Filtering by Tag: theology

Advent Reflection

(Warning: Theological Content to follow).


Every year Joy and I prepare for Christmas in what has become a traditional way.  After Thanksgiving (and not before), we take out a small box of Christmas decorations: two nutcrackers, family ornaments, stockings, and a nativity.  We bake gingerbread cookies, make hot cocoa, and set the music to Over the Rhine’s “Snow Angels” as we decorate the tree.  Gingerbread cookies, Snow Angels, and the movie Children of Men only appear during the weeks leading up to Christmas, during the season of Advent, filling the weeks prior to Advent with a type of anticipation of its own. 

Advent is my favorite time of year.  This holy time marks, for me, a special moment of both reflection and preparation, of contemplation and action.  During this time, our memories are jarred once again to the notion that God has come in Jesus, is present with us, and will come again. Alongside Mary, we celebrate the annunciation of the Coming Lord.  We celebrate what God has already done.  And like Simeon, we wait in eager expectation of the fullness of God’s righteousness to be completed on earth as it is in heaven.  We celebrate and long for what God has yet to do.

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This year, we added another Advent portion to the season.  We pulled together an Advent walk through scripture, a reading in the Gospels, Prophets, or Psalms each day of the week, and two on Sunday.  Each morning at breakfast, we have Justice open up the next colorful envelope and hand the card to mama or daddy.  She recognized early that the last card, the one marked 25, is the only Pink card on the line.  About a week ago, she started asking whether we could open the Pink one.  We tell her that it isn’t yet time, that it will be opened, and that she needs to be patient.  And yet, almost like a prayer, she continues to ask whether she can open the Pink one.

It’s amazing how children help guide us during these times.  Something as simple as one color by itself can fill a child with anticipation.  Her waiting for that envelope is not unlike our waiting for the Coming Lord.  This year, two revelations have been restored in my thoughts while traveling through Advent.

1). Advent/Christmas remains a time we remember the radical nature of a Missionary God. 

Perhaps because Joy and I live into the vocational calling of “missionaries,” I’m continually struck by the missionary nature of the Incarnation.  That is, God sent the Son to be with us in order to reconcile all of creation to be one with its Creator.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the words of Isaiah ring forth: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Immanuel, which means God with us.”  And Philippians 2 adds that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to hold on to, but rather became like us. 

Most Christians understand that a wide gap exists between God and humanity.  That is, we are not God.  And yet, God chooses to enter into our existence, into the depths of humanity and even death, in the person of Jesus.  It is then, through Jesus that we understand God’s nature as a God-on-the-move.  God is on the move to restore, redeem, heal, and reconcile the brokenness of our lives and bring them into a loving fullness described as abundant life through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw describe it like this, “God is set loose in the world for mission, fully as God and man. God’s very presence is bursting out into the world in and through the death of the Son” (38).  The Incarnation is a missionary act.  God’s movement toward us describes the mission of God to redeem the world. And it is a movement that we ought emulate.

2). The missionary act of entering into a new culture is one met with waiting and patience. 

Advent remains that time of year in which the church remembers that we are a people between time, an “already but not yet” community that both mourns the brokenness around us and anticipates the new life that has already come and is coming through Jesus of Nazareth.  In Matthew, we read parables of waiting and readiness (Matthew 25).  We are told to anticipate and be ready for the Coming of the Lord.  The way the church prepares for this coming is by living in the present the kind of Life that God, in Jesus, proclaims.  We are to be a visible marker of the Kingdom of God for the world to see.  In this way, the church is an extension of the incarnation for the sake of the world.  And yet, we are grieved by the amount of death, brokenness, sickness, and isolation all around us.  We live in the tension between the brokenness of our communities and the patient hope of renewed life through Jesus Christ.

Joy and I spent 3 months in a type purgatorial waiting.  Between ending jobs in Nashville, moving out of our apartment, and living in my mother-in-law’s basement, we spent a fair amount of time waiting to move to Hawaii.  But once here, we’ve found a whole new meaning for being patient. Learning a new culture, meeting new people, establishing new friendships, and beginning a new ministry position (all while anticipating the birth of our second born), all takes a lot of time. Through it all, the hurts and pains of our neighbors are becoming even more realized.  Our prayers are becoming more poignant, more invested in this place.  We truly believe that we are a part of a team and a church that that will witness faithfully to God’s Kingdom come here on the Kona Coast, but a lot of our work is still very much preparatory.  

Advent has once again reminded me of the need to be patient; that God’s Kingdom does not come by my ability and skill, but only through the grace and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Advent has allowed me to slow down, recognize the importance of my presence-for-others, and truly live into the call of missionary.

The Revival will Come from the Margins

A friend of mine asked me last week, "Is the church obsolete?"  It's a loaded question for sure, and one that probably needs a little nuance and context, but it's a question worth engaging.  My answer to said question was one of perspective.  We are currently living in a moment in which the church no longer dictates the social, political, or moral leanings of society.  The story of Jesus as found in scripture is no longer normative for many of our neighbors.  As such, many from the centers of power, the people of influence, the academic machine, and the economic systems have longed judged the church as obsolete, even antiquated.  Who needs a concept of Christian salvation when the nation state and corporations have already saved us?  That's one perspective.

Then there's the perspective of those on the periphery of society, the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten, those people and people groups who have been marginalized by the power brokers of our time.  Historically, revival begins on the margins, from grass-roots engagement with the deep social needs in a community.  Charles Finney, John Wesley, and our own Nazarene founders, like Phineas Bresee, all patterned their revival movements around the concept that social consciousness, communal justice, and individual holiness are intertwined.  Indeed there is no view of the Kingdom that allows a gospel devoid of changed social relationships.

When one testifies to a changed life, the forgiveness of sin, and inward renewal of the Spirit toward Christ likeness, we call it conversion. When a group of people have devoted themselves to each other, their neighbors, and their community in love, allowing God to give new ways of living and seeing together that transforms our daily existence, we call it revival. Often times, the prompting of change occurs in a deep experience or interaction with marginalized people. When we read through scripture God continues to point toward the possibility of Spirit lead renewal through people otherwise forgotten by history: slaves, fishermen, zealots, Gentiles, and women. Out of these groups, we have movements of political and social liberation, new economic relationships, human dignity afforded to those culturally on the outskirts, hospitality extended to strangers, and forgiveness granted to enemies. For the church to embody these practices to our neighbors with the faith gifted to us by The Lord, revival would not be far off. In fact, for those in desperate need of belonging, forgiveness, honesty, social inclusion, economic equality, and purposeful work, the church is anything but obsolete.

One of Kona Coast Nazarene's core values states, "We are a Revival People."  In other words, we expect God to do something new, to change our vision, to transform our pattern of living, and as a result use this church to transform our neighbors and neighborhoods into demonstrations of the Kingdom.  One direction we're heading within my own mission zone (N. Kona), are working with the most recent and fastest growing immigrant populations: Marshallese, Micronesians, Hispanic, and Samoan people groups.  A revival church places itself alongside these communities and people on the periphery.  A missionary church inhabits the borders built to exclude.  As missionary-pastors we are working to blend into this social milieu and, while there, begin to define the gifts and needs of the communities and identify local leaders for training, discipleship, and ministry.  For us, it is not out of the realm of possibility to see a church plant within each of these communities, lead by a local leader, and supported by the staff of Kona Coast Naz.

What Do You Hope For?

The men from Judah said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
— Nehemiah 1:3-4
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As I begin to meet with church members and community members, listening to their stories of living in Kona, their family dynamics, work environment, and social relationships, I have a few questions that help guide our conversations.  One of the most important questions I ask is one of the simplest questions.  What do you hope for; what do you dream to see happen in this community?

The question almost always gets at a deep desire within a person.  This question helps me see their passion.  I'm convinced the majority of people are not as apathetic as they may first appear; rather, there is a latent hidden passion within all of us.  We all care about something.  We all would give up a certain amount of time or money to be able to do something we care deeply about.  In many cases, we already do this.  A mom values her child's education so chooses to volunteer in the local school.  A dad values both bodily health and time with his son, so he takes him surfing once a week- carving out time from work to make it happen.  We spend time and money on that which we value.  

But the question can also point toward that which gives us pain.  In other words, asking for what we ultimately hope can give us insight into what is worth weeping over.  When Nehemiah heard about the plight of the Jewish refugees, his heart was broken, so broken that he spent days fasting and praying.  He assumed the brokenness of his fellow brothers and wept.  Asking for what we hope is the optimistic way of asking, "What makes you weep?"  When you look out over your city and community, does your heart break for those living there?  Do we know our communities and neighbors well enough to allow this to happen?  Or, are our hearts so hardened to the Spirit that we would rather ignore and bypass communal suffering?  Only a church willing to weep over the wounds of the community will approach that community in the humility that engenders transformation and healing.

When we read through Nehemiah we see that his grief cultivated a renewed spirit of work.  His grief was channeled into a type of prophetic energy that led to the transformation and peace of the city of Jerusalem.  His weeping turned into a hopeful practice of rebuilding the city walls.  If someone were to ask Nehemiah what he hoped for, we could intuit his answer stemming from his grief of a city in disrepair.  The King asks Nehemiah, "Why do you look sad, what do you want?"  In other words, what will turn your sadness into Joy (Neh. 2)?  And he grants Nehemiah safe passage back to Jerusalem, the resources to build the walls, and the time necessary to do it well.  

As I encounter those on the Kona Coast, my eyes and ears are being tuned to weeping and hoping. My prayer is that we as a community may be granted the resources and time to bring about the kind of redemptive change that stems from such tears.  

What Do You See?

We've been in Hawaii now for three weeks, and I'm beginning to be asked the question, "What are you doing?"  And while I understand the sentiment behind this question- the longing for some kind of change to be immanent, the new haole* face that is both hopeful and suspect in the same smile- I can't help but think the more appropriate question might be, "What do you see?"

It's really easy to jump into a situation and start doing a bunch of stuff without taking the time to observe.  For those who are driven to be a part of any kind of social and spiritual transformation, the slowness of listening is borderline drudgery.  We fool ourselves into thinking that our doing equates to positive movement.  Not all movement is equal, especially in relation to a new context with different issues, different people, and different identities.  If we don't take the time to observe and learn, our hasty actions may cause more harm to those with whom we wish to be friends.

Learning to see is always the first step in any work.  We must ask the question, "What's going on here?"  How does the story of this community in Kona relate to the story God's redemptive work?  And, we can't understand how God is moving and will continue to move in this place unless we first understand this place.  Joy and I enter into this community like infants, dependent on the community to teach us their pattern of life, their culture.  If we don't take this time, remaining blind to the nuances of life in Kona, our ministry here won't be effective.  Without dedicated time to observe, we will continue to carry our cultural heritage and language over/against this place, expecting conformity to our way of doing things. 

Ultimately, our guide is Christ's move into humanity- the Incarnation.  Just as God fully immersed God's self into our state of living, taking on human flesh and the cultural heritage of Jewish life and all the social and political instability of first century Palestine, we too must fully immerse ourselves into a different culture, allowing our cultural blindness to be restored.  We must be given new eyes.

Pastor Ryan is in the middle of series on Vision.  He preached, "Our witness to this community cannot begin with a crow bar, using texts to prove people wrong, but with our posture praying, 'My Lord and My God.'"  For us, this means entering into this place with humility.  We do not want to force our way into change, especially when we do not yet understand the measure of change that God desires.  And that's the rub, we know God is working here in Kona.  We know God has gone before us preparing people and places for our arrival.  We know there is a general darkness in need of Christ's light.  The Kingdom of God is real, physical, tangible transformation that can be seen and touched through God's people.  But we need to first learn what God's salvation looks like in this place.  What needs saving?  What gifts and graces in the community are latent and just need to be watered?  What powers need to be critiqued and countered, and who are the ones who have been marginalized and oppressed by those powers?  Who are the ones open to our presence in this place?  What work of God has started already that we can join?

The next few months, we'll be in the process of receiving new eyes.  And we'll be sharing some of our observations and reflections with you as we learn to see again.

* Haole is the term used in Hawaii for foreigners, tourists, mainlanders, or just plain old white folk.