This Christmas. Be Peace.

Christmas is here.

And it’s once again time to gather together with family, friends, and faith communities and sing hymns and carols of the Christ-child. It’s time to feast together and share the passages of Emmanuel’s humble arrival in a lowly manger in Bethlehem. It’s time to join together again to light the Advent candles and share the Eucharist at Christmas Eve service.

But what if, in the midst of celebrating the peace of Christ through ritual and routine, we have actually neglected peace in our lives?

I find the bookends of Jesus’ life to be an interesting irony.

On one end, his birth is announced with the hopeful refrain, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” Yet, when we fast forward 30 years to the other bookend to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem during the Holy Week leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus weeps over his people and cries, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes.”

In Jesus, there is the great anticipation of peace in his Advent, yet a great lament when peace has been missed by the very people who longed for it.

I wonder if, we too, are in that place of great celebration, seeking, anticipation, and longing this Christmas season as we join in the heavenly chorus, “Peace on earth,” but then leave the peace of Christ abandoned as an unrealized ideal, as something celebrated but then forgotten, as something hope for but then lost in our daily lives.

If the birth (and then life) of the Christ was anything at all, it was to be a light in the darkness for all people, and then between people. It was to be the way to straighten paths that had been made crooked, the way that brings the peace of God to all people and then their relationships in the present.

But again, there is great joy in celebrating that peace, while lamenting how we missed embodying that peace in our lives and relationships.

What God intends for us is, not simply the celebration and praise of the Prince of Peace this holiday season, but lives and relationships that exist in peace, that flow in harmony, that are immersed in the shalom of the Christ.

That is the goal- that each of us would find the wholeness and completeness and harmony of Christ’s shalom in each of our lives and then extend that shalom in each of our relationships in the present.

And I know I am not surprising you when I say this, but this is incredibly difficult, because we will inevitably experience, or even cause, fractures in our relationships, whether they be with friends, spouses, family members, or other people with whom we come into contact throughout our lives. 

We are not perfect. And I am certainly not perfect. 

But I also have to balance all of that by saying that there are very few people guiding us into this ideal. The general narrative in most faith communities is to be a good person, to be a kind person, to be an upstanding citizen, but rarely, if ever, are we told to be those who work toward extending shalom in every interaction and every relationship, even though the majority of Jesus’ teachings were relational.

It is enlightening, and kind of mind-blowing, that Jesus put a higher priority on us seeking peace in our relationships than on our religious rituals and celebrations. In one of his teachings, he tells his audience that they should actually leave their gift at the altar if they remember that a brother or sister has something against them. According to Jesus, forgiveness and restoration in the relationship, embodying and extending peace through reconciliation, is actually more important to God than our worship and celebration of God! 

This is an absolutely radical teaching, if you think about it.

Can you imagine telling church members that the doors of the building will be closed until each member is reconciled with everyone who has something against them?

No Sunday Services.
No Christmas Eve vigils.
No Eucharist celebrations.
No worship songs.
No Sunday School classes.
No baptisms.

Nothing.

Leave your rituals, your routines, your celebrations, your worship… and go make peace, reconcile with your mom, your dad, your sister, your brother, your wife, your husband, your neighbor, your friend, and the guy at the grocery store whom you have wronged and then, and only then, can you proceed with worship.

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This is seriously radical stuff! But it gives you an idea of how essential it is for the people of shalom to, not just read the stories of the Christ-child and sing the Christmas songs of peace, but to actually be the people of peace above all else. The means are never greater than the ends. Our celebrating and remembering is never more important than our embodiment.         

So what relationships have you have strained? Is there anyone with whom you need to reach out to right now and say that you are sorry? Is there anyone with whom you need to be reconciled?

Meditate on this for a bit.

What would it look like before that Christmas Eve service, before your annual reading of the Incarnation account, or before the next rousing verses of Oh Holy Night to make that call or send that text of apology? This is how shalom begins to move outward for the healing of others and our relationships. Sure, it’s possible that they may not want to reciprocate in the healing and mending of the relationship, but so long as it depends upon you… be peace.

Shalom,

Brandon

My new book Beauty in the Wreckage: Finding Peace in the Age of Outrage is now available at the following online stores.

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If you would like to hear the introduction of the book, please head over to my podcast. You can find that link here.

Lastly, this book is so important to me. Please tell others about it and spread the word on social media.

Why I Celebrate Christmas

Have you ever had an ache in your heart?

You know, an ache that just weighs you down and hurts so badly that you can’t do anything but just wish it would go away?

Maybe it was a close friend talking about you to other people and it just killed you on the inside.

Maybe it was watching a loved one battle an agonizing fight with cancer or another disease until it took their life or, at a minimum, debilitated them.

Maybe it was a friend or family member who misread something you said or did and have held a grunge against you ever since.

Maybe it could even be watching your child suffer from a disability, get made fun of at school, or struggle through school.

Or, maybe it is the ache of being addicted, losing all control of your life, and feeling like there is no way out.

Maybe you are under the crushing weight of debt or unemployment. You don’t know how you are going to pay your bills or make ends meet.

Maybe on the other side, you are a person who has a job but the stress of the job is taking its toll on you and you are suffering from anxiety and physical problems.

Maybe you feel trapped in life and like you exist each day just to satisfy the expectations of other people.

Is this the best life has to offer? Will things ever change? Is there any reason to have hope?

Do you ever read the paper or watch the news?

Kids killing their parents. Parents killing their kids. Kids killing other kids. Adults killing adults.

Just this week a man went to a Planned Parenthood and began shooting patients and then officers, killing three and injuring nine.

Just this week two three-year-olds were left at home alone with their 19 month old sibling, who they put in an oven and turned it on. The toddler died of severe burns and the mother and boyfriend were arrested.

Just this weekend people across the United States burst into stores in hoards to get Black Friday deals, trampling over others, stealing from one another, and fighting like animals to get a piece of junk that will be discarded by the next Black Friday.

Just this weekend 82 people were shot in Chicago and 15 of them died.

Just this weekend a man shot a Waffle House employee in the face because she asked him to not smoke in the restaurant.

Everyday another person is abducted and the hearts of families, friends, and communities break because they never find the helpless victims. People are breaking into homes and businesses and stealing without remorse. Cities continue to offer the homeless one-way tickets to get out of their towns. And we continue to fight and divide over whether or not we should help refugees who are fleeing the very face of evil.

And that is just in one week, in one country, at one time in history. The things we do to each other are so tragic and sad. The love of many continues to grow colder and colder.

Around the world we continue to war with many claiming that World War 3 is currently underway. Nations are rising and nations are falling. Leaders are rising and leaders are falling. Nations threaten and attack other nations and kingdoms threaten and attack other kingdoms.  Terrorist threats turn into executions and bombings and beheadings… and it just gets old.

People are protesting around the globe because the global economic system is messed up- the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Many hardworking men and women work endlessly to just have the money taken out of their pockets by politicians, bankers, and corporations who, many times, operate by power and greed.

It’s an endless, endless cycle that isn’t unique to our day and age. Money makes the world go round, but it limits and categorizes and oppresses and weighs down.

Social and economic unrest is rising to an unprecedented level and is manifesting in hatred and violence.

And don’t you just get tired of it?

Don’t you just want things to be equitable, even IF people don’t really deserve it? Do we have to have the have’s and have not’s? Don’t you wish that we could help each other and trust each other and care for one another without all the hoarding and greed and taking advantage of each other? Is life only about accumulation and dividends and profits and commercialism and hoarding and survival of the fittest?

All the while, people are treated like objects. Around the world people are still enslaved- working at 10 years of age, working 16-hour days, working harder labor than we will ever know or understand.

Right now another young girl is being exploited by a pimp who only cares about making another buck while she is emotionally, physically, and spiritually devastated.

People are making a few bucks a month. People are living in filth in the slums. People are scraping to have a bite to eat and they long for clean water.

And with all the money we have in the world and all the money we spend on frivolous things and all the money our government wastes and all the money we spend and spend and spend….why are people still suffering in the 21st century?

Does your heart ache? Do you long for things to be better? Do you hope for a day when all will be set right?

Yes, in this world there is immeasurable glory and yet there is immeasurable pain and suffering. We long for something else, for a better world. We long for peace, but we never can seem to attain it. We long for justice, but the system seems wildly out of control and completely unjust. We have hope. We have hope. We have hope. But hope in what?

Is this the way life will always be? Will things ever be set right? Will there ever be peace? Will there ever be justice? Will the aching ever go away?

Will the oppressed ever be set free? Will we ever quit hoarding and finally share? Will we ever find joy in this life? Will love ever prevail instead of hate and violence and pain? Will the longings of hope that we have deep in our souls ever be realized into something? Will the tears ever be wiped away?

Isn’t there anyone who can help us? Is there anyone who can save us from ourselves? Every person we look to fails us and hurts us and manipulates us and leaves us in an even worse situation.

Is God just out there and distant and removed from our pain? Does God even know what this life is like and how hard it is? Does God know how unjust this world can be toward people? Does God know how people shut their doors in your face when you are in desperate need? Does God know what it is like to be pushed to the edges of society without a place to even lay your head? Does God know what it is like to ache and hurt and and be in so much pain?

God, do you know?

The surprising answer is yes, because that same God came down and lived a life in full flesh as a human being and understands our pain, our emotions, and our longings for all things to be made right.

Christmas, the Incarnation (God becoming Man), the Word becoming Flesh, the Christ-child being born is the focal point of history.

It is the moment when God lowered himself and came down to us- to love, to serve, to demonstrate life. He did not come down to force, coerce, or lord over people from the top like an oppressive King. He did not say, “You guys have really screwed this up so now you are going to do it my way.” He did not come down to manipulate or take advantage of us.

He came down to us born in a simple, humble birth in a lowly manger on the edges of society. And it was in this that God demonstrated his character to each of us who have fallen short of the way he created us to be. He came down to teach us the highest and most honorable way to live- in selfless, loving humility.

But even as we have gone our own way, worked for our own purposes and our own desires, and rebelled against God in every way imaginable, it was God through Jesus who came down in humility, in grace, in all his gentleness and subverted all of our hatred, all of our waywardness, by his love.

In Jesus, God’s Kingdom, God’s Reign broke into our world and initiated a completely new way of doing life that looks nothing like anything this world has ever seen (or ever will see). It was in Jesus that Heaven and Earth came together as one. And it was in Jesus that Heaven and Earth are continuing to come together until all things are brought together in their full measure at the renewal of all things.

The Scriptures say:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true Light that gives Light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God’s plan of redemption and restoration started on Christmas Day through the birth of his son. But we only celebrate his birth for the victory over death through resurrection. For without his rising from the dead, his birth is utterly meaningless.

That is why we celebrate this Light coming into the darkness. That is why we live by faith and have hope that the forces of evil are being extinguished, exhausted, and taking their very last breath. That is why we live and celebrate victoriously on Christmas Day, because we have hope that our sufferings are only temporary. It is on this day, in light of his resurrection, that we celebrate his birth in one accord and look forward to a day when:

Pain will be no more.

Hatred will finally and completely be defeated by love.

Heartache will give way to complete healing.

Killing will cease and life will abound forever.

Peace will reign throughout the cosmos.

The scars and wounds that we wear will be healed by his hands.

The hungry will be fed.

The lame will walk.

The blind will see.

And all things will be set right: heaven and earth will finally be one.

It is in Jesus that we know that God acted decisively in history by coming down to a people desperately needing life, hope, and rescue. The meager, tiny baby in the manger that drew the attention of all creation: the angels, the wise men, the shepherds in the field, the kings of the land, people all throughout the world, and every man, woman, and child throughout history…is celebrated, praised, and lifted high…because he won the greatest victory in history.

That is why I celebrate Christmas.

Come quickly Lord Jesus…

Brandon

Brittany Maynard and How the Church Must Change

By now most of you are familiar with the name Brittany Maynard. If you are not familiar with her, Brittany is the 29-year-old young lady diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who has decided to ingest lethal medication to end her life before she begins to suffer the pain and consequences of her brain tumor. I rarely, if ever, add my voice to the cacophony of noise that accompanies national news stories that involve a specific person’s life (a person whom I do not know) and that are also so politically and ethically charged.

So why in the world would I jump into the middle of this debate and offer any perspective at all?  That’s a great question.

I suppose it is because there are two very strong, very loud opinions on the matter that seem to get the most airplay- the voices that champion and celebrate her decision to take her life- and- the voices that condemn and judge her decision to take her life. But that’s the way it is with every issue these days. One might easily think that there are no other voices other than the extremes on any issue. We have seemingly become a hyper-polarized society with very few alternative voices, offering a third-way, that are heard. It is for this reason that I offer my voice, because many could easily assume that the loud voice of judgment and condemnation comes unanimously from Christianity. That, in fact, is not true.

I have found that the way of Jesus is never expressed in judgment and condemnation, but rather in love manifesting as mercy and compassion, and it is that way which stands in stark contrast to judgment and condemnation. As a follower of Jesus, I neither judge or condemn nor celebrate a person’s choice to commit suicide. I grieve with it. I mourn over it. And then I choose to revolt against it by demonstrating, through my words and life, just how beautiful and exquisite and sacred life is and how every single second of it is worth living, good or bad.

We Christians have taken the wrong approach by policing and judging behavior in order to keep it from happening. Somehow we have come to the conclusion that we are the bearers and arbiters of all that is righteous and holy in the world and, as a result, should regulate and legislate people’s decisions and behavior, as if curbing behavior through our over-handed authority will change their hearts. The error made is when we, as Christians, believe that if we tell people how wrong and bad they are then they will come to their senses and change.

The truth is that when a person or people are continually told how bad and wrong they are, they grow angry and resentful toward those they view as self-righteous and holier-than-thou. And this unfortunately leads to hatred and animosity toward anything to do with Christianity. The unfortunate and tragic consequence is that the graceful, merciful, loving way of Jesus is obscured by the ugliness of religion.

I would humbly suggest that our own minds ought to change. Rather than thinking we are the keepers and bearers of all that is righteous and holy, we ought to view ourselves as guests who have had the awesome privilege of being gracefully invited to the table to taste and see how good the Lord is. And because of our life-changing, life-giving experience, we should be those who are always inviting others to the table to taste and see for themselves.

I am going to be brutally honest here and hopefully it will cause us to do some serious self-examination. If I was in the position of Brittany Maynard and I read all of the judgment and condemnation that was coming my way from Christians, I would say, “Ok, what do you even have that is worth me living one more day with a brain tumor? What is so compelling about your faith and this life given to me by God (this life you say I should not take) that it is worth all the suffering? Because if what you are offering looks anything like the judgment and condemnation you are throwing my way, then no thanks. And if the only reason you have for me to live is because ‘God is sovereign and it isn’t my life to take,’ then you can take your unsympathetic, uncaring bull crap and shove it.”

Listen, if we don’t want a culture that hails and celebrates death then we must offer a better, life-giving alternative. Not more legislation. Not belittling commentaries. Not self- righteous platitudes. Not unembodied theologies. We must embody and offer life to the fullest promised by Jesus… but I am not even sure many Christians have discovered that themselves yet. Something has to change… and it begins with us. We can’t be the kind of insensitive, unloving, uncaring people who walk around waiting until a person has done something wrong and then judges and crucifies them or turns them into the face of a culture war. We are supposed to be the embodiment of a new humanity that looks like Jesus in everything we do- and it doesn’t look like judging or condemning… but inviting. We are to be the kind of people who capture the imagination of generations by showing them the beauty and possibilities of our faith and how it is the way to experience “life to the fullest.” Because wasn’t it “life to the fullest” that Jesus said he came to give people anyway?

So if we want people to live and experience life to the fullest and to die naturally and peacefully with hope, to experience the peaks and valleys of life because they all matter in the end, let us be the example of people who will speak words of blessing and love until we can speak no more. Let us continually embrace others until our arms are too weak. Let us share our hearts and encouragement as long as our spirit endures. Let us stand beside others as long as our legs have the strength to stand. Let us look upon the enduring beauty of others until our eyes grow too weak to see. Let us give everything we have in our hearts with sacrificial, cross-like love until they beat no more. For this is the only life we have… and we will be the people who live it to the fullest until the day we die, always inviting everyone to join us. I would invite everyone who reads this post to pray over Brittany. Yes, for the miraculous… but even more… for the loving peace of God to wash over her, her husband, and her family. Even though we don’t know them personally, we shower them with our love.

Grace and Peace,

Brandon