Month: December 2012

Advent 4 | What If God Was One Of Us?

Joan Osbourne’s one-hit wonder What if God was one of us? continues to play in my head, nearly 20 years after its extended reign at the top of the pop music charts.  It was the Call Me Maybe of its day, that song you’d make fun of but secretly hope to hear every time you turned on the radio.

But Osbourne’s hit had an almost haunting quality to it, asking questions skeptics and Christians alike ponder, especially at Christmas:

What if God was one of us.  Just a slob like one of us.  Just a stranger on the bus.  Trying to make his way home?

Its refrain halted the pondering, instead making the declaration each of us hopes to make in our darkest moments…

 Yeah, yeah, God is great.  Yeah, yeah, God is good. 

It’s a song that, despite the popular commercialization and trivialization of the spiritual, asks profound questions, questions that led often to conversations with the skeptics who I worked with in a Chicago audio/video store back in the day.  What if God wasn’t some angry disciplinarian, perched above on his heavenly judgment seat, waiting your next blunder?  What if God is, in fact, not distant at all?  How would it change what we believe?  How we live?  How we speak to God?

Week 4 of Advent asks these questions.  Taking center stage – Mary – a young, unwed teenager girl who is chosen to carry God Incarnate to full-term.

67And Mary* said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (from Luke 1)

 

There can be no more clear commitment to relationship and union with human beings than this – God taking up residence not just on earth, but inside the womb of young woman in a patriarchal and religiously buttoned-up society.  This was scandalous.

God, in becoming one of us, turns religion and spirituality on its head, daring us to believe that this world and, indeed, human beings are God’s delight, God’s beloved, God’s deepest commitment.  It dares us to believe that God came to earth, accomplished his work of reunion through Jesus, and sent the Spirit to dwell in us forever.  Theologians over many years would do doctrinal gymnastics to explain (and sometimes explain away) this overwhelming fact.  Some even say God can’t possibly look at us because of our sin, so he covers us with Christ.  No, Advent and Christmas remind us not just that God can and does look at us in the eye, but that God makes our very being his dwelling place (1. Cor. 6:19).

In the midst of the frantic anxiety of this season, stop and ponder.  Do you need anything more than what you have already?  God dwells in you.  Or, in the words of St. Catherine of Genoa, “My deepest me is you, Oh God.”  Christmas is not merely about three wise men and a manger scene from long, long ago.  No, Christmas is about right now.  God has taken up residence in your very being, and delights to bless you as Mary was blessed many years ago.  Can you dare to believe this?

Joan Osbourne asks, What if God was one of us?  Our response, God is. This is the gift we’re asked not just to receive, but believe, at Christmas.

 

Reflection:

– How do you perceive God? As distant? Angry? Near? Kind? Talk with someone about this, and reflect on how or why your image of God was formed in this way.

– How can believing that Christ not only loves you, but dwells in you, change the way you face your anxieties, disappointments, or loneliness?

– Take some time to pray that God would allow you not just to contemplate and experience the profound reality of his union with you, but live it out with greater joy and freedom.

Advent 3 | Do Not Fear, God Will Make a Way

How do I get out of the wilderness? It’s a question I get asked often. When you’re a therapist and you write a book with the subtitle Finding God in the Wilderness Places, you’re inviting hard questions.

Advent offers a clue. While the first week of Advent focused on Christ’s promised coming, and while the second focused on how we wait and long in the process, this week’s focus is on finding hope and joy in the waiting. It seems the wise men and women who crafted the Advent calendar and its weekly biblical texts anticipated we’d need a bit of hope by Week 3. And so, in their wisdom, they offer several hopeful texts, including Isaiah 35:1-10.

Now, here’s what’s fascinating. It’s a text so relevant to us but written for refugees long ago – men and women captured, taken from their homes (which were destroyed), and cast into exile. These were people who experienced intense pain, ripped from family, friends, and home, and burdened by the agony of God’s abandonment, as well. And yet, into this desperate wilderness circumstance, Isaiah speaks hopeful words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be made glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…they shall see the glory and majesty of God.

“Are you out of your mind, Isaiah?” they’d ask. Feeling powerless and abandoned, they’d wonder how God could do such a thing. He would respond, however:

I’ll strengthen your weak hands, and make firm your feeble knees. Be strong, and do not fear.

“Easy for you to say, Isaiah,” they must have responded. In fact, sometimes the people who frustrate me that most are the ones who say, “Don’t worry, it’ll all be alright.” Do you know people like this?  We all do. They mean well. But, I suspect God had a much bigger vision in mind.

Here’s the picture God would paint:

I’ll build a highway right through the desert, and it will be called ‘The Holy Way.’   And those who are freed will return home while singing…sorrow and sighing will  fade away.

It turns out, their wildest dreams came true, but in a way better and more fantastic than they could imagine. God did get them home, but his ‘highway project’ included bolder aspirations, a bigger rescue.

It’s a rescue that pointed to the very first Christmas.

You see, this God isn’t in the business of simply building dirt roads or single lane county roads. God isn’t into temporary solutions.

No, God is in the business of making Super-Highways.

Years later, God would speak to an old man named Zechariah, too old to have children, frightened at the appearance of an angel who announced that, indeed, he and his barren wife would have a child, and that this child would announce God’s new highway project (Luke 1:12-13). Zechariah, scared out of his wits, needed God’s comfort. Once again, God says:

Do not fear.

An angel would also appear to a virgin named Mary, who shuttered at the reality that she’d been specially called by God (Luke 1:30). Guess how God would respond:

Do not fear.

The ‘Super-Highway’ project would be commissioned by God and announced by John the Baptist, an eccentric desert dweller and the son of Zechariah, saying:

Prepare the highway of the Lord. Make the paths straight. Raise the valleys and lower the hills, straighten the crooked paths and smooth the rough ones. All will see God’s salvation. (Luke 3:4-6)

No fooling around here. God was up to something big.

And the great highway paver would be Jesus, himself, whose mother was also told not to fear.  She’d witness the very first Christmas, as her son would be born – in exile, amidst suffering – and yet would accomplish the unthinkable.  Jesus would, in fact, remove every obstacle, every barrier, bridging the chasm between us and God.  The highway would be built – a full-service highway – with a God who makes sure we stay on the road toward Home.

Sometimes, in moments when I feel most alone and wonder where God has gone, I think of God’s words. Do not fear. And anticipating Christmas, I remember again what we celebrate, that God came to us, and dwells with us – in union – even when I don’t feel it. The road doesn’t always feel straight. The path is strewn with obstacles. But, as St. Paul says, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4).

So, strengthened for the journey and fixed on the destination, we keep our eyes ahead, anticipating that hope of Christmas once again, a reminder that we need not fear, that God has paved a way Home.

 

Reflection

  • Can you relate to the question – How do I get out of the wilderness?
  • How does it feel that God is, indeed, paving a way through the wilderness?
  • When you hear the words “Do not fear?”, is it hard to believe? Is it encouraging that God speaks to your anxieties just as he spoke to Mary and Zechariah many years ago?
  • How does the hope of Christmas and its promise of God’s rescue encourage you today?

Advent 2 | How Long, Oh Lord?

In the previous blog, we looked at the season of Advent, a time on the Christian calendar that marks a new beginning, an opportunity to observe our busy and frantic life and choose, instead, to live according to a different rhythm, a sacred rhythm. Embedded in the Christian calendar is a kind of ancient psychology, as if God is saying, “Participate in this and you’ll find the refreshment and freedom you’re longing for.”

In this Advent season, we begin to see how desperate we are – how our restless striving gets us nowhere. As Thomas Merton once said, “We may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” We’re faced with the futility of finding that financial freedom that will help us feel secure, or that sexual relationship that will make the loneliness go away, or the perfect religious practice which will unleash perfect inner peace. But with the wise writer of Ecclesiastes, we cry out, “Meaningless.  Meaningless. All of these things are a chasing after the wind.” Control is unattainable.

The prophet Habakkuk, on the other hand, laments not merely personal woes, but society’s injustices crying:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted. — Habakkuk 1:2-4

“How long?” Habakkuk cries, as he looks around and sees exploitation and violence, corruption and discord. And we, too, are invited to cry “How Long?” You see, as we slow down and consider why we’re so busy, we see that we’re often just numbing ourselves – to our own pain, to life’s injustices. We’re busy because we’re lonely, and we’re not sure God will ever answer the prayer for a spouse. We’re frantic because we’re insecure and anxious, not sure if our boss is seeing the hard work we’re doing.  We’re exhausted because we’ve placed our hope in financial success, only to our family disintegrating amidst the relentless striving. We’re perplexed because we hoped that a politician or a policy would bring the hope we so desperately long for.  We’re dismayed at the continuing acts of terror abroad, and the threat that they may again invade our shores.

How long?

This is our prayer in Advent. Will you give yourself permission to pray it? Many will not. It feels too raw. Or, perhaps it hints at a lack of control, something we can’t admit or afford. Maybe this prayer feels like something you pray when you’re at your end, and it’s just not that time yet. Maybe it feels too vulnerable, and you’ve learned that vulnerability isn’t safe or good.

Just the other day, a woman was standing behind me at Walgreens, waiting in a fairly long line and vigilantly observing the cashier, a young woman who was attempting to get a customer to sign up for the Walgreens Rewards Card. Under her breath, she kept saying, “Why…why…why?” I suspect her anxiety masked a greater longing, a longing to once and for all be delivered from the constraints and frustrations of life. I peered back to see an older woman with a cane, her arm shaking as she tried to support her weight along with a basket of groceries. She looked at me as if to say, “Life is unfair.” However, as I asked her to take my place on line, it was if a thousand pounds of emotional weight was lifted. “Thank you, thank you,” she said. I was her rescuer.

But our cry goes deeper. Our “How Long?” is heard by a King who longs to set the world right. He hears the groaning not only of his people, but his entire creation (Romans 8), and validates our restless cries. This God does not patronize, or criticize, or condemn our frustration. No. What this season reminds us of is that this God listens and responds, breaking through into our reality as a child born in a manure-filled stable, born into inconvenience, injustice, frustration, and futility. And this God, this Rescuer, comes to make it all right.

When we cry “How Long?” we invite this Rescuer to invade our reality with redeeming love. We break the numbing cycle of busyness, avoidance, and denial. We open ourselves vulnerably to God’s love, God’s redemption, God’s freedom. It’s a radical prayer to pray because it is desperate, it is honest, it is risky. In fact, we may be disappointed along the way. God doesn’t promise a quick fix. God’s way of freedom comes with bold prayers and frequent sufferings, but it brings a better Hope.

So, join the ancient voices. Participate in the ancient rhythm. Find your life redeemed and restored in a Story bigger than your own, through a God would become subject to the same futility you experience.

 

Reflection

  • What personal struggles cause you to want to cry out “How long?”
  • What societal and/or cultural “brokenness” (e.g. poverty, sex slavery, rampant consumerism) stirs you to cry out “How long?”
  • Can you relate to the woman on line at Walgreens?  Are there ordinary, everyday frustrations which tap into a deeper longing?
  • What hope do you draw from this post?  Is there a sense in which you can see through the brokenness of your life and the world and glimpse the Hope of God coming in the person of Jesus to rescue you?