The “fury” of Christmas
For many of us, who have heard the story of Jesus’ birth several times every December every year of our lives, the message settles in to the realm of what is familiar and commonplace to us. As such, we forget or miss the angst that filled the original event.
Consider the original Christmas from Joseph’s perspective. He and Mary and their respective families had come to agreement on the details of their upcoming marriage. Everything was in place. Joseph was content and looking forward to the joining of his life with Mary’s and the beginning a family together. Then he received word of a scandal. He had not enjoyed sexual relations with Mary, but he found out that she is pregnant!
Over and over again, we have heard the words from Matthew 1:20 that upon hearing the news, Joseph “considered” what to do about Mary. That sounds so calm. The word in our common English translations sound so devoid of emotion. It is so placid.
But not in the original language!
The Greek word in Matthew 1:20 that is so often translated as “considered” is enthumathentos. It comes from the combination of two Greek words: en, meaning “in” or “with,” and thumos, meaning “anger,” “fury,” rage,” or “intense feeling.”
The man who found out that his wife-to-be was pregnant with someone (or Someone) else’s baby did not calmly and emotionlessly think this over. He stormed internally. The emotions in him erupted with fury, rage, and anger.
This little-recognized fact about the birth of Jesus gets me thinking…. Isn’t that actually the very nature of Christmas?
The entrance of God into our world as a baby who is placed in a manger is not a calm, placid, commonplace, boring, emotionless event. It is shocking, confusing, scandalous, unsettling! It shakes our world to its foundations. It ought to make us question all of our previous understandings. If we understand accurately even a bit of the miracle of God being born as one of us, the shock of it would overwhelm our souls!
St. Augustine commented, “Man’s Maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on his journey; that Truth might be accused by false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might be wounded; that Life might die.”
What happened at Christmas was not commonplace but was the most shocking and unsettling event of history (at least until the death and resurrection of the One who was God-in-human skin)!
Then I get to thinking of one more curiosity…. The entrance of God into our hearts is, also, not a calm, placid, commonplace, boring, emotionless event. It is shocking, confusing, scandalous, unsettling! It shakes our world to its foundations. It ought to make us question all of our previous understandings. If we understand accurately even a bit of the miracle of God coming to live inside of a human soul—my soul and your soul—the shock of it would overwhelm us!
Larry Crabb puts it this way: “What I’m about to say is either a bunch of sweet words that have as much nourishing value as a Twinkie, or it’s one of the most staggering and underappreciated truths in the Bible. Here it is: In the center of your soul and mine, in the exact center, the Shekhinah glory resides—the literal, real, overwhelming presence of God!” (The PAPA Prayer, p. 123)
The birth of Jesus—into the world and into our hearts—is shocking and life-altering!
The Wisdom of Praise
Psalm 150 provides the concluding six verses to the wonderful Book of Psalms. The clear message in this psalm is a call to us to praise God. Indeed, 13 times in these six verses we are instructed to lift up our praise to God.
Why? Why is there such an emphasis on praise in this psalm?
The Book of Psalms begins with the description of the person whose life is “blessed” (contented, satisfied, or joy-filled). The Book of Psalms ends with the repeated call to us to praise God. This is no mere coincidence. There is a vital connection between a lifestyle of praise and a life of contentment and joy.
Dr. Brené Brown, who writes extensively on the subjects of shame, vulnerability, and wholehearted living, discusses the difficulty we have in embracing joy in our lives. She speaks of “foreboding joy” as that sense of fear or apprehension whenever we start to feel happy in life that something bad is certain to come along and ruin it all. She suggests that we live in the illusion that there is only so much joy available in life, so if we are experiencing joy now, bad things are soon to follow. As a result of this kind of thinking, we rob ourselves of actually embracing and enjoying joy.
But there is a remedy! The antidote to foreboding joy is gratitude!
In her research, Dr. Brené Brown claims that what leads to lasting joy rather than foreboding joy are “tangible gratitude practices.” She writes, “The research participants…gave specific examples of gratitude practices that included everything from keeping gratitude journals and gratitude jars to implementing family gratitude rituals.”
This is where Psalm 1 and Psalm 150 are knitted together. The “tangible gratitude practice” of praising God (Psalm 150) helps to produce blessedness/contentedness in life (Psalm 1). Dr. Brené Brown argues that these “tangible gratitude practices” work because “every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen—and they do happen—we are stronger.”
In her book, Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris adds, “It is by means of repeating ordinary rituals and routines that we enhance the relationships that nourish and sustain us. A recent study that monitored the daily habits of couples in order to determine what produced good and stable marriages revealed that only one activity made a consistent difference, and that was the embracing of one’s spouse at the beginning and end of each day. Most surprising to Paul Bosch, who wrote an article about the study, was that ‘it didn’t seem to matter whether or not in that moment the partners were fully engaged or even sincere! Just a perfunctory peck on the cheek was enough to make a difference in the quality of the relationship.’ Bosch comments, wisely, that this ‘should not surprise churchgoers. Whatever you do repeatedly has the power to shape you, has the power to make you over into a different person—even if you’re not totally “engaged” in every minute.’” (p. 187-188)
The “tangible gratitude practice” of praising God helps us to “enhance” our relationship with God and results in blessedness/contentedness/joy in our lives.
Two Great Promises
The third verse in Psalm 121 makes two promises that mean the world to me: “He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber.”
The first promise here is that God will not let my foot slip.
If you are anything like me, this promise may surprise you, for my experience is that I seem to fall often. I am not as faithful and true to God as I wish to be. I seem to slip and trip my way through my walk with God.
So what does it mean for God to promise that He will not let my foot slip?
I heard a story long that helps me to understand this promise: A young girl was walking in the woods with her grandfather. As is normal with a young child, her focus was distracted by all the sights that surrounded her, so she didn’t watch carefully for the roots and rocks and ruts on the path. Though she was holding her grandfather’s hand, every time she hit one of those roots or rocks or ruts, she would stumble, and her grip on her grandfather’s hand would slip, and she would fall to the ground, scraping her knees. The grandfather paused, knelt down to look her in the eye, and said to her, “Let’s switch things around. Rather than you holding onto my hand, let me hold onto your hand. For every time you stumble, your grip on my hand slips, and you fall to the ground. But if I hold onto your hand, I will catch you and keep you from falling, for my grip is stronger than yours.”
It is true that I slip and I trip my way through my walk with God, but His grip is stronger than mine. Every time I slip, He catches me. I am learning to put greater confidence in His grip on me than in my grip on Him.
The second promise here is that God who watches over me will not slumber.
I love Eugene Peterson’s comments on this promise in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: “The only serious mistake we can make when illness comes, when anxiety threatens, when conflict disturbs our relationships with others is to conclude that God has gotten bored in looking after us and has shifted His attention to a more exciting Christian, or that God has become disgusted with our meandering obedience and decided to let us fend for ourselves for awhile, or that God has gotten too busy fulfilling prophecy in the Middle East to take time now to sort out the complicated mess we have gotten ourselves into. That is the only serious mistake we can make. It is the mistake that Psalm 121 prevents: the mistake of supposing that God’s interest in us waxes and wanes in response to our spiritual temperature.” (p. 39)
God’s grip is better than mine, and He never falls asleep on the job or gets distracted from watching over us. Those are two great promises to us!
Out of the depths of despair, I cry to God
Psalm 130 begins, “Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice.”
I turned to this psalm this week as my heart breaks over yet another massacre in our nation. My soul aches over the massacres taking place across our country in churches (in Sutherland Springs and in Charleston), in schools (in Sandy Hook and Columbine), at a concert in Las Vegas, and a nightclub in Orlando, and a WalMart in Thornton, Colorado, and in many other senseless shootings.
“Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let Your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”
We must not ignore or deny or minimize the agony of such terror in our nation. We must face the pain, feel the agony, and grieve the sin.
This psalm helps.
In his explanation of this psalm, Eugene Peterson writes, “By setting the anguish out in the open and voicing it as a prayer, the psalm gives dignity to our suffering. It does not look on suffering as something slightly embarrassing which must be hushed up and locked in a closet (where it finally becomes a skeleton) because this sort of thing shouldn’t happen to a real person of faith. And it doesn’t treat it as a puzzle that must be explained, and therefore turn it over to theologians or philosophers to work out an answer. Suffering is set squarely, openly, passionately before God. It is acknowledged and expressed. It is described and lived.
“If this psalm did nothing more than that, it would be a prize, for it is difficult to find anyone in our culture who will respect us when we suffer.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 134)
Discussing the struggle she has with depression and the help she finds in the Psalms in general, Kathryn Butler adds, “The Psalms reassure us that those who know and love God also labor through seasons of despair. Even David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), whose youthful hand God steadied against a giant, cries out to the Lord from the depths (Psalm 130:1-2). ‘I am utterly bowed down and prostrate,’ he laments in Psalm 38. ‘All the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart (Psalm 38:6-8).
“Through such earnestness and imagery, the Psalms lend a voice to our own sufferings. When depression seizes us, we too may perceive our days ‘like an evening shadow,’ and feel that we ‘wither away like grass’ (Psalm 102:11). When cut off from the Father on the cross, Christ drew from Psalm 22 (Matthew 27:46). David grieves, ‘My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me (Psalm 55:4-5).
“Such verses echo the turmoil within us when depression obscures our identity in Christ. As we fumble through the shadows in search of God, the Psalms reassure us that even those dearest to him struggle through such seasons. Those who have known God, and who have loved Him, have also drowned in anguish and cried out in longing for Him. When we drift in the blackness, the Psalms guide us to pray. ‘As a deer paints for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, O God’ (Psalm 42:1-2).”
So, in the midst of agony over the slaughter of beautiful lives in our nation again, I turn to this psalm to help me grieve. With the psalmist, I cry out to God from the depths of despair, and I pray for mercy for our nation.
What do you do when you face great fear, heavy frustration, or deep disappointments in your life?
I tend to become resentful, to make excuses, to blame others, to despair, and to turn to forms of escapism. Others take revenge or lash out at others or discard ethical standards or drink or jump into an affair or eat or run away.
When David (the shepherd who became king) faced great fear, heavy frustration, and deep disappointment, he wrote a song which is included in Scripture as Psalm 63.
First the context of the psalm, then the content:
The title of this psalm informs us that it was written by David while he was in the desert of Judah. The psalm speaks of people seeking his life and lying about him. Most commentators suggest the psalm was written while David was fleeing from his son Absalom who had thrown a military coup to take the throne. David fled Jerusalem. Absalom took over his palace, stole his wives, and came after him to kill him. David fled into the desert—“a dry and weary land where there is no water.” On his way, others turned against him, mocking him as he went.
Now the content of the psalm:
In the midst of great fear, heavy frustration, and deep disappointment, David takes stock of what matters most to him in life.
What matters most to David is not what he lost. It’s not his palace or his crown or any other worldly possession or accomplishment. What he longs for most desperately is God.
He’s on the run in a desert. He knows what it is to be desperately thirsty. Yet what he thirsts for most urgently is God.
Everything else in his life seems to fall out of contention in comparison to his longing for God. With his very life on the line, David recognizes that God’s love “is better than life.”
According to legend, a young man ran after Socrates one day, calling, “Socrates, Socrates, can I be your disciple?” Seeming to ignore him, Socrates walked into a nearby body of water. The man followed him, repeating the question, “Socrates, may I be your disciple?” Socrates turned and, without a word, grabbed the young man, dunked him under the water, and held him down until he knew the young man couldn’t take it any longer. When Socrates released his hold, the man came up gasping for air. Socrates said to him, “When you desire the truth as much as you seek air, you can be my disciple.”
The recent struggles in David’s life had—so to speak—held him under water. What David came up gasping for was for God: “My soul thirsts for You; my body longs for You.”
In verse 8 David speaks of his soul “clinging” to God. He uses the same word as God used in Genesis 2:24 to describe a husband clinging to (cleaving to or being united to) his wife, and the same word used in Ruth 1:14 to describe Ruth clinging to her mother-in-law. David longs for that kind of closeness with God.
The lesson David learned and recorded in Psalm 63 was affirmed by St. Teresa of Avila many centuries later: “The soul is therefore neither content with nor desirous of the world’s satisfactions, because it has within itself what pleases it more…being with Him is what it wants.”
Fears, frustrations, and disappointments come to all of us. We may turn to resentment, excuses, blame, despair, revenge, or to a variety of escapes, but hope and peace and serenity and love will not be found there. Only in God will we find peace and hope and serenity and love amidst the struggles of our lives, so we will do well to seek God desperately even in the darkest times of our lives. As Corrie ten Boom points out, “There is no pit so deep that His love is not deeper still.” So even in the hard times, I want to learn to dig down deeper into God.