Monday, 23 December 2013

Wishing You A Charlie Brown Christmas

Read: Luke 2:1-20

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 1:8-12)

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) is widely considered to be a classic Christmas TV show, and it remains, for me, an all-time favourite. Centred around Charlie Brown’s disillusionment with the commercialization and secularization of Christmas, and his resulting quest for the true meaning of Christmas, this animated Christmas special continues to resonate with new generations of viewers.

On of my favourite moments in the show is when Charlie Brown, having been dispatched to get a “big, shiny, aluminum” Christmas tree for the Christmas play, ends up choosing a tiny dwarfish real tree, which loses more of its precious few needles every time it is touched. Charlie Brown justifies his choice to a sceptical Linus, saying, “I think it needs me.” But when Charlie Brown returns to the auditorium with the little tree, all the other kids make fun of the tree and deride him for choosing such a pathetic tree. Exasperated, Charlie Brown yells out, “Can’t anyone tell me what Christmas is all about???!!” Linus responds by reciting Luke 1:8-12, and concluding “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Even for us who are Christ-followers, and thus know what Christmas is all about, it’s often far too easy to get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of shopping, and wrapping, and planning, and visiting that we lose sight of the Reason for the Season. May we all refuse to be satisfied with immersing ourselves in the external trappings of Christmas, and instead, like Charlie Brown, embark on a quest to re/discover what Christmas is all about.

Dear Lord Jesus, This Christmas, captivate our hearts and minds anew with the wonder of what you did for us that first Christmas by being born as baby to become our Saviour. In that sense, may this Christmas be, for each of us, a Charlie Brown Christmas. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

On Encountering Inaccessibility

And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7, NKJV)
Most people with disabilities will, at some point in their lives, encounter barriers which prevent them from getting into certain places or taking part in certain events. These barriers can be physical; for example, the lack of ramps or elevators make it impossible for people in wheelchairs to get into a building. These barriers can also be attitudinal; for example, people may be very reluctant to strike up a conversation with someone who has a speech impairment or developmental disabilities because they are afraid that they may not be able to understand that person or make themselves understood by that other person. But whether inaccessibility is the result of physical or attitudinal barriers, it often leaves the person to whom access is denied feeling rejected and isolated. Consequently, it is common for someone with disabilities who finds themself excluded because of physical or attitudinal barriers to respond by withdrawing entirely from the place or situation in which they encountered inaccessibility.

The Bible tells us that when Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth as a helpless newborn baby, He, too, encountered inaccessibility–both physical and attitudinal. There was no physical room accessible to Mary and Joseph, so Jesus had to be born in a stable and cradled in a manger. Much more significant, and much sadder, though, were the attitudinal barriers that Jesus would encounter during his life on earth. John 1:11 tells us that, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” And yet, incredibly, Jesus did not respond to this inaccessibility and rejection by withdrawing from the human race that was rejecting him. Rather, as John goes on to tell us, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). 

Gracious Lord Jesus, Thank you so much for not letting either the physical barriers or the attitudinal barriers that you would encounter on earth deter you from coming to earth as a helpless baby to become our savior. Grant us courage and wisdom, so that when we are likewise facing physical and attitudinal barriers, we would not respond by becoming bitter and withdrawing into ourselves. But rather, show us ways to continue to seek to redeem those situations by continuing to look for those small inroads by which we can connect with people. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Advent: It's All About Accessibility

Read: John 1:19-27

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.
  Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:3-4)

For generations, people with disabilities have sought–and often, by necessity, fought–for the right to have the same level of access to buildings, institutions, and opportunities that TAB members of society largely take for granted. Indeed, there is little that is as frustrating for a person with disabilities than to discover that your disability excludes you from, for example, going to a certain restaurant or attending an event because the venue isn't wheelchair accessible or because service dogs are not allowed. Experiencing this kind of exclusion, whether deliberate or not, can leave a person with disabilities feeling demoralized, devalued, and isolated.

The Scripture readings for today indicate that God is also very concerned with issues of accessibility. The accessibility issue that God is most concerned about is sin. Our human proclivity to sin and break God’s law creates a huge barrier between us and the holy God who created us and loves us. No feat of human engineering, no matter how skillful, could ever succeed in bridging that gap between us and God. However, Isaiah 40 is a prophecy about Christ coming to become the bridge that restores our access to God. Later, John would echo Isaiah’s words to announce that Jesus had come to fulfill this prophecy. Through His sacrificial death and resurrection, Jesus paved an accessible path back to God for all who acknowledge Him as the Way (John 14:6).

Lord Jesus, Thank you that you do care about accessibility issues. You demonstrated that during your earthly ministry by repeatedly making yourself accessible to people who found themselves shut out by their society. But thank you most of all for coming to bridge the chasm that our sins created between us and God.  May we, in turn, as your followers, be bridge-builders who help make level paths for others to find reconciliation with their fellow human beings and with God. Amen. 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Impossible Christmases

Read: Luke 1:26-38

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”(Luke 1:38)

I think I’m pretty safe in assuming that none of you reading this blog have been faced with the kind of extreme, nature-defying impossibility that Mary faced when she was told that she, a young virgin, would become pregnant and give birth to the Son of God. But I think it’s more than likely that most, if not all of us, have, from time to time, found ourselves in situations which, from our own human perspective, seemed virtually as physically and/or emotionally impossible as the situation in which Mary suddenly found herself when the angel appeared to her.

So, let me tell you about an “impossible Christmas” I've lived through–the Christmas of 1999. At that time, I was still living at home with my parents, who were my primary caregivers, and getting ready to begin writing my PhD thesis, a rather daunting project which would take me the next four years to complete. My maternal grandmother (Oma) had been very ill for the past year, and was living in a nursing home. It had thus become my Mom’s daily routine to get me up and feed me in the morning, then Mom would make some “Gritze” (oatmeal) for Oma, and head for the nursing home. While Mom was gone, I would work on my research. She’d usually come home between two and three o’clock, feed me lunch, and then Dad and I would go visit Oma and Mom would catch a little rest before starting in on housework and supper. Gradually, this routine became, if not comfortable, at least comforting. And things were becoming stable enough so that, by the beginning of December, I was actually starting the outline for the first chapter of my thesis.

But this routine came to an abrupt end on December 6, 1999. About two o’clock that afternoon, Dad and I had heard the ambulance pass by our house and stop at the major intersection at the end of our block. There had been an accident of some kind. Mom was a little late coming home. But she did say that she wanted go to the bank after visiting Oma. So, Dad went off to get groceries, and I tried to settle down to work, despite a growing sense of uneasiness. Half an hour later, the hospital phoned: Mom was in Emergency with a broken femur and a fractured skull. She had been hit by a truck while crossing the intersection to come home. She wasn't expected to survive.

The next three weeks were, by far, the darkest of my life to that point. Had it not been for God’s sustaining faithfulness and the love and prayers of His people, I am convinced that Mom would not have survived her injuries, and I would not have been able to bear up under the emotional strain and uncertainty. Although, thankfully, Mom always recognized me when I went to visit her in the hospital, she had no notion of where “home” was, or what was going on there. Equally disturbing was the fact that she never asked about Oma. I don’t know how many times I prayed that Mom would ask about Oma. That was one year that I just wanted to fast-forward through Christmas. The thought of even trying to do any of the "normal" Christmas stuff seemed simply impossible, and I really just couldn't wait for Boxing Day, because it would mean that this impossible Christmas would finally be over. But, when Boxing Day finally came, I woke up with an extremely anxious feeling. As soon as the homecare worker finished helping me with my morning routine, I called the hospital to check on Mom. But the nurse said that there was not much change, and that Mom was doing relatively OK. Still, as I hung up the phone, the anxiety inside me was growing stronger and stronger. So I called the nursing home to check on Oma. Sure enough, the nurse there said that they were just about to call us because Oma had taken a turn for the worse. We got to the nursing home in time to spend a couple of hours with Oma, and to, literally see, the awesome peace and joy she had as God took her home to be with Him.

When I went to visit Mom a few hours later, the first thing she said when she saw me was, “How is Oma?” God had answered my prayers; Mom was finally coming around. And, while I must confess that I had a few questions about His sense of timing, I knew in my heart that he had carried me through my impossible Christmas, and He would continue to carry me through the impossible weeks and months ahead.

Let’s look again at the last few verses of our Scripture reading from Luke:

“For nothing will be impossible with God."
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Did you catch Mary’s reaction to her impossible situation here? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary knew what I’m spending a lifetime learning and relearning: The only way to deal with an impossible situation is to put your total trust in the God of the impossible.

So, if you’re facing an impossible Christmas or an impossible year, I really want to encourage you to give those impossibilities over to God, and watch to see the possibilities that He will create out of those impossibilities. And, if you feel like even coming to God with the impossibilities of your life is an impossibility, let me remind you that, in Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Jesus was born as a human being, died on a cross, and rose again so that sinners like me and you could come into a relationship with a holy God. If we’re talking about impossibilities becoming possible, that’s got to be the ultimate.

Gracious and Loving Lord Jesus, when I find myself confronted and overwhelmed by what seem to me to be impossible situations, please help me to always look to you to see me through. Thank you that, with you, nothing is impossible. In Jesus’ name. Amen.    

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

God's "Foolishness"

Read: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

One of the overarching themes in the narrative of Jesus’ birth that has always both moved and intrigued me is, frankly, how bizarre, by human standards, the way in which God chose to send His Son into the world to save humanity was. This aspect of the Christmas story is beautifully and powerfully expressed by the group 4Him in their song, “A Strange Way to Save the World”  Written from Joseph’s perspective as he watches ‘his’ newborn baby sleeping and suddenly being overwhelmed with the certainty that he and Mary had indeed become the ‘parents’ of the Son of God, the song expresses Joseph’s natural human bewilderment at the incomprehensibly “strange” ways of God:

Why me? I'm just a simple man of trade.
Why Him? With all the rulers in the world.
Why here? Inside this stable filled with hay.
Why her? She's just an ordinary girl.
Now I'm not one to second guess what angels have to say
But this is such a strange way to save the world.

It seems to me that, in addition to expressing how “strange” (and “foolish”) God’s plan to save the world appears from a human perspective, the lyrics of this song also highlight God’s propensity to, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “[choose] the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, ... and the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). For those of whose disabilities can often push us to the margins of a society that seems to be inherently able-ist in its attitudes and actions, the “strangeness” of God’s delight in choosing the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the strong should come as both an encouragement and a call to be constantly ready to be used of God in surprising ways.

Father God, Thank you for Your creative “foolishness” in sending Your Son into the world to become our Saviour. When we are made to feel insignificant because of our physical, emotional, or spiritual weakness, please remind us that You specialize in using the week and the foolish to accomplish Your plans. Help us be ready to take on whatever mission You have for us.  In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

What Are *You* Giving Up for Advent?

Read: Philippians 2:1-18

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)

It is with a sad sense of irony that it is often been observed that the weeks leading up to Christmas are characterized by a more concentrated emphasis on materialism and consumerism than we see at any other time of year. In the United States, the day set aside for Thanksgiving is immediately followed, and increasingly overshadowed, by Black Friday, a day dedicated fully to consumerism, a day when people often go without sleep so that they can line up early to buy more stuff. The throngs of people we see lining up in stores on Friday, not to mention the violence that we sometimes see breaking out in those store line-ups, raise justifiable questions about just how thankful people were for the stuff they already had on Thursday.

What a different perspective we find in the mind of Jesus during the first Advent leading up to his birth! In today’s Scripture readings, the Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death– 
        even death on a cross!  (Philippians 2:6-8)

It is impossible for us, with our finite and innately self-centered human minds, to truly and fully grasp the depth of utterly unselfish love that prompted Jesus, the Son of God, to give up his glorious home in heaven and his rightful place at the right hand of the Father in order to subject himself to the limitations and frailties of the body of a human infant. We can, however, gratefully acknowledge the unfathomableness of Jesus’ love for us, and allow our gratitude to inspire us to look for new opportunities to offer selfless acts of service to God and to our fellow human beings during this Advent season.

Loving and Compassionate Lord Jesus, during this Advent season, fill our hearts and minds with renewed wonder and gratitude for the love that compelled you to humble yourself to the point of taking on human form and ultimately dying to pay the penalty for our sins. Although we will never be able to fully grasp the depth of your love with our finite minds, may your love inspire and embolden us to greater acts of service, for Your glory and for the good of our fellow human beings. In Your Name. Amen.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Glory: How Can We Give God What He Already Has?

Read: Revelation 4

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 
(1 Corinthians 10:31)

The Bible tells us repeatedly that one of our main functions as human beings who have been created in the image of God is to give glory to God (Psalm 3:3-4; Colossians 1:15-18). The Bible also tells us that heaven and earth are filled with the glory of God (Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 6:3). At first glance, there appears to be something of a contradiction, or at least a paradox, here: How can we give God something He already has?

It seems to me that a key to resolving this conundrum can be found in the psalmist’s exhortation: “Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, / ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. / Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; / bring an offering and come into his courts” (Psalm 96:7-8). To “ascribe” something to someone means to “give credit” to someone as “being the cause” of something. In other words, we give glory to God when we give Him the credit for who we are and what we have. When we do this, we are actually reflecting God’s glory back to Him.

But, for those of us who have disabilities which are the result of malfunctioning bodies and/or minds, there is sometimes a tendency to think that our disabilities somehow disqualify us from bringing glory to God because we’ve bought into the able-ist worldview of our society. According to this able-ist worldview, the presence of disability may well be a cause for ascribing blame, but certainly not for ascribing glory.

Jesus, however, demonstrated a very different view of disability during his earthly ministry. Upon encountering a man who had been born blind, Jesus’ disciples asked him, "Teacher, whose sin caused this man to be born blind-his own sin or his parents' sin?" Jesus answered, "It is not this man's sin or his parents' sin that made him blind. This man was born blind so that God's power could be shown in him” (John 9:2-3, New Century Version).  In this encounter, Jesus teaches us that, rather than being disqualified from bringing glory to God, people with disabilities can be uniquely positioned to bring glory to God in ways that will have maximum impact. (And you don’t necessarily need to be healed from your disability for this to happen! But that’s a subject for a future post... :-)

Loving Heavenly Father, Thank you for giving all human beings the capacity to reflect Your glory, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Grant me the perceptiveness to catch glimpses of Your glory in those around me. May I daily become more and more conformed to the life of Jesus, so that I may reflect His glory with increasing clarity. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.