Advent Season, Part IV: …Redemption.

Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For He took notice of His lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy, and He has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear Him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped His servant Israel and remembered to be merciful.
For He made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.
– Luke 1:46-55 (NLT)

This time of year, it’s easy to get busy. It’s easy to forget why we celebrate. And many of us end up not celebrating at all. Browse the Christian blogs on WordPress or Blogger, and the overwhelming notion is that Christians have forgotten what Christmas is about (here are one or two to make the point).

Pick up a Christmas CD by N’Sync, or Garth Brooks, or Kanye West, and you get the impression that Christmas is about feeling something in particular, although just exactly what is fuzzy.

Of course, when Mary offered her song of praise in Luke (see above), I don’t think she worried about sleigh bells or ballin’ at the mall. The promise of her Son was something amazing to her: it was a fulfillment. But not just any old promise was being kept. Read her poem again. Mercy. Hunger. Humility. These are the things that characterized what Mary envisioned through her Son.

Everything we long for, hope for, & even fight for…it’s all about redemption.

My mom had a sister I never met. She is rarely talked about in our family, and until recently I did not even know how she had died. She was 31. In the midst of her varying medical issues, she developed an infection that couldn’t be contained. In an attempt to help her, her doctors wound up killing her. She had been the subject of electro-shock therapy, among other not so pleasant “remedies” during her life. And yet, at the end, her final words were simple. “Jesus,” she whispered. That story still brings my mom to tears, almost 30 years later. It’s a wound that has never quite healed in my family. My grandparents, my mom and her siblings, they go on living despite this pain they still feel.

This is the reason for Christmas.

There are countless other stories. International ones, too. So many in this world seeking redemption, and the healing that comes with it. I tell this one because, well, it hits closest to home for me. But there are others. Some even better, I’m sure.

These are the reasons for Christmas.

This Christmas, rather than bemoaning the lost Christmas Spirit, or demanding that Christmas be “reclaimed,” I think we would do well to remember God’s redemption. It came upon a midnight clear, and it is still offered to those who are weary or downtrodden or hungry or alone.

We worship a merciful God. Let us never forget it.


Evolving Faith

Earlier, I was ranting about my general disagreement with the perspective held by most Christians that salvation is summed up in terms of going to heaven or hell.

“So what do you think salvation is about?”

Well, more than heaven and hell.

In truth, the position that the whole point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was about saving my eternal soul from an everlasting time experiencing pain and torment has never seemed complete to me. I’ve never understood how a person could read John’s Gospel and come away thinking that Jesus was only about heaven. Eternal life is knowing Jesus. He came to give life more abundantly. These things aren’t some future promise about eternity. They’re for the here and now. I’m learning that the rest of the New Testament speaks in the same way, but more on that later.

My problem always was that I didn’t know what it meant. What is life more abundant? What does it mean to know Jesus? How do these things effect us now?

In my frustration, I kind of abandoned the argument, and decided to let things be. If I didn’t have an alternative, I didn’t see any point in saying anything. I mean, going to heaven is important. And bringing the Gospel to people is crucial. So why object?

Object isn’t the right word anymore, though. Now, what I do is beg for completion of the message. I ask that Christians think about what the Bible teaches.

I’m glad I gave up trying to argue with evangelism. I was wrong in that idea. Since I felt the “heaven vs. hell” doctrine was incomplete, I was trying to throw out the whole thing (although I didn’t realize that until later). I’m glad that I didn’t think that Jesus’ work stopped in heaven, but instead I still seek to fully understand what it means to have life more abundantly.

Because I’m not alone in thinking there is something more to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And others have done a good job of explaining what that means (I was pointed to this work by a pastor whom I respect greatly).

The essence of salvation is this: God did not save you to take you out of this world. His purpose is redeeming His good creation (which has been corrupted by sin), and He saved you so that you can be a participant in that. Yes, you will go to heaven when you die. But Jesus is coming back. And He is going to bring you back with Him. Thus, when His reign is visibly established on this earth (His reign has already begun, but few believe that), all that Christians did to reflect God’s kingdom in this life will be a part of God’s New Heaven and Earth (which will be one place, rather than two). This is why Paul encourages the Corinthian church:

…be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

He isn’t encouraging these Christians to be good so that they will go to heaven. He is reminding them that their work here matters, because the God of heaven rescued them from sin and death, giving them new life through His Son, Jesus Christ.

We’re called to that life now.

Maybe you disagree with this. Perhaps you think I’m abandoning conservatism, supporting liberal ideas, or whatever. The truth is, I just think what we do matters. Politics. The environment. Education. Feeding the hungry. Helping the poor. We act like these things are divorced from Christian life because they’re tied to government or liberal organizations or whoever else we don’t like. And the excuse for much of that separation is because preachers tell their flock that what matters most is going to heaven. But true religion isn’t spending eternity in heaven with the angels. Its something we do here. Now. This very moment.

So I ask, what has your salvation done? Has the Grace of God in your life helped this world? Or has it simply given you a ticket to the afterlife?

Loss of freedom?

I’ve spent the last couple of years thinking about prison. I have a cousin who is serving his second stint, and it often breaks my heart. While I don’t mean to exonerate him, I still can’t help but feel as though something is wrong with the way he’s been treated.

I do think those who break the law should be given a consequence, I just also happen to think that the consequence should be relevant. Putting someone in prison is almost never related to the actual crime. But what else is there to do?

Dietrich Bonheoffer, who spent the last years of his life in prison, wrote out some ideas he had during World War II to create a better justice system:

I think a lengthy confinement is demoralizing in every way for most people. I’ve been thinking out an alternative penal system on the principle of making the punishment fit the crime; e.g., for absence without leave, the cancelling of leave; for unauthorized wearing of medals, longer service at the front; for robbing other soldiers, the temporary labelling of a man as a thief; for dealing in the black market, a reduction of rations; and so on.

Bonheoffer’s ideas obviously pertain to wartime. So the question becomes, how do we make this work today? I don’t really know. Some crimes are indeed heinous, some kinds of evil to much to simply “repay.” And what of the death penalty? An eye for an eye? No, I could never endorse that. When I was younger, my self-righteousness couldn’t see why a person shouldn’t be deprived of their life if they had taken the life of someone else. I was having an arrogant rant one night when my pastor at the time said, “everyone deserves God’s grace.” I hadn’t ever thought about it quite like that. Tommy went on to talk about how killing someone is taking away any chance they may have at discovering God’s redemptive power. The idea took some time to sink in, but it is a lesson I have never forgotten.

That of course, only complicates the concept of eliminating prison. How can you make a punishment relevant to murder? I don’t know. Public servitude to the victim’s family? I don’t know if that would work. Going Germanic and instating a wergild, or man price? I don’t think money will really soothe someone’s wounds of loss. And let’s face it, some people have enough money to really take advantage of a system like that.

Ultimately, I don’t know of an adequate alternative.  but I know the system we have now is not sufficient. Bonheoffer goes on to ask,

Why does the Old Testament law never punish anyone by depriving him of his freedom?

I think its a question worth looking at. I’m not saying we should adopt the Old Testament law. Surely though, a system designed to reflect God’s desire for justice has some truth to teach us? And if God didn’t see fit to deprive an individual of their freedom, why should we? Because its the best we can come up with? I just don’t think that’s acceptable.