…and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
Almost every year I try to set aside a little bit of time to read Charles Dickens’ famous holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. You can see in the pictures above my favorite copy, an edition of beautifully vibrant water-color illustrations done by P.J. Lynch and put out by Candlewick Press.
This classic story is filled with a powerful lesson; it is more than a warm-fuzzy Hallmark-esque display (though, to be fair, there’s some of that too). A man is forced to reckon with his own cold heart and the consequences thereof.
I need this reminder every year. I can easily become focused inwardly for the holidays, but the birth of Christ was always meant to be a Star for all.
My challenge for me this Christmas and for you is to keep Christmas in your heart all year: turn away from our cold hearts and seek the welfare of our neighbors January through December.
Will it be said of you, “She knew how to keep Christmas well?”
Sixth grade was a transitional year for me. I never really thought about style and appearances before that, but all the sudden looks mattered. That year in particular stood out to me because, wanting to appease one crowd, I began the year dressed in JNCO jeans (if you don’t remember those, they were like denim dresses with an inseam). If you knew me in sixth grade, you’d laugh at the discrepancy between innocent little Caleb and the alternative brand I felt compelled to don. By my birthday in October, though, I was begging my parents for gift cards to the mall in order to fit in with an entirely different group. I went 180° the other direction in my style choice: Gap, Abercrombie, and American Eagle (out of those brands, today I only own Gap).
Back then popularity mattered. Or at least I thought it did. I remember my middle school years being difficult. In sixth and seventh grade I was arrogant, warmly embraced by the cool kids. By eighth grade, though, I lost all those friends as I refused to join them in their initial experimentation with sex and booze (yes, that was in eighth grade!), and, thanks in large part to my amazing parents, I had to slowly rebuild a healthier sense of self-worth.
In eighth grade I had an identity crisis. You know what? I still do.
Every day I wrestle the temptation to find my worth in something other than the only One whose opinion is worth anything.
Salary, stuff, success, fitness.
At thirty-one years old, I’m still fighting the popularity contest. Ironically, that contest is normally a one-man show. I put the pressure on myself. Don’t get me wrong; people can be very judgmental. But I actually find that many people really could care less how many career awards I’ve won or that I live in an apartment or that my wife and I share one Honda Fit (or they just talk about it behind my back).
One of the beautiful aspects of teaching is that, in my classroom, I’m also a learner. Here’s what one of my students wrote the other day in her narrative essay:
“[My] experience has made me realize that it’s okay not to be popular. Ultimately, the people who look like they have it all figured out, [sic] are the people who are hurting the most. We therefore find our “popularity” in Christ and who he says we are.”
This wonderfully wise student echoes the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)
I could list so many verses that speak into the unique masterpiece that is YOU, a divinely carved image of the sovereign God. Let me also mention one of the great paradoxes of the Bible: the people who thought they had “IT,” Jesus let them know they were lost, and the people who had nothing, they were the ones who were found by Him.
Jesus eternally marked the popularity of His children on the cross when He said, “It is finished.”
It is finished. God already thinks you’re cool. Let that be enough.
We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!
cold streets: lightless,
lifeless, leafless poking
about in irrelevance.
Rosy cheeks cross rosy
streets, a subtle blush
sponged upon the winter droll; everything is fine.
“Say it enough, and it’s
yours if you just believe,”
thumped from a television
set, just another sound.
We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!
Many years ago some shepherds were
in a quiet place waiting but they
didn’t know it: angel news
has never been too common.
The ugly earth in naked
unconcern started glowing
with the messengers. Do not fear didn’t stop the trembling, but
in a pinprick moment
a baby squealed, wrapped in
prophecy and misguided expectations.
Are we held? Despite everything.
I began writing this poem back in the winter of 2014, sitting in a coffee shop on Brookline Avenue in the Boston area. (I’ve tinkered with it here and there and perhaps will tinker with it more.)
I wanted to capture in one poetic space the frailty of our grasp on fleeting things, the emptiness that many experience around the holidays, and the paradox of the real Christmas event in Bethlehem.
This Christmas–in joy or sorrow–I hope we can better reflect on the earth-redefining significance of a seemingly innocuous moment in a small, Middle Eastern village two thousand years ago. I pray that it triumphs over all our silly little trivialities.
“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men to do us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancee while he was in prison, December 13, 1943 (bold and italics added)
I am currently reading God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, a compilation of notes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many of these notes are gathered from letters written while in prison, an enemy to the Nazi regime for his involvement with an assassination plot against Hitler.
I love Christmas. I love the simple, silly little traditions surrounding the holiday: decorating the tree, Christmas movies, music, hot chocolate, snuggling up with my wife (okay, this is actually just my first year celebrating Christmas as a newlywed). I also love the slightly deeper aspects of sharing the holiday with friends and family.
Traditionally, though, the season of Advent is about waiting.
The Israelites encountered the deep, wintry silence of God for approximately four hundred years between the final book of the Old Testament and the Immaculate Conception.
God is in that waiting, though. All the build up, the fear and trembling, the white-knuckling it through life (and often the holidays) is really just meant to call us into grasping more tightly on to something beyond our immediate situation:
the deep waiting that will be redeemed in the manger.
So, if you feel restless, you might be on to something.
“For to us a child is born… Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
“The time has come to revive an idea that once seemed natural: the student’s life as a Christian calling.”
Dr. Leland Ryken, author and professor, writes this in a chapter that he contributed to Liberal Arts for the Christian Life. For Ryken and many Christian educators (like myself), education is not a season of life meant to prepare people only for a career; instead, education–learning–is a calling, a vocation.
This is my third year as a professional school educator. (I use so many descriptors here because many of us are educators in varying capacities in other areas of life. For example, I was also educating as a college pastor for three years) I taught 10th-12th grade literature (and SAT prep) at a bilingual school in El Salvador, I taught 6th grade last year at SCA, and this year I moved back up into the high school realm, teaching 9th and 10th grade English. I am by no means an expert, but I have closely experienced the lives and attitudes of students over the past several years.
Unfortunately, for many students, learning is seen as a chore, a necessary evil in the natural progression of life aimed solely at a future career. I confess; I feed into that mentality too. Just yesterday I was explaining the benefits of taking grades seriously and adding academic extracurriculurs (such as being a tutor) as a means of boosting their future college applications. Truthfully, learning needs no justification. I’m not saying that learning is not justifiable; rather, we should not need to insist that the primary benefit of education is job attainment. Learning is a Christian practice.
“The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”
-John Milton, Of Education
Thankfully, education fits perfectly within a Christian worldview. Whereas learning might in fact be only utilitarian among some other worldviews, Christian education is a biblical model and mandate. As Milton notes in his famous tract on education, we humans are broken in our understanding of truth (vis-à-vis the Fall in Genesis 3), but Christian learning is a means by which we repair our knowledge and intimate relationship with God. The Bible is full of these examples and imperatives.
“Jesus grew in wisdom…” (Luke 2:52)
“Love the Lord your God with… all your mind…” (Luke 10:27)
“…Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)
So where is a good place to start reversing the narrow view of education? At home. Adults especially, those no longer studying in an educational institution, begin modeling lifelong learning as parents, as co-workers, as neighbors. Read books, learn languages, go to museums. If you’re a parent, let your kids “catch you” being a life-long learner. It will rub off and form positive habits in them.
At the height of his wisdom, Solomon was studying normal, supposedly non-spiritual things (we actually know that there is no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular and that God is as much God over butterflies and algebra as He is over theology). All of this brings glory to God and grows us in our understanding of Him and His kingdom.
Now, I will add, don’t be blind to the pitfalls of knowledge: There is obvious evil apparent when knowledge becomes divorced from living (i.e. ivory tower approach). Redeemed learning, though, growing in wisdom and understanding in the context of Christian maturity, is fruitful and necessary.
The biblical narrative is pretty clear: God made all things perfect, the first humans fell from grace in an attempt to become divine themselves, God began a redemption program that began immediately after the Fall and culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and finally, the Church (believers of Christ) joins God as representatives of the coming kingdom, the new heaven and earth. The Bible is filled with pain, and Jesus himself promises trouble (John 16:33) until the arrival of the new Jerusalem when pain and death are eradicated (Revelation 21:4). Guess what? Unless somehow I missed the memo, Revelation 21:4 has not yet happened (and if it has, someone needs to tell global news that what they’re reporting isn’t true). In fact, the history of the Church is one of pain and abuse (sometimes towards the Church and sometimes by it). Prosperity like what some of these guys are preaching is a luxury for the lucky few (the richest 1% owns half of the world’s wealth).
However, as the title of this post suggests, I want to share a message that is going to sound dangerously close to self-help propaganda. Just because this life is filled with tribulation, it does not mean you are powerless.
PAIN ≠ POWERLESSNESS
Pain does not equal powerlessness.
Too often I have witnessed individuals struggle with self-confidence, for some reason believing the lies that they cannot succeed in various situations. Somewhere they experienced failure, and it hurt… bad. Somewhere they experienced failure, and they were surrounded by people that reminded them of that failure and twisted the knife deeper. Maybe that’s you. It’s definitely been me many times.
Too often I have witnessed people living in fear, unable to rise above their anxieties and circumstances. And unfortunately, a life of fear leads to a life of immobility and inability. Potentially life-giving experiences are avoided. Opportunities to serve others are passed over.
Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Abundant life. That’s the goal. Instead, many of us are living somewhere between drowning and barely getting by–a far cry from abundant life.
The truth: because we’re in a world where pain is promised, we have to experience hard things to get to that abundant life. And frankly, we have to do hard things to get to that abundant life. The way of Jesus, paradoxically, is the way of pain and sacrifice.
Even though I’ve missed out on some amazing things because of fear (for example, sitting at home watching Netflix because I was too intimidated to initiate relationally with others… yes, even extroverts can have relational anxiety), I can also pinpoint obvious rewards for stepping outside my comfort zone. A lot of my solo travel experiences were done under intense fear.
I remember crossing the English Channel back in 2010, arriving in France by myself on a ferry staring down an unknown country, an unknown language, and two months of uncertainty as I bounced around place after place. I started having a panic attack on the ferry as I was trying to memorize a few French phrases, and I realized that I didn’t know at all how to pronounce the words (lets just say that French pronunciation is very different than Spanish pronunciation). But you know what? One of the more intimidating experiences of my life turned out to be one of the most memorable.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone can or should choose traveling as the difficult obstacle they need to overcome. And obviously there are more significant fears we can overcome to make a greater contribution to society and the kingdom of God. But let me encourage and challenge you (and me): STOP LETTING FEAR CRIPPLE YOU.
I know this is a million times easier said than done, and I don’t pretend to understand your unique–and perhaps harrowing–personal experiences that have fed into certain fears. Believe me, there is no judgment on my end, just encouragement. But listen to what the apostle Paul said to his fledgling apprentice, Timothy.
…I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands,for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. -2 Timothy 1:6b-7
God did not give us a spirit of fear. He gave us a spirit of power, love, and self-control. Stop saying, “No, I can’t.”
Yes, you can.
How do I know? Because Christ did, and we have access to that same spirit of power. Let me remind you, though, that we have access to that power through Christ. This is not something we can self-manufacture (which is why this is not a self-help guide). And ultimately, this spirit of power, love, and self-control is a gift in order to share in “a holy calling” (v. 9). Thus, as we move out of fear, we move into a sacrificial calling on behalf of others.
The abundant life.
How do we actually access the Spirit of God? These biblical verses and passages assume a relationship of committed faith in Jesus Christ. There is (unfortunately) no ten-step guide to accessing the Spirit, but I’m going to share three easy steps in a list that is probably much longer. As Christ-followers we need to (1) saturate ourselves with the truth of Scripture, (2) pray and invite the Spirit to fill us up with His power, and (3) do hard things. Yes, you can. Take action yourself. Invite His Spirit in, and trust that He will meet you in your efforts. There’s no magic formula, and probably most days empowerment will feel a lot like plain old weakness actually, but keep moving, and you will find yourself, in time, living more abundantly.
[This post was featured on The Avenue Church’s blog and podcast, For the City.]
The word worship elicits all kinds of images. One person may think of pew on pew on pew leading up to a large Gospel choir in the front of the sanctuary. Another person may recall the used and careworn pages of an old hymnal–maybe even the smell of those pages. Or perhaps one imagines hands raised in the concert hall of a mood-lit mega conference, singing alongside hundreds if not thousands of other believers. One may also remember the emotions: joy, elation, penitence.
When we think of worship, we almost always envision a form of singing. Even for those who know that worship is more, we still, upon instinct, normally associate the word with singing. This is natural. Worship through song has a rich and beautiful tradition in the Church, and it is probably the easiest way to confess love and honor to God. However, just because it is the easiest, that doesn’t mean singing is the only or even the best form of worship. True worship, of course, encompasses the whole individual and the whole church assembly.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1
Paul writes this to the Romans, urging them to submit their lives to the rule of God, and he defines worship as a presentation of one’s body as a living sacrifice.
At my church, The Avenue, we’ve begun a series entitled Valley of Vision, drawing its name and inspiration from the well known Christian devotional compiled and published in 1975 by Arthur Bennett. The Valley of Vision is a collection of Puritan prayers meant to provide form and inspiration to each believer’s personal prayer life. It has also become a simple liturgy used in some churches like The Avenue.
One of the prayers in The Valley Vision is “Worship” (read the whole prayer here), and in the opening lines, the writer promulgates the importance of worship and its significance.
“Glorious God, It is the flame of my life to worship thee, the crown and glory of my soul to adore thee, heavenly pleasure to approach thee.”
It is the flame of my life… Yes, adoration can come in the form of singing. However, notice how much more poignant is the message of this Puritan prayer. Worship is not a flame for the singing time of the service. It is not the flame of Sundays. True worship is the flame of life. Therefore, if this Christian practice is bound to the whole life, it makes sense that worship must consume more than a thirty minute segment of one’s week!
Worship is the offering of all of one’s self to the object (or objects) of one’s allegiance, and by offering one’s self in all areas of life, that becomes the act of praise. As an aside, notice that I mentioned objects, plural, can receive worship. That was intentional. We are always worshipping something; if it’s not God, it’s whatever consumes our devotion, and sometimes that consists of lots of little distracting somethings that steal our attention from God.
Thus, if worship is an offering of all of life, you are worshipping as a parent, caring for your child and pointing her to Jesus. You are worshipping on your hands and knees (prayer-like!) in your garden, pruning God’s good earth for His glory. You are worshipping as you serve your city. And, I believe, you are even worshipping in your failures when that failure becomes an offering of confession and a recognition of your need for grace. God is other in His greatness and power.
This leads me to another aspect of this important prayer. One of the reasons we worship God is because He has given us a mediator, a go-between between man and the Almighty.
“Give me knowledge of thy goodness that I might not be over-awed by thy greatness; Give me Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, that I might not be terrified, but be drawn near with filial love, with holy boldness; He is my Mediator, Brother, Interpreter, Branch, Daysman, Lamb…”
In the Old Testament, Moses asked to see God’s glory (what an audacious request!), and God acquiesced to his request with the caveat that Moses would not be allowed to see God’s face: “for man shall not see me and live.” In the Old Testament, God was personal but not exactly approachable. However, in Jesus Christ every believer has access to God through Jesus Christ.
Therefore, we also worship with the humbling knowledge that, without Jesus, we would be left to worship from afar, unable to comprehend or survive the absolute holiness of the Divine. In Jesus, however, we have a brother and mediator. He is the high priest who gives us access to the throne of God.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15
So let us fan the flame of our lives, let us worship without ceasing by bringing our adoration of God into every area of our lives, and let us praise Jesus all the more because we know that He makes a way for us to enter the eternal kingdom of the most high and eternal God.
Bare trees with branches, tentacle-like, grasp. Exposed bark. Leaves cling to a few oaks, green tinged with yellow, orange, brown.
There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. God has given us nature to surround us and wrap us like a garment, and I have had only a few moments of electrifying clarity in my life, always at the hands of an important book or nature. It seems no accident that mystics seek nature to sharpen their visions and their divine movements.
And perhaps there is a mystical connection with coffee.
Thanks to my parents for the blessing of their house, their little hermitage, their house tucked away in the woods that has often been a retreat over the years.
About a year and a half ago I remember having what can only be described as a really good day. Now, if those superlatives don’t exactly bowl you over, it’s simply because nothing truly spectacular happened; I was just able to look back at the end of the day and realize how incredibly refreshing it was.
I had a day off from work (this was when I was managing a cafe in Harvard Square) and decided to spend it by myself exploring Concord. So I walked from my house-converted-into-an-overpriced-apartment to Davis Square, took the red line one stop to Porter and changed to the Fitchburg commuter rail line out to Concord. I then visited various locales including Thoreau’s replica cottage, Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Old North Bridge, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I felt rather transcendent myself as I ate my lunch by the water’s edge of Walden Pond. It was a clear, mild (low 70s probably) October day. The leaves were just beginning to change. As I sat in that place near Thoreau’s little Walden experiment, and as I later visited the graves of several famous writers, I somehow felt connected to that legacy, that heritage of literature. I don’t necessarily agree with all their worldviews, but I still felt as if I was breathing in the fresh air of greatness. Call their ghosts muses or whatever, I also spent time writing; one poem in particular I am still eager to publish eventually. Thus, it was…a really good day.
In my American Literature class we will be taking a look at Transcendentalism over the next couple of weeks. Here is a small excerpt from M.H. Abrams’ immensely useful A Glossary of Literary Terms (7th edition) under the entry “Transcendentalism in America”:
What the various Transcendentalists had in common was less what they proposed than what they were reacting against. By and large, they were opposed to rigid rationalism; to eighteenth-century empirical philosophy of the school of John Locke, which derived all knowledge from sense impressions; to highly formalized religion, especially the Calvinist orthodoxy of New England; and to the social conformity, materialism, and commercialism that they found increasingly dominant in American life. Among the counter-views that were affirmed by Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, were confidence in the validity of a mode of knowledge that is grounded in feeling in intuition, and a consequent tendency to accept what, to logical reasoning, might seem contradictions; an ethics of individualism that stressed self-trust, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency; a turn away from modern society, with its getting and spending, to the scenes and objects of the natural world, which were regarded both as physical facts and as correspondences to aspects of the human spirit; and, in place of a formal or doctrinal religion, a faith in a divine “Principle,” or “Spirit,” or “Soul” (Emerson’s “Over-Soul”) in which both humanity and the cosmos participate.
It’s amazing how relevant some of these tenets are still today. In an over-commercialized, super-technological, empiricism-is-our-only-truth type of world, we need a return to nature, to unplugging, to spirituality.
I am most refreshed in nature. I have been blessed to get out into the wild in my life: the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coastline in Hawaii, the West Highland Way in Scotland, Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more. I live in El Salvador right now. And while it’s difficult to be isolated in nature (security reasons), there are some spectacular views, spectacular opportunities to witness another marvelous part of the world.
So here’s my advice. If you’re feeling the grind of the machine (corporate culture, for example, or whatever system is stymieing your life), break free. For a moment at least. Where is it you can go to transcend, to commune in nature? To know that you’re not just useless mass of atoms? You’re made of special stuff.
It’s a simple playlist, only sixteen songs right now. My thinking music. My deep breathing, deep contemplating music. My centering music. It’s playing in the background right now. I invite you to join in my thoughtful reveries:
Every life is a universe. Every step opens new worlds, new realities and spheres of possibility and influence. Some days I feel off center but find that my life is merely finding a new center; it’s the way of things on the outside of normal.
All the past we leave behind;
We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O pioneers!
-Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
I cannot always believe the life I live. At times it is painfully ordinary; life must be that way to be effective. But when I float up and out, when I peer down upon my life like the watchful moon, there’s something unsettlingly magical.