Saturday, December 29, 2007

God Uses the Inappropriate

Christmas Eve we went Native. Along with countless Mikepercs villagers, we braved the frigid air and snow flurries to attend the Szent Este (literally "Holy Night" or Christmas Eve) service at our village Hungarian Reformed Church.
As we approached the church building with its stately transylvanian-style steeple in the deep darkness of 5pm, older women served hot drinks to lines of villagers waiting to enter the church. Everyone greeted each other with hearty "Boldog Karacsonyt!" (Merry Christmas) and a jovial "Kellemes Uj Evet!" (Happy New Years) and we were pleased to see many village friends among the crowd which almost filled the church to brim.
I must admit I felt a certain apprehension as I entered the old church building. Although not terribly large, the sanctuary could only be described as cavernous as we darkened the dim doorway. This was THE Hungarian Reformed Church with a liturgy far more formal than anything I was used to. And to be a foreigner in such a setting made me all the more self-conscious of doing or saying something terribly inappropriate here, purely out of ignorance.
The Church was almost as cold inside as the wintry air was outside, as the old building had no heat. Gas heaters, like those you see at restaurants who used outdoor areas in the winter, worked tirelessly to pour some warmth into the old building, but all felt compelled to stay fully bundled in hats and coats for the duration of the service.
Although I could scarcely understand the words that were sung and spoken, I can attest that it was a lovely little service. But what caught me by surprise was neither the delicately carved canopy above the pastor's podium nor the austere pipe organ that echoed through the cavernous edifice. What struck me as both strange and awkward was when the hallowed instruments began ringing out an all too familiar tune: "So this is Christmas ... and what have you done ... another year over ... a new on just begun." Of course, the words were being sung in Hungarian, but the tune was unmistakable. My friend Christine, visiting from Texas, and I looked at each other and could not help but giggle a little.
Here in a formal, high church Hungarian service rang out the John Lennon's Happy Christmas song. It was strange and unexpected, some might say inappropriate, but it got me thinking about how God might view the things the masses so quickly deem inappropriate.
How inappropriate was it for Jesus, Son of God and King of Kings to be born among livestock? How inappropriate for the purest of the pure Jewish Messiah to speak to a Samaritan woman, especially that Samaritan woman -- and then bring her restoration? How inappropriate was it for Paul, a Jew among Jews, to go to the Gentiles?
Let's take it a step forward into our times. How inappropriate is it that a balding oriental man and his family (The Chuns) would reach out to Hungarian village kids through a sport like baseball?
The fact is that God so often uses the strange and obscure and even inappropriate things to work His good will.
So let the ancient sounding pipe organ ring out John Lennon's Happy Christmas and maybe the Mikepercs masses will see that the God of this hallowed old church did not die with the church founders hundreds of years ago. He was born in a stable, was around when that song was penned in 1971, remains alive today ready to touch lives in poignant ways.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's Dark Outside

"The people walking in Darkness have seen a great light;
On those living in the shadow of death, a light has dawned"--Isaiah 9:2

It is dark outside. Not right this minute now. But this time of year in Eastern Hungary, it is dark alot. The sun rises around 7:30am and sets around 3:30 in the afternoon. And quite often the hours of daylight are obscured by the low lying greyness of winter. I never realized until this year how appropriate it is that we celebrate Christmas, the birth of our Savior, just after Winter Solstice-- the darkest day of the year.

Christ came into all that heaviness symbolized in this time of year -- into that valley of the darkest shadows and brought light. After Christmas, after the new light has dawned, the days become longer. It still may be a long time 'til summer, but the additional daylight of each passing day gives us all reason to hope.

But today it is still dark outside. And for our friends in Bosnia, that darkness has become tangible. The Mezgers are a delightful missionary couple living in Sarajevo with their two small sons. Living in the recovering war-torn area is no picnic, but having a vehicle to get around with the two kids made it bearable. Last week, their car was stolen with all its contents. Whoever did it was no amateur as it was locked up and in their garage. Somehow, even though the car is not even registered in their names, the culprit got their cellphone number. The thief called them demanding for $4000 for the return of the car.

The Mezgers have chosen not to negotiate with criminals, but that sends $13,000 (the price of the car) down the drain at a time when their support is already dropping dangerously low. Among the car's contents were countless valuable items including one stroller, two car seats, mp3 player, and mix tapes that the couple made for each other when they were falling in love.

It's a cold, demoralizing darkness. And into this darkness, Christ comes. I can sympathize with the Jews who wanted their Messiah to come in a chariot of fire -- a grand political leader who would right all the injustices of their times.

For the sake of the Mezgers, I want Christ to come as a Terminator-like slayer with Rambo-styled justice. Instead, he comes as a helpless infant brought into the world among the livestock. And if we lose sight of the big picture, we can't help but ask, where is God in this?

But the answer is clear. He is there. Right in the middle of the Mezger's demoralizing, debilitating darkness, He is there. He is in the midst of that shadow of death for those suffering the brutalest of losses this Christmas season. He comes, not violently like a flash of lightening, but gently like the dawn. He comes as an infant.

Many people continue walking in darkness all around us, and our own circumstances may make us feel like 3:30pm sunsets are our destiny for eternity. But take heart, and let this Christmas remind you that the light of eternity was born among man. It is a new dawn, because Christ has come.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Little Lower Than the Angels

It's Christmastime! Full fir trees laced in snowflakes and festively wrapped packages tied up with gilded bows. Every year at this time, we as Christians struggle to look past the fuzzy faced frivolity and glitter of commercialism to capture a fresh perspective on the birth of Christ.

My meditation this year comes from Hebrews 2:9: "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone."
The theologians call it "condescension" -- that He, through whom all things were called into being, would allow himself to take on this lower, created form, to die and help those who could never fully comprehend what he had done.

Christ shed His royal robes of strength and glory to take on the faded garment of mortal flesh and in doing so, submitted Himself to become like us, a little lower than the Angels. And perhaps the most amazing part is that in this unimaginable condescension, He never responded condescendingly toward us. Even when we spit on him, and reject Him, and dishonor Him with all our unappreciative ways. Even when we respond to Him as if He owes us a better life than we have now. Still, he does not act condescendingly toward us, only responds in love. So why is it so hard for us to condescend without being condescending?

Why is it so difficult to subject ourselves to the undesirables of this world and reach out in love, regardless of the way they respond toward our efforts?

This Christmas season I witnessed a very interesting act of condescension when beautifully handcrafted sweaters, mufflers, and hats were presented to a group of terribly impoverished people. In this village, many of the homes do not have running water and heat comes from the wood burning stove. It is a hard life, and those who donated the cold weather gear sought to bring warmth and comfort -- meeting the needs of these people by giving them their best.

When the gifts were presented, a few precious people glowed with appreciation. But the vast majority of the village took one look and turned their noses up in the air, mumbling, "csunya," that is, "ugly." They left, having rejected the gift.

I must admit, my personal reaction was to become condescending. "Well then, let them freeze this winter!" was the first thing to come to mind. But later I read this passage and recalled He who "was willing to become a little lower than the angels." How often have I responded to Christ's truly loving condescension, with the attitude that "God owes me..."(fill in the blank). God owes me happiness. God owes me success. God owes me kids (smart ones) or a husband (a handsome one). etc... etc...

To understand his condescension, we must start by understanding what God truly owes us. God owes me Hell. God owes me eternal damnation. God owes me misery in my own sin. But God condescends to me with His unconditional love, sacrifice, death and resurrection. It is only when we understand this reality that we can truly begin to understand grace.

So with this in mind, let's all try to respond to this holiday season -- not like spoiled children haranguing their Father with "I want this. I want that! Gi'me, Gi'me, Gi'me!" Instead, let's take a moment a remember who we are and who He is -- and what He really owes us.

And as we ornament our trees with silver tinsel and top them with illuminated Angels, let us remember He who "was made a little lower than the angels," and condescended to our level
and maybe it will help us to surrender our condescending attitudes toward others and be willing to condescend in love.