The Impossibility of Joy (An Advent Reflection)

As I sit here presently, reflecting upon the past year and anticipating the year to come, it’s hard not to feel as if the heartache of the former can do anything but be carried into the latter.

I have friends who lost their full-term baby boy at birth. My 44-year old work partner for the last eight years died three weeks ago from cancer, leaving her husband and two middle school children. Our best friends lost their 15-year old son in a tragic, unexpected accident in February. I have friends who were arrested and put in jail this year, friends who have been diagnosed with cancer this year, friends whose marriages are crumbling and on the rocks, our 18-year old dog, our friend, passed away this year, and due to reductions at work I may not have a job in a couple of weeks.

It has been a hard year for me, my family, my friends, and maybe you as well.

Maybe you have lost a child, a parent, a friend, or a pet this year. Maybe you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness or know someone who has been. Maybe you are dealing with and carrying regret for relationships that have been destroyed because of your words or actions. Maybe you are lost and alone and don’t have anyone standing next to you, holding you up, and giving you the strength to carry on. Maybe you are holding on to disappointments and failures and wondering if you have any worth, value, or dignity remaining. Maybe you have had a miscarriage or had difficulty getting pregnant. Maybe you have lost a job and are struggling to provide or find a way forward. Maybe you have hurt your friends and your family and you feel as if you can never be forgiven.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I had the realization recently that our days and months and years are fictitious constructs that do not really exist. They are artificially created measurements that divide up time to give us an order and a rhythm to our lives.

So it’s not as if a turn of the calendar page erases the heaviness in a heart, or takes away the burdened weight that is carried. It’s not as if the welcoming of a new year resets your mind or helps you forget the previous.

The days come and go.
The weeks accumulate.

Yet the heartache remains.

Our groaning does not understand time.
Our pain does not end with the calendar year.
Our suffering does not heal with the passing of time.

It is real yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It is here and here and here, moment by moment, and has no regard for imaginary and illusory divisions of time, nor does it wane with the opening of gifts or with yuletide cheer, nor is it convinced to subside with New Year’s resolutions. Our groaning, our pain, our suffering has no regard for hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, or millennia.

In a very real way, it is transcendent and collective- it is beyond time and it affects us all. Our groaning, our pain, our suffering has ravaged and devoured us since our very first collective nephesh, or breath of life.

I know this may seem like the saddest Christmas piece you have ever read, but I want to give each of you hope that even in our deepest despair we are surprisingly and unexpectedly and impossibly met with good news of great joy.

Please trust me, I do not offer that as a cheap and easy religious platitude, as a bandaid to a gaping, gushing wound. Deep calls to deep.

From our cynical and jaded perspective, as those in the midst of present suffering, there is a profound absurdity in the message from the angelic messenger that appeared to the shepherds in the field the day Christ was born, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Without context, this “good news of great joy” seems to drop into a sterile, unburdened history that couldn’t possibly understand the real heartache of the modern man or woman.

But again, our groaning, our pain, our suffering does not understand time and has been our shared, human experience from the first breath.

The announcement of “good news of great joy” seemed as absurd and improbable then, as it seems now, as if we all know that somehow joy is not commensurate for a history of pain and suffering.

But what is joy exactly?

Is it not sitting down for that first cup of coffee in the morning, smelling it, tasting it, savoring it? Is it not every delicate cut of the onion, celery, carrots and the deeply satisfying aroma of the earthy spices when making soup in the cold of winter while the delicate snowflakes fall outside? Is it not walking outside on an autumn evening when you close your eyes and breathe deep the magnificent fall fragrance? Is it not closing your eyes while being enveloped and suspended by your favorite song, noticing every harmony, every note, every melody? Is it not sitting around a table with your best friends with great food getting lost in conversation? Is it not closing your eyes and holding your baby, hugging your children, the touch of your spouse, and the embrace of your mom and dad while you savor every moment?

That is joy.

Joy is a piercing in the thin veil where heaven and earth come together. It is a present taste of that which will be fully and completely realized in the future. It is an awakening to the resident goodness of all things. It is shalom. You can see it. You can feel it. You can hear it. You can taste it. And you know it is good. And you long for it, not in fleeting, transient moments, but in perpetuity.

But while joy is an ever-present reality to which we open wide our souls to receive, it is also a remembering and a longing. It is a remembering of those moments and how they have passed and a deep longing to be there one more time.

Joy is the ever-present gift of now, an eternal present receiving, that one can experience despite our changing life conditions or our sufferings, but it is also the deepest unsatisfied longing of your soul.

And that is what makes the Advent, the Incarnation of Christ, good news of great joy for all people.

The union of heaven and earth has come perfectly together in the Christ-child, assuring us that we, too, can enter into this joy presently, despite our collective sufferings.

But even more, the Advent is good news in that it promises a resurrected future in which our joy will finally be made complete at the renewal of all things. Every feeling, every touch, every song, every embrace, every memory, every unsatisfied longing will be satisfied. Every terrible wrong will be made right. Every deep wound will be healed. Every crushing heartache will be comforted. Every painful tear will be wiped away.

Praise God, there is good news, indeed, and it will be a great joy for all the people.

Joyfully longing…

Brandon

When Hope is Lost (A Lesson from Birds)

I have begun the process of changing my mind about birds.

Sure, you may not find a stranger first sentence than that, but those closest to me know that I have this unreasonable phobia of the feathered friend. It has something to do with a mother bird dive-bombing my head to protect her nest when I was five. And no, to answer your question, I was not bothering her nest. I was simply going next door to a friend’s house. But, there is no reasoning with a mother bird. Anyway, my neurosis aside, I am slowly taking steps to rediscovering the beauty (or some redeeming quality) in birds.

An Indiana winter can be brutal and bone-chilling. And it is not made any more bearable by the local meteorologists who giddily, and a bit too affectionately, begin referring to it as a Polar Vortex. The tragedy is they don’t realize that by calling it a “Polar Vortex,” it psychologically becomes twenty degrees colder in our heads. Let’s just be honest here, we do not need “Polar” anything in Indiana, especially when it is already pitch black at 4pm in the middle of December.

But there was a moment a few years ago in late winter, when darkness still owned the morning and the cold refused to let go of everything in it’s grip, that I heard the sweetest song.

Through the shroud of night, before the sun’s first rays, amid the polar chill, a melody of hopeful anticipation pierced the dark veil of winter and announced that spring would soon be arriving.

It was glorious and profound.

The processional of spring, a time of life, new beginnings, and spectacular beauty was coming! And it was being ushered in through song by feathered vocalists announcing it’s arrival.

I, a crusty-eyed morning zombie of multi-layered, nighttime attire (pre-coffee), could not miss this staggering metaphor. When a season of darkness surrounds us and seems as if it will last forever, we may very well begin to believe that this is the way life will always be. But even in the darkness that may surround us, if we are still enough to hear it and patient enough to trust it, there is always the sweet song of the Spirit, leading us in hopeful anticipation, surprising us with beauty in the present, and giving us a glimpse of the life that’s yet to come.

I know it is terribly difficult to discuss how we can learn to see beauty amidst the wreckage when we are in the throes of a painful life situation, whether it be temporary or permanent. But, it is in this place where we must always begin- in the place of our pain, in the place of our suffering. For it is in that place where we can, mostly easily, lose heart, feel lost and defeated, grow wildly cynical, and begin to blame God for our condition or circumstance.

Even more, our pain can become the place from where we begin to live our lives.

The crushing weight of our suffering will always try to convince us that the pain we are experiencing is our only reality and that there is nothing redeemable there, ever. And as a result, the pain we are experiencing can begin to manifest outwardly in our lives into our words and actions, ultimately affecting how we see the world and how we relate to others.

That is what suffering can do. It can cause us to reside in our pain, no matter how great or small that pain is, and then become the lens through which we begin to see people, situations, and the world as a whole. And over time, our pain through suffering can very easily spiral downward and lead to questions and then the destruction of our identity, our worth, and our purpose in life.

Living constantly in the burden and pain of our suffering can either become an end destination or a passageway for each of us.

As an end destination, the pain of our suffering can become a place where we stay in bitterness, sadness, anger, hatred, and unforgiveness.

As a passageway, our pain through suffering can become the pathway to profound life transformation and new ways of seeing the world.

Suffering breaks us down into insufferable little parts where we can either self-destruct or cry out helplessly to God, because we are in a place where we have seemingly lost control. Our sense of self has been shattered. Our identity has been obliterated. And it is in our place of pain through suffering where we can choose whether we make it our final destination or a transformative passageway.

That is the profound mystery of suffering. Suffering strips away any and all control we believed we had over people and situations. And it is in this place, our place of suffering, the place where we have lost all control, where our hearts and minds can either be closed off or open to the healing and transformative love of God.

And no matter who you are or what you have been through, or are currently going through, you can choose what you want to do with your pain, and how you receive suffering. You can let it dominate and control how you see the world and relate to others, or you can use it as a means to be taught and guided into a new and more beautiful way of living.

In hope,

Brandon

Heaven: A New Heaven and New Earth

This is part three in a series looking in depth at our understanding and misunderstanding of heaven… and then why a proper understanding of heaven is important for the present identity and task of the Christian in the world.

Here is part one of the heaven series if you would like to start at the beginning.

From the words of the prophets in the Old Testament leading up to and culminating in the teachings of Jesus and then passed along through the writings to the early Church, there is a sense that God isn’t giving up on the creation that was called “good” from the very beginning. In fact, there is very clear Scriptural evidence that God has always had every intention of renewing and restoring the entire created order, rather than destroying it.

This is a strong assertion, being that it contradicts the teaching and understanding of many Churches that teach how God will one day destroy the heavens and the earth…and then take Christians away to a spiritual heaven to live for eternity.

But as we look through the Biblical narrative: we find all of creation suffering under the weight of death and decay. We find all of creation subjected to frustration. We find all of creation groaning for liberation from the curse under which it is has been placed.

It is a physical creation.

It is a tangible creation.

It is a touchable creation.

It is a physical, tangible, touchable creation that wants to be liberated, freed, released from bondage.

It is a creation that is enslavedand longs to be as it once wasnot destroyed, not annihilated, not discarded, and not thrown into the trash bin of history. It is a creation that yearns to be saved, renewed, and restored.

And it is not just the creation in which we live and which surrounds us that will be completely renewed and restored! We long for liberation from death and decay as well. Presently we have and enjoy the first fruits of the Holy Spirit given to us by God, which gives us a foretaste of the blissful things to come, but we also groan inwardly as we wait for the redemption of our bodies, which will reveal our adoption, or our manifestation as God’s sons and daughters.

This surprising discovery, which stands in contrast to the belief that God will one day destroy the heavens and the earth, is a beautiful synergy of God’s restorative work through Jesus Christ, not just for humanity, but also for the entire created order.

For God so loved the world (kosmos– the entire created order) that He sent His Son…

But despite all that Paul has written about how creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and corruption, despite Paul writing about how heaven and earth will be brought together under Christ, despite Jesus talking to the disciples about the renewal of all things, and despite Peter stating that God willrestore everything, there are still a couple of misunderstood verses that have led us to the belief that the earth will one day be destroyed and that our future hope is a disembodied, spiritual heaven.

…and the material elements of the universe will flare and melt with fire? But we look for new heavens and a new earth according to His promise, in which righteousness (uprightness, freedom from sin, and right standing with God) is to abide. 2 Peter 3: 12-13

THEN I saw a new sky (heaven) and a new earth, for the former sky and the former earth had passed away, and there no longer existed any sea. Revelation 21: 1

At first glance, these verses seemingly contradict the very position I have proposed- that God is in the process of renewing and restoring all of creation. But the key to unlocking these verses, and having a better and more comprehensive understanding of what the text is really saying, lies with the word new.

As we look at the original Greek language we find something very interesting. There are two words that can be used to describe something as new. The first word is neo and is used to describe something that is new in time. For example, a house that is newly restored to its original condition could never be neo because it is not new in time. When the house was first built it was neo, but being that it is now something old (archaios) being renewed or restored, it can ever be described as neo again. Neo is not the word used in the passages from 2 Peter or Revelation.

The word that is used to describe the new heavens and the new earth in those passages is kainos. Kainos also means new, but it is describing something that is qualitatively new or renewed. Interestingly enough, it is the word kainos that Paul uses to describe the Christian, as a new (kainos) creation. The individual Christian has not been vaporized into non-existence and newly created, rather the old (archaios) has passed away, and the new (kainos) has come. 2 Corinthians 5: 17

Therefore, the passages are not alluding to a heaven and earth that are destroyed and then replaced by a heaven and earth that are newly created. They are both speaking of the current heaven and earth passing from one condition to another (parachomai), being refined by the refiner’s fire, and then being qualitatively renewed (kainos) to their full glory, which is beyond anything that we can comprehend.

Behold, I am making all things new (kainos)…

The final destination for God’s people is not “going up” to God in heaven, while the earth and sky is destroyed. Rather, our future hope is in a renewed world and cosmos in which God’s dwelling place is among His people. If that doesn’t get you excited about the possibilities in our future I don’t know what will…but more on that in another post.

Read the next post here

peace…

brandon