Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Greetings

In the days of Christmas rush,
    how does one just say hush?
To quiet the soul when all is awry
    and the pressure mounts to buy, buy, BUY!

Ornaments, presents, a perfect tree
    Christmas dinner–the biggest turkey!
For everyone must be satisfied,
    and no one must have damaged pride.

The end result of all this stress?
    Heartburn, headache, great big mess.

Stop.  Just a moment.  Stop.

Silent night.  Holy night.
All is calm.  All is bright.

Allow the head some time to clear
    Remember the One who will appear.
As a babe in swaddling clothes.
    In a manger the story goes.

Come to bring us peace on earth,
    to help us know our surest worth.
Live in Him, the Word made Flesh.
    In this crazy world be not enmeshed.

Have a Merry Christmas!

(The Country Preacher will be on hiatus until January of next year.  He will be taking some time away from blogging and other such responsibilities to spend time with his family and friends.  He knows this will severely affect the number of hits he gets per day, but some things are just more important than others.  I hope most of my readers will agree and stay away from cyber-relationships and focus on the incarnate, flesh and blood type.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

GLAADly Shooting Ducks and Boycotting A&E

Just step back for a minute.  Just a minute.

Don't try to judge whether or not Phil Robertson's comments were good, bad, or indifferent.  Don't make this about free speech or freedom of religion.  Don't try to judge whether or not A&E's decision to suspend Phil Robertson was good, bad, or indifferent.  Don't make it about someone trying to push a particular agenda.

Step back to try and grasp a big picture scene.  Try to see the competition between several worldviews clearly clashing in this ordeal.  There are at least three that I can see, probably more.

First: GLAAD's worldview and how it plays out:

“Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe,” GLAAD spokesperson Wilson Cruz said in a statement. “He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans – and Americans – who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.”

Essentially: if you do not agree with us, then you are unclean "a stain" and those who associate with such a person should reevaluate their "friendship status."  GLAAD also quite happily approved of A&E's decision to suspend Robertson affecting his financial status.

Worldview: Our way is the right way, and if you don't agree with us, there should be punitive measures taken to deal with you.

Second: The response by those supporting Phil:

Boycott A&E until they bring Phil back!  We have freedom of speech and freedom of religion!  Phil is suffering persecution by the PC police!

Worldview: If you do something to someone we care about, we will take retributive steps against you.

Third: Phil Robertson's worldview:

Homosexuality is a sin, and as a culture we have begun having a much higher tolerance for things the Bible calls sin.  However:

“We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job,” Robertson told GQ. “We just love ‘em, give ‘em the good news about Jesus – whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ‘em out later.”


“I myself am a product of the 60s; I centered my life around sex, drugs and rock and roll until I hit rock bottom and accepted Jesus as my Savior. My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together.  “However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other.”

Essentially: I may disagree with you, but I can respect you without judgment.  We are all created in the image of God, and we would be better off if we loved God and loved each other.

Tell me, which worldview do you want to live in?

Note: There are considerably more worldviews out there.  For a worldview which is atheistic and pro-gay yet still take GLAAD and A&E to task calling for respect read here.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Do All Things Happen for a Reason?

I have been struck by a couple of conversations in the past week regarding this question.

Perhaps you have dealt with this in your life, particularly when facing the trials and tribulations of life.

More than a few times, I hear someone wrestling with troublesome events by saying, "There is a reason for this.  God has a reason for this.  I may not know what it is, but I know He has a reason for this."

I think I understand why people say such things.  I think it has something to do with a philosophical conundrum which has defied human reason, and, in fact, has become an argument that some use to say God does not exist.  The conundrum follows:

If God is all powerful and all good, then He has the ability to abolish evil.  If He does not abolish evil, then He is not all good.  If He cannot abolish evil, then He is not all powerful. 

In order to preserve the sovereignty and goodness of God, many, including myself, have said, "We must give allowance that we cannot see the big picture and that God has a reason for allowing certain things to happen as they do."  --Everything has a reason.

I think we must address a couple of points--first the idea of God's power.

I believe God is all powerful in the sense that there is no entity which has greater power than God; however, I believe God gave up some of His own power.  That may sound blasphemous, but hear me out.

God gave to creation free will.  God does not manipulate our hearts and minds to force us to act in a certain fashion.  If He did, we would simply be robots, mere puppets on a string.  (I love John Lennox's comment regarding this.  Paraphrasing: If I went home to a robot wife and hit a button on the computer which made her say, "I love you," it wouldn't be too particularly satisfying."  God forcing us to love and obey Him would have the same effect.) 

Some have argued: well, why doesn't God limit our ability to perform evil.  Hello!  Ever hear of a conscience?  But, I digress.

Because we have free will, God may know our chosen course of action, but He does not always intervene.  Intervention at all times would mean that we would never learn any lessons (pain is a great teacher), and we would simply become objects of God's control once again--kind of like those robotic toys running around in those enclosed areas in the mall.  They can go all over the place and run into things, but they are cordoned off in a particular area and are still toys.

So, then why does it seem like after some time, thought, and reflection, it looks like many things happen for a reason?

I submit to you, that most of God's intervention takes place AFTER tumultuous events occur.  God's intervention occurs as He begins working to make good come out of the things we suffer--either by our own free will or because of the freedom of nature.

As God works in our lives to bring transformation, we begin to see something unfold which has brought us to a new level of understanding, a new level of love, a new level of compassion, or what have you.  God did not cause evil to befall us; He didn't intervene because of the freedom bestowed to His creation; yet, He began working to transform that evil into something good.

Sometimes, we can see this almost instantaneously.  Sometimes it takes years, even decades, but when we finally see it, we have a "reason" for what happened.  However, that reason wasn't there before the event, it only came after God's intervention and healing work in the world.

Do all things happen for a reason?  No.

Can God work to make it seem that way?  Yes, and I am convinced He does.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

And Onto Polygamy

Imagine seeing this article from CNN just a decade or two ago.  Bet you wouldn't have seen it.  Or thought of it.  This stuff used to be on the extreme fringes of society, but now, it's making opinion headlines.

And it is little wonder.

Ethics in our nation has made a monumental shift over the years.  I have argued (based on the work of Richard Neuhaus) that our nation's great experiment was to have our laws founded on Judeo-Christian principles without establishing Christianity as the formal, national religion.  There were numerous reasons for this, and I will not go into those again.

What has progressively happened is a tectonic shift away from those Judeo-Christian principles and an ethics based in science/reason. 

I personally am not worried about this shift in our nation.  The Church in all of its expressions has existed and even thrived in cultures which were hostile to it.  And our nation is far from hostile to religious expression.  It just no longer bases much of its moral law upon it. 

Once gay marriage would have been unheard of.  Now, several states allow it, and the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. 

Polygamy is next on that slope.  Strictly adhering to the Constitution, I see nothing that can prevent polygamy laws from being struck down.  Consenting adults are basically allowed to do as they please.

Now, before anyone starts saying, "Polygamy isn't Christian."  Please, take a look at your Bible.  Polygamy is never outlawed in Scripture.  There is only one prohibition against it, and that is only for a bishop of the Church.  In fact, some of the greatest pillars of the faith in the Old Testament practiced polygamy in some form or another: Abraham, Jacob, and David to name a few.  In each case, polygamous relationships led to some pretty unhealthy results--which is one of the reasons I do not support such a thing--but it is important to note that God remained silent about such marriages.

Christian tradition in reading Scripture and seeing the negative results of polygamous marriage has discerned God's expectation for marriage to be between one man and one woman. 

In the culture which surrounds us now, I believe the Church must be a faithful witness to this in spite of the laws which change.  I believe we must be ready to argue, without anger, angst, and with respect to others who share a different view, for the sanctity of the one man/one woman relationship--allowing for the brokenness of relationships and the reality of divorce; never condoning it as God's will, but offering grace and mercy.  We must be ready to defend our position with much more than, "God said it should be that way, and the Bible says so too." 

Remember, the Bible never condemns polygamy.  If we meet someone who knows what the Bible says, we will lose the argument right then and there.  It is important to know the reasons behind our teaching, and I encourage everyone to study up on the matter.

We will need to know our stuff more and more as our culture and laws become more and more secular and reason based.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Kingdom of Heaven and Violence

    There is a fascinating line in our Gospel lesson today.  Matthew 11:12 reads, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  During our staff meeting this week, we read this gospel lesson, and many of us were struck by this particular verse.  Why?

    Well, we are not exactly used to seeing the kingdom of heaven and violence butted up against each other.  During this time of preparation for the arrival of our Savior, we dream about peace on earth and goodwill toward men.  Last Sunday, our choir sang a cantata entitled, “And On Earth Peace.”  We hear Jesus say to those of us who follow Him, “My peace I leave with you.”  Indeed, for many of us the term “kingdom of heaven” conjures up a time of peace without conflict or strife.  And yet, here Jesus says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  What on earth is going on here?

    I think we need to put this into a little bit of context so that we might be able to understand it better.  And, we are going to have to dig a little deeper than the texts which are printed in our bulletin.

    I’d like to ask you a moment to turn in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 10.  Let’s do a fast walk through this chapter as we see what leads up to those words about the kingdom of heaven and violence.

    In Matthew 10, verses 1 through 15, Jesus calls the twelve disciples and sends them out to proclaim the gospel, giving them authority over demons and illness.  He gives them instructions on what to do and how to go about doing it.  In verses 16 through 23, Jesus tells His disciples what they can expect, and some of it is not too pretty.  “See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves...they will had you over to councils and flog will be dragged before kings and governors because of me...”  Preaching the gospel will not be a walk in the park.  Tough things will happen to you when you follow me, Jesus says.  Yet, a word of hope in verse 26 and following, “So have no fear of them...Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell...every hair on your head is counted.  Do not be afraid.”

    And here is an interesting little snippet beginning in verse 34, “34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

    Jesus finishes with a few words about welcoming and who will not lose any sort of reward.  Throughout this chapter, Jesus talks about the proclamation of and the breaking in of God’s kingdom, and the results of what happens when His disciples bring it.  Not all of it is pretty.  In fact, the proclamation of the Gospel oftentimes stirs up a hornet’s nest, and people react–sometimes violently.  “You will be dragged before the councils and flogged in the synagogues...”

    Our appointed text for the day comes next, and John, who was sent to prepare the way for Jesus is a bit confused.  He’s sitting in prison because he dared to speak an unkind word about Herod.  He hears all the stuff about Jesus, but he also knows he is suffering because of his proclamation.  We can speculate about all the reasons John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if Jesus is the Messiah, but given the context of what comes before and what follows, let me suggest John is wondering why Jesus isn’t getting him out of jail.

    If the kingdom of heaven is arriving, and Jesus is the promised Messiah, why isn’t Jesus exercising power and authority to bring release to all the prisoners?  John certainly is a prisoner.  Perhaps John is asking, “Haven’t I been faithful?  Haven’t I proclaimed the coming of the Word?  Haven’t I done that which I am supposed to do?  If Jesus is the one coming to free us, why am I still here, in prison, suffering?  Shouldn’t I be free?”

    Jesus tells John’s followers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”  Jesus unequivocally tells John, “Your wait is over.  I am performing the things the expected Messiah is to perform.”

    John’s followers go away.  We have no record of whether or not John accepts Jesus’ words to be true.  We have no idea whether or not this satisfied John as he sat there in that cold prison eventually beheaded because of a woman’s jealousy. 

    What we do know is that Jesus has some strong words to say about John.  “Truly I tell you among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  If this is the case, then why is he in prison?

    “12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

    Hope you are still following along with me, because skip down just a few verses, and let’s round out the context, “18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

    Jesus points out something very, very true in this statement.  Both He and John are messengers about the kingdom of heaven.  Both of them are polar opposites.  John was the wild prophet out in the wilderness “neither eating or drinking,” and those intent on discrediting John said, “He has a demon.”  Jesus, is the opposite.  Jesus eats and drinks, and those seeking to discredit Him say, “Look, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”

    “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

    This statement very much reminds me of the scene in “A Few Good Men” when Jack Nicholas’ character screams at the top of his lungs, “You want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”

    You want the kingdom of heaven?  You can’t handle the kingdom of heaven!

    Herod tried to silence it and it’s arrival by imprisoning John the Baptist.

    Humanity tried to silence it by crucifying Jesus.

    There are those who still try to silence it today.

    Last week, I got my hair cut, and a very interesting exchange took place in the barber shop.  We managed to get on the topic of heaven and hell, and one of the barbers there said, “I don’t agree with those pastors and priests who visit a guy who is on death row after that guy has murdered or raped.  They listen to that guy and then come out and say, ‘He is forgiven.’  I don’t think so.  I was taught that if you are a good person and you do the right things, then you are going to heaven.  If you don’t and you do something like that, then you are going to hell.  I think those guys are in hell.”

    I responded, "I think there is a difference between God's forgiveness and the necessity for justice."

    "I don't think so," was the reply.

    "And so, is Moses in hell?  Because he committed murder."

    Silence for a moment.  Then a half-hearted joke, "Maybe he should be."

    "Don't mess with a pastor who knows the Bible.  God operates differently than we do.  God offers forgiveness."

    It's called grace.  The kingdom of heaven isn’t primarily about peace.  When it arrives in its fullness, it will be.  But in this time, the kingdom of heaven is primarily about grace.  It’s about God’s reconciliation of the world unto Himself through Jesus Christ.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.

    Many don’t like that.  Many don’t want grace to reign.  Many want to make it about what we do or don’t do.  Many want to make salvation contingent upon our work, but it is not.  It’s about Jesus’ work.  People wanted to silence Him then.  Some want to silence us now.

    But what do we do with grace?  Do we allow violence to continue to reign over and above the kingdom of heaven?  Do we allow our voices to become silent because of fear?  Not if we have experienced the grace of God.  Not if we have experienced the love of Christ poured out for us on the cross.  Once we have experienced this in our inner most being, we simply cannot be silent.  We have to spread the news.  We have to tell the world what God has done, is doing, and will do.  Go and tell what you hear and see.  For this is what it means to live God’s Word daily.  Amen.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Good News for Everyone

I wish I could remember the exact setting where I heard the teaching.  Time has clouded my memory.  I'm sure it will continue to happen.  Sometimes I wish I had a pensieve as Dumbledore did in the Harry Potter novels.  That way, I could dig through and find all the memories I know are there and revisit them in their detail.  Forgive me for forgetting the entirety of the context, but the teaching was very important.

I remember clearly a conversation about reading the Bible.  The presenter/teacher said with conviction, "As you read the Bible, much of what we read can be seen as either Law or Gospel depending upon who hears it."

I was intrigued, and listened further.

"If you take for instance the teaching 'Blessed are the poor...', a poor person hears that as good news.  A wealthy person hears it as law.  It depends upon who hears what is written."

The teaching made perfect sense--from a certain point of view; irony noted.  For it is indeed true that certain portions of Scripture are clearly good news for some while bad news for others.  It is indeed true that depending upon one's particular situation in life a particular teaching from Scripture will either step on toes or reinforce one's conviction that he or she is on the right path.

But, I have begun to question whether or not this is indeed how the Law/Gospel distinction should be made.  I believe this distinction is rampant throughout American Christianity, and more and more, I am convinced it is one of the main drivers in Christianity's loss of authority within society.  Why?

It is actually works/righteousness in disguise.  It is nothing more than legalism with a sugar coating.  Why do I say such a thing?  Let me lay out my argument.

Let's first travel to the right hand side of Christianity in the U.S.  The implicit message in many of those congregations is, "Jesus died for you, so be as moral and upright in your life as you can be so that you will get to heaven.  Do not drink, smoke, cuss, and what have you.  Keep appropriate marriage and sexual boundaries, and by doing so, you will live a life pleasing to God."  Notice the emphasis.  Notice also what is missing: any corporate responsibility for care and concern for the poor.  The "right" hand side of Christianity emphasizes personal morality above corporate morality and reassures its members they are right with God because of what they are doing.  And if you are not showing forth exemplary moral righteousness in your life, then you are excluded.  There is good news for those who are striving to live a moral life and law for those who aren't. 

It depends upon how one hears the Scripture...

Let's now travel to the left hand side of Christianity in the U.S.  The implicit message in many of these congregations is, "Jesus died for you, so work for justice and peace in the world.  God has a preferential place in His heart for the poor, and so we must work to eradicate poverty, hunger, injustice, and ensure that everyone has access to health care.  We must work to make the kingdom of God happen right here on earth for those who are in need."  Notice the emphasis.  Notice also what is missing: any personal responsibility for living an upright and moral life.  The "left" hand side of Christianity emphasizes corporate morality over personal morality, and it reassures its members they are right with God because of what they are doing in their struggle for justice or solidarity with the poor.  And if you are not showing forth exemplary means of working for justice, then you are excluded.  There is good news for those who are striving to work for justice and peace and law for those who aren't.

It depends upon how one hears the Scripture...

I submit that these tracts are absorbed in the Law and have missed the Gospel.  I submit that each of these tracts are absorbed in works/righteousness instead of living by grace.

Grace does not divide.  The Gospel does not draw lines.  The Gospel abolishes, destroys, manhandles all the exclusionary tactics of the Law.  The Law can be seen as good news for some, bad news for others.  The Gospel is good news of great joy for ALL PEOPLE!!!

At the heart of the Gospel is the God made flesh who died for us, reconciling us unto God WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS.  At the heart of the Gospel is the God made flesh who took upon Himself all our sin, all our guilt, all our shame, all our hopelessness, all of our pain, all of our misery, all of our suffering, even death itself to defeat it and give us hope that transcends any and every distinction we might like to draw.

Note: Each "side" as defined above will give lip service to this, but it is not at the core of their teaching.  Not in the least.  The core of the teaching is works/righteousness, not grace.  This works/righteousness plays out as lines get quickly drawn between these two branches of Christianity, and they wantonly attack each other as failing to embody of what God wants us to do.

The Gospel, the good news of God's reconciliation of the world through Jesus, does not allow anyone to make any sort of distinction because all fall morally short and corporately short.  No one can measure up to the moral standard of life as articulated by Jesus.  Neither can anyone measure up to fully working for justice and peace.  Yet, many congregations harp and harp and harp on these things.  It's no wonder people eventually leave.  They become discouraged because they simply cannot fulfill what is demanded of them.

Not so with grace.  The embodiment of Grace leads one to accept both moral and corporate responsibility.  It leads one to strive to live an upright life abstaining from personal sin to the best of one's ability, and it leads one to engage in helping the needy, poor, and distressed to the best of one's ability.  Not because one feels guilty or believes one is going to change the world into the image of the kingdom of God, but because of joyful obedience to the God who first suffered and died for us.

Good news must be preached before people are willing to respond.  Good news, not just for some, but for everyone.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The "War" on Christmas

There's always a news story or two about the war on Christmas.

  • A nativity scene is forced off a public place because of a lawsuit.
  • Store employees forced to say "Happy Holidays" instead of Merry Christmas.
  • Someone stealing baby Jesus from a church nativity scene.
  • Children not being allowed to wear red and greed or holiday attire at school.
It's pretty inventive what the news media will do to promote anger, fear, and aggression during a time dedicated to peace on earth.

Oh, I know there are those who are truly concerned that Christian values are under attack, and that we should fight back with all of our might.  But I would like to submit to you that the real war against Christmas has been going on a long, long time, and the things we see now are simply logical manifestations of what many in our nation have allowed Christmas to become.

For instance, I believe we started losing the war on Christmas when the day became more focused on getting the perfect gift (for the one's you love) instead of celebrating the receiving of the gift of Jesus.

I believe we started losing the war on Christmas when the day became more focused on generating the perfect setting with the perfect family atmosphere, with the perfectly prepared meal (works/righteousness) instead of simply celebrating what God has done for us in the midst of family and friends--no matter what the external things might be (grace).

I believe we started losing the war on Christmas when many bought into the idea that one should not have any space left under the tree because the presents had take up all the room, instead of the idea that quality instead of quantity is important.

I believe we started losing the war on Christmas when we became more worried about whether or not someone would like the gift we gave them instead of simply enjoying the ability to give.

I believe we started losing the war on Christmas when we became more interested in what kind of things we could buy for cheap and what kind of sales were going to take place instead of taking an interest in the free gift of grace initiated by God's intervention in the world through Jesus.

Indeed, in many cases, Christians have led the charge (and charged a hell of a lot) to "make Christmas special" by decorating, and baking, and shopping, and running around, and wrapping, and worrying and fretting, and what have you.  We have failed to realize that Christmas is special in and of itself--regardless of gifts, and meals, and cards, and wrappings, and decorations, and what have you.

Dr. Seuss tried to make that point in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."  You can't steal it.  It's an impossibility.  Yet, in our efforts to make it absolutely special and overwhelming and the "best Christmas ever," we've managed to steal much of the joy out of it.

And I have become more and more convinced, winning the war on Christmas does not mean fighting to have nativity scenes placed in public places; or allowing Christmas carols sung in school programs; or convincing people to say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays."  I am convinced, the war on Christmas can only be won by a change in our hearts--a monumental shift in focus--from what I have to do to what God has done, is doing, and will do.   If we, as Christians, set our hearts on this, then we have no worries or concerns about what is going on with schools or stores or in public places; for we carry the joy of Christmas within us as we remember the babe who lay in a manger also lives in our hearts.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Getting Rid of Santa and that Cheeky Little Elf on the Shelf

Don't get me wrong.  I still play the game with my children.  I do it because they have fun with it, but more and more I am ready to chunk the whole Santa Claus get up as well as that Elf on the Shelf thing.  Not because it isn't fun playing with such things but because of the implicit message being sent to kids.

I know I risk being labeled a fuddy-duddy or theological purist because of this post, but please think about what we are conveying to kids through these things, and then think about what Jesus proclaims to us--and the real meaning of Christmas.

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I'm telling you why.
Santa Claus is coming to town.

He's making a list.
He's checking it twice.
Gonna find out who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town.

He sees you when you're sleeping.  He knows when you're awake.
He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good, for goodness sake!

So goes the Christmas song.  And what is this song teaching?

Be good or else you won't be getting any presents.  It's reinforced by those of us who are well intentioned parents who say, "If you aren't good, Santa's going to be bringing you a lump of coal."

That Elf on the Shelf reinforces this thought process.

Sure, it's fun to put that little guy all over the house in different and varying poses.  I personally enjoy my kids getting out of bed and searching around the house until they find the guy doing whatever he is doing on a particular morning.  It's all in good fun--for the most part.

But again, the implicit message of the elf, "He's watching you all day, and at night, he reports to Santa about the things you've been doing today."  If you aren't being good, the elf will tell Santa, and you won't get any good gifts.

The modern Santa and Elf on the Shelf are perfect examples of works/righteousness, theology of glory thinking.  If I am good...  If I am doing the right things...  If I follow the law just perfectly.... then I will get goodies in the end.  Whether we like it or not, this is the message we are sending to our kids which is a far cry from the reality of Christmas.

Christmas is about grace--unmerited, undeserved grace.  Period.

Christmas is about God's plan of reconciling the world unto Himself by taking on flesh and dwelling among us.

Christmas is about the babe in the manger who would one day hang on the cross taking our sin, our shame, our suffering, our frailty, our death with Him and putting such things to death that we might live.

Christmas is about remembering the One who does such a thing all the while praying for His enemies, blessing those who persecuted Him, and saying, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Christmas is about the One who died for us even though we weren't being good and gave us the gift of eternal life despite our refusal to live our lives for God and for our neighbor.

You cannot draw a deeper contrast between the incarnation of Santa Claus in the U.S. along with his partner Mr. Elf on the Shelf and the Lord of lords and King of kings who became Emanuel--God with us.

I will play this little game for a few more years because my kids enjoy it, but I'll be doing just a little extra work to let them know what grace really is as well.  For in the long run it makes quite a difference as illustrated by the following two sentences differentiated by one simple mark:

So be good, for goodness sake.

So be good for goodness' sake.

One of these is works/righteousness.

One of these is responding to grace.

One is Christian.  One is not.

Want to keep Christ in Christmas?

Teach and live grace.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Who Wouldn't Want to Prepare?

    My brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I both know the world is not at all like what our first lesson from the book of Isaiah describes.  The world is far from the reality the prophet spoke about long, long ago.  Take another listen to his words, and then reflect on just how far away we are from this sort of reality:

    The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.    –Isaiah 11:5-9

    To this day, these things are not happening.  To this day, there is still war and strife and death.  To this day, something must die in order for something else to live.  To this day the earth still rebels against God and His knowledge–it is far from full of this.  Indeed, our world remains broken and battered by the reality of sin, and just one glimpse of reality can set us on edge.  One glimpse about the way things really are can lead us to a state of frustration and depression.  Just a cursory read of the news shows this.  The headlines tell us of greed, power grabs, destruction by natural disaster, rising poverty, government debt, people forced to give up what they are pleased with, and so on and so forth.  This is the world we live in, and it can be overwhelming.

    It can be so overwhelming that the promise of God set forth by the prophet can be lost.  The promise of God can be forgotten.  The promise of God can indeed be seen as an empty promise–false hope to hold onto in the midst of all our pain and suffering.  Indeed, there are those who say that religion is simply a crutch that many hold onto to deal with the reality of brokenness in our world.

    God knows how easily we can fall into such despair.  God knows how easy it is for His creation to lose sight of His promise and His Word.  God knows that we humans function on a different reality of time than He does.  For us, thousands of years is an eternity.  For God thousands of years are a fleeting moment.  It’s easy to lose sight of this in the midst of this world.

    Knowing this, God realized we needed something to hold onto.  God realized we needed something concrete to grasp whenever hope starts to fade.  God knows we need more than a promise to hold onto.  In the old days, a handshake solidified a deal, but today, we need lawyers and legal documents to make sure we are covered.  One would think that God’s Word would be enough, but the history of God’s people shows us differently.  Scripture shows us how even the people of God who witnessed God’s miraculous deeds soon forgot them in the midst of their trials and tribulations.  We need something more to hold onto. 

    And God understood this.  God realized we needed assurances.  God realized something more than a vision was needed so that we had evidence of God’s intent to make all things right.  And God provided that evidence.  God took on flesh and lived among us.

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son not to condemn the world, but so that the world may be saved through Him.”

    Jesus Christ entered this broken world.  Jesus Christ, God in flesh, entered into this reality and began the process of redemption.  Sure, He performed miracles.  Sure, He healed the sick, raised the dead, fed the hungry, and proclaimed God’s Kingdom.  There is no doubt about these things.  But these things were simply leading up to the grand finale–the reconciliation of humankind unto God. 

    This, of course, took place on the cross.  Sometimes, it’s hard to let this sink in.  Sometimes, it’s hard to remember what that cross represents.  That cross represents all that is wrong with this world.  That cross represents pain, suffering, brokenness, blood, injustice, selfishness, greed, depression, illness, and death.  That cross does not today carry the same connotation it did 2000 years ago.  Today, we see redemption.  Long ago, it meant death.  And that is exactly what happened to Jesus upon that cross.  He was murdered.  He suffered.  He bled.  He felt abandonment.  It was not a glorious experience at all.  But it was necessary.  For in reality, it was us who should have been hanging on that cross.  It was us who deserved punishment and death for our failure to measure up to God’s standards.  We deserved to be hanging there for our participation in and failure to fix this broken world.  Yet, instead of letting us take our deserved punishment, God intervened and Himself died.

    This is a powerful statement of God’s love for us.  There is no doubt about that.  But the story is not yet done.  For remember the promise of Isaiah?  Remember the vision Isaiah tells us–a vision that came from God? 

    A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.  6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. –Isaiah 11:1-10

    This could not come to pass if the God incarnate suffered and died and that was the end.  This could not be the true vision of the hope to come if the cross were the end.  If suffering; if injustice; if despair; if punishment; if death were the end, then there is no real hope.  God died.  We are reconciled unto Him, but is there more?

    The answer came three days later.  Three dark days passed, but then the ground was shaken, the angels rolled the stone away, and Christ rose from the dead.  St. Paul made no bones about what this meant, “20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”

    Christ is God’s handshake.  Christ is God’s assurance that the promise of Isaiah is real.  Christ is God’s way of showing us the fulfillment of the promise has begun, and we have something to hold onto in the midst of this world.

    But more than that, for we do not simply hold onto the promise as if it were something only to be treasured by ourselves.  For we know that around us is a world that is indeed hurting.  We know that around us is a world that is broken and suffering in ways both big and small.  We know that around us is a world in need of good news.

    And we also know the foolishness of trying to make the world perfect.  We know it is an impossibility on our part; yet we also know we cannot remain idle.  We have been touched deeply by the promises of God, and so we work to prepare the way for Christ’s return.  For who wouldn’t want to do this?  Who wouldn’t want to prepare for the time of ultimate peace and justice?  Who wouldn’t want to prepare for the time when all people can join with one another at the marriage feast of the Lamb?  The vision is glorious!

    And how do we prepare?  How do we get ready for this vision?  By trying to implement as much of it as we can in our daily lives right here and right now.  By showing God’s love through kindness and caring and involvement with others both inside and outside our community of faith.  For this is what it means to Live God’s Word Daily.  Amen.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Language of Love

Two things struck me yesterday.  Two very, very important things.

The first happened sitting in the barber shop.  I had just finished visiting one of my shut-in members and decided to get my hair chopped before the events of Christmas.  A very, very interesting conversation happened in the barber shop.

During the visit, I commented on a particular issue and let slip the word "d@mn."  I then said, "I shouldn't have said that."

The lady barber said, "Aww, this is a barber shop. That's allowed."

I said, "It has nothing to do with the location.  It has everything to do with my profession."

Of course, I was then asked what I did, and I responded that I was a clergy.

"You're our kind of clergy," came the reply.

Maybe, but as the conversation evolved, maybe not.

For as we visited a very interesting dynamic started concerning justice. 

"I believe that if a person commits a murder or rape or something like that, they are going straight to hell," the barber said.  "I don't buy any of these priests or pastors who visit with someone on death row and proclaim them forgiven.  I was taught that if you do good things and are a good person, you are going to heaven.  If you do anything to the contrary, then you are going to hell."

I responded, "I think there is a difference between God's forgiveness and the necessity for justice."

"I don't think so," was the reply.

"And so, is Moses in hell?  Because he committed murder."

Silence for a moment.  Then a half-hearted joke, "Maybe he should be."

"Don't mess with a pastor who knows the Bible.  God operates differently than we do.  God offers forgiveness."

It's called grace.

The second piece of note was an article in this month's The Lutheran Magazine titled, "Is the word returning empty?  Biblical fluency puts life into the word for daily use."

 The article itself is quite intriguing, and the arguments are quite cogent.  However, I would argue that we clergy desperately try to help people with biblical fluency.  We just haven't been doing a very good job of it.  In fact, I would argue the reason we primarily haven't been doing a very good job of it is because we have become consumed with dictating the law.

Now, this is starting to get into some heavier theological concepts, but let me try to keep it relatively simple by saying--instead of focusing on the proclamation of what God has done for us by reconciling the world and us unto himself, we do much more talking about what we should be doing. 

It matters not which side of the Christian spectrum one falls upon.  The "right" side tends to focus on individual morality.  The "left" side tends to focus on community responsibility.  The "right" focuses on individual righteousness.  The "left" focuses on communal justice.  Both emphasize the law.

Sure, each side will say that such emphasis is a response to God's grace; however, I have come to realize that much of the preaching and articles I read from both standpoints give very, very little time to what God has done and why we respond as we do.

In short, we minimize grace--God's action, and emphasize the Law--our action or even inaction.

From a Lutheran perspective--an even I would say an orthodox Christian perspective, this is backwards. 

We are pretty fluent in applications of the law and how it relates to our lives, but we aren't so good about being fluent in Grace.

It's awful hard to be fluent in the language of God's love.  It's awful hard to be fluent in the language of forgiveness--even for that S.O.B. who murdered a little child.  It's awful hard to be fluent in the language of reconciliation--especially if that so and so did something I don't like or voted for the "other guy."

The language of grace; the language of love takes us to a different reality.  It takes us to a different place.  It leads us to a place of humility and compassion and service--simply because we realize how much we need Christ and His action on the cross.

For that is the ultimate language of love: a willingness to die for your enemies.  That's grace.  And most of us aren't too fluent in it at all.

Perhaps, God will give us the desire to learn.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Music of the Spheres

Yesterday, I was tuning my guitar.

My ear is not quite good enough to accomplish this task without a tuner, so I sat, strumming one string at a time until the lights moved from red to green.

To ensure a proper tune, I strummed a 'G' chord.  The vibrations, frequencies, and harmony of the strings told me the guitar was indeed properly tuned.

And I asked myself at that point: why is this so?  Why is it so that certain frequencies come together to produce sounds which are pleasing to the human ear?  And why is it that if a certain string on the guitar is pressed improperly, there is dissonance and dis-harmony?  How is it that humankind can pick out the harmony between frequencies and then see that something is out of tune?  Why should such harmony exist in nature?

And it led me to reflect on the nature of music.  I do not know of a culture that does not have some sort of music in it.  Going back to recorded history, I do not know of a culture that did not have some sort of singing or dancing in it.  Why does humankind want or even need music?  What is the reason behind it?

As I thought of such things, I tried to approach it from an evolutionary standpoint.  Some research led me to a couple of fine articles here and here

There are a couple of evolutionary theories floating around as to the origins and then continuance of the use of music, but I cannot help but think there is something deeper.  I mean, I am a music lover, and quite often I find myself singing a long to a song or having it playing in my head over and over and over.  And from an evolutionary standpoint, this is not good.  Not at all.  It is a distraction from the world around.  Perhaps you are like me in that you have been so caught up in a song that you fail to take notice of the world around you.  Traffic accidents have happened this way.  People have crossed into the street while walking and jogging failing to take notice of the changing of traffic lights.  The consequences in nature can be even more devastating--particularly for those living outside of the concrete jungle.

Singing and humming in nature can cause one to miss some tell-tale sounds of death--a rattlesnake rattle, the stealthy stalking of a predator.  Such sounds can alert prey when on a hunting expedition.  Neither of these things are helpful to survival.

Perhaps there is a sexual connotation to such music, but honestly, does music and dancing always lead to sex?  Apologies to those fundamentalists who believe so, but no, it doesn't.

Music definitely taps into the human soul and spirit.  It taps deep into the recesses of the heart.  It comforts, excites, inspires, enrages, and so forth.

I believe God has gifted humanity with a world in which those frequencies can be produced in harmony.  I believe it is one more example of His handiwork, and ultimately, music should be used to praise Him.

When I lead kids at a local pre-school in singing praises to God, I find a wondrous thing taking place.  Transformation.  Smiles.  Joy.  Radiance.  Music taps into these things--especially when directed toward the Creator.

Yes, I am sure there are other "explanations", but I think them unsatisfactory.  Take a listen to a recent rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy" which has gone viral.

Tell me the reason it has gone viral is due to some sort of longing for sex or other such thing.  Not there.  This song, along with others, touch something deep within our spirits--a "voice" of God.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Thanks, Grandpa.

"I didn't accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on pretty good terms."

The words brought tears to my eyes as my 94 year old grandfather spoke them.

I make no bones about some of the deepest desires of my heart.  I know myself, and I know what is down there.  I want to accomplish much in the eyes of the world.  I really do.  I want, not just to be a good pastor, but a pastor who is recognized as a great proclaimer of the Gospel; a tremendous advocate for the Christian faith; a builder of congregations to where they are full and overflowing.  I want to be recognized as a writer and apologist of the faith--who makes a generous salary by his working and who can enjoy some of the pleasures of life while generously giving of what I received to others, so that I can again be recognized as generous.  I want to be noticed for what I do, what I proclaim, what I say, what I write, and so on and so forth.  I know this about myself deep down, and I also know that such desires oftentimes run counter to what Jesus actually calls His disciples to do and be.

This January, I will turn 40.  For some, it's not a big number, but given the average age males live to, it's pushing half of my life.  Taking stock of things, I realize that I am well known in my particular neck of the woods, but according to worldly eyes, I haven't accomplished much.  Don't know that I actually will.

Part of me grieves to say that.

Really.  I am not joking at all.

"Put your finger in a bucket of water, and then take it out.  That's probably all the difference you will actually make in this world."

I didn't want to believe that statement, but given the scope of things in the world, it's a pretty honest statement.

"I didn't accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on pretty good terms."

Grandpa didn't make this statement filled with any sort of haughtiness or pride.  It was the statement of one who served God, served Jesus Christ for his life.  He preached the Word in several places throughout the United States of America, always at rural congregations none of which grew to tremendous size.  He spent hours gardening and taking produce to his congregation members who needed fresh vegetables.  He visited the sick.  He kibitzed with parishioners.  Raised four children.  Was a devoted husband.  None of these things moved mountains or brought about justice and peace on earth.  None of these things brought about perfect harmony in the towns he lived or ensured congregations he served were free of conflict.  He didn't climb any ladders.  Didn't accumulate boatloads of wealth.  He has to watch every penny as he tries to manage with arthritis and the weakness of muscles that living 94 years brings.

But he doesn't complain about it.  He doesn't get worked up about what he can or cannot accomplish.  He has come to a place of peace.  He knows that his time on earth is relatively short.  He knows that there is one surpassing value--a value which will last forever: his relationship with the Lord.

"I didn't accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on pretty good terms."

I teared up when Grandpa spoke those words because this is where I want to be.  In my estimation, those words are filled with wisdom as they grasp what is truly important.  I have begun to pray, "Lord, take from me the desire to accomplish much in the eyes of the world.  Through Your grace, I know we are on good terms, and that is enough."

Thanks Grandpa.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Psychological Pillar

While traveling in Arkansas for the Thanksgiving holiday, I took my family to visit Bluff Dweller's Cavern in Noel, Missouri.  I highly recommend the cavern for a family tour.  It's not what I would call a spectacular cavern, but it is beautiful and very friendly on the legs and feet--a plus if you have younger children.

Among the things I found fascinating was the very last cavern room.  Our guide pointed to a giant pillar which had been constructed in the middle of that room.

"That is a psychological pillar," she explained.  "During the 1950's, when this cavern was designated a nuclear fallout shelter, the government wanted us to build that pillar in the middle of this room.  It is not necessary.  It doesn't hold anything up or bear any weight.  The government folks believed people would be freaked out at the size of this room if there wasn't something in the middle seeming to hold up the ceiling."

In some ways, it is rather head shaking since the roof of that particular room had been holding up just fine for tens of thousands of years.  However, there is no doubt that there are indeed people who need such psychological "pillars" in their lives--think Linus from the Peanuts comic strip.

Ideally, we mature and are able to one day come to the realization that those psychological pillars are unnecessary.  We come to realize they are simply an unneeded crutch which has given us a sense of safety and security even though it doesn't hold up anything.

Some people have called religious faith such a psychological pillar.

I have come to appreciate the criticism, and if religion is a human construct, then, indeed, it is a psychological pillar.

But that is a big, if...a monumental assumption.

For those of us of a religious bent do not assume that religion is a human construct.  We assume that God has brought us to believe in Him.  Some neurosurgeons have even come to the conclusion that the brain is hardwired for belief in God.  If the brain is indeed hardwired, then why?  It would seem "evolution"--in my opinion guided evolution--has brought humankind to a place where we naturally and instinctively believe there is something beyond our physical universe.  Would "evolution" produce such an unnecessary "crutch"?  After all, if you study religion and how it has been practiced throughout the ages, you would see that it consumes precious time and resources which should be used for survival and reproduction--the main pillars of evolutionary theory.  Surely, evolution would have naturally deselected this genetic wiring if it was unnecessary--at least in theory.

But it hasn't.  It's still there.  It certainly does not seem to be a human construct.

Perhaps indeed we are religiously wired to believe in God because there is a God.  Perhaps religious wiring is God's way of helping us to see and understand there is a natural law of justice and right behavior so that we may better know how to deal with one another and the world around us.  Perhaps our brains are wired in the manner for belief because this belief gives us a mechanism to overcome the selfish nature which resides in each and every human being.  Perhaps religious belief is not a crutch but the very foundation of how we must live and move and have our being.

There are those who disagree.  "A psychological pillar."  "A crutch."  This is religious faith for them.

However, please allow me to submit a philosophical truth or two.  Philosophy is a human construct.  So is science.  Both of these arenas tend to see religion as a "psychological pillar" or "crutch" or "human construct."  Why they don't seem to apply this truth to themselves is somewhat beyond me.  So, what is good for the goose is indeed good for the gander.  If these two items are human constructs, then are they psychological pillars?  Are they crutches which are leaned upon to help folks cope with the reality of the world?

Of course they are.  In fact, when one takes philosophy to its extreme (Nietzsche), there are no rules.  There are no absolutes.  There is complete relativism, and we are basically allowed to do whatever we want for there are no morals.  Science leads us to the same place.  Richard Dawkins even says so by concluding that at the very foundation of our species--there is no right, there is no wrong.  We are simply dancing to the tune of our DNA.

These human constructs basically eradicate any foundation for morality, justice, or right behavior.  They leave us absolute freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, especially if we can avoid anyone with more power or authority than ourselves.

In a very real way, they remove any sort of remorse or guilt for any particular behavior committed.  They remove any sort of real responsibility a person may have.

So, let's put this in perspective:
  • A human construct
  • Which removes any universal values
  • Which allows almost complete freedom
  • Which removes any sort of guilt
  • Which removes any sort of foundation for responsibility 
And this is not a psychological pillar?