Trusting in the Emmanuel

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive in her womb, and she shall give birth to a son. And they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means: God is with us.” -Matthew 1:23

This statement by an angel, to the frightened carpenter Joseph, is one of the standard issue Christmas verses. And lately, it won’t get out of my head. But not because of it’s presence, rather because of it’s absence.

Here’s what I mean. This Christmas season has been the hardest for me to live within the reality that “God is with us.” Instead, I find myself wrestling almost daily with believing that God is truly near, that God is here and present with me. I realize and fully admit how narcissistic that sounds, and I try to guard myself from making such individualized statements about God (i.e. it’s all about God’s presence with ‘me!’ and then I may or may not choose to acknowledge God’s presence with ‘us’). But this season my heart is going there whether I want it to or not. My mind argues, and wants to hold tight to the knowledge of the presence of God, but my heart wars against it and finds reasons to doubt. Finds reasons to argue, reasons to latch on to the parts of my life recently that have been excruciatingly hard. The other day I wrote about some of this battle as it was reflected in attending church for the first time in a while.

And what’s curious to me is that lately I have had several very powerful reasons to accept the reality of the presence of God in my life right now. And yet, my heart still resists. It’s as though I’m living the chorus of the Mumford & Sons song, “Winter Winds”

And my head told my heart
“Let love grow”
But my heart told my head
“This time no”

So what has my head been telling my heart lately?

My wife is one week away from giving birth to our 4th boy. And what a beautiful reminder of God in so many ways. The God who creates and gives life to Creation has blessed us with the ability to create 4 miniature humans of our own. And the advent of THIS baby boy comes at the same time of year that the God who emptied God’s-self became clothed in humanity. What a perfect reminder.

And yet my heart resists.

The other day I had a conversation with someone who shared with me an incredible story of how I had been used by God to show up in someone else’s life at the exact right moment. I sent this person a text (someone I’ve texted maybe 5 times before in my life) letting them know I was thinking of them and pausing to pray for them. Come to find out, they received that text at the exact moment that something extremely difficult was happening in their life. There was maybe a 5 minute window that this moment even existed, and THAT’S precisely when I felt compelled to text them. There’s more coolness to the story that I won’t share here for the sake of anonymity, but suffice it to say that it was definitely a powerful indicator of “God with us.” And I know that the person who received my text was impacted by the presence of God. And I know that I, too, ought to have been impacted in this way.

And yet my heart resists.

A month ago we threw our kids, dog and a fish in the van and left our home in Arizona. Like many in this country, we are upside down with our mortgage. And like many, we were needing to sell our home quickly. For those who have been there before, you know the stress and strain that latches on to you when you move to a different state and leave behind a home that you hope and pray will sell. Two weeks ago, on Monday, we put our home on the market. By Tuesday we had five offers. By Thursday we accepted an offer and it went to the bank for approval. I can’t say for sure whether God assisted this process for us or not, but probably at another time in my life I might have easily attributed this moment to a blessing/presence of the Divine.

And yet my heart resists.

What I’m discovering is that while my mind has been presented with numerous evidences for the reality of God’s presence in my life, my heart seems intent on rejecting such notions. My heart is still lumbering along at a frustratingly slow pace since it was crushed several months back. My heart is still, at the very best, resisting God… and at the very worst, blaming God.

During the Advent season we are invited to a time of waiting. Of anticipation and expectation. The four words oft associated with Advent are Joy, Hope, Peace and Love.

But this season I might add a fifth word: Trust.

Better yet, I might just replace the original four with Trust.

You see, perhaps God (if God is at the moment doing such things) is inviting me in to a learning season of Trust. Perhaps God sees in my life areas where Trust is lacking, and during this season I get to lean in in a whole new way.

Trust, as I’m learning, isn’t the same thing as Faith. Here’s what I mean…

The author of Hebrews wrote, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Or maybe you could say, faith is what you cling to when your heart has a conviction about something but you simply can’t wrap your mind around it. But Trust? Maybe trust is what you cling to when your mind has a conviction about something but your heart can’t acquiesce.

Faith for me right now isn’t necessarily the issue. I believe in the ever-presence of the Creator, the always-thereness and always-nearness of the Divine. But right now I’m struggling to trust in that which I believe in. Or, to put it more simply, I’m struggling to feel what I know. We lean in to faith to help us overcome our lack of knowing. Right now, I need to lean in to trust to help me overcome my lack of feeling. Maybe the feelings will come… maybe not. Feelings are pretty flighty like that. But as finite humans we nonetheless rely on them quite a bit.

So, for this Christmas season, I might stick with the author of Hebrews, but go backwards to the second chapter. “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor… I will put my trust in him” (2:9,13).

I may not know what that looks like. I certainly don’t know how to do it. But just being able to step back and see a glimpse of what God might be calling me to right now in my life is enough. I will lean in to that, and by doing so, lean in to God. Lean in to the Emmanuel, the God who is with us. The God who, I am led to believe, is with me.

And then, maybe then, I’ll move from the chorus of “Winter Winds” to the final verse:

And if your strife strikes at your sleep
Remember spring swaps snow for leaves
You’ll be happy and wholesome again
When the city clears and sun ascends

45 Most Powerful Images, Violence, and Rene Girard

A couple days ago I shared a link that was going around on Facebook. It is 45 of the most powerful images from events in 2011 as gathered by buzzfeed.com (check them out, here)

This was my comment when I linked it:

20 of these 45 images depict violence or are a result of violence. This disturbs me. Violence, war, oppression, hatred, vengeance, and power disturb me. May the Prince of Peace use his divine influence in 2012.

My wife then mentioned how the majority of the other 25 picture were also violent images, but ones resulting from violent acts of nature. Only a select few (like the amazing elderly gay couple who just got married, pictured below) depicted something “beautiful” as one of the most powerful images. I suppose this all says something, doesn’t it, about our view of “power?”

Anyways, this morning I was reading about the works of Rene Girard, the brilliant French historian, literary critic and philosopher of social sciences. If you have an hour or two to kill, his work is incredible. Truly a giant in his own. His two main contributions are the mimetic theory (basically that our desire for objects is not based out of our own autonomous desire because of the object itself, but because someone else wants it), and the scapegoat mechanism (in an effort to control the violence that inevitably comes as a result of the mimetic theory, cultures/religions began sacrificing a “scapegoat” in pursuit of peace).

In one such article, I was struck by the following quote:

War no longer works to resolve conflict—indeed, wars no longer have clear beginnings, endings or aims. Moreover, as weapons have escalated, war could destroy us all.

The weapons of war are less and less distinguishable from forces of nature, echoing apocalyptic texts of the New Testament. Before the invention of apocalyptic weapons, we couldn’t see how realistic these texts were. But today we are in a situation where we can see that, and we should be extremely impressed by that.

Man is creating “more and more violence in a world that is practically without God, if you look at the way nations behave with each other and the way people behave with each other,” he said. “History, you might say, is a test for mankind. But we know very well that mankind is failing that test. In some ways, the Gospels and scriptures are predicting that failure since it ends with eschatological themes, which are literally the end of the world.”

His conclusion: “We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace. Even if we are provoked, challenged, we must give up violence once and for all.” (emphasis mine)

It appears my hopes are similar to Girard’s, which are similar to those of the Lord we both profess: Jesus.

Phyllis Siegel, 76, left, and Connie Kopelov, 84, both of New York, embrace after becoming the first same-sex couple to get married at the Manhattan City Clerk's office

Church. For the first time in two months.

Going to Church Again

“Where are we going, daddy?” Zeke asks, as he pulls the second sleeve of his big winter coat over his left arm.

“We are going to go to church this morning,” I reply, knowing that I haven’t given him that answer in quite some time.

“Church?” He responds skeptically. “Why are we going to church? Did you get a new job?”

So went the brief conversation with Zeke, my seven year old, yesterday as my wife and I gathered up the kids while simultaneously gathering up the courage to attend church for the first time in over 2 months.

There’s a strange sort of liberation-meets-despair in not having a home church. I’ve known plenty of people in my life who have been between churches, but that’s never been a chapter in the story of my life. As a youth I went where my mom went. In college I interned at a church. Upon graduating, I got a full-time Associate Worship Pastor job and worked there for two years. Then I moved to Arizona and worked at The Grove for the last five. But now…? Nothing. Nada. Zero church activity in Kate and mine’s life for the past 9 Sundays

On one shoulder I hear a small voice say, “now that you don’t WORK at a church, you can just WORSHIP at a church… any church you like! Just go for it!”

Her name is Liberation.

But you can call her Libby.

On the other shoulder I hear another voice: “You know that thing you’ve done every Sunday for the past 544 Sundays? That thing that’s helped define you and your life? The thing that keeps you centered and grounded, renewed and fresh? That thing that all your close friends do each week, and where you feel loved and accepted and a part of something? Yeah, well, that thing is gone.”

His name is Despair.

Or Dez, if you prefer.

Overdramatic? Perhaps. But it’s where I’m at right now, so deal with it.

Dez has been winning most every battle lately. I occasionally let Libby speak her piece, but I just can’t buy yet what she’s selling.

But yesterday Libby (supported by Katie) finally tasted victory.

We went to St Paul’s Episcopal Church here in Salem, OR, and having attended an Anglican church in Arizona a while back we had a general idea of what to expect. It was fun for me (as it usually is) to visit a church, because I get to see for fresh eyes what it’s really like coming to a church for the first time. Having worked full-time in the church for the past seven years I can’t tell you the number of meetings we’ve had wherein we discuss what we want our “first impression” to be for any visitors. We talk about what sort of experience they might have, or how they might interpret this or that. Most of that is guess work, since we’ve all been AT that church for years.

But when you visit, you get to really experience what it’s like to have a “first impression.”

We were warmly greeted by multiple people and quickly assisted in finding the nursery. There wasn’t (or so we thought) a kid’s program that day, so Zeke and Tai sat with us throughout the whole service. It was fun to see the slight look of surprise on people’s faces when they saw us and we confirmed that we were “new.” Either they don’t get many visitors or perhaps just not many young married couples with kids as visitors.

The sanctuary was stunning. My world for so long has been dominated by the Evangelical, post/modern church scene, where “theater” is the new “cathedral,” and giant screens are the new hymnals, that I forgot what sort of care and intentionality and beauty went in to constructing churches of old. I don’t know how long this church has been here, but it’s architecture is both dated and timeless, standing in the current future while echoing the dreams and designs from the past. With tall, arching wooden ceilings that reminded me of what Noah’s ark might look like if turned upside down. Beautiful stained glass windows all down either side, framed by wooden carvings depicting Biblical narratives. Two long rows of pews leading up to the front of the church with an elevated altar where eventually would sit the Eucharist elements. On the floor, in front of the altar, was a place for a band, a children’s choir, and a handbell choir. Suspended high above the Eucharist table was a beautiful golden cross. Everything in the room seemed insistent that you, as the participating worshiper, knew full well that Christ was going to be the Center of whatever occurs in that space. Including the fact that the preaching “pulpit” was off to the side. (*sidenote: for anyone who’s ever attended a worship gathering I’ve led, you may recall that I never stand in the center of the stage. I am always off to the side. This is intentional, for under no circumstance should our worship gatherings be confused and think that I should be the center of attention. So I love that the Episcopal church also forces action away from the center, where the Eucharist table resides and the cross hovers.)

The worship service itself was a beautiful liturgical dance. Moving from music to scripture to prayers to a sermon to more music and more prayers and more scripture readings. And everything worked it’s way towards Communion, for that is the pinnacle for which all previous expressions of worship lent themselves toward. (My fellow Catholic brothers and sisters shout a resounding “Well, duh!”)

I loved it. I loved that a woman (Rev. Heather Wenrick, Associate Rector) led much of the service, including giving a very fantastic sermon. A young woman, at that! (My wife loved this even more than I, and I’m sure she’ll blog about it soon!) The music (while I didn’t know any of it) was well done, even if not to my stylistic likings, but it all moved and flowed and had a purpose. And the words made me pause, think, reflect. I loved that my kids were welcome (in the pews the church had cards that welcomed parents of young kids, invited them to not stress out if their kids made noise, and invited non-parents to ALSO not stress out of the kids next to them made noise. How cool is that!?). I loved that the priest, when we went forward for communion, took time to ask us if the kids were receiving communion or a blessing. When we said “a blessing” he genuinely took the time to pray over both Zeke and Tai (we first experience this at Living Faith Anglican back in Arizona, where our dear friend Father Bob Fabey resided over worship. That was our first taste of Anglicanism/Episcopalianism, and it was wonderful. Thanks Bob!)

So, after a two month separation of church and self, it was good to be with the Lord’s people again on Sunday. And it was very good to be a part of St Paul’s. I’m sure we’ll be back.

Libby, thanks for not giving up on me. And Dez, thanks for taking the morning off. I’m sure you’ll be back, but the time apart was nice.

If you’re a life-time member of modern evangelical church world, I would strongly encourage you to visit a high-church some Sunday. Be it Anglican, Episcopal, or Catholic. Don’t worry, Jesus won’t mind. In fact, you’ll probably meet him there, in ways you’d never imagine.