Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On January 4, 2017, in Commentary, Life, by Chris

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It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road, and the tired December sun has given up its fight to burn through the cloud cover. The dreariness of the day makes the sky almost indistinguishable from the snow covered fields were it not for the trees along the fence line. From a distance, everything has a monochromatic feel – as if the trees were penned into the horizon with India ink – but you can still discern the burnt sienna and nut brown of the woods across the west yard.

Jocelyn has outdone herself yet again with tonight’s meal. The smells coming out of the kitchen as my Dad and I played our cribbage game almost made us turn down my childhood neighbor and adopted mom Marilyn Gordon’s famous soft pretzels (ed. note: we each kept ourselves to one). The kitchen at the farm in the afternoon is always a marvelous center of activity, and its output makes packing the car with seemingly endless shopping bags the day before worth it as we head out from Detroit.

We always enjoy seeing livestock in the pastures and feed lots on our drive out from town and we often take a more scenic route to pass all of the farms that still have animals. It’s such fun watching Julia’s excitement as she points out the cows or horses; but winter draws them closer to the barn and out of sight like the farm implements sitting quietly in the tool sheds awaiting spring.

As appealing as the pasture can be, the snow and cold has a dampening effect on the ambitions of even the most adventurous heifer and drives her to seek the companionship and warmth of her sisters as they huddle together in the shelter of the barn. And if there were a monologue in the mind of that heifer, it would go something like, “June is for striking out and finding that untouched patch of clover. December is for being with my herd.”

I am often sadly forgetful of that rhythm of “being with” until I get to the farm, clear the snow from the walk up to the back porch, take my eyes off the thousand things I normally do and enjoy an hour of reading books with Julia in front of the fire. She picks a book, curls up next to me and I read. Sometimes she complains as I try to get her to say the words with me (her speech apraxia is still a challenge), but we are always right next to each other in the struggle.

It’s not until I steal my attention away from the daily and relentless voices trying to sell me something that I realize again the sacred nature of an exchange as seemingly mundane as reading together with my daughter. And it is that marvelous, connecting word that leaves my heart fit to break both in regret of past missteps and strange anticipation of the future:

WITH

It is the deeper understanding of the “with-ness” of God that I’ve been wrestling with for the past several months; and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve only begun to really understand the length and breadth of its meaning. At the beginning of that journey, let me share a little of what has been revealed to me. And let me warn you up front – this is not the easiest read…

It is all around us now in the season we celebrate. It was foretold in ancient dreams of long dead prophets:

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel
(which means, God with us).

I’ll not debate the points of religious interpretation that often come with throwing around scriptural references. What I humbly offer is this: At just the right moment in history, when humanity had forgotten, rejected or simply given up on the hope of a God that was more than an absentee landlord, the WITH of a triune God enfleshed itself to erase any doubt in its charitable intention and ultimate authority.

And though there are wondrous times where the membrane is pierced between the infinite and the “here and now” of life, I’ve realized that there are many things Immanuel does not necessarily mean:

  • It does not always mean “God came and fixed everything.”
  • It does not always mean “God saved me from the scary diagnosis.”
  • It does not even mean “God calmed my fear.”

But it does mean that there is a promise that the divine WITH is exactly that – even in the most seemingly hopeless circumstances. Even when we feel most alone. Even when in our pain our soul chafes against the proposition of a loving and concerned Other.

The divine WITH is also shockingly powerful in its implications:

  • It destroys the divide between entrenched worldviews screaming at each other across the gulf of seemingly irreconcilable poles.
  • It silences critical voices that set themselves apart in their conceited exclusivity.
  • It demands that we move out of our nervous devotion to our own carefully constructed echo chambers and into the uncertain tension of actually listening to one another again.

And it is the thing that my daughter most wants from me that I find hardest to give in my day to day treadmill of the things I think are so important. Often, sadly, more important than her. So maybe I need to slow the hell down and simply be with her and give her the engagement that she so genuinely craves.

So in my admittedly crude understanding of Immanuel and even after nearly twenty years as a student of Jesus, it seems that there are two challenges that unfold that I humbly share with you:

In this season where we seem to naturally draw together, be WITH the herd of your birth or the herd of your choice or the herd you happen to find yourself in. And if you are in a season of seeming solitude, please know that you are still in the herd of humanity, wholly loved and pursued by God so that WITH can be experienced by all.

But there is also the challenge (and this one is a tall order for me, to be sure) to welcome the stranger and be open to the different herd that WITH presents to you. It seems so counterintuitive in this era of shrill divisiveness in nearly every domain of life; but I believe with a deepening conviction that something better is on the other side of our embracing the WITH.

I give thanks for who all of you are in my life and wish you a Merry Christmas.

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Talking to a Teenager About Heaven

On June 5, 2013, in Commentary, by Chris

One of the cool things I get to do in my position at the church is fielding a lot of the tough questions that come in. Our weekend services have a great way of drawing people in and opening all kinds of questions in people’s minds, and that’s where I come in. The subjects are very broad, from the meaning of a particular passage of Scripture to what is Kensington’s stance on baptism or communion or any number of social issues.

One of those emails came to me recently that made me stop and think – a lot. After fielding these questions over the past few years, I’ve gotten pretty good at ripping out a concise answer in as few keystrokes as possible. But I had to pause with this one. After you read it, you’ll see why it was different:

Hi,

So first I would just like to say (what you probably hear a lot) that I love your church-going experience.

I’m only 17. We started going to Kensington after my parents got a divorce, now both of my parents will take us to listen to Chris Zarbaugh (ed. note – Chris is the lead pastor at one of our campuses and a fantastic communicator) every weekend, separately. This is something they never did when we went to Catholic Church. It has allowed me to start to develop my faith more and more, something I can finally do because I understand service.

After years of chatichism [sic] and Catholic Church though, there is one question I have that never gets brought up at church.

I believe in God.

But one thing just confuses me, something no one really can answer: Why do I want to live for eternity in Heaven?

Obviously no one wants go to Hell, but why would you want to live forever and ever and ever?

I’m aware that’s abstract, forgive me for it. I was just looking for any answers you might have.

Thank you for your time,
Lauren

I got that email two weeks ago. And if I’m brutally honest, I still don’t really know what to do with it – even after wrote an answer. I was really tempted to take a look at what some other person has wrote on the subject (they’re out there) and give that to her. But in the end I decided to take a more than a few minutes and plumb the depth of all my aspirations and insecurities and ask the sometimes vexing question: “What is my ultimate hope as I stumble along in this life with Christ?”

I offer my answer (for the moment) for your consideration…

Hey Lauren –

Wow – I make time for questions like this! I really do appreciate your curiosity, because I’ve honestly caught myself with the same question in my head. So here’s my attempt at an answer:

Have you ever had a day where you were with your best friends, the weather was perfect and you were doing something fun together and wished the day would never end? Do you remember the thrill of your birthday when you were a little kid and your parents knew just how to whip you into a froth of little toddler excitement? Have you ever done something where you just knew that it was what you were created to do?

I hope so. I really do.

Maybe there have been times that you have experienced exactly the opposite feelings. I’m just going to take a couple of guesses here – I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m off the mark. Remember how crushing it felt when your parents told you they were divorcing? Remember the fear that you might have felt as you stepped into the rhythms of having to make a home at two addresses? Were there times in the quiet before you fell asleep that an inner voice blamed you for your parents splitting up? (that’s a lie that a lot of kids struggle with) Are there times – not even related to your parents’ relationship – where you catch yourself saying, “That’s just not right!” The injustice of the world is as clear as its beauty.

All of those aching feelings – both the good and the bad – are your heart longing for life as it was meant to be. In short, Heaven.

My deepest conviction – the hope that I cling to as I slog through the frustrations of this life – is that all of the wonderful feelings I have ever experienced put together will not come close to the joy of living life at its fullest potential. I look forward to a time where will spend my days learning and growing and surprising myself with the marvels that God will accomplish through me, only coming to realize at the end of the day that I was thinking too small. There’s another adventure tomorrow to anticipate with all the glowing excitement of Christmas Eve.

Why heaven? Maybe it’s to finally be delivered from the sadness that still haunts me when I think about the fifth anniversary of my mother breathing her last, and the thought of seeing her again. Maybe it’s the anticipation of finally having the time and the heads space and the patience to learn guitar (that will take an eternity!). But perhaps it’s way more than the few words in an email can describe.

Maybe it’s simply to taste life as it was originally intended by the Maker of all that is good. Raw, real and so wonderful that your heart would be fit to break for just the sight of it.

Well, that’s my take on it. I haven’t even scratched the surface thinking about this, but I hope it helps a little.

Keep asking the questions!

I have a feeling I’m going to have to keep asking questions myself.

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