Letting Jesus shine through the cracks

I grew up in a Dutch immigrant family.  When I was born, my family had been in Canada for only two years, and during the early years of my childhood, the Dutch identity was quite strong.  I grew up speaking Dutch, though by the time I went to school, English had become predominant in our home.  But the differences went deeper than language.  Not that I realized this at the time – young children don’t reflect on how their family operates, they just accept it as the way the world is – but looking back, I realize that even though we were light-skinned like all our neighbours, in many ways we were quite different from the other families around us.

One of the times of year when the differences were most evident was in the way we celebrated Advent and Christmas.  Although my family was not particularly devout, during December we had regular times of singing Christmas carols, using an Advent calendar as a worship centre.  The Advent calendar in our home had nothing to do with chocolate.  It was made of coloured cardboard (bristolboard) with a wax paper backing, and consisted of a Bethlehem scene, showing the shepherds on a hillside overlooking the town, with a dark blue sky full of stars.  The stars were cutouts, so that at the beginning of Advent there were no stars in the sky, and then on each day of Advent another cutout piece would be removed and another star would appear.  There were larger stars for the four Sundays of Advent, and the largest one of all – situated right over the stable in the Bethlehem scene – was reserved for Christmas Eve.  In the evenings, the family would gather around the Advent calendar, the youngest child would remove another star from the sky, an older child would light a candle behind the calendar, we would turn out most of the lights, and the light from the candle would shine through the wax paper backing in the places where the cutout stars had been removed.  We would then sing a few Christmas carols by candlelight.   We did this most evenings during Advent, culminating in a special family Christmas Eve service of readings and carols.

As a young child, I didn’t fully understand why we were doing this, but I used to find it tremendously exciting.  The beauty of this observance awakened a sense of wonder in me, and a simple understanding of the gospel message was planted in my heart through the Christmas carols – some in Dutch and some in English.  Of all the Christmas customs that I grew up with, this is one that I have been able to pass on to my children.  Marion and I have had an Advent calendar in our home for years, and when our children were growing up our family, too, used it as a focus for family worship every December.

This morning, the Advent calendar is in place in our home, ready for the annual ritual.  There are no stars showing yet in the night sky, and the cardboard scene is stiff and stands up easily.  As the cutout stars are removed day by day, one of the side effects is that the whole structure becomes more flexible because it is full of holes.  The star-shaped holes are what make it beautiful – they allow the light to shine through – but they also mean that the calendar has to be handled with care and a gentle touch.   At the beginning of the annual ritual, the whole structure is fairly strong and stable.  It can stand by itself with no problem.  By the time Christmas comes, and all the cutout stars have been removed, it is full of holes and therefore much weaker and more flexible.  But if the candles are lit and the light is allowed to shine through the cracks and holes, it is also far more beautiful than in its original state.

This morning it occurred to me that my life is like that Advent calendar.   If I want the light of Christ to shine through, I have to be willing to let the cracks and holes in my life be uncovered.  We all like to present the image of ourselves as strong, self-assured, in control, with our weaknesses well covered up.  But Jesus exalts those who humble themselves.  If I succeed in convincing those around me that I am capable, knowledgeable and in control, they may be impressed.  But if I humble myself and allow my cracks and weaknesses to show, without pretending to be more than I am, then the light of Christ can shine through my life in increasing measure, bringing glory to Jesus and hope to those around me who also have lots of cracks in their lives.

For Christ’s sake I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

 

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The power of hospitality

Most Christians, if asked to list five of the attributes of God, would probably come up with words like loving, powerful, forgiving,  just, holy, and so forth.

These are all important descriptors of God’s character as it is revealed to us in the Bible and supremely in Jesus Christ.  But today I am thinking of another word that powerfully sums up how God deals with sinful, weak, needy people.

The word is hospitality.  I was reminded of this attribute of God’s character by a recent post on Richard Long’s excellent blog at Together Canada.  Hospitality is a trait that I would normally associate with people, not with God.  Yet, when we understand Him as He is described in Scripture and portrayed by Jesus, we see that our God is amazingly hospitable.

Looking at the gospels, we see that in one of his parables, Jesus depicted God as a concerned father welcoming his runaway son home to his household and throwing a party for him.  Jesus tells us elsewhere that in his Father’s household there is room for all his children to find a home.  Jesus himself is depicted in Scripture as the coming Bridegroom who welcomes all who place their hope in Him to His wedding banquet.  Our God longs to welcome people in, that they may find their home in Him.

When we look at the qualifications for elders in the New Testament, we discover that the New Testament church placed high value on hospitality as a trait for leaders.   Evidently, the first century apostles understood that Jesus’ sheep need leaders who reflect His generous, hospitable heart.

Last night Marion and I watched Harvey, a movie from an earlier era of cinematography.  Harvey was originally filmed in 1950, and I found it interesting to see how movie making has changed in 60 years.  But beyond the technical aspects, what struck me most in this movie was the generous and hospitable nature of the film’s lead character, Elwood P. Dowd, played by Jimmy Stewart.  Dowd is portrayed as a middle-aged eccentric who has inherited a fortune and does not have to work for a living.   Rather than pursuing the business opportunities that would have been wide open to someone of his means, Dowd goes through life talking to an invisible 6 foot 3 inch rabbit.  He spends most of his time at the local bar (where his invisible friend is quite welcome), listening to people that no-one else except the bartender has time for, and frequently inviting them to his home for dinner.  This exasperates his sister and niece, who share his home.  To be truthful, almost any normal person would find it difficult to live with someone as impractical, unpredictable and eccentric as Elwood P.  Dowd.  That said, he is an uncommonly likeable character, who excels in kindness and generosity.

When I woke up this morning, I realized that God was speaking to me through this aspect of the film.  He showed me again the power of a hospitable life to communicate the good news of Jesus to people who are hungry for spiritual reality.

When we open our homes and our lives to people who are hungry and thirsty for true life, and become their friends, our understanding of what it means to share the gospel of Jesus undergoes a radical transformation.  Instead of being a project, evangelism truly becomes a way of life.  It is no longer just a matter of verbally communicating spiritual truth, or even praying with people for them to receive Jesus or for the Holy Spirit to touch their lives – although both of these aspects remain important.  When we open our homes and our hearts to people, trust is fostered in the people we befriend, and over time, God uses this atmosphere of acceptance and friendship to prepare their hearts for genuine conversion.  This, of course, requires that we be transparent with those we are reaching out to, so that they can see us as we really are.  That’s how disciples are made – through relationships of honesty and trust, in which the good news of Jesus is communicated on many levels.

Marion and I have been rediscovering the transforming power of hospitality over the past several weeks as the Holy Spirit has opened the door to a friendship with our next-door neighbours.  It all started this past summer when Orlando Suarez, a church-planter from Cuba, visited our life group on several occasions this past summer.  Orlando spoke to us of his passion for sharing the good news of Jesus with the people in his neighbourhood.  As I listened to him, I realized that the Spirit of God was speaking to me and telling me to become more active in reaching out to our neighbourhood.  Marion and I invited several people to our home to watch the Alpha videos and talk about the true meaning of life.  The couple next door accepted our invitation, and it has been a delightful experience getting to know them better.  We had already been on good terms before beginning this process.  But now, the relationship is changing from cordial to intimate.  As we talk about the Alpha videos and their growing realization that Jesus is alive, we are becoming spiritual friends.  In this atmosphere of friendship, lives are being changed.

This, it seems to me, is what happened over and over again in the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles.  I once did a survey of pivotal or life-changing events in the gospels and the Book of Acts, and discovered that a great many of them took place in someone’s home.   When Jesus dropped in to Zaccheus’ house for dinner, someone’s life was changed because Jesus took time to accept hospitality from a man that any self-respecting religious teacher wouldn’t go near.  Jesus knew Zaccheus needed to repent.  By inviting himself to Zaccheus’ home for a meal, Jesus honoured this man whom others rejected, and offered an atmosphere of acceptance that made it easy for Zaccheus to turn away from his self-focussed life and make things right with God.

So – how are you doing with hospitality?  It’s not really about how nice a home you have.  That doesn’t matter.  Your home doesn’t have to be spotless or elegant.  Hospitality is not entertainment.   And you don’t have to be limited to offering hospitality in your home.  You can also offer hospitality in a friend’s house or apartment, a restaurant, a bar, a hospital, a workplace, a prison, or even on a street corner.  It’s really about making time for relationship and having an open heart.

To be truthful, I’m not very good at this.  I’m still learning.  But Jesus is very good at it, and he is teaching me how to let my life be a vehicle for His ministry of hospitality.  It’s all about learning to rest in the Father’s goodness, and invite others to come into His household and discover His delightfully generous love.

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How shall we now live?

This Remembrance Day evening, my family and I are watching the 1998 World War II movie Saving Private Ryan.  I find this movie mostly disturbing rather than enjoyable.  It does have its moments of beauty, but mostly I appreciate it because it provides such a powerful opportunity for reflection, making it well worth the investment of time and emotional energy.

I won’t attempt in one blog post to explore all the levels of meaning that can be teased out of this complex story, but will content myself with the one over-riding question that it poses.

In the opening and closing scenes of the movie, Private Ryan returns as an old man to the grave of the officer who died leading the mission that rescued him.  He remembers the awful horror of the battle for his freedom, and looks for some reassurance that he has lived a life worthy of the sacrifice that was offered up for him.  He recognizes that his life in some sense is not his own.  He says that ever since eight brave men died so that he could live, every day of his life he has thought about the debt he owes to those eight men who gave up their lives so that he could be saved from death and restored to his family.

The great question posed by this movie is also the great question posed by Remembrance Day, and – on a different level – the great question posed by the cross of Jesus Christ.  In response to the sacrifice that has given me my freedom, how am I to live?

One of the sad ironies of the current state of Western civilization is that while on Remembrance Day we claim to appreciate the sacrifice of those who paid for our freedom, most of us have a very truncated view of what freedom really is.  We seem to think that thousands of men died so that we could have freedom to do as we please, to gratify our desires without anyone making unreasonable demands on us or infringing on our personal space, to amass increasing material wealth, and to provide for our personal comfort and security.  We salve our consciences by saying that of course we want to do all this while not harming anyone else.

Yes, I know, not everyone lives as I’ve just described.  Some of us are a little more idealistic than that.  But let’s be honest – Western civilization doesn’t look very noble these days.  We are mostly focussed on trying to keep ourselves comfortable and reasonably prosperous.  Not many people understand what true freedom is, where it comes from, and what our response should be to this amazing gift and the price that was paid for us.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against prosperity.  When acquired without sacrificing integrity and justice, prosperity is a blessing from God, and it can be used to accomplish great good.  But whenever we make pleasing ourselves the primary goal of our lives, it ends up robbing us of the freedom that Jesus desires to give us – the freedom to lay down our lives in service.  Jesus said that no-one can serve two masters.  If we truly value what he has done for us, only one response is possible – to surrender the rudder of our lives to Jesus, and let Him and His Kingdom become the goal of our living.

I love the words of this song by Brenton Brown and Tom Slater

Let My Life Be Like a Love Song

Lord, the love you give
You give so generously
You were my sacrifice
You gave your life for me

So let my life be like a love song
Let my life be like a love song
Let my life be like a love song
To your heart

(Tom Slater and Brenton Brown, © 2001 Vineyard Songs UK/Eire)

That’s the kind of response that Jesus’ sacrifice is calling forth from my heart.  I want to live a life that is poured out in service, motivated by gratitude to Jesus for His amazing sacrifice for me.  I know that I am weak, and can only sustain such a life by His help, but with the Holy Spirit’s enabling power, that’s how I am determined to live my life.  How about you?

 

 

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