The Wonder of Newness

The beginning of a new year feels somewhat like the first day of school, the start of a job, or the commencement of a sports season. Except for the new year fireworks, they are all uniformly filled with possibility, opportunity, and untrammeled dreams. Resolutions are made, plans are delineated, and goals are set. The fresh gusts of hope set our hearts a-sailing. But the journey into newness at some point runs aground on the shoals of reality. Life as we know it now taints the best of hopes, tarnishes the best of dreams. Our longing for newness never matches our experience...until...

Until we meet the God of the New: "Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation. the old has gone, the new has come!" (II Cor. 5:17). The trajectory of the Bible's story is always toward the new, not an annihilation of the old, but a re-creation of it, refurbishing with all of its original luster and shine—and even more so. But how do we enter such newness? How do we make this our experience? I got a taste of just how recently.

I have been meeting for some time with two young men, once former students of mine, now with their own families and jobs. The purpose of our meetings was to help them become more aware of God's presence and work in their lives. The classic term for this is spiritual direction. This week we met to review the year and what we have learned. I was astonished at what I heard. One of them shared how he is coming to see how much of his life has been run by shame and fear, shame over his failures and fear of failing others. Yet in that very place of raw awareness, of feeling like an abandoned orphan, God has been working powerfully to help him feel loved and accepted as a son. The other told how he is overcoming self-loathing and learning to feel comfortable for the first time in his own skin. He is allowing himself to be loved by the Father and that in turn is affecting how he interacts with others. He is both much more direct and honest and yet at the same time much more willing to love. 

As I listened, I felt the connection of hearing in them so much of my own struggle to leave the old and enter the new. Shame, fear of failure, self-loathing—all of these were once imbedded constructs in my old way of being, seemingly impervious to change, Yet, like both of them, I too have experienced the miracle of newness in all of these places. And so with the growing connection I felt with them, I also sensed a joy tinged with something approaching awe. I was listening in on the wonder of newness, the newness that God was creating inside them. We were all being ushered into a landscape of glory, light, and love. 

How did the three of us begin to enter such a landscape? By doing something really, really simple. Instead of making promises to work harder and try more, we simply began to note how God was already working in our lives. Each morning we went back through the previous day, noting both where we felt God's presence and where we slipped back into our old ways. One called forth praise and thanksgiving, the other confession of sin and prayer for healing. In so doing, we found that God had already been diligently at work to make us into new creatures. The problem is that we so often hadn't seen it and thus couldn't cooperate in the process.

So instead of making promises for the new year, maybe a better idea is to try to see more clearly how God is already at work, keeping His promise to make everything new. After all, His great business is newness: "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?" (Is. 43:19).

Christmas Rejection

Ever been rejected? Outright, in-your-face rejection? It hurts. It scalds. It stings. When I was in college, I pledged a fraternity my sophomore year with high hopes of joining. I had two close friends who were members, and they really wanted me to be a part of it. But as the pledge process continued, the fraternity at some point voted on whether or not to accept each pledge. I was rejected. I remember feeling as if I had been punched in the chest. I blew it off as if it didn't really matter, but that was just my way of coping. Deep inside, it solidified a pattern that I felt for years: I am the one on the outside never allowed in.

We all have our stories of rejection, from playground taunts to dating break-ups. The sting of them can now help us understand one of the great truths of Christianity: the rejection of Jesus. It began before he was even born with Joseph and Mary being turned away at the inn, necessitating labor and delivery in a cave used for animals. But the most piercing rejection (and perhaps the saddest verse in the New Testament) can be found in the opening verses of the Gospel of John. Here John paints an epic picture of the Son of God before His actual birth: He was the Word, the exact communication of what the Father was like; He was the agent behind creation, stamping His fingerprint on all matter; He was the brilliant light to all men, overcoming and conquering the darkness. With such a spectacular biography, the next description of Him strikes like a death blow:

"He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him" (John 1:10-11).

The Creator comes into the world and is not recognized by His creatures. The King of Israel comes home to His people and is not accepted by them. It is tragic, crushing, unthinkable, yet it happened. This is the rejection of the Incarnation of God in Jesus, the rejection of all that Christmas celebrates.

Think for a moment about what Jesus must have felt. Put yourself in His shoes. What would it be like to come home and have the door slammed in your face? What would it feel like to walk into your workplace and have everyone avoid you? Think of the sting He felt, the haunting hurt, the unremitting pain. The Incarnation begins with the joy of the angels and ends in the joy of the resurrection, but in between is this bruising and incalculable rejection. What does this have to do with our Christmas celebrations? Here is one answer:

To enter the joy of Christmas, we must also enter its sadness. I suggest this may be why we often don't enter this joy or why our holiday joy feels superficial, airy, and easily blown away. The deep joy of the angels at His birth and the disciples at His resurrection comes by walking through the tunnel of sadness over how sin has warped everything.

I have one suggestion for you this Christmas. Take some time to be still with the living Christ. Try to feel what He may have felt as He was misunderstood, rejected, beaten, and killed. Read John 1:10-11, but make sure you finish with verse 12: "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." Our acceptance of Him is not just joy for us as God's children, but joy for Jesus as well. Try to imagine how He may feel as One finally understood, accepted, and received.

Here is the true magic of this season, the true joy of Christmas. May it be yours this season.

Merry Christmas to all!

Bill

 

The Goodness of Grief

"Sorrow is better than laughter because a sad face is good for the heart" (Ecc. 7:3). This verse is one that flies in the face of everything we tend to chase after. We are at first resistant to even considering sorrow as good, but if we will let truth be our guide, we can move from being resistant to curious. Could sorrow and grief be good for us, and if so, how? 

I think I am beginning to understand. Some of it has to do with age. When I was young, I disliked funerals and the sorrow it brought forth, but as I have gotten older, funerals are actually energizing for me. In my tears, I find not just release for grief but empowerment for life. This same energy occurs as I face the power behind death—sin. Lately, I have been walking through a season of grief over my own sin, how I have repeatedly broken the law of love, both by omission and commission. Again, I have experienced both release and empowerment. I know it has been good for my heart, but what is the explanation for this odd surprise?

The goodness of grief lies in finally admitting reality.

The ever-looming specter of our death is something we subconsciously avoid, but as we grieve over the death of others, we start facing our own death and what our hearts long for in this life. In the same way, the ever-pressing offense of our sin we also avoid, but in admitting it, we find forgiveness and acceptance by God. In both cases, grief opens the heart in an expansive way, allowing us to feel the way things really are—that this life is short and often disappointing, that we are all a part of that disappointment and in some aspects responsible for it.

In all of this admission, we will be surprised by what can happen next: we meet Jesus.

Isaiah tells us that Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. This was the grief of His Father over the sin of the world and the grief of carrying that sin on the cross. To meditate on our death and our sin leads us in a strange way to feel connected to Him. Our willingness to feel sorrow can now be directed outside of ourselves to Him—first to feel sorrow over His crucifixion and then over a world decimated by evil and corruption. 

Here is how Jesus restated that verse in Ecclesiastes: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matt. 5:4). The ultimate reason why grief is good lies right here: it leads us to the Jesus, who longs to comfort us. In that comfort, we begin to understand how much we are loved—even in our sin. And in that love, we have the capacity to feel for others in their sin and sadness and offer them comfort as well.

Finally, grief leads us to the biggest surprise of all—joy.

The joy will sneak up on us in a moment of profound gratitude or loving praise or quiet surrender to God. But the route to this joy always wanders through the landscape of grief, a journey that begins as we meditate on our sin and death. But if we choose to go here, we will wander into joy, and behind the joy, we will find Him, guiding us all the way.

 

What Does God See in You?

During my first few years of high school teaching, I was unsure about so many things. There was one interaction, however, that jarred me out of my insecurity. The principal stopped me one day in the hallway and asked if I would consider being the assistant principal. I was dumbfounded. What could he possibly see in me that would make such a request plausible, even credible? Perhaps he had made a terrible mistake in his choice. After considering his offer, I graciously declined because I knew my place was in the classroom, yet that one moment has stayed with me all these years. He saw something in me that I didn’t see and called me out as a leader.

Recently I read the story of the calling of Moses and recognized the parallel. Moses saw himself as a murderer, a fugitive, resigned to end his life as a shepherd in the desert, but God saw something more. He saw a leader, and the one He had chosen to rescue His people. Moses was also dumbfounded at the offer: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11). Moses was resistant, thinking God had made a terrible mistake, but God eventually overcame his resistance. The rest of the story is one of the great redemptive epics of all time.

Moses’ story is unique, but the way God dealt with him certainly isn’t. God created us out of love, put distinct gifts in us, and knows what will give us joy. But we are blinded by our insecurities and fears. We cannot see ourselves as He sees us and so respond to His initiatives with resistance. But what if God is calling us out to do and become what we were created for? What if His calling is our deepest joy? What if answering that calling, even if it means walking into terrible unknowns, is the life we have been looking for? Yet, how do we know for sure? What guarantee are we given if we jump?

The answer to this question is the answer Moses got. God didn’t give him a litany concerning his preparation and gifts for such a job. Instead He responded with five words: “I will be with you” (v.12). If we follow His calling, we get His company, His voice, His coaching. It’s what we need to live out our destinies. It's all we need to live them out.

So what does God see in you? It's undoubtedly more than you see in yourself. To answer His call is to start becoming that person.