I’ve been reflecting a lot on the incarnation this Advent, how God enters into our mess and our pain, shows us what God is like, and speaks hope to the world.
Philippians 2 is one of those passages I end up in a lot, probably because I have a tendency towards pride and grasping at power:
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very natureGod,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
There’s this downward movement of Jesus, down from Glory, down to a servant, down to death of the lowest and undignified kind. It’s the ultimate stooping, the God of Life cratering down to death on a cross.
And then an upward movement because of the downward. Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place, name above all names, where the rest of creation is bowing low to Jesus.
And I look at our ideas of power, of victory. We grasp at power, at success, at a better reputation, at being more and doing more. If the Body of Christ doesn’t reflect this downward movement of humility, can we ever say we are like Jesus?
Can we let go of our need to fill the pews up and be known as The Church To Go To in Town, and instead bow our knees to the Almighty?
Can we let go of big programs and productions and newer, bigger, better things and serve the poor, the widows, the homeless, the Lost, the people we don’t think are worthy of our love and service? Can we let go of our big things to do small things like meeting one-on-one with a younger believer and showing them what Jesus is like and how to follow him?
Can we stop grasping at what we think we’ve earned through hard work, what we think we deserve, and use all that we have as God intended–for His glory and His purposes?
Jesus is our example that the great victory is in sacrifice; that the roaring Lion of Judah is really a slaughtered Lamb (Rev 5:4-6). That power is obtained through bowing low. The world as we know it is upside-down; what we think is Power and Strength and Wisdom is really weakness and foolishness.
I want to make downward movements this Advent, as Jesus did. I want to see the Church bowing low together.
How can we do this?
What examples have you seen of this?
Fourteen years ago, I stood before the church Advent wreath beside my mother. Diagnosed with malignant brain tumors and given mere months to live, she had been asked by our pastor to light the candle of Peace. Clearly undergoing an internal struggle with peace, my mother asked me to do it instead.
The incarnation of Christ was always a hard one for me.
God left the glory of heaven, became a flesh-and-blood person. The incarnation has always felt like something too holy to approach – too otherworldly, too beyond my comprehension. There are stars and angels, and all creation silently worships at this “hallowed manger ground.” God coming near still felt…far.
Until I gave birth.
I look at nativity scenes now with humor. I think, “Are you kidding me?!” The three members of the holy family with a soft halo, serene and peaceful smiles. Jesus is clean, alert, and roly-poly with beautiful brown curls. Mary with her pale skin and glowing smile. All the animals peering in on the scene with interest.
If you’re a mother, you’re probably laughing now. Is this how you looked and felt after giving birth? Is this what your baby looked like? Where was my soft and hazy halo?
The truth is, the incarnation is beautifully displayed in the messiness of birth. This advent, as I process my third birth experience, I am meditating on the love of a God who would not only give himself over to a cross, but also to a woman’s womb and birth canal.
So I imagine Mary’s contractions, each squeezing and racking her entire abdomen and pushing the Son of God further down. He was there, in her body that He created and called good. The Giver of All receiving from a young girl, nourished by her womb until the right time.
Mary is waiting expectantly, wondering with each wave how much longer, or if she could even keep going. Then feeling sure that she cannot do this. “It’s so hard, I’m so tired, I’m so weak.” She wishes she were somewhere familiar and comforting. One of Bethlehem’s midwives is probably summoned, or maybe some of the women from their traveling caravan. Every smell is nauseating, and she curses the animals for leaving their fecal matter. The innkeeper’s daughter is bringing rags to mop the sweat from the mother’s face, offering food and drink to all the attendants with Eastern hospitality and warmth. Mary vomits and sobs as she transitions from active labor to pushing.
And then the crowning. “Mary! I see his head! He has hair!!” Mary, suddenly rallying all her strength and knowing she can do it. The urge comes with the contraction, and she bears down with all her might, grunting and panting. The great I AM WHO I AM, inching through the birth canal. Slowly. And then! He’s here. Mary collapses with relief and exhaustion, and a midwife quickly wraps the screaming boy in the shawl Mary threw off hours ago as she paced through the straw. The old woman places him, cord still pulsing, on Mary’s chest.
Mary is sobbing and laughing and counting toes and wondering, “Is this really the Messiah?” Gabriel’s words echo in her mind, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” He is covered in blood and cheese-like vernix, but his head smells sweet and Mary is euphoric as she looks at his squished, beautiful face. This is the ruler of the everlasting Kingdom? This Jesus? My Jesus?
The afterpains begin as she nurses.The God of heaven, now nursing at the breast. She fumbles at the awkward hold and has to fix his latch several times before he drinks well. He soils the swaddling clothes and someone gives the small Savior another.
Is this too human? Is this not holy and sanitized enough for a nativity set?
This is God-made-flesh.
If you’ve been where Mary is, you know the holiness of it all. You can’t believe your body just did this. You can’t believe that 9 or 10 months of waiting and waddling is finally over. He is here. He is here! And it was the most excruciating, horrible, beautiful, messy, smelly, embarrassing, and sacred moment of your entire life.
But my child was never the Creator.
The incarnation connects me to the Almighty who created all the universe and orchestrates history, because He came into the world in the same disgusting, undignified, and miraculous way that I did. The incarnation connects me to Mary, blessed among women, for her agony and joy and fear and the giving love of a mother. I can picture Joseph in my husband’s own scared-but-strong face. The incarnation is God coming into what is utterly human.
The incarnation is a reminder that God does not wait for us in marble temples or buttressed cathedrals; rather, He is present with us in the ordinary, the gross, the everyday stuff that we wallow in. He has come near in the most incredible way to bring New Birth.
The incarnation is God-with-us. This is what it is like for God to become flesh. Is there any part of our lives He does not enter, that He will not meet us in?
The state of the Church has been on my heart lately, driving me to my knees and causing the prophet within me to cry out. You might be tired of my lamenting and longing. But I hope you’re becoming restless for better things, as I am.
If you are restless, I have a book for you: The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice by Mark Labberton (IVP, 2007). I warn you: if you want to keep God at a distance so He doesn’t wreck your life, if you want to remain in your comfortable church culture, closing your eyes and ears to the rest of the world, you probably shouldn’t read this book.
Labberton’s cry is that the American Church is, for the most part, asleep to God. We are busy, pressed in by immediate needs, but more often than not, we are not busy and pressed by the things that God is most concerned with. We end up sleepwalking in our middle class bubbles, blind and deaf to a world crying out for justice. We remain inert while much of the world is in dire poverty, dying of hunger and disease from poor water supply, thrown to the sidelines for their skin color, used and abused as those in power wield that power with evil.
Labberton’s concern is that our worship isn’t leading the Church to seek justice in the world. He asserts, “Worship is meant to produce lives fully attentive to reality as God sees it and that’s more than most of us want to deal with.” But a person fully engaged in whole-life worship will go deeper into the heart of God, and find that they and their people aren’t the only ones there. Love of God naturally leads to love of neighbor. Love of self will lead to losing track of our neighbor. Love of self leads to wars over what kind of music is played on Sunday morning–”many debates about worship are just indirect ways of talking about ourselves, not God.” Our personal tastes and preferences often matter more to us than God’s glory. Faithful worship reorients us to God’s heart, God’s purposes, and God’s glory.
And it isn’t comfortable. Encountering the Almighty God will (and should!) change you. Instead of seeing so much human need in the world and becoming paralyzed by the vastness, or simply being grateful we don’t have to live the way others do, true worship should lead us to consider the cross-shaped life and to enter into the suffering of others.
I’ve read a lot of books on justice, but Labberton does it better. First, he plants justice issues firmly within a life of worship. We aren’t just seeking to do good things in the world. We begin by pressing into Christ and seeking His transformation in our hearts to enable us to love, and to supply us with His imagination for justice. As we move into works of justice, rather than simply seeking to make the world a little better, we are living witnesses of what God is like and what He will do.
Second, he doesn’t assume the entire Church acts as the majority church in America does. Labberton is careful to note the vastness and variety of the American church–many individuals and church communities are vibrantly awake to God’s purposes in this world. But he confesses that as a white, middle class male, his perspective is often limited to only other white, middle class communities. But as this is generally the audience he is speaking to, it isn’t such a weakness. He is an insider. He doesn’t point fingers at others from a high place; he confesses that this lethargy is within him, too. He also doesn’t just call attention to problems; he gives stories of people and churches actively engaging these problems, giving us ideas for the possibilities.
A lot of books on Christian justice leave you feeling like you need to engage in a flurry of frenzied activity to make a difference in the world. Labberton avoids this by focusing on worship of God as the center of justice. He also has an entire chapter devoted to Sabbath, and emphasizes the need for counter-cultural Sabbath practices to root us in worship, acknowledge our limits as people who are not God, and gives us space to recognize what needs to be cut out of our lives.
One specific spiritual practice that he mentions is that of reading Scripture for other people. Normally, we read read the Bible for ourselves and what we can get out of it, looking for some encouragement along the way. Labberton once participated in a small group where each person tried to read the Bible with the perspective of someone else that they knew: a mom with AIDS, a lifer in prison, a homeless teenage runaway. It brought down so many blinders and enabled them to enter into someone else’s suffering and see how God’s grace was truly good news for everyone.
Labberton also recognizes that not all justice is establishing a large nonprofit to care for human trafficking victims or moving across the globe. Jesus mentions some of these small, everyday acts of justice: giving a cup of cold water, giving away one coat when we have two, stopping to care for someone along the way. We need to live with our eyes wide open to those around us; we also need those who will change their neighborhoods (whether to the inner city or across the globe). Worship attunes us to the heart of God, who infuses us with His imagination for the healing of the nations. Furthermore, he recognizes that we are not merely individuals do our acts of justice apart from anyone else; the Church is a body, with parts working together. We don’t have to do this hard work alone.
The one thing I felt needed more explanation was his weaving together of the Gospel and justice. Our church subculture carries a lot of baggage concerning evangelism and justice; many still want to divide the two, and I feel a clearer explanation may have been beneficial.
Overall, I’ve found that this book has changed my worship. Labberton has challenged me to consider the danger of anesthetized worship, the very real idols that I have constructed in my heart that must be smashed down, and as I seek the heart of God, to love my neighbor who I find there.
The Dangerous Act of Worship is a well-written, passionate, and challenging book that calls the Church to live awake to God in true worship, which should spin us out to do justice in the world that He loves.
It would seem that the worst thing you can do to a person in our day is to make them feel guilty. When we have guilt, we feel judged by others, feel bad about ourselves and our life choices, and we wallow in self-pity.
A million articles are floating around the internet centered on mom guilt and spiritual guilt. People feel judged for their choices of child care, how they feed and nap their infants, how they pray, how missional they are, how much Scripture they read. We write off the guilt with reassurances, we tell each other not to judge one another and make others feel bad about their choices.
But what if guilt is actually good?
Guilt is either founded or unfounded. It has its root in either truth or lies. The feelings of guilt should lead us to introspection. Do I feel guilty because I am guilty? Or are my feelings of guilt based on lies I’m believing? Guilt should either drive us to Jesus for repentance if we are guilty, or drive us to Jesus for absolution if we are not really guilty. Our problem is often that we don’t follow guilt far enough to figure out whether we need repentance or absolution. Our guilt doesn’t drive us to Jesus; we stop short at ourselves. Heated defensiveness is a good sign that you’re not doing all the soul-searching you should be doing. Perhaps you are actually projecting judgmental attitudes on others when they don’t actually feel this way. It’s hard to see clearly when you feel guilty.
Say you have mom guilt. You feel you aren’t doing enough, that your choices are somehow giving your children second best. Well, is your guilt founded? Parenting well requires a supernatural level of selflessness that we don’t possess on our own. Do you get defensive over your choices, or can you humbly ask soul-searching questions about how you spend your time and invest in your children?
Or say a missionary comes to speak at your church and you suddenly feel less spiritual and guilty. When surrounded by people just like you, there was no guilt, but now you wonder if you pray enough for the Lost, whether you are doing all you can to reach out to your neighbors, whether the way you spend your time and money is self-focused or Kingdom-focused. Follow the guilt to Jesus. Will He ask you to repent or reassure you?
When someone confesses their struggles with guilt, don’t be too quick to reassure them. Telling them, “It’s okay,” or, “We all do it” stops us short. It eases guilt when it may not be right to ease. Instead, ask, “How could you do things differently?” “Is there sin at the heart of this?” The Holy Spirit may be working in that person to show them their sin and lead them to repentance, but your reassurances may cut them off that introspective path.
And then, if we find that the guilt is based on a lie, that Jesus has made us whole in this area, that there really is nothing more we can do here, then why should we ever feel judged or guilty? Be confident in your decisions if you believe you are doing right. I’ve often found that once I do this hard work, I realize that all the judgment that I felt from others was an illusion, or it was true and loving concern from someone praying for my needed repentance.
What do you feel guilty about? Have you brushed it off or followed it to Jesus?
Do you reassure people too quickly to offer false comfort? How can we help each other seek repentance or absolution instead of comfort from guilt?
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. 21 To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” [Revelation 3:14-22]
O Dallas. You are asleep, anesthetized by your own wealth and comfort.
You have all you need, don’t you? And more – so much that you don’t realize your gargantuan houses, your expensive and numerous vehicles, your ever-growing TV screens—they are abnormal. Your excess is like I’ve never seen.
But Dallas, know this: it is a trap. You’ve made money your idol, and this is how you know: when you justify not parting with it but gaining more, when you become anxious over losing any of it though your basic needs will still be met, when you trust in Money as your provider rather than the Almighty God. You must smash the idols; your life depends on it. Worship belongs to God alone.
You are the rich young ruler who tells Jesus that he has kept all the commandments. You know the right rules, the right words—you are the buckle in the Bible Belt. But you weep when God offers you His vast kingdom if you would only let go of your own tiny one.
The nations have come to you, but you inch away. You are surrounded by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and any demographic you could think of. But you avoid them. You stay in your church huddles and “fellowships,” and when you add in work, soccer games, and getting everything done, well, who has time for the Lost? Can’t they find Jesus on the internet? You have turned inward, your backs to those who need the Word of Life. You care little about anyone outside your small circle. You have your life to live, after all. Your busyness blinds you from the work God has called you to.
Your church budgets resemble that of a country club, not the living representation of Jesus. You pour millions into nicer pews and into entertaining their inhabitants. You hope to draw others in by having the better music, the better activities, the best events. You cannot draw them in with Jesus because you don’t know Him well. Prayer is little more than the segue between song and sermon. What a force your vast numbers and your vast resources could be for the Kingdom of God if you submitted them to Him! If you begged Him to empower you as the Body of Christ!
You think you live in safety but you live in danger. You question the sanity of those going with the Gospel to people who have never heard, because isn’t safety of utmost importance? O Dallas, life is not about climbing up the ladder and gaining more and establishing a safe and quiet life. It is about the glory of God, and He is certainly not a safe influence on your life – He will require you to submit your life to Him and call others to give Him glory. He will require whole-life worship, and that will bring sacrifice and persecution. This life is a vapor, and you live it in danger when you waste it on yourself. You are not your own.
Dallas, your apathy is heart-breaking. You are the one who will say, “Lord, Lord,” and He will reply, “Depart from me, for I never knew you.”
Wake up, O sleeper!
Hear His voice and open the door!
Sit awhile with Jesus and eat with Him, let Him impart His life into you. It will change everything.
I’ve avoided study Bibles for about 6 years now. Don’t get me wrong, there are some that have been helpful and important as I learned to navigate Scripture on my own. But after a Bachelor’s degree and half a Master’s in biblical studies, plus a year living on a seminary campus as my husband worked on his Master’s, all I could see when I came to the Bible was debates and division. Patriarchy, complementarianism, egalitarianism; Calvinism, Arminianism, Corporate Election; Historic Pre-millinialism, Amillinialism, Dispensationalism. Most study Bible notes are written for non-theologians, so the notes are riddled with these various debates to provide different views or persuade readers of one view. They helped me grow at one time, but now I’m weary of how they seem to distract from the main point of the text.
I just need to meet with Jesus right now, without all the baggage. I need to exercise my heart as well as my mind.
HarperCollins was gracious to send me a copy of The Life with God Bible (RSV translation) in exchange for my honest review.
Authors of note include Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Walter Brueggemann, and Eugene Peterson. The notes are based upon the spiritual disciplines; if you’ve read anything by Foster and Willard, you know they define spiritual disciplines not as works we do to make God accept us or to change ourselves, but as actions we do to place ourselves before God so that He can change us. In Eat this Book, Peterson also explains the ancient discipline of lectio divina, “diving reading” that is characterized by slow, deliberate reading so that we can absorb as much of the text into ourselves–and to let the Bible read us.
The Life with God Bible encourages the reader to practice the disciplines and to read Scripture with transformation of the whole person in mind. The goal, as the title suggests, is to cultivate a life with God as we meet Him on the pages of Scripture.
It was exactly what I needed. When I read from the Life with God Bible, I felt the need to slow down, drink in the words of Scripture, rather than rushing through it as any parent of 3 kids under 5 naturally would. I found myself looking to the specific practices of prayer I found Paul mentioning in his letter to the Ephesians and then doing them (novel idea!). Any time my mind started to wander to the periphery, the study notes gently guided me back to the main idea. The Life with God Bible is like a Bible and a devotional wrapped up into one. If you’re like me and have a hard time with most devotionals because they rip Scripture out of context or seem shallow, or because you hate jumping from a passage on prayer in the Bible to a devotional about something else entirely, the Life with God Bible is a great solution.
Some features of the Life with God Bible:
“Responding” sections throughout the passages that challenge us to put what we read into practice.
Profiles of people in the Bible that consider how they lived their lives with God, ending with personal reflections on what we can learn from them.
Spiritual Disciplines Index at the end of the Bible lists examples of spiritual disciplines being practiced in the Bible, or instructions on how to practice them straight from the Bible. I loved this; I come from a tradition that gets nervous around spiritual disciplines for fear of works-based salvation (to the point they often think it’s okay to just “accept” Jesus but not follow Him). This section helps you get an understanding of the disciplines from a biblical standpoint. (Also, Foster’s Celebration of Discipline expounds on them more thoroughly). There are also suggestions and exercises in the back for incorporating spiritual disciplines into your life.
“The People of God” articles appear throughout the Bible as a narrative of the community of Yahweh as we approach their story in each book from the formation of the first of the Family (Abraham’s) to their Exodus from slavery, all the way to the community of God in Christ and into Eternity. This theme reminds us of the great Story of Scripture – God setting apart a people for Himself and showering grace on them – and also helps us to remember that we don’t read or live out Scripture in isolation, but as part of a vast people. In addition to these articles, the study notes themselves remind us of our place within the community of God, lest we deceive ourselves into thinking that the spiritual disciplines are a solitary affair.
Optional Deuterocanonical Writings. This might be controversial, but the Life with God Bible comes either with or without the apocryphal writings (I received one without them, unfortunately!). The Apocrypha are books written in the time between the Old and New Testaments, and there are many reasons they aren’t included in Protestant Bibles. In the introduction, the authors are careful to assert that they do not believe the apocryphal writings to have the authority or divine inspiration as Scripture. But they are incredibly helpful for understanding the progression of history and culture for those 400 years between the testaments. We read Christian books that we don’t believe are divinely inspired, but we still find them helpful in our Christian walk; view these the same way, only closer to the biblical context!
This Bible might not be for you if you’d like more background into history, archeology, original languages, theological debates or explanations; this was simply not the focus for the authors, and there are many other study Bibles that can serve you well in this way. The introductions to each book do give some background so that you’re not reading without any context, but I’d call it “history lite.” Even the history is more of an emphasis on the spiritual formation of the original audience in their particular context–which is helpful to us as we try to apply Scripture to our context. It served the purpose of the study Bible well, but I know a lot of readers will wish there was more of these kinds of notes. Because of my own background, I was glad they weren’t there.
This is my new Bible until further notice; I highly recommend it for those wanting to know God–not just history or doctrine–better.