Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The REAL Santa!

I met the real Santa Claus. No, seriously. He passed the one true test. Let me explain.

I work at Saint Christopher's Episcopal Church in Gladwyne, PA. This past Sunday we had a parish Christmas party with all the works - even a Santa Claus for the kids. But little did we know that when we called to hire an actor to play Santa Claus we would get the real deal.

Most people think Santa's got to have a real beard, rosy cheeks, and a jolly laugh. Well this is all true, but it's not really what counts.

Our Santa had all those things, but it was only until after it came time to pay him that we found out that he was the real Santa Claus. When our secretary was ready and willing to settle up, he politely asked that the $125 be donated to his charity to help families in need. Apparently the real Santa Claus does this every Christmas and doesn't earn a dime for himself.

And after that he got into a giant sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer and flew off into the sky. No joke.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Power in Weakness: A Paradox

The New Testament may be summed up in two words: paradox and eschatology. If one were to read through from Matthew to Revelation, it would not be long before the unexpected paradoxes and counter-cultural messages became obvious. And though there are many accounts of God’s mysterious work in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul best summarizes the work that God has done in Christ when he states that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Cor. 12:9). This fundamental paradox of the New Testament is in many aspects the core of the Christian Gospel. However, the theme of God’s power in weakness must be coupled with the eschatology of the resurrection, for it is here that this paradox receives its significance. Without the eschatological implications of Christ’s resurrection, the paradox would be meaningless. Paul understood this, as did the authors of the Gospels, Hebrews, and Revelation. It is Christ’s death that provides the paradox, and Christ’s resurrection that produces our eschatological hope. Upon these two concepts Paul makes “power made perfect in weakness” a dominant theme for the New Testament.
The four Gospels are themselves the crux of the divine paradox. They are filled with numerous examples of how God chose to work in a way unexpected by all. That God would become human in the form of a baby (Matt. 1:18), come from the poor town of Nazareth (Mk 1:9), heal Gentiles and women (Matt. 8:5, Mk 5:28), serve others (Mk 10:45), ride a donkey in triumphal entry (Luke 19:35), and prophesy his own death (Matt. 16:21) illustrates the paradoxical nature of God’s plan. However, each gospel’s account of the Messiah’s death is certainly the most befuddling occurrence in the entire New Testament. Not only did first century Jews expect an all-powerful Messiah to vindicate the oppressed Israelites, but even the disciples were disappointed and confused that Jesus had died (Luke 24:21). However, as the Gospels testify, Jesus’ death was not the final word. Each gospel recounts the resurrection of Jesus as God’s vindication of the suffering Son of Man. Thus, it is in the death and resurrection of Jesus that God’s paradox of power in weakness is realized in its most explicit form.
Though the four Gospels share many things in common, they too each have distinct characteristics that illustrate the above said paradox. For example, Luke’s account includes a lengthy birth narrative including a focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Specifically, Mary’s Magnificat emphasizes how God has lifted up the lowly in a paradoxical manner (1:46-55). Luke also includes the broader themes of Jesus as a different kind of king and a different kind of prophet. In one case Jesus is a humble king, unlike the kind that was to be expected (19:35). In another case, Jesus is a rejected prophet that was not anticipated of the Messiah (4:24). It is especially Jesus’ role as a prophet that enables his eschatological claims to be trusted.
Matthew includes in his gospel examples of Jesus interacting with various scandalous people groups. Nothing could have seemed more puzzling to first century men and women than Jesus’ invitation to Gentiles to enter the family of God (Matt. 12:18-21). In addition to this, Matthew includes the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus turns the Law on its head (Matt 5-7). More specifically, Jesus lists the most unexpected recipients of God’s blessings, including those who suffer for righteousness’ sake (Matt. 5:3-11). It is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ relation to outsiders that further reinforces God’s paradoxical work.
John’s gospel also displays the mystery of power in weakness. Though the scene is not unique to this gospel, the washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13 becomes particularly revealing of the Messiah’s servant nature as John records the conversation between Peter and Jesus in John 13:8. Furthermore, in Johannine fashion, a lengthy dialogue between Pilate and Jesus is presented in John 18 and 19. During this dialogue the topic of power arises and it is here that John tethers his claim for power in weakness to the cross. This dialogue is significant in illustrating Jesus’ condemnation on the worldly understanding of power in contrast to God’s power that is perfected in weakness.
Matthew, Luke, and John are all capable of recounting the paradoxical nature of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is Mark’s gospel that perhaps does it the best. Mark’s emphasis on Jesus as the suffering Son of Man exemplifies how God’s power does not manifest itself in ways that we would expect. Though Jesus is displayed as the powerful Son of God in chapters 1-8, chapters 9-16 become the focal point of this gospel. Over a third of Mark’s narrative recounts the last days of Jesus’ life. What Mark is largely emphasizing is the cost of discipleship – the call to serve and suffer. Perhaps one reason for this focus on Jesus’ suffering is that Mark wrote his narrative during a time of fierce tension in the first century. It is probable that many Christians during Mark’s day were walking the line between non-violent martyrdom and violent zealotry.
Still, historical context aside, the call to suffering in Mark’s gospel is clear. Jesus’ invitation to die for God’s Kingdom is a powerful indication of what it means to be perfected in weakness (8:34, 10:37-39). In the same manner, Jesus makes an explicit claim concerning his own purpose as a suffering servant (10:45). However, despite Mark’s focus on Jesus’ suffering, death does not have the final word. Like the other gospels, Mark includes the resurrection of Jesus and recounts God’s victory over sin (16:6). After his rejection, suffering, and death, God vindicates Jesus and fulfills the promise of true power made perfect in weakness. Therefore, it is in the resurrection that Christ becomes the eschatological “first fruits” that Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 15:23. And, it is upon Christ’s death and resurrection that Paul bases the theme of power in weakness seen so clearly in his Epistles.
Though Paul deals with a multitude of issues in his ministry, his letters to the church in Corinth provide many examples of the theme at hand. From the outset of 1 Corinthians Paul makes clear that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor. 1:18). Interestingly, this statement is preceded by Paul’s defense of his lack of eloquence in preaching the gospel “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power, (1 Cor. 1:17). Because Paul is largely writing in regard to his own ministry, he makes his own weakness an example of how God uses weakness to display power. Paul continues in his letter to condemn the worldly standards of power and to promote the paradoxical mysteries of God’s work (1 Cor. 2:8, 3:19, 4:1).
Following a lengthy section dealing with specific issues in the Corinthian church, Paul returns to the theme of God’s power in weakness in chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. It is in this powerful chapter that Paul emphasizes the eschatological reality of the resurrection and encourages the Corinthian church to remain steadfast to the way of the cross. By beginning and ending his letter with these themes Paul undoubtedly makes the connection between the folly of the cross and the hope of the resurrection.
2 Corinthians is a revealing letter into the nature of Paul’s ministry and it provides us with interesting historical details about his relationship with the Corinthian church as well as his opponents. Still, however, the paradox of the cross remains Paul’s maxim here as well. This can be seen especially in Paul’s use of the metaphor of the Roman procession in 2:14-17. This metaphor is used to indicate Christ’s victory over death and, in a more forthright manner, to vindicate Paul’s suffering. By identifying himself as a captive being lead by God in triumph, Paul makes clear that suffering and humiliation are not merely necessary costs of ministry but the very means by which the gospel is spread. Because Paul’s credibility was being challenged, he makes plain his weaknesses and identifies them as proof of God’s grace and God’s power (11:6, 12:9). What is fundamentally clear in his letters to the Corinthians is that Paul was never attempting to defend his own abilities, but rather always used his own weaknesses as evidence of God’s power.
Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians are profound theological treatises that deserve much hermeneutical care. However, within the complex theology are the same elements of the paradox that are found throughout the New Testament. Especially significant in these two letters are Paul’s repetitious affirmations of the new reality “in Christ,” (Romans 3:24,26; 6:11; 8:39; 12:5; 15:17; Gal. 2:4, 3:14,26). This emphasis on our connection to Christ makes personal the paradox of the cross. Paul writes specifically on the nature of suffering and encourages Roman Christians to endure in Romans 5:3-5. And, as in Corinthians, Paul writes extensively on the eschatological implications of the resurrection in Romans 8:18-39. Particularly powerful are Paul’s words on suffering in the present in comparison to the glory to come (8:18). Yet still more writing on the topic of suffering can be found in the book of Hebrews.
The recipients of the letter Hebrews were Christians who encountered persecution and were falling away from the gospel. Therefore, the topics of suffering, perseverance, and hope are central to this book. The overarching message of Hebrews is to endure suffering in the same way as Jesus. The author even goes as far to claim that Jesus was made “perfect through suffering,” a phrase that is definitely compatible with Paul’s paradox (Heb. 2:10). By pointing to Jesus as the perfect example of suffering, the author makes the bold assertion that even God suffers (2:9,10,18; 5:8,9). However, like the previously discussed books, the author of Hebrews understands that Jesus’ suffering was not the final word but instead the resurrection and vindication of God’s work in Christ. Looking to Jesus as the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” the author encourages Christians to look ahead toward the eschatology of God’s glory (12:1-4, 13:13-16).
Though the book of Revelation is not easily understood, it too proclaims a message of power in weakness based on the hope of the one “who is, and who was and who is to come,” (1:8). John writes these letters to seven different churches who are struggling with a variety of problems, including pagan worship, persecution, and complacency. Specifically, John encourages suffering Christians in Philadelphia to patiently endure their persecution and to hold fast to their crown (3:10-11). And to suffering Christians in Smyrna John proclaims the paradox of riches in poverty through suffering (2:9-10). In addition to addressing these problems through his esoteric symbolism, John also provides a great deal of hopeful eschatology not unlike that which may be found in Paul’s writings. In the final chapters of his letter John proclaims the victory of God (19-22). It is precisely upon this victory that John, like Paul, makes his claim for the paradox through the endurance of the saints (13:10, 14:12).
Although not every book of the New Testament has been discussed here, the claim for Paul’s theme of “power made perfect in weakness” is most certainly evident. As seen in the Gospels, Epistles, Hebrews and Revelation, God’s power is made perfect in the weakness of suffering. However, not only may it be discovered that God is a God of mysterious paradox, but it must also be understood that God has defeated death and sin through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in this fact that the mysterious paradox of God’s power is given eternal significance and allows all who suffer in the name of God to hope in the realized eschatology of the Risen Christ.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Short Story

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Once upon a time there was a boy. He was a very normal boy who loved to do normal things like climb trees, ride his bicycle, and eat ice cream.

One summer day the boy came upon a talking tree not far from his home.
The tree spoke up as the boy passed. “Would you like to see my magic trick?”
The boy replied, “Sure!”
“Ok, just watch!” The boy stood and waited but nothing happened.
“I’m waiting…” sighed the boy. But the tree was silent. So the boy left.

In the autumn the boy returned to the talking tree that was now dwindling. The tree recognized the boy. “I thought you had left! Do you still want to see my magic trick?”
The boy was excited. “Yes, please!”
“Alright,” said the tree, “just watch.” The boy stood and waited but nothing happened. So he left.

The boy returned in the winter and the tree looked ugly. The boy wondered if it was dead. The tree said nothing.

In the spring the boy returned to the tree had been and he noticed it had new leaves and buds on the tree. Still the tree said nothing so the boy left.

When the boy returned in the summer he found the giant, green tree flourishing. Suddenly the tree spoke. “It’s you again! So what did you think of my magic trick?”
The boy replied, “I didn’t see it.”
So the tree graciously offered, “Would you like me to show you again?” The boy eagerly nodded. “Ok, just watch!” said the tree.
The boy waited and watched but nothing happened. Finally the boy said to himself, “This is silly. I’m too old for magic anyway.” So he left and did not return.

As the boy grew older he changed. He saw many trees but they were all the same. And none of them could talk or do magic tricks.
Then one day the boy moved away and became a man. He became less interested in nature and certainly never thought about magic anymore. He was very busy working and taking care of things.

Over the years he became very successful and had lots and lots of things. But despite his success he felt empty.
So the man worked harder and became busier and had many things to take care of. He became the most successful man at work, but he still felt empty and sad.

At the age of fifty the man took all of his many things and moved back to the town where he had grown up. It was winter.

One day when he was home he went for a walk. He saw the old tree that had spoken to him many years ago. It looked ugly and bare. He thought about the mean joke that the tree had played on him when he was a boy.
“Magic trick!” he sneered. His eyes swelled with tears and he kicked the fat, stale trunk of the tree.

Months passed and the man was lonely. Almost daily he took walks past the talking tree. As spring blossomed he noticed the ugly, bare tree slowly budding and gaining color. Watching the tree change made him happy.

When summer came the tree had become vibrant and green and the man walked past the tree every day noticing its life and color. Somehow the tree’s life inspired the man.

On a warm August evening the man sat near the tree and watched the sun set. Suddenly the tree spoke. “Excuse me, man, would you like to see my magic trick?”

Feelings of betrayal flooded the man’s memory and he immediately responded to the tree.
“What magic trick! You don’t have any magic! You tried this one on me thirty years ago!”
The tree then recognized the boy from long ago.
“It’s you!” exclaimed the tree.
“Yeah it’s me, and you already got me with your stupid magic joke. So, no, I don’t want to see your magic trick!”
The tree conceded, “Alright. I can’t make you see my magic trick.”

There was a long, anxious pause.

Finally the man broke the silence. “I don’t care about your stupid magic trick. But… There is something I'd like to know. I would like to know how you change… how you go from this big, beautiful tree in summer to an ugly, bare tree in the winter and then back to a big, beautiful tree again.”

It was quiet and the man had his back to the tree.

When he turned around the tree was smiling.
“You saw my magic trick!” it shouted. “My magic trick is changing! My trick is surviving the winter and re-blossoming in the spring and flourishing in the summer.”

The baffled man inquired, “If you can do magic then why don’t you just stay like this the whole year round?”
“Oh I see,” said the tree, “You think that if I have the magic to change then I should use the magic to remain this way the entire year.”
“Yes. You certainly look the best in summer.”
“Well,” the tree began, “It doesn’t work that way. I can’t stay like this on my own. I don’t have the magic.”
“What? But you said you – Then who does?” the man squawked.

“The wind.” answered the tree.
“The wind?”
“Yes. The wind. The magic is in the wind. You see, in the autumn I give my leaves away. If I try to keep them I will die. So I surrender my leaves to the wind and the wind gives them away to the ground and the birds and to anyone who wants them.”

“But don’t you get cold in the winter?” he wondered.
“Yes. The winters are extremely hard and I suffer much. But if I kept my leaves in the winter I would surely die. Surrendering my leaves to the wind is my only chance to live.”
“Don’t you get scared?” the man inquired.
“Yes, but I trust the magic in the wind.”

There was another pause and the man paced back and forth a few times before asking, “So how do you change from winter to spring to summer if you give away all your leaves?”
“After I have suffered the winter,” the tree explained, “the wind brings new seeds in the spring and I begin to grow.”
“Where do the new seeds come from?”
“I don’t know. It’s magic. The wind brings new life.”

The man slowly sat down and thought about what the tree had said. There was a long silence.

Then the sound of a light, August breeze was born in the distance. Slowly the breeze swelled into a significant gale and swept passed the man from behind. At that moment the tree let go of some of its leaves and they floated through the air passed the man. The man noticed the leaves gliding gently passed him in possession of the wind.

Without warning the man’s hat blew away and joined the leaves in their unknown trajectory. At first the man’s instinct was to chase his hat. But after a few hopeless steps he stopped. Turning to the tree he whined, “That was my hat!”
The tree replied, “Those were my leaves.”

The man meandered home and grumbled to a non-existent companion. He hated not having his hat.
In the distance a woman was walking toward the man. As she approached, the man noticed something in her hands.
“My hat!” he shouted. He rushed toward the woman. The man ambitiously returned the hat to his bald head. He was so preoccupied with his hat that he had not yet made eye contact with the woman. When he did he was stunned. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“I was out walking and the wind blew this hat right to me. So, I decided to go looking for its mate.”
“Oh,” said the man, “thank you. My name is Robert.”
“I’m Caroline, pleased to meet you.” she replied. The two began to talk and they found many things agreeable. They walked along together and the man enjoyed her company.

While they walked the man thought about what the tree had said. About the magic in the wind. And about the new seeds in the spring.

Without warning a gust of wind stole the man’s hat and carried it away again. The woman began to run after it but the man quickly cried “Stop! It’s OK.”

He turned around and stared at the tree in the distance. A gentle breeze swayed the tree and it stared majestically back at the man. He remembered the tree’s words: “I surrender my leaves to the wind. If I keep them I’ll die. It’s my only chance to live.”

A smile came over the man’s weathered face and he turned to the woman. Gently he took her hand and said, “Want to see a magic trick?”

As the man and woman approached the magnificent tree the man looked up into the face of its beautiful presence and began, “Hello, old friend. This is Caroline…”

The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly…

- Psalm 104:16