Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"God is in the Manger," from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Many of you are familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous books, The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. But while he was in prison prior do his execution in 1945, he wrote many papers and letters on various theological topics, including the incarnation and birth of Christ. In 2010, some of these writings were compiled into an Advent devotional, entitled, God is in the Manger. When I read Eric Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer a few years ago, I was reintroduced to the deep and practical faith Bonhoeffer shared through his life and works. I am continually grateful for his perspective on the sovereignty of God in the midst of human tyranny and fear. Here are a few quotes from God is in the Manger. I apologize that I don’t have the exact references for each segment, but as you read them, you can imagine Bonhoeffer, paralleling a modern-day Paul the Apostle, encouraging his cohorts from the confines of a prison cell. May his words wash over us, and sink deep, as they bring to mind images of our own time’s tyranny and fear.

“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof. Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.” 

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In the Manger, p. 22

“...And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”  
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In the Manger, p. 5

“Look up, you whose gaze is fixed on this earth, who are spellbound by the little events and changes on the face of the earth. Look up to these words, you who have turned away from heaven disappointed. Look up, you whose eyes are heavy with tears and who are heavy and who are crying over the fact that the earth has gracelessly torn us away. Look up, you who, burdened with guilt, cannot lift your eyes. Look up, your redemption is drawing near. Something different from what you see daily will happen. Just be aware, be watchful, wait just another short moment. Wait and something quite new will break over you: God will come.” 
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In the Manger, p. 40

Glory Be to God on High

This is a lesser-known Advent hymn from the great hymn-writer, Charles Wesley. The title and first line are a paraphrase of "Gloria in Excelsis" found of the Book of Common Prayer. 

Glory Be to God on High 
by Charles Wesley

Glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend:
God comes down, He bows the sky,
And shows himself our friend!
God, the invisible, appears,
God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name.

Him, the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humbled Lord,
They now to mortals bring;
Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is born!

See the eternal son of God
A mortal son of man,
Dwelling in an earthly form,
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!…
See the Lord of earth and skies!
Humbled to the dust He is,
And in a manger lies!

We, with heaven’s host rejoice,
The Prince of peace proclaim,
With heaven’s host lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel’s name:
Knees and hearts to Him we bow,
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own!


Monday, November 28, 2016

This is Their Story, This is Our Story

This is a weird start to the Advent season. It is not yet December. There are still colorful leaves on the trees. And it is raining outside. The commercial powers-that-be sure got the memo, however. A minute and a half after Halloween ended, twinkle lights, bows, wreaths, and stripes of green and red appeared in every store front window.

Yet, as with many seasons in our lives, this unease is reflected from the stories of God’s people throughout Scripture. A few thousand years ago, these same people sat together and wondered at the prophets’ declarations that Hope was coming. Things seemed too bleak to believe that their distress could ever turn to rejoicing. I’m sure Isaiah (mighty prophet, though he was) was discouraged as well, yet he continued to proclaim the Word he heard from the Lord. How amazing and ironic that we read these words today and experience the same messy mixture of expectation and fear:
1But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.

You have multiplied the nation;

    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

For the yoke of his burden,

    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult

    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,

    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Other times and places have been able to better understand the plight of the Israelites’ exile in Babylon or oppression under the heavy hand of the Romans. With our warm homes, secure jobs, religious freedom, and democratic liberties, it’s easy to forget that much of the world’s sufferings parallel the hardships during the time of the prophets. In times of crisis, calamity, and political unrest, the veil has a tendency to droop, and we are able to imagine what life might be like if things were a little bit worse.

Advent is a time when we can climb into the pain with those who are hurting; kneel beside those who are weeping; scream at the injustice of it all; question God’s timing . . . and then stand up, re-read the message of the prophets, and look upward with expectation. We can trace Christ’s lineage from its humble, broken, weary beginnings, and see the residue of God’s faithful plan in each life He touched. The best part, is that He holds our lives as dearly as He held Jacob’s, and Ruth’s, and David’s, and Hezekiah’s. Their story is our story this Advent. We have all walked in deep darkness, but on us, a great Light shines. He is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Welcome to Advent

Dear friends (and those who may have stumbled upon this blog),    
If you've joined me the last few years, you are probably familiar with Advent. But for any new readers, this will serve as an introduction:  In latin the word "adventus" means "coming." Within the context of western Christianity, Advent is the season of four weeks leading up to Christmas--the celebration of Christ's birth. It is a time of joyful expectation and preparation. The four weeks are marked by the four Sundays, on which the candles of the Advent wreath are lit. 

The first candle is traditionally the candle of Hope. The remaining three candles of Advent may be associated with different aspects of the Advent story in different churches, or even in different years. Usually they are organized around characters or themes as a way to unfold the story and direct attention to the celebrations and worship in the season. So, the sequence for the remaining three Sundays might be Bethlehem, Shepherds, Angels. Or Peace, Joy, and Love; John the Baptist, Mary, the Magi; the Annunciation, Proclamation, Fulfillment.

Each year I try to do something a little different. This year, I want to focus the four weeks of Advent on the themes of the Prophets, Bethlehem, the Shepherds, and the Angels. This decision came after discovering the works of Lilias Trotter, an artist and missionary to Algeria at the end of the 19th Century, as well as a blog devoted to reflections on Trotter’s art and writings. Having experienced life among people and places very similar to those at the time of Jesus’ birth, her perspective is a great starting point for remembering the factual, and acknowledging the symbolic as we reflect on Christ’ lineage of expectation.