by Linda Rex
This season of year has its ups and downs. It can be so heartwarming and inspiring, while at the same time full of stress and anxious care about shopping and decorating and family complications. I have a special fondness for this time of year since God has awakened me to the wonder of its deep meaning. Understanding the mystery of the incarnation (can one truly understand a mystery?) carries me through all the hassle and frustration which can come from the external efforts to celebrate Christmas.
At this time of year I’m especially mindful of the time in my life when I distained Christmas as being a pagan holiday we should not celebrate if we are true Christians. While I’m still trying to determine exactly what a “true Christian” is (as compared to a “false Christian”), now I see a whole lot more clearly how we can get so caught up in a religious paradigm we cannot see what is right in front of us. We can be so focused on the “truth” that we miss seeing the living Truth who has entered our world and has begun to transform it from the inside out.
Today is Epiphany, and the gospel reading from the lectionary for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Here we read about the magi from the east who traveled many miles seeking to find a newly born king of the Jews. They followed a star and ended up in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was quite unnerving for King Herod to have these men asking about a king he knew nothing about. And no doubt it made him feel quite insecure about his throne.
So Herod called all together the chief priests and scribes—the ones who were supposed to know the Hebrew scriptures and history—and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. The high priests and scribes were the ones who probably would know the answer to the magi’s question, so Herod addressed the question to them.
They told the magi to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem. Now, it seems to me, if they had a real interest in knowing about the Messiah or in seeking him out, they would have been alert to what was really going on. They would have joined the search party, or would have maybe even led it. But King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and told them to look for the child and to tell him if or when they found him. And the magi left all by themselves, with no Jewish people in their party.
These people who were trusting in astrology to guide them, who were in essence, pagan Gentiles, were seeking to find a child who was Jewish. Now there were some Jews who were pagan enough that they believed the stars ordained certain events. But the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles, and because of this they missed something very important which was happening in their world. Their religious paradigm did not allow them to believe that someone other than a Jew might know something about the Messiah they had been expecting for centuries.
Is it possible to have the light of God available to you and still wander around in darkness? Apparently so.
The gospel story we read in the Bible shows us that these Jewish leaders were a whole lot more interested in retaining their positions of power and influence and in restoring the Jewish nation to prominence than they were interested in finding out if the messiah had arrived and had something important to say to them as his people. Their paradigm assured them the messiah would appear in a certain way, he would do certain things, and he most certainly would not look, talk or behave anything like Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, I was told a lot of things about the Christmas holiday and what it meant and why it shouldn’t be observed, but no one ever told me the truth. I was told a lot of superstition, a lot of hearsay, and a lot of heated explanations of why observing Christmas was a sin, but none of those things turned out to be based on facts or on a mature, well-examined explanation of Christian history.
I remember one afternoon sitting in the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium listening to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. It stirred something deep within me. I knew the event of Jesus Christ coming to us and dying on the cross was significant, but I still missed the crucial point—God came into human flesh to live and die and to rise again, and now he bears our perfected humanity for all eternity in the presence of the Father. Forever, we are with God, in Christ by the Spirit. We are embraced, held, in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by God’s infinite grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
We can focus on whether or not something is pagan, and miss the light of God in the midst of the darkness. Whatever we observe as human is bound to be pagan in some way because we are all broken people. All our righteousness ends up being filthy rags to God—we must never forget God reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus.
Whatever we offer to God is broken and flawed—our efforts to get it right are feeble at best. This is why we follow the lead of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We count on God’s grace to carry us. We need to be alert to the living Truth in the midst of all our darkness and brokenness. The Light has come—we need to pay attention, turn to the Light and allow him to show us what is really going on, and to follow where he leads us rather than stay in our misguided paradigms.
Who we listen to is crucial. The magi listened to God when he spoke to them in a dream (would we ever consider doing that)? These people who the Jews distained listened to God and obeyed him, and went home a different way, and in the process, they were kept safe from King Herod’s evil plot. They had followed the light of a star, had worshiped the Light who had come and offered him gifts, and by the light of the revelation of God in a dream, found their way safely home.
When Jesus grew older, the scribes, the high priests—this group of people who should have known, recognized and received him as the Light of God—were the very ones who rejected him and crucified him. As John wrote in his gospel: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:9–11 NASB) Their preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be, and their preoccupation which the things of this life—money, power, prestige—blinded them to the true Light which was in their midst.
On this day of Epiphany, it would be good to pause for a moment and to consider this Light of God who has entered our world and brought to us a whole new way of being—the life of God in human flesh. It would be good to ponder the ways in which we close our eyes to the light he wishes to bring into our world: What paradigms do we need to set aside? What old ways of thinking and believing do we need to suspend in order to embrace the possibility we could be wrong or might need to change? What things are we trusting in which have nothing to do with God’s values and God’s desires and what he wants to accomplish in this world?
God’s Light has come, and he is renewing our broken world and existence from the inside out. We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace this New Year in a new frame of mind and heart—one in which Christ is the center rather than us. May your 2017 be full of an abundance of all God’s blessings in Christ!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the gift of a new year ahead of us. You are always working at creating new beginnings. Grant us the grace to keep our life and our being centered in your Light, in Christ your Son, and to stay in tune with and obedient to your Spirit of Life, through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.” Isaiah 60:1–3, 19 NASB
by Linda Rex
I was sitting by the pool one day chatting with a colleague about kids and life when the conversation drifted, as it often does in such cases, into the topic of childrearing. I often feel like I have an unpopular view on this topic since I prefer to approach childrearing through the portal of grace. Because when grace comes into play, things can get really messy, and most people are uncomfortable with the chaos that comes with the mess.
Personally I think we tend to forget that our human condition is, at its base, pretty messy. Humanity, with its laws and governments and programs and institutions, is constantly trying to cope with and fight the chaos that comes with our proclivity to sin, corruption and selfishness. Allowing people the freedom to do whatever they wish whenever they wish however they wish creates anarchy and ultimately, self-destruction. Or does it?
Often parents and adults alike can be more concerned with having order and control than they are with allowing children to be free to be creative and to learn by failing. It’s embarrassing when a child is less than perfect in public, especially when the expectations are high and we want to impress everyone with the glory and goodness of our children and our family. When our child starts screaming in the supermarket and everyone turns to look, the question we can ask at that moment is: Am I embarrassed for myself and worried about everyone’s opinions, or am I concerned about the well-being of my child? For our response at that moment is crucial.
When children are first born, we invest ourselves in them, I hope, by pouring into them love, affection, and attention. We have our own ways of dealing with their need for diaper changes, bedtime stories, and play time. We have a profound influence on their personality, attitudes and approach to life and to freedom, for this is the time we begin to set appropriate boundaries for them. And we begin to give them the freedom they need to learn and to be creative within those boundaries.
If we never give our little children boundaries such as a bedtime or respect for elders, then they can begin to assume that they are free to be the lord of their little universe—a false belief that isn’t healthy. That’s because there is only one Lord of the universe, and he doesn’t share that title with anyone. He is the only Being who is truly free, and even his freedom is freely expressed within the boundaries of his perfect love, a love that is one and the same as his Being. All of us as human beings need to understand that our freedom only exists within the confines of God’s freedom, and our freedom is always and ever meant to be lived out within the confines of God’s love and lordship.
Then there also comes a time when a child outgrows his or her boundaries and begins to chafe at the limits. At this point a parent can begin to tighten their control and suffocate their child by restricting them even more, or they can begin to free their child from restrictions so they can develop greater maturity and self-control. Whether or not a parent can easily do this often depends on their ability to influence their children, which is often determined by the depth and quality of the relationship they’ve built with them over the years. And it depends on the parents’ ability to cope with chaos and mess. And how they handle that has a lot to do with how well they understand and have themselves experienced grace.
Grace is essential to any human development because it provides the freedom to mess up and to be less than perfect. A child falls a lot before he ever comes to understand how to walk. A child has many messy faces and bibs before she learns to get the spoon of food into her mouth without spreading it all over herself and everything else first. This is all a part of our existence as human beings. We all go through the process of growing up and experience the mess that goes with it.
But when a child is free to mess up, that means that they can also be embarrassing to parents, or irritating, or even infuriating. They can create havoc in relationships by telling the wrong story at the wrong time. They can isolate us from neighbors by climbing fences to steal apples off of trees. At what point do we draw the line? And that’s where I have to say—it depends on who is the parent and who is the child. Each person and family is unique. That’s the way God made us. And we each, in relationship with God and with each other, grow up in Christ to the full maturity of Christ in our own way. There is no specific formula, ritual or program that works best in every situation.
Because just as kids grow up by messing up, learning from their messes, and developing maturity over time, the same is true of each of us as adults. Some of us are still trying to learn the basics we were never taught by our parents about the simple boundaries of love and respect. Others of us are learning that the apples on the other side of the fence aren’t really worth the trouble of stealing. And others of us are still tripping over our feet and falling, because we haven’t learned how to walk by faith rather than by sight. It’s all of grace.
I’m personally thankful that God is not a strict, controlling parent who is unforgiving of our faults and failures. He does what he can through our human institutions and governments to try to give us boundaries when we need them (and often we don’t need the boundaries we tend to create). But he gives us great freedom as well. I’m grateful he gives us room to grow, and even allows us to spit in his face on occasion without slapping us down. And most of all, he gives us Jesus, to share our humanity and to, by the Spirit, live his life within us and to transform us into his nature and way of being. He offers us Christ’s perfected humanity in our place. And that’s true grace and love.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for being the perfect parent, and for parenting us with such grace and love. Thank you for nurturing us and mothering us as we grow up in Christ. May we each be as gracious with one another and with our children as you are with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Start with God—the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning. Pay close attention, friend, to what your father tells you; never forget what you learned at your mother’s knee. Wear their counsel like flowers in your hair, like rings on your fingers.” Proverbs 1:7–9 MSG