Monday, December 31, 2012

Not an Ordinary Hunt

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have never pulled the trigger on this little nine point.  In fact, I had let him pass 50 yards from my deer stand earlier that morning.  But the circumstances changed and became anything but ordinary.

For the first time in over ten years, I got the chance to go hunting with my dad on our family's ranch outside of Freer, TX.  I had already killed a spike-buck this season and put meat in the freezer.  I was hoping to get a shot at something much larger while spending some time with my dad.  In fact, we had seen a pretty nice eight point with about a fifteen or sixteen inch spread, and I hoped to see him while sitting in my stand.

The morning started in ordinary fashion.  My dad and I woke early and headed to the ranch.  My mom, my wife, my kids, my sister, brother-in-law, and their kids were soon to follow for a bit of time together exploring the ranch and hunting arrow heads. 

Dad and I got to the ranch, put out corn, and proceeded to head to our respective hunting spots.  I chose a stand near the ranch house, and dad would sit in the pick-up about 1000 yards away in sight of my blind.  I had been sitting for about five minutes when the above deer walked out and ate some corn.  He moved down the road toward me, crossed into the brush, and eventually came into the clearing in front of me only 50 yards away.

At that distance, I'm a dead shot.  I could have put this guy in the freezer right there, but I thought he was too small.  I thought he'd need another year to go--even though my folks like to cull such white horned bucks.  I let him pass.  It was an ordinary hunt.  I didn't need the meat.

Well, things changed.  After sitting for about an hour and a half, the deer finished their morning browse and disappeared.  I called my dad on the walkie-talkie and asked if he was seeing deer.

His response, "The pickup is dead."

Me, "What?"

Dad, "The battery is dead, and the pick up won't start.  I've called Scott, and they are going to pick up a battery on the way out."

I thought for a moment and decided I'd head up to at least sit with my dad and visit until the family arrived approximately two and half hours later.

"I'm walking to you, but I'm going to go the long way.  We've seen a lot of deer on this sendero, and I don't want to leave scent."

"O.K.," dad responded.

I walked to the pick up, and we fiddled around for a few moments.  We tried to start the truck a couple of times to no avail. 

Then dad said, "Why don't you walk up the back fence and take your gun."  The day before, we drove along this fence and saw at least 10 buck scrapes along it.

I started walking.

Now, this is not my sort of hunting.  I don't have the coordination of my dad or my grandfathers.  They were/are really good shots.  I'm not quite there.  Neither am I a good woodsman.  Usually, I step on a stick or rub up against the brush and scare whatever game is around.  I pale in comparison to my dad when it comes to hunting.  He's good.  Really good.

In fact, when I was a kid, I'd get majorly jealous of him.  It seemed like he couldn't miss, and oftentimes, he'd get down out of his deer stand, sneak up on a buck or doe, and get meat for the freezer in a seemingly effortless fashion.  I was jealous of his stories of stalking deer and getting close enough to pull off a shot without a rest of any sort.  I wanted to be able to tell such a story, but I'd never even come close to pulling it off.

Under ordinary circumstances, such a thing probably wouldn't happen. 

But the circumstances were not ordinary.

  • Hunting with my father for the first time in 10 years.
  • A broken down truck with nothing else to do.
  • The rest of the family arriving later for the first time I'd been at the ranch with my sister, brother-in-law and his kids.
  • Dad letting me stalk the game instead of him.

I walked down the road, hugging the brush.  At about 150 yards from the truck, I hear something scamper off in the brush.  I think, "Well, there goes my chance to see or get anything."  I turned around and headed back toward the truck.

But then I thought, "Well, I might have made him curious.  He might come back out and see what disturbed him."

I moved once again up the road staying in the brush and peeking out to see if anything was ahead of me.  After a few moments, I saw something moving up ahead.  I moved into the brush where I could see.  I raised my gun and looked through the scope.  It was a deer moving toward me along the fence.

I dropped to a knee and waited, and I thought to myself, "I will not be able to hold my gun steady this way.  I'd better try something different."  But, there was no tree readily available for me to use as a rest.  The deer that was moving would surely spot me, snort, and ruin any hunting for the rest of the day.

I laid down in a prone position in the road.  I rested my gun and waited.  As the deer approached, I saw it was a buck--not a big one, but a buck none-the-less.  I looked up and sited a tree about 35 yards away.  "That's the point," I thought to myself.

I continued to wait.  The deer kept moving straight ahead.  I'm convinced he would have walked right down upon me if I would have let him.  I was down wind from him so he couldn't smell me.  He was intent upon checking his scrapes, and I wasn't moving.

He got to the spot I had picked. 

I made a clicking sound.

He stopped and looked.

I targeted him in the scope.  Should I or shouldn't I?

Under ordinary circumstances, no way.

But these weren't ordinary circumstances.

I clicked off the safety and bagged my first deer, outside of a deer stand, with no rest, shooting in a prone position, and now, I've got a story to tell that ranks right alongside many of my dad's stories--although, I've still got a long way to go before I get as good as him.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: A Time to Celebrate

Why did Mary go with haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth? Our gospel lesson this morning makes it clear that Mary didn’t leisurely head out to visit her relatives, but she went in a hurry. She was anxious to get there. Why?

Scripture isn’t clear. It doesn’t give us the reason, but we can make some educated guesses. And here is my educated guess, and mind you, an educated guess is still a guess. First off, Mary was engaged to Joseph. As such, they were promised and committed to one another. Essentially, they were married in the sight of the community even though they had not formally tied the knot. This is an important detail to remember because in the midst of this betrothal, Mary ends up pregnant. Now, we know the child to be born is of the Holy Spirit. We know Mary did nothing wrong. We know an angel appeared to Joseph telling him to stay with Mary because the child to be born is of God. We know this, but the community of people around didn’t know this. They were quite unaware of the situation and the promises God made to Mary and Joseph.
And what do you think would happen if the community found out Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph were officially married? The Levitical laws were none to kind to people who committed adultery, and such would be the charge against Mary. She would have felt dishonor. She would have been shamed. Folks would have marked her as a sinner. She would have been pushed far to the margins of her community and folks would say many ill fitting words about her. There was no mercy given to an unwed woman who was found to be pregnant; in fact, she could be tried and killed as punishment. You simply didn’t want to be discovered in such a state.

And so, it is quite possible that Mary went with haste to be with Elizabeth to avoid such a thing happening in her community. It is quite possible she went to stay with her relatives to avoid the shame and misery she would be put through in her home town. In all probability, while Mary knew the promises of God, she was fearful of what others would do to her and how they would treat her. While she knew what the angel had told her, there were still societal consequences, and while the angel’s news was good news, her treatment by society was occasion for fear and trembling. So Mary left. Mary sought shelter and consolation. She headed for her cousin’s home–to be with Elizabeth who was also pregnant and could hopefully offer some consolation and understanding. It wasn’t necessarily a time to rejoice or be excited. It was a time for hiding.

But when Mary arrived at her cousin’s, something quite unexpected happened. Elizabeth experienced something quite different. As Mary called out, the child in Elizabeth’s own womb leapt with joy!

Elizabeth couldn’t wait to tell Mary. Immediately, as Mary entered, Elizabeth proclaimed, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

We know Mary’s spirits were lifted by Elizabeth’s words. We know because immediately after Elizabeth spoke, Mary broke into song. We do not have that song printed here this morning, but it is known as the Magnificat–a wonderful song of redemption and hope. While Mary might have left out of fear of what would happen to her in Nazareth, the occasion suddenly was filled with joy, and hope, and life. It became a time to celebrate. Out of fear came joy! Out of a situation of trouble came laugher and celebration! Out of a situation of worry came song! And Jesus hadn’t even been born yet! It was the knowledge of what God was going to do and how God was going to act that caused the situation to change on a dime.

Too often in our world we are surrounded by bad news. Too often we are confronted with situations and things which happen that cause us grief and worry and fear. Too often we become consumed about what others think about us and how they perceive us. Too often we worry about what they say behind our backs. Too often we listen to the news and read the headlines and wonder why the world is full of such misery. Too often we get caught up in that misery and in the overwhelming ordeals of life. We become deadly serious. We stop laughing. We stop smiling. Joy ceases to travel with us. We lose sight of hope.

But what if we remembered God’s promises? What if we remembered that it is into the midst of all this stuff that God put on human flesh and walked among us? What if we remembered that when Jesus entered into all of this stuff, He exposed the Kingdom of God–a reality that is present among us, working sometimes silently, sometimes boldly, but a reality that changes our perspectives; changes our identity; changes our vision of the world? What if we remembered that the world tried to silence Jesus–tried to end the talk of God’s Kingdom coming? What if we remembered they tried to do so by killing the God became flesh? What if we remembered that their thoughts of success were shattered by the resurrection? What if we remembered that Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of the promises we share? That justice will reign? That all evil will be destroyed? That all the bad stuff that ever happened will be unmade? What if we believed these promises to be true, even though we have not seen them come to fruition?

Recently, I had a conversation with someone who lost their spouse earlier this year. The holiday season had made things particularly difficult. Grief had made it difficult to hold to many of the family traditions once held dear. Putting up the tree, buying presents, decorating, and baking all seemed like exercises in futility. Each thing was a constant reminder of the loss of a loved one and was like pouring salt on an open wound. It burned. It hurt. It didn’t seem worth the time, the effort, or trouble.

As we talked, I asked this person what the spouse would have thought of this action. "Can you tell me such and such would actually want you to do this?" I asked.

The response was obvious. Not a chance. Oh, it wouldn’t be easy. It would be difficult, even painful. Facing Christmas for the first time without your spouse is not an easy thing. It brings tears to the eyes and reminds a person about the emptiness in one’s heart, but I could see the resolve building in the person’s eyes. I could see the necessity welling within–the need to hold onto the promise that life moves on even without someone so loved. I could see the realization that the pain must be faced, and I could see the need for hope. I could see the need for the reaffirmation of God’s promises. Grief was there, certainly, but there was a need to celebrate–not celebrating a tree or presents or what have you, but to celebrate Christ’s birth–to celebrate the promises of God. Celebration would rise in the midst of grief and turmoil, and that celebration would result in joy. It might take a while to get there, but it will come.

As Christians, I believe part of our job in this world today is to affirm the need to celebrate. I believe it is part of our job to shine a light in the darkness–to point to the promises of God–to realize they give us a reason to hope and to celebrate.

James T. Garrett in his book God's Gift tells of a little girl, dressed as an angel, in a Christmas pageant who was told to come down the center aisle. The child asked, "Do you want me to walk or fly?"

Impossible, you might say? Yeah, but a child full of joy dares to dream the impossible. A child full of hope dares to fly. A child full of the promises of God, dares to ask the question. And as children of God, even in the midst of darkness and fear, we have the audacity to believe the promises of God. And when we remember those promises, that darkness is turned to light. Despair is turned to hope. Trembling is turned to song. Because of the promises of God, we believe it is a time to celebrate. Amen.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Courage to do Nothing

Yesterday, in my Bowen Family Systems class we had a rather lengthy discussion about anxiety, leadership, and vision. 

The anxiety portion was spent focusing on two school shootings: Columbine and Sandy Hook.  My teacher marveled at the similarities between the family genograms of each of the shooters.  They were remarkably similar.  My teacher added that he had expected something along the lines of what had happened at Sandy Hook citing "a lot of anxiety circulating" in the emotional system of the United States.

If a person likens an emotional system (a family, church, school, business, nation, etc.) to a pressure cooker, oftentimes anxiety builds up within that system.  If there is no release valve, the lid pops off.  During anxious times, with out anxiety lessening mechanisms, pop offs will happen--it just depends upon where that anxiety rests at any given period.  For our nation recently, that anxiety seems to find young, loner, males, and the results aren't pretty.

Further, my teacher continued to say that there is nothing we can do to stop such events.  They are a result of chronic anxiety in the system, and one simply does not git rid of anxiety.  The best one can do is manage it, and here's the most difficult thing to accept according to Bowen Theory: only individuals can manage their own anxiety.  You cannot manage anyone else's anxiety.  It's an impossibility. 

What is quite intriguing about the theory; however, is that it suggests that by regulating one's own anxiety, it has an effect on the rest of the system.  If a leader manages his or her own anxiety and focuses on lowering his or her own reactions, that impacts how everyone else connected to the leader functions.

This is where things get tricky.  I believe it is part of human nature to want to do something when faced with anxiety raising situations.  Whenever we see images on television or on the computer, we tend to ask, "What can I do to make a difference?"  When 9/11 occurred, there was a rush to give blood.  Blood banks were overwhelmed as people donated to help out the victims of the tragedy.  So many people wanted to do something, this seemed like an appropriate response.  But what ended up happening?  200,000 units of blood were discarded because there was an over supply.

Now, I'm not suggesting that giving blood is a bad thing.  I'm a regular donor, but simply reacting and doing something without thinking through the consequences or pushing people to do something to capitalize on reactivity isn't kosher.

Sometimes the best initial response is to do nothing.  Systems have an incredible capacity to heal and take care of themselves.  They do not always need intervention.  Sometimes they need a leader or someone to stand back and allow the system to take care of itself.  Sometimes they need a leader to pause and acknowledge what went on/is going on, and say, "Let's give this some time before we do anything."

As people take time to think and reflect upon occurrences, more and better ideas surface.  Creativity abounds.  Either/or gets replaced with both/and or something completely new and different which is a better solution than the initial options. 

Furthermore, a leader sometimes needs to trust the system to care for itself.  Medically, sometimes it's better to let a body's own capacity to heal and fight off disease run its course than to interject intervention.  It is now known that super bugs have arisen because an overuse of anti-biotics.  Sometimes it's best to do nothing. 

Again, don't misunderstand me.  If there is a blockage of a main artery heading out of the heart, it's time to operate, but one needs the wisdom of discernment to know when an intervention is necessary.

But taking time takes courage.  There are those who scream and yell right after events that "Something needs to be done to stop this or prevent this from happening again."

There is truth to that statement.  Something should be done.  But it is rare that we find anyone with the courage to say that something should be nothing.

There, I said it.  I am sure someone will be more than willing to disagree.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Problem is Not Guns

I really had no intention of blogging so much about the tragic events in Sandy Hook Elementary School, but last Friday night, I dreamed a dream where my first posting "Fear Not Good News" came together.  Since that first blog post, thoughts and ideas keep flowing, including the thoughts for this post.  I am hoping this will be the final post on the topic.  For my friends who shared their posts on Facebook and asked others to read what I posted: thank you. 

The United States has a gun problem, but guns are not the problem.

The United States has a problem with mental illness, but mental illness is not the problem.

The United States has a divorce problem, but divorce is not the problem.

The United States has a drunk driving problem, but alcohol is not the problem.

The United States has a pornography problem, but sex is not the problem.

There are people in the U.S. living in large mansions with every material good in the world while other suffer from hunger and exposure--but money is not the problem.

There is something deeper going on not only within the United States, but in the world.  For instance, a Facebook friend arguing for gun control (who tends to research things thoroughly) said frankly, the per capita murder rate in the United States is no different than the per captia murder rate in any other industrialized nation--even those nations who have very strict gun control measures.   If guns were the problem with the murder rate in the United States, it stands to reason that the murder rates in nations where gun control was enacted and enforced would be less.  But it is not.  People commit murder with or without guns, and that is a symptom of a deeper problem--a human nature problem.

The shooting in Newtown, CT offers all the evidence needed to point to the brokenness of human nature. 
  • There is the family who had material wealth and no need who underneath it all struggled with some major issues.
  • There is the family affected by divorce.
  • There is the single mother desperately trying to care for a mentally ill child who (according to a recent report I saw) didn't feel comfortable reaching out to others for help.
  • There is the child who suffered from mental illness.
  • There is the senseless violence and killing of innocent children.
  • There is the report of a father or a brother (depending upon which news sources one reads) who had not had contact with the shooter in years--further evidence of brokenness in the family.

If one needs almost a picture perfect shot of the broken state of human nature, this story had it.  And in the aftermath, there is a push to do something, anything to stop such senseless acts of violence.

But how does one address the brokenness of human nature?   How does one address the fact that we have an idea about how the world should work, but clashes against the reality of the way the world actually works?  Some believe we can actually legislate our way out of such a thing.  Some believe we can pass just the right laws with just the right words, and we can make the world safer and better.

For those of us from a particular theological background, we know the folly of such thought.  God already tried to get us to do the right things by the power of the Law.  Hey, if people actually followed the law, "Thou shalt not murder," we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place. 

But people don't follow the law.  People always do things they know they should not do.  Even though every fiber of their body knows something is immoral, they still do it.  There is something within human nature that leads us to do this; something that we cannot fix, and believe me, as a student of history, we have tried.

In our past, as a nation, events like what happened in Newtown, CT would have caused us to pause and take stock of ourselves.  It would have caused us to do some very deep reflection on the nature of our nation and how such a thing could happen within us.  We would have been shocked by the evil we saw and turned to deep introspection to look in our own hearts.  We would have seen that given the right circumstances, we too could have been the shooter.  We too could have taken innocent life.  We too could have committed such an atrocity because that seed of evil lies within each and every one of us.  And we would have turned in humility to the only One who can bring about change within the nature of human beings.

Yeah, I know, here's the "Turn to God" part.  But bear with me because in no way do I want to go down the path of many televangelists and other noteworthy Christians, no matter how well meaning and well intentioned they are.  I have no wish to go down that path of repent-or-these-things-will-keep-happening or repent-for-this-is-God's-judgement-for-turning-away-from-Him.  God tried those methods once.  Read the Old Testament for insight into that. 

But look to Jesus for the different tact God chose.  For you see, Jesus didn't come into the world to condemn the world.  He came to save it.  (John 3)  Jesus didn't come into the world with threats of, "If you don't follow me, then I will zap you and your family."  Instead, He came into the world to take our suffering upon Him.  He came into the world as God incarnate--God clothed in human flesh--to suffer, to bear pain, to bear rejection, to bear suffering, and to die, just like we die.  Jesus had to face human nature and our worst--to take it into Himself--so that He could transform it and bring about something new: resurrection.

The resurrection is the hope that God will one day transform our broken nature and make it whole again.  God will make the wrongs right.  God will end suffering and pain and death.  This is His promise.

But what about the interim time?  What happens now?  What happens to us as we patiently await His return and the restoration of our broken world?

The promise of Christianity is that God sends His Spirit into our hearts to begin that transformation now.  God comes into us to make us more and more holy (the fancy term for this is sanctification).  Through prayer, study, reflection, confession, worship, fasting, and other such disciplines, our hearts become more and more attuned to God and His will. 

I am convinced that it is this and this alone that can address the problem of our broken human nature.

One Facebook friend called it a bit simplistic to think that we could just get people to believe in Jesus and come to church.  He thought such a comment would be offensive to me, but call me simplistic and unoffended.  As I posted to his comment, so I say again: I can cite thousands upon thousands of stories of people who after coming into a relationship with Jesus who improved their morality and began caring even more deeply about humankind and having respect for others.  I can cite very few stories of people who became Christian and then became more evil--they are out there, but their number pales in comparison.  If we dared to do what Jesus asked us--no commanded us--to do; to make disciples of all nations and teach them to obey all that He commanded; to help others become more and more Christ-like; to help others love their enemies and forgive those who persecute them; to help others be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun go down on your anger; what would be the down side?

Perhaps I am foolish to think such thoughts, but please, call me a fool for Christ.  I have dedicated my life to Him and to serving His people in His Church.  I believe deeply, passionately, and whole-heartedly that He is the answer to the problem of human nature.  I believe it is He who can change hearts and transform people so that events like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Killeen, and countless other senseless acts of violence become even more rare.

If guns were the problem, I'd be the first in line to seek a ban on them.  But I am quite positive the problem is deeper and dwells within our very hearts.  There is only one solution, and He's more than willing to go to work.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Problem of Evil

You are never too old for one of those AHA! moments when something finally clicks.

I have read over Timothy Keller's The Reason for God numerous times since I purchased it.  There is a whole lot of stuff in there which requires time for it to sink in and become a part of one's knowledge and understanding.

This past week some of Keller's commentary regarding the problem of evil clicked, and I understood it only too well.  Unfortunately, it was the events in Newtown, CT which made the thoughts come together.

One of the major problems people of faith run into is the problem of evil and perceived meaningless suffering.  When exposed to such things, people wonder how it is a God who is proclaimed to be all-powerful and all-good could allow such atrocities.  The logic goes: if God is all powerful, He would prevent evil from happening.  If He does not prevent evil, He must not be all good.  And if He cannot prevent evil, then He isn't all powerful.

The argument makes a few assumptions to get to its final conclusions, and those assumptions can be called into question; however, I will not go into those assumptions in this post.  Instead, I will unequivocally say that believers have not come up with a good answer to solve this dilemma.  Those who are most honest say, "We do not have a good answer.  We just don't know."

In reality, that is the best answer we can come up with at this point.  Centuries of human thought have gone into trying to come up with a good explanation for the problem of evil, and no one has fully succeeded.  Because of this, some people even confess to cease believing in God.  This is their choice, and I respect their decision to make that choice; however, I, through reading Keller and having it click when I thought about the desperation of those parents who lost children, believe coming to such a conclusion poses even more of a problem.

How so?

First, let's talk a little bit about what Christianity poses as a solution to the problem of evil.  As I said earlier, it does not offer an explanation as to whether or not God allows it, causes it, or how the all-good/all-powerful thing gets resolved.  What it does do is quite striking:

1. It proclaims a God who unequivocally knows suffering.  How does God know such suffering?  Christianity proclaims that God took on human flesh--became just like us--, was unjustly condemned, suffered torture, and then killed in humiliation.  The crucifixion of the fully divine/fully human Jesus shows that God doesn't even let Himself off the hook when it comes to suffering.  The God of Christianity is a God who suffers with humanity.

But that's not all. 

2. Christianity proclaims resurrection, and the promise of said resurrection is that all the wrongs will be made right; all the evil will be overcome; all the bad that happened will be unmade.  Justice will be served.  Those who have died too soon will be reunited with those whom they love.  The resurrection offers a profound hope that everything that seems senseless now will be made clear at some point and that senseless suffering is not the end.  There will be more to the story, and the promised ending is very, very good.

For the parents in Newtown, CT, a Christian can firmly say, "God knows your pain.  He knows what it means to lose a child.  God sheds tears with you and suffers with you.  And God's promise is that you will see your child again.  God's promise is that this is not the end.  This senseless tragedy will one day be unmade."  It doesn't take away the pain.  It doesn't solve the fact that the tragedy took place, but it offers the promise of justice and the promise of hope.

To what then can a non-believer say of such an event?

To what can a non-believer point to when it comes to justice?

To what can a non-believer point to when it comes to the death of innocent children?

To what can a non-believer point to so that hope has the last word?

Is justice the fact that Adam Lanza took his own life?  (Not in my estimation because Lanza was mentally ill and in need of God's restoration himself.)  Does hope come by somehow making sure such a thing will never ever happen again?  (Not in my estimation because the nature of humankind is such that senseless killings will occur no matter what we try to do.  We haven't been able to eradicate them since we came into existence.) 

Without God, there is no restoration.  There is no justice.  Death, suffering, evil--that's the end.  There is no final word.

The problem of evil is solved by neither party, but the ending results are quite different.  One offers justice and hope; the other, not so much.

People often choose to believe what they believe for all sorts of reasons.  As the light bulb clicked for me on this issue, I came to realize how deeply ingrained my need for justice and need for hope is.  Without the promise of either of these two things, I don't think I could function in doing what I do. 

Christianity may not offer the perfect answer for why evil happens, but it offers a pretty good vision of what will happen when God exerts the last word.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

We Need Fewer (Not More) Laws

A Facebook friend put it succinctly, "Our laws are founded upon morals."

I couldn't agree more.  Our nation's laws are indeed founded upon certain moral principles. 

Of course, this particular friend was pushing for more laws concerning gun control in light of the Newtown, CT school shooting.  I disagreed principally in light of the question I asked him, "What morals under gird our current laws in this nation?"

This is a tricky one for most folks in this day and age.  At one point in our nation, the answer would have been, unhesitatingly, "Christian morals and values."

You see, yours truly would argue (even though he hasn't exactly done extensive research into the matter) that our nation's laws were founded upon Juedeo-Christian principles.  Yet, the "great experiment" of our Founding Fathers was to begin a nation founded upon Judeo-Christian principles without trying to force the population to adhere to a particular religion.  One cannot dispute the documentation of our Founding Fathers saying that we believe we have certain rights "endowed by the Creator."  Such is the fashion in which our nation was founded.

Yet, something has happened along the way.  The laws have become separated from the morality which once under girded it.  As our nation has become more pluralistic (see more religiously diverse) and more secular (see a rise in people who claim no religious affiliation), the Judeo-Christian under girding has become more and more eroded and weakened.  How?

Well, in trying to accommodate all views without imposing a particular religious ideology, the culture has generally embraced one of two avenues: relativism--the ideal all viewpoints are equally valid or exclusion of religious/faith-based thought in favor of values based in reason and science.  The former tries to accommodate all at the table; the latter essentially says, "Leave your religious beliefs behind and come to the table with a universal way of talking about things."  These two avenues have significant weaknesses in their approach, and there is not enough time to go into such things right now.  What we can discuss is some of the resulting things which have happened.

Relativism has led to mass confusion, plain and simple.  One need only look at the Christmas season to see the results.  What does one say to another in greeting?  "Merry Christmas?"  "Happy Hanukka?" "Happy Kwanza?"  "Happy Holidays?"  Nothing at all less we offend a non-religious sort?  In trying to please everyone, we end up pleasing no one, and we end up with a mass jumble of stuff.  Now, I am not so arrogant to think that I know the Truth and possess it--in fact, I believe Christianity is less about possessing the Truth but more about being possessed by the Truth--yet, one simply cannot argue that all religious faiths are the same.  There are differences among them, and those differences lead to different ways of acting--ethics, if you wish to use the proper terminology.  Simply put, morals become different across the religious spectrum.  What one must eventually decide is which moral system will provide a nation's under girding of its laws.  We haven't arrived at one yet.

Secularism/rationalism leads to a far different place.  First, it essentially tells people to leave behind the one place they get most of their moral understanding and adopt a totally different view.  This is a bit disingenuous and disrespectful in my estimation, yet, I suppose it can be done.  But what happens when one tries to remove faith from the discussion of ethics?  Where does one go to seek answers to how we are supposed to treat one another?  Science?  Evolution?  Philosophy?  Science tells us how the world works and helps us make technology.  Science has fallen short in helping us see how we should use said technology.  Philosophy, when pushed to its extreme leads to nihilism--see Nietzsche.  Evolution?   Within it's study, we see that groups do well to take care of their own, but nature is governed by the survival of the fittest.  Do we really want that under girding our laws?  Do we want fight or flight to be the norm of our behavior?  I certainly don't.

I personally am in favor of seeking out an agreed upon religious, faith based under girding for our laws.  I'd personally argue that the Judeo-Christian tradition should be that under girding for a couple of reasons:

1. At its core is a God/man who willingly dies for his enemies and offers forgiveness to them as they are killing him.  This is respect for another's point of view to the extreme.

2. At its core is the realization that none measure up to the way we should act and we are saved not by what we do, but by what God has done for us.  This theoretically should lead to humility.

3. At its core it recognizes all human beings are created in the image of God and are worthy of respect and dignity (see human rights).

4. At it's core, it simplifies the law--love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Wouldn't it be a trip if those two laws governed everything.  Heck, atheists could even skip out of the first part and just focus on the second part: love your neighbor as yourself.  (Yours truly believes the first under girds the second, but there are quite a few non-believers who do the second without the first--and do it very well.)  What would the world/our nation look like if we simply followed those two laws?  What would that do to violence and theft and bullying and other such notions if we actually put those things into practice?

I know, I'm living out a fantasy right now.  Folks don't follow those two laws, but what if they provided the moral framework for how we lived with each other and the laws we passed?  Would we need the thousands of pages of laws that we currently have?  Would we need such a complex web weaved to try and tell us what we should and shouldn't do?

I don't think so.  I think it would give us tremendous freedom and tremendous responsibility.  It would give us a framework of how we are supposed to use the scientific technology we have been gifted with.  It would give us a basis for how we treat one another--including those with mental illness and those pushed to the margins of society.  It would help us address the rampant greed and materialism found in much of our culture.  It would help us battle the sense of entitlement portions of our society have embraced.

It's not likely to happen.  Our legislators will continue to add more and more laws to the books with more and more hope of making our lives safer and better.  I can't see such work coming to fruition.  I believe we need fewer laws, not more, and I believe we could get away with it if we embraced the greatest two.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why I am Not Afraid to Send My Children to School

I hate dealing with the fallout of atrocities. 

There's something quite unpleasant about it.

There's the emotional knee-jerk reactions that always seem to find their way to discussion.

There's the need to find reasons why such atrocities occur.

There's the need to post blame.

Then, there's the reaction played out in our individual responses to such things.  Unfortunately, fear tends to be a big, big driver of such emotions.  As a parent, I understand.  You want to protect your kids.  You want to keep them safe.  You want to keep them secure and give them the chance to experience life.  You are willing to offer up the cosmic bargain, "God take me, but spare my kids!"

Really, I understand.  I do. I mean it.  But there is a time for emoting, and there is a time for thinking.  The latter at some point must begin overruling the former.

Without hesitation, I sent my kids to school this morning.  There was no thought of worry.  There was no thought of wondering if they would be safe.  There was no consideration of their schools' safety procedures or protocols.  Nothing of the sort crossed my mind even in light of the school shooting in Newtown, CT.

Why?  Don't I care?  Aren't I the least bit moved and concerned?

I am no more concerned about taking my kids to school this day than I am about buckling them into their car seats and driving them down the road at 60 to 80 miles per hour.  In one of those scenarios, the kids have a much greater chance of coming to harm than the other.  Can you guess which one?

If you guessed the car, you would be correct. 

My kids have a greater chance of coming to harm on their trip to school than while they are at school.  That's simply a fact, but do I think twice about buckling them up and taking a drive?  No.  Not at all.  Even though the odds are greater they would get hurt in an accident, I'll still take them for a drive without thinking mostly because I THINK I'M IN CONTROL OF THE SITUATION.

That's the real deal, isn't it.  I think I've got control of things.  I think I can protect my kids when they are with me.  But is that really the case?  Do we really believe it is within our power to protect our children and ourselves at all times and in all places?  Do we really believe we can prevent our kids and ourselves from coming to harm? 

If you believe you can, I believe you suffer from a delusion. 

The truth of life is that we take calculated risks every day, and most of the time, we don't even realize we are doing it.  We take a risk when we climb into our vehicles.  We take a risk when we plug in an electrical appliance.  We take a risk when we walk under a tree.  We take a risk when we walk into a room full of people.  We take a risk when we own a dog.  We take a risk when we walk down a side walk. 

In each of those ordinary things we do, the potential for something very bad to happen is very real, but we don't even think about it because if we did, we would be paralyzed with fear.  If we thought of every possible bad thing that could happen to us in the midst of our daily lives and worried it could happen to us, we would go completely nuts!

Yet, when a tragedy strikes and images are brought into our homes, we get the sense that such things are right around the corner destined to happen to us and our kids.  When television and computers bring tragedies from thousands or hundreds of miles away from us right before our faces, some become convinced such things are common and will happen to us--when we have a whole lifetime of other experiences that are to the contrary.  We focus on that one moment and allow our emotions to take over when we should look at the evidence that bad things happen, but they happen rarely.  The risk is quite minimal.

Realizing such things gives one perspective, and I hope, courage.  Courage is something that we admire greatly.  After 911, people applauded the bravery of firemen and police and first responders and lauded their courage.  Yet, afterward, many clamored in fear.  As a result, we've had a very expensive war on terror costing American lives, billions of dollars, and the formation of the TSA which violates our constitutional rights each time we fly on an airplane.  The courageous response would to have been to thumb our noses at the terrorists and say, "You got us this time, but try pulling out box cutters on a plane again.  We'll be ready for you.  You will not restrict the freedoms we have!"

What are the lessons to be learned from the most recent school shooting?  What shall we learn about guns and mental illness and socially outcast people?  Will we respond in fear or courage? 

This father is responding in courage and faith.  I'm sending my kids to school without hesitation.  Could something happen to them?  Sure.  Would I be devastated if it did?  Sure.  Crushed, but I'm going to take the chance.

You can't live in fear.

Live in faith.

Sunday's Sermon: Strength and Humility

Very few people like an overbearing person. Perhaps you have experienced just such a person in your life–you know, the type of person who thinks he or she knows everything there is to know about life and how you should run your life a certain way and these are the things you should and shouldn’t do. Anyone ever run into such a person?

I don’t know why it is that as a pastor I have run into my fair share of such folks, and no, I’m not talking about people I serve in congregations. I’m talking about people I meet in the course of my life outside of church. More than a few times, I’m minding my own business, and someone strikes up a conversation with me. We exchange pleasantries and perhaps talk about the weather. Sooner or later, if we have a prolonged exchange, the person will ask me, "So, what do you do for a living?"

I usually think, "Oh, boy, here we go." I think this because there are generally two responses. The first is a, "Oh really reaction, and then the conversation dies a quick death." The other is a, "Oh, you’re a preacher. Now, let me tell you what’s wrong with this world." In the next few minutes, I am subjected to this person’s personal theology and how this world would be better off if folks just did x, y, or z. After their diatribe, they will usually end with, "Don’t you think so?"

I’ve made the mistake once or twice of disagreeing. That’s never a pleasant experience after that. Usually, I don’t get a word in defense or otherwise before the person launches into a second diatribe as to why I should believe exactly as they do complete with Bible quotes, television preacher quotes, and a bit of internet speak thrown in.

I’ve learned it doesn’t necessarily pay to argue with such a person. Usually, this type of person is so focused on his or her world view that any alternate does not compute, and no matter what you say or how you say it, nothing will become of it. Sometimes a silent nod is a great way to end the conversation and get away. Perhaps you have had a like experience. And perhaps, just perhaps you have walked away thinking to yourself, "I never, ever want to be like that."

Certainly, most of us don’t want to be like that, and so we head right to the other direction. Instead of being firm in our convictions and willing to state what we believe and why, we just kind of go along with the flow. We become agreeable just to avoid conflict and avoid any sort of awkwardness of dealing with someone who is strong willed. We acquiesce to certain things publically and then go on a private rant later amongst those who agree exactly as we agree. It just seems to be easier that way.

Yet, this too poses problems, for it allows those with strong opinions and strong beliefs to dominate in the public sphere. It allows them to set the policy and direction of our communities, states and nations. Before long, those with opposing opinions and beliefs are at one another’s throats, and things become polarized. Those who might have been able to bring a different perspective–an alternative perspective–with a little more grey area are shut out and shut down and left caught between the two poles.

Neither approach seems to be a viable approach. And neither approach is frankly Christian in my estimation. After all, we as Christians are called to be out and about in the world. "Be in the world, but not of the world," Jesus said. We are also called to make disciples of all nations teaching them everything that Jesus commanded us. We cannot do this by remaining quiet and agreeable. It is our job to teach and proclaim in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Yet, how do we do such a thing without coming across as arrogant, as a know-it all, or as overbearing? Is it possible to stand firm in one’s convictions, state them plainly without judgment, and still remain connected to someone we may disagree vehemently with?

I think so. I think it’s very possible, and believe it or not, I’d like to point to our Gospel lesson this morning to illustrate this. And, believe it or not, I’m going to use John the Baptist as an illustration.

Now, this might seem quite strange. At first read, John comes across as an arrogant overbearing type of personality. Listen to his words once more, "You brood of vipers! (I’m sure John didn’t have any friends in sensitivity class.) Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor"; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ 10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

John isn’t holding back anything here. He’s laying all things out on the line. Powerfully. Forcefully. Perhaps even arrogantly. John knows what is expected of those who are God-fearing people. He knows what it means to act with justice. He knows what it means to live a life dedicated to God. He’s not ashamed to share it with others.

Yet, John is also humble. Some might not get that picture of John the Baptist as he stands in the Judean countryside yelling at people and telling them to repent. Yet, listen once again to what John does.

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

John doesn’t hold back the truth when folks start asking him about whether or not he is the Messiah. "No," John says, "I’m not. There’s someone greater than me who is coming." Think about that admission. Think about it hard. Does someone who is arrogant really believe there is someone who is greater than them? Does someone who is overbearing believe there is someone who has better answers and more knowledge?

Not usually. Hardly, in fact. John knew he wasn’t the be-all and end-all. John knew there was someone greater, and he wasn’t afraid to admit it. He wasn’t afraid to let others know he was limited. He wasn’t afraid to be humble.

And so, as I look at John the Baptist this morning, I see a role model for those of us who are called to be engaged in working in the world. I see someone who isn’t afraid to stand up for the convictions and beliefs in God–someone who is full of strength. And I see someone who is humbled by the fact that he knows he isn’t the greatest. Strength and humility coming together at one and the same time. Go and do likewise. Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fear Not Good News!: A Response to the Sandy Hook School Shooting

Fear not Good News, great joy to all people!
Fear not Good News, a Savior, Christ is born!
Fear not Good News, He'll conquer every evil!
Fear not Good News, a Savior, Christ has come!

So sang our choir on December 9th of this year at our congregation's Christmas cantata.  The words were based upon the angel's proclamation to the shepherds who were watching their flocks on the night of Jesus' birth.  I can only imagine the hope that filled the hearts of the shepherds when they heard this news.

All Jews were awaiting the coming of the promised Messiah who would do exactly what the angels proclaimed: bring peace, bring justice, end evil, and restore creation to the way God intended it when He first created it.  The miraculous proclamation on that hillside seemed to indicate that time was now upon the earth.  A child was born who would issue such a blessed world in.

Each year, millions upon millions of Christians gather to celebrate this event in candlelight services on Christmas Eve and in worship on Christmas Day.  They hear the reports of Good News of great joy, and most return to their homes filled with warm-fuzzies.

It's unfortunate that many Christians then skip the next Sunday at church, at least here in the U.S.  For every so often a rather dark text follows these services of light and hope and peace--the text regarding the Holy Innocents.  It seems that after Jesus was born, news of his birth reached King Herod who had a bit of a jealous streak in him.  Herod wanted to be king, and he didn't want anyone usurping his power.  When he found out another possible king was born, he ordered his soldiers to go to Bethlehem and murder all infants ages 2 and younger.  The soldiers carried out his orders.  Scriptures report, "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."  (Matthew 2:18)

It is a stark contrast to the hope and expectation of Christmas day.  From the high of peace on earth and goodwill toward men and the expectation of the destruction of evil to the low of innocent children's blood shed by a mentally imbalanced king.

I believe the story of the Holy Innocents is included in Scripture for a purpose: a purpose that might sound harsh to some, but a purpose none-the-less.  I believe Matthew is trying to communicate to you and me that Jesus' birth was not going to change the way the world worked.  There would be no theology of glory in this story. 

(When I say "theology of glory" I refer to the train of thought in some branches of Christianity that says when a person becomes a Christian, no longer do bad things occur to a person.  The convert will find themselves healthy, wealthy, and wise because of their faith.  I do not believe the Scriptures support such a notion, and certainly the teachings of Jesus do not.)

In the past 24 hours, I have seen more than a few comments on Facebook and in news stories wondering how it is possible for someone to kill innocent babies/children.  Orthodox Christianity provides an answer, and it is all too unflattering:

The human creature has a streak of evil running through it.

Please note, I did not say the human creature was evil.  That is far too simplistic.  But neither do I say the human creature is good.  The human creature has within it the capability of committing tremendously good things, but it also has the capacity for committing horrendous atrocities--even the capacity of killing innocent children.

It is this fundamental premise of human nature that orthodox Christianity begins with.  We do not suggest that a person is born good and somehow learns evil.  We do not begin with the premise that a person is born totally evil and somehow learns good.  We believe each and every person is a mixture of both: saint and sinner, and these two natures are constantly at war with one another.

It is unfortunate in my estimation that shortly after the shootings (and I am sure in the coming weeks) all sorts of reactions will be forthcoming.  There will be focus on guns.  There will be focus on mental illness.  There will be focus on divorce and the family environment in which the shooter was raised.  Yet, I wonder just how much focus will be given to the real problem--the problem of human nature and the almost blatant unwillingness of we ourselves to look in the mirror and confront the problem of our own sinful nature.

Perhaps we don't really want to go there as a society and as a people.  After all, that would mean we'd have to acknowledge that we are the problem, and it would also mean that we'd have to acknowledge that we cannot fix said problem.

That's the hell of it for some.  Some would like to believe that we can fix ourselves:

If we only spent enough time educating ourselves and our children...
If we only spent enough time in therapy...
If we only could find the right medication and the perfect dose...
If we only took away anything that could be used as a weapon...
If we only took the time to watch how people act and look for the warning signs...

We are so arrogant to think that we can fix a problem that the ancients have wrestled with since our beginnings!  They couldn't fix it, and they had much more time to think about it than we do!

(Please spare me the misguided notion that we are somehow more intelligent than those who have gone before us.  Perhaps we have advanced technologically further, but it could well be argued that with the advanced in technological prowess, our emotional maturity has actually regressed!)

For thousands of years, humans have tried to find a way to live in peace and harmony, and we have been unsuccessful.  For thousands of years we have tried to fix the problems that ail us, and we have failed.  It is plain to me that we need a fix from outside of ourselves, and I believe it is God who has offered such a fix through and in the person of Jesus.

And it is not Jesus' birth that provides that fix.  Rather, it is the end of his life and the new beginning experienced right after it.  For, you see, in my estimation, and in the estimation of many theologians and writers who have gone before, it is in Jesus' death and resurrection that we get a glimmer of hope as we gaze at the tragedies of this world--tragedies that we can neither prevent or fix.

First off, Jesus died a horrible, unjust death.  Jesus didn't die naturally of old age.  He didn't die of cancer or disease.  He died at the hands of an unjust system that falsely accused him, made him suffer horrendously in front of his family members and friends, and then killed him in a humiliating fashion.  Jesus suffered as we suffer.  He died as we die.  This might not be such a significant deal except for the fact that orthodox Christians proclaim Jesus as God the Son.  In no other religion does God suffer and die for people--only in Christianity does God propose to do something so preposterous.  God is not above our suffering.  God is not above our pain.  God is not above our grief.  All of these things, God knows on an intimate level, and so God understands the grief of those who lose children in senseless ways--like school shootings.

But there is more than simply God understanding.  Jesus' death was not the end.  There is a whole other aspect to this Christian faith: the resurrection.  If Jesus' death were the end, we would be left with a God who suffers with, but a very unsatisfactory conclusion.  What about justice?  What about the problem of evil?  What about peace on earth and goodwill toward all? 

Jesus' resurrection offers us a vision of the end.  Jesus resurrection offers us a sense of what God will one day accomplish: death will not be the end; injustice will not be the end; grief will not be the end; pain and suffering will not be the end.  New life will be the end.  God's reign will be the end.  Restoration will be the end as evil is defeated.  This is the promise of Christ's raising from the dead, and it is the hope to which we hold onto.

The grief in Sandy Hook is palpable.  Many feel it and grieve with those who lost their children.  As someone who has performed more funerals for children than I would have cared to (one is too many), I offer the same words to them as I do to grieving parents:

Grieve.  Don't hold back.  Shed your tears for they are necessary, but know that God is also grieving with you.  God is shedding His own tears because He knows the pain you are experiencing.  God has lost a child as well, but God has also raised that child from the dead.  God would not let death have the final say for His child, and He will not let death have the final say for yours.  Grieve this day.  Let your sobs reach down to your core.  Grieve, but do not despair.  Despair is for those who have no hope, but we who have faith, have hope.  Hope that one day you will be reunited with your child, hope that one day God will fix the brokenness of humankind and of this world; hope that one day all things will be made new.  This is the hope we cling to will all of our strength.  Never let it go. 

It is such hope that allows us to live the proclamation of the angels:

Fear not, Good News, great joy for all people!
Fear not, Good News, a Savior, Christ is born!
Fear not, Good News, he'll conquer every evil!
Fear not, Good News, a Savior, Christ has come! 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

When Athiests Seek Disciples

The American Atheists are at it again.  This time, they've purchased a billboard in Times Square in New York proclaiming "Keep the Merry, Drop the Myth."  (I guess someone forgot to tell them there isn't a war on Christmas anymore.)  ((Tongue now removed from cheek.))

Am I offended by this display?

No.  Not hardly.  Not only do the American Atheists have every right to put these thoughts out there, and not only do the American Atheists have every right to seek converts to their way of thinking, but I think we as Christians ought to welcome their challenge.

For too long, American Christianity has had it easy.  We were the dominant religious group by far--and we still are.  Everything in the culture revolved around our calendar, and for the most part, it still does.  Schools still have Christmas break, and many have Easter break; although the Christian influence is certainly waning.  Some schools have gone away from having a couple of days off at Easter.  Many sporting groups are unhesitating about scheduling events on Sunday mornings.  Such things would not have happened 40 years ago, but they do now.

And what has been the Christian response?

Sometimes anger, but it is an anger rooted in an "I'm offended that you do this, but I'm still going to brink my kids to play sports instead of taking them to church."  The folks who schedule the games win.

Other times, it's an anger of, "Those people shouldn't schedule events on Sunday morning."  Why?  "Because people go to church."  And if people choose to take their kids to sports instead of church?  "Those parents ought to be tarred and feathered."  But it is their choice, isn't it?  They are free to do it?  "But it isn't right?"  Then perhaps you should go talk to those parents who are taking their kids to the ballgames and let them know.  "I'm not going to do that.  You go do it.  I've got other things to do." 

This is called shirking responsibility and trying to pawn it off on someone else.

Other Christians have almost gleefully embraced the move away from what is called Christendom with a kind of now-we-can-get-away-from-the-cultural-trappings-and-return-to-first-century-Christianity attitude.  Yet, such embrasure has led to church attendance decline, decline of revenues, and a further irrelevance of the faith to today's culture.

Others have intellectually embraced relativism and universalism essentially saying, "It really doesn't matter what you believe.  Just try to be a good person."  (This is actually the utmost in laziness in my estimation.)

A very few, have taken the challenges of atheism and science seriously.  A very few have taken the intellectual step to engage atheists and others who seek to convert Christians to the atheistic world view.  They have chosen to look at the athiests' arguments, wrestle with them, dissect them, find their weaknesses, see how Christian arguments stack up against atheist arguments, and then put all the stuff on the table to let people decide.  I've enjoyed reading the works of these Christians.

One of the first things each of these Christian authors will articulate is the need for Christians to embrace doubt--to realize that our faith cannot be proved by reason or science.  And the dirty little secret is the very basis of atheistic arguments are based in faith--unprovable assumptions as well.  Sometimes this is a very discomforting thought both to atheists and Christians, but it is the truth, none-the-less.  And it is from this point that atheists and Christians can both come to the table, engage one another, and take a serious look at the questions we both face and see who might answer the deep questions of life better.

If we can actually reach this level of conversation, I am quite confident in Christianity's ability to not only defend itself, but bring people to faith.  It's got a 2000 year track record of being pretty successful at it and helping people find meaning, purpose, and sustenance. 

Christians are called to make disciples.

Atheists are trying to do likewise.

Let's put the chips on the table without shame, offense, or anger.  Let's put our world views out there for all to see, and let's see who ultimately can bring hope to the world.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

School Christmas Programs

I have this love/hate relationship with school Christmas programs.

I love watching my kids play a role in the programs.

I love how cute the kids are in their performances.

I love how teachers manage to herd a hundreds of kids around and pull off a performance that at times brings laughter to all.

But I hate what school Christmas programs have become.

Please let me explain.

Last night, my youngest daughter's program was held at the Bellville, TX auditorium.  We heard a story about Santa losing his mojo and Christmas spirit.  There was all types of commentary about how we've lost the sense of what Christmas was all about.  It's not about presents and Santa (no wonder Santa's lost his mojo!), but it should be about peace on earth and goodwill toward all people.

That's all well and good.  I agree with the premise.  Christmas should not be focused on presents and Santa and Christmas trees and frenzied cooking and baking and trying to make everyone happy by refraining from saying "Merry Christmas" lest someone gets offended and all the other trappings which turn this season into one of the most depressing and stressful times of the year.  No argument from me on that one, but why?  Why say this is a time for peace on earth and goodwill toward men?  Shouldn't that be the focus 365 days a year?  What makes this time special for saying such a thing? 

I'm waiting....

Give me a good secular reason for saying we should focus on peace on earth during the last month of the year.

Give me a good reason for saying we should treat each other better at this time of year instead of any other time of the year.

Give me a good reason why people should go out of their way to help others enjoy Christmas and get stuff that is based in reason, science, evolution and secular humanism.

I find it simply ludicrous that schools and other places are forced to remove the very basis from whence we get the commentary, "Peace on earth and goodwill toward men."  I find it simply ludicrous that schools have to have a program about losing the spirit of Christmas, and it is restored by people making jingling noises with keys, little bells and any other sort of thing which makes that kind of noise.  Talk about majorly superficial!

Santa, based upon St. Nicholas got his mojo because of his relationship with Jesus Christ.

Peace on earth and goodwill toward men comes straight from the birth of Jesus narrative--you know, when the angel proclaimed in Luke 2: 14, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Without the religious undertones, the holiday becomes the flashes of what we see on the news: people lining up to buy cheap crap; people pushing and shoving to get what they want; people hurrying, rushing, stressing out and becoming depressed. 

No wonder we've lost the meaning of Christmas.  And lawyers and others have insured we'll keep removing it from the public sphere more and more.  Absurd.

Did I say I had a love/hate relationship with my kids' Christmas programs?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The "War" on Christmas

As we have entered the Christmas season, once again there are those who speak about the war on Christmas.  Obligatorily, we are confronted by cases of atheists or secular humanists bringing lawsuits against cities, towns, and other places to remove religious symbols from the public square.  Obligatorily, we are confronted by those who declare that such actions are a war against Christmas, Christians, and the principles upon which the United States was founded.

In response, we hear folks proclaim there is really no war on Christmas, and the stuff we see bantered about is merely tended to anger and incite.  There are those who offer great apologetics in stating that the public sphere should really have no say in religious thought or proclamation, and such proclamation should be left to those with a religious bent.  There are those who respond that such acts by atheists and others are nothing to worry about because this isn't persecution.  If we look historically at what Christians have actually suffered--burning at the stake, fed to lions, beheadings, crucifixion--then what is going on today isn't really persecution; not to mention the fact that Christians have actually perpetrated such things in the past against non-religious folks and people of other faiths. 

Interestingly enough, yours truly believes both of these particular viewpoints to be true simultaneously.  I personally do not believe there is a war against Christmas, but I do believe Christmas each year has become a battle for a much larger war waged against the Judeo-Christian worldview.  I do believe there is an undercurrent in our society which seeks to drive religious faith from the public sphere, and I believe this is an attack upon the fundamental principles our nation was founded upon.   Whenever such groups seek to bring lawsuits against nativity scenes being displayed on public property or threaten lawsuits because a school is taking a group of kids to see "A Charlie Brown Christmas" this undercurrent is raising its head.

Yet, I also believe such attack is not religious persecution.  At least not yet, it isn't.  We as Christians still have the right and freedom to worship where we choose and how we choose.  No one can remove any religious symbols from our homes and private property.  Such areas are still very, very safe, and no one is being arrested for doing such things. 

So, depending upon a person's perspective and what he or she chooses to see, one can make the case that there is indeed a war on Christmas or that what is going on is perfectly acceptable and well within the legal ramifications of our nation.

What is dismaying for yours truly is the realization that the battles at Christmas are the symptom of an eroding of the underlying principles which used to uphold the laws of our nation.

That might sound a bit convoluted, so let me try to explain such commentary and condense much of the reading I have done by authors such as Neuhaus, Keller, Sacks, et. al.

The founding fathers of our nation were not shy about acknowledging that many of our fundamental rights as human beings were endowed, not by evolution or science, but by the Creator.  Their ideas of the Creator were shaped mostly by Protestant Christianity with a hint of deism thrown in there--anyone who suggests deism was the rule of the day is deluding themselves.  However, the founding fathers intentionally left any specifics in regards to the Creator because they did not want to have a national church and encounter the religious wars perpetrated upon Europe due to the conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism.  This has come back to bite us royally today.

As our nation progressed and became more diverse, it moved from Protestant principles to an acceptance of Protestant/Catholic principles to an acceptance of Protestant/Catholic/Jewish principles.  The basic under girding was the same in each of these faith traditions, but somewhere along the line, the idea that all world views were created equally popped into the national conscious.  This had devastating effects for the under girding of our laws, for not all world views are created equally, and they certainly are not all equal.

One can hardly argue the world view of a radical who is willing to fly a plane into buildings and kill thousands is on a par with the world view of Mother Teresa.  Yet, there is an ideology which seeks to proclaim that all world views are equal.  In the face of competing world views, our nations laws have to be reinterpreted.

For instance, where does the line move to?  As valedictorian of my high school class, I gave thanks to God for His gifts to me and my classmates.  Is this freedom of religious expression--guaranteed by my constitutional rights, or, in approving my speech for delivery, is the school which receives state funding, endorsing a religion?  That depends upon your world view, and the law has decidedly moved into the second of those two thoughts.

That would have never happened early in the history of our nation.  The beliefs under girding the principles were too strong at that point, but those beliefs have been weakened considerably.  There are all sorts of reasons--the continued rise of science, people being exposed to other religions, the teaching of relativism, and, most importantly, in my estimation: THE ABJECT FAILURE OF THE CHURCH TO BRING FORTH ANY SORT OF APOLOGETICS TO COUNTER THE RISE IN SECULARISM.

For, you see, I am quite worried that if our nation loses its underpinning of believing our rights are endowed by a Creator, then what is left?  From whence do we draw this understanding of human rights?  Where do we find that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  Does evolution guarantee such things?  Hardly.  Spend a bit of time in nature and see for yourself.  Study biological systems and see for yourself that life is a whim subject to predator/prey.  See that freedom is non-existent and that nature is dominated by the strong over the weak.  Happiness?  What is happiness in nature?  Without civilization, there is no happiness--only survival.  Evolution cannot guarantee human rights.  Read Nietzsche.  You will see.

Yet, if secular humanists and atheists are successful in removing God from the public square through the use of the law, what is left?  Without the under girding world view to support our rights, will such rights erode as well?  Those who think asking such a question is far-fetched, I point to recent history to show that it is not.  If we aren't asking the question and being on guard, then pogroms, killing fields, and other such atrocities become much more than possibilities.

I think the only thing that can guarantee human rights and the dignity of the individual is the belief in a Creator--belief in God.  Of course, then the argument becomes "which one?"  I'll stand by my assertion Christianity rises to the challenge as Christianity does not (at least Orthodox Christianity) seek to obtain political power and strength, but instead has at its heart a man willing to forgive and die for those who crucified Him.  Whenever Christians have committed such atrocities in the past, they have not lived up to their leader, and if they would, they would realize the importance of seeing each individual as made in the image of God; they would see each individual as being endowed with certain rights; they would see each individual as deserving of respect, and they would honor that individual, even if it meant sacrificing some of what they wanted to ensure the dignity of another.

To me, such a world view is worth fighting for...not on a battle field or with fists or lawsuits, but by persuasion and apologetics.  The "war on Christmas" is meaningless.  The war for the heart and soul of our nation and its basic assumption of human rights is not.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: And This is My Prayer

I remember running across a timely little story about two guys who had been shipwrecked on a desert island. The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agreed that they had no other recourse but to pray to God. However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the island.

The first thing they prayed for was food. The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the land, and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man's parcel of land remained barren.
After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to pray for a wife. The next day, another ship was wrecked, and the only survivor was a woman who swam to his side of the land. On the other side of the island, there was nothing.

Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, more food. The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However, the second man still had nothing.

Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship with his wife and decided to leave the second man on the island. He considered the other man unworthy to receive God's blessings, since none of his prayers had been answered.

As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice from heavenbooming, "Why are you leaving your companion on the island?"

"My blessings are mine alone, since I was the one who prayed for them," the first man answered. "His prayers were all unanswered and so he does not deserve anything."

"You are mistaken!" the voice rebuked him. "He had only one prayer, which I answered. If not for that, you would not have received any of my blessings."

"Tell me," the first man asked the voice, "What did he pray for that I should owe him anything?"

God replied, "He prayed that all your prayers be answered."

The memory of this story came to me as I was preparing this sermon and as I read St. Paul’s words to us from the first chapter of Philippians. "And this is my prayer," says Paul, "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."

Paul’s prayer struck me as a selfless prayer devoid of thoughts of himself and of his own needs. Instead, he focused on the needs of this congregation in Philippi and the things that would truly empower them to stand before God in holiness and righteousness. Paul prayed with another person’s best interests in mind instead of his own.

Contemplate that for a moment as you contemplate your own prayer life. Contemplate the things you pray for and how you approach the Almighty. Do your prayers share the same quality of the man in the story and of St. Paul? Do your prayers center on others or on yourself?

I think if we are honest, our prayers center on both. There are times when we uplift others in prayer, and there are more than a few times we uplift ourselves and pray for the things we want. I mean, going back to last week, the Powerball hit a huge number of over $500 million. Anyone besides me buy a ticket? I bought one, and my prayers concerning it were selfish. Of course, I bargained with God. I told him that I’d be able to do a whole lot of good in giving away a good chunk of change. I told him this congregation would benefit; that the food pantry would benefit; that people in need would benefit, and of course they would have.
However, God also knew that there was in my heart a deep desire for my own financial benefit. He knew that my desires to help others wasn’t just based on my desire to help others–it was mainly based on my desire to accumulate more wealth. At the heart of the prayer wasn’t only a desire to help others but to help myself.

And, of course, there isn’t anything wrong with praying for our desires and wants. That’s part of the life of prayer. God wants to know such things. God wants to hear us express those thoughts and desires. He wants us to be honest, not only with Him but with ourselves. And being honest with ourselves and the deepest desires of our hearts helps us to discern whether or not we are being self-centered or God-centered in our prayers.

I didn’t win the Powerball, and I didn’t pray for anyone around here to win it either. My prayers were self-centered on this one, without question.

But, there were other prayers that were definitely focused on others. A few weeks ago when Remington Reichardt was having surgery, I spent an hour that morning in prayer for her. I sat in our prayer room in the office and sought to uplift her and the doctors and those caring for her during the course of her surgery. I’m continuing to lift her up in prayer as they begin turning on the deep implant devices. I stand to gain nothing by this prayer. Remington, Courtney, Russell, and Rhys stand to gain a whole lot. It’s a different kind of prayer.
I know many of you were praying the same prayer as well, and what happened during her surgery?
Remington’s recovery was amazing. She was home from the hospital much sooner than expected and has done very well even getting to attend her own fundraiser just a few nights later. Did prayer have an effect? If you ask me, you bet it did. And most of those prayers were not centered on ourselves. Big difference.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every time you pray for someone to receive something, they will get it. That’s not going to happen. Prayer doesn’t work that way, and I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now, but what I do want to suggest is that when we pray for the best interests of others, those prayers have a higher likelihood of coming true than if we pray for ourselves. When we pray for the best possible outcomes for our neighbors and friends and family, things tend to work out better because not only are prayers more likely to be answered, we are also more likely to view them in a different light. We are more likely to view them with more compassion, more love, and more dignity.

Think about what this world would be like if we prayed as St. Paul prayed. Think about what this world would be like if we prayed that all people would be filled with the knowledge of God so that they might discern what is best to do and be. Think about what the world would be like if we selflessly lifted up others in prayer in this fashion and others then lifted us up likewise. "This is my prayer," said St. Paul, "that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God." Amen.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Respecting the Flag

I stood and watched a woman shed tears today.

They were not tears of sadness.

At the last minute, I was invited to give the invocation and closing prayer at the dedication of a flag pole at the new police station in Bellville, TX.  The lady who was running the program called at about 10 a.m. telling me the pastor she had lined up to handle the ceremony had an emergency come up and was not able to attend.  She wondered if I might have time to handle the responsibilities on such short notice.

Normally, Fridays are my day off.  I usually don't work or respond to anything on Friday unless it's an emergency. 

This was different.  I could have said no, but it was something I didn't feel I could turn down.  I have deep respect for such gatherings, and I am truly glad I went.

Gathered there were numerous veterans who had come to participate in this moment.

Gathered there were the Bellville chapter of the Woodmen of the World.

Gathered there were various elected city officials.

Gathered there were other workers who had come to observe this dedication on a significant day in the life of our nation--Pearl Harbor Day.

I gave the invocation, and the rest of the ceremony proceeded.  The flag was presented by the veterans to the police chief, and the chief ran the flag up the staff.  He then lowered it to half-mast.  We said the Pledge of Allegiance.  We heard words about Pearl Harbor Day.  We heard a poem about the flag, and then Taps was played.

The elderly woman in front of me had tears rolling down her face.  As the song finished, she wiped them away.

Usually, I am not moved that deeply by such ceremonies.  I am proud to be an American citizen and proud of my country and the people who served it.  My heart gives a leap, and I feel a deep sense of pride when I am a part of such ceremonies, but I do not shed tears. 

Others do.  Something deep within them is struck, and the emotions run deep.  Their respect is something to behold.

I thought about those vets there today.  I thought about this woman shedding tears.  I thought about what they stood for and what they went through.  Some of those vets fought in WWII.  That woman was around when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  She and her family probably sacrificed much in that war effort.  And that flag became a very important symbol for them--very important.

I thought about those who burn the flag and their arguments for why they do so.  I thought about how these folks gathered here must feel about seeing such things.  I thought about the fact that some of those standing there had fought for the right for someone to do such a thing.  And I thought, "A person may have the right to burn the flag of our nation, but is such a thing the responsible thing to do?"

As I mulled this over, I thought, "No.  Such an act is not responsible.  It's highly disrespectful for those whom this flag stands as such a symbol, and a respectful person who stood there looking at this woman and that group of old men who fought, wouldn't dare do such a thing.  They would express their disapproval of things in a more respectful fashion."

I was taught early on to respect the flag of our country.

Today, I understand a little more just what it means to do that.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Gun Control and Bob Costas

Since losing my voracious appetite for watching football, I rarely tune into any games.  Perhaps I will watch a few moments here and there, catching a play or two before heading off to other endeavors or crashing out at night, but those moments are pretty rare.  Happenstance, I had decided to catch one of those moments on Sunday night during the Cowboys/Eagles' game.  Happenstance, it was halftime.   And, happenstance, I caught Bob Costas' commentary on the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide in Kansas City.

Costas caught all sorts of flack for these comments.  Apparently, he believes he was misunderstood and violated his own reporting rules by tackling a complex issue in too small a time frame.  I think he's trying to cover his tail end, but I'll let you decide.

As a pastor and gun owner, I pause in wonder sometimes at such commentary.  Costas paints some broad generalizations regarding a "gun culture" and some of the things happening in society.  I think Costas needs to get out more and realize there is more than one gun culture in this nation.  There is a legal gun culture and an illegal one.

Costas tells the story that Tony Dungee once asked his team, "How many of you own a gun?"  65 out of 80 raised their hands.  Costas makes two assumptions.  He says "Even if they were all obtained legally..." casting doubt that all the gun owners legally possessed their firearms, and then suggests young males subject to impulse shouldn't own guns because they will make violent choices. 

Costas makes an incredible leap of logic.  First, just think about the numbers of professional athletes.  If 85% of said athletes own firearms, the actual number of those committing crimes with said firearms is minuscule--on the magnitude of between 1 and 5 percent.  That's very, very small in proportion to the number of athletes who own guns.  Secondly, his conclusion that young males who are subject to impulses combined with firearms will lead to tragedy--perhaps this is the case in the illegal gun culture, but in the legal culture, I believe it is less likely to happen.  Sure, there are stories of firearms being discharged by kids who fatally kill other kids.  There are also stories of parents who leave their firearms within reach of their children, and bad things happen.  There's no dismissing such stories.  Yet, it is still a fact that more kids drown in  personal swimming pools than get killed by guns.  No one is going after swimming pools. 

And, on a personal note, kids in the legal gun culture tend to be trained and monitored by their parents.  I received my first gun when I was seven years old.  It was a bb gun.  I received it on Christmas with the timely advice, "If I see you point this at a person or an animal or anything you shouldn't point it at, I will break it over your backside."  My dad meant what he said, and I followed his advice.  Furthermore, my dad taught me the destructive power of guns at an early age.  At about the same age, dad took me out one morning with my great grandfather's double barrel shot gun.  I'm not talking about the newer models which are light weight and pretty easy to maneuver.  I'm talking about the old time guns which are heavy and deliver a punch when you squeeze the trigger.  Dad made me shoot the gun.  It nearly knocked me down.  I learned a lesson about the power of those guns, and to this day, I have a very healthy respect for them.  I've hunted since I was 12 or so, and, through my dad, I purchased my first gun when I was 14.  I know dozens of people my age whose experience is the same, and there is little evidence that we cannot handle the responsibility of firearms at a young age.  The same cannot be said for the illegal gun culture, I believe.  A different set of rules apply there, and most of our laws are geared toward that gun culture.

Costas goes after those rules saying that guns are easily purchased and readily available.  For who?  Not when you purchase them legally.  A few months ago, I legally purchased a new hunting rifle.  Sure, I was able to walk away with it the same afternoon I purchased it, but I had to go through a lengthy process to buy the gun.  I had to fill out an application.  I had to go through a criminal background check.  I had to fill out all sorts of other information and be subject to all sorts of safety lectures and pamphlets before I could walk out with my purchase.  If at any point a red flag would have been raised, I would have been denied.  For those purchasing guns legally, this is standard.  In the illegal gun culture, it is a different story.

But, that's the key, isn't it.  It's the illegal gun culture.  There are laws pertaining to it.  Laws that aren't always being followed or enforced and sometimes purposely broken (see Operation Fast and Furious).  And yet, when some sort of tragic shooting occurs, there is a clamor for more and better gun laws?  Seriously?  Try enforcing the ones we have now, and give our law enforcement the funding and manpower to do the job!

Some might just be wondering how I square all this gun stuff with my Christian faith.  Doesn't violence beget violence?  Didn't Jesus say "Turn the other cheek?"  Didn't he also say, "Those who live by the sword (gun) will die by the sword (gun)."? 

Yes.  Jesus said those things, and as I said to a Facebook friend who commented on my status once, I believe guns are not the answer. 

But there are folks who do not believe this.  There are folks who are willing to use guns to get what they want.  There are those who live by the gun.  And if law enforcement is not able to control such folks?  If such folks are willing to impose violence upon those who try to be non-violent, what happens?  The violent folks always win.  They always impose their rule over others.  History has shown us that time and again.

I do not live by the gun.  I try to live by the Word.  I try to live in peace.  It's what I believe is best for society and for the world.  And in a perfect world, all would do that.  In a perfect world no one would strike out in violence.  In a perfect world, we might not even have guns.  In a perfect world we wouldn't have to worry about anyone striking us.  In a perfect world, we wouldn't even have to worry about what Jesus said, "If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other." 

But we don't live in a perfect world.  We don't live in a world where people will strike you in the cheek with their hands.  Sometimes, they choose to strike with firearms, and it's awfully hard to turn the other cheek if you are lying in a pool of your own blood dying.  In fact, you can't.  You're dead, and those who once counted on you to provide for them, to care for them, to nurture them are left in a heap of trouble.

Therefore, I choose to protect myself as best as possible.  I choose to be a gun owner.  I choose to use this tool with great respect and great care, and I will teach my children to do the same.  I want them to be a part of the legal gun culture--a culture which I believe is compatible with my Christian faith.