Thursday, December 21, 2006

What's All the Fuss about Christmas?

It’s that time of year again. The stores and shopping malls are packed with people. The calendar is filling up with activities for each member of the family. The list of things to do is longer than the amount of time in which to do them. With all of the hustle and bustle, sometimes we just want to ask, “Why all this fuss about Christmas?”

According to the children’s song, “Away in a Manger,” Jesus himself—the reason for the season—didn’t even make a fuss. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” goes the little song. Truly this was a strange sight…a baby that didn’t cry! Many a parent probably wishes that they had given birth to this special child! What’s so special about Jesus?

The Gospel of Luke gives us the most information about the birth of this special child and tells us what the fuss is all about. In Luke 1:31-32, the angel Gabriel says this to Mary: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” This woman—well, really a girl—was going to give birth to the Son of the Most High! The heart of God’s own son would beat inside the body of a human. The foot of the Savior would kick against the belly of Mary (I wonder if she and Joseph made jokes about Jesus being a great soccer player?). Jesus was God in the flesh.

While Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus, perhaps the Gospel of John gives the best birth narrative in 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Word. Who exactly is “the Word”? John 1:1 explains who “the Word” is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So the Word is God. And the Word became flesh…through Jesus. That same baby who kicked against his mother’s belly. That same little boy who tarried in the Temple and got lost from his parents (Luke 2:41-49). That same child “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humanity” (Luke 2:52). This boy…was God.

Now that is something to make a fuss about! God inhabited humanity! He “became flesh.” And he did it through a simple girl named Mary. He was born and laid in a manger—a feeding trough for animals. What kind of God allows his one and only Son to be born in a stable among the animals? What kind of God chooses to subject himself to all of the trials and tribulations of life here on earth? The kind of God that becomes incarnate (in the flesh) is the kind of God that does not want to remain distant. He is the kind of God that shows us that he will be alongside us in our suffering because he himself experienced life on earth. God is like the coach who gets out and runs lines with his players because he doesn’t want to ask them to do something that he wouldn’t do himself.

While there is often great theology in hymns, I am going to disagree with the theology in “Away in a Manger.” Knowing that Jesus became flesh, I daresay that he did cry. He did need his mother to change his dirty diaper. And he did bleed when he skinned his knee. But that does not make him less God. In fact, it makes him more God. He did not have special circumstances that removed him from humanity, but rather, he lived out his divinity in human form. This is certainly something to make a fuss about.

This season that celebrates Christ’s birth that night long ago reminds us of the remarkable anomaly of God in flesh. Though frustration with all of the bustle with the holiday may cause us to throw up our hands and ask what the fuss is all about when it comes to Christmas, we truly have reason to celebrate when God became man.

Friday, December 08, 2006

You Can Say That Again!

I just spent the greater part of this week, “Deep in the heart of Texas!” (sorry, can’t avoid occasionally breaking out into song). I, along with about 130 other folks who are involved in campus ministry in the United Methodist Church attended the Refresh ’06 conference that was held at The Woodlands United Methodist Church. It truly was a refreshing event in so many ways! I was blessed to see some wonderful friends from Seminary, hear some top notch speakers, and connect with some other people who are serving Christ and the Church (yes, both the UMC and the body of Christ). Clearly, with a name like “Refresh,” one of the primary purposes of the conference was to rejuvenate, recharge, and regenerate. I can definitely say that while I got an average of 5.5 hours of sleep for the last 3 nights, I come back feeling refreshed of spirit and of mind. Clearly when one goes away for a conference, one is expected to return with new ideas. Oh, sure I have some new thoughts that I’ve never thought before, but more importantly, I’ve got some “old” thoughts that have risen to the surface again. Here are some of the most important things of which I’ve been reminded:

1.) When pouring out, it is imperative to continue to find opportunities to be refilled. Even a very small child knows the truth of this, but somewhere between preparing to teach several Bible Studies and mentoring students, I’ve neglected my own studies of the Bible and my desire to be mentored myself. This week I was able to be turn to scripture once again, not being expected to share it with another. Also, I was able to be face to face with my two most significant professors and my former boss, three people who have mentored me, befriended me, and shaped the way that I view the ministry to which God has called me.

2.) I really love to learn! While I’m continually putting myself in a position to learn something new, I was reminded that I love formal learning! The speakers were challenging, the conferees were encouraging and the workshops were informative. I love to be in a position when I can learn something new!

3.) God knows the deepest needs of our hearts and hears our prayers. I have been praying about something specific for the last year and a half and I had someone approach me to pray about that very thing. God very tenderly reminded me that He hears my prayers…a simple truth, but one that seems to be forgotten in the busyness of fulltime ministry.

It is at times like these that I can catch a (small in the whole scheme of things) glimpse of the work that God is doing around the world (and in the UMC) and I am grateful. I can see the work that God is doing in the ministries of my co-laborers in Christ, whether they are in Wesley Foundations, local churches, or church-related colleges. Through God’s Spirit, each one of us is doing our little part to build the Kingdom of God. Again, a simple truth, but one that is worth repeating.

Friday, December 01, 2006

You Can't Plan for a Snow Day!

How many times do you feel like you have a plan for something and then, “BAM,” something happens and your plan is thwarted? I’m sure it will come as no surprise to those of you that know me, I am a planner! You’ll rarely see me without my navy blue leather-esque DayMinder and I’m quick to say, “Let me check my calendar” when someone is asking for a meeting. I, and a few others out there, go by the adage, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.” However, my plans can sometimes get messed up when someone doesn’t show up for a meeting, when I get stuck somewhere longer than I think it will take, or when the sky dumps 10-12” of snow in the matter of a few hours! Conversely, some of you are saying, “That’s exactly why I don’t make plans! You just gotta go with the flow.” Your adage is, “Don’t worry…it’ll all work out!”

Well, when it comes to planning, we’ve got to hold the two opposing ideas in tension. Those of us who are planners have to learn to relax and rest in the assurance that if our plans get messed up, we are going to have to make a Plan B (which we can learn how to do by watching those who aren’t planners). Those who are, shall I say, more spontaneous, have to learn to work with us planners, which may mean that they need to start that project more than a few days before it is due (which you can learn to do by watching us planners). Holding these two in tension can be seen through this familiar proverb: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord determines the steps.” (Proverbs 16:9) We as humans make our plans, but ultimately it is God who enables our plans to come to fruition…or not. While we may think we’re doing the bulk of the work in making our plans, it is only by God’s grace that we are able to do what we’re doing. And as Christians, whatever we do is for God’s glory anyway.

We had a recent snow storm was an example of what I’m talking about. A group of my students began months ago planning the way for Ground Zero, a “Freedom in Worship” night that would be held on campus. They prayed, they practiced, they planned, they made a Facebook event and they even fasted. And 12 hours before the worship event would happen, the sky opened up and started blowing down snow. Now a little snow is awesome…slide down the hill that Southwestern is famous for and show all those students from Texas some fun like they’ve never had before! Even getting out of class is a fun little treat. But they were planning an event for nearly a hundred people and it was awfully cold and slippery! And I hate to bring up the fact that many of them had been praying and fasting and dreaming of this worship experience for months. Didn’t God plant these prayers and dreams in their hearts? Sure he did, so why did their plans get thwarted? Though it is frustrating when our plans seem to fall through, we must learn that though we spend our time planning, ultimately God is the one who opens doors and closes them, and it’s all for his glory anyway. Despite the seriously inclement weather, nearly 80 people ventured out to worship together! Were there some that did not attend, probably, but was God, our most honored guest in attendance? Absolutely! We made plans in our hearts, which did not include 12 inches of snow, but God determined our steps. It cost people something to leave their warm dorm rooms or apartments. But what we gained was worth far more than anything that it could have cost us. We had an awesome time of worship together and we saw what happens when God’s faithful people come together.

That snowstorm gave us all a time to stop, not because we wanted to, but because we had to…we had no other choice. I even went home early and set out to work from home for the afternoon. Some students probably went sledding, others had a major snowball fight, and maybe a precious few actually worked on homework since Finals is just around the corner! But regardless, we all slowed down, we ate whatever food we had on hand, and we did what we needed to do. I must admit, despite my frustration early in the afternoon that I couldn’t get everything done that I had planned to do, I went home, worked a little, fixed a pot of chili for myself for dinner, shoveled some snow, and enjoyed the interruption. No, I didn’t make the phone calls that I had planned to make and I didn’t get to be as productive as I had wanted to be, but ultimately I thanked God for the beautiful stillness of a (thick) blanket of snow and the silence of my little home. I enjoyed shoveling the snow from my driveway since it meant that I didn’t have to go work out and I prayed for those that felt the loneliness of being stuck at home. No, I didn’t plan to spend the afternoon at home, but God determined my steps that day, and my steps ended in snowy footprints that forced me to stop. I was forced to lay down my plans and submit to God’s plans, and if that isn’t glorifying to God, I don’t know what is.