Month: November 2011

Advent: Embracing Expectation

Advent has begun.  Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which simply means coming.  This is the season in which we quiet our hearts to ready ourselves for the celebration of the coming of God to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Christian idea is founded upon this reality, that God wrote himself into the human story and changed it forever.  This is quite possibly the most profoundly beautiful season of the year because it is the holding of breath before the jubilant exhale of Christmas morning, when we all together proclaim, IMMANUEL, God is truly with us!

But there’s more to Advent than a simple lead in to the Nativity scene.  Truth be told, Advent isn’t about waiting in expectation for the birth of Christ because the birth of Christ has already taken place.  So what we’re waiting on is something else entirely.  We are waiting for the culmination of restoration and renewal, for the new heaven and the new earth (2 Peter 3.13, Revelation 21.1).  We live here and now, in between the birth of Christ and the return of Christ.  Our place in the story is unique.  He has come and he is coming again.  For now we wait in eager expectation (Romans 8.19).

Advent is the quiet reminder that eternity has come and is still yet to come.

Advent is the beautiful whisper of God, telling us that all will be well.

Advent is the stillness and silence of heaven permeating the chaos and clutter of our lives.

Advent is God’s invitation to participate in the renewal of all things.

Advent is an open door to embrace the highest of expectations.

So this Advent season, let your expectations run wild.  Not in the “if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish it”, Tony Robbins, self-empowerment sort of way.  Rather, let your expectations run wild in the knowledge and truth that God is good, he has come, he is coming again, and all will indeed be made right.  He has shown us a glimpse and we live in eager expectation of when the reality of God’s kingdom is the reality of all the earth.

Giving thanks

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it will be enough. - Meister Eckhart

It’s important for us to remember today that the etymology of the word Thanksgiving points us to the act of giving thanks.  Tradition tells us that in October of 1621 the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims and the Massasoit Native Americans came together to celebrate and give thanks for a good harvest that year.  But they did not give thanks only to one another.  At the center of their celebration was the understanding that there was a divine reality to whom they ought to give thanks.  If you’ve ever done any sort of significant research into the theology of the early Pilgrims or Native Americans, you probably have reservations about their respective views of the divine.  If you’ve ever looked into the theology of Meister Eckhart, you probably have reservations about his theology as well.  But all of that is beside the point.

What matters most, especially today, is that we celebrate our ability and responsibility to give thanks.  The reality is that thanks is ours to give.  In giving thanks, we release the gratitude inside of us.  Whether you know it or not, even in those moments when we feel most bitter and angry and ungrateful, there is still gratitude in our hearts.  It resides in that deeply innate part of our souls.  It’s that place we went often as children, when the seemingly small things of life seemed infinitely large and even the most insignificant pleasure was a miraculous gift.  When we tap into this part of ourselves and release this inner gratitude by giving thanks, it is as though our gratitude fills the atmosphere, covering the skies like stars, inspiring and humbling us, leaving us awed and in wonder.  But when this gratitude sits dormant inside of us, it quickly atrophies into a form of decaying cynicism, making us bitter and apathetic.  Without releasing this gratitude in our hearts, it will be impossible for us to enjoy anything of life.   So give thanks.  Give thanks to God.  Life is a gift and your every breath is as miraculous as your first.

God out of the machine

This summer I fell in love with the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I took a class at Fuller on his life and theology and by the end, I felt like a man completely undone.  The richness of what he left behind in his written works is a treasure for the church and the world.  I’d encourage anyone and everyone to take some time to give him a read.  In a publication of letters Bonhoeffer wrote during his finals days in prison, we find this provocative thought in a letter he wrote to his good friend Eberhard Bethge on April 30, 1944:

Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail – in fact it is always the deus ex machina* that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure – always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina

*Deus ex machina is a Latin phrase meaning God out of the machine.  The phrase finds its roots in ancient Greek theater.  Playwrights would write their plays with elaborate stories and often, the protagonist would find himself at an end, stuck between a rock and a hard place, his demise imminent on all sides, with no logical way out of the situation.  Into these dire circumstances, lazy and uncreative playwrights would often implement the narrative device which came to be known as deus ex machina, God out of the machine.  A deity character would swoop in to the rescue.  Usually, an actor would be lowered from a small platform built above the stage and miraculously rescue the hero from his impossible situation.  This is God out of the machine.  When reason and the laws of human existence won’t allow for a way out, simply plow through logic with a deity because that’s what gods do right?  They come to the rescue when we can’t rescue ourselves?  Bonhoeffer uses this idea to point toward what he perceived to be a major failing in the Christian church.  He believed that the church had long offered a God out of the machine, a God who enters our stories as a last resort.  But the problem with seeing God this way is that he exits as swiftly and suddenly as he enters.  He ceases to be needed or desired when life is not impossible and we can manage on our own.  As Bonhoeffer writes, God out of the machine becomes superfluous… excessive, overkill, ridiculous… during all the mundane and ordinary moments of life, which occur far more regularly than the hanging-off-a-cliff-clinging-to-a-branch moments.

But this version of God is significantly lacking.  Our God is not a thrill-seeking, egomaniacal, adrenaline junkie who only wants to show up to save the day, is he?  No.  Our God is peace.  Our God is joy.  Our God is intimate and ever-present.  Our God is Immanuel, with us, in the flesh, body, and blood of Jesus the Nazarene.  Our God is Spirit, in us, filling our bodies, making us temples.  His desire is not to exploit our weaknesses or our boundaries, as Bonhoeffer puts it.  God does not take delight in reminding us that we are helpless, frail, broken, or vulnerable.  He did not create us to torment us with constant reminders that we are less or worthless or desperate.  Our God created us in his image.  He created us to love us and to be loved by us.  He created us for ongoing relationship, as sons and daughters.  Bonhoeffer continues his letter to Bethge this way:

I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness… The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. 

So today, remember that God cares very little about just fixing your problems or solving the riddles of your life.  He is not interested in swiftly and suddenly rushing in and out of your life to show off his sovereignty and remind you of your need.  In the heart of God, fixing your problems and solving your riddles always take a backseat to redeeming your whole life and restoring your soul to its fullest.  His desire is to walk alongside you, for the long haul, reminding you that you are created in his image, beloved and cherished and desired.  So quit wanting God to give you a good life and begin desiring God to be your life.