Indeed, being right is one of the hardest burdens human beings have to bear, and few succeed in bearing up under it gracefully. There is a little placard I have seen that reads, “Lord, when we are wrong, make us willing to change, and when we are right, make us easy to live with!” A very wise prayer.
What we think we’re waiting for is probably nowhere near as good as what God is actually going to give us.
The people of Israel were ready for a Messiah; they were desperate for a Savior; they were crying out for a Liberator: one, like David, who would establish the kingdom of Israel in safety and security; one who would usher in a period of the blessing of the Lord that had been promised to Abraham. They were ready for a king, for a charismatic leader, to soundly defeat the Romans and kick them out of the Promised Land, to cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem, and to restore honor and dignity to the people of God.
But when we consider the lineage of Jesus in Matthew 1, we spot some familiar names, and behind those familiar names, some familiar stories. There are four women who are mentioned (which in its own right would have been unusual—ancient genealogies were usually only concerned with the male line): there was Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law Judah; there was Rahab, a prostitute of Jericho, who harbored the Israelite spies and then bargained for her safety; there was Ruth, a widow and a foreigner, who secured the well-being of herself and her mother-in-law through a marriage with an older wealthy man; and Bathsheba, who’s described here as simply “the wife of Uriah,” which she was even as she slept with King David.
But there’s also Isaac, who pretended his wife was his sister so he wouldn’t get killed; there’s Jacob, who deceived his own father to steal his brother’s blessing; there’s Judah, who sold his brother Joseph into slavery, and slept with his daughter-in-law because he thought she was just another prostitute. There’s Abraham, who tried to make God’s promise happen in his own time and caused a rift in his family; and there’s David, finally king, finally the one in authority, who committed adultery, tried to cover it up, and subsequently ordered the killing of one of his most loyal friends.
If you were to imagine a Savior of the world, it probably wouldn’t have come out of the mess that is Jesus’ family history, would it? I mean, every single person in his family line is human, shares in the human affliction of sin—some are notorious, their stories widely known; others are less well known but no less sinful.
If you were to write the story of the One who would make all things new, you probably wouldn’t have started with a teenage girl, pregnant out of wedlock, whose fiancé knows he’s not the father and is thinking of divorcing her.
But what is true and what is remarkable is that God brings beauty out of every situation; God redeems everyone, regardless of their history or where they came from. In every story, in everyone’s story, God brings unexpected good out of broken, sinful, human situations. And what is even more remarkable about what we prepare for at Advent and what we celebrate at Christmas is that God didn’t keep his distance, solving problems by a wave of his hand—God put himself into these broken, sinful, human situations; he entered into the muck and the mire of creation; he became poor, he became vulnerable, he became human.
For hundreds of years, Israel had been waiting for a national liberator, a military general; but what God gave instead was the Savior of the world and the Prince of Peace.Since the fall, since the dawn of time, creation had been waiting for its Redeemer, its Restorer; and what God gave was the One who would live his life in such a way and give his life in such a way that all things would be made new.
And when he came, it was messy and it was complicated and it wasn’t what was expected. It was better.
Martin Luther said, “We pray for silver, but God often gives us gold instead.” And so again: what we think we’re waiting for is probably nowhere near as good as what God is actually going to give us.
There’s a story about a young soldier who, as a result of injuries suffered in the Civil War, lived as a cripple for the rest of his life, wrestling and struggling with God, seeking God’s purpose; and at the end of his days, he wrote this poem—some of you may be familiar with it:
I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I have received nothing I asked for, all that I hoped for.
My prayer is answered.
And so even as we wait for that job or that relationship or that child or that next step; even as we wait for that healing and that reconciliation and that forgiveness; even as we wait for peace in conflict zones and neighborhoods, for health in disease-ridden slums, for families for kids stuck in the foster-care system, for community for single parents struggling to raise their children on their own, for the end of AIDS and poverty and violence and human trafficking and sexual exploitation and all kinds of injustice; even as we wait for the kingdom of God to come and the will of God to be done here fully on earth as it is in heaven, we can rest assured that God has all things in hand, that in the words of Mumford & Sons, “there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears; and love will not break your heart but dismiss your fears.” We can rest assured that Jesus, who is the greatest gift God has ever given, came to earth at Christmastime and will come again to bring heaven down to earth.
This Advent season that we find ourselves in is about waiting, and so we return to that question I posed at the beginning: what is it that you’re waiting for? Or to be more accurate, what is it you think you’re waiting for? And what is God teaching you while you wait?
I know, waiting is not easy; waiting will never be the most popular thing for us to do. And as a reality check and reminder, Ben Patterson says:
triumph and failure always go together in the wait of faith. They are the head and tail of the same coin. Show me a person who has had no struggle with waiting, whose faith has known no swings between victory and defeat, and I’ll show you a person who has never really trusted God with his or her life.
To wait on God is to struggle and sometimes to fail. Sometimes the failures teach us more than the successes. For the failures teach us that to wait on God is not only to wait for his mercy, but to wait by his mercy. (Waiting, 83)
Maybe, while you wait, you need to acknowledge that there are things outside of your control, that you are ultimately helpless to change that person’s heart; maybe in this wait, God is asking you to recognize your desperate need for Jesus, the only one who can change hearts.
Maybe, while you wait, you need to acknowledge that life is not exactly as you want it to be, that there is a striving and a yearning and maybe also an apprehension for what will come next, that you desperately want to be in a relationship or you desperately want to be married or you desperately want to have a child or to be healed from addictions or to be free from your past or that you fear being alone or living an unfulfilled life; maybe in this wait, God is asking you to wrestle with these things and struggle with these things with him, and to stop feeling like it’s all on you to make it happen–it’s not.
God knows what you need, God knows what is good for you; so wait on the Lord … he will come through.
If you were to take a poll of the least popular things to do, waiting would probably be near the top, wouldn’t it? It’s probably one of the few things that nobody likes but everybody does. Because if you think about it, we’re always waiting for something, aren’t we?
Waiting is a natural human condition.
There’s always something we’re looking forward to (or not looking forward to). Life is never exactly as we would have it, and so we wait. Sometimes for things that are coming imminently: a loved one is coming into town for the holidays and you can’t wait to see them and pick them up from the airport, or you’re just excited about finally getting a break! Sometimes for things that are a little way off: a wedding that’s happening next summer that you’re both super excited and super stressed about, or finishing grad school and preparing for what comes next. And sometimes for things which we actually have no idea if they will ever come: being free from the addiction that’s tied you down for so long, reconciliation with a family member or a friend, finding a life partner, having kids, figuring out what to do with your life, getting the job you really want or maybe just a job—any job—to get you through the next month. Maybe it’s waiting on someone else, hoping beyond hope that he’ll get his life together, that she’ll start making better choices.
What is it that you’re waiting for?
The story of Jesus in the New Testament begins in Matthew 1:1, with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” It’s interesting that the two main figures Matthew names are David, the great king, the man after God’s own heart, and Abraham, the founding father, the patriarch of the faith. Two heroes of history—and yet they were no less human than you and me, and no more exempt from that natural human condition of waiting.
In 1 Samuel, we read about how David was anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel when he was only a boy; but he had to wait until he was thirty years old before he came into what God had promised. And in Genesis, we’re told how Abraham, childless in his old age, was promised by God that he would be the father of many nations, that his at-the-time-non-existent-offspring would be blessed to be a blessing to others; but he had to wait twenty-five years before his son Isaac was born. Twenty-five years!
When I was about twelve years old, my uncle, who was an orthodontist, told my parents and me that I was developing an underbite, that my lower jaw was growing faster than the rest of my facial bones, that this would eventually cause problems, and that I would eventually need surgery to fix it. I would obviously need to wait until the bones stopped growing before having the surgery, and in case you didn’t know this, facial bone growth usually doesn’t stop until a person is in their mid-twenties. So I waited, knowing that at some unknown point in the distant future, I would have surgery to … well, the way I saw it was, to fix my face.
For everyone around me, for my family and close friends who knew about this, it seemed a pretty straightforward concept—there’s a problem with the mechanics of your bone structure and this surgery will correct that. But for me, it went deeper: if I was getting surgery to change something (about my face, at that!), then that must mean there was something wrong with me, because if there was nothing wrong with me, then I wouldn’t need surgery, would I? And so it tapped into my sense of self-worth, the very core of my identity, the issue of who I was. I wrestled with God over this, wondered if this was why I hadn’t yet had a girlfriend. I questioned his purpose in this—my brothers didn’t have to go through this, why me? But there was really nothing I could do about it, no way to speed up the process of bone growth so that the corrective surgery could happen and all my problems would be solved. And so I waited.
Through middle school, I waited; through high school, I waited; through my first and second degrees, I waited; through seminary, still I waited. Until finally, three months before I graduated from Fuller, after thirteen years of waiting, the surgery happened. Finally, it was done; and it was an amazing feeling. For something that has hovered over you like a dark cloud for half your life to be suddenly removed? It was an immense load off my back.
It didn’t solve all my problems though, like I thought it would when I was a kid; and actually, by that time, I had come to realize that, of course, it wouldn’t solve all my problems (and this seems obvious when you’re thinking objectively, but when you’re in the middle of something, it can seem like the biggest struggle in the world). And, in fact, thinking about it, the dark cloud hadn’t been suddenly removed; it had been dissipating over the years, during the waiting, and the surgery was simply what had removed the last vestiges of that cloud.
In that waiting period, I came back to faith in Jesus; in that waiting period, I began my first dating relationship, putting paid to the idea that somehow my looks were a barrier to that; more importantly, in that waiting period, I discovered the passions that God had planted in my soul, enabling me to look beyond myself; yet more important than that, in that waiting period, I came to know at the core of my being, in the very depths of my soul, that who I am is more than what I look like, that my identity is found and rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, who loves me as I am.
In that waiting period, my brother gave me a book called Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, by Ben Patterson—it’s a book that I come back to time and time again, and would heartily recommend. The central conviction of that book—what I realized through the process—is this: what God is doing in us while we wait is at least as important as what we think we’re waiting for.
While Abraham waited for the fulfillment of the promise, he learned what it meant to trust in God and what it looked like when he tried to take things into his own hands; he made mistakes, he had successes, he had moments where he essentially cried out to God, “Where’s this kid you promised?” But while he waited, he grew closer to God; he became more reliant on God; he realized that there was very little he could do. Romans 4:19-21 says:
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
While David waited to become king, he confronted Goliath, not in his own strength but in the strength of the Lord; he forged a deep friendship with Jonathan, who saw him for who he was and called him to greater things; he became an outlaw and an outcast, hunted by the very king he’d served faithfully. But while he waited, he grew closer to God; he became more reliant on God; he realized that his life wasn’t about being king, but about knowing God—and many of the psalms are a testament to this, including Psalm 27, which begins,
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
and ends with:
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
Which leads to the second point I want to make: what we think we’re waiting for is probably nowhere near as good as what God is actually going to give us.
(Which I’ll post tomorrow because, in a blog about waiting, of course I would! Part 2.)
With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions having taken place over the last two weeks, we can officially say that we’re entering into election season (i.e. that time when the general public begins to pay attention).
A couple friends who pastor churches in non-DC parts of the country asked me if we feel the need to address politics at The District Church, being in the very belly of the beast (my words, not theirs). Specifically, they were asking–given the intense polarization and often-unproductive arguing that we see around us, even in the church–about the need to address how we interact with those who disagree with us.
So far, we haven’t needed to. In our church community, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, and yes, even people who don’t care about politics; we have Hill staffers, White House staffers, activists, advocates, lobbyists, policy wonks, and more–and we’ve all come together as the body of Christ, recognizing that our allegiance is first to Jesus before any party or even country.
Even so, every four years (or every two, if you pay attention to mid-terms; or all the time, if you’re even more politically engaged), posts about politics pop up with increasing frequency on social media, eliciting often-furious back-and-forths that usually end up doing nothing more than reminding each side how right they are and how stupid the other side is.
So I figured I’d try to offer a few suggestions on how we can engage with one another on matters of politics in healthy ways.
1. Offer Grace.
As Christians, we believe that–as Brennan Manning, Dorothy Day, and numerous others have put it–all is grace. Just as God has been gracious to us in giving us so much more than we deserve, so we are also called to extend that grace to others: don’t presume that just because someone disagrees with you, they’re somehow less clever or less informed; don’t assume that just because someone’s faith doesn’t work itself out the same way as yours, they must therefore not be a Christian. God’s grace is big enough to meet all of us where we are and move us on a journey toward him–that should always be the foundation on which we build.
2. Be Humble.
With grace comes humility–the understanding that there is a God and it is not us, the recognition that there is far more that we do not know than that we do, the attitude of not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3) but of thinking of others as better than us (Philippians 2:3). When we recognize that grace is a gift from God and that the God we serve is far bigger than any disagreements we might have–or even the greatest challenges we might face as a nation and as a world–we are free to work as hard as we can, speak as passionately as we can, and do as much as we can, to change the world for the better, all the while remembering that it does not all depend on us, and that God brings good out of even the most awful things. And so we may walk humbly with our God and interact humbly with one another.
3. Be Civil.
Rich Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary) has written a tremendous book called Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (that was republished recently), and last year did an interview with NPR about “Restoring Political Civility.” He talks often about the need for civility in discourse even as we maintain our convictions–to paraphrase: believing something strongly doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk about it, nor does getting along with people mean you have to check your beliefs at the door to find the lowest common denominator.
Grace and humility necessitate civility.
4. Work with Facts.
Jon Huntsman, Jr. (one of the Republican presidential candidates this year) said in a recent interview that one of the problems is that everyone appears to have their own facts, which means we’re not even starting from the same point!
Sadly, we live in a time when we can’t just take politicians at their word–there’s just too much spin (and even outright lying). So starting with the facts is always a good thing to do. Factcheck.org and Politifact are two non-partisan groups that do a great job running political claims and statements through the Truth-o-Meter.
Also, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has a very helpful blog–“Wonkblog”–that keeps me up-to-date with summaries of the latest goings-on.
5. Read and (Carefully) Apply Scripture.
Of course, facts aren’t the whole picture and focusing on individual facets of policy–even if they’re true–can sometimes obscure the larger picture; and we must always view everything through the lens of Scripture and the larger narrative of God.
Just this morning, I was reading Jeremiah 22 and was reminded of the standard to which God called the kings of Judah (and, by implication and extrapolation, any political leader):
Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (v.3)
Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord. (vv.15-16)
According to this standard, neither of the standard-bearers for the major parties matches up particularly well. The middle class has gotten a lot of attention, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the size and health of the middle class is one gauge of the health of our society.
But a better measure is the welfare of the those who have the least. Scripture is full of references to the poor, and how God is particularly concerned with their plight; for instance, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Prov. 14:31).
This is the standard to which we should be calling our leaders: doing justice and righteousness; protecting the oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable; and upholding the cause of the poor and needy–those whom Jesus referred to in Matthew 25 as “the least of these.”
[Brief aside: check out “The Line,” a new documentary from Sojourners, World Vision, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, and the Christian Community Development Association, that highlights this very issue. Trailer below.]
6. Be Prayerful
Ultimately, it comes back to God. As the people of God, it has to.
Prayer is not simply a way for us to petition God on the things we’d like to see happen, or to try to get God on our side: “Please let (insert presidential candidate) win!” or “Please keep (insert presidential candidate) from winning!”
It is also, and more importantly, the place where we come to meet with God, and to have our thoughts, our desires, and our wills, transformed by God to be more in line with who he is and what he desires–and reading and understanding Scripture is a good step toward being able to discern those things. Prayer is where we are changed, first–before that person with whom we’re disagreeing, before the policies and structures of our country, before the ossified injustices of our world. Prayer is where we grow our roots in God in order that we may bear fruit in the world.
In prayer, we are likely to be challenged to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; to lower the accusing finger, to replace the vitriolic Facebook post with a civil one, to refrain from posting that oh-so-funny-but-not-particularly-gracious tweet; to truly love our enemies–that is, any who are opposed to us–and to seek their good.
I wonder if we could truly make this “the most important election of our lifetime,” as so many are wont to say, by showing the world that, as Christians, we are beholden not to a certain political ideology or party, nor to a particular economic or social philosophy, but that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God, who live out our faith with the love and graciousness and conviction and humility that are characteristic of our family.
That would be pretty awesome.
[Photo credits: Romney & Obama, Joe Raedle & Olivier Douliery / Getty Images; Richard Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary website]