Living in the Desert

We’re in the latter stages of the season of Lent, which is a season inviting us to reflect on Jesus’ time of being tempted in the desert by Satan.  His temptation season parallels both the time Israel spent between Egypt and Canaan, and our lives lived between being set free from slavery to sin and entering into the fully realized Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ victory over temptation is the event of the three which informs the other two: we see how Israel was meant to live, in faithful dependence on God, and how we are set free to live because Jesus is Messiah.

I’m thinking about all of this tonight because we are listening to Jeremiah 31:31-34 tomorrow morning (actually, now, this morning) in worship – a passage in which the Lord gives Jeremiah a word of hope to Israel about how they will live in yet another desert phase – the dry phase after exile from the promised land because of their failure to be faithful.  The other side of that desert is the coming of the Messiah, but they were little able to see that at the point Jeremiah comes speaking to them.  As we, too, can often barely begin to imagine what it is like to live free from the brokenness that besets our world.

But one day, that freedom will come.  Even in Lent, we rejoice on Sundays.

The Wonder of Weather

For the last week, the Chicago area has had an unbelieveable streak of warm weather.  How unprecedented it truly is has been hitting me slowly over the last few days, as I have heard facts like:

  • 7 of 8 days in this stretch have set records for high temperature; if the 8th day had set the record, too, that would have been the longest stretch of consecutive days with a record high temperature in Chicago.
  • Today, Chicago was warmer than Havana, Cuba and Cabo san Lucas, Mexico and Cancun.
  • The low temperatures during the last week have been 10-15 degrees higher than the average high temperature for these dates.

As these bizarre days of warmth have piled up, I have realized that I can’t take the weather for granted.  I can’t fall back on any of the tired cliches about what March weather in Chicago is like.  Every one of those cliches is a statement of boredom at the variety of weather, and God’s provision within it.  Well, for me, I think that’s the case.  You might be different.  But a week of totally un-likely, unbelievable weather has caused me to actually pay attention to the mundane again.  Praise God.

Life Together

This was a communion Sunday in our congregation.  We have traditionally taken communion sitting in the pews, passing the elements out to the people on trays.  Now, for a variety of reasons, we are frequently using the practice of intinction to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  Today was one of those intinction Sundays, and so the members of the congregation came to the front of the sanctuary to receive the bread and dip it into the cup, which I was holding.

Many of our people have told me that they value this manner of celebration because they feel more personally connected to the sacrament, and I have felt that I understood this perspective.  This morning, though, I had a more vivid experience than I have previously had when administering the sacrament.  Today, as each person came forward to dip the bread into the cup, I was particularly aware of those ways that I have been privileged to be a fellow traveler with them as their pastor: sitting in a hospital room as a spouse returned from surgery; talking in their home or my office during a special season of trial they had faced; lunches spent discussing the gifts they were recognizing in their lives, and how they might use them; joining together in an exhilarating moment of shared ministry.  In each of these recollections, I was reminded of the presence of Christ Jesus with us, joining us together in those moments, making us one with Him and with one another.

I will only add that it was a sweet sensation to be caught by surprise, to be given a view of another layer of the way Jesus is at work in and among us.  It was a gift.  Thanks be to God.

Shepherds and Angels

Today is the third day of Christmas.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
(Luke 2:8-9 ESV)

I am a small-church kind of guy; not that I am against large churches, but rather that small expressions of Christian community are especially compelling to me: personal-sized groups of Christians strengthening each other, building each other up, sharing life together.  So, the verses above are the sort that catch my attention.  God comes to the world in a humble way, born human to a modest family, announced to a group of insignificant shepherds – all of it God breaking into the world in a small way.  That’s what I tend to notice most.

But then, I was reminded this morning of what comes next:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14 ESV)

God breaks into the world in a small way, but also comes with a multitude of angels, a heavenly army singing his praises.  A large number, a massive chorus of praise.

God comes in a small way and in a large way at the same time.  Small expressions of praise and faith and joy, and massive ones, side by side.  It occurs to me that this is another way of seeing God’s immanence and transcendence: God is personally present with his people, and more vast than the entire physical world.  God is both small and big, a baby in a manger and a King who holds everything in his hand.  And our praise of him is appropriately expressed in ways small and personal and humble, and in ways as big and vast and grand as we can possibly muster.

How Great is Our God?

How great is our God, sing with me
How great is our God, and all will see
How great, how great is our God 

from “How Great is Our God” by Chris Tomlin

As I listened to a grade-school aged girl with special needs sing those words tonight, I realized that they are perfectly true.

God is great.  His greatness is not seen in our greatness, or goodness, or adequacy.  His greatness is seen in that he loves us and makes us part of his family even though we are not great, or even particularly good, or adequate for much of what would seem to be the stuff of being in God’s family.  This is true of even the most impressive and important of human specimens.  Which means God’s expansive love is also the best possible hope for those of us who are clearly not the archetype; and, the farther away from the “perfect person” that God is still willing to reach to invite people into his family, then the more amazing is his grace.

So, as I was listening to this girl who is just a little bit off in the eyes of the world, I realized that her singing, and my singing, and our singing together (and understand that this gathering of disabled persons got a little bit chaotic, perhaps especially in our praise) in fact shows the world how great our God is: he’s so great, he accepts us.

And may the world look at me, and at my sons, and at countless others who aren’t easy to see, and may they see that God loves us, and that we love him, because he has shown us who he is, and promised never to leave us or forsake us, and we are living lives of endurance and victory even in our brokenness.  Because our God is great.

And if your God doesn’t quite have enough extra energy for the physically, mentally and emotionally broken, how great is he, anyway?  And how can you be sure that he’ll still be willing to be “your God” if everything falls apart?

The reality is that the greatness of God, in the human realm, is most evident and undeniable when the least of these are part of the party – whether they are the homeless, the poor, the smelly, the noisy, the unable to control their bladders and bowels, the crazy, or any other unpleasant label you might be able to slap on them.  And if your worship party, your congregational life, doesn’t have enough room for the lowest and the losers, how do you know your invitation to the party is permanent?