sunrise over swamps

sunset over melancholy seas

My Annual Christmas Meditative Ruminations, 2012 Edition

It’s Christmas, again, and once again I find myself frustrated that it took until the last day of Advent before I really stopped to think about the glorious mystery of the Incarnation and Immanuel, God With Us. I must admit that I miss the routines and cycles of the Catholic church of my childhood, where the joy of the Advent season brought each year to a close.

However, I wanted to take the time to stop and ruminate on the Gospel stories of the birth of Christ and so here I am, trying to remember that the stress and panic I associate with my adulthood experience of Christmas is not the central purpose of Advent (money, exhaustion, and tension seem to be the words of the season, more so than hope, joy and peace!).

The big question I have put to myself is: Why did Jesus come to Earth?

I recently asked that question of my young children, and the answer was illuminating.

They said, as any good Christian kid would, “To save us from our sins.”

Yet, in the ensuing conversation, I pointed out to them that Jesus’s work was so much more than our own personal sin. I can only say that because, after a year of reading ancient Christian mysticism more than any other variant of Christian text, I see a major flaw in the way I have understood my own faith:

There is not enough grace. There is not enough love. There is not enough trust that God Himself is going to do the work.

Major influences on my thinking on these issues have been Andrew Murray’s The Ministry of Intercession: A Plea for More Prayer, Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, and St John of the Cross’s The Dark Night of the Soul. So, if you’re wondering where I’m coming from, you’ll find the starting point in those particular texts.

When we say, “Jesus was born to save us from our sins,” I think we perpetuate the view that God is nothing more than the eternal moral police. He is seemingly so hung up on our naughtiness, bad behaviour, and even our daring to have fun, that He just hovers there waiting to punish our evil. As some evangelical commentators have recently suggested (and I thoroughly disagree with them), not only is God so disgusted with our cultures that He wants to punish us, He actually slays innocent children as a way of making us feel bad for our naughtiness. Now, I loathe the usual stereotypes that are associated with “Christian” (politically ultra-conservative, gun-toting, hater of other humans, obsessed with behavioural appearances), and I suspect that the stereotype can exist merely because certain cultural and geographical centres with their attendant political assumptions have had the biggest influence on what is touted as “mainstream” Christianity. But in my mind they bear little relevance on the message of Christ Himself.

You see, either God’s mysterious Incarnation – the Word made flesh – can be reduced to the latest step in God’s universal behaviour modification programme designed to churn out robots blindly following the extreme dogmas of politically fringe hate-groups… Or, it points to something so great that I had missed it.

It was summed up for me in a momentary revelation I had this year, one that accidentally rhymed, thereby increasing its inadvertent corniness tenfold, but with a principle that was quite profound to someone like me who just wants to be “good”:

God did not create me in order to hate me.

That’s it. Simple as that.

This whole creation, the universe, with its painfully beautiful nature, with all the glories of the stars and the tiniest insects and everything in between, the magnificent diversity and potential of humanity, was NOT made in order that God would have someone at whom He could be angry. He didn’t make it all as some sadistic exercise in self-punishment, making it all just so He could begrudgingly turn up on planet Earth in bodily form and let humans beat the life out of Him, thus proving the point that we’re so horribly degraded we would go so far as to kill our Creator.

When God made me, it was not so that He could spend the entirety of my existence condemning me (and this is true for anyone). If anything, it’s quite the opposite.

As I have been reading in the mystics, while we may well pay lip-service to the idea that God’s grace is enough, the fact is, we often don’t actually live as though grace is enough. We set up rules that may often have a Biblical principle behind them, but the point is we bind ourselves to a new kind of law. We look at the words of Jesus in the Gospel and realise it’s not enough to be kind of good, as the Old Testament teaches. Jesus demands that our mind submit to God, not just our actions. We can’t just avoid murdering people, we are commanded to not hate. We panic (I panic!) because the commands and callings of the New Testament church describe a moral standard that none of us can attain in our own strength. Not one of us is that “good”.

But, I’m not sure the point is to be “good”. If that’s all it is then being “good” is not hard. You don’t need God to be a good person. If anything, in light of the behaviour of some people acting in Jesus’s name, it often seems the case that being religious is the exact opposite of being a good human. Be nice. Don’t engage in illegal behaviour or say mean things. Don’t look unhappy if your church is one of those prosperity churches. Don’t look too happy if your church is one of those communities where you’re all heavily burdened by sin. Don’t give into the ever-present temptation of church car park road rage when you’re wondering how it was possible those people passed their driver’s license tests. Listen to the right music. Numb your mind with the right tv shows, but don’t dare get caught watching the wrong shows. Stand on the right side of the political picket line and reduce “others” to nothing more than the set of labels stuck to them, as if a human in all his or her complexity is merely a mash of stereotypes. Don’t ever look weak or you’ll be on the receiving end of that cruellest of Christian accusative questions: “Are you backsliding?”

So, if God did not create me to hate me, what DID He create me to be?

For the naturally cynical-pessimistic personality type, the answer to that is so foreign and difficult to say. I can barely speak the word. But it’s right there, in my Bible, in the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, in the writings of all the saints who’ve gone before and whose wisdom and insight far surpasses anything to which I could attain.

The answer is LOVE.

There. I said it. Well, I write it. I assure you, if I ever so much as try to speak that word “love” I find myself gagging on it. If there is a hint of romance in a movie, you’ll usually find me running away from the cinemas. I cannot say “love” without feeling queasy.

Love… what is that? A chemical response to someone you find biologically compatible as a co-producer of genetic offspring? A lofty ideal encompassing happy and/or passionate feelings? The vague satisfaction one gets from giving money to a charity?

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15) Love is sacrificial. Love can potentially hurt. Jesus also said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16) We are laying down our life for Him, but in the process we find it.

As I read through ancient Christian texts, I found myself coming across interesting Latin phrases. Two in particular grabbed my attention.

One is imago Dei. The other is Deus caritas est. The former refers to the concept that we are made in the image of God. The latter is the teaching that God IS love. God is, in essence, love. That’s one instance where the unique and mind-bending doctrine of the Trinity comes in handy, because love exists in relationship, and God is, in essence, one God but existing within an eternal relationship. I think it was C.S. Lewis who suggested that it is God the Father who loves, God the Son is the beloved, and God the Holy Spirit who IS that love. But I digress, and head off into deep waters that I am in no means equipped to explain.

When I linked imago Dei and Deus caritas est in my mind, for some reason it stood out to me much clearer than had I read their English equivalents (Genesis 1, Genesis 5, Genesis 9; and 1 John 4 in the Bible). We are made in the image of God. God is love. Which, I guess, means that in a little way we are all love, too. Or perhaps it is that we have the potential to love. I don’t really know for sure. I have no hard-and-fast theology on the issue.

That also means that, as much as I might like it to be a personal faith and personal relationship with God, it is not enough for me to think that, “I am saved from my sins” and go no further. It means that in every other human being who crosses my path, there is the spark of love. There is love in the very foundation of who they are. Each one of them is an imago Dei, no better and no lesser than me. That means that, beyond all labels and ideas and social impositions upon the individual, God’s word tells me that each human I meet is someone with dignity, with uniqueness, and with value.

It goes further than that, too. This physical world, with nature and animals and bodies and the heavens and the oceans and everything in between, is, in its created essence, good. So, when Jesus came to Earth in the Incarnation (which we celebrate at Christmas), and died then rose again in the Crucifixion and Resurrection (which we celebrate at Easter), it wasn’t so that I could be made good and not bad, and take on the mantle of a nice, bland, smiling average citizen who doesn’t rub against cultural norms and stands on a defined side of the political fence.

The Bible says, “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” (Romans 8)

It’s not just us. It’s all of creation, suffering and burdened under the curse of death that came into being in the earliest stages of Genesis. But, God made it all. All that is good and beautiful and lovely about nature stems from God. The planet is not bad. Nature is not bad. Standing up for the environment and ecology and animals is not bad when we see that God made them for His purposes. And seeing other humans as imago Dei, no matter our temptation to reduce them to labels, is very good.

So, why did Jesus come to Earth?

The fact is, this one little essay is barely able to scratch the surface of such a grand question. You want to know the answer? Spend a lifetime studying the Bible cover-to-cover, even the books erroneously dismissed as “boring”, spend a lifetime praying and knowing God, and you might never have the full answer. And that’s okay – having answers and doing apologetics is good, and helpful, but if we think we know it all, we’re heading for trouble when life throws one of its many paradoxical situations at us.

In Luke 4, there is a story of Jesus reading a Scripture in the synagogue:

Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region.

And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah.

And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus didn’t come to Earth to make us “good.” He came to free us, to heal us, to bring liberty. There is hope for the poor, the oppressed, the suffering, the lonely, the sick and all who are burdened by the horrors of this harsh world.

He brought grace. He reconciled us to God by overcoming a curse of death that was set upon us when humans chose their own desires above the love of God. Jesus came that we may have LIFE (John 10).

The process of uncovering this life is something that I see hinted at in the writings of Christian mystics, and is certainly not something to be narrowed down in simple, legalistic terms. There is no way I could give justice to the complexities of this journey when I feel myself to be such a novice along the paths of life. (Proverbs 2, Proverbs 15, Proverbs 16)

Christmas is a time of joy because it reminds us that God didn’t come to condemn us. He sent Jesus so that we would be freed from the tyranny of laws and “good” behaviours. He came that our stone-cold hearts would be brought back to life and turned back to flesh (Ezekiel 11, Ezekiel 36); that we would learn the love of the Father and begin to love the world (John 14:9, Matthew 22). All the world. Not just the “good” people, not just the outwardly “sinless,” but all people, every single one of them an imago Dei, in the image of God who is caritas est, Who is Love.

It’s a massive calling, and one I can barely comprehend. But, as the ancient mystics wrote, it’s entirely possible: as long as we let God do the work in us, and stop trying so hard, in our own strength, to be “good.”

*All Bible verses are from the New King James Version, as found on the website biblestudytools.com.

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playing catch-ups on a month’s worth of photos, part one

1. December 18, 2011

I took a lot of photos over December 2011 and January 2012. Literally hundreds, if not thousands. I didn’t bother counting them, but we seem to be going through 1 TB external harddrives faster than seems reasonable. Here’s a few.

1. I bought a new dress. More accurately, some very generous people gave me some vouchers for my favourite clothes store for my birthday and Christmas. [iPhone 4S, instagram]

2. December 19, 2011

2. I took a photo of my old Roman Catholic crucifix that I’ve had longer than I can recall. Here’s the thing: I am a member of a contemporary non-denominational Pentecostal mega-church. But I grew up in the Catholic church. And it apparently causes quite a stir and consternation among some Pentecostals when they catch me wearing this crucifix.

But it means something – it means a lot – to me. Apart from being a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ when He took on the burden of sin, it also connects me to the faith of my ancestors and generations past. And, as if it needed to be pointed out, Catholics DO believe in the Resurrection. Really.

The Cross is empty now, yes; but Christ’s literal death was the death that paid the price.

In the end, these are symbols that connect us to the mystery of faith. This is not a good luck charm, nor talisman. I don’t pray to my jewellery, I don’t pray to idols carved by a human’s hands. There is nothing to fear from symbols that connect us to faith. I am just as much a Christian without it.

And remember, always, that idols of the heart can come in so many forms. It is just as idolatrous to ascribe perfect and infallible wisdom to anyone other than God; this includes prophets, preachers, and Christian rockstars. Don’t let a little silver symbol of the passion of our Lord and Saviour send you into a panic.

And please excuse the chipped nail polish! [iPhone 3GS, instagram]

3. December 23, 2011

3. We went to an amazing garden tucked away in the nearby mountains. It was a hot day and we were unprepared for trekking up and down the very steep garden paths but it was a very pretty, tranquil place. [iPhone 3GS, camera+app]

4. December 23, 2011

5. December 23, 2011

6. December 23, 2011

7. December 23, 2011

8. December 23, 2011

9. December 23, 2011

4-9. More photos of the aforementioned garden. All taken on an iPhone 3GS.

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warfare

Therefore, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink…”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

[source]

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