Advent Invites Us into God’s Timing

by Alexei Laushkin

This season leading up to Christmas, traditionally known as Advent, can be very busy, so much so that we can miss the staggering invitation, peace, and tranquility which is the timing and pacing of God’s kingdom. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” captures this reality well. Consider some of these lines:

And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

God in his goodness and kindness and generosity towards us stands ready to invite us into the news of his kingdom.

Have you ever considered why the birth of the Savior was announced to Shepherds? Perhaps they were calm enough to listen and receive the good news of the kingdom. When the pundits and decision makers of the time would have thought what does such an announcement mean for my place and position, the Shepherds could still receive the news with a soft hearted joy. The splendor of the ages was revealed to the lowly.

Have you ever had this overwhelming desire to be in Bethlehem, to have witnessed that first Christmas? To just receive the remarkable news of God’s son being born. To simply be one of the Shepherds or one of the wise men come to offer him gifts from afar. To have been aware enough of God’s timing to have caught the moment in which the king of the world and all therein was born.

What joy to just contemplate the thought and consider that first good news.

What the First Christmas Teaches us About All Other Ones

What I really love about “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is the ability to capture the sense of God’s joy in the midst of our weariness and indifference. That first Christmas was pure joy celebrated against most of the world continuing as it did before, unaware of the Advent of new tidings and new beginnings.

And in some sense this is how Christmas and the Advent season is always celebrated. The great joy of God’s beginning work of salvation in the midst of our indifference and inability to be aware of what this means for us.

Consider further these lines:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

There will come a time when the earth gives back the sound, when we give back the sound to which the angels now sing. There will be a time where we grasp the significance, meaning, and great love of these things. Where we too will be undone like the Shepherds or the Mother of God at the profound nature of God’s goodness.

We will celebrate Christmas as not a day of fulfilling our own desires but as the culmination and beginning of all that is good and right about God. That in his infinite goodness and kindness he desires to meet us where we are at and to bring us great tidings of great joy. The birth of a Savior, the possibility of new life, the invitation to join him at the first Christmas as we celebrate his son, the true king of the world.

The love that God has for humanity would cost him a great deal, it was sacrificial and holy and full and kind. And yet Christmas was the beginning, Advent the anticipation of that beginning. The good news that despite our sin, despite our indifference, despite our inattention, God had come into the world and begun the work, a work which in some sense culminates in revisiting that first Christmas, with the joy of the Angels and the Shepherds. To be invited back to celebrate a new what God had done and was beginning to do, for all of our sakes. The lyrics from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” captures this best:

Cast Out our sin and Enter In Be Born in Us today

Here is the invitation in the midst of all the indifference and chaos that accompanies life in this time of year, and has accompanied life in every age in this way, an invitation to new life. An invitation to good news, which is the coming of a Savior to bring God’s ways and the possibility of reconciling to him back into the human picture. Truly good news in the fullest sense for every age.

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Living in Exodus

by Alexei Laushkin

The Exodus is a pivotal moment for the people of God. They are rescued from Egypt, where their lives were filled with slavery, toil, and oppression and they make it to the desert on the way to the promised land.

And what do they encounter? They encounter their hearts which are filled with self-slavery, self-toil, and self-oppression. They exchange the hardship of Egypt for the hardship of their own inner life.

And this inner life provokes them against God even in the midst of great blessing, and God having known and foreseen His people’s sin waits and tests and sees if they will repent and turn.

For that is open to all of us who know the mercy of God, to turn towards him during the times of trial and great difficulty, especially as we are often deeply caught up in our own sin. We turn, he responds.

Yet instead of turning and even while being daily provided for and being rescued from enemies far stronger than them, they wrestle with God.

The God who single handedly freed them from Egypt now keeps them in the desert for 40 years.  You can almost hear echoes of the famous hymn lines:

Born to wander Lord I feel it, born to leave the God I love

Every since Genesis God has been in the process of reconciling with his people. First we have Noah, where God provides a rescue plan, an ark, and a covenant.

Than we have Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Jacob is one of the more interesting of the old Patriarchs, for he steals his brother’s birthright and is hounded by his conscience. Jacob is the father of Israel, and he wrestles with God, wrestling with his identity and God’s promises, wrestling with how he has made and what he wants and what God wants of him.

Jacob is  a man like us, unsure and wrestling with the sin within.

You see, since Genesis we are waiting for restoration, we are waiting for Jesus.

Jesus enables a restoration from our fallen nature of sin into the glorious freedom of the children of God. He is our justification from living like Jacob at his worst, or David at his worst or ourselves at our worst, to where Adam was before the fall. He restores and heals our fallen nature. Not all at once (though justification is all at once) but through a process.

Through a journey, into the wilderness. 

The wilderness was a time of testing for the people of God. Would they wait, would they stay focused even while everything was provided for, would they be content with trusting God’s goodness.

The desert tested God’s people, remove the comfort from a man and he’s lifted with a heart that is miserly, desires that are unmet, and a total lack of contentment.

Perhaps you yourself have felt these desert moments. These times when God seems absent, though he may be providing your every need, where your heart seems to wander and get lost in its own discontent.

God’s people having been rescued from Egypt, are in the desert. Their memories quickly fade, they begin to question Moses, they know God is with them, but what sort of God lets us wander aimlessly, when do we get to become like the Egyptians great and strong, instead of weak and dependent, a wandering nation.

Can you hear some of the dialogue of what might have been desired and yet what was experienced.

Yet God’s rescue plan for humanity is playing out in this same desert. His trying of character, as in the days of Abraham, so in the days of Noah, so in the days of Moses, is there no one who will follow me? Is there no one righteous to be found?

Why is God asking these sorts of questions of humanity? Like waters in a desert stream is the man who can trust in God despite his circumstances. You see our ultimate rebellion was to trust in ourselves, and so we reap what we sow. But when we trust in God even if nothing good occurs we reap a rich inner harvest for this life and the life to come.

Consider the very lives of Abraham, Noah, Jacob, Moses, and David. Where any of their lives simple? Where they not harassed, constantly facing danger and toil, and yet the Lord God delivered them from all these challenges, temptations, and tribulations.

Blessed is the heart of a man who is stayed on God and knows Christ as his true dependence, whatever he may face in outer oppression (matters of Justice) or inner oppression (matters of the heart). For both can derail a man from trusting God in his wilderness, and yet dependence, and yet blessed is the main whose heart remains focused and steadfast whether he sees oppression from without and from within.

Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network,  a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society,  and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own. 

On Mercy

by Alexei Laushkin

Mercy is about patience. The patience of God really more than our own. Consider God’s standards of mercy. He patiently waits. Consider these words from 2 Peter 3:8-9:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance

Now consider the words of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. Luke 13:6-9:

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.

The profound waiting and mercy of God. He will wait to see if life can come from this tree (us) and this soil (our circumstance). Yes he does discipline, yes he does allow for difficulties, but the overarching character is mercy. Even what he allows and the discipline itself is meant for us to do something else. For us to display some other characteristic than the ones we are so prone to.

Consider 1 Samuel. Salvation and rescue is going to come through Samuel, and the young boy is born to a barren woman. A very minor person. What is happening here? Don’t we see the echoes of the Virgin Mary, or Sarah.

God is searching the earth to see if any have sought after him. And in the anguish of infertility he finds a woman whose heart is open, who is zealous to be used. Though her story seems so small and insignificant, her life would be integral in God’s work of bringing  back his people to himself in the midst of gross infidelity and waywardness.

Consider the Mercy of God

In a few chapters into Samuel, Israel will be defeated, though they had the ark of the covenant in their midst when battling the Philistines. This will be a watershed moment. A moment so shocking that the very identity of the nation will be thrown into question.

And yet, the story we are to follow isn’t the calamity (which is significant to awaken the people), but the broader story of the clearing of corrupt leadership and the establishment of Samuel and eventually of Saul (who would prove unfaithful) and David.

A high-mark of God’s faithfulness and his work among his people is around the corner, and yet the calamities are necessary to make the story and life of David even possible.

The mercy of God isn’t about getting what we want when we want it, it is about seeing the broader story of how God turns wayward hearts back to him. As with Israel so with us. We are wayward in our tendencies and yet God will use the circumstances of life and his goodness to make the possibility of restoration and faithfulness possible again.

His ways are not our ways, nor our his thoughts, our thoughts, but we can be assured just as he was and is faithful to Israel that he will be faithful to his bride the church, and that he will even more like a tender shepherd be with each of us, as he arranges the circumstances of our lives in such a way where faithfulness and holiness, and mercy can take root. For all these stories are ultimately about our dependence on Christ and our seeming inability to see where we need to depend more deeply or see where we have not done so at all.

Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network,  a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society,  and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own. 

Inward Alienation

This emptiness which was formed in him as a result of falling away from God, kindles in him an incessant craving that nothing can satisfy. This craving is vague but constant (St. Theophan the Recluse).

That times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you– even Jesus (Acts 3:19-20).

The hunger for fullness and the reality of Jesus. How many times in the gospels is it recorded that Jesus went out of his way to personally touch and heal. Recount the hemorrhaging woman, recount the blind man, how many times does the encounter include a deeply personal and holy interaction.

We live in a time where intimacy is too tied in with sensuality. When the sort of intimacy that Jesus brings is wrapped in light as with a garment, its covered in holiness, its filled with whole love, a love that brings us more fully into who we are. This love takes us more deeply into ourselves, when we encounter it we feel more fully human. We become like Moses at the burning bush or the Apostle Peter at the Mt. of Transfiguration. We know we are seeing something holy and we give way to what is before us.

Inward Alienation

Perhaps the hardest thing to heal for each of us is inward alienation. An alienation born by sins of the flesh, the world, and the devil. An alienation born of trying circumstances, a lack of stability in our closest relating, an alienation born of our own pride and inability to seek the good and our own deep woundedness and the wounds of others. Consider Henri Nouwen on his journey towards wholeness “This place had always been there. I had always been aware of it as the source of grace. But I had not been able to enter it and truly live there.”

Nouwen saw the vision of wholeness in Rambrandt’s the Prodigal Son in the kind and loving embrace of the Father. A moment of profound blessing and love in the middle of ruin and sin. The Father is like the Holy Trinity reaching out to us in the midst of our pain and misery and turning, as we doubt as if to say ‘is this too good to be true’ the Trinity says ‘blessing, wholeness, fullness, life.’

Consider the gospel of Luke on this moment “his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Les Miserables moves us for similar reasons. Especially towards the end of the story, to find love and grace and to end one’s striving in holy love moves us deeply. It is our most natural desire, its what orients us at times, to find some peace for the inward alienation.

But being moved by these stories and seeing it from afar is not the same thing as dwelling and inhabiting holy love whether in our love for God (more common) or even in a particular relationship (less common).

So what helps us heal our self-alienation. As St. Theophan puts it our constant but vague craving? How do we like the children of Israel enter the land of milk and honey.

If we try and go into that land or that place of healing before God is ready for us or the dynamics are good, we will easily fail.

So what is the way forward? How do we start? Consider these words of scripture:

Be holy, because I am holy (1 Peter 16).

The pursuit of God and seeking first the kingdom not only in pious practices (prayers, scripture, and worship), but practices that overflow into our actions and relating (mercy, forgiveness, compassion, self-control) build the muscles and lay, all of these lay, the groundwork for the healing of self-alienation. But in and of themselves these practices and actions are insufficient for the healing to begin. It is grace. The free gift of God acting in each of us and in particular relationships that establish this level of closeness in our relating with God or with a particular person.

When we are inwardly alienated what stability can be used to heal this? What dynamics can the Trinity work with when we are so easily tossed like the seas, one day pursuing God, the next pursuing the world, the next pursuing our favorite team, the next trying the next fade, and so on and so on. Or if we are like the elder son, lulled to sleep in the service of the Lord. We neither experience the full embrace of the Father, but simply experience a dullness in our faith. A dullness which leads to slackness and sin as full and entangling as that of the younger son. Without vibrancy we don’t have much to stand on in our journey towards Christ.

The sure fire method and approach is to cultivate a soft heart. A heart that grieves fully over ones own sin. If we are the younger sin we must focus our efforts on repentance, realizing the extreme danger we are in. To repeat the Jesus prayer often is one method to cajole the heart ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.’

If we are the elder son we have much work to do because we have already disregarded our Father’s house. The elder son may begin with habits that are hard for his pride to bear, such as regular prayer (praying the holy hours for instance), humility, repentance that leads to tears. If the older son in us can be humbled and God grants the gift of tears than surely salvation has visited his inner abode and the path towards amendment of life can begin. We should not forget that we are to persevere to the end and not easily give up, especially if our heart is already hardened, in good time our gracious Father will give us a right spirit instead of a heart of stone.

The gospel is not just partial good news. It’s not merely a set of beliefs, it’s beliefs that are fully embodied and dwelt in. The children of Israel weren’t just given a land they were told to dwell in the land. Consider the words of the Psalms “dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3). It’s not a simple possession but a full embodied dwelling therein.

The only type of thing that truly heals our inward alienation is for our inner desires and our orientation to move towards something that’s much more full. Again St. Theophan on this point:

Every feature of the divine order condemns and rebukes him with his former unreasonableness and carelessness. This impresses him all the more because, at the same time, his spirit sees the obvious insignificance of the former sinful order, which deserves his contempt. By this action the heart is released from its former bondage and becomes free.

This freedom and character than takes work to mold. This is but the beginning of repentance. Repentance is followed by the pursuit of holiness, the fully taking off of sin (lust for money, power, significance, other people, selfishness) and replaced by actions commended by Jesus himself (mercy towards those who have specifically wronged you, compassion towards those in dire circumstances, love for those who also pursue the Lord fully, self-control to not be bothered and perturbed when one encounters sin, peacefulness of heart which guides every moment).

As this builds the dull ache changes. Instead we find joy ineffable. We find holiness. At times the gift of a spiritual brother or sister who can be closer to us than our very hearts because there is holiness and wholeness in the inner chambers and recesses of our soul is given.

Here we can can find peace and true rest which enables creative love and kingdom fruit. At such points it will be said of us he has acquired peace in himself and look how those around him flock to find that peace as well.

On Forgiveness

If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23)

These are words of life. Not just words that express some ideal, these are words to put the nature of sin in oneself to death by. We are to be marked by mercy, by grace, by our forgiveness.

When we begin to delve deeply into this passage on forgiveness we begin to feel the weight of our obligation before God and each other. As we dig into this passage, we can no longer carry the words that we are more prone to carry. Words of indifference. The indifference that characterized the grave act of sin between Cain and Abel, when Cain murdered his brother, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’

We realize that in the new reality, the new covenant, the life that starts and finishes with the author of life,  forgiveness is not a concept to just be past over. Left for the unskilled and the uninterested parts of our life to attend to.

When Jesus says to ‘seek first the kingdom of God,’ he means seek first, make it of primary importance. The first thing you think about when you rise, the last thing when you sleep, and in the countless moments throughout the day orient your lives towards God and God’s ways. If you try you’ll find how hard it is to live this life, and it will drive you to repentance and from repentance and mourning into the grace of his forgiveness. When we experience that kind of forgiveness we dare not hold the debts against those who have sinned against us. We forgive and repent so that no root of bitterness might take root. There is no time for merriment apart from God, taking a break from his ways and only returning to them for prayer. There is no full way of being human apart from the life of faith.

Seek first the kingdom, means to be deeply inwardly changed. To have the wellspring of life transform you. Not to change yourself, but to have God do work that only He can do. It’s not simply the absence of sin and evil but the presence of Life and even Life evermore.

Before the Children of God are sent off to the wilderness there is this interesting promise in the Book of Exodus:

“He said, ‘If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you’ (Exodus 15:26).

The healer, the great physician, the God who does not change his character, his love or his nature. For in him we live in light ineffable.

Forgiveness removes us and our hurts from the center of the brokenness that we experience in our lives. Our need for forgiveness from God, reorients our experience of others. We are no longer the center of our own pain and wrongs committed on us, but instead we see ourselves as a fellow beggar in need of daily manna from heaven. It’s a type of humility that says if I were in the situation of another, I know that my character apart from God is of such a quality where I may have very well done the same. It makes us live into the reality that the only good things in this life are truly gifts from above, that apart from God we can do nothing.

So instead of things to be consumed, relationships become the gift of a good God. The maintenance and commitment of such a relationship depends on the Lord working in the relationship itself. If we are others oriented the Lord can use that to bring some remarkable and family like dynamics with those we love and are in relationship with. Apart from that we can still practice peace, patience, kindness, and the heavenly and holy fruits in all our relating, even if it is simply for a season.

Forgiveness is a balm that brings us into the reality of the frailty of others and our own frailty. True forgiveness frees us from ourselves and orients us back to the well-spring of Life which is Jesus.

 

Relational Commitment

We live in an age that does not have a very good concept or grasp of Christian commitment when it comes to loving our neighbor as our self. We interpret these words to mean that we should treat each other well not that we should commit to each other whether the relationship is going well or not. We tolerate each other, we seldom repeatedly seek each others good or take the time to heal misunderstandings or divisions. Ours is a polite culture that values not inconveniencing others unnecessarily.

Jesus says that those that follow his teachings are his sister, brother, and mother. Those who are deeply committed to Christian life are family. The new testament writers often use language reserved for family to describe their heartache, prayers, and hopes for the communities the Lord has focused them on.

Even the word family can be problematic to describe commitment in our present cultural moment. Many people come from families where love and warmth were not readily or consistently available. When as people we are robbed of the experience of joy, love, and commitment we are left with ourselves. Thereby we let our own wants and interests rule why we stay in certain friendships or get to know certain people but not others. We are robbed of the understanding of Christian love and commitment without being left with any way to navigate or feel comfortable with those types of relationships.

In this way the sins of the parents or grandparents can easily be passed down for multiple generations. Cruelty and unkindness can disproportionately alter our understandings of the sort of life Jesus prays for us to have.

In the Gospel of John we hear the words that Jesus prays that we would be one as He and the Father are one. That same level of unity and commitment. It is a powerful prayer that ought to have some earthly connotations, especially when we think of loving specific neighbors and friends.

Obviously this type of commitment has to be mutual. While one person may consistently love and care for another and while Christians are called to be extraordinarily patient and persistent, in some ways without reciprocity a stable relationship cannot be built. There has to be a level of discretion when you are encouraging loving kindness and commitment while knowing that many may have very little interest on what you are saying or doing. Above all forgiveness and care has to be consistently practiced if any sense of Christian depth of community is to be realized.

Transformation has to occur persistently in oneself to more fully live into the command ‘to love your neighbor as yourself.’

Is such a thing even possible in the present time? Yes, but it is rare. Trans-formative but rare. In an age where the bonds of fidelity, trust, and care are so easily broken and transgressed it is deeply counter-cultural and difficult to push things in a reverse direction. But with God, all things are possible, and it does not take huge numbers for God’s people to triumph and transform the moment at hand.

 

Grounded Faith Formation

Christian spiritual formation can take on an other-worldly emphasis from time to time. The evangelical American subculture (true for Catholics as well) is filled with retreat centers and other places where participants are invited to come away from their day to day life and spend time with God. In and of itself these centers of rest and respite are really important aspects to a life of faith, unless they become the only way we can envision drawing closer to God.

The Christian life is filled with subtle but deadly if onlys. I would be generous if only I made more. I would be prayerful if only I had the time. I would be kinder if I wasn’t so frazzled.

We have stopped looking at what has become of us as more a revelation of our true nature. When we are busy, when we are moody, when we are hungry, when we are impatient. That’s a truer image of our life without God. That’s a better reflection of our sinful nature. That’s us. It’s not the exception, it’s what we are when the comforts of life are pealed back.

The good news, is that how we actually are is a great starting point for spiritual transformation for those of us who persevere. A vibrant life of faith can and should be built in to life as it is for us. Whether it’s subtle practices of prayer, or giving out of our substance instead of our abundance, faith gets cultivated in our day to day lives.

Are you in a season that is especially busy? Are you in midst of trials and temptations, than if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, God will use it to build in a full, vibrant, living faith, as you integrate your life as it is with the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Retreats and respites are important, but a faith that is built in around the hectic patterns and trials of life is more central. In other words what you do today in regards to faith is of more value than what you do when you are moved from your life as it is.