Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas and God's Vindication

It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing
through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the
work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through
the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the
Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then
was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them?
In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have
been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and
perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes
would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never
created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off
by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.
-Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation

By the majority of accounts, Athanasius was a 1st class pastor and bishop in addition to being a premier scholar in his day.  It's not hard to see how his passion for ministry was well-suited to his theological perspective by any examination of the quotation above.  For Athanasius, the very impulse by which God seeks to right the wrongs of sin and death in the physical universe isn't just for His own vindication.  But God's divine determination to demonstrate His holiness and His great love for us are ball and socket of one and the same joint.  

Christmas is celebrated all over the world, but in the Church, we worship God for taking on flesh.  This is the doctrine called "the Incarnation" (and it also includes something called "The Hypostatic Union" which is creatively explained by Shai Linne).  The Spirit-God, according to His own wisdom and purpose made the physical universe.  And in doing so, Athanasius argues, He was making a commitment to care for and maintain it.  Although He created an image-bearer to act as His agent on earth, God was still ultimately sovereign and would ultimately respond, as it were, to the blunder of man and the belligerence of the Enemy. 

Despite man's sin, God was unwilling to "let corruption and death have their way" with man and the universe.  So, God entered into His creation to ultimately right it's wrongs and history a monumental chapter change in the story chronicling  the outbreak of God's Kingdom in Christ's birth.  God had already been active in the steady march against sin, but in Christ, He had turned up the momentum and was surely set on defeating the Devil, sin, and death itself by the Cross and Resurrection.  John Donne in the Book of Uncommon Prayers puts it like this:  "His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day.  From the [cradle] to the cross is an inseparable line.  Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter."    

This Christmas, I am encouraged.  I am reminded that God is entirely engrossed and engaged in overcoming the deepest problems in my life.  Because of Christmas, I know that God is not just winking at sin in my body, but is sure to defeat it.  And since I am His, I'm to cooperate with Him as a dutiful son, industrious "about my Father's business".  Despite my own failures, I know that He will not fail, nor will He forsake me; for He cannot forsake Himself, nor will He suffer losing me to another.  His glory is my comfort and assurance for He is committed to His glory and to His elect.

Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.  Good will to men on whom His favor rests.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Haiti Missions Trip Recap 02: Spreading the Word

Why didn't Jesus just come as an adult and go straight to the cross?  Wouldn't that still have been an act of supreme love?  In Acts 3, we find Peter and John in the Temple, healing a man who was lame.  Acts 19:11-12 tells us that people who merely came in contact with Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons were cured.  Surely these are sufficient for demonstrating to the world the One Who is Yahweh-Rapha, "the Lord Who heals you".  After all, didn't St. Francis of Assisi give us those inspiring words, "Preach the gospel everywhere and use words if necessary"?

I started thinking about these things after our 2nd work day in Lambi Village.  It was then that I had several conversations with village residents who said that they were Christians but didn't own a Bible.  I shared my concern with one of the pastors on the team who agreed that we should definitely be looking to do both: provide practical support that meets a felt need AND distribute Bibles while ministering God's word to persons at every opportunity that we are able to do so.

The leaves change colors in autumn, but hearts seem to bud and open like flowers in spring.  Every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there appears to be an increase in active expressions of generosity, kindness, hospitality, and cheer.  I certainly welcome that kind of shift, but I wonder: is it Christian, or is it cultural?  After all, Christians aren't the only ones who participate in the kind of charitable giving and volunteering that we have become accustomed to during the holiday season.  The truth is, many have come to accept the idea that in such cases, "actions speak louder than words".

But I beg to differ.

Let's look back at the questions we started with.  If we saw Jesus on the cross, never having taught/preached as He did.  How would we know Who He really was?  Is He a martyr, criminal, or the Son of God?  Without His teaching, we would have never guessed at the last option.  Were Peter, John, and Paul magicians?  Were they physicians?  Were they Greek gods manifested in the flesh or were they humble servants of Jesus, the dead man Who came back to life, that were commissioned to continue His work in His name?  Without their teachings/writings, we wouldn't have assumed that option either.  And something else is true: without their words, none of them would have suffered the persecution that they had to endure.

Jesus wasn't put to death because He healed lepers, gave widows back their dead sons, or fed thousands on  a five loaves of bread and two fish.  Peter wasn't imprisoned for making a lame man dance.  The mobs didn't stone Paul, attempting to kill him because he freed a slave girl from her demon possession.  All these good works were welcomed and the men through whom God performed them would have been equally received if it were not for the gospel of God's work in Christ and it's life-changing power through the Holy Spirit.  The miraculous and merciful actions of Jesus and the early church were not alone, but accompanied by a message that was offensive to most of their hearers.  They preached it anyway, and if we don't how can we be counted as faithful?

"Faith comes by seeing, and seeing by watching the things I do without mentioning the name of the one who loves me".  Dear reader, if you are one of the many who would say, "I can do evangelism [which is defined as proclaiming the gospel] by doing good deeds and honor God without communicating a single word", I would ask you to find the "verse" quoted above in the Bible.  Until you show me that, I'll believe this one:  "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17).

Again, it's Christmas time.  Let's be zealous for the good works that accompany the season.  It is certainly true that God has called us--even fashioned us for such things.  But as we do the works, woe unto us if we preach not the gospel.  Why would we do good works without a mention of our Father in heaven and specifically make known that our works are done to honor JESUS?  Have we chosen to conform to the world out of fear for their rebuke when we should have considered it God's reward to suffer for the gospel's sake?  Christian courage demands better of us.  For all that He's given us and sacrificed, wouldn't it be good to give Him the gift of a bold, wise, and specifically gospel-centered witness at this blessed time of year?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Evil Among Us

Yesterday's tragedy was one of those powerful reminders of why it's SO hard to say goodbye to (moral) absolutes.  No one who heard of the fatal shooting where so many little children died is confused about the nature of what was done.  No one is wondering if the shooter was "misunderstood" or "meant well" or "had good intentions".  No one is willing to give the shooting itself a shoulder-shrugging as if unsure of the ethical implications.  One word describes it all: evil.

There is fear.  There is shock.  There is sadness.  There is pain.  There is confusion.  There is anger.  For all that people feel about the absurd loss of life, clearly all these emotions spring from the evil nature of what was done.  I'm not going to say much about the murder suspect.  His actions have spoken for him.  But I do have a question:  For all the outrage over the evil that has happened among us, is there any outrage in our day-to-day lives about the evil within us?

Are you defensive already?  Quick to say, "Hey, I'm no angel, but I'm not a mass-murderer either..."?  That's not in question, nor is it my accusation.  I'm just wondering why it takes a spectacular showing of evil in someone else to illicit righteous indignation... but the evil in our own hearts is quietly excused?  The evil we speak, love to hear, and seek to watch- the evil things that we happily engage in alone or perhaps with "consenting adults"- why are these so callously forgotten when the obvious sins of others are manifest?  

This is still Christmas time.  And if Christ came for anything, it was to destroy the works of the devil.  Yesterday's horror story--grim as it was/is-- cannot erase the objective reality of Jesus' incarnation to bring peace where the evil in men's hearts preferred war with the Maker.  If there is any true comfort anywhere in the world, it is in the gospel which proclaims a Savior Who "comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found".  Not just the curse found among us, but the curse found within us.  

I am so grateful for redemption from the curse.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Haiti Missions Trip Recap 01: The Incarnation

At some point in late July or early August TNMBC Senior Pastor Patrick J. Walker and Pastor Angelo Berry tapped 10 men on the shoulder.  Of course, this is figurative language for the challenge they put forth for some to take hold of the opportunity afforded by partnership with Lott Carey and Grace International to be a blessing to the Haitian people for the glory of God at Lambi Village.  The slogan was "100 Men, 10 Homes" and the idea was to help rebuild the lives of Haitians who lost homes during the 2010 earthquake.  I knew I was going and with a little re-shuffling, TNMBC ended up sending 9 men including two Haitian-Americans: myself and another brother from Cambria Heights (Queens), NY- Ricardi Damille.  More on him later...

One of the first things I understood about the trip was that this was a work-based missions trip.  There are all kinds of missions trips and this would be my second one centered on building/construction.  I knew that the labor itself would be an expression of God's love as demonstrated by Jesus on the cross, but not exactly the proclamation of it.  As Ephesians 2 teaches us, we are saved by grace through faith- not of works.  But the same chapter also informs us that even before we came to Christ, God had already drawn up plans for our lives that included specific works--good works-- that would distinguish and mark us as masterpieces; His very own handiwork (Ephesians 2:10).

To me, life itself is nothing more than the unfolding and discovery of God's dream for how my life should glorify Him.  So, I can say that I truly felt led to go.  I was ready for the grunt work.  I welcomed the sweat.  Lord knows, I ate a pound of dust everyday going to and from the work site via the dusty roads between Carrefour and Leogane.  While I was prepared to follow through the day-to-day rigors of construction that the mission called for, I am truly grateful for moments orchestrated by Providence when the greater mission emerged.  With Ricardi's permission, I'm glad to share one such experience at this time.

The team had already spent half of the day under the Haitian sun at heavy labor when one of our team members took ill.  I happened to be walking up a hill with Jonny Jeune, our host and construction engineer for the village.  When we spotted our brother who was obviously suffering from some kind of heat exhaustion, Jonny quickly decided he should go back to our living quarters.  He wisely asked Ricardi, fluent in Haitian Creole, to accompany our brother who is also an elder pastor.  They headed back to the hotel together.

Once the pastor was comfortably seated, Ricardi went to find some water to bring him more relief.  However, when he requested water from the owner's son, the young man mumbled something to himself and walked away completely dismissing Ricardi's plea on behalf of the pastor.  Not sure what to make of it, Ricardi returned to the pastor to care for and keep an eye on him.  At that time, an employee of the hotel observed Ricardi speaking with the older pastor and immediately left the vicinity only to return with cold, bottled water and this apology,

"Oh sir, please forgive us!  We didn't know that you were with the foreigners!"

You see, Ricardi had made his request to the Haitian hotel owner's son in perfect Creole but was then heard speaking perfect English with the American pastor.

Please understand that under normal circumstances, virtually any U.S. citizen would receive preferential treatment.  Even for people like Ricardi and myself, although we are 100% Haitian-blooded, we are still American citizens by birth and are therefore thrust into the ultra upper-class in terms of economic freedom and political protection in Haiti.  But because Ricardi looked like a Haitian, spoke like a Haitian, appeared to be begging (asking for water) and was in work clothes doing heavy labor like many Haitian males, he didn't at all resemble a man of comparably privileged origins.  And because he looked like a common Haitian, he was treated accordingly and suffered the humiliation of being ignored and cast aside.  Why?  All because his appearance didn't match his actual station in life and also because he had assimilated and "fit in" so well.

"He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.  He had no beauty of majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.  Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not"  --Isaiah 53:2-3

As I reflected on Ricardi's experience, I couldn't help but think of God's divine Son taking on flesh and blood for our sake.  So many would sell their own parents for a chance to rub shoulders with the rich, famous, and powerful.  But how many people walked right past the Son of God every day without knowing it.  Even worse, how many who saw Him at work with awesome and wise teaching not to mention mighty acts of miraculous power still chose to reject Him?  And why?  All because he didn't look like the kind of person who was important.  In fact, Jesus looked so normal that even with His message and miracles, people couldn't get past His "average-ness".  Christ, the Almighty Foreigner in our midst, was disregarded, despised and doubted because He looked too familiar and spoke our language too well.

I'll say a lot more on this blog about other experiences I and others shared in Haiti from Dec. 1st to the 8th.  But I wanted to start with this one because we are in the Christmas season.  I thought it was fitting to think about the sacrifice Jesus made long before He got to the cross: the sacrifice of relinquishing status, position, and honor to become like us.  Calculate the miles I and my teammates may have traveled and consider what comforts we passed up and missed out on.  Combine all that we missed we may have given up in terms of distance from family/friends and multiply that by whatever we may have paid and others donated in terms of cost to go to Haiti, etc. Put it all together and it's virtually nothing- not even a drop in the ocean- compared with what Christ endured for our sake just in coming to the world.

In closing, my deacon brother Brad Lee told me something on the way back from Haiti that his basic training sergeant told him, "I won't ask you to do anything that I myself wouldn't do."  With respect to evangelism and specifically this missions trip, a lot has been made of the fact that Christians have a duty to "Go" and fulfill the Great Commission.  But how many have considered the fact that Jesus asked us to "go" and had a right to do so because when He was asked to "go", He did it.  The True Missionary and the Real Evangelist is none other than Jesus Christ.  And because He came, we can certainly go.  Because of all He went through, we can certainly endure all things with His power.  Man, I love Christmas!