God in The Flesh – The Incarnation and the Birth of Christ

Today around the globe millions of Christians will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the Christmas Season.  We will do so with services of worship, singing of carols, the sharing of word and table, in dozens of language, in numerous liturgies, all proclaiming the birth of Jesus.

So why is the birth of Jesus a big deal?  I mean, isn’t his death and resurrection the cornerstone of our faith?  Isn’t it Christ’s gift to us through the cross that is the very center of Christianity? Yes, but Christmas reminds us why Jesus’ gift of giving his life for us matters so very much.  It is Christmas that reminds us that Jesus’ birth is about God being with us, God being in the flesh, God being present here and now.

The incarnation is one of those bits of theology than confuses people.  We contend as Christians that Jesus is both human and divine.  It sounds like an esoteric truth, something that does not matter to our every day faith.  But in truth it really does matter a great deal to our understanding of how God is present with us how God does God’s work among us, and how God through Christ redeems us.

Because Jesus is human and life the life of a human being here on this earth he has walked and lived among us.  He is “Emmanuel, God with us.”  It means that God is not far off and inaccessible but instead is near to us.  It means that God understand loss, sickness, death, pain, sorry, joy, hunger, poverty, and plenty.  Jesus has, so to speak, walked in our shoes.

But also because Jesus is the very son of God, as Jesus said, “one with the Father” Jesus also can offer us the gift of God’s grace which is always there for us, always reaching out to us, always pursuing us, always seeking us always wanting to redeem us.

Christmas is so wonderful because it reminds us that God isn’t just up there in heaven, God is here among us walking with us, traveling with us, supporting us, sustaining us.   God wants to be there not just at the beginning of our faith journey and not just at the end of life’s journey, but with us every day and every step.

Too often we focus on the Jesus of the afterlife or the Jesus of the “end times” all in the future.  Andre Crouch, gospel singer and composer, wrote, “If heaven was never promised to me, even God’s promise to live eternally, it has been worth just having the Lord in my life.  Because living in a world of darkness he brought me the light.”

What we celebrate on this holy evening is that we who live in the darkness have seen the light of God through Jesus Christ.  It is a light that guides us, it is a light that lives with us and in us, it is a light that warms us on a cold bleak night, and it is the light we hope against hope to share with love and grace with others.

May you have a blessed and holy experience of the presence of Christ as we celebrate Christ’s birth in this holy season!

Tech Detox or Generation Gap?

The August 8, 2011 of the Christian Century had an article about young people, church camp, and technology called “Tech Detox.”  The article largely bemoaned teenager hyperconnectivity and expounded on the importance of praying cell phones and gadgets out of the hands of young people while at camp so that they can meet God.

I’ve read several articles in recent months which seem to complain or give advice about the need to disconnect in order to experience God, reconnect spiritually, etc.  The more of these articles I read the less I believe that this is really about toxic technology and the more I am convinced that this is actually about a generation gap.

We all know what a generation gap is.  As each new generation is born, grows up, and comes into adulthood there are generational differences that due to changing culture, technology, life experience, and circumstances that cause misunderstanding and mischaracterization of younger generations by older generations and older generations by the younger.   One of the areas it seems to me that is misunderstood is in the area of technology.

Because people are living longer we find that we have not just one or two generations living together in our society but as many as five generation.  My Grandfather was a rural mail carrier who began his work with a horse and buggy and retired delivering mail in a jeep.  Baby Boomers and Tweeners like myself and many Millenials remember times with much less technology before email, before the internet, and yes before VCRs, and DVDs.

Changing technology is a facet of the larger subject of “change.”  Different people adapt to change at different rates, some are slow to change, and some out right oppose any change to the lifestyle they are comfortable with.  So when it comes to the use of technology by our teens there are some things we have to recognize and adapt to:

1. Change is inevitable.  The way people live today is a far different than it was in my Grandfather’s day and also different than the society my parents grew up in.  So why should we expect that our children would live and interact the way we do?

2. The purpose of church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  It isn’t to make young people experience church, camp, or life they way we do or did.

3. If we insist that young people experience God the way we did following our own culturally bound ways of doing things we are just as likely not to reach them at all, and not to make disciples of them.

So what does this mean?  Does it mean we never tell young people not to use their cell phone in a church venue.  No I don’t believe it does.  But I do believe at all costs we must stop treating and talking about changing technology and change in general as if change is “toxic.”

When it comes to camp I don’t care if young people are making wood carvings and shooting arrows or sitting in a room playing video games.  What I do care about is that we give them a contextually relevant message about the love and grace of Jesus  Christ and God’s love for each of us.  When we go onto the mission field we seek to meet people where they are with their own culture, their own language, and in their own context.  We don’t expect them to dress like we do, talk like we do, or have a culture like ours.  We better be doing the same thing with those around us here in the US as well if we ever hope to share the gospel message with them.

How can we speak about the transforming power of Jesus Christ if we are sharing the not so subtle message that change is bad?  My reading of the gospels gives me the impression that Jesus was never about us staying the same.  In fact Jesus was about radical change, radical hospitality, radical commitment, and transformative life changing world shaking grace and love.  If anything is toxic it is stagnation.

So lets stop singing that old song “What’s the Matter with Kids Today” and instead let younger people share with us the changing technology they love and we can share with them the transforming and changing gospel that we can all love together!

Stepping Out in Faith

Last week First United Methodist Church in Church Conference decided to move forward with its building and rennovation program. This program has been in the works for a number of years but in the last two the church has made major steps forward in honing the vision and raising funds for this very important project.

In the building plan a new addition will be added to the building which will include a new entrance, a new welcome area, a new coffee fellowship area, a new nursury, chapel, and meeting room. The sanctuary of the church will be renovated and brought up to date, the chilren’s area will be remodeled and the offices will be moved and redesigned. It is an exciting and historic project!

Through the process the building committee and the church have captured a vision for how God might use our church in Cedar Falls, how we might expand our ministries, and how we can work to be a light for Jesus Christ in our community.

The history of First UMC is that this is a building church. It is a church that has build new facilities but also a church that has built ministries in this community. It is a place where generations have been baptized, confirmed, and raised up in the faith of Jesus Christ. It is a church that teaches people how to act on what they believe.

Now First UMC has taken another step of commitment and stepped out in faith to say to Cedar Falls that we are here, we want to grow and help you grow. We want to contribute even more to this community. We want to share in your faith want and growth in faith. And we want to let you know that all are welcome to come and share in Christ’s love and grace and at Christ’s table.

We walk by faith and not by sight because we believe that if we do what Christ calls us to do he will help us to meet the needs of others in the name of Jesus!

We will be breaking ground on July 3rd following a 9:00 a.m. Transformation Worship Experience with the entire church. Meet us on the church lawn as we commit not only to transform our building but also to let the transforming power of Jesus work in our lives!

Into the Darkness

Today the Church has been observing Good Friday.  It was a dark, wet, and dreary day in Cedar Falls, a day that befits the solemnity of our observance.  

At noon Cedar Falls had its first of what we hope will be an annual Procesion of the Cross using the stations of the cross as a model. The Procession was very well attended despite the weather.  I am sure over 100 of us braved the weather to walk with the cross, read scripture, and pray.  I am glad that more than ten churches gathered together to be reminded of the sacrifice of Christ and our oneness as part of his body!

This evening our Associate Pastor for Youth and College, Steve Braudt and our youth group led a Tenebrae Service.  It was a powerful service of dramatic scripture readings, extinguishing the lights, and stripping the sanctuary of its faith symbols.  We all left in silence and awe and the acts of Christ on the cross and the death which he suffered.

This time from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday is called by the Church the Holy Triduum.  It is a space and time during Holy Week that is a unit of worship experiences and contemplation.  From the Upper Room, to the Cross, and into the darkness we wait.  We await the coming of our Savior.  We await answers to the evils of hell, sin, and death.  We await empty needing to be filled.  We await knowing that Christ has died for us and hoping against hope that the darkness in our lives will not continue without relief.

Tonight and tomorrow the Church of Jesus Christ mourns so that on Sunday, as the sun rises in the east, we can shout and sing.  We can run to the tomb with Peter and John.  We can say with Mary “I’ve seen Jesus” and we can walk the Road to Emmaus with a pair of Jesus’ followers.

Every year we retell and relive the old old story of Jesus and his love!  Every year we come again to face the darkness knowing that Jesus faced it for us and that he was there before us.  Unlike the Disciples we walk into the darkness knowing that Christ’s light is coming!  That Jesus will rise again!  That the tomb will be found empty!  That the angels will sing!  That the graves will be opened!  And finally that our hearts will be healed, redeemed, changed, transformed by the overcoming grace of Jesus Christ.

We walk into the darkness awaiting the coming of the one who has enough love for the whole world.

As the thief on the cross said to Jesus those many years ago.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”  Jesus remember me!

Holy Week Journey with Jesus

Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday.  On Sunday we begin a journey with Jesus through his last days before his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.

Palm Sunday has always been a time for the triumphal entry of Christ.  We have the children carry palm branches down the aisle and we sing loud hosannas.  But in recent years the Church has also reemphasized the passion, that is death of Christ on the cross.  It is too easy to jump from the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to the triumph of the resurrection and never talk about the scandal of the cross.  It is too easy to forget to talk about the suffering servant when we are singing songs of joy and triumph.  So this Sunday we will talk about Christ’s death and what that means for our faith.

On Maundy Thursday many churches around the world will celebrate the institution of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion.  First UMC in Cedar Falls will have a reenactment of the last supper with the disciples and we will also share in the sacrament together.  In the days between Palm/Passion Sunday and Maundy Thursday Jesus has been meeting the challenge of the religious and political leaders of his day.  He has continued to talk about his radical gospel of love and the grace he offers.  When he comes to Thursday it is time to again try to get the twelve to understand that he intends to give his life for them.

On Good Friday we will celebrate Christ’s sacrifice.  Ten churches here in Cedar Falls, including First UMC, St. Timothy’s UMC, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, and seven other congregations will participate in a procession of the cross from Overman Park through downtown Cedar Falls to the foot of the steps at St. Patrick’s Church.  We will read portions of the stations of the cross and remember Christ’s love and sacrifice for us and for the whole world.

There are many theories about the atonement of Christ, that saving act which happens for us on the cross.  Different Christians describe Christ’s work on the cross with different metaphors from scripture.  But what we all agree on is that Jesus Christ died to give us knew life and to offer us the saving gospel.  It is hard to imagine such a sacrifice, it is hard to comprehend what Christ gave up for us, it is hard to imagine such a cruel death.  But what we can know and do know is that the scriptures tell us that we can love God because he first loved us.  When are given God’s grace so that we can respond to him.  We are given God’s grace when we respond to him.  And we experience God’s grace each and every day as he sanctifies us and leads us to grow in grace each day.

If we really look at the cross and really look seriously at the one who would call us to be servants to all for the sake of the gospel then when we reach Easter Sunday and the tomb is found empty we can with even greater joy should and sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” with joy, with amazement, with wonder that the one who is our savior became the greatest by being the servant all.

Lord Christ let us travel with you this week in your way and on your path that we might see the glory of your resurrection this week with new eyes, with new hearts, and with greater joy!

Remember Your Baptism And Be Thankful

Anytime the church has the opportunity to sharing in the sacrament of Holy Baptism with a child in the church it is an opportunity for thanksgiving!  Today I had the privilege of baptizing a beautiful little girl into the church as her parents shared in her baptismal vows and friends and relatives looked on.  I got to introduce her to her new church family and give thanks for the grace of God that is poured out on her in baptism.

For me it also was special for another reason.  This was my first opportunity to perform a baptism since receiving my first appointment in the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church.  If you’ve read my blog you would know that I had previously served as a pastor in the American Baptist denomination where immersion baptism of professing members is the normal practice.

So you might wonder how it felt to baptize an infant for the first time.  Well, it was a wonderful experience!  It was a wonderful experience because infant baptism is such a powerful picture of God’s love and prevenient grace.  In a Wesleyan understanding of baptism the sacrament is a gift from God and not an act of the candidate for baptism.  God loves all of us, and like a helpless infant, we are unable to understand God’s love fully or at times to even respond to it.  But God loves us simply because we are his children.

In truth when we act like we can fully explain, comprehend, or describe God’s love we’ve forgotten that the salvation we have in Jesus Christ is from God who is beyond our full understanding.  The purpose of baptism isn’t to understand or comprehend God’s love.  The purpose of baptism is to receive God’s love and, when we are able, to accept it.

It was also a wonderful experience because there is nothing quite like welcoming children into God’s house and sharing the joy that new parents have at the birth of a new and precious life.  Jesus loved children and welcomed them into his presence and told us that they are a part of the Kingdom of God and that if we want to be a part of God’s kingdom we better be ready to accept God as a child.  What that means to me is that we accept Christ with child like joy accepting God’s love even though God’s grace and love is sometimes beyond our understanding.

Remember your baptism and be thankful!

Experiencing God’s Grace in the Sacraments

This Sunday in Transformation Worship we will share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Next Sunday the church will sharing in the sacrament of Holy Baptism as I have opportunity to share in the baptism with a beautiful new baby girl in our church.

Baptism and Communion are both powerful and important means of grace in the life of the church. In Holy Baptism we will have opportunity to share God’s prevenient grace and love with a child who is already experiencing love from her parents and family and now has the blessing of receiving in a new way God’s love and the love of Christ’s church.

In Baptism God marks this child as His own. He says to that child, her parents, and to the world that he loves and gives his grace to her before she is able to respond or even know the full extent of what that loving care means. In this way Baptism is such a beautiful example of God’s love for us. None of us deserve God’s love, none of us fully understand God’s love, and none of us can earn God’s love. God loves us just because we are His children just like parents love their child even before they’ve done anything to recypricate that love.

Baptism is a one time event in the life of an individual. United Methodists don’t rebaptized because baptism isn’t the act of the individual or the family, it is an act of God. To redo a baptism would imply that something was wrong with what God did the first time. We may church many times in our life to renew our baptismal vows and thank God for our baptism. But we never need to repeat it because God never ever stops loving us.

Holy Communion is a sacrament in which the church on a regular basis seeks the loving grace of God in the Holy Mystery of bread and cup. We know and believe that Christ is really present with us when we gather around His table. We know that the one cup and the one loaf represent the one body of Christ we are a part of. And when we share in Communion we commune with each other, we commune with Christ and we truly receive his power and grace in our lives. Holy Communion strengthens us for our spiritual walk just as food strengthens us for our physical walk.

In Baptism and Communion God calls us His own. Or as the old hymn says, “Now I belong to Jesus, Jesus belongs to me. Not for the space of time alone, but for eternity.

Lenten Blessings,
Tim