Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Incarnation

This Christmas Season I've been struck by the craziness of the hope of Christmas. How can a baby born to a poor family in the occupied Roman territory of Palestine nearly 2,000 years ago change the world today? I mean this baby born in a animal-inhabited cave, how can he hope to change the quagmire in Iraq, the out-of-control homicide rate in our city of Oakland, the increasing distance between the economic and political power between the poor and the rich in our country and around our globe, the growing pollution of our planet, the already-in-place consequences of multinational companies and globalization, and even the destruction of the 8 foot tall "security" fence that today encircles and emprisons the sacred city of Bethlehem in which this baby was born?

The HOPE of Christmas is not that this baby can solve all of the problems while in his mother's womb, or even in the straw-lined cradle. Rather the hope is in the INCARNATION - the Christian worldview-foundational perspective that God becomes like us, so that we might become like God. The Christian Scriptures (Colossians 1:15) states that Christ is the "image of the invisible God," the embodiement, icon, or physical way in which we glimpse God and God's presence and saving action in our matieral world.

The material or physical "glimpse" that we get of God in Jesus of Nazareth is that God comes to us, that God loves us to the radical extent that God chooses to become like us in order for us to see who God is, what God is like, and more clearly get what God is about. Jesus is like those spotlights that cirlce our urban skies, pointing and guiding our gaze upwards, drawing out attention to something bigger than we imagined, that we need to experience. Now I don't mean that God is like a year-end-sale-blow-out at Target, but that it's in the birth of that baby that we are invited to begin to fathom who God is and what God wants with, of, and for us.

Simple enough. But it gets tricky - historically - and still today - because rather than us becoming like God, we tend to make God become like us - in our image. And so we make Jesus the God of the Roman Empire, the justification for the Inquisition, the leader of the Crusades, or then architect of imperial colonisation. We miss out on the mystery that in Christ, God becomes like us so that we might become like God. The picutres I found illustrate some of the mystery of this idea...across cultures and times countless people have experienced the power of the incarnation, a life-transforming experience of the hope-giving presence of a God that becomes like them in our joy, suffering, trials, and hopes.... What better hope is the perspective that God comes to us on our terms, in our culture, in our vernacular so that we can see something bigger, better, and bolder in our age often called POST-modern, POST-colonial, POST-Christian, age in which we know things are changing and have changed...yet we don't yet know or taste what the future will become.

Now you might be thinking that it's just not true...that the dating of the Christmas Story (Jesus' birth, the date of the census, and the date of Herod's reign) don't match up....or that there is increasing descrepency between the belief that he was born in Bethlehem or Nazareth. But the power of the story of Christmas is that it's a life-transfoming story. The gospel writers didn't seek to produce a copy that would be on the cover of the New York - or the Alexandria Times...rather they sought to record, testify to, and transmit the story of Jesus of Nazareth - the story of how he changed their life and transformed their worldview, a story that we can't prove or disprove with science, historical criticism, reason, or ancient artifacts, but a story that is testified to as life-transforming, life-giving, and life-sustaining by countless lives across the past 20 centuries in every nation, tribe, and language on our diverse planet.

How have you experienced Jesus of Nazareth? Who is he for you? How was that changed for you? How has it transformed you?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Advent 4c
Texts for Worship
December 24, 2006
When Are You Due?

The fourth and final Sunday of Advent this year also happens to be Christmas Eve Day. The texts for the day that I'm using at Fruitvale Presbyterian Church portray the deep irony and great reversal theme that seem to characterize the way in which God works and acts in the world. Micah 5:2-5a was most likely written during the time of the Exile when Israel had been crushed, destroyed and deported by the Babylonian Imperial Power. In the midst of their oppression to a foreign power, Micah prophesies that the long-awaited and dreamed of King will be born to the imprisoned people - not in the gold-encrusted nursery room of a mighty castle-fortress in the capital city but rather in a small, completely ordinary town by the name of Bethlehem.

The other scripture for the day tells the continuing story of Mary's miraculous and mysterious pregnancy, her time with her cousin Elizabeth, and records her song of praise. Luke 1:39-56 is loaded with images, metaphors and powerful words, all of which advance that God is undoing the things of the world, reversing the order of power and the way in which we understand who is powerful and important. In our western culture today we often value the "underdog," telling stories of revolution, reversal, and renewal...but in the days of Jesus' birth and Micah's ministry, such themes and ideas were rare if not impossible. We miss the poignancy of Mary's Song because to our ears it often seems trite, like some sort of Hollywood-Musical with some spify special effects set in the wilderness outside of Nazareth.

In the Orthodox Tradition and Church Mary is often known as the "theotokos," which in English translates as the "God-Bearer" or the "Mother of God." It's a striking theological notion - one that extends not just to long-ago Mary but to us today. God uses and even depends upon us to be "God Bearers" to give birth to God in our world through our lives, words, actions, relationshiops, work, and rest. Mary is not just a paragon of perfect mother-dom, but rather the first in a long line of Theotokoses or Theotokoi of which we are invited to join. Being a God Bearer addresses the ways in which we are called to "birth" or testify to God in our lives. How are you a God Bearer? How is the Spirit of God preparing you to be a God Bearer? Where and with whom in your life are you being invited to be a God Bearer? How are you responding?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Nativity Story

I took a break this week, fleeing to Bay Fair Cinemas to seek multi-medi-c inspiration in watching the recently recent movie "The Nativity Story." It was a nice surprise. The filmmakers tell the story in a most understated and gentle way, as opposed to the over-the-top-gratitutiousness that marked The Passion of Christ (at least for me). What most struck me in the film was the fantastically realistic and accurate way in which it portrayed the desperation and waiting of the people during the reign of Herod under the Roman Empire in ancient Palestine. The people were poor, oppressed by their own collaborating King, forced to pay taxes they couldn't afford in order to build fortresses for their King. Throughout the film there are depictions - both visible and implied - of what happened to those that questioned Herod's authority, spoke out to express their hope and need for a Messiah King, and the reality that all power resided in the hands of the Empire and those that served it. In the film the actors are dirty, brown skinned (check out a recent site I found and theo-design work being done by friend Steve Baretto), live in poverty, and live in great fear of the Roman soldiers, King Herod and even each other.

I found the repeating line that the baby would be "the king of kings for the lowest of men to the highest of kings" to be an appropriate catch-phrase for articulating the theological and political undertones of the whole Nativity story found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. I loved the portrayal of the shepherds - the ultimate overlooked social outcasts who end up being the first to hear of the good news and to come and greet this anointed child.

The movie is great for showing the harsh reality of daily life, the historical context for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and giving a glimpse of the desperate hope and ardent longing for the Messiah to come and deliver the people. There is also a great depiction of the young-age and all the consequential character development of Mary who was an early teenager as opposed to a middle-aged-botticelli-looking-madonna.

Check out the movie trailer at the official movie site

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Advent 3c Texts for Worship
December 17, 2006

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Advent - the theme of which is LOVE. I googled LOVE and saw a stream-of-consciousness collection of images of and about love - marriage, babies, puppy love, a picasso painting of "Love and War," art, roses, all the cliche stuff - as well as dozens of photos of Jennifer Love Hewitt. But what is LOVE - is it weak? strong? Who gives it to who? - parents to children, children to parents, lovers to each other, neighbors when they're feeling neighborly, work colleagues when they need something? How can you see love - to know if it's the real thing? How can you tell how much another loves you? How can they tell that they love you? Where do we even learn the capacity or the tendency to love another besides just loving ourselves?

The scriptures for the day are Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, and Luke 3:7-18.

Zephaniah writes about God's love - God's presence in the midst of the people - like a warrior that changes the people's shame into praise, their un-knowness into renown throughout all the nations, brining Home the outcast and lame. It's a total transformation of the state of God's people from nothing, on the margins, easily-forgotten people into the people of the way, in the center, proclaiming and making life-meaning for others. God does it for them.

Isaiah is a song of joy, praise, and love. God is to poet's salvation - saving love that he knows here and know - saving love that changes everything - reframing everything - opening new doors - giving new energy - creating new life from the old (like a phoenix rising from her ashes).

Luke 3 tells of the preaching of John the Baptist calling his audience to radical transformation because of God's love for them. It's a transformation that doesn't have to do with simplistic morality or politeness, but an invitation to an awesomely different way-of-living-ethic, to the extent that what the people are called to become and do can only open the eyes of those they encounter to the miraculous transforming power of love. John is calling folks to discover and deepen their practice of sacrifical love - a love that Jesus will teach them about in his words, actions, and life-giving-death.

So what is LOVE - where did you learn it? Who taught you to love? How do you love? Does it even matter? Do we have to love like James Kim in order to truly know love? What does sacrific have to do with love? Can you love with out sacrifice?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Can I Get a Witness,
Or At Least a Play Date?

I was driving home from pre-school today with my daughters and a friend (all under 4 years of age). As we drove through Oakland, they scoured intensely the horizons of their view for any spot of Christmas Decorations. As we drove my daughter talked about a nearby neighborhood church building, covered in an explosion – very much over the top – of Christmas lights, mangers scenes, and illuminated palm trees. She exclaimed with glee that if we went there we’d have the chance to see the “Holy Family” and the other statues there – including a grown-up baby Jesus. The friend asked who Jesus is, and my daughter responding matter-of-factly saying, “you know,… the Son of God.”

I chuckled as I drove listening to this dialogue…smiling at the cuteness of the situation and then wondering about the context. Is it because they’re children that they can talk so matter-of-factly about faith, spirituality, and discipleship? Is it because they’re minds are simple and they can’t measure the potential awkwardness of their discussion in our pluralistic world and culture? Or is there a freedom and grace that we lose as we get older? And if we do lose such a grace is it by our choices of non-freedom or fear of rejection, or is it because we complicate the world more than it needs to be?
I'm struck by the fearlessness that my daughter showed in her comments and reactions. She was fearless, because she had nothing to be afraid of. It was a conversation among friends, sharing their perspective, talking with not just to one another. How often do we - do I - think or feel similar things when I'm talking about my faith or the ways in which I practice my spirituality? If there is some sort of freedom or grace that we somehow lose as we age, it most likely is the freedom to allow ourselves to be ourselves without fear of rejection, judgement, or some sort of self-loathing.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Advent 2C
Texts for Worship
Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2006

The theme of this second week in Advent is PEACE. The three scriptures I'm meditating upon and through this week are Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79 and Luke 3:1-6, I'm thinking about peace - and wondering what it is. On TV this week the new Holiday GAP ad is highlighting PEACE as a hip-hop background for their massive multinational selling of hip clothes. At the same time for some diverse and different people with whom I've spoken this past week PEACE is "getting out of Iraq," for others it's "staying the course in Iraq," for some concern about Beirut, Palestine, Youth Violence in Oakland, or family members suffering from Cancer. What is it about Peace? I've noticed in the past two years that it's a lightening-rod word that quickly forments polarizing positions-taking wether on the liberal or conservative side of things. But what do the Christian scriptures testify about in terms of PEACE?
This week the words from the prophet Malachi (the first passage) are about the Prophet-Messenger that will come to prepare the way for God, when God shall come in the future to his temple. This messenger will announce a day of judgement or refinement - much like precious metals are made more precious and beautiful in a refiner's fire. Such a "refined" or "purified" priesthood-people is the way that God wants and longs for his people to be in Malchi's time (and ours too) in such a way that their offering - the way they live every moment and aspect of their lives - will be pleasing to God.
The second passage - Luke 1 - is the song of Zechariah, song after the miraculous birth of his son John who will become the great prophet (foretold by Malachi according to Christian tradition), the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus of Nazareth, through his call to conversion and openess to a new way of life. Zechariah talks of the work of the Lord who will lead the people into life from death, light from darkness, guiding our feet into the way of peace. John is only who he is created and meant to be in relationship to Jesus - the one he comes before and for whom he's preparing the way. It's not his crazy haircut, avant-garde clothes, or apocalyptic preaching that make John unique. It's his relationship of interdependency, mutuality, and reciprocity with Jesus of Nazareth, that make him John the Baptist. This way of peace is a journey-path meant for a community based upon and through relationship with this mysterious man from Nazareth.
The third scripture (Luke 3) tells of the beginning of the minsitry or teaching of this John the Baptist. Peace for John is the prepartion of all humankind to see (experientially, philisophically, materially, spiritually, and emotionally) the salvation of God. A SHALOM peace of community in which all are invited to the table by God. (Check out Isaiah's word-vision of this in chapter 2 of his prophecies.) It makes me wonder even more. Peace for most of us is peace-and-quiet, peace from the daily routine, more of a "break" from life, a personal time-out when we get what we want when we want it. But these scriptures (and all the testimonies of the Bible) paint the picture of PEACE as a communal thing, more of a fullness-of-life than a break from it, more of a deeply proactive and participatory thing than a passive individualistic lawn-chair-on-a-deserted beach-vacation-break. Why is it that in our culture when we imagine PEACE it's often so individualistic and me-centered? In the midst of this I'm reminded of two things:

First the Hymn Finlandia - the national hymn of Finland - and words that were written to the melody (we recently sang this at our church) Here is here.

Lloyd Stone wrote an international version of the lyrics in 1934

This is my song, Oh God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh hear my song, oh God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

Another verse by Josh Mitteldorf, for difficult times

When nations rage, and fears erupt coercive,
The drumbeats sound, invoking pious cause.
My neighbors rise, their stalwart hearts they offer,
The gavels drop, suspending rights and laws.
While others wield their swords with blind devotion;
For peace I'll stand, my true and steadfast cause.

A verse by Georgia Harkness

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
May peace abound where strife has raged so long;
That each may seek to love and build together,
A world united, righting every wrong;
A world united in its love for freedom,
Proclaiming peace together in one song.
And second, words of Jesus of Nazareth in John 14:27

"Peace I leave with you;
my peace I give you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not be troubled and do not be afraid."
How do you imagine peace? What would it look like? What does it looke like? When have you felt most at-peace? Share your thoughts and stories on the blog to help in the sermon creation and discussion at Fruitvale Church.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


A pastor friend, Matt Prinz, recently gave me an article on The Art of Olafur Eliasson, "Seeing Things" from the New Yorker Magazine (11/13/06). I'm not as savy and conversant in terms of the Art World as Matt is. It turns out Oalfur Eliasson is quite the current (and recent past) sensation in the world of Art.

Eliasson seeks to create an experience through his art, to invite us to reconnect with the larger world that we often take for granted, through an intense and intentional exprience of the world through his installations. In the article he talks about a show he was installing for the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea. Commenting on the show in the New Yorker interview he said "A show like this comes out of the laboratory. It's not about foil and water. It's about how we feel about those things. The pool is a machine that can produce a phenomenon, but I'm very aware that it can come close to being a setup. ... Working on the idea of experience is something intimate. Speaking with you, now, will change the way I see when I return to the gallery." Of course for some critics the verdict is still out in regards to whether or not Eliasson's work (like dumping non-toxic substances in a river in Sweden in order for city residents to (re)become aware of the beauty and movement of the river in their midst) can really count as "art" in the traditional sense of the word.

Eliasson's comments and vision of art made me think about worship and the church. It also reminded me of one of the widely-published thinkers of the Emergent Church - or Post-Modern Circle of Thought - in Contemporary American Chrisianity: Leonard Sweet. Sweet talks about The epistemology of digital culture, offering an acronym for that in the word EPIC: E=experiential; P=participatory; I=image-rich; C=connective. His thought is that worship in a postmodern context has to prioritize the digital culture in which we live. One of the main aspects of his thoughts intersects with much recent philosophy (Paul Ricoeur for example) and the work of Eliasson (experience his art at the SF MOMA next Fall - it'll be a major survey of his work entitled "Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson).

All this makes me wonder about Christian Worship. Often I've been to worship services which were much more about information than about experience. Worship was focused on what it intellectually means to be a Christian, than enabling me to practice my faith in discipleship. They were more like a "how-to-succeed" seminar or a group-therapy-session-of-encouragement, than some sort of communal gathering aiming to experience as a gathered community the presence, purpose, and passion of God. I think worship is more about providing consistent, intentional experiential celebrations of God's nature, purpose, desires, grace, and call to community - all hoping that God's Holy Spirit will show up to transform our best intentions into a living experience of God. The worship celebrations I remember were such experiences of hopeful anticipation, eye-opening celebration, and life-transforming revelation.

Some might say that like Eliasson's work, such experiential worship is more of a subjective or ego-driven stunt than a meaningful and meaning-making service of worship. Does experiential-ness trump information? Or is it just a gimmick?

What experiences of God have you had in a worship setting? How are/were they different than other experiences of the Divine that you've had outside of a formal worship setting (like in nature, daily life, or through art)? How do you think an emphasis on "experience" might be enriching or distracting to our traditional form of Worship in the Reformed Tradition?

(Image Credits - in descending order
1. The Kaleidoscope - Rostock, Germany
2. The Weather Project - London, The Tate
3. Double Staircase - Essen, Germany

More Images of his work at flickr