Anticipating a new year and new decade, how best to prepare and direct ourselves? How best to find the hope, peace, and assurance we need to remain undeterred and undistracted amid the noise and chaos of another year? Coming from an unexpected direction, I get a phone call from a licensed clinical psychologist, a PhD who had a near death experience that was so profound that he had to write about it, asking if I would be willing to read his manuscript. His story stood out among other such experiences I’ve read in its sincere attempt at objectively describing what is inherently a radically subjective and ultimately inexpressible experience—an experience of pure presence, of God’s presence—yet completely devoid of religious imagery. And most interestingly, his description matched in some cases almost word for word the experiences of the mystics and contemplatives who have written for millennia.
theeffect’s Christmas service as a seamless presentation of music and story combines the scripture passages of Jesus’ nativity with original and curated writing, all centering on the incredible story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 between the trenches of the Western Front of World War One in Belgium and northern France. A spontaneous ceasefire in which muddy, exhausted soldiers were able to see themselves in the muddy, exhausted soldiers sometimes only fifty yards away across No Man’s Land. And though wearing different uniforms, these soldiers found the same humanity, hopes, and dreams that Christmas promised nineteen hundred years before and still promises today.
Has the Star of Bethlehem ever fascinated you? The Star that led the Magi to Jesus…what was it really? A miraculous star that appeared and behaved like no other star ever did or could? Or a natural, but perfectly or supernaturally timed astronomical event like a comet, supernova, conjunction of planets or some other anomaly as many scholars have suggested? But even such events, if natural, could never behave as Matthew describes the Star behaving: going before the Magi, unseen by Herod and his advisors, and then stopping and standing over the place of Jesus’ birth. Is there any possible astronomical event that could account for all Matthew’s details? In our continued look at the account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, we look at the Star like a forensic detective sifting through the clues left in the gospel to see what may actually have happened. And surprisingly, if we’re willing to look in a direction that is often forbidden in modern, Western Christianity, we find there is one that does.
There’s a word little known in Western Christianity that was a foundation of Hebrew spirituality, appearing throughout both Old and New Testaments. Anawim, plural for anawv in Hebrew, literally means to “bow down” but by extension means lowly, poor, oppressed, or marginalized. But more than that, it refers to people who have accepted this position in life, see themselves as vulnerable and dependent, and are grateful for all provision—realizing that ultimately they must rely on God rather than themselves for sustenance. The humility, submission, and grateful vulnerability of the anawim were understood as the ideal attitude toward life and God, and that it was primarily an interior attitude of heart that was easier to attain if physically poor as well, but available to even the wealthiest. The anawim are held up as the inheritors of God’s kingdom from the Psalms to the Beatitudes, and all the great figures of faith in scripture are anawim at heart regardless of their station in life.
Why is there so much depression and anxiety at Christmas? One psychologist writes that there are three reasons: the demands of time, preparation, activities, and finances; family dysfunctional issues that are highlighted during the season; and inability to meet expectations placed on us both physically and emotionally. When you think about it, we first experience Christmas as children—learn what our culture says it’s supposed to be through a child’s eyes. And it’s a perfect storm for children: from three feet off the ground, the lights, decorations, candy, treats, magical beliefs, gifts, suspense, and anticipation create a breathless wonder. How do we expect to recreate all that through our adult eyes, looking at a different world from six feet off the ground? To recreate Christmas as our hearts remember it, is to recreate the world in our hearts as the child sees it.
In the run up to Thanksgiving, we take a pause to ask if anyone knows who established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the first place. Our thoughts tend to go back to Pilgrims and Native Americans collaborating, but it was surprising to most that it was Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, who instituted Thanksgiving. This is ironic on two fronts: that Thanksgiving was born in the middle of the darkest period in American history, and born of Lincoln, a man of near constant depression at the most stressful time in his life. What allowed Lincoln, as he put it in his Thanksgiving proclamation, to see the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies, and the continued beauty of the land and its people outside the theater of conflict?
Launching a new book is a crazy process. An all-consuming process. A process that takes on a life of its own and sweeps author and marketing team up into a whirlwind of deadlines, strategy, tasks, and emotion. But what does it all really mean? A book hopefully has meaning poured into its pages, but once it becomes a product to be sold, is there any real meaning left— to it and the process of selling it? As with all the tasks, causes, careers, and activities of life, where is the meaning?
If you think about it, we eventually get what we’re looking for. But if we have an ironclad definition of what we’re looking for, we won’t accept anything, however true, if it doesn’t look like the image we already have in mind. A forgone conclusion, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. When it comes to things of faith, most of us have the image in mind of finding the certainty of a faith proven by scripture, church, creed, and doctrine—that if we just master those elements, we will have the certainty for which we crave. But on closer inspection, another image arises: that faith is not about certainty, but about embracing the mystery at the core of life and choosing and taking action as if certain things that can never be proven are actually true…becoming personally convinced along the way. We have lived under the assumption that mastery will take us to faith, but faith as defined by scripture is telling us to make friends with the mystery that will teach us to live in the fearless vulnerability of Kingdom.
If we really accept Jesus’ original challenge to “sell” everything we think we know and cling to for support and survival, what happens? What changes? The short answer is that we descend into a time of voluntary disorientation and disturbance sometimes bordering on panic as we realize our whole worldview wasn’t actually reality but just a set of beliefs, a filter on the world that we chose for ourselves or was chosen for us. And once we’ve looked behind the curtain, everything changes. But to be more specific, if we’re looking at the church and our faith, what changes and in which direction? In his book, a Quaker pastor describes ten new ways to look at Christian faith and church—ways that are possible to see and accept only after we’ve let go of our preconceptions and inherited beliefs. Can we find support for these new directions in the teachings of Jesus? And if we can, then these new ways of looking at church aren’t new at all. They are the reflection of Jesus’ original intent that we can only see with the new eyes we grow on the other side of Jesus’ challenge.
In speaking about the pain and disturbance of breaking out into larger spheres of awareness—being born again intellectually and spiritually—an ancient Chinese philosopher says, “you can’t speak of ocean to a wellfrog, the creature of a narrow sphere; you can’t speak of ice to a summer insect, the creature of a season.” To that I would add, “you can’t speak of perfect love to a human being, the creature of a broken heart.” Our broken hearts, as surely as the frog’s well or insect’s lifespan, wall us off from something so far from our imagined reality as to be inconceivable. How is it possible for us to break through the hurt, trauma, and need for defensive posture just long enough to glimpse the ocean of God’s love?