Incarnation, New Creation, and the ‘In Betweens’: Reflections After Pentecost Sunday

The Text for Pentecost Sunday, Acts 2:1-21 CEB

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
and the moon will be changed into blood,
before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Incarnation and the Story of Jesus

Incarnation is easily both at the core of Christian faith and terribly misunderstood by many Christians. For some it’s a ten dollar word used by theologians to sound smart and impressive. For others, ask them about what the incarnation is and they will likely respond that ‘Immanuel’ or ‘God with us’ is about Jesus as a baby at Christmas. Incarnation is indeed about ‘God with us’ but it is more than Christmas. There is more to the story of Christ than Christmas. And then there are the multiple conversations I’ve had recently in which the death of Christ is emphasized above all other things. But as a recent book says provocatively (at least for the Evangelical circles I grew up in) ‘The Cross is Not Enough.’ Neither can we reduce the Jesus story to his death, while essential it is not sufficient. Without resurrection Jesus is just another dead man and is neither Lord nor Messiah (see verses Acts 2:22-36).

I did not grow up with the liturgical Christian calendar. I heard of it occasionally growing up and had a basic awareness of it through college, but I only really ‘discovered’ it when we first arrived at Crosspoint in Abilene a few years ago. Following through the church calendar helps us see that the incarnation, God being with us in the person of Jesus, can’t be reduced to any one part of the Jesus story. Incarnation involves and includes the whole story – the birth, life, death, resurrection (actual bodily resurrection here  – not the ‘happy things happening in my heart kind of resurrection’), and ascension of Christ. Yes, that’s correct, we can’t forget about the importance of the ascension of Christ (celebrated the Sunday before last). The message of Ascension is first, that the priestly ministry of Jesus continues on our behalf and second, that Jesus is Lord and King over all things. Journeying through the seasons of the church calendar narrates us into the Jesus story. Our lives individually and communally become shaped and oriented by the cruciform life, death, resurrection, and reign of Christ.

Pentecost and New Creation

It is through Jesus that sin and death have been defeated and new creation inaugurated. This, again, is not merely through Christmas or even Good Friday. No, we see that through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension Jesus has been vindicated by God and set on the throne as ruler and Lord of all on God’s very own throne. New creation only comes through the whole story of Jesus as cruciform, resurrected Lord and Messiah. And then on Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Spirit on all God’s people, men and women (see Acts2:17-18 above) [and just to be clear, though I won’t elaborate in this post, I mean at least two things explicitly here: 1) that new creation ministry involves men and women serving together and alongside each other in all areas in mutual submission and 2) that women and men possessing the same Spirit of Pentecost (or better, being possessed by the same Spirit) both have access to all positions and roles of leadership and service], for empowerment as the continuation of Christ’s incarnational mission in the world.

Two weeks ago on Ascension Sunday we sang a favorite song of mine, Beautiful Things by Gungor. (Below is a video where you can follow along with the lyrics.)

My thoughts immediately went to 2 Cor 5:17 as we sang and I contemplated the new creation that Jesus inaugurates and which calls us into participation. I think that many times we get this verse wrong though thinking it is about ‘me’ as an individual being a new creation (which usually gets translated as ‘happy things in my heart’ and having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus). For sure, most translations don’t help, they in fact point in this direction. For example the ESV very traditionally reads, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is (emphasis mine) a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” And while it is surely true that you and I individually are made new creations ‘in Christ’; if the individual self is moved to the center we risk missing the point (and depth) entirely.

Daniel Kirk in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul comments,

“We must not miss the expansive nature of this new creation. Jesus, in his death and resurrection, has not only opened up the possibility that people might find forgiveness of sins. This much is true. But when Paul later says, ‘If anyone is in Christ – new creation!’ (2 Cor. 5:17) the further point is that God’s plan for the cosmos has now been fulfilled. The King of Israel has arrived and is gathering a people (emphasis mine) to himself, for the purpose of restoring humanity to its intended, blessed state. The story of Jesus is not just about new relationship; it is also about new creation. It is not merely about Jesus as Lord of my heart; it is also about Jesus, the King of Israel, as Lord of the cosmos.” (26)

and

“…Jesus’s occupying a position over the world entails something much more comprehensive than persons in restored relationship with God, that something more on the order of new creation is in view. Paul uses ‘new creation’ to describe the effects of Jesus’s resurrection and suggests that this itself is the world that Christians inhabit and bring into existence (emphasis mine) (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15).” (45)

The Common English Bible also points away from an individualistic take on this verse, rendering the verse this way, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation (emphasis mine). The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! There are at least three take aways here: 1) that new creation doesn’t start with or center on the individual self. If any one of us is found ‘in Christ’, this itself is evidence of broader new creation and the Lordship of Jesus over the cosmos. 2) Consequently, the focus here is not us as individuals, as if God’s new creation work simply occurs by adding individuals together. No, this actually has things backwards. ‘New creation’ and the Kingship of Jesus are the prior realities. We become new creations only through inclusion in the already inaugurated new creation work of Jesus as the resurrected and liberating King. 3) All this has a distinct missional thrust to it. We, not merely as individuals, but as a particular people (for example those of us who are called Crosspoint Fellowship) are empowered by the Spirit as the continuation of the incarnational mission of Jesus (we are called the ‘Body’ of Christ) by inhabiting and giving witness to this new creation reality found in the whole Jesus story. As such we seek to be a distinctly cruciform, Jesus shaped people.

The ‘In Betweens’

Sounds great, doesn’t it – new creation, Spirit empowerment, the liberating Lordship of Jesus, Pentecost and all that? We get about a half day into things and our experience probably tells us that all this doesn’t add up. We find that the world lacks peace and shalom and that apparently there are lots out there who have never heard of Jesus as liberating King of all things … or just don’t really care. But this is exactly why God has called a people (ie, us) to live in incarnational missional faithfulness. But we who are ‘in Christ’ live in the ‘in betweens’ – what theologians have called the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom. We are those that inhabit as citizens and live as witnesses of the inauguration of God’s new creation ‘in Christ’ but yet wait for God to (as N.T. Wright likes to say it) ‘put the world to rights.’ The ‘in betweens’ are filled with distinct eschatological tension in the everyday ordinary things of life as we participate in incarnational, cruciform mission.

This tension is not something we can avoid. The tension comes from being ‘in Christ’ and being a part of the new creation. We are called to inhabit, to dwell in, this tension. It is precisely this tension that Christie inhabits every day with her Fibromyalgia as she awaits the final redemption of her body (I think those with chronic illness and disability have something unique to teach us about following a suffering, cruciform Lord and Messiah). It is this tension we feel as boxes, and memories, and dreams still remain packed in a storage shed south of town. It is precisely this new creation tension that Crosspoint and other churches have entered into by actively recognizing and ordaining women as full recipients of the Spirit along with men (one of those women, of course, being my wife). We live in this tension as new creations and incarnate the presence of Christ in the world – or to put it in Crosspoint terminology, it is in this tension that we ‘dwell downtown’ (I like that word ‘dwell’, it has a distinctive incarnational feel to it). And its in this tension we are empowered by the same Spirit of Easter that raised Jesus from the dead (and in this sense for those of us who live in new creation its always Easter). As we enter into the season of Pentecost may we incarnate the tension in our own spheres as and live into and from the whole story of Jesus as a cruciform, Jesus shaped, Spirit empowered, kingdom oriented, new creation people.

Prayer(s) for the Week (Book of Common Prayer)

“Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

or this one…

“O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Like the song by Gungor, learn more about them below…

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A Tribute to My (Courageous) Wife on Mother’s Day (2012)

A Note on Skipping Church on Mother’s Day

To start things off, a confession: As the heading confirms, yes, we are skipping church on Mother’s Day.

I will just be bluntly honest, Mother’s Day is difficult. From talking with others about their experience I know that we aren’t the only ones who experience Mother’s Day (and other special days) this way. It has been from the beginning … from the very first Mother’s Day after our first miscarriage when we lost Jordan Taylor in September 1998. I remember Christie asking if we really had to go to church that first Mother’s Day after losing Jordan. Since then we have lost two more babies (Micah Jayden in January 2001 and Noah Avery in January 2004) and had some failed adoptions (the by far most devastating being our little Kerioth Cherie who left our home in March 2003 – the details of this particular story are still almost impossible for me/us to talk about with others).

So, yes, Mother’s Day is hard … terribly hard, especially for Christie … and there is nothing wrong it being hard. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but not everyone seems to understand. Many well meaning folks express concern that we haven’t grieved in a healthy manner and ‘gotten over’ the loss of our babies. They bring up the so called ‘stages of grief’ as evidence of our need to ‘move on’. But while the stages of grief look good in a textbook they rarely mesh well with the actual human experience of loss and suffering. Still others are concerned that somehow Christie and I have a ‘codependent’ relationship. Besides questioning popular understandings of codependency … I would prefer the more biblical/theological ‘one flesh’ description of our marriage. A ‘one fleshness’ cultivated and fostered as much through the intimacy of shared suffering and grief as all the other forms of intimacy we share. Others are concerned that Damaris, who we refer to as our miracle child, will get the impression that she is somehow less important than Jordan, Micah, Noah, or Kerioth … or that somehow she will feel less loved simply because Mother’s Day is difficult. The simple fact here is that honoring the grief we feel and being honest about our lament in no way mitigates against our love for Damaris. One does not cancel out the other.

Now, I will admit to feeling a great deal of frustration about this and I try to balance it with the understanding that most folks are trying to express their concern for us as individuals, as a couple, and as a family. But on the flip side it genuinely feels like a good many, perhaps uncomfortable with our experience or perhaps trying to find something to ‘say’, try to play amateur psychologist, analyzing our grieving patterns instead of seeking to enter into our experience and journey with us. I recognize that it will be difficult for many to ‘get’ what we are doing here. A friend even told me once that it seemed un-American to skip church on Mother’s Day. As a way to foster further understanding, at least to a degree, what I would like to do is to invite the reader into our story and into our experience (and in particular the experience of Christie).

So what’s this all about? Consider for a moment three different calendars that can mark our time. The first one is the consumer calendar operative in American retail (secular or Christian) complete with its own holy days. Some of these holy days have been co-opted (ie, Christmas) and others are often popularly called ‘Hallmark Holidays.’ Mother’s Day is probably the most popular of Hallmark Holidays. I am not suggesting people shouldn’t honor their moms, wives, etc on Mother’s Day (note: Damaris and I were sure to get Christie a gift) but I do think its important to realize the place of Mother’s Day in the calendar and liturgy of American consumerism. This is the story in which it is embedded. The second is the liturgical Christian calendar which also has its holy days and seasons (Advent, Christmas, and so forth). By observing the seasons one is able to live into the story of Christ. The third calendar for us is one formed from the anniversary dates for losing our babies, along with their would be due dates, and along with the dates when Kerioth came to our home and then left. These dates embed themselves into our story forming a rhythm of grief and a constituting a liturgy of lament. What I want people to know here is that what we need is not to somehow ‘get over’ our grief but to contextualize our grief and experience in a bigger story – not the ill suited aforementioned consumer story – but the story of Christ. So, in our experience the liturgical Christian calendar and the rhythm of grief and lament go together.

The decision to ‘skip church’ on Mother’s Day is about more than it being difficult to be in a place where one’s grief or loss is forgotten, barely mentioned, or tagged on as an afterthought. For many who have lost children this is what Mother’s Day is like and what it will be like this morning in a great many churches. And today is not about hiding from the world, from church, or anything else for that matter. This may be surprising to some but ‘skipping church’ like this is a way for us it is way to both celebrate and lament. We do celebrate (we really do!) the gift and miracle that Damaris is to us. We lament that we are without our babies and that Damaris is without her brothers and sisters. We celebrate that the resurrection is true … and that because of this we will see our babies one day (true resurrection hope – this is why the consumer story won’t do, why we need the story of Jesus!). The anniversary dates come with their expected regularity and the world doesn’t stop nor does life cease moving because of them. It became clear then to us that we needed a day set apart for us to stop, to remember the loss, to share in lament, to celebrate our hope, and to honor the grief, to do the hard thing of celebrating and mourning at the same time. … as a family. Mother’s Day has become that day for us. We ask for your prayers on this day, and after this day we ask for the greatest gift we can think of – that those reading would continue to simply enter into our experience and journey with us.

She’s the Courageous One!

The picture here is the Mother’s Day gift Damaris and I got for Christie. (She has a running joke anytime a gift getting occasion come around about what Willow Tree figurine I am going to get her this time. Yes, I may suffer from a lack of creativity and I know Willow Trees are easier. In my defense, they are easier because she likes them and she doesn’t complain.) When I saw this one I knew that I had to get it for her. Its called ‘Courage.’ Since Christie is easily the most courageous person I know, I felt we couldn’t pass it up.

A quick story: Having recently seen the movie Courageous, a coworker of mine was praising me recently about how ‘courageous’ I am in taking care of Christie. Her take away from the movie it seems was that (in her words), “Men are naturally braver than women and are supposed to be courageous FOR their wives. Its not the wife’s job to be courageous, that’s the man’s job. That’s a part of his leadership and I see that you do that for your wife.” Needless to say, Christie and I intentionally practice mutual submission in our marriage so I have some qualms about what my co-worker said to me (as well as the movie itself). But rather than go into all that with my co-worker, I simply said this,

“Throughout our shared journey of grief and suffering, Christie has consistently amazed me. I can say without exaggeration that my wife is the most faith filled person I know. I learn more from her about what it means to follow our liberating King Jesus in the cross shaped way of suffering than from any other person or book. Thank you but I’m not the really courageous one. She is. She’s most courageous person I know.”

When we lost Jordan and she looked around for grief support surrounding miscarriage and found little to nothing, she courageously started her own online miscarriage support group ministry. From her experience of loss and grief she reached out to minister to others. That’s courage!

When she felt called to take her place as a woman in ministry and as a chaplain and when she and I were being ordained together by our church she handled opposition and disagreement from others in what can be a veritable minefield with poise and grace (I was honestly not so poised or graceful). Again, courage!

Many will know that in addition to grief and loss surrounding our babies she also has Fibromyalgia. Unlike you and I, there is not a day that she is pain free and some days it is completely debilitating (especially since we are without health insurance currently). Her experience here with grief, loss, and chronic illness has put her deeply in touch with her own frailty, fragility, and finitude – that is, with her own humanness. (This perhaps explains why she was/is such a good chaplain. It seems to me we need more pastors/ministers in touch with themselves in this way.) This takes courage!

Despite her own pain and suffering she can often be found rushing headlong into her concern for the other. I was amazed in her first year of CPE/chaplaincy at some of the cases that she recounted to me, especially the tragic ones involving children. Her dependence on God amazes me. This is courageous!

And the reality is that our experience can be kind of ‘heavy’ (this is what another chaplain I worked with told me one day). I have come to see how the invitation into our experience might be intimidating to others. My chaplain friend is right, our story is kind of heavy. We can’t help it, we can’t change our story. The reality of this causes me to sometimes hold back. I’m afraid of the reaction if I invite another into my story. Christie though, while not perfect, seems to do this more naturally than me. She takes the risk of inviting others into her experience and demonstrates an openness to the other that inspires me. I think this is why she is so good a spiritual care. Courageousness in action!

She demonstrates her courage through her engagement of the medical system (and now the disability process). Its an act of courage to even step into the ‘system’ and the inherent way that it acts to depersonalize and even dehumanize. And just recently she listened as a doctor at a local clinic told her that her Fibromyalgia was simply in her head and that the best prescription was a positive mental outlook. Despite her tears from, again, another doctor that seemed to skip the class on bedside manner and listening she stayed engaged and did not back down. This takes heavy doses of courage!

And she is always trying to move outward toward others as best she can to find places of community and incarnational space wherever she can. Since we moved back to Abilene she has found a place at a local yarn store (which of course involves knitting). She is an extension of Crosspoint and the story of Christ in this place – incarnation. But she also knows that the more of this she does the more ‘consequences’ there will be later when her body needs to recover. You might say that currently for everything she does there is an equal and opposite negative reaction in which she has to recuperate. This means she (and we as a family) must budget time and energy. Yet she presses on. I have rarely seen anyone as tenacious for community as my wife. Not only does this take vulnerability but courage as well.

Finally, she’s willing to admit she is afraid sometimes and that she needs the strength of another – particularly the strength of our suffering, liberating King Jesus. Oh that more of us were really courageous enough to genuinely do this and not pretend (I’ve been a hospital chaplain too so I know pretending when I see it). It’s perhaps a strange paradox that its takes a great deal of courage to admit that one needs help and that one feels afraid. But its this vulnerability and courage to come face to face with her own frailty, fragileness, and finitude that makes my wife one of the most genuinely human people I know. In my opinion we need more people in this world with this kind of courage.

So, as we take our day as a family to remember, to grieve, to celebrate – I simply want everyone to know that my wife is the most courageous person I know. And through her courageous faithfulness she teaches me more and more every day about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

[Edit: Be sure to read Damaris’ tribute to her momma here.]

May you all have a blessed Mother’s Day.