The Power of Baby Jesus

As God’s people waited for the Messiah, their expectations rose, especially as their situation grew worse with occupation of Israel by Rome.  They began to dream of a Messiah who would lead powerfully in the same manner as King David, the warrior who slew his tens of thousands, and in the manner of his son, Solomon, who built the grand Temple in Jerusalem.  They dreamed of a leader who would put Israel on the map again – not as a military outpost for Rome – but as a people with their own power, wealth, land, and status.   They wanted peace and security for themselves and their families, and they expected peace to come through a military-minded giant of a man who could defeat Caesar and give them the stuff that was rightfully theirs.

But, instead of a powerful giant, after all their waiting and anticipation, they got . . . .

. . . a baby.

. . . a baby?

. . . .a baby, born to a poor family, from a town with no prestige.  They got a baby born into the equivalency of homelessness, placed in a manger, and saluted by shepherds. They anticipated a powerful leader in a palace decorated with ivory and gold, but instead, they got the nativity.

Their expectations for the way to peace were so grounded in worldly ideals that they didn’t recognize peace when he was born.

My family was blessed to visit some of the great art galleries in the world several years ago.  The Louvre in Paris, The Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, The London Museum.  Standing in front of the greatest works of art in the world was moving beyond words.  And of all the works we experienced, my favorite was the one pictured here – Michelangelo’s depiction of the Holy Family.

I didn’t know to expect it as I toured the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, nor did I initially know who had painted it, but when I saw it, I knew that I loved it.

Michelangelo Buonarroti – The Holy Family with the infant St. John the Baptist (the Doni tondo) – 1506

We usually associate Michelangelo with his work as a sculptor, The David, or with his unbelievable masterpiece on the Sistine Chapel.   This painting of the Holy Family is actually his only surviving easel painting.

So, here’s why I love this painting: Just look at Mary – look at her biceps!  She is depicted as a strong woman, not passive, not mindless.  I imagine that Mary was strong from fetching her own water.  I imagine that only a strong woman could survive a donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant.  I imagine that only a strong woman could withstand the sword that would pierce her soul  (Luke 2:35) when she watched her baby boy suffer on the cross.  In some artistic renderings of Mary, she appears mindless and weak.  Not in this one.  Here, Michelangelo shows us Mary’s physical, mental, and spiritual strength.

I also love the painting because Jesus looks like a real child, a handful, a bit cantankerous, and this reminds me that Jesus was a real human being.  For centuries after his life and death, it was debated how Jesus could have been both human and divine.  But somehow, mysteriously, he was.  He came into this world the same way we all do – as a powerless baby dependent on his mother and father to care for his every need.  Jesus was a member of a real family from a little-known town called Nazareth.  Mary and Joseph, country people, stand in contrast to the regal nude figures in the background of the painting, who appear to be more like stone statues than real flesh and blood.

Jesus is the real story of God’s work in history, and this painting brings him into focus.   Jesus was human.  And this painting celebrates his humanity. And God’s view of power.

When we read Luke, we are supposed to realize that when God broke into the world, there was a reversal of what was expected.  God’s people hoped that their peace would come through a military king like David, but they got ordinary, human, baby Jesus.

And as an adult, he would spend time with ordinary, marginalized, poor people.  And his kingdom would be about ordinary acts that seem weak in contrast to the world’s view of power.

Like taking care of his friend’s sick mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39).

And touching people that no one else would touch (Luke 5:13).

And eating dinner with people that the religious set preferred to avoid (Luke 5:27-32).

And extending kindness to one of the lowest members of his society, a widow who had lost her son (Luke 7:11-17).

And defending a sinful woman against hypocrites who judged her (Luke 7:36-50).

And stopping to pay attention to an unclean, desperate, woman who needed to be seen and heard and touched (Luke 8: 40-56).

And telling a story in which the most hated, least likely person is cast as the hero because of his compassion and kindness (Luke 10:25-37).

And spending time with children who others want to exclude (Luke 15-17).

And accepting the hospitality of a wee, little, sinful man (Luke 19:1-10).

The kingdom of God is about ordinary life:  hospitality, mercy, forgiving people who hurt us, sharing meals, prayer, nonviolence, and extending a hand of peace.  When we contemplate how God brought peace through Christ, we should realize that peace did not come through the expected means of military efforts or hoarding of power and resources.

When God broke into this world, it was in the form of a powerless baby with no power or prestige.  It’s not how the world expects peace to come, but we have to submit to God’s plan – like Mary did, like Jesus did, like the disciples did.  We have to act in ordinary ways that seem weak in contrast to the world’s view of power.

It’s through submission to God’s way – and not our way – that we will mysteriously learn what real power is.

The Holy Spirit: Keeping in Step

I was scared of the Holy Spirit for a large portion of my life.

Scared.

Fearful.

Even terrified.

It couldn’t have helped that the name for the Spirit I heard was “The Holy Ghost.” As a child, I had this vision of a ghost, not nearly as friendly as Casper, who could come and go through the walls of my house, checking on me. For a time, I was sure that it was the Holy Ghost who reported to Santa about who had been naughty and nice.

Ghosts, holy or not, were not to be trusted and should be avoided.

As a high school and college student, I was taught that the Holy Spirit played a part in the early church and in the work of the writers of the New Testament, but that the Holy Spirit did not work in the miraculous ways we saw in Scripture anymore. That was something that “died out” with the first apostles. As the concept was presented, the Holy Spirit’s place was on the pages of Scripture, and since I thought the Holy Spirit was dead, the ghost thing sort of fit with the dead part.

The problem was that when I read the Bible, I kept running across passages about the Spirit that didn’t jive with these explanations. I read about the fruits of the Spirit. I read about the gifts of the Spirit. I read about the Spirit’s work in the body of believers. There were significant clues that the Spirit might not be dead.

And when I looked around at God’s people, I learned to recognize the work of the Spirit in flesh and blood people.  I learned to see the miraculous work of the Spirit to create community, to bring healing, to transform lives, to produce fruit in my friends and family –

The love for the church God has given Josh Graves.

The joy that oozes out of Nola Cucheran, who chooses joy despite the daily challenges of Multiple Sclerosis.

The peace that filled Patrick Muto, as he suffered and died as a victim of AIDS.

The patience in Mike and Diane Cope as they nurtured their mentally-disabled daughter, Megan.

The kindness shown to my family by my neighbor, Beth Fuhrman, who is a better neighbor than I’ll ever be.

The goodness in my husband, John.  He’s a truly good person, even when no one’s looking.

The faithfulness of Ida Bazonoona, who is steadfast and faithful to God whether in faith’s valleys or on the mountaintops.

The gentleness in Jimmy Cone, whose heart is bigger than the outdoors he loves so much.

The selfcontrol in both my brothers, Troy and David Gaston, who have overcome alcoholism and chosen God and family instead of self.

God’s people live by the Spirit.

They are guided by the Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit is tangible in them.

That’s how I know the Holy Spirit is alive and well– when I see the work of the Spirit in God’s people.

I am not so sure the Holy Spirit can even be discussed apart from the communal stories of Holy-Spirit-filled human beings. Saint Patrick helped us consider the Trinity with his shamrock. My Sunday school teacher once explained the Holy Spirit to us with an apple: the skin, the flesh, and the seeds, each distinct but a part of the whole.

But, those descriptions fail to acknowledge the human element. The Holy Spirit dwells in people!

God has given us a mysterious gift.  It’s understandable that we may experience some confusion about how to explain or teach about this mysterious presence.  The most harmful teachings about the Holy Spirit, some I described above, are those that attempt to reduce the Spirit to manageable explanations, to put the Spirit in a box, or we might even say a coffin.

The Holy Spirit is

alive

active

transforming

empowering

dwelling

enabling

gifting

leading

acting

healing . . . the page cannot hold all the verbs or all the possibilities.

I hope to spend a lifetime trying to keep in step.

She Has Loved Me Well.

For over twenty years, she has loved me well.

When I was a college student in Searcy, Arkansas, I met a woman who would capture what it means when one Christian sister covenants to love another and keeps that commitment of love for over twenty-five years. While doctrine and teaching profoundly affect our faith, I find it’s often the people who embody those teachings that shape us the most.  Perhaps love molds our faith more powerfully than any other force; at least it’s true in my experience.

When John and I, along with eight friends, made the decision to move to Uganda as missionaries, it was this woman who gave generously to make it happen.  Money.  Velveeta cheese.  The latest movie out on VHS.  Brownie Mixes . . .. When we wanted something, she made it happen.  She and her husband once disassembled A LAWN MOWER and brought it to Uganda in checked baggage. If I was embarrassed to ask someone else for something I wanted, like a copy of People magazine, I knew I could ask her and she wouldn’t judge me.

She taught me how to cook from scratch when I naively thought its definition included cream soups and packaged mixes. She gave me a copy of More With Less Cookbook, and from it, I gained my first spiritual discipline, cooking whole foods with consciousness of a hungry world with limited resources.

When we needed her, she came. All the way to Uganda. She came during culture shock and reassured me that I could do it. I could be a missionary. From her, I learned never to limit my definition of hospitality. In the New Testament, Jesus embodied a reverse hospitality, profoundly teaching people about hospitality in their own homes, and that’s what this hospitable woman taught me. Whether in her home or in mine, she embodies seemingly limitless hospitality.

As a young mother, when I wondered how to parent my children, I looked to her as my guide. Her relationship with her children was one I admired and hoped for in my own family. She has a son and a daughter, and eventually, that’s what God gave me too. And in raising them, I often thought of her example, hoping my children and I would have the healthy measure of friendship and respect I saw in their relationships.

Later, after my missionary days, when I began ministry stateside and faced inherent challenges, it was this sister who was the first to encourage me. From her home in Searcy, Arkansas, she encouraged me the first time I preached. When I wrote my book, she read the manuscript and gave wise advice. She bought copies for her friends.  She even loved the bad parts.  When I taught at the Pepperdine Lectures, she was in the audience, with tears in her eyes, proud of me when I needed someone to be proud.

If I’m looking for a good book, I ask her because she is a connoisseur of books.

If I want a fun evening, I can count on her because she knows how to commune around a table.

If I am insecure, she teaches me about confidence.

If I need marriage advice, I trust her.

Margaret Formby Blue. 

Worthy of respect.  Temperate.  Trustworthy in everything.

My faith has been profoundly shaped by her faithful love and service.

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Life on the Way

I will admit that sometimes conversations about restoration of the early church strike me as a bit dull.  In my time, I’ve heard some stodgy, unexciting, seemingly-endless restoration-centered debates about worship practices, some of them meticulously dissecting such minutia as whether or not Paul would have approved of a woman passing a communion tray from front to back instead of side to side. What a travesty! When we see restoration of the ancient church as stodgy, we have missed the central aspect of life on The Way in the first century.  Life in the ancient church was anything but stodgy.

If we want to restore something of the early church, let’s try to grasp the life-giving celebration of the Holy Spirit inherent in the life of early Christians.  They were being persecuted – imprisoned and even killed for their faith – and yet the Christian life was full of a fresh wind we have sometimes suffocated with our relentless arguments about what early Christians did or did not do when they gathered for a few hours each week.  The New Testament itself provides little detail about weekly gatherings, but what we do have is story after story after story about the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit as the church crossed boundaries in an exciting journey.

Let’s talk about restoration of that!

Early Christians provide a model for us – they show us what it means to celebrate when the Jesus Way crosses cultural boundaries and is planted in new places in fresh ways.  Early Jesus followers had to continually renegotiate traditions that were really important to them.  In Acts 11-15, for example, Peter was challenged to lead the community in redefining lifelong traditions about unclean foods and unclean people; it was not an easy process, and his initial response to changing traditions was, in essence, “No Way Lord!”  Later, however, when he and other believers came to see the power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of Gentile people, they were celebratory that the Lord had made a way when they thought there was no way.

And they praised God!

They celebrated that the Spirit was moving them across boundaries that didn’t fit their previous patterns. They were happy to have been wrong.  They embraced something new.

Early Christians learned to expect good news “to be continued” in an imaginative and exciting journey. They learned they should not expect good news to be confined to one place and time. So when we lose our imagination for a fresh new vision of good news in our time and place, we do not understand what it means to restore the early church. Today, like in the early church, good news still brings a fresh wind of hope for ongoing movement toward new creation.

Karl Paul Donfried wrote, “The one thing the New Testament forbids us to do is to treat it as a static document to be used as a set of proof- texts for instant solutions to complex and controversial contemporary problems. To misuse the New Testament in this way is to deny its dynamic character and to fail to realize that the Word has to be applied in a specific context . . . . A static interpretation of the New Testament is dependent on a frozen Christology.”

The story of Jesus is not frozen. The story of the Spirit is not frozen.  The story of the early church is not frozen. It is a story of incarnation and can be embodied in every culture and period of time; it’s that journey Christians join.

We haven’t joined a pattern!

We’ve joined a Way forward, and the Holy Spirit is in the lead.

What does it look like to embrace restoration of the ancient church?  It means asking ourselves what the early Christians asked:  What does it look like when the kingdom of heaven is on the move, crossing boundaries, surprising us, and calling us to something fresh and new?

That’s a restoration conversation worth having.

What Kind of Restoration?

I have a love/hate relationship with the desire in Churches of Christ for restoration of the New Testament church. For much of my life, I was driven by goals, by checklists, by A’s at the top of my school assignment, so making a church check list according to the model of the New Testament church appealed to the over-achiever in me. I liked the idea of having a definitive checklist with which to assess church practices, and I was taught that check list can be found in Acts and the New Testament epistles.  Later in my life, however, I became disillusioned with unhealthy forms of achievement based on perfectionism – it turns out it’s a tiring way to live! The same can be said of church life, and I witnessed exhausted and futile efforts to restore the New Testament church practices as congregations divided over what should and should not be on the church checklist in the first place.

It turns out that not everyone reads the New Testament and arrives at the same conclusions.  It makes sense that chaos would ensue when we try to make a definitive checklist based on a narrative about the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit in the first century.  Sometimes, I have been tempted to stop talking about restoration altogether because of the chaos such conversations have brought. I can understand why many of my friends have left the Restoration Movement because of all the pointless arguments. Restoration of the New Testament church, however, is not a bad ideal; it’s actually a very good one. The restoration conversations I am interested in these days is what kind of restoration we should pursue.

I can remember a time when I was first called a “Campbellite,” by my high school algebra teacher, and from the tone in his voice, I perceived it wasn’t a compliment.  He was making reference to a father of the Stone-Campbell movement, Alexander Campbell, who represents one type of restoration, the type that has primarily characterized Churches of Christ:  ecclesial primitivism.  Campbell was actually in the company of other well-known church reformers before him, although he did distinguish himself from them because they were reformers, while he saw himself as a restorationist.[1]  H. Zwingli, for example, a Zurich reformer in the 16th century eliminated both singing and the use of organs in the church because there was no evidence of the practices among the apostles. Closer to Campbell’s time and locale, John Glas preached ecclesial primitivism when he wrote, “Church in the days of the Apostles . . . was a pattern for all time.”[2]  In other words, Campbell and Churches of Christ are certainly not the only advocates of returning to the practices of the ancient church.

Alexander Campbell spent quite a lot of ink outlining what are and are not characteristics of the “ancient order of things” in the New Testament church.  The church, he said, was not originally about elaborate creeds as tests of fellowship, so he and others in the movement welcomed all believers to the Lord’s Supper instead of requiring adherence to long, complicated tests before an invitation to communion. The original church, Campbell was convinced, was a priesthood of all believers, so he advocated returning to that original ideal instead of clergy being given undue authority.  In addition to identifying what is not in the ancient order, Campbell identified what is in the ancient order.  Breaking bread on the first day, congregational autonomy, immersion of believers for forgiveness of sins, singing (whether with or without instruments): these are examples of practices he identified in Scripture and explored in his writings.[3]”  Campbell’s method of deducing such practices, influenced by Lockean philosophy and Scottish Common Sense Realism, did not mean that he was unconcerned with Christian living, but it did mean that his approach was to advance ethics, Christian living, and evangelism through focus on ecclesial practice[4]. He advocated ecclesial restoration as the starting point in order to restore more than patterns and practice, in order to restore right living.

Identifying and recognizing Campbell’s original intent, right living, is significant in discussions about restoration, but equally significant is an exploration of how his original intent was practiced in reality.  While Alexander Campbell did not desire restoration to be a mechanical process, and he hoped for dynamic engagement with the scriptural Word as a means of arriving at unity, his commitment to the ability of human beings to rationally and with common sense arrive at knowledge, primed the movement for patternism and legalism, and ultimately, ecclesial primitivism served to divide, not unite.  Disagreements about millennialism and doctrinal issues were seen as central divisive issues in the Stone-Campbell movement, but it can also be argued that restoration Biblicism was the underlying factor in the majority of divisions in the movement and in individual congregations.[5] Looking to the New Testament as a pattern to restore the ancient order of things has proven time and again to be a divisive formula.

Perhaps another leader in the movement, Barton W. Stone, represents a better form of restoration in his approach: ethical primitivism.  This form of restoration remedies the situation of Christianity gone astray by advocating a return to discipleship, especially rooted in the Gospels.[6]  Stone defined primitive Christianity, not in terms of the forms and structures of the ancient order of things, but instead as radical discipleship expressed in terms of sacrificial service to one’s neighbor.  Stone emphasized both primitive Christianity and the coming kingdom of God.  It led him to such things as freeing his slaves and giving up possessions.[7]

While ethical primitivism is more elusive than ecclesial primitivism, it does seem to lean more deeply into the work of the Holy Spirit than the work of humans in bringing about unity.  For example, “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” which Stone signed, states, We will, that candidates for the Gospel ministry henceforth study the Holy Scriptures with fervent prayer, and obtain license from God to preach the simple Gospel, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, without any mixture of philosophy, vain deceit, traditions of men, or the rudiments of the world.”  The emphasis here upon the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching the Gospel is one that was not primary in the history of the Stone-Campbell movement.

I appreciate ethical primitivism because of its emphasis upon the Gospels, sacrificial service, and ideals of the Kingdom of God as already inaugurated but not yet consummated.  If the Stone-Campbell movement had followed the path of these emphases instead of restoration of the ancient order of the primitive church, perhaps we would not have seen the major divisiveness we have. We can’t be certain about the “what ifs” of life, but at least, it does cause us to rethink what kind of restoration we should undertake in our own time.

While some version of my self resonates with the desire to restore the early church to its primitive state in hopes of attaining Christian unity, my more mature self understands Christianity as more mysterious than ecclesial primitivism allows.  While the apostles and the early church should be held in high esteem as an example, they should not be idolized as the one means of life in the Kingdom of God. I prefer a definition of unity restoration that includes return to the Gospels, to the example of self-sacrifice we see in Jesus Christ, and to dependence upon the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven as the source of bringing the unity we desperately desire.  These desires do not neatly fit on a checklist, but they are much more likely to help us in our ultimate goal, through the power of the Holy Spirit, becoming like Jesus Christ in our own time and place.

 

Bibliography

Blowers, Paul et al. The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

Campbell, Alexander. “On the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things,” The Christian Baptist,  (1825-29).

Holloway, Gary and Douglas A. Foster. Renewing God’s People:  A Concise History of Churches of Christ:  Abilene:  ACU Press, 2006.

Hughes, Richard. The Primitive Church in the Modern World:  University of Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.


[1] Alexander Campbell, “On the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” No. 1

[2] Richard Hughes.  The Primitive Church in the Modern World, (University of Illinois: University Press, 1995) 109

[3] Alexander Campbell, “On the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things,” No.1

[4]Paul Bowers, et al, The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2004)  636

[5] Richard Hughes, 114

[6] Paul Blowers et al, 636

[7] Paul Blowers et al, 636