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Advent in Wartime

Advent in Wartime—Angels Rejoice, Jesus Weeps

The angels announced at Christ’s birth good news of great joy. The Apostle Paul reminds us that the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14.17). Yet how do we rejoice as we prepare for Christmas amidst a season of rancor and war? Shrill political speeches fill the media. Pain laden protests over racism march on our streets. Fear of terrorism floods our homelands. Millions of homeless seek refuge, shunned as unwanted.

Actually, this sounds just like the first Christmas, doesn’t it? We preach about the Son of God being born into an outcaste community of Galileans, to a couple shrouded by suspicion as to the legitimacy of his birth. He was poor, homeless, and unwelcome, and shortly after his birth fled political tyranny as a refugee. He lived in a militarily occupied country, burdened by exploitation and war.

Christmas calls us to remember that the joy about which the angels sang and Paul proclaimed is not preserved by guarding ourselves against the harsh realities of our world. In fact, because of Christmas, the more we watch the news and grieve over global events, the more we work for racial justice, the more we welcome those whom others reject—the more we are drawn into the heart of God.

My wife Kerry and I returned again this September to the so-called “Holy Land.” It feels increasingly less holy, as enmity, fear, and injustice desecrate the land. One of my favorite places is a little church on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, Dominus Flevit. It’s built where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. “As Jesus came nearDominus Flevit and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Lk 19:41-42). Today, the Holy Land has returned in too many ways to the divided, conflicted, oppressive state it was on that first Christmas. Amidst the tears, we were challenged and encouraged by the courage, faithfulness, and even laughter expressed by Palestinian Christians who are resolute in their determination to be bearers of God’s peace to the Holy Land.

 Pope Francis recently gave a challenging homily on this passage from Luke. “We are close to Christmas: there will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war. It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. What shall remain in the wake of this war…? Ruins, thousands of children without education, so many innocent victims: and lots of money in the pockets of arms dealers. Jesus once said: ‘You can not serve two masters:  either God or riches.’ War is the right choice for him who would serve wealth: ‘Let us build weapons, so that the economy will right itself somewhat, and let us go forward in pursuit of our interests…When all the world, as it is today, is at war…there is no justification – and God weeps. Jesus weeps. It will do us well to ask the grace of tears for ourselves, for this world that does not recognize the path of peace, this world that lives for war, and cynically says not to make it. Let us pray for conversion of heart…Let us ask that our joy, our jubilation, be this grace: that the world discover the ability to weep for its crimes, for what the world does with war.”

So how do we prepare our congregations this Advent so our celebration of Christmas isn’t a charade? A charade is to pretend something is true when it isn’t. What’s at stake isn’t the truth of Christmas. That truth is secure in the faithful love of God. What’s at stake is the truth of our lives as followers of Christ.

The week before Thanksgiving, Kerry and I worshiped at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the home church of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Sunday bulletin included the following ideas to guide our preparation for Advent. “Advent is a time for reflection on our lives and hopes, our actions during the current year and our commitments for the year to come. Most particularly, we have this opportunity to see what have we done to bring about justice for all people, both as individuals and as a church. What have we done in taking seriously the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, not just in arguing about should these youths be in the streets, but what have we done to support them and to encourage them?…What have we done to put pressure on [the government]…to expand Medicaid and get health care for all? It is a time for us to reflect on what have we done individually and collectively to address gun violence in our communities and to address overcrowding and defunding of our public schools. What have we done individually and collectively to decry the demonizing of our Muslim sisters and brothers and the craziness of…governors saying they didn’t want Syrian refugees in this state? What has all this to do with Christmas?…Our understanding of Jesus as a political revolutionary who was trying to free his people from Roman oppression, says that, as followers of Jesus, we also are committed to resisting oppression. As our fore-parents sang, ‘Glory, glory, to the newborn king!’ They understood that Jesus was political, and political language about him and his ministry should not be overshadowed by personal piety. So, as his followers, we are following Jesus in addressing the social problems of our day…” Rev. Dr. Randall Bailey. Retired Professor, ITC, Atlanta

To the cynics and skeptics, to the disheartened and despondent—we say again, “Joy to the world. The Lord has come. Let earth receive her king.” So I pray, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13).

 

 

When Hurting Helps

I live much of my life either avoiding or being controlled by emotional pain. I’m an expert at fleeing, denying, or being overwhelmed by it.

I know in theory the truth of Romans 5:  suffering can produce endurance and endurance produces proven character, and proven character leads to hope.  I’ve had opportunities to learn this through physical experience, such as through a near fatal accident that left my body bearing  a 6 inch scar (the remnants of a splenectomy).  Yet more typically, when pain–especially emotional pain–assaults me, I either flee or drown. My amygdala trumps my prefrontal cortex. And when pain is only a distant memory, I all too quickly lapse back into my old ways of living. I may be able to write the truth about hurting sometimes helping, but living it is another deal.

“There comes a time in our following Christ where our own hurts may actually help us. Well I know how my own personal hurts have helped me—a near fatal accident, a near fatal illness, failures in ministry and in relationships, and confrontations with my own flawed ambitions, pride and sin—have been invitations to admit my weakness and poverty, to find my life literally in Christ, and to rely more fully on God’s powerful grace and steadfast love. The scalpels of surgeons hurt, but their wounds are for our healing not for our harm. Our hurts can be invitations to allow the Spirit to heal us of our imprisoning pride, our foolish dependency on our own abilities, and our vain efforts to prove our own significance and worth.”  (Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, a Heart for Mission. Dynamis Resources, 2013: 121)

Suffering and all other confrontations with our own weakness and inadequacy can be rivers we ride into the presence of God. There we encounter God’s healing and restoring embrace. Our we can let them be walls that cut us off both from God and others–and from admitting our own fundamental humility and humanity. Knowing hurting may help…helps, but that’s not necessarily enough for me to, as Paul says,  “boast in my suffering” (Romans 5:3). Flee or fight suffering yes, but boast…?

The turning point comes when I stop turning away from suffering, and instead slow down, even stop and stand. But stand where? We’re not called (nor wise) simply to stand in our suffering. Otherwise, it can overwhelm us. Rather, “We stand in the grace of God” (Romans 5:1-2). We stand in God’s goodness, presence, and love.

Suffering reveals our frailty, weakness, and vulnerability–and this can serve as a loud reminder not to trust in our selves, but to “boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”.   When suffering strikes–rather than flee it, God’s invitation is for us to ride it into God’s gracious presence. Suffering can serve as a call to prayer–a tangible, undeniable, visceral invitation to draw close to God. Our fragility is surrounded by God’s solidity, our weakness by God’s strength, and our frailty by the beauty of God’s goodness.

When pain comes (and even when I cause pain to others), I am wise to stop rather than flee, pray rather than avoid, admit rather than deny, and ask for the Spirit to pour out God’s love into my shaky, quivering heart. After conversations with people about this for 30 years, a common theme is emerging. The most powerful vehicle to drive God’s grace from our heads (as a nice spiritual concept), into our hearts (as a life-shaping embrace)–is some form of suffering. Hurting can indeed help.

It shouldn’t be a difficult choice, should it?

The options are clear–proven character shaped by love–or a life of avoidance squandered in fleeing and fighting. Every morning in the shower I’m reminded of this by that 6 inch scar. All of us bear scars of some sort. The Spirit works to transform them into signs of God’s powerful, solid-making, glory-creating love.

Leading Courageous Conversations about tough issues in our Churches

How do we help our churches become safe and courageous places to engage harmoniously with tough issues about which we disagree? Neither of the two common options is working:

  1. Avoid tough issues entirely. This may make our churches “safe,” but they don’t help us reflect together on the tough issues of justice facing our society. As a result, our members get their convictions about these issues from their favorite media source, rather than from careful biblical and theological reflection; or
  2. Choose our churches by their positions on tough issues. Increasingly the church is adding on top of our divisions over ethnicity, socio-economics, worship style, and points of doctrine—divisions over positions on ethical and justice issues. Congregations are splintering, and people are changing churches over ethics, and not just ethnicity, economics, ethos, and theology.

We are experiencing through the Micah Groups Movement at the Ogilvie Institute of Fuller Theological Seminary a third way (see www.micahgroups.org). There are several keys to effective communication that are integral to this (and that require a bit of retraining for some of us):

  1. Keep asking the “who” questions before we get to questions of “what.” We’ll divide if we begin by discussing what we believe is the right position on a particular issue. First, we begin by asking “Who is God?” What is God’s nature and character? What is God doing in response to the pressing needs in society? Second, we ask the “who” questions pertaining to ourselves. “Who are we?” We recognize our frailty. We accept our essential humility. We discern ways in which our own life experience and social location shape our attitudes and even our ethics. We also receive the gift of our own belovedness in Christ. Third, we ask “Who are our neighbors? Who has God called us to love? Who are the people we exclude from that circle?” In asking who is our neighbor, we then include the same responses to others as we do in understanding ourselves.
  1. Guard our curiosity, rather than defend our convictions. When people voice perspectives that differ from our own, we cultivate the discipline of diving in, rather than either backing off or building defenses (responses 1 and 2 above). Rather than seeking to convince someone of the error of their point of view and the rightness of our own, our first response is to seek to understand. We ask questions such as: “Can you tell me more?” “What is about your life experience, and about your social location that have led you to this position?” “Describe how your reading of Scripture and understanding of God, God’s will, and God’s ways leads you to this point of view?” “What are the implications of your position for how you treat others who hold different values?”
  1. Ask the most important “what” questions first. Rather than focusing on what we believe, or what we are supposed to do—the most important “what” questions are: “What are you doing in this situation God?” “What are you saying to us?” and  “What is your will for our participation in your purposes?”
  1. Invite issues of justice naturally into our worship. Rather than only providing classes or forums to discuss sensitive and divisive issues, include them in our normal conversation with God in worship. In worship we have the opportunity to bring the needs of the world before the heart of God. When we pray personal prayers and petitions, it’s natural to include structural and systemic prayers. As we pray for someone’s health—pray for the health care system, someone’s job—pray for our economy and for the debates about wages and income inequality, someone’s housing—pray also for the homeless and the immigration debates, someone’s relational difficulties—pray for the church to embody God’s reconciliation of our lives in Christ.

This isn’t to politicize worship.

It’s to guide our congregations more fully into the heart of God who is at work to make life right.

Can Business be a Holy Calling?

One Sunday, our church was commissioning its youth group to go to Tijuana to build houses. Professional carpenters and an owner of a construction company were commissioned with them. It occurred to me, “Why were we commissioning them for this volunteer ministry, but we’ve never thought of commissioning members in the construction business for their work building and remodeling homes and offices in our own city?” Was the same work they did in their daily business now “mission” because it was an “official” church program?

As a pastor, I realized that I was more interested in people’s volunteer time and their charitable giving than in their professional lives. I focused on people’s personal lives, family life, and spirituality—and on recruiting them to volunteer in church sponsored ministries. When it came to serving Christ, I called people either to change what they were currently doing or to add more on top of their already full lives. Give more, do more, care more, serve more were my constant themes. The financial fruit of their work interested me more than how they made that fruit. Like many pastors (and Christian businesspersons), I could value business as a means to other ends: earning an income, expressing gifts and abilities, creating employment, building caring relationships, maybe doing a little Christian witness, and certainly contributing to charitable causes (like my church). But intrinsically, I wasn’t clear how business contributed to the purposes of God.

No wonder the vast majority of Christians in business feel unsupported and unvalued by their churches for their actual work in business. The tragedy of this intensifies when we realize that, according to recent surveys, most employed Americans indicate that they “hate” their work (“State of the American Workplace,” Gallup (June, 2013). Even many respected Christian leaders in business have fear, loneliness, and envy as their dominant work-life emotions. This certainly isn’t God’s will. In spite of all our good sermons, classes, and service projects, churches aren’t touching the driving professional realities of their members. For the past 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with businesspersons and students around the world to discover more fully God’s broad purposes of business. Often, business has a far deeper impact on human well being than churches or NGOs ever will.

I believe we are entering into a new reformation of the church’s vision for its ministry. Rather than being the center of ministry, the church is a resource for its members’ ministry in daily life. Rather than focusing primarily on people’s personal, family, and spiritual lives—and on recruiting people to serve in church programs—churches are focusing on supporting and encouraging people for their ministry in daily life. It’s easy to see how our work relates to God’s kingdom in education, health care, social and community service. Jesus did all those things. But business is more complicated. To participate in God’s kingdom purposes in business requires special support and skill.

Business isn’t “automatically” a “holy calling.” There is a “question mark” attached to the phrase. To assist in this, I’ve created a workbook to guide conversations between businesspersons and their pastors to explore God’s purposes for business. It is designed as a discussion starter for use by individuals and small groups, and includes personal reflection and group discussion questions.

It’s purpose is to contribute to a new reformation in our understanding of lay ministry—not lay persons volunteering in church work—but lay persons participating in the coming of God’s kingdom in every aspect of life. Through this, Christians in business can align their work with God’s purpose to make all aspects of life right in our world. And as a result, instead of facing work with fear, loneliness, and envy—they can approach their day with joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction. This workbook is now in its third edition. More information can be found at Business as a Holy Calling?

Aside

Remembering a playground in Gaza

Deaf children in Gaza

Deaf children in Gaza

I’ve been to Gaza several times. Even before this current disastrous conflict, Gaza was regarded as the world’s largest open air prison. Even crossing into Gaza through the Israeli VIP Checkpoint was a long, intimidating process. There’s no VIP crossing for Gazans. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, there is no crossing at all.

On one visit, I was exploring with Abuna Manuel who was the Roman Catholic Priest of Gaza a strange request we’d received.  Amidst all the devastation of that place, with life-threatening shortages of food, medicine and clean water—let alone freedom and work—why was he asking for money to build playground equipment? That seemed so frivolous and secondary. His reply is unforgettable.

The children of Gaza have lost their capacity (and even places) to play. 

Play is the pathway to laughter.

Laughter leads to joy, and joy opens up the gateway to hope. 

Without hope, we have no life.

When we feel we have no life, people will do desperate things.

We need to help the children of Gaza to play again.

Needless to say, we made sure that the children of Gaza received the best playground equipment we could provide. Thousands of children swung and slid, laughter resounded again, until during the last Israeli incursion into Gaza, even this playground was destroyed by Israeli shells.

It’s no wonder that the Prophet Zechariah reminded Israel that a sign of the Kingdom of heaven coming to earth is children playing freely on the streets of the city: “And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets” (8:5). Play and laughter are the language of heaven. We have the privilege and power in the Holy Spirit to help one another learn and speak freely that language.

If the task of producing hope sits on our shoulders, we will feel the constricting band of our own inadequacy and finitude stifling us. But if we recognize that God is the producer of hope and we are but assistants in hope’s birth, we can breathe again. We are not paralyzed. We can become joyous participants in that hope being born into people lives. We can provide the world with great playground equipment, joyous songs of testimony to God’s love, winsome deeds of justice and mercy, courageous lives of compassion, and miraculous signs of supernatural power.

(Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission (2013: 45). Available on Amazon US, UK, India, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.)

 

Drinking from the Wells of New Creation

Drinking from the Wells of New Creation.

Drinking from the Wells of New Creation

I am excited to announce the publication of my wife, Kerry Dearborn’s new book, Drinking from the Wells of New Creation: The Holy Spirit and the Imagination in Reconciliation. It’s available now on Amazon:

Wells of New Creation

Here are what some people are saying about it:

”Dearborn provides us with the gift of deep insight into the heart of God and the ways of the Spirit to open our eyes, our hearts, our homes, and our lives to God and others. Through profound theological reflection interwoven with compelling stories, this book draws us into God’s healing love and new creation. I pray God uses this great book to release the vision of Amos to which I’ve dedicated my life.”
–John Perkins, author of Let Justice Roll Down

”For many years, Kerry Dearborn has been at the forefront of thinking theologically about the imagination and thinking imaginatively about theology. Here she invites us to move into territory sorely in need of just this kind of thinking. Gracious, lucid, and hospitable, Drinking from the Wells of New Creation opens up fresh vistas for envisaging reconciliation in our time.”
–Jeremy Begbie, Duke University, Durham, NC
”The nexus of the argument here is the way in which ‘imagination’ is a defining practice of the Spirit, the capacity to receive, visualize, invest in, and enact a world other than the one we take for granted. Dearborn gives substance and passion to our ancient prayer, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.”’
–Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA
It’s a delight to let you know about this wonderful, groundbreaking resource.

Why do we struggle with allowing God to love us?

Here’s something I’ve been musing on this Lenten season:

“If the heart of Christianity is the God who gives nothing less than God’s own Self, it follows, as a logical conclusion, that the fundamental stance a Christian must take is that of receiving Him. First and foremost we must accept to be loved, allow God to love us, let God be the doer, the giver, let God be God to us. But how hard it is for us to do that consistently! We are always reversing the role, intent on serving God, as we say, on doing things for God, offering God something. This is our natural bent, but it must be corrected by the vision of faith. Over and over again, Jesus tries to get his disciples to drop this self-important attitude and to understand that, before God, they are only very small children who have no resources within themselves, but must look to their parents for everything, simply everything. It is not their role to give, but to receive. Jesus knows that this calls for a radical change of outlook and, more than outlook, a radical change of heart. From always trying to prove ourselves to God (is it not really to ourselves?), we have to become poor in spirit just as Jesus was.”

Ruth Burrows, Essence of Prayer, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, p. 48

Praying for Healing on Holy Week

This Holy Week I’m reflecting on the wonder of Christ’s healing life. For how much healing dare we pray, dare we hope?

This week points us to the healing of our wounded souls, hearts, homes, neighborhoods and world. “By his wounds we are healed”  (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24).

Yet so much feels so unhealed. We know some wounds in our hearts, bodies and world only heaven will heal. So for how much healing today dare we hope? Jesus calls us to pray for heaven to invade earth now: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done–on earth as it is in heaven”.

We live in eager anticipation of the day when all nations will walk by the light of the Lamb (Revelation 21:23-24). Planted beside the river of life that flows from the throne of the Lamb are the trees of life. “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (22:2).

In the midst of our wounds, we live and pray for healing with confidence and eager anticipation.

Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill summarizes the confidence in which the Christian movement has engaged the world, saying, “In Jesus, the one thing that needed to happen has happened in such a way that it need never happen again in the same way. The universe has been reconciled to its God…For the human sickness there is one specific remedy, and this is it. There is no other.”[i]

The gospel audaciously proclaims that the Holy God became embodied on our planet and lived a perfect human life on our behalf. In his human flesh Jesus defeated all personal, social and demonic darkness. He bore all sin and evil. He carried the full consequences of this into death and life eternal.

Jesus bore our brokenness so we could receive the gift of his wholeness. He became what we are, sinful and broken, so that we could become what he is, holy and glorious.


[i] Stephen Neill, The Christian Faith and Other Faiths (Oxford University Press, 1970) p. 17.

 (Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission (2013: 50). Available on Amazon US, UK, India, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.)
This Holy Week, I’m eager to taste some appetizers made from those healing leaves. My hope is strengthened by reports I’m hearing from around the world of how the Spirit isn’t merely offering appetizers–but banquets. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done–on earth–now–as it is in heaven!

There are no people who are aliens

“The earth is the Lord’s—the world isn’t for us alien territory.

People are in God’s image—no one is to us an alien being.”

(Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission (2013: 51). Available on Amazon US, UK, India, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.)

These may be true words to say, but their truth is most evident in how we live them. One ministry that inspires us is Tierra Nueva, located north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley. They follow the Spirit of God to see justice, kindness, healing, community and worship break forth among people who are so often marginalized in our society–gang members, addicts, jail inmates, migrant workers, and undocumented residents.

Kerry, Andrea and I recently had the privilege of writing an article about this for Christianity Today: “Ministering on the Margins in Rural America” . In full disclosure, the article refers to Bethany Dearborn (who is one of our daughters), and Andrea Peer who wrote it with us is another daughter. Our oldest daughter, Alison, is living in Redding, CA right now–otherwise the article would been fully a family affair!

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