Intimacy and Incarnation: Christmas and Love

Okay, so I am not a great husband.  My personal history and my lovely wife bear this out.  I am constantly in reform, always reading and realizing what a dope I am maritally.  So it is with relish that I approach premarital counseling as a priest.  Don’t worry, I always send couples with big obvious issues away to someone who knows what they are doing, but the rest I figure I can at least save from my stupidest mistakes.

Actually, my general plan is to present some models and guide couples into a series of conversations with a little well-seasoned wisdom from someone who has been there.  I really do read a lot because I really do feel inadequate to be married.  But then we all are according to David Schnarch, PhD.  He is the therapist I use the most.  His book Passionate Marriage should be on your reading list if you are a person.  There is no qualifier for that because the book presents deep wisdom about life through the lens of marriage and sex.

I will not go into the whole thing here, but I have preached about it before.  (See Sounds Like Grace at gracetc.blogspot.com.) So as I said in the sermon, this year I was asked to do a wedding the weekend before Christmas, and I said yes.  It was a great wedding, wonderful couple, great church, and I was only mildly stressed by it all.

But it weirded my preparation for Christmas.  We have seven services between Christmas Eve and Day, beginning with one for our Jubilee Ministries Community, and going through a whole gamut of styles and shapes.  I preach along an arc, so I don’t bore myself or the people who come to multiple services.  So I have been thinking and writing about Incarnation for a while in preparation, like normal.

Incarnation is the theological notion that God is made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.  The enfleshed reality of God is a hard one to swallow these days, and I think more people doubt Jesus’ divinity than his teachings, though to be honest the teachings aren’t all that popular at the implementation level.  Jesus is God and fully human.  This idea is at the heart of our faith.  I think it is beautiful, and while it is unique in Christ, it is also made true in all of us in Christ.  But what does this have to do with sex?

Intimacy is this loaded topic for most of us.  We want more, we want to be closer to our spouses and other people, yet being close to people freaks us out.  It brings up some pretty basic insecurities and even existential terror.  We are scared of intimacy because it asks us to be open, honest, present, vulnerable.  It asks us to have integrity and stay close as we become scared.  Scharch points out that self-validated intimacy is the only real kind we can have, really, because we can do it no matter what the other person does.  I can show you who I really am.

It doesn’t really matter what you do in response.  I cannot control you.  I want to, but I can’t.  What I can do is soothe my fears and anxiety and stay present with you.  You have to choose your response.  In marriage it would seem that this is what we want from our spouse.  Show me who you are and I will love you, we seem to say.  But we don’t really either, because their self revelation, while not demanding anything in itself, changes our relationship and challenges us and our ways of insecurity and fear.  It asks us without asking us to show up and reveal ourselves and love them by giving like the little drummer boy, the only gift we really have.

And so we get back to incarnation.  In Jesus, God reveals God’s own self.  And it does not seem to demand anything really.  I think that is why we prefer Christmas to Easter sometimes.  God shows up.  God Emmanuel.  We long for that, and yet when God does show up, even mediated as angels, what do they have to say every time?  Peace.  Be still.  Chill out.  Calm down.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all are told.  Do not be afraid.

This Christmas, what if we entered into this divine offering of God’s self, this earthy and heavenly intimacy without fear?  Can we be present to God’s self and unhook our fears and expectations, our self-doubts and self-concern and trust that God loves us and just wants us to show up?

To be able to be present to another while being intimate requires self-differentiation.  We have to recognize that we are not our partner and see them as they are.  This is harder and more demanding that it sounds as I write it.  My wife and I laugh about her leaving town a couple of years ago, when I bought Velveeta shells and cheese.  She was startled to realize that I would choose something she would never choose.  It was like a revelation to her that I would eat it.  It was also a massive disappointment, and it challenged my secret love of fake horrible cheese-like products.

Now I am no master of intimacy.  I have often hidden, like others, behind all sorts of defenses, from anger and distance to knowledge and judgement.  I am amazed this Christmas at how the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings point right through all of these issues and call us to live courageously open, intimate lives.

I don’t think this is possible without strong morals and integrity and boundaries.  If we are to able to stand so close to others and hold ourselves open and loving, we have to be able to do so without victimizing the other or abusing them or losing ourselves in sloppy sentimentalism.  We need the whole teachings of Christ.  Love and courage and holiness together.

So it is Christmas, and I am trying to figure out how to talk about all of this.  Are you more open this year?  Are you more courageous and loving?  Are you more holy?  I want that intimacy with Amy that we both long for, and I fear that I am going to have to keep growing up to get there.  I want that intimacy with God that I hear promised in the prophets and in Christ.  And I fear that I come to the manger as a place of hope of course, but also a place of challenge to my deepest, most human self to be with the God who loves me enough to show up, vulnerable, honest, and holy.

Living a Prophetic Advent

Living a Prophetic Advent in Times Hungry for Prophets
Advent has come again: the season of prophets and promises, longing and hope. Living after Pentecost, we people of Jesus are always in a season of Advent, in a way. On the other hand, the promises and hope that we remember in the prophets and the story of Advent are fulfilled already. The Rule of God has come in the person of Jesus and is the lived reality of his church. (Or it is supposed to be.)

This year we in the United States have been starkly reminded of the “not yet” of our hope. In many ways the reminders around the world have been pretty stark: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, ISIL, Hong Kong, Ferguson, New York, Berkeley. We live in a moment that is hungry for a word from God. We live in a time hungry for God’s salvation and justice.

It is easy as a Christian to want to wrap a blanket of nostalgic theology and pageantry around our faith and settle in to watch the snow outside the window and maybe a little Charlie Brown or Jimmy Stewart. But this is a season of prophets: of holy wilderness rather than comfortable living rooms, of robes of righteousness rather than snuggies.

But I am not in Ferguson or New York. I am not in Syria or Bethlehem. How do I live into this season of prophets in my comfortable living room and the gentle snows of my northern Michigan home?

The Christian life, every Christian life, is a witness to reality, either God’s or the world’s reality. We bear witness with the choices we make wherever we are. I have to choose to bear witness to God’s Rule. It may not be great because my situation does not demand greatness, but it is essential nonetheless if the people here are to hear God’s Word spoken and have their world transformed.

I have a choice at the grocery store and in the library, in my practices of Advent and my driving as to what I bear witness to. In the Bible Jesus never demands that we believe in the virgin birth, rather he tells us how to live. We are to be humble and just, merciful and forgiving, loving and endlessly reaching out to others in grace.

This must be the essence of our Advent; to live this way must be at the heart of our worship and our practices. I am to tell the truth and love others. I am to speak wholesome words and build up those who are torn down. I am to be just and merciful in my business.

Imagine an Advent when black and Hispanic people were treated fairly and justly by white people in the United States, not just because of laws but out of real love and faith. Imagine being a police officer who tried to do his job and had people forgive them when they overreacted or failed, who was loved even as they administered justice. Imagine being forgiven at work and encouraged at home. Imagine being treated as a human being.

We have come such a long way in the last four hundred years as a nation, but it is very clear this year that we have a long way to go. What role can the church play in helping the United States move toward justice and mercy? I am not sure that the answer is going to be offered by our political parties or our political binaries? We may have to dream again, but I know that it will begin where Jesus did, in the hearts, souls, and minds of those of us who follow him being changed.

We have to bear witness to a God of grace and mercy and justice and provision in our everyday decisions and actions. This witness may be costly. We will probably get taken advantage of and ridiculed and challenged, but not much. Keep it in perspective. I bear witness in a really safe place. I have angered people and been called names, but I do not fear for my life or even my job.

One of our witness points for the church in my town, made up of all our different denominations and congregations, is in housing the homeless during the harsh winter months in our buildings. It costs us convenience and building maintenance, odors and space. Sometimes it costs us comfort and safety. It has cost us very rarely in theft and harassment. But every time we face some change in costs, we get anxious. Someone will question whether it is worth the costs, but it always comes back to a simple expectation. “I was hungry and you fed me.”

We house and serve the homeless and poor, the drunks and the hungry, the rich and the well off, Republicans and Democrats, the calm and the angry, the yogi and the banker, the believer and the wanderer. We are all of those things in our little church, and in our church we are none of them. We are the witnesses of a different world where God is calling us all to the table, to serve and love each other in worship to him who comes to us again in Bethlehem and Ferguson, and even in Traverse City. In our faithfulness we bear witness by living humbly and justly, mercifully and forgiving, loving, and endlessly reaching out to others in grace whether they can pay us back or not, whether they join us in this new world or not.

We are prophets of promises already fulfilled and still not yet.

None of this seems like enough when our neighbors are being shot or choked in the streets, when our incarceration rates and arms productions surpass every other nation, when extremists are taking over nations and our media, when we face wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes and signs throughout the world. But this is the way of Jesus, to live a new reality as we hope for it, to risk the small costs and the large ones, to love our neighbor and bear witness as we pursue justice and mercy.

In our love we become bearers of the Word of God, like Mary on her donkey following Joseph to Bethlehem without a room waiting for them, displaced by an unjust act of government, and yet singing the song of God in the wilderness between dangers, pregnant with hope and a new reality.

We begin where we are, living bold lives of love and service, like candles against the night.  It may be your place to take to the streets and protest, but it is surely all of our time to reach out to our neighbors and have dinner with them, to stop and thank a police officer for their service in these hard days and offer mercy to those who don’t seem to get it just right, knowing how much forgiveness we have required of others and of God.  We all have to choose a prophetic Advent.

May our parties and our dinners and our worship services and our letters and presents and ministries this Advent be prophetic, declaring God’s wild and unmerited love in a world that is suffering again.