Faith and Success

One of our family traditions this time of year is to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies, the extended editions.  In total it is about a 12 hour commitment.  I have yet to get tired of the story.  One of my favorite moments occurs near the end of the third movie.  A great battle has just been won, but the enemy is gathering an even larger army.  This time defeat seems certain.  As the main characters are discussing what to do next, Gimli the dwarf says, “Certainty of death, small chance of success, what are we waiting for?”  For me this sentence sums up the entire trilogy.  Success was never a given. Lately I have been reflecting on “the Call.”  What are the implications when God calls us?  When I look to Scripture it seems that the call always has a certain dangerous quality to it.  In Exodus 3, there is the story of the burning bush, when Moses is called to confront Pharaoh.  Moses does his best to get out of the call.  He is very aware that God is calling him to do something that will most likely end in his death.  Or think of Jonah, he jumps a ship going in the opposite direction.  Going to Nineveh more than likely meant his death.  His running from God was based in reality.  And then there is the story of Mary, more than likely a teen girl, being told she was going to be the mother of the Messiah.  According to Luke 1 this conversation took place between Mary and the Angel with no witnesses.  Who is going to believe the story?  According to the laws of the day an unmarried girl getting pregnant could only have a bad ending.

The call of God and security do not seem to be connected.  If we can learn anything from Scripture and the call it is that Gods calls us into uncertainty and even danger.  We have the privilege of knowing how the stories of Moses, Jonah, and Mary end, but they didn’t have that privilege.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  A Savoir to came to earth as a human, grew up, had three years of amazing ministry, was nailed to the cross, rose again, ascended into heaven, and now calls us to be his hand and feet.  This call to be Christ’s ambassador is not safe. Gimli got it right- certainty of death, small chance of success, what are we waiting for?

Salvation

Salvation is a word with multiple meanings.  What does salvation mean in the Christian context?  For some it is about a ticket out of this world.  A number of years ago the Gaither Vocal Band captured this understanding of salvation in their song Build an Ark.  For them salvation was about gathering all their friends and family and escaping an increasingly evil world. Lately I have begun to wonder if this is why Jesus came to earth.  Did Jesus die on the cross so that we could get a ticket off this planet?  For most of my life this has been my understanding of the purpose of Christmas and Easter, a way out and off.

When one takes a second and third look at the message of Jesus, I am not sure that the salvation as escape definition works.  Jesus calls us to be salt and light; that sounds a whole lot like a call to make the world a better place.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray it included words about the kingdom coming, about God’s will being accomplished, on earth as it is in heaven.  Again this is not escape language.

Salvation is not always about escape, sometimes it’s about transformation, redemption and renewal.  The afterlife and the hope that it brings is an important part of the Christian faith, but it is not the only hope that we have.  We, who call ourselves Christians, are called to be agents of change, right here right now.

Salvation is about bringing peace where there is war.  Reconciliation where there is quarrelling.  Joy where there is sadness. Togetherness where there is separateness.

Salvation is about caring for creation.  It includes living in such a way that we reduce our consumption of the world’s resources, that we choose reusing instead of throwing away and recycling over wasting.

When salvation is only about escape form this world, we misunderstand why Jesus came as a baby in the manger.

All the stuff in-between

Last Sunday as we were wrapping up Easter dinner, a friend made the following comment.  “Why does the church spend so much time talking about Christmas and Easter and so little time on the stuff in-between?” Good question.

After all it is fun to talk about Jesus coming as a baby in a manger to save us.

There is something powerful about Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead to save us.

It is easy and simple to focus on humanity’s need of salvation.  I suspect we do this because it doesn’t demand much on a day-to-day basis.  Get saved, move on with life.

But the stuff in-between, that is a different story.   It has the potential to change everything.

As a child I was always told that church and politics don’t mix.  And it is possible to avoid this if we focus exclusively on Christmas and Easter. However, if we take seriously the stuff in-between then politics becomes an unavoidable part of being a Christian.

Consider Matthew 5-7.  Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Choosing to actively oppose violence at the personal, community and national levels is political.

Or how about later on in the same passage when Jesus teaches folks to pray, “Your Kingdom Come…on earth as it is in heaven.”  What does it mean to create heaven on earth?  Does this mean that the Christian faith and environmentalism have something in common with each other?  Could it be that the car you choose to drive says something about the quality of you faith?

Think about Jesus’ call for us to avoid judging.  Without judgmentalism it becomes difficult to preach hell, fire and brimstone.  If the church judges less and accepts more it may appear to be “too inclusive.”

If you want a simple faith – focus on Christmas and Easter.  However, if you are interested in being salt and light - the stuff in-between is pretty important.

Home for the Holidays

One of my favorite commercials is one that Folgers coffee shows every Christmas.  A brother arrives home after being gone for a long period.  He gives his sister a present and she takes the bow and places it on his chest and say’s, “you’re my Christmas present this year.”  I know, it’s kind of cheesy, but it expresses a vision for Christmas most of hold dear – that this is a time for family to be together. I and my wife and two boys, have spent most of the last 23 years separated from immediate family by 1,000 miles and an international border.  Church work does not lend itself to going home for Christmas.  Going home is not always an option.  As a result it is not always easy to watch other families gather and celebrate Christmas.

Last week at our church’s Christmas party the pastor asked everyone to share a personal Charlie Brown Christmas story.  The sharing moved from funny to emotional.  Before long tears were starting to emerge.  Near the end of this sharing the host, an elder, made the following statement, “when we build this house we built it so our family would have a place to come and gather, lately I have come to realize that you are my family.”

He was including my family.  We were an important part of his understanding of family.

Isn’t this what Christmas is about?  God come to earth as a human, to invite us, all of humanity, to be part of a new family, the family of God.  This is why the Christmas story is such good news to the widow, the orphan, and the homeless. 

In the Christmas story we find a God who is in the business of turning strangers, foreigners and even enemies into family.  This is very good news!