second top right corner of video below) or the link at the bottom of the video player.

 

Bishop Lowry’s Message for Advent 2017 from Central Texas Conference UMC on Vimeo.

 

The Third Sunday in Advent ©

Today, I offer a liturgy for the lighting of the Advent Wreath candles.  As I wrote in my blog “The Advent Wreath,” for our family, the lighting of the Advent Wreath and the sharing of the accompanying liturgy around the kitchen table became a central element in our preparation for Christmas. Even now, with our children grown and having children of their own, this remains a central part of our devotional preparation for the coming birth of Christ.

The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. This Friday, I offer a liturgy for use as a family (whether it be one person or many) in preparation for the birth of the Christ child on the third Sunday of Advent. Those wishing to receive the liturgy for the First Sunday in Advent may email my Executive Secretary, Mrs. Pattie Wood, (PattieWood@ctcumc.org) and she will send you the liturgy for the First Sunday. 

Bishop Mike Lowry

The Third Sunday of Advent
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-2

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light three candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light three candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The Prophet Isaiah said, “The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the rose [KJV translation].”  This is why the candle is often pink. We come to a Bethlehem stable with great joy and celebrate the birth of our Savior in the baby Jesus. May we prepare for Christmas with joy in what God has done and is doing in our lives.

 “The desert and the dry land will be glad;
       the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the [rose] crocus.
They will burst into bloom,     
      and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,     
     the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory,     
     the splendor of our God.” (CEB translation)

Read:   John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sing: “What Child is This?”

What child is this, who laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

Prayer: “Lord Jesus, we come to you with joy as we prepare again to celebrate your birth.  May praise, laughter, and goodwill fill our hearts and burst forth in sharing. May the songs of this season engulf us with the joy of your presence, care, and all-consuming love. You are indeed the baby Savior and the Lord of all life born among us. With glad hearts and excited minds, we come to the celebration of your birth. Lead us to share your joy, hope and love with those who stand in great need and even greater want during this season. Let the goodness you instill in our heart and minds spill forth in joy for all people in your name and at your coming.  Amen.

Into the New Year of our Lord Two-Thousand and Seventeen ©

As we pause on the edge of a New Year, I hold stubbornly to the conviction that every year is still A. D. regardless of what a politically correct culture asserts.  Please don’t get me wrong.  This is not an excuse to be rude to non-Christians (friend or otherwise).  Our times may be properly labeled C. E. for Common Era; but significantly, in our heart of hearts, Christians need to hold to a theological conviction at every year since the birth of Christ is A. D. –  “In the Year of our Lord.”

Wikipedia says:  “The terms anno Domini (AD or A.D.) and before Christ (BC or B.C.) are used to label or number years in the Julian and Gregorian calendars. The term anno Domini is Medieval Latin, which means in the year of the Lord but is often translated as in the year of our Lord. It is occasionally set out more fully as anno Domini nostri Iesu (or Jesu) Christi. (“in the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What is at stake is no more nor less than the conviction that this year – 2017 – belongs to Christ for those of us who claim to be Christian!  Carefully understand what I am saying.  Be polite and gracious.  It is acceptable to use C.E. or Common Era when dealing with a wider secular audience.  There is nothing wrong with such courtesy.  There must remain however a towering conviction that must hold in our hearts and minds!  For us, this year and every year is the year of our Lord!  Our life, our year, belongs to Jesus as Lord!  It is at His and His name only that our knee bows (Philippians 2:10-11).

This unshakable conviction that 2017 is the “Year of Our Lord” is an anchor in the storms of life that even now crash over us.  I often find myself at the opening of a New Year going back to a famous poem and even more to its reading on the radio.

In1939, King George VI of England broadcast a Christmas Day message to the British Empire heard around the world.  He ended it by quoting an obscure poet named Minnie Louise Haskins.  Twenty-five years earlier, she had privately published a book of verses called The Desert.  Originally entitled “God Knows,” the more popular name is “The Gate of the Year.” The words catch the essence of those wise men who journeyed across the desert following the light to worship the newborn Savior.  They invite and challenge us to start our new year on the same journey.

God Knows [The Gate of the Year]
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,minnie-louise-haskins-150x150
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

Time to Ponder ©

The line is stuck there at the close of Luke’s Christmas story.  In truth it is often ignored or simply skipped over.  “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully” (Luke 2:19, CEB).  I like the clarity and grasp of biblical accuracy in modern language that comes from the Common English Bible (CEB) translation. Yet sometimes older translations offer an elegance that captures the essence of a passage. The old King James translation (KJV) renders verse 19 as “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Whether it is “considered carefully” or “pondered,” Holy Scripture delivers us to a deeper truth.  Thinking deeply and reflecting carefully on the birth of the Savior is foundational to the Christian faith.  There is more going on here than simply Christmas good will and warm feelings to all.  While Christmas is about love – God’s love come in the form of a baby named Jesus – there is much more to ponder than simply the vague good feeling of love.  The birth of the Savior – incarnation – is the hinge of history.  The story is far from over!

Behind the joy that comes to us in this post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s time of rest and good cheer, we would do well to ponder deeply; to think carefully.  Behind the good feelings and joyous Spirit is the truth that is contained in Mary’s pondering.  It is God who is with us, not just in reverent seriousness, but in the good cheer and the laughter.  The Christian year does not begin with New Year.  It begins four weeks earlier with the start of Advent, the start of the time of preparation, and from Christmas day forward the world becomes a different place.  It is the simple and profound conviction that God has visited our world and lives not as a transient guest for a brief period of time, but rather lives among us during all of the days that follow.  We gather on this day for a time to ponder with a truth to share, for a world to save.

Did you notice the simple line that almost laconically closes the narrative of the Savior’s birth?  “And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21). The name Jesus literally means “God will save” (See Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 869).  The story ends with this pointed, if casual, reminder of what it is all about.  God will save.  The naming you will recall is given by the Angel Gabriel at his visitation with Mary in the 1st chapter of Luke’s gospel.  Mary and Joseph as parents model faithful behavior for us.  They did as they had been commanded.  They acted on the conviction that through this child God would save a world.

I always remember the vivid imagery I ran across in my New Testament studies in seminary.  It has been offered by a man named Hans Conzelman, a famous New Testament professor.  He lived on the continent of Europe.  He recalled the D-Day invasion, how it happened, the courage of that event, the troops coming to shore, and the sense that after the beachhead had been established it would ultimately lead to winning the war.

World War II wasn’t over. The combat was still raging. There were still many days – in fact, a year plus – of fighting that had to take place, but one could see the end.  It was in sight.  One knew the outcome of the war.  One knew that there would be a day soon where the Allied powers would triumph.

Conzelman wrote that is the image of the birth of Christ in our midst.  On Christmas Day the beachhead had been established.  We can see the outcome of the battle.  The victory belongs to the God who’s born among us as a baby. There is still much to do.  The conflict is not over.  We live in a time when that conflict between good and evil rages among us.  We have a world to win for a Savior whose triumph is sure.

In the first light of a new day, the famous words of Howard Thurman call us forward in faith.

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among all people,
To make music in the heart.”

Let this be a time of faithful pondering.

It’s About the Baby: Revelation on the Nature of God ©

I confess I can’t wait for Christmas Day.   We have the whole gang coming to our house.  My 92 year old mother and twin brother are coming up from Kerrville, Texas.  Our son Nathan and daughter-in-law Abigail are flying in from Boston with our middle grandchild 1½ year old Simon (alias Super Simon!). Our daughter Sarah and son-in-law Steve are flying in from the Washington, D.C. area with two precious grandchildren, 3½ year old Grace (alias the Amazing Grace!) and 1 year old (plus a month) Sam (alias Yosemite Sam!).  It will be fabulous!  My ever perceptive wife says that I have built expectations in my head well beyond the best dreams of expectant reality.  In my excitement, Christmas is about the Grandkids coming!

And yet a cluster of things give me pause to remember that it is about the baby; not the grandbabies, as precious as Grace, Simon, and Sam are to us, but it is about a baby named Jesus.  Last Sunday we read the lectionary lesson from Matthew and Isaiah.  “Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). And Matthew, “Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled: Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel  (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)” (Matthew 1:22-23).  A baby named Jesus is the ultimate demonstration of the very character and nature of God.

Consider:

1. God’s very nature is love. What is more loving than a baby? Numerous theologians and Christian writers over the 20 centuries of time have pointed out that God came as a baby not to overwhelm us (for God could have come as a conquering giant or an terrible power) but to woo us.  We instinctively approach a baby in tender love.

2. God comes as one vulnerable. The defining characteristic of the Lord is not overwhelming might or coercion but rather one in the most vulnerable of forms.

3. God enters our world in humility. The Lord’s place of entry is not a castle or a palace but a cave made into a stable.  Egotistic ambition is counter the very nature and character of the divine presence.

4. God comes to all of us, not just the mighty but lowly. Shepherds were consider the lowest of the low, but it is “certain poor shepherds” who are accorded the honor of greeting the newborn King and Savior.

The list could go on but now let us simply pause here.  There is enough to power and instruct us.  The baby shows by way of demonstration the way to life and light eternal.  God in Christ through the baby Jesus unfolds the divine nature for all to see.

The great joy of His birth is not a pause in the march of days.  It is not a temporary state of caroling good will.  It is a change of relationship.  It is good news of great joy because from henceforth our relationship with God is one of love and not fear, of compassion and not judgment.  We experience great joy because our sins are forgiven by this one whose birth we celebrate.  “To you is born a Savior” (Luke 2:11, paraphrased).

Do you remember the story of Beauty and the Beast?   It is “a classic tale of radical transformation.  It’s the story of an angry beast whose only hope of being transformed into a genuine human being is to be loved in his unlovable condition by a beautiful woman.  At first, Beauty is frightened by the Beast’s large stature, his meanness, his power.  But over time, the unearned love of Beauty transforms the Beast into a man” (James Harnish, Come Home for Christmas: An Advent Study for Adults, p. 34).

That transformation process launched at Christmas is done so by none other than God.  It is a renewal of life that is offered to the shepherds terrified in the field.  It is the same new life offered to us in our fields of our modern day fear.  Do you remember that line from Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of a Hire Man” in which a person named Warren says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in” (Frost taken from Harnish, IBID, p. 35).

This is the great joy we are offered at Christmas but with one twist, one great reversal.  We don’t have to go to God. God in Christ comes to us.  God reveals, makes known, God’s very nature!  This, my friends, is what is meant by salvation.  All the talk of saving has to do with the restoration of a relationship with God; who in divine beauty comes to us as a baby to woo us and love us.

Christmas really is about the baby (even more than our family no less!)!  It is revelation into the very nature of God.

baby-jesus-christmas-pictures-218

The Holy Family Leaves Aleppo ©

I am hopeful the title of this blog caught your attention.  I want to invite us as Christians to connect two seemingly disparate events: the journeys of Mary and Joseph first to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt with the newborn baby Jesus and the massive refugee tragedy of Aleppo.

Let’s look first at Biblical record.  Luke reports, “Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.  He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant” (Luke 2:4-5).

We usually take the journey to Bethlehem for granted.  We envision a pastoral scene with a loving, tenderly caring husband and a beautifully blue-robed clad pregnant lady riding on a donkey.  The scene is virtually bucolic.  The reality is radically different.

The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is roughly 69 miles as the crow flies.  In all probability they were both walking.  (Scholars debate whether Joseph as an artisan would have had enough financial resources to afford a donkey.)  The country was run by a conquering foreign government, i.e. the Roman Empire.  Oppression as well as fear from thugs and bandits was part of everyday reality.  You get the drift.  The journey to Bethlehem is closer to walking from Aleppo, Syria to the border and then catching a bus to the Greek seaport near the Island of Lesbos (the center for refugee resettlement).  Modern scenes of refugees escaping violence and persecution are closer to the truth.

This is especially so when yoked to what is called by biblical scholars simply “The Flight to Egypt.”  Rembrandt’s moving painting of the scene only begins to capture the human tragedy.  Roll the terse biblical description around in mind.  Matthew writes:  “Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died” (Matthew 2:14-15).  What follows is the story of the murder of the innocents (that is the two year old land younger children in the region).  Note carefully that Joseph led the Holy Family on their flight at night (verse 14). This is no gentle journey but a scene of fleeing in terror.

Watching the news I cannot help but think that the flight of refugees from Aleppo in the evening news which parades before us is similar.  Faithfulness and deep spirituality should well lead us to see the baby Jesus carried by his mother, her back bent low, on the hard scrabble trail to safety.  Peering through the barbed wire, a two year Jesus looks back at us.

It is incumbent on those of us who claim the title Christian to remember that the Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord, started his worldly life as a homeless refugee. We sing “Come let us adore him” (Hymn No. 234, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,The United Methodist Hymnal).  This is good and proper.  We should sing with full-throated joy!  But to fully be the faithful who come, we must see him as he is and not a figure in a beautifully carved crèche scene.  He is the baby on the dusty road.  He is the child behind the barbed wire fence.  His parents are the ones desperately searching for milk and food for their son.

I confess, when I put it all together, that there is more.  When I really understand that it is the Holy Family which seeks to flee Aleppo, I realize God is calling me to reach out, even though I don’t know how. I am overwhelmed with a sense of frustration, sadness and hopelessness.  Yet it is here that God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit most causes me to pray and nudges me to reach out of all who are homeless and/or refugees.  “O Come, All Ye Faithful” indeed.

rembrandt_flight-jesussyrefugee-_unhcr

How Did You Spend Your Christmas Break? ©

Do you remember the typical first assignment for an elementary school student on returning to school in the fall? Growing up we often (virtually always) had to write a paper on “What did you do with your summer vacation?”  It was a fun assignment.

As we flew back from Boston on the 2nd of January, my mind turned to the packed month ahead of me.  It has started quickly:  Worship at Ovilla United Methodist Church and a tour of the wreckage from the Christmas storms.  The response of Ovilla and other wonderful congregations in the area has been inspiring.  The work of disaster relief under Rev. Laraine Waughtal through the Center for Mission Support has been outstanding.  The greater connectional United Methodist Church through UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief) has been (as always!) tremendous (including an immediate $10,000 grant)!

Monday found me in the office and then on the road down to Austin for the meeting of the Conclave (a Texas Methodist Foundation Clergy group made up of the active bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction). I’ll preach at Cross Plains UMC this Sunday for the tenth anniversary of the fire that swept through the community.  That fine congregation gives meaning to the word resilient.  Monday we have a “Strategic Focus Conference” at the Conference Center.  Tuesday and Wednesday I’ll be in Houston for a meeting of the Council of Bishops Executive Committee (COB).  Thursday the General Secretaries and Presidents of the various agencies of the United Methodist Church will join the COB Executive Committee for a planning meeting on our shared worldwide ministries.  I have hopes of being home late on the 16th to sleep in my own bed.

I share all that both by way of inviting the reader to catch a glimpse of my world but more importantly to think spiritually about the question, “How I spent my Christmas break?” I operate out of the conviction that most (all) of us have similarly hectic stress and overly scheduled lives.  Even my retired parents ages 95 and 91 seem inordinately busy to me.  [Hmm, make a mental note, Mike, you need to go down to Kerrville and talk to those kids about slowing down.]

We speak easily of holidays and tend to forget that the root of the word is “Holy Days.” Recreation equates to re-create.  Vacation, time off, … whatever you want to call it, links to our need for “downtime” and especially quiet time.  As I met with my Spiritual Director (a retired Navy Chaplain now serving as pastor of a UMC in Colorado), he issued a mutual challenge to the two us to increase our quiet time, our time of prayer and solitude, of reading scripture and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

All of which brings me back to the importance of taking a Christmas break. There is more going on here than an opportunity to be lazy.  There is potentially something basic to our spiritual formation.  I don’t know what you did but, Jolynn and I feasted on grandchildren (which is why we needed to come home to rest!).  Christmas in Falls Church, Virginia included great conversations with our daughter and son-in-law and even greater time playing with 2½ year old granddaughter Grace.  A great highlight, far greater than any present, was meeting our newest grandchild, 5 week old Samuel David Meek for the first time.  I simply couldn’t get enough of holding him.

On December 26th we flew up to Boston to join our son and daughter-in-law with her extended family in taking part in the baptism of middle grandchild, 5 month old Simon Michael Gabrielse-Lowry on the last Sunday of 2015.  It really was holy time for us.  Super Simon and I giggled and laughed and carried on together in a re-creating way!

I recite my own history by way of asking the reader to think back and reflect on how you spent your Christmas break. Did the light of Christ break in the joy of family time?  Perhaps instead it came in the quiet of alone time or maybe in the glory of worship or even perhaps in the chaos of life.  However it happened this is (or can be) holy time we all need as we step into this New Year of our Lord 2016 – Anno Domino.

Remember the hackneyed but immensely true mantra: Wise-men (and Wise-women!) still seek Him.

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