The Fragility and Power of Christmas: A Meditation for the Third Sunday of Advent

falling snowNebraska Christian College’s annual “Colors of Christmas” finished its three shows last night. It was outstanding. Kudos to Director John Chilcote and the fabulous students of the college, and thanks for letting me play my fiddle with you.

One of the songs seemed new to me, yet hauntingly familiar, “Winter Snow,” written by Audrey Assad. Assad who was featured in the Colors of Christmas show in 2010 as a guest artist and I’m pretty sure performed this song. It is a thoughtful, powerful song, very much like other Assad tunes that have become favorites of mine.

Assad’s lyrics ask a great Christmas question: why did the Son of God come to humankind in such a quiet, inauspicious way? Assad muses that the Christ could have come like a hurricane, a forest fire, a tidal wave, or a roaring flood. She also reflects on the possibility of other famous biblical ways God has chosen to reveal himself: a burning bush or a rushing wind.

But none of these spectacular modes of revelation were the choice of God. The story of Christmas is about God’s Son coming to be with us “like a winter snow,” quietly, in the night.

One of the great mysteries of Christmas is the humility and obscurity with which Christ came.

It was not in a royal setting. The palace of Herod in nearby Jerusalem was clueless about his birth until some visitors from the east came asking questions a couple of years later.

It was not in a wealthy setting. The baby was born among household farm animals. His first outfit was a improvised wrapping in scraps of cloth. His baby bed was a feeding trough borrowed from one of the animals.

It was not in a celebrity setting. Jesus’ mother was a young girl from an obscure village. Despite the many images of her we see giving her great beauty, she was likely very plain in appearance. Her husband was a skilled tradesman who made his living working with his hands. There were no viral youtubes about this birth. No parades. No round of interviews on the networks. No blogs. It was very private, very simple, very quiet.

And in this lies great power. This is what Audrey Assad understands, “soft and slow, like a winter snow.” The fragility and humility of Christmas.

Marvelous!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

The Peaceful Prince: Meditation for the Second Sunday of Advent

prince of peacePeace is a word often associated with the Christmas season. Biblically, this comes from two Scripture passages, one a prophecy and one a pronouncement.

Isaiah, the great 8th century Hebrew prophet, looked forward to the Messiah, the Christ, with this prophecy:

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and [of] peace
    there will be no end.

Isaiah 9:6-7

The pronouncement comes from the angel host that visited the shepherds of Bethlehem on the night of the Messiah’s birth:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Luke 2:14

The Hebrew concept of “peace” is based on the word shalom (שלם) which has connotations much bigger than cessation of hostilities. Biblical peace is more than the absence of war. Peace has to do with having the right relationship with the Lord, and thus personal well-being. To be the “Prince of Peace” means you brought prosperity to your people. To have a government of peace would mean you governed in a way that was to the benefit of your people. For God to pronounce peace on the earth means truly that he is well pleased with his people.

Why would anyone not want peace?

There are many reasons, and we still see them working out in today’s world. There are those who do not wish to have peace between nations, because they believe that national belligerence and aggression may lead to more people, power, and wealth. Historically, most empires were built on wars that overpowered other nations and looted them.

There are others who reject peace because they believe they can prosper in chaos and profit from war. This can be the perspective of anarchists, those who believe they can emerge from anarchy as rulers and masters. The heart of an anarchist believes that society and government are irredeemable and must be destroyed so that everything can be rebuilt. It can also be the perspective of cynics in the war industries who long for wars so their companies can make profits.

There are also some who reject peace because they are restless souls in conflict with God. They have no peace in their souls, and don’t want others to have peace either.

In all of these scenarios, the opportunists, the anarchists, the cynics, and the troubled souls, Christ offers peace. The Christ Child is God’s peace offering, as St. Paul says, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). Paul is particularly speaking of the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, but the application is larger. Christ is truly our peace, provided as a blessing of God for all the residents of the earth.

So may you have peace this Christmas. May you have peace in your country. May you have peace in your politics. May you have peace in your soul. May Christ be the Prince of Peace for you now and forevermore.

The Innocent Christ Child: Meditation for the First Sunday of Advent

Baby in MangerWhat sort of baby was Jesus? We know what sort of man he grew to be. He was totally devoted to God and always obedient to him. He was a miracle worker and a powerful preacher. He was a master of Scripture and one who struck a note of fear in the demons. He was a friend of sinners but without sin himself. He understood that people were more important than legalism, and that women were fully human and deserving of respect.

But what was he like as a baby? Was his mind full of the secrets of the universe when he was fussing because he was hungry? When he was cuddled and comforted by his mother, was he restraining his mighty powers? When he was worshiped by the magi, did he know their inner thoughts and motivations? Was he in divine communication with the angels announcing his birth while he was wrapped up and laying in the manger?

Mercifully and wisely the Bible neither gives us these sorts of details nor speculates on the inner workings of the baby’s mind.

So, indulge my lack of wisdom for a minute and let me speculate on what this baby was like.

In the StableI think he was a joy to his mother that brought many tears. Mary was aware of the specialness of her new son and perhaps had a vague sense of what his future might be. But most of all, on that night she was a young mother for the first time. Her thoughts were not for herself or her husband, but for this treasure she had been given, a healthy baby boy. I can’t imagine that Mary acted stoically or like the Queen of the Universe on that night. She acted with the love that only mother can understand, and with the care that a baby needed.

I think that the baby Jesus seemed just like any newborn baby. His eyes didn’t focus yet. He didn’t have much hair. He couldn’t walk or talk. The pictures of him that show him as a tiny adult sitting on his mother’s lap like it is a throne are wrong. Newborns cannot hold their heads up or sit up by themselves.

And finally, I think he was totally pure and innocent. I have long thought that the experience of a newborn should be evidence against the doctrine of inherited, original sin. I know they can cry and get all red-faced, but a sleeping baby is the most peaceful thing in our experience. And even in their crying, there is an innocence and beauty that transcends the noise.

The marvel is that this purity and innocence never left Jesus. He always had the soft heart, never the hard heart. He always obeyed, never rebelled. As an adult, his strong emotions of anger came because he was aghast at injustice and lack of compassion. This to me is the wonder of Bethlehem, that a baby’s innocence never left this man. And for that, I give thanks again to God my Father. Thank you for sending your Son, born in a stable, born of a woman, born as a baby.

Aside: has anyone ever painted Madonna and Child with the baby fussing? Just wondering.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Is Same-Sex Orientation Sinful?

San DiegoI am in San Diego at the annual meeting of the venerable Evangelical Theological Society. A hot topic this year is all matters concerning same-sex relationships as well as various gender identity issues. Next year the theme for the annual meeting will be Marriage and Family, so this is just a prelude.

I am struck by a couple things here. One is the generally hostile and condescending tone toward even the topic by most of the older ETS members (my generation). The second is the presence of younger scholars (even millennials) who are patiently asking tough questions that deserve answers.

Readers of this blog well know my general distrust of systematic theologians, especially in their handling of biblical information. Sometimes I don’t think the guild of systematicians should be allowed to use the Bible at all, but I know that is unrealistically harsh and stupid of me.

An example yesterday was a presentation that asked whether same-sex orientation in and of itself was sinful. That is, if a man has lustful thoughts about another man, is that sin? The presenter concluded that it most certainly is sin and that there are no gray areas here. His conclusion was based on the idea that Jesus condemned looking at a women “lustfully” meant that “adultery in the heart” had been committed (Matthew 5:28). I will admit that this presentation gave me pause. We have often focused on sin as action without considering the sins of our thought world, and I thank the presenter for this reminder.

However, I was troubled by the way in which the presenter applied this to the issue of same-sex orientation. To be sure there was a careful parsing of words, but his conclusion was that for a man even to be attracted to another man in any sort of sexual way was sinful. Therefore, anyone who admits to having such thoughts is admitting to sin. There is no excuse for any biological, sociological, or circumstantial factors, same-sex attraction is sin.

The presenter based this on Jesus’ words and on his belief in the “impeccability of Christ.” For those of you who have never heard of this doctrine, check out this link. This doctrine teaches that Jesus was not capable of sin. If we impose this doctrine on Jesus’ thought life, we must conclude that he never had a lustful thought. Even further, that Jesus never was sexually attracted to men (or to women) because this would have only been appropriate for his wife, and he was not married. So we get a sinless, sexless Jesus.

I don’t think this is very helpful, and is closer to the gnostic Jesus than the biblical Jesus. It reminds me of Phil Yancey’s book, The Jesus I Never Knew. This is the Jesus of the systematicians, the Jesus that we are taught in church many times. Yancey said that when he really began to read the Gospels without this filter, he found a very human Jesus, the Jesus he never knew and had never been taught.

The conclusion, then is that it is not enough to tell a person that homosexual activity is sinful. We must teach that same-sex orientation for whatever reason is sinful, and that celibacy for a person with this orientation is not sufficient.

I’m not sure this is helpful (or biblical).

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Islam as the Mother Lode of Bad Ideas

1-Maher and HarrisRecently, Fareed Zakaria invited one of the leaders of “New Atheism” for a brief debate on his Sunday morning CNN show, “GPS.” The atheist was Sam Harris, author and critic of religion. Harris had made news by his statement on Bill Maher’s HBO show to the effect that “Islam is the Mother Lode of Bad Ideas.” You can view Fareed’s 8-minute debate with Harris at this link.

While some Christians may cheer on Harris’s attack on Islam, it raises an interesting question, because we should be assured that Harris is no friend of Christianity. He is perhaps best known for his best-selling book, Letter to a Christian Nation. This confrontational book (which I have not fully read) contains challenges like, “People have been cherry-picking the Bible for millennia to justify their every impulse, moral and otherwise.”

So here is the question: Is there a point where Muslims (like Fareed) and Christians (like me) become allies as theists against the onslaught of atheists (like Harris and Maher)?

We might consider the old principle from warfare and diplomacy: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But who is the enemy here, the atheist or the Muslim?

I’m still chewing on this. If you watch the video, you will see that Fareed becomes uncharacteristically angry and defensive. He asks Harris if his conclusion to over a billion Muslims world wide is the “your religion is crap.” Yet isn’t that what Christians generally say?

Harris returns twice to the reasonablist position: words and ideas have consequences. What he means is that if jihad as holy war is found and sanctioned in the Quran, we should not be surprised that many Muslims support Sharia law and forced conversions. There is a basic reading of Muslim Scriptures that leaves no room for tolerance of other faiths. Harris’s point is that this was the Quranist reading of Osama bin Laden, and that bin Laden represented the scriptural spirit of Islam with a purity that apologists for Islam do not. It is not a philosophy of peace, but of the sword, and it has been this for over 1,000 years, according to both bin Laden and Harris.

Some things to think about.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Elections and Shame

VoteTomorrow is election day in my state. I vote in every election and consider this a civic duty. When I first began voting 40 years ago, it was exciting for me. I studied the ballots, paid attention to the issues, and attempted to use my vote wisely.

In recent years, my enthusiasm has waned. I have been trying to pinpoint the reason for this in my own soul, and last week I had an epiphany that helps me understand why I lack any passion for the elections and the electoral process. The reason is that I am ashamed. Let me explain in three ways.

1. The ads I see on television are hugely negative. There is little attempt to tout the credentials, agenda, or abilities of a candidate and massive attempts to discredit the candidate’s opponent. Both parties are guilty of this, although in my congressional district, one party in particular has no shame in what it will say. I am ashamed of candidates who would condone or endorse these adds. I know that the worst ones are paid for by third-party PACS, but the candidates are silent regarding the distortions and outright untruths of these third party ads. We should all be ashamed of this situation.

2. If both candidates are complicit in these shameful tactics, I am forced to vote for someone for whom I am ashamed. This means that no matter who wins the election to be my Congressman, I will be ashamed of that person. Should I forget this and move on after the election? Sorry, I can’t turn that feeling of shame on/off so easily. This, I think, contributes to the historic low opinion the American people have of their elected Congress. The approval rating for Congress is 14%.

3. It has been years since I read Niccolò Machiavelli, the 16th century Florentine politician and philosopher, but I do remember that he taught that the art of governing consists of two things:

  1. Gaining power
  2. Retaining power

In the end, gaining and retaining power is all that matters. In Macchiavellian terms, anything is justified in an election for me to be elected. Once I am elected, anything is justified to keep me in office or allow me to advance to a higher office. There are no absolute ethics or morals.

Contrast this with the last words of David: “He who ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” (2 Sam 23:3). God’s king knew he was answerable to God himself and I don’t think he wanted to be ashamed of his performance.

So yes, I will vote tomorrow, and I hope you do, too. I will cast my ballot with sadness and with shame in some cases. Then I will go to Starbucks and have a latte to cheer myself up.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Transgender Issues and Ministry

450_lgbtMany of you have read the recent blog about a church leader who is revealing that he is transgender. If not, this is the link: paulstonewilliams.com. In this blog, a highly successful, talented, and respected author and minister in the Christian Churches discusses the issues of transgender (dysphoria) and his lifetime of dealing with this situation. Briefly, transgender is when a person with a male body identifies as a female (or vice versa). It is not the same as homosexuality, although it has been associated with gay identity in the now common designation LGBT. All of these, Lesbian, Gay (men), Bisexual, and Transgender claim to be “sexual minorities” that are fighting for recognition and rights in both mainstream society and the political/legal arena. As many of you know, this has been divisive in many churches and families.

The author of this blog is a person I have known for a long time. I don’t want to overstate the depth of our relationship, not because I am afraid to do so but out of honesty. He is a person whom I have worked with on writing assignments for Christian Standard, and he was a guest lecturer at my college last year.

My friends and colleagues have been discussing this blog since it came out last week. I have shared my initial reaction several times:

I don’t know what to think.

I have not moved very far from this. However, I would like to share a couple of observations.

1. Paul is correct in stating that the Bible does not address his situation directly. It neither condemns nor commends transgender orientation. Yet I’m not sure this means that the Bible has nothing to say about this. I will have to think more about this, but biblical silence is a hermeneutical issue that has been misused in the past, so I don’t want to eliminate biblical teaching from this discussion.

2. Although Paul does not push this angle, I have been told before that as a straight man, “You can’t possibly know how I feel.” That may be true, but it deserves a little push back. If a person has felt wrongly gendered when it comes to body for all of his or her conscious life, then that person cannot possibly know how I feel either. It goes both ways, and judgmentalism can be a two way street.

3. I see this blog as a type of “confession” in the sense that confession means acknowledgement. We have long been told that confession is good for the soul, and I believe that. However, I wonder about the very public nature of confession by blogging. For whom is this good? I think that question is legitimate and needs to be asked. I can’t help but think there is more to come here.

4. I believe that God is gracious and loving, but right now, I am in no position to know or understand what God thinks about this. I do believe that God knows all the secrets of my heart, and some of them are not pretty. He knows them and still loves me. I just don’t want to put myself in the position of seeming to speak for God in this.

That’s about all the further I have come on thinking this through. I know that LGBT realities will have a great impact on the church and its leaders in the coming years, and that we cannot ignore these issues.

Mark Krause