The Christmas We Dream Of

Most TV sets are fake.

You know, those talk show sets, particularly the ones that have "bookshelves" or "decorations" in the background?  They're not real.  Peter Rollins once asked why this is when he appeared on a set with a lot of fake books, and the answer was, "Because fake sets look more real."

What an intriguing concept.  It seems to me that this says little about TV sets and a lot about our perception of reality.  It seems clear to me that we largely see life through the very thick and distorted lenses of our own preconceived notions; that is, we see what we expect to see.  If this weren't true, there would be no such thing as an "optical illusion."  Our brain constructs algorithms and patterns and tries to fit every new thing we encounter into that developed system.  Look at this picture.  How many circles?  How many triangles?

You see, our brains complete the picture. We think we see 3 circles and 2 triangles, but there are none of either. We do this subconsciously all the time. With every new thing that happens in our lives and world, we fill in the gaps with our previously formed narratives and frameworks. We do it so quickly that we don't see the gaps before they're filled in. 

Many Christians think they know the Christmas story, but our songs and nativity scenes are not really true to the biblical narratives, as pointed out in a comical video called Retooning the Nativity.  More significantly, many Christians have completely missed the implications and connections that the Christmas story can have with modern day issues, a fact that was recently and eloquently explored by Wendell Griffen. As he puts it, "Many Christian preachers and congregations are more concerned about Christmas festivities than the prophetic righteousness, justice, love and peace God presented the world in Jesus Christ." Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1 is instructive. The announcement of Jesus' coming did not produce warm fuzzies but was seen as a reversal of society's power structures (see especially verses 51-53). With many of our Christmas traditions, we've filled in the picture with some very different things.

In one sense, this is a fault, a human shortcoming. However, in the realm of spirituality, the human ability to "complete the picture" can also be wonderful and beautiful.

I have great memories of Christmas, and today I still love the holiday and time of year. I have great, euphoric flashbacks of driving around in our car as a family listening to Christmas music and looking at Christmas lights on houses, sitting down with hot drinks and watching A Christmas Carol, attending parties, and going to the candlelight Christmas Eve service at church. But these memories that are characterized by peace and joy largely reflect how I personally felt at the time, not how things really were. Every year, I look forward to the sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas and have a euphoric hope for the season with lots of lofty goals, but they are often suffocated by illness and busy-ness in my family. And of course, I'm now old enough to know how horrible Christmas is for some people.  It can marked by loneliness or bad memories. There's at least one woman in my church who knows that this will be her last Christmas. And while some people open package after package of stuff they don't need, millions are hungry and homeless.

So, in a way, my "picture" of Christmas is incomplete and doesn't square with reality, but at the same time, it can also "complete the picture." It can serve as a model, a narrative, and a hope of what the world could be.  To use my earlier analogy, I might be seeing circles and triangles that aren't there, but perhaps I'm also seeing circles and triangles that should be there.

The biblical prophecies we read at Christmas time are kind of like this.  When the gospels tell the story of the birth of Jesus, especially the gospel of Matthew, they hearken back to certain passages in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and say that the events of Jesus' birth were "fulfilling" certain prophecies.  Some of the most popular examples are Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7; and Micah 5:2-4.  It is said that certain Old Testament prophecies "predicted" Jesus, and when most Christians think of the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament, it's often the idea that "A predicts B."  In other words, the Old Testament said something would happen, and in the New Testament, it happened. But remember, we see what we expect to see (or what we've been told to see). "A predicts B" is simply not how it works, and this becomes clear when we take the time to read these passages in context.  Indeed, if prophecy is about A predicting B, then the gospel writers are guilty of taking verses completely out of context.  Let's take Isaiah 7:14 as an example.  Not only is the specific Hebrew word for "virgin" not used, but when read in context, this passage isn't talking about Jesus or a Messiah at all.  This birth of a son was given as a sign to King Ahaz of Judah that the kingdoms of Israel and Damascus would not succeed in their campaign to overthrow Judah. No really, read it for yourself. Try this with any of the other prophecies and you'll see the same thing: a completely different original meaning or context. The New Testament uses Old Testament passages that never mention the word "messiah" (Hebrew mashia) to be a prediction of the messiah (for example, Isaiah 53) while passing over others that clearly and frequently use the term.

So what's going on here? Actually, something very profound is going on, it's just that the modern, western understanding of prophecy has put blinders on us and made it hard to see. The relationship of these verses in the Old and New Testaments is not a matter of A predicting B, but B fulfilling A.* In these fulfillment passages in the New Testament, the authors never use the Greek term for "predict," but instead use a word we translate as "fulfill" (plerao).  It's a term that literally means to fill up, make full, or perfect.  In other words, it's not that the Old Testament directly predicts something to happen later, but that the later event is a "filling up" or a "perfecting" of similar, former events in the past.  It's not "A predicts B"; it's "B fulfills A," or, if you like, "B is more than A ever hoped to be."  In the Isaiah 7:14 example, the "sign" of Mary giving birth to Jesus was a fulfillment...a perfecting...of this similar, former sign found in Isaiah 7.

Sometimes we see things that aren't there, but this very same affinity for "completing the picture" is what has enabled some to see the remarkable story that God is carrying out among his people. Yes, my past memories and future hopes for Christmas have been very incomplete, all about me, and tend to emphasize the positive. But yet, without this, where would my hope be?  It's hope that inspires us to act (Romans 8:24). It's dreams that inspire us to get to work. It's the realization that God does the unexpected that causes us to trust (as with Mary in Luke 1). The punch line of the birth of Jesus as recorded in the gospels was not that it was expected, but that it wasn't.  Oh, they hoped for a Messiah, but not one like that. They weren't completing the picture correctly. We usually don't.

We have to do both. We have to recognize where we're seeing circles and triangles that aren't there, but we also have to hold tight to our ability to dream up what the picture might look like. I can't help but think of a friend of mine. As she reflects on how she came to be the founder and director of a non-profit ministry to the homeless and impoverished communities, it all started with discussions in her small group about dreams. "What is your dream?" they would ask each other. Yet, she could have never dreamed what God was going to do at that point. 

In what ways do you see things that aren't there?  More importantly, what are your dreams for Christmas?  For your community?  For the world?  What does your completed picture look like?  Where do you think God is still drawing and painting, and how is He using you to do it?

*Credit to Professor Mark E. Biddle for the inspiration for these ideas.


A Modern Christmas Carol

This is my modern retelling of the unsurpassed classic by Charles Dickens. It was originally told as a sermon on 11-29-09.


21st century America.

The Scrooge of today is a Christian and, like many others, celebrates this season and holiday in December that we call Christmas. But these days, around Christmas time, Scrooge is in a bad mood. He’s in a bad mood for a couple of reasons. One, he’s got too much to do.  Kids’ Christmas pageants, shopping, traveling, parties (his calendar is filled up with them), decorating, door-buster deals, and of course, all the stuff his church is asking him to do. He’s in a bad mood. He also has a lot of letters to write and protests to attend. Why is that? Well, you see, the other reason Scrooge is in a bad mood at Christmas time is because he thinks there’s a secular, liberal assault on his holiday. He has joined causes like “Keep Christ in Christmas” and gives a piece of his mind to anyone who has the audacity to call it a “Holiday tree” instead of a Christmas tree. You can almost see smoke come out of his ears when store clerks greet him by saying, “Happy Holidays.” He finds himself wanting to grab them by the neck and say, “It’s Christmas, you infidel! Say Merry Christmas!” His mood is fueled by news commentators and authors who talk about the “war on Christmas.”

One night, Scrooge came home exhausted. No time for his family. He went straight to bed. But before he fell asleep, he was visited by the ghost of his old business partner and close friend, Jacob, who had died seven years ago. They went to everything together. All the pageants, all the parties, and all the protests. They used to sit at the table in coffee shops trading barks about how the good old days are gone and godless people are taking over the world. But his friend was here for a very different reason tonight. Jacob spoke with painful tears about the things he has learned after passing into the next life. He tells Scrooge that they spent all those years entirely missing the point and ignoring the things and the people that would have brought them closer to the manger of Jesus around Christmas time. 

“Scrooge,” Jacob says, “the man we call our Lord and Savior told us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and all that time, we missed it.” 

Scrooge wasn’t following. Perhaps we was too tired. He says to Jacob, “But it’s just that we were always about the Lord’s business.”

Jacob all but lunges at Scrooge and screams, "The Lord’s business?! Mankind is the Lord’s business. The common welfare is the Lord’s business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence are all His business. Our version of Christianity was but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of the Lord’s business!"

Before leaving, Jacob tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits.

At night, Scrooge is awoken by a glowing spirit that looked like a child and an old man at the same time. He introduces himself as the Ghost of Christmas Past. He says to Scrooge, “Come with me. I’m going to take you back to the very first Christmas.” In all the hustle of what modern Christmas had become, Scrooge didn’t immediately know what the ghost meant. But then it hit him. Ah yes! He would get to see it! The birth of Jesus! Was he actually going to witness this remarkable event?

With the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge arrived in Bethlehem. And what struck him first was how unremarkable it was. It was a small town. It was dark and dusty. And it was the weirdest thing…it wasn’t all that cold, nor was it snowing. But Scrooge was still ecstatic about what he might witness. They walked by a larger building that looked like it had several families in it. They came around a corner, and suddenly the ghost stopped. 

“Where are we?” asked Scrooge.
“We’re here,” Christmas Past said.
Scrooge turned, and was shocked by what he saw. A slimy, new-born baby lying in a dirty, stinky feeding trough. Baby Jesus? It can’t be. His head’s not glowing! And he’s crying!

“Spirit, I thought baby Jesus didn’t cry!” Scrooge said.

The spirit rolled his eyes. “This is the real deal, Scrooge. You got that idea from the song ‘Away in a Manger’ that was written in 1885.”

He saw Joseph. He saw Mary…she’s just a teenager, she has no business having a baby! They all looked dirty and tired. They also looked middle-eastern; Scrooge wasn’t comfortable with that. He looked over…those must be the shepherds. They smell like sheep.

And that was it.

Scrooge turned to Christmas Past. “THIS is the birth of Christ? It can’t be! Where are the lights and music and the glory?! This can’t be the right place. This is just a bunch of dirty, poor, homeless people!” 
At this, Christmas Past immediately raised his finger and said to Scrooge, “Yes, it is. That’s the story of Christmas, Scrooge. When God came into our world, this is where He chose to come.” 

Scrooge turned again to look at Mary. “She doesn’t look peaceful and joyful,” he said.

“She just had a baby after a long journey and with no pain killers, Scrooge,” Christmas Past replied. “Oh, but Scrooge, she is thankful. Do you remember what she said when she found out that Elizabeth was also pregnant with a promised child? Her words are in your Bible in Luke 1:46-55."

As the spirit read this familiar passage to Scrooge, he was struck by the stark contrast of this attitude with his own. Gratitude and humility.

They moved on. The Ghost of Christmas Past took Scrooge so many places his head was starting to spin. He took Scrooge to the time of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century when the worship of sun gods and the winter solstice were commandeered by the now Christian empire and December 25th was declared a Christian holiday.

‘It wasn’t always celebrated on that day?’ Scrooge thought to himself.

Christmas Past took him to the time of King Richard II in the 14th century when large feasts were first starting to become associated with Christmas, and even then was only an indulgence of royalty. He took him to 16th century Germany where some place the origin of the Christmas tree. While Scrooge was coming to terms with the fact that Christmas trees were only several hundred years old...just for fun, Christmas Past read to Scrooge from Jeremiah 10:3-4: “For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a skilled worker shapes it with a chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.”

Christmas Past took Scrooge to 19th century England during the reign of Queen Victoria and showed him how many of our modern day Christmas traditions began there. Decorations, manufactured ornaments, parties, and caroling…all unknown to Christmas until the Victorian era. By the time their trip was over, the spirit had shown Scrooge that Christmas, as it exists today in modern day America, did not take on its full, current form until well into the 20th century.

Suddenly, Scrooge found himself back in his bed, struggling to process all that had happened to him. He couldn’t get over the idea that all of the stuff he spent so much time on during Christmas really had nothing to do with the birth of Christ. He hadn’t been able to fall back asleep before the Ghost of Christmas Present paid him a visit. “Come with me,” the spirit said, “and I’m going to show you sides of modern day Christmas you never knew about.”

Scrooge finds himself in the back of a shopping center where restaurant servers and store employees are taking a break. They’re talking to each other and are clearly irritated and needing to blow off steam. Scrooge listens closer as they talk about how some of the rudest, pushiest, and foul customers they have are the people who come to lunch dressed up on Sunday afternoon or people who are wearing crosses and WWJD bracelets. One girl, close to tears, says, “A friend of mine invited me to church. Ha! There’s no way I’m going near that place.”

Christmas Present then took Scrooge to the home of one of the millions of families who don’t have the money to buy Christmas gifts. Each child opens one small thing and that’s it. But today, both parents have the day off. And their 3 children are so excited that both mommy and daddy get Christmas day off. The family is having fun and is happier than Scrooge can ever remember being with his church or family. 

Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a foreign country. “Christians make up 76% of the population in America,” he told Scrooge, “but in this country, they make up 5%. Christians are not free to worship here.” They come to a dark room where a group of Christians are huddled, celebrating Christmas together in hiding so that they can keep their jobs and their families. “Scrooge,” the spirit says, “you don’t know what persecution is, and it's sickening to hear you say that your holiday is somehow being taken from you.”

Finally, Christmas Present transports Scrooge to another country, a very poor one.  Everywhere, people are living in shacks with dirt floors.  Children are bare-footed and you can see all their bones.  One woman holds a dead toddler in her arms and wails.  Horrified, Scrooge turns to Christmas Present and says, "Take me away!  Why do you show me this?  What does this have to do with me?"  Raising his voice, Christmas Present says, "Are they not of the human race?"  Christmas Present points off to the side and shows Scrooge where women and children are drawing from and bathing in a muddy, dirty body of water.  "It would take approximately $10 billion dollars to provide everyone in the world with access to clean water," the spirit tells Scrooge, "but every year, Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas gifts and entertainment."

With that, the spirit disappears. 

Scrooge turns to find a dark figure standing near him – the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This spirit doesn’t speak to Scrooge. Scrooge sees shadows that send a chill up his spine. It’s Christmas time sometime in the future, and what he sees represents everything he had feared for some time.  Everyone is melancholy and buried in debt.  No one goes to church. Scrooge sees several houses of worship that are empty or boarded up. He looks for happiness. He looks for hope. And he can’t find it. Scrooge turns to the spirit and begs, “Please, tell me that these shadows can be altered!” The spirit says nothing. As Scrooge looks again at the scenes before him, he becomes enraged. He turns to the spirit and yells, “I demand to see who is responsible for this! I always knew the enemies of Christ would win, I knew it!  Show me who is responsible for the Church being marginalized like this!  Show me who turned Christmas into this!” 

The spirit points behind Scoorge.  

And he turns…to see a mirror with his own reflection.

Scrooge breaks down in tears and pleads with the spirit, “Hear me, I’m not the man I was! From now on, I will sing a different song! When people hear the footsteps of Christians, I don’t want them to hear a marching army coming to domineer and coerce and strongarm. I want them to hear the footsteps of those who bring good news. I want them to hear the soft footsteps of those who come in peace and love. I will sing a new song. I choose the song of Mary (“My soul magnifies the Lord…”)!

This year, Scrooge has changed. This year, Scrooge is going to trade in his doomsday outlook for hope. This year, Scrooge is going to trade in his fighting for peacemaking. He’s going to trade in his disgust for love. He’s going to trade in his contentiousness for joy. 

This year, Scrooge is going to celebrate the birth of Christ.  I hope.


Two or Three (a parable)

A young and vocationally successful young man named Zete was relocated to a different state. As he worked to pick up, move, and settle in a new home, one of his first priorities was to find a "worshipful" church. He had grown up in church and had made the faith his own, and so he quickly began asking around for recommendations. He searched online and jotted down information about several churches, one in particular that he really wanted to visit. But several people he talked to told him he should seek the advice of a woman named Konia, thought by many to be the wisest and most faithful Christian they had met. So Zete sought her out.

Konia insisted that Zete come to her house. He arrived and knocked on her door. As soon as the door opened and Zete first saw Konia's warm smile and outstretched hand, he surprised himself by how he felt so immediately at home. Her welcome was not one of usual formalities and plastered smiles, but she instead had a demeanor such that Zete felt like he was walking into his own home. Konia offered him food and drink, sat down, and begin to ask him questions. Not the normal questions like "What do you do?" or "Where are you from?" but questions that invited Zete to reflect on his life, who he was, his hopes and his dreams. He couldn't remember the last conversation he had where the focus seemed to be totally on him, and he felt a strange combination of uneasiness and vulnerability along with peace and safety. After Konia asked Zete what his troubles are and how she can pray for him, the two even shared some time in prayer together and sang a few of Zete's favorite songs. As this time passed, Zete's eyes scanned her house from time to time, a house filled with pictures, memorabilia and many other trinkets that seemed like gifts. He found it odd that he couldn't find any picture that Konia herself was in. He also noticed that she hardly had anything else in the house - just the bare necessities, really.

As the conversation drew on, Zete told Konia of his desire to find a "worshipful" church here in his new home. With an enthusiastic smile, Konia put her cup down, leaned forward and said, "I would be delighted to take you around to see some of the most amazing places of worship I know."

"Wonderful!" Zete said excitedly. "By the way, I researched some churches, and there is one that I would really love to go to. It had an impressive website with many programs; it's the one on the far edge of town."

"Oh yes, I know the one," Konia said. "But I'm not sure it's what you're looking for. If you're sure you want to go there, we should probably go there last."

The next day, Zete and Konia drove up to a housing development on another side of town.

"I've participated in some amazing worship here," Konia said.

At first, Zete said, "Where is the church building?"

Konia looked as if she was expecting the question and asked, "Remember, Jesus said, 'Wherever two or three are gathered in my name..."

"'...there I am also.'" Zete, being a veteran church-goer and knowledgeable about the Bible, finished the verse for her and felt a little put to shame by not remembering it in the moment.

"Right!" Konia said. "So let's go and meet them."

Konia took Zete in to meet a very kind and enthusiastic Latino community. As they talked and as he saw the community worship together, Zete couldn't help but think of the passage about the early church from Acts 2:42-47. As a group they gathered for teaching, prayer, and the "breaking of bread." They were together with much in common, they met in their homes, and they shared with those in need. They seemed to know each other intimately. But joy quickly turned to tears when they spoke of their family. They spoke with longing about spouses, children, and cousins who had been separated from them, how they longed to see them again, and how they worried for their safety. As they all spent a few hours together, Zete felt very different from them but at the same time felt very at home.

As they left the community, Konia asked Zete, "What did you think?"

"Well," said Zete, "they are obviously very godly people, but it just doesn't seem quite right. It's not like the kind of 'church' I'm used to. I would still love to visit that one church in town."

"OK," said Konia, "but I'm not sure it's what you're looking for. Let me take you at least one other place first. We will have to go on Saturday."

So, on that Saturday, Konia took Zete to a building downtown that seemed fairly old and had no signage on the outside. Curious, Zete followed Konia inside to what he could only surmise was some kind of Christian gathering of troubled teens. Zete hadn't felt this uncomfortable in a while, but could also sense that his presence was welcome and even appreciated by some there. This group had it all: the alcohol-addicted boy who was still hungover for this meeting, the pregnant teenage girl whose mother still raged with anger, the abandoned twins living with a distant relative, and the boy who had been arrested several times for violent behavior. As they began to talk, share successes and failures, and encourage each other, it felt to Zete that the group was picking up where they left off in a conversation that had been going on a long time. They knew each other intimately. Their time together, led by a few volunteer adults, included intense moments of crying, praying, shouting, singing, and sometimes utter silence.

As they left, Konia asked Zete, "What did you think?"

"Well," said Zete, "as powerful as that experience was, it's not like the kind of 'church' I'm used to. I would still love to visit that one church in town."

Uncharacteristically, Konia's face fell somewhat as she said, "Yes. If you insist. There is a service this evening if you would like to go."

"Yes, please, " Zete said, "I'm very anxious to visit it based on what I've seen."

So that night, Konia took Zete to the church he had been wanting to visit. And what a place it was! Zete was not disappointed, and it was even better than he thought. This church truly brought him back to what he was used to growing up, and it felt so much more in his comfort zone. He was blown away by the music. Several groups performed as the people sat looking forward and listening, each one at top notch quality, and all were followed by applause. At other times, all the people raised their hands and voices in praise. The pastor was an incredibly dynamic speaker that captivated everyone's attention with his style, visuals, and illustrations. When the sermon was over, Zete found himself wishing he could listen to more. Zete and Konia joined the others as everyone walked back out to their cars.

"Wow," Zete said. "I'm so glad we visited this church! I had a great time! Too bad I didn't get to meet anyone..."

"Yes, that is too bad." Konia said.

Zete could tell that Konia did not seem to share his feelings about this church. "What's wrong?" he asked. "You know, I sought you out because I was told that you were the wisest and most faithful Christian around. You helped me remember what Jesus said about 2 or 3 gathering in His name. Here at this church, there seems to be plenty of people, and it was an amazing experience for everyone!"

Konia looked up at Zete. "Yes," she said. "But you see, that was not a gathering of two or three. It was a crowd of ones."


All Things Are Possible...On the Narrow Path

I recently attended a conference where the theme was "Mission Possible." The corresponding scripture reference was Jesus's statement in Matthew 19:26: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." This verse is found in the context of Jesus's conversation with a man known as a "rich young ruler," found in 3 of the 4 gospels with slight variations (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30). In Mark and Luke, he says to Jesus, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (In Matthew, he asks, "Teacher, what good thing must I do..."). Jesus, in some comments that don't jive well with traditional Christian doctrine, first distances himself from God and "goodness" saying that "no one is good, except God alone," and then answers the man's question about attaining eternal life by telling him to "obey the commandments." The commandments that Jesus specifically mentions are five of the Ten Commandments (plus "love your neighbor" in Matthew), which deal with person-to-person relations. The rich man affirms that he has never broken any of these commandments, and in Matthew asks, "What do I still lack?" Jesus then tells him to go and sell everything he has and give it to the poor, and then to come and follow him. Saying nothing, the man walks away "sad." Jesus then says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." A puzzled group of disciples ask, "Who then can be saved?" It is at this point that Jesus makes the statement: "With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible."

(By the way, you may have heard the idea that there was a small "gate" or hole in the wall in Jerusalem that was known as "the eye of the needle." Interesting, but probably not true.)

During one worship session at the conference, an area pastor and friend of mine gave an excellent narrative sermon that drew a connection between the challenge Jesus posed to the rich young ruler and the challenge posed to this organization of Baptists. In the sermon, he retold the gospel story from the imagined perspective of the rich young ruler, and paralleled it with a fictional story of "Wilbur," a modern day Baptist in our region. Both men asked, "Why don't the old ways work?" You see, staff in the region has been dramatically decreased, and we continue to face budget shortfalls. In the sermon, both the rich young ruler and "Wilbur" are faced with the challenge to do ministry in a totally different way, to not only leave old ways behind but discover a new adventure. Just as the rich man was challenged to take on a whole new way of being a disciple, the fictional Wilbur was challenged to rethink ministry at this level; how we give, who's involved, and most importantly, how to do it without the money we used to have.

A business meeting followed. The budget was presented and discussion ensued about how to increase giving...in the same way, with the same structure, with the same people. I don't want to talk disparagingly about my brothers and sisters in the region, but I couldn't help but wonder if the sermon had fallen on deaf ears. There we were - talking about how to raise money while using a Bible verse found within a story of a call to part with material wealth. The irony is worth exploring.

Perhaps it's not so much the call to actually "be poor" (actual poverty has destructive consequences), but to at least get the dollar signs (and head counts) out of our eyes so that we can clearly see what we're doing, and why. When we have this vision and know what the essence of our call is, we may not panic as much when things are tight. Turning our attention away from the numbers does at least two important things:

One, it enhances creativity. When you don't have funding to rely on, you have to get creative, and in the process of doing so, you might accidentally end up using people's God-given gifts and talents rather than just their portfolio. I've seen this kind of thing happen with an initiative called Advent Conspiracy that a group in my church focuses on every Christmas. This initiative partially calls people to make and give gifts in more relational ways, which not only takes care of money issues but people end up doing things that last and actually build relationships (like making gifts together, etc.). A colleague of mine once said in a business meeting that the proposed budget, which had suffered drastic cuts, was a true "faith budget." We usually think a leap of faith is when you budget high and have "faith" that people will give. But my wise colleague pointed out that it is when we decrease our dependency on resources and rely on people to engage with their gifts and talents that we truly make a leap of faith.

Secondly, breaking our dependency on money enhances personal involvement. It's a long process that's easier said than done, but once people can't throw money at a problem anymore, you have a chance to actually engage them personally and foster a faith-stimulating encounter with people in need who had only before met their wallet. Example: when well-off people from the states go on a mission trip to an impoverished country, their life and priorities are changed forever. When we stay home and give money, the best thing that happens is we feel vindicated and put it out of our minds with the self-assurance, "At least I did something." Couldn't the same transformation happen right here at home when we--pardon the baseball analogy--step out of the press box and onto the field?

I'm convinced that this is the kind of thing Jesus was thinking of when he spoke of "the narrow path" (Matthew 7:13-14, or see especially the context in Luke 13:22-30). Jesus, in a word, called people to do things the hard way. He approached potential followers and converts in the exact opposite way that marketing departments and church evangelism committees do. When people came to Jesus willingly and ready to follow, he warned them of how hard it might be and told them to count the cost. Doing ministry through personal engagement and relationship building is harder. Being challenged and facing hardship, which is really the only way we grow as disciples, is harder. But it's better. Too many people, when they hear the word "missions," immediately think of giving money to missionaries or helping organizations. What would it look like to personally engage in the ministries carried out by the organizations we simply give money to, whether it's here at home or abroad? Great things are possible...on the narrow path.

Financial giving to religious organizations is tanking. Will we continue to swim upstream in our desperate search for dollars, or will we embrace a new calling? Is this "decrease" exactly what the Church needs in order to let Christ "increase?" (John 3:30). Is this part of a "cleansing" of today's churches, many of whom would find that they don't have a sense of mission beyond getting butts in their seats? Could it be that constantly striving for growth is the worst way to achieve it? Do we have the faith to see success even when we're not raising a dime? If and when Jesus calls us to be poor, will we take that leap, or will we, like the rich young ruler, walk away?


I Saw the Light?

There's a great Christian revivalist phrase, so familiar that it's often used even by Christians themselves in light-hearted conversation: "I have seen the light!" In order to say it correctly, of course, you have to stay on the word "seen" for an incredibly long time, and put your hands up in the air as a bonus. "I have seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen the light!"

Indeed, this is how believers think and talk about the difference between belief and non-belief. Supposedly I, as a Christian, have come to see something that those who believe differently from me have not seen. I have knowledge of the truth, I have come into contact with the divine, etc. The focus seems to be on me. I made a change, I redirected my gaze, and now I see the light. Therefore, we approach life and faith with certainty. I know. I have truth. I see the light.

Light is a common metaphor in the Bible. It is equated with God's truth or presence. People who had a special encounter with God radiated with light (e.g., Moses). It is an important theme in the gospel of John, as Jesus refers to Himself as the "light of the world" (John 8:12, 9:5). So, it makes perfect sense for a follower of Christ to use "light" in reference to their faith.  

But if we take this light analogy seriously, a very different way of thinking emerges. Think about "physical" light...that which is detectable by the human eye at 380 to 780 nanometres on the electromagnetic spectrum. Do I see light? Or is it light by which I see?

Go into a dark room or closet. Make it completely dark so that you can't see anything. Now, turn on a light. Are you seeing light? Or is it the light by which you see? Would you and I be able to see anything if not for light? If it's completely dark and we want to be able to see something, we are completely dependent on finding a source of light. Light is not just one of the many things in the world that our eyes can see; it is the very agent by which we see at all.

Think about it: our sense of sight is useless without light.

Bringing this metaphor back to the spiritual realm, we can see nothing apart from God. We do not see God, we do not find God. It is only by God's light and truth that is present in the world that we see, understand, and experience anything at all. I do not see God's light. God's light enables me to see.

This is very much in line with passages we find in the Bible that seem to unequivocally place all revelatory initiative with God. In other words, in many parts of the Bible, humans are completely dependent on God to reveal anything to them.

We're told of Samuel before his encounter with the Lord that he "did not yet know the Lord; the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him" (1 Samuel 3:7). The great prophetic oracle of Isaiah 65 begins with the words, "I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, 'Here am I, here am I.'" Jesus prayed in Matthew 11:25-26, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure." Or consider what he said to Peter after his confession of him as the Messiah: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven." (Matthew 16:17). The apostle Paul made several references to the notion that still much has not yet been revealed, or cannot be perceived by humans (Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). He also said, "The mystery of Christ was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 3:5).

But the interesting part is what happens in these biblical narratives when people get that glimpse of God; that moment of clarity with the divine. What happens? Did they burst into "hallelujahs" or walk away with confidence and vindication in their beliefs? No; often, it was a traumatic experience that left them reeling. At the very least, those called felt unworthy and looked for a way out (Exodus 3-4; Jeremiah 1:6; Jonah 1:1-3). Paul was left blinded (Acts 9), and Isaiah ended up berating himself and his people (Isaiah 6:1-5). Even an encounter with an angel would always reduce the biblical characters to debilitating fear.

 I tend to think we take too much credit. Am I reduced to humility when I think I have a special revelation from God, or do I flaunt it and revel in new-found self-vindication? We don't see light; light allows us to see. And we don't know God; God allows us to know. Consider this question: Do you see your faith as simply one worldview among (and sometimes against) many others, or do you believe in a God who is bigger than that; a God whose light informs all worldviews?


The Grounded Bird

I was recently on a hospice call to talk with the wife of a dying patient. Suffice it to say that, in the last year, the couple had become intimately familiar with sickness and pain. Near the end of the visit we went out into the lobby of the building where they have a large glass bird cage. As we sat waiting for her ride beside this bird cage that I really never paid attention to, I almost had to chuckle at myself as I got somewhat mesmerized watching the birds.

Earlier in the week, another volunteer had sat with the woman and told her about the birds. Birds are not exactly my thing, but I of course listen as she tells me about them. She pointed out a yellow canary that was on the floor of the cage. She said that it couldn't fly anymore because it was too old, but it sang all the time. She intently watched the canary waiting for it sing. Sure enough, every 45 seconds or so, it sang. Every time it did, the woman's face lit up as she pointed, looked at me and said, "Look! See, it's singing!"

Some of you know about what's called the "stages of grief." After the death of a close loved one, many people feel a sense of numbness at first, followed by deep pain, depression, sometimes anger, and a whole host of things that is never exactly the same for two people. But then, after a long time, sometimes several years, it's said that we begin to find our routine again, and we start to imagine and rebuild what our life looks like without the deceased person. The loss never goes way or is forgotten, but with the help and grace of God, we begin to heal...

...and find our song again. As I left that night, I wondered if the woman was consciously aware of why she found so much meaning in that bird who was too old to fly but still sang. I found myself praying that it wouldn't be too long before that woman found her new song, even with her broken wing.

A reason to sing when we can no longer fly. That's what faith can do.


Shoes (a parable)

A woman invented a revolutionary pair of running shoes, unlike anything that had ever been invented before. These shoes were state-of-the-art, beyond their time, using revolutionary technology. They were going to change the way people ran, walked, or did anything with them on.

Before the designer tried to get a patent, she sought out three area salesmen to contract with her to go around promoting the shoes. Since she thought it was important that the salesmen be able to precisely explain the revolutionary technology of the shoes, the designer called a meeting with them. She said to the salesmen, "My goal is to introduce people to my product and demonstrate how revolutionary the shoes are." But as she began to explain the technology of the shoes to the salesmen, one of them grabbed a pair of the shoes and quickly walked out. Unable to call him back, the designer continued to talk to the other two salesmen and prepare them for their task. The two salesmen felt very prepared and informed to explain the technology of the shoes.

At the end of the day, the two salesmen arrived back around the same time, and both reported that many people were not willing to listen to their presentation. All of the ones that did would not commit to purchasing the shoes and wanted more time to think about it and ask other people. The designer found herself discouraged and didn't know how to persuade people to give the shoes a try.

Just then, the third salesman burst into the room, sweating and breathing heavily. The designer glanced down and noticed the salesman was wearing the shoes.

"What's going on?" the designer demanded. "I wanted you to spend the day telling people about my shoes."

Through his panting, the salesman responded, "Oh, I plan to do that. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you get your first orders next week."

The other two salesmen looked at each other and whispered, "What makes him think he can do any better than us when we're the ones who know all about the shoes?"

"But what exactly did you do all day?" the designer asked.

With a shrug of his shoulders, the salesman said, "I ran."


Before He Eats the Apple

My son likes to play with the older kids in the neighborhood. Several times in the last month, I've watched as those older children tried to insult, pick on, or otherwise demean him, and he continued to play with them, thinking nothing of it. As an example, two of the older children like to run off behind a tree whispering, trying to make my son concerned that they are talking about him or planning something in secret. My son, who is too young to get it, simply runs around the tree and keeps playing with them, unfazed by their efforts. He is still too naive to be bothered by psychological bullying.

Everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve, right? The famous story of Eve being tempted to eat the "apple" is found in Genesis 3. Many refer to this story in Genesis 3 as "the fall;" that is, the story of humanity's fall from perfection to sinfulness. However, it seems that the story is much more one of humanity's premature growth from naivete to awareness.

The fruit (not identified as an apple) that Eve is persuaded to eat by the serpent (not identified as Satan) is said to be from "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Adam and Eve eat the fruit and it says "their eyes were opened" and "they realized they were naked." In the serpent's temptation, he never lies but merely manipulates the truth. He suggests to them that they would not literally or immediately die (which turned out to be true), and he revealed to them the reason that God didn't want them to eat of it (God had not shared the reason but had only threatened punishment). At the end of the chapter, God laments this new knowledge that Adam and Eve have gained, and consequently locks up the secrets of eternal life and throws away the key: "[Mankind] must not be allowed to...take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever" (Genesis 3:22). It's a very profound and intriguing point. This narrative in Genesis 3 tells the story of a God who didn't want human beings to come out of a child-like naivete to see the world with insight...at least, not that soon. They were created naive (for lack of a better word), and gained the knowledge of good and evil when God didn't want them to.

My son has not yet eaten many apples. He's not supposed to yet. He will need the knowledge eventually. He must lose his naivete as he ages and matures...but not yet. Like Adam, Eve, and God, if he were to somehow come to me and ask for the knowledge I have (and if I were somehow able to give it in that moment), I wouldn't give it to him, and he wouldn't understand if I tried to tell him why. The best place for him to be right now is in his toddler world where there is no such thing as manipulation, rejection, and anxiety.

Isn't this the way it goes for most of our lives? We approach new things with a certain level of naivete, and then we eventually gain insight and learn the truth, and while we don't usually want to return to our ignorance, we wrestle with disappointment and think, "Man, this isn't all it's cracked up to be." As we become adults, we become aware of things like rejection and grief and begin to know the pain. We can't often see past where we are. When we encounter someone who is more naive than us, we shake our heads and think about how foolish they are; and when we encounter someone who is less naive than us, we feel disgust at what we perceive as their pessimism.

You might be familiar with the scene in The Matrix where Neo is talking to Morpheus after he has just learned the truth about his existence. In shock from all he has learned, Neo asks Morpheus, "I can't go back, can I?" Morpheus responds, "No. But if you could, would you want to?"

Man, what a question.

I'm reminded of the verse in the Bible that says, "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, 'I find no pleasure in them'" (Ecclesiastes 12:1). If you're like me, every once in a while, you want that Garden of Eden you once lived in. The world where there's no such thing as rejection. The world where you've got nothing to lose. The world as it was before you ever knew of things like death or disease. The world where everything was under control and nothing bad would happen to you as long as you were faithful to God. There's not just one apple that we eat. Rather, month by month and year by year, we climb out of naivete into wisdom and insight. Sometimes, it's an exercise in having our bubble burst or our feet knocked out from under us.

But then we are left with a choice. We can let despair get to us and we can spend today longing for a yesterday that will never return. Or, we can embrace the rewards of the path we're on. The apostle Paul said it this way: "We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3-4). As we grow from naivete to maturity, there is something precious that we lose, but there is also something far more valuable that we gain.

But believe me: I love watching my son play in the Garden of Eden. And I'm not going to rush him out.


A Hallelujah for God (a parable)

One day, Gabriel and Michael decided to do something special for God. Knowing that God dealt with much sorrow and sin every day, they wanted to travel the globe and compile moments of the world's greatest "hallelujahs." They wanted to bless God with a showing of some of the greatest moments of worship on earth.

Off they went. They traveled the globe and went back and forth in time to gather the sights and sounds of the world's most spectacular worship. They came back to heaven with a collection they knew would put a smile on God's face. They reveal their collection to God, and ringing out around God's throne were some of the world's most well-known and favorite worship songs with millions of people singing together in one voice. Hands were raised and tears were streaming. There was dancing, drama, and many other gifts and talents people were pouring out. There was church after church being planted and shouts going up as people celebrate the new resources with which they will be able to spread God's word. As God listens, Gabriel and Michael say, "God, we wanted to bring you the most spectacular hallelujahs from all of your creation!" But with a shake of the head and a kind voice, God says, "Thank you, my friends, but these are not hallelujahs."

Disappointed but determined, Gabriel and Michael set out again. They traveled the globe and went back and forth in time to gather the sights and sounds of the world's most spectacular worship. They came back to heaven with a collection they knew would put a smile on God's face. They reveal their collection to God, and ringing out around God's throne were bedtime prayers and blessings before meals. The sight of so many people kneeling beside cozy beds or singing by campfires or even sitting in silence. Still yet there were people reading their Bibles, journaling along the way. There were pastors preparing and preaching sermons; Sunday School teachers preparing lessons. These hallelujahs, though quieter, seemed just as profound. As God listens, Gabriel and Michael say, "God, we wanted to bring you the most spectacular hallelujahs from all of your creation!" But with a shake of the head and a kind voice, God says, "Thank you, my friends, but these are not hallelujahs."

Frustrated, Gabriel and Michael go out a third time, and quickly realize that they cannot find anything pleasing to bring to God. They find themselves angry with God for not realizing or appreciating the great things they had seen. So this time, they traveled the globe and went back and forth in time to gather the sights and sounds of the world's most heart-wrenching scenes. They collect soliders crying out to God in pain and fear. They go to funeral homes and fires and floods and are overcome by the number of people asking, "Why?" They collect scenes of villages where people are praying and begging for rain and food. They round up some of the most shocking prayers of anger and rage at God for tragedies that have happened. They see murderers, thieves, rapists and adulterers soaked in guilt and asking for forgiveness. They bring their collection to God, and say as they begin to share it, "God this is most of what is left! There's so much pain and desolation in the world!" As Gabriel and Michael watch their own collection, they are jolted by the rawness of it and quickly find themselves weeping at the sight of it. But when they turn to look at God, He is no longer there. They called but got no response. They searched all over heaven, but God was nowhere to be found. Not knowing where else to look, they turned their gaze towards earth. Suddenly, they again saw all of the scenes of pain and the real people they had just been viewing, and stood stiff as they saw God, right in the midst of the hurting people, His arms around them, pulling them close, whispering in their ears. God looked up at Gabriel and Michael with tears streaming down His own face and said, "These, my friends, are hallelujahs. Please tell the others to meet me here."

Inspired by:
Amos 5:21-24, Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 18:9-14; "Better Than a Hallelujah" by Amy Grant


User Review or Salesman Pitch?

In the age of online buying and selling, the thing that any astute buyer wants to read is the "user reviews." There's nothing more honest and detailed than the observations and recommendations of the people who have actually bought the thing and are using it. Whether it's a product like a TV or a blender, or a service like landscaping or plumbing, every buyer wants to see the user review, and every seller fears it.

This is in contrast to a salesman's pitch. Nobody trusts the pitch. It's scripted, it's learned, and its motive is completely different. The sales pitch is meant to solicit a response from you that is favorable to the salesperson and who s/he works for. The sales pitch emphasizes the positives and the objective is to get you to buy. The salesperson may or may not use what's being sold him or herself. But the user review is completely different. It is candid, told from experience, and its objective is to simply give you accurate information. Before I take the leap and invest in something, I want to hear from others who already have.

It's the same way with religion. Which makes we wonder - why do so many of us Christians put forth a sales pitch rather than a user review?

Actually, many Christians, especially those of the Southern Baptist and independent evangelical variety, are being taught by their churches how to give salesman pitches rather than being encouraged to share a user review. Popular authors like Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and many others use book after book and seminar after seminar to teach Christians how to defend the Bible and argue for the truth of their beliefs. There is now even an Apologetics Study Bible whose reference notes are there to help prepare you for that frightful moment when a free-thinking person might ask obvious, down-to-earth questions about the Bible.

Here's my question: if you have to be taught to sell it, have you really used it? When you sit down to write a user review, the words just spill out. You don't even have to think about it. You've been using the product or service, you know what has worked and what hasn't, and nobody has to tell you what to say or how to say it because it's simply your own experience in your own words. But is this what we do when it comes to faith? There's a lot of talk in Christian circles about sharing your "testimony," which is what I'm getting at, but even the testimony has been co-opted by the salesman pitch. We're taught to give our "before Jesus vs. after Jesus" 30-second commercial.

Are we so unconvinced by the answer we claim to have that we have to be taught how to give it? Instead of being real and vulnerable and sharing from our own personal experience, we detach the conversation and talk about things like the Bible, the church, theological concepts, etc.

This is why we're sometimes surprised when we read about people wanting to follow Jesus only to have Jesus give them a response that could turn them off (Luke 9:23-24 and Luke 9:57-62). Didn't Jesus want followers? He's lacking in the marketing department here, isn't he? But he's not giving a salesman pitch, he's giving a user review. A user review is honest and authentic. "This could be hard." "You might have to sacrifice." "Make sure you really want it because it's a commitment." Or, as Donald Miller puts it:

I'm not convinced by a salesman's pitch that only gives me the positives. I want to hear an honest review by someone with first-hand knowledge, and I can accept some cons and down sides if the thing in question has made a positive difference in the person's life. User reviews are simple, flow freely from our experience, and can't be denied. For another great example from the Bible, see the story of the blind man in John 9. Notice that a simple, honest "user review" from the blind man freed him up from having to "own" something else or try to sell it. He originally made no definitive statements about God, Jesus, or theology (until the end) even though the religious leaders tried to bait him to do so. He simply shared what Jesus had done for him. Christians who are still a part of the institutional church are getting beat out in the user review department. All the good, honest user reviews out there are coming from those who left the church and had bad experiences. Those on the inside are sticking to salesman pitches that no one trusts.

You can't give a user review if you're not using what you're selling. I'm convinced we haven't personalized this stuff. Think about how Christians are taught to present the gospel: the "Romans Road" or the "4 Spiritual Laws" or some other way of talking about "salvation" in the abstract. But how has it transformed you? What is your story? You may know someone in our family or circle of friends who "got saved" and ended up becoming more obnoxious and arrogant than they ever were. What happened? They've merely been converted to a worldview, a belief system, instead of being broken, transformed, and renewed. This is what it means to be "born again" (John 3:3).

Believing in God helps us sleep at night; but actually meeting God can keep us up at night. Our beliefs help us feel we are right; but actually meeting God shows us how wrong we are and how incomplete our knowledge is (see Isaiah 6:1-8). Assent to a certain set of beliefs gains us acceptance into the church of our choice; but if God gets a hold of us and transforms us into people of love and forgiveness, we risk being called a "friend of sinners."

Earlier I mentioned the heavy emphasis on apologetics in some Christian circles. Ironically, these efforts hinder faith instead of helping it. For example, there's a lot of anxiety in the system about high school graduates going off to college and facing the challenge of "secularism" in the university. We're scared to death they'll lose or question their faith in college, so during youth group years, we teach them not to. Or, we at least give them ready-made responses to questions they might face. But by doing this, we shelter students from the very thing that will make their faith stronger and more personal: doubt and questioning. These efforts merely serve to prolong the amount of time that a young person's faith is borrowed. It must become their own, and the agent by which it does so is doubt and questioning.

Have you met the God you believe in? Has God messed up your life and diverted your path? Have your priorities, habits and behaviors changed because of what you say you believe? What is your user review?


Proposition 8, Christian Marriage, and the Constitution

As part of the best album of all time (dc Talk's 1995 "Jesus Freak" album, of course), there is a song called "What Have We Become?" It was one of the least popular songs on the album, and people familiar with the album may not be familiar with this song. Even if we were familiar with it, we haven't heeded its timeless lesson.

A preacher shuns his brother
'Cause his bride's a different color
And this is not acceptable
His papa told him so
It was love that he'd been preaching
But this was overreaching
The boundary's stretching further
Than his heart would choose to go

The 4th line could have just as easily said, "His Bible told him so." Churches used to openly condemn interracial marriages, and did so with a clear mandate from books like Ezra and Nehemiah. Interracial marriages have beenand can becondemned with scripture. But our consciousness has been raised, and it is now much more widely accepted that if two people of a different race fall in love, they can marry.

I think it's important to remember history, look at evidence, and dig beneath the surface. However, it's clear that if you pick the wrong issue in the wrong time period, you'll get stoned to death (literally or figuratively). Before society's collective consciousness was raised about women's rights, you might have been in deep trouble if you wanted to ask some honest questions about why women were treated as inferior. Same thing with African-Americans or Native Americans or pick your minority. In the days of slavery, it was commonly defended using scripture...which can easily be done. Slavery is all over the Bible and is never explicitly condemned as wrong. On every issue throughout history, religious people have come around with some questions stemming from what they believe about the character of God and concerns with "prooftexting," and if they were too "early" in the course of history, look out. Taking all this into account, it's sometimes very hard to see how the issue of homosexuality is much different.

In some Christian circles, all you have to do is show an ounce of love and concern for homosexuals or suggest that we haven't asked all the right questions, and, as a pastor, you could lose your job. All some of us want to do is explore and discuss. "Come, let us reason together." It seems like the responsible thing to do. When it is said, "The Bible is clear!", some of us want to ask how it's more "clear" on this issue than it has been on other issues (see above). Some of us want to ask why homosexuality has become such a linchpin issue when the Bible hardly ever mentions it. When it comes to marriage, some of us look at the state of Christian heterosexual marriages and we really can't consciously conclude that the push for gay marriage is what's to blame for the decline of marriage and families in this country.

On July 8, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act's denial of federal rights and benefits to lawfully married Massachusetts couples "offends" the notion of states' rights as enshrined in the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. More significantly, a month later, U.S. District Chief Judge Walker in California ruled that Proposition 8, passed by California voters in 2008 by a 52% majority, is unconstitutional. (By the way, Walker was appointed by Reagan after opposition from democrats over his perceived insensitivity toward homosexuals).

It's very tempting to turn this into a religious controversy. Most Christians have. People like Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, are erupting over what they perceive as the continued marginalization of Christianity in America.

But this decision was not a religious one. It does not inflict a wound on religious freedom but upholds it. It will not, as some are suggesting, end in an attempt to force churches and pastors to marry homosexual couples if they don't want to. (They've never been able to force us to marry heterosexual couples; why would it be true of others?). That would be just as unconstitutional.

The judge ruled that Proposition 8 was a law based on religious belief and private moral views, and you cannot, in this country, deny a group of people something that they want purely on those grounds. You have to prove, as Prop 8's supporters tried to do, that it is harmful to individuals or society or that a legitimate state interest trumps it. The people who believe as such had their day in court, and the judge said that they did not prove their case. Judge Walker carefully explained this. "The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage," he said. "The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry."

Walker's ruling says nothing about the church or Christianity but much about America. Our country's founding document is the Constitution, and there is no Constitutional ground for denying equal rights to same sex couples. Regardless of biblical or religious discussions, the state, which taxes and serves all people, cannot deny a marriage license based on tradition or any private moral or religious view. And it doesn't matter how many people hold the view...that's why we have a Constitution. Many people are saying that a judge should not be able to overrule the majority vote of the people. But in a question of rights, the majority opinion is irrelevant. Among other things, the Constitution provides that there are certain areas of society where the majority does not get its way. For example, race. If 93% of the population wanted separate water fountains, it would still be a no-go. If 93% of Mississippi residents wanted to re-segregate the schools, they couldn't do it. In a question of rights, the majority opinion is irrelevant. And in a question of American law, religion does not get a veto.

In my short time being a pastor, I've already declined to perform a marriage ceremony for two couples. Why? Because I didn't think they should get married and I couldn't join them in marriage against my conscience. Both couples were heterosexual, and both couples, had they decided to, could have gotten a marriage license without my blessing. This is how it has always been, and this is how it always will be. It would be just as unconstitutional for the government to tell a church or a pastor who to marry. Regardless of what happens with gay marriage, churches will always have the right to deny a religious ceremony to anyone they want. Thanks to church and state separation, churches can deny anybody virtually anything, including a wedding ceremony, based on their religious beliefs and policies. The state, however, must produce entirely different reasons for denying it.

I believe there is something that should be done to "go the rest of the way" with regard to church/state separation. Currently, a pastor performing a wedding ceremony serves as an agent of the state. A couple goes to get their marriage license, and it can be signed and validated by a pastor should the couple choose to have a religious ceremony. But I believe this is an entanglement of church and state and it should be changed. Religious marriage and civil marriage should be completely separate. Marriage is historically a very religious concept, and I don't believe the state should be involved in it. The state should simply regulate contractual commitments between any legal, consenting adults that want one. Couples who desire to exchange vows within a religious context can then do so. In the current state of affairs, the state still can't force me to marry someone I wish not to, so why not solidify the separation and end the practice of ministers signing marriage licenses?

As it stands, marriage is one big mess, in more ways than one, and as someone who does relationship counseling, I can guarantee you: gay marriage is not the culprit.  The "decline of the family" started long before this controversy.


Saintly Encounters (a parable)

One day, two Christian men approached God.

"We've read the Bible every day for our entire lives, and we know what it says." they said. "What could we do to gain more understanding?"

God said, "Continue on your way, and I will reveal to you men of faith to help you understand the scriptures."

The following day, as the men were walking downtown, they heard yelling. As they followed the sound, a rugged, elderly man came into view. He was holding an old, worn Bible in his hand and speaking emphatically. But the closer they got, the more they realized that he was barely understandable. His speech was unsophisticated and he stuttered frequently. Unlike other preachers of his kind they had encountered, this man appeared to have a following with him. But they all looked tired and frustrated. When the old man walked, the people walked with him, grumbling the whole way. Unable to get to the speaker, one of the two men approached a follower and asked, "Why do you stay with him?"

"We are stranded and have nowhere to go," the follower replied. "We used to live comfortably and never lacked food or water, but we foolishly chose to follow this man and now we are going to starve."

A discussion arose among some of the followers as to how they could go back. Desperate for the familiar, they began to sing a song of worship they had known since childhood. Hearing them, the old man turned, red in the face with fury. He threw down his old, worn Bible which tore apart into several pieces on the street. He began to shout even louder.

The two men quickly ran away, bewildered. They prayed to God and said, "What a dreadful sight! We are so glad most of your people are not like that. What should we do?"

God responded, "Continue on your way, and I will reveal to you men of faith to help you understand the scriptures."

The next day, the two friends were having coffee together, and a solo musician came to play there. The two men were very impressed with the man's music. As he sang, they were enraptured by his deeply passionate lyrics about God. Thinking this might be one of the "men of faith" that God had promised, they approached the musician after his performance and asked if they could visit with him.

"Sure!" the attractive, well-dressed young man replied. "I'll host you at my mansion."

Even more intrigued, the men follow the musician to his residence. It was clear as they pulled into his sprawling property that he was very wealthy and successful. But as soon as they came inside, they were overcome with a scene unlike any they had experienced. All over the walls were weapons, pictures of war, and maps that seemed to depict battle strategies for conquering neighboring countries. They also quickly noticed that the musician had quite a bit of female company in the mansion, some of them caring for children.

The men asked, "Who are all these women?"

The musician smiled and winked, and then left the room.

Stunned and without words, the men were whisked off into another part of the mansion and served a large meal by the musician's cooks and butlers. They ate sitting next to a window, looking at each other quizzically, trying to figure out what to do next. Near the end of their meal, they looked out to see the musician in the yard of a next door neighbor, trying to peak inside a fogged up window.

"What could he be doing?" they ask themselves. It wasn't more than a few minutes later that the men noticed the musician back inside, walking upstairs to a bedroom with another woman they hadn't seen yet.

Unable to take anymore, the men excused themselves and ran out of the house. They prayed to God and said, "What a dreadful sight! We are so glad most of your people are not like that. What should we do?"

God responded, "Continue on your way, and I will reveal to you men of faith to help you understand the scriptures."

The next day was Sunday. As they did every week, the men got dressed and walked with their families to their church. Everything was as it should be, until the men entered the church and heard a loud racket down the hall. As they turned a corner, they froze in place as they saw a lanky man who smelled and looked homeless knocking over tables where volunteers were taking orders for Sunday School curriculum and signing people up for church activities. No one knew what to do. The man seemed defenseless and had other people with him the likes of whom no one in this suburban church had ever seen: like the woman who was shockingly dressed, or the man with cuts all over him.

The pastor emerged from among the members and, using a tone the men had not heard from him before, said, "How dare you come into this holy place and carry on like this? What do you think you're doing?"

Without missing a beat, the homeless man - calm but firm - then launched into a tirade against the minister. He accused the pastor of hypocrisy and misguiding his people.

He then turned to the parishioners standing by and warned them to repent, accusing them of basing their faith on trivial matters and safe pursuits.

As the homeless man continued to talk and offend every good believer there, the two men were amazed by his knowledge of the scriptures, and how no one, not even the pastor, had an answer for him.

Furious and overwhelmed, the men ran out of the church and prayed to God once again:

"How can you allow such a man in our church? We are thankful that we are not like any of the dreadful people we've met in the last few days. We know what the Bible says and how wrong they are in their thinking and acting. But now, what about our request? We asked for a deeper understanding of the scriptures...when are you going to reveal these men of faith that you promised?"

"My dear friends," replied God, "you have met Moses, David, and Jesus, recognizing none of them. Go and learn the scriptures, for your journey has just begun."


Excuse Me, Your Exclusion is Showing

In college, I took a sociology class called "Who is an American?" Yes, that was the name of the class. I remember hating the class, especially when the professor would call on me as he noticed I was drifting off to sleep.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized the potency and importance of this question, "Who is an American?" especially in terms of the recent debate about the "ground zero mosque."

I try not to take the bait and get wrapped up in one particular news story. I typically fail. It's time to fail again.

One thing that bothers me is that this proposed structure is being reported all over the news as a "ground zero mosque." It's not a mosque, it's not at ground zero, and it's not scheduled to open on Sept. 11, 2011. There's already a peaceful Islamic presence in the area. The imam behind the project has been working for decades to foster understanding and peace between Islam and the West. But no matter...the news outlets need their ratings and the politicians need their votes, so we're going to present it in a way that we know will get people riled up.

But what bothers me more is how people apparently define an "American." First let me say that there are people out there who oppose the project but are opposing it with respect and civility (unlike a Gainsville, FL church). In today's political climate, I applaud them for that. But even these people are revealing an ingrained but faulty assumption. Here's what someone said wrote online:
In my mind, it is like rubbing salt into a wound. For all those who lost loved ones, it is just too much. I think it is fine if they want to build their "community center," but they should pick a different location.
Here's the problem with such statements: Hundreds of the people who lost family members or their own lives on September 11th WERE Muslims. Muslim Americans just trying to work and provide for their families like everyone in the towers, buildings, and planes. Why is it "us" versus "them"? In just a few words, millions of Americans are revealing their subconscious assumption that the attack was carried out by Muslims on Christians. Another person said it well: "I think as long as we use 'us and they' language there is a problem. All Americans grieved that day, regardless of ethnicity or religion."

Who is an American? Who gets that status? Are some "more American" than others? Clearly, in the minds of far too many, the term "Muslim American" is an oxymoron.

To oppose the building of this community center because those behind the project are Muslim is to hold all Muslims responsible for the actions of their most deplorable extremists. Are Christians willing to do the same? As another online commenter asked, "Would there be an uproar if Christians decided to build a church at the site of a bombed abortion clinic?" Terrorists and extremists exist in all religions. I will grant that one could make a case that Islam has more extremists than other religions, but that's just an accident of the era we live in. Rewind 800 centuries, and Christians are the worst.

Newt Gingrich compared the building of this community center in New York City to Nazis putting up a sign next to a Holocaust museum. That is a deplorable comparison and we are better than that.

Anyone can be an American, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or anything else. The Constitution and the values of freedom allow us to say no less. If you claim to be Christian, our faith demands that we say even more. A Christian stance says that Muslims, along with everyone else, are all children of God, uniquely created in His image, and infinitely loved by Him. Do we even come close to saying this with our actions and words? 1 John 4:20 says, "If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars."

I understand there's a strip club close to ground zero as well. We mysteriously haven't heard as much opposition to that. I do not believe the location of this Muslim project is the real issue. Recent opposition to other Islamic buildings would suggest that other factors are at work.


Extravagance and Dead Egyptians

In July, our church hosted an Egypt-themed Vacation Bible School that sought to give children a realistic, life-like experience of the story of Joseph (the biblical character who was sold into slavery, imprisoned unjustly, but became a prominent leader among the Egyptians). In preparing to bring Egypt to life, we were setting up a pyramid or two, and I was reminded of their purpose. Those who have visited Egypt can attest to how impressive the pyramids are, but they served a very useless purpose. They were shrines for dead pharaohs. Experts still disagree on the details, but it seems that they served to protect the mummified bodies of these former Egyptian leaders for the afterlife.

As you may have heard it said, "You can't take it with you." We can all probably think of someone in our lives who we think has spent time and money on things that aren't going to benefit anyone after he or she is gone. But wait a minute - am I not guilty of such things myself? Extravagance always happens to be more than we have, doesn't it? Compared to the majority of the earth's population, I'm extravagant.

Have you ever tried to practically answer the question, "How much is too much?" It's practically...impossible. It's all so relative to where you live, what your needs are (e.g., health), and what you do with it. I'm reading a book written by a former seminary classmate who founded an urban ministry to the homeless. In one particularly inspiring part of the book, she describes how she came to the decision to sell her 5-bedroom house and move to something much more modest. She did this for two reasons: 1) to be able to invest more money in her non-profit ministry, and 2) she felt too guilty and convicted about the disparity between her living situation and that of her poor or homeless friends. I am very inspired by her story. If you're willing to give up your standard of living for strangers in need, you're a saint in my book. But it gets you thinking: there's really no clear stopping point, is there? After I downgrade to a cheaper house, why don't I then get rid of my air conditioning? Why don't I then sell my cars? Why don't I just keep going until I'm also living in a cardboard box? Relative to one's station in life, there comes a point where our voluntary poverty would render us no longer helpful to others in need. Temporary solidarity with the poor is a great thing...it makes me realize what I have. Permanent solidarity would just make me yet another person in need. Where is that point for you? What would it look like for you to provide enough for your family and give the rest away? Are you there? Why is it so hard?

The Jesus we find in the gospels had a very special word for and ministry to the "poor" (broadly defined). In fact, the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus after them, seem so compassionate towards the poor and so hostile towards the rich that modern theologians began using the term "preferential option for the poor" (first articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez) to describe what we find in these traditions. Most decent theology schools at least introduce students to this view. But one thing it tends to do, especially while you're in the vacuum of seminary, is make you glorify the poor. As we reflect on Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 saying that "whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me," we start to expect to find God, and godly behavior, in the poor. But as Wendy McCaig finds out and describes in her book, this is not always the case. Those who live in what we call generational or perpetual poverty are sometimes very selfish, greedy, ungrateful, and unmotivated. Perhaps such traits are responsible for their current plight, but often, those in poverty find themselves living day to day, meal to meal, and it's nearly impossible to find motivation and vision in such circumstances. As so many affluent people don't realize, it's a steep downward spiral.

If you're like me, you might live life thinking that you're not in danger of becoming homeless, but in reality, you are. My family is one major accident, illness, or job loss away from having to depend on others. And therein lies the reason for being generous in any way we can with what we have. What if it were me? One day, it could be me. Jesus said to the rich young man, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor..." (Matthew 19:21). But for those of us who perceive perfection to be a little too far off, we have the simple biblical injunction to "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3).

At the very least, let's start by making sure we're not building huge pyramids for a dead Egyptian.