Sheep and silly lambs—
After all my woolly dreams
Still one of His own.
Sheep and silly lambs—
After all my woolly dreams
Still one of His own.
Yesterday was Christmas Day.
Throughout the Western world, the twenty-fifth of December was marked by several things: a wholesale slaughter of turkeys; an infestation of mutant LED-lit reindeer and inflatable fuzzy old men; a tremendous transfer of small finances (the average Canadian spends over six hundred dollars on Christmas gifts); and so forth. Everyone knows the harrowing effects of indulging in a little too much holiday spirit.
But another notorious thing about our most notorious festival is its ability to bring people together. All sorts of people, from far-flung places, of widely varying status, of infinitely varying personality. People who couldn’t get along with each other at any other time of year will gladly load their plates together on Christmas Day.
What part of Christmas gives it this consolidating power? It’s probably a combination of multiple factors. Few people don’t enjoy a great meal once in a while (not to mention all those mysterious things wrapped in pretty paper). Even those who don’t think much of such excesses can enjoy the music, or the weather—Anybody else excited by the white Christmas he had this year?—or something. A lot of people are willing to bear with things for a day or two that they’d be hard-pressed to endure over the span of a year.
And of course, a lot of people are reluctant to break into fights on a day that still harks faintly to the singing of angel heralds, the prayers of humble shepherds, the exotic gifts of foreign rulers, the pride of a mother and the love of the Father. The birthday of a Saviour, to be exact, and the incarnation of Love.
Why can’t we have Christmas every day?
It’s not that we need three hundred sixty-five helpings of turkey per year, or that we need to give each other useless little trinkets more often, or that sitting on Santa’s lap makes us better people. But we do need each other. Everybody needs somebody. And the way we come together at Christmas is a beautiful thing.
Near the top of this post, I made a wry reference to holiday spirit. The truth, though, is that the Saviour Whose birth we celebrated yesterday has given us a much more powerful Spirit—a Spirit, in fact, with the power to unify us permanently.
Since I last posted here (and I’m sorry it’s been so long; I intend to post more often in the future), I’ve been to Michigan for a one-week Bible camp. That’s a long story that I don’t intend to tell here. But one of the greatest things I was able to experience there was the very unifying Spirit I’m talking about. At the beginning of the week, I didn’t know anybody—most of us campers felt a little out of our league. But that didn’t keep God from bringing us together in amazing ways, opening us up to each other, freeing us to pray together, worship together, simply be together.
In Christ we are all brothers and sisters—we ought to be one big happy family. May I suggest that a family with no serious relationships is incredibly dysfunctional? Yet so often our churches are oriented exclusively to individualist agendas, and far too many members of the Family are slipping away because they have no relationships.
I’d like to set some theology straight in all our minds. I don’t have space to go into a lot of detail here (though I’ll undoubtedly come back to these topics in future posts), so I’m going to be quick and blunt.
First, Christmas Day isn’t your birthday. Jesus didn’t come for you. He didn’t die for you. He came and He died for everyone and for everything—the whole creation that is currently sweating and groaning under a painful curse. He came to set us all free.
Second, you cannot thrive alone. The apostle Paul uses the illustration of a body: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you'” (I Cor. 12:21). Every single Christian is an equally valid, equally valuable part of this body.
Finally—and obviously—the unity I’m talking about cannot benefit you. It can only help us. Brotherhood involves giving things up, letting things go, for the sake of community.
But that’s not the end of the story. This is the Christmas season, after all, and there are some gifts under the Tree.
God gave Haggai a tough message to some tough people. These people had been through a lot. They’d just suffered seventy years of oppression. Then, by God’s grace, they’d been released to go back to their own land, and they’d gone joyfully. But it didn’t take them long to forget everything they’d learned while they were gone. The people that had come back from Babylon had stood together, had worked together, had rebuilt the wall of their city in an astounding fifty-two days. But they’d lost focus. They’d given up on community, they’d gone back to pursuing their own ends, they’d decided God’s house wasn’t important. And God wasn’t happy about it.
So He sent Haggai. The prophet had a burden for brotherhood, a burden for a new focus on God among his people. He explained why life had turned so tough on them:
Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes….You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house (Haggai 1:5,6,9).
Then the people gathered together, like the family of God that they were, and built His house. It wasn’t much. The new temple didn’t look like a hill of beans compared to Solomon’s. But God promised that He would bless community:
My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not….The treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts….The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts (Haggai 2:5,7,9).
I just can’t get over how powerful community is, and how important it is to God and to His people. Where two or three are gathered in God’s name, He is there, remember? And where God is, great things happen.
Planning to make a list of resolutions for Monday? Put intentional community near the top. You will be profoundly blessed—mark my words—by the things God does for us.
In the beginning was the Word.
That’s how it started. God spoke two words into the endless emptiness of eternity:
—Yehi ‘or, let there be light, and there was light.
More than that, it’s been obvious from the start, from the time when He used to walk with Man and Woman in the afternoon shade: God loves communication. He loves hearing His children tell Him all about their hopes and dreams. And He loves to reply, to break the silence with a word or two; He loves to bring a little of His light to their childish darkness.
They bear His image, these children of His. They have a little of His character ingrained within them. They have a little of His love for words. They have a little of the power with which He expresses those words—because words are powerful. They have a little of the same urge He has to create, to use His words to bring light to dark places. They have a deep-seated need to use those words to worship Him. But these children are just that: children. They haven’t learned all the tricks of their Father’s trade.
And there’s an Enemy out there, a pervert, a predator who wants to use and abuse the children for his own ends. An Enemy with the cold slimy heart of a snake coiled and ready to strike. An Enemy who’s learned how to use words. Not his own—the Enemy has no creative power. But it didn’t take him long to figure out how to twist the Father’s words, how to use their innate power for his own purposes: seduction, desecration, destruction. And it didn’t take long for his pernicious plans to infiltrate the innocent minds of helpless children.
So now they’re no longer innocent. The children of God know how to use the power of their words to worship and serve themselves. And far too often they do just that. The gift of language, that precious power with which He entrusted them, is turned against Him. The word that created so much is found to be able to destroy it even more quickly. The word that once brought light to life out of an endless darkness now snuffs that light without a second thought.
God looks at His twisted children, and His heart breaks for them, and His Spirit stirs within Him, and He whispers the saddest words:
—You are not my people, He says, and I will not be your God.
The story doesn’t stop there, of course. Because we children don’t hear His words, God sends His Word to begin something new—In principio est verbum, in the beginning is the Word. The perfect Word, the eternal Word, with the power to create us a way of escape from the Enemy’s abuse.
But it’s strange how hard it is to unlearn the habits the Enemy taught us. It’s terrible, really: we still seduce and destroy our brothers and sisters with our words. Without a second thought, we hurt and crush and disregard; we bite and devour each other.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how terribly we of the household of faith treat each other, how judgmental we are toward each other. We let our little differences get in the way of the communication that God meant us to have. Instead of talking things over, we love to criticize them loudly (I guess pretending to know it all makes us feel smart). We love to bite off heads. It gives us that crazy rush of adrenaline.
But sometimes when heads are bitten off, the damage is irreversible.
It’s not that we’re not supposed to use the power of words. Au contraire, God intends us to use that power for His kingdom. And that’s where this problem is most serious: though we know God, we don’t glorify Him as God. We become vain in our words, and our foolish hearts are darkened. We’ve been given words that free, yet too often we use our words to bind. When we indulge in verbal cannibalism, neither the eaters nor the eaten are taking the time to go teach all nations.
James looks at this whole mess and comes down hard on it:
—No one can tame his tongue. It’s undisciplined and evil, it’s dripping with deadly venom.
But he goes on to say that God can tame it (which makes sense after all: shouldn’t the One Who created words be able to reverse the damage we’ve done to them?):
Where people are jealous, where they look out only for their own interests, everything will be twisted and degenerate. But when they get wisdom from above, they become pure—peaceable—gentle—reasonable—merciful and fruitful—they are freed from bias and hypocrisy. And those who make peace, those who scatter the seeds of peace, will reap righteousness.
That’s a vision for the church, it’s a vision for this blog, it’s a vision for you and a vision for me.
He’s a Palestinian. Everyone involved in his society, from the American diplomat with a hat four sizes too big for her to the dirt-poor goatherd, knows the destructive power of words. But Manal Hreb says it so well:
Bein hachoshekh la’or elech tamid
uvachol makom shelekh.
Eftach chalon, chalon shel ‘or,
v’azra zi’rei ah vah.
Bayn al ‘atmah w’al nur sa’amshee dayman
wabekul makan sa’amshee
sa ‘aftah shubaak, shubaak annur
wa sa azra buthoor al hohb.
Between darkness and light I will always walk,
and wherever I will go,
I will open the window of light,
and will plant the seeds of love.
And it all starts with a word.