Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 in Review - Writers who have influenced me this year

I have significantly expanded my blog reading this year, as much as my schedule allows. There are many interesting and excellent writers out there, but of all those I follow, a few stand out in terms of their influence on my own thinking and development.

Rachel Held Evans – her blog stands out as a center for healthy, open discourse about faith, gender and a variety of other topics. Rachel's blog has often been the catalyst that has spurred much of my thinking, as well as the nexus that has connected me to many other interesting writers.

From Two to One – Danielle writes about the junction of faith and feminism in her very articulate and thought-provoking style. Among her many great articles I particularly appreciate her series on modesty.

Kathy Escobar – Kathy writes from her own experience in downward mobility and challenges me to keep thinking and looking for ways to move downward myself.

Katie Axelson – I only recently discovered Katie's blog, but I find her writing articulate and her areas of interest overlap significantly with my own. I look forward to hearing more from Katie in the coming year.

Caris Adel – I've followed Caris most of this year and appreciate very much her exploration of issues of faith.

One Hand Clapping – Julie Clawson writes about social justice issues and has helped further my own thinking about what it looks like to act justly and live sustainably. She also wrote an excellent series of articles on feminism this year.

All Things Beautiful – I really like Alyssa's perspective on the world. She reminds and encourages me to look for and celebrate the beauty in life and the world around me.

I won't even attempt to suggest the best posts from each of these authors. I would encourage readers to explore their blogs for themselves and discover the great, thought-provoking writing each one offers. I look forward to reading more from each of them in 2013.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 in Review - Part 2

In this past year I awakened in a meaningful way to the need to change the way we live. Our very lifestyle is poisoning ourselves and destroying our environment. As disciples of the Creator God, we must adopt a different mentality toward the created world. We must stop treating it as disposable, exploiting it for our personal pleasures without concern for the rest of the people with whom we share the planet, nor the others who will come after us. This also ties into the issue of equality, since our wealth and privilege as Americans thrives on and perpetuates economic inequality. I continue to be challenged to live more sustainably and justly.

How do you understand the relationship between faith and the environment? What does sustainable living look like?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 in Review - Part 1

This year was the first one in which I made a deliberated, focused effort to write regularly for this blog. I have enjoyed developing this outlet for sharing with others what I am learning and thinking about. Simultaneously I have been challenged and enlightened as I have expanded my own reading on other blogs. As the year draws to a close, I want to take the next few days and look back at some of the issues and posts that expressed some of the most issues most important to me.

In 2012 I understood clearly and affirmed for the first time that I am a feminist. As a feminist I believe strongly in equality and in the worth and dignity of all persons, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sex, or any other factor. Alongside this I have begun to recognize that people like me – white American men – need to relinquish the hold we have on power, control and privilege in our society, in the church and around the world. The time has long since passed when the “table” should be dominated by such a limited group of people. We need to make room for and encourage the full participation of women and other voices in our societal conversation. A few key posts in this area:

Woman up! (6/11)

Check in tomorrow as I explore other key posts from the past year!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Breaking Down Walls

For he himself is our peace
who has made the two groups one
and has destroyed the barrier
the dividing wall of hostility.

In this Advent season, we remember not only that Jesus Christ brings hope, joy and love, but also that he brings peace. Peace can be understood and expressed in a number of ways, but the words of Paul to the Ephesians which I cited above communicate one of the most significant expressions of peace: that Jesus breaks down the barriers that divide us.

Most importantly Jesus has destroyed the barriers that separated us from God. No longer must we approach God with fear and trembling, hoping that God might look upon us with mercy rather than wrath. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus we can now approach God with boldness and confidence, not because of what we have done but because of what Jesus has done. Paul says this quite clearly in the same letter to the Ephesian church:

In him and through him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

Jesus has established peace between us and God, if we choose to embrace it.

But the peace that Jesus brings extends beyond the relationship between humans and God. If we understand his peace only in that single dimension we have failed to grasp the powerful transformation that Jesus brings to us. For as the earlier words of Paul told us, Jesus has broken down the dividing walls that separate us from each other. In the specific context of that verse Paul refers to the divisions that existed between Jewish-background and Gentile-background believers, or perhaps to the general distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Elsewhere Paul makes it quite clear though that Jesus destroys all barriers between humans. In his letter to the Galatian church he states in profound words:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Some mistakenly interpret this to mean that we must all be uniform, clones of one another. But Paul doesn't say that. He says that the differences to which we humans ascribe so much importance matter not one bit to God. Jesus has destroyed the walls we create between ourselves. Jesus is the author of diversity. He celebrates it, so when we speak of all people being one in Jesus, we are most certainly not saying they must all look, think and act alike. By continually creating walls that separate, by defining who is “in” and who is “out,” we destroy the very peace that Christ brought to us.

If we would live in this radical peace that Jesus has established, we would stop trying to force men and women to follow certain prescribed gender roles. We would stop judging and condemning people because their lifestyle looks different than our own (for ultimately it is God who judges each of us). We would see our fellow humans for who they are, as God has created them, and affirm the worth and dignity of each individual. We would set aside our own “rights” and surrender our privileges so that others might live in freedom and dignity. We would stop othering those we view as a threat and embrace them in the bond of peace through Jesus Christ. This would be what the kingdom of God on earth would look like.

I'm sure some will tell me that I'm a hopeless optimist, that my vision of the kingdom of the kingdom is hopelessly utopian. I'm under now delusions that the peace of God through Jesus Christ has not been fully realized on this earth. As much as I hope it will, I cannot say that I expect it to come in my lifetime. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't work towards this and in my relationships and my attitudes. I can choose to practice the peace of Christ towards others, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility that continue to plague us two millennia after the birth of Jesus. Peace doesn't have to be some ideal dream we sing about only at Christmas. The prince of peace is with us now and if we choose to live in and through him, we can be his instruments of peace here and now.   

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Masculinity and Violence

In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut we have seen the usual heated discussion about gun control flare up again. We've also seen some conversation about mental health issues. We need to talk about both of these topics and I certainly have my own thoughts on each of them. But we've seen very little conversation about another key issue: the role of violence in our society and how we socialize ourselves, especially boys, in such a way that violence becomes a natural, even expected, expression of masculinity.

Our culture promotes the idea that being a man means taking charge, getting what you want, exerting power and control. We see this in movies and on TV. I was just at the movie theater and was appalled though not surprised by the predominance of weapons and violence – largely led by men – in current and upcoming films. We see it particularly in video games, where it combines with blatantly misogynistic memes that denigrate and degrade women. (I'm looking forward to Anita Sarkeesian's video on this subject.) We tacitly and even explicitly affirm it in the messages we give to our boys and young men. We condone violence as a solution to problems and yet are surprised when people act violently outside of the ways we deem “acceptable.” As tragic as the killings in Connecticut are, they are only an extreme example of the fact that American culture has embraced and celebrates violence. Among nations with similar socio-economic levels, our country has one of if not the highest level of murder, the majority of which are carried out by men. Domestic violence plagues our society. Men abuse, mistreat and denigrate women and yet we all-too-quickly excuse such immoral behavior saying, “Boys will be boys.” Even worse, we turn the blame back onto the very victims of this abuse and violence, saying that they should have done X differently in order to not stimulate or provoke men. Our concept of masculinity and our devotion to inaccurate and outdated gender stereotypes contributes to the culture of violence in which we live.

Masculinity in our society has come to be defined largely as a rejection of anything deemed “effiminate.” This includes any expression of empathy, gentleness and compassion. We teach boys that physical weakness correlates to moral weakness and inferiority. Boys understand from an early age that the most physically attractive and strong boys are the most respected. Our sports culture reaffirms this not only during school years but into adulthood as well. We affirm certain colors, clothing, and behavioral traits as “feminine,” and we mock and deride any man or boy who should express a liking for or interest in them, once again reinforcing gender stereotypes that have no real basis.

We also train boys that they should expect to be in charge of their world. This has a reasonable side in so far as it promotes personal responsibility for our choices and actions. But in our society we go well beyond that and promote the idea that men are natural leaders while women are naturally passive followers. Unfortunately we hear this particularly in our churches, where we affirm the value of women as long as they remain in their “proper” spheres of activity and influence. But when a young man finds that he cannot control his environment or those around him, we express surprise that he lashes out in violence, seeking to destroy or harm that which he cannot control.
We need to change our whole perception of what it means to be a real man. We must teach our boys and men that expressing themselves through violence is not a healthy outlet, nor does it make them more “manly.” We should encourage them to embrace the value of empathy, gentleness and compassion. We must stop thinking of and referring to these qualities as “feminine” because this gender-labeling only promotes a false understanding of what manhood is all about, as well as continuing to denigrate anything associated with women as inferior. Caring for and valuing others are not qualities that we should expect only in women, nor are they inferior characteristics..

The apostle Paul writing to the Colossian church said:

As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

He didn't write these words just to the women in the community. He wrote them to everyone. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience are manly. Well, actually they are neither manly nor womanly, they are godly characteristics. Let's move away from the whole idea that certain qualities as masculine or feminine and affirm those proclaim and uphold the worth and value of all humans.

We men need to radically rethink what it means to be a man. We need a new image and understanding of masculinity that doesn't promote exerting power and control over others, that doesn't denigrate compassion, kindness and humility, that doesn't glorify violence as the solution to problems. Our current limited view of masculinity fails to prepare men to treat others with respect and dignity. It robs us of our own worth and dignity as well by dictating that real men have to act in certain, stereotyped ways in order to not be perceived as “effiminate” as if that in and of itself were somehow bad.

Men, we need to have this conversation. Our response to a tragedy such as the one at Sandy Hook should not be limited just to questions of gun control or even mental health issues. Let's use this as an impetus to redefine manhood, letting go of power, control and violence and embracing humility, compassion and gentleness. Let's stop robbing ourselves of half (or more) of our humanity. Let's teach ourselves and our sons that there is a different, better way to live.

Women, you also have a key role in redefining masculinity. As mothers, wives, sisters, friends and in every other way in which you interact with men, you either affirm and perpetuate the dominant truncated view of masculinity, or you support those who strive to redefine it in healthier, more wholistic ways -- the unguys we might call them. We need you to tell men that manliness does not lie in physical strength, in control and dominance, in the suppression of all emotions other than anger. Many of you are doing this and I appreciate that. But too often the message of false masculinity is proclaimed and upheld not only by the men of our culture, but by the women as well. We must work together to change this.

I recommend this thought-provoking article as well as this one by Soraya Chemaly for further reflection on this topic. She also gives many links to other articles for further exploration of this important subject.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Joy in the Darkness

When I read the Bible, I find that joy has a close connection to suffering and sorrow. I recently read these words in Psalm 126:

Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.

In Psalm 30 we read:

Weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.

In the words we know as the Beatitudes as recorded by Luke Jesus says,

Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.

This seems counter-intuitive. How can joy arise from sorrow, suffering and persecution? Surely joy comes from the absence of these things, not from passing through them. But that's not what Scripture says. Joy arises as we pass through the valley of dark shadows. It comes in the darkness, as we long and hope and cry out for the light. Joy, as Katie Axelson points out, ties into hope. If we were only joyful when things were great, many of us would find few opportunities for joy. Even if things are going great for us personally, we must be aware that we live in a broken world, one in which people lack access to the most basic needs of life like clean water, one in which so many are marginalized, abused and silenced, one in which little children are gunned down in an unfathomable outburst of violence. No matter how nice our own personal worlds may be, we must acknowledge that this world gives precious few reasons for joy.

Yet in the midst of the darkness that surrounds us and threatens to consume us, we have reason for joy, because we have hope. We believe and affirm that because of the birth of Jesus this world has hope. With hope comes joy, because we audaciously hope and believe that the future does not have to be the same as the present. In fact we know the end of the story: God wins.

We live in this world as those who go out weeping. We mourn over the brokenness of our world. But we can sow seeds of hope. We can sow seeds of love. We can sow seeds of transformation. And in time, perhaps not in our own lives, but in time, we believe that these seeds will bear fruit and the kingdom of God will come on earth as it is in heaven. In this knowledge and in the strength of God's Spirit who works through us in this still-being-redeemed world we can find joy. At the present time it remains mixed with a strong measure of sorrow and grief, but still we can find joy if we hold on to our hope.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Time to Change our Lenses

When one lives in Arizona, at least the part of the state where I live, many songs about Christmas ring completely fanciful.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! 
(Yeah, right.)

Oh the weather outside is frightful 
(only 65 F today, pretty terrible really)

Walking in a winter wonderland 
(wearing shorts and a T-shirt while the sun beats down on my head)

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the one we had last year 
(or maybe it was the year before, or the decade, maybe last century?)

I have no problem with singing nostalgic songs of snow-covered Christmases. But living in the dry Sonoran desert I am reminded each winter that much of our Christmas mythology arises from a very particular cultural perspective. We present an image of Christmas that suits what we think Christmas should be like. And that's okay, except when we start to insist that this should be how everyone experiences Christmas. If you live all your life in Florida, or Arizona, or even more so in Australia or South Africa, Christmas is not likely to bring to mind images of snow-covered pine trees. How about saguaro cacti covered with Christmas lights instead?

Today at the weekly study I attend, one man raised the all-too-common complaint that the phrase “Merry Christmas” has been forced from our society and that this indicates how unchristian we have become. I wholeheartedly affirm the right of this man and anyone else to say “Merry Christmas” as much as he wants, but I also don't think that saying it or not saying it indicates in any way whether we as a nation are in accord with God or not. Rather, it reveals another way in which we create a perception of how Christmas should be and then insist on everyone affirming that perception. But what about those for whom Christmas does not, in fact, have much to do with the birth of Jesus? Do we bring them closer to Jesus by insisting that we greet one another with the words “Merry Christmas”? I resonate with Karl Wheeler's call to surrender Christmas as a “Christian” holiday. He writes: “Why should my faith have more say or power than someone else's? In fact, I think we have less chance of inviting someone to Christ when we rise up in power imposing what we believe to be right.”

In reality, Christmas in America long ago ceased being a Christian holiday. Although Christmas as a Christian celebration does date back quite some distance in Church history, the significant emphasis on this event developed only relatively recently. We make Christmas what we want it to be and we could, should we so choose, celebrate the birth of Jesus on any given day of the year. I happen to like the symbolism of celebrating it in the darkest part of the year—but even that symbolism only works for those of us in the northern hemisphere. For those in the southern hemisphere Christmas comes at the height of summer. Much of the imagery in our traditional Christmas songs must sound particularly out of place when sung on a sunny Australian summer morning.

I am not advocating that we scrap all of our Christmas songs and the imagery we have built up around this holiday. However, we do well to stop and recognize that so much of our thinking about Christmas derives from a particular cultural background – a mythology. This extends not only to images of snow-laden fir trees, but also to the image we have of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the stall in Bethlehem. We create a nice sanitized image when in fact it probably was quite noisy and messy. (I am not saying that the birth of Jesus did not occur. I am only pointing out that much of how we perceive the actual birth event derives from our own image of how it might have or should have been.)

As I reflect on the humor of singing songs about white Christmases here in Arizona, I recognize that our cultural lenses affect us not only in this season. We all see the world through a particular set of cultural filters and experiences based on our background, our upbringing, our life experiences and the voices of the people we listen to the most. This is natural. But when we cannot recognize that these lenses also limit and distort our perspective, we became prisoners of them. We need to listen to the stories and experiences of others so that we can regularly remember that there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. We do not have the one true understanding of the world, anymore than our image of Christmas as a time of snow-covered scenery and warm fireplaces matches the reality in many parts of the world.

As Christians in America, we must begin to recognize that we live in a multicultural society, one that does not see the world the way we see it. Let's be honest, even those who call themselves by the name of Christ do not all see it the same way. The time has passed when we could insist on defining the narrative that shapes our society solely on our terms. In reality that narrative has been largely defined by a rather narrow portion of society: white men who call themselves Christian. But white Christian men (a group that includes myself) don't have the whole story. We don't have the only perspective on the world and we certainly don't have the true one by which all others must be measured. We need to recognize that figuratively speaking we are living in Arizona but still singing songs about the white Christmas we're expecting this year. Let's wake up, stop dreaming and hear the songs those around us are singing instead. We might just find them to be more meaningful than the old melodies we've so cherished.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Love is a Decision

Each Christmas we Christ-followers affirm to the world that in the birth, live, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God expresses love in the highest, most complete form ever. Although not usually recited in Advent, the words of John 3:16 are surely appropriate here as well: “God so loved the world...” I like the words of the song sung by Michael W. Smith:

Love has come to walk among us
Christ the Lord is born this night.

Jesus, the God-person, demonstrates in practical, tangible ways what God's love looks like. God chooses to engage with the world. Jesus interacts with people, not shunning or rejecting them. He breaks down barriers, smashes cultural and religious taboos, all to demonstrate love. Jesus defines love for us.

But I'm not Jesus. I hope that ever so slowly I am being transformed into his image, but I'm not there yet. I don't love perfectly. I don't even love all that well. Years ago, when my then-fiancée and I were preparing for our wedding, we attended a series of pre-marital sessions based on a series called “Love is a decision.” Honestly, I don't remember a lot from the series, but I remember that basic point: Love is a choice. It's not primarily a feeling, though at times it is that. It's not primarily an emotion, though that may be involved as well. Love is a decision. It's a choice. Every day in every situation where I interact with others, be it in direct contact or virtually, I choose whether to act in love or not. Katie Axelson says it quite well when she writes “Love is a verb. It's how we respond both in favorable and unfavorable situations. It's a constant choice. A deciding moment.”

Faced with the brokenness of this world God could have chosen to scrap it all and start over again. God could have chosen to reboot the program, so to speak. But God, out of her very nature, chose to engage with this hurting world. God chose to enter into the brokenness, to take on our flesh, to encounter our pain, suffering, oppression, hurt and everything else in order to demonstrate love to us.

Love has come to walk among us.

Now that Jesus has returned to heaven until some point in the future, we have the choice whether to continue to live in that love or not. We first have the choice whether we will embrace the love offered to us by God. Then we face the decision to love one another. Sometimes that's easy to do. Some people are easy to love. Others, not so much. And some seem to be downright impossible. But Jesus didn't say we could love only those we like. He told us to love our enemies. He taught us to embrace those who were different from us. He showed us that love means breaking down barriers, surrendering power and privilege, affirming the dignity of those around us (as well as those who may be physically quite far away from us.)

God's love is an amazing, powerful thing. I cannot begin to say that I fully grasp or experience it, much less live in it day by day. But without that love, I cannot love my neighbor as God has shown me in Jesus. I don't have it in me. I can make a decent effort. I can demonstrate love, to a point. But without being renewed and filled with God's love, my tank will run empty in a very short time. At the same time, God's love isn't just something for me to fill up with and keep to myself. God invites me to be a conduit for his love to the rest of the world. We are the hands and feet of God, the expression of God's love to the world around us. To quote again from Katie Axelson, “When we call ourselves followers of Christ, His love should radiate from each one of us.”

Love is a decision. God chose to love the world. Will I choose to do the same?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Equality is a Moral Issue

In our world today God's name and identity are still defaced. They are slandered by poverty, by injustice, by corruption, by disease, and by human exploitation and suffering. And God's name is defiled when his people willingly and apathetically accept the status quo, lacking the vision to lift up God's holiness, goodness and justice in a crumbling world.

                                                     Richard Stearns in The Hole in Our Gospel
I continue to be troubled by statements I heard earlier this year (about which I wrote previously) to the effect that inequality and poverty are simply the reality of our world which we must live with. In fact, the person who made these statements argued that in fact inequality is good, that we wouldn't want to live in a world where everyone is the same. But this confuses equality with being identical. Just because people are equal doesn't mean they are all the same. Equality recognizes and affirms distinctions in people, in their characters and personalities and in their gifts and abilities. But equality denies that those differences should allow one person to have authority or privilege over another simply because of a particular characteristic. For example, why should I have the right to utilize an excessive amount of the world's resources simply because I happen to have been born in the United States? Why should the fact that I happened to be born with an X and a Y chromosome make me acceptable for certain roles, while my wife and other friends who have two X chromosomes are not, by virtue of that fact? Obviously there are real differences between a person who lives in the United States and one who is raised in a poor country in the world, just as there are biological differences between men and women. But these differences do not justify inequality.

The fact that inequality does exist in the world doesn't mean we should be content with it or accept it as an unchangeable condition. We can choose how we will respond to the advantages and benefits given to us by virtue of our background. We can determine that, because we happened to be born in the United States and therefore had access to great opportunities and privileges not currently available ot the larger portion of the world's population, that we therefore have the right to take full advantage of that position, whether we consciously choose to exploit the rest of the world or not. We can say that we have a right to keep all our money and resources and use them for our own benefit (perhaps, if we feel generous, doling out a small portion to the needs of the world's masses). After all, inequality is just a fact of life and while we may feel sorry for the poor of the world, well, in the end that's just the way the world is.

I can choose as a white man that my biological sex and my skin color entitle me to privileged treatment. I can fight vigorously against any attempts to encroach on my power and privilege and complain vociferously whenever any portion of it is taken away from me. I can insist on my right to keep my hard-earned money and use it for the benefit of my children and those who are like me, preserving the privilege that I received for the next generation. I can maintain a wall between men and women that designates certain, limited environments as the acceptable spheres for women to conduct their lives. Sure, I affirm them as equal, as long as they don't try to actually live that out too fully. After all, inequality is just the way the world is.

Or maybe I could recognize that inequality reflects the fallen nature of this world. I could acknowledge that the power, privileges and benefits I have do not come to me so that I can keep them for myself, but so that I can surrender them. I can give away power and privilege. I can affirm the dignity and worth of others. I can invest the resources God has given me (however great or small they may be) so that others might have more opportunities and choices and over time experience greater equality.

I've been reading Richard Stearns' book The Hole in Our Gospel, which is a bit of a biography but even more a call for the church of Christ to embrace God's call to act on behalf of the poor, marginalized and oppressed of this world. In the book Stearns points to Paul's words to the Corinthian church in his second letter as a reminder (among many others in Scripture) that God cares deeply about equality—that in fact equality is “a justice issue or, stated more bluntly, a moral issue in which those of us who have plenty seem willing to allow others to have nothing.” In his letter Paul writes:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there may be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.”

God calls us to work to eliminate inequality, using any benefit we may have to serve those who are in some manner disadvantaged. Stearns and Paul both address the issue of economic equality, but the issue of equality goes far beyond economic equality. If those of us who have privilege and power cling to it when we could and should be giving it away, we may some day find that the tables have turned on us despite our efforts and our own unwillingness to treat others as equals now will in that day come back to haunt us.

I acknowledge with great sadness that inequality does exist in our world. One would have to be blind not to see this. But I refuse to accept that this is simply the way things are, much less to affirm that somehow inequality is a good thing. Equality is, as Stearns states, a moral issue and as a disciple of Jesus Christ, who affirmed the dignity, worth and equality of all people, I want to work and speak for equality in the name of Christ. To do otherwise would be to deny the very name of the God I claim to serve.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hopefully Engaged

Advent began today – and we very nearly missed it. Only the adamant insistence of our teenage daughter convinced us to change our worship plans for the morning, to the benefit of us all. When our children were younger we regularly observed Advent. It formed a significant part of our Christmas preparation. But as the years have passed and the children grown older we have not done so well keeping this focus in our home. Although a bit surprised, I was also very pleased when my daughter insisted that celebrating Advent was important to her. She reminds us that Advent carries a special significance for those who follow Jesus Christ. Christmas is important, but let's not rush too quickly to that day. We need to stop and remember along the way.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel

As I listened to the words of this classic hymn during worship this morning my mind pondered the powerful message of Advent and Christmas. I've heard this message time and again from my childhood, but I cannot hear it too often. I cannot be reminded too frequently of the significance of the Christ-event. I don't get caught up so much in the images of babies lying in mangers (who, amazingly and unlike most human children, apparently doesn't cry). I no longer picture it as some perfect, silent, holy night. I think the actual event was far more humble and earthy than that – and probably a lot more human. Let's not overspiritualize the actual birth scene.

Yet, no matter how we choose to imagine that scene in Bethlehem, we must not forget that this birth marked the beginning of a radical new episode in human history. In the person of Jesus, God entered the world. God took on the sorrows, struggles, grief and pain of the human condition. We often speak of Jesus as the measure of God's love for the world, but Jesus is equally the measure of God's hope for this world – and he remains that hope in a world that continues to suffer in so many ways.

Jesus offers hope to all who suffer under injustice, oppression and inequality. He offers hope to the hungry, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the enslaved. He proclaims the year of the Lord's favor, in which all people are affirmed for the dignity that God instilled in them at their creation, without regard to gender, ethnicity, or any other defining characteristic. At Christmas we celebrate each year again the beginning of this radical transformation by which this world is being remade into the kingdom of our God.

In this Advent season though, we remember that this transformation remains incomplete. Yes, Jesus won the victory of death and evil on the cross and in his resurrection, an event we shall celebrate with equal joy in a few months. But here on this planet that victory remains incomplete. The world continues to suffer. Inequality, enslavement, marginalization, patriarchal power structures and a host of other ills continues to plague us as humans, both individually and socially. Christ has set us free, but we do not yet live fully in that freedom. At Advent it seems particularly appropriate to cry out as did the Israelites of old for God to come and ransom the creation, to set free once again the people of this world who still live in darkness.

Do we acquiesce to easily to the continued influence of evil in this world? Do we see injustice, inequality, oppression and other evils around us and just regard it as “the way things are”? Have we so narrowly focused on Jesus as the one who brings individual salvation that we forget the bigger picture? I fear that this may be the case. I have been challenged a lot this year to consider how I live and how I can change my attitudes and actions to more actively engage in bringing God's kingdom on this earth. I don't want my faith to be primarily a message of gloom, nor one of individual escape, but one of hope and joy and love. As a disciple of Jesus I want to radiate the hope that he brings to the world. Yes, we are not there yet. In that sense we are still in the season of Advent. But at the same time the One has arrived who can bring hope to the world and he invites us to join him in spreading this message. Let us not give in to despair or escapism. None of us can transform the entire world, but each of us can make concrete and specific choices in our own lives that will can bring hope to others. We can choose to stand against oppression, injustice, inequality and the status quo that perpetuates these things. Or we can live in our little bubble, oblivious to the darkness that persists in this world, and wait for the day we get to “go home.”

I choose to live for hope and as we finish this year and move into the new one, I want to continue to learn how I can support the dignity of all of God's children through my actions, my words and my attitudes. I'll continue to right about my journey here, but I would love to hear what my readers are doing and want to do in the coming year to bring the message of hope to a world in darkness.

I'm joining with Caris Adel and others today to reflect on Hope during this first week of Advent. See what others have written by following these great links and add your own to the list!