THE Right Answer: It ain’t closing the book

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The high priests of atheism would have us believe that we should not fear the end of life because death simply means shutting off the switch. (Ironically their message frightens me.) Modern day philosopher Stephen Cave believes that being afraid of being dead, or of what’s on the other side, is irrational. He points out that we are not good at imagining ceasing to exist. Cave finds it helpful to think of life as a book with a beginning and end where the characters within know no horizons. They only know the moments that make up their story, even when the book is shut. As a result, the characters are not afraid of reaching the last page. Cave believes this is how we should view life: as the moments in between. He says it makes no sense to fear what’s outside the covers of our book. In Cave’s worldview, the only thing that matters is that we make our life a good story.

What is my opinion of Cave’s metaphor for life? Well, if making our life a good story is the only thing that matters, who is going to read our story and love the characters within after we die and our book is closed and placed on the shelf? If no one, other than a handful of surviving friends and family members, is going to remember our story for a brief time after our book is closed, why does it matter if our story is good or not? Also, what if our individual stories are not books in and of themselves? In other words, what if each person’s life story is like a chapter in a much larger story? Our stories, though potentially powerful, are not enough by themselves to justify our existence. If our story is to have any value greater than a vanishing mist, there must be a transcendent purpose for our story plus a reader who is invested in us and our story. Only God can bestow transcendent purpose to our life stories. The universe does not bestow transcendent or poetic purpose to our life story. The universe constrains us primarily to the purpose of survival and at best provides a forum for us to thrive for a brief span of time. The universe did not create us to love us forever. But God did.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 says God has planted eternity in the heart of humanity. People make a grave mistake when they deny the eternity of their soul. Why? Because denying the existence of our eternal soul does not make our soul finite. Our soul is either eternal or not. Either way, its existence does not depend on our belief or disbelief in its existence. Just because we can’t see our soul under a microscope does not mean it is not there. But if our soul exists and is eternal (and I believe it is), we must choose our eternity. One eternity is with God and the other eternity is without God. Denying the eternity of our soul does not eliminate the choice. In fact, denying the eternity of our soul IS a choice; it is the choice to spend eternity without God. On the other hand, don’t think a person who chooses eternity with God has an excuse to live a lame life in the here and now. In Matthew 18:18 Jesus says “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In other words, the things we do in this life (our story) transcend this life in a mysterious way. Eternal heaven makes itself available to us in the here and now and beyond. Here’s the thing: Christ is the key to each person’s part in the story that transcends death. In order to choose eternity with God, we must believe Christ and that he is the only one who can give us the option of eternity with God. Christ is the right answer.

Attempts to explain away our life on earth as a mere story with a beginning and end can have tragic consequences, not only after death but also here on earth. I shudder to think how humanity (which is capable of unspeakable selfish evil) would eventually choose to live if everyone adopted the belief that there is no accountability after this life and the only thing that matters is making your life a good story, however you define it. How depressing to think of our lives as nothing more than tired old volumes of books collecting dust on the shelf of some cosmic library.

All-American Guy to Become All-American Girl

Bruce Jenner

Bruce Jenner

In the 70’s, Bruce Jenner was THE man! He was a golden boy athlete who won a gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. The decathlon consists of ten grueling track and field events. Athletes who train to compete in the decathlon must train their entire body and mind. Women adored Bruce, and men wanted to be like him. So what happened to Bruce? Why does he now want to join the women’s team, so to speak?

Does the Bible say anything about gender change? Not specifically as we think of gender change today. But it does say good will be called evil and evil will be called good (Isaiah 5:20). I believe this verse refers to more than issues of morality as in right versus wrong. It likely encompasses a variety of issues that our fallen world confuses in the human psyche. Male will be called female and female will be called male. Intolerance will be called tolerance and tolerance will be called intolerance. Data will be called metadata and metadata will be called data. Death will be called life and life will be called death.

Deuteronomy 23:1 says men were not supposed to emasculate themselves in Old Testament times. (I can’t comprehend such an act, though my neutered dog would say welcome to his world.) I assume Deuteronomy 23:1 still applies today as a warning against tinkering with our sexuality. Thanks to modern medicine, people can alter their sexual organs, but at their most basic level they remain what they were born in terms of gender. Or has science found a way to alter our chromosomes yet? In any case, attempts at gender change reflect a deviation from God’s architectural design for humanity. And what happens when builders deviate too much from the architect’s design? It can result in an unsafe structure which can result in tragedy.

Compassion is essential on this issue. It would be terrible to feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body, or vice versa. (I often feel like an old man trapped in an old man’s body.) The human mind is a complex organ subject to legions of internal and environmental influences, good and bad. Only God knows everything going on inside Bruce Jenner’s head. Granted, every patient has the right to give input into his or her treatment regimen. But in some situations it is best to ask God to heal what ails us, or at least let God help us manage what ails us. Here’s the thing: being an undeceived and fulfilled man or woman involves much more than a change of plumbing can accomplish. It requires a connection to truth, and truth is embodied in a person—Christ. If we strive to know Christ, the answers to many of the problems and ailments that vex us become clear.

Sniffing Out a Cure

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For almost thirty years I struggled with not getting enough sleep at night. Oddly enough the duration of this ailment coincides with the number of years I’ve been married. Be that as it may, doctors have, over the years, attributed my condition to a variety of sources such as insomnia (duh!), depression, restless leg syndrome, generalized anxiety disorder, Melatonin deficiency, arthritis pain, poor sleeping environment, and sleep apnea.

As it turns out, my nose was waking me just enough to interrupt my sleep cycle throughout the night. It seems that inside our nasal passages are turbinates (Google “nasal turbinates” if you want more info) that can swell and block off our nasal airway. When this happened at night, it partially woke me up by making me gasp for air. Since the condition didn’t wake me all the way up, I had no idea I was waking up until my malevolent wife got around to mentioning that she had noticed that I partially awaken at night while gasping for breath. (Yeah, some days I do wonder: what’s the point of marriage?) One of the symptoms of this problem is this: when you lay on your right side at night, your right nasal passage gets blocked, and when you roll onto your left side, your left nasal passage eventually gets blocked while the right nasal passage opens up. Only a doctor can tell if your turbinates are large enough to warrant surgery.

To make a long story short, three weeks ago I had minor surgery to whittle down the size of the turbinates in my nose. It has helped improve the quality of my sleep significantly. In the years leading up to the surgery, I was aware of my constantly stuffed-up nasal passages during the day and upon waking in the morning. I used a variety of over-the-counter and prescription remedies. They helped some but were not a complete solution. Still, I thought my sleep problem must be due to something more serious than a chronically stuffy nose. By the way, my doctor did not catch this problem with my nose. I discovered it while doing research on sleep problems. My doctor confirmed that I had the problem when I brought it to his attention.

Sometimes the solution to our problem is right under our nose (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!). Occasionally, almost on a subconscious level, we know what the problem is. It feels like something in a shadow waiting to be fully illuminated. We glance at the problem and the solution from time to time, but we keep looking elsewhere for a different solution. I recently told a friend about my nasal symptoms and the solution that helped me sleep better. He has the same symptoms. He heard my words but I am skeptical that they registered in such a way that he will take action. He continues to suffer quite a bit with sleep issues. Perhaps he has to find his own way to the right solution.

This is often how it is with our spiritual life. We try this and we try that in our efforts to fix something wrong with our soul, or with our way of life, or with some drama in our life. But nothing seems to work. Then one day we stumble upon the right solution. (Either that or God gets fed-up with us and puts the solution directly in our path so we can’t ignore it.)The funny thing about some solutions is that they were there all along; we just didn’t think they were significant enough to heal what ailed us.

The Sandlot Sniper: An American Sniper Review

Chris Kyle

Chris Kyle

When I was a lad, some neighborhood associates and I would often gather in the summer for war games. The battlefield consisted of a three acre field behind our house. The field was covered with large mounds of dirt and sand deposited by a dump truck from a nearby construction company. I had built a tree fort that overlooked the field from our backyard. At the other end of the field, my friends had built an opposing tree fort. We would divide into two teams and attack ear other’s base of operations in our tree forts. Our armaments included dirt clod hand grenades, sling shots, and Daisy BB guns. My mother, on many occasions, had warned me that we could shoot an eye out with such weaponry. Had my father caught me and the other kids shooting BBs at each other, well, let’s just say I’d rather lose an eye than face those repercussions. Be that as it may, it was exciting to sit in the tree fort during the heat of battle and listen to BBs ricochet off the branches and walls of the fort.

One day, the opposing insurgents mounted a full frontal assault. The firefight was intense. With rocks and BBs whizzing by our heads, my team and I blazed away with our BB guns and sling shots at the opposing forces, which were advancing from behind one mound to the next. As they approached the outer perimeter of our defenses, I took aim at an enemy soldier as he sprinted across a short patch of open ground. Leading my target just right, I fired. The BB struck the enemy in the finger. The result was astounding. His scream began low and rose in pitch to decibels almost beyond the range of human ears. I found his caterwauling and gesticulations that followed to be very disconcerting. Needless to say, the battle came to an abrupt end. The other kids vanished like a fart in the wind. Fortunately, I was able to staunch the bleeding and dress the enemy soldier’s swollen appendage. Even more fortunately, I convinced him not to spill his guts about the incident. (We didn’t call it bullying back then, it was just survival of the fittest.)That’s when I realized mom was right—you really could shoot an eye out with a BB gun. (Apparently I was a slow learner.)

When I turned 18, the Vietnam War had recently ended. Naturally, I had paid close attention to news about the war in Vietnam (before the draft ended), and like most young men entering adulthood I became aware that real war is not glorious, romantic or fun. Hence, when the movie American Sniper came out, I was a bit reluctant to see it. But I went. And I’m glad I did. As I suspected, the movie was tough to watch in some places, and heartbreaking. It reminded me that as a nation at war, we have a moral obligation to collectively grieve with the families of our soldiers killed and maimed for doing what our country asks them to do. The movie reminded me what it costs our soldiers, physically, psychologically, and relationally when the public and our political leaders send them off to fight. It’s too easy for us to say yes to war and go on with our lives without much inconvenience. I understand we, as a nation, did not have many options but to fight this war against terror and extremists, but we need to be keenly aware that war costs more than dollars. Hopefully, such knowledge about the human impact will help us demand that our leaders find broader solutions, or change tactics, or do what it takes to win, or end the fighting as soon as appropriate without allowing the military industrial machine to rule the day. War is a complicated mess.

At the beginning of the movie, the main character, Chris Kyle, is a young boy getting instructions about life from his father. His father tells him there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Sheep don’t know how to protect themselves when they get attacked. The wolves are predators that attack the sheep. But the sheepdogs represent people who protect the sheep. Sheepdogs have the gift of aggression and can execute focused aggression when needed to protect the sheep. In my opinion, this is a fairly accurate representation of humanity. Sure, it’s a generality, but it works. Chris Kyle was a sheepdog. When he grew up and entered the military, his primary focus as a lethal sniper was to protect his fellow soldiers. That is what drove him.

I’ve found that, as Christians, we tend to believe we are all sheep. We hear of ourselves referred to as sheep in the Bible and from the pulpit. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that “sheep” are a metaphor for our relationship as human beings with the Good Shepherd, Christ. But not all people are actual sheep in terms of disposition. Some, unfortunately, are wolves. And some are people who have the nature of the sheepdog. I am thankful for the sheepdogs among us. Perhaps the church should help train them to be excellent sheepdogs. By the way, do you believe that followers of God should never be confrontational or aggressive? If so, take a look at 1 Samuel 17:1-52 where young David (who ironically, is a shepherd) kills the giant warrior Goliath. David was a shepherd AND a lethal sniper with his sling. We all know the story of how David dropped Goliath with a single stone to the head. David was a sheepdog who knew how and when to aggressively overcome evil. By slaying Goliath, David brought the conflict to a conclusion and saved the lives of many of Israel’s soldiers.

Here’s the thing: a sheepdog can serve in a role that is more suited to sheep, but the sheepdog will long to protect and serve in a more aggressive role and cause. Let’s encourage sheepdogs to use their skills and disposition in opposing evil in urgent problem areas such as human trafficking, abortion, poverty, hunger, domestic violence, homelessness, addiction, disease, government corruption … there are many causes that need sheepdogs helping out on the front line and advocating for the weak and vulnerable. Maybe our sheepdogs need to be police officers, or battlefield medics, or soldiers, or short-sale investors who root out and expose companies that have fraudulently manipulated their stock to an overvalued price (thinking outside the box). The opportunities are endless … as long as we don’t pigeon hole them into the role of sheep.

CAUTION: American Sniper contains plenty of f-bombs, some sexual innuendo (though no complete nudity), and fairly graphic wartime violence. Viewers with extreme sensitivity about violence towards children should probably not see this movie as there are a couple of scenes where children are harmed or killed.

Deflategate: The Patriots go soft

Bill Belichick by Keith Allison

Bill Belichick by Keith Allison

The Pharisees of professional sports came out of the woodwork in the wake of allegations that the New England Patriots illegally deflated their footballs to gain an advantage in their recent game against the Colts. NFL balls are required to be inflated at a range of between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. The rule sounds like the start of one those math questions we all hated when we were children. QUESTION: If an NFL football is inflated at 12.5 pounds per square inch and the barometric pressure rises from 30.06 to 30.51 on game day, how much will the pressure of the football increase or decrease? ANSWER: It depends on which team will use the football.

ESPN said 11 of 12 balls used by the Patriots in the AFC title game were two pounds per square inch under the minimum. Judging from reactions of fans and the media, you’d think the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had been let loose upon the earth. Granted, if I can’t trust the integrity of a quintessential American football team, who can I trust? Wasn’t professional sports supposed to be one of the last bastions of integrity? I guess there’s too much money at stake even for sports to remain pure and innocent. The love of money is indeed the root of all evil.

I don’t know if Patriots coach Bill Belichick is guilty of cheating, or if someone else in the franchise is responsible for the deflated balls, or if atmospheric conditions contributed to the deflation of the balls. Nobody knows. But many lovers of the game are calling for severe consequences in this apparently scandalous breach of the rules. To some folks, the breaking of even a minor sports rule justifies harsh penalties. (Someone throw a yellow flag, or two, or three.) Apparently grace has no place in the NFL fan base. It does not matter that the Patriots would have won even if they played with a flat ball; their performance on the field was that good. Common sense tells us that they did not win because their ball was underinflated by two pounds. So why all the brouhaha by many fans and media talking heads? Ultimately the real question is this: why does our culture seem to care more about the alleged violation of a trivial sports rule than we do about, oh, I don’t know … violations of our Constitution and unethical behavior of our political leaders as well as some of the shady practices of our financial and industrial leaders?

Granted, professional sport is entertainment and does not demand that followers have a detailed understanding of the nuances of the game (unless you are a bookie or a Fantasy Football acolyte). You can know a lot or little about the game and still enjoy the action. Interestingly, ancient Rome used sport in the Coliseum to keep the masses distracted from the many problems looming in their society. Today, our leaders know they can get away with murder as long as people have a full belly, a six pack of Pabst and their favorite team to watch each weekend. I’m not suggesting our society needs to abandon professional sports. I am suggesting that it is dangerous for a society to care more about the violation of rules regarding air pressure in footballs than it does about issues of integrity in high places. Additionally, if we the people decide to start caring about integrity in high places, it would be hypocritical to make exceptions for our favorite players, organizations and ideologies.

Matthew 6:21 says “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Do we treasure the right things, or just the fun things? Professional sports are cool and glamorous. It’s hard to compete with that for the minds and hearts of the people. I get it. But our culture won’t survive unless the people find a way to enjoy, and take seriously, their crucial role as an essential force that holds our leaders accountable … ALL of our leaders.

Nasal Turbinate Reduction: Bring it!

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My nasal passages are the culmination of a long history of genetic malfunctions. Let’s just say that for years my nasal orifices have interfered with the passage of air to my lungs and on to my brain. After trying a cornucopia of conservative treatment options, my doctor eventually took a gander up my nose and recommended turbinate nasal reduction surgery. Fortunately, it is a fairly routine outpatient procedure. This brings my total outpatient surgeries up to three in the past few years. That’s about how many my father had at this age (which is a disturbing realization).

It has been a few days since the surgery and I can already tell my nasal airway is more open than it has been for many years. I don’t wake up at night gasping for breath. (For years I suspected Cindy of trying to smother me with a pillow.) Here’s the thing: I had adapted to my defective schnozz. I used Breathe Right nasal strips and prescription nasal sprays to get me through the night. I assumed that it was just a problem I’d have to deal with for the rest of my life. Now that the problem has been removed, I feel much better.

Few people have a shortage of problems. We adapt so effectively that we often go through life unaware of some of our problems. But what if our problems are with other people? Often we can’t change other people nor can we have their rough edges removed to mitigate their insufferable behavior. Getting people to change for the better is like trying to herd feral cats. So what’s the solution? Romans 15:1 says: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings and the frailties and the tender scruples of the weak; and not to please ourselves.”

This verse is not a license to feel morally superior to others. In a way, it instructs us to tone down our strong expectations of others. It doesn’t mean we have to be a doormat in order to live a proper Christian life. It does mean patience with others is an essential part of every Christian’s life. Patience is that thing you have when your neighbors host a loud party at midnight and you have to be at work the following day at 6 AM. (And they didn’t even send you an invitation.) As believers, we often have lifestyles that run afoul of the general population. While it would be nice if our neighbors adopted our lifestyle, it’s not likely to happen. Compounding the problem are those individuals with serious emotional or psychological issues that prevent them from living a life of good manners and thoughtfulness towards others. In extreme cases we have little choice but to set boundaries to keep out toxic people.

Most of the time it’s the little affronts that get under our skin and rub our nerves raw. In such cases a healthy dose of I-don’t-care attitude can actually be helpful. This requires a change in attitude on our part. Try it! After a while it starts to feel pretty good . . . and then you can begin to care for people who initially rubbed you the wrong way. We all need practice at this, and it takes a lifetime commitment. Here’s the caveat: before we do anything, we need to examine ourselves with a critical eye to make sure we are not the problem. If we move from church to church, job to job, town to town and we always have conflict with others, well, that’s a good indicator that we are the problem. Once we identify the problem within our self, we can work with God to have it removed. You’ll feel much better after the problem is gone. I promise!

Mocking Charlie Hebdo

Je Suis Charlie/Paris/by Guillaume

Je Suis Charlie/Paris/by Guillaume

Would it be appropriate for someone to satirize Charlie Hebdo magazine after the killings of their cartoonists at the hands of Islamic fanatics? Let’s suppose someone published a cartoon of a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist weeping with the caption “Cartoonist Overwhelmed by Multiculturalism.” Could the remaining staff at Charlie Hebdo take the joke? Would they honor the publisher’s right to print it? Would left-wing factions within the public support the right of such a tasteless cartoon to be seen by all? Would they mass by the thousands in the streets and hold aloft their pens in a sign of solidarity for such an insensitive cartoon’s right to be published? I hope so, but I’m skeptical.

Don’t get me wrong, I love satire. I love pretty much all forms of humor. Humor that highlights evil and hypocrisy has tremendous value in the fight against evil and hypocrisy. Here in America, as in France, there is a long tradition of freedom of speech and expression. But it is often tritely said that we have the right to say something, but that doesn’t mean we should say it. Heck, even Jesus used satire to point out an ugly truth about the Pharisees. Take a look at Matthew 15: 14 where he accuses the Pharisees of being blind guides leading the blind. The image of the blind leading the blind is humorous, but it also pointed out the spiritual blindness of religious leaders who were leading the people astray. This enraged the Pharisees. The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus and the truth of his message. They eventually killed Jesus for such remarks. If nothing else, this teaches us that satire is effective at getting to the heart of a matter. It can also be lethal. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and where best to apply satire. But in the hands of immature, ideologically blind people, satire can be misused. It’s like placing a loaded gun in the hands of a two-year old child.

Perhaps satire is best used by those willing to apply it evenly, including against those things they themselves cherish. No sacred cows. In other words, it is one thing to mock political ideologies, religions, and ways of life you personally dislike. It is quite something else to mock hypocrisy, ugliness and evil in your own camp. It’s easier to find courage to do the former. You see, hypocrisy, ugliness and evil do not reside in just one ideology or another. They are everywhere.

Yes, as a Christian I stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, despite the fact that the magazine has a reputation for mocking all religion, including Christianity. But I do not stand with Charlie Hebdo so much as I stand against the evil that would deprive us ALL of the right to speak our conscience. Perhaps it is time for Christians to stop standing with our left-wing or right-wing favorites and simply stand against evil.

Here is the thing about Charlie Hebdo’s ideology: It doesn’t have a solid foundation. By mocking all religion they leave only one source to determine right from wrong, good from evil—the law of man which is based on the sensibilities of man. The problem with the law of man, as necessary as it is, is that it does not lift up the soul of man. It only enables man to live side by side without slaughtering each other. And even at that it is a poor tool. Only God and his law and mercy and redemptive power can elevate the soul of man.

As Christians, we know that God does not ask us to avenge his name when unbelievers commit blasphemy or mock our sacred things. We are only witnesses and ambassadors who he uses in the world to peacefully persuade people to surrender their lives to God. Attempting to win converts through force and violence goes against God’s purpose. If people refuse to believe, or if they mock our God, all we can do is turn them over to God and let him deal with them with his justice and mercy. We are not judge, jury and executioner. Apparently Islamic fanatics do not have such a doctrine. It seems like the God they worship depends on human hands to dispense justice on the street, like a vigilante. That’s vanity.

Can you trust Nebraska?

Bruce Dern / Cannes Film Festival, 2013

Bruce Dern / Cannes Film Festival, 2013

The day has been long in coming, but it finally arrived: I have now reached the age where people no longer feel obliged to get me a Christmas present. Alas, I have become the old grandpa who has everything he needs. Perhaps I should not have included a Harley motorcycle and a young mistress on my Christmas wish list to my wife. (Just kidding, Harleys are too expensive to maintain.)

It’s funny how the older I get the more I seem drawn to stories about older people. It’s probably because the issues of the young can begin to seem a bit banal at this stage of life. Anyhow, I recently watched the movie Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern. You may remember Bruce Dern from those old western movies where he often played the bad guy. Dern’s role in Nebraska is quite different from his prior films. In Nebraska he plays Woody Grant, a cantankerous but also gullible old man who sets off on a cross country quest to claim a million dollars he thinks he won in one of those sweepstakes contests that advertisers mail to the elderly. Spoiler Alert! His son attempts to dissuade him from traveling across the country to collect the sweepstakes prize that Grant did not win. When it becomes clear that Grant will not back down, his son decides to take him on the road trip to the sweepstakes office. Along the way they experience some funny situations and some serious drama with family members and old friends who come to believe that Grant has won the money. To make a long story short, Grant and his son arrive at the sweepstakes office where Grant is informed that he does not have the winning number. Grant leaves the office very disappointed. The girl at the sweepstakes office asks Grant’s son if his father is ok. “Yeah, he just believes what people tell him,” the son replies. The sweepstakes girl responds “That’s too bad.”

I can’t get that response from the sweepstakes girl out of my head. Why? Because at first I agreed with her belief that it is too bad that an old man would believe anything that anyone would tell him in our modern society. But then I began to realize that the problem is not predominantly with the Woody Grants of the world. The problem is with the majority of us who have allowed our society to become a place where survival often depends on mistrust. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the Bible warns us to be trusting AND shrewd. There is real evil in the world that would like to harm us.

Yes, the sweepstakes girl is partially right: It is too bad that Grant trusts everyone. But it is not too bad for Grant, as the sweepstakes girl believes. In reality it is too bad for the rest of us. We are the ones who stand by while evil crafts our society into a place of mistrust. It is not how God intended the world to be. I do not think God looks down on the Woody Grants of the world. He looks down with a sad eye on the rest of us.

Proverbs 3:29 says “Do not contrive or dig up or cultivate evil against your neighbor, who dwells trustingly and confidently beside you.”

You see, we have a corporate responsibility to look out for each other. If you spend much time in the Old Testament you will find places where the prophets tried to warn their society that the people were allowing too much lying, cheating, robbing, deceptive business practices, as well as other crimes of violence. And don’t be fooled, we tend to think of some of these sins (such as cheating and deceptive business practices) as less serious. The truth is that even these so-called trivial sins are violent sins because they destroy the trust of an entire society of people.

Don’t be discouraged by all this. God gives us tools to fight evil that schemes to destroy trust. For example, our age of information is a double edged sword. Corrupt individuals and corrupt businesses can hide some of their sneaky practices by using complexity to their advantage. On the other hand, cheated customers can spread the word faster via the internet. We still have a voice. Are we using it honestly?

Why is trust within a society so important? If it becomes impossible to trust anyone, even Christians in the church, it makes it harder for people to trust God. I know we should always be able to trust God, even when we can’t trust people. But that’s not always how it works.

A Norman Rockwell Christmas Eve?

FallenLadder300x400 I am in a mixed marriage. My wife is a Douglas Fir Christmas tree person whereas I grew up in a Silver Tip Christmas tree tradition. (If I had only known before saying “I do.”) Compounding the precarious nature of our relationship is the fact that my wife was a Lutheran and I was a Baptist. How our marriage survived is a testimony to the power of God’s grace and the pharmaceutical industry. Over the years we have learned to compromise. For instance, I learned that drinking wine was not necessarily a sin (which sort of spoiled it for me) and she learned that full immersion baptism was pretty cool.

These days, Cindy and I attend one of those contemporary churches that has almost no similarities to a Lutheran or a Baptist church. As for Christmas trees, well, we still argue about that . . . until this year. But before we get to that, some history is in order. As a young couple, we would go up to the wilderness and cut our own Christmas tree. We were fanatical believers that only a real Christmas tree should grace the halls of our home. Anything less was evidence of a general lack of character. In our minds, it simply was not possible to have a warm Christmas experience in our home without a real Christmas tree. But as the years passed, we eventually stopped going to the wilderness to cut our Christmas tree, opting instead to venture into a more urban environment to acquire our real tree—The Home Depot. Here is a typical exchange between Cindy and me when we have narrowed the selection of trees down to two finalists in The Home Depot Christmas tree lot:

Me: I like the slim tree.
Cindy: I like the fuller tree.
Me: You mean the fat tree?
Cindy: Why do you have to be such a male pig?
Me: Maybe it’s my environment. Do you think it hurts the tree’s feelings to call it fat?
Cindy: I doubt it, but I know where to hurt you!
Me to the clerk: We’ll take the fuller tree.

You see, compromise isn’t so bad. Anyhow, after last year’s warm fuzzy exchange in The Home Depot Christmas tree lot, I began to slyly suggest to Cindy that we should consider purchasing a realistic fake Christmas tree. (Yes, I know it is an oxymoron AND a betrayal of my values.) During my research of fake Christmas trees, I discovered that there are fake Christmas trees that look fake and there are fake Christmas trees that look real. Can you guess which trees cost more? Yep, the fake ones that look real cost waaaay more. Naturally, Cindy would only consider the high-brow version. Fortunately we found a realistic fake tree that was deeply discounted. We took it home, set it up, applied our handmade decorations (Martha Stewart would be proud) and flipped on the lights. It was beautiful, and not the least because we didn’t have a single disagreement while trimming the tree. And something even more miraculous happened: I got the same warm feeling looking at that fake tree that I did with all of our real trees. Does that make me a shallow person?

Here’s my point. God shows up during the Christmas season in some unexpected ways . . . if we step up and invite him (yes, we humans can actually influence whether God shows up). A few years back, Cindy and I were visiting family in Deer Park, Washington. On Christmas Eve our family members invited us to attend their Catholic Church for a special service. I was a little hesitant because my faith tradition has often been a bit dubious towards Catholicism. But Cindy and I went with an open heart and a spirit of anticipation for the service that night. The parking lot was packed to overflowing. It had begun to snow, but not just any snow. It snowed those big fat snowflakes that fall so elegantly to the ground. A hush descended with the snow. Families walked inside and crowded into the pews, and nobody seemed to care that we were packed in like sardines. Stillness fell over the congregation. The worship music was so exquisite and spirit-filled I thought I would break down in tears. The priest preached a traditional message about Christmas and invited all the children to come forward and sit on the steps of the altar. He asked them questions about Christmas and Jesus. Some of their answers sparked chuckles from the adults, as only children can do. I felt the powerful feeling of community among the congregation but I also felt God wrap me up like a warm blanket that night. It was one of the most holy moments I’ve experienced in all my years of attending church. It was like something Norman Rockwell would envision.

I pray that every believer has this experience with God and his people at least once, or many times in their life. Don’t place limits on God and He may just surprise you. Cling to Christ, cherish your family and love others. These things will lead you to peace, joy and even happiness. But there is one thing that is often left out of this equation: to love justice. In other words, strive to live ethically. We will not always succeed, but that is ok. Justice is an essential element in achieving the peace, joy and happiness that is part of the promise of Christmas.

Have a merry Christmas!

Oh Holy Night of Retail Sales

Nativity Scene at Night A couple days after Black Friday, I ventured out to the stores with my family for some reconnaissance of the shopping scene. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle I spied a lady entering Petco with a large German Shepherd on a leash. The dog was incredibly well behaved. He walked calmly beside his master and sat patiently when she stopped to look at items on the shelf. When I take my fell beasts to Petco, the experience is not so pleasant: there is lots of lunging against the leash, piddling on the floor, and growling at other customers. And my dogs are ill-mannered, as well.

Anyhow, this time of year we get the annual bemoaning of how commercialized Christmas has become in our society. Granted, it nauseates me to see WalMart erecting Christmas displays before I’ve purchased candy for Halloween. How far ahead on the calendar can stores go when peddling their Christmas wares? Can they start on Labor Day? How about Independence Day? I’m not a prognosticator, but within my lifetime I expect to see store Christmas displays on the 4th of July. Uncle Sam and Saint Nick in bed together with big retail would make a most unholy union. But I digress.

It’s easy to decry the commercialization of Christmas. Why? Because the commercialization of Christmas is indeed taking the sacred and turning it into something well beneath its dignity. Most Christians instinctively know this. Yet here in America we seem especially susceptible to commercialization of sacred things. On the other hand, it is unlikely that we would have the same high quality of living were it not for retail commercialization. We can stick our nose in the air about the commercialization of Christmas, but the truth is commercialization and consumerism affords us with toys and essentials such as our iPads, smart phones, movies, music, thousands of food items in grocery stores, a comfy bed, a solid roof over our heads, and the indispensable tushie warmers in the seats of our cars. Without commercialization and consumerism, we’d be slaving away on a subsistence farm or we’d be forced to join a group of hunter-gatherers trying to eke out an existence in the wilderness.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank, consumer spending comprised 71% of the U.S. economy in 2013. A large chunk of that spending happens at Christmas time. Can a society continue forever to base its economic foundation so heavily on consumerism? I doubt it. But I haven’t heard of any viable alternatives to date. My point is that we can focus on divine and sacred things at Christmas without letting the commercialization aspect become anything other than a tool or a means to an end. The gifts the Magi brought to the Christ Child were beautiful, representative of sacred things, and practical. Those gifts likely helped fund Christ’s family for a period of time when they were refugees in Egypt. The Magi likely had to purchase or trade for those gifts in a market SOMEWHERE. Granted, not ALL gifts we give and receive at Christmas need to be purely practical. Even at age 58 I don’t want socks or underwear for Christmas. But beauty and/or practicality can be found amidst the commercialization if we choose our gifts wisely and avoid buying (or making) gifts devoid of creativity or lacking any usefulness. I understand that not everyone can afford to give fancy gifts from Nordstrom’s or Tiffany’s (me included . . . though my wife will be so disappointed), but everyone has something precious to give, even if it is simply time and friendship. Commercialization need not corrupt our Christmas as long as we remember that we give our gifts as a symbol of the gift of Salvation that Christ brought to the world.

So, it’s ok to go out and shop and it is ok to put one of those cheesy blow-up Santa’s in your front yard (as long as you don’t live on my street). Just don’t forget to keep the nativity scene front and center of it all.

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