Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas: the Rest of the Story

In the beginning the Eternal God spoke into existence everything out of nothing. There was nothing and suddenly, at His Word, there was everything. Then God created all that lives and teems on the earth and crowned it with the pinnacle creation, humankind. When He had completed it all He deemed it "very good".

There was no evil, pain or suffering, but there was choice: the man and the woman could choose to obey and trust God or choose not to. The Deceiver exploited this, came and seduced them into disobedience, and introduced into the world evil which spread to all who have ever lived. Made in the image of God, yet with a warp in our nature that turns us away from Him.

God knew that no matter how much we might try, we could not reform ourselves, that He Himself must redeem us. So God called a man named Abram, changed his name to Abraham, and promised him that "through you all peoples of the earth will be blessed." For 2,000 years, Abraham's people, the people of Israel listened as God told them through the prophets how to know His coming: he would be one of them, born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem, that He would show the people the Kingdom of God, would heal the sick and would redeem us from our fallen nature through His death, then be raised again to life.

Then the Babe was born, shepherds rejoiced, magi brought gifts and a tyrant king raged. The Child grew to manhood, and accomplished all that was foretold for millennia: the sick were healed with a touch of His hand, the dead were raised, the principles of God's kingdom were taught and modeled before our eyes.

The Deceiver schemed against Him, seduced enemies to kill Him and thought he had spoiled God's plan of redemption. But the victory was God's when the Redeemer was raised from death to go prepare a place for all of those who would choose His Way.

The Babe in a manger is not complete without the cross. The cross is not complete without the Resurrection. The resurrection is not complete without His return to restore the earth as it was in the beginning.

Those who choose Him for their life become citizens of the New World to come and are called to live as He lived when He walked among us, to become ambassadors, representing Him and inviting all who will hear to join in His offered redemption.

13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.--Colossians 1:13-14

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Your Healing Presence

This time of year is very busy, but I made time recently to go visit an old friend whom I hadn't seen in a while. I had worked with him in a former job and I heard that he had recently had a rather severe stroke and was in a nearby rehab center.

It's the Christmas season which is busy for most people anyway, plus in my business the end of the year is hectic. But this had to be made a priority.

When I entered his room a nurse was tending to him and I'm sure he was surprised to see me. She finished and I greeted him, took his hand and told him I'd heard he was in a rough place right now and I wanted to check on him.

He has always been a talkative, expressive man. But the stroke has taken that ability away from him. The entire time I was with him he tried to talk, but it was completely incomprehensible. It frustrated him greatly. At several points he paused, grimaced and I saw his eyes well up with tears.

Though I controlled my emotions, I grieved inwardly for him. I caught him up on a few life things, prayed with him, and left.

It is common to feel inadequate visiting someone in such great need because we believe we should have something to say, to share, some wisdom or comfort, but we cannot find the words. This is not the first time I've stood at the bedside of someone in terrible suffering, but God in His grace has shown me that words are not what is needed, but presence is. When those we care about are suffering, what is needed most is merely our being there for them so that they do not walk through this valley alone. Like anyone I have felt the sense of inadequacy of not knowing what to say. But when I unburdened myself from that self imposed responsibility, and realized that just to be present in their hour of need was it's own form of comfort, my unease drained away.

Some years ago, in the midst of my own health crisis, there were those who took the time to be present in their own way in my life, and I will never forget their kindness. A friend alongside brings a healing power which we can easily underestimate. And we can take it from the Lord Himself, it has eternal importance.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'"

Saturday, December 12, 2015

No Offense, but...

In my last post I talked about how we, as a society, have become so thin skinned. Being offended has become America's favorite past time and has spawned a thriving business opportunity in what I call the Indignation Industry: cashing in on being offended.

Of my three reasons why we have become so brittle as a nation, the last affords the best chance to individually change and grow in character: to become big hearted, the kind of person who is generous, patient, gracious, willing to over look a slight. Turning an entire nation starts with the turning of ourselves individually.

In a conversation this week the topic of great leaders came up and I thought of the biography of Abraham Lincoln that I read a few years ago, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln", by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I loved the book because it didn't merely detail the history of Lincoln's life and the events of the Civil War. It gave penetrating insight into Lincoln's character and from that I'll illustrate my belief that to be not easily offended, we must be big hearted.

Of the many character qualities Lincoln had, one of his greatest was his humility. He was written off by his rivals for the 1860 presidential election because of his rough upbringing and his homely, unkempt appearance. His opponents for the Republican nomination were some of the most brilliant, famous and successful men of their day. Most of them and other party leaders treated the country bumpkin "rail splitter" Lincoln with condescension, even contempt. Yet Lincoln never showed the slightest offense at this treatment, remaining serene and responding with graciousness, even kindness for which he was well known. Shockingly, Lincoln overcame the entire field of prominent men, won the nomination and won the presidency.

Knowing the enormous issues that faced America with southern states in rebellion over slavery, Lincoln knew he needed a cabinet composed of the finest minds possible to guide his presidency. So he picked for those posts the very men who had opposed him and in some cases openly disdained him over the years. One by one, as they worked closely with him in his cabinet, they were won over by his gentle kindness, generosity and humility. Of them, William Seward and Edwin Stanton became his close friends. In Stanton's case that was most remarkable because Stanton had been publically critical of Lincoln in the past and in temperament he was stern and choleric, the polar opposite of the affable, gentle hearted Lincoln.

Lincoln could work with men who had been previously so opposed to him because he was humble. He knew that he needed their brilliant counsel more than he needed submissive men whom he could easily control. Humble people have not put themselves on a pedestal, needing the praise of others to affirm them there. With no inflated ego, there is nothing to puncture with sharp criticism.

Lincoln was roundly known also for his kind heartedness, a quality that is founded upon love of others more than self. It is a quality uniquely joined to humility. Stories of Lincoln putting others' needs foremost abound. For example he liberally pardoned soldiers charged with desertion and dereliction of duty because so often they were teenaged soldiers, boys shouldering men's uniforms and terrible duties, youngsters frightened at being thrown into the maw of a savage war. Lincoln did not have the heart to have these youth executed.

Stanton, even after he had worked with Lincoln for some time and had grown to love him, could still in anger sharply criticize decisions by the president, such as once calling him a "d*mned fool!" When told of this Lincoln smiled serenely and said, "If Stanton said I was a d*mned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right."

Where do we find such people today? We have become a brittle people today because we have become self centered and egotistical. When we are motivated by love of self more than of others, we bruise and bristle easily and the entire culture becomes more coarse and hostile.

We don't study great men like Lincoln anymore. We consider history boring and we miss the wealth not only of history but of insights into great people who navigated those awful times. We also overlook those more common people right around us who might be gleaming lights of refined character from whom we can learn. Because our eyes are ever on ourselves, we can't look outward to others who model greatness.

To be one who is not easily offended requires, for one thing, that we become a life long learner. We must look outside of ourselves. Learn from the likes of Lincoln, or even from the quiet souls within our own lives whom we over look because first, they don't seek attention and second, our gaze is continually turned inward. To look to them is the first step toward humility and our tendency toward taking offense will recede. Joined with that must be the cultivating of a heart that cares for others, willing to take another's well being into consideration, often above our own. With that perspective it becomes much harder to be provoked over some slight that may come our way. How can we be offended, when self is not at the center of our universe?

Change begins with me, with each of us individually, from whom it can spread and transform a nation.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Hurt My Feelings, I'll Hurt Your Livelihood

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Fortunes are being made these days by opportunists in what I call the Indignation Industry. All you have to do is claim that someone has offended you in some way and you may be able to wring a nice little court settlement out of them for your "pain and suffering" while the people who run afoul of such sensitivities can lose their job, or their business and their social standing. The threshold for violating such standards are very low indeed.

In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, journalism schools were bulging with young writers like me intent on becoming the next Woodward or Bernstein. In my newswriting class, we learned the legalities of liable and slander: you can express any opinion you like about someone as long as you do not accuse or imply that they have done something immoral or illegal. You can call somebody and idiot as much as you want, but you cannot call them a crook unless you know it to be factual and can back it up. Even then, unless they have been found guilty in a court of law, you cannot report it in the media as fact. This is why news outlets, when reporting on an arrest, must refer to it as "alleged", as in "police allege that Smith held up the bank." Until there is a conviction in court, "alleged" is the required qualifier. But to say something that merely hurts another's feelings, though tacky, is something we endure as a cost of having freedom of speech.

Yet aside from crime reporting, the landscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so. Nowadays employees regularly attend "sensitivity training" classes to avoid the slightest misstep in their language and behavior, lest they offend someone. The ways that this can happen are many and they are nuanced. Suspensions, firings and lawsuits can result from the slightest violation. Public figures are often skewered in the media for perceived insensitivities and careers can be tarnished as a result. College campuses today are aflame with protests akin to the 1960's as students demonstrate against "micro aggressions" and "triggers", meaning even the slightest perceived slight of race, gender or some other aspect of humanity's ways of differentiating ourselves. College faculty and staff live in fear that they will be drummed out of their positions for the slightest misstep.

It seems we are divided and antagonistic against one another more than ever. Our society is hypersensitive, ready to be aggrieved at the slightest insult, even if the offender doesn't intend or even realize they've caused offense. Technologically we've advanced in fantastic ways. Relationally, we've regressed perhaps and equal amount.

So we have arrived at the unhappy place where if you commit the intangible offense of hurting someone's feelings, you can be punished in very tangible ways that cost you your livelihood. Some observations:

First, such obsessiveness over the faintest shades of perceived insult is an aspect of our affluence. We have the luxury of getting the vapors over some picayune offense because we don't have much else to worry about. This is why you see such hypersensitivity and the public protests in the western nations of Europe and America, recumbent as we are in our wealth compared to the rest of the world. When you aren't too worried about whether you'll eat today, whether your village water supply is contaminated with cholera or whether some terrorist wants to kill you, your mind can wander to other bogeymen of your own imagining.

Second, our unity as a nation has become frayed and tattered because we have lost a shared belief in a common ideal, that America is a nation made up of diverse people aspiring to make their lives better because we have freedom to do so. In those countries like I just described, where life is more a matter of mere survival rather than prosperity, often the hindrance to upward mobility is the lack of freedom due to corrupt and oppressive governments. America has prospered because America is free, or has been largely so for most of it's history. Though societal prejudices may exert barriers to some ethnicities and cultural identities, they can be over come by anyone, and there is hardly a place on the planet with better opportunities to improve one's lot in life than America. Yet that tremendous blessing and opportunity has become overlooked. We ignore that blessing common to all of us, even disparaging the nation that grants such freedom, and turn on one another, biting and devouring one another. Because we take for granted the freedom we have, we see one another as enemies whom we believe are holding us back in life.

Finally, we've lost the quality of being big hearted. We are becoming small, narrow and touchy. We've forgotten what it means to shrug off a thoughtless comment, to have the maturity to ignore a slight or insult. We are coddled and self-entitled with the result that it's all about us. Me, myself and I are our three favorite people, so it's no wonder we are so thin skinned. Rare today is the person who, if someone makes some tacky remark, can simply think to themselves, "Oh well. So what?" or even better, give them the benefit of the doubt that they meant no harm.

To attain that level of maturity requires that we become other centered, that we allow God to build in us the unselfish love that Paul describes in the passage from 1 Corinthians cited above. If we allow the Spirit of God to grow that unselfish love within us, grievous slights will occur less and when they do we will be quicker to let them roll off of us rather than stick and provoke. We can become more forgiving, and with that will come a more unified people supportive of one another, less combative.

It might drain the profit out of the Indignation Industry, but the riches that will replace it are far more lasting and gratifying.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How Should Christians Handle the Starbucks Cup Situation?

Social media is abuzz about Starbucks management's decision to not put any sort of Christmas decoration on their cups other than them being red. Another rumor is that the employees are not allowed to wish customers "Merry Christmas". One post I saw said "Starbucks hates Christians" and someone else has urged that when the Starbucks employee asks your name, tell them "Merry Christmas". That way, when your drink is ready, they are forced to say "Merry Christmas". Hah! Gotcha!

When I was a younger man I might have agreed with such methods, proud member of the ranks of Combative Christianity that I was. But age has sanded down my reactionary edges. Now I'm more apt to make a few observations first, maybe even see if Scripture gives us some insight. Wish I'd learned that sooner.

First, both the decision for the cup design and forbidding employees to say Merry Christmas (if true) was made way up the command structure of Starbucks. To confront the employee at the counter over decisions made by their upper management is harassment of someone who has no say so in those matters. Why should we make their job a hassle over something for which they have no control?

Second, do you really believe "Starbucks hates Christians", even if someone in upper management did or did not make a disparaging comment toward Christians in the past? Or do you think that every employee of Starbucks hates Christians? Does that mean that the person serving you behind the counter does? I know a woman who goes to Starbucks everyday because one of the employees is a dear Christian friend. We cannot paint every Starbucks employee with a broad brush.

Third, aren't there much greater concerns in the world for we as Christians to be passionate about than this little tempest in a teapot? There are situations where we are truly called to stand for what is right and for justice. Store employees not saying "Merry Christmas" is not a hill on which to die in the cause of justice. We must learn to choose our battles.

What insight can Scripture give us in such a situation, where we perceive someone is slighting us, "dissing" us as believers, or to whom we perceive we should offer correction? Let the apostle Paul guide us from 2 Timothy 2:24-26:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth..."

We are to be gentle and kind even with those who oppose us. And really, as I indicated above, the person behind the counter is not likely to be "opposed" to you. Tying up the line of people waiting for their morning caffeine fix is not the place to conduct cultural warfare. If you feel the need to express yourself on matters like this, write an email to the person responsible for the decision, but even then, seek to persuade, not vent.

Our mission in this world is to win people to Christ, not win arguments. Snarky, cheap shot tactics will not win hearts to the Savior. Those methods only satisfy some fleshly impulse to get even with someone for a perceived disrespect of our beliefs.

A better approach? Thank the person behind the counter for their service in a gracious way. Ask them how their day is going and maybe about some aspect of their life. Take interest in them as a person, not as a target to be taught a lesson through some manipulative stunt. Stuff a couple of dollars into the tip jar and wish them a Merry Christmas. Then come back in the future and continue the relationship. Rather than alienating them from Christ through immature behavior, we might through our kindness as Paul exhorts, "lead them to a knowledge of the truth." That is what we are called to do in this life.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

It's Not All About "Getting to Heaven"

What I have come to label as Americanized Christianity presents a view of the Christian life that in many ways varies significantly from Scripture and church history. One such variance is the almost universal emphasis on "getting to heaven" and this being virtually the sole reason for devoting our lives to Christ.

The Bible actually says very little about heaven, but much more about the future resurrection of all who have ever lived. Jesus taught about "the kingdom of heaven", but that teaching was about the principles and laws of how God's kingdom functions, not about the afterlife. The principles of the "kingdom of heaven" are about how believers are to live and relate to others in this life, as prelude to what the world will be like when Christ returns and brings his kingdom to earth.

What the Bible does talk about frequently is the resurrection. The Old Testament prophets spoke of the great "Day of the Lord" when the dead would be resurrected from their graves to face judgment. Virtually nothing is said in the Old Testament about heaven as an abode for departed spirits, but it says much about a the great day of the resurrection. Daniel chapter 12 is an example:

“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake:some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

When Jesus went to Lazarus's tomb, He told Martha "Your brother will rise again." Her response was, "Yes, Lord, I know that I will see him in the resurrection." Notice Jesus didn't say "Your brother will go to heaven" and Martha didn't say, "Yes, I know I'll see him in heaven one day." That's because the Old Testament...the inspired Scriptures up to that time... spoke of a future resurrection, but not about going to heaven.

This doesn't mean that there is no heavenly realm. Paul spoke of being caught up "to the third heaven" where he saw and heard things beyond his ability to describe. There are other references to a heavenly place in Scripture. So heaven is perhaps where we abide until the resurrection day. But Paul also says that on that day "the dead in Christ will rise first", and that's the resurrection. And note that they "rise", indicating they have remained on the earth until that moment.

And then what? The saints that arise will then reign over the earth with Christ and the earth will become "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven", what God intended the world to be like before Adam and Eve rebelled and the world became fallen. Now the earth will live and function as God intended in the beginning.

Until that day, we who have devoted our lives to Christ are to live as Christ did, to model Christ and His kingdom to those who have yet to be born into the kingdom through faith. We are to live lives guided by His Spirit, lives of generous, unconditional love and kindness, being other centered. A theology that promotes receiving Christ in order to "get to heaven" is a theology that starts off with the wrong emphasis, an emphasis on the self-serving punching of your ticket to heaven just to escape the gruesome alternative of eternal separation from God. Instead, we receive Christ so that we can become like him and minister to the needs of others, and in so doing, invite others to join us as citizens of Christ's kingdom.

Whole books have been written on this subject and my point here is not to deny the existence of heaven. I believe in heaven, but not in the way that we have distorted it. Perhaps as the result of the "me" centered hedonism of our culture, Americanized Christianity's theology virtually ignores the resurrection, substituting it with an eternal abode in a sort of cosmic Disneyland of endless bliss, leaving unanswered what the purpose of it all is. The resurrection has been virtually forgotten and more importantly, this theology ignores the purpose of the resurrection, when God through Christ reconciles all things to Himself and restores the earth to the way it was meant to be. Resurrected believers from all of the ages reign with Him over the earth, each one having a purpose to carry out and to give glory to God. It's not one long eternal vacation cruise. We have a purpose to serve in God's kingdom on earth and in glorifying him forever.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Freedom that Is Not

Before beginning this post, I want to say that I'm changing my postings pretty significantly, mostly in length. My intent from now on is to publish much shorter pieces, easier to read and digest, beginning now by finishing the thoughts of the previous post on sex, the Bible and culture. This will still be longer than what my intent is to work toward, simply because I need to wrap up the last post.

Rather than a detailed study of the Genesis account of humankind's fall into sin and how that applies to human sexuality, let me just make some observations.

First, as discussed last time, the created world and the humans that God had set over it were "very good". In it's original, pristine state, everything existed and functioned as God intended it. Yet in chapter three of Genesis the deceiver comes and seduces Eve to take from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He didn't attack Adam, he went after Eve, thus pitting her against Adam to whom God had given the original command not to partake of the fruit.

When both the man and the woman partook, the text says "the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked". Their physical eyes were not what opened since it says beforehand that Eve saw that the fruit was a delight to the eyes. So the fact that their "eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked" means that their understanding was opened.

Why the entire focus seems to be that with the knowledge of good and evil they realized they were naked is a mystery. Then, when the Lord calls for them in the Garden, Adam says that he hid from the Lord because "I was afraid because I was naked". So again the focal point of the consequences of the fall is that they knew that they were naked. Also, Adam says that he was afraid. Fear was the first negative emotion introduced into the creation.

From this point forward human beings are all born with a dual nature: created in the image of God, but now with a twist in their very being, a warp in the human character that causes us to be alienated from the God who created us. We are all a fallen race. That is why when God sent a Redeemer to save us from that fallen nature, He had to be born through the divine agency of the Holy Spirit of God planting the seed of the Messiah into a virgin. No mere mortal man could be the Redeemer. No one who was himself a fallen person could be the Redeemer. Only God Himself could accomplish redemption.

As it pertains to human behavior and to sexuality, because we were now a fallen race with the tendency to veer away from the way God intended things to be, thereafter God established laws as boundaries to restrain people from abusing the way He had designed the creation and our relationships with one another.

Humankind constantly seeks to flaunt those boundaries and has throughout history. Today, the rebellion against any form of sexual restraint is nothing new, it is in fact as ancient as the Fall itself. But the irony is that the "freedom" we seek to gain by casting off the restraints set by God, is in reality bringing ourselves into the bondage from which God sought to set us free. True freedom for Adam and Eve existed briefly before they fell and they became ashamed of their nakedness. That world is gone.

We live now in the fallen world in which God has had to impose boundaries for our protection. We kick against those boundaries thinking we are gaining freedom, but in reality, we enslave ourselves to the shackles of the fallen creation. Seeking to be free, we only embellish our servitude to the fallen flesh from which we are made.