Nativity Poem

Do not be afraid

the angel said

in such commanding tone

that we almost believed

he could put to flight

our fears with a Word.

And all we like sheep

each one scattering

in his own direction

with the sheep themselves

skipping and bleating

like waves dancing

on the water.

We were sore afraid

but not so afraid

that we could not leave

those few sheep

in the desert

and hurry off.

What do you think

we found when

we got to Bethlehem?

Nothing but a child

wrapped in rags

and lying in a manger.

And His shy mother

so patient with

our blushing and fumbling

until she was distracted

by the child’s cry.

Preaching in a Crisis

One of my former students recently asked me how I thought the COVID-19 crisis was affecting pastoral ministry and preaching in particular. How do you preach in an environment like this? The simple answer is that you do the best you can, given the circumstances. Preaching is challenging enough under ordinary conditions. The nature of the current crisis has completely upended our normal patterns of meeting and communicating. Preachers are speaking to empty seats and recording their messages for broadcast over social media. As one popular meme observes, we are all televangelists now.

The answer to my student’s question involves more than the medium, though much could be said about that as well. The medium of delivery matters, but the content of the message is always primary. Whether we preach live or by means of a video, we are still saying something. What should we say? The Sunday school answer to this question, of course, is that we should preach the gospel. There is a sense in which preachers only have one message to deliver. Our determination, like the apostle Paul’s, is to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Yet as true as this may be, to put it this way in answer to this particular question seems like and oversimplification. It is not.

Preaching More than the Facts

The gospel offers hope for the present life as well as for the future. It is about living as much as it is about dying. Living the Christian life is more than a matter of willpower and information. The Christian life is Spirit-driven and grace enabled. It is a life that is lived not only in response to the gospel but through the power of the gospel. Paul’s letters are proof that the saints do not need to hear a different gospel after they have believed than the one that was preached to them prior to faith. The apostle was just as eager to preach the gospel to the saints at Rome as he was to proclaim it those who had never heard Christ named (cf. Romans 1:15 with 15:20). While the saints do not need a different gospel, they do need a gospel which is explicated in terms of their experience.

This means that preaching the gospel to the saints during this season of COVID-19 demands that we do more than state the facts of the gospel. What is especially needed is gospel preaching that demonstrates priestly sensitivity. In the Old Testament priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Leviticus 10:11). The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Hebrews 5:1). Preachers, like the priests of the Old Testament, do not stand apart from those who hear them. The default disposition of every sermon is one of sympathy. Priestly sympathy is not pandering but a compassionate ministry that is born of shared experience. Priestly advocacy should not be confused with trite slogans, pat answers, or simplistic explanations. Unfortunately, our culture’s bent toward pragmatism makes us especially vulnerable in this area. We are too eager to come to God’s defense–too quick to fill in the silences God leaves behind and attempt to explain what he himself has not explained.

Similarly, it can be tempting for preachers to use a crisis like this to leverage their favorite rebuke. If the posts I see from pastors on social media are an indication of what we are saying in our sermons, not a few of us have seized the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to teach the church a lesson about our favorite cultural or congregational irritation. We are saying that this crisis has come upon us because of abortion or that it is God’s judgment because of homosexuality. Some suggest that God sent it to show us that we are spoiled or that He allowed the churches to be shut down because we took worship for granted. Some are saying that God has forced us out of the building so that the church could be the church. The intent of these assertions, I think, is to be prophetic. Unfortunately, such varied explanations merely gives the impression that God cannot make up His mind about why He is angry with us. He is just mad. I am not saying that God would never deal out judgment on a national or even global scale. The Scriptures show that He has done so in the past and will do so again. What troubles me is the underlying note of smugness that seems to attend so many of these kinds of statements. Perhaps before we try to call down woes upon the nation like the prophet Jeremiah, we ought to learn how to weep like him first.

Some of this comes from the pressure we feel to exonerate God. Like many others, I have had more than one person ask me what I thought God was up to by allowing such a devastating pandemic to occur. In our effort to provide an answer, we may overreach. We can make the mistake of thinking that since we speak for God, we may also speak as God. Like Moses at the rock, we speak rashly or out of spite (Numbers 20:10). We jump to conclusions about God’s intent. We make statements about God’s motives and reasoning that sound like certainties but are really only speculations. It is not wrong to address the questions that people ask. One of the preacher’s most important responsibilities is that of leading the congregation in the collective practice of theological reflection about the questions and challenges which are peculiar to their context. But they must do this with what I describe as priestly advocacy.

The key to priestly advocacy is identification (Hebrews 2:17). This means that the preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. Because we stand in the place of our listeners, we ask the questions they would ask. Some of these questions are obvious. Many are mundane. If we are to be true advocates for them, we must also ask the questions our listeners would like to ask but dare not. We can give voice to the questions that plague our listeners, but we cannot always answer them. Our priestly role demands that we speak the truth, and the truth is: God does not always explain himself. Part of the priestly responsibility of preaching is to give voice to the congregation’s unspoken questions and then listen with them to the awkward silence that sometimes ensues once the words have been spoken. It is not our job to answer all the congregation’s questions. When we try to say what God has not said, we inevitably replace God’s judgment with our own.

What We Can Say

What, then, can we say? We can affirm the congregation’s questions and fears. To admit that we don’t know what God is doing is not the same as saying that God is doing nothing. To acknowledge fear, grief, or uncertainty can itself be a great relief in times like these. Of course, it is crucial that we not stop here. More needs to be said. We do not want to only point at the problem. But if preaching aims to facilitate an encounter with God,  a precondition must be that we face God as we truly are, with all our doubts, fears, and questions in plain sight.

If our aim in preaching really is to help our listeners meet God through His word, then the second thing we can do in the sermon is to speak of God. More particularly, we can speak of God as He has revealed Himself to us through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. This may sound too simple, so let me make clear what I do not mean. I am not talking about hawking God as a product by selling the audience an airbrushed version of the Christian life. Such sermons try to resolve every serious problem within a matter of minutes, much like the television dramas and commercials that so often provide contemporary pastors with their themes. This “airbrushed” portrayal of Christianity is not preaching at all but a form of sentimentalism that trivializes the gospel. Trivialized preaching is triumphalistic. Triumphalism is a perspective that grows out of our evangelical heritage of revivalism. The revival tradition of preaching emphasizes the transforming moment, when the listener’s life is forever changed. Certainly this is true of the gospel. We are forgiven in a moment. But the redemptive process takes much longer. Triumphalistic sermons give the impression that every problem can be solved in a matter of moments simply by leaving it at the altar. Undoubtedly there have been remarkable instances where this has been the case. Sinners plagued by long standing habits leave the sermon miraculously freed from bondage. Yet for many others–perhaps even most others–the experience is different. For them transformation is progressive rather than instantaneous. These believers do not skip along the pilgrim path but “toil along the winding way, with painful steps and slow.”

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. 

Preachers who do not acknowledge this resort instead to clichés and platitudes. Their sermon themes are flaccid and the remedies they offer mere placebos. Such sermons are unable to provide any real help to those who hear. How can they, when truism stands in the place of truth? In order to be true to our audience’s experience, preaching must reflect the reality of living in a post–Eden world in anticipation of a new heavens and earth that have not yet come to pass. Times like these, where not only our congregation but the entire globe must deal with the collateral damage that sin has wreaked upon us, are uniquely suited to such a task. Never has Paul’s statement that creation itself is in bondage to decay as a consequence of Adam’s sin been made more vivid (cf. Romans 8:21).

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. The root of our fear in this current crisis is the fear of sickness and death. Some would like to promise that Jesus will protect us from all such threats. But this is not the hope that the Bible offers us. The message of the gospel is not only the story that Jesus died and rose again. It is the good news that Jesus suffered death “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). The gospel does not assure us that we will be able to avoid the experience of physical death. It tells us that Christ will meet us on the other side. This promise is no small hope.

A Distanced Congregation is Still the Church

A third thing that we can say, especially at a time when our normal community life has been so disrupted, is to remind the church that they are still a church. Some Christians seem to feel a kind of glee over the fact that the church cannot meet together during this season of social distancing. “At last,” they seem to say, “the church can finally be the church.” I find this reasoning odd. The language that the Bible uses to speak of the church implies proximity. This aspect of the church’s nature is best expressed by the phrase Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:18, “when you come together as a church.” The fact that the church comes together is not a weakness. It is not an indulgence. The church is, by its nature, an assembly.

I find it ironic that while some Christians seem to be celebrating the fact that the church cannot meet, the rest of the world recognizes the need for a sense connection. Nearly every commercial I see on television that mentions the pandemic also says, “We are in this together.” They assure me that “We will get through this.” What surprises me the most is how moved I am by such assurances. Those who record their sermons while preaching to empty seats need to remind the congregation that the bond they share with one another in Jesus Christ has not been diminished by physical separation. They really are in this together. The church will survive, and one day we will come together again as a church. But even though we are now separated, we continue to be “members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic may be unusual but the experiences of fear and uncertainty are not. If you doubt this, just take note of how many times God tells His people not to be afraid in the Scriptures. Those who preach often speak to people in crisis. While not as massive as a pandemic, each individual crisis a listener faces under ordinary circumstances can be just as shattering. Pastors and teachers were not an invention of the church. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that they are Christ’s gift to God’s people. The church needs its preachers. What is true during this singular time of crisis will still be true when things return to normal. How should you preach during this season of the coronavirus? You should preach like someone whose hope is cast upon the word of God. Speak the truth with priestly sensitivity. Point your listeners to Jesus Christ. Do the best you can. You can do no more.  

If you want to learn more about preaching, check out John’s books Folly, Grace, & Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching and The Moody Handbook of Preaching. To see several short videos about preaching, click on the Tips for Preaching tab on John’s website.

Holy Week’s Trajectory of Hope

The seven days from Palm Sunday to Easter have a rhythm. It is one that moves from anticipation to fulfillment. The week begins with the crowd’s shout of acclamation for Jesus and culminates in His stunning victory over death on Easter morning. Between these two are the Last Supper (sometimes commemorated with foot washing on Maundy Thursday) and Christ’s suffering on Good Friday. These two events strike an entirely different note, providing a counterpoint to the upbeat mood of the two Sundays that bookend them. The difference in tone is often reflected in the church’s observance.

Yet even during those sober moments, there is still a trajectory of hope that mitigates what would otherwise be impossibly gloomy. This sense of direction enables believers to move through the awkwardness of Maundy Thursday and the gloom of Good Friday with a sense of expectation. We know how this story ends. That was also true for the original participants. Jesus told His disciples how it would all turn out. But their actions make it clear that they had either forgotten or had refused to believe what He had said. “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” Jesus would later say to them (Luke 24:25).

Our Interrupted Hope

In the Scriptures, the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday is a day of silence. The Bible does not really say where the disciples were or what they were doing on that day. When Jesus appeared to them on Sunday evening, He found them behind locked doors and afraid (John 20:19). This description resonates, especially now that the spread of COVID-19 has disrupted the church’s normal rhythm of Holy Week observances. We too are huddled together in our homes. For many fear ear grows along with the body count.

To call Jesus the Lamb of God was

to say He was under

a death sentence.

When we pass through a crisis like this, we often feel a burst of energy at the outset. Maybe its adrenaline or just shock, but it propels us through an impossible situation. That drive empowers us to act, sometimes in heroic ways. This initial burst of energy generates a kind of optimism. You can hear it in the way people talk. They say things like, “We’re going to beat this thing!” or “I’m a fighter.” Spiritually oriented people talk about God doing a miracle. But if the crisis wears on, something changes. Those first heady days of optimism may give way to weariness and lethargy. What was once disorienting starts to feel like a new normal. The days become marked by silent waiting. Because we are busy with the work of survival, we are no longer as vocal about our expectation of coming out of it. God, for His part, also seems to be silent. The hope that God would resolve everything in short order is set aside, at least for a time. We are no longer sure what God is doing or even how things will turn out. For the moment, the trajectory of hope that we felt we were on has been interrupted.

Upon closer inspection, however, the comparison I am trying to make here seems to break down and in a rather spectacular way. For one thing, the disciples’ time “in-between” lasted only a day or two. At the most, they were confined from Friday to Sunday. Then they understood that what had seemed like a tragedy to them was actually something else. I’m not saying that they understood everything completely. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). When He was done, they still had questions.

Peace, Prosperity, & Safety

Our expectation during the COVID-19 crisis is also somewhat different from theirs. For the disciples, the expectation was the hope that Jesus would redeem Israel and usher in the Kingdom of God. Our aspirations are more modest. We would like to return to our jobs, our churches, and our friends. We aren’t looking for utopia. We just want everything to go back to normal. Yet such workaday ambitions may not be that far from the initial hope of Jesus’ followers as we might think. Before Jesus’ death, their vision of the kingdom had a decidedly earthly flavor. We sense it in the lament of the two who spoke with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” they said (Luke 24:21). But what did that mean to them? Before Jesus’ death and resurrection,  their understanding of Israel’s redemption was primarily a vision of peace, prosperity, and national safety.

This Messianic vision was roughly equivalent to an ambition to “Make Israel Great Again,” a view of the world with Israel on top and all its enemies subdued. The law would go out from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Swords would be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Everyone would sit under their own vine, and no one would be afraid anymore (Micah 4:1–5). None of these expectations was outside the realm of what Jesus promised to do. The disciples’ mistake was an error of timing. During the forty days between Christ’s resurrection and ascension, they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” In His reply, Jesus never said that they were wrong to expect such a thing. Instead, He told them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).

Jesus’ disciples had also underestimated the scope of what Jesus came to do. They were right in thinking of Jesus as the redeemer of Israel. He was the Messiah. But from the very start of His ministry, Jesus gave indications that He had come to do more. John the Baptist captured the full extent when he called Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; 1:36). John’s declaration, which Jesus later affirmed, contained two surprises. One was the expansion of this kingdom promise from Israel to the whole world. The other was the means by which its victory was to be accomplished. Unlike all others, this kingdom would come not by the sword but by sacrifice.

The Lamb of God

One can only imagine how unsettling it must have been for John’s disciples to hear him describe Jesus in such terms. To us, the lamb metaphor has a certain charm. Lambs are tame creatures. They are soft and cuddly. We think of lambs as pets. But for John and his contemporaries, lambs were for food and sacrifice. John’s contemporaries bred lambs for slaughter. Their presence on the temple altar was a continual reminder of a plague far more deadly than the coronavirus. To say that Jesus was the Lamb of God was to say that He was under a death sentence. To call Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is to say that we too are under a death sentence and that He is the only remedy.

The last enemy to be destroyed

is death itself.

If there is a gift in the COVID-19 crisis, it is not in the heroic effort of nurses and doctors, as admirable as those are. Nor is it in those spontaneous acts of goodwill we see taking place between our neighbors. If there is a gift to be found in the current crisis, it is the stark gift of forcing us to face up to the collateral damage of the world’s greatest pandemic. Death always does this, though we are skilled at suppressing its message. Now it is as though the suffering of every nation on earth shouts the warning of Romans 5:12: “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”

The death of so many is a great tragedy. But perhaps it is not a mistake that such loss should also coincide with the week that many in the church commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The humility of Thursday, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and His suffering on Good Friday, are both in keeping with the redemptive trajectory of Christ’s final week. They are the pivot points that make the acclaim of Palm Sunday and Easter’s shout of victory meaningful. “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,” Hebrews 9:27–28 says, “so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

This is the gospel. It reminds us that, in these days, as the death toll continues to rise, the last enemy to be destroyed will be death itself (1 Cor. 15:26). It is a reminder that even though the normal rhythm of our Easter celebration has been interrupted, the trajectory of hope still holds. God’s message to us has not changed since that first morning when the disciples rushed back from the empty tomb to declare, “Christ has risen!” To which, we can only reply, “He has risen indeed!”

Love and Fear in the Year of the Plague

A  popular meme I often see asserts that times of crisis reveal one’s true character. Posts like this are supposed to appeal to the better angels of our nature. Unfortunately, they have the opposite effect on me. It is not my better self that answers but the irritated version. Perhaps it’s the fault of the medium. Computer nerds invented social media as a forum for talking about girls, and it soon evolved into a helpful tool for posting photos of whatever you happen to be eating or drinking. In time social media acquired a personality. That personality proved to be much like some people’s mother-in-law. It developed the capacity to offer unsolicited advice in a moral tone that falls somewhere within a narrow band that ranges from gentle condescension to outright contempt. In other words, social media learned how to nag.

If it’s true that crisis reveals a person’s true character, it also seems to bring to light aspects of one’s personality. Like birth order, the interaction between social media and the global pandemic seems to separate people into distinct personality types. Here are a few that I’ve noticed since the COVID-19 crisis began:

Skeptics

Early on some questioned the seriousness of the threat. These were often conspiracy buffs, who viewed reports of the exponential danger posed by the corona virus as a smokescreen. They claimed that the crisis was manufactured. They said it was a ploy by the Democrats or the Republicans or the Russians or the Chinese or maybe even the Templars in their quest for world domination. I confess that I leaned toward this view, until the spread of the virus became too large to ignore.

Spiritual Directors

Others take a more spiritual approach. A lot of the posts that I read about the pandemic offer spiritual advice. They want me to view my confinement at home as a kind of monk’s cell. I get the feeling from these posts that I am supposed to view this whole disaster as a spiritual retreat. “It’s not a plague; it’s a blessing,” they seem to say. I’ve tried to write a few of these posts myself but find it hard to maintain the proper balance.  To be successful they require just the right mixture of cloying optimism mixed with spiritual condescension. When I can’t stand to read what I’ve written, I conclude that I have either failed miserably or hit the nail on the head.

Comedians

A lot of us are telling jokes and posting funny memes. I get it. When I am nervous, I gravitate toward humor. It can be a great relief. But it also leads me to make inappropriate comments at awkward moments. I wanted to be funny too, but all my jokes sound lame to me. Perhaps it is because there is a dark edge to most humor, and the ordinary news seems dark enough already. Besides, one can only listen to so many toilet paper jokes before they become tiresome.

Road Warriors

A few try to ignore the whole affair. They post what they have always posted, gracing the internet with their snapshots or railing against the same old causes. Of course, with the so many restaurants shut down, there are fewer pictures of hamburgers, which I suppose is a kind of blessing. But these have been replaced by photos of all the cute things that our children have been doing during the incarceration. To be fair, their parents probably would have posted those pictures anyway, whether there was a pandemic or not. I know I should be charmed by them, but their example of perfect parenting gets on my nerves and leaves me feeling like a failure. When it comes to road warriors, I can’t decide if their decision to act as if the virus doesn’t exist is brave or just a case of denial. I tried acting like there was no pandemic but couldn’t resist the urge to log into my retirement account to see how far it had fallen.

Disease as Dis-Ease

By now, you have probably figured out what took me longer to conclude. The problem really isn’t with the people who post such things. As an old girlfriend once said, “It’s not you; it’s me.” I am just nervous and sad. This is what often happens to people during a health crisis. There is a reason illness is called a disease. “Health, as we may remember from at least some of the days of our youth, is at once wholeness and a kind of unconsciousness,” Wendell Berry observes. “Disease (dis-ease), on the contrary, makes us conscious not only of the state of our health but of the division of our bodies and our world into parts.”

As Berry notes, there is more to disease than a disturbance of the body. It also disrupts our sense of community. Any family that has had to face a major illness knows that this is true. One member may be sick, but it is the whole family that is in upheaval. In our current crisis, the effect is exponential, like the spread of the virus itself. Not only is the nation on edge but the whole world. It doesn’t help matters that preventive measures require that we isolate.  Despite all the jokes about the COVID-19 quarantine being an introvert’s paradise, one of the ordinary conditions of health is the unconscious comfort that comes from participation in community life. The loss of that sense of community is more than an inconvenience, it is a grief.

Disease is more than a disturbance of the body. It also disrupts our sense of community.

What is more, it doesn’t take a government-enforced quarantine to divide our social world into parts. Separation and isolation are often part of the collateral damage that attends any sickness. Because healthy family members and friends feel uncomfortable in the presence of those who are ill, physical distance grows and along with it emotional distance. Healthy members may be less likely to hug or touch the one who is afflicted. The social compact of family life shatters further when shared stress boils over into anger. Fights break out as family members argue with doctors and nurses about the treatment or with each other. We are looking for someone to blame.

We are seeing the equivalent as government officials argue over the best way to approach this modern plague and as we scold one another on social media. Admittedly, the divide we are experiencing was not created by the conditions of quarantine or even by the virus itself. The fault lines were a preexisting condition. The arrival of COVID-19 has merely exacerbated them. What separates the current political climate from the one we were in only a few months ago is both the gravity and scope of the problem. This is combined with a shared sense of helplessness that is mixed with mistrust. We suspect that our future well-being is tied to the decisions our leaders are making. As someone said to me the other day, “If government exists for anything, surely it exists for something like this.” Yet we do not feel confident that our leaders always have our best interests in mind. More accurately, we do not feel convinced that the other party (or perhaps either party) has our best interests in view.

Our political mistrust complicates the problem by introducing a competitive dimension to the search for a solution. Not only do we worry about ourselves and those we love. We fear that the other side will co-opt the response to our national crisis and exploit it for their own purposes. There is even some measure of competitiveness in our spiritual interactions. Many of the posts I read on Facebook and Twitter seem to designed to show that the writer is above it all. Others seem preachy and smug. “I’ve got this,” they seem to say. “What is wrong with the rest of you?”

The World of Flesh and Blood

But outside the digital realm, in the world of flesh and blood, I find a different spirit. The experience of quarantine seems to have made us more aware of one another’s presence. Neighbors inquire after one another’s welfare. Those who seek respite from isolation in a brief walk appear to brighten when they see another living soul approach them on an otherwise empty street. I don’t mean to sentimentalize. There are still empty shelves in the grocery store from selfish hoarders. Hedonistic berserkers on beaches in Florida and California are intent on turning their tanned bodies into biological weapons. The coronavirus has not ushered in the Millenium. Far from it. But neither has it hurled us into the dystopian nightmare that many movies, television shows, and novels predicted. Our encounter with COVID-19 has battered the bulwarks of common civility, but it has not breached them.

Nor has our collective trauma yet matched the level of suffering that our parents and grand-parents experienced during the Great Depression. Despite the daily comparison we hear on the nightly business report, the distance between these two catastrophes is still quite vast, at least for the majority of people. We worry about how long the drive-through line at McDonald’s will take. They wondered whether they would eat at all. It is possible, of course, that our worst fears may yet come to pass, and that our misfortune will equal or even surpass theirs. But we should not rush to meet such troubles before their time has come due.

The problem we now face is not imaginary. The threat we feel is real, dangerous, and ongoing. All indications suggest that we will still be dealing with this virus and its collateral damage long after the initial quarantine has ended. But we are not the first to suffer such things. Many who have suffered the like have discovered that they did so under the eye of heaven.

The Comfort of Christ

One of these was Helmut Thielicke, a theologian and pastor who lived through the Nazi terror, and preached to his congregation as the allies bombed Stuttgart. During that time, Thielicke delivered a remarkable series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. On more than one occasion, the church service was interrupted by the scream of air-raid sirens as terror rained down on them from the skies. As he watched his flock dwindle and its members succumb to the horrors of war, Thielicke reminded them that their only hope in such times was to look to Jesus.

“The sufferings of all the world converge in him, Thielicke said. “His eyes reach out to the farthest corner of the earth, wherever there is suffering. He hears the sobs of the lonely and those bereft of every tie of family and possessions. He is wounded by the dread of the dying and those in mortal peril. He hears the sighs of the prisoners behind their bars and electrically charged barbed wire. He bears upon his shoulders the cares that are cast upon him every hour and every minute from every square mile of the inhabited earth. He does not merely see this whole confused world situation in the large; he is not content with the divine perspective of a total view. No, he comes, as he did in the days when he walked the earth to the individual, to the nameless one who lives forsaken in some back alley. He knows the little cares of children and the grisly hallucinations of the insane that no word can describe and no heart can understand. Yes, he also knows the joy of life in a sparrow and the exultation and trembling fear of little creatures that live their lives far beneath the level where we human beings pursue our interests.”

As Thielicke notes, the comfort of Christ is not merely a comfort expressed from a distance. It is the comfort of one who has been tempted in every way, as we are but without sin (Hebrews 4:15). His comfort is that of a high priest who can sympathize with our weakness and who understands our failure. Even better, Jesus does more than provide us with a better moral example. He does not simply urge us on to better behavior from the throne of heaven. By taking our sin upon Himself, He puts us right (2 Corinthians 5:21). This fact places our current troubles in a very different light because it reminds us that the coronavirus, as destructive as it may be, is only a symptom of a more deadly condition.

I suppose the saying really is true. Times of crisis reveal our true character. They show us that no matter how good things seem, we are living in a world that is still in bondage to decay (Romans 8:21). Our response in such times shows that we are not as good as we would like to think. It shatters our denial by proving that our character is deeply flawed and our souls are broken because of sin. If COVID-19 were to disappear today, along with every other disease that afflicts the world, we would still be desperately sick. Because of this, to say that sin is the problem is not a contrivance. It is a diagnosis. And like every diagnosis of a deadly condition, it is hard to accept. To say that our only hope in such a time is to look to Jesus is not a cliché. It is simply the truth.

Prayer and the Character of God

There are some people who are skilled at prayer. I am not one of them. R. C. Trench, the 19th-century Anglican bishop, once described prayer as “the simplest act in all religion.” I am inclined to agree with him. Until I start to pray. Then, a kind of uncertainty overtakes me. I do not feel confident. It’s not that I doubt whether God can grant my requests. I question whether He will. I often feel as if I must somehow win God over to my side of things.

When I first learned to pray, I thought the goal was to persuade God. But how does one do that? I believed it had to do with the manner of my approach. I thought that before God would answer my prayer, I had to show Him that I was sincere enough or convince Him of the merits of my case. When that didn’t seem to work, I wondered if prayer was more like a contractual dispute, and I had failed to grasp the terms. Prayer became a negotiation. I made requests, sometimes even demands, and then offered promises to God in return for the thing I wanted. That didn’t seem to work either.

Prayer may be simple but that does not mean that it is easy.

Then someone told me that prayer was simply a conversation with God. This view was more appealing to me. But I quickly discovered that I am not much of a conversationalist, and neither is God. It was hard enough for me to make small talk with ordinary people, let alone with the Creator of the Universe. I was awkward and easily distracted. I mumbled through my requests, like someone reading a grocery list. If I bored myself, how must God feel? And as for God, His response to my holy chatter, at least as far as I could tell, was mostly silence. Prayer may indeed be simple, but that does not make it is easy.

How Does Prayer Work?

For many who struggle with prayer, ironically, it is God who poses the problem. How do you pray to someone who doesn’t change His mind and who never has second thoughts? God knows my prayers before I pray them (Ps. 139:2–4). The answer is decided before the request has even been made (Ps. 65:24; Dan. 9:23). If there are no grounds for persuasion, and we can convince God of nothing, how exactly is He moved by our prayers? Should we even bother to pray? Maybe we should just wait quietly for whatever God had decided in advance to do.

Of course, this doesn’t fit at all with the way we talk about prayer in church. Those who pray believe that prayer has an effect on God and that He, in turn, acts upon the world around them. So which is it? Do our prayers move the hand that made the world? Or is God’s hand unmovable and our sense that we are partners with Him in prayer merely an illusion?

The theologians teach that  God is immutable. This means that His character, purposes, promises, and plans do not change. According to James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” The theologians also say that God is impassible. As theologian J. I. Packer explains, this means “that no created beings can inflict, pain, suffering, and distress on him at their own will.” We cannot manipulate God with our prayers. We cannot wheedle Him until we get our way. We cannot agitate Him into action on our behalf.

The doctrines of God’s immutability and impassibility are a comfort when it comes to His moral consistency. But they pose something a stumbling block where prayer is concerned. If God doesn’t change, then it also follows that we cannot change His mind. If I cannot make Him feel more sympathetic toward my request or convince Him of my argument, what is the point of going to Him at all? If God has already decided what He is going to do, and knows what we will do, then why should I waste my breath?

The Danger of Two Extremes

These are old questions that are hard to answer without slipping into theological difficulty. If we lean too far in the direction of immutability and impassibility, then prayer seems both impersonal and pointless. We might as well be praying to a mountain or a machine. A God who is not moved by our prayers can only respond to them by working out of His foreordained purposes with clockwork precision. What looks to us like results has little to do with our words. The outcome will be the outcome, no matter what we say or do. The whole thing is like one of those clocks that tell a story. The figures may bend and twirl but not of their own accord. They merely show up at the right time and act out the parts that the clockmaker has programmed them to play. This is more like fatalism than prayer as Jesus both described and modeled it.

But if we lean too far in the other direction, we erode the divinity of God. We humanize God, but in the process, dehumanize prayer until it is only a matter of stimulus and response. We pray like the pagans, who “think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). We attempt to bully God with numbers, soliciting people to pray like political activists collecting names on a petition drive. Or we concern ourselves with empty forms, worrying over the method but ignoring God. This paganized view diminishes God’s role to the point where prayer becomes an occult practice. Prayer is no longer a request or even a conversation but merely a Christianized form of word magic.  If you speak the incantation and follow the right forms, then something is bound to happen. “Do not be like them,” Jesus warns, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8).

God is not frozen. He is active and involved with His creatures and His creation.

Divine immutability, whatever it means, does not mean that God is inactive or immobile. God is not frozen. He is active and involved with His creatures and His creation. God does not change, but He does effect change. In the same way, we shouldn’t confuse divine impassibility with impassivity. God is not unfeeling. There are many passages in Scripture that speak of God’s love, His anger, and even His grief. God is not reactive, but He does respond. God is especially responsive to the cry of prayer.

This was Jesus’ point in the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18:1–8. Jesus told this parable to His disciples “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” The tone of the story is one of gentle humor. Although the judge “neither feared God nor cared what people thought,” he is brought to his knees by the persistence of a poor widow. This scenario admits to the imbalance of power that exists between those who pray and God who hears. It also acknowledges what we often feel as we wait for an answer. We worry that the judge has overlooked our case. But the moral of the story is equally clear. God is not like the unjust judge (v. 7). He will respond, and when He does, that response will be consistent with His character. The God to whom we pray is both a just and compassionate judge.

Collaborators With God

Prayer is not a tool that we use to prod a passive God into action. In reality, the movement is in the opposite direction. God uses prayer to draw us into participation with Him and with His work in the world. In an essay entitled “The Work of Prayer,” C. S. Lewis observes that the participatory nature of prayer is consistent with the way God ordinarily works. “Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand,” Lewis observes. “Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all.” Lewis compares history to a play “in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.”

In another essay entitled, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” Lewis argues that it is no less strange to think that our prayers should affect the course of events than that our actions should do so. “They have not advised or changed God’s mind–that is, His over-all purpose,” Lewis explains. “But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.” Prayer changes things. Or conversely, some things do not change if we choose not to pray. “You do not have because you do not ask God,” James 4:2 warns.

Does God know the outcome in advance? Does He know whether we will pray or not? Lewis does not exactly say. But he does acknowledge the difficulty of fully grasping what it means for God to enable free-will to co-exist with Omnipotence. Lewis seems to say that when it comes to praying, we are true collaborators with God. At the same time, he warns that we must not forget that God is still God. “Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God,” Lewis warns. “Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.” The uncertainty always moves in our direction, never the other way around. God is never uncertain.

Jesus’ Prayer is the Key

If there is a key to this cosmic puzzle, perhaps it can be found in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. On the night before His suffering, Jesus prayed. “Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In this prayer, Jesus speaks both of possibility and uncertainty. He speaks of what God can do but in a way that suggests that what Jesus wants may not be the answer that God will grant. As Matthew’s version puts it, “. . . if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matt. 28:39). Perhaps even more surprising, Jesus speaks of a will of His own that diverges from His Father’s will but is not sin. When Jesus limits His request by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” He implies that the matter has been settled even before the request is made.

I find the ambivalence of Jesus’ prayer liberating because it shifts the burden of responsibility for the answer to God. It means that I can state my request simply and honestly and then trust God to sort out the rest. The old bishop was right. Prayer may not be easy, but it is simple. Prayer is as simple as the infant’s cry or the beggar’s reach. The power of prayer does not lie in the rigor of its method or the beauty of its vocabulary. Its efficacy does not depend upon the supplicant’s posture or the prayer’s length. The power of prayer is simply in the asking. Our comfort in prayer is the confidence we have that our Father knows what we need before we ask Him.

Prayer is our declaration of dependence upon the God who made the world and sustains our life. It is a moment-by-moment confession that in Him, we live and move and have our being. After all these years, prayer doesn’t seem to be any easier for me. But it really couldn’t be simpler.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Ill at Ease in Zion: Why You Don’t Fit in at Church

The first major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. I navigated the first fairly quickly because I knew that if I didn’t, I would never follow through on my commitment. With the sea at my back, I burned all the boats, along with a few relationships that I later came to regret. I was brash in my new found faith and a touch obnoxious. To be fair, the obnoxiousness was not a necessary component of my new Christian identity. It was a feature of my personality that was already there. I merely baptized it and put it to use for the sake fo the kingdom.

The decision to attend church took longer. My lifestyle was not especially conducive to the practice. I normally worked midnights and tended to stay up to the early hours of the morning on those days when I didn’t work. The thought of getting up early on Sunday morning to attend church seemed impossible. Besides, going to church had never been an especially important feature in my life. My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. My neighborhood friends who did attend, forced to do so by their parents, did not seem to enjoy it. Besides, this was the anti-establishment era. Institutions, in general, were under fire and the church along with them. Jesus had bad things to say about “the traditions of men,” which seemed to me to be a pretty good description of church life. And hadn’t Jesus’ enemies mostly come from the religious establishment? I had the Bible. I was spending time with my new Christian friends. Why should I ruin it all by adding the church?

When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Two things changed my mind. One was the patient and loving invitation of Mike, one of my new Christian friends. The other was a growing desire to preach. A preacher needs an audience, and the best place to find one was the church. Of course, I didn’t attend church one Sunday and then preach on the next. My first task was to try to fit in.

In a way, fitting in was easier than I might have expected. The people in that little church were glad that I came. They didn’t seem put off by my long hair or blue jeans. If anyone was stand-offish, it was me. I tried to fit in. I learned to say “Praise the Lord” and to call people “brother” or “sister.” But the music was strange, and at times the people seemed even stranger. I could tell that this was all familiar territory for them. They seemed comfortable. But it was an alien landscape to me. Even though I wanted to fit in, I often felt like I didn’t belong.

The Challenge of Fitting In

That was almost fifty years ago. major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. . I have learned the words to the songs, figured out the dress code, and discovered the secret handshake. I’ve also listened as the music styles have changed several times over, seen the dress code grow so casual that I’m wearing pretty much the same kind of clothes I was in 1972 (though with considerably less hair and no bell-bottoms), and learned the new secret handshake. I know that I belong. I am still going to church, but there are times when I am still ill at ease. I don’t always feel like I fit in. When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Sometimes we feel like we don’t fit in because of the way others treat us. The church is not always good at making people feel welcome. During my years as a pastor, I served in a small farming community. There was a plaque in the town hall which celebrated the beauty of small-town life. High on the list was the way people cared about one another. But in our first week there, my wife Jane and I took a walk down the main street to get a feel for the place. A little girl who was playing in her front yard stared at us. As we drew near, she turned and ran to her mother. “Mommy, I don’t know them!” she said. When we walked into the local diner, we were greeted by the same kind of stares and sidelong glances.

Every church is a small town. A congregation is a cultural eco-systems as well as a spiritual institution. They have their own customs, lingo, and tribal structures. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in the church because culturally speaking, we are outsiders. It takes time before things feel familiar to us. We may need to figure out how things work. Who makes decisions, and how are they made? What is the path to involvement?

Cliques and Culture

People sometimes complain that the church is full of cliques. This isn’t a new problem. The first major conflict the New Testament church faced was the cultural clash between two sub-cultures (Acts 6:1). A clique is really just another word for a tightly knit but closed community system. Some churches are better at creating on-ramps for those who are new to the community, but every church has cliques. The same dynamics that make a church’s culture “sticky” for insiders will erect walls for those who come in from the outside. This is the catch-22 for any tightly knit church. The closer the church, the harder it is for newcomers to find their place within it.

Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Paul had trouble finding a place in the church at Jerusalem because of his personal history as a persecutor. Things changed after Barnabas took Paul under his wing as a kind of sponsor and introduced him to the community of believers (Acts 9:26-27). Most newcomers to a church need someone who is already established in the community to help them find a place. These community gatekeepers explain the culture, teach them the secret handshake, and help them make connections with other people with whom they can bond. Intentional structures are often needed to help outsiders become insiders. Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Tightly knit subgroups are not necessarily wrong. Indeed, they are the glue that is necessary for creating a cohesive church culture. But they can also be sinful. Sometimes the church is responsible for making people feel like they don’t really belong. James 2:2-4 warns of the danger of practicing discrimination by showing favoritism: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Class, race, gender, age are all areas where the church is vulnerable to this sin.

Is there anything we can do if we sense that the church’s culture has relegated us to outsider status? Acts 6 may provide us with a helpful model. First, talk to the church’s leaders about it. Many churches are not self-aware. They may think they are opening doors when in reality they are building walls. Second, take initiative to connect. This may mean trying to form your own affinity group within the church. Or it might mean making an effort to join those that already exist. Join a small group. Invite someone out to lunch. If the walls are impermeable and deliberate, you may find that you need to look for another church.

Differences in Style

Style is another reason that people sometimes feel out of place in the church. This is really a subset of culture. Churches do not all have the same style of worship. Some are expressive, while others are more reserved. Some use set forms and liturgies while others are informal or spontaneous. There are churches that prefer a classical style of worship, others like contemporary, and some try to blend the two. The same is true when it comes to preaching. Sermon styles differ as do the personalities of those who preach them.

Not every style resonates with everyone. What is more, our tastes and our needs often change. When I first started attending church, it was in a context where the worship style was casual and expressive. We clapped, lifted our hands, and shouted, “Amen!” Although it was meaningful to me at first, after a while, I began to feel like I was performing, not just for God but for the people around me. Eventually it no longer seemed genuine to me. I felt out of place.

The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate?

It can be traumatic to church members when a church suddenly changes its style. Churches usually do this because they think it will attract newcomers. If it works, long-standing members often feel disenfranchised. All too often, church leaders respond to this understandable discomfort with impatience. The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate? We may grow to like the new style with time. But in most cases, a decision to stay is also a commitment to endure. Such a commitment is easier to make if it is values-driven. We might stay for missional reasons because we hope the things we don’t like will help the church grow. Or we may decide that the friendships we already enjoy or the ministry we have in the church are more important than those aspects of style that we dislike.

Doctrine as Style

Doctrine is another element that can make us feel out of place in the church. When I include doctrine in the elements that make up a church’s style, I am thinking here of those secondary doctrines that shape a church’s theological identity. Some doctrinal differences are more important than others. Foundational doctrines are those non-negotiables that are essential to the faith. Doctrines like the deity of Christ and justification by grace through faith are so foundational that without them, you no longer have Christianity. But there are also doctrinal differences that aren’t as consequential. They are not exactly unimportant, but they are differences we are willing to agree to disagree about.

There are some doctrines that aren’t exactly fundaments but we deem them to be important enough to warrant differences in practice and sometimes even fellowship. We would still consider those who differ with us on these matters to be Christians but they are imporant enough to the church’s theological identity that we might make agreement about them a pre-condition for membership or ministry.

If a church champions a doctrine that does not agree with the theological views you hold, sooner or later you’re going feel like you don’t fit in. You might enjoy the worship and love the people. You may agree with 90% of what they teach, but if the difference is significant enough, sooner or later, it’s going to create a rift. The church is unlikely to change its views. If you try to make it your mission to change the church’s theological identity, you’re only going to create division. If it is that important to you, then you  probably need to find a new church.

Feelings of Inferiority

When I first started attending church, I had a lot of rough edges. I didn’t know it at the time. But I began to sense differences in values and behavior almost immediately. I felt a little intimidated by those who had attended the church their entire lives. They knew where to find the books of the Bible. They knew the songs. They seemed more comfortable with the whole experience. In Paul’s case, the church in Jerusalem felt nervous about his history as a persecutor. But it often works the other way around. We can be embarrassed by our moral past, or we may be frustrated with our status as a newbie in the faith. In such cases, it is not the church that makes us feel like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We do it to ourselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Paul thought of himself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He readily admitted that he did not deserve to be called an apostle because of his past (1 Cor. 15:9).

How should we respond when we begin to feel like we don’t deserve to be numbered among the saints because of what we’ve done in the past? We can begin by admitting that this is indeed the case. It is true of everyone who is in the church no matter what their background is. Like all struggles that have to do with identity, we need to let the Bible shape the way we think about ourselves. Belonging in the body of Christ is not a function of feeling. It is a result of Christ’s work. By His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has secured our place in the church. We may feel out of place, but that feeling cannot undo the work that Christ has done on our behalf.

What is more, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 says that “. . . God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” Belonging isn’t just for those who look good, feel good about themselves, and have all their rough edges smoothed out. It is as wrong for me to think that the church doesn’t need my presence as it is for others to make that judgment about me (1 Cor. 12:15 & 21).

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word.

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word. Not only do I belong, but I am necessary. The language Paul uses when dealing with this erroneous thinking is strong. He says that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). The apostle’s example has to do with spiritual gifts but it applies equally to those who feel they don’t belong based on their moral past, spiritual background, or social class.

The discipline that has probably helped me the most in grasping this truth has been the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we participate in the church’s meal, we not only remember the Lord as Jesus commands, but we are reminded of who we are. This is what Paul meant when he warned the Corinthians about the importance of “discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). In the context, the sin of the Corinthian church as they observed the Supper, wasn’t the way they treated the elements but the way they treated one another (vv. 20-23).

We are not the best judges of the value we add to the church. Ultimately, it is our union with Christ that gives us the right to belong. When we trust in Christ, we are united with Him in His death and resurrection (Eph. 2:5-6). Union with Christ also joins us to every other member of the church. This is true whether we like them or not. It is just as true whether we like ourselves or not.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Clay Feet

When I was a student in college, a Christian writer and speaker that I admired visited our campus on a lecture tour. A young believer at the time, I had been greatly influenced by one of her books. She was the kind of person I aspired to be. A writer, speaker, and a serious Christian. After she spoke to our student group, several of us took her to lunch, where I was thrilled to get a seat at her right hand. I didn’t elbow anybody out of the way for the privilege, at least not much. I didn’t want to miss a word.

I don’t remember much of what this famous author said during lunch. What I do recall is being puzzled by her tone. She didn’t seem to be nearly as excited to meet us as we were to meet her. Maybe she was tired from her long travel schedule. Perhaps she was coming down with something. For whatever reason, most of her comments to us were terse, almost impatient. If you had forced me to put a name to her mood, I would have said that she was grumpy. But of course, that couldn’t be true. Here was a person who had written several no-nonsense books about discipleship and the Christian life. She was famous for her faith. Her spiritual lineage qualified her as Christian royalty. I was sure it was only my imagination.

When the visit was over, some of us asked the staff worker who had picked her up from the airport what it was like to spend time with so distinguished and spiritual a person. The staff worker was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Well, all I will say about it is that sometimes you need to allow your heroes to have clay feet.” I remember being troubled by her answer. I didn’t like what it seemed to imply about one of my heroes in the faith.

These days heroes are hard to come by.

These days heroes are hard to come by. We have galaxies of stars, swarms of celebrities, and an abundance of influencers. But bonafide, pedestal-standing heroes are in short supply. It is hard to find heroes in an iconoclastic age. We love to tear down the idols of earlier generations. Once, we built monuments for our heroes and wrote biographies in their praise. Now we would rather expose flaws than laud virtues. The histories we write today reconstruct those old narratives using a wrecking ball. The new standard leaves no room for moral ambiguity or the limitations of cultural context.

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints. But Protestantism divested itself of most of those champions of old during the Reformation. The Reformers did not deny the existence of people with remarkable faith and exemplary lives. But they did object to the way the church had exaggerated their accomplishments and elevated them, as Calvin put it, “into copartnership with God, to be honored, and also to be invoked and praised in His stead.”

But our greatest problem is that our heroes always turn out to have feet of clay, no matter how good they appear from a distance. Some years ago, I took a class with a professor who was famous for his books on spiritual formation. More than one person told me that he was the most Christlike person they had ever met. During one of our class sessions, this professor told us that ordinary Christians could live the same kind of life that Jesus did. I was troubled by his assertion and asked him if he thought that his life met that standard. “I’m not going to answer your question,” he replied. “Because if I said yes, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The rest of the class laughed, feeling that his answer had put me in my proper place.

I won’t deny that there was a challenge implied in my question. But I meant it sincerely. If the professor had answered in the affirmative, I would have gone on to ask what such a life looked like and how it was possible. I genuinely wanted to know the answer to those questions, because his assertion made me realize that, although I wanted to live like Jesus, I didn’t actually believe it was possible. Instead of helping me resolve the contradiction, it felt like he had shamed me in front of my peers. It made me question the validity of his assertion. Would Jesus have treated my question the same way?

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints.

He might have. Jesus wasn’t afraid to leave his listeners feeling awkward and confounded. Still, I felt stung by the embarrassment of the encounter. In my mind, it eroded his credibility. I found it hard to remain open to the rest of what he had to say. I admired his work but not his personality. At least, not that sliver of personality that I came into contact with that particular day in class. For his part, I doubt that my discomfort even registered on his consciousness. I’m certain he did not even remember my name.

Some years after this painful exchange, at the Bible college where I taught, one of my students asked to meet with me. I could tell he was uncomfortable. He told me that the appointment hadn’t been his idea but his wife’s. Something had happened in one of my classes that left him deeply discouraged. So much so that he was thinking of dropping out of school. His wife felt that he should at least tell me about it before taking such rash action. He had said something in class, a question or a comment, I couldn’t recall what it was. I had dismissed it with a joke. He had been earnest in what he had said. My flippant response embarrassed him and left him feeling stupid. I hadn’t even noticed.

He went on to say that he had initially come to the school because of something I had written. Perhaps he was exaggerating when he said this. It doesn’t make much difference if he was. The exchange had hurt and embarrassed him. What do you say to someone who has put you on a pedestal, only to discover that you have clay feet? There isn’t much that you can say, except to show them the whole ugly picture. You gently try to help them see that your arms, legs, head, and heart are made of clay as well.

Mark Twain once wrote that the traits that we admire in our heroes are usually the qualities that we lack. “If everybody was satisfied with himself,” Twain observed, “there would be no heroes.” When our heroes fail us, it’s not just the fact that they have fallen from their former height that leaves us so disillusioned. It is that they have come down to our level. Indeed, this may be the bitterest discovery of all. The dismay we feel comes from learning that those we used to hold in high esteem are no better than us. Certainly, their sin disappoints, but it is their ordinariness that causes us to view them with contempt.

If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes. Mark Twain

For most people, coming to terms with this kind of disappointment is the first great challenge we face on the path to mature adulthood. We learn that we must forgive our parents for being human. And as every adult son or daughter knows, the hardest parent to forgive is the one we most resemble. The great torment of our adolescent struggle with our parents is the fear that we might one day grow up to become “just like them.” But the real tension actually moves in the opposite direction. It comes from our growing awareness that our parents are like us. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow up if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains. “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.”

Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

It’s not wrong to have heroes. We need them. Hebrews 13:7 urges us to: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” But if the Bible’s unvarnished portrayal of those leaders reveals anything, it shows us that we must also leave room for their humanity. Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must also leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

In the end, we will find that all our heroes have clay feet. All except for one. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). His feet are flesh, not clay (John 1:14). Those hands and feet were pierced, wounded by those who should have been His friends (Zechariah  13:6). We will not be sorry when we find that this hero was like us, because Jesus had to be made like us, “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He was tempted too like us, “yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is the church’s only real hero because He is everything that we lack. Because He is everything we are not, He is the guarantee that one day we will be like Him.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Stop Shouting: A Few Quiet Thoughts About Writing & Publishing

If I had to give a label to the year that just passed, it would probably be the “year of shouting.” From that internet lady who is always pointing her finger at the cat to both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress and the Senate, everybody seems to be trying to make an emphatic point. But was last year louder than any other? I’m not sure. Sometimes I feel like we are all shouting all the time.

Some years ago, when I was preaching every Sunday, someone came up to me after the morning service and began, “Don’t take this the wrong way. . . .” This is a phrase that nobody really wants to hear. Especially pastors.  Especially after the sermon. Painful experience has shown that every time someone says this, there is a high degree of likelihood that you will take it the wrong way, even if what the other person is saying happens to be true.

‘Don’t take this the wrong way . . . .’ This is a phrase that nobody really wants to hear.

In this case, the concern had to do with my tone. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” the person said, “but lately, it seems like you are always yelling at us.” I was bothered by the comment because I knew it was true. I had noticed the same thing myself. Every once in a while, during a blast of prophetic fervor, the detached part me which has the capacity to step outside and listen to the sermon as it is being preached, would ask, “Why are you talking so loud?”

Most of the time, the honest explanation was not that I was angry, or even being prophetic, it was that I was nervous. Some in the audience were beginning to look bored. They appeared to be drifting. One or two were even asleep. Without thinking about it, I tried to compensate by cranking the volume. I probably got the idea from J. C. Ryle’s account of George Whitefield’s ministry. One day as Whitefield was preaching, he noticed a man in the front row who had fallen asleep.  Whitefield stomped his foot, and the man awoke with a sudden start. “I have waked you up, have I?” Whitefield said. “I meant to do it. I am not come here to preach to stocks and stones. I have come to you in the name of the Lord God of Hosts and I must and will have an audience.” The man woke up and so did the audience. “The hearers were stripped of their apathy at once,” Ryle declares. “Every word of the sermon was attended to.”

My attempts to follow Whitefield’s example were never as successful. The sleepers occasionally awoke, sometimes with a start, but more often than not, the result was a sheepish grin and a shake, rather than a look of mournful contrition. You can demand that the audience listen but you cannot compel them. Like it or not, “haters gonna hate” and sleepers gonna sleep. Not everyone has ears to hear. But such knowledge never seems to make me less anxious or less loud. In an age where everyone seems to be speaking at maximum volume, I feel the pressure to get noticed.

Like it or not, “haters gonna hate” and sleepers gonna sleep.

Digital culture has not helped matters. Publishing has never been easier. Just pay a few dollars and press a few keys, and before you know it, you have a website. With a click of the mouse, you can push your most reluctant thoughts out onto the stage for all to see. Eventually, you realize how crowded that stage actually is. You thought it would be enough just to put your thoughts out there. Now you find that you also have to get someone’s attention. You must say or do something to stand out from the rest.

The most common strategy is to lean into the extreme. Craft a startling lead. Say something outrageous. Take off your clothes (both literally and figuratively). It may seem like a good strategy until it dawns on you that everyone else is doing the same. Besides, you don’t look all that glamorous naked. So you decide to Photoshop your image. You employ a little poetic license. You favor hyperbole or magnify something at the margin of your story until it looks like it’s at the center. You don’t exactly lie about yourself, at least not consciously, but the result isn’t entirely honest either. What is worse, the steps you’ve taken don’t seem to make a difference. You still fail to stand out from the crowd.

I used to think that writing and publishing were the same. The two are related, of course. But the main difference between them is that writing has to do with art, and publishing is concerned with marketing. I am not saying that publishers don’t care about art. They do. But publishing costs money. Quite a bit of money, it turns out, which means that publishers must concern themselves with selling in order to support the art. This inevitably squeezes publishing into the territory of production. No matter how high its aspirations, as long as publishing depends upon selling for its survival, it has to deal with the cold realities of markets, margins, and cost. Publishing is a world of charts and statistics as much as it is a world of ideas.

Art is something else. Art belongs to the realm of contemplation. It involves work. But it is the kind of work that, as theologian Josef Pieper observes, is “meaningful in itself.” Pieper describes it as “an activity that does not need something other for its justification, that is not defined as producing useful goods and objective results.” Publishing, because it has to do with costs and return, cannot hope to meet this definition.

As long as publishing depends upon selling for its survival, it has to deal with the cold realities of markets, margins, and cost.

One practical implication of this distinction (practical for the writer at least) is that writing is not the same thing as getting published. It’s easy to see how a writer might confuse the two. I always felt that getting published validated my writing. It exposed my art to the world. In the best-case scenario, I got paid as a result. When I started writing, I did not think that I could legitimately call myself a writer until somebody published my work and paid me for it. These days we don’t need a publisher to present our art to the world. The internet has handed the power of the publisher over to the author.

Unfortunately, the fact that anybody can write a blog or record a podcast has not made it any easier for writers to find an audience. It has had the opposite effect. With so many voices speaking at once, ours cannot help but get lost in the clamor. Meanwhile, those who are looking for something to read or hear find themselves overwhelmed by so many options. This is one of the things that makes writing so difficult. We never know whether our labor is going to be “productive.” Will we be able to finish the project once we have started? Will we find an outlet for our work? Will we get paid for it? Even if it does get published, can we be certain that anyone will actually read it? What if, like Emily Dickinson, we die without seeing the bulk of what we have written published? The romantic in me says that it doesn’t matter. I am a writer. Therefore, I must write. But it is often the pragmatist who sits at the keyboard. I am afraid I am wasting my time. I worry that no one is listening. I begin to increase the volume, and it won’t be long before I start to shout.

There is only one solution for this. We need to learn how to view this act of writing as something meaningful in itself. Three conditions must be met before this can be true. First, we need to allow ourselves to be unproductive. It is important to me that others read what I have written, but the absence of a reader does not necessarily make the act of writing less meaningful. Writing has worth all its own apart from being published. I won’t deny that I still want to be published. And I like getting paid. But the real value is in the writing. Second, we need to learn how to take pleasure in our craft. Writing is hard work. It can be tedious. Yet at its worst, there is still a kind of joy that the writer experiences when putting words, phrases, and clauses together to express a thought. The painter takes pleasure in the stroke of the brush and the potter in the feel of the clay. The writer finds pleasure in crafting sentences. Third, we need to stop worrying about whether we will be noticed.

This is easier said than done. Maybe it’s impossible. But the truth is that most of those who write will not enjoy recognition. The majority of people who want to write never do. Of those who do write, only a minority get published. Of the few who are published, only a very small handful turn out to be popular. Keep writing but try to stop worrying. It doesn’t increase your chances of getting noticed. And stop shouting. It isn’t helping your art.

Practicing the Present in the New Year

Of all the holidays in the year, I must confess that New Year’s Day has always had the least appeal for me. It is not a bad holiday. New Year’s Day just suffers from comparison with its more glamorous sibling Christmas, which comes robed in red velvet and laden with gifts. The best that New Year’s Day seems to offer is a football game, chips, and dip,  and for some people, a hangover. Between the two, it is Christmas that appeals most to my mercenary nature.

Apart from the presents, Christmas celebrates a historical event: the birth of Christ. New Year’s Day is more abstract. It celebrates a change in the calendar. But I think it is this abstraction that makes New Year’s Day so appealing for many. New Year’s Day is a celebration of the passage of time. But it is more than this. The turning of the year is also a kind of reset. The clock starts over. The calendar begins its cycle of months again. It is a little like the video games some of us played when we were children. We struggled hard but failed to beat the big boss. Then when the music stopped, we popped back up and began again.

When the New Year arrives, for a few moments, at least, we feel as if time has granted us a “do-over.” Like the new calendar, all the days seem to lie before us with nothing written on them. As the clock strikes midnight, it is easy to convince ourselves that our life is a blank page upon which we might write anything we please. But when daylight comes, we will quickly discover that this isn’t exactly the case. The old year follows us into the new whether we like it or not.

As the clock strikes midnight, it is easy to convince ourselves that our life is a blank page upon which we might write anything we please.

To admit such a fact is not pessimism. It is physics. Isaac Newton observed that a body in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force. The same is true of time and circumstances. The changing of the year does not automatically create a wall between us and all the things we have set in motion during the previous year. The cycle of the year begins again, but our lives will continue along the same trajectory they were on before, unless some other force comes along to redirect us.

One of the side-effects of the turning of the year is a kind of double vision. When the clock chimes twelve, we feel caught between the past and the future. The result is a sense of weightlessness that is disorienting but not altogether unpleasant. Depending upon our bent, we may lean either into the past or into the future. Some feel the weight of the past, as the wreckage of the old year comes to rest in the new. They sort through the debris and grieve. It is not an accident that suicide attempts often spike during the New Year’s holiday. Others are eager to hurry into the future where they have set all their hopes. Whether we focus on a future that has not yet materialized or either long for or regret a past that cannot return, the effect on the present is the same. Both perspectives tend to marginalize the present. The present seems like nothing to us.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that we respond this way. The Christian faith has a vested interest in the future. The return of Christ is in the future. The ultimate fulfillment of all His promises about the Kingdom will take place in the future. Our resurrection and final deliverance from our struggle with sin remains in the future. It is true that where the Christian is concerned the best is yet to come. Likewise, our Christian faith has deep roots in the past. Our hope is grounded upon promises made long before we were born. The Bible upon which we have staked our faith and our lives was written by and addressed to people who are now long dead.

The present seems like nothing to us.

The Bible admonishes us to remember what we have received and heard, as well as to remember those who have believed before us (see Revelation 3:3; Hebrews 13:7). Remembering is a fundamental discipline of the Christian life, and the primary reference point for those who remember is the past. Jesus said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living (Luke 20:38). This makes Him the God of our past and of our future as much as He is the God of our present. He is the one who has promised and called in the past. His grace is the remedy for all our regret. His assurances are our guarantee and our hope for the future. But our experience with Him is always in the present.

God’s ultimate purpose for us lies in the future, but His business with us is always in the present. He has left us a record of His faithfulness in the past, but that is so we can be confident of His dealings with us in the here and now. Satan’s strategy is to distract us from the divine present by directing our attention either to a past that we can no longer affect or to a future that does not yet exist and may never come to pass. This may take the form of a dogged pursuit of the future, which leaves us blinded to or dissatisfied with the present. Or it may be an obsession with the past, whether it is a longing for the glory days or an overwhelming sense of regret over decisions, actions, and experiences that we now cannot change. Each of these perspectives makes us vulnerable to the same error made by the people of Haggai’s day. Either we will not see what God is doing in the present or we will note it and dismiss it as “nothing.”

As another year passes away and a new one dawns, I am suggesting that we reorient our thinking to the present. Or more accurately, I suggest that we reorient our thinking in the present. Practicing the present is not a matter of forgetting the past or dismissing the future. It is not a meditative state. Practicing the present begins with the recognition that, to some extent,  we cannot help but practice the present. We have no other temporal framework within which to live. We may remember the past, but we cannot return to it. We may place our hope in the future or dread its approach, but we cannot suddenly transport ourselves there. The present is the only context available to us for living out our lives. When we practice the present, we view our present circumstances, whatever they may be, through the lens of the sacred. We live our lives in the here and now. The present is where we learn to obey God. The present is the place where we experience God’s presence.

The first step is to put the past behind us. This begins not with forgetting but with honest reckoning. The sentimentalist recasts the past, smoothing out its sharp edges and minimizing the damage done. The cynic looks at the past through a jaundiced eye. Practicing the present involves the double discipline of honestly assessing the past while recognizing the hand of God in it. We are not the cause of all the problems that follow us into the new year, but we are certainly the cause of some. Like Adam after his sin, we too are prone to denial and shifting blame. We are inclined to blame others and especially God for our problems. Taking ownership of the present does not necessarily mean that we take all the blame for our current circumstances but it does require that we accept that they are what they are.

Taking ownership of the present does not necessarily mean that we take all the blame for our current circumstances.

The second step to practicing the present in the new year is to sanctify the ordinary. Part of the allure of a new year is the implied promise of adventure. The blank calendar seems to tell us that anything is possible. Who knows where we might go and what we might do? The answer is that most of us will go back to our old jobs. We will engage in the same tasks that we did before. We will live in the same place and with the same people. We will like the people we liked last year and the ones who irritated us will continue to do so. If the new year does bring about change, those changes, whether we perceive them to be good or bad, will be attended by many of the same mundane duties that were ours before.

Those who practice the present cultivate a sense of the eternal significance of the mundane spaces in our lives. We don’t do this by trying to change the quality of our experience in those areas. The mundane will still involve the mundane. We sanctify the mundane by accepting the ordinary as a context in which God is present. The ordinary tasks assigned to us by our calling and life situation are no less meaningful to God than those that are extraordinary. We do not need to be attempting great things all the time. We do not need to make a name for ourselves. As far as we know from Scripture, Jesus spent most of the first thirty years of His earthly life doing very little that was worth writing about. He lived in Nazareth and worked an ordinary job. To the people in His hometown, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about Jesus. He was “the carpenter,” just somebody from the village (Mark 6:3).

A third step to practicing the present is to align our vision with God’s. This is a matter of allowing the truth of God’s word to define our reality. We acknowledge our circumstances for what they are and offer ourselves to God as we are. The Psalmist describes this kind of reality check in Psalm 73, where he describes the bitterness he felt when he saw the prosperity of the wicked. The turning point came when he entered the sanctuary and considered God. The Psalmist’s circumstances hadn’t changed, but his perspective did after he traced God’s larger design on the field of his experience. The psalmist’s experience is a helpful reminder that practicing the present is not limited to those times when we feel good about God or our circumstances. It is a discipline for times in the valley as well as for those on the mountaintop. Our problem is not the questions that plague us but the danger that we will ask them dishonestly. We will come wearing a mask instead of showing up as our true selves. Instead of taking stock of things as they really are, we will engage in premature apologetics and attempt to explain away our pain, doubt, or difficulty.

When we practice the present, we do not try to work ourselves into a state of spiritual bliss. We do not need to elevate our feelings or put a good face on our bad mood. It is important as we begin to simply take note of things as they are without rendering judgment. This is the way things are. This is where I am. This is how I feel. This means calling our feelings by their correct names. Owning up to our anger, hate, and disappointment is all part of owning the present. To do otherwise is not only dishonest but dangerous. It is only when we show the doctor our wounds that we can be treated. But more than this, ignoring what is really true about me closes the door to genuine communication with God.

When we practice the present, we do not try to work ourselves into a state of spiritual bliss.

We do not need to be spiritual giants to practice the present. Is it the spiritual work of ordinary people. We live in an age of life hacks. There are thousands of websites, podcasts, and books that promise to provide us with simple steps that will improve and even transform our lives. Sometimes they even work. Unfortunately, the spiritual life tends to be impervious to hacks. It is not easily reduced to five steps, simple tricks, or quick shortcuts. When I talk to people about Christian living in the present tense, most of them ask the same question: “That sounds good, but exactly how do you do that?” Living in the present tense is not a methodology so much as it is a way of seeing the world. Still, there are a number of spiritual disciplines and practices that can help us acquire such a point of view. Some are disciplines of abstinence, practices intended to wean us away from patterns of thinking and acting that crowd out our awareness of the importance of the present. Others are disciplines of engagement, activities we undertake to add a certain perspective or response. They may be venerable, having been practiced by the church for thousands of years, or they can be situational, because they arise out of our modern circumstances.

None of them is a life hack. They will not provide you with a quick fix or substitute for long obedience that is characteristic of a life of discipleship. Nor are they guaranteed. You will not be able to apply them to your life by way of formula. They are not a doctor’s prescription. You will need to experiment and discover for yourself which ones work best for you. You will probably find that this will be tied to your season of life and your circumstances. The disciplines that work for you now might not be the same ones that will work for you best later on, while others will be perennial. The one thing they all have in common is the assumption that God is always present and engaged in our lives.

I said at the start that the trouble with the New Year is that it does not come laden with gifts the way Christmas does. It seems that I was wrong. The New Year does come bearing a gift. It is the same gift we receive every year. It is the gift given to us with each new day. The gift of the New Year is that it ushers us into the present, that same present where God is also always present. We cannot stop the flow of time no matter how hard we try. Indeed, in a way, our sense of the present is itself only an illusion. The world is always in motion, and so is time. We cannot help being carried along as each passing second hurtles us toward the future. Yet if we can learn to be attentive, we will discover the presence of God in this fleeting succession of moments. We are changing, but He is not. We are aging, but He is not. It is not the present that is the still point in all of this but God Himself. Even as we are caught in the slipstream of busy lives and of circumstances beyond our control, we are always at rest in Him.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

A few months ago, my next-door neighbor told me that the house down the street is haunted. She used to own the place and claims she saw the spirit who inhabits it more than once. She says that it is the ghost of a little boy from the early 1900s, with bobbed hair and knickers, who occasionally appears in the kitchen. I’m not sure what to make of her claim, but I do believe that many of us are haunted. Especially at this time of year. Not by literal ghosts but by memories. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, who was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, we are visited by the flickering memories of Christmases that are now gone.

Scrooge’s visit was a kind of reality check, but ours is something else. Ours is a reconstruction. We sort through the fragments of past experience scene by scene, the way an archaeologist sifts through the debris of an ancient civilization. Instead of bits of pottery, we handle shards of memory. Some are broken and fragmentary. These recollections are tinted by the soft glow of nostalgia, a spice that is sweet as powdered sugar but can leave a bitter aftertaste. The recollection of others is more spectral in form. They are haunted in the classic sense, as they contemplate the remains of things that have gone to ruin. The memory of someone whose space is empty casts a shadow on the table. The memory of a past offense or some horror puts a nightmare cast on their recollection.

When Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Past what business brought him to his bedside, the Spirit’s answer was: “Your welfare!” But our ghosts seem to have a more malevolent intent. They aim to disturb. Those memories that trade in nostalgia want to make us jealous. They show us shadows of things that never were and leave us longing for a world we never knew. Those whose trade is fear want to bring us to despair. They show us a world of sin but one without a savior. The pain they bring to mind is real, but it is not the whole story. Hidden from those haunted memories is the hand of God moving in the shadows.

When Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Past what business brought him to his bedside, the Spirit’s answer was. “Your welfare!” But our ghosts seem to have a more malevolent intent. 

We prefer our holiday season to be serene and magical. We are hoping for a moment of transcendence. We deck the halls and trim the tree. We bake and buy and then settle back to wait. But all too often, our experience is the opposite. Instead of Christmas magic, we get the critical mother-in-law who thinks their child could have done better. The kids like their toys but only for a day or two. The dysfunction that has stalked the family for the previous eleven months refuses to take a vacation. Somebody we love gets sick. Another dies. Or we discover that the real spoiler is our own heart, which leads us on as the day approaches, and then suddenly turns a cold shoulder after it finally arrives.

Before you dismiss me as a curmudgeon (perhaps it is already too late), let me say that I have been a devotee of Christmas for as long as I can remember. Christmas has captivated me since childhood. I can feel its approach as soon as the winds turn to chill in the fall. I start listening to Christmas carols on November 1 and it is only with effort that I manage to restrain myself from starting earlier. I smile every time I watch Scrooge’s gleeful repentance on Christmas morning and weep when George Bailey learns that no man is a failure who has friends. But I must tell you that Christmas has let me down every time. By the time the 26th arrives, I am done. The tree and all its decorations can go back to their place. They seem awkward and out of place to me, as wizened and worn out as Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.

I won’t deny that there are moments of transcendence during the holiday season: The peal of the trumpet during the resurrection sequence in Handel’s Messiah. The sight of wind driven clouds flying across the moon at night. The constellation glitter of the snow as it falls. But these are only momentary stabs of joy. These sensations, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, disappear as soon as we become aware of them and cannot be manufactured. Play the same song. Visit the same spot. Try to reproduce the circumstances exactly, and you will only be disappointed. But this is, I think, what we are often trying to do during the Christmas season. We are attempting to manufacture joy and hold on to it, at least for a few days.

We are attempting to manufacture joy and hold on to it, at least for a few days.

Unfortunately, the fallen world conspires against us. If it is not the harsh croak of misfortune that bursts in and interrupts our revels, it is misfortune’s plainer sister boredom. We go looking for the sublime only to find the usual. The enchanted world we hoped to create for ourselves proves to be a tangle of colored lights and a pasteboard tableau of the three kings with a camel. The choir is singing off-key, but it really wouldn’t matter if they weren’t, because we hate the song anyway.

Yet we may have more in common with the true Christmas experience than we realize. After all, Jesus didn’t descend from heaven in a cloud of glory. He came into the world by water and blood, as all infants do. There were signs and wonders that marked His birth. But there was also misunderstanding, jealousy, and terror. Joseph considered divorcing Mary. Herod slew all the children of Bethlehem that were two years old or younger. The Holy Family fled for their lives and relocated to Egypt for a time. The version of these events that we see on our Christmas cards or in our imagination is a sanitized one. There is no hard traveling, no fear, and no violence. Our version is a kind of fairy tale, the sort we might read to our children at night to lull them to sleep.

What I am trying to say is that the world Jesus entered was far more like the world we know than the one we fantasize about, whether those fantasies are good or bad. When the Apostle John describes Christ’s entrance into the drama of redemption in Revelation 12, we see a very different portrait. Admittedly, John’s narrative is oblique and far-reaching. He speaks in visions and goes beyond the nativity stories of the Gospels. Yet John’s wild images make clear what the Gospels’  more narrow and literal depictions confirm. The world that the Son of God entered, when He took human form and was born in Bethlehem, was not a tranquil one. Jesus did not come into the soft bed of a manger lit by twinkling starlight and serenaded by the lullaby of angels. He entered a world of blood and tears. Jesus came to a habitation of dragons (Revelation 12:4). The angels who announced His arrival were not plump cheeked cherubs or fragile seraphs with gossamer wings. They were an armed troop who announced the arrival of the Lord of Heaven with a shout of victory.

Jesus did not come into the soft bed of a manger lit by twinkling starlight and serenaded by the lullaby of angels.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with remembering the past. Remembrance is a sacred discipline in the Christian faith. When Jesus handed the disciples the bread and the cup, He told them to eat and drink in remembrance of Him. But I think we should approach our memories, especially at this time of year, with a degree of skepticism. Enjoy the vision, but don’t try to recreate it. Appreciate the memory the way you would a passing fragrance and then let it dissolve into mist the way that all dreams do.

The same is true of those memories that terrify us. They appear suddenly, like Lazarus from the tomb, still wrapped in their grave-clothes. But unlike Lazarus, they carry the smell of the grave and the clench of fear. They rear up like a shadow cast upon the wall by a guttering candle and want us to believe that they still have the power to threaten us. But they are only ghosts and echoes.

Despite our expectations, Jesus did not come into this world to create a magical Christmas season. His sights were set on the cross. The ghosts in Dickens’ tale came to help Scrooge understand his past, but Jesus came to purchase our redemption. To do this, He not only entered into our suffering; Jesus took our sin upon Himself. “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son,” Galatians 4:4–5, says, “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”

“Who is He in yonder stall, at whose feet the shepherds fall?” the old carol asks. He is the Ancient of Days, the God of the Past. He is the God of your past. This is the God who made the light and who seeks you out in dark places. He is the God who knows your dreams and meets you in your disappointments. But more than this, He is the God who saves. “’Tis the Lord, O wondrous story! ’Tis the Lord, the King of glory!’ At His feet we humbly fall, Crown Him, crown Him Lord of all!”