A Year of Faith and Hope

“So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

Romans 8:31 (Common English Bible)

It is always possible to dwell on the bright as well as the dark side of life. Yet, for many people, they are inclined to direct their attention to what may go wrong, to anticipate the bitter rather than the sweet, the tears rather than the smiles, and the difficulties rather than the opportunities that may lie in the New Year that stretches out before them. This way of looking at things is probably nothing more than a carryover from how their parents approached life from year to year. Perhaps this is a view fashioned by disappointments and struggles over many years. But it remains a choice that anyone can make – quieting the voice of negativity and grasping the promise of faith that God is for us as we cross from one year to the next.

This is not to be blindly idealistic. People of faith know as much about real trouble as any non-believer, perhaps much more, in fact. Those who don’t have faith often need a distraction to push through each day, some measure of artificial stimulation. Having no faith or hope they look to escape from the real challenges that confront every one of us. Alcohol, recreational drugs, or acquiring things of luxury and comfort divert attention from life’s challenges and disappointments. Conversely, people of faith are genuine realists. They acknowledge and face real misfortune and then look right through the trouble to something beyond – they see hope in the promises of their faith. That is the real difference.

It should be clear that the Bible never asks that we turn away from the facts, that we deceive ourselves in order to be a people of faith. As Christians we are aware of our own capacity for greed, and cruelty, and selfishness. We know that those who would trample over us care little about our faith and that disillusionment lurks around every moment of every day. Such has always been the case and always will be. Emerson said: “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.” But, in faith, we can look into the dense fog of the New Year without too much uneasiness because God moves forward alongside us, a God that is always struggling with us, always bringing good out of evil.

Life can be a struggle. Not every cloud will have a silver lining and not every wrong will be righted in this life. Ambitions may continue to remain unfulfilled and broken relationships may never be repaired. But that does not diminish the promise of faith that God is for us. Whoever believed that every round of disappointment, and meanness, and heartbreak is the whole story? Life also consists of laughter, moments of happiness, and serendipitous occasions of surprise and delight. Each struggle to be experienced above the loud clamor of negativity. Our own free agency allows us to choose the tone that we attach our lives to. Perhaps all we need in the New Year is to be reminded that if God is for us, who is against us?



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.



Disillusioned at Christmas

“They asked, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.’”

Matthew 2:2 (Common English Bible)

Speed bumps are intentional obstructions along routes traveled by motorized vehicles to slow drivers down. They indicate the need for caution, that something unusual is present and requires particular attention for safe navigation forward. Ignore the speed bump and the driver will experience a jolt and, perhaps, minor damage to their vehicle. Matthew’s Gospel has placed a speed bump into the Christmas narrative. If ignored – or not noticed – the reader will miss a greater truth that Matthew wishes to convey. Rather than hurrying to the end of the story, Matthew wants the reader to make a rich discovery as the story unfolds: The magi made much of their journey to Bethlehem without the light of the star.

Notice the speed bump: the magi enter the City of Jerusalem and make inquiry as to where the “newborn king of the Jews” is born. They began their journey to find the baby when they saw a star in the east but now the light of that star is unseen. Now they must ask directions. Consulting with the chief priests and legal experts, King Herod learns that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then sends the magi on their way in that direction. Only when they come to Bethlehem do they see the light of the star again. This is why the magi “were filled with joy”, Matthew tells us. They were on the right road and the promise of that star was about to be realized. Finding the child with Mary, his mother, the magi fell to their knees, honored him, and presented their gifts.

Matthew is writing to a particular people who are on the cusp of disillusionment and abandoning their faith. The decision to follow Christ has resulted in estrangement from those family members who don’t believe in Jesus. More, followers of Jesus are no longer welcomed in Jewish worship. Divided from their loved ones and unwelcomed in the faith community, it is easy to question if they are on the right road. The easy path would be to admit a mistake in following Jesus, abandon the Christian movement, and return to the embrace of family and cherished worship. The light that began their faith in Jesus has dimmed considerably and now they are traveling in the dark.

So it may be with our faith. Oftentimes we do not experience the power, the light, the vitality of the faith we once experienced. Difficulties overwhelm, the road becomes dark, and we are disillusioned.  The path that was once clear is now an unknown way. Matthew wants us to remain confident in the promise. Circumstances may require that we stop, reassess our route, and seek guidance as the magi did in Jerusalem. But then, start out once again. There is much in the world – and in our lives – that we cannot change. It’s not our task to repair the brokenness all around us. What we can and must do, says Matthew, is speak of the promise of “the newborn king” that comes in the midst of that brokenness, kneel before him in worship, present our gifts, and trust that it will be enough.



Brokenness at Christmas

“Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.”

Matthew 1:19 (Common English Bible)

Thomas Long taught a three-week class, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, during the summer of 1992. The first day we were assigned homework that seemed daunting – prepare for the next day a mini-biography of each name in Matthew’s genealogy, which begins his Gospel. Each student worked late into the night in the Princeton Seminary library, occasionally looking-up at one another to gauge one another’s reaction to the surprises we were uncovering. As we proceeded with name after name in the family tree of Jesus Christ, it seemed we were reading the scandal page of one of those sensationalist newspapers found in larger cities. Sprinkled throughout the bloodline of Jesus were checkered people: Rahab, the prostitute, Ruth, that brazen Moabite, and King David himself, father of a son with another man’s wife. Brokenness abounded!

If we are honest, many of our families are much like Jesus’ family. Sprinkled throughout our bloodline are scandals, betrayal, addictions, and moral failure. My paternal grandmother was an alcoholic, who lost her marriage due to her addiction, my father, as a teenager, attempted suicide as a result of a mother who couldn’t raise him and a stepmother, who wouldn’t, and, eventually, was raised by a grandmother. My mother’s father abandoned a wife and children to begin another family that she would become part of and mental health issues – including a struggle with depression – etched its mark upon both her and her brother. Most of my life I have struggled with depression. Brokenness is an unwelcomed guest that many of our families are familiar with. The common challenge is to overcome our embarrassment and to look for God’s wondrous power to transform each one of us.

Joseph struggled as we do. He is engaged to Mary and had reason to believe that the wedding would proceed according to the tradition and custom of his Jewish faith tradition. Then, Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his. Soon, Mary would be showing. Careful wedding plans have now gone awry. Joseph must have felt betrayal, embarrassment, and anger. What is he to do? On one hand, Joseph, being a righteous man, could not tolerate his fiancée’s apparent infidelity. The law and personal honor demanded that he break-off the engagement. There seemed to be no other option. On the other hand, Joseph loved Mary and could not imagine her suffering the indignity and ridicule that would be hers by a public separation on the charge of infidelity. So what does Joseph do? A quiet separation would protect both Mary’s welfare and Joseph’s honor.

Then, God gives Joseph a new commandment, “a new and higher law,” writes Thomas Long, that required “a new and higher righteousness”: “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”[i] Here was an invitation to shatter the confines of a law absent of grace and become a genuinely righteous man that moves toward others, including his fiancée, with embracing love. Rigid obedience to the law cannot and should not stand in the way of God’s mercy. In the chancel of First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach is a beautiful stained-glass window. Someone in worship once commented to me that the beauty of that window provided comfort each week. Yet, one must not overlook that the beauty of that window is created from shards of broken glass painstakingly reassembled by the hand of a master artist.      


[i] Matthew G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1997) 13.


The Spirit of Christmas

“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

Luke 2:14 (Common English Bible)

There is a Christmas song that ponders in a rather wistful manner, why the world is unable to embrace the spirit of Christmas all year long. At Christmas, we crawl out from our hard shell of self-concern, our eyes sparkle with wonder, and we behave with an uncharacteristic charity toward all people. We slog through eleven months of drudging effort, eyes squarely focused upon survival in a competitive marketplace with little attention to others, and then Christmas comes. We throw off the heavy coat of selfishness for a time. Kindness permeates the places of our soul made callous by fear of scarcity and generosity flows from hidden springs in our heart. We play, we laugh, and we are amiable to the stranger and friend equally. That Christmas song is on to something. Why can’t we have the spirit of Christmas all year long?

Bethlehem is a divine interruption. The world today is little different from the world that welcomed the birth of Jesus. Enemies are everywhere and national security continues to be a pressing concern. Inequity of wealth among people of every nation conveniently ignores the apostle Paul’s call that those who have much shouldn’t have too much and those who have little shouldn’t have too little (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). But Bethlehem invites the world to a fresh imagination; to imagine a world where instruments of war are repurposed into farming instruments and people impulsively and joyfully share from their abundance so that others may simply have enough. Bethlehem asks that we look at the world differently, asks that we live differently.

The spirit of Christmas is a deep and persistent call to pay attention to God. It is a call to see and participate in the creation of a new world where peace and good will abounds. Bethlehem is not an occasional indulgence – an occasion where we lay aside for a moment careful attention to our health and consume copious quantities of Christmas cookies and eggnog. Bethlehem asks that we care about the world of which we are a part. Bethlehem invites us to join the angels in announcing that God has unleashed upon the world a new order where all people may find carefree rest in God. Bethlehem is not a charming dream. It is not an aspirational goal. Bethlehem is a confident and certain reality. God has come into this world and nothing is going to be the same.

Go to Bethlehem this year. Go and bow down before this magnificent birth of a new world order. Discover in Bethlehem God’s divine intention for each of us; discover that peace and good will is not for one month of the year but God’s gift to be embraced and shared all year. But if you go to Bethlehem, recognize that Bethlehem makes demands upon all who visit. Bethlehem asks that you dedicate your life to speeding up the tempo of good will in all your relationships. Bethlehem will ask you to guard your speech and exercise restraint in the use of acrimony, harsh, and mean criticism. Bethlehem will demand civility, humility, and respect of others, particularly of those you disagree with. And Bethlehem will ask of you uncommon generosity toward others. Bethlehem asks a good deal from all who visit. But Bethlehem gives in return God’s peace. That is the spirit of Christmas.