Christmas Begins with Wonder

“She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, 
and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”
Luke 2:7 (Common English Bible)
            My wife, Grace, and I collect nativity sets. Over the course of our marriage we have collected over thirty, each beautiful and unique in their own way. Several have come from Congo, Africa, where my wife was born and raised by missionary parents. Others are from Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Israel. There are also beautiful sets from Alaska and from Native American reservations in the west. Two are whimsical sets from North Carolina – one that depicts every character of the nativity as black bears and another as red cardinals. They have been fashioned from metal, stone, clay, wax and wood. Each represents a cherished memory and all stir the wonder of that first Christmas.
            Christmas begins with wonder. It is a story whereby we are reminded that God has come into the world for every generation and for every person. It is a story that defies reasonableness. God, the creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is them, comes to earth as a vulnerable baby, to parents of little material possessions, in the non-descript town of Bethlehem. The parents have no stature, no power and no capacity to provide anything more than a manger to place their first child. Absent is any hint of privilege, any suggestion that this family will ever attract the notice of others. Yet, shepherds are drawn to the nativity, leaders of great nations travel considerable distances to bring gifts of substantial value and angels sing from the heavens of the birth of Jesus. The story is astounding, incredible, and outside the parameters of credible story-telling. Serious engagement with the Christmas story begins with wonder.
            Wonder is not doubt. For those who doubt, they are unable to see. Their eyes are clouded by a determined focus on what they understand. Wonder exists where there is hope in inexplicable love, and uncommon generosity. Wonder springs from believing that there is more in life than can ever be explained and the deep desire to be surprised. Christian wonder arises from the ancient promise of a God who cares deeply for us, clinging to that promise tenaciously, particularly at those times when there seems to be so little evidence for it, and paying attention, recognizing that God may surprise at any moment. The shepherds and the magi arrived at the nativity not because of incontrovertible proof that the Holy Son of God was born but because they were paying attention to a God that surprises.
            For Christmas to be more today than a nostalgic glance backward there must be a recovery of wonder. We cannot rejoice at Christmas unless we rejoice that this is a season where images of the nativity – in our homes and churches, on Christmas cards and wrapping paper – remind us that God comes to us in unexpected moments, in a surprising fashion, and always in a manner that is beyond our ability to understand. We live in a world that doesn’t know what to make of the love of God; a love that is free of ulterior motives. God baffles us and mystery and wonder permeate God’s presence and activity in the world, including the Christmas story. The Christian faith has never asked that we dismiss our questions. But its promises are realized only when we permit ourselves to experience expectant wonder once again.


A Faith That Is Deeply Lived

“They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power.”
2 Timothy 3:5 (Common English Bible)
Flu shots work by placing into the body the flu virus in such a controlled manner that those inoculated experience a mild form of the virus, yet become immune to the full force of the illness. Experienced in its full force, the flu debilitates the body resulting in fever, dehydration, general malaise, and the absence from productive work. For the very young, those in general poor health, and those of advanced age, death remains a present danger of the flu. Few people would disagree that the mild form of the flu is preferable to the full force of flu symptoms. Mild symptoms can be managed with little effort. A full-on assault of the flu virus is a considerable struggle.
The second letter to Timothy wrestles with a similar phenomenon in the Christian churches of his day. Quite simply, it seems that many members of Timothy’s church have been inoculated with a mild form of Christianity and, thus, have become immune to the genuine article: “They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power.” Present in the church are those who are complacent toward the faith – they accept it, are occasionally observant of its outward expression, but show no evidence of the faith’s power in their lives. As Harry Emerson Fosdick once observed, they have the form of religion but have nothing to do with it as a force.
Fosdick once shared with his New York City congregation that the saddest failure of the church is not hypocrisy. The saddest failure of the church is seen in men and women who have not personally experienced power; people who have never gone down to the depths of their faith where the power of God becomes a reliable resource in daily living.[i]What the church has always required to be a vital, dynamic, and powerful movement in the local community are church members who, through regular study of the Bible, regular prayer, and intentional decisions each day to live in obedience to what the Bible instructs, suddenly make a great discovery – it works! There is considerable power in the Christian faith for daily living; power that is unleashed when the faith is lived intentionally.
The Christian faith was never meant to be simply a creed, a set of beliefs to be embraced. When applied to every decision of life, the Christian faith becomes an inward source of power, overcoming fear, fortifying courage, and equipping a life that endures the inevitable storms that we all will face. Personally and socially we are up against destructive forces. Discouragement is a force. Fear and disillusion is a force. Failing marriages and deteriorating relationships with children are a force. So is the fear of terrorism and gun violence. Each of these forces must be met with an equal force – the power of a risen Christ that is present in a personal faith that is deeply lived.

[i]Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Christianity Not a Form But a Force.” A Great Time To Be Alive: Sermons on Christianity in Wartime (New York And London: Harper & Brothers, 1944), 92.


The Secret of Spiritual Power

The following is from Doug Hood\’s newest book,
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ
“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; 
they will fly up on wings like eagles; 
they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.”
 Isaiah 40:31 (Common English Bible)
     A woman stepped into my office today. With tears and considerable emotion, she asked that I pray for the world. She mentioned nothing specific. She didn’t need to. Another shooting this week on a college campus that left ten people dead. An accidental bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan killed twenty-two people. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing terrorism, seeking news homes throughout Europe and the United States. These stories drain our strength and cause us to need renewed power.
     In the time that Isaiah wrote these words, his people also faced despair. Threatened by domination by a mighty foreign power, Isaiah’s people needed all the encouragement and strength that a genuine faith in God could bring. So do we. Just as the natural rhythm of life demands nourishing food, exercise and rest for the body, the same condition applies to our souls. Spiritual energies are rapidly depleted by the crises, suffering and fear that consume our attention. Replenishing that spiritual energy is urgently needed. So Isaiah reminds his people – and us – that our sufficiency is of God. We remain weak unless we derive strength from God.
     How do God’s people claim this strength? “Hope in the Lord,” writes Isaiah. The “hope” Isaiah speaks of is not wishful thinking or “hoping for the best.” Here is Isaiah’s call to “trust unfailingly in God.” It is a call to “hold onto God” with expectant dependence. A constant reliance on God, meditating on God’s words and promises in the Bible, generates spiritual power and makes each of us alert for God’s intention to use us mightily for God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Isaiah asks that we attach ourselves to God as a child clings to a parent.
     As in the day of Isaiah, it still takes time to be holy; to be a people set apart for God’s purposes in a world shaken by fear. Schedule time each day for reading the Bible and prayer, for reading devotional literature that awakens the senses to new understandings, and do not neglect moments to simply be still and contemplate God’s love. These things, along with weekly worship in a community of faith, gives release to the inflow of God’s power that renews strength, restores hope, and lifts hearts as on the wings of eagles.


Speaking of Faith

Dr. Hood is on vacation.
This is a repeat of a meditation from his first book,
Heart & Soul, Meditations to Encourage the Heart & Refresh the Soul

“Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 
Yet do this with respectful humility.”
I Peter 3:15, 16 (Common English Bible)
I read recently that many people fear public speaking more than death. In multiple surveys that gathered information from thousands of people, death always ranked high among their greatest fears. Yet, in every instance, it is always second to public speaking. The mystery of death seems no match for the terror that is generated from the thought of speaking before groups of people. Make the suggestion that people speak about their faith and the terror quotient rises.
It is true that Peter is not necessarily speaking here about public speaking. Nor is there anything here that precludes that. In fact, Peter isn’t even asking that we initiate a talk or speech before one person or many on the topic of our faith. Simply, Peter is saying that if we are asked, be ready. Be ready to answer any question that may come from others about your faith. This seems a little more manageable.
The question that presses here is, are we ready? Are we prepared to share with another why we accepted Jesus into our life? Why we follow Jesus and try, as best as we are able, to live daily for him?
If we are not prepared to give an answer this may be a signal that we have some soul work to do. Perhaps it has been some time since we gave any attention to our walk with Jesus, any time to our relationship to Christ as one of his disciples. Relationships that are vital and meaningful rarely require much effort to explain to another. Rather, when we speak about a relationship with a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend or a good friend, that conversation is always marked by energy, enthusiasm and personal anecdotes. Little thought is required.
If you are not presently prepared to answer for your faith then you know what you must do; you must become more intentional about your journey of faith. A deep relationship with Jesus is much like a deep relationship with anyone else. It requires time, commitment and energy. But most would agree that satisfying relationships are worth the effort.