Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Twelfth Day of Christmas and a Bar Fight

Christmas Eve means last minute shopping and food to make and hustle and bustle of preparations - gifts wrapped and anticipation of the following day.  It is wonderful to have the routine lifted and people focused on things like family and giving and togetherness.

It is very much outside the stream of that first Christmas . . .

We have already talked about the uncertainty and the confusion that was associated with the particular events that bring us to this day.  Wise men and shepherds and murderous kings who wanted to end the life of the Christ child.  It is funny how all of this drama gets expressed in a holiday season that we sum up as a "Silent Night."

How comforting when we think of our lives and how far they are from "Silent" or "Holy."

Sometimes we compare ourselves to the serenity of Christmas Carols - as if to fit into the rhythm of God that we need to clean ourselves up a bit.  But that is not the essence of Christmas at all.

Christmas is a profoundly confusing and upsetting time in which God acted in a way on this earth that no one anticipated  - and many missed.  I mean, think of it - for centuries people anticipated the coming of the Messiah - someone to come and deliver His people from earthly adversaries.  Instead, when he does show up he talks about the need for our sin to be forgiven.

Not exactly what they wanted to hear.

It is like finding yourself in a bar fight and losing very badly.  At just the right time your father shows up and you breathe a sigh of relief thinking he has come to team up and take care of your adversaries.  Instead, he talks about the need to address sin in your life and atonement.

Christmas was the beginning of an era in which we thought about God not as the guy who would give us what we want, but what we need.  Even if it wasn't what we were expecting.

So if the events of the next week find you confused and let down - family, friends and even your life doesn't live up to the expectations of the season - know that you are in good company.  Christmas is about turning life upside down - not so much about all being "Calm and Bright."

Take a breath and rest easy that God is working on your mess in the midst of the mess.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

An idea for Christmas ring and run

This blog entry is day 9 of our Twelve Days of Christmas - a series run this Christmas that finishes tomorrow.  It has been fun looking at the Christmas story in new ways with you!

Day #9 - A place in your heart.
There was nowhere to go, no one had any room for them . . .

So goes the saying that there was ‘no room in the Inn’ popular surrounding he Christmas story.

However, scholar Kenneth Bailey brings up two major problems with this idea.  First, it was have been shameful for anyone in the Middle East to deprive a woman in the process of labor a place to stay.  Having taught in the Middle East and an expert on Ancient Palestine, Bailey goes on to explain that the same is true today – not one person would turn away someone knocking on their door (much less a woman who was about to give birth).

The second has to do with the word “Inn” which seems to have been mistranslated.   The more appropriate idea is the ‘living space’ or the central area of a small home.  Since Bethlehem was flooded with people registering for the census, there were lots of people that had taken space already in the most prominent room in the house.  So we should not envision Joseph running frantically from house to house looking for someone with charity.

Instead the idea is that the only available area in the particular house that they were given refuge was the stable – something like our garage.  Every house had one – complete with mangers (stone hewn cattle feeders) and animals.  In fact it was the duty of the man of the house to let the cattle out first thing in the morning.

So it is more likely that Jesus was born in the garage.

Now that we have a more accurate view of what took place, I’m not sure what really shifts – except that people who were not incredibly rich themselves gave of what they had and God used it.  The God of the universe is now in a carved piece of stone around a bunch of animals, shepherds and curious onlookers.  It was enough.

It is probably something that should challenge us to always have a place in our heart for the poor – but especially in this season.  Maybe some simple gesture of generosity will help us get more of an idea of what that first Christmas was like.  Try this – before you watch another Christmas movie or bake another batch of cookies – take some of your money, but a gift card, put it in an envelope, grab your kids and go out at night and stuff as many envelopes as you are able into mailboxes that may be able to use a little extra at this time of year.

Kind of like ring and run.

Then go home to some hot chocolate and a movie knowing that you didn’t just celebrate Christmas – you participated in it.  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Are we really all Muslim? Day 5 Christmas Devotional . . .

This is Day 5 of a devotional series called "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  The point today for the devotional just happened to be echoed in the news event of Michael Moore today.  If you would like to receive the rest of the devotionals in your inbox just enter your email above . . .

Michael Moore is crusading again.  This time in from of Trump Tower in New York City.  He is holding a sign that says, “we are all Muslim” in reaction to Donald Trump’s ideas about how to keep the US safe in a world of terror.

Are we really all Muslim?  Catholic?  Jewish?  This is at the core of what Christmas is all about.

After holding a sign there for a while he was asked to leave.  He left and went home to write an open letter to Donald Trump.  Moore delves more deeply into his thoughts in the letter, including how he was:
“raised to believe that we are all each other's brother and sister, regardless of race, creed or color. That means if you want to ban Muslims, you are first going to have to ban me. And everyone else.  We are all Muslim.  Just as we are all Mexican, we are all Catholic and Jewish and white and black and every shade in between.”
Of course the idea of sticking by people that are being unfairly treated is remarkable.  The problem is with the statement, “We Are All Muslim.”  No we are not.  We are all human.  Period.  And regardless of what labels we add to ourselves, unless we start with that fact we will have a very hard time understanding the nature of the problem we have getting along.
You might be asking, “what in the world does this have to do with Christmas?”
Think about it.  Magi come from Arabia or Persia – from a cult that worships astral deities and looks to astrology for answers.  Shepherds (seen by most as lower on the pole of society) leave their fields behind.  Mary and Joseph are so poor that they can’t even afford the usual sacrifice for the baby Jesus right after His birth.  Foreigners, ‘lowlifes’ and the poor – all central characters in the drama of Christmas.  God Himself picks a somewhat insignificant clan from a socially and geopolitically insignificant race of people in an obscure corner of the world to birth His Son.  So it seems like God knows the poor and the powerless very well – going so far as to purposefully choose the marginalized and the forgotten.
But the poor and the powerless are transformed by their relationship to God, not to each other.  It is the journey to Jesus that changes who the Magi are, not their solidarity with other Persians. They are no longer aliens but citizens.  Mary and Joseph are no longer poor but overflowing with the assurance of God’s presence.  The Shepherds are no longer ‘lowlifes’ – but lives changed by the very child they are going to visit.
So no, we are not Muslims.  We are not Christians.  We are not Syrians.  We are not White or Hispanic.  We are not gay or transgendered.
We are human.  We are loved by God. 
Christmas is a story of journeys – people who leave homelands, childhoods, occupations for a time to spend it in the presence of God – touched by the common thread of their humanity . . . and the assurance of being loved.
Christmas reminds us that the only way to be fully human and to realize we are deeply loved is to journey (one step at a time) to the peace offered to us with God in the person of Jesus.  Being Muslim won’t save us.  Going to Church won’t save us.  Fighting for equality won’t save us.  Even love won’t save us.
Recognizing that we are all human and in need of the love of God in Jesus is the only hope we have.
 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,  to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.  And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,  and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Luke 1:26-33

Monday, December 14, 2015

Day 2 - The Twelve Days of Christmas

Today's blog is an abridged version of what is being sent out to subscribers for the 12 Days of Christmas Devotional Series.  If you would like to receive the rest of the series just enter your e-mail above.

Get over it . . .
 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”  Matthew 2:1-8

So we talked about how the wise men came from the East yesterday.  It is fascinating to think that floating around somewhere out there is God’s influence outside the scriptures to invite some astrologers to witness His Son’s birth.

Okay - imagine a small caravan of people winding their way through the streets of Jerusalem - it was just polite to check in with the ruler of a place to show you came in peace.

Well none of this sat well with King Herod.

To be fair, I am sure you would be a bit suspect.  In today’s terms - imagine you started a company from scratch and three human resources executives from your competition come to your office one day telling you their Onstar GPS led them to your office in search of the next CEO of your company.

It might make you feel a bit nervous about your future . . .

So Herod is a bit antsy.  But that is nothing new for Herod, he seems to have suffered all his life from paranoia.  He killed three of his sons.  Three.  Not one, not two – three.   The joke in Greek was that it was safer to be Herod’s pig [hus] than his son [huios].   Oh – and he murdered his second wife.  And not to be outdone, near to his death he gathered up dozens of influential people around Jerusalem and had them imprisoned.  He then gave orders to have them killed when he died ‘so that there will be weeping’ on the day of his death.

Wow . . . and you thought you had issues . . .

So what’s the point?

Why does God bother with people like this?  I mean, it can’t be a surprise to Him – right?  Why can’t God just wipe Herod out and move on?

Apparently that is not the way that God works.

Even for His own Son – it seems that God prefers to work through the junk, not removed from the junk.  I don’t get it, but it seems like the repeated pattern in scripture is to use people that are broken and then put them in situations that break them some more (Abraham waited 25 years to have a son, Moses got exiled, Joseph was accused of rape and thrown in prison, David was hunted by his son – the list goes on and on).  God works through the junk of life.

So if you have junk you are tired of – maybe it is really God working through it all . . .

Think of it this way:

If God didn’t make everything easy for a teenage girl who blindly trusts Him with completely changing her life forever then He isn’t going to make everything easy for you either.

Or to put it another way:

Some of the best work that God does is in the midst of pain and confusion and if you have some of that right now you might just be halfway through the kind of story that you will tell strangers ten years from now.  And the moral of your story will be “only God could have done that!”

So get over it – junk is the raw material that God uses to make our lives beautiful.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

One College's Reaction to Gun Violence

Our dinner table is a great place for some really interesting conversation.

I have a 16 year old, a 14 year old and a 10 year old - so we hit everything.  What is happening in school, what is happening in the world, horses (the 10 year old) - and then there's politics, economics, theology, philosophy - you name it, we talk about it.

So last week, I started off:

Did you hear what they did at Liberty University? *smirking*  They told the students to go get guns, isn't that ridiculous? 

*blank stares*

I love that my kids are so on top of the news.  One quickly retorted, "yeah - that is the soundbyte in the press, they are just allowing those with permits to carry in their dorms."

From another: And they have to turn them into the RA at night.

And another: And they have to have special classes to make sure they know how to handle it.

Finally, from my wife, "yeah, it actually sounds like a pretty good solution to all these shootings.  For those that already have a permit to carry - they should be trained in the event that some wacko wants to shoot up the campus.  I'd feel safer."

Well didn't I feel stupid.

The ensuing conversation helped me make some sense out of this.  For the record I am not okay with a world where college students have to have guns to make sure they 'feel safe.'  I don't think anyone is okay with that as a matter of principle.  

I mean, theologically, it seems incongruent to shoot someone out of fear of being shot when you are going to heaven anyway.  But something changes when theology bumps into the people you care about.  If it is me, that is one thing . . . when it is your kids, another form of theology kicks in.  When I think of someone messing with any of my kids and I wouldn't hesitate to put a stop to them.  Just being real.  Maybe I have to grow in this area, but I don't want anyone touching one of them with evil intent. 

This is what I wrestled with as I finished up my dinner.  It is the tension that we all have to live with.  I don't want to live in a violent world and be a part of a violent society - but I also wouldn't hesitate to protect my own from some radical nutjob.

So as I thought about it, I figured it was a sign of the times that we have to live in this tension.  The tension of wanting a world free of violence and the reality of trying to get your kids through this violent world untouched by it.  

But the real sign of the times is how we can't talk about it.  We don't appreciate the tension - the nuances - the complexities of the issue.  Somehow our society thrives on 'camp' mentality.  Either you are 'pro' or 'anti' - there is no middle ground.  No one who sees the difficulty in their own stance.  Very few people who even on social media who can say, "you know what, you're right."  The truth is that the people at Liberty are trying their best to answer a problem in our world today.  I fell right into the trap of smirking at their efforts.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to hear each other in this very strange and difficult time and acknowledge that we can learn even from the people we disagree with.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Sign up for the Christmas devotional here

On December 13th I wil be publishing a series of devotionals that center on the theme of Christmas.  If you would like to receive all of them please enter your email address above.  Each day will have a helpful picture of what Christmas really looked like (Was there a star over Bethlehem?  Was Jesus really born in a stable?) as well as a challenge and scripture to help you focus on the reality of Christmas here and now.

The way things should be . . .

So I sat in church last weekend thinking to myself:

". . . so if someone decided to do some real harm today, what would my first reaction be?"

I like to think that I would be the first to jump up and without one lesson in martial arts take down the assailant in a mind-blowingly fantastic demonstration of perfect timing and hand-eye coordination.

I see people patting me on the back - a picture in the paper: "man takes down terrorist with bare hands."  Hey - it could happen . . . I mean, the Eagles beat the Patriots . . .

And then I almost made myself laugh out loud at the vivid thought of "what if I sprang upon a would-be-attacker and at the exact same moment someone else had the same thought and we collided in mid-air giving each other a massive concussion?"

The second thought made me sit back in my seat and think about hiding options.

Do you have those thoughts now whenever you are in public?

It's funny because there are some people who would say that our fear is getting the best of us and that is what is making us think these thoughts.

I disagree.

I don't think we are afraid.  I think we are angry.  Righteous anger.  Anger that we live in a world where this is happening.  Anger that there are people who live in Western societies that are allowed to coax people into doing horrible acts while judges in America are ruling about 'Manger Scenes' in public squares.

The world is completely upside down.

So no, it is not racist anger.  It is not seething hatred of another religion.  It is not the kind of anger that seeks to limit Muslims from coming into our country (yes, the political world is completely crazy).  

It is an anger that comes from a vision of the way things should be - the way it used to be.

And I might add - the way it can be.

There is only one solution to the madness of the world that we now live in.  It is called a change of heart.  And it seems like a fitting time of year to take it seriously - because the more that we try to think we can handle all of this, the more it is obvious we are really lost.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Christmas devotional!

Starting December 13th, you will receive a new short-take on one of twelve elements of Christmas.  Was Jesus really born in a stable?  Who were the magi?  What was the star?  What does it mean that "Mary pondered all these things in her heart?"  Sign up here to receive a new thought and scripture reading each day to help Christmas really be Christmas!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The confusion of yesterday . . .

So I am confused . . .

Yesterday another shooting happened in California.  Immediately gun control advocates take to the airwaves and point their finger.  Gun rights advocates pointed right back.  Talking heads.  Experts in their own agendas doing their best to not lose political ground in the shadow of a tragedy.

Then we heard it could be terrorism.

As if that makes it any different.  I mean, really - yesterday was all about the insanity of gun violence until it became about terrorism and then its a totally different issue?

Is it?

Evil is evil.  The darkness of evil doesn't boil down to whether you can or can't buy a gun.  It really isn't about our 2nd amendment rights.  It really isn't about the war on terror or Syria or ISIS.  We are losing control the more we talk about gun rights and gun control and airstrikes.  I don't have faith in these experts that claim they know what to do in response to days like yesterday.

This is the text that Terry Petit got from his daughter yesterday:

"Shooting at my work. People shot . . . Pray for us. I am locked in an office."

As a father, if I could ever have felt more helpless . . .

Like anyone, I don't want to have to pray for my daughter's safety.  But prayer is all we have in moments like these.  No politician's plans about guns or fighter pilot's airstrikes in Syria can help us in the midst of evil days like yesterday.  All the suits and press conferences and arguments and legislation can't fix the problem of evil.

We need help beyond ourselves . . . but no one wants to start there.

In response to the terrorist attack in Paris, a popular Charlie Hebdo cartoonist released this drawing:

It is a statement that comes from outrage and anger - frustration and a human spirit that won't give in to bullying and fright.  I agree with him that we don't need more religion.

But that is exactly why I am confused.  I agree with his premise, but not with his conclusion.  If our faith goes to music, kisses, life, champagne and joy then we are really lost.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thank You!

Thank you so much for being a part of this blog.  I am truly thankful for all of your interest and rigorous but amicable responses and debates.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving and looking forward to a new series around Christmas just for you subscribers!

Love, John

Thursday, November 19, 2015

God sends them to us . . . all expenses paid.

This week has been a difficult week.

A new terror attack.  Sifting through the aftermath of how it happened and how to prevent another one from happening. 

Add to that the difficult moral decision about what to do with refugees that are fleeing the war in Syria.  Were they involved in the Paris attack?  Middle Eastern countries aren’t taking them – do they know something we don’t?  Are terrorists going to sneak in with the refugees?

And everyone has an opinion on the subject.

Strike that.  Everyone has an oversimplified opinion on the subject.  Social media is full of manipulative memes that paint any opposition to their view as brainless, heartless or both.

For example, those in favor of bringing Syrian refugees liken the problem to Jesus’ mother looking for a place to stay at the first Christmas.  


Mary and Joseph were registering for a census and were planning to go home.  They were denied a place to stay for one night because everyone else arrived earlier.  No one was denying Mary because they feared she may be preparing to carry out terroristic plans to usher in a radical Muslim apocalypse.

Very different.

But the opposing view is equally as reductionistic.  So you don’t think we should accept Syrian refugees because there might be terrorists in the group.

Okay, do you really think there are no terror cells in the US right now?  Do you think that they have been waiting for the cover of refugees to enter our country? 

Just to be sure - you are right - admitting refugees from a country where 20% of its people have a favorable opinion of ISIS seems pretty dangerous. 

You are also right to be afraid.   Let's remember, this is not a little morals test that we take on Facebook:

“do you think that refugees should have a home – click yes or no.” 

We can't weigh in on this subject like it is a survey question.  We could be talking about one of my kids who takes a field trip to D.C.  How willing am I to bet that none of the 10,000 people coming aren’t going to buy a gun and shoot the place up?

Are you willing to place that bet with your boyfriend?  Your mom?

How simple would the decision be then?

This is a very complex moral issue – not a political one.  And it goes so far beyond a back-and-forth war of memes with an “I’m right, you are wrong” attitude on social media.  Give each other space to think through this.  Let’s value each other’s thoughts on this matter and give each other the dignity of having deep-seated ideas and passions that we can learn from.

That’s because these are moral issues – not political issues.       

The worst kind of ignorance is to surf Facebook, see what people are thinking and then throw a meme on your status and think everyone else is an idiot who thinks differently.  Please, let’s not be that kind of country.

As for me, I do get nervous about whoever comes into this country that may potentially do massive harm – and it happens every day.  But in this life we weren’t guaranteed safety.  As a Christian, I see the refugee issue as much bigger than whether my family is safe.

Think of it this way:

There is a lot of junk going on in the Middle East right now – Syria to be exact.  And 99.9% of us can’t afford the time or the money to go to the Syria to help people’s hearts and minds change about Christianity, peace, change or humanity.  

So we pray . . . 

and what does God do?

He sends them to us – all expenses paid.

Seems like the opportunity of a lifetime to shine the light of love to a people who have been kept in darkness.